World of Warcraft Classic vs. Retail, Part 2: Leveling Comparison, 20-40
Last summer, we published a breakdown of the first 20 levels in World of Warcraft Classic versus the current version of WoW Retail. At the time, we came down on the side of Classic for offering what felt like a better early game flow. Putting together the second stage of this article has taken longer than anticipated, but we’re back to talk about how the two titles shake out from Lvl 20 to 40.
The 20-40 level range is interesting in both Classic and Retail WoW, but for very different reasons. As in the first article, I’ll discuss broad trends in how they play and how the game evolves.
Classic WoW: The Grind Begins
In Classic WoW, the grind really starts at Lvl 20. While the leveling time curve is still relatively gentle, especially compared with what it’ll be later in the game, you begin to feel the slowdown at 20. Retail, meanwhile, remains a rocket.
You can see how long it’s taken me to level a Paladin in retail versus Classic. The relatively short gaps between some data points reflect when I ran dungeons or turned in a number of quests. Sharper spikes reflect when I took time to craft or traveled around Azeroth in Classic looking for quests. There’s been a fair bit of that already, though things open up a bit once you hit the late 30s / early 40s and can venture into the Hinterlands and Tanaris. Because everything in WoW Retail is level-matched, there’s relatively little need to pick any specific zone to play in, save for how you feel about its quest line.
Interestingly, the multiplier between Classic and Retail is holding pretty steady so far. At level 20, it had taken me 3.48x longer to level in Classic compared with Retail. At level 40, I’ve spent 3.39x longer in Classic compared with Retail. I’ll be curious to see how things hold to 60.
Gameplay and Leveling
Just saying that Classic leveling is slower than Retail, however, misses the point. Classic is far more willing to send you chasing around the world for quest objectives and it feels more confident in its own design. The Classic Paladin quest to build Verigan’s Fist took me to Kalimdor for the first time in my early 20s. Given that no one gets a mount until Level 40, you spend a fair amount of time from 20-40 just running from place to place. Classic WoW isn’t afraid of its own pace of gameplay. Combat — including open-world questing — can be downright leisurely or nail-bitingly hard depending on your own level and the relative difficulty of the quest you are attempting. I’ve completed more than a few quests by waiting for someone higher level to clear the mobs and dashing in for an item before they respawned. I’ve also beaten quests by requesting some helpful buffs from players and by using a combination of potions and weapon buffs to boost my DPS a bit higher than it normally is. Classic WoW, in other words, invites the player to deploy at least a bit of strategy.
Sneaking your way to an objective may require a potion of invisibility, an extremely careful pulling strategy, or you may need to lean heavily on Seal of Wisdom in order to have enough mana to batter an elite mob to death without being turned into swiss cheese yourself. Screw it up, and you’re facing a corpse run into hostile terrain and the possibility that the same overpowered mobs you snuck through will aggro and kill you again as soon as you respawn. You have far more ability to create a difficult experience for yourself in Classic than in Retail. Classic WoW may not have been hard compared with some of the other MMOs that existed at the time, but it’s certainly harder than Retail, where difficulty is completely flattened, every mob is the same level as you are, and you have to practically try to die. Elite mobs in Retail can be almost as easy to kill as standard mobs in Classic.
There are, however, some real downsides to the Classic leveling system, especially if you are leveling after the main rush of players passed through the game. It can be difficult to find groups for instances or questing if you aren’t guilded. Because the best weapons and armor are almost always BoP dungeon drops, not running instances to level means you’re getting shafted on DPS. Classic leveling is slow enough already. It gets easier to make gold as you play the game, but between buying new talent ranks, paying for a mount (if not a Paladin or Warlock), and the costs associated with leveling a profession, it’s not hard to feel as if your pocket is being perpetually picked. Leveling and gold-making in Classic can be faster in dungeons, but it still takes significantly longer to play through the dungeon, where crowd control is often needed. Without LFG, it takes longer to organize dungeon groups. Even something as simple as gryphon rides are far more expensive in Classic than Retail — in the early game, I sometimes saved money by hoofing it simply because I didn’t want to pay for a flight.
As for the number of quests you find…. hoo boy. Many Classic WoW zones don’t have nearly the quest volume of their Retail counterparts and finding them can take longer, since you’re running from place to place. Once I left Darkshire, I wound up hitting Stranglethorn Vale, followed by Arathi Highlands, with a jaunt to Theramore to do some quests there. Running the length of STV on foot brought back lots of memories, a few of which were even pleasant.
In Retail, you get that sweet pony ride at Lvl 20, and the associated 1.6x improvement to ground movement speed truly opens up the game. In modern WoW, you never need to head back to visit a trainer, queue for a battleground, or grab crafting mats out of the bank. There’s zero need to group for any non-dungeon quest. It’s almost always pointless to even try to help people — they kill their targets before you even reach them.
The 20-40 window makes it clear that every aspect of Retail’s design is meant to get you to Lvl 120 as fast as possible. I’ve been a Paladin tank rather than Ret spec for most of my WoW career. The ability to swap between specs comes in spectacularly handy — I’m able to chain-run multiple dungeons in Retail and can ding as often as every 30 minutes if I’m working hard. The only reason it’s taken me as long to level as it did is that I deliberately did some regular quests and exploration to duplicate more of the feel of my Classic Paladin. The awesome quest to build Verigan’s Fist in Classic and the reward of a solid weapon is completely lackluster in Retail. By the time I got to the gutted quest remnant that still exists, the weapon I could earn from completing it was actually worse than the one I had. I remember back in Vanilla we griped that there weren’t enough quests for individual classes. In Retail WoW, there are even fewer.
Classic WoW is far more willing to make you spend time playing it and it’s confident you will. Retail WoW feels as though it’s been optimized to keep people from quitting because, after five alts, there’s not a lot of magic to leveling a sixth. Hopefully, Blizzard’s upcoming stat squish will offer something of a happy medium between the hyperfast non-difficulty of leveling in Retail and at least a dash of the challenge and pace of Classic.
Stitches is my favorite encounter in World of Warcraft. In Retail, he’s been nerfed to the point that he can easily be soloed. Elite world mobs in Retail are almost all easy to solo (at least at this level). Elite mobs in Classic are not easy to solo, and Stitches is designed to make it more difficult than most. I love the encounter and took some screenshots of it I’m rather pleased with. Take a gander at the screenshots and I’ll explain what’s going on.
The Only Thing Classic and Retail Paladins Have in Common Is the Class Name
As I’ve continued to unlock additional capabilities for both versions of the class, it’s become even more apparent than I remembered how different they actually are.
As a Classic Retribution Paladin, you operate in a combined Support / DPS role. We have a number of short buff spells (Blessings) that apply various helpful effects, from improving mana regeneration or damage to boosting all stats, preventing all physical damage to ourselves or another person, to removing all snares, slows, and movement-limiting effects. We can cure diseases and poisons plus remove magical debuffs with a single, low-cost spell. We have a single spell, Exorcism, that boosts our DPS against undead. We have an instant heal that restores our full life bar to ourselves or another target. Our attacks are known as “Seals,” and they do everything from an additional burst of Holy damage to restoring health or mana to anyone who hits our target.
In terms of DPS, however, we basically have one rotation: Cast Seal of the Crusader, Judge Seal of the Crusader (increasing the amount of Holy damage a mob takes), and then swing until it dies. On tougher fights, you’ll have to stop and heal yourself. In raids, where buff slots are limited, you may be asked not to Judge Crusader to boost your own DPS. Once I’ve unlocked Consecrate, I’ll at least have another spell to cast. Managing mana is critical to being an effective Ret Paladin, and you’ll find yourself either having to drink fairly frequently or using Seal and Judgement of Wisdom for a chance to regain mana when you strike the target. Seal of Wisdom, which unlocks at 38, is a game-changer for Paladins. So long as an enemy doesn’t damage you too quickly, you can generate mana, heal yourself, and then continue attacking.
Classic Paladins are not quick killers, but they have nearly unparalleled survivability when leveling. By lvl 40, we’ve unlocked a 5-second stun ability, our last-ditch full heal, our own invulnerability shield, and abilities that allow us to heal and regenerate mana more effectively. While we do not have to heal during every single fight, you’ll find yourself either sitting down to drink or running Seal of Mana / Blessing of Wisdom to keep your own mana regeneration up, at the cost of slightly longer kill times. Retribution Paladins have very few attack spells and our support functions shine through.
Retail Retribution Paladins are an entirely different animal. In Retail, there’s Crusader Strike, Execution Sentence (optional) and Hammer of Wrath (optional, situational), Templar’s Verdict, Blade of Justice, and Divine Storm at 40. Because Retail mobs are weaker and Paladin DPS is much stronger, Retail Paladins cut through mobs like wheat through a thresher. Tovahlt (Retail) has a kill speed that Tovah (Classic) would love. Retail Paladins do not depend upon mana and do not need to manage it, while mana management is critical to playing Classic well.
The flip side to Retail Paladins, however, is that they lack most of the “Support” side of the equation. Lay on Hands, our last-gasp full heal, isn’t unlocked until Lvl 55. I have a movement-slowing CC and I can remove movement-impairing effects, but Retail blessings are typically weaker than their Classic counterparts. I actively dislike this aspect of modern Paladins — buffing people and having a lot of helpful support options was one of the core reasons I chose the class. At the same time, it’s nice to know that I won’t be shoved into healing at 60 due to sub-par DPS and tanking options.
As someone who loved main tanking both raids and 5-mans as a Paladin in Vanilla, I wish I was going to get to experience that again — but the difficulty of making a Paladin MT work in raiding also reminds me why it’s not going to be an option. The hard truth is this: Endgame tanking with a Paladin either required some truly insane gearing (the one successful raiding Pally tank I knew literally had Thunderfury), or it required the entire raid to work with the tank in ways that Warriors never have to deal with.
Cracks in the Classic Talent Tree Begin to Show
One very interesting aspect of Classic versus Retail is how the two talent trees continue to scale. From 10-20, the Classic tree is excellent. Leveling is still fairly fast, and Lvl 21 grants access to our most significant DPS ability — Seal of Command. By Level 15 in Retail, you’ve unlocked just one talent. Early game in Classic gives you more points to play with and a greater sense that you are meaningfully modifying your character with each point.
Unfortunately, one of the classic (pun intended) problems with Classic talent trees is that virtually all classes suffer from what I’ll call “dead zones.” Classic WoW uses a three-page talent system. The deeper you go into each tree (Holy, Protection, Retribution for Paladins), the more spells and power-enhancing talents you unlock. You earn one talent point per level.
This works quite well at first. Retribution is the classic leveling tree for Paladins, and the first 30 points you earn, from 10 – 39, can mostly be invested into your core DPS talents. By Lvl 39, you’ve built up enough points to go 30 deep in Retribution, and most of these can be fairly said to be invested in DPS-improving capabilities — which is good, since DPS is what Ret does.
By Level 39, however, it’s clear that there are bleak times ahead. The next significant DPS boost available to Ret Paladins is Consecration, buried 11 points deep in the Holy Tree. If you invest your first 30 points in Ret, you can invest the next 11 in Holy and get Consecrate. The 10 points you invest to unlock our AoE attack add some modest DPS with +10 percent to strength and +10 percent to Intellect (Paladin DPS depends on mana, so additional intelligence is helpful). Even so, these are not enormous boosts. Once Consecrate is unlocked, the next-best talent for us to get is +3 percent hit off Precision in the Prot tree, which requires you to spend 5 points in boosting Devotion Aura (increases armor). But since Ret Paladins are based principally on Holy damage, and we’ve already got an aura that boosts it, you’re basically investing 5 points in an aura that won’t improve your raid or dungeon DPS, and only offers a modest improvement to your damage reduction. The +3 percent hit from Precision is quite useful and does improve your DPS, but it’s virtually the last thing you’ll unlock and it isn’t much of a boost. It’s hard not to look at the talent points I’m spending unlocking relatively minor boosts and envy the other classes that kill much quicker than Paladins do. At 20, that gap was still small. By 40, it’s getting larger. By endgame, it will be significant. Every class struggles with this issue to some extent, but other weaknesses in Paladin design make it harder to compensate for.
Retail leveling offers an entirely different progression system. In retail, you gain talents every 15 levels and rather than paying a trainer to learn spells, you automatically receive them upon leveling up. There are far fewer talents to choose from, and there’s no need to commit points deep into one tree to unlock abilities. Some talents synergize well together, but the only restriction is that you can’t substitute two Level 30 talents instead of taking a Lvl 30 and a Lvl 45 talent.
I’ve always preferred the Classic versus the Retail talent system design, but I can’t deny dreading what I already know is coming. Paladin DPS scales poorly into endgame. With limited help from talents and poor DPS scaling from abilities, we become quite dependent on weapon DPS — and most raids don’t want to give Paladins high-end weapons, because even if you do, we struggle to match the output of other classes.
Blacksmithing: Equally Bad (But in Different Ways)
One of the problems with crafting (or at least Blacksmithing) in classic WoW is that the recipes you can make aren’t well-tuned for the amount of materials you find. While the zones themselves offer mining or herbs to gather, you’ll typically out-level your chosen profession unless you choose to spend time either specifically gathering mats, even at low level, or spend money on the AH. Buying recipes can cut deeply into your funds (unless you buy only the ones you intend to make to level up), and virtually every activity, from smelting ore to crafting items, takes much longer in Classic compared with Retail. Thus, while I’m now finding mithril from time to time in Classic, I can’t yet craft with it — my Blacksmithing isn’t high enough.
The primary uses for crafting in Classic are to make gear for alts or to craft a handful of specific items that sell reasonably well on the AH. Blacksmiths can make some early endgame weapons that are fairly good for a Lvl 57 – 60 character, especially if you haven’t gotten lucky on drops. The true point of Blacksmithing is basically to craft resistance gear for progression raiders, and the profession doesn’t really prove itself useful until that point. Unless you specifically farm for mats rather than focusing on leveling, you won’t be learning recipes you can use until you’ve already over-leveled them. Putting ~45 points on blacksmithing took me roughly an hour in Classic and roughly three minutes in Retail. It’s not just that every single crafting action takes longer in Classic, it’s that you’re far more likely to be shuttling back and forth between mailbox, AH, and your bank (or an alt’s banks) to buy all the mats you need or to learn all the necessary plans.
But if Retail blacksmithing is easier and faster, it’s even less useful. The Great Stats Squish Blizzard has performed multiple times on WoW has basically ensured that there’s no point to even trying to craft gear for yourself. You won’t use it. If Classic crafting was unwieldly, time-consuming, and really not very useful to anyone except lowbie guild members and alts, Retail crafting is rocket-quick, allows you to access bank mats while building items, and feels even more pointless. Blizzard has never managed to balance World of Warcraft crafting very well, but the current state of 1-60 is downright bad — at least as far as BS is concerned. I won’t speculate on other professions.
Conclusion: At 40, Retail WoW Is Catching Up to Classic
Right now, I still enjoy playing Classic more than Retail. If I’m being honest, though, I’m not sure how much longer that will be true. I’ve done this song and dance in Vanilla before, and I know where it ends up. The closer Tovah gets to 60, the more aware I am that she’s got very little chance of claiming a DPS role and virtually no chance to operate as a tank.
Leveling in Classic feels more fun and I enjoy it significantly more. I’m never going to like the fact that Paladins in Retail WoW are basically generic DPS with no unique support capability, because Blizzard stripped most buffs and support spells out of the game. There’s no point to Seal of Light or Wisdom in Retail. You don’t lose enough health to worry about Lay on Hands. Nobody really needs buffs, so it doesn’t matter that Paladin buffs are both limited and weak, or that our auras have been removed. Except it does matter, to those of us who loved that aspect of our class. It just doesn’t matter enough. Given the choice between being stuffed into a dress and cleansebotting my way through Molten Bore and having the freedom to play as Ret or Prot in Retail, I’d take Retail in a heartbeat.
If I’ve seemed to go back and forth on Classic versus Retail, here’s how I’d summarize it. At 40, the weaknesses of Classic’s design are beginning to show — so much so, that I may roll a different character altogether rather than seriously try to gear Tovah for endgame after hitting 60. Despite how much I dislike the removal of our buffs and support characteristics, the flexibility and capability of Retail Paladins blows Classic out of the water. As far as enjoying the leveling experience, however, I think automatically scaling mob level to player level, combined with significantly weakening mobs overall, was a disastrous move in terms of the impact on leveling actually being fun. I may level like a (comparative) bat out of hell in Retail, but I don’t actually enjoy it very much.
Agree? Disagree? Sound off below.
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