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Spiritual Guidance: Spring cleaning your talent tree


Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Electric word, life. It means forever and that's a mighty long time. But I'm here to tell you -- there's something else. The World of Warcraft. A world of never-ending gnome corpses. You can always see the shadows, day or night. So when you call up that Spiritual Guidance columnist in Beverly Hills -- you know the one, Dr. Fox Van Allen -- instead of asking him how much of your time is left, ask him how much of your mind, baby. Cause he's going to flay it into effing oblivion every Wednesday.

Ladies and gentlemen, my first car ever was my grandmother's old 1986 Ford Taurus. It had a digital speedometer and a pretty kicking tape deck. I even got the sample cassette tape that came with the car. I spent some of the best years of my life cruising the Garden State while listening to Neil Diamond's Heartlight and the theme to Cats. (Before you judge, most of you were listening to Sugar Ray and the theme to Friends instead at the time.)

What in the hell does that have to deal with shadow priesting? The car was the right fit for me a decade ago, but it's just not right for me anymore. In Warcraft, just as in life, the right choices change over time. I mean, what the hell am I going to do without an iPod connection in my car? And Ford Tauruses -- do they still even make those?

When I applied for a new raid team a few months ago, I went to my class trainer and put together a pretty good build for my shadow priest. It worked great then for the content I was working on. After re-examining my build, I realize that times have changed, and so should my talent tree.

Psychic Horror was a great ability during Trial of the Grand Crusader progression. It's useless in Icecrown. And it's not the only talent that has outlived its usefulness. Shifting around a few points can have a very noticeable effect on your DPS, mana regen, and survivability.

The price to respec varies -- it could cost you as much as 50 gold depending on how many times you've done it recently. Still, when you compare that to the amount you spend twice that on a single epic gem and even more on high-end enchants, respecing gives you one of the best returns on investment in the game.

Taking my own advice to heart, I took a portal to Ironforge last night and wiped my talents clean so I could rebuild from scratch. (Don't be afraid to do the same!) After pondering my build for a good while, I came up with some advice for the rest of you.

Let's get the easy part out of the way -- there are a bunch of talents that you don't have any business missing out on.

That which makes us shadow priests
You are not a valid shadow priest if you do not spend the talent points to grab Mind Flay, Vampiric Touch, and Shadowform, and Vampiric Embrace. You should also be going 2/2 in Improved Vampiric Embrace. In ICC fights of consequence, your raid will be taking periodic ticks of atmospheric damage. Every little bit of healing helps, especially against the Lich King's Infest attack and during Putricide's third phase. There's simply no better place for those talent points.

Moar Dee-pee-ess
We're not running as shadow priests because we want to hug gnomes and plant flowers. We're running as shadow priests because we want to melt dudes' faces off. As such, the next priority in your talent build should be including the talents that result in the most noticeable DPS increases. Darkness, Shadow Focus, Improved Shadow Word: Pain, Shadow Weaving, Veiled Shadows, Mind Melt, Improved Devouring Plague, Shadow Power, Misery, and Twisted Faith, along with Twin Disciplines and Improved Inner Fire in the Discipline tree, are all primarily about boosting the amount of damage you deal. Max out each and every one when you're at level 80, no matter how you play. Throw Shadow Reach in there too as an indirect boost to your DPS.

Now, from here on out, the choices get a bit more optional. There are no absolute right or wrong answer that works for everybody -- different goals; different talent builds.

Improved Mind Blast
I got an e-mail this week from a reader who was grouped up with another shadow priest in a heroic. The reader paid attention to the other shadow priest's play style, and noticed that he wasn't using Mind Blast in his rotation.

You see, Mind Blast is a great spell, and it does more damage per second cast than Mind Flay in most situations. When you get your four-piece tier 10 bonus, they wind up being near equal in terms of DPS -- at least to the point where theory crafting is within the margin of error. Because of this, a lot of people just drop Mind Blast entirely.

If you like numbers (and I know you do), Dusknoir has an excellent post this week about Mind Blast and whether or not you should keep it in your rotation once you get the four-piece bonus. The most important takeaway from the article is how little impact the decision on whether to keep Mind Blast has on your DPS -- we're talking fractions of a fraction.

What does this mean for your talent tree? If you're leveling or raiding without the full four-piece tier 10, Mind Blast is definitely stronger than Mind Flay, so you'll want to stay 5/5 in Improved Mind Blast. If you're enjoying the shorter Mind Flay channel from a four-piece tier 10 bonus, you're probably not going to miss dropping down to 0/5 in Improved Mind Blast.

If you're planning on dropping Mind Blast in its entirety, though, consider this: Replenishment is likely a large reason why you were invited to your raid. Every time you hit an enemy with Mind Blast (provided they're already inflicted with Vampiric Touch), you're giving your team a valuable 15 second mana regen boost. Don't be a jerk for the sake of padding the meters. Make sure to cast a Mind Blast at least once every fourteen seconds.

Spirit Taps
The way our talent tree is set up, if you don't take Improved Mind Blast, you're going to need to pick a replacement from the earlier talent tiers. Spirit Tap and Improved Spirit Tap are the way to go. Spirit Tap is pretty useless in raiding, but it does provide access to Improved Spirit Tap. The latter provides a small increase to your DPS (not much, but at least as much as you'd get from Improved Mind Blast) and helps with mana regen as well.

Improved Shadow Form
In my old ICC builds, I passed on taking Improved Shadow Form -- it was the right choice for me at the time. You suffer constant raid-wide damage during Putricide and Festergut, but they're not accompanied by push back effects. For the most part, the only fights in Icecrown where push back is a problem are trash pulls.

The only fights, that is, until you reach the Lich King. There are repeated push back effects during the phase transitions due to his Pain and Suffering attack. Since churning out DPS is your top priority during the phase transition, Improved Shadow Form will prove to be a great benefit in the fight.

It's not the right talent for everyone, but if you're taking on the Lich King -- or even if you just spend a lot of time doing dailies -- the two points you put here will provide you with some great returns.

Shadow Affinity

The threat-reducing Shadow Affinity talent is another great example of a talent that's useful to some, but worthless to others. If you run a lot of heroics or raid with newer or undergeared tanks, this will hold a lot more value for you. If you're part of a hardcore raid team, it's an awful lot harder to grab aggro.

You should know better than anyone else whether you need to put a point or two here. If you ever find yourself having to slow down DPS to keep from building too much threat, you will definitely want to take a good look at this one as a DPS-boosting (and survival-boosting) talent.

Mana regen
Repeat after me: Dispersion is a survivability talent, not a mana regen talent.

Here's my issue with Dispersion: A lot of people use it primarily to restore their blue mana bar. While it's effective at doing that, each second you stay dispersed is a second you're not actually DPSing your target. If our goal is maximize our DPS, then we want to get our mana regen elsewhere.

Ideally, you want to have just enough mana regen so you have just enough to last through the lengthiest, mana intensive fight without having to resort to Dispersion. When evaluating your new talent build, ask yourself the following questions:
  • Do I ever go out of mana (or have to rely on Dispersion) during prolonged raid fights? If so, you need to readjust your tree to include more mana-saving talents.
  • Do you have too much mana regen? If you still have a sizable portion of your mana left after the most grueling raid fight (for me, that's Putricide hard mode), then you may be able to use one of those mana regen talent points elsewhere.

Be sure to grab Dispersion for your build, of course. Just don't use it as your mana regen crutch.

Pain and Suffering: Two or three?
Pain and Suffering is a required talent, hands down. But can you get away with putting only two of three points here? Is it okay to settle for a 67% chance to refresh Shadow Word: Pain on a successful Mind Flay hit, especially if you're casting Mind Flay to the exclusion of Mind Blast?

Personally, I recommend maxing this out at 3/3. There are plenty of fights where you'll be able to get away with 2/3. But to keep our maximum DPS, we need to make sure that our initial blast of Shadow Word: Pain (ideally done under the effect of a Wild Magic Potion at the start of the fight) never drops off. In a fights involving target switching, such as Saurfang or Putricide, I frequently find myself refreshing SW:P at the last possible second after spending a solid chunk of time on an add.

Without maxing the talent out, I'd be rolling the dice. No thanks.

Rolling out the new build
So, what did I come up with in the end for my new heroic ICC build? I jettisoned Improved Mind Blast for to take more mana cost reducing talents (even delving into Mental Agility), which will allow me to be more aggressive in spamming Devouring Plague when a fight calls for a lot of movement. And I put Improved Shadowform back into the mix after a long hiatus, so I can boost my DPS on the Lich King fight. In the end, I wound up with this 16/0/55 build.

Is it the right build for me? Time will tell as I put it into action this week. But if it doesn't work out, that's cool -- I love playing around with talent points. And I love taking a look at other people's talent trees and seeing if I can't gather some new ideas or strategies from them.

I'll close out this column with few questions to the audience: Aside from the obvious, where do you invest your more marginal talent points? How does your talent build reflect your individual play style?

And, of course, if you've got a great spriest talent build to show off, I'd love to see it. (And so would the rest of the class.)

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.

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