A Second Look At Dragonflight Talents Through Personal Experience

WoW is just all cookie cutter builds, right?

Well, maybe not – and that is an experience I didn’t expect to have this early in the expansion.

WoW’s last 10 years have been defined in a gameplay sense by the (now) old pick-3 talent system, where you had 5-6 choice rows of 3 talents, grabbing one choice from each row. In that era, especially with how much power shifted away from talents and towards various external borrowed power sources, talents became a little less impactful. While pulling a build from someone’s guide and running with it has always been a thing in World of Warcraft, it became especially straightforward in that style of talents, just because there was a lot less to configure and learning the active talents was a breeze when you rarely had more than 3 active abilities granted by those talents.

Dragonflight’s new take on the old trees has been interesting for the ways in which Blizzard has built the system around being able to easily grab someone else’s talent build through an import string of text, or to even opt out of making the choice in favor of a default loadout from the class designers on the game. While there are a lot more choices you can make due to the nature of talent trees, there’s also not a ton of active abilities you can take, so the contours of a build are defined in the passives you take and how those impact your play.

For me, Dragonflight started like any other modern WoW expansion – you go to a guide written by another player, grab their recommended talent build, and then run with it. I started both Brewmaster and Windwalker with the guides from Wowhead, and it was pretty decent – the WW build carried me through half the rating grind to Keystone Master. But there was a problem – the build also kind of sucked (“sucked” being a vast overstatement of what was a pretty decent build). My numbers were fine and I was still progressing through keys, but as I got higher, I noticed that I wasn’t quite able to always keep up with other meta DPS specs. I went to Icy Veins and grabbed their build for Windwalker, one which included Bonedust Brew, and it upped my performance in dungeons by a fair amount. I did the same for Brewmaster’s raid build, because the Icy Veins guide took the Healing Elixirs talent that gave me a good hit of self-heal as an active ability, while Wowhead’s guide did not. My performance and/or survivability went up, and I felt good.

But then I started reading more about Windwalker talents, and there was an interesting dilemma beginning to form.

Both guides I had looked at ignored the Improved Touch of Death talent in the class side of the tree. I did too at first because it sounded like it removed the most satisfying interaction I have with WW – insta-gibbing something at low health, The talent adds a modifier to Touch of Death (an ability that, in base form, allows a monk to hit an enemy target for damage equal to the monk’s max health provided that the enemy’s current health total is lower than that value) which allows it to be used like a Warrior’s execute instead – once a target is lower than 15% of their health, you can use ToD to do 35% of your health in damage to them, a value which is increased by the Windwalker talent Forbidden Technique, which both boosts Touch of Death damage by 20% and also allows you to use it twice before triggering the cooldown, provided you can get the second hit out within 5 seconds. It also benefits from damage increases offered by Versatility and the Windwalker Mastery stat, so provided you make sure you do not hit ToD twice in a row consecutively, it will gain a lot of additional damage in this way.

Improved Touch of Death still lets the ability do the fun instakill hit if you meet that criteria, though, so the talent is basically a DPS boost in most ways – you can either rapid-fire double-hit it to do a total of 70% of your max health in damage plus all the modifiers from talents and stats, or you can still hit the instakill, which pads the meters by doing more damage anyways thanks to the Forbidden Technique talent, but with the caveat that on bosses, this is hard to pull off in a meaningful way. Windwalker has one other noteworthy interaction with ToD – the talent Fatal Flying Guillotine allows a Windwalker to AoE Touch of Death, hitting up to 5 targets at once when hitting the button. So the builds I was using had me taking everything but the Improved ToD talent, meaning that while I was hitting high numbers on ToD, the number of scenarios I was getting great use out of it was relatively low. I made a decision to swap a Transcendence talent from the class tree for IToD and did some dungeons and…my damage was quite a bit higher.

So I had switched from a cookie-cutter Wowhead build to a cookie-cutter Icy Veins build to a minorly customized Icy Veins build, but what if I went a little further?

One of the reasons I had moved from the Wowhead build for Windwalker is that the talent Skyreach, one of the bottom-row choices deep into Windwalker tree, was causing me some trouble. The primary listed effect for the talent is that it acts as a mini gap closer – when you hit your base builder Tiger Palm, it will teleport you to your target, provided that target is within 10 yards of you. It adds a layer of easy mobility to WW, a spec that is already quite mobile, but the catch is that the pathfinding can put you in bad spots if you do not analyze and plan around the use of the attack – use it will an AoE is between you and your target, and you’ll have a bad time. I wasn’t messing this up much, but it happened just enough that I wanted to save me from myself.

But this week, as I was analyzing my options to go forward and push beyond +15 keys on my Monk, I watched a two-chest +14 run on YouTube that popped into my recommendations, almost serendipitously. This guy, with an item level average 7 lower than my current ilvl, was doing nearly 20k more DPS over the course of the entire dungeon. He showed his talent build up front, and it was different than mine, than the guides I had read, and so it got me thinking.

His build bucked the conventional wisdom on Windwalker that I had read by disregarding a handful of talents that buff Fists of Fury, a big Chi-spender that hits very hard in AoE and respectably hard in single-target scenarios. He took Skyreach, which meant that if I were to learn this build, I would need to get better at that ability. He managed to take that with Bonedust Brew, so there was a lot of power for both AoE and single-target. The only thing I didn’t like about his build was that he didn’t take Eye of the Tiger, a class talent that makes Tiger Palm hits put a DoT on the target and also gives you a very small HoT effect on yourself. I have been practicing AoE cleave with target switching to maximize the DoT there, and while Skyreach gives me it’s own reason to do that, I wanted maximum power from those switches. So I took his build, but tweaked the class tree side to give me Eye of the Tiger, and then I ran a 13 last night (light work, lol). The results?

My overall run DPS shot up by 20k.

I know this is down to talents largely because I did a 13 earlier in the day with my previous build, and while the numbers were good, 42k overall DPS for a full run isn’t as high as I could be, but getting to 62k was a good feeling – still not quite as high as I could be, but that will boil down to getting more comfortable with the gameplay to take risks.

Dragonflight has been very interesting in that while people have been excited for talents to return to trees, there’s been a lot of (well-founded) skepticism about how big the difference would be, especially since most players let others do the math for them and take the theoretical top throughput choices. Mark, the video creator whose build I took notes from, called this out pretty well in a comment about his AoE choices in the dungeon – that theoretical maximum performance isn’t always real maximum performance, and that sometimes, you have to know that a pack is going to have mobs dying too fast to want to use Fists of Fury, so you hit Spinning Crane Kick instead and rack up damage that way. It kind of created this interesting thought in my head about WoW in modern times – about how we so often sim everything to help us make informed choices, letting a robot perform the rotation in perfect gameplay to tell us what gear, talents, and consumables we should be using, but that robot plays perfectly without exceptions, and we, as humans, do not. And sure, you can’t always just figure it out live with stuff like gear from the Great Vault, where you have to make a choice and you cannot go back and get a return/exchange started, so sometimes the sim has to be used as our only way to really know what’s possible.

But it’s been a while since I’ve felt the freedom to just experiment, to take a choice that isn’t in a guide or to smush together multiple guides and tidbits of knowledge to figure out how things work and get a better build out of the process. I made small, single point moves around both sides of the tree, and it gave me a LOT of performance in return, and it was thanks to an interesting combination of talents that guides would recommend individually but stopped short of recommending as combos. You see, there is a detail I left out of Skyreach earlier – while the primary listed effect is a fun teleport, the big effect and reason you take it is that it increases your chance to critical strike your target by fifty percent for 6 seconds, an effect it can trigger once per minute per target. Couple this with trying to cycle the Eye of the Tiger DoT on a big pack of enemies, and you can see how this would be huge – stack the crit chance on a couple of targets, hit an AoE ability, grind the mobs to dust as they take a huge increase in crits from you and light ticking DoT damage on top of that. Guides and cookie cutter builds would explain themselves in ways that would make the build make sense as a whole, but would often neglect detailed explanations of the synergistic interactions of talents. By doing my own research and playing with some slight tweaks to the template builds provided, I got myself to a build that is my own (well, in theory at least lol) and got a very substantial performance improvement out of it. What’s better is that, by taking those talents myself and thinking over the choices made, I understand better how to play the build and maximize it – holding Touch of Death until I can two-tap it in AoE scenarios, target swapping to apply Tiger Palm to as many in a pack as possible, and then using Fists of Fury largely on cooldown, but trying to know the dungeons and routes better so I can use it when it will be most useful – multi-target, where targets will live the full duration of the channel.

Ultimately, all of this is small and adds up to “read the tooltips you dummy!” but at the same time, the habit of nearly a decade of WoW has built the idea that you kinda don’t need to do that because someone else will do it for you. However, while a theoretical robot’s maximum performance was fine under an era of limited choices, it is less so now when you have 61 points to spend and each point can bring about a big shift in performance, provided you understand the interactions it has with your kit and how the reality of your gameplay scenarios can drag down the theoretical, simulated “best” choices in practice.

And I mean, what I described today is for people trying to push on harder content and knock it down. For most players, is that level of optimization really necessary? No, not at all. For most players, you can make your own quirky build or grab a guide build and be very okay, and hell, even the template builds the game offers aren’t bad in most cases. But if you like that optimization game, new talents are actually reaching a point where you can make your own meaningful substitutions and swaps and end up in a better place, and I think that is actually pretty cool.

6 thoughts on “A Second Look At Dragonflight Talents Through Personal Experience

  1. The current talent system serves casuals too, you know 🙂 I can’t even start to underestimate how cool is this.

    I’m never a fan of numbers, and always about convenience/vibe, and the current system allows me to do that. I picked the abilities that sit well with my character’s personal (!) fantasy (Enh Shaman), and I can enhance and update the core buttons of my rotation without bloating my hotbars. For example, I’m totally dismissing all ice/water spells, and focus on making my lightnings and lava strikes more frequent, more poweful and all-in-all matter. This is precious, and this is how it should work.

    Too bad, it’s one of the very few things I like about the expansion as a whole :/


  2. I’ve had a couple folks tell me that my resto-druid build is crap. I know it’s not the “meta,” but it works for me and my guildies. Generally, the only time we run into issues is when shyte rogues stand in crap and then blame me for them taking 30+% damage every second for 5 seconds and wondering why they died. “Ummm… maybe you’re a shyte rogue. Get gud, nub.”

    Why am I crapping on rogues specifically? Because they are the ones that have been toxic on a consistent basis.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve had a similar experience with Resto Druid and Frost Mage (ugh… Frost Mage… xD) — went between the WoWhead and Icy Veins guides, experimenting with the differences between the two before going my own way a little.

    A tool I’ve found interesting as a point of reference though is murlok.io — you can check out what builds the top 50 (or so) players, across all regions, have taken for a given spec. It only covers the various PvP and M+ modes, so nothing for raid, but given doing a *lot* of M+ atm (by my standards, at least) it has been interesting.

    Perhaps quite telling are the talent nodes that see nil usage at that top level of play, too. But equally, where there is more divergence. There are certainly a good number of nodes where 50/50 of the top guys have taken them, but there are others which see a bit more of a spread.


  4. I have been having the same experience on prot pally! I started with wowhead, and went directly into looking up top prot builds for fortified weeks, because I felt like I wasn’t tanky enough. It’s tough to figure out good builds for raid because everything is sorted by top DPS for tanks, and that’s not always my goal, so then I needed to do custom builds for broodkeeper (boy, she hit hard when my gear was low, and killed my bear co-tank within 10 seconds so it was on me!). Then, when we got to Raz, I needed to adjust my talent build on the fly because I couldn’t maintain threat during intermission 1 with my single-target raid build. I kept my tanky talents because I had no idea how long it’d take in p3 and I wanted to be sure I had a strong mitigation available other than goak, and I’m sure I’ll keep that lower-dps-tankier build during Raz heroic prog for the same reason.

    Then there’s dungeon and affix specific talents, which existed to a lesser extent in SL, but here I need to swap around talents depending on if I need a dispel disease and immunity (looking at you, academy!)


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