Class balance is one of the most difficult things to get ‘right’ in an MMORPG. I remember how much time I spent getting frustrated about what other people had that I didn’t back when I played WoW in the vanilla days, and how lucky I felt playing a Guardian in Guild Wars 2 given how much everybody wanted me in World v World.
Final Fantasy XIV’s job system mitigates this somewhat; your character can change classes at will, removing the need to mess around with alts and making the role you play much less of a hard commitment. As such, you don’t have the same sort of siege mentality that you might in other games, because if your class is lacking something, there’s almost nothing stopping you from switching.
Despite this, XIV’s developers are reluctant to let jobs become neglected. Once outclassed, Bard received some real love in patch 3.3, and Astrologian might well be the best job in the game right now, despite being one of the weakest jobs upon its introduction. I remember my FC leader advising me about a year ago not to main Astrologian unless I was truly remarkable as most groups wouldn’t take one into anything serious. Now, the consensus seems to be that Astrologian is an essential part of any group.
What changed? Balance — in every sense of the word. Astrologians are themed after tarot card readers, drawing cards that give buffs to party members. Some of those cards are generally useful (one such card, replenishes TP, the resource that melee DPS deal in), but The Balance takes the cake. When drawn, it gives people a flat DPS boost. They always had this card, but it got a huge buff last year in patch 3.4.
While writing about Zurvan extreme, I touched upon how DPS-focused encounters in FFXIV tend to be, and so the Astrologian’s ability to boost the damage of the rest of the party is now so profound that it has earned them a place at the head of the table. The Balance provides such a large DPS boost on top of the Astrologian’s own damage, and with heals as strong as a White Mage and substantially stronger than a Scholar, it’s not hard to see why people are prioritizing their place in statics and pick up groups.
Sure, White Mage heals are great, and Scholar can keep up DPS while healing for days. But slapping a Balance on every member of the party is just such a boon in a game where good DPS lets you skip entire phases, completely outstripping the benefits provided by the other healers. It’s the same reason people want to take Machinists over Bards when given the choice: Machinists boost the DPS of their party members on top of their own role, making things cumulatively easier. (Bards do too, but, unlike Machinists, can only buff magic users.)
Thus the rise of the Astrologian has revealed that as long as encounters are DPS races, jobs with DPS-boosting utility will always be number one. This is the reason Ninja and Warrior have a spot in almost every single group; Trick Attack is just too useful, and the way Storm’s Eye synergises with other party members, particularly Ninja, is simply too good to pass up. Equally, Dragoon’s Battle Litany will be useful for as long as crit rate remains a primary stat for nearly every class.
These ‘value-added’ jobs can do their role on par with their peers while also bringing utility. So the driving force behind Astrologian’s unlikely ascent isn’t the job’s ability to heal, though their heals are great — it’s their ability to boost the DPS of others, which is now the surefire way of making a job competitive.
Sadly, this means jobs like Paladin and Monk are second-class compared to peers that share their role. Indeed, Monk is in a particularly rough spot; it’s a fun class, but it can only boost the DPS of other monks, and has almost no other utility. Mantra is hardly a game breaker (even in fights like A12S which put your healers under immense pressure). Paladins and Dark Knights both make excellent main tanks, but a Paladin-Dark Knight combo will always be an inferior option to combining one or the other with a Warrior.
If you’re wondering what to play, the choice is simple: pick something that isn’t ‘selfish’ in that it provides a wider benefit to the party, and people will always be glad to have you around. Of course, you have to actually play well for that to matter — if you’re a Ninja and you’re not using Suiton into Trick Attack then you’re no better than someone without it.
This has made thinking about group composition much less interesting; static leaders just need to pick from the roles that buff others and build around them, since everything else is secondary. As proof, the top groups on FFLogs use a DPS composition of Ninja, Dragoon, Bard and Machinist, completely forgoing casters and monks because they don’t bring enough to the table. As if to hammer the point home, the fastest A12S clear at time of writing is by a group called Delete Monk. Of course, all this only really matters in progression content (savage raids and extreme primals), and you can do whatever you want with your friends, especially now everybody’s had time to gear up.
But it does leave me wondering what Stormblood’s jobs will look like when the time comes. Red Mage — or indeed any other job set to be introduced in the expansion — faces being immediately outclassed unless it provides utility to other party members in the way that, say, Machinist or Dragoon does. The only way that will change is by completely rethinking encounter design to make DPS less important, which is a tough challenge in a game where success ultimately comes down to “kill the boss as fast as you can”.
Thanks to Sawan Wap (Cerberus) for the Astrologian screenshots.