Because for a very vocal minority, this game isn't about having fun but rather about having an e-peen of wider girth than the virtual fellow at the virtual urinal next to you, someone out there will always be happy to tell you which mage spec you should be using. The correct answer varies depending upon who you are talking to, what time it is, the force of the winds coming out of the north, the positioning of Venus in the night sky, and whether or not Michael Bay is directing or just producing.
The simple fact of the matter is that there are too many variables at play. To use a basketball analogy, picking a "best" spec is sort of like picking a "best" way to shoot free throws. No two shooting forms look entirely identical. As of this writing, Kevin Love and Kirk Hinrich are both shooting exactly 87.6% from the free throw line, and yet their shooting forms look completely different. Both players start out with the same potential (both possess two arms, opposable thumbs, and functioning brain stems) and yet achieve the exact same result with completely different methods of shooting. Hell, Rick Barry used to shoot a very similar percentage using an underhanded granny shot. He did that for 12 seasons. So should everybody shoot granny shots? I say yes, but mostly for the comedic value.
Pure numerical simulations will tell you that at any given point in time, one spec has the potential to provide more DPS than the other two. I don't know about you, but I don't typically play the game with a simulator. I play the game with my e-peen. Just kidding. Sort of.
No two players approach the game in identical fashion. We're all unique, special snowflakes, and we play the game in completely different ways. Maybe you have a faster computer than me, a mouse with more buttons, and a keyboard that gently massages your fingers and injects cold beverages directly into your bloodstream. Maybe you have some awesome addons, or maybe you don't use any at all. Maybe your mage is geared better than mine, but mine is better optimized. Maybe I'm standing in the fire, oblivious to anything but the escalating series of numbers on Recount, but you're running around like a crazed ninja, decursing everything that moves and kiting 72 mobs at once. Maybe you're playing alone in your nerd-cave with six monitors and no distractions, while I have three screaming babies on my lap and no idea which one of them just pooped.
The point I'm trying to make is that while on paper, one mage spec might currently be the "best," the numbers your damage meter spits out at the end of any given encounter may not bear that out. There are good mages and there are bad mages, and your raw DPS numbers at the close of a fight don't determine your worth, or the worth of your chosen spec. We've been over this before.
Now, having said all of that, it still pays to evaluate the three mage specs before selecting one. At various times in our illustrious history, mages have frequently had one or two specs that stand head and shoulders above the others. When one spec is so glaringly superior to the others that raiding with it is literally the only option, this discussion becomes a lot less subjective. For example, if you were raiding with a fire mage in Molten Core or a frost mage at any point during the vast majority of The Burning Crusade, you were shooting yourself and your raid in the foot.
This is not one of those times. Thanks to the major revamp of every talent tree in Cataclysm, there has never been a period of greater equality between the trees than there is now. Though each spec is still quite unique, the pure DPS potential of each has never been more similar. The argument over whether a spec is "viable" or not is pretty silly right now. All three mage specs are viable. You can raid with any of them. Which one is best depends largely upon you, your own special circumstances, your playstyle, and your skill set.
Let's look at each spec with a critical eye. I'll list the pros and cons of all three specs, and then we'll see where we are.
The last patch and its ensuing batch of hotfixes brought arcane back into line with the other two specs by reducing the mana cost of Arcane Blast. Anything that reduces mana cost is a pretty massive DPS increase for arcane thanks to Mana Adept, especially at higher levels of mastery.
- Extremely high burst damage potential No single burn rotation concentrates more output into less time than pure, full-mana Arcane Blast spam. Granted, it doesn't last especially long -- but holy crap is it awesome when you have it precisely when you need it.
- Competitive single-target DPS After the patch and hotfixes, arcane still lags a bit behind fire in simulations, but it's certainly in a better place than it was. Particularly douchey guild leaders will still tell you you need to switch to fire, but I give you permission to ignore them and find a less douchey guild to raid with. There are plenty out there.
- 3% raid damage buff Arcane Tactics provides this buff, which is arguably a lot more desirable than either fire's or frost's buffs, assuming someone else isn't already bringing the same buff to the raid buff buffet.
- Good threat management No fade-out and a lowered cooldown on Invisibility provide arcane with some excellent threat reduction options, which is good because when arcane is bursting, it can be difficult to throttle back.
- Low mobility Improved Blink does provide some decent movement, but the problem with arcane is that its only consistent damage spell during movement phases remains Arcane Barrage, a spell that should be whole hell of a lot more awesome than it is. During movement-heavy fights, arcane suffers a larger drop-off than the other two specs.
- Crappy AoE Not that AoE is that big a deal in Cataclysm, as a rule, but arcane's only talented option is Arcane Explosion, which still sucks pretty hard. Multi-target DPS for arcane is awful.
- Inconsistent DPS output Thanks again to the mana management meta-game required by Mana Adept, arcane mages see some wildly fluctuating damage numbers throughout the course of any long fight. The difference between your burn phase and your conservation phases is too steep, and god help you if you somehow get your Evocation interrupted.
Fire's been the consensus pick throughout these early stages of Cataclysm, thanks to consistently high DPS numbers in the majority of fights. I've long maintained that the current design of the fire tree is a model for all other trees to follow, and the fire playstyle is quite simply the most fun to be had in a DPS spec in the game right now. It's a popular spec, and for good reason.
- Multiple AoE options In multi-target fights, fire truly shines. In fact, the tree is designed around doing damage to more than one thing at a time, and the spec only reaches its full potential when you're given multiple tanked targets to blow up.
- High single-target DPS Yes, fire's good no matter how many people you're shooting at. Though it is better when AoE is called for, even setting fire to a solo enemy is going to get you some excellent numbers.
- Excellent mobility Firestarter provides you with a fully mobile rotation to switch to when movement is called for, revolving around various instant abilities and Scorch spam. The dropoff in damage from standing still to moving is comparatively miniscule.
- 5% crit buff This is a nice buff, but not as attractive as arcane's 3% increase to damage. Still, fire is so crit-dependent, it's nice to know we're bringing the crit buff ourselves.
- Ignite Munching The biggest ongoing bug for mages is found in the fire tree. I could (and probably will) spend an entire column on this at some point, but for now, let me put it as simply as I can. Ignite munching is the ongoing issue with Ignite procs -- a significant portion of fire's DPS -- overwriting each other or canceling each other out due to simultaneous crits or server delays. It basically means that the server doesn't count every Ignite that happens, meaning that often the largest possible Ignite DoT will be lost in the shuffle. It's been costing fire mages a good chunk of damage for a very long time, and doesn't look likely to get fixed any time soon.
- Overly reliant on crits The random number generator can make or break a fire mage, and thought the problem isn't as severe these days as it once was, it's still a major issue. Very few things in this life are as frustrating as getting a remarkable string of non-critting spells as a fire mage. It causes incredible variances in damage output and wild, potentially murderous swings in mood for me, personally.
Frost's long been the redheaded stepchild of mage specs when it comes to raiding. For perhaps the first time since vanilla WoW, frost's now in a pretty competitive place in both PvE and PvP, though the last patch was a bit of a step backwards for the spec. Still, at least we have perma-pets now.
- High single-target DPS/burst capabilities The recent Deep Freeze nerf has taken some of the bite out of our raid damage, but frost mages still manage very competitive DPS numbers on single targets. Frost has a strong, interactive rotation, and their damage output is probably the most consistent and dependable of the three mage specs. AoE is also good.
- Replenishment As far as raid buffs go, this is the one that your healer will thank you for. You're providing mana return for the entire raid, and though the damage buff provided by arcane is still probably the most desirable, Replenishment is also quite sexy.
- Excellent survivability As we discussed the past two weeks, no mage keeps from becoming a dead mage like a frost mage. That is and always has been the main reason for frost's PvP dominance, and it carries over into raiding. Also, frost is arguably the best at warlock-killing. Doesn't matter in raids, but bears mentioning. Oh, who am I kidding? Any spec is good for warlock killing.
- Kiting When it comes to controlling multiple mobs, frost has all the tools you could ever want. From Blizzard+Ice Shards to Cold Snapped double Rings of Frost, if the fight calls for keeping mobs busy, you want a frost mage.
- Short range Seriously, this just seems like an oversight, and it's an easy fix. Though the max range of the other two mage specs sits at a comfortable 40 yards, frost mages still need to be within 35 yards of the boss to cast their whole rotation. As issues go, it isn't the worst thing I can think of -- in most cases, 35 yards is still relatively safe -- but it just seems like such an easy fix. Roll the range increase into one of any number of frost DPS talents and call it good.
- Low mobility It's not as bad as arcane, thanks to a few good instants that are part of the regular rotation, but frost still falls well short of fire in this area.
Honestly, the decision of which spec to bring rests squarely upon the shoulders of the player. Take the kind of mage you like playing, the kind you feel the fight calls for, and the kind that will complement your raid best. How do you feel most comfortable shooting your free throws? Don't let anybody tell you you can't shoot underhanded, guys. It may look stupid, but if it goes in, it goes in. Points, as they say, are points. And a dead boss is a dead boss.
Is it possible you'll run into a situation where you prefer to play a frost mage but can consistently put out 1,000 more DPS with a fire mage? Yes. Is it also possible that your raid might get stuck on a fight where that extra 1,000 DPS means the difference between success and failure? Also yes. In those cases, switch specs. In every other case, take what you want, and damn the spreadsheets.
Every week, Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Check out our recent Cataclysm 101 guide for new mages or our mage Thanksgiving spectacular. Until next week, keep the mage-train a-rollin'.