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Totem Talk: So you've decided to roll a shaman...

Matthew Rossi

Well, I sure hope you have, otherwise the entire premise of this column is faulty. And you wouldn't do that to me, would you? I mean, no one likes a faulty premise. They're like leaky ostriches.

Anyway, welcome to Totem Talk's look at taking a starting shaman from 1 to 20, both for new players and for players who've leveled other classes. Last week we talked about how shamans were by far the least played class, so this week it's time to try and give a leg up to new shamans, especially now that patch 2.3 has brought faster leveling options to the 20 to 60 game.

First off, as is the case with most classes, the first ten levels aren't representative of how the class plays later. Whether you're intending to be a healer, a melee DPSer or a caster, you'll be playing those ten levels more or less the same due to the limited spate of abilities you'll have access to. The class starts to open up around level 10 when you get the second totem quest (we covered the totem quests in this post, so I won't go too into detail about them again) and can start learning fire totems and spells. Basically, from levels one to four you spend a lot of time throwing lighting at things so that they come over to where you can hit them with a mace or a stick, and you'll be making that stick hit a little harder with a weapon buff around the same time you learn how to drop a stick in the ground so that you don't get so badly hurt when things hit you back.

And you get Earth Shock at level four, which is going to be your friend from then on out. Repeat after me: spell interrupt. You will wonder how you got to level four without it.

However, there still isn't much variety at this point. No matter what you intend your new shaman to be at higher levels, right now he's a leather wearing character who can cast a couple of offensive spells while hitting things once they come face to face to register their displeasure at being hit with lightning. Ryan posted in his recent Shifting Perspectives about Shaman/Druid similarities, and believe me, at early levels it's terribly pronounced. Lightning Bolt instead of Wrath and Earth Shock instead of Moonfire, but you still have a casting time spell to pull the mobs, an instant for when they get closer, and some sort of stick or club for bashing once they get into range.

This is what I refer to as the dreadful valley for shamans. Quite honestly, shamans aren't terribly fun to play at this point. They only have the one totem, it doesn't do anything terribly interesting yet, and they basically end up doing the same thing over and over again no matter the situation. But if you can hold on until level 10 (which, reasonably, won't take you much more than an afternoon of game play) you'll start to unlock the difference between the shaman and other classes, and discover the interesting aspects of playing the totems for encounters. At levels 10 and 12 you get a host of interesting new abilities, many linked to totems, and it really helps differentiate the class: abilities like Flame Shock, Flametongue Weapon and Searing Totem. It really helps that the quest chain to get this totem is involved enough to be fun without being a total hassle to finish. Level 12 brings Purge, which is one of the more interesting and unique abilities at a shaman's disposal. Judicious use of Earth Shock and Purge can make a shaman a caster killer at these levels, as you can purge the buffs off of an opponent while interrupting his own spell casts (since both purge and earth shock are instants) and if you're used to playing a class that isn't very flexible against spellcasters this can be a revelation. Just don't get overconfident. Even when these abilities are coming into play you're still wearing leather and still doing most of your killing up close, but the shocks and totems you'll have by this point will have reduced how much you rely on bashing things to death.

Talents also help you decide where you are going to take your shaman. 11 talent points isn't enough to really make one a Resto shammy or an Elemental shammy, but it's enough to start getting a feel for which aspect of the shaman you enjoy. Do you like using weapon enhancement spells and buff totems to go toe to toe with an enemy, or are you more the caster, wanting to stay at range and throw elemental fury at your targets? Do you enjoy grouping up and healing most? While iconic shaman spells and abilities like Chain Heal and Windfury won't be available to you until much later, by level 20 you'll have standouts like Frost Shock, Ghost Wolf, and Healing Stream totem available. (To be fair, the level 20 quests for the water totem are hard enough that you might not have them right at 20.) By level 20 you can certainly have chosen talents to increase your healing, casting damage or melee abilities. With the changes in 2.3, you won't have to wait until 20 to get the talent to wield 2h weapons (since that's trainable now) but you will be able to get one of several 11 point abilities that help define the specs like the new Shamanistic Focus for the enhancement tree. By level 20, it's still premature to really consider yourself an Elemental or Restoration shaman, but you'll be closer to that point and the specializations will start to feel different. Combine that with the beginning of the water totem quest at level 20, which can easily keep you occupied for a level or two, and to my mind level 20 is when shamans really start to take off. The variety and interesting utility of the class really starts to show here.

As far as I'm concerned, as a shaman you don't want to do levels 1 - 20 too far away from your class questgivers. I leveled my orc shaman in Durotar and the Barrens for that reason, and my draenei stayed on Azuremyst/Bloodmyst in order to ensure that he was always close to a class trainer. You may feel differently, and if you do, make sure you get back to a shaman trainer at the big levels so that you can pick up the totems quests, which really do a lot to liven up the class and make it more enjoyable to play at low levels.

For me, someone used to playing a warrior, playing a shaman was at once familiar (you do a lot of melee at these levels) and alien. You're more fragile and easier to kill since you have less health and armor, you're limited by mana so you have to drink, halting more, but with the right totems and shocks you can kill a lot faster than an equivalent level warrior. The dps isn't as good as a true dps class like a mage or a rogue, you don't have a pet at these levels as a hunter or warlock will so you can't count on having a tank, and as you get more totems you have to come to grips with the totems system and its advantages and disadvantages. Even at low levels, shamans really shine when grouped, as their totem buffs grow in power the more people who are getting them. My first Wailing Caverns run on my orc shaman, I wasn't main healer, a main DPS or anything like that so much as I was a superlative buffer, cleanser and backup healer and damage dealer. It's one of the real strengths of the class and it starts to show right as you become ready to step foot into instances, with your ability to revive dead players, heal, throw down active damaging totems, AoE totems, damage reducing totems, or even a group-healing totem. Once you start to grasp how to use multiple totems on specific fights to make the group better, you've unlocked half the fun of playing a shaman.

It's hard to advise what gear to select for your bouncing baby shaman at these levels, but a general rule of thumb is that agility and intellect never hurt anyone. If you're heading more down the melee path, strength and stamina and the highest DPS 2h weapon you can find (since dual wielding is more than 20 levels away) aren't a bad choice. Elemental shamans to be often pile on whatever they can find to add to their mana pool, their spell damage and their ability to survive when they get hit, while mana regeneration and anything that adds to healing is good for a burgeoning resto. But at these levels, you're still mostly someone who uses a mix of spells and melee to kill your targets, and there's not going to be a lot of really specialized healing or casting gear for you. It's not impossible to find a few pieces, but before level 20 I'd say it's not worth really worrying about. It's better to make sure you have enough water to drink between fights and food and bandages if you need to try and regain health fast when you're out of mana. Keep in mind that at this level, you may be asked to heal or to DPS if you join an group or instance run whether or not those are your intended roles, and you may want to try and perform outside your chosen direction in order to develop those skills for later. Don't push your luck, though: a shaman with no int gear who tries to main heal an instance over his or her level is going to fail. But it's worth it to try and develop your skills with all aspects of the class if you can do so.

Next week, we'll take a look at the instances between 10 and 30, and the changes to gear that can help direct a shaman towards a spec.

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