As a long time player of the Warlock class, I, as well as other Warlocks, have found myself annoyed by the soul shard system. In the early days, the annoyance stemmed from having our bags full of the little pink gems. We players cried out for changes, and changes were promised. Would we be getting more uses for the shards? What about the ability to stack them? No! Our beloved class was changed in the form of special soul bags that held only soul shards, albeit a larger number of them. "This was it?" we thought. After months to years we got special ammo pouches.
Future changes were hinted at, but throughout the different iterations of WoW, we Warlocks and our little pink friends could do nothing but farm to fill our ever-increasing-in-size bags. Eventually we learned that we would be able to farm multiple shards through an improved version of "Drain Soul", but our shards would be restricted to 32 at a time. This is where we stand today.
The problems with shards are numerous. For one, they take up valuable bag space and cannot be stacked. Furthermore, the shards have limited use, even in raids. While I'm happy to be able to give out health stone candy and resurrects via soul stones, there's little else to do with them. Sure we can "Soul Shatter", or even "Soul Fire" or "Shadow Burn," but these skills are far from a major part of the Warlock rotation. To make matters worse, we can't just buy them as reagents. This has led many a Warlock to be unprepared for longer raids or other situations when many summons and health stones leave our bags empty. With the trash cleared long before we run out, we're left without a viable way to get shards mid-raid without severely hampering our ability to do damage.
Blizzard has, on multiple occasions, noted that the soul shard isn't "working as intended." Soul shards were never meant to be an annoyance or a way to differentiate Warlocks from Mages, but rather a fun aspect, central to the class. Using a soul shard, according to Blizzard, should be an exciting moment. This description is a far cry from what summoning your pet before a raid feels like. Even handing out a Soul Stone mid-wipe isn't quite what Blizzard had in mind.
Thankfully, with the release of the Cataclysm expansion pack, Warlocks will be getting our new shard system. Similar to how Death Knight runes currently work, our shards will be moving from our bags to our interface. Unlike the masses of shards we carry around now, Warlocks will be limited to three shards per encounter. Shards will regenerate out of combat and we'll be able to use drain soul in combat as a sort of "evocate for warlocks" in order to gain more shards in longer fights.
Unlike mere utility tools of today, the shards of Cataclysm will be tied to a single spell called "Soul Burn." While pets and summons will no longer cost shards, there's no word on whether or not Soul Shatter will continue to use shards. Soul Burn will affect many (but not all) of our spells in interesting ways, such as making pets or fears instant cast. It will have a 30 second cool down, cost one shard, and exist independent of the Global Cool Down. Some of the other possible effects include allowing your next three Searing pain attacks to be critical hits, or increasing the horror effect and healing of death coil.
As far as the new system will affect our class, it remains to be seen based on how our talent trees will be jumbled in the new expansion. At this point I consider the change overall positive. For instance, we'll no longer have to farm for shards and we'll get to use them more often. Even if you include Soul Fire, Soul Shatter, or Shadow Burn, most Warlocks don't use their shards that often. If you're not raiding you presumably use them even less.
Of course, as a player I'm leery about being forced to use the new system in order to maximize my playing potential. As Blizzard acknowledged with the removal of the Affliction Siphon Life spell, Warlock cast rotations can become somewhat difficult. While the problem has improved, there are still issues (improved conflagrate in a heavy destruction rotation comes to mind). Will the new spell affect our rotation? Will we be forced to use all three of our shards every combat? And how will Affliction be affected by this new spell?
This new system also has the potential to be the gateway for many negative changes and "nerfs" for the class. Imagine our pets being weakened to increase their need to be re-summoned mid fight. If the powers are not carefully balanced in light of Soul Burn being off the global cool down, we may see this system being adapted in ways that ultimately weaken the class as a whole.
If, on the other hand, Blizzard manages to achieve their goal of reshuffling less fun talents (think Suppression) out of our talent trees while retaining the effects in game play through other means, the new Soul Shard system could breathe new life into the Warlock class. Warlock soul shards should give us a little bit of an edge when we try to use them rather than simply a fringe utility; we're using the souls of other beings to push ourselves into even more levels of power.
I see a great deal of maneuvering room for Blizzard's design of the warlock class. New methods of damage, new boss gimmicks, and even semi-permanent control of our long lost pals the Doom guard and Infernal are just a few things that I hope we get to see. Like anything else, players will have to play test to be sure. We'll know for sure when Cataclysm hits the shelves sometime SOON.