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Roughly two weeks ago Ghostcrawler over at Blizzard posted a new discussion article on the Dev Watercooler blog talking about the Class Talent changes that were made when World of Warcraft: Cataclysm was released. Specifically, the post discussed what he and the other developers felt went well and poorly with the talent tree changes. Topics included the change to a 31 point talent tree, granting abilities key to that spec when chosen at level 10, being locked into a tree until you have spent 31 points, and more.

Like most of you I read the article and thought, “Huh, maybe they do actually consider the changes they make!” I thought it sort of tongue in cheek as I know they do consider things pretty closely, however, since then the topics discussed there keep percolating around in my mind. I keep thinking about what was said and the issues that it raises for me. I kept thinking, ok this is how the devs feel, but what about the rest of us?

Looking at the talent trees as they are now, what do I think of them as a player? What is positive and negative compared to the old systems? What would I change or suggest for the next major revision?

Being the soft spoken, calm, behind the scenes personality that I am, I would never be vocal about what was wrong… LOL, who am I kidding. None of those adjectives describe me even remotely. Of course I would spew my opinion on all these changes and make them known, and what follows is just that, my take on the Cataclysm Talent system.

If you have not yet read the original article by Ghostcrawler outlining Blizzard's take on the Cataclysm Talent Trees we have reposted it at the end of the article here: Calaclysm Talent Tree Port-Mortem.

Messiah’s List of Positive Aspects of the Cataclysm Talent Tree’s

Let’s start with the good things, meaning what’s better now with a 31 point talent tree, rather than the old WotLK 51 point talent trees.

Overall, I like the new 31 point trees, simply because they feel right. Maybe it is just because that is what I got used to since it all started that way in WoW with 31 point talent trees, but again that number just feels right. When it went to 41 points it seemed a bit stretched, and then when it went to 51 per tree it was just way too much. It was just way too many points and talents to work with to get to the final talent that you wanted in that tree.

Even at 31 points in a tree it still feels like there are some talents that are just filling space, but few enough that it's not a huge issue. When it was up at 51 points per tree, it felt like each talent gave so little that it was almost "why bother".  The leaner, meaner 31 point trees offer more substantial talents that make you feel like you are getting ahead with each point, at least for the most part.

Overall there are far fewer crappy talents in the new 31 point talent trees, and each talent there generally offers more benefit per talent point than the old 51 points trees did.

Tanking Build

A typical Paladin Tanking build, but one that shows how few points there are to play around with in other talent trees and how few talents are not used in the primary tree.

The smaller trees are also far easier to manage for new players to the game, class, or spec, as it offers a more condensed version of the larger trees that is easier to see the flow and interaction through.

A great step forward was that as soon as you pick a talent spec you gain many key abilities for that spec. This means that you can immediately start getting used to that spec’s core abilities and start playing as that spec. In the old days (WotLK and earlier) you would have to wait many levels to earn a lot of those abilities, sometimes almost until end game. Giving them out right away makes they specs play better right from the start.

Messiah’s List of Negative Aspects of the Cataclysm Talent Trees

There are also some negative things about the smaller talent trees that bug me, and others I am sure.

My biggest complaint is that, now that the trees are smaller, you need to spend 31 points in a tree before you are able to move onto spending points in another talent tree I feel really locked into that single tree. Sure you can get a few points into another talent tree late in the game, but not many.

This means that a lot of control for hybridization was taken away. Granted, as Blizzard states, hybrid builds rarely worked well, and were sub par in general, however many people did play around with them and had fun with them while leveling, goofing around, or for specific fights or situations. Even if they suck, we should have some freedom.

Next up, the way the trees are designed, there are very few options. Each tree has many KEY talents that no one intelligent is going to miss, and then a group of situational abilities aimed at either PVP, PVE, CC, Buffs or whatever. This means that if you are playing mainly PVP you don’t really have that many choices, there is essentially one build.

This is because the trees are locked down pretty damn tight right now per spec. Most players playing a spec have the same build with the difference being 2-3 points allocated differently in their main tree and a few in the alternates. That implies that there really are not many “choices” to be made, but rather an organized progression through the tree. Players are not choosing the talents, they are being forced to take certain ones.

Given all of the above, do we really have any choice left? Most talent trees have roughly 38 points that could be assigned into them. Since you have to spend 31, that leaves a measly 7 points that you do not have to spend in the tree. Really, just 7 points not taken in a tree? Considering you max at 41 talent points the max you ever have available to spend elsewhere is 10.

Continued on page 2 with suggested improvements to the talent system

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Cataclysm Guides | Class Balance in 4.2 | Class Guides

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Messiah’s Suggestions for Future Talent Tree Modifications

Looking at the Blizzard review, my take is they are too easy on them selves. While overall the Cataclysm Talent system is better than the Wrath system, it still has some pretty big issues. Not the least of which is that there isn’t really any choice, but we’ll get into that in a second. Rather than just rant on how they don’t know what they are doing, I’m going to offer some suggestions on what I think could work out better.

To ease the locked in feel I think that Blizzard should take a look at other games - shock and horror – Rift for example gives a few more points but limits what you can spend in your main talent tree. This forces some hybridization and allows more customization. Rift does it by giving you 2 talent points every 3rd level but only allowing you to spend points equal to your level in your main tree. Obviously the exact numbers would have to change to meet WoW’s talent system, but the idea works well to promote cross tree builds.

Also, come on Blizzard, get back to allowing more free-form builds. Instead of not allowing you into other trees until 31 points in your main talent tree, allow it after something like 16 or 21 points. Then also make it so that points in any other tree can never equal more than what is in your main talent tree.

Next up make more talents available, and make more big talents in the trees that are powerful and important. Right now there just isn’t enough variety or choice. Better yet arrange them with requirements so that you can take one but not both great talents at any given level in the tree. This way there would be various builds per talent tree, not just one primary build with minor variations. My suggestion would be about 51 possible point allocations in a tree instead of the current roughly 38-40 per tree. This will allow a lot more choice and diversity all in the same spec. Right now there really isn’t any choice, there is an illusion of choice as you level in that you get a new talent point to place into the tree, but really, there are very few choices of where to put that point. In fact if you raid, you are really down to about 3 optional points per build, the other points must be in the optimal places or you just won’t cut it in a raid.

PvP is a huge part of the game, separate it from PVE and make it even better.

Another big one, is please just make a PvP tree already, and while your at it make spells, abilities, and buffs different in PvP and PVE when they need to be. It really sucks that after this long PvE players still have to suffer buffs and nerfs to abilities or talents simply because something is too good or too poor in PvP, and the reverse holds true as well for PVP players. Just deal with the fact that PvE and PvP are completely different animals, and make the spells abilities and talents function differently in each case. PvP balance matters a lot since there are 2v2 arenas, so each class needs to be close or you have ideal mixes (which we do).

This relates strongly to Blizzard’s comments that state that classes are closely balanced, which I actually agree with, but that I am sure I will catch flak for it as many feel they are not. I believe however that for PVE that statement is bang on, but that they are almost too balanced. Many of the classes are so close that it makes it slightly boring between them.

In PVE I want some classes and specs to rock it out in one situation and suck in another. It helps make all the classes more interesting. Having each and every class equally good or equally bad just makes them all the same. I would rather in PvE that balance was a fluid thing. After all you have 25 spots to fill, variety and options should be king. You don't need to worry so much about DPS class 1 = DPS class 2 to the 5th decimal place, players would soon learn that in situation A DPS class 1 rocks and in situation B DPS 2 class rocks and take both.

On the other hand, in PVP due to the small arenas like 2v2 class balance is critical, and so far in there, not very well done. Each season there is a new 2v2 or 3v3 team comp that just kills everything else. There are others that are fairly competitive, or competitive in a certain bracket, and then there are classes that are completely useless. Worse yet, it seems to change from patch to patch and season to season, making it impossible (or at least extremely difficult) to pick one character to PvP and stick to it if you want to be at the top of the ladder. Separating the PVE and PVP meta-games would allow Blizzard to have both interesting abilities and talents and varied non-homogenized classes, while still providing a highly balanced and equalized PVP environment. Allowing both types of players to have the best for their style of play.

There you go, I’ve had my rant on the class talent structure as it stands. In addition to looking at the good and bad, I’ve tried to list some constructive feedback, which is rare for me I admit. 

Continue on to page 3 to read the original post by Ghostcrawler: Calaclysm Talent Tree Port-Mortem.

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Cataclysm Guides | Class Balance in 4.2 | Class Guides

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You may have noticed we changed class talent trees for Cataclysm. We changed not just the trees themselves, as you might expect for an expansion, but the entire structure of the trees and the way you choose talents. Now that the Cataclysm model has been in play for several months, the team has been discussing what we like and don’t like about it, and I thought that might be of interest to some of you. As always with this series, this is design rumination, not a list of upcoming changes.

What Worked Well

  • The talent trees are simpler now, but without losing a lot of depth. Most of what we cut were passive talents that everyone took anyway, or really lame talents that did nothing.
  • Choosing your specialization at level 10 and not having to delay playing your character the way you want feels great. You can play your shaman as Elemental or Enhancement with the tools and bonuses to make either work.
  • Specs within a class feel different. This was a big challenge for the DPS warriors, warlocks, hunters, and rogues in particular. Nowadays those specs have different rotations, different strengths and utility, and a different flavor overall.
  • Mastery integrates into the trees well. We can delay the complexity until higher level, and we’re at the point now where it’s a competitive stat for many specs (though to be fair, not all yet).
  • There are some legitimate hard choices for many of the specs. Usually these come in two varieties: which talent you want before you can advance to the next tier of the tree, or where you want to spend those remaining talents after you’ve hit the bottom of the tree.
  • At the risk of catching flak for this statement, I feel that the game is as balanced as it’s ever been. When you look back at the vanilla or Burning Crusade days there were many specs that were just jokes and the difference between the highest performing and worst performing specs was on the order of 30-50% or more. Nowadays, players worry about 5-10% differences. Those are differences we still want to fix, absolutely, but we’ve come a long way. The talent trees have helped us do that.

What Didn’t Work

  • I’ll admit there are still a few clunker talents -- those that are undertuned or just not interesting enough. There aren’t many though, and they’re relatively easy to replace.
  • On the other hand, the talent trees still have traps for the unwary. For example, a Fury build that skips over Raging Blow is making a serious mistake. That may seem obvious to current players but it’s the kind of thing someone returning to the game after a hiatus might not understand immediately. (After all, you didn’t robotically take Ghostly Strike just because it was a gold medal ability.) While there is something to be said for safe choices, it would also be nice if the talents we expected players to have were talents they always had.
  • Some players miss true hybrid builds. (Hybrid in this context means spending near evenly in two trees -- I’m not talking about the more common use of “hybrid” as a tank or healing class.) To be fair, these builds were either not very competitive or were just cherry picking a few powerful talents in order to create something that was likely overpowered, especially in PvP. In other words, the reality of the hybrid build never lived up to the myth. But it’s fair to say that it’s impossible now to have a hybrid build, and we understand some players want them back.
  • I said above that there are tough choices within the trees of many specs, but there aren’t very many of them within each spec. Often it can come down to where to spend those last 1-3 talent points. While that was our goal, it would be even more exciting if there were more of those hard decisions. Hard decisions can be painful when you’re faced with excluding an ability or mechanic that’s fun to have. But overall we think hard, exclusive decisions are a good thing. They encourage experimentation and discussion and give players a chance to try out different things, all of which can help keep them engaged.
  • Even worse, one potential place to spend those points is in the first two tiers of the other trees of your class, yet those talents are extremely design-constrained. First, they have to be attractive to the main spec using that tree, so chances are you’re not going to find much interest in the healing tree if you’re a damage dealer (unless you want to improve your limited healing). Second, those top-tier talents can’t affect higher level abilities since the talents are available at level 10. Finally, because those talents are available early, they should really be relatively simple to understand for new or returning players. You don’t want to put complex procs with lots of exceptions and internal cooldowns that high in the tree. All of those reasons mean that it’s rare that there’s a true game-changing talent available in those first two tiers. This would be totally broken, but imagine you could spend those last 10 points anywhere in another tree. Much more exciting, huh?
  • This is a personal pet peeve, but I don’t like the talents that have a 33/66/100% chance to do what you want them to do. That’s just an awkward way of making a valuable talent cost more than one point. The new Cataclysm talent tree design didn’t cause this problem, but it didn’t fix it either.

The Future

This is the part where I’d really love to share our ideas for how we could address these problems, but some discussions are still a little too rough even for the dev watercooler. When we’re a little farther along, we’ll be able to share more. In the meantime, this is a great topic for further discussion. Players like to evaluate the talents in their particular class, but it’s also useful to evaluate the talent tree system as a whole. It’s an iconic design for World of Warcraft for sure, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.

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Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016

About The Author

Byron 1
Byron has been playing and writing about World of Warcraft for the past ten years. He also plays pretty much ever other Blizzard game, currently focusing on Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone, while still finding time to jump into Diablo III with his son.