While Cataclysm's kept me tons of busy, it's been a fun busy. I love the new heroics and their difficulty level and requirements for encounter awareness and ability use. I love the look of most of them as well. The fights are interesting and fairly hard, and most importantly hugely unforgiving. Trash is hard and needs to be respected. Kill orders need to be followed. CC should be used, even creatively at times.
And normal modes of raiding have gone back to being very interesting in design and scope. Halfus, Maloriak, Theralon and Valiona, Omnitron, Magmaw - all have multiple phases and roles and a lot of movement and raid awareness. They really reward a good druid who can utilize all of their abilities and knows what to do and when to do it. I was very ready to bash Cataclysm's design and the 'coolness' of heroic modes compared to Ulduar, but so far the encounters are really great.
Part of the design for Cataclysm was to give everyone a chance to pick talents that were 'fun' or 'interesting' but didn't specifically boost DPS, because any DPS class that picked a non-DPS talent was obviously wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. In any given build for a class/spec, this means (in theory) that you have 5 or so talent points kicking around that can be used for a preferential talent or two but you don't really 'need' in order to play well.
And today, I'm going to put that to the dirty, horrible lie that it is.
The basic cat build is something like this: the 0/31/6 build with 4 points remaining. Even with that you have some options that people are going to argue about - do you take Feral Aggression, Predatory Strikes, Stampede or Infected Wounds? You have to spend at least 5 points in some of those. Later on, do you take Brutal Impact, Nurturing Instinct, Survival Instincts or Primal Madness? Of all of those, you have to spend at least 8 points in there. And that's not even counting herobear/bearcat mixed specs that use something like Thick Hide or Natural Reaction! So you've got a monumental 12 points to play around with.
So even if we wanted to skip some of these talents we can't. Here's the dirty secret: many really aren't optional. Here's the list of talents that every raiding and heroic-queueing cat must have, and why:
1. Nurturing Instinct. Healing is very, very hard, and anything that makes it easier to heal you is good. However, that's not what makes this talent must-have. What makes this absolutely needed is the huge boost it gives to Tranquility. While it's on a very long cooldown Tranquility is something every druid should be using or ready to use in many situations in raiding, and being able to get a lot of healing out of it is important. It'll never be as good as a Balance druid's version, but it still is much better. Think of it as the new version of innervate; instead of giving mana back to a healer, it's giving mana back to a healer in the form of smart heals that heal for a ton.
2. Brutal Impact. The argument against Brutal Impact was that so many other classes have good interrupts that it's really not necessary. Okay, that's true in 25 man to a point - though there are enough 'random stack on this add' that that isn't quite as true, and it does add a small but significant charge effect.
But what about 10-man? In a 10-man you're probably one of 2 or maybe three melee. The chances of any of them having a good interrupt is fairly low. Chances are you'll have to have an interrupting team - and Skull Bash is just as good for it as anything out there.
Where it really shines is in 5-mans. While there aren't that many bosses that have 'must have' interrupts in 5 mans, there are a few. More importantly almost every single trash pack has interruptable abilities that do a ton of damage or cause chaos. If you can interrupt those, the runs go much more smoothly. Help your healers and tank out and go interrupt stuff. Learn how to do it now - because you will be asked to do it later.
3. Survival Instincts. This one is pretty easy to understand: every 5 minutes it's very, very hard to kill you. Again, another mana-saver for healers, a life-saver for you, and a very easy way to prevent damage by going bear, popping this and Frenzied regen. Get used to using it regularly in boss fights, particularly in heroics. It also helps go herobear and use this too. Raid strategies will be based around being able to use personal cooldowns to survive big attacks - and honestly Barkskin just doesn't cut it sometimes.
Most everyone expects you have this, and you do have it right?
1. Feral Aggression. This was almost must-have. The primary reason isn't the boost to Ferocious Bite (though that is a small DPS increase at 25% and less), it's the applying sunders instantaneously, 3 at a time, for 5 minutes. This is far better than the warrior or the rogue version. The rogue version takes energy, the warrior version takes rage and a GCD. Faerie Fire gets applied at range (usually before the fight starts), cats aren't GCD bound and usually can pool energy without any DPS issues and having all three sunders up early is a great boost. If you don't have this you're going to take up 3 GCDs and 12 seconds to put up all the FF stacks. While the GCDs don't hurt, this means you're going to be doing a decent amount less damage in those 12 seconds. What's worse is that all your friends are too. It isn't a requirement, but given that it boosts personal DPS and raid DPS and is the best way to put up sunders you should have it - just like you forced those warriors to sunder so the rogues didn't have to, you should too.
The rest are pretty much your choice. Note that if you take these talents you basically have 5 points to split amongst the rest of the optional ones - one of which must go into a tier five talent or less.
Some of you might be asking why Primal Madness is considered optional. The reason is that it's a very situational, small DPS increase. For two talent points you get 20 more energy, which by itself is half as good as Tiger's Fury. That's not great but is okay. The problem is that when the buff fades, you lose up to 20 energy right away. It's very rare that you can end at 0 energy just as the debuff goes off, so most of the time it'll be at best a very small DPS gain. You can in theory micromanage it so that you cancel the debuff just as you use the ability that causes you to lose the energy (for example, macroing shred to cancel the Primal Madness debuff) but even then you're likely to lose 4-5 energy simply from latency. It's just not that great.
So the reality is that you basically have 5 talent points to spend as you see fit outside of the above, and at least one needs to be in a tier-5 talent. This is one reason that it's hard to do the bearcat build - you have to skip out on at least one of those talents, and chances are it's either Nurturing Instinct (which is incredible) or Brutal Impact (which is mandatory for 5-mans). Or you gimp your bear slightly, not taking Infected Wounds or Pulverize. It's a hard choice, and ultimately one I can't advocate - even though there have been a ton of times I've had to go herobear and tank something for a while.
That being said - bear gear and cat gear have never, ever been closer. And if you want to be a herobear, all you really need is Thick Hide.