It's strange to think that players who first start playing in Mists might have no idea what the old talent trees looked like. To them, the new talent system is simply the status quo and the image above conjures no memories. The status quo has never lasted very long for talents in WoW. Through the years, talents have changed possibly more than any other aspect of the game. It's a good thing, too, because the earliest talent trees needed a lot of work. Let's take a look back!
The first beta talents
It's not easy to find solid information about the first iteration of talent trees from early beta. From what I can gather, WoW's original talents were more like spell ranks (which have also since been removed). You could invest talent points into particular spells to give them more damage/healing, longer range, etc. These talents were also tied to stats. By investing talent points, you gained stats relevant to your class.
These talents were generally considered workable but lackluster. They were removed from the beta in patch 0.6. Blizzard promised to "make them even cooler than before," and players speculated heavily about what the new trees might look like.
WoW borrows from the Lord of Terror
Talents made their triumphant return to the beta in patch 0.8. At that point, only warrior and mage talent trees were available, but they provided insight into the system. The new trees were inspired by the skill trees from Diablo II. For long-time WoW players, they were a protoype for the talent windows that we all knew and loved from the first seven-plus years of the game.
Like Diablo II till its own patch 1.13, Blizzard's original plan was to make these talent choices permanent. Imagine if you had to level an entirely new character if you wanted to try tanking instead of healing with your paladin. Thankfully, the developers second-guessed that idea, and the respec was born.
The new Diablo-esque system offered more options. Each talent gave a buff to stats or to certain abilities, or unlocked a brand new signature ability that represented the spec, such as Shadowform for shadow priests. The downside was that if you wanted to be an awesome shadowy Shadowform shadow priest, you had to grind 40 levels (two thirds of the way to max level) before you could do that.
Some talents could only be unlocked by taking others. Some of these mandatory talent links made sense in that context, such as a combat rogue's Deflection (parry bonus) required for Riposte (activated by parrying).
Others ... didn't. For example, why was a retribution paladin's Deflection (parry chance) required for Precision (melee hit bonus)? Demonology's Demonic Sacrifice (sac a demon for a bonus) was required for Soul Link (split damage with your demon). A protection warrior's Improved Bloodrage (more rage) was required for Last Stand (a survival cooldown). Does being better at getting angry also make you more resilient in a desperate situation? Only a trained psychologist could figure out the early warrior trees.
As a side note, the stat boosts tied to the original talent system were instead given automatically with each level. Stats still work that way today.
Subsequent patches introduced trees for priests and rogues (0.9) and druids and shamans (0.10). Patch 0.11, interestingly enough, only gave us two of the three warlock trees. Demonology had to wait backstage, nervous and alone, until 0.12.
All weapons are hunter weapons
Did you notice anything about the beta patches above? The paladin and hunter trees aren't there. The talents for those classes went live along with the game itself in patch 1.1.
Perhaps due to the lack of testing, the strangest talents ever were part of the survival tree for hunters. Survival talents, including "Melee Specialization," provided buffs to melee damage/abilities. The other focus was traps, which couldn't be launched like they can today and couldn't even be placed while in combat. Not a single point in survival boosted ranged DPS. The 31-pointer was a weak melee bleed ability called Lacerate -- generally considered the worst talent in the history of WoW.
Someone at Blizzard had planned a melee spec for hunters, focused on close combat and traps. In retrospect, this is kind of a cool idea -- what if mages, locks, and hunters all had a melee tree? What if rogues had a ranged tree?
The melee hunter never really came together. That didn't stop confused hunters from rolling on melee weapons early in the game, creating one of the first WoW memes: "All weapons are hunter weapons."
The paladin trees were no prize either. The 31-point talent for Holy was a damage ability (Holy Shock -- without its present healing option) and the 21-point was an aura that increased holy spell damage. Yes, I'm still talking about the holy tree. Protection got situational crowd control in the form of Repentance. Somehow, Blessing of Kings had the honor to be the 31-pointer for ret.
While we're on the topic of bad 31's, Primal Instincts also deserves a shoutout here. The defining talent of the feral tree, Primal Instincts reduced shapeshifting costs by 25%. Yuck.
"Class patches" enrage players
Despite the fact that so many trees arrived late in beta (or not at all), Blizzard waited until halfway through vanilla to make major adjustments to them. Those adjustments not only came late but at a snail's pace compared to today. Believe it or not, this was an intentional policy.
Rather than making changes to all of the talent trees in each patch, vanilla devs decided to do a major overhaul to the talents for one class per patch. The patches became known according to which class was going to be fixed. The first of these, patch 1.7, was the "hunter patch," likely in no small part because of the survival tree. Lacerate was murdered with fire, wrapped with silver chains, buried in concrete, and replaced by Wyvern Sting. The hunter patch was followed by the druid patch (1.8), the paladin patch (1.9), the priest patch (1.11), and finally the rogue patch (1.12).
As a result of this plan, some classes went a long time without badly needed talent overhauls. The rogue patch, for instance, came 22 months after release. The delay led to a lot of frustration and eventually a lot of drama. The proponents of each class fought over whose talent trees needed the fastest fixes. When Blizzard disagreed, the forums erupted.
The drama reached its peak with the infamous and regrettable "bus shock" incident, but that's a matter for another column. In the end, shamans, warriors, and mages never received a vanilla talent overhaul or "class patch." They would have to wait until The Burning Crusade for major talent changes.
I have to say, even the roughest of today's talents are a masterpiece compared to what we got in vanilla. Blizzard has learned a lot since those days!
The WoW Archivist examines the WoW of old. Follow along while we discuss the lost legendary, the opening of Ahn'Qiraj, and hidden locations such as the crypts of Karazhan.