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The Art of War(craft): What the new talent overhaul means for PvP

Zach Yonzon

Zach Yonzon believes in social media and thinks that Real ID is the new battleground.

Oh man. We knew Cataclysm was going to change everything, but I don't think any of us really expected that Blizzard meant everything everything! Yesterday's bombshell of an announcement regarding the talents and masteries threw everyone for a loop. When talent trees from the alpha started appearing in Wowhead and MMO Champion, some of us wondered why most of the unexciting, passive talents were still there despite the developers' mentioning that they'd be removed in Cataclysm. Granted, the game was too early in its development to have concrete trees, but I don't think any of us thought they'd be pared down the way they would be. Let's review some of what Blizzard said.

Talent trees will have around 20 unique talents instead of today's (roughly) 30 talents, and aesthetically will look a bit more like the original World of Warcraft talent trees. The 31-point talents will generally be the same as the 51-point talents we already had planned for Cataclysm. A lot of the boring or extremely specialized talents have been removed, but we don't want to remove anything that's going to affect spell/ability rotations. We want to keep overall damage, healing, and survivability roughly the same while providing a lot of the passive bonuses for free based on your specialization choice.

While leveling, you will get 1 talent point about every 2 levels (41 points total at level 85). Our goal is to alternate between gaining a new class spell or ability and gaining a talent point with each level. As another significant change, you will not be able to put points into a different talent tree until you have dedicated 31 talent points to your primary specialization. While leveling, this will be possible at 70. Picking a talent specialization should feel important. To that end, we want to make sure new players understand the significance of reaching the bottom of their specialization tree before gaining the option of spending points in the other trees. We intend to make sure dual-specialization and re-talenting function exactly as they do today so players do not feel locked into their specialization choice.

That's a whopper. There go the passive talents we were all wondering about. Instead, talents in the talent trees will all be cool and special, making every choice meaningful. That also means having fewer points to spend. At first look, it seems like something has been taken away from our characters -- fewer talent points feels less powerful. But when you realize that each talent point actually gives you something awesome, like a new spell or a cool effect, that changes things drastically. This also impacts PvP in a big, big way.

Low-level PvP will be awesome

One of the coolest things about these changes is that players will immediately feel the effects of picking up a talent point. At level 10, what used to be key talents from each spec will be given to players as a bonus ability for choosing to specialize in one tree. The list isn't complete or final, but players will be getting scaled-down versions of signature abilities such as Divine Storm for retribution paladins, Mutilate for assassination rogues or Mortal Strike for arms warriors. Try to wrap your head around that for a moment.

Has it sunk in yet?

What the planned changes mean is that players will no longer have to wait until higher levels -- level 40 or 50 for some classes, under the current design -- in order to feel the power of their spec. That means that low-level PvP will change drastically as players gain access to abilities previously only available at higher levels. Level 10 is significant because Warsong Gulch becomes available to enter at that level. This means that leveling new characters in Cataclysm will be so much more fun and it will actually be exciting to go into the battlegrounds early on because players will already be equipped with cool abilities.

This also means that players will be more proficient with those abilities because they pick them up sooner, which means that the skill level of players at the end game becomes considerably higher. Imagine battlegrounds in the lower brackets populated with combatants using spells like Mind Flay or Thunderstorm. Players learn to use key PvP talents earlier, consequently nurturing better combatants for the end game. In the current environment, players' playstyles change drastically once they pick up their key talent later in the game.

Take Shadowform, for example. From level 1 to 39, shadow priests play somewhat differently. When they pick up Shadowform at level 40 -- boom, everything changes. Suddenly, they're in Shadowform all the time, and every ability works to complement that altered form. While shadow priests get Mind Flay as a bonus ability, Shadowform will also be available not soon after. Imagine low-level enhancement shaman dual wielding and Stormstriking or Lava Lashing opponents left and right. In the lowest bracket of Warsong Gulch! It's insane.

Blizzard is able to do this because abilities will simply scale with players as they level, instead of having multiple, trainable ranks. This allows players to gain access to spells that function in some awesome way but are at the appropriate power level. Sure, that low-level mage may already have a Water Elemental by her side, but it scales accordingly. It's brilliant in that it gives players more creativity than currently available. We'll get a better idea of strategies and tactics the more we see of the new talent trees, but for now it looks very promising. PvP throughout the leveling experience will never be the same.

End-game PvP will be even more awesome

Of course, with such powerful and defining abilities available at level 10, what will Blizzard put at the bottom tiers? Something completely new, of course! Removing Divine Storm from the bottom of the tree and giving it to level 10 retribution paladins means that there's something even cooler to replace it. Because players will have so much more expertise with their classes if they level up during Cataclysm, expect to see a raised level of competition in PvP. Furthermore, Zarhym mentioned this important bit that reveals Blizzard's intent for the talent trees in Cataclysm:

We are also taking a hard look at many of the mandatory PvP talents, such as spell pushback or mechanic duration reductions. While there will always be PvP vs. PvE builds, we'd like for the difference to be less extreme, so that players don't feel like they necessarily need to spend their second talent specialization on a PvP build.

Potentially, this means that all players regardless of spec will be able to handle themselves in a PvP environment. In the battlegrounds, for example, even holy priests will have access to talents and abilities that will be useful in PvP. Many casual players who participate occasionally in the battlegrounds don't bother with a PvP spec, instead opting to PvP using their raiding specs, which sometimes puts them at a disadvantage against more PvP-oriented builds. If Blizzard pulls it off, players will have one spec for both PvP and PvE, allowing raiders to PvP without missing a beat. On the flip side, hardcore PvP players can join raids or run dungeons without having to spec for it. It's win-win.

The death of hybrid specs

Another interesting change is the plan to lock in players to one tree until they've spent about 31 talent points or more than 75% of the 41 talent points players will have by level 85. That means there will no longer be any more hybrid specs that pick up roughly the same number of talents in two or more trees. That means no more can players double-dip -- or as Ghostcrawler put it, "cherry pick the best (talent) from" -- trees. Players are forced into one tree that will define their characters for most of their existence, or at least one aspect of it. Dual specs will still be available, after all.

What this means for PvP is that players will be even easier to define on the battlefield. Because of the forced lock-in, the moment you glean what spec a player is through the use of a unique ability, you immediately know that your opponent has absolutely no access to abilities in the other trees until a certain level. This removes guesswork and allows players to quickly formulate their strategies accordingly. With shortened talent trees and the lock-in, it's quite possible that most players will be sporting cookie-cutter specs.

Zarhym mentioned that each tree will have around "20 unique talents" and roughly 40 talents, which means that some of those unique talents will have ranks. To illustrate, take the retribution talents Judgements of the Wise and Repentance. The former has three ranks while the latter has only one -- they are considered two unique talents but constitute a total of four talents.

Under the new plan, players will have the other two trees "grayed out" or inaccessible once they've decided to specialize, opening up access only after they've spend 31 talent points in their chosen tree. That's a considerable investment, leaving only 10 points to spend in other trees, and none of the upper-tier talents are expected to be active abilities. This means that hybrid specs are completely dead. No more min-maxing. It will be very simple. A survival hunter is a survival hunter. A fury warrior is a fury warrior. A frost mage is a frost mage. It will be straightforward, almost like having 30 different classes instead of 10 classes with a multitude of specs.

More exciting things to come

The changes are huge, more proof that Blizzard isn't afraid to rewrite the book. We thought they were being brave by giving Azeroth a facelift, but their dedication to making a better game goes even further by decimating everything we know about talents and specialization. In the expansion, players will be more defined by their spec than ever. Because there will be fewer filler talents, there'll be more room for error. Although possibly falling into an expected cookie-cutter groove, players will mostly avoid having terrible specs. With most talents in a tree granting meaningful, palpable benefits, almost all players will be sporting specs that actually do something.

The best part of it is, we've only just seen the plan. We haven't even seen all the cool new talents they'll be putting into the trees. As more information trickles forth in the Cataclysm beta, we'll get a clearer picture of how leveling and end-game PvP will be like in the new world. It should be fun to watch it all unfold.
Zach delivers your weekly dose of battlegrounds and world PvP in one crazy column. He writes about how the world is changing, and how battlegrounds are going to be awesome. Get some practice while waiting for Cataclysm. Just don't, uh, go AFK while doing it. If you're in the beta, why not check out Twin Peaks, as well?

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