Patch 6.3 for Final Fantasy XIV brought a fair amount of new content with it, and a lot of stuff to discuss gameplay wise. We start to get some measure of design vision for the future in x.3 patches, as in addition to being where the story arc of an expansion (typically) concludes, there is also a feeling-out of the design methodology for content to come.
Paladin, as many jobs who were the cover art bearer for an FFXIV expansion, has had a bit of a rough time in their expansion spotlight. Paladin in 6.0 through 6.25 did not fit or benefit much from the two-minute meta, had a long and winding combo and rotation loop that required jumping through some hoops for optimal performance (18-second FoF prepull opener, anyone? How about having to remember to pop Requiescat a few GCDs before your actual magic combo so you could get rotational alignment, or how you had to have a filler physical combo to bridge from the magic combo back into physical and get FoF to line up?), and even if you played Paladin absolutely perfectly (a difficult task in its own right), you were rewarded with being…the second-worst or worst tank DPS. On top of all of that, you’d expect the shield-bearing tank to be the most defensive and take the least damage, but Paladin had anemic job-specific defensives that made their already-low damage even worse, by having them do stuff like use Passage of Arms, granting huge defense but with no ability to attack while channeling it, and giving them niche friendly defensives like Cover and Intervention instead of the added personal utility given to most other tanks. Instead of just letting Holy Sheltron be ally-targeted, they made Intervention as a button grant the benefits of Sheltron to an ally, including the HoT effect added in the Endwalker upgrade. All of this meant that taking a Paladin was challenging in high-end content, and while Paladins could (and quite often did) clear the hardest content in the game, the meta has perpetually been about Dark Knight +1 – which has usually been DRK and Gunbreaker for meta comps, but sometimes Warrior gets slotted in for the smooth-brain rampage.
At the same time, the challenge with Paladin was this – a lot of players, myself among them, liked the core concept of the job. A rotation between physical and magical damage, the ability to have a part of your rotation at range so you could plan ahead for movement, the scaling damage reduction of Holy Sheltron starting a little bit weaker than the average high-use tank CD but getting better than them with even a modestly better shield, all of that was cool and it gave them a little touch of uniqueness in a meta that has gone in some ways towards standardization on the Warrior model of gameplay. Reworking Paladin was needed for the jank and performance issues, but too much rework would risk the identity of the job that players came to like, warts and all.
How’d they do?
The WoW-ification of a Job
Final Fantasy XIV sets itself apart from WoW in a really big way with combat gameplay – the rotations and combos you play with are, by and large, fixed. You can, in almost all cases, readily know that at minute 7 of a fight, you’re going to start your odd-minute burst window with these GCDs and then go into a filler loop while waiting for minute 8, where raid buffs come back up and you know you’ll have another burst window that is slightly different to account for buffs. WoW, on the other hand, is a busy game in many senses of the word, and one of the biggest senses that is true is in combat gameplay, where proc effects, trinkets, and consumables all play a much larger role in pushing you away from a pure rotation and more towards a priority system, where you have branching paths through your rotation and almost every pull on a fight is different in some way. FFXIV is about mastery, the skillful practice and building of knowledge over time and knowing how your rotation fits to a fight design as well as when to break it, while WoW is about being comfortable in a smidge of chaos – bringing together knowledge of every skill in your kit along with knowing what takes priority when 2-3 buttons are glowing in your face, demanding your attention. FFXIV is more team-play oriented, with buff windows that encourage a party to play smartly together and sync up big buttons, while WoW has almost none of that – your rotation is your own to manage, and save for literally two externals (Bloodlust/Heroism/Time Warp and Power Infusion), you don’t have a raidwide burst window where everyone is trying to line up their biggest buttons (except for some fight-specific mechanics that reward bonus damage).
FFXIV does have a couple of jobs that lean a bit closer to WoW design, in that some form of RNG controls aspects of the rotation – Dancer and Red Mage stand out here. Both need procs to get their best damage out, Dancer for the Silken procs that enable their two highest-potency standard GCDs and then Feathers for Fan Dances, with another layer of RNG for using Fan Dance 1/II to proc III, and Red Mage needs to proc their higher damage White/Black spells to keep things feeling good and their damage as high as possible, but even then, these amount to priority in the filler rotation and seldom influence the path through the rotation in more than a change of casting – it feels far off of what WoW does, where the moment-to-moment gameplay changes sharply on procs.
Paladin in 6.3 in FFXIV kind of, kind of, gets a little closer to a WoW-style of play, for better and for worse.
On the plus side – the flavor is still there in a form as there is still a physical combo and a magical combo, and the core gameplay of the job still revolves around looping between the two. What has changed is the alignment – Paladin has, mostly, been successfully nudged into the two-minute meta by making use of changes to the core buffs for Paladin that define the rotation and ensure that Paladin lines up mostly neatly with other jobs and their buffs. They accomplished this by changing up Fight or Flight slightly so that it lasts for less time but also buffs all damage from the paladin, by changing the number of abilities buffed by Requiescat to change the shape of the magic phase from a weird chain cast of one spell ending with a combo to just the combo, with the other magic woven in elsewhere in new form. The alignment of these buffs, coincidentally (I’m sure) shapes Paladin with an odd and even minute burst window like just about every other job in Endwalker, and the bulk of the Paladin’s damage happens here under their personal buffs and, on even minutes, under raid buffs as well.
Where the real WoW-ification comes in, for me, is that the job is a bit looser in how it gets between burst windows. The Balance guide to the new rotation has a first for any of the jobs I’ve played – ill-defined open GCD slots with priority options for how to fill them. Instead of the planning being perfect to the GCD, it now has slots where you go through a decision tree among 5 potential options, which creates a really interesting change to the job. Before the rework, Paladin was jokingly called the “spreadsheet tank” because you could intricately plan every fight to the GCD and it was necessary to do so in order to be a top parsing Paladin. Even to play the job to just an average level required a lot of forethought and planning, which is why I so often disliked seeing Paladin tanks in random dungeons and Party Finder Savage groups. While you might expect that someone choosing to take a job into Savage with strangers reflects a high degree of skill with the job, it often only reflected a high degree of (misplaced) confidence, and resulted in lower damage output, higher incoming tank damage, and some measure of tank-related difficulty.
The filler GCDs is an interesting tweak because it is very much unlike FFXIV to have a job design where that is even possible. Paladin had a filler segment in the 6.0 rotation as well, but this was not a priority system and was down to filling the space between the magic combo and returning to physical damage by using a select few physical GCDs to bridge that gap. With this job design, there is a door now open to potentially more branching and different combo and rotation designs, and the possibility exists for a job rework or new job in 7.0 to adopt a similar model. Is it a good idea? I hesitate to say yes. I like WoW combat a lot, but it works in that game because the encounter design and content model skew in a direction that allows the chaotic layering of abilities to work effectively and feel good. FFXIV is balanced much more tightly around a combat system that craves dependability – knowing that players can hit these buttons by this point and deal (x) potency of damage allows encounter designers room to make tightly-tuned DPS checks for Savage, Ultimate, and to a lesser extent, Extreme trials. If too many jobs start to stray from that model, it becomes a problem that would threaten the tuning of encounters and content in the game, and as we saw with launch-week P8S, even a 1% tuning discrepancy causes a lot of problems in that model!
We’ll come back to this point in a moment, so for now, the next question – how is Paladin doing defensively?
Bulwark, Stealth Nerfs, and Better Defense Overall
Paladin is a touch more defensive as well through tweaks to the job. While (Holy) Sheltron being set to a fixed damage reduction value over being guaranteed block is a slight nerf to their defensiveness (15% flat versus 18-20%), they gain a new defensive in Bulwark that guarantees blocks for the duration, which reduces damage by the value dictated by your shield stats, which for most endgame tanks will be higher than what Sheltron was (effectively) nerfed to. This gives you another tool in the arsenal to rotate for extra safety and should make Paladin feel stronger when faced with heavy incoming tank damage – the current Savage tier has a lot of tank checks where Paladins could feel anemic in comparison to the other tanks and this should help. The neat flourishes of Paladin see little change, with Cover and Intervention both functioning as they have in Endwalker, but a change did come for Divine Veil, which used to require the Paladin casting it and then receiving healing to put a shield on the party, where now, Divine Veil is instant benefit – hit the button, receive shield for party. This reduces the weird jank of the job defensively at least somewhat, because Divine Veil is a strong tank cooldown but one that required the PLD either spend a GCD popping the shield effect on with Clemency, or required external healing onto the Paladin, which was easy enough in a static group with voice comms but harder in a PF group or random DF dungeon queue.
The end result of these tweaks is that Paladin feels more defensive than before the rework, but it is a slight change for now. As Paladin players get better about optimizing Bulwark usage in particular, it should translate to a stronger and more successful tank than before, but the biggest change here boils down to less need to make cursed choices between damage output and defense. Stuff like Divine Veil pre-rework emphasized that the Paladin could be very defensive, but that came at a cost of damaging GCDs and threatened to upend the rotation in a way that other tanks do not have to suffer for similar benefits. While Passage of Arms is still an auto-attack killer, which itself means that you aren’t generation Oath gauge and thus not getting as many Holy Sheltrons, the usage of it tends to be more for forced downtime scenarios, and with a priority-based filler GCD rotation, there is less concern about defensive abilities eating into the rotation in a way that hurts burst or offsets offensive damage boost cooldowns like FoF or Requiescat.
Will this fix the random DF paladins who only pop Sheltron and self-Clemency? Probably not, sadly. But for semi-skilled tanks, there’s more room to make interesting choices here, both offensively and, crucially, defensively. In FFXIV’s gameplay model, the only times this will make a huge difference is going to be in big trash pulls in dungeons and in high-end duties, but I expect to see more starter Paladins getting smart about Divine Veil in particular as a big improvement that should make healer mains breathe easier when they see a Paladin.
What The Paladin Changes Signify For 7.0 And Beyond
The core premise of me looking at the Paladin rework is to determine how this might shape future job changes in other jobs, especially since two other jobs in Dragoon and Astrologian are identified by the development team as needing a rework, and the expansion changes we would expect to see in 7.0 will likely test some of the limits of job design given that hotbar space is reaching prime real estate conditions.
Through that lens, Paladin in 6.3 is interesting. It really breaks from the established trends of FFXIV in many ways, from priority-based filler GCDs with pretty open-ended choices to a self-sustaining burst/filler loop that also happens to sync up with the two-minute meta when played well. In a lot of ways, the job is the symbol of what players like and dislike about Endwalker gameplay, depending on who you ask. If you’re a Paladin main, having better damage with less rocket science and having more defensive capability with a similar flavor to before is a win, I would say. On the other hand, the two-minute meta of Endwalker is becoming a negative hot button within the community, as it tends to make gameplay feel stale and too on-rails, even in a game whose high-end content scene is notorious for very-fixed, highly-predictable gameplay as the benchmark of its design. New Paladin isn’t as complicated as old Paladin, nor is it as potentially free-form as nonstandard loops on Black Mage or some of the goofy meme rotations you can still pull off like Ice Samurai or Paradox Black Mage. It still has the flavor of FFXIV in the job – outside of those filler GCDs, the rotation, burst, and filler loop are pretty well-defined and still feel like what you expect in FFXIV.
However, the possibility of priority-based, open-ended filler is an interesting thought for what could come in the future. FFXIV gameplay is the way it is because it works ideally with controller, cross hotbars, and the way the FFXIV user interface and experience are configured. The game has to be playable on consoles and with controllers basically forever, so it’ll never quite reach the branching decision paths of WoW’s priority system for many specs, where every pull can feel vastly, vastly different. However, just opening the window to a peek at such an idea is a new development for FFXIV, and it creates the possibility that we could see additional reworks moving in this direction. On a tank, filler GCDs being on priority works well enough because the role isn’t intended to be the peak of damage, and Paladin gets around any downsides by using the burst windows it gets to do most of the damage dealt by the job, but on DPS jobs this can be a little dicey given that the filler loop is still a decent contributor of total damage there. It’s harder to imagine, say, Dragoon (Imagine Dragoons? I’ll leave) being on such a system because the variance it would introduce could, potentially, be a nightmare to balance. The game already has builds for many crit-heavy jobs that emphasize melding other secondary stats as a means of avoiding variance in pull-to-pull DPS performance, so imagine instead a scenario where Dragoon needs a proc to use Stardiver and gets 5 in one pull but only 3 in another. To your average player, it would be confusing and kind of unfun to get less usage of that flashy button, to a modest progger, it would be annoying to have variance that severe pull-to-pull, and it would ruin the sweatlord endgame of parsing runs because you can never be sure that the top parse was purely skillful play – what if they got 6 procs of Stardiver to your 5?
Granted, the Paladin filler GCD system is pretty far away from that in that the choices are still largely deterministic and the openness of the rotation is instead mostly down to simplicity in the rotation cheat-sheet graphic provided by resources like The Balance, so the dark future of proc-based gameplay is still maybe not that close, but there’s at least better odds of it now than there were before. Consider this- at the start of the Abyssos Savage race, week 1 P8S could be almost or practically unkillable if you had a Red Mage in your party, especially if you had one other slightly underperforming job with you, because Red Mage has a decent amount of variance and wasn’t as high damage as Black Mage or Summoner could be, especially given that Summoner is incredibly mobile and Black Mage has a lot of movement tools to allow them to commit to a cast and then rapidly displace away from the big uh-oh at the last second, while Red Mage has to be anchored every other cast to generate Dualcast for mobility/DPS. Every lack of a Verstone/Verfire proc is a Jolt cast at a loss of 130 potency, and while the job is mostly balanced around this loss happening a fair bit of the time, it feels bad if you don’t get those procs rolling in. Dancer can feel bad at moments in time if you’re not getting Silken procs or especially Feather procs, but the job also makes up for that with some genuinely heavy-hitting core attacks that keep it feeling fine, but it took a round of buffs back in early Endwalker to get there, since at launch it felt pretty bad a lot of the time!
In the end, I suppose the odds of FFXIV ending up with a fully revamped combat outlook are pretty low. Paladin doesn’t change too much of the core formula the game has, and even the idea of priority-based filler GCDs boils down more to the community mathematicians optimizing for performance over an active design choice made by the game’s development team. But it does cast an interesting light on the potential reworks to come – the ones where we know that one is likely to happen (AST, DRG) and for jobs in the future as the game continues to work towards the next expansion and the planned route beyond. For Endwalker right now, Paladin keeps the core flavor and feels pretty decent while improving the job’s previously poor performance, while it also continues to show a dogged adherence to the two-minute meta that players have been turning against. What comes next will be quite interesting to watch.