State of the Ladder: Net rating deflation and the emergence of Holy Priests

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With that out of the way, let's take a look at the State of the Ladder.

Summary: Median rating in the arena player population remains largely unchanged, with preliminary evidence suggesting that the rating distribution may actually be deflating. In terms of the meta, Windwalker Monks and Arms Warriors remain the dominating melee in 2v2, while the 3v3 melee meta appears relatively balanced (though there are substantial differences in spec popularity). Retribution Paladins have seen an enormous growth in play rates on the ladder, yet have simultaneously seen their leaderboard representation decline. Elemental Shamans, Shadow Priests, and Fire Mages form the caster meta trifecta in both 2v2 and 3v3. Discipline Priests and Holy Paladins continue to make up the vast majority of healers in both arena brackets. Holy Priests have made a small, but very significant comeback on the arena scene, massively increasing their leaderboard representation in both 2v2 and 3v3. Critical underperformers in arena include Unholy DKs, Havoc DHs, Outlaw Rogues, Marksmanship Hunters, Arcane Mages, all Warlock specs, Restoration Druids, and Mistweaver Monks.

The data

There are two components to this analysis: the ladder and the leaderboard. The ladder data captures the general trend in WoW arena player habits across all ratings. The ladder data is based on a pseudorandom sample of 65 353 characters, spread roughly evenly between EU and US realms (see the FAQ for details on the sampling method). Of these, 11 898 (18%) have played at least 50 2v2 games, whereas 8 342 (13%) have played at least 35 3v3 games. The leaderboard data is as defined by Blizzard and contains the top 5000 players in each bracket and region. The combined leaderboard data therefore contains the top 10 000 players across US and EU servers.

Erratum: A previous version of this article contained minor errors in the ladder data. This overestimated the growth of Retribution Paladins and Arms Warriors on the ladder.

Rating distribution

The current estimated median rating in 2v2 is 1372 for the US and 1359 for EU. In other words, 50% of characters who have played at least 50 2v2 games (the criterion for inclusion in this analysis) have a rating below these figures on their respective ladders.

The 70th percentiles of the two regions are also very similar (1502 for US, 1501 for EU), while the 90th percentiles differ substantially. This is a well-known effect that we've reported previously: EU has far more players with high rating than US in 2v2. This can also be seen when comparing the US leaderboards with the EU leaderboards: the 1000th ranked player in 2v2 has around 2400 rating on the EU ladder, while only around 2200 rating on the US ladder.

For 3v3, rating is generally higher than for 2v2, with a median of 1418 and 1429 for US and EU, respectively. The 90th percentile, traditionally the Rival cutoff, is currently 1800.

Net rating deflation?

The rating distributions for both arena brackets and regions (EU and US) have remained largely the same over time. This is in itself noteworthy since there is a general expectation that rating will inflate as the season progresses. So far that does not appear to be the case. In fact, there is evidence that the rating distribution might actually be deflating. If we look at the overall ladder for 2v2, we can see that the median rating consistently decreased over the month of January (blue line below).

This "deflation" is largely driven by new characters. If we track characters that had played at least 50 games on the 5th of January, 2021 (red line), we see that the median rating in this cohort is actually fairly constant. Note that the new players here are still characters that have played at least 50 games, but have done so at a date after the 5th of January. In other words, it looks like the increase in new characters is causing overall lower rating in the system (i.e. net rating deflation). This has probably a lot to do with the gearing incentives offered by PvP, causing a large number of lower skilled or undergeared players to discover PvP as a game mode. Interestingly, this does not come with an overall increase (i.e. inflation) in the rating of existing characters. This is a pretty puzzling result since the general expectation is that there should be inflation in the rating with time. This is not currently being observed. Note that we have recently increased the sample with which we run these reports, which is why the time series stops in early February.

Quantifying spec performance

There are multiple ways we can quantify spec performance. Traditionally, leaderboard representation has been used to quantify how well a class is doing. The trouble with leaderboard representation is that it does not account for the fact that some specs are simply more popular than others, and thus you would expect to see more popular specs more often (even if all specs were equally strong). Marksmanship Hunter is a prime example of a spec that is very popular (i.e. it is played in PvP by lots of people), but is very rarely on the leaderboard in 2v2, 3v3, and RBGs (in other words, it is popular, but bad). Elemental Shamans also enjoy the opposite conundrum: they are an incredibly unpopular spec (being played by very few people), but performs disproportionately well on the leaderboards, especially in 2v2 and 3v3.

A way we can quantify spec performance is to look at the representation on the leaderboard (i.e. the top 5000 in each region) relative to the representation on the ladder (the general arena player population).This relative representation thus tells us how often we see a spec on the leaderboard compared to how often we see it on the ladder. If a spec is seen as often on the leaderboard as on the ladder, it will have a relative representation of 1.0. If it's seen twice as often on the leaderboard as on the ladder, it will have a relative representation of 2.0. If all specs were equally strong, we would expect all specs to have a relative representation of 1 (i.e. the leaderboard representation for a spec would be equal to the ladder representation).

Relative representation better captures "strength" than leaderboard representation alone. However other aspects, such as overall ladder and leaderboard representation, are also important dimensions to consider, especially when it comes to discussions around the meta. As usual, these other metrics are available in the dropdown should you want to interrogate the data for yourself. The default is set to relative representation, which is often (though not always) the most useful for quantifying the strength of a spec.

Spec performance in 2v2

Melee (2v2)

Arms Warriors are by far the most common spec on the leaderboard, and have increased their share over the past month (from 10.5% to 11.3%), and are now the most played spec on the leaderboard, and the most overrepresented. Windwalker Monks have seen a simultaneous drop in their leaderboard representation and a boost in their ladder representation. The net effect is that the relative representation has gone down by 0.7 since the last update. More people are playing Windwalker Monks, but there are fewer of them on the leaderboard).

A welcome sight is the presence of Survival Hunters on the relative representation list. Their appearance is due to a large increase in their leaderboard representation (from 0.46% to 0.76%, corresponding to approximately 30 Survival Hunters across US and EU that have made it on the leaderboard). While this is welcome news, overall, Survival Hunters are still almost entirely absent from both the leaderboard and the ladder. Feral Druids continue to be a solid, but rarely played 2v2 spec. An interesting development is an increase in the number of Retribution Paladins on the ladder (from 6.3% previously to 7.1% presently). This has been accompanied by a very significant reduction in the number of Retribution Paladins on the leaderboard (from 5.8% to 4.3%), meaning that we currently see Retribution Paladins far less often on the leaderboard than we'd expect from the large number of people who currently play them. Whether this is a temporary glitch while the FotM connoisseurs catch up with the rest of the ladder remains to be seen. If we currently go by the number of characters on the ladder, Retribution Paladins are just a hair behind Arms Warriors as the most played melee in 2v2.

Subtlety Rogues are the third most common spec on both the leaderboard and the ladder (tied), being most commonly featured in a Fire Mage/Subtlety Rogue comp. Indeed, the majority of Sub Rogues above 2100 rating (around 60%) play with a Fire Mage. This level of class dependence is pretty unique in the current meta. Assassination Rogues appear to be doing okay in terms of the relative representation, but note that this metric can be unreliable when you have a very small number of characters playing a spec. Less than half a percent of both the ladder and leaderboard play Assassination so we should be careful with interpreting a decent relative representation from this spec.

Frost DKs and Havoc DHs are middling performers across the board in 2v2. Both are heavily countered by Windwalker Monks, which are still very prevalent on the ladder and make up a significant part of the 2v2 meta. The remaining melee are relatively poor performers, with Unholy DK and Outlaw Rogue being among the least common and most underrepresented specs.

Ranged (2v2)

The ranged specs that are the most overrepresented on the leaderboard are Shadow Priests, Fire Mages, and Elemental Shamans. Elemental Shamans have been top performers for some time, despite being a very unpopular spec to play. Only 2.3% of the ladder play Elemental Shamans, yet they make up 3.5% of the leaderboard. Balance Druids, at 5.7% ladder representation, are the second most common spec on the ladder (behind Fire Mages), but only account for 3.9% of the leaderboard. This is a pattern that has been consistent for more or less the entire season: Balance Druids are very popular (arguably due to Convoke one-shots), but are not very strong performers in 2v2.

A surprising addition is the surge in Beast Mastery Hunters on the leaderboard. By far the most common comp for BM Hunters is BM Hunter/Disc Priest. Interestingly, this is the same healer that is preferred for Survival Hunters, which have also enjoyed a surge in leaderboard representation. Marksmanship Hunters continue to be major underperformers, despite being an exceedingly popular spec. In fact, Marksmanship Hunters are about as popular as Balance Druids, accounting for 5.5% of the ladder, but only account for 1.9% of the leaderboard. Other key underperformers include Frost Mages, Arcane Mages, Demonology Warlocks, and Destruction Warlocks.

Healers (2v2)

The major change to the high rating healing meta has been an enormous increase in the number of Holy Priests on the leaderboard. In fact, the number of Holy Priests have more than doubled, from 1.3% of the leaderboard previously to 3% of the leaderboard presently. This is not just due to Discipline Priests changing specs, since the number of Discipline Priests on the leaderboard has reduced by 0.5 percentage points, while the number of Holy Priests has increased by over 1.7 percentage points. Holy Priests offer hard-hitting Mind Games, with better mana efficiency than Discipline Priests, and an extra stun via Chastise. The most common partners that Holy Priests run with above 2100 are currently Fire Mages, Affliction Warlocks, and Destruction Warlocks.

Holy Paladins remain the most popular healer by some margin, accounting for 13.7% of the leaderboard. They have seen a small decrease in their leaderboard representation recently, though it seems that the nerf to their mana has not decimated the spec. Restoration Shamans have a lower leaderboard representation now than they did previously, but they are also far less commonly played (relative to other specs). Discipline Priests started off the season as the unchallenged kings of the 2v2, but have been on the decline for some time. As health pools increase and games slow down, Discipline Priests' mana challenges become more troublesome.

Restoration Druids have increased their share of the leaderboard representation from 2.9% to 3.6%, which is very welcome news indeed. The most recent update to the 2v2 comps page saw Restoration Druid/Arms Warrior entering top 7 of the most commonly played comps above 2100 MMR. Paired with the incoming buffs to the spec in 9.0.5 we might be seeing far more of Restoration Druids going forward. Unfortunately, Mistweavers continue to underperform and there has been little change in their representation.

Spec performance in 3v3

Melee (3v3)

The melee 3v3 meta continues to appear relatively balanced. Enhancement Shamans have consistently been the melee spec that is the most overrepresented on the 3v3 leaderboards. Turbo (Enhancement/Arms/Healer) is currently an incredibly strong 3v3 comp, with Enhancement Shamans providing high burst and excellent off-healing, while taking advantage of the protective utility of Arms Warriors to cover their defensive weakspots. Feral Druids remain an unpopular, but fairly well performing spec. Their top comp is currently Jungle Cleave (i.e. paired with either a Survival or Marksmanship Hunter), but can also be seen running with a Fire Mage. Arms Warriors have both increased their ladder and leaderboard representation and continues to be a meta-defining spec, with many compositions available to them. Arms Warriors are by a very large margin the most played spec on both the ladder and the leaderboard, but are only slightly overrepresented given how incredibly popular they are. Subtlety Rogues are relatively well performing, but are even more attached to Fire Mages in 3v3 than in 2v2: over 90% of Subtlety Rogue teams above 2400 also feature a Fire Mage.

While it seems that the 3v3 melee meta is fairly balanced (with a few exceptions), it is not particularly diversified. Arms Warriors, Windwalker Monks, Retribution Paladins, and Subtlety Rogues jointly account for 75% of the melee on the leaderboard. Under perfect diversification this should be 31%.

Retribution Paladins have had a huge surge in popularity on the ladder, which is causing them to appear to underperform according to the relative representation. Frost DKs are in a respectable state. They are a fairly unpopular spec, and slightly underrepresented on the leaderboard. Nevertheless, they have several strong comps available to them. At higher rating they are usually paired with either an Arms Warrior, Windwalker Monk, or a Retribution Paladin. Frost DKs appear to be enjoying a boost in popularity, seeing increased representation on both the ladder and the leaderboard. Havoc Demon Hunters desperately need some attention. They are heavy underperformers in 2v2, and among the worst performing melees in 3v3. Compositionally, they almost always play with either a Windwalker or an Arms Warrior. Unholy DKs, Outlaw Rogues, and Fury Warriors are currently not viable as PvP specs. Windwalker Monks remain a respectable 3v3 spec, but has seen a drop in both their leaderboard representation and their relative representation. They are often paired with either a Fire Mage, Frost DK, or Retribution Paladin. The very modest resurgence of Survival Hunters in 2v2 is also seen in 3v3, and their leaderboard representation has increased from 0.46% to 0.76%.

Ranged (3v3)

The top performers in 3v3 are largely the same as in 2v2, with Fire Mages, SPs, and Elemental Shamans dominating the ranged meta. These three specs are firmly one tier above the rest of the ranged DPS, with each having a large array of very strong comps available to them.

Balance Druids are the second-most common ranged spec, but underperforms quite significantly on the leaderboard relative to the volume of players that play the spec. We also an increase in BM Hunters on the 3v3 leaderboard, presumably due to high-rated Hunters starting to play the spec. Indeed, the reduction in Marksmanship Hunters on the leaderboard is roughly the same as the increase in BM and Survival Hunters. It may be that high rated Hunters are moving away from Marksmanship and over to other specs. Affliction, Destruction, and Demonology Warlocks are among the poorer performing casters in the current meta. Between them, they account for 4.2% of the ladder, but only 2.9% of the leaderboard. Affliction Warlocks are usually only seen paired with a Shadow Priest (Shadowplay) or with an Ele Shaman, but the prevalence of these comps decreases as you go up the ladder, providing further evidence that Affliction Warlocks are presently not in a great state.

Joining Affliction Warlocks at the bottom of the list we find Marksmanship Hunters. It is an interesting paradox of Marksmanship Hunters that they keep being incredibly popular (the third most popular ranged spec), accounting for almost 5% of the ladder. Yet they account for less than 2% of the leaderboard. This is a trend that is seen in essentially all brackets (including RBGs).

Healers (3v3)

The healer meta remains largely unchanged, with one exception: Holy Priests have emerged on the scene. Note that Holy Priests are still absolutely a niche healer, but their leaderboard representation over the past month has increased from 0.8% to 2.5%. That is a relative increase of over 300%. In our matchup data, high rated Holy Priests are typically played either with Ele Shaman/Fire Mage or with Ret Pala/Survival Hunter.

Aside from the emergence of Holy Priests, there have been few changes to the healer meta. Holy Paladins and Discipline Priests dominate the leaderboard and the ladder, while Restoration Shamans are a distant third. Restoration Druids and Mistweaver Monks remain unequipped to deal with the bursty characteristics of the meta and remain bottom tier 3v3 healers.

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