Feral druid cat DPS is the most complicated DPS rotation in the game. In boss fights our DPS is limited by the player's own skill and the demands and quirks of any specific fight. By contrast, most classes have a much easier time maxing their DPS in any specific fight. The added difficulty of cat DPS is a good thing, good game design. Blizzard should emulate it for other DPS classes.
Feral decision tree
The cat DPS rotation is incredibly complex. Here's my decision tree, roughly in priority order:
- Is Savage Roar up? If not, consume 2-5 combo points and 25 energy to refresh it for 19-34 seconds.
- Is Rip up? If not, consume 5 combo points and 30 energy to refresh it for 12, 16, or 20 seconds depending on your current gear.
- Is Mangle up? If not, consume 45 energy to apply it for 12 seconds and get 1-2 combo points.
- Is Rake up? If not, consume 40 energy to apply it for 9 seconds and get a combo point.
- Is Faerie Fire up? If not, consume a GCD to apply it for 40 seconds. If it misses try again in 6 seconds.
- Is Tiger's Fury available? Are you below 40 energy? If so, use it. Unless you want to save it for a few seconds for the 60 energy boost.
- Is Berserk available? Are you in a good position and low enough threat to unload extra DPS for 15 seconds? Do you have 50 energy or Tiger's Fury coming available? If so, use Berserk. While Berserked your abilities cost less energy, so your timing is faster and you will have more combo points than you can use.
- Do you have 5 combo points, 40+ energy, and both Rip and Savage Roar have 15+ seconds left on them? Then consider Ferocious Bite to consume all combo points and energy. But be sure you don't set yourself up for a problem 20 seconds down the road.
- No special abilities in the pipeline. If you are behind the mob Shred, consuming 42 energy and generating 1-2 combo points. If you're not behind the mob, then Mangle for 45 energy and 1-2 combo points.
That's the DPS rotation on a training dummy. Things get more complex in a real fight. Variable damage buffs like Loatheb and Thaddeus require timing your abilities or prioritizing them differently. Fights with enforced DPS delays like Maexxna and Sapphiron require front-loading the bleeds and optimizing your extra energy. And of course a good druid is always keeping an eye out in case the raid needs an innervate, battle rez, heal, etc.
Why it's complicated
The simplest DPS classes can be reduced to a simple casting rotation (press 1 three times, then 2. repeat). Cat DPS can't be reduced to a rotation, it's a priority system of refreshing five different buffs. That's not unique: other classes also use a priority system, although few have so many buffs to juggle.
What makes cat DPS particularly demanding is that buffs require both energy and combo points to apply. And those resources fluctuate quickly. Furthermore, they don't come at an even rate. Energy comes at 20 per second, but Clearcasting gives you more energy and Berserk makes you use less. Combo points cost energy to generate, and you get 1 or 2 randomly depending on whether you crit. Ensuring you have enough combo points and energy to reapply a buff ten seconds in the future is a big part of the challenge.
Furthermore, the buffs all are on different timer lengths. You can't just space them out so that each one expires an orderly 3 seconds before the next. Worse, some of the buffs expire in a variable amount of time. Choosing to Savage Roar for 2 combo points and 19 seconds can make a big difference down the road over Savage Roar for 5 points and 34 seconds. Cat DPS constantly demands planning ahead 30 seconds. You have to make sure that when Rip expires in 10 seconds you've got 5 combo points and 30 energy to reapply it, and you better be sure Savage Roar is active when you use it or else you're going to have to find another 2 combo points and 25 energy somewhere first.
You can do pretty good cat DPS with a simpler rotation. Just Mangle, Rake, Savage Roar, Shred, and Rip. Ignore Ferocious Bite entirely, use Tiger's Fury and Berserk as soon as they're available. Skip Faerie Fire entirely, screw the raid DPS. The simpler cat DPS rotation makes kitty DPS about as complex as the other DPS classes I understand. But it's about 20% less DPS than a perfect kitty. Playing well means better results.
Why complication is good
If you follow usual WoW player logic, the cat DPS rotation is unfair and nerfs us vs. other classes. Frankly, it's really damn hard to put out great DPS on a moving fight like Heigan or Sapphiron and it's a real challenge optimizing DPS on a damage-variable fight like Thaddeus. I'm envious of my Hunter friends who just sit there spamming Steady Shot and pressing Explosive Shot every 6 seconds.
Well, I was envious. Until I raided with my hunter, and talked to my hunter friends. The problem is the hunter DPS rotation is boring. Once you learn the right shot rotation you just press the same 2 or 3 buttons with the right timing and you're done. My impression is most DPS classes are the same, one or two primary damage abilities and one or two fixed buffs to re-apply every thirty seconds or so. It's not terribly challenging.
The cat DPS rotation is a complicated, elegant puzzle. And it's really fun to work it in a difficult fight. I love that my personal skill in timing and planning has a significant impact on my actual DPS. I'd love to see Blizzard design this kind of complication into other DPS classes. It's OK if most players never master it, only put out 80-90% of their potential DPS. Because it gives them another 20% to achieve if they just master the skill.
I haven't played every DPS class in WoW. Feel free to tell me in comments how I'm wrong and other classes are just as complicated as cats. Particularly interested in other classes' version of my decision tree. My impression is affliction lock is the next-most complicated DPS class, and then only if you're optimizing DPS on multiple mobs.