The thing is this: I hate doing gear lists.
My editors (I like to imagine them as an old Marvel Comics cosmic entity like The Living Tribunal) quite rightly point out to me from time to time that with Patch 3.3 so close, we're effectively at the end of Wrath of the Lich King and therefore all sorts of new loot will be entering the game. Loot from the new five mans at Ulduar 10/25 quality! Loot from the new raid exceeding all previous iLevels! We'll be awash in the best gear we'll ever see until Cataclysm drops and we start it all over again. And of course they're right. It helps me to accept this if I imagine that cosmic entity spinning a giant head around with different faces on it like Reliquary of Souls. (No, sorry, we didn't call it Reliquary of Souls all those weeks just to be corrected by Blizzard. Heck, you guys even brought it back in Icecrown.)
The next couple of weeks, however, I'm going to look not at gear but at itemization itself and how it interacts with shamans. I was inspired by the change to Elemental Mastery, the talent in the elemental combat tree that currently grants 15% crit when activated as well as making your next spell instant cast. On the surface, this doesn't look like a bad talent all told, so why would we even want to change it? Because of the way shaman talents and spells interact, an extra 15% chance to crit is somewhat useless to an elemental shaman. Specifically, we're talking about Flame Shock and Lava Burst.
Because of these two spells and their interaction, elemental shamans can basically crit every eight seconds or so. They can guarantee an Elemental Focus clearcasting state to reduce mana cost by 40%. Stacking crit doesn't really do anything for them: they're going to crit anyway. Most of the elemental tree has synergy with spell haste in comparison, with abilities like Lightning Mastery and Storm, Earth and Fire already reducing cast time on various spells.
So why does this talent change mean we should discuss itemization for shamans? Well, quite frankly, a great majority of the spell power mail in the game at present has crit and MP5 on it. Crit and MP5 are great for restoration shamans (speaking as a resto shaman, I enjoy both) but we just discussed how elemental can basically enter clearcasting at will (and with talents like Unrelenting Storm, can basically regen mana even while casting, making it even less useful for them): what we end up with is a situation where, within one class we have two specs who use caster mail, but those two specs share almost no gear preferences at all. Haste is good for both, hit is good for elemental (although there are talents like Elemental Precision as well if you're very shy on hit) and useless for resto, crit and MP5 are both vastly superior for resto and inferior for elemental.
This wouldn't be an issue if not for gear consolidation. While it's certainly true that there's only really two classes that can even make use of caster mail, and only one class for which it is the highest armor choice, it's also true that the two specs within the class that most utilizes caster mail are so different from one another that they almost might as well be entirely separate classes. Your elemental and restoration sets will only share gear if you absolutely cannot help it or those pieces of gear are so much better than your alternatives that you can't possibly imagine doing without them.
Meanwhile, enhancement doesn't really have it as bad. It shares gear with hunters primarily, and most of the stats (Agility, Int, Attack Power, Hit) share fairly well between the two. Enhancement shamans of course require expertise (a stat hunters make absolutely no use of) so they usually have to make that up on Tier pieces or rings, necks and trinkets which can be annoying, but thankfully expertise was added to Unleashed Rage a while back to help compensate. (This of course leads us back to the original spark of this discussion, the change to Elemental Mastery adding a desirable stat to a spec's talent... we're seeing as shamans progress that gear shortages are constantly made up for by talent changes.)
The real issues in enhancement shaman itemization are haste (more is good as haste scales with Maelstrom Weapon) and Armor Penetration. Back in Burning Crusade, when double windfury ruled the day and physical damage was the overwhelming majority of enhancement DPS, Armor Pen was a decent stat for us. (I will admit I don't remember any shamans really going bonkers stacking it.) But with the advent of Windfury/Flametongue and Maelstrom Weapon, a much greater portion of enhancement shaman DPS comes from instant spell casts as well as shocks. The result is that anything that helps get Maelstrom stacked to five faster is good, and anything that doesn't affect our Maelstrom Weapon enhanced spell damage is bad. A Lightning Bolt or Chain Lightning cast simply doesn't care about how much Armor Penetration you have stacked.
Now, the problem is twofold here. One, Armor Pen does increase your white DPS. It's not a good stat for an enhancement shaman, oh my no. But if you had to choose between two sets of bracers, with identical stats except bracer B also has armor pen on it, bracer B would grant more DPS than bracer A. When you end up with the avalanche of ArP on mail after Ulduar came out, it becomes quite the effort to avoid the stuff to the point where you're better off simply accepting that there's going to be some armor pen on your gear. The second problem is, since we share our gear with a ranged DPS class, we'll always be forced to seek out those stats that benefit us as caster/melee hybrids on gear for ranged physical DPS.
Cataclysm will make this gear sharing conundrum even more interesting for us shamans. While patch 3.3 promises a mountain of new gear, it will be gear built around the same design philosophy we've seen up to now. But Cataclysm promises to upend a lot of current sacred cows with the removal of mana from hunters and the alteration of how stats like armor pen and defense work as well as the inclusion of mastery.
Next week we'll discuss the caster shaman divide more in depth unless 3.3 drops, in which case, They Who Edit In Shadow will probably want to see some gear lists.
Patch 3.3 is the last major patch of Wrath of the Lich King. With the new Icecrown Citadel 5-man dungeons and 10/25-man raid arriving soon, patch 3.3 will deal the final blow to Arthas. WoW.com's Guide to Patch 3.3 will keep you updated with all the latest patch news.