After languishing in obscurity for all of vanilla and all of BC, Survival finally burst onto the scene after the great BM nerf of '08 as a leading hunter DPS spec. While it was overtaken by MM with top gear, SV remains a competitive spec with a more forgiving play style.
At long last, after so much waiting, those die-hard SV players who have been dedicated to their spec since launch can finally say, "Screw you, fair-weather speccers, I've always been SV. I'm a real SV hunter!"
Today, we're going to go through the basic nuts and bolts of the SV spec. As always, the 101 guides are focused on the new level 80 hunter just picking up the spec for the first time. As such, we'll try to avoid going into too many situational things or strategies focused only at top gear levels.
- Strongest short-term burst DPS
- Best DPS for adds and non-debuffed targets
- More forgiving of movement errors
- Most mana-efficient hunter spec, plus provides mana Replenishment to the raid
- Coolest shot ever in Explosive Shot
- The rotation is very reactionary and can feel like a game of whack-a-mole.
- With the unpredictable rotation, it's easy to tunnel vision on your cast bars if you don't have an addon to alert you of shot availability.
- At higher and higher gear levels, SV starts to fall further and further behind MM on raid DPS.
A typical SV talent build looks something like this: SV talent build. This build leaves six talent points free to spend in a variety of ways. They can't go just anywhere, but there a lot of options depending on your play style and gear, and we'll get into those in a moment.
- Explosive Shot The real ultimate power of SV lies in this awesome shot. When you hit with this shot, it lands for full damage, then it ticks for full damage twice more, once a second for two seconds. And since it's magical damage, it all ignores armor. This should go without saying, but be sure to visit the trainer to train it up to Rank 4. It's a shockingly common mistake.
- Black Arrow There's a lot to love about this shot. It's a DoT, it increases the damage of everything else we do and it has a chance to proc Lock and Load.
- Lock and Load Another signature talent of the SV tree, Lock and Load gives us a chance to proc two free Explosive Shots, off the standard cooldown. This is the source of the huge short-burst of SV.
- Noxious Stings This is an often-misunderstood talent. It has two separate effects. The first is tied to Wyvern Sting, and we don't care about it for a PvE environment. But the second effect increases all damage done to a target with your Serpent Sting on it by 3%. So as long as your Serpent Sting is on the target, the damage of all your shots is boosted. This has nothing to do with Wyvern Sting.
- Expose Weakness This is a great talent; however, most hunters do not want all three ranks. With decent gear, you'll only need one rank to have this effect up all the time. We crit so often that we usually only need the 33% proc chance, or at most, two ranks for a 66% proc chance.
There are a lot of options for those last six talent points, and how much use you'll get out of a given talent depends largely on your gear, play style and what kind of content you'll be facing.
- Improved Aspect of the Hawk This talent, especially the first point, has a surprisingly high DPS return. However, you need to be either standing still or good at managing your movement to get the full benefit. After all, if you're running, you aren't firing any auto-shots, so it doesn't matter how quickly they fire. This will also shorten your Steady Shot cast time, which is nice since SV hunters generally are never near the haste soft cap. However, if soloing and heroics are all you do, give this talent a pass, since you have to be shooting for a good amount of time to really see the benefit.
- Aimed Shot If you're raiding, I very strongly recommend Aimed Shot. It does a tiny bit more damage than Multi-Shot (which it shares a cooldown with) and costs a tiny bit less mana. You won't notice either of those differences. However, it is another instant shot that you can fire on the run. This can make for a huge advantage in highly mobile fights. There's nothing worse than having no instant shots to fire while you're darting out of a void zone.
- Improved Stings This is only an option if you have the two-piece tier 9 set bonus, which allows your Serpent Sting ticks to crit. The really nice thing about this talent is it's pretty much free damage that you aren't going to lose. Keeping Serpent Sting up is pretty automatic, and that giant extra crit damage will happen whether you're moving, standing still, or stunned and vomiting on your raid. That said, you'll get a bit less use out of this talent in heroics, where you spend most of your time spamming Volley.
- Expose Weakness If your crit chance is very low (under 40%), you probably want two ranks of this talent.
- Sniper Training The theoretical gain from this talent is very good indeed. However, it does require you to be standing still most of the time. I usually bring a SV off-spec to raids for add fights like Saurfang and Putricide. Since I know I'm going to be moving around like crazy on those fights, I don't bother with Sniper Training. Even though I can still get my auto-shots off by stuttering my movement, I cannot keep the benefit of this talent up. However, if you're bringing SV as your main raid spec, Sniper Training should be an overall advantage for you.
- Hunting Party In addition to providing the Replenishment effect to your raid, this talent boosts your agility -- and the more agility you have, the more agility it gives you.
SV hunters have the most complicated rotation of any hunter spec; however, just because it's the most complicated doesn't mean it's the hardest. SV has a straight priority-based shot rotation, and you just hit whatever shot is highest on the priority list, using Steady Shot to fill in the gaps.
- Kill Shot
- Explosive Shot
- Aimed Shot / Multi-Shot
- Black Arrow
- Serpent Sting (if you have the 2-piece T9, bump this up one level)
- Steady Shot
The first and most common is just to wait two seconds in between Explosive Shots. This sounds like a long time, but realize that no matter what, you have to wait for the 1.5-second global cooldown after each shot, so you're really only waiting a half a second longer than you're forced to.
The other method is to fire another shot in between each Explosive Shot. So you might fire Explosive Shot > Black Arrow > Explosive Shot > Steady Shot > Explosive Shot. Putting another shot in there guarantees that you won't clip your previous Explosive Shot ticks.
Technically the absolute best DPS route is to only weave certain shots in, and wait the two seconds if those shots are not available. Aimed Shot is the big one that you want to weave in, and Serpent Sting as well if and only if you have the two-piece T9 set bonus. Everything else you want to wait for.
However, all three of these will yield darned close to the same DPS; the difference is absolutely minuscule. The important thing is that you do not clip those Explosive Shot ticks. As long as you don't do that, you'll be good.
The problem with the SV shot rotation is that the shots don't come up in a predictable pattern, with Serpent Sting and Black Arrow interrupting your rotation. I highly recommend using an addon like Power Auras to warn you when various shots are available. The single most common reason I see for lost SV DPS is that they aren't aware the second their Explosive Shot or Black Arrow are ready to use, and instead end up firing too many Steady Shots. But of course the opposite danger is that you spend too much time staring at your cooldowns and don't notice the giant wall of molten lava descending upon you. Here is a link to a list of hunter Power Aura strings that you can import and then modify to your liking.