At some point, we know Artifact Weapons are going away.
It’s been talked about, eluded to, and danced around for a while now. They are a Legion feature, and just like Garrisons, expansion-long legendary quests, and more – they too will reach a sunset point.
The interesting thing here, is – what happens then?
I’d like to indulge in a bit of speculation today!
The Problem With Artifacts
The simple truth is that unlike so many of the other things that sunset on the dawning of a new expansion patch is that Artifacts are far more impactful on our normal gameplay. Garrisons? Sure, they were a core part of questing in Warlords of Draenor, but you could go without doing more than just leveling the Garrison.
Artifacts, on the other hand, have impacted our rotations, ability values, and stats. You could, in theory, simply remove them with no replacement or re-balancing – but this would mean some classes would be quite actively broken, in a bad way. Warlords of Draenor dungeon and raid content was nerfed substantially in order to allow people to continue playing with their skeleton rotations in 7.0. It’s highly unlikely that we lose everything from the artifact. But without the weapon, where do we go?
The Ability Unpruning
At a minimum, there will likely have to be new abilities introduced to keep rotations where they are. They will likely need to be “reflavored” but the core mechanics would be easy enough to bolt onto the existing class. For some classes, this may be difficult – Holy Priests and Frost Death Knights start off with passive artifact abilities, and later get a gold trait that gives them an active ability. You could make a case that they may not need the active abilities, but that would be a hard sell after an expansion spent using them.
Some classes could, from a balancing perspective, lose their artifact ability and not really suffer too badly. For example, my own Vengeance Demon Hunter gets to do a bit of damage and generate a pile of Lesser Soul Fragments. This is a great ability, but it finds itself among a list of abilities and talents that help to do the same. Theoretically, you could up the fragment generation rate on Shear, or make auto-attacks have a small chance to generate a fragment. You have talents like Fallout which make for passive generation of fragments, and Fracture, one of the best smoothing tools available to ensure consistent fragment income. Since the damage on Soul Carver is incidental, balancing out the damage and fragment generation of existing tools could make it obsolete to Vengeance. It would remove some flex from the rotation, and would perhaps shift the metagame even further in favor of builds with Fracture, but it could be done.
Some specs, however, are more dependent on their artifact ability. Retribution Paladins have paltry innate AoE capability, but their artifact ability gives them substantially more AoE throughput. It’s not enough to allow them to do great AoE damage without talenting for it, but it gives every Ret Paladin a baseline AoE performance, and enhances their single target damage as well. If you took their artifact ability away, the spec design would suffer greatly, in a world where even with it, Ret AoE is not amazing and frequently the subject of complaint.
You would definitely need to account for both cases, and all those in-between. But there is perhaps an even bigger elephant in the room on artifacts…
The Problem With Incremental Power
The biggest, bulkiest part of the artifact trees are the multi-point traits that offer buffs to abilities. While the active artifact abilities are the most immediate concern around balancing a world without Artifacts, these traits make the problem much more daunting.
The traits themselves, the multi-pointers at least, are not terribly exciting. However, they have led to a cumulative effect over the course of Legion where our power has gone up drastically. DPS numbers have nearly quadrupled from launch. Health numbers have doubled for just about everyone. And the damage for all of our abilities has crept up in 1, 2, or 3% increments without taking into account actual gear inflation.
Coupled with gold traits and some 1-pointers offering substantial changes to abilities and gameplay, and you can see the compounded problem of the Artifact system.
Some classes, it simply buffs numbers, and so doesn’t inherently change the gameplay that much. To invert the active examples above, Ret Paladins really don’t have a huge gameplay shift for levelling their artifacts. They gain some power, but a large number of their traits buff the survival and utility abilities that they bring to the table. If you take these all away, they’d still play largely the same.
Vengeance Demon Hunter, on the other hand, is changed quite a bit from the investment of Artifact Power. There are buffs along the way, but each gold trait offers a substantial change to gameplay, adding random proc Metamorphosis, healing off of all fire damage dealt, and increased parry to Demon Spikes during its first few seconds, making the active use of the ability require a bit more management. If you level a Vengeance DH today, in a world with Artifact Knowledge 40, you may never feel that difference, but at launch – it was incredible the delta it introduced to the spec’s gameplay. Each new gold trait made the spec feel new again. If you take those away, well, the class will lose a lot of the edge that allows it to perform well at a high level.
Ballooning Health Pools and Avoiding a New Stat Squish
The final compounding problem with Artifacts is that they, independent of gear, have inflated health pools beyond control. With every trait invested, you gain a small, stacking percentage increase to health. At low trait levels, this isn’t a huge difference, but once you empower the weapon, oh boy, it’s huge! You can have a 30% health increase just from investing in the artifact traits, and this scales with gear too. I started level 110 at around 3.2 million health, and currently raid Tomb of Sargeras (Normal!) at 7 million. That is one tier worth of difference! But the gear is not the biggest contributor here – it’s the artifact. Try it if you haven’t – just unequip your weapon and see what your health does. It’s madness.
What Do I Think Blizz Will Do?
Well, I think when you look at this full picture, there are a few things that stand out.
1. You need to keep the active abilities – removing them, even for specs that don’t lean on them heavily, ends up oversimplifying gameplay. Removing some of them, but not all of them, only serves to irritate the players whose rotations are being simplified.
2. Removing the percentage buffs to abilities works – if you also deflate our health pools. This point stands out to me, as earlier press has indicated that Blizzard don’t believe they’ll need to stat squish in 8.0. That’s not to say they won’t end up doing so anyways, but if you take away the ballooning health bonus from the artifact alongside the percentage-modifier damage increases from traits, I’d suspect that the balance will fall about in line. Some abilities may need tweaks, buffs or nerfs, in order to land in the sweet spot, but I imagine it’ll be easy enough for the team at Blizzard.
3. You’re probably going to have to nerf bosses again, just like WoD. Maybe not to the same degree (seriously, that nerf is ridiculous) but everything at present is tuned for certain assumptions about both artifact progression and legendary acquisition (a topic for another post!).
4. You likely won’t get rid of the artifact until the actual expansion launch, even if it’s kind of a glorified stat stick at 8.0. I could see Blizzard basically neutering artifacts with the launch of 8.0, just making relics scale the item level and taking away traits altogether, as they should now be baked into abilities and spec designs. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to completely shed the weapons in favor of mailbox epics at that point. They can still have their stats, relics and such – those things aren’t really the balancing issue to attend to, anyways.
5. I’d expect lore flavor galore when we do hit 8.0. A bridging quest into new content that causes the artifacts to “surrender their power.” Some sort of gimmick will exist in the game to make it perfectly clear to everyone that even if you have your artifact equipped, it’s really just a shell of what it once was.
All told, I think it’s going to be fascinating to watch just what Blizzard does to counteract the power creep that is Artifact Weapons.