Before we go too much further, we’ll examine the the choice of talents on the level 30 tier. These are, of course, Chi Wave, Zen Sphere, and Chi Burst. They were recently modified in the 6.1 patch in an attempt to make them more competitive with one another. This comparison will deal strictly with single target damage.
Chi Wave has a 15 second cooldown, bounces around, and does half your Spell Power on each bounce. It says in the tooltip that it bounces 7 times, which can be kind of misleading. Your initial target counts as one of those bounces, so if you cast it on an enemy, it’ll do damage 4 times and healing 3 times, and if you cast it on an ally, it’ll do damage 3 times and healing 4 times. For our purposes, we’ll assume you cast it on an enemy. With 4 bounces of half your spell power each, it counts as 2*SP damage on a 15 second cooldown.
Zen Sphere has a 10 second cooldown, a 16 second buff, and an explosion when the buff ends (or is ended prematurely by the target going below 35% health). During the duration of the buff, it ticks 8 times for 9.5% Spell Power each (single target), and the explosion is 125% Spell Power (10yard AOE). That comes up to, on a single target, a total of 2.01*SP damage on a 10 second cooldown.
Finally, Chi Burst has a 30 second cooldown and is a 40-yard straight-line hadoken that does 275% spell power healing (to allies) and damage (to enemies) to everything it hits. Notably, it has a 1 second cast time (reduced by haste). This one is pretty straightforward for single target: 2.75*SP on a 30 second cooldown.
Now, in a vacuum, clearly Zen Sphere has the most single-target damage potential: every 30 seconds, you can get 603% SP from Zen Sphere, 400% SP from Chi Wave, and 275% SP from Chi Burst. However, it comes with a few drawbacks. First, there’s the problem of early expiration. If the ally you buff with it drops below 35% health, it will immediately explode, meaning you don’t get the damage from the missed ticks. The worst-case output of Zen Sphere every 30 seconds (that is, exploding immediately) is 125*3=375% SP/30s, which puts it behind Chi Wave. Also, there is a range issue. Chi Burst has 40 yard range, Chi Wave’s bounces can go 25 yards, but Zen Sphere is limited to 10 yards. If the people you put the buff on go out of range for whatever reason, you’re out of luck.
You also might wonder about damage per cast time. Zen Sphere has the highest single-target damage potential every 30 seconds, but it requires 3 globals to do that damage, where Chi Wave only requires 2 and Chi Burst 1. Chi Burst actually has the strongest damage per cast time. Then you might look at the spell data spreadsheet and say to yourself (depending on gear) “Wow, Chi Wave and Zen Sphere do about the same damage as Blackout Kick and way less than Rising Sun Kick, seems like I should only use them when I’m out of RSK charges”, in which case Chi Burst would be the only choice. However, this doesn’t factor in the chi cost of RSK/BoK, whereas the talent spells are free.
To cast a Rising Sun Kick, you have to gain 2 chi. This largely will come from 2 jabs, although could come from a number of other sources: Crackling Jade Lightning, t45 talent, or set bonuses. We’ll put Crackling Jade Lightning aside for another time, when we look at Spirit, but we can largely handwave away the t45 talent (4 chi per minute for Power Strikes, 2 for Chi Burst) and Set Bonuses as being the required chi to keep your buffs (TP and BoK) up. So, to circle back, it takes 2 jabs and a RSK to actually get the RSK out. You can’t calculate everything in terms of %SP because Jab and RSK have weapon damage as part of their formula, so we’ll just use my values. A 2J1RSK cycle is 3 globals for 34913 damage (before crit, ms, vers) or 11637 damage per global, but Zen Sphere easily pulls ahead at 16419 damage per global.
This puts you at 41% (16419-11637)/11637 bonus damage per 10 seconds with Zen Sphere, or 123% bonus damage every 30 seconds. Chi Wave is 80% bonus damage per 30 seconds, and Chi Burst is 93% bonus damage per 30 seconds. Despite the fact that Chi Burst has the biggest advantage over the J-J-RSK cycle individually, the fact that you can only do it 1/3 as frequently as Zen Sphere’s smaller marginal improvement means Zen Sphere is the best single target talent selection if you can get full damage out of it.
To make Chi Burst better, you’d need to get less than 75.6% (93/123) efficiency from Zen Sphere. 62% (125/201) of Zen Sphere’s value is in the explosion. The remaining 38% is in the ticks, and with 8 ticks (Zen Sphere is not affected by haste, except the reduced global on cast), each tick is 4.75%. 3 ticks brings you up to 76.25% efficiency, so if you can guarantee all explosions hitting the target, and average at least 3 of 8 ticks hitting, Zen Sphere is better. If not, Chi Burst is the choice.