Brewmaster: Legion in Review & BfA Wishlist

Written by J. David Smith
Published on 12 February 2018

I rerolled from my Hunter (MM lyfe) to a Brewmaster shortly after the Nighthold released, and holy hell I didn't expect this ride. I was going to just play my already-110 BDK, but our other tank was a BDK and after the incident with Cenarius A bug/weird interaction on Cenarius removed Marrowrend stacks much faster than they could be applied. This made tanking Cenarius pre-fix on a BDK really awkward and more difficult than necessary. the raid team was kind of sketchy on having two of the same tank. So, I powerleveled my formerly-Windwalker Monk from 88 to 110 over a weekend and started tanking.

Since then, I've become active in the #brewlounge and #brewcraft channels in the Peak of Serenity Discord, tanked a bit of Mythic 5/9M T20. Less than I'd have liked. , and picked up maintenance of the WoWAnalyzer modules for Brewmaster. All in the space of less than a year. Whew.

Now BfA has been announced and changes are rolling out on the alpha. Since Brewmasters have received no super noteworthy changes yet, it's the perfect time for a wishlist! Before we get to that, however, I'd like to break down what the Brewmaster kit looks like right now so we have some context for my BfA wishlist.

What We Have

Stagger & Mastery

While meatballs Guardian Druids have held the title of "Dodge Tank" in the past, it now firmly belongs to Brewmasters. It is not uncommon to see people reach 70% or more dodge rates in practice thanks to our Mastery: Elusive Brawler. EB provides a stacking bonus to our dodge chance each time we either fail to dodge a dodgeable ability or cast certain spells. The current list is Blackout Strike, Breath of Fire, and (with Blackout Combo and rarely used) Blackout Strike + Purifying Brew. This mastery performs three functions: first, it boosts our overall dodge percentage; second, it allows use to consistently deal with dodgeable mechanics through proactive play (banking EB-generating abilities); third, it mitigates downsides of randomness-driven mitigation.

That last point is fundamental. Historically, dodge-based mitigation has been much inferior to reduction-based mitigation due to shear randomness: if you fail dodge several hits in a row, you can simply die. Those more familiar with pre-MoP tanking may be confused by this. Dodge was a good stat! It is more useful to compare Dodge for brewmasters with Defense prior to its removal: defense capping prevented crushing blows from randomly spiking you. Reaching the defense cap was considered mandatory. Brewmasters (along with VDH) have by far the least armor of any tank (I have 2,940 armor without trinkets, while a similarly geared DK has 5k+ and a Paladin has 7k+), meaning that pre-Stagger melee hits are much larger. Mastery prevents this from happening altogether. At current gear levels, many BrMs are guaranteed to dodge at least every 3rd hit without taking any actions. With the low cooldown of Blackout Strike, this gets close to a guaranteed every-other-hit dodge rate.

While Elusive Brawler significantly smooths our damage intake from melees, without further mitigation we would still be extremely spikey. Smooth damage intake can be healed much more efficiently, lowering the strain on your healer's mana and reaction times. Stagger, our second "mitigation" method not only addresses this, but in fact has led us to be the smoothest tank in terms of damage-intake despite our reliance on the inherently random nature of dodge. Stagger causes every hit to be partially absorbed (currently 75% with Ironskin Brew up and no specific talents or gear), with the absorbed damage spread over the next ten seconds. The exact mechanics of it aren't quite straightforward. emptyrivers has an excellent overview of how it works on the Peak of Serenity. Functionally, this means that every would-be spike of damage instead is translated into a much lower damage-taken-per-second effect.

Despite not reducing total damage taken, Stagger enabled ludicrous cheesing Creative strategies that make otherwise-difficult mechanics nearly non-existant. early in the expansion. A cap on the total staggered damage (at most 10x player HP) was patched in after Tier 19 ended. Though it doesn't affect normal gameplay, it does mean that previous cases of stagger cheesing were much riskier if not impractical.

On the whole, Elusive Brawler and Stagger together give Brewmasters a unique way of smoothing damage taken – turning what would otherwise be the spikiest tank into the smoothest. In particular, Elusive Brawler gives rise to gameplay that no other tank presently has. If you haven't known the joy of tanking Tyrannical Blackrook Hold as a BrM: Smashspite's charge can be dodged. It still applies stacks, and will rapidly reach the point of one-shotting you through any and all cooldowns. This leads to an intense do-or-die minigame.

Brews & CDR

The second, active, half of Brewmasters' mitigation toolkit comes in the form of Ironskin Brew & Purifying Brew. Ironskin Brew increases the amount of damage absorbed by Stagger from 40% to 75%. Note again that this does not mitigate anything. Our active mitigation is instead packed into Purifying Brew, which removes 40% (without traits or talents) the damage that has been absorbed by Stagger but not yet dealt over time. These two abilities share 3 charges with a cooldown of 21 seconds each (reduced by haste). However, Ironskin Brew only lasts for 8 seconds, meaning that based on these charges alone we are not capable of maintaining the buff – let alone Purifying.

However, this cooldown is reduced significantly by correctly performing the conventional rotation since key rotational abilities (Tiger Palm and Keg Smash) reduce the cooldown of brews by a significant amount. This situation is further helped by the presence of the (mandatory) Black Ox Brew talent, which restores all 3 charges on use, on an effective 40-45 second cooldown. BoB benefits from the cooldown reduction of TP and KS. Combined, this gives each Brew charge an effective cooldown of around 6-7 seconds. Or, put another way: exactly enough to keep Ironskin Brew up 100% of the time and have occasional charges to spend on Purification.

This system sounds great. It leaves us with manageable DTPS over the course of a fight, while allowing us to mitigate large spikes such as Fel Claws with Purifying Brew. Unfortunately, it suffers from a fundamental flaw: prior to Tier 20, there was no cap on the duration of the Ironskin Brew buff. This led to effective BrMs ending fights with several minutes of time remaining on the buff, while still having plentiful brews to spend on-demand for Purification. In response to this, Blizzard implemented a cap of three times the buff duration (24 seconds with traits). This turned the previously-comfortable Brew system into one with an annoying buff to maintain and another button you rarely use. And when I say rarely, I mean rarely: pre-Mythic it is possible to go entire fights without needing to Purify due to low damage intake, and on Mythic bosses Purification may only occur a couple of times a minute. This leads to an unsatisfying situation where we have to jump through a bunch of hoops to hit 100% ISB uptime – which is nearly mandatory to avoid being DK- or DH-levels of spikey without the self-sustain, cooldowns, or utility to compensate – but then have excess charges that we worked to generate but can't use effectively.

On the whole, I like the Brew/CDR system. However, its flaws are noticeable and have no easy solutions. In conjunction with this system, Stagger has been on the razor's edge between hopelessly busted and borderline useless since its value fundamentally scales with the amount of incoming damage. On high damage fights, Purifying Brew provides excellent mitigation while Ironskin Brew keeps our damage intake smooth and easily healable. Below that point, Purifying Brew becomes worthless because we cannot reach a high enough level of staggered damage for purifying to be worth more than pressing Ironskin Brew again.

The UI

I won't spend long on this, but the current UI situation for Brewmasters is preeeeettty bad. The maintenance buff of Ironskin Brew is difficult to track on the default UI – a situation made worse by the fact that dropping it can lead to a quick, untimely demise. Worse: the Stagger bar caps out at 100% of your HP, which is quite frankly nothing. It is common for experienced brewmasters on #brew_questions to recommend not purifying at less than 100% of your HP staggered.

In Summary...

...Brewmasters are really good. They're a strong tank class for challenging content, fun to play, and have a distinct playstyle not shared with other classes. While flaws exist, the spec works despite them. There is still room for improvement, however, so now we get on to the part you're really reading this for: what I want in Battle for Azeroth.

What I Want

1. Death to Ironskin

The biggest complaint I have with the playstyle of BrM is the annoyance that is ISB. It is only interactive insofar as it requires not pressing Purify too much and executing your rotation well. Pressing the ISB button is merely an annoyance that is necessary to confirm you've done the other two things.

As we saw in Nighthold, we clearly can't leave it uncapped either. So, what do we do? An oft-suggested option is to make ISB baseline and reduce the CDR available for Purifying Brew. However, this seems unlikely to be effective either given how infrequently we have to Purify. It is clear from the Legion Beta posts that they intended for Ironskin Brew to be used as an active mitigation ability like Shield Block, but doing so left Brewmasters uncomfortably spikey in the interim.

My main issue with ISB as it stands is the needlessness of pressing that extra button during an already high-APM rotation. I have logs with negative overall downtime since brews are off the GCD. What if Ironskin Brew were just removed, an equivalent and appropriately-themed buff given to Tiger Palm / Keg Smash, and Purifying Brew's cooldown reduced to compensate? While clearly not a perfect solution (it doesn't solve the fundamental balance issues with Stagger, for example), it does eliminate my major annoyance with current Brewmastery.

2. Better Utility

You might notice that in the What We Have segment I never once mentioned utility. While we have some unique utility currently, it mostly boils down to (a) cheesing fights with Dodge & Stagger, and (b) Ring of Peace – both of which are highly situational. This is in stark contrast to Meatball's Savage Roar, Protadin's Healing & Bubbles, and Blood DKs. My wish for BfA here is just to have a bit to set us apart from other tanks.

On the BfA Alpha, we're getting a bit of "extra" utility in the form of Leg Sweep being made baseline. This is supported by AoE stuns being stripped from other classes, which means that the presence of Leg Sweep in our kit becomes more noticeable – especially if we are allowed to go into BfA with both Ring of Peace and Leg Sweep available together.

3. Revisiting Dead Talents

On the whole, Brewmasters don't have many talents that are just totally completely unusable garbage. Even Chi Wave, which is used in neither dungeons nor raid content, can be a decent talent out in the world. I've used every talent we have at some point for a reason beyond just trying it out – every talent, that is, except for the Level 45 Row.

The Level 45 row has exactly 1 talent in it: Black Ox Brew. Don't @ me. I will fight you. BoB is better, both empirically and in feelycraft, than either of the alternatives in every feasible situation. Going into BfA, I'd like to see that change. That may mean buffing the alternatives, I'd love to have access to proper self-sustain through a buffed GotM but more realistically it means that BoB just needs to get hit. The cooldown reduction it provides is simply too high – it is both immensively powerful at smoothing an entire fight due to its low cooldown, and excellent for dealing with specific mechanics like KJ's Fel Claws.

4. (Just for Me) Better Transparancy

As I mentioned in the intro, I maintain the WoWAnalyzer modules for Brewmaster. This has been a lot of fun: the dev team is fantastic, #brewcraft has been super helpful in filling in the gaps in my knowledge, and the codebase is generally nice to work with. That said, it has not been without frustrations. Stagger in particular has been an immense nuisance. I rewrote what the previous maintainer (WOPR) had done so that I could add some extra features that were infeasible before, but that implementation sometimes breaks down for no apparent reason.

In BfA, I'd like to see the amount of staggered damage reported in the logs. There is already a classResources field that records things like energy, runes, mana, etc. While there may be technical limitations to adding Stagger to that list, I'd very much like to see it happen. It'd make my job significantly easier.

Wrapping It Up

Playing Brewmaster during Legion has been one of the highlights of my WoW career, and I'm excited to see where we end up in BfA. Although I'm obviously hoping that not much changes since BrM is currently a lot of fun, I am hopeful that we can have some wrinkles ironed out in the transition to the next expansion.