Before my vacation I posited that Wrath of the Lich King was really The Golden Age of the Paladin. I pointed out in Part I how Paladins (living, dead, and somewhere in between) dominated most of the story-telling and lore of the expansion. While Horde players only see a bit of Bolvar's heroics at the Wrathgate, Tirion and Uther's presence are felt throughout the expansion (and Arthas, of course). Even the few backhand slaps at Paladins that Blizzard delivers -- Champions Isimode and Faesrol, and of course Eadric the Pure):
-- couldn't take the shine off of Paladins.
But Paladins didn't just rule the lore in this expansion. Among the playerbase, Paladins have never been more powerful or popular than they are now. Just three years ago, WoWInsider showed Paladins lagging behind all but shaman in popularity. Today, Warcraft Realms shows Paladins in a dead heat with Death Knights for most popular class, with Death Knights having a slight edge at level 80.
(Census data provided by WarcraftRealms.com)
WoW players are not that easily influenced by storylines. That is to say, having Tirion running around kicking ass is not going to cause such a large increase in Paladin representation. Instead, it's due to the fact that we now have three viable, powerful specs to choose from.
Back in the days when I started playing (around the same time those numbers were published by WoWInsider), people looked to Paladins mainly for two things: tank healing, and trash tanking. If you wanted to run heroic Shattered Halls, or needed someone to pick up Hyjal trash, you looked for a Paladin. Bosses were tanked by the warrior or the druid. Paladin healers were fine, as long as you only had one, by and large, and I don’t think anyone wanted to take one into heroic Magisters’ Terrace, at least not on release. Ret? Generally dismissed as Retardins, lolret, or Retnoob, they might find themselves parked outside the raid in case someone else D/C’d or had to leave early, and to maybe throw some buffs.
With the arrival of Wrath, however, all that changed. Ret was so strong coming out of the chute that Ghostcrawler felt compelled to make his infamous ‘to the ground, baby!’ comment within a week or so of Patch 3.0. Seems that folks were pretty upset about being absolutely destroyed by a class they used to laugh at. Despite the nerfs, Ret is pretty well-represented at this point, and can do some pretty good damage, while bringing important buffs, including secondary healing through Judgment of Light and Divine Storm; oodles of mana regeneration through replenishment and Judgment of Wisdom, and, depending on subspec, can provide damage mitigation through either Divine Sacrifice or Aura Mastery. While you won’t usually see Retadins topping the damage charts over the course of the night, they can definitely hold their own, and it shows in the numbers of Paladins raiding today.
Tankadins were concerned heading into Wrath that they might be supplanted not only by a new tanking class, but by changes to threat mechanics and buffs to warrior and druid AoE threat. It hasn’t seemed to happen that way at all. While Warriors and Druids in particular are better now at large-pack tanking, Paladins are still very strong in this department, have gotten better at single-target tanking and boss tanking, and have been given an insanely good life-saver. Palatank threat generation may have been boosted a bit by the bucketloads of undead we’ve faced throughout the expansion, but they’ve also done quite well against mechanical monsters, tentacled Old Gods, beasts and dragons. No problems here at all.
And finally we have Holy Paladins. While still ‘relegated’ largely to tank healing, it’s safe to say that Holy Paladins are the current Kings of Tank Healing. Like our damage-dealing and meat-shielding brothers-in-arms, the healers of the class were concerned coming into the expansion. Holydins quickly got their feet under them in the new landscape of Sacred Shields, Beacons and splashy glyphs. Initially powered by stacking Intellect and Crit out the wazoo, Illumination provided a nearly-limitless mana supply as early as Naxxramas and, even after it was nerfed massively, mana was still not an issue. When Beacon of Light was buffed to work off of total healing, Paladins were able to easily keep up two targets at once (which still drives meter-hounds crazy, either with delight or jealousy, depending on what class you are). While Holy Paladins are still not the best at healing on the run, or dealing with mass party/raid damage, they’re far better at it now than ever, and you’re not crippling your raid if you have to throw a Holydin on raid damage.
Will it last? Sadly, it cannot. As Terenas said to Arthas, ‘No king can rule forever’, and surely the reign of the Paladin is about to end. Cataclysm’s just around the corner, with a new paradigm for everything: tanking, healing, damage dealing; the whole world is going to change. And while another class will rise to the top of the 'most played' charts, I doubt we’ll see the kind of complete domination of any class moving forward as we've seen with Paladins. And if I'm wrong and we do? That's fine by me -- let someone else have their day in the Light. Just don't nerf me 'to the ground, baby'.