State of the Ladder: Shadowlands Season 2 begins

With a new season well underway, it is high time we take another look at the State of the Ladder.

Summary: PvP participation is around a third of what it was in Season 1, likely reflecting the far weaker rewards available from PvP this season. With the introduction of catchup mechanics in 9.1, the average item level gap with rating has reduced significantly, providing a more level playing field (for the moment).

Arms Warriors continue to be a meta-defining spec in both 2v2 and 3v3. Windwalkers are once again a top melee, and both Subtlety and Assassination Rogues remain very strong. The changes to Havoc Demon Hunters have made a large impact on their representation at high rating, and they are in a far better spot than last season. In 2v2, Beast Mastery Hunters are among the most common and overrepresented specs at high rating, though they are relatively limited compositionally in 3v3 compared to many other specs. In both brackets, Shadow Priests, Fire Mages, and Elemental Shamans are highly performant and look to be the dominant casters of 9.1.

The healer meta is relatively well-balanced, with all healers being viable. The noteable exception is still Mistweaver Monks, which are underperforming even after we factor in the fact that they are the least popular healer specs.

The data

The ladder data is obtained from 283,960 characters pseudorandomly sampled from EU and US realms (with a roughly even split from each region). Details on the sampling technique can be found in the FAQ. Of these characters, we only included characters that had logged on this season. This gave 146,124 characters (again, with a roughly evenly split between EU/US). For all analyses (except the PvP participation analysis) a character must have played at least 50 games of 2v2 this season (N=4816) or 35 games of 3v3 (N=2747) to be included in the dataset.

PvP participation

Of the 146,124 characters that had logged on this season, only 7.3% had played at least one 2v2 game, 4.6% had played at least one 3v3 game, and 3.3% had played at least one RBG game. 9.0% of characters had engaged in at least one game of rated PvP (2v2, 3v3, or RBG). A more in-depth analysis of PvP participation will follow in a subsequent article, but suffice it to say that this level of participation is far lower than what we saw in Season 1 around the same time (where over 25% of characters had played at least one game of 2v2). This is no doubt related to the PvP item level that has been introduced to the game, giving PvP gear limited utility outside a PvP context and reducing incentives for PvEers to enter the arena or rated battlegrounds.

Rating distribution

Last season was characterised by a distinctly deflated rating distribution, with a median rating around 1375 in 2v2, 1430 in 3v3, and 1600 in RBGs. This season, we are so far seeing a far higher median rating in both arena brackets, a median rating in 2v2 around 1600 for US and around 1700 for EU. For the 90th percentile, the difference between regions is even larger, being 1900 on US servers and 2100 EU servers. This continues a well-known pattern from previous seasons that 2v2 rating is consistently lower on US servers than on EU servers.

Overall, the rating distribution has shifted to much higher values, particularly in 2v2. In his PvP interview with Venruki, Brian Holinka announced that there were would be changes implemented to the rating system to combat the rating deflation we saw in Season 1. It seems likely that the change in the rating distribution reflects these changes, at least partially. Another (complementary) explanation is the radical difference in PvP participation between the seasons. By our estimates, active characters were 3-4 times more likely to participate in rated PvP in Season 1 compared to Season 2. It seems plausible that this reduction in rated PvP participation does not uniformly affect people of all skill levels. For example, if players who are more dedicated and more skilled at PvP were more likely to keep playing in Season 2 compared to more casual and less skilled players, then this would clearly have an impact on the rating distribution. We are also seeing very pronounced peaks at the rating cutoffs for gear, which is a well-known effect of having rating-gated rewards. These peaks are likely to reduce in amplitude as the season progresses.

Gear and rating distribution

Note that the data currently reported is for average item level, not PvP item level. This is currently a limitation of the Blizzard API, which will hopefully be addressed soon. At this point there is usually not a huge difference between PvP ilvl and average ilvl, but these will diverge dramatically as the season progresses.

Presently, the median ilvl for sub-1400 rating is 220, with 75% of characters having a median ilvl between 212 and 229. This gradually increases with rating. At 2100+, most characters have around 233 ilvl. The difference in median ilvl is currently substantially smaller than it was at the end of last season (13 ilvl currently vs. 24 ilvl previously). This reduced difference in ilvl presumably mostly reflects the catchup gear that is available to players in 9.1, but could also partially be due to differences in PvP participation (e.g. because lower geared characters may be less likely to participate in Season 2). In either case, it seems that rated PvP currently appears to be more of a level playing field than it was towards the end of last season.

Spec representation

We present an overview of each specs' representation on the leaderboard and on the ladder. The leaderboard is a Blizzard-defined list, given as the top 5000 characters on each ladder. The ladder, on the other hand, refers to the overall sample of characters that actively play rated PvP. For the tooltips (hover over the plots to activate, or press if on mobile), we show both ladder and leaderboard representation, and changes from the last State of the Ladder (May, 2021) are shown in brackets.

Melee (2v2)

Arms Warriors remain a dominant spec in 2v2 this season, with the non-Venthyr covenants having received a buff to Execute, and Kyrian Warriors now enjoying an 8 second spear. Both Subtlety and Assassination Rogues are doing very well so far, having received a number of changes, including the return of Dismantle as a class ability (not to mention Hemotoxin for Assassination and Tricks of the Trade for Subtlety). Jointly, Subtlety and Assassination account for a larger share of both the ladder and the leaderboard than Arms Warriors.

Windwalker Monks saw a general trend of decline last season: as the game pace slowed down, being a glass cannon was increasingly challenging. However, with a number of changes in 9.1, including an armor nerf, the pace of the game is once again very high and Windwalker Monks are seeing increased play in 2v2.

Feral Druids were emerging in the last season as one of the stronger melee, and they have now returned with a Mortal Strike effect. Despite this, their share of the leaderboard has reduced by a fair chunk compared to last season. One explanation for this is that Necrolord Ferals rely heavily on DOTs, which is somewhat at odds with the bursty meta of Shadowlands Season 2. Don't be surprised if Feral Druids re-emerge as one of the strongest melee as the season progresses and the game slows down.

A welcome change this season is the re-emergence of Havoc Demon Hunters as a viable spec once again. DHs have received an overall buff to their damage, a rework of their Mortal Strike effect (used to be applied by Fel Rush, now applied from Blance Dance), and some new PvP talents. In general, Demon Hunters seem to one of the highest output damage dealers in the game, though their weakness remains their survivability. Retribution Paladins remain incredibly popular on the overall ladder, but perform comparatively poorly on the leaderboard in 2v2. In fact, Retribution Paladins are the most common melee spec in 2v2 among the general PvP player base (even more common than Arms Warriors), but are only the 7th most common melee on the leaderboard.

Survival Hunter is not commonly played on either low or high rating, but are seen more often at higher rating than we would expect from their ladder representation alone. Part of this might be due to the fact that Hunters already have a very strong (and arguably straightforward) spec, making Survival a less attractive option.

Frost and Unholy Death Knights remain underperformers in 2v2. While they have both received some serious buffs (including the reintroduction of Strangulate, their 4 second silence), they struggle in 2v2. DKs have a difficult time to stay alive against classes that dominate the ladder, such as Arms Warriors, Windwalkers, Assassination Rogues, and BM Hunters. Not only do these classes put out a very large amount of damage, most of them can also disarm the DK, both stopping their damage and preventing their Death Strike self-heals.

Enhancement Shaman is not a particularly popular spec at any rating level. A challenge with Enhancement Shamans in 2v2 is their lack of of a Mortal Strike effect, poor survivability, and a relatively easily counterable go. Neither Fury Warrior nor Outlaw Rogue are currently seeing much representation. The difficulty with interpreting these numbers is that these are both classes that have alternative specs that are incredibly strong. Fury Warriors in particular have been given a strong Mortal Strike effect and can output very significant pressure, so the low representation of Fury does not just reflect the weakness of Fury in 2v2, but also the relative strength of Arms as one of the best melee in the game.

Ranged (2v2)

Beast Mastery Hunter is the most overrepresented spec on the leaderboard: while they are only played by 4.2% of the ladder, they make up 6.5% of the leaderboard. Overrepresentation is often indicative of the relative strength of a spec, and BM Hunters are generally considered very strong in 2v2 at the moment. They are followed by another spec that is doing incredibly well, namely Shadow Priests. In 9.1, SPs were given two new PvP talents, with Void Volley being particularly oppressive (and having recently received a 15% damage nerf). Shadow Priests are unique in that they have a large of number of both double DPS and healer/DPS comps available to them. For example, SPs can be regularly seen playing with a Sub Rogue, Fire Mage, or a Retribution Paladin, but are also very viable with a Restoration Druid, Holy Paladin, or a Restoration Shaman.

Fire Mages continue to be a top performer, with incredible survivability and some of the highest burst in the game. Elemental Shamans have become relatively more popular now than they were previously, now accounting for 3.2% of the ladder (2% last season). Their leaderboard representation has also increased, likely reflecting the addition of new PvP talents. Balance Druids are less popular on the overall ladder, but far more popular on the leaderboard this season compared to last. Balance Druids were also given new PvP talents, and now have access to a Legendary which puts Convoke the Spirits on a 1 minute cooldown. Destruction Warlocks have seen a noteable increase in their representation. However, they are still very far away from the domination they enjoyed in BfA. The remaining ranged specs have consistently been poor performers in this bracket, and it is clear that the changes some of them have seen have not been enough to make them competitive alternatives in 2v2.

Healers (2v2)

The healer meta is surprisingly even, with most healing specs being well represented in the bracket. Mistweaver Monks continue to have very low representation on the leaderboard, but it is important to note that they are by far the least played healer in 2v2 as well. Only 1.1% of PvPers play a Mistweaver Monk, compared to 4% for Restoration Shaman, Restoration Druid, and Discipline Priests. Holy Paladin is the most common spec on the ladder, accounting for 6% of all characters. Given that Mistweaver Monks are played by far fewer people, we would also expect to see them less often at high rating. Relatively speaking, Mistweaver Monks are as underrepresented on the leaderboard as Holy Paladins. Consequently, the apparently low leaderboard representation of Mistweaver Monks reflects, at least in part, that they are a very uncommon spec.

Spec performance in 3v3

Melee (3v3)

It will come as no surprise that Arms Warriors are also dominating this bracket. Arms Warriors are highly represented both on the leaderboard and on the ladder, which recently warranted a nerf to their Intervene ability (now 3 seconds duration, down from 6 seconds). Retribution Paladins are as common as Arms Warriors on the ladder, but are seen far less frequently on the leaderboard. This is an effect we also observed last season: Retribution Paladins are disproportionately popular on lower rating, presumably due to their extremely high burst potential. Windwalker Monks are performing relatively well. Do note that since there are far fewer people who play Windwalker Monks compared to, for example, Arms Warriors, we would also expect to see fewer Windwalker Monks on the leaderboard.

Havoc Demon Hunters are also making a strong showing in 3v3, with their leaderboard representation increasing from 1% last season to 3.9% presently. They are also one of the most popular specs in the general PvP population. Feral Druids continue to perform well, with Jungle Cleave (Feral/BM/Healer) being one of the most (if not the most) popular comp in the game at the moment. Subtlety Rogues are fairly pigeon-holed into RMP comps, but due to the extreme popularity of these comps, retain a fairly high representation. Frost DKs and Enhancement Shamans both continue to see viability, particularly when teamed up with Arms Warriors or Windwalker Monks. Assassination Rogues see play mostly in RMP, but also teamed up with a Shadow Priest (e.g. RPS).

The four bottom performers in this bracket have a few things in common: they are all also bottom performers in 2v2, and they all have other viable DPS specs. The latter may account for some of the reason why these specs do not see higher representation. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that these specs have been chronically underperforming in rated PvP this expansion.

Ranged (3v3)

The top five ranged DPS specs are the same in 3v3 as in 2v2. A noteable difference, however, is that BM Hunters enjoy far lower representation in 3v3 compared to 2v2. This likely reflects that they are more compositionally restricted than many other top performing specs, usually being paired with either a Feral Druid or a Retribution Paladin. Shadow Priests, on the other hand, are the most commonly seen ranged DPS on the leaderboard, being very strong in Godcomp (Fire Mage/SP/Healer), RPS (e.g. with an Assassination Rogue), or paired with an Arms Warrior. Fire Mages continue to be very strong in both brackets, although they are currently seeing far less play on lower rating. Only 2.7% of the general 3v3 population play Fire Mages, while they make up a whooping 6.7% of 3v3 leaderboard.

Elemental Shaman has historically been a relatively uncommon spec, but are currently seen fairly often both on the ladder and on the leaderboard (4.3% and 4.4%, respectively). Elemental Shamans have a range of comps available to them, and can be happily paired with an Arms Warrior, Shadow Priest, Balance Druid, or even a Demon Hunter. Balance Druids are far less popular this season than last (potentially reflecting the spec representation of the players who no longer participate in rated PvP).

Destruction Warlocks are off to a bit of a slow start. Despite significant buffs in 9.1, they are having a hard time establishing themselves at higher rating. Nevertheless, their representation on the leaderboard has increased significantly from last season. Frost Mages have also enjoyed significant buffs to Frost Bolt and exciting new PvP talents. So far, this has not been enough to bring Frost Mage back into the meta. Arcane Mages have also received a number of buffs, and while their representation has increased, they are significantly outshined by Fire.

Demonology, Affliction, and Marksmanship are all specs that seem to have been left behind this expansion. Affliction was arguably the most viable spec last season, but with the changes to Sacrolash's Dark Strike and a new bursty meta, there seems to be little room for the rot pressure that Affliction Warlocks bring.

Healers (3v3)

Discipline Priests and Holy Paladins remain top dogs in 3v3, with Discipline Priests being the most overrepresented healer, by some margin. However, both are seeing newfound rivalry from Restoration Shamans in 9.1. The introduction of the PvP talent Unleash Shield has opened up a lot of outplay potential for Resto Shamans, and they also received some healing throughput buffs. Perhaps most importantl, their Earth Elemental Legendary is currently generating obscene amounts of pressure, which synergises well with games that rarely last more than 4 minutes.

Restoration Druids and Holy Priests are in a pretty good spot in 3v3, though being slightly more comp sensitive than the other healers. Restoration Druids are usually seen in melee cleaves featuring Arms Warriors (Arms/Ret, Arms/Frost DK, Arms/Ele) or in Godcomp (SP/Fire Mage). Holy Priests can be found in a number of comps, but are most commonly seen in RMP. Mistweaver Monks are by far the least commonly played healer spec, and are still underperforming in 3v3. When they are seen, it's usually in a melee cleave such as TSG or Turbo.

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