In a year and a half that I have been playing my paladin, I have seen a lot of changes to the class. I know that even before that, Blizzard has been progressing paladins with changes from expansion to expansion, and even from patch to patch. Before my paladin, I played a priest, but my first character was a shaman. Late in BC, Mayhem and I decided to level another set of characters together on a new server our roommate was playing on. I created my paladin to tank. Mayhem proudly proclaimed he was going to tank on his warrior, so I said I'd heal. (I had absolutely not idea what I was getting into. Really.)
I knew nothing about paladin healing. I was a priest at heart. We quested together from level 10, jumped into the Deadmines at 18, and I had a really tough time because Flash of Light isn't available until 20. But we did it. I specced Ret and we happily quested and dungeon-crawled our way through the classics and jumped into the Hellfire Peninsula and Ramps.
Then came Wrath.
At this point, I was still oblivious to things like patch notes, but my seals stopped working the way they used to. Just remember with me for a moment - Paladin Seals used to only last a few seconds. You had to buff yourself before running into combat with your Seal to be able to Judge. When you judged, your Seal disappeared and you had to rebuff it (I remember it being off the GCD at least). In 3.0, I believe, is when they changed Seals to last 2 minutes, on the GCD. Still kinda stupid and clunky, 2 minutes is such an awkward length for a buff, but Judgements did not "eat" the seal so it was still less repetitive buffing/casting and more playing. Net bonus, even if I would forget to refresh my Seal and have to fumble with it in combat. I thought I didn't like this new system at all, then they changed Seals to last 30 minutes and suddenly it made sense. Hallelujah!
Even judgements have been overhauled. Judgement of Light used to return health as determined by a blend of attack power and spell power, and number crunching showed that Ret Paladins were the best spec to use JoL in a raid environment. Then sometime in 3.X this got changed too, and now JoL ticks heal about the same no matter how the paladin is specced. That means I can judge light and it's not a gimpy version. My judgements aren't inferior. Huzzah!
I don't remember five minute blessings, but I know they existed before my time. Then Blessings gained some duration and we now have 10 minute Blessings and 30 minute Greater Blessings. Less buffing, more fighting, and no refreshing buffs in combat. Hurray!
All Blessings also got a major overhaul. I take for granted our Hand spells, but if you bubbled someone, they would lose their blessing. There used to be a lot more blessings, as well, some having durations, some having cooldowns. Blessing of Salvation used to be the most sought-after threat reduction buff. I remember as a priest not liking a five man group that didn't have a protadin because Blessing of Salv was just that awesome. I was a young healing paladin when they took it away from us and overhauled the Blessing/Hand system. I was angry about losing Salv. What I didn't find out until later was that all classes were getting threat overhauls, including Paladins who got a passive threat reduction to our heals. This brave new world without Salvation took away our cooldown blessings and turned them into their own line of spells. We stopped needing a threat-reduction buff and could start using our other Blessings. Yay flexibility!
Blizzard has also overhauled the buff system outside of just paladins. Blessing of Wisdom and Mana Spring Totem don't stack. Blessing of Might and Battle Shout don't stack. At first there was a lot of unhappiness about this for raid compositions but throughout this expansion, it's been a good thing. We can bring a paladin OR a shaman and get the Mp5 buff, especially if there's a DPS warrior to cover the attack power buff. There are still a few unique buffs, however, recently Blizzard added the drums for those times (especially in 10 man raiding) where a paladin, druid, or priest just could not be found. Instead of waiting around in town for our perfect group to align itself to the stars and point the way into ToC, we can grab a set of drums, another healer, and some DPS and just do the instance. w00t moar flexibility!
Our talent trees have gone massive amounts of change. I feel less experienced to talk about the changes to Ret and Prot, but I remember the days in BC of lolret. A friend of mine (on the horde side, where my priest is) played a paladin but could never find groups as Ret. It's a good thing he liked Prot after he switched, because ret was not considered a viable option.
Fast forward to today where Ret paladins are having no problems at all in the DPS race competition. They also provide Replenishment so as a healer, I love having a Ret in my group. Bring the player, not the class! Amazing!
The Holy tree has undergone massive changes, as well. For the past few patches, we've endured nerfs. Those nerfs were a lot harder to swallow when I was in Naxx gear and both paladins and priests nerfs seemed to be aimed at PVP... but were hurting my options in PVE. We lost Infusion of Light (I loved being able to crit with Holy Shock and get a super-fast Holy Light) and got a weaker version (they gave it back to us on T10... kinda). Illumination has gone from 100% mana refunded on crit, to 60%, to finally 30%, a shadow of what it once was. They gave us Aura Mastery, then nerfed Aura Mastery (from 10 seconds to 6). Blizzard said "we want paladins to want mp5", they buffed Mp5, and gave us Solace. Yay for overpowered mana regen trinkets!
The numbers of holy paladins has dwindled from the start of Wrath till now. There used to be a lot more in 3.0 and 3.1. "LFM healz Uld anything but pally pst". Sure, there's only room for one of us in a 10 (and honestly when my RL tries to bring 3 to a 25, I facepalm), but with so many paladins and enough raiding tanks, it happened more than I would like. When our mana regen was nerfed, hard, a lot of the more casual players found themselves unable to play the revised holy paladin and quit. Most of the holy paladins I played with at the start of the expansion are gone - they are ret, they are prot, or they rerolled. This is a good thing... most of the people who gave up after the Illumination nerf were players who did not want to heal in the first place. So now more of the holy paladins I'm playing with want to heal (not all of them, but more). Hurry for healers who want to heal!
There's (almost) a point to my reflections on Paladins. All in all, there have been some clunky and downright weird mechanics (to lots of classes, not just paladins), but as the game has progressed, so has Paladin design. The new seal/judgement system is awesome, the changes to blessings (and buffs overall in raiding) has made it easier to get in there and raid. Sure, the nerfs to Holy Paladins did suck, but good healers adapt. Blizzard is sensitive to viability and those nerfs were not to make it unplayable, but to accommodate for advanced gearing (can you imagine the old Illumination + all the haste and crit available to us on gear now? It really would be insane).
I am happy with Holy Paladins are right now. I know that a lot of people are not, and I see where those complaints are coming from. I wanted to think about where Paladins have come from, and where they are now. Coming soon is a part II - Paladins: Present and Future. It's still a ways away but Cataclysm is coming, which means more overhauls, a chance for Blizzard to fix some things they still aren't happy about, and to further enhance the things they are happy about. There are some wishlist-style things I want, some dramatic changes I expect, and some mechanics that I think will disappear (or just want to disappear).