So brewmasters aren’t so popular anymore, but they’re still as powerful as ever. How can this be? Why am I still playing one? Why does the community at large think they’re terrible? What can be done to fix it?
I’ve said before that if I were making choices solely based on progression, and not my irrational need to experiment with new things, I would be favoring my brewmaster in raids. And truth be told, I’m getting closer and closer to my ideal of playing my monk and demon hunter equally. The deeper we get into the expansion, the more my love of brewmasters grows, and it becomes ever more frustrating to see that not only do people fail to appreciate them the same way I do, but they think their strengths are actually weaknesses!
Maybe I need to do a better job of professing my love for this specialization, and so here it is: a whole lot of words about what keeps me playing a brewmaster and what could make playing one better.
What Keeps Me Playing a Brewmaster
Ironskin / Purifying Brews
These two spells are really powerful and I love how complicated they are. You can always work on perfecting their balance, there’s always somewhere to improve. I probably should have gushed more about brewmaster mechanics here on my blog because I feel like there’s a lot of misplaced negativity around them, so I’ll do that here.
It’s not immediately obvious how great Ironskin Brew is. It doesn’t even reduce damage! But its power lies in that huge 40% smoothing potential and its flexibility. Brewmasters have three charges of brews baseline, and that can go up to four. All those charges allow you to string together many Ironskin Brews. In a taunt swapping situation, you can easily have Ironskin active the entire time you’re tanking (though you might not need to, I’ll get to that). That cooldown is also variable, and much shorter than the baseline 21 seconds in practice.
That flexibility allows for a couple things. I mentioned the smoothing, which means that even if you’re not reducing the damage, smoothing has value for keeping us easily healable (something even further empowered by Celestial Fortune) and very hard to kill unpredictably. It also just makes boss mechanics easier.
For most tanks, you have to line up your active mitigation precisely with timers and incoming events, and if you are off by a few seconds you might not be able to spare another AM charge to recover. But with brewmasters you can just keep Ironskin Brew up, and if your timing is off by a few seconds, you have the flexibility to use another one right away.
The key here is that the complexity with other tanks’ AM is usually based on charges, resources, and cooldowns. If a demon hunter mistimes Demon Spikes, they have only have one remaining charge to recover with, plus a rigid cooldown, plus a resource cost. In contrast, a brewmaster might have up to three remaining charges, a reducible cooldown, and no cost other than the opportunity cost of a Purifying Brew. That’s an extreme case, and of course is solved by “playing perfectly”, but assuming perfect play when you’re on progression content is going to get you nowhere, and being able to recover from imperfect play is a powerful thing.
Now with Purifying Brew, we get the ability to actually reduce that damage. Purifying and Ironskin Brew should be viewed as a pair, the same active mitigation split into two abilities. It’s true that the damage reduction potential is weaker than other tanks, with Purifying Brew only reducing half of the damage Ironskin Brew smooths, but we have other ways to handle that, and weaknesses in a tanking class aren’t bad, especially when we have flexibility as a strength.
Now that Purifying Brew is far more resource-constrained than it was in Warlords (where chi was easy and free), it has so much more value as an interesting choice. I find that I’m no longer purifying based on stagger color, but more based on average stagger level for that fight. If I typically hang around 40% stagger (as a percentage of my health), and I suddenly spike to 60%, I purify.
I really like this gameplay because it changes all the time, so it’s no longer “I see red I press a button” and more like “my situation changes and I have to reevaluate”. The former is just muscle memory, and the latter is cognitive thought, which I find more engaging. There’s also the potential to mess it up, like using Purifying Brew too early because I didn’t establish a correct baseline, but I like that because it means I can do better next time. The consequences of messing up are there, but I can recover from them.
For me, these two spells are valuable for more than their power. True, their flexibility and smoothing potential is extremely powerful in progression situations. But they’re also fun. This is a class I could play 10 hours a week, wiping to boss after boss, and still find complicated and engaging. I can always find a way to do better, even if I’m already doing alright.
Gift of the Ox, Elusive Brawler, and Resource Management
As if Purifying and Ironskin Brew weren’t enough, we have all these other things to weave around them. The resource weaving for Brewmasters is pretty high end play. You can do just fine with keeping Ironskin up, using Purify occasionally, and stepping through orbs when your health gets low. But if you want, these other mechancs can add so much more.
The way all these psuedo-resources work (brews, ox orbs, Elusive Brawler) is that you can pool and react to all of them. If Elusive Brawler reaches a high chance to dodge, you can use that as an opportunity to pool your brews and orbs. If you have a big pile of orbs, you can hold off on your Ironskin Brew and handle upcoming damage with those heals. If you have no orbs and a low Elusive Brawler, you know to start stringing together a few Ironskins and Purifies. I just love this, it’s like a dance. You step and dance and twirl around your ever changing health and resources, and when you can pull off that perfect rotation you are a god.
And when you add things like Gift of the Mists and Obstinate Determination, your health becomes the final resource, adding all these other choices like guessing when you’re stable enough to hang at low health to build a bigger pool of orbs. Other tanks couldn’t risk hanging around at medium health, but when you combine that with all the other brewmaster mechanics, how great they are at preventing the burst that would kill any other tank at 50% health and how great they are at pooling resources, and suddenly you are a tank that can turn a dangerous situation into an advantageous one.
This is a simple thing, but I really love how my artifact Fu Zan sits on my shoulder, especially while I’m fighting. It contributes to the unique silhouette of a brewmaster, since no other class or spec does this, and the whole relaxed attitude. I love how the artifact dangles, and its movement and momentum. This is clearly the best artifact, even non-monks agree!
What Could Be Better About Brewmasters
Loss of Unique Animations
I’ve been asking myself why I enjoy playing my demon hunter. One thing’s for sure, I couldn’t write 12+ paragraphs on how much I love vengeance mitigation. The answer comes down to how good it feels to play a demon hunter. All their abilities feel so satisfying to push. Demon Spikes has a clear sound and effect, I have no doubt it happened and that it was a good thing to happen. Infernal Strike makes me crave any chance to move around, just for the brief demonic transform and crash. All the dazzle around their abilities more than makes up for their lack of brewmaster-like depth.
As a newer class, monks were once the leaders on the custom animation front. Blackout Kick was actually a kick, Guard was a powerful, grounded stance with a hand gesture that oozed defense, Spinning Crane Kick was exactly what it sounds like. While I don’t miss the mechanics of spells we lost in the transition to Legion, the animations are greatly missed, and we didn’t get anything to replace them. Ironskin and Purifying Brew are the same drinking animation, though Ironskin inherited Elusive Brew’s subtle swirl effect. Blackout Strike has a pretty purple streak, but uses your racial special animation, which can be hit or miss (this is one of the reasons I am a panda right now, I couldn’t even tell I used Blackout Strike on a draenei).
The animations and effects around these abilities are key to making a class feel powerful and effective. I think Purifying Brew especially suffers from this. In Warlords, it felt really good to push Purifying Brew because that red bar on your screen was completely cleared. You had no doubt that something happened because you pushed that button. It made up for its lack of flashy effects by mechanical effects. But in Legion, it only clears half, which is fine mechanically, it lost that satisfying feeling. It happens frequently that you purify a high stagger only to be left with a high stagger, and there’s no way to tell without addons that you actually pushed that button.
Similarly, Ironskin Brew is subtle enough that it can be hard to tell anything happened when you activate it. Sure, if you look close enough you’ll see those pretty swirls, and listen hard enough you’ll hear the chugging sound, but for our key active mitigation ability, it’s too quiet, visually and audibly.
This is the one and only place I truly miss Guard. I even wrote a love letter to Guard’s animations many years ago. But there was no doubt when Guard was activated, and that it was a powerful tool of defense. It has a crisp sound, a bright spell effect, and a custom hand gesture just to top it all off.
This is the problem least likely to be solved, sadly. Animations are an expansion-level effort, and we missed that train, though maybe we can catch the next one. I’d like to see something more noticeable and thematic for Ironskin Brew. Maybe rocky skin (more than just grey skin), or a special shuffle animation while it’s active, plus a sharp sound. And for Purifying Brew: I’d like a fast/instant water effect, like a splash, something refreshing! It has a bit of that now, but it needs just a bit more oomph so that you know it happened.
Brewmaster healing when no one else is there to help is painful. The combination of self healing that’s dependent on damage taken and limited damage reduction makes tanking those rare elites on a brewmaster much more difficult than other tanks. I feel like it’s fine in group content, like I talked about in the first part of this blog. I take more damage and require more healing throughput, but it’s easy to heal, and my own passives increase the healing dumped on me.
But by myself I’m constantly struggling to keep myself alive, and it usually depends on hitting that 35% hp break point so that I can cheat Obstinate Determination. I have no idea how to fix solo healing while keeping group healing the same, but suffice to say that it’s a big deterrent for leveling brewmasters. I can’t really blame people who step onto the Broken Isles for the first time, pull four mobs, die, and come out believing that brewmasters are underpowered.
Nitpick: Big Defensive Cooldowns
As we have it right now, Fortifying Brew has a very long cooldown (7 min), though for a very powerful effect (especially with artifact traits), and the cooldown is reduced by Keg Smash and Tiger Palm. I like Keg Smash / Tiger Palm reducing the cooldown of Fortifying Brew in theory, but in practice it feels like I’m trying to empty a swimming pool with a spoon. That 7 minute baseline cd makes me want to save it for something truly remarkable, like once per boss fight to save my life, but the recharge seems to encourage me to use it early, so that I can maybe recharge it again before the end.
When I talk with other brewmasters, cooldowns is often something that they bring up. I think part of that is because our defensive talent tier needs to be updated to this expansion (Dampen Harm and Diffuse Magic feel so ineffective compared to our active mitigation), and in part because people don’t realize that Ironskin covers most situations that used to require cooldowns, but the 7 minute Fortifying Brew thing is always present. It also feels like a bunch of artifact traits are… not wasted… but rarely used, because they increase the effectiveness of a skill I use once a fight.
Community Complaints: Utility
Hitting this just because I hear others talk about it. I feel like brewmasters have quite a bit of utility (e.g. Ox Statue and Leg Sweep), but those are often forgotten. I’m always surprised by the mechanics I can abuse with Ox Statue in raids, and Leg Sweep is the best mythic+ cc in the game.
Honestly, the utility arms race is unending, and changes every tier, so I’m not terribly eager to blame this for brewmaster unpopularity. When every tank utility is compared to Gorefiend’s Grasp, you’re guaranteed to be disappointed.
Things that can’t be helped
All it takes to spread the belief that a class is weak is a handful of people being confused by them, or struggling with them, or running into weak players. Those people can post on reddit that the class is bad, other people read that and take it as absolute truth. Raid leaders see that, and not wanting to take risks they ask their players to try something else. Suddenly there aren’t many appearances of that specialization, people don’t see good logs of them, and post on the official forums about how bad that spec is, and the cycle continues to grow exponentially. This snowballs into a wide community belief, beyond just the brewmaster or monk community, that brewmasters are underpowered. Even when they’re not, or something else is at play entirely.
There are a couple things at play here. For one, negative things spread faster than positive ones. We all know about this, it’s why the news cycle is the way it is. It’s human nature. Also, we tend to have only a small window where we’re open to new ideas before our opinions are set in stone, and that window has passed for most people.
Blizzard could try to reverse this trend by overbuffing brewmasters so that people are forced to reevaluate those opinions that have already been set, then tuning them back when the population has recovered. I’m not a fan of that, and I don’t think it would help much. I think the only thing that might change this at this point in the expansion is if bleeding edge guilds start using Brewmasters.
Harder to Learn
I gushed quite a bit about how complicated brewmasters can be, in a good way, but the downside to that is how newbies approach them. Guard was simple, and there’s no doubt it contributed to making the class easier to learn.
All these Legion mechanics can be daunting, and even though brewmaster can be played at a simpler level by just a) keep up Ironskin Brew most of the time b) Purifying sometimes, and c) running over orbs when you need them (a comparable simplicity to other tanks), the perception is that they’re too confusing. Ironskin and Purifying are not your traditional damage reduction tools, so I can see that, but I wish more people could make the leap. Even with their unique mechanics, anyone can play a brewmaster at entry level!
Losing Population to Demon Hunters
I have a hunch that many people who picked up monks in Mists did so because they are attracted to new things, or wanted a change, or something along those lines. I know that was true for me when monks were first announced, though I quickly fell in love with brewmasters for their own merits. It makes sense that these players would similarly be attracted to the next new class, demon hunters. There’s not a lot that can happen to monks to change that response.
Demon hunters are just badasses. They’re the rockstars, so of course they’re going to attract more people than monks. Monks might be badass, but they’re by definition not flashy. I think that’s fine. I’m really attracted to the monk fantasy of just being chill and happy all the time, but many people aren’t looking for that in a game that’s about beating up demons. Classes should fill different fantasy niches, and it makes sense that some are going to be less popular than others. I’m just glad there’s a lot of variety in those fantasies. On one side you’ve got Batman (“Darkness, no parents”), and the other side you’ve got Supergirl (relentlessly positive), and it’s fine if more people want to be Batman in a video game.