Heroes of the Storm: A Closer Look at the Talent System

Feb 26, 2016

Unlike traditional MOBA games, Heroes of the Storm uses a talent system instead of gold and items. At certain levels, Heroes gain access to a set of talents that enhance their character’s abilities and make them stronger. This system allows players to customize the Hero to their playstyle while still making it easy for them to feel like their choices will dictate gameplay. However, talents also need tweaking much like items to avoid stale build paths and potentially game-breaking combos, particularly in a talent system that already attempts to limit choices for players.

Blizzard is constantly learning how to create proper talent trees with many viable and interesting talents. Sometimes a bad talent has to be discarded entirely, as proven by the removal of Li-Ming’s Ess of Johan in a recent patch. By looking closely at the talents in the game and their success historically, one can create a general guideline for “good” talents versus “bad” ones. Let’s start with the good ones.

Good Talents – Expand the capabilities of the Hero without completely altering them

  • Range talents
  • Vision-giving abilities
  • Cooldown reduction talents
  • Perks for activating abilities
  • Mana efficiency perks
  • Defensive talents

Good talents are defined as extending what a Hero can do without forcing the Hero to rely on that talent. Some of the best talents in the game are range talents; the added range from talents like Eviscerate, Unfettered Assault, Composite Arrows, etc., provides more options for how an ability can be used, and the focus is on positioning over the functionality of the ability. Cooldown reduction talents also add strategic depth by allowing players to use their abilities more often in unique ways.

Some talents have added perks to activating a Hero’s basic abilities. While this does somewhat change the intrinsic value of the ability, it has the potential to make it more interesting, particularly in the newest Heroes. Concentrated Blast and Wild Vigor are both good talents that increase the importance of timing when using their triggering abilities to get the most out of it.

Talents Thrall

Another important critique of a good talent is that it doesn’t have any major drawbacks. There are several potentially great talents that unfortunately have too much of a drawback due to factors such as increased mana costs or cooldowns. Perhaps the most obvious example is Unfettered Assault, which went from being the worst talent in its tier to one of the best after a patch removed the caveat that increased the Razor Swipe’s cooldown at the cost of range. Punishment suffers as well because it requires Valla to use her mana-hungry spells on building Hatred stacks which can be done for free by simply auto-attacking. Conditional traits for talents are fine, but a talent shouldn’t make a Hero worse; instead, it should enhance what they already do.

Bad Talents – Either completely useless or overpowered talents

  • Doesn’t synergize with Hero
  • Has a redundant function
  • Ineffective
  • Overly good/broken
  • Splash talents (boring)

Some talents like Corruption on Sylvanas or Frost Strike on Arthas are completely redundant with the Heroes core kit. What’s the purpose of destroying ammo on a tower that can’t attack or slowing a target in melee range that would already become slowed by Arthas’s other abilities? Talents like Follow Through on Illidan and Holy Fire on Uther simply don’t fit with their roles and are largely useless.

An entire class of talents could be described as “calculator talents”, meaning that they compete with other talents in their tier for the same role, and the best talent can actually be found by punching some numbers into a calculator. A good example of this is Hunter’s Onslaught on Illidan’s level 16 tier. Numerically, it heals for about 50 HP every four seconds (assuming you are spamming your abilities) at level 20 compared to a 937 HP shield from Stoneskin and up to over 1000 HP healed instantly from Blood for Blood. There are similarly suffering talents throughout the game, including Kael’s Sunfire Enchantment, Kerrigan’s Psionic Pulse, and Runed Gauntlet on Cho.

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Perhaps the worst talents in the game have actually been ones that were good. In fact, they were so good that they blotted out every other talent that could ever be taken in that tier. These are typically remembered as “overpowered.” Heroic talents like Sundering, Tranquility, or the old Shock and Awe are prime examples, but they take many other shapes and forms as well. Arthas’s Rune Tap is a good example of an ability that is so amazing that nothing can compete with it at that tier. Certain Storm talents (level 20 talents) such as Caduceus Reactor 2.0 on Lt. Morales, Indestructible on Johanna, and Shadowfury on Gall are must-pick talents because they are simply above and beyond everything else. Talents like the aforementioned Ess of Johan and the notorious Resurgence of the Storm from the alpha had to be entirely removed from the game because of how overwhelmingly strong they became.

Questionable Talents

  • Stacking talents – Often hard to balance, either too weak or too strong.
  • Follow Through talents – Good for distinguishing skill, but sometimes cause balancing issues (i.e. Zeratul).
  • Mana restoration talents – Rarely have good synergy and have to be paired specifically with other talents, resulting in stale build paths.
  • Spellcaster basic attack talents – If a spellcaster doesn’t do any auto attack damage, what is the point of giving them a talent that makes their AAs stronger? Especially when it competes for spell damage talents.
  • “Win More” talents – 95% of the time useless, and when it is useful, anything else would win just as hard – typically high risk/high reward (i.e. Gathering Power, Hardened Focus, Nexus Blades, Fast Reload, Unleashed).
  • Unstoppable talents – Dynamic, but shut down a lot of counterplay.

Some talents fall into categories that are difficult to balance or intrinsically stale. Stacking talents tend to lead to uninspired gameplay and often come with related balance issues. For example, Azmodan hinges squarely on stacking Taste for Blood in competitive and high-level play, yet is easy to counter due to his long windup time while he’s building stacks. A buff to that talent, though, would undoubtedly render him broken. Similarly, talents that grant critical strikes like Follow Through have been difficult to balance, as evidenced by Zeratul’s rocky past and continual changes to Focused Attack.

Certain talents come up short in some areas, but still have potential. “Win More” talents walk a fine line between being situational and risky or downright useless choices, often becoming difficult to balance. Gathering Power is probably the most controversial talent of all time, and Blizzard has gone to great lengths to rework it to some success. Similar talents that rely on momentum will always be hard to tune but are worth keeping if they can successfully make a game more interesting and exciting.

Historically, Cleanse has proven to be one of the most difficult talents in the game to balance. When they initially changed it to make the target Unstoppable (cannot be affected by any crowd control like stuns, roots, slows, or polymorphs), it directly countered many Hero kits, particularly The Butcher, with just a single keystroke. However, when they changed the Unstoppable to Relentless (50% reduction from all subsequent crowd control), ‘stun train’ compositions became too strong. The change back to Unstoppable recently has once more eliminated strong stun combos, neutralized the strengths of many Heroes, and single-handedly changed the metagame again.

Heroes Talents

Blizzard has shown recently that they are learning how to build talents correctly. Compared to some of the archaic talent trees on original Heroes such as Arthas, Illidan, Tyrael, and Tychus, the newest Heroes have several interesting ways to customize their kit. Occasionally they do run into roadblocks (like they did with Ess of Johan) but with every mistake, their next product becomes even more refined and engaging.

Feb 19, 2016
Feb 15, 2016
Christopher Meek
Chris is an esports aficionado who has followed and written about several different games, including StarCraft II, League of Legends, and Heroes of the Storm. He has served notable time at Team Liquid, among others, in the pursuit of becoming a freelance writer and editor. He’s sometimes been known in the MOBA community as “that feeder” but continues to improve and remains optimistic for the future.
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