I'd like to share a view of the 4 healing classes and their 5-man healing styles.
First, let's review the obvious truth. A healer's primary job is basically to make sure there's always a hint of green on their party member's unit bars. Preferably lots of green. Of course, there are lots of details which add complexity, but this is the basic idea. If you bring along a healer, that's what you at least want him to do.
To this end, all the healer classes have various spells which make sure the green stuff doesn't entirely dissapear. I name this the whack-a-health game, namely 'whacking' each health bar as it is emptied. It's more whacking with direct heals than with various heal over times and heal on demands, but the idea still stands.
Now, let's make an assumption. We now assume all the healers have the tools for the job, given acceptable working conditions. You're not expected to be able to keep up the stupid DPS who doesn't move out of/away from [insert some dangerous mob ability here]. Various healing spells' efficiency and throughput is now what I want to discuss right now. Besides, Elitist Jerks is probably the best place to look for those sort of theorycrafting discussions.
No, what I want to discuss are other aspects of the healing role.
Now, usually, when you bring along a healer, you're not only bringing just the whack-a-health part of it. Imagine the annoyances to the rest of the group having a priest who ignores every suggestions to shackle, a shaman that never drops a totem, a druid that doesn't buff or res, or a paladin that doesn't bless. While you can argue that a healer's ability to keep others alive is what matters most, I'd like to argue that a healer's skill is also reflected in the ability to use supporting spells. Further, while the healing spells plays a big role, these supporting abilities is actually the biggest difference in playstyle when you're logging on to another healer.
My first-hand experience is limited to druid, priest and shaman. I have healed as paladin, but pre-40 is a bit different from healing at 70. I don't have experience healing 80-heroics yet, but I think no class changed very vastly those 10 levels. A new spell to compliment the playstyle here and there, but basically the same idea.
The idea here is to focus on the four aspects of the healing role playstyle of each healing class.
The Keeping-stuff-up aspect
All healer classes have abilities which need to be kept up to be 100% effective. I'm now talking primarily about abilities that either have a short duration (2 min or less) or abilities that needs to be refreshened on demand. For example, while you as a priest need to make sure you've got Prayer of Fortitude buffed on the party, with a 1 hour duration it's not like you need to worry about keeping it up. Fire and forget, baby.
I'm only including abilities which affect allies here, and omitting some that will come in the next section.
Priests aren't so bad:
- Prayer of Mending: This is very special. On one hand, it lasts 30 sec after each jump, but what does it help if it's just stuck on some dps that never takes damage? Sometimes, you'll want to use it on every cooldown. Other times, it's better to leave it where it is because you expect some AoE sooner or later. Special note that you also need to watch when you have it yourself, because you can bump it off you with Shadow Word: Death. Bonus points for being the in my opinion coolest healing spells in the game, and spell that I really miss when I'm on the other healers. Not because it's so darn powerful (which it is, but other classes also got powerful stuff), but because it's so darn fun.
- Inner Fire: Post-70 this is a spellpower buff as well as armor. Most of the time, it lasts 10 minutes. But, since it has charges, I often find that I don't notice when it's down after having taken some minor AoE damage here and there. Improved Inner Fire helps. On the other hand, in heroics it's less of a problem... if you're taking hits, you're usually dead long before you need to refresh this.
Druids have only one (unless I've forgotten something), but it's painful:
- Lifebloom-stack on the tank. Has a base duration of 7 sec, but can reach as high as 10 seconds with Nature's Splendor (no-brainer) and the glyph (not so no-brainer, as there are other useful glyphs out there as well). My experience from 70-heroics is that it was a major pain. If I lost the stack, I'd have to spend 3 gcds to rebuild it on the tank. On the other hand, refreshen it too often, and you never dropped out of the 5-sec rule, in addition to the fact that you lost ticks of the last, and thereby mana efficiency. But just a single stun or other problem, and the stack was gone. This was what caused me to end my career as a druid healer for a while. I'm very happy with the new duration, not to mention Gift of the Earthmother to lessen the pain of rebuilding it.
- Honorable mention: Thorns. This is possibly the buffing spell I forget most often to keep up. It shouldn't really be on the list, since it has a duration of 10 minutes.
Shamans have several abilities that needs to be kept up:
- Earth Shield: Since it has charges (up to 8 with Improved Earth Shield) you need to refreshen it as it runs out. If the tank is hammered, it takes in my experience about 30-40 seconds. Not too painful.
- Totems. Usually, these run for five minutes. However, there's two restrictions. First, it's the range. At 30 yards for most totems, it's painfully shorter than the healing range of 40 yards. Further, if the fight is moving in some way, you have to redrop the totems closer. The second restriction is in fights with spawns or adds of some kind. These will very often target a totem and destroy it, forcing you to replanting it. Totems can be pretty frustrating to work with sometimes, and it sure takes a bit of practice.
- Water Shield: If you don't have any talents and don't get hit, it's a simple once every ten minute refreshening. When you start taking a bit of damage, it's more often. And if you've taken Improved Water Shield and cast anything but Chain Heal, you'll need to refreshen it very often. Refresh time between 10 and 30 seconds.
Paladins didn't need to keep up so much eaerlier... well, actually, they did. 5-minute blessings was probably a pain I've never experienced. But in BC, it wasn't so bad. WotLK, however, brings a bunch to keep in mind.
- Sacred Shield: Their new 80 ability is pretty... special. To me, it seems like they worked hard to make an ability that could only reduce incoming damage, never leaving the target with more health than they started with, and never absorbing all damage. There is little reason not to keep it up on the tank all the time, especially so if you can benefit from the increased critical rate on Flash of Light. But ... 50% increased crit? What were they smoking? Paired with the +13% crit chance from talents they can pick up, and a good deal of crit rate on gear, attaining a 100% crit rate doesn't seem impossible. Anyway, needs to be refreshed every 30 sec.
- Beacon of Light: For some reason I can't resist hearing Bacon of Light all the time. You know, what you get when you fry pork in light. Ehem. Anyway, for any fight that involves AoE damage, this is handy, as it can potentially double the healing throughput of Holy Light. Of course, it only "copies" effective healing, not including overhealing. Since paladins lack a true AoE heal, this is as close as they come. 1 min duration.
- You might want to keep up Judgement of the Pure, meaning you need to judge at least every minute. Possibly more often, because of the actual benefit derived from the judgement. And to judge, you need to have a seal up, which needs to be refreshened every 2 min. Speaking of seals...
- ... there's also the glyphs to consider. Namely Glyph of Seal of Wisdom or Glyph of Seal of Light. I'd consider it a rather strange choice to pick both, but each to his own taste. Pretty good glyphs too. The Seal of Light one adds throughput and mana efficiency, the wisdom one only adds efficiency... but more of it. And if the seal of light one only adds over healing, it's wasted, whereas the wisdom one will aid every single heal. I'm not trying to get into a big discussion which is better to use, as I don't have a high level pally.
Bottom line: Choose your poison. Each class has abilities which needs to be kept up. Personally, I hate the lifebloom-rolling aspect of a druid, but I know many others love it. Than 3.0 I now have a choice: I can choose other healing styles as a druid than pure lifebloom-rolling. I'd say priests have the "easiest" time keeping stuff up, with mostly long-lasting buffs.
Addons can make the job easier to live with for all classes. Cheating? Crutch? Nescessary? I'm not making any judgements. Each to their own taste.
The whack-a-debuff game
In addition to health, there's also the debuffs to take care of. Well, the debuffs the healer in question can remove. The ones they can't heal, they have to heal through. That also means that every healer have the potential to heal through all of it, but it's a lot harder.
- Cure/Abolish disease: Usually enough to keep diseases at bay.
- Dispel Magic: Since it eats two magic debuffs on each cast, it means they can usually keep their party free of magic debuffs.
- Mass dispel: If they can anticipate an AoE magic debuff, this can potentially clean it up easily. I've noticed as a priest that a lot of AoE magic debuffs, for example, only last 5 seconds. There are a few times it's worth to dispel, though. I personally like to keep my pally tanks silence-free, as that tend to keep the enemies out of my face. But mass dispel to keep all the other melee'ers silence-free? Nah.
- Cure/Abolish Poison: Poisons? Can't see'em, sir. Poisons that hit several allies can still be annoying, though.
- Remove curse: Curses aren't usually spammed, so this takes good enough care of them. If they were, though, this'd be a problem.
- Cleanse Spirit: Poison, disease and curse in one go. Nice. In fact, completely replaces Cure Disease and Cure Poison.
- Poison/Disease Cleansing Totem: The peak of debuff removal (in my opinion), this means you can pretty much ignore poisons/diseases on the entire party. I believe this sports a 40 yard range, despite what wowhead tooltip, and contrary to the normal 30 yard range for totems. The downside is that using this prevents you from using Mana Spring, Mana Tide or my usual preference, Healing Stream Totem. In some cases, I'm not sure if it's a better benefit to using Poison/Disease cleansing totem over Healing Stream and just remove the debuffs with Cleanse Spirit on the tank. Depends on what kind of diseases and poisons there are.
- Tremor totem: This falls into two categories, both this and the next. The special thing about fear is that while you can remove it on a teammate, you can't remove it on yourself. I think I read that this has a 40 yard range somewhere, despite the tooltip. Wouldn't depend on it without testing it, though.
- Cleanse: Handy for all kinds of stuff except curses. However, paladins lack both a group version, something that keeps cleaning, and a more effective direct version (like Dispel Magic killing two magic debuffs), meaning they might need to spend a lot of GCDs on this. So many, in fact, that they can't always keep up. Poor pallies. Major annoyance, am I right?
Conclusion: More of an observation, really: every healer has their own set of debuffs they can remove, the rest they have to work around. That means debuffs can't be so powerful that it's impossible to heal through them.
The enemy-watching aspect
This is the aspect that took me the longest to learn. I know that I'm not the only healer that have a tendency to suddenly attain a complete tunnel-vision regarding the party health bars when I'm healing. In many encounters, I hardly ever saw the enemy before it was dead. However, as I wrote in an earlier post, situational awareness is really what makes you a great player. If you're not watching the enemy, you're wasting potential.
First, let me be portrait what I'm not discussing. Many boss abilities affect the entire raid. Most of them force you to move or suffer. These kind of abilities aren't healer-spesific, and they're more about learning the encounter. The primary healer-spesific issue are abilities which hurt the tank a lot, meaning you need to be on your toes, possibly blow cooldowns, make sure the tank is at 100% right before the ability hit and so on. Those are also about learning the encounter. Some mobs also got a vulnerability time, in which they need to be hurt as much as possible, including by the healer. Again, encounter-spesific, and not my goal right now.
The issues I'm interested in, are the ones that separate the different healer classes. What do you need to as a
The preemptive part includes using abilities which will counter enemy abilities, partly or competely, but that needs to be applied in advance. The reactive part includes abilities which needs to be applied on demand. Many abilities can fit into both categories.
Priest have some abilities, but outside of Shackle, I find that I can largely ignore the enemies and just focus on bars and it all works out fine.
- Shackle Undead: Crowd control always demands that you watch your target. A good CCer will refresh the CC before it runs out, immidiately re-CC upon accidental breaking, try to maintain a position that makes the risk of wandering into AoE relatively low and worry that the target might resist the reshackle.
- Fear Ward: Preemptive. On the other hand, this can be thought of as a fire-and-forget buff. Just as long as you make sure to refresh it on cooldown.
- Shadow Protection: Preemptive. For lazy priests, with the glyph you can just rebuff your party with Prayer of Shadow Protection every 30 min and forget about it otherwise.
- Offensively Dispel: Reactive. Some abilities enemies have can really make a difference. However, dispelling is a toll on the mana bar, and should be limited to buffs that actually do some harm.
Druids have little offensive utility to speak of, except for their crowd control which is rather superior. Then again, there's a severe disadvantage:
- Various crowd control: Entangling Roots, Cyclone and Hibernate. Different uses. On the paper, it looks like this should make druids the royal kings of CCing among the healers. However, there's a problem: They're not available in the primary healing form, Tree of Life. Shifting to Tree of Life costs mana, which any healer should be careful to just toss around. (Improved) Tree of Life provides mana efficiency (-20% mana cost on HoTs), improved healing (+6% healing done aura), more improved healing (15% of spirit as healing spellpower) and armor (+100% contribution from items). So druids are left with a choice: Better healing or crowd control. A skilled druid healer should know when to drop Tree of Life and use their other spells as well. What does all the healing throughput in the world help if you're dead? You can keep at least two CCable enemies at bay for quite some time (Entangling roots, move, Cyclone and re-cyclone). One disadvantage with Cyclone: It might occasionally make the mob hard to pick up by the tank, as they're immune to taunt as well.
- Faerie Fire: Armor debuff. But it's low priority and costs precious mana, so I see no reason to not just leave it alone on the action bar.
Now we're getting somewhere. Shamans have quite a lot of reason to watch their enemies.
- Tremor totem: This was in the last section as well. But you can't use it reactively to remove fear if you're being feared. That makes it a preemptive measure, and since you sacrifice some other earth totem to keep it up (most likely Strength of Earth or perhaps Stoneskin), you can't just keep it up all the time. Solution: Watch enemies, or just remember encounters. Mostly the last one, I guess.
- Wind Shock: For two reasons. Reactively interrupting spellcasting is always good, but unfortunately many mobs are immune to it. But don't disregard it until you've tried. Take Grand Magus Telstra in the Nexus. While her normal form is immune to interrupts, the clones that appear aren't. There's quite a lot of damage that can be prevented there. The second part is to reduce aggro. Unlike Fade, however, the aggro reduction is permanent, though it's limited to one person and a limited amount. However, it can be used sort of preemptively, wind shocking before you actually have aggro. Since your threat level was reduced, it'll then take more threat than earlier for the mob to break contact with the tank. Now we're talking useful. I'm pretty sure I've survived by this only a few times, where the aggro have been all over the place.
- Grounding Totem: This is golden. This will absorb any one single target spell against a party member. Since it doesn't really affect a mob (ony the spell he/she cast), it can be even be used to absorb boss abilities. No risk of resisting, missing and all other sorts of bad stuff. Of course, the disadvantage aside from cooldown is that this is mutually exclusive with Windfury or Wrath of Air Totem, to name the most commonly used by myself. Juggling those totems is a possibility, but costly. With good timing it can really make a difference, without it's just wasted mana.
- Resistance totems: Preemptive, to reduce incoming elemental damage on the party. However, that means you can't use any other totem associated with the same element. The resistances are a bit random, after all. I must admit I'm rather notorious on forgetting to use the various resistance totems, and I'm not sure how much diffence it would've made. Trying to remember to use them.
- Purge: Like a priest, except that shamans can only remove enemy buffs.
- Hex: Starting at lvl 80, quality crowd control. While it has it's own disadvantages (range, shorter duration than cooldown, limited types of mobs it works on), it doesn't have the disadvantage of the druid CC, namely that you need to drop your "healing" form. Besides, you can then Wind Shock the mob to reduce the chances that he'll charge you the moment Hex brakes, without worrying about breaking Hex yourself.
Paladins have a few, but not a lot reasons to watch enemies. Their primary reason being to judge regulary for the judgement effect itself (most notably Judgement of Life) and the Judgements of the Pure buff, but I must admit it's not much of watching included. Just toss it on the tank's target, and keep healing. In other words, I don't include that.
- Resistance auras: Similar to resistance totems. The difference is that instead of stopping you from using the same associated totem, it will instead stop you from using Devotion Aura, meaning the tank (and everyone else) will take more physical damage and less magic damage of the chosen type. I'm not sure how much difference it makes.
- Hammer of Justice: Especially now that it is garantueed to interrupt spells. On stunnable mobs, there's a lot of damage to prevent. Stunning the whirlwinding mob, for example, will possibly save a lot of healing.
- Turn Undead: Rather circuimstancal, but Turn Undead can be used as crowd control. But since it has all the disadvantages of fear-based CC, it's probably not a good idea.
- Judgement of Justice: Prevent runners, if there's a risk.
Here's my personal conclusion: I can't speak for pallies, but as a druid and priest, I could pretty much just ignore whatever the enemies did short of stuff everyone had to watch out for, and only focus on the green bars. On a shammy, I feel I have a lot more reason to watch enemies, and in that way a higher skillcap for the healing role. With that said, there's more skill involved in the art of staying out of the 5-sec rule as a priest or druid. To a shaman or paladin, that matters less.
This the last aspect I'd like to look at. Let's now say bad stuff happens. A double (or even triple) pull. A patrol walks in on your skirmish. Or the adds on the boss are all over the place. What difference can each class make?
It might be argued that mana-gaining effects might help, as running out of mana is a sure group-wiper. I've chosen not to include them, as every healer class has a way of restoring mana mid-battle.
Priests... ehm... pray? Seriously, though, it doesn't feel like they're able to do a lot to prevent a wipe. At least at 70, but there's a new spell to play with now.
- Psychic Scream: Sometimes this comes in handy to give yourself a breather. In most cases, I find that while it does give me a breather of about 10 seconds, as soon as the mobs reach me again I'm dead. It's hard for a tank to pick up mobs running all over the place. Especially annoying for a pally tank, probably, since their taunt relies on the enemy to have you a as a target, and while they're running around they don't have a target at all. That, and the fact that it's often bound to make a bad situation worse by not only having the mobs return to you, but they'll also bring along their grandmothers, neighbors, carpenters, sons-in-law and who knows what.
- Pain Suprresion/Guardian Spirit: You'd be a rather unusual priest healer these days if you don't have one of these. Slightly different uses, but the main purpose is to extend the life of a single target for the duration of the buff. Will sometimes keep yourself alive for the same period. Neither makes you invulnerable, most heroic mobs will just tear through it in a second or three extra.
- Fade: Not an emergency spell per se, but it has it's place. It can't be resisted (unlike Wind Shock) and works on all mobs. However, since the threat reduction is temporarily, I've found that this sometimes will give me and the tank a false sense of security, resulting in a very hard wipe when the mobs suddenly stroll back to me.
- Spirit of Redemption: For a holy priest; It's nice that you still can be useful after you're dead. But it's hardly wipe preventing unless you've got a second healer along for the ride, as the 15 seconds of limitless healing fades rather fast, in my experience.
- Lightwell: In combination with Spirit of Redemption, it *might* prevent a complete wipe. I'm not holding my breath, though.
- Power Infusion: While it's nice in a crisis-situation, I think it's a bad idea to wait that long with using it. Better to use it as often as possible, for the mana-saving effect. After all, you can end up in a homemade crisis situation if you run out of mana.
- Desperate Prayer: Very useful in PVP. In PVE, though, it doesn't heal for enough to really save the day and at the same time costs mana. Binding Heal is usually a much better way to attempt to prevent a wipe.
- Divine Hymn: Now we're talking. This is an emergency spell if I ever saw one. Crowd control + healing in one package, long cooldown. I'm so looking forward to testing it in AV when the alliance is trying to kill Drek'Thar.
My personal experience is that druids have slightly more emergency tools to work with than a priest. However, they have their limitations.
- Tranquility: One of my all-time favorite spells. Phaelia describes it as an ability used to reset an encounter. Tranquility probably have the highest throughput of any heal in the game if you count all the targets. If you have Improved Tranquility, it's a fantastic wipe-preventer, as long as you don't have too many heroic mobs hitting you when you activate the spell. Without the talent, it's a bit more unreliable. If you want to use it, it usually means that people are taking more damage than you normally can handle, often combined with a messy pull, adds or something similar. And since it then will heal for quite a lot, chances are rather high that plenty of the mobs will break for you. Despite serious throughput, it can't outheal several heroic mobs beating on you. Besides, since it only lasts at best 8 seconds, you're often taking a lot more damage than you can handle as soon as the channeling ends.
- Barkskin: A bit of personal preference here, I guess. Some would wait for an emergency before activating it, others would use it as soon as they're going to take damage or have some dots running on themselves. It's not a real wipe-preventer, though.
- Nature's Swiftness: Handy. Usually paired with trinkets, and an unglyphed Healing Touch or Regrowth. Can also be paired with some crowd control, like Entangling Roots or Cyclone. Handy, but not usually enough to prevent a wipe. Can also be paired with...
- Rebirth: This, on the other hand, is a real wipe preventer. Battle res the tank, for example, and you might still succeed. It can also be used as a wipe recovery, battle ressing another resser and having him or her wait until everyone is dead to accept the res.
Shamans... now, in my mind, they've got some extremely powerful tools, and most of them doesn't even require a talent.
- Earth Elemental Totem, also known as tank-in-a-can. The best part is that it does an AoE taunt as it's dropped. Have saved my hide several times. It has rather good mitigation, but not too much health, so it can be a bit hard to keep up. Even more so on heroic. On the other hand, even if it dies after 10 seconds, it might've done it's job already, namely given the tank time to build threat on the mobs again. Since it's not very intelligent, it won't nescessarily pick up every mob if some dps with aggro have strayed too far away, but ... I love it for what it does.
- Fire Elemental Totem: Very different use, namely as extra dps. Has occasionaly made the difference between life and wipe, when we've lost too much dps but the tank and myself are still alive. Very handy that it packs and dies with it's own threat. Mutually exclusive with Flametongue Totem, so it's a tradeoff. It sees a lot less use in instances than while soloing.
- Bloodlust: Not really an emergency spell per se, but since I often save it for bosses, it's very often available when I need it for an emergency. Results in extra throughput on the healing, more threat on the tank, more dps... very handy. The only thing to watch out for is that it triggers the global cooldown on start, which is different from every other haste-effect and trinket I've encountered. The increased dps helps a lot if some of the dpsers are already dead.
- Nature's Swiftness + Tidal Force + Blood Fury (if you're an orc like me) + any trinkets + Healing Wave = big heal. Not nescessarily as big as the druid variant, though. Can also be paired with Hex if it's off cooldown, for some emergency crowd control. Like the druid counterpart, helps, but not nescessarily enough to prevent a wipe.
- Reincarnation: This is always a hard judgement; Wipe recovery or (attempted) wipe prevention? If I die while the tank is still alive, this can often be used to prevent wipes, provided I have enough mana to heal through the rest of the encounter. Improved Reincarnation helps, as does having Mana Tide Totem off cooldown. Since you're dead, you're out of combat, and thus you can also spend a Mana Potion provided it's one minute since you quaffed the last one. The downside if you try to use it as wipe prevention and fail, is that aside from being unable to use it as wipe recovery, you'll have lost 10% durability twice. Otherwise, it's an excellent wipe recovery, provided you died far enough away from any mobs still alive afterwards.
Paladins, like shamans, have some extremely powerful tools which doesn't require talents. In fact, I believe they're so powerful it explains why pallies don't have additional emergency buttons as talents.
- Divine Shield, aka the infamous bubble. In addition to the obvious effect of making you invulnerable, it also temporarily removes all threat. Incredibly handy. But wait, there's more!
- Rightous Defense: Slightly risky move, but you can taunt while invulnerable, and it'll cause the mobs to be forced to attack you, while you're invulnerable. I believe it forces them to attack you for 3 seconds, after that they move on to another target. But those seconds might make the difference between giving the tank time to build aggro and a wipe. The risky part is that it increases your threat to be equal to the highest treat target on the list, if that wasn't yourself, thus you're more likely to pull aggro after the bubble fades. It's a gamble, but a calculated one.
- Lay on Hands: Unless you've totally ignored stamina on your gear, this is an insanely powerful, instant, mana free heal. Also returns mana, if you use it on yourself or have the Glyph of Divinity, even more with the Glyph of Lay on Hands, which is even minor for additional fun. Add Improved Lay on Hands to increase the chances that the target survives for a bit more. Phew, how I envy this spell in PVP sometimes.
- Divine Intervention: Provided you have a second resser in the group, a fantastic wipe recovery. The fantastic part about it is that the paladin who uses this doesn't loose durability. I can't friggin' understand why I've never seen a single paladin (except for myself) use this in any 5-man. Okay, I have a theory. It's because being a healer myself, I don't often have a pally healer in my group, protection pallies can't use this because they *might* survive if they don't use it and thus save the entire wipe, and retribution pallies are just good at earning their name retrinoobs/rettards/whatever.
My opinion: Priests really needed an emergency button. Since I haven't really tested it, I don't know how good it is. Personally, though, I feel I can really make a big difference as a shammy, where there's less options available to a druid and priest.
As expected, choose your poison. Each class packs their advantages, disadvantages, and playstyles. While I often envy other healer's abilities, I may have found a match to my playstyle in the shaman way. Half a year back, I switched between my druid and priest all the time because I often banged my head into the limitations with each class. I encourage every healer that have felt something similar to try the other healers. While you love healing, perhaps another healer class might suit your playstyle better?
Having a playstyle that suits you is a hell of a lot more important than having a healer that theorycraftingwise is better.