Character Customization Through Talents

I was really going to leave the talent discussion alone, it being “old news” by now and my having already presented my case. But I keep coming across what seems historical revisionism of sorts when it came to early WoW talents and the number of actually legitimate customization options available. Take, for instance, this passage over at The Babbling Gamer:

[…] When I first played WoW back in 2005, it’s biggest selling point for me was the talent system.  It allowed far more character customization than most MMOs out at the time.  I tried all sorts of things.  I tinkered.  I had fun.  The Burning Crusade felt like a solid improvement on it.  I played with lots of  sub-optimal specs, trying to find the one that was the most fun.  I don’t min/max for effectivity, I min/max for enjoyability.  I don’t care if spec A does 10% more damage while spamming one spell over and over than my spec B complex rotation of silly abilities and half-working synergies.  I don’t care that I hardly ever use that heal I spent talent points to get and could be doing more damage without. […]

After some digging around Google, I actually found a website that has functioning TBC v2.01 talent calculators. Booting up the Retribution tree and seeing Crusader Strike as the 41-point talent really takes me back… to a time where I apparently enjoyed auto-attacking my balls with a hammer. And 61 talent points to spend! Those will sure come handy… in filling out all these 5-point talent sinks. You see, leveling up and getting a new talent point is fun. Putting said talent point into Rank 3 Conviction (+1% crit rate, 5 ranks) is at no point whatsoever fun.

So with that in mind, I decided to look at the various class trees and basically remove every talent that did NOT change your gameplay in any possible way. Here are some of the results:

TBC paladin talent tree.

How about the mage?

TBC mage talent trees.

The rubric I used to determine whether a talent changed your gameplay was pretty simple:

  • The talent added a button to your hotbar; or
  • The talent changed the way you used a button already on your hotbar.

The paladin case was fairly straight-forward: cooldowns, buffs, and abilities only. Then again, paladins have a lot of bleed-over utility that eventually resulted in the “one-man army” effect of Retribution in early Wrath.

The mage tree was a little less straight-forward. For example, I left Improved Counterspell up because it changed Counterspell from a button you only should push at a certain moment (when the target is casting), to a button that could be cast strategically (to deny spellcasting at certain moments). I left Improved Scorch open because the talent makes you actually include Scorch in your rotation to keep up a vital (raid) debuff, changing your gameplay. Likewise, I left Frostbite open even though it simply gives some of your spells a 15% chance to Freeze (root) your target, because that interrupts your normal spell rotation; instead of just chain-casting Frostbolt, when Frostbite procs you’re encouraged to do a Shatter combo of firing an Ice Lance with a Frostbolt in the air. You may or may not have noticed, but Shatter itself I left covered as a talent sink – even if Shatter did not exist, the damage/time limit of a Frostbite proc would still encourage the Frostbolt/Ice Lance combo. Shatter simply increases the potential damage, just like the overwhelming majority of all the talents in TBC trees.

A question arises though: is choosing between damage talents not a choice? Well… yes and no. The easy answer is the one from the Extra Credits video, which is to say that a choice between +10% Frostbolt damage vs +10% Ice Lance damage is NOT a choice, but a calculation. A problem arose, however, when I considered these two talents from Fallout: New Vegas:

Cowboy + Shotgun Surgeon

Granted, Fallout: New Vegas does not have a talent tree per se; it has a perk system. Every two levels you must choose a perk from an ever-expanding list however, so I consider that roughly analogous. So… is the Cowboy perk a choice or is it a calculation? I just agreed that choosing between +10% damage to two different spells is a calculation, and the Cowboy perk essentially gives me +25% damage to a small number of weapons. And yet I am inclined to say it is a legitimate choice. Why? I consider these sort of talents to be stylistic and/or identity choices. In a game with no formal classes, picking the Cowboy perk is the closest thing you can come to differing “specs” in Fallout. A Gatling laser handles a lot differently than a sniper rifle that handles a lot differently than a revolver. Likewise, an Arcane mage plays differently than a Fire mage that plays differently than a Frost mage.

So, going back to the Babbling Gamer quote, we can zero in on this part:

I don’t care if spec A does 10% more damage while spamming one spell over and over than my spec B complex rotation of silly abilities and half-working synergies.

What Warsyde has done is essentially used the old talent system to create an entirely new spec. Maybe create an Arcane mage that takes Ignite and casts Fireball instead of Arcane Blast with a little PoM-Pyro action in the wings? Warsyde did not actually mention any specific spec, but a Google searched turned up this gem of a EJ mage theorycraft thread started 10/16/06, talking about an Arcane/Frost hybrid mage grabbing both Spell Power (+50% crit damage) and Ice Shards (+100% crit damage with Frost spells). That sort of thing definitely would have got my juices flowing at the possibilities. So, yes, choices!

And yet… and yet… maybe not.

See, there was never any question that picking a specialization was a choice. And while the number of talents points available in TBC and the various positions in the trees allowed for the creation of “new” specs like the hybrid Arc/Fire or Arc/Frost mage, what were those hybrid specs really? A fire mage with PoM and Arcane Power, and a Frost mage with absurdly large Frostbolt crits, respectively. You were still basically a Fire mage or Frost mage with different activated abilities. And guess what Fire mages?


You can have your PoM-Pyro back.¹

In conclusion, the older WoW talent systems allowed space for unsupported hybrid specs to exist, but in actuality these hybrids were almost always simply normal specs using 1-2 different abilities; an outcome basically indistinguishable from the proposed plan in MoP. The rest of the talent choices, and arguably many of the hybridization ones, simply came down to calculations – Arc/Frost was created simply to abuse +crit damage talents, for example. The only real thing we are losing is the ability to gain a number every other level, and sink that number down into a hole.

And while Warsyde can choose between spamming one spell vs a complex rotation of silly abilities with vague (calculated!) synergy, so can a 0/0/0 mage. How complicated one’s rotation should be is definitely a choice, but not one you make with talents.

¹ Yes, I am aware of Hot Streak procs and their simulated PoM-Pyro-ness. It’s just not the same.

Posted on November 1, 2011, in Philosophy, WoW and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. That’s a great way of looking at how the talent trees actually break down. I had a similar thought when I first read all the people freaking out over the changes.

    So many of the point spends in the “old system” really never felt all that epic. I mean sure, an extra 1% crit chance or 2% chance for some effect is nice, but it never felt all that significant. If anything, it felt more punitive if you didn’t have the points to pick up these passive bonuses.

    I think the transition to more meaningful choices rather than more raw numerous choices is possibly a good thing. Then again, I’m so beyond done with WoW for other reasons my opinion is not really all that relevant to their bottom line.


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