Greetings from the slums of BlizzCon! Although I sit at home in eager anticipation as I write this, by the time you read it, things have likely already spirialed far beyond control. The build-up, the thrill, all of it finally releasing on this day -- and look, I get this poor little column fighting against all of the headline news. How special I must be. While at the time of your reading, there is undoubtedly a barrage of new information to sort through, I want to take a slightly different turn, to change the relative pace of the day, if you will.
Many, many months ago, back when I first joined the WoW Insider staff, I wrote at length on the history of balance druids, how we had changed as the face of WoW itself developed beyond anything that we could have possibly imagined back in the days of Molten Core. I would like once again to reflect upon our past, the trials and tribulations that led to what we are today. It has not always been easy to be a balance druid, and certainly we have much to be thankful for. In tune of celebrating all things Blizzard, I want to take joy in the strides that have been taken in making balance the respectable spec that it is today.
When WoW began
Way back when WoW was first being designed, all of the classes were intended to fill a highly specific role -- one highly specific role. In fact, it was only warriors that were ever originally intended to fill in two roles, tanking and DPS. Under this scheme, druids were regulated to the task of healing, although even that was not the whole truth. The dawn of WoW was not a bright or glorious day; in fact, it was a rather dark day for the MMO world at large. The original game design mirrored much of what was seen in the current powerhouse MMOs of the time; in particular, EverQuest had a major influence on the design principles that went into creating this game.
Under this paradigm, not all classes were created equal. Druids were healers, but they were not true healers. That honorific went to our dear priests. Druids, paladins, and shaman were largely viewed as support classes, and they were balanced around being that support. To anyone who played a druid back in those days, this meant going restoration, yet the reason was not the healing that you could provide. Druid HPS and HPM was far below that of priests; by and large, we were terrible at healing. What we did have, however, was Innervate, and it was a highly coveted ability. A druid's role in a raid (and back then, Strat and Blackrock Depths were considered raids) was to stand ideally by and Innervate a priest as they got low on mana. What you did after that wasn't all too important. Sure, we healed, but no one really cared about your healing.
Balance druids, for what they were worth, didn't have much of a place at all in such a setting. Our damage was poor, our ability to regenerate mana was terrible, and our utility was nonexistent. We brought literally nothing to the table. The balance spec existed solely for the purpose of being a leveling build for druids to help them quest on their own. It was fully expected that they would go restoration once they hit the level cap.
As many know, Hurricane was our end talent point at the time, and it was more of a joke then than it is now. If you ever played Diablo 2, then you have a pretty good idea of what Hurricane was like when it first entered the game. It wasn't until late in WoW's first development cycle that druids finally saw a large number of tweaks. The druid balance pass, as only a single class was balanced/reviewed in a single patch back then, saw more adjustments to feral than anything else, but it did bring about the one thing that every balance druid is most familiar with: Moonkin Form. This finally offered balance druids a reason for being in a raid at all, and it was a heyday at that point.
When it all began
Yet even then, not everything was shiny in the house of balance. Innervate was still the end restoration talent, and balance has absolutely no support for itself. The balance tree at that time was an absolute mess, a hodgepodge of melee and casting abilities that lacked any real sense of direction. We were the prototype of today's enhancement shaman, a very bad, rough, horribly designed prototype. We used spells, yet a good 30% to 40% of our damage actually came from auto-attacks. All those joke videos and screen shots of Moonkin-wielding Sulfuras? That was actually the legit DPS set up of the time. You cast spells until you were OOM, then you meleed until you got your mana back.
Despite the amazing stride that the simple addition of Moonkin Form added to balance druids, it wasn't actually until the release of Naxx that more raid groups started to take us seriously. When Naxx came out, shortly before the introduction of the first expansion, is when Innervate was finally relinquished as a prized restoration possession, being replaced with Swiftmend. This solidified balance's role in a raid and paved the way for what we would become in The Burning Crusade: a heavy support caster.
The introduction of the first expansion saw a revolution in terms of how the classes were viewed that was virtually unheard of in the MMO community. This was the first time that Blizzard set out to make every single spec viable. "Viable" in that day had a very different meaning than it does now; it wasn't a matter of being equal DPS or healing or tanking (Blizzard even openly admitted the latter throughout all of The Burning Crusade that warriors were still the intended main tanks and only they would be balanced as such). Instead, viable meant that you had a position that you could fill within a raid, or your spec was geared toward PVP; balance was shunted off into the support caster role.
With Moonkin Form, Innervate, Improved Faerie Fire, and Insect Swarm, we brought the third highest utility of any other spec in the game; enhancement shaman brought the most, though exclusively to melee, while shadow priests had the best caster utility in their mana feeding. Our saving grace at the time was that we dealt far superior damage to any of the other hybrid choices. With absurdly high raid utility and superior hybrid damage, balance druids actually had a very good standing in The Burning Crusade. Some raiding groups were still slightly on the fence, yet it was the beginning of the end. All of the top guilds used a balance druid in their raids, and even many of the average guilds actively recruited at least one themselves.
When you consider that just an expansion prior we were nothing more than a leveling spec that wasn't intended to even be used at max level, the sheer fact that raids were even willing to consider taking a balance druid (let alone that we were a part of the highest DPS caster group) was an unthinkable design leap from what we saw in other MMOs of the time. Despite the myriad problems that we had at the time -- mana regeneration, threat, clunky mechanics, worthless spells, horrible AOE, and poor itemization, just to name a few -- there had simply never been a better time for us.
The ultimate game-changer
Wrath brought an even larger advance for balance druids and hybrid players in general. The idea that hybrid DPS should provide personal DPS even remotely close to that of pure DPS, even with the enforcement of the so-called hybrid tax, was revolutionary. Even today, this isn't a popular theory among most other MMOs on the market. Although Wrath brought in a whole new host of issues for balance druids such as the ever-infamous Eclipse, there is no denying that as balance druids, we can do nothing but be in awe of what Blizzard accomplished with this expansion.
Equalization of such a scale had never been fathomed when WoW was originally created. I hate to seem as though I am nothing more than a vindictive gutter sleuth, and I hate bringing up old wounds that have long since healed over, but WoW's lead designer's feelings on hybrid players was well documented. There were numerous rants, ravings, scathing emails, even server crashes on EverQuest by Jeffrey Kaplan on his ... particular distaste for hybrid players. Back in the days of The Burning Crusade and vanilla, it was a huge issue on the forums, with many accusations being made as to the development team's handling of hybrid classes; Mr. Kaplan at the time being the lead systems designer, a position now held by Greg Street.
Substantiated or not, we do know what the original design intent was and how that intent has drastically changed over the years. Who was responsible for what is rather inconsequential. WoW was designed from the beginning to be an MMO on par with the likes of EverQuest and modeled after its success. After obtaining that success, the design team saw that it had a chance to set the bar for MMO standards rather than emulate them, and where that has taken it is far beyond any controversy that might have been around at the time.
Today's balance druids are a masterpiece. While we still have our flaws, as does every class (and I harp on them constantly), I at least cannot help but be amazed at how WoW has shaped the MMO genre and the view of hybrid specs such as balance druids. We are respected, viable, even to the point of being overtly stronger than several other specs in the game, a thing that I never thought to be possible when I first created my druid.
I rolled a balance druid to do the impossible. I spent years doing those things which other players said I could never do. Raid as a balance druid in vanilla? Yeah, I did that, got one of the few KT kills the world ever saw, too. Send pure DPS classes crying about their damage as a support character? You better believe it. Yet for everything that I have done, for all that I intend to keep doing, none of it compares to the strides that Blizzard has made in terms of balance druid viability.
While I am often highly critical of Blizzard, to the point that I get many comments and emails questioning why I even still play a balance druid, all of it is only because I know that Blizzard can do better. Blizzard doesn't have any bar to reach; it has new bars to set. It has set them time and time again for balance druids, creating in us a unique, fantastic design that past developers could only dream of. Fan boy? You bet -- and for damn good reasons. Balance has come a long way from its roots, all of it for the better.
Every week, Shifting Perspectives: Balance brings you druidic truth, beauty and insight ... from a moonkin's perspective. We'll help you level your brand new balance druid, tweak your UI and your endgame gear, analyze balance racials and abilities, and even walk you through PVP as a balance druid.