- For details on choosing a current target in the user interface, see select.
In World of Warcraft, a target can mean a few things, primarily the unit that is the current focus of a player's attacks and abilities (or buffs and healing). Other meanings include any unit(s) affected by an ability (even indirectly), a location hit by an area of effect ability, or a strategic objective.
Targeting is the act of choosing a target in any of these contexts. Selecting is one form of targeting: choosing one's current target in the user interface, as opposed to the target of an ability or effect. That article has more information on target selection within the interface. In the context of macros and interface customization, "target" is almost always used. "Targeting" may also be used to describe actually CASTING a spell on a given target(s), e.g. "target those 3 mobs with Flamestrike".
Current target of a unit
Players can select an NPC or player as their current target in their game interface. Players may target mobs, friendly units, other players, and even themselves. See the select page for more details. An ability used by the player will be directed at the player's current target if it's valid for that ability, unless a different target is specified using macros or addons. Auto-attacks are always directed against a player's current target; players should be careful not to accidentally change targets to a yellow mob while their auto-attack is turned on.
An NPC doesn't have a user interface so the idea of "selection" does not apply, but its AI programming still determines its current target. Usually a mob's target is the unit with the most threat on it, but not always. If the mob is attacking, its target is said to have aggro on the mob. NPCs may target players, themselves or other NPCs that are friendly to them (usually when casting healing or protective spells), or in certain cases even unfriendly NPCs. If a mob has a target, that almost always indicates it's in combat, although some scripted events may break this rule of thumb.
Players and NPCs may be without a current target at any given time. If a player is attacked and has no target selected, their attacker will be selected automatically. If a player uses certain offensive abilities with no target, one will be selected as if they had pressed "tab" (see the select page). If the "auto self-cast" option is enabled, a healing or buff spell cast with no target or an invalid target will automatically target the caster. In most other cases, an ability used with no target will be "loaded" onto the cursor for casting on whatever is clicked on.
Players' targets are reported to the game server even if no spell is being cast. The current target of other players (including enemies) and NPCs is available using the "show target of target" interface option, certain raid frame options, and addons. It may also be referenced in macros. For this reason, players wishing to appear unresponsive to others should not change targets.
There is no in-game cost or delay to switching targets. Players may switch targets rapidly until they find the one they intended. NPCs may switch targets suddenly depending on the threat situation and scripting of their abilities.
Target(s) of a spell or effect
Most spells require a primary target, or simply "target". Depending on the design of the spell, most or all of its effects will apply to the primary target, and the primary target may determine where and how secondary effects occur. There is only one primary target for a given spell cast.
By default the primary target of a spell is the caster's current target. However a unit may be the target of a spell without ever having been selected. Players may target an ability without selection by "loading it onto the cursor" before clicking the target, or via macros. Casters may also begin casting a spell on one target, then select another unit before the cast is complete; the first target will remain the spell's target. Mobs using special abilities will often not report the spell's target as their target at all, or will do so for only an instant (in effect switching to the spell's target to begin the cast and then immediately switching back).
Most ongoing effects retain their primary targets from when they were originally cast, regardless of what the caster does after.
Some abilities only affect the player or are automatically centered on the player - in this case the player could be considered the implied primary target, although it is also accurate to say such a spell has no target.
A number of spells have secondary targets which are affected despite never being chosen specifically by the caster. The secondary effect may be the same as on the primary target, e.g. group buffs and "contagious" boss debuffs, but often the effect is reduced or has very different mechanics.
With area of effect spells, a point on the ground (or the full area on the ground) is the primary target, and units in the area are secondary targets, although they may simply be called "the targets". "Bomb" spells affect a primary target over time and then hit nearby secondary targets in the "explosion". "Chain" spells start with the primary target and leap to nearby targets one or two at a time - depending on the spell each new target may receive approximately the same, greater, or less of an effect than the last. "Cleaves" hit a limited number of targets in melee range at once, and may do the same or reduced damage to the secondary targets.
Other types of target
Certain units or objects may be called targets if their purpose, theoretically or in-game, is to be hit by attacks. A target dummy that players can attack is one example. Others are fixed objects that players usually can't interact with, like circular archery targets or punching bags, which are there for flavor rather than gameplay. NPCs sometimes will use these in minor scripted sequences.
In a strategic context, the objective or focus of an operation or campaign might be called a target. Sometimes this is a settlement or region, often held by the opponent, or it might be an enemy individual or group that should be killed, captured, driven away, disbanded, or otherwise interfered with. This meaning is often used in-universe, such as in quest text. Players are less likely to use it when discussing strategies except as one of the above gameplay terms, to avoid confusion.
Many neutral or friendly units, and other unattackable units usually identified by their dark gold-colored level label, cannot have offensive abilities used on them. This includes enemy players that are not flagged for PvP. Attempting to attack produces the error message "Invalid target", and Area of effect spells generally will not have any effect on them. Summoning a combat pet to fight for a player has sometimes worked around targeting restrictions. If the NPC is part of a certain faction, checking the "At War" option for that faction in the reputation pane will usually allow players to attack them.
On the other hand, players may successfully target most helpful spells such as heals and buffs on certain friendly NPCs, and all friendly players. Some helpful spells are restricted to targets in the player's group.
- Patch 1.11.0 (2006-06-19): Players can now turn on the "Target of Target" in the Raid and Party section of the interface options. When this is turned on, anytime a player is in a party or raid, it will show the portrait and health of whatever your current target has targeted. You can click on that portrait to target that thing directly or if you have the spell glove up you can cast spells on the target of target without targeting it directly.