Where frost ranks
I ranted about this last week, and I promise I won't spend more than a few sentences on it here, but a large part of the problem with frost's low estimation in the eyes of the playerbase lies with perception dictating reality. There simply aren't very many top mages who bother with frost for raiding. Sites like World of Logs only track the top mages in the top fights, and their sample size for frost is so low as to be worthless. There simply isn't reliable data available to prove frost's raid DPS is competitive.
Nobody raids as frost, so therefore frost can't raid. Typing that sentence made me so angry I can't see straight. I killed a warlock just now, and I couldn't even enjoy it. Okay, maybe I enjoyed it a little bit.
The reality is this: Frost can be quite competitive in PVE, in the right hands and with the right gear. I've seen simulations that depict frost as being less than a percentage point behind arcane in current endgame content and substantially ahead of fire in most fights. Is arcane still better? For a lot folks, yes. Is fire better than frost for certain players? Yes. But a skilled and well-geared frost mage can more than hold his own.
Two major factors allow frost to be competitive with arcane and fire: the soft crit cap and the tier 12 four-piece set bonus.
Reaching the soft crit cap
I could draw that decimal out infinitely to please you math folks out there, but I won't; 33.3% (taking raid buffs into account) is good enough. Thanks to Shatter, that's the point at which your crit chance is high enough that you should never see a non-crit when Fingers of Frost is active.
That means every Deep Freeze will crit, every Frostfire Bolt you fling out when Brain Freeze procs will crit, and every warlock you come across will die horribly, a frozen, shattered mass of pale skin and mascara.
Intellect is still the most valuable stat overall, and capping hit is probably still the first priority for frost mages -- but reaching the soft crit cap, that magical 33.3%, is easily the next most important plateau for a frost mage to strive for. Reach that cap, and you can safely ignore any additional crit and focus instead on haste and mastery. Frost mage DPS scales quite well at higher gear levels, and it's entirely possible that frost PVE may eventually eclipse arcane completely once patch 4.3 hits and our gear options iterate again.
The importance of the T12 four-piece set bonus
If you're a frost mage and you haven't gotten four pieces of the tier 12 set, get them. Get them now.
You want Brain Freeze proccing as often as possible, and with the tier 12 four-piece bonus, holy crap, does it proc often! The proc chance goes from 15% without the bonus to 30% with it, meaning your DPS from Frostfire Bolt goes up dramatically. And because you're at the soft crit cap, you know every instant FFB you hurl will crit. Add in the fact that each one of those FFBs is free -- and you'll be casting them more often, so you'll be saving mana -- and you've got a pretty damn good set bonus. I'd hazard to say the tier 12 set bonus is better for frost than it is for any other mage spec -- certainly better than it is for arcane. Yuck.
Single-target viability with added benefits
The strength of frost in raids is twofold. First, as we've discussed, frost does very high single-target DPS in good gear and scales well. It's slightly behind arcane and very competitive with fire. It doesn't fare quite as well in AOE damage, but it's still better than arcane.
But frost's hallmark has always been its survivability, and though that aspect shines brightest in PVP, it comes in more than a little handy in PVE also. As we've covered before, dead mages do no damage, and nobody stays un-dead (ha!) better than a frost mage.
So how much damage is the ability to stay alive worth? Is it worth taking the frost mage who does .05% less damage than the arcane mage but who can avoid biting it 30 seconds into the fight and take a little bit of heat off of the healers? I guess that decision is ultimately between you and your raid leader -- but if it's up to me? I'm taking the skilled frost mage who isn't a prancing ninny, prone to faint at the sight of blood. I'm taking the deadly wizard who's able to throw up a barrier of ice between himself and oncoming bolts of kill-sauce.
Who am I kidding? If it were up to me, I'm taking 25 mages. Our water elementals can tank, and we'll teach ourselves how to reverse a Pyroblast for heals. I'm curious to see what happens when we all Ice Block simultaneously. Does Ragnaros just stand there, tapping his foot and checking his watch? Does he step out for a quick smoke break? Take a nap? Make himself a sandwich? These are the questions that keep me up at night.
Continued PVP dominance
And though I haven't spent much time at all in these "state of the mage" columns talking about PVP, it bears mentioning here. Ever the hallmark of the spec, frost mages are still fantastic at PVP. Their strengths read like a list of the most valuable PVP traits:
High, controllable burst damage
Multiple CC options and interrupts
A virtually unending mana pool
Powerful damage mitigation/avoidance options
A pet with damage and CC abilities
Though the other two mage specs are no slouches at PVP, frost has a clear advantage. This is the spec of choice for those of you who want to participate in rated battlegrounds and high-end arena combat.
Taken as a whole, frost may very well be the most balanced mage spec of the three. Perfectly viable at almost every aspect of the game that matters, frost may be in a better place right now than it has been since the last time Ragnaros was the final boss of the game. Now, if only we could get more people to play it ...
Looking for the other two state of the mage columns? I present you with links!
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.