Cataclysm Talent Preview: Shadow priests

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Cataclysm Talent Preview: Shadow priests
On Thursday, Blizzard released brand new information regarding talent builds in Cataclysm. Surely, all of us World of Warcraft addicts are grateful for the slow tease of information.

Of course, a lot of the "new" information was already data mined and leaked from the alpha over a month ago. I covered a lot of the changes to the shadow tree in a previous column, Ghostly aspects of our shadowy hatepower. Shadowy Apparitions, Shadow Orbs, getting rid of Shadow Focus, spirit contributing to our hit rating -- it's all in there. I won't bore you with all the details I covered already.

But it's not all old news, of course. There's some new stuff in there, and there is stuff to be excited about. I'm getting more optimistic about shadow priesting in Cataclysm with each drop of new information, and it feels like Blizzard might actually be listening to us. Seriously.

Listen, the standard caveats apply here -- it's really early to talk about this stuff and this could all change. But it'd be really quiet and boring around here today if we didn't.

Goodbye Spirit Tap

The expensively clunky Spirit Tap is gone. Leveling priests will miss it, but end-game shadow priests won't. Improved Spirit Tap remains unchanged, which is weird, because there's nothing left to improve. At least you won't need to waste three points in Spirit Tap to get it, which is what a lot of us spriests wind up doing to get it now.

Of course, we still don't know whether you'll want all that extra spirit. It won't affect your spellpower, but it will have an impact on your hit. That comes courtesy of the new iteration of Twisted Faith, which now "increases your spell hit rating by an additional amount equal to 4/8/12/16/20% of your spirit."

Yes, this does mean that you can enjoy some measure of shadow play in healing gear. Take it away, Ghostcrawler (lead systems designer):

Re: Priest Cata Talents

I was under the impression that only elemental and balance were going to need spirit to hit because shadow would use mage/warlock gear.

That was the initial intent, but some Shadow priests thought that felt unfair that they had to have two separate gear sets to swap from damage to healing compared to the druid and shaman, and we thought they had a point. As such it will be slightly easier to gear up as a Shadow priest since they have more gear options. Call it a perk, but probably not as powerful a one as Holy paladins having their very own gear.

All us hybrid classes will be able to get spell hit from spirit, meaning we won't be uniquely burdened with having to lug around two distinct sets of gear to dual spec. But thinking about the mechanics of Improved Spirit Tap ... Let me know how comfortable you all are with a hit rating that fluctuates back and forth depending on how often you crit, OK guys?

Instead of Spirit Tap, we get ...

Replacing Spirit Tap in the first tier is Dark Thoughts, a talent which reduces the pushback effects caused by damaging attacks by 35/70%. This benefit is currently contained in Improved Shadowform, and I expect that this is an effort to remove the benefit from that ability and make it available to leveling shadow priests sooner. (Pushback prevention is a part of Improved Shadowform's new tooltip, but that smells like a simple oversight to me.)

Improving Shadowform via simplification

is getting simplified to the extreme -- the tooltip text should actually be able to fit on your screen now. You get to keep your 15% damage buff, keep your 15% damage mitigation buff, and we're still not allowed to cast holy spells. That's it. Cure Disease and Abolish Disease are no longer exempt from the "can't cast holy spells" rule. DoT spells have been standardized -- they'll crit and be subject to haste regardless of whether you're in Shadowform.

Also notable is that there's no threat reduction in Shadowform anymore. Blizzard is making tanks' threat management a more active endeavor in Cataclysm (nerfs to Tricks of the Trade and Misdirection incoming!), meaning that we DPS are going to have to play the game much more mindfully of the threat our attacks cause.

Improving Improved Shadowform

The last time I took on the topic of shadow priests in Cataclysm, I heaped some criticism onto Blizzard. Some people wrote it off as grammar-checked QQ, but there was an important point to be made. Cataclysm was taking raid-wide buffs (like Misery) away from shadow priests and not offering much in the line of making up for it.

It appears that Blizzard agreed with that line of thought, because a new shadow-specific buff is incoming. Improved Shadow Form has been, well, improved to read, "Spell haste for all nearby party and raid members is increased by 5%." As things stand now, the ability becomes a must-take talent for shadow priests.

Overall, I think this was an excellent choice by Blizzard. Haste is getting more and more valuable for shadow priests with each new patch, so it feels like a natural choice -- something to benefit shadow priests regardless of whether they're in a raid, an instance or just questing solo. It also promotes the concept of "bring the player, not the class," by giving shadow priests an equalizing, non-unique buff. We're kind of like mobile Wrath of Air totems now.

I'm more than OK with that. The 5% buff to spell haste will stack nicely with shadow priests' 500% buff to awesomeness.

Investing those non-shadow points

If there's room to praise Blizzard in what they've done to the shadow tree, there's room to criticize in what they've done with the other trees for priests. Keep in mind that we're getting five more talent points to invest between level 80 and 85, and early word from Blizzard was that we'd be encouraged to put those points in the other trees.

I've been playing around with the new talent trees a little bit, and I can't help but be a little bit frustrated. The shadow is naturally going to loathe the light -- no one should expect us to be flinging holy spells around except for the rarest of occasions (last ditch wipe prevention). Traditionally, that means shadow priests invest their marginal points in the discipline tree, since we can at least use what limited discipline spells (Power Word: Shield) are available to us. And there are useful talents in the discipline tree, besides -- I mean, who doesn't love the mana regen benefit from Meditation?

The answer to that seemingly rhetorical question is Blizzard. Blizzard didn't love the mana regen benefit, because Meditation is gone from the discipline tree. Improved Power Word: Fortitude is gone too. There are some new talents in there that boost the damage of Smite, give it a healing component and giving it a buff to healing spells cast thereafter. Evangelism and Archangel (see Dawn's analysis on disc tree changes) have an interesting synergy that suggests Blizzard envisions healing priests to be smiting their enemies here and there. Are they really forcing healing priests to do damage?

If that's indeed the case, are shadow priests being expected to heal?

Placing that seventy-sixth point ...

I offer to you the following exercise: Go to a Cataclysm talent calculator like the one at Wowhead. Try to create a new 76-point build for shadow priests. Play around with it for a few iterations until you get something you'd feel comfortable having.

Difficult, isn't it?

The problem doesn't come in the basic shadow tree stuff. It doesn't feel that much different and works well enough when taken on its own. We'll probably want to pick up Shadow Affinity, because our passive threat reduction is being removed from Shadowform. We'll definitely want Improved Shadowform -- no room for argument there. Maybe we'll want Improved Mind Blast, maybe we won't. Maybe you'll want Silence, maybe you won't. The extra talent points will, at the very least, let us play around with our own tree to the point where going all in -- taking every talent and maxing it out, using 66 points in the shadow tree -- is a viable option.

"Wait, did he just say ... taking every shadow talent? Even the PvP ones? What mad sorcery is this?!"

It's not madness, it's a fact of the new Cataclysm builds. Unless you want to let talent points go unspent, you'll have to do one of three things: either invest in PvP talents, invest in healing talents or take talents that just don't feel right for your current playstyle. There's no real way around it.

This is my first attempt at a Cataclysm spriest build. It's 14/0/62, and yeah, there are a lot of talents in there that you may not want. This build seems just as valid, giving us a Silence interrupt instead of a better Power Word: Shield. Or maybe you can legitimately say that you don't need threat reduction or a cooldown reduction on Mind Blast, and take this weird 8/14/54 healing hybrid build. (Yes, it did gross me out to put points in the holy tree, and yes, I am sorry for subjecting you to that.)

Making sense of it all (or at least trying to)

So what's the deal? Aren't those extra five talent points supposed to feel useful? (Heck, never mind those last five, how about those last twenty?) Here are some reasonable possibilities to explain the current trees:
  • Blizzard is emphasizing the leveling portion of the game, giving a tip of the hat to the great majority of players out there who simply don't raid.
  • Blizzard wanted to emphasize shadow priests' ability to drop Shadowform and spread heals around the party.
  • Blizzard is trying to force -- uh ... I mean "encourage" -- more players to go out and PvP.
  • Blizzard is going to be forcing shadow priests to use a lot more of their non-DPS support talents, like Mass Dispel and Mind Control.
  • Blizzard intends for those last few talent points to be, despite what they previously hinted at, mostly useless.
  • Blizzard didn't give much thought to where shadow priests would be putting those extra points.
OK, so there are some pretty pessimistic possibilities there. I think I put the most weight on the first -- a lot of this new tree is all about the average WoW player, not the average "heavy user."

We don't have a lot of firm statistics, but we know a solid percentage of players don't get past level 10. We can further guess that one-third of players, maybe even more, never get to level 80 (soon to be 85). More than half of WoW players don't even raid. And we're probably looking at a very small fraction who view raiding as the thing that occupies most their time in Azeroth. You can at least say that you understand why some players would find a given talent useful, even if you don't. And I should probably mute any complaining by saying that it's far better to have talent points that you don't know what to do with than to be short of talent points and unable to take crucial, much-needed talents.

I anticipate that as soon as we get the beta open to a sizable portion of the shadow priesting community, we'll have more information about which spriest build is the "correct" one. But for now, we'll leave open the possibility that a slew of talent points will feel supplementary to us shadow priests, and that there won't be any right answer.

For more information on the changes coming to shadow priests in Cataclysm, be sure to check out the previous coverage:
Also be sure to check out Dawn Moore's take on the loathsome holy tree and the uncomfortable-feeling discipline tree.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm will destroy Azeroth as we know it. Nothing will be the same. In's Guide to Cataclysm, you can find out everything you need to know about WoW's third expansion. From goblins and worgens to mastery and guild changes, it's all there for your cataclysmic enjoyment.
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