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The Core Fantasy: What Went Wrong in Warlock Talent Trees Along the Way

Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

Game: World of Warcraft Classic
Game Element: Warlock Class Overhaul – Talent Trees
Discipline: Class Design

Our mission today is to take a look back at the original defining specs for the Warlock class in WoW Classic.

Looking back will help us see the core vision and fantasy of the class and figure out which steps reduced the potency of the class along the way.

It will allow us to appreciate the intricate changes that have shaped its identity, ensuring a deeper understanding of its present-day form.

Let’s go back in time now.

If you can find a talent tree earlier than the 1.6 Warlock rework, I’d love to review the changes and how philosophy shifted between those iterations.

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Did you know that players were outraged when the initial talent tree reworks happened post WoW Launch?

In general, players tend to respond negatively to change; even good change, so all developers need to be cautious and take feedback and emotional reactions with a grain of salt.

Understanding the Warlock Classic Talent Tree

The Warlock talent trees, like many of the classical WoW talents, was inspired by the D2 Talent Tree.

Filled with lots of minor tweaks, these tress added up to impactful end points – even though each individual point didn’t feel like much.

At the time, this was desirable – talents helped smooth the gaps between abilities and give you a personal investment in each level.

Last time, we briefly reviewed how the Warlock was unique in that it had an in-combat casting cycle: Use abilities, life tap to regen mana, use abilities to restore health. Mages, Priests generally had to rely on mana conservation to last out the fight.

Later on we’ll discuss GDC locking and the price that Life Tap brought to the Warlock class – and all of its healers.

But for now, let’s focus on how the talent trees were broken down.

In a world before ‘specs’ existed, the way players defined themselves was how they spent their talent point.

Affliction – focused on the ‘witch-like’ abilities of Warlock – debuffs and damage over time effects.

It amplified the ease of multi-dotting in several ways.

The hit chance increase meant tab-dotting was less likely to fail, while the additional mana management option via Dark Pact

Destruction – focused on the direct damage aspects of the class. (It’s worth noting that even in this stage, with the exception of Rain of Stun chance, and the unusable Searing Pain, Destruction stayed away from RNG when connected to damage.

Instead of on-crit effects, its major damage boost talent was focused around a consistent damage increase on critical strikes.)

Demonology – intriguingly focused on the durability and flexibility aspects of the class.

In fact, the only damage boosts in the tree are either from having a succubus alive (a risky dungeon proposition) or sacrificing it entirely.

Through these lenses and the experience players of over a decade having with the game, the issues become clear:

Demonology talents doesn’t make sense in a context outside of the solo and pvp arenas.

Yet, it definitely matches the concept for how a Warlock should be distinctive from Mage.

Problems

Laced within all of these small decisions lies a rats nest of issues.

However, for the most part, you need to give credit to the sheer variety and understanding of “what made a warlock a warlock” in this era.

  • Destruction gets a burst button (or 2!).
  • Demonology learns how to lift (or sacrifice).
  • Affliction slows, kites and multi-dots better.

As a general rule, talents were valued at a 1% damage increase per point, with the exception of ‘gold medal’ talents which were general 5x as impactful.

A few talents, such as the trade spirit (lol) for Stamina, gave +3% per point, but in general this rule made sense.

Pet talents were much bigger numbers because pets were a marginal amount of your damage per minute (10-20%).

Still, these amounts felt incredibly small unless you do a full respec.

However, WoW is a very broad game – soloing, pvp, dungeons, raids – and the larger / more competitive the group size, the more important marginal changes became.

For this reason, its clear why Demonology was a fairly unpopular spec.

It added little value in massive raid groups that focused on throughput, not survivability, often with an abundance and overflow of healing.

Similarly, there’s traps laced in the talents. Cataclysm vs. Improve Shadow Bolt?

A reasonable, if weak choice. Bane vs. Aftermath?

The feel improvement alone would be good enough, but a 15% increase in damage on your primary damage ability is enormous in an era before spell haste existed.

Again, these problems emerged not as a function of bad conceptual design, but rather as a function of being “the best gear in the machine” – not “be the best at making smart use of your talent choices”.

In a world where Damage Meters existed, I’ll just quote my friend Tom Cadwell: “Incentives count.”

Many talents brought hard to recognize effects when combined with a raid. Worse, some, like the Warlock AoE stun talent, would confuse tanks during raids.

At the end of the day though, you really have to give them a lot of credit for trying to create impactful and appealing decisions…

That simply couldn’t hold up to the meatgrinder of massive guild, forum and class leader critique / fear of uncertainty.

Lessons:

The process of reworking the Warlock class proved to be a delicate balance between inspiration and potential pitfalls.

A few Warlock takeaways:

  • Warlocks were a very consistent class in this period.
  • Incentives created due to damage bonuses changed-up the ability prioritization of Warlocks by spec.
  • Destruction’s randomness was linked to secondary effects – and universally dismissed as not good back then.
  • Damage was generally consistent. DoTs were unable to have variance, which lead to stable damage output.
  • Demonology was disdained for raiding due to lack of damage throughput and pet survivability.
  • Affliction’s proc-based RNG due to Nightfall rarely interfered with DoT management, but often was just auto-used while spamming bolts
  • Raiding destroyed the underlying DPS -> Lifetap -> Recover cycle due to massive healing availability
    • Deeper here – the initial tuning for a Warlock in “burn out” mode became the baseline for Warlock DPS, rather than a spike they could achieve on-demand to push themselves further for a cost. (The value concept that drove the original concept)

An example of this intricate dance was the fleeting moment when “Demonology” spec took on the role of a tank, injecting a surge of excitement into the expansion.

However, in the ever-evolving world of game design, sacrifices had to be made, so the ‘tank” role was later removed to pave the way for the emergence of the formidable Demon Hunter class.

This rework experience serves me as a vivid reminder that change, even when necessary and well-intentioned, often incites resistance from players.

The key lies in embracing feedback and discerning the true essence of players’ reactions, so you can adequately filter the feedback and act only on what actually matters.

Don’t get blindsided by the most vocal few.

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8 Responses

  1. “talents helped smooth the gaps between abilities and give you a personal investment in each level.”

    The personal investment part is exactly what made the old talent trees so interesting to me. I’m sure the current best of three system has its advantages from an engineering standpoint, but I sure do wish that the old tree format would make a comeback some day.

    Thanks for putting into words what I couldn’t put my finger on for years. 🙂

    1. The old system was not that great…. it FELT great… but the decisions were not nearly as impactful as the new system. Will review more in the Pandaria article.

  2. What about the debuff limit? That heavily affected what warlocks specced and casted in raid fights during vanilla. Any chance you could also talk about the design/idea of the warlock as a ranged tank (e.g. AQ40 twins)?

    And with the mention of the spirit stat, was it ever intended to do more than just regen? Mp5 seemed to have been the favored method in vanilla for providing regen by the design team but spirit wasn’t actually useful until some time in TBC when it finally stopped being referred to as “lolspirit” and its focus shifted onto replacing mp5’s role. Seeing as the stat was abundant on vanilla items was this just bad stat prioritization in the item budget or did it have another purpose? I remember hearing one rumor that the reason we saw so many items in vanilla with on-hit effects was because spirit was intended to increase the chance of those effects proccing.

  3. What about the debuff limit? That heavily affected what warlocks specced and casted in raid fights during vanilla. Any chance you could also talk about the design/idea of the warlock as a ranged tank (e.g. AQ40 twins)?

    And with the mention of the spirit stat, was it ever intended to do more than just regen? Mp5 seemed to have been the favored method in vanilla for providing regen by the design team but spirit wasn’t actually useful until some time in TBC when it finally stopped being referred to as “lolspirit” and its focus shifted onto replacing mp5’s role. Seeing as the stat was abundant on vanilla items was this just bad stat prioritization in the item budget or did it have another purpose? I remember hearing one rumor that the reason we saw so many items in vanilla with on-hit effects was because spirit was intended to increase the chance of those effects proccing.

    1. The Debuff limit was sheerly a side-effect of hard-coded array sizes to make memory more efficient back in the day. Slouken found a way to fix this and removed it. It wasn’t an intended mechanic… 🙂

  4. Well, yeah, it was all about the perception to me, a little mini game that was strangely satisfying. Though I do have to say that the ability to bring in talents from other disciplines gave rise to a lot of interesting choices, such as BM hunters going into SV trees to get trapping enhancements just for the Moroes fight, or Disco / Holy hybrids. So, really, “not great” really depends on where you’re sitting, I suspect.

    1. Yeah, it comes down to the value of the impact vs. the effort required to understand and choose it correctly. Talents are like League of Legend’s runes. Fun to collect, but ultimately more of a trap than a value on a per-point level.

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