The Priest Class in Warcraft: A History

Last updated: 03/09/08, patch 2.3.3.


In the beginning, Blizzard created the priest, and it was good.

… wait, no they didn’t.

The concept of a priest class in fantasy worlds extends to well before the genesis of Blizzard games. The popular TSR (now Wizards of the Coast) franchise “Dungeons and Dragons” is believed to be the first to feature priests as player characters. However, the thought of priestly folk riding into battle is almost an entirely made up concept.

(Read on… or just skip to the end for information on just World of Warcraft.)


Disclaimer: I starting writing this post a little over a month ago. With the recent death of Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons, I hesitated actually in posting it. I am not trying to capitalize or sensationalize on his death in any way. The section on the influence of Dungeons and Dragons on the genre was the first part written.


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The Historical Origins

Priests, while they did exist historically (obviously), did little in the ways of running off to war. There were certain orders of “clerics” and holy warriors over the course of history who were essentially battle-ready holy men. As well, there were traveling spiritualists and monks who spread words of wisdom and religion. It was these holy warriors and wandering monks that were likely the inspiration for the priest class in fantasy games.

Some of the more notable spiritualists, holy warriors, and cleric orders in history included:

  • Shugenja (c.634 CE) – These Japanese mystic monks followed a religion of combined elements from Buddhism, Shintoism, and Taoism. They believed they could channel supernatural power into themselves through rigorous physical tests, including epic treks throughout Japan. tilpin.jpgThey are also known as “Yamabushi,” or “mountain hermits,” as they lived in mountainous regions in small numbers.
  • Archbishop Tilpin (c.778 CE) – One of the oldest pieces of French literature, The Song of Roland, tells the story of Charlemagne’s nephew Roland and the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. Archbishop Tilpin (called “Turpin” in the song) took up arms and went into battle at Roland’s side. He may just be the oldest European inspiration for “battle priests.”
  • Sohei (949 CE) – Buddhist warrior monks of Japan. They held great numbers during the feudal periods. These monks served their temples, which typically had an elaborate infrastructure for religious observation, instruction, training, etc.
  • The Knights Hospitaller (1099 CE) – A Christian holy order charged with the defense of the holy land (Jerusalem, etc.). The order can trace its religious roots back to the 7th century CE, but was not formally founded as a military order until the 11th century CE.
  • The Knights Templar (1119 CE) – A Christian holy order that initially focused on defending and aiding pilgrims to the holy land. They were a strong fighting element during the Crusades, and perhaps the most well known order of holy warriors.
  • Sufi (1143 CE) – Mystic practitioners of Islam. Many of them served as traveling scholars of their religion. Sufism started in India, but spread itself throughout the Middle East up to the 15th century.
  • Teutonic Knights (1198 CE) – Founded as a Germanic religious military order, the Teutonic Knights initially served to protect a hospital in Jerusalem. They based themselves off of The Knights Hospitaller and fought in the Crusades.
  • Shaolin Monks (c.1220 CE) – Members of a monastic order in China. These monks were skilled in unarmed combat, as well as the teachings of Buddhism. The shaolin monastic order can trace its roots back to the 5th century CE, but did not introduce combat training to its members until the 13th century.
  • Friar Friar Tuck (1475 CE – non-historical) – Laugh if you must, but legends of a friar who traveled with the fabled Robin Hood extend back to the 15th century CE. While his existence is most likely fiction, the folklore of the traveling Friar Tuck who raised morale and tended to wounds permeates much of the myth surrounding Robin Hood and his band of men.

Many of the more formal orders of holy warriors, especially in Europe, seem to fall in line more with how we envision the paladin class (in Warcraft). In terms of historical inspiration for the two classes, priest and paladin, there is very little differentiation in that regard.

As for the origins of the “shadow priest” concept, the historical inspiration is a little more vague. It is likely that the concept was drawn from cult priests, witch doctors, and the misunderstood aspects of paganism and witchcraft throughout history.


Inspiration From Other Games
Namely: Dungeons and Dragons

The priest class was something implemented into fantasy games as a way of buffing or raising the morale of your allies while reducing the damage done to your group by foes. It’s been argued that the priest or cleric class has its origin in medieval-set military war games, but there is no clear source supporting this. Even in Chainmail, the medieval miniatures game that was the direct precursor to the Dungeons and Dragons table-top role playing game, there was no mention of a damage-mitigation class or unit. Dungeons and Dragons is considered to be the first game to feature priests/clerics as a playable character class.

It’s no secret that Warcraft was heavily influenced by Dungeons and Dragons. Chris Metzen, a Creative Director of Warcraft, was quoted in a 2003 publication as saying:

“As you might imagine, many of us here at Blizzard have been playing D&D and other paper-and-pencil games since we were old enough to get shot down by girls. Armed only with funny dice, a fistful of Number 2 pencils, and our raw imaginations, we set out to be heroes, explorers, kings. Whether we were facing down the mighty dragons of Krynn, getting stranded somewhere in the endless fields of Faerûn, trying to keep our wits about us in Castle Ravenloft, or boldly challenging the unknown in worlds of our own making, our collective love for fantasy roleplaying has been with us from the very start. We’ve been developing the Warcraft series for the past ten years or so – frankly, it feels like it’s been in dog years – and it’s been a truly amazing experience to build a rich fantasy setting from the ground up. I guess the countless hours we spent thumbing through our old, ragged DMGs and Player’s Handbooks paid off after all!”

- Manual of Monsters, 2003

Edit: Additionally, when Gary Gygax, a founding developer of D&D passed away on March 4, 2008, Blizzard issued the following statement on the World of Warcraft website:

“Many of us here at Blizzard got our start in gaming with Dungeons & Dragons or one of its computer adaptations and have fond memories of rolling dice, poring over rulebooks, braving dark caverns and castle keeps, battling kobolds and hill giants. Gary Gygax’s work on D&D was an inspiration to us and in many ways helped spark our passion for creating games of our own.”

- World of Warcraft Site News, 2008

Given D&D’s influence on Warcraft and how it spawned the priest/cleric class in fantasy games, it is important to examine and understand the evolution of the priest class throughout D&D.

ClericIn 1974 when Dungeons and Dragons released its first player game manual, they didn’t have a priest class per se, but had “clerics,” and when the first edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons came out in 1977, “monks” were added. (And for those of you keeping score, the player manuals listed “druids” as a subclass of clerics, and “paladins” as a subclass of “fighters”).

In the first edition of AD&D, the cleric class was described as the following:

“This class of character bears certain resemblance to religious orders of knighthood in medieval times … The cleric is dedicated to a deity, or deities, and at the same time a skilled combatant at arms … All clerics have certain holy symbols which aid them and give them power to their spells. All are likewise forbidden to use edged and/or pointed weapons which shed blood. All clerics have their own spells, bestowed upon them by their deity for correct and diligent prayers and deeds.

“A study of the spells usable by clerics will convey the main purpose of the cleric. That is, the cleric serves to fortify, protect, and revitalize. The cleric also has a limited number of attack spells, some of which are the reverse forms of curative incantations … Another important attribute of the cleric is the ability to turn away (or actually command into service) the undead and less powerful demons and devils.”

- Advanced D&D Player’s Handbook, 1978

There you go. Right off the bat the cleric (aka the priest) class was established as a buffing and healing class that could reverse its holy powers to deal damage (think: shadow priest).

Similarly, the monk class was described as the following:

“Monks are monastic aesthetics who practice rigorous and mental and physical training and discipline in order to become superior … Monks have no spell ability, cannot wear armor or use a shield.”

- Advanced D&D Player’s Handbook, 1978

This gives us the magic word: Discipline.

cleric-elmore.jpgEventually, TSR decided to revise their Dungeons and Dragons game, and released a second edition of the game manuals in 1989, updating all their information. Again, clerics were a playable class, but monks were dropped from the player game manual.

The “priest” concept covered all mythos-(faith-)based magic casters in the game. In the second edition AD&D player manual, clerics were described as a playable class under that priest umbrella (the priest umbrella covered the cleric and druid player classes).

“The priest is a believer and advocate of a god from a particular mythos. More than just a follower, he intercedes and acts on the behalf of others, seeking to use his powers to advance his mythos.

“All priests have certain powers: the ability to cast spells, the strength of arm to defend their beliefs, and special deity-granted powers to aid them in their calling. While priests are not as fierce in combat as warriors, they are trained to use weaponry in the fight for their cause. They can cast spells, primarily to further their god’s aims and protect its adherents. They have few offensive spells, but are very powerful.”

- Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition Player’s Handbook, 1989

Clerics were the specific playable class, and were said to be:

“The most common type of priest … The cleric may be an adherent of any religion … Clerics are generally good, but are not restricted to good…

“Clerics are sturdy soldiers, although the selection of their weapons is limited. They can wear any type of armor and use any shield. Standard clerics, being reluctant to shed blood or spread violence, are allowed to use only blunt, bludgeoning weapons.

“Spells are the main tools of the cleric, however, helping him to serve, fortify, protect, and revitalize those under his care. He has a wide variety of spells to choose from, suitable to many different purposes and needs … The cleric receives his spells as insight directly from his deity (the deity does not need to make a personal appearance to grant the spells a cleric prays for), as a sign and reward of his faith, so he must take care not to abuse his power lest it be taken away as punishment.

“The cleric is also granted power over undead – evil creatures that exist in a form of non-life, neither dead nor alive. The cleric is charged with defeating these mockeries of life.”

- Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Second Edition Player’s Handbook, 1989

Clerics should not be confused with paladins, which remained their own unique class. Paladins, while from a historical perspective share similar origins to the cleric, are defined in Dungeons and Dragons as being more of fighters who happen to also be holy, as opposed to clerics who were religious folk who happened to also be adventurers. cleric-2.jpgPaladins tended to wear heavy armor like plate mail, while clerics were limited to much lighter armor (despite what the explanation says above, priests sometimes suffered penalties when trying to cast spells in heavy armor, or were limited to lighter armor by their particular faith) . Another major difference was weapon types. Paladins could wield whatever they could pick up, but typical clerics could only use simple, blunt, bludgeoning weapons.

In 1990, TSR, the publisher of the Dungeons and Dragons franchise, released a rules supplement to its second edition of AD&D entitled: “The Complete Priest’s Handbook.” This guide provided a plethora of priest class information, including faiths, lore, rituals, dress, ranks, personalities, combat ability, and followers.

The significance of The Complete Priest’s Handbook (well, besides the fast that it was an entire book all about priests) is that it stressed how vast the faith/mythos options were. Priests were not limited to worshiping a deity or deities. Natural forces and philosophies were valid sources of faith – no gods involved.

“A Force is some sort of natural (or unnatural) process which influences the world. It isn’t necessarily intelligent, but it is magically powerful… and the humans who accept the dictates and goals of this Force can become its priests and use spells based on that magical power …

“A Philosophy is an idea, or set of ideas, which (in these magical worlds) is so compelling that it attracts magical energy and faith to it, much as a Force does. Philosophies are usually created by man or other sentient races, spread throughout cultures, and gain such widespread acceptance and belief that they do become much like Forces. When no one believes in a Philosophy any longer, it can generate no magical power and support no priests, so the priests’ duty is to embody its attributes and to teach the Philosophy so that it will never die.”

- The Complete Priest’s Handbook, 1990

In Warcraft, most priests turn to either the Holy Light or Shadow – ideas, not gods.


The Priests of Warcraft I
Orcs and Humans

“Orcs and Humans” was the first “Warcraft” game released by Blizzard. It was a real time strategy game published in 1994. It involved playing as either the Orcish Horde (the Orcs) or the Army of Stormwind (the Humans). The objective was to try to build resources and and an army capable of defeating the other side. This was “The First War” in Warcraft lore.

There were not any priest classes featured in the game as player-controlled units per se, but the Stormwind Army had Clerics and the Orcish Horde had Necrolytes. Archbishop Faol was introduced as head of the Northshire Order of Clerics. He was the first character to be called a “priest.”

The Clerics, from the game’s manual:

cleric_icon.jpg“These are the holy men of our kingdom. Their spiritual leadership keeps both the people and the troops of Azeroth focused upon our mission of everlasting peace. Their ability to channel the spirit of humanity through their bodies makes them truly wondrous, and stories of their ability to heal the sick and injured, as well as being able to affect the perceptions of others, are miraculous in nature. The transgressions against Humanity by the Orcs have forced them to devise ways to defend themselves, but their true path remains the healing of men’s souls.”

-Warcraft: Orcs and Humans Manual, 1994

The Necrolytes, as described in the game’s manual:

necrolyte_icon.jpg“Practitioners of the Orcish religions, these binders of souls command the black powers that hold control over the earth. Linked into the dominions of the lower planes, Necrolytes have power over all things dark and evil, including the raising of fallen warriors to create armies of the undead. Through ceremonies performed at their Temples, they learn to warp the essence of shadow to use for their advantage.”

-Warcraft: Orcs and Humans Manual, 1994

The Clerics seem to be akin to holy priests as we know them today, while Necrolytes seem to be more similar to shadow priests. (Necrolytes also seem very similar to Warlocks, but the Warlock class was already included in the game as a separate class/unit at this point).

Clerics were described in the game manual as believing in: “God”, “angels”, “daemons”, “heaven”, and “hell”, which was changed in Warcraft III,when followers of the Holy Light suddenly became non-theistic. Perhaps it was because they mostly didn’t live to see The Second War?


The Priests of Warcraft II
Tides of Darkness and Beyond the Dark Portal

Warcraft II was another real-time strategy based game. Tides of Darkness was originally released in 1995, and its expansion, Beyond the Dark Portal, was released in 1996. Again, the objective was to play as either the Orcish army or the Human army in a competition in assembling military resources and battle against the other side. This was “The Second War” in Warcraft lore.

It was explained that the Northshire Holy Order of Clerics used in the first game were decimated in The First War. In the Second War, the human army drew on paladins in the newly formed Order of the Silver Hand, led by Archbishop Foal, in their stead. Similarly, the orcish horde employed death knights in the stead of necrolytes (and warlocks).

Yes, priests-like classes were replaced by paladins and death knights in the second game.


The Priests of Warcraft III
Reign of Chaos and The Frozen Throne

In 2002, Reign of Chaos, and its sequel, The Frozen Throne in 2003, brought us yet another real-time strategy game, but this time much more plot-driven. In “Warcraft III,” you rotated through different race-specific campaigns in order to progress the storyline. The story told in these games is “The Third War” in Warcraft lore.

Priests were brought back as playable units in Warcraft III.

w3helf.jpgIn the human campaign, you could employ high elf priests in your campaign (not to be confused with blood elf priests, which you could also use outside the standard campaign with the same exact abilities). These priests had the following three abilities:

  • Heal (restoration of lost hit points)
  • Dispel Magic (removes summoned forces and removes buffs)
  • Inner Fire (increases damage done and armor)

w3witchd.jpgIn the orc campaign, troll witch doctors were available for your use (despite more closely resembling shaman in WoW, they likely provided some of the early inspiration for troll shadow priests). They could:

  • Healing Ward (heals allies)
  • Sentry Ward (enhances vision in an area)
  • Stasis Trap (causes enemies to flee or be stunned)

w3necro.jpgThe undead campaign had acolytes, which did grunt work for their army. They also had necromancers, which resemble both the shadow priest and the warlock, but specialized in their control over undead entities. Their abilities were:

  • Raise Dead (creates skeleton warriors and mages)
  • Unholy Frenzy (quickens cast time at the cost of health)
  • Cripple (reduces attacks done and movement)


Priests in Warcraft: The Roleplaying Game

wcrpgcover.jpgIn 2003, Blizzard took a step in a different direction. Taking a brief aside from making computer games, they set out to make a table-top roleplaying game compatible with the (then current) version of Dungeons and Dragons (version 3.5). This was (appropriately) titled: “Warcraft: The Roleplaying Game.” In Warcraft lore, the events outlined in the game manuals imply that the roleplaying game is set just one year after The Third War.

There were a few priestly options in the game, as far as classes go. Plain old priests, necromancers, and witch doctors, just like in Warcraft III.

“Priests” were a type of healer. Healers in the game were fundamentally described as the following:

“Healers are the heart of a community – and of an adventuring party. They use their powers to heal the wounded and bolster the spirits of those around them.

“A healer must choose a time each day during which he must spend 1 hour in quiet contemplation to regain his daily allotment of spells. This contemplation is not handled through worship per se, but is rather a meditative state in which the healer contemplates the teachings of the Holy Light or of Elune or communes with nature spirits (depending on religion).”

-Warcraft The Roleplaying Game, 2003

The game manual elaborated on priests as a specific type of healer in this game. They were described as mainly following the Holy Light or Elune (meaning that the typical races playing priests were Humans, Elves (High, Night), and Dwarves):

“While healers are common devotees of the faiths of Azeroth, priests are true adherents of their chosen religion. Whether a worshiper of the Holy Light or a follower of Elune, the priest has delved deep to become a conduit of power.”

-Warcraft The Roleplaying Game, 2003

As for the darker priestly forces, the “Alliance and Horde Compendium,” a supplemental book released in 2004, reintroduces the “necromancer” class. Necromancers are similar to warlocks, but focused more in controlling undead, not demons:

“Necromancers are spellcasters whose magics manipulate the power of death. In calling upon this power, necromancers risk being consumed by it – until eventually they join the ranks of the undead.

-Alliance and Horde Compendium, 2004

Additionally, the “Magic and Mayhem” supplemental book, also released in 2004, covered the “witch doctor” class:

“Creating curses and hexes is a specialty of the witch doctor. The witch doctor can make a deadly doll of wax or tallow containing a specific person’s hair, skin or blood. He can affect the target with a harmful touch attack spell as long as the person is on the same plane. The doll disintegrates after a touch attack.

“The witch doctor can shake and rattle the gourds and necklaces that he carries to create a frightening rhythmic effect. The juju of the highly skilled witch doctor becomes potent enough to kill…

“Much like a wizard, the witch doctor relies on his ability to bend shadow to his will”

-Magic and Mayhem, 2004

Warcraft The Roleplaying Game is the first time we get an explanation on types of magic. We are introduced to arcane magic (used by mages, etc.) and divine magic (used by shaman, paladins, druids, priests, etc.). Arcane magic is described as a destructive magic, while divine is restorative.

“The origins of divine magic are varied. Some practitioners draw divine energy from the strength of their own faith, some call to the spirits of their ancestors, some turn to the forces of the earth for divine inspiration, and some claim a divine legacy that runs within their blood. Whatever the source, all divine spellcasters share much in common. They have the ability to ease their allies’ wounds and crush their enemies, all while remaining hidden from the shadowy eye of the Burning Legion.

“Although gods exist in the world, they do not take the same roles as the gods of other fantasy settings. Warcraft’s gods are far more theoretical in nature. They do not manifest themselves upon the world, they do not show divine proof of the their existence, and they do not reward their followers with special powers or spells. Indeed, some wonder if these gods exist at all – and whether the gods might just in fact be a comforting, fictional creation. Even if this is the case, the believers’ absolute faith in the gods is enough to tap into a divine spark within themselves, and they draw spells and powers from their own devotion.”

-Warcraft The Roleplaying Game, 2003

Keep in mind that divine magic is the type used by all the healer classes, not just priests.

However, the darker priest-like classes, such as the witch doctor and the necromancer, used arcane magic instead of divine.

“… arcane magic has a dark genesis. It was born of demonic power, of terrible creatures that stalk through living nightmares and it has always borne their accursed taint.

“Arcane magic is a drug. Its use is intoxicating and sends power throbbing through the veins, but it is also addictive, subtly corrupting and even maddening.”

-Warcraft The Roleplaying Game, 2003

The two types of magics used by priest-like classes in the roleplaying game have an interesting inherent duality. This is similar to the holy/shadow duality of priest spells in WoW.

It should be noted that in 2005, shortly after the release of the World of Warcraft, the Warcraft Roleplaying Game had all its manuals overhauled to be more in line with the new project and rereleased under the name “World of Warcraft: The Roleplaying Game.”


Priests in the Pre-Release of WoW

Hot off the tail of The Frozen Throne, Blizzard announced in 2003 their intention to make another computer game set in the Warcraft universe, this time a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, or “MMORPG.” World of Warcraft is supposedly set 3-5 years after the events of The Frozen Throne (inconsistencies in various published timelines make it difficult to determine).

In March of 2004, “World of Warcraft” went into closed beta testing. The priest class was one of the seven classes initially featured for testing at that time (priest, rogue, mage, warrior, shaman, warlock, paladin), and was playable by humans, dwarves, night elves, trolls, and undead.

There were fairly significant changes to the priest class during the beta testing period of the game.

priest_wow.jpgThe initial model of the priest class at the beginning of the closed beta had it a healing/caster/melee hybrid. Yes, they could heal, they could resurrect fallen allies in combat, they could be caster DPS, they could be melee DPS, and they could even off-tank. There was a lot of room for specialization.

Initially in the beta, characters were able to put talent points into stat-increasing areas (amongst other areas), and gained multiple talent points (TP) per level, much like a hunter’s pet does now. This was changed right after the closed beta went live (patch 0.6, April 2004); the talent point system was overhauled and these talents were removed.

Pre-patch 0.6, priests could put points into these stat-increasing areas:
(This list represents only a handful of the places TP could be spent, and was not just unique to priests.)

  • Great Stamina – Increases health by 14 per rank.
  • Physical Prowess – Increases health by 20-30 per rank.
  • Mighty Intellect – Increases mana by 20 per rank.
  • Indomitable Spirit – Increases mana regen and health regen.
  • Mental Acuity – Increases mana by 20-30 per rank.
  • Lightning Reflexes – Increases defense rating by 1 per rank.
  • Evade – Increases defense rating by 3 per rank.
  • Toughness – Increases armor by 15 for per rank.
  • Weapon Specialization – Increases damage done by your weapon by 1-2 per rank.

It is easy to see how a priest focusing in Toughness, Evade, Lightning Reflexes, Great Stamina, and Weapon Specialization could play a more melee-focused character.

After the talent point overhaul in patch 0.6, priests were locked into being a more of a caster/healer class, and not something intended for hand-to-hand combat. The TP system was removed and classes started to get class-specific talent trees. Not all trees were released at the same time, however, in fact the priest talent trees we have today (Discipline/Holy/Shadow Magic) did not come out until August of 2004 (patch 0.9), and looked like such:


A quick rundown of the talents that may not be familiar now:

Discipline (left tree):

Focused Casting: (1 rank)
While active, you no longer lose casting time from taking damage. Lasts 8 seconds.
Improved Shackle Undead (2 ranks)
Decreases the chance that your target can resist your Shackle Undead by 5% per rank.
Divine Spirit (1 rank)
Same spirit-increasing buff we have now, just a with different icon.

Holy (middle tree):

Improved Holy Smite: (3 ranks)
Increases the critical strike damage of your Holy Smite ability by 40%/70%/100%.
Holy Fire (1 rank)
You learn the spell Holy Fire (which had a 5 second cast time and a 1 minute cooldown at the time).
Improved Resurrection (2 ranks)
Reduces the resurrection sickness penalty of your Resurrection spell by 10%/25%.
Combat Resurrection (1 rank)
Brings a dead player back to life with 50% of their health and mana. The target does not suffer from resurrection sickness. (2 second cast, 45 minute cooldown)
Subtlety (5 ranks)
Decreases the threat of your healing spells by 2% per rank.
Master Healer (5 ranks)
Increases the effectiveness of your healing spells by 1% + 1% per rank.
Improved Flash Heal (2 ranks)
Gives you a 35%/70% chance to avoid interruption from damage when casting Flash Heal.
Holy Nova (1 rank)
This is the old icon for Holy Nova. At the time, Holy Nova had a 5 second cooldown, would do AoE damage when cast, and would temporarily reduce your threat on nearby mobs.
Improved Shadow Protection (2 ranks)
Increases the amount of shadow resistance gained by 15% per rank.
Improved Prayer of Healing (2 ranks)
Decreases the mana cost of your Prayer of Healing ability by 10% per rank.

Shadow (right tree):
There weren’t any different shadow talents that got removed in the beta. They even all have the same icons as they do now.

In general, some of the talents as we know them now were vastly different in the beta. For example:

  • Silent Resolve reduced the threat of just damage spells.
  • Meditation had 5 ranks.
  • Spiritual Healing increased your mana regen by 100% for 10 seconds after landing a critical heal (at max rank).
  • Improved Healing increased your crit chance on Lesser Heal / Heal / Greater Heal by 1% per rank.
  • Blackout was only 1% per rank.
  • Improved Fade increased the duration of your Fade spell by 5 seconds per rank.
  • Shadowform increased your shadow damage by 20% and reduced physical damage taken by 20%.

Talents were not the only thing drastically changed in the beta. Spells underwent some significant modifications as well.

In early beta versions of the game:

  • Mind Soothe was called “Pacify”
  • Priests could buff “Holy Protection.”
  • Renew was not instant cast.
  • Shadow Word: Pain didn’t stack with the warlock spell Corruption.
  • Priest could cast “Sleep” on enemies.
  • Priests could “Brainwash” a friendly target, permanently removing some of its threat.
  • There was a mana-drain DoT, called “Mind Rot.”
  • Mind Blast was instant cast.
  • Full mana regen continued while casting; there was no “five second rule.”

All of which changed during the closed beta testing.

In early November 2004, just weeks before the game was officially released, World of Warcraft went into open beta (patch 1.1). During this period:

  • The “Holy Word” spells were changed to be “Power Word.”
  • “Holy Smite” was renamed “Smite.”
  • Resurrection sickness was changed to only happen when spirit rezzed, not every time you resurrected.
  • Priests lost their combat resurrection ability.
  • Special priest spells for each race were added (racials).
  • Levitate was given a regent cost, and was changed to break on taking damage.

Also, the talent trees were revised into something more closely resembling what we got at release (see below). The Shadow and Disc trees stayed mostly the same, but the Holy tree was reduced to only one 31-point talent: Holy Nova. The Holy tree’s Master Healer talent was changed to reduce the casting time on Greater Heal / Heal / Lesser heal by 0.1 seconds per rank.

Overall, throughout the beta, priests were one of the most scaled-back classes in terms of abilities, spells, and talents. They were fairly overpowered at the start of the beta testing, not because of any ability in particular, but because of the breadth of roles they could fill and their efficiency; priests could do too many things too well and for too long.


The Original Priest in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft was released November, 23rd of 2004. The player’s manual that shipped with the game described the priest class as:

“… a spellcaster with a diverse portfolio of spells. This class has the most potent healing spells, as well as excellent buffs. It also has good defensive spells that can ward allies from physical dangers and spells, as well as purely offensive shadow spells. However, as a primary spellcaster, the priest is extremely fragile, with poor health and weak melee power…

“Priests spells are divided between the holy and shadow schools, and fall into several categories: heals, attack spells, crowd control, and buffs. While the shaman, druid, and paladin can also heal, none of them can heal as well as the priest…

“Another large class of spells the priest has is direct damage spells like mind blast, and damage-over-time spells like shadow word: pain. The priest also has good spells to counter enemy casters, such as mana burn.”

- World of Warcraft Game Manual, 2004

The World of Warcraft website was updated at the release of the game to include this information about priests:

“Priests are the masters of healing and preservation, restoring their wounded allies, shielding them in battle, and even resurrecting their fallen comrades. While they have a variety of protective and enhancement spells to bolster their allies, priests can also wreak terrible vengeance on their enemies, using the powers of shadow or holy light to destroy them. They are a diverse and powerful class, highly desirable in any group, capable of fulfilling multiple roles.

Type: Primary Healer
Standard Bars: Health/Mana
Available Armor: Cloth
Available Weapons: One-Handed Maces, Daggers, Staves, Wands
Comments: The most sought after class for any group”

-World of Warcraft website, Player Classes, 2004

The talent trees, at release, looked as such:

Release Talent Trees

The 31 point talents were Divine Spirit, Holy Nova, and Shadowform (in the Discipline, Holy, and Shadow trees respectively). Mental Strength and Force of Will, introduced at the end of beta testing, became permanent additions to the Discipline tree. The Holy tree was released with Divine Fury (which, at the time, only affected Smite and Holy Fire) and Spirit of Redemption (which provided a small AoE heal to your party upon your death). The Shadow tree saw little change going from the beta into release.

priest_wow1.jpgTypical priest specs were:

  • 26/25/0 (healing w/Meditation)
  • 21/30/0 (healing w/Master Healer)
  • 13/0/38 (shadow damage)

Holy priests often lamented their talent choices, complaining about the lack of a viable 31-point talent to supplement their healing ability. Despite this, holy priests were still considered a solid healer, both in raw healing power and in breadth of healing spells.

Shadow priests saw little popularity in groups and raids. Mind Blast caused extra threat making people wary of the inclusion of the class in raids. Additionally, there was a 16 debuff limit on mobs and shadow priests took up four of those debuff slots (with Vampiric Embrace, Mind Flay, Shadow Weaving, and Shadow Word: Pain). Shadow’s damage output made it best for ease of leveling, though.

The Shadow tree was considered the strongest PvP tree for priests, and a shadow priest on the battlegrounds was considered a formidable foe. In August of 2005, a thread on the WoW US Priest Forums coined the phrase “melting faces” to describe shadow priests in PvP. mind_flay.jpgBeing a “face melter” was a complement, as it became synonymous with shadow priest prowess. The original phrase from the thread was: “You will melt faces as a shadow priest in pvp.” This is a reference to how the icon for Mind Flay resembles a face being melted by a blue beam, and Mind Flay itself was a blue beam to the upper torso, neck, or face, depending on the target.

The Discipline tree saw little use except as a supplement to shadow or holy (though, to be fair, some healers would go 25-26 points deep in it just to get Meditation). It was mainly considered to be the mana efficiency tree. The rare Disc-focused priest existed, sometimes for the extra buff for raids, sometimes to do holy DPS in battlegrounds.

There were small changes made to the priest class after the initial release of World of Warcraft.

  • Perhaps to avoid griefing, Power Word: Shield and Mind Control became limited to group members and your group’s tapped targets, respectively (patch 1.2).
  • Holy Nova was changed to be an AoE heal, as well as an AoE damage spell (patch 1.4).
  • Holy Fire’s base case time was reduced from 5 seconds to 4 seconds (patch 1.4)
  • Shadowform was fixed to allow you to mount and use trade skills with it active (patch 1.6).
  • Focused Casting was changed to not trip the global cooldown (patch 1.7).



The WoW Priest Class Review

In patch 1.10, March of 2006, the priests got a class review. Spells and talents were adjusted by Warcraft developers in order to better balance the priest class and to address issues.

Eyonix (a WoW CM) said the following about the changes:

“We focused primarily on the Holy and Discipline trees, however, we did visit the Shadow tree as well… I had already commented that the focus of Holy would be in providing throughput improvement, that Discipline would focus on staying-power and that Shadow would focus primarily on damage. I believe this statement caused a slight bit of confusion, and I wish to make two points of clarification.

“First, this has always been the case. This isn’t a new direction for these trees.

“Second, don’t overanalyze “focus”. All talent trees (for all classes) have a focus. The focus of a tree isn’t necessarily all it has to offer. For instance, just because I stated the focus of Holy was in throughput improvement, doesn’t mean you wont find staying-power or damage. One of our goals in streamlining the priest talents was to ensure that the class was viable in both PvE and PvP, despite a given build. Granted, certain builds are always going to be optimal for certain avenues of the game, as such is what occurs when you specialize your character.”

- World of Warcraft Priest Class Forum, 2006

Up to that point, priests were largely concerned about the lack of focus in the Discipline tree, and even the Holy tree to an extent. The changes helped to address concerns, but “focus” remained an ongoing concern about the priest talent trees well into The Burning Crusade.

The changes to the spells and talents in this patch were significant.

Spell changes:

  • The effects of Power Word: Shield now scale with gear. It receives a 10% bonus to damage absorbed from +damage/healing and +healing equipment.
  • The Weakened Soul debuff from Power Word: Shield is reduced to 15 seconds (from 30 seconds).
  • Inner Fire was changed to no longer grant attack power. It’s duration was increased from 3 minutes to 10 minutes, but it was given charges. It now gives 50% more bonus armor.
  • Holy Fire became trainable. Its base casting time was reduced to 3.5 seconds.
  • Greater Heal had its base casting time reduced to 3 seconds (from 4 seconds). It’s effectiveness was also increased by about 10%. Heal and Lesser similarly had their cast times adjusted.
  • Mind Soothe became instant cast.

Talent changes:

Many talents were moved around, a handful were added, and a few taken away (or merged into pre-existing talents).



  • Improved PW:S now increases the amount of damage absorbed by 15% (instead of shortening thetime of the “Weakened Soul” debuff).
  • When procced, Martyrdom will now also provide a 20% bonus to resisting interrupts.
  • Divine Spirit is now a 21 point talent.
  • Power Infusion became the new 31 point talent (it provides a 20% bonus to target’s damage and healing spells for 15 seconds, 3 minute cooldown).


  • Holy Concentration was added in the bottom tier. It gives a 70% chance to avoid interruption when casting healing spells . Similarly, Improved Flash Heal was removed.
  • The Spell Warding talent was added to the second tier (reduces incoming spell damage by 2% per rank, 5 ranks).
  • Divine Fury and Master Healer were combined into a new version of Divine Fury that reduced the casting time of Smite, Heal, Greater Heal, and Holy Fire.
  • Holy Nova was moved to be the 11-point talent (a threatless AoE that heals). Its cooldown was removed.
  • Blessed Recovery was added to the third tier (allows you to regenerate health over six seconds after being critical hit).
  • Improved Healing was changed to 3 talent points instead of 5.
  • Searing Light was added at the removal of Improved Smite. It was a 10% increase in damage for Smite and Holy Fire.
  • Spiritual Guidance (a bonus to damage and healing equivalent to 5% of your total spirit per rank, 5 ranks) was a new talent added to the fifth tier.
  • Spirit of Redemption was changed. Now, upon death it turns you into an angel that can cast healing spells free for 10 seconds. Due to lag and such, few players were able to get much use out of this.
  • The new 31-point talent, Lightwell, was considered laughable and called “a glorified bandage dispenser” and “lolwell.” The healing-over-time effects from the clickable summoned Lightwell would break on damage. Additionally, players could click the Lightwell more than once and needlessly drain it of its paltry 5 charges. It was high mana cost with no guarantee of actually healing. The nail in the coffin was that the spell had a 10 minute cooldown.


  • Improved Vampiric Embrace was introduced, allowing Vampiric Embrace to heal 5% more per rank (2 ranks).

The Holy tree saw the greatest change, which was, on the whole, quite positive. Few priests bothered with Lightwell or Spirit of Redemption, many continued to lament the lack of a quality 31-point talent in the Holy tree, but all holy priests benefited from the changes in this patch. The difference to the tree was significant.

Holy priests were now considered the essential healer. When looking for groups, other players wouldn’t ask for healers, but for priests by name. “Need a priest” commonly punctuated “lfg” and “lfm” comments in chat.

The Discipline tree, due to the addition of Power Infusion, became a favorite of holy damage builds (either for battlegrounds or soloing). Shadow priests and healers still relied on talents in the Discipline tree for efficiency.

The Shadow tree gained little, but flourished in PvP much the same. A proud few shadow priests continued raiding as such. Many guilds pressured shadow priests to heal during raids or respec to a healing talent build altogether. A shadow priest allowed to DPS in raids and roll on damage gear against mages and locks was considered fortunate. In August of 2006, just a few months after the 1.10 patch, was founded as a place where shadow priests could congregate, share tips, theorycraft, and empathize.

Common talent builds after this patch’s changes:

  • 21/30/0 (healing, with Spiritual Healing)
  • 26/25/0 (healing, with Mental Strength)
  • 15/0/36 (shadow damage)

After patch 1.10 went live, there were a few small bug fixes to the priest class (mostly with Spirit of Redemption), but nothing significant.


Priests in The Burning Crusade

About a year after the release of World of Warcraft, Blizzard announced plans to make an expansion, The Burning Crusade (TBC). Lore-wise, the events in the expansion are intended to be set one year after the events in World of Warcraft.

The Burning Crusade went into beta testing in the second half of 2006. The beta version had some significant talent and spell differences from what was released:

  • The Shades of Darkness spell would summon 3 shades to attack an enemy for 8 sec., 5 min, cooldown. (This was replaced with Shadowfiend).
  • Improved Shadow Weaving made your Shadow Weaving increase the spell damage done to the target by up to 5% (this is what Misery became).
  • Misery used to be in the Discipline tree (at the spot where Enlightenment is now). It used to affect Holy Fire instead of Vampiric Touch.
  • Shadow Mend was the 41 point Shadow talent. It was a weak 1.5 sec heal usable in Shadowform.
  • Circle of Renewal was the 41 point Holy talent. It provided a AoE group heal over time.

The Burning Crusade was released in January of 2007. However, a month before its release date, Blizzard pushed out patch 2.01 (“Before the Storm”) which contained some of the significant game changes expected in TBC (honor, talents, etc.).

There were some notable changes to the healing and downranking mechanics in 2.0.1:

  • Low-level spells cast by high-level players were modified to receive smaller bonuses from +healing and +damage. This adjustment initially caused a great outcry. Apparently, priests thought they would be able to downrank cast Heal 2 forever. After seeing how little this impacted their overall gameplay, people settled for the change.
  • HoTs from different sources were changed to stack with each other (i.e. multiple priests can cast the Renew on 1 target without it overwriting).

The talent point changes added new talents not just at the tops of the trees, but throughout the lower tiers as well:


There were some very significant additions to the priest talent trees:


Absolution (3 ranks)
Decreases the mana cost of Dispel Magic, Mass Dispel, Cure Disease, and Abolish Disease by 5/10/15%.
Improved Divine Spirit (2 ranks)
Divine Spirit/Prayer of Spirit now also increase target’s spell damage and healing by 5%/10% of their total spirit.
Focused Power (2 ranks)
Your Smite and Mind Blast spells gain 2/4% chance to hit and cause an extra 5/10% damage against feared targets.
Reflective Shield (5 ranks)
Causes 10% (per rank) of the damage absorbed by your Power Word: Shield to reflect back at the attacker. This damage causes no threat.
Enlightenment (5 ranks)
Increases your total Stamina, Intellect and Spirit by 1% (per rank).
Pain Supression (1 rank)
Self-buff that reduces all damage taken by 60% for 8 seconds (3 min. cooldown).


Surge of Light (2 ranks)
Your spell crits have a 25/50% chance to cause your next Smite to be instant cast, cost no mana, but be incapable of a criting. This effect lasts 10 sec.
Holy Concentration (3 ranks)
Gives you a 2/4/6% chance to enter a Clearcasting state after casting any Flash or Greater Heal.
Blessed Resilience (3 ranks)
Crits against you have a 20/40/60% chance to prevent you from being critically hit again for 6 sec.
Empowered Healing (5 ranks)
Your Greater Heal gains an additional 4% (per rank) and your Flash Heal gains an additional 2% (per rank) of your +heal.
Circle of Healing (1 rank)
A new healing spell that heals a friendly target and that target’s party members within 15 yards for a moderately small amount.


Focused Mind (3 ranks)
Reduces the mana cost of Mind Blast, Mind Control, and Mind Flay spells by 5/1015%
Shadow Resilience (2 ranks)
Reduces the chance you will be critically hit by all spells by 2/4%.
Shadow Power (5 ranks)
Increases the crit chance of Mind Blast and Shadow Word: Death by 3% per rank.
Misery (5 ranks)
Your Shadow Word: Pain, Mind Flay, and Vampiric Touch spells to give the target a debuff that increases spell damage taken from all sources by 1% per rank.
Vampiric Touch (5 ranks)
Your party gains mana equal to 5% of Shadow spell damage you deal.

In patch 2.01 (pre-TBC), common talents specs included:

  • 23/28/0 (healing w/Imp DS)
  • 13/38/0 (healing without DS)
  • 7 /0/44 (shadow damage)

When The Burning Crusade was released, patch 2.03, the Dark Portal was opened, the level cap was raised from 60 to 70, and 5 new priest spells were introduced:

  • Shadow Word: Death (level 62):
    Inflicts shadow damage to the target. Deals the same amount of damage to the caster if the target is not killed by it.
  • Binding Heal (level 64):
    Heals a friendly target and the caster for a moderate amount.
  • Shadowfiend (level 66):
    Sends a shadowy fiend to attack the target. Caster receives mana equal to the Shadowfiend’s damage. Lasts 15 sec. (5 min cooldown.)
  • Prayer of Mending (level 68):
    Places a spell on a target that heals for a small amount the next time they take damage, then jumps to a nearby raid target (up to 5 jumps, lasts 1 minute).
  • Mass Dispel (level 70):
    Dispels magic in a 15 yard radius, removing a harmful spell from each friendly target and a beneficial spell from each enemy target (up to 5 friendly and 5 enemy targets). This dispel can remove magic effects that are normally undispellable.

With the introduction of two new priest races, new racials spells were introduced as well:

  • Consume Magic (Blood Elves):
    Dispels one beneficial Magic effect from the caster and gives them mana. (2 minute cooldown.)
  • Symbol of Hope (Draenei):
    Significantly increases the mp5 of all party members 15 seconds. (5 minute cooldown.)

Common talent builds right after the release of The Burning Crusade:

  • 23/38/0 (healing w/ Imp DS)
  • 14/0/47 (shadow damage)
  • 27/33/0 (pvp healing)

Holy priests remained strong healers in The Burning Crusade. Where other healing classes had definite strengths and weaknesses, priests developed into a jack-of-all-trades healer. Druids had HoTs; Shaman had group healing; Paladins had spam-healing efficiency. Holy priests could do all those things pretty well. Priests now had more competition in healing than they did pre-TBC.

priest_wow2.jpgA huge change to the Holy tree in TBC was its PvP viability. Blessed Resilience was easily the best survival talent in PvP for priests. The Discipline tree offered strong contention with Pain Suppression, but the points spent to get that high just didn’t give as great a benefit as spending them in the Holy tree. The Discipline tree was still heavily relied on for mana efficiency for both Holy and Shadow priests.

The Shadow tree was not given any ability nearly as good for PvP survivability as what the Holy or Discipline trees gained. Shadow Resilience was considered a joke. In contrast to PvP pre-TBC, shadow priests were now considered easy targets, due to lack of survivability abilities combined with short range. The skill required to PvP successfully as a shadow priest greatly increased.

On the other hand, shadow priests saw a tremendous increase in PvE desirability. The shadow tree remained the best for speedy leveling, and now was high in demand for raiding. The introduction of Vampiric Touch and Misery to the Shadow tree gave shadow priests great raid utility.

The priest class has undergone a long list of changes since the release of The Burning Crusade. There have been some very significant “balancing” nerfs (mainly directed toward shadow priests), as well as some pleasant buffs (in general):

  • The amount of bonus damage added to Shadow Word: Pain was reduced (by about 9%) resulting in the spell doing about 5% less damage (patch 2.0.6).
  • Martyrdom, Blessed Resilience, and Blessed Recovery were changed to trigger even if resilience converted the attack from a critical strike to a normal strike (patch 2.0.7).
  • The base healing percent from “Vampiric Embrace” was reduced to 15% from 20% and can no longer get critical heals (patch 2.0.10).
  • Silent Resolve changed to no longer reduce threat generated by shadow spells (patch 2.0.10).
  • Prayer of Mending was given a 10 second cooldown. It previously did not have a cooldown, which made it heavily utilized in PvP, especially arenas (patch 2.0.10).
  • Mass Dispel was changed to target immunity effects first, such as Blessing of Protection (patch 2.0.10).
  • Circle of Healing had its mana cost reduced by 25%. Most priests healers refuse to spec for it, even when going deep into the Holy tree (patch 2.0.10). Later, the healing done by Circle of Healing was increased. Priests initially remained negative about the “Circle of LOL” spell, but with the introduction of Black Temple in the same patch, they warmed up to it (patch 2.1.0). It now has become a key spell for T6+ raiding. Most guilds will have a priest spec for this spell in high-level raiding.
  • Focused Power was changed to increase the chance to hit with Mass Dispel and reduces the cast time of Mass Dispel. It no longer increases damage against feared targets (patch 2.1.0).
  • Pain Suppression was buffed to reduce damage taken by 65% and increase resistance to Dispel mechanics by 65% for its duration (patch 2.1.0).
  • Shadow Weaving’s effectiveness was reduced by 1% per rank (patch 2.1.0).
  • The cooldown on Shadow Word: Death was increased from 6 sec to 12 sec (patch 2.1.0).
  • The healing from Lightwell was changed to increase with the priest’s +heal (patch 2.2.0).
  • Mind Control’s duration in PvP was reduced to 10 seconds (patch 2.2.0).
  • Priest racial spells, one of the most hotly contested issues, underwent some adjustments (patch 2.3.0).
    • Fear Ward was now made available to all priests at level 20, but it was saddled with a 3 min cooldown.
    • Dwarves and Draenei were given Chastise as their second racial spell (in Fear Ward’s place). Chastise was a 0.5 second cast, holy damage, 2 second stun that became a quick favorite in PvP.
    • The often ridiculed Starshards racial of the night elves was changed to be instant cast, 0 mana cost, 15 seconds of arcane damage over time with a 30 second cooldown.
  • Switching out of Shadowform was changed to no longer trigger the global cooldown (patch 2.3.0).
  • The Focused Will talent was introduced to the Discipline tree. It reduces your damage taken and increases healing done to you after being the victim of a critical strike. The introduction of this talent caused most priests to switch to deep-Discipline builds for PvP healing (patch 2.3.0).
  • The effects of Meditation were doubled (patch 2.3.0).
  • Pain Suppression was changed to be usable on friendly targets, instantly reducing the target’s threat by 5%, reducing damage taken by 40%. Its cooldown was reduced to 2 minutes (patch 2.3.0). This change combined with the prior introduction of Focused Will and the change to Focused Power gave Discipline the strength it needed to become the PvP healer tree.

The changes since the advent of The Burning Crusade have been quite hefty. As Blizzard is no longer doing class reviews, the amount of class adjustments done during major patches has dramatically increased. The number of changes to the priest class since patch 2.0.3 probably outweigh the adjustments made during the priests’ class review in patch 1.10.

One of the more interesting things about the priest class in World of Warcraft is how little it has changed in terms of player base. Even well before the introduction of The Burning Crusade, priests accounted for 9% of the played classes in World of Warcraft according to the Warcraft Realms’ census statistics. Even with the class review, the introduction of The Burning Crusade, nerfs, and buffs, the priest class has held steady in percent.


Priests in Other Warcraft Media

Of course priests are mentioned in the other media featuring the Warcraft universe. For more priest flavor, feel free to check out the novels, trading card game, board games, graphic novels, Blizzcast podcast, and upcoming movie.

Nothing has been said about what priests should expect from the next World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. Only Blizzard knows what is in store for priests in terms of new spells, talents, and abilities. Priests have gone from having viability as a melee class to being the ideal healer to performing a key aspect of raid utility. Whether Blizzard will continue in this same direction or steer the class into an entirely new one has yet to be seen. Only time will tell.

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9 Responses

  1. [...] le site “a dwarf priest” est un petit bijou !! l’auteur a écrit l’historique de la classe prêtre dans les jeux “warcraft”. [...]

  2. Oh my…what a terrific article! You continue to amaze me with the quality of the stuff you put out–every word is pure win!

  3. [...] insightful depth of every article. Dwarf Priest has outdone herself with her latest, however: "The Priest Class in Warcraft: A History" is a very in-depth look at the Priest class in fantasy gaming throughout history, with [...]

  4. This is amazing. great job.

    One to add in the historical section would be Germanus, the roman centurion (not sure of his exact rank but some type of commander) who became a Bishop after his service ended. He is featured in Arthurian legends as a friend of Arthur. He also still fought sometimes when the need arose. I am not sure at what point in time did he start appearing in the legends though.

  5. Ummm, not sure if you knew this but im pretty sure in the closed beta Gnoems could be priests too, just as dwaves could be mages. It was removed when the game went public…one of the first patches i believe…


  6. jolie post , merci pour l’info

  7. Wow! Fantastic work! I’m doing a Thesis project regarding character balance in MMORPGs, addressing the slippery idea of the “healer” and I’m definitely making reference to this article.

    Again, great work!

  8. Hi there may I quote some of the material here in this post if I reference you with a link back to your site?

  9. Thanks for a fine posting. I love the laughable remarks.

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