Cataclysm has gotten me really excited. And for good reason. Take a quick look at the YouTube video of the beta that's been making the rounds (above). You can see Shadow Orbs in action. And better yet, you can see the Shadowy Apparition mechanism. Come on, even though the art hasn't been implemented, and even though the damage and mechanism is severely bugged, it's still neat as hell. With some vision, you can see how it'll work in the final retail release.
I wasn't always this excited for the Cataclysm-ic changes to shadow priests. When I got my first look at the leaked Cataclysm talents, I was disappointed. Thankfully, the latest build of the beta integrates a new 41-point talent system that's wiped almost all my concerns off the table. I can either choose to believe that everyone else was right and that I was too pessimistic, or I can believe that my criticism of the new talents and talent trees made an impact. Being an unrepentant egotist of the highest order, I choose the latter. But narcissistic personality disorders aside, the change to the talent system represents a huge change for the game as a whole. Was it a hit, or did Blizzard miss (again)?
Standard spoiler alerts apply, so if you're worried about ruining your Cataclysm experience, you'll be better off skipping this week's column in lieu for something of similar entertainment value.
Shadow priesting now begins at level 10
We get a few neat new abilities on the journey from level 80 to 85, but the biggest change to the shadow priest experience in Cataclysm is going to be felt in leveling. The way things are now, you level as a hybrid priest, taking a few holy talents here, a few disc talents there, while still spending the bulk of your points in shadow. After a few key milestones (say, levels 40 and 80), you pay to have your talent tree reset and re-evaluate your choices.
In Wrath of the Lich King, shadow priesting begins at level 40. In Cataclysm, shadow priesting will start at 10.
Once you hit level 10, Cataclysm forces you to make a choice between the three priest trees. It's a pretty high-stakes choice. Once you choose, you're going to be locked out of the other two trees until you're spent your first 31 talent points. No more waffling -- either embrace the light, or embrace the shadow. There can be only one.
It's a tough choice, especially for someone playing a first character. Thankfully, the game rewards you appropriately. Choose the "sinister" shadow specialization at level 10, and you're gifted with the ability to use Mind Flay -- no talent point required. With Mind Blast, Shadow Word: Pain and now Mind Flay at your disposal, a level 10 shadow priest will actually start feeling like a shadow priest.
The big picture
We'll get a little bit more specific about our new shadow priest talent tree shortly, but before we do, let's start out with a few general thoughts. There's a lot about our new tree that I like. There's some stuff about it I don't. Let's take a quick look at some pros and cons.
Pro: Blizzard has weeded out a lot of the "filler" talents. Talents like Shadow Reach, Shadow Focus, and Focused Mind are gone. These were necessary talents, but the never really felt "fun" to take any of them. Each point you spend feels more important now.
Con: Some "filler" talents, like Darkness, are still there. That's exactly the type of talent that the game developers said they wanted to get rid of.
Pro: Five-point talents have been eliminated. Darkness, Twisted Faith and Improved Mind Blast are now three-point talents. Shadow Power maxes out at two. They seem to max out at their old 2/5 and 3/5 levels, but not to worry -- shadow priests have yet to undergo their balancing process.
Con:Shadow Weaving is gone. Sure, it's a filler-esque ability, but isn't it still more interesting than Darkness? In my opinion, they dumped the wrong talent.
Pro: The discipline tree has also redone such that there are non-shadow talents worth taking in the first two tiers.
Con: I'm going to miss getting a talent point per level. It was a nice bonus to look forward to on dinging a level.
Pro: Useful stuff is available sooner. Case in point: Shadowform. In Wrath of the Lich King, it was located on the seventh tier, meaning you had to wait until level 40 to grab it. In Cataclysm, it's a third-tier ability, which means you can get it at level 30.
Con: Gnomes are able to benefit from the new talent tree just the same as the rest of us.
Spirit Tap and the first-tier shadow talents
Spirit Tap is seeing a major change in Cataclysm, and it's definitely for the better. As it currently stands, the talent gives you a boost to your spirit upon killing an enemy that yields experience or honor. In Cataclysm, killing an enemy will instantly reward you with 5/10/15% of your max mana. And, if that wasn't enough, you'll get a 10/20/30% buff to your mana regen rate for the next 15 seconds after. That's a huge boost to levelers in PvE, who will no longer need to drink after every pull. Players who prefer PvP will no doubt see dividends from it as well.
In other news, Improved Spirit Tap is gone (yawn), and Improved Shadow Word: Pain is now a first-tier ability. That's pretty yawn-worthy too, since it's a tiny buff to an ability that few newbie priests should be using while solo. Darkness is still around, but as I said earlier, you don't have to put five points in it anymore.
The second shadow tier (level 20) Improved Psychic Scream, Improved Mind Blast and Veiled Shadows are all part of this tier, which really isn't much of a change from the way things are now. True, you can take the Veiled Shadows talent sooner in Cataclysm than you can now, but I'm not quite sure why you'd want to.
Shadowform and the third shadow tier (level 30)
The third talent tier represents a major "win" for leveling shadow priests, and it's filled with major changes. Shadowform has been moved up, meaning it's now available at level 30. Improved Shadowform loses its spell push back protection (that appears to be a passive part of shadow specialization now), but it does provide a 5% party-wide boost to crit. Improved Devouring Plague has been moved up to be available at an earlier level too. This is nice -- it gives the spell a much needed extra bite for the solo grind.
Mind Melt and the fourth shadow tier (level 40)
The fourth tier is the new home of Mind Melt, which has essentially become an entirely new talent. In Wrath, it was a boost to the crit chance of certain spells. Now, it's a stacking buff to boost our burst damage. That change, I like.
What I don't like is that Vampiric Embrace is now a level 40 talent now instead of a level 30 one. I also don't like that Improved Vampiric Embrace is gone entirely. That's a major nerf to one of our defining abilities.
Other than that, the fourth tier is the new home of Shadow Power. Silence is located in this tier too, which actually means that you have to wait longer to get it. And you still need to invest in Improved Psychic Scream as a prerequisite. If every talent point is now twice as valuable, Silence is now twice as hard to justify taking. Lame.
Shadowy Apparition, VT and the rest of tier five (level 50)
The big news with Vampiric Touch is that there's no news with Vampiric Touch. It remains a level 50 talent. It also still returns 1% of max mana per five seconds via Replenishment -- something we were told would be nerfed.
The other two tier 5 talents are new to Cataclysm, but we've discussed them in Spiritual Guidance before. Shadowy Apparition is a really fun-feeling ability that allows us to deal bonus damage on fights that involve movement. The only new information we have is the proc rate: a 2/4/6% chance per tick of SW:P if you're motionless, 20/40/60% if you're on the move.
Also in tier 5 is Empowered Shadow Orbs, a buff to the new (albeit somewhat passive) Shadow Orb mechanic.
The sixth and seventh shadow tiers
There's nothing really that new to report about tier 6 -- just minor shuffling. Psychic Horror and Pain and Suffering are now level 60 talents, up from 50. Twisted Faith got an overhaul -- it now converts spirit to hit (instead of spellpower).
Dispersion still holds as the final talent in the shadow tree. It remains unchanged.
Dipping your toes into discipline
I had one major concern with the last talent tree build out of the Cataclysm beta: The last few talent points we had to invest didn't feel useful. Granted, that iteration of the talent tree was a mess, and it likely wasn't drawn up with shadow priests in mind. This latest version gives us some options.
With the way the new specialization system is designed, we can only go two tiers deep (at most) into discipline, and again, only after investing 31 points in shadow. My observations on those last nine talent points:
There's nothing worth taking for DPS-minded shadow priests in the holy tree. (No surprise there.)
Inner Focus is no longer usable by shadow priests. It's a third-tier disc talent.
If you're currently sitting at level 80, a lot of this isn't going to mean much to you. It's easy to tell which talents are going to be DPS boosts and which ones aren't. And we're still not looking at much variation in the way end-game shadow priests spend their talent points: 99.9% of us will wind up with Shadowy Apparition and Vampiric Embrace, and I'll bet that 90% of shadow PvE raiders will wind up with identical builds, right down to the last talent.
That being said, this talent tree really isn't for the shadow priest expert. These new talent trees -- shadow included -- are about making the game more accessible to even the casual players. The ridiculously long tooltip for Shadowform is gone. You don't need to do heavy research to figure out what talents you want. That's good news for some, bad news for others.
Hunger for more information about bending the light to your advantage? More interested in watching health bars go down than watching them bounce back up? Think it's neat to dissolve into a ball of pure shadow every few minutes? Hate gnomes? The darker, shadowy side of Spiritual Guidance has you covered.