Talents have gone through some very substantial changes over the years. The prime form of character augmentation and customisation in World of Warcraft, talents were the predecessors of specializations, predating the introduction of fixed specializations by many years. Originally a complex and intricate system of possible combinations, since Wrath of the Lich King talents have been reduced and simplified, with many of their earlier functions being split off into other mechanisms. The original means of customising your character's abilities and combat role, Cataclysm saw the creation of specific specializations, making the selection of a player's talents more helpful than critical, while Mists of Pandaria saw them converted to a far simpler system, with choice no longer determined by specialization or previous selections. While the current system features a fraction of the number of talents previously known, a large amount of talents have been converted into specialization-specific or class-wide abilities, with many key abilities having started life in the higher tiers of a class's pre-historic talent trees.
Originally, each class's talents were presented in three 'talent trees'. In comparison to Mists of Pandaria's 18 talents, pre-Cataclysm players had the choice of more than 80 talents to choose from, for each class. Rather than a small number of tiers from which to select talents freely, talents were presented in three separate trees, with access to the higher or deeper tiers of each tree granted only through selecting sufficient talents in that tree. Talent trees were the original form of class specializations, with a player's choice of talents often determining which combat role they were fit to perform.
Talent selection was not limited by tier, but rather by the total number of talents selected. 'Talent points' were granted to players as they levelled, with talents selected by spending one of the player's points. Spending sufficient talent points in a given tier granted access to the next tier. Most talents had multiple ranks, with players often having to spend 5 points in a talent to gain its total effect, and the majority of all talents were passive, with the few active talents in each tree usually powerful and desirable abilities. By World of Warcraft's second expansion, max-level characters had 71 talent points to spend, with 11 tiers in each tree and more than 80 talents for each class. The many ranks available for most talents presented some classes with more than 230 possible places to spend their points, and myriad ways of building their character's spec.
Talent trees created a focused, limiting relationship with talents, with some of the most powerful talents placed deep within their trees, meaning only players who chose to spend the vast majority of their points in that tree were able to acquire them. Conversely, some talents that were useful to players of all kinds were made available on the lower tiers. This can be seen to have forced players to focus on their chosen priorities, with every choice of talent affecting all future options, and every unlocked tier in one tree meaning a lost tier of talents in another. Some talents also required the choice of specific talents earlier in the tree.
Because talent choice was therefore cumulative and limiting, the term 'talent build' or simply 'build' was used to describe the total combination and emphasis of a character's talent choices (and to a lesser degree other enhancements). A player's spread of points across their trees was expressed numerically, such as (10/0/61) for a tanking warrior specced deep into the Protection tree, or (0/37/34) for a PvP druid balancing healing with survival. Players could choose to spec deep into a certain tree, focusing on improving their abilities in that particular area; or to balance that focus with varying amounts of talents from other trees, perhaps gaining crucial secondary-role abilities and avoiding over-specializing. Some players chose to create true hybrid builds, such as mages combining Frost and Fire talents to create an Elementalist build. With a maximum of 71 talent points in Wrath of the Lich King, choice of talents held a significant amount of complexity, with numerous online calculators and recommended builds, and constant debate over the best combinations.
A common approach was for players to spend enough points in a tree to reach the top talent, usually an extremely powerful ability that was therefore only available to players who specialized fully in that tree, before spending their remaining points in the often more desirable talents of another tree. Many talents were considered to be 'filler' talents, granting little benefit but being placed in such a position that taking them was required in order to gain access to higher tiers or other particularly desirable talents. Choice of talents was often focused upon access to certain key abilities, with builds designed to hit these talents while spending as few points as possible on less desirable options. Once these key points were decided upon, choice of build often became a matter of which of the less desirable options were preferred (or at least which were the least useless), since a certain number of them had to be chosen.
A player's selection of talents was originally also far more binding and difficult to reverse than it is in the game today. Talents could only be reset by visiting a class trainer, and the amount of gold required to do so was substantial, and rose with each reset. Players wishing to change spec, such as a DPS-oriented warrior wishing to tank in a dungeon, would have to spend time and money seeking the services of a trainer, making participating in low-level dungeons far more difficult, while even max-level players who often played in different roles had to spend substantial amounts of money switching between different talent builds. Players therefore often chose their talents with far more permanence; players wishing to participate in PvP as they levelled, or wishing to run dungeons as healers while still being capable of dealing a reasonable amount of damage, would have to make numerous compromises in their builds, with respeccing both a costly and time-consuming act. For this reason Dual Talent Specialization was introduced in patch 3.1.0, for the then princely sum of 1000, making it possible for the first time to switch between two sets of talents.
With patch 4.0.1 specializations were introduced, creating three fixed specs for each class with a pre-determined combat role. Talents continued to be significant choices, but were no longer so critically responsible for determining the player's capabilities. Dozens of talents were removed, and others saw their number of ranks reduced. The number of talent points was reduced accordingly from 71 to 41.
With the introduction of specializations, talent trees were for the first time locked, with initially only the tree corresponding to a character's chosen specialization being available for selection. By spending 31 points in their 'primary tree' players were able to unlock their other trees, and could then spend any remaining points as they wished. However, because of the progressive nature of the trees, this limited players to relatively insignificant talents from their 'secondary trees', with players having enough points to access the first tier of both of their secondary trees, but the second tier of only one of their secondary trees. This was intended, serving to allow Blizzard to focus on creating three separate and succinct specs for each class, with the aim of improving balance and deepening and refining the character and playstyle of each spec, and was also argued by some to make the previously overly-complex talent trees far easier for new players to get to grips with.
These changes resulted in a far smaller degree of choice in talent selection, with each max-level spec capable of a relatively small number of possible builds. While players were still free to spend their last 10 points in any tree, some players bemoaned the loss of true hybrid specs from the game, with many previous combinations now made impossible. Additionally, while talents remained the source of many of players' most powerful abilities, due to the far more limited and rigid nature of the Cataclysm talent trees, the total number of possible builds at max-level was greatly reduced, in turn reducing the importance of players' talent selections. As later described by Blizzard in the run-up to Mists of Pandaria, the Cataclysm model made players' choices far less significant, because once the most important talents had been secured, the question of where to spend their remaining points had relatively little impact on their character. In this way, the Cataclysm model moved players closer to a "cookie-cutter" situation, with relatively little talent variation seen between most characters of a given spec.
Cataclysm also saw the level requirement of Dual Talent Specialization reduced from 40 to 30, and its price reduced from 1000 to a mere 100, which, coupled with the relative devaluation of gold following the launch of the new expansion, saw the option available to players far earlier in their playing careers. With such a low price, there was little reason for any player of sufficient level not to have purchased the specialization, greatly increasing the numbers of players capable of switching between specs at a moment's notice, especially at lower levels.
Mists of Pandaria
Mists of Pandaria saw the largest changes yet to the talent system. Talent trees were removed, with the number of talents vastly reduced and placed in six tiers of three talents each. Talent points were removed entirely, with players instead free to choose a single talent from each tier, and choices in one tier no longer affecting choices in any other, removing most of the strategy from talent selection. Access to talents was also no longer limited by specialization, although since many talents had been changed into specialization-specific abilities, arguably this was of less significance than it might have seemed. In effect, talents live on in the form of the active and passive abilities unique to characters of a given spec, the only difference being that the player need not spend points to acquire them.
With talents changed into something more similar to glyphs, Mists of Pandaria also made it possible for players to remove their own talent selections using items such as . For the first time players were able to adjust their own talents on the move, even mid-instance, rather than having to traipse back to their class trainers. As well as facilitating experimentation and variation, this change was also promoted as allowing for a far greater degree of versatility, with players able to change talents in order to meet the demands of a specific encounter, such as facing a particular boss, or catering to the strengths of the opposing team in arena and PvP.
During the beta test and early months of Mists of Pandaria, these changes sparked much controversy and debate among players, with numerous threads devoted to the subject on the official forums. Many players felt that the new system stripped them of much of their choice, replacing dozens of talents with only a few, and forced them to choose between talents that were often considered equally undesirable. Some also considered the changes to the talent system to be a further simplification and dumbing-down of the game. Others argued that the new system in fact increased choice; while the previous system had presented dozens of talents to choose from, in practice most end-game players chose very similar builds, with little if any room for customisation. Additionally, what differences were to be found were largely limited to where to place the last few points, and these choices were often considered to make little difference to the player's abilities. In contrast, it was argued, the new system offered players far more choice, and far more significant choices, with most talents representing substantial differences to the player's abilities and playstyle, in spite of the apparent lack of options.
Warlords of Draenor
Warlords of Draenor largely continued to use talents in the model of Mists of Pandaria, with some specific refinements. The most significant systematic change was that some talent rows now dynamically changed based on the player's current specialization. For example, the second slot of the mage level 75 row contained for all specializations, but the first and third slots contained and for Arcane, and for Fire, and and for Frost. While Mists of Pandaria had a number of talents (such as ) which changed function depending on the player's selected specialization, in Warlords of Draenor the ability on the talent row actually changed to a different ability when the player changed specialization.
This change made it easier to diversify talents without burdening tooltips, but also made it harder for players to inspect talents for alternate specs. For the first time it was not possible to view each specialization's talents without going to the trouble of learning the spec, making the use of online talent calculators and listings more useful than before.
With the level cap raised to 100, Warlords also introduced a seventh tier of talents, raising the new number of talents available to each spec to 21. However, total number of talents per class varied, with classes such as rogue and death knight having only one set of 21 talents for the entire class, while druids featured several spec-specific options, for a total of 33 talents. Most classes had between 21 and 26 talents.
Successive expansions have seen talents evolve into something quite different from their original incarnation, with specializations now chosen outright, and most former talents now abilities learnt automatically by players of the corresponding spec. Character customisation as a whole has become far simpler over the years, with changes to the talent system the prime method through which this has been achieved. Though undoubtedly far less important now than in their original form, much of the power of talents to determine the strengths, capabilities and role of a character has not been removed, but rather passed on in the form of specialization. Previously a term used to refer to a player's talent choices, specialization is now the prime method of customising a character after choice of class itself, and has taken on the mantle of much of the power and importance of talent selection.