You've seen them basking in that heavenly golden light while effortlessly dishing out heals left and right. You've seen those magnificent white wings stretch out over your fallen allies, just when it seemed all hope was lost, and in the longest 15 seconds of your life, carry your comrades to victory. They are priests, arguably the healer of the World of Warcraft.
Today I am writing for the players out there who don't have a priest of their own, but have long watched from afar with longing. Does the priest class intrigue you? Perhaps you have been thinking of venturing into the light but have yet to do so? Well, today I will be laying out what you need to know before you get started.
I dare say that it is common knowledge that a priest has two talent trees dedicated to healing: discipline and holy. There is also the shadow spec for when you want to go on holiday, but that sort of thing I'll leave you to explore with Fox.
Discipline and holy have different strengths and weaknesses, but both are very capable, and versatile healers. Both specs heal in a "bursty" fashion, meaning there are extended moments when no healing occurs, then moments when large bursts of healing are dispensed. Because there are often several seconds of time between your largest heals, playing a priest is very much about proper timing. You need to learn how to anticipate incoming damage and be ready to respond with a healing spell, or already be casting one. You cannot just play a priest reactively and expect to be the best of your class.
Both priests have a great quantity of healing spells, all with varying degrees of strength and effectiveness. Weak spells usually have no cooldown, while powerful spells do. You will constantly be making decisions on which heal to use, and which heal to save for another second in battle. You will not have one button that is the answer to all your problems as a healer.
A master priest is a master of triage -- that is, the act of deciding who, when, and how to heal your targets. If you do not want to think one, two, or six steps ahead of where you currently are in an encounter, then a priest might not be the class for you.
All classes are subject to nerfs and buffs; priests are no exception. I am not going to carve in stone my thoughts on whether or not I think priests are underpowered, overpowered, or just right, as conditions are constantly changing to affect that. What I can tell you from my experience, though, is that a priest's power is dependent on the player behind it. Whether we want to admit it or not, there are some classes in WoW (tanks, DPS, and healers) that do not require as much decision-making to reap rewards. A priest is not one of those classes, and you can usually expect your efforts to be rewarded or your lack of effort penalized. If you do not try hard, the class will seem underpowered. If, on the other hand, you do try hard, there will be players complaining about your class on every major community forum. This holds true in PvE and PvP.
In PvE, a priest is well equipped to handle every 5-man dungeon, and is arguably better than any other healer due to our versatile toolbox of spells.
In raids, we can effectively perform any raid role (provided your raid team puts in the proper organization) or support the roles of one or more healers in an encounter. A priest can easily switch between tasks without respeccing their talent tree, and can do this several times in an encounter. In that sense, you should never be bored as you'll be able to perform many different roles.
In addition to your aid as a healer, you will also provide a few "must haves" to a raid team. Pain Suppression and Guardian Spirit in particular are both huge tactical abilities for player survival in the current game model, and like our heals, they require proper execution to be effective. I would expect to see this continue into Cataclysm. Passive buffs we bring are more likely to be homogenized and given to other classes, so I wouldn't count on them as guaranteeing your raid spot. (My suspicion for saying this, by the way, is that the Improved Power Word: Fortitude talent disappeared.)
In PvP, you will be the bane and fodder of various classes. In a battleground, one good priest can sometimes tank three opponents while dealing damage to a fourth. A priest can also instantly dissolve against an onslaught of attacks from a single player. A priest in battlegrounds and world PvP will need to know how to pick and choose his battles, and know when and how to assist allies with heals or damage.
In arena, the priest is the cornerstone of one of the most timeless and powerful 3v3 team compositions, PMR (priest x mage x rogue) and if you want to experience the beauty of this class, you should set out to experience this arena composition at least once. Priests are also formidable in countless 2v2 compositions, as both offensive and defensive players. In 5v5, you will play more defensively unless your team can provide you ample protection.
What the future holds (class development)
Picking a class in WoW isn't like picking a driver in Mario Kart racing; you're not going to be with this class for a couple hours, you could be with it for a couple of years. That said, it's important to know how much time and attention you can expect from the game's development.
A friend once told me that the priest class was the first WoW class to be designed, and that all the other classes in the game were balanced around it. (My friend claimed that this tidbit of information came from "a reliable source.") While I am not sure if this is true or not, I have to admit that I've rarely observed my class as being overpowered in the same sense that I have observed it in other classes. Perhaps it is a bias, perhaps it is not, but I do believe Blizzard is very careful in how it chooses to execute changes to the priest class. Certain abilities or bonuses often have "a catch" to get the most out of them, and that catch is what holds priests back from becoming overpowered. So, if you are a player who enjoys playing the "flavor of the week" class, priest will rarely be it.
Other things you can expect from Blizzard is an occasional attractive, and iconic tier set (as well as an occasionally atrocious one.) You can also expect an attempt at very unique, original, and innovative spells, since for the most part we have all the basic heals already covered. Blizzard has to work the hardest to design new things for us, and that can be quite exciting if healing is your thing.
What to expect from other players
Imagine that you're a level 80 priest; you just made the last payment on your mechano-hog and you're cruising across the breathtaking landscapes of Crystalsong Forest. You're looking super fine in your freshly pressed tier robes, and you're not even displaying your cloak (you're not a show off, after all). Is that Jamiroquai playing on the mechano-hog's radio? Yes, yes it is, because you're a priest and that is your soundtrack, you cool cat. Suddenly, the chat box of your fabulous UI chirps at you. Probably one of your adoring fans. You glance down to your tell window and see a whisper from someone named Andronixi; you've never heard of him. Your conversation goes something like this:
Well, that was oddly cryptic, wasn't it? You wait with a raised brow; the radio continues to pump out some fine beats. What is this Andronixi guy getting at? Is he from some rival guild? Wait, who is Andronixi anyway? Before you can finish typing out a /who his next tell comes and answers all your questions:[Andronixi] whispers: Hi!
To [Andronixi]: Hi.
[Andronixi] whispers: Are you busy?
To [Andronixi]: No, not really.
[Andronixi] whispers: Oh good. Ha ha.
To [Andronixi]: Um, do I know you?
[Andronixi] whispers: Ha ha.
[Andronixi] whispers: No. Not yet.
The radio cuts to static and your bike stalls; somewhere, a rare blue-winged butterfly is devoured.[Andronixi] whispers: Can you come heal Uldaman for me?
Now I've played a lot of characters. I've played two other hybrid classes, and a few pure DPS classes. During all of these adventures I can count on one hand how many times I've been asked to come assist in a lower level dungeon by a complete stranger. Playing my various priests on the other hand, I can't count how many times I've been approached because the number is simply too high.
Disregarding that Andronixi seems to think he needs you to heal a level 40 instance (as opposed to carrying him, his in-game girlfriend, and a couple PUGs to victory with nothing but Don Carlos' Famous Hat and Holy Nova exploding from your statuesque body) we are able to observe one of the great fallacies of the WoW community: all priests are healers. Now, in the defense of Andronixi, and all players like him, there is a good chance that a priest will be a healer. Unlike other hybrids, we have two healing specs. However, between Uldaman and Crystalsong Forest there are a lot of players that are capable of helping Andronixi and his ragtag crew, but for some reason lower level players always like to go to level cap characters to ask for help. Maybe they think we've got nothing better to do? Whatever it is, as a priest you'll never escape it. It haunts you even before you're at level cap. Say you were a level 40 priest in the above scenario, Andronixi might have already messaged you, or will be messaging you very soon. It will look like this:
5 minutes pass.[Andronixi] whispers: Hi! Do you want to heal Uldaman?
To [Andronixi]: No thanks.
[Andronixi] whispers: Aw, please! We just need a healer!
To [Andronixi]: I'm busy. Sorry.
Just so you know, I'm not really joking (and I've decided to spare you the "will you come heal 10-man Ulduar?" horror stories!) Most of the time these exchanges aren't very drawn out, but as a priest you will find them again and again, and they won't always be civil. Maybe that will bother you, maybe it won't, but it's something to keep in mind when you roll a priest. Healers are a necessity in the game, and as a priest you will be branded with that title. The plus side is that for all pre-raid content you'll have a lot of group requests. Once you get into raiding content, gearscore seems to exert its dominance.[Andronixi] whispers: Hi! Do you want to heal Uldaman?
To [Andronixi]: You asked me already ... 5 minutes ago.
[Andronixi] whispers: Oh. Ha ha. Do you want to come now?
The class community
Though priests are far from the most popular class, we boast an impressive and active online community. Perhaps this is because we are more helpful players by nature (we do play healers), or maybe it's just because we're all loudmouths. Whatever it is, there are many online sites and resources to check out, and if you like having a lot of online resources to help you up your game, priests definitely have that going for them.
Obviously, you can visit the official class forums, where you'll find the help outweighs the trolling (even if the QQ is a little more rampant.) Other forum communities, like PlusHeal.com and ElitistJerks.com, have well maintained priest subsections. Even ShadowPriest.com can be a nice resource for finding brilliant priests to talk numbers with, as many of the shadow priests there also heal.
The priest community also sports an impressive collection of bloggers: over 50 by my current reader count. Many of those blogs can be found on WoW.com's resource page, and a few more at Miss Medicina's Full Healy-Blog List. (And of course, there is me.)
So, my brilliant and intuitive readers, do you have any idea what could be coming next? A leveling guide, of course! You've asked for it, I've dreaded it, and finally it will be seeing the light of day. This week's column will hopefully have given you a good idea of the class before you hit the character creation screen; next week we'll be hitting that screen face first, as well as diving into the actual leveling. Check back next week to work on your smite-spam tan.
Want to find more great tips for carrying out your priestly duties? Spiritual Guidance has you covered with all there is to know. Check out Holy 101 or Disc 101 for an introduction to healing as a priest, or for the party-minded healer, check out a priest's guide to tanks.