World of Warcraft: Dragonflight – Talent System Design Philosophy

Blizzard has published a deep-dive blog going into the philosophy of the talent system design in World of Warcraft: Dragonflight.

Originally Posted by Blizzard (Source)

Dragonflight contains major updates to World of Warcraft classes, centering on the re-introduction of talent trees. In this preview, we take a first look at the prototype trees for the Druid and Death Knight classes. These and all the other trees still have a lot of work to be done, but we want to share what we can to start collecting detailed feedback at this early stage.

Talent System Design Philosophy

Some of our biggest goals in a class and talent revamp are to increase player agency over your character’s progression and build, provide meaningful rewards while leveling, and reinforce your character’s connection to both their class and their spec. In addition, we felt we had to retain many features of modern World of Warcraft specializations. Specializations have many unique abilities, some of which might be central to the identity of the spec. They have a wide variety of optional bonuses that have been created at various times over the years. This all led us back to talent trees— a concept familiar to people who played WoW before the Mists of Pandaria expansion.

Visually, trees are still an intuitive way to represent the different paths one could follow while making many choices about a character. Trees also communicate dependencies and magnitude intuitively, without a lot of added rules. For example, talents higher in the tree are expected to be more commonly chosen, while talents lower in the tree are more optional and more geared towards shaping max-level builds.

Dragonflight talent trees have some significant differences from previous versions of talent trees in World of Warcraft. First, you have not one tree, but two. This is due to the combined importance of class wide and specialization-specific themes for current WoW characters. The class tree contains a core set of abilities available to all specs in a class and has a higher proportion of utility choices. It’s a place where you can, among other things, choose some abilities or passives that draw from the identity of other specializations to give your character some hybrid flavor, or simply to grab something particularly useful for certain content. The specialization tree is predominantly focused on bonuses that enhance your power in your main role. Keeping these separate is one way of ensuring that you have some choices in both areas without, for example, feeling compelled to give up all your utility or off-spec buttons in order to maximize main role performance.

Another fundamental change is that much more of your class is represented in the tree, instead of being awarded automatically while leveling up. Other than the starting abilities you obtain before you access the system at level 10, the vast majority of abilities are obtained via the tree. This gives rise to some of the most important questions and challenges of the new system. Exploring a world where many more things are optional has a lot of advantages but requires a lot of care.

Here are just some answers to questions and answers that we know you might be wondering about:

  • “Some abilities are critical to my rotation—will that mean I always have to build a certain way?”
    • No. The most basic building blocks of your rotation will tend to be either learned from levels 1-10, awarded automatically in the class tree, or placed at the top of your spec tree as a first point spent in that tree. In other cases, major abilities that we expect to be a part of most builds will be near the start of a tree, or on an easily accessible path so that they don’t constrain your other choices.
  • “A certain piece of utility is important in certain content (for example, interrupts in Mythic+), does this limit my choices?”
    • Similarly, the more likely something is to be all but required for some players, the more we must place it in the tree in an appropriate location— one that still leaves the rest of your build choices very open.
  • “Does this mean it’s possible to make very ‘bad’ builds?”
    • In short, yes. There are limits and guardrails here, such as those abilities that are automatically given. And furthermore, our goal in designing the trees is not to trap players in complicated choices in order to make a functional build; in fact, it’s the opposite—it's to set up the trees with intuitive paths that lead you to reasonable builds. But a key philosophy of this rework is to keep the player in the driver’s seat of their character’s growth within their class.
  • “Does this mean that some of my points are spent on somewhat ‘obvious’ choices, and aren’t likely to be moved?”
    • Often, yes. 61 points is drastically more than the 7 that players currently have in Shadowlands. And it would probably be a mistake if all 61 points were always heavily in play— this is part of how we maintain the balance alluded to above, where it’s not overwhelming to make and analyze builds. The tree contains a spectrum of more basic abilities all the way to comparatively advanced ones, and one of the advantages of this system is letting you draw that line.
  • “Doesn’t this all mean that I will use some of my points to re-buy some things that were baseline in Shadowlands?”
    • For all the reasons mentioned above, making a huge swath of abilities open to player decision-making requires this. We hear this feedback as primarily a concern about having much less “stuff” than you had in Shadowlands. After starting with your basic class and spending 61 points in a tree, will you feel “pruned”? Openly, our goal is that you don’t. We’ll be watching for feedback on this. Our goal is for a Dragonflight character to feel like it has a similar amount of power and complexity—which can be hard to quantify—as a Shadowlands character. The main difference is you getting to choose which active buttons and passive bonuses make up that toolset, and potentially having combinations that were previously impossible.

One other set of questions is around what abilities are still awarded automatically outside of the tree. There are few broad categories:

  • Abilities learned before 10, the most basic elements of what starts to make you into your class (Moonfire, Death Strike).
  • Buttons whose impact is primarily non-combat and non-power related (Teleport: Moonglade, Path of Frost, Revive).
  • Nonstacking group buffs or spells, where a group virtually always wants exactly one person with the ability (Raise Ally, Rebirth, Mark of the Wild).

There are a lot of case-by-case calls to be made around all of this, but by and large we are pushing ourselves to leave it to players to explore in the trees how to build out their class from levels 10 to 70.

A Few Nuts and Bolts

The experience of using the tree will be more intuitive when you play with the system in-game, but we want to provide some explanation here for those who want to analyze the current draft trees in detail. Please bear in mind, these are all subject to change as we continue development.

  • Your first class tree point is awarded at level 10, and your first specialization tree point at level 11, alternating between the two from there. At level 70, you will have 31 available class points and 30 specialization points.
  • Certain basic abilities in the class tree, are given automatically to people of particular specializations. These do not cost any points.
  • Most talents have prerequisites (these will be indicated by arrows in the final UI). If a talent has any arrows leading to it, you must have fully purchased at least one of those previous talents to access it. For clarity, arrows always point downwards or diagonally downwards in current drafts.
  • Every tree has certain rows that you can’t advance past until you’ve spent a certain number of talent points (unlike in pre-Mists of Pandaria trees, this is not the case for every row). In the prototype Druid and Death Knight trees, you cannot buy talents in the fifth row and beyond until you’ve spent eight points in the tree, and you cannot buy talents in the eighth row and beyond until you’ve spent twenty points in the tree.
  • In octagonal “choice” nodes, you may obtain one of the two choices at a time.