If you don’t want to read an entire column in which I talk about the new talent trees in World of Warcraft… good gosh, why are you here? Why do you read the title and maybe the first two lines and then comment? Seriously, reading comprehension can be difficult, but it’s not that difficult. But I’ll still teal deer it for you right here so you have an assumption going in: I like where these have wound up, there are a few choices that I’m not so fond of, and I really wish we had better content to test them on than… this.
There, that’s the preamble. We ready? Let’s go.
You don’t have to do a great deal of searching to find that my stance has long been that talent trees are good, actually. There have been many problems in execution, which oddly the Dragonflight addition fixes in many places, but I like talent trees. Now that I’ve actually got them in-hand instead of just in calculators to play around with… how are they? Is this stuff actually fun? Do they live up to expectations? I’d say less, despite early misgivings.
Before we dive too deeply, though, I want to examine a couple of traditional failings of talent trees that the current incarnation largely fixes. First of all, traditional WoW talent trees have had a rough pyramid structure, where you start off with a broad slate of options and your choices narrow because of prerequisites and fewer points to spend toward the end of a tree. This makes a certain amount of sense, but it also means that you usually wind up starting off with choices that all funnel to one particular point; Retribution lets you choose flavor for a while, but you’re getting Divine Storm at the end no matter what.
Dragonflight’s trees mostly fix this problem. Instead, while the absolute bottom is a bit narrower than the main body, you still have three or four “capstone” talents, and you have enough points that you can reliably pick up a couple of them if they synergize well and/or you want them. Many of the trees have much narrower tops, with your early picks being things that you would naturally want anyway that are going to define a large portion of your playstyle.
The other big problem is that while I do, in fact, like getting 5% crit by spending five points over five levels, it can feel a little bit boring when that’s just what you need to fit in. Again, this structure addresses it; many talents are just one point, most others are two, and three seems to be the absolute cap. So if you’re in the crowd that hated doing that, well, good news! Punchier and more direct impacts are the order of the day here.
I also have to give some props to how Wowhead in particular has chosen to have its talent writers frame picks; most of them are very explicitly highlighting choices that are vital vs. ones that are fairly optional, and as should surprise no one, a lot of the latter choices give you no small amount of freedom and shouldn’t change substantially when we move into the expansion proper. In summary, then, it’s a good split with some obvious “better” choices but a whole lot of stuff in the “whatever you want” camp.
Now, some pitfalls. The first major one, at least to my mind, is that some of those “better” choices are not really things that have been there in prior incarnations of any class build. For example, Blessing of Sacrifice has always been a solid utility option for Retribution, but now it’s basically mandatory for an associated talent buff that makes you want to slap it on the main tank as often as you can. That’s not terrible by any means, but it’s a bit of a playstyle shift for everyone.
Second major one is a fairly minor problem because talents are so easy to reset, but there isn’t a whole lot of guidance in-game about “recommended” builds or the like. You’ll log in to find yourself with a basic build that you can edit fairly easily, but new players might not have an easy pointer to the most effective or advantageous choices along the way. It’s a relatively minor one, as mentioned, because you can change this stuff easily, but it does still occur to me.
If you pressed me for a third complaint, it would be that some of the mandatory choices to get stuff I want still aren’t awesome and I don’t really like the covenant-themed abilities being in there, but that’s just abstract grousing. Don’t read too much into that and the fact that I don’t like letting Demon Hunters summon allies as an ultimate talent is definitely a me problem.
The actual play experience with talents suffers a bit because, again, we’re stuck in Shadowlands for the moment and no one really wants to be doing much right now. Heck, everyone knows that the “best” talent builds are basically placeholders for what builds will look like
in the year 2000 when the expansion is out and people hit max level. So we’re all marking time and kind of idly farming garbage or belatedly going through content we missed over the past year because this studio is a trashfire but this is our job.
The process of actually assigning talents, though? Blissfully straightforward. There’s a “reset all” button that’s easy to find, the ability to reset individual talents and change things before finalizing them, and the ability to name builds and shift them as you feel appropriate. It feels like the UI team basically just said, “You know how build calculators worked back in the day? Well let’s make that but better,” and it works beautifully. This is exactly what I had hoped for and it delivers in spades.
More to the point, the diversity of capstone talents does make it feel like there are actually distinct paths and foci that you can take on. I’m sure that some of them are more or less viable than others, but since a lot of the power comes from the middle clump of talents, there’s a fair amount of flexibility to still get the “core” stuff but play around with different capstones. I like that, especially since it allows for two different styles of builds that still hit all of the most vital notes.
Beyond that, I will freely admit that there is a part of me just viscerally happy to have proper talent trees back, something that I have missed since they were unceremoniously removed. Talent trees are not an absolute necessity, but spending points and tweaking builds and feeling like I’ve made some choices that may be sub-optimal but make me personally happy because there’s enough flexibility to allow that brings joy.
Sure, there’s other stuff in the pre-patch, but this is the part that’s most interesting to me. And it’s nice to see design choices like this being made in ways that I feel are generally advantageous for the game, even if I’m not altogether convinced that the designers are going to understand the importance of keeping this up over the long term.