I consider my spec something of my identity. I think many players do, but moreso for hybrids than pure classes, spec defines our strengths and our limitations.
Many people will level a hybrid as a sort of dps, just because it's easier. Paladins often level ret, druids level feral (more rarely moonkin), and shamans enhance (more rarely elemental). While there are people who level as a tank or healing spec, they are anecdotally in the minority.
Then once a player hits max level they typically stay one spec; more correctly, they stay in one role (tank, healer, dps). Maybe it's not the spec they leveled as (a player who likes being a holy paladin in raids may very well prefer leveling ret), but we're used to thinking of players as tanks, healers, and dps even if their class can do all three. There are players who, bless them, are willing to respec at the drop of a hat if the guild needs it, but even then, they have the role they usually perform and the one they temporarily spec into just to help out. For those who are more cash strapped, or just more stubborn/creative about it, they find ways to do things off-spec.
I love doing things off-spec. I've written how my paladin has tanked, dpsed, and healed instances (the last being a given) as a holy paladin. My druid has bear tanked Gluth while still balance specced and even in caster gear.
It's not that I'm particularly insane (or at least I don't think I am), so much as I like stepping up to a challenge and embracing the fact that a baseline hybrid should be able to fulfill any role adequately, if not necessarily well. I think tanking Gluth was a bit of an extreme considering he's a raid boss, but I really liked the fact that a holy paladin could just slap on tanking gear and be good to go for a normal 5-man (assuming they otherwise knew what they were doing).
I leveled exclusively as balance on my druid and exclusively as holy on my paladin. Neither road was easy. I leveled my druid through the vanilla WoW content back before Innervate was a baseline spell (it used to be a resto talent!), when moonkin form was only 3% crit for your group, and we were called oomkin with good reason. Leveling as a holy paladin was slow for obvious reasons. But I liked it. I liked growing with my spec as I leveled. It didn't matter if things could go faster if I was feral or ret. I was comfortable with my talents and there was no need to relearn how to play at max level, because I'd played that way from the beginning.
But most importantly, I learned to do things off-spec. My balance druid healed nearly every instance she ran until level 60, no questions asked. When people looking for a group said they needed a healer, I was happy to volunteer. It never occurred to me that I wasn't a healer because I was balance-spec. Healing was part of my class. I could heal and if other people needed heals it made sense that I do it even if I wasn't specialized for it.
I've healed never knowing what it was like to have Swiftmend or a Nature's Swiftness. On my paladin I tanked every TBC 5-man including Magister's Terrace without once using Holy Shield, which had been thought to be an integral tanking tool.
Off-spec things still could be done post 3.1, but with dual spec it would no longer be necessary. My druid could be balance/resto, or balance/feral, for a one time fee. My paladin could be holy/prot. I'll never need to holy tank again, and with dual specs it doesn't even make sense to, but a part of me is saddened by that.
When dual specs go in, where will the ingenuity go? Will we still have epic 15 minute battles of healer vs. 5-man elite mob? Will we have off-spec tanking? I'm sure off-spec healing will endure, at least while leveling, but with a one time fee it just seems practical that hybrid classes will make one of their specs for healing or tanking or both. The people who don't would probably never considering healing or tanking in the first place.
I ended up tanking in 10-man Naxx and OS last night on my paladin, still having been prot from Tuesday's 25-man. I'm sure without a doubt that this will be my paladin's second spec. I've tanked too much while I was holy (and enjoyed it) to even consider going ret, and with the changes to Spiritual Attunement now being a talent in the prot tree, it will be exceedingly difficult to tank off-spec. This would be especially true for holy, which will lack any form of mana regen aside from Divine Plea and Blessing of Wisdom, the latter of which isn't ideal for tanking. My druid I'm less certain about. It will most likely be whatever the guild requires.
After being short a tank for 25-man Naxx I've started leaning towards a feral set, but my feral gear is laughable (my paladin who has only been to Naxx 25 for two bosses has a better tanking set) and I find I don't understand how to gear myself as resto nearly as well as I should. I've probably passed on a lot of gear that would have been fine for a healing set, just because the itemization didn't favor moonkin.
It's funny though. Even though I've healed so much in balance spec, I don't feel a strong drive to go full resto. Maybe it's because I've been able heal so easily as balance that I don't find it necessary, whereas I can't pinch tank as easily as I can pinch heal.
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