Paladins have changed a lot over the course of the game. Originally, we were intended to just be healers with some additional specs for leveling. Then we were suddenly able to tank and everything was about reflective damage with a dozen or more things hitting you at once with a DPS spec that was usually relegated to the PvP scene instead of in raids. Finally, we've reached a point where all three specs are pretty viable in both PvE and PvP content. That isn't to say that they're the most phenomenal things to ever appear for those particular parts of the game but that we can still be competitive no matter which spec we choose.
The problem with our class is a lack of tools. While our melee components were slowly built out of what was intended to be a healing support class, we've still got a lot of vestiges of the old days tacked to us. Sure, we had a fairly large overhaul in how a lot of our mechanics worked at the start of Wrath of the Lich King, but that isn't to say we're perfect yet. In fact, we need a few more tools in order to make it in Cataclysm.
At end game, we're a class with area of effect (AoE) damage coming out the ears (except for holy ... sorry, holy). As retribution, we've got Divine Storm, which is an AoE attack that heals us, Seal of Command so every single target attack turns into an AoE attack, and Consecration. As protection, we've got Avenger's Shield to pull a group, Hammer of the Righteous to hit a group of mobs so that they start knocking against our Holy Shield and Retribution Aura while we drop a Consecration. If we're lucky and they're undead or demons, then we get to add Holy Wrath into the mix.
The problem is that we really don't have much choice in the matter. We don't have a lot of abilities to choose from for our rotations and are pretty much stuck with what we've got. Because AoE won't be as needed in the expansion, with more emphasis on focusing on a single target at a time as well as using crowd control which we won't want to break, we really need something to fill in the gaps. Blizzard has decided that they want more choice in our rotations and as such are making a couple of talented abilities baseline.
First off, if you remember those painful early levels of being a paladin, we have virtually no abilities available to us. We're a melee class with very few untalented melee tactics. As part of the AoE fix, they're going to be moving the talented ability Crusader Strike into a level 1 starting attack for us. This means we actually have an attack to use at level 1 instead of playing as an auto-attack-adin that all specs can use.
For retribution, this doesn't mean much, but since they're removing a talent from the tree, they will likely have to fill it with something else. This could possibly be a more powerful version of Crusader Strike or simply another ability to add into our rotation. They will be doing something similar to this with enhancement shamans by making one of their primary attacks baseline and giving them a more powerful version that shares the same cooldown via talents.
As a protection paladin, this gives you an alternative to Hammer of the Righteous while doing single-target damage or swapping it out for a Consecrate. However, at lower levels, this will definitely help out, as we have very few melee attacks while trying to tank dungeons or even just quest.
Secondly, we're also getting Holy Shock as a baseline skill. It hasn't been announced at what level this skill will be gained, but the developers have stated that this will be a key paladin healing spell in addition to its damage. As a retribution pally, this suddenly puts a six-second cooldown ability into our rotation that we were previously missing. There has been some speculation though that this means we'll be losing the Exorcism part of The Art of War talent, as we'll have another direct damage ranged attack this way. I disagree. If you end up boosting Exorcism a bit, it would allow Holy Shock to be a key part of our rotation with Exorcism being an occasional instant nuke we could dish out, but that's all hand-waving and theory at this point.
The Holy Shock addition actually meshes a little bit better with ye ole 96969 rotation (nine-second cooldown followed by a six-second cooldown followed by a nine-second cooldown, etc.) that tanking paladins use. The problem is that we don't know how any of our abilities or talents will be adjusted. The old 96969 rotation could be completely thrown out the window if the threat and talent/libram/set procs deem it necessary. The upside is that this will give us access to an instant-cast heal (although a small one) for when we're tanking. Depending on how things go, this might even be considered an effective health boost to the spec, but again, we're doing the hand-waving and hypothesizing.
Overall, paladins will again look a bit different at the start of an expansion. The good news is that we're getting a few more buttons to press to help round out our kits, but it extends beyond that. With more buttons come more choices related to how we play. Right now, as much as I hate to say it, anyone could play our class when it comes to damage and still do okay. They wouldn't be brilliant, but they would do pretty decent. With more complex rotations and more abilities to choose from comes a greater divide between those who know what they're doing and those who are just facerolling. It should add some credence to those who can perform well and expose those who don't really know much about the class. Essentially, it should help us become less of a running joke and let those who excel to actually earn the respect they deserve.
The Light and How to Swing It tries to help paladins cope with the dark times coming in Cataclysm. See the upcoming paladin changes the expansion will bring. Wrath is coming to a close and the final showdown with the Lich King is here. With Cataclysm soon heating things up, will you be ready?