Ah, Paladin seals. This is going to be long, so buckle up. Bear in mind, this is just my recollection, I may be wrong about some things.
As has been previously mentioned, the Seal system itself was sort of a late-breaking addition to Warcraft, right at launch (patch 1.1, to be specific). In Beta, Paladins had been kind of a melee striker, and their “seal” spells were what would become Blessings. Right at launch, all of the melee strikes were removed, and the new Seal System was implemented.
In its original form, the Seal System was based around the idea of giving the player access to different, mutually-exclusive, 30 second buffs, which could, through the Judgement spell, be used for various purposes. While the buff was up, it would grant the player specific bonuses, and the Judgement spell would consume that buff to do something, depending on which seal was consumed. The player would then recast whatever seal they needed next. For example, a Paladin might cast Seal of the Crusader (which increased attack speed, at the cost of lower weapon damage), immediately cast Judgement (which would place a debuff on the target increasing their Holy Damage taken), then cast Seal of Righteousness (which made melee attacks deal additional Holy damage) and judge on Cooldown (Judgement of Righteousness just dealt damage) until they had to refresh Judgement of the Crusader.
In the beginning, there were seven seals.
- Seal of Command
o Gave your attacks a random chance to do an extra 100% weapon damage as Holy Damage. The only non-baseline seal, it was a talent in the Ret tree, and widely regarded as the most powerful damage seal. It was also derided as something of a slot machine, due to the unpredictable nature of it’s procs.
o Judging this seal would deal a reasonable amount of Holy Damage, which increased significantly if the target was stunned.
- Seal of the Crusader
o A well intentioned, if not particularly useful, seal, Crusader increased your attack speed and attack power, but decreased your damage per hit. Overall, it was a slight increase in damage dealt, but not by much. It occasionally was useful if you wanted to hit faster, but there were precious few scenarios where that came in handy.
o Judgement of the Crusader, on the other hand, was very useful. It put a debuff on the target that increased the amount of Holy damage they took from all sources. Maintaining this debuff was critical throughout Vanilla and BC for maximum DPS.
- Seal of Righteousness
o The baseline damage seal, this made all of your attacks deal a small amount of holy damage. It was fairly similar to what it is today, save that its damage wasn’t based on weapon damage.
o Judging this seal dealt more holy damage.
- Seal of Fury
o One of the weirder seals, this was the original Paladin tanking mechanic. It caused all of your melee attacks to cause multiple simultaneous “phantom attacks” which did no damage but caused additional threat equal to the original attack's threat. Yeah, it was an odd mechanic.
o Judging this seal would debuff the target, making your Holy Damage spells generate more threat.
- Seal of Justice
o Another odd, utility seal, Justice gave all of your melee attacks a chance to stun the target. It was extremely unreliable, and not particularly useful.
o Judging the seal had a very useful effect, however, in that it prevented NPC targets from “fleeing in fear,” as they often did (and still sometimes do) when their health was low. This was particularly useful in dungeons where a fleeing mob could cause catastrophic chain pulls. Interestingly, the debuff actually rendered the target immune to Fear effects entirely, and could be used in PvP to make an opposing player fear immune.
- Seal of Light
o Seal of Light would cause the Paladin’s melee attacks to heal her. In the beginning, it was guaranteed, and every melee attack would heal the Paladin somewhat.
o Judgement of Light was a debuff that gave melee attacks against the target a chance to heal the attacker.
- Seal of Wisdom
o Seal of Wisdom was basically the same as Seal of Light, but for Mana instead of health. As a bit of history, after 1.9, it was also the only way that early Protection Paladins could recover significant amounts of mana during a fight. Not that were any good as tanks in Vanilla, but hey…some of us tried.
o Judgement of Wisdom also applied a debuff that caused all attacks against the target to have a chance to restore the attacker’s mana. It was tremendously valuable for Raiding.
Patch 1.9 saw a major Paladin revamp, and with it, some seals changed. Seal of Fury disappeared entirely, and was replaced by the “Righteous Fury” buff that functions as the Paladin’s threat generation mechanic to this very day. Seal of Command was nerfed from 100% weapon damage to 70%, but other than that, things remained much the same.
The launch of Burning Crusade brought about one of the more interesting footnotes in the history of Seals, Faction-specific seals. Prior to Burning Crusade, only Alliance players could be Paladins, but with the addition of Blood Elves to the Horde, the Paladin class became available to both sides. In what seemed to be an attempt to maintain some sense of factional disparity, two faction-specific seals were added to the game. Alliance Paladins received Seal of Vengeance, while Horde Paladins got Seal of Blood. Oddly enough, the two seals had completely different game mechanics.
- Seal of Vengeance
o Vengeance was the predecessor of today’s Seal of Truth. It caused the Paladins melee attacks to apply a stacking DoT debuff to the target, which caused Holy Damage, and increased the damage of Judgement against the target.
o The judgement, naturally, caused more Holy Damage, increased by the stacks of the DoT.
- Seal of Blood
o This seal functioned like a more reliable Seal of Command. It caused the Paladin’s weapon attacks to deal additional Holy Damage equal to a percentage of their weapon damage. Since it scaled off weapon damage, and provided consistent damage (as opposed to the wildly inconsistent Seal of Command), it was widely considered to be the best Retribution DPS Seal. Interestingly enough, the seal had a “backlash” damage mechanic, where the Paladin took damage equal to 10% of the damage the seal dealt as well. Thus, its use could occasionally be dangerous to the player.
o Judging Blood simply dealt more Holy Damage, and inflicted more damage back to the caster.
At some point, I think the duration of the seal buff increased from 30-seconds to 1 or 2 minutes, but I don’t precisely remember when.
It’s fair to say that the reaction to the faction-specific seals was…tepid, at best. Alliance Ret Paladins wept great tears of sad while the Horde upstarts cut themselves to win with Seal of Blood; meanwhile Horde Protection Paladins felt like second-class citizens without Seal of Vengeance. Something had to change, though surprisingly, the system managed to last all the way through Burning Crusade.
At the start of Wrath of the Lich King, things changed again for Seals. Judgement was removed, and replaced with three different spells: Judgement of Justice, Judgement of Light, and Judgement of Wisdom. These spells shared a cooldown, and took the effects from the Judgements of Justice, Light, and Wisdom, and applied them to the target, regardless of what Seal the Paladin had active at the time. Justice also got a new effect, which debuffed the target so they couldn’t run faster than 100% run speed (basically, it negated all movement speed increasing effects). Around the same time, the duration of seal spells was increased to 30 minutes, and the Judgement spell no longer consumed the seal buff. I think this was also around the time that seals were made non-dispellable, so PvP Paladins could finally stop worrying about recasting their seals in combat.
The beginning of Wrath also marked the end of the faction imbalance. Alliance Paladins got Seal of the Martyr, which replicated Seal of Blood’s effects, and Horde Blood Knights got Seal of Corruption, to simulate Seal of Vengeance. Everyone partied, as parity was achieved, and no one really noticed, or cared, that Seal of the Crusader was unceremoniously removed from the game.
In 3.2, Seal of Blood (and the Martyr) were also cut from the game. Seal of Vengeance/Corruption was slightly redesigned to incorporate Blood’s damage mechanic into additional weapon damage dealt when the target had a full stack of the Vengeance DoT. While the loss of Blood’s interesting backlash mechanic was kind of sad, this was overall a great quality of life improvement for Paladins, as they no longer had to worry about accidentally killing themselves while DPSing. At the same time, Seal of Command was also redesigned to deal weapon damage on hit, and cleave to multiple targets, making it useful for AoE DPS.
Even with the removal of Seal of Blood, by the end of Wrath, the Paladin seal system was little bit…bloated. There was the single target DPS seal (Vengeance), the AoE DPS seal (Command), the DPS seal that no one used because it wasn’t as good as Vengeance or Command (Righteousness), the health regen seal that people only used because of the glyph that made it buff your heals (Light), the mana regen seal that people only used because of the glyph that made their heals cheaper (Wisdom), and the utility seal that nobody used because it was useless (Justice). On top of this, we managed three different Judgement spells that all applied different debuffs, but shared the same cooldown. Things were bound to change.
And change they did after the Cataclysm. Seals became on/off buffs, no longer having a 30 minute duration that needed to be refreshed. The clunky, multiple Judgement spells were replaced with a single Judgement, that basically just dealt damage.
Seal of Command was removed, and Seal of Righteousness was redesigned as the AoE Damage seal.
Seal of Vengeance and Seal of Corruption were removed, and replaced with Seal of Truth. Functionality didn’t really change, just the name (since keeping faction specific spells when the reason for them had long since been removed didn’t make a lot of sense).
Seal of Light and Seal of Wisdom had their effects merged into a new, single self-heal/regen seal called Seal of Insight. Insight also found a new niche as a tanking seal, as the self-heals were suddenly powerful enough to be useful for survivability, and the Vengeance mechanic made threat mostly a non-issue.
Seal of Justice was redesigned so it no longer stunned, but instead, applied some holy damage and the movement speed reduction debuff that Judgement of Justice had previously done.
Mists of Pandaria brought possibly the most Azeroth-shaking change to the Seal system since its implementation all those years ago. Judgement, that ancient staple of the Paladin arsenal, was removed completely…and replaced with Judgment. No seriously, if you’ve been reading this whole thing wondering why I never spelled “Judgment” correctly, it’s because in-game it wasn’t spelled right for 7 years. In Mists, someone finally removed the extraneous “e” from Judgement. Nothing else of import changed.
I’m kidding a little bit about that. They also redesigned Seal of Justice again so that it functioned as a reliable snare, instead of a speed limit. Seal of Insight got some healing buffs integrated directly into it, as well as the health/mana regen functionality. And in a move that I think was calculated precisely to make sentimental old Paladins tear up, Seal of Command returned to the game…as a level 3 spell that eventually gets replaced by Seal of Truth.
That brings us to the state of seals as they are now. We’ve come a long way from 30-second buffs, consumed by Judgement to apply seal specific effects, haven’t we?
Edited by Zendraka on 5/1/2013 8:44 AM PDT