The argument against poor play
In defense of this design, I cannot honestly say that I can make a purely logical argument against it. If nothing else, the new balance tree is virtually idiot-proof. Perhaps it is my innate elitism or a burning desire to validate what it is that I do, but I feel that this step towards making the game less involved is one too far. I am being totally serious when I say that there is no possible way that you could make a balance spec that was grossly inferior to every other balance spec out there -- it simply isn't possible. Simply maxing out every single balance talent there is still leaves you with four points left over to spend anywhere else you'd please.
Yes, in doing this utterly random, poorly researched build, you would miss out on some really nice talents. Yes, there are instances where not having these talents will significantly reduce your DPS, although this is mostly only applicable to encounters with heavy pushback and not having Nature's Focus.
There is a very fine line between having talents that are all useful to a certain degree and having the ability to literally blindfold yourself and still end up with a mostly viable spec. I do not think that players should have to spend hours upon hours of time just to figure out a spec that is viable for them, yet at the same time, a player shouldn't also be able to just point and click on talents without putting any thought into it at all. Talents should have meaning; they should matter, and it should be possible to make a mistake, as it were, and end up with a spec that isn't optimal towards specific areas of the game.
How far should the optimal and non-optimal talent set-ups be? I cannot say. That is an entirely subjective opinion that cannot be answered with concrete facts. I will say this much, though. A well researched player who knows how to properly plan a spec toward reaching a specific end should always outperform a player who has not done these things, and that performance should not be within the variable of RNG.
Understand that making an optimal character is still not that easy. There are gearing options, glyphs and the new Path of the Titans to consider on top of talent choices; however, as one part of the puzzle unravels, the importance of others only increases.
Can mana regeneration be considered optional?
Taking a break from my rantings on the capacity of other players; there is another issue that I would like to address. Previously I classified our mana regeneration talents as being optional; however, this is generally far from the truth. Currently in the game, a well geared balance druid doesn't need to spend additional talents on mana regeneration; everything that they need is baked right into Moonkin Form. We are losing that perk, though.
The question remains, then, how mandatory will our mana regeneration talents be? Will balance druids always have to take Moonglow, Dreamstate and Euphoria in order to sustain themselves? Will we have to use our own Innervate? Will we eventually be able to drop points out of mana regeneration talents as gear increases?
Mana regeneration is a huge issue, even in PvE, that is often overlooked. It is overlooked because currently mana regeneration is so ridiculously high across the board. The Lich King is a pretty prime example of this. The encounter lasts for 15 minutes, and while there are high and low periods of mana expenditure, there is no RoS-styled mana rejuvenation effect between phases, yet virtually no one has any problems with mana on this encounter. As a DPS caster, mana should never have to be a concern to us. Mana is a liability, a handicap, and one that simply should not exist in the realm of dealing damage if encounters are to be designed the way that they currently are. If a DPS caster is ever at risk of going completely OOM, then he has a significant disadvantage in comparison to non-mana based classes, all of whom have infinite resources.
Why take a balance druid if he is going to go OOM when you can take, say, a fury warrior who will always have rage -- especially when they can both put out the same level of damage? To this end, mana regeneration talents are always mandatory, yet always situational. Regeneration talents are only applicable insomuch that they allow for you to not run out of mana during the course of an encounter. If you can end an encounter using a full rotation throughout the entire time, then it doesn't matter if you end that fight with 100 or 100,000 mana; all that matters is that you never, ever have to stop using your highest DPS rotation due to mana constraints (with the caveat, of course, that the system is balanced around this principle).
Having scalar mana regeneration, while nice, is something of an issue in certain respects. Mana regeneration is, in essence, nothing more than a specific utility: the utility to maintain your expected damage levels. It does not directly contribute to your capacity to deal damage; it only does so indirectly. It is for this reason that scalar mana regeneration is an issue. As you need less mana regeneration -- or rather, fewer talent points spent towards mana regeneration -- those talent points can then be spent on other things that might directly increase damage. Generally speaking, these talent switches usually result in very minor increases in DPS, given that a majority of specs won't have to give up core DPS talents for mana regeneration.
Even still, this is one positive note about the new talent tree. Whether our mana regeneration is mandatory or not is rather superfluous. We have four extra points as it stands already, and there simply isn't anything major that we would ever have to give up in order to gain additional mana regeneration. This makes balancing across multiple gearing levels even easier and is a major benefit.
Survivability as an option
If there is one thing that the balance tree is really missing both now and in Cataclysm, it is any manner of talents that focus on our ability to take damage. Survivability is simply one thing that balance druids have always struggled with. Although we now have access to several new spells that allow us to avoid damage to a degree (and thus indirectly increase survivability), there really isn't anything else that we can take. In a PvE setting, survivability is generally an optional talent choice that players make, yet so few really appreciate how important these talents really are. The amount of damage that a player takes is equally important to the amount of damage that a player is capable of dealing. As the saying goes, dead DPS is 0 DPS; anything at all that can make you that much more survivable is such a huge asset. It really saddens me how much players disregard such a fundamental aspect of the game.
The balance tree really could stand to use some talents which increase our ability to live, not only because it is something that we have needed in PvP for so long, but also to expand upon the options that PvE druids have access to. Each encounter within the game is different; each one requires a completely different set of skills and utility to conquer. Balance, as it stands, simply does not have that many options. With your four spare talent points, you can pick up Gale Winds, Fungal Growth, Lunar Justice or Perseverance. The last one is a notable difference, as it does help in this situation, yet we should have something that isn't thrown off into the restoration tree and obviously made for feral tanks to give them a reason to sub-spec. Where is our Primal Tenacity? Our Improved Barkskin? Why does the balance tree not offer any form of passive or even active defensive utility? This is something so basic, so common, that I'm not sure there are really any trees in the game that don't offer some form of damage reduction other than ours. Even fire and arcane have something! Fire -- the worst PvP spec in the history of the game has defensive talents; they kind of suck, but they're there. Balance druids? Nothing.
This baffles me, people. Baffles me.
Every week, Shifting Perspectives treks across Azeroth in pursuit of truth, beauty and insight concerning the druid class. Sometimes it finds the latter, or something good enough for government work. Whether you're a bear, cat, moonkin, tree or stuck in caster form, we've got the skinny on druid changes in patch 3.3, a look at the disappearance of the bear tank and thoughts on why you should be playing the class (or why not).