State of the Ladder: Big meta changes as Season 3 begins

Summary: This far into the season, the rating distribution seems to be less inflated than last season, with a median rating of 1600 and a 90th percentile of around 1900 (compared to 2100 last season). Of course, it is generally accepted that rating inflation increases with time, so this may simply be due to how early it is in the season.

The 2v2 meta has evolved away from an Arms Warrior-dominated one to one where Subtlety Rogues, Survival Hunters, and Feral Druids reign. Feral Druids and Subtlety Rogues also do very well in 3v3, and together with Fire Mages and Shadow Priests constitute some of the most powerful specs in the game at the moment. Holy Priests have an almost unprecented level of representation in both 2v2 and 3v3, accounting for a third of healers in both brackets.

Despite a few specs that are clearly overperforming, there are far fewer specs that are radically underperforming so far this season. The notable exceptions are Arcane Mages and Frost Death Knights, but most other specs see at least some viability in either 2v2 or 3v3.

The data

The ladder data is obtained from characters pseudorandomly sampled from EU and US realms. We only included characters that had logged on this season. This yielded 41,170 characters for EU realms and 43,049 characters from US realms. In order to be included in the analysis, a character must have played at least 50 games of 2v2 this season (N=8,112) or 35 games of 3v3 (N=4,594).

Rating distribution

The first two seasons of the Shadowlands expansion were characterised by two extremes: Season 1 was the most rating deflated season we had seen in a long time (with title rewards roughly corresponding to the old title cutoffs of 1800 for Rival, 2100 for Duelist, etc.), whereas Season 2 was potentially the most inflated season ever, with the R1 cutoff being well over 3500 rating in some cases. While it is still early in the season, so far it is looking like a bit of a return to normality, with the 90th percentile currently around 1900 in 2v2 for both EU and US realms. It is possible that this will normalise throughout the season, though it is worth mentioning that last season, the 90th percentile had reached 2100 by the end of the first month of the season. In 3v3, the rating distribution is in general lower for EU realms, potentially due to lower 3v3 activity on EU realms.

Overall, participation is high for characters that have logged on at least once this season: around 23% of characters have played at least one game of 2v2 in both regions. In 3v3, the percentage of characters that have played at least one game is slightly higher on US realms (16.0%) than on EU realms (13.3%). In addition to higher character-wise participation rates, US players also play more games per character than on EU realms. This is the case in both 2v2 and 3v3.

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 end of last season (February, 2022) are shown in brackets.

Melee (2v2)

There have been some very significant changes to the 2v2 meta with the release of 9.2. At long last, the era of Arms Warrior domination is over. In their place, we see the emergence of Subtlety Rogues, Havoc Demon Hunters, and Survival Hunters. Out of these, Survival Hunters are definitively the one that stands out the most, with their leaderboard representation (4.9%) being twice as high as their ladder representation (2.85%). In other words, Survival Hunters are seen twice as often at high rating compared to what we would expect to see from how often they're played by the general player base. At high rating (both 2100+ and 2400+), Survival Hunter/Holy Priest is currently the most frequently played comp in 2v2.

While both Windwalker Monks, Feral Druids, and even Assassination Rogues have a lower leaderboard representation than Arms, they are also much less commonly played than Arms: approximately 5.4% of the ladder are Arms Warriors, whereas 3.5%, 3.3%, and 2.1% of the characters are Windwalker Monks, Feral Druids, and Assassination Rogues, respectively. Thus, the fact that they are roughly matched in terms of their leaderboard representation probably means that they are all in a better spot currently than Arms Warriors in 2v2. Fury has seen a bit of a resurgence this season, with far more people playing it than the last two seasons, but there is little evidence that they are currently performant in 2v2. Retribution Paladins have not recently been a top tier 2v2 spec, but they are currently one of the worst performing specs, though they remain somewhat popular choice in the general playerbase.

One of the big winners of this season have been the Demon Hunters. Going from relative obscurity last season (and relying almost entirely on kill windows with The Hunt) to a veritable powerhouse of unhealable damage. The transition to Necrolord has given Demon Hunters more tankiness and far more sustained damage, meaning they once again are well represented on both the leaderboard and the ladder.

Outlaw Rogue is a very interesting case. Despite being uncommon, it is is often seen at high rating (and sometimes even the highest ratings). Indeed, while they are only played by 0.4% of the ladder, they are nevertheless played by 0.9% of the leaderboard. In other words, this is arguably a case where a spec is viable without being particularly popular. At 2100+ rating, Outlaw/Holy Priest is the 6th most common comp in 2v2, but it is worth noting that Outlaw Rogue plays almost exclusively this comp: at the time of writing, 84% of Outlaw games at 2100+ rating were with a Holy Priest.

While Enhancement Shamans have enjoyed a resurgence with the new season, this does not carry over very much to the 2v2 bracket. They still struggle with the lack of a stun and a reliable Mortal Strike effect. When they are seen in 2v2, they are typically seen with a Subtlety Rogue. Death Knights remain in a very weak position in 2v2, with Unholy having become the marginally better spec of choice for the 2v2 bracket.

Ranged (2v2)

The top ranged specs in 2v2 have not changed much since the last season, with BM Hunters, Fire Mages, and Shadow Priests enjoying a dominant position in the ranged meta. BM Hunters are the only one of the top three that are seen far more often on the leaderboard (4.3%) compared to the ladder (2.8%).

Balance Druids are relatively popular on the ladder, but not very commonly seen at higher rating. Balance Druids generally pair up with a healer (most commonly a Holy Priest) or a Subtlety Rogue. Both Affliction and Demonology Warlock is in a far healthier state in 2v2 now than they have previously been, and Affliction in particular enjoys high leaderboard representation relative to their play rate at lower rating.

Marksmanship Hunters continue a pattern of being a very popular spec among the general playerbase (accounting for 3.7% of characters on the ladder), while being relatively underrepresented at higher rating (1.7% of the leaderboard). Nevertheless, we do see Marksmanship Hunter/Holy Priest at some frequency at 2100+, which just goes to show that with a Holy Priest, anything is possible. Elemental Shamans and Destruction Warlocks are pretty uncommonly seen in 2s, while Frost and Arcane Mage are continuing their incredibly long streak of bottom tier performance in 2v2.

Healers (2v2)

The first two seasons of the Shadowlands expansion was characterised by a relatively balanced healer meta in both brackets. This has now quite clearly changed, with Holy Priests completely taking over the 2v2 bracket. It is actually pretty unusual for a single spec to reach this level of dominance in the 2v2 bracket. Note that a leaderboard representation of 18% means in effect that 36% of all 2v2 teams will have a Holy Priest in them. This is an unusually high level of imbalance in the healer meta.

Aside from the complete and utter domination of Holy Priests, the other healers are in a much more sensible spot, with Restoration Shamans and Druids having similar levels of representation at high rating. Discipline Priests and Holy Paladins also have similar levels of representation (despite there being far more Holy Paladins than Discipline Priests currently), and Mistweaver Monks remain both the least played and the least represented healer spec in 2v2.

Spec performance in 3v3

Melee (3v3)

Despite their lacklustre performance in 2v2, Arms Warriors are still a very solid pick for 3v3. Note, however, that Arms Warrior has become one of the most popular specs over the past two seasons so their high leaderboard representation is in part reflected by their high overall play rates (as evidenced by their high ladder representation as well). This season has seen the resurgence of Turbo (Enhance/Arms) as a very popular comp, and Ret/Arms remains a popular option. Retribution Paladins are still popular, but appear very restricted in the composition they play. Currently, 6/7 most popular Ret comps at 2100+ is a Ret/Arms variant.

Havoc Demon Hunters are in a similar spot to Retribution Paladins, with them being a relatively popular spec with decent leaderboard representation. However, they have access to a far greater level of compositional diversity, most commonly running with an Unholy Death Knight, Shadow Priest, or Balance Druid. Subtlety Rogues are in an excellent spot in 3v3, enjoying a disproportionally high leaderboard representation. This is a very clear testament to the unbridled power of RMP in the current meta, with the Holy Priest variant being the most popular composition in the game by an incredibly large margin.

Enhancement Shamans, Windwalker Monks, and Feral Druids are all in a decent spot, with Feral Druids being the most overrepresented of the three. Enhancement Shamans are still restricted to mostly playing with an Arms Warrior or a Windwalker Monk, whereas Windwalker Monks are seen with a wide range of specs including Frost Death Knights, Fire Mages, Enhancement Shamans, and even Subtlety Rogues. Feral Druids overwhelmingly play a Jungle variant (usually with a Survival or BM Hunter).

Fury Warrior is not a particularly commonly played spec, but are currently played by some of the top Warriors, and even saw play in the most recent AWC tournament. We may be seeing many more Warriors swapping to Fury as the season progresses. Survival Hunters are not necessarily performing badly in 3v3, but clearly this is a spec that is more performant in the 2v2 bracket. Assassination Rogues are in a unique spot as this is a spec that is arguably very strong, but most Rogues clearly opt for playing a Subtlety Rogue given the strength of the Holy Priest RMP variant at the moment. We can see this from the overall play rates on the ladder: 1.2% of the ladder plays Assassination, whereas 1.5% of the leaderboard play it as well. Assassination Rogue is also going to get much stronger as more Rogues get the Tier set bonuses and double legendary (though it should be said that this is the case for many specs).

The two Death Knight specs are clearly not the top dogs, with Unholy currently seeming like the most preferred of the two, at least at higher rating. However, the representation of Unholy Death Knights is far from abysmal given how few people generally play the spec. Finally, at the bottom of the leaderboard representation we find Outlaw Rogues. It's important to note that the relative strengths of the other two Rogue specs (especially Subtlety) really means it's tricky to say whether it is genuinely the case that Outlaw is abysmal and unviable or whether people simply opt for Subtlety as it is one of the strongest specs in the game. Both Subtlety and Assassination also have historically been far more prevalent specs in PvP than Outlaw, which could also potentially have an impact on Outlaw representation.

Ranged (3v3)

The two most commonly seen specs on the leaderboard are familiar faces from last season: Fire Mages and Shadow Priests. Fire Mages in particular are amazingly well represented given how relatively few Fire Mages there are on the ladder. This probably says something about the strength of Fire Mages in the game currently, which we can also see from their incredibly strong showing in the most recent AWC.

Balance Druids and Elemental Shamans are seeing decent representation, with the two teaming up to form one of the most popular comps for either spec. Both specs enjoy a broad spectrum of comp availability, with Balance perhaps still favouring teaming up with a Havoc Demon Hunter, depsite the nerfs to Kindred Spirits that came with 9.2.

Beast Mastery Hunters are by no means in a terrible spot, with a roughly matched ladder and leaderboard representation. They are, however, slightly pigeonholed into playing Jungle Cleave variants (i.e. with a Feral Druid) in the current meta.

A welcome sight is that all three Warlock specs are actually doing pretty well in 3v3. The last two seasons were plagued with usually two or even all three of the specs grossly underperforming in both arena brackets. Presently, no spec is underrepresented given how much they are played, and Destruction Warlocks are, if anything, overrepresented on the leaderboard (1.0% of the ladder play Destruction compared to 1.5% of the leaderboard).

We are also starting to see a resurgence in Frost Mages, who are most commonly seen with either a Destruction or a Demonology Warlock. While Marksmanship Hunters enjoy some representation, there are presently very few 3v3 games recorded at higher rating where one party played MM. It is probably safe to say that MM remains lacking this far in the season.

The only major underperformer this season are Arcane Mages. As with Rogues, there is probably an argument to be made that many Mages opt for an alternative, stronger spec (like Fire, arguably the strongest spec in the game at the moment). However, unlike with Outlaw, there is little indication from the data that Arcane is anything but a dramatic underperformer. All in all, however, the ranged 3v3 meta is fairly well balanced, aside from Fire Mages quite evidently being far stronger than the rest.

Healers (3v3)

The 3v3 healer imbalance is equally shocking in 3v3 as in 2v2. Keep in mind that there can only be a single Holy Priest per 3v3 team, so when 10.6% of the ladder is accounted for by Holy Priests, this means in effect that nearly 32% of all teams have a Holy Priest (for 2v2 this figure was 36%). Not only do Holy Priests make up one part of the most commonly played comp (RMP, Holy Priest variant; the most common by a very large margin), they are also Best-in-Slot for most other comps out there.

Other than this dramatic imbalance, the other specs are all fairly evenly matched. Restoration Shamans see the highest representation, but it is also the most commonly played of the remaining healers, so this is to be expected. In fact, the remaining healers' leaderboard representation is almost entirely in line with their ladder representation.

Ironically, despite Fire Mages and Holy Priests being incredibly dominant this season (arguably far more dominant than even Arms Warriors last season, adjusted for popularity), the melee, ranged, and healer metas are actually not that terribly balanced. If this were to persist into the rest of the season, minor adjustments to Fire Mages and Holy Priests, and some buffs to a select few underperforming specs (Arcane Mages and Frost DKs come to mind), could actually result in the most balanced meta we have seen in a long time. However, it is no doubt the case that the introduction of tier sets and the second legendary will greatly shake up the meta going forward.

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