That is the question. Which I got via email today!
Clearly there’s not One True Answer for every player in every type of content at every level of the game, so let’s look at the Big Three: levelling, heroics and entry-level raiding, and hard-mode raiding.
I’m also going to conflate Evangelism/Archangel with Atonement here and deal with them together; you could take one without the other, but you probably shouldn’t.
The emailer said they they’d levelled as Atonement all the way through to heroics and I cannot recommend this approach enough. If you ask me “Holy or Disc for levelling?”, it’s got to be Disc all the way, baby!
Whether you’re soloing or instancing Penance is amazingly powerful, and an Atonement spec is the icing on the cake: you’re in a great position to take on more mobs at a time while questing because you don’t have to trade off as much DPS time to heal yourself up, and in instances you’ll often find yourself not needing to directly heal the tank at all, just bubble and then Holy Fire and Smite to your heart’s content. Those tedious dungeons will just fly by!
Bonus points are available for topping the DPS charts, although you’ll probably have to wait for a boss for a chance to beat the tank.
Heroics and Entry-level Raiding
Here’s where things might be a bit more open, albeit only a little. Holy Fire/Smite/Atonement’s place in the max-level Discipline arsenal is two-fold:
- A cheap-ish, medium-throughput, spammable heal; and
- A means of preparing during lulls for a higher damage phase to come.
My answer to the “Atonement or not Atonement?” question in entry-level content is “Atonement, unless it’s really not working for you”. Let me explain why.
Consider the alternative, which tends to be some variation on this 31/8/2 spec. The main difference is that the 5 points in Evangelism, Archangel and Atonement have been moved into Strength of Soul, Train of Thought and 1 into Inner Sanctum to make up numbers. What that buys you is more frequent Power Word: Shields on your direct healing target (SoS reduces the duration of Weakened Soul when you use your single-target heals) and greater mana efficiency if you cast a lot of Greater Heal (Train of Thought will make Inner Focus come off cooldown sooner).
Notice that both of those talents only really make sense if you’re casting a lot of direct heals on a single target. If you find yourself doing that a lot, then knock yourself out and go grab an Atonement-free spec, but I’d wager you’re probably not.
While you might occasionally run into Lolarthass the Frost DK who didn’t get the memo telling him that no, Death Knights can’t tank in any spec any more, and especially not without some sort of tanking gear, and you might have to spam Greater Heals on him to keep him from being flattened by every trash mob he staggers drunkenly into, generally tanks will be able to hold their own and you won’t need to work too hard to keep people alive. In that scenario Atonement serves as a mana-efficient way to keep the group going through the moderate-to-low damage and the extra DPS you do will help speed things along nicely.
If your tank is complaining that you appear to be too busy DPSing and not healing, feel free to educate them on how things work for Discipline Priests these days and carry on doing what you’re doing. If you’re not wiping and no one’s dying (and the Moonkin isn’t spamming Rejuvs like there’s no tomorrow), then you’re probably doing it right.
And if your tank is insisting that Disc is a PvP spec (yes, it still happens) I suggest you /facepalm ostentatiously, /sigh deeply and drop group. It’s probably for the best.
In LFR the story is similar. Even if you want to be a dedicated tank healer, I strongly suspect you’ll not find enough tank damage to heal to justify the investment in that playstyle. LFR is dominated by raid damage at the best of times, and in a 25-man raid you’re likely to find yourself working with Earth Shields and Beacons of Light specifically placed on tanks as well as smart heals and Efflorescence that get aimed at the mêlée, so most of the healing tanks need is already being covered.
In my opinion, you’re better off practising weaving Greater Heals and Prayers of Healing in with Smites and Holy Fires and learning to read the encounters to find the best times to build Evangelism and to pop Archangel. That’ll prepare you better for the more difficult tiers of raiding.
But! Always bear in mind that Atonement remains a medium-throughput spell; you can’t just smite-spam and hope to top the meters, and it’s certainly not the solution to every healing problem, you need to get clever about things even in entry-level content. You will need to break out Greater Heals when your tank(s) are taking a beating, you will need to keep Prayer of Mending going when there’s regular damage (the whole of the Madness encounter, for example) and you will need to throw out Prayers of Healing when the group takes damage. Atonement is there to act as filler while you conserve mana and to build Evangelism stacks for when you need them later.
When it comes to heroic (or progression) raiding, there’s a very strong case for taking Atonement on every encounter. In fact, Derevka made that case back in December.
The short version is that a 15% boost to your healing for 18 seconds every 30 seconds is just too good to pass up when the content is stretching your healing team’s throughput, and the added DPS you can contribute is invaluable when you’re bumping up against enrage timers. And there’s essentially no penalty if you know the encounter well enough.
Damage profiles on most raid encounters are cyclic, meaning that there are clear peaks where you need extra output and convenient troughs where you can build up Evangelism in preparation. If you’re progressing through heroic raid content you should be adept at reading encounters and spotting these phases and planning your Archangel use accordingly. You should also sense when you’re OK to Smite and when you should switch to “real”, targeted heals instead.
Ultimately, what sets the great healers apart from the merely very good is their in-depth encounter knowledge which allows them to pick the right abilities to use at the right times. For Discipline Priests timing Archangel is a huge part of that.