For an introduction to this series as well as a quick reminder about the dangers of min-maxing, check out my previous two guides: Endgame Gearing and Endgame Gearing, Part 2. Otherwise, read on for some tips about choosing the best talents for your World of Warcraft character!
Quick and Dirty Introduction
First, a little history: the current talent system we have was first implemented in the Cataclysm expansion, where World of Warcraft developers tried to steer away from making any one spec too cookie-cutter or generic. They did this by cutting the number of talent points down to barely a quarter of what they were and further changing them into special abilities or passive buffs to specific skills, rather than flat bonuses to your stats, as you might see in Classic World of Warcraft now. Many of these flat bonuses were instead rolled into baseline abilities for the classes themselves. The idea was that this would keep the element of player choice and “flavor”, while not handicapping your character too severely if you chose the wrong talents.
Whether or not the devs succeeded at this is up for debate. As it is, about half the talents in any given class or spec directly affect your combat performance, while the others are for pure flavor or utility: usually at least one tier adds a movement speed buff for example. There are a few talents (though not many, surprisingly) that need to synergize with certain others to be truly effective. Finally, some talents (one might argue most talents) can change your rotation and play-style in major ways.
So how does one go about figuring out what talents to use?
Beginner’s Luck: Passive Talents
When first learning a class, and particularly if it is a spec you didn’t play much as you leveled up, I recommend that a player take only the passive talents. The main benefit of this method is that there are a lot less buttons to learn overall! The main downfall is that the passive talents are not always the best picks for maximum damage or utility, so you probably don’t want to remain with this talent build forever.
It’s your choice ultimately, of course! For some players, the ease of the basic rotation makes up for any theoretical gains in performance that come from the higher difficulty talent builds. That said…
Intermediate: the Cookie-Cutter Build
…if you are a sucker, like me, for learning how to be the best you can be, then the next step to talent building is learning what the “meta” or “cookie-cutter” for your spec is: that is, the generally agreed-upon talent build that gives the best performance in nearly all situations.
The guides on Icy Veins are once again our saviors here, where each spec has an entire section devoted to talent builds, that outlines the relative powers of each talent and which one they recommend you to take for most situations. Information can also be found by asking in your class’ Discord server or checking Raider.IO for what most of the top players are using.
You see, despite the intentions of the devs to provide a fool-proof talent system, there are unfortunately still some clear winners among the combat-oriented talents, where if you don’t pick that particular talent, you’ll end up gimping your character. As luck would have it, these clear winners often significantly change your rotation, too. Examples of this kind of talent include Bloodtalons for Feral Druids, where you incorporate a healing spell into your rotation to provide a buff to your finishing moves, and Sindragosa’s Breath for Frost Death Knights, which creates a window of high damage that you must prepare for and try to keep open for as long as possible by saving up and using your best runic power generating abilities.
At first, playing with these rotation-changing talents might feel like a gimping all by itself, as you’re unused to the different rhythm. Just give it time and practice, and I promise it’ll eventually start paying off. I’ll reiterate though: I wouldn’t feel forced into choosing these talents unless you’re aiming for the hardest content or joining an elite guild. Not only are most performance differences going to be on the level of 1-5%, there are still some intricacies of the talent build system that make it so there will never be a build that is best for every single situation out there. That’s the next topic.
Advanced: Your Talent Toolbox
For most players, you can stop at the cookie-cutter build, or any variation there-of that feels most comfortable for you. For the more hardcore players, you instead might have noticed something by now. Some talents are best for raids vs. small groups, or single target vs. area-of-effect (AoE) bosses. Some are highly useful in PvP while nigh on useless in PvE. It’s not too uncommon then for serious players to carry around Tomes of the Tranquil Mind, so as to be able to switch into the talent build that works best for the type of content they are doing, and sometimes, for the specific boss. Instead of thinking of talents as something you pick once, one-and-done, instead start thinking of talents as your toolbox for a large number of situations.
This is the level you’ve graduated from a casual or intermediate player into the hardcore. In a lot of cases, it’s also where you’ve graduated into the realm of pure theory, as some of these builds are close to impossible to test through conventional methods.
As an example, consider Stellar Drift, a 6th tier talent for Balance Druids. In pure damage terms, this talent is terrible, and will test so, as any sim or whacking of a target dummy will demonstrate. Its main strength, that isn’t translated well in a simulation, is it allows for a large amount of mobility while still casting spells. In boss fights or trash pulls where you are frequently dodging mechanics, or PvP team fights where you are forced to kite a lot while keeping up AoE pressure, this talent can suddenly become your best pick.
Just don’t forget to change it out when you’re facing a single target tank-and-spank raid boss! I’ve made that mistake before…
Talent builds is one of the simplest systems in World of Warcraft out of those that can affect your performance. Though the developers have tuned them so they typically contribute only small differences in damage or healing output, there are still, for some classes, talents that pull ahead and are considered as “musts” for that particular spec to perform well. The only shortcut I know of to learning which is which is through a guide or asking a top player. As with everything talked about in this series though, there is enough wiggle room that, unless you are doing the hardest content or just feeling like a loser, what talents you choose are ultimately up to you.