In WoW, the characters take on one of three classic roles: the Tank, the Healer, and the Damage Dealer. There are 4 Pure classes: The Hunter, The Warlock, The Rogue, and The Mage. They have one and only one option open to them, Damage Dealer. 4 other classes ( Priest, Shaman, Warrior, and Death Knight) are all Hybrids because they can spec into 2 different roles: Damage Dealer and either Tank or Healer. 2 Classes are 3 role hybrids which can spec into all 3 roles.
The game has been built on the basic idea that the Pures should have some compensation because they don't have the option to respec or dual spec to a support role like Tank or Healer. For the Pures, damage is all they can bring. The thinking of the Developers is that if they allowed Hybrids to be as good as Pures, few people would make the choice to play a Pure class. Thus was invented the so called Hybrid Tax.
We can see that through Vanilla and even into Burning Crusade, Hybrids were balanced against Pures by being much worse than a pure in their given role. At that point in the game, Warriors were consider the Pure Tank. Healers were given niches, but the Priest was the Pure Healer. Shadow was merely a leveling spec.
The Hybrid Tax was severe. Hybrids made up for some of their deficiencies by bringing unique and powerful buffs to help justify their raid spots. You can get away with someone being 30% less powerful in a healing or Damage Dealing role, but making up for it with a buff. Tanking just won’t work under that model, so you had Warriors as the one and only Tank class in Vanilla. It is interesting to note that during this time Warriors were exempt from the Hybrid Tax. I believe the cause for this is that even in the 40 man raids of the day, there were few Tank spots. In order to allow Warriors to have shots at raid spots, they need to not tax their DPS. Then they made sure that Warriors were the best Tank class in Burning Crusade while making the Hybrids (Paladins and Druids) offtanks.
Wrath changed the rules. Tank and Healing hybrids were brought on par. Dual spec was introduced and raid buffs were spread out amongst the classes. As a consequence of Dual Spec every Tank capable class and every Healer capable class was turned into a true hybrid. The Hybrid Tax still existed for DPS but at a much lower penalty. Balance was a funny thing and at points the 4 Pures saw Hybrids out DPS them.
I’ve nearly always played Hybrids. But now I’ve played extensively on my Hunter and I’ve seen how a Pure works. I have 2 role hybrids like my Warrior and 3 role hybrids like my Paladin. The Hybrid question has come into sharp focus for me as I decided between playing a Pure class, versus playing a Hybrid in Cataclysm. Therefore, I feel like I’ve got a good basis of experience to draw on for looking at these questions.
The core question is what price, if any, should the hybrid player pay for his ability to quickly switch roles. The second question is should 3 role hybrids pay a higher price than 2 role hybrids.
Before we can even ask what price should be paid, we must first ask, if it is justifiable for Hybrids to pay any price. Does playing a Pure class bring with it benefits that offset in someway the flexibility of the hybrid.
Spending Resources for Gear
In the context of game where gear is purchased (with Emblems in Wrath of the Lich King and various types of Hero Points in Cataclysm), the Pure has the benefit of knowing exactly what gear to purchase. The hybrid must make a decision about whether she wants to build her DPS first, or build her Support (Tank/Healer) set first. The gear the hybrid needs to actually perform at her second role is slow in coming. It requires the hybrid to continue doing content like dailies long after they would have preferred to stop them because the hybrid needs double or triple the amount of badges/points that a Pure does. The hybrid also suffers under player made point systems like DKP. The hybrid may spend her DKP on an item, but even paying half price for offspec items, she will then have less DKP to bid on items like Trophies, Tier Tokens or jewelry against Pures. This line of thinking can also be applied to spending rare crafting reagents like Primordial Saronite or even gold itself.
Uncertainty of Role
That decision can be further complicated by the uncertainty of role. A Pure always know his role. On any given fight, they know they will bringing the pain. They won’t be asked to tank or heal. (Although the return of non traditional Tanks like the Mage Tank in Gruul’s Lair, or the Warlock Tank in Leotheras, would be welcomed by this writer.) Hybrids have to wonder what they will be doing on a night by night or fight by fight basis. Let’s use a thought experiment to demonstrate what I mean. The Enhancement Shaman who loves melee DPS watched anxiously as the raid formed. He wondered if the raid will have enough healers, or would he have to go as his ‘offspec’ and heal. Most players, when faced with the choice of either allowing their guild to raid that night by going support spec, or sticking to their guns and playing their preferred DPS spec but watching the raid get called off, will choose to go offspec. Let’s leave the abstract and look at a real world example. I’ll use my raid group since I know them best. Our Boomkin is just that, a Boomkin. That’s his favorite spec, yet for each of our Lich King kills he’s been a tree. Now he doesn’t mind being a tree, he enjoys it, but I bet he would have rather have been a Boomkin. A Mage would never have had to make that choice.
Freedom of Spec
Thirdly, the Pures have much greater freedom in what to do with their Dual Spec. Most Pures will go the route of having a PVE and PVP talent spec, although some may have a Replenishment/No Replenishment dual spec. This allows the Pure to do both PVE and PVP effortlessly on one toon. In addition, because they are done spending badges on PVE gear long before their Hybrid counterparts, they can more quickly begin spending badges on PVP gear. For a Hybrid to enjoy their flexibility, they must devote both of their dual specs to their PVE roles. They would need to manually respec in order to have a PVP spec.
When the developers go to work on the Pure, they have one goal in mind, Damage. When they work on the Hybrid they have to consider all the roles. Hybrids watch the new spells each expansion hoping they will be useful for their spec, but often the baseline abilities are nigh useless. One example of this would be Shield of Righteousness. Ret Paladins might as well have not trained it. So if each class gets 3 new spells in an expansion, the Hybrid class might see one or even zero like our Resto Druid friends will see for Cataclysm.
Hybrid Tax Enforced
Not only do Pures have advantages that hybrids lack, I firmly believe that the Developers will be able to much better implement the Hybrid Tax on Hybrid DPSers in Cataclysm. I readily acknowledge that at points during the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, balance among the DPS classes have not been well established and at points certain Hybrid DPSers have been ahead of their Pure counterparts. But as we look at the design intent for Cataclysm, the Developers have given themselves a powerful tool for balancing PVE DPS specs in the new Mastery mechanic. For instance, the Survival Hunter receives a 10.05% increase to Ranged Damage for spending 51 points in the Survival Tree. Now let’s imaging that after release Survival Hunters are falling behind other damage specs, analogous to the situation Beast Mastery faced in Wrath. The Developers look at their parses and determine that Survival is about 4% low. They simply change the Mastery bonus from 10.05% to 14.05% and voila, the Survival spec is up to par. You can already see this at work. While Survival as a 10.05% damage increase as their Mastery bonus, Beast Mastery has a 13.31% increase. Beast Mastery would otherwise be low, but now it would be more on par with the other Hunter specs.
I feel that Hybrids do in fact pay a price for their flexibility. They don’t need any additional burden put upon them to pay for their flexibility. It may not the be price some players want them to pay, or even that apparent a price to the player of a Pure class, but the price is being paid. It begs the question if Hybrids are paying too large a price for their flexibility given the advantages a Pure class has over them.
When we consider the question of whether the 3 role Hybrids (Paladin, Druid) should pay an additional price for their additional flexibility, we must consider these the same issues. 3 role Hybrids need even more Emblems or points to build their sets to actually exercise this additional flexibility. Developer Resources are spread even thinner for a 3 role hybrid than a 2 role hybrid.
The uncertainty of role, combined with having only 2 available specs could lead to 3 role Hybrids needing to spend gold to respec more than any other class. Until WoW allows us to have 3 specs, 3 role Hybrids should be treated the same as 2 role Hybrids, so the only distinction that makes sense is Hybrid versus Pure, not Pure versus 2 role Hybrids versus 3 role Hybrids.