First Hands-On Impressions of Dragonflight Talents

With the 10.0 prepatch and my return to the game of World of Warcraft, one of the immediate points of interest for me was the talent system rework.

WoW has had, as of now, roughly 3 eras of overall talent design. There were the original trees – open routes through 3 spec trees with a point per level as you went, requirements to dump either a set number of earlier-tier points to advance a tree or, in some cases, progressive unlocks where you needed to buy a lower-tier trait to move to the next step, and talents of this era were mostly passive with maybe a couple of active abilities per spec tree. I am including the Cataclysm revamped trees in this iteration, although they came with their own distinct curiosities. Mists of Pandaria started what I call the “pick-3” era, where on a much longer cadence, you’d unlock a choice row where you could take one of 3 available talent options. The talents of this era were individually designed to be bigger, more substantive choices – a single passive trait would often carry a heap of effect, and active abilities gained in this way were often substantial, but it was hard to avoid that this pared down the choice options available to players substantially. This era was supposed to mark a more balanced state of the game, but it presented a big problem – a lack of balance kept some choices ahead, which in the Mists iteration meant some rows only had one viable choice ever, and as the talents were sprinkled and mixed with time, you could sometimes get better choices or a more competitive row, but it took a lot of iteration and time to get there.

Now, we arrive in the third era of talents (that term is fun for reasons I will write about separately). Dragonflight brings what have been hailed as throwback talent trees, but are, in effect, a whole new system that handwaves at talents but is ultimately quite a bit different.

Firstly, the trees. Instead of having multiple spec trees staring you down with choices from each or a mix needed, you only ever have two trees available at a time – a class-specific tree with general class goodies, and a spec-specific tree for your current spec that synergizes with abilities in the stock kit. Despite the naming, the class tree is not a locked-in set of talents regardless of spec, but is instead something you can customize in your build for each of your spec options. What the class tree brings is a sense of the baseline fantasy of the class as a whole – what it is Blizzard envisions when thinking of paladins, warlocks, etc. The spec trees are full of a mix of active abilities and passive bonuses that create interesting combos.

Old talent trees, for their charm and nostalgia, were largely small traits that propped up little bits of your kit or offered small, broadly-applicable bonuses. Priest trees, for example, offered generic bonuses like cast time reductions to a handful of spells, Holy spell critical strike chance, mana regeneration while in combat, and the like. A few choices per tree were dedicated to new active-use abilities, giving you the bits of flavor that constituted a specialization. In that older era of WoW, specs within the same class performing the same role had a lot of overlap – Holy and Discipline Priests were set apart by a small number of spells, with Holy using things like Circle of Healing or Guardian Spirit while Discipline had much bigger shields and faster spot healing via Penance, but a lot of the kit remained pretty similar between the two specs. They gave you enough to set yourself apart from other players if you valued that, but a lot of the bonuses were no-brainers and you’d see differences in build more as a marginal thing. Sometimes though, bigger build changes were possible, like how in mid-Wrath, it was possible to run a dual-wield Unholy DK, in spite of Blizzard loading the ideal dual-wield traits deeper into the Frost talents.

However small the customizations on offer were, they did ultimately offer a choice component. Players, obviously, could still fall into theorycrafted, cookie-cutter specs if they so desired, or you could be the most special player with some weird build that put a near even number of points into each tree for…some reason. As someone who likes games with the ability to play a “wrong” set of choices, talents are great in that way.

New talents in Dragonflight are…not quite the same, though. Besides the obvious, what bears analysis at this point is where these talents come from. A reasonable assumption that I think many of us made early on is that they’d be digging deep into the WoW lore for the old talents, but at the same time, that obviously wouldn’t always work – Monks and Demon Hunters have never had old-school talents (well, maybe Monks did early in development if they started designing the class before the MoP talent revamp), and Evokers have to be designed from the ground-up around that new system. Likewise, Legion’s massive shifts in class and individual spec identity created a lot of gaps where old talents would just flat-out not work. A lot of redesigns went into abilities that have been in the game forever, as a way of creating identity but also shoring up a lack of options in the pick-3 talent systems, with a lot of once-talented traits being simply baked into the abilities as baseline.

So what’s a Blizzard to do? Simple – you use borrowed power mechanics.

Over the last 3 expansions, Blizzard has put a ton of design and development work into a handful of new traits each expansion for the various borrowed power systems that have existed over that time. Artifacts came with their own trees not altogether unlike the old talent trees, and while Azerite traits and Covenant Soulbind Conduits weren’t as robust, with a single rank each, they give a basic idea of talents that can be repurposed. In that way, the new system ends up being admirably efficient, taking things that have been developed in the game’s modern era and putting them to new use.

Given that, then, what do the new trees look like? Well, they change the model in a few ways. There are more dependencies than before, with lower rows only requiring a single link to a higher-row choice and with the tree subdivided into 3 segments, with the later two requiring a set number of spent points in the higher tiers first. Most talent choices are a single point, with a handful of two-point talents giving some granularity to things. Several nodes on both the class and spec-sides of the trees offer a choice between 2 talents, locking you out of picking the other. The talents make use of a mix of things, including Artifact traits, Conduits, Azerite Traits, Legendary powers, and even Covenant abilities for Shadowlands. For example, my Havoc DH right now has 3 of the 4 Covenant abilities – one via an actual covenant, one via the Class tree, and a third via the spec tree.

Talents in this new model get a lot more heavily synergistic than they once were. In the first era of talents, a lot of what you would see is choices that had small, broad effects on big swathes of your toolkit. Instead of a specific choice that empowered one spell, you’d take a generic talent that offered a 1% healing increase across the board per point to a max of 5%. In this new era, choices are much more specific and larger in nature. As a Vengeance Demon Hunter, for example, a large part of my spec tree is devoted to interactions with Frailty. This is a debuff placed on enemies with Sigil of Flame when I first grab it as my second spec tree point, and it’s…okay. It gives me some healing on damage done, healing me for 8% of the damage I deal to targets with the debuff. Quite decent, but in a kit full of self-healing, it’s another option. In the second-tier of the spec tree, though, I get Spirit Bomb, which also applies the debuff, making it much easier to keep rolling. Okay, this is nice, but still not the most amazing. Further in the second tier, I can make Frailty reduce the damage the target deals to me by 4%, so now we’re getting some synergy – I can apply the debuff consistently to multiple targets, and it makes me a much sturdier tank. Then we get to the third tier, where I can take two more talents – one that increases damage I do to Frailty-enfeebled targets by 4% a point to a maximum of 2 points for 8%, and then a talent that allows multiple applications of Frailty to stack while adding one additional way to apply Frailty to a single-target.

You can see the fun of this model from that example – early on, the spec is simple and managing Frailty as you level is easy to do – keep Sigil of Flame out. It helps you feel sturdier as a tank without being a boring defensive or passive trait, and it mixes with the self-healing ideal of the Vengeance Demon Hunter. But then you get deeper, and with each tier, you layer on more useful complexity that expands the goal as you learn. In the second tier, now you’re trying to keep Frailty up more and more for the added damage reduction, and you have an easier time doing it with Spirit Bomb in the kit. Then you get to the third tier, and you’re gaining a ton of damage from Frailty while also being able to apply multiple stacks and gain even more damage output and incoming damage reduction, not to mention the multiplicative benefit of gaining more healing per target from both the stacks of Frailty increasing the healing rate from damage dealt while also giving you more damage output, which increases the healing even further.

As you grow in comfort with the game’s systems, the talents let you layer on more interactions and complexity to existing abilities, and the deep tree choices tend to do this for nearly everyone. Because these talents come from systems designed to be more impactful, each point spent is more meaningful and interesting compared to the original trees, in my opinion.

The upside of this model of build is tremendous – there’s a lot of opportunities to build synergistic combos of talents that enhance prior choices and create a mix of build diversity. The new system itself at a technical level also offers a lot of benefits. You can now easily import and export builds using text strings – no more do you need to grab a screenshot or put a talent calculator on your second monitor, and if you want to share a build with a friend, you can grab an export string and post it into a Discord, blog site (hello!), or even into the game chat itself. The choice elements also play very well, allowing you to make distinct builds that serve specific gameplay niches, save them, and switch between them with relative ease, even compared to today.

The Downsides: Stock Builds and The Shadowlands Transition

One thing that makes me feel like Blizzard is generally doing better at managing the transition away from Covenants is the current state of play. Right now, unlike in past expansions, talents not only work quite well as the “new” system of empowerment, but they work relatively harmoniously with the Shadowlands systems from which some of the choices are pulled. However, by trying to not immediately rip out all of the Shadowlands covenant and legendary stuff (that happens automatically once you leave the Shadowlands in Dragonflight), there are some smaller issues. Most notably is that your Shadowlands choices might change a fair bit. For both Demon Hunter specs, there are some issues with Shadowlands legendaries being talents, where long-worn legendaries are no longer worth it for pre-patch specifically because you can get the same benefit from the talent system. Granted, you can pick points around that issue, in some cases – provided the talent isn’t a linkage needed to bring you to a future choice, but it is an issue all the same. There is some logic that I’ve heard applies to make sure if there is a conflict, the strongest version wins and disables the weaker versions, but I have not seen official confirmation in researching this piece.

But at the same time, I prefer this approach to say, Legion pre-patch, where specs were just allowed to feel bad with big holes in their toolkits where the Artifact was supposed to go. Honestly, the pre-patch window is so narrow anyways that making big concessions to make it work uniquely isn’t the way to go, so while there is some roughness and confusion, it’s not really that bad and I actually prefer this approach.

What I feel a little bit worse about is the default spec option. On the one hand, I think it is great that the game makes some effort to streamline around the new talent system for players who aren’t particularly bothered in any direction by it. If you just wanna get playing, it will give you a decent-enough build with a good mix of choices, and this is auto-applied to start on existing characters. The new system UI makes it very easy to manage the build and swap things around, or to go back to the “recommended” stock build, so that’s all fine. What I dislike here, in a very small sense, is that the game doesn’t push on talents as hard as it should. Like a lot of things in WoW, it expects players logging in to read a splash screen or a basic help tooltip that pops up and then get to work, but how often do players actually read those? What I would have liked to see is a quest or some form of push towards a class trainer, just as a means of saying, “hey, make sure you do this.” If, at that point, you decide the stock build is fine, cool – but I would have liked to see the game push the issue with players a bit harder to educate them and build that support into the game. Again, this is largely a unique issue for players who are using existing leveled characters in this window – in the theoretical future, players will already be acquainted with the system from leveling, but for right now, it is an issue, however small. Also, right now, it represents a huge shift – players go from picking 6 talents to picking 51, so there is a lot of reading and research involved.

Lastly, I do think some details of the builds could be a little bit better. I like that you have some unconventional choices like Purge on Shaman, where long-lived class utility can be a choice, but it also means that taking a class with enemy dispels is no longer a guarantee a group will have those. This is more of an issue for PUG groups than established raids and dungeon groups, because that is the setting in which you would primarily need to make those assumptions. Having that choice is cool – but it comes with an attached cost and you need to be aware of the pitfalls when building a pickup group activity (or identifying root cause of issues in a run when something goes pear-shaped). Likewise, while you have a fair bit of choice in the new trees, clear winners continue to exist. I don’t actually hold this as much of an issue, because winning builds always exist – that was true in all eras of talent systems and I didn’t expect Blizzard to get to a point where there are no ideal talents or all ideal talents and tough choices to make. The plus side is that with saved templates and easy swapping, you can move between builds in such a way that it almost feels effortless – min-maxing has room to play here even with the removal of layered borrowed power systems.

Overall, though, I’m actually quite happy with the talent systems of Dragonflight in the current pre-patch. There’s a good balance of old-school and modern design here, and the issues the older systems had are largely addressed. New talents are specific, larger in impact, smaller in point investments, and allow a lot of unique synergistic setups that take the few positives of the pick-3 era’s big choices and move them in small pieces as a roll-up set of choices you can make. As a foundation for the future of WoW, this is a solid base to build on.

3 thoughts on “First Hands-On Impressions of Dragonflight Talents

  1. As a casual retail player, I agree that the system looks promising (even if I hate having to learn all these new talents from scratch on multiple max-level characters). I always hated the MoP-style pick-from-three system, both because it made levelling less interesting but also because it never really lived up to its claim of providing more interesting choices and I said as much back in 2014. In Torghast I always avoided the powers that gave extra talents because 100% of the time they were boring, haha.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I thought I’d hate the new talent trees but levelling some fresh characters proved me wrong.

    I have a few complaints though. First, in the two levelling dungeons I’ve done there have been zero interrupts in both groups. Including me! But I was a moonkin so not my job, right? Second, it’s a bit weird how some abilities end up in your class spellbook and others in your spec spellbook. Sometimes talents I pick in my class tree end up in my spec spellbook and vice versa. Not a big issue but confusing. Lastly, passives can be a bit inconsistent. I liked how you’d level, earn a passive (like cat form reducing fall damage), and see it in your spellbook *and* an updated tooltip. Now it’s sometimes just the tooltip that gets updated so I have to search all the tooltips if I can’t remember what the passive was. Again, minor but confusing.

    Like

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