Since patch 4.2 is likely coming out in just a couple of weeks, we'll be taking into account the incoming changes to the class in these columns. The differences aren't massive, but they're definitely significant enough to consider.
The overall picture
Arcane, overall, is in a far better place at this point in the expansion than it was at the beginning. The introduction of the Mana Adept mechanic was a huge game-changer, and it has taken Blizzard this long to figure out how to properly balance it so that the mechanic remains intact and worthwhile, but arcane DPS is also competitive.
It has only been since patch 4.1 that arcane has become a competitive raiding spec, but a series of buffs to Arcane Blast has put the spec's numbers in the right ballpark. In most fights, an arcane mage is at least as attractive to the raid as a fire mage, and in many cases, moreso. While fire has been the go-to spec for both single-target and AOE raid DPS for most of the expansion, arcane is finally at or near the same level in many situations.
And that level, comparatively, is high. On the ever-spinning hamster wheel that is the DPS race, mages as a class are holding their own these days. The whining on the official forums may paint a more pessimistic picture, but never mind that. Ignore the funhouse mirror nonsense going on there and just accept that mages are in a nice place right now when it comes to DPS.
The Mana Adept situation
No mage spec went through a more significant change this expansion than arcane, and Mana Adept was at the root of the change. The mechanic was initially baffling, felt unneeded, and ended up being more frustrating to mages adapting to it than anything else. Even Blizzard seemed confused as to how to properly adjust the damage output to suit this radically new playstyle.
By tying our damage output to the percentage of our mana pool that we had left at any given moment, the designers installed a raw new way of playing the game that needed a whole lot more testing before it was ready for consumption. It was as if they'd thrown us a random assortment of ingredients and told us to bake a cake. Arcane mages were running out of mana, wasting their best burst damage at the wrong times, using ill-advised and ineffectual spell rotations, and watching as fire mages ruled the damage charts.
Gradually, an effective playstyle emerged. By separating each fight into phases (burn phase, recovery phase, conservation phase), arcane mages learned to harness this strange mechanic and make it work for them. Buffs to mana usage and nuke damage in recent patches helped put the damage numbers about where they needed to be, as if Blizzard had been watching the mage community muddle through and taking notes, waiting for us to show them where we needed tweaks and then applying those tweaks. For the first time since Wrath, the spec feels about right.
The nice thing that arcane mages have figured out about Mana Adept is that the mechanic provides us with a sense of adaptability that no other spec enjoys. For most classes, a burst phase simply involves burning all of their cooldowns at once and then resuming their normal rotation. For arcane mages, though, burst phases became a constant decision. When do I keep spamming Arcane Blast? How long can my mana pool sustain it? Is it time to throttle back now?
Because the spec's highest damage rotation (Arcane Blast spam) was entirely unsustainable, arcane mages had to decide when and where to use it and could switch to a lower-damage, more sustainable rotation on the fly as needed. It provided for a more cost/benefit-based decision-making process than any other class or spec had ever had access to. The difference between an arcane mage who made good decisions and one who wasn't quite as discerning was and still is striking on the DPS charts.
Overall, I can say without reservation that at this point, I'm completely sold on the Mana Adept mechanic. It gives me a sense of freedom and accountability for my actions that I quite enjoy. And nothing feels quite as badass as choosing the exact best moment to begin your final burn phase, doling out massive crits with each successive Arcane Blast, and running out of mana just as the boss drops. It isn't for everyone, but for those of us who have adopted the playstyle that makes Mana Adept tick, it's extremely satisfying.
The upcoming nerf, and why I'm not worried about it
So now, when things are actually going fairly well for arcane mages, we hit the dip in the nerf/buff rollercoaster. When patch 4.2 drops, we'll see a flat 5% damage nerf to our primary nuke, Arcane Blast. That's a pretty solid nerf, and the spec doesn't need it.
Still, I'm not stocking up on ammunition and hoarding bottled water quite yet. You see, part of the reason for arcane's current success is the fact that we scale better than any other mage spec. Intellect is quite a bit more valuable to us at higher gear levels than it is to fire and frost mages, and it's pretty damn valuable to both of those specs.
As we all charge into the Firelands in patch 4.2 and start picking up tier 12 gear and (god willing) a legendary staff or two, our damage would likely have started to overshadow fire and frost's to the point that a reactionary nerf would have become necessary. And as we all know, reactionary nerfs are always more nerfy than they ought to be. This damage reduction is a preemptive strike on the class designers' part, and one that should be balanced out as we gear up. I don't have a problem with it. We'll probably revisit this topic in a month when I'm fully decked out in Firelands loot and the fire mage is still blowing me out of the water, but for now, I'm willing to see how things shake out.
The ongoing AOE and mobility issues
These are still the two biggest weaknesses the spec finds itself afflicted with. Arcane still only has one spell to cast when moving, and it's a fairly weak spell that can't be cast often enough.
Blizzard appeared to be addressing this somewhat with the whole "Arcane Missiles castable while moving" tier 12 set bonus idea, but that had two problems, as we've discussed. First, it needed to be a baseline ability, not tied to a tier set bonus. And second, Blizzard nixed the idea altogether a few weeks back, swapping it out for an infinitely more underwhelming Arcane Power buff. I said at the time that I hoped the reason it was being changed was because Blizzard realized that the mobile Arcane Missiles change needed to be baseline, but with the patch imminent and no more word on the issue, I'm beginning to think the idea has simply been scrapped.
It was a good idea, Blizzard. You still have a week or two to deploy the change to the PTR. Make Arcane Missiles mobile. This is arcane's biggest weakness, and it needs to be fixed.
As for the other weakness -- arcane's lack of spec-specific ranged AOE -- we're better off now than we were at the start of Cataclysm. The accepted AOE rotation we have now works pretty well and has fairly high damage potential. By keeping a full Arcane Blast stack up and weaving in three to four Arcane Explosion casts in between, arcane mages can potentially do some pretty solid multi-target DPS.
The issues here, though, are threefold:
You have to be standing right next to the enemy group for this to work.
You have to also be very careful to keep your Arcane Blast stack topped off (which can become tricky as your targets begin dying off) or your damage drops precipitously.
In many situations, it's almost as effective just to throw out Blizzard and Flamestrike, spells that belong to other specs.
I don't know what the solution is here, but putting a mage who can easily die in one or two hits from any one mob in the center of a group of said mobs, generating copious amounts of threat on each of them, is a terrible idea. There has to be a better way.
My favorite spec
I'm actually quite happy with my arcane mage these days. Between the competitive damage numbers, the mana-management meta-game Mana Adept allows, and the way Arcane Missiles looks when I cast it after stealing the Blazing Haste
buff from the Flame Casters
in Zul'Aman, arcane is my current favorite spec. How do you feel about it? Voice your thoughts, your concerns, and yes, even your whining. Here at Arcane Brilliance, we want it all, as long as it isn't from a closet warlock, coming here in the hopes of finding a gear list he can leech from. Warlock comments should be kept where they belong, exchanged in a nasal moan to each other during a spirited cutting session in the dressing room of a Hot Topic.
Every week, Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Start off with our Cataclysm 101 guide for new mages, then find out which spec is best for raiding, get advice from the poor mage's guide to enchants, and learn how to keep yourself alive.