Vanilla: First, we crawled
(Apologies in advance if I make any mistakes in this section. I'm operating off of limited primary resources. I feel like a history scholar writing about the Hittites.)
Even though there was a protection tree, the early talent options were bizarrely shuffled across the three trees to the point that retribution was in many respects the first iteration of the official paladin tanking tree. In it, you'd find both Consecration (the threat ability di tutti threat abilities in vanilla) and Anticipation, which increased your defense skill. Both were critical to be any kind of effective tank.
The protection tree was somewhat useful, and tanks would usually bottom out in there grabbing Holy Shield. The old Holy Shield boosted your block chance by 30%, dealt holy damage on a block, and had four charges that would expend each time you actually blocked. It lasted 10 seconds. Thus, the standard spec for the proto-tankadins was at least 21 points into protection and 21 into retribution.
One of the best(ish) vanilla talents was the old Reckoning, which gave you an extra attack for every crit you absorbed. It was stack without limit and in that incarnation managed to survive throughout vanilla. It was promptly nerfed later due to the famous "reck bomb" incident where someone had a friend repeatedly melee him with daggers for a long enough period of time that he stacked up 1,816 charges of Reckoning. He then one-shot Lord Kazzak in the Blasted Lands by chaining 1,816 extra attacks at once. Watch the hilarious video.
But I digress. Let's talk about the three cornerstones of paladin tanking in vanilla and where they so horribly fell short.
Threat was initially very overpowered for paladin tanks, then very broken when they got the special attention of the developers in 1.9. To start, paladin tanks used Seal of Fury, which added a flat +threat value to their attacks based on how much holy damage they dealt, after judging the seal. The common strategy would be to use Judgement of Fury, and then drop rank 1 Consecrations (yes, down ranking abounded back then) to rack up stupid amounts of free threat.
This was neutered heavily in patch 1.9 when Seal of Fury was removed and Righteous Fury was added, which provided a 60% increase of threat caused by holy damage. This was vastly inferior to the previous (ridiculous) incarnation and caused paladin tanks to begin to have threat problems.
Likewise, paladin tanks didn't have any access to a taunt ability of any kind. This proved to be another huge limiting factor for fights requiring a tank swap, like The Four Horsemen in original Naxxramas.
Mana was an ever-present concern. These were the days before Judgements of the Wise or Spiritual Attunement. If you ran out of mana, you needed an Innervate or to chug a mana potion. Otherwise, you'd be unable to produce threat or use your abilities -- ultimately, a severely limiting factor.
Gear was, like most of vanilla gear, particularly schizophrenic. Paladin tier did not have defense as a stat and was mostly itemized toward healing -- lots of mana regen and intellect. The only good off-set pieces for tanking ceased existing after 5-mans and didn't start appearing again until Ahn'Qiraj. In the meantime, paladin tanks were forced to scrape by for most of their gear, but in general for the vast majority of vanilla, there just wasn't the gear support to tank raids.
The ethos back then, in the end, was that warriors were the only raid tanks and that the stragglers -- paladins, druids, and (to a very, very limited degree early on) shaman -- were for tanking 5-mans or somewhat off-tanking. Though, even the latter proved nigh-impossible for paladin tanks. Compared to warriors, paladin health and mitigation was limited and sclerotic.
Moreover, following the disastrous 1.9 patch, paladin tanking was nearly crippled with a terrible talent overhaul that made cobbling together a decent spec very difficult. For example, Blizzard moved Consecration to an 11-point holy talent. About the only good change was the introduction of Greater Blessings, which mitigated the annoying constant refreshing of blessings on each individual person in a group every 5 minutes. Nonetheless, the spec remained in limbo until the 2.0.3 patch was released at the end of that year, a full 12 months later.
The Burning Crusade: Our baby steps
When patch 2.0.1 came out, the whole game changed. We suddenly were given abilities that made us look like real tanks and corrected the horrible imbalances between us and warriors with regards to our tool box. Suddenly, with Righteous Defense we could tank, with Spiritual Attunement we could regenerate mana and better hold threat, and with Avenger's Shield we could pick up mobs at range. Consecration was also changed to a baseline spell rather than a talent, meaning that we didn't have to dance through hoops to pick it up.
Our primary attack rotation consisted generally of casting our seal, judging, and dropping Consecration. A nice portion of our threat came through the redesign of Holy Shield, which was upped to eight charges (after the 2.1 patch, when fully talented) and suddenly did more threat. The spirit of the paladin tank in The Burning Crusade was often being the reactive threat tank.
We didn't have any fancy shield slams or righteous AOE hammers -- all we had was dropping a puddle on the floor and dealing damage by bouncing attacks off our shields and our Blessing of Sanctuary. We built threat uphill, both ways, carrying a warrior on our backs.
Joking aisde, the talent Improved Righteous Fury also allowed us once again to be decent generators of threat. There were still, though, some quality of life issues with the constant sealing and resealing after every Judgement. But things were overall so much better.
I would also be remiss to not mention that biggest change to paladins in The Burning Crusade was that the class was now available to both factions with the introduction of the Blood Elves. To keep the two feeling somewhat different -- precious flavor -- faction-specific seals were introduction with Seal of Blood on the Horde side (affectionately known as "seal of emo" due to the self-damage) and Seal of Vengeance on the Alliance side. The latter was basically an early iteration of Seal of Truth. And you better believe we noticed the imbalance of Horde's having the best retribution seal and Alliance's having the best (well, at least initially) protection seal.
Nonetheless, with these changes, the stage was set for the rise of the paladin as a serious contender for tanking not just 5-man content (which we would come to dominate) but also raids as well. Our time had come.
Next week: Rise of the maintankadin
In the exciting conclusion of Ol' Rhidach's history lesson, I'm going to delve into the turning point for paladins and recall the movement that allowed paladins to move from offtankadin to full-fledged maintankadin, in addition to our total domination of heroic 5-mans -- basically, the beginning of the warrior blood feud that was sworn against us. Moreover, I'll go through the Wrath era, which opened with us being relatively weak in the face of an upstart new tanking class and closed with our being widely derided as the most overpowered and most faceroll tanking class.
The Light and How to Swing It shows paladin tanks how to take on the dark times brought by Cataclysm. Try out our 4 tips for upping your combat table coverage, find out how to increase threat without sacrificing survivability, and learn how to manage the latest version of Holy Shield.