So now we’ve gone through all of the ability unpruning and changing coming with World of Warcraft’s next expansion. We know what it’s going to look like, and… gosh, it’s underwhelming. And I just remember looking at the way things are lined up right now for Retribution Paladin – the first class and spec I ever really loved, back from launch – and thinking that this spec is clearly much more straightforward as a melee DPS spec than it was in those early days.
And that’s completely missing the point.
I don’t seem to be alone in this, either; a quick (not terribly scientific) survey points to a lot of people eagerly pointing to Wrath of the Lich King as the best time to have been playing Retribution. And when I consider how that was back when Retribution’s lack of Holy Power, the weird juggling of Seals, and the long stretches when you were just auto-attacking and waiting, I feel like it’s worth examining why people liked this version of the class so much. Or at least, why I did.
I am, of course, somewhat exaggerating by saying anyone was just waiting; by Wrath of the Lich King Crusader Strike, Divine Storm, Judgement, and Exorcism all meant that you had something to do on a fairly reliable basis. You would more often than not have an ability you could hit that dealt damage. But not all the time; it was very easy to run into a point wherein you’d hit all of your abilities and everything else was on cooldown.
This was relevant because Retribution had no sort of build-and-spend mechanism by design. Indeed, rather than having a firm rotation, Retribution had a priority list that was all about getting things on cooldown and then letting the steady smack of your seal-enhanced melee attacks rack up the damage, hoping for some critical hits to trigger your Vengeance ability.
That’s not even counting the weirdness of stat priorities. Retribution was unusual in that it actually made pretty solid use of Strength, Intellect, and Agility across the board; Intellect for mana and spellpower (since Judgement and Exorcism were both spells), Strength for our melee attacks, Agility for the useful crit boost. This was mitigated somewhat within WotLK with talents that boosted spellpower based on attack power, but the spec still required a much more odd spread of stats than, say, Fury Warriors.
It was messy, slow, and weird. And I loved it.
Why? Well, for one thing, that fun part about Retribution was that you weren’t really there solely for wading into battle and killing everyone. You were pretty good at that, but your party also benefited from the fact that you passively offered an aura which boosted durability, survival, and speed. Just by being in the party, you made everyone else a bit better. You also could spread around your Blessings to further boost the team.
Divine Storm was a nice damage ability on a cooldown, yes… but it also boasted a healing component. Sure, it wasn’t even to make you a main healer, but it was enough that the actual healer could breathe a little bit easier, especially if you had Judgement of Light on the main target. You could hit the party with Replenishment, ensuring that anyone with mana could get out more casts and spend less time recovering.
For that matter, the “gaps” in your rotation could in and of themselves be useful. Maybe you’d be more useful right now casting a spot heal instead of just smacking the target. Maybe you need to shield someone from something bad incoming. Maybe the tank is getting pounded and Sacrifice is a good move right now.
The biggest issue that had existed for Retribution from launch was having a paucity of ways to just hit a button and do some damage. By WotLK, that issue had been solved. We still had far fewer buttons to do that than, say, Rogues or Hunters or Mages… but that was also because we had more functions that could be offered than those classes, even if 90% of the time those additional functions weren’t needed.
None of that is really present in Battle for Azeroth. It’s one of the many, many things that makes me sad about this expansion.
A lot of the actual abilities haven’t gone away, technically; my Retribution Paladin is still hitting Judgement and Crusader Strike and Divine Storm repeatedly. And on the surface, yes, bringing Auras back means that some of that old flavor is coming back. But the bonus offered by these Auras isn’t anything like what it used to be… certainly less than WotLK’s passive “my presence makes everyone better regardless of my aura” effects.
There are no seals. The resource system is still build-and-spend. The net result makes Retribution Paladin feel less like a team support that happens to be oriented toward dealing damage and more like… well, an Arms Warrior with holy themes swirling around it.
Without a doubt, this makes the spec much easier to balance and design along the way. Consistently having damage abilities to hit instead of just a handful of them is significant. It also means that you don’t have to tune Retribution’s damage around the boosts it provides to the rest of the party. It is a lot simpler and a lot easier to avoid making certain combinations accidentally way more powerful than intended.
It’s also boring. And it’s not what a lot of long-time fans fell in love with.
If you wanted to do damage, everyone knew that Retribution in WotLK was not the absolute best. (It still did very well, of course; after all, when you have an ability that auto-crits against Undead, another ability that boosts your performance when you crit, and an expansion full of undead, you kind of start off with an advantage.) But people who had been playing the spec the whole time hadn’t ever wanted that. We had wanted to be a crusading knight that, much like other Paladin specs, boosted those around us. A beacon of light and inspiration.
But fun tricks like how Judgement was a multi-function ability were the things that Retribution fans actually enjoyed about the class. Removing it – even if it meant that the end result produced a spec that technically did more damage and more reliably hit solid damage numbers – meant that the class just didn’t feel the same. People might not have liked refreshing Seals all the time, but that was because it didn’t add anything to the gameplay but pushing more buttons. The mechanisms involved were fun.
It’s that sort of thing that makes me look askance at the “unpruning.” Yes, we’re getting some of the abilities back. I have auras again! I’m happy about that. But the core philosophy remains the same. I’m still saddled with Holy Power and no seals and Templar’s Verdict and so forth. The loss of auras wasn’t what made the spec less fun to play, but the philosophy that led to losing them is still alive and well… and failing to recognize that what changed goes deeper than having a Devotion Aura icon means that we are, in the end, not changing anything significant.