So it goes that we've had another beta patch -- and it's been a highly exciting one, to say the least. Not all that long ago, Blizzard announced that they would taking the current 51-point talent trees and trimming them down to 31-point talent trees, much as what players had when WoW was first released. Further, players will no longer gain a talent point every single level; instead, it will be approximately every other level, and a level 85 character will end up having a total of 41 talent points to spend. The purpose of these changes is to make all of the talents more meaningful to players, in an effort to get rid of those talents deemed boring or flat. It's quite a lofty goal, but Blizzard seems to be pulling it off nicely thus far. Further, once players hit level 10, they will choose a tree to specialize in, granting them new abilities and bonuses which assist in their chosen role.
Restoration druids, specifically, are getting some pretty major changes already in Cataclysm, causing this change to push things even further. The big change, of course, is the highly controversial Tree of Life change, wherein the form will now act as cooldown ability instead of a standard shapeshift -- yes, it had to be mentioned at least once. All that aside, the more interesting aspect is how Blizzard is going to handle restoration druid leveling. Although it's often brushed aside as a trivial issue, having a healing spec that is able to quest and function on its own is fairly important; with a majority of a class' damage potential being shifted to the new specialization model, it's going to be interesting to see how Blizzard balances and differentiates between the damage capabilities of a DPSer and a healer.
Regardless of design philosophy, Blizzard did push a new beta patch this week that introduced the new 31-point talent tree as well as the specializations for each class. Before we go about taking a look into these changes, let me start by warning you not to get upset over anything that you might see. Blizzard listed in the patch notes that the druid class as a whole isn't very far along in the development for the new talent trees, and multiple things are still likely to change once another pass is made.
Specialization is the new system introduced along with the 31-point talent trees as a form of replacement for the previously announced mastery system. Specialization is essentially the same thing as mastery; it provides passive bonuses from simply specializing within the tree. However, instead of gaining additional mastery bonuses as players invest talent points into a tree, players receive all of their passive benefits up front. Furthermore, choosing a specialization grants a bonus ability that assists players in performing their new roles.
Side-tracking a little bit here, Blizzard had previously stated for that holy priests, they aren't really looking to focus the healing spec's level 10 ability exclusively on healing; they want the ability to be a versatile core mechanic of the class that is useful in a variety of places. For restoration druids, this really didn't apply, since the level 10 ability is Swiftmend. I wouldn't really call this a bad thing, though, because Swiftmend is an amazing ability for restoration druids, especially useful in the lower levels. While we don't know yet at what level all of the new healing spells will be trained, most lower-level druids are practically stuck spamming Healing Touch, since they either don't have Regrowth, or Regrowth and Rejuvenation aren't powerful enough yet to be very effective. Giving druids Swiftmend opens up more possibilities for healing, and it gets them more accustomed to making use of their HoTs at an earlier stage instead of much later into the gaming experience.
As for the passive bonuses themselves, Blizzard hasn't fully released those yet. Although the old mastery system is being folded into these bonuses, it seems that several other effects are as well, such as spell pushback resistance. Blizzard is more than likely currently working out all of the kinks balancing what a player would need at that level, what might be gained later, and how (or if) the bonuses will change/scale at all. One thing that is certain is that restoration will get the mana regeneration passive bonus, as all healers do, that was previously folded in as a mastery bonus.
The final mastery, the main bonus that will end up scaling from gear, is likely to remain unchanged for restoration druids; however, it is also likely that players won't gain it until they reach a much higher level. Blizzard has mentioned that they are currently looking at what that level should be for all classes. I really wouldn't expect many changes there.
With the size of the talent trees taking a major hit, it should come as no surprise that many talents have since been cut from the game entirely or folded into each other. As it stands right now, not all that much has changed for restoration druids. Here are a few things that have.
Naturalist This talent has been completely removed, as have a vast majority of talents that reduced the cast time of spells. Healing Touch will probably be changed to have a 3-second cast time baseline -- or it might not -- but I wouldn't worry too much about this talent being gone. Again, most of this type of these talents are gone for virtually every class, so it seems Blizzard is also working to completely rework spell cast times.
Omen of Clarity Here's another talent that has been removed, and certainly one that's gotten quite a few druids upset. I wouldn't worry about it, though. Ghostcrawler (lead systems designer) has already stated that they plan on keeping Omen of Clarity around; they just aren't sure if it will be a trained ability or if it will be placed back in the upper tier of restoration.
Nature's Bounty This spell now increases the critical strike chance of of Regrowth on targets at low health, and it allows for critical heals from Healing Touch and Nourish to reduce the cooldown on Swiftmend by .5 seconds. How important either portion of this talent really ends up being is somewhat debatable. The cooldown for Swiftmend is only 15 seconds, which is a fairly short time frame already, and usually it isn't a spell that a druid chooses to use every single cooldown. It's slightly more situational. There currently isn't any listed cooldown for Swiftmend, so Blizzard might be increasing it -- but who really knows?
Empowered Touch Previously, this spell simply increased the spellpower scaling of both Healing Touch and Nourish. It still does the former part, but now Nourish casts will refresh the duration of Lifebloom on the current target. This sounds like a pretty big deal, at least for tank healing; however, just as with Nature's Bounty, how it really ends up has yet to be determined. If Blizzard's philosophy that tanks won't always be at 100% health throughout the course of an encounter holds (so that instead, healers are pumping out heals to keep them higher up but not completely topped off), then Empowered Touch will end up being simply amazing. However, if things are anything like healing today, then druids may find themselves in a position where they don't really need to Nourish a target --, so should you really be wasting mana just to refresh Lifebloom? It's a strong perk, in my opinion, but how useful in terms of functional HPS it really is has yet to be seen.
Fury of Stormrage This is not really a healing talent, but it's worth noting that Fury of Stormrage now grants a player an instant Wrath cast instead of an instant Starfire cast.
Overall, the restoration tree is still pretty solid, at least in comparison to balance and feral at this point. Still, there's quite a bit that will more than likely change or be added. As it stands right now, there are absolutely zero choices when it comes to which talents to pick up for a restoration druid. You simply get everything out of the restoration tree save Furor, Fury of Stormrage and Natural Perfection out of restoration, and then pick up Genesis, Nature's Grace and Moonglow from balance. As great as choice is, the choice between Natural Perfection and a talent such as Revitalize seems like a no-brainer to me. Hopefully, this is something that Blizzard addresses -- plus I want to see some new nifty talents!