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Mists of Pandaria: The myth of the talent tree choice

Blizzard played up the Cataclysm expansion as a groundbreaking expansion that would change everything, but the truth is that the Shattering was nothing compared to what is happening to class talent trees in the new Mists of Pandaria expansion. Those giant talent trees we visited every two levels are gone, replaced with six separate choices spread across the course of 90 levels.

To be fair, there are a lot of terrific ideas in what Blizzard is planning to do with our talent trees. Removed are the choices that everyone should make. And yes, Blizzard did say that in Cataclysm, but this time, the designers mean it. What shadow priest doesn't take Vampiric Touch? What balance druid doesn't invest that crucial talent point to take Moonkin Form?

But ultimately, if the goal here is to make things easier on the players, to make this a choice that players don't need to extensively research, Blizzard totally missed the mark.

During the BlizzCon 2011 Class Panel, Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street (lead systems designer) explained the new philosophy for the Mists of Pandaria talent system. The basic points are this:
  • Blizzard wants you to be able to access new abilities and combinations that you never had before, like a shadow priest being able to cast the (now discipline priest spell) Power Infusion.
  • Blizzard wants to move away from cookie-cutter trees. That means it wants to create a system where there is no wrong choice, where every talent is just as valid as the next.
It's hard to argue with the intent. It wants to make the game more fun (point #1), and it wants to make the game more accessible (point #2). It doesn't want you having to head to Wowhead every time you ding, nor should you need to read a [your class here] 101 article on WoW Insider to find an already filled out talent tree to copy.

But guess what? These new talent trees they introduced are absolutely counter to the intent of simplification. And as much as Ghostcrawler wants you to believe that there are no wrong answers, there always will be. Always.

The truth

No offense to those of you reading, but a large number of World of Warcraft players are lazy. They don't like hard choices. Or, more specifically: They like choices as hard as they're able to handle.

Players may not all be top-tier raiders, but even casual players aren't stupid. Each and every player is going to take a look at these new-for-Mists of Pandaria talents and instinctually know that there's a right choice and there's a wrong choice. No one wants to be that guy with the messed-up tree -- like it or not, we're all judged by other players based on those choices we make. No matter how long you've been playing, I guarantee you've heard someone belittle someone else over some in-game choice that they've made.

What's that, you say? There aren't going to be any right or wrong choices? Wrong, my friend. There are. Take a look at the level 75 priest talents, for instance:

Now, if you say, "Fox, there's no one talent that's perfect for all situations," you're right. These talents are all situational -- a different talent will be the best for a different fight. Going up against Ragnaros? Then Twist of Fate is a poor choice -- the boss fight ends well before his health hits 0%. Power Infusion is probably better. Or is the right choice Serendipity? After all, the add phase is when your raid is at most risk for a wipe, and Mind Melt is crucial for burning down adds quickly.

It's far too early to theorycraft fights that don't yet exist (obviously), but as soon as Mists of Pandaria bosses hit the PTR for testing, you better bet that every Elitist Jerk in existence will be running the numbers, determining what talent is best for which fight.

In short, we didn't get rid of cookie-cutter talent trees. We simply created the need for far more cookie-cutter builds -- one per raid encounter. And maybe one for PVP. And another for heroics. And yet another for soloing.

Is this all a bad thing?

Look, it's easy to understand what Ghostcrawler and the rest are trying to do. Getting rid of easy choices is a slam dunk. But if they want you to believe that any talent or benefit that doesn't have a number can't be theorycrafted, they're wrong. It happens now. And it's going to happen when MoP launches. It's just that the theorycrafting that's going to happen will get much more complex than ever before.

You'll still have sites like Elitist Jerks, WoW Insider, and all sorts of other community sites (like shadowpriest.com) offering their opinions as to what builds are best -- it's what we do. There will be logic to back them up, some with raw math, others with computer simulations as is done now. Many of these suggestions will be made inside the margin of error with a healthy dose of guessing, but the suggestions will be there. Cookie cutters will exist. People will still judge you for your choices. It's a part of MMORPGs.

If you're a top raider, you'll be doing more research instead of less. But isn't that what a lot of you complainers want, anyway? More variables? Complexity that makes you feel more self-important?

And for the rest of you, whether you want to be called "casuals," "casual raiders," or just "normies," you'll have cookie cutters to fall back on. You can spend as much time researching fights as you want to perfect your build, even if that preferred amount of time is zero. Because when this new talent system launches, in many situations, even the experts will have no clue which talent is best. Theorycrafting isn't an exact science. It's educated guessing.

Ultimately, though Blizzard didn't accomplish its goal of removing cookie-cutter builds, you can't fault it -- that task is impossible. What Blizzard did do is create a whole new, better system, where hard choices have to be made ... choices centering around utility. It's a huge step in the right direction. If World of Warcraft is to have any talent system at all, it should be closer to the one we're getting than the one we have.
The news is out -- we'll be playing Mists of Pandaria! Find out what's in store with an all-new talent system, peek over our shoulder at our Pandaren hands-on, and get ready to battle your companion pets against others. It's all here right at WoW Insider!

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, BlizzCon, Mists of Pandaria

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