Have you ever picked up a real-life sword, axe, or powder rifle and said to yourself, "Yeah, I know exactly how to kill people with this?" Me too -- all the time. I mean, there's only one thing you need to know, right? But in actual reality and not the reality in our heads, we don't have the first clue. Most of our ideas probably come from movies or TV, where the fights are choreographed to be exciting rather than true to historic fighting methods.
Why do I bring this up? In vanilla WoW, and for quite a long time afterward, your character couldn't just pick up a new weapon and instantly know how to murder dragons with it. Your character had to learn. Slowly, painfully learn.
Let's look back at weapon skills.
Skills to kill the villains
In vanilla, every weapon type had an associated skill. Just like professions, the skill had a cap of 300. Every time you used the weapon, you had a chance to increase the skill. That chance went down (way, way down), the closer you got to 300. In that way, it was sort of like fishing.
Starting characters didn't even know how to equip all the weapons available to them. You had to visit weapon masters, who were unhelpfully scattered among all your faction's cities, in order to gain the various skills in the first place. (WoW Insider made a handy chart.) Weapon skills actually had an element of character progression, also. Some skills couldn't be learned until you reached the appropriate level. No class could learn polearms until they had reached level 20, for example.
Weapon skill affected your own hit and crit, including a chance to get a neutered "glancing blow." It was also part of a formula that determined your target's ability to dodge, parry, or block your attacks. Needless to say, capping your weapon skill was vital.
When you were leveling, grinding up the skills wasn't so bad. You'd use the best weapon you had and you'd gain skill as you quested, so your skill would keep up with your level without even thinking about it.
The real problem happened at level 60 when you got a new weapon type that you'd never used before. It seems strange today with how quickly we replace gear as we level. Back then, however, quest rewards weren't itemized so well, and world drops generally weren't very good. You could wind up using the same weapon for upwards of 20 levels.
Then you crafted an Arcanite Reaper and you wanted to run a dungeon with it, or chop off some heads in a BG. Not so fast. Your character doesn't know how to use two-handed axes. Because there's nothing even remotely similar when you put two hands on an axe handle instead of one. Get ready for a very long and boring lesson in double-handed axemanship.
The grind to 300 weapon skill was infamously annoying, and players of course did whatever they could to shorten it.
Spammable abilities like Wing Clip or ways to increase attack speed such as Seal of the Crusader were prized as grind helpers.
One way to quicken the pace of skill gains was to stack intelligence. It didn't matter if you were a warlock or a rogue. More intelligence meant you learned how to master the weapon faster. It made sense in a twisted kind of way -- except it was also a bit of a cruel joke. Classes that relied on spells (and thus were apt to stack int) didn't have to bother leveling weapon skills.
For that reason, some players (of every class and spec) had an int set that they used specifically for skill grinding. It was kind of hilarious to watch orc warriors, dressed in frilly robes, swinging giant swords around. When you saw them at it, you knew exactly what they were doing.
Classes with ranged weapons had access to a fantastic -- and easy -- exploit. If you stood on dry land and shot/threw at a fish, the fish would evade, but you'd still gain skill points. If you found a safe spot free of mobs, you could load up on ammo, turn on autoattack, walk away, and come back a few hours later with 300 skill. I confess that I did this myself and I have no regrets. Eventually Blizzard patched away the exploit, but then they gave us Dr. Boom in The Burning Crusade -- a stationary quest NPC with a huge health pool who wouldn't fight back unless you got too close.
In Wrath, players used the waves of mobs in Violet Hold that would keep coming as long as you didn't start the dungeon's event.
Players found another smart tactic in the Blasted Lands. A mob called the Servant of Allistarj had a buff that made them unkillable from melee attacks. They were part of a quest called The Stones That Bind Us. If you had good defensive stats or a self-heal, you could grind your skill to 300 on one mob rather than roaming the countryside for new chumps to practice on. Players would even sometimes kite these guys all the way to Stormwind and announce easy skill-ups. In 2008, Blizzard closed this loophole by making it impossible to skill up against them.
Mourned by no one
Note that in the article linked above, Daniel calls for the removal of the weapon skill system altogether. He was not alone in this sentiment. For all but the most dedicated roleplayers, the realism factor just couldn't outweigh the hassle and aggravation.
Despite all the hate, weapon skills made it all the way to the end of Wrath. With Cataclysm's stat revamp, the skills -- and the weapon masters who taught them -- were brought to a sharp but bloodless end. Players (and Dr. Boom) all breathed a sigh of relief.
Weapon Skill Fun Facts
- Some items used to grant a weapon skill bonus, which was a very strong stat. Molten Core's Obsidian Edged Blade and the world drop Edgemaster's Handguards were two beloved early examples.
- Racial abilities included buffs to weapon skill. Dwarves, humans, orcs, and trolls all had weapon skill bonuses. If your guild had a loot council, your race might have played a role in which weapons you received.
- Rogues, warriors, and paladins had talents that provided weapon skill bonuses. After weapon skills were removed, many of these (and the item and racial bonuses) became expertise bonuses.
- Shamans had a talent in the Enhancement treat that unlocked the ability to use two-handed axes and maces.
- "Unarmed" was actually a weapon skill. Using a fist weapon was considered "unarmed," but classes that couldn't equip fist weapons could still grind up the skill by attacking without a weapon equipped. If you maxed it out you got a feat of strength.
- Warriors had the most skills to grind, since they can use every weapon type except wands.
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