Pets have been vastly streamlined in how they work and how one gets new skills. It looks like owning and maintaining a pet should be a lot less of a hassle now, although a few things remain for "flavor." Here's something a long time coming: All pet families now have one unique family ability, including ones that didn't before -- yes, that means the poor Sporebats finally get some love. In addition, as every hunter pet can learn Growl, Cower and either Bite or Claw. Bite itself has been changed to be exactly like Claw in damage and focus power. Avoidance, Cobra Reflexes, and Dash/Dive will now be talents.
In addition, if a low level pet is tamed, it will automatically raise to 5 levels below the Hunter's level -- it's unclear if existing low level or stabled pets will get this benefit too -- and all Hunter pets will learn new ranks of their known skills automatically upon leveling. Assuming Bite, Claw, and the family skills are baseline, it sounds like taming pets solely for skill learning should be a thing of the past.
Pet upkeep is also much easier: loyalty is gone, as are training points and the Beast Training skill. They're replaced by talents and automatic learning of skills as the pet levels. Apparently, food is already in, so there is some pet upkeep, and we'll still have to keep track of what vendors sell stuff that Fluffy actually eats and remember to stock up, but at the least bringing up a new pet should be relatively painless. There's no word yet in the patch notes on whether Great Stamina, Natural Armor, and the resistance skills are gone for good or folded into the talents, but it seems a relatively safe bet that they'll appear in the tanking tree in some form, or get folded into the baseline stats for pets.
As for the pet talent tree, Hunter pets will now gain talent points starting at level 20, with a new point earned every 4 levels. They can use them learn talents in "one of three trees depending on family." If I'm reading that right, it sounds like pet families will now be much more distinct in their assigned roles, with some families allowed to learn the DPS tree, and some the Tank tree, others the 3rd utility tree.
It will be interesting to see how pet families play out after this. If only certain pet families can learn the DPS tree, we will probably still see favored pet families for raid DPS, especially if the family stat modifiers also stay in. It's the change I'm the most wary about, as making Hunters choose specific pets for every possible pet role may not solve the homogenization problem. It seems Hunters may have to continue to stable their favorite pet bear who can only access the Tanking tree and bring out the ravager for raids and groups after all.
There's still no new 40-51 point talents for Hunters, but some of existing Hunter talents have received changes, mostly in the Survival Tree, where the first few tiers have been firmed up considerably.
Trap Mastery as it currently exists has been removed. Talents that buff hit rating or decrease resistances are being nerfed across the board, and seem to be part of a larger mechanics change that deemphasizes hit rating, so this is likely simply in line with that, and hopefully shouldn't affect a Survival Hunter's trapping performance overly much. In the meantime, Clever Traps has been renamed Trap Mastery, but will stay in its current position on the tree.
In damage buffing abilities, Monster Slaying and Humanoid Slaying have been replaced with a single first tier 5-point talent called Improved Tracking, which will increase damage done to the tracked mob type by up to 5%, which should make the talent much more versatile and desirable. Master Tactician now has a 10% chance of proccing, up from 6%. A 4% jump is nothing to sneeze at, and should certainly increase the amount of time it's up -- it will definitely be interesting to see how much of a damage jump it becomes.
It looks like Blizzard is also looking at buffing Survival's damage avoidance potential, perhaps as an attempt at fixing Hunter PvP woes. Deterrence will now also block 60% of incoming spell damage, and is down to a 3 minute cooldown. Improved Feign Death will also block up to 30% of incoming damage. In theory, one could use these skills to survive focus fire. If it's the fix Hunters need for Arena, or if it will work as well in action as on paper, is yet to be seen, and something that will probably need testing.
In what seems like it might be a bit of a nerf, on the other hand, Surefooted will simply reduce the duration of movement impairing effects by up to 30% instead of attempting to outright resisting them. This seems similar to the old changing of silence avoidance talents to resists, so it may simply be a design decision on Blizzard's part. It may make surviving spamstringing a bit harder, though.
Baseline Skill Changes
There were a few changes to the baseline skills for hunters in the patch notes as well. First, Steady Shot now uses ammunition to determine damage. Combined with the announced removal of Auto Shot clipping from the WWI, it sounds like Steady Shot is lined up to get a nice damage boost. It should scale better now and be easier to manage which is only a good thing. Plus, Steady Shot already consumes ammo, so it'll be nice to see the stuff actually go to good use now.
Aspects also got a small change, in that they no longer cost mana. That will help slightly when Hunters switch from Aspect of the Hawk to Aspect of the Viper to regain mana during longer fights. Of course, the fact that we need to switch constantly between Aspect of the Hawk and Aspect of the Viper seems to be a problem in and of itself, that this slight change won't solve. Hopefully, there's a more long term solution in the works or not in the patch notes for our mana regeneration problems. I'm still hoping for a bit less chain chugging of mana pots in my Hunter's raiding future.
The changes so far seem like a good start, although they won't solve all our problems. I'd say my biggest problem so far is that we haven't seen an answer to our mana regeneration problems, at least not in these patch notes. In addition, It seems like Hunter pet homogenization probably won't actually be addressed by this new system, since pet talent trees still seem to be segregated by family. That's something that may need some gentle feedback to Blizzard.
Of course, we also have new talents to check out as well. Once we see those, we may have a better picture of where Hunters are headed, and hopefully we can look forward to a brighter future, one with less grabbing aggro from our pets and less chain chugging of mana potions.