As you have no doubt discovered while leveling your Mage to 70, Mage talents are divided into three major schools. The Fire tree is generally considered to be the high-damage tree, containing talents that provide the best raw DPS in PvE environments. The Frost tree is often thought of as the PvP tree, offering survivability and control, while still allowing for high damage output. The Arcane tree is less defined, and mostly serves as a complementary tree, lending utility and support talents that help either of the other schools of magic.
As I suggested last week, one of the most vital choices a Mage makes at end-game is what his or her focus will be. Is your Mage going to strive for PvP dominance? Is topping the damage meters in high-end raids your goal? Would you like to be serviceable in both raids and PvP? Is your Mage going to be used to farm primals, and nothing more? Your end-game goals should determine your spec, and your spec choice will largely determine your success at achieving these goals.
There are those who insist that there are only one or two "ideal" or "best" builds for each kind of end-game Mage. I have to vehemently disagree. A spec choice should be a deeply personal decision, and one that suits you particular style of play. I have seen successful PvP Mages with fire specs, and high-damage raid Mages slinging Frostbolts. There are as many ways to be good at end-game as there are Mages who reach level 70, and don't let anyone mock the choices you make. If you find a build that matches your methodology, and you can be successful with it, then that is the right build for you. A week later, you may discover that another build is the right build for you. The real variable in this equation is what works for you, and what works for each individual Mage is simply never going to be constant. There is no perfect build, no ideal spec, and cookie-cutter builds only work if you happen to be a cookie-cutter Mage. I prefer to look at those kinds of builds as a jumping-off point, as a template from which to begin customizing and adjusting to fit your needs and strengths.
Now, this isn't to say that nobody is wrong, and everyone is right, and we should all hold hands and sing Kumbaya forever more. Cookie-cutter builds exist for a reason. Certain talents just lend themselves to certain roles, and playstyle doesn't change that. Below, I will present a few basic builds and list the strengths and weaknesses of each. In the end, how you tailor your own build is completely and entirely up to you, but the builds below can hopefully provide you with some ideas and suggestions for where to begin the customization process.
I could probably spend weeks talking about this subject, but in the interest of expediency, I'll limit it to two. This week, we'll discuss raiding builds, and next week we'll go over PvP builds and situational builds.
Fire 10/45/3 (+3)
This build maximizes the damage output for a Fire Mage's staple spell, Fireball. The rotation this build is designed for is simple: Scorch until the fire vulnerability debuff is stacked to 5, then spam Fireball until the enemy is dead, pausing only to reapply the Scorch debuff when the need arises.
High, consistent DPS is the hallmark of this spec, and mana efficiency is provided by Elemental Precision, Arcane Concentration, and Master of Elements. Burning Soul is a must-have since it is the only threat-reduction talent in the Fire tree, and by going so deep into that tree, you have access to the wonders of Combustion. As with just about every quality raiding spec, Elemental Precision is essential, providing what amounts to 3% spell hit.
This is a pure raiding spec, which of course means zero survivability. If you take this build into a battleground, find a tree and hide behind it, since that's your only chance to survive more than a few seconds. If you take a wrong turn and find yourself in an Arena with this spec, it was nice knowing you. The points spent in the Arcane tree here serve one purpose, and that's to provide access to Clearcasting, and it's a shame to have to spend 10 talent points simply to allow for a little more mana efficiency, but there just aren't any other options for a Fire Mage to lower their mana expenditure.
Ways to tweak this spec:
Three talent points are discretionary here, though not much you can do with them will help with what this build is designed for. Picking up Pyroblast and Blast Wave is a good idea, since you've already invested the points necessary in the Fire tree, and those spells are useful in a lot of situations. The last point is superfluous, really, and can be used wherever you see fit.
A common variation on this build is the following: 2/45/11. This provides added DPS by adding Icy Veins, at the expense of the mana efficiency provided by Arcane Concentration.
Arcane 43/0/11 (+7)
This build takes advantage of all the wonderful DPS talents in the Arcane tree, allowing for very nice sustained damage using Frostbolt and Arcane Missiles.
The Arcane tree is a fantastic thing, allowing for high DPS no matter which school of spells you prefer to use. This build provides a solid backbone of spell damage and allows you flexibility in the rest of the build. It can work well with fire or frost spells, and is a fun build to customize. This particular version of the build gives access to Icy Veins, which is never a bad thing.
When you choose the Arcane tree, you are sacrificing the potency of specializing in one of the other trees for the overall spellpower the Arcane tree offers. Your DPS will be high, but it could probably be higher if you chose Frost or Fire and tailored your gear around it. Also, any spell rotation that involves Arcane Missiles will likely be less mana efficient than is ideal.
Ways to tweak this spec:
There are many variations on the Arcane build for raiding, including but not limited to the following:
40/0/21 focuses on Frostbolt as its main damage dealing spell, and goes deep enough into the Frost tree to obtain Cold Snap.
40/21/0 gives you Presence of Mind/Pyroblast flexibility for PvP, while maintaining high DPS for raid encounters through the use of a Fireball rotation, at the high cost of the virtual spell hit provided by Elemental Precision.
This build can also be easily tweaked to provide survivability for PvP, at the expense of DPS. If you wish to dual-purpose your Mage, the Arcane tree is your friend. This spec is extremely flexible, and there are myriad ways to change it to suit your needs.
Frost 10/0/49 (+2)
This is designed to give you access to the full Frost tree, including the Water Elemental, while still giving you Clearcasting. The damage here is done almost exclusively through Frostbolt and the Water Elemental.
As any Frost Mage will tell you, being able to summon that Water Elemental is a glorious thing. This is another decent dual-purpose spec, due to the PvP control and survivability the Frost tree offers. For sheer utility, the Frost tree can't be topped.
The damage dealt here won't be quite as high as it could be if you were to spec deep Fire, but the difference isn't as wide as you might fear. The cost of a dual purpose spec is the pure, unadulterated DPS a more one-dimensional spec provides, and the Frost tree just isn't quite as one-dimensional as the other two trees.
Ways to tweak this spec:
There are two talent points left up for grabs here, and a couple others that could be spent elsewhere. Ice Barrier is a wise pickup for any sort of PvP or soloing. Several talents that don't help much in raiding situations could be dropped in favor of going a little deeper into the Arcane tree in search of the mana efficiency provided by Arcane Meditation, for example 18/0/43.
Hopefully these build templates will provide you with a starting point for building your raiding Mage. These are only a few examples of what you can choose to do with your Mage once you hit level 70. We're given 61 talent points to spend, and 192 places to put them, so the permutations are virtually endless. What specs work for you?
Next week we'll explore the player-killing side of things, and yes, you can PvP without a Water Elemental by your side. I promise. It's not easy, but it can be done.
Every week Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of Mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Check out our two-part look at Mage match-ups with other classes in PvP, or our recent look at the new caster gear in patch 2.4. If you're sick and tired of all this Mage-talk, there's a veritable treasure trove of guides and tips related to all of the other aspects of WoW over in the WoW Insider Directory. Until next week, keep the Mage-train a-rollin'.