After spending an inordinate amount of time frigging about with all three trees on the beta, I have to admit, I still feel lost. There's just so much newness to absorb at once, it's almost overwhelming. When the free respecs were given out prior to the release of the Burning Crusade, I had just reached level 60 with my Mage a few weeks before, so the system shock wasn't as all-encompassing. This, though, this...is just insane. Fun, but totally crazy.
The big thing I've noticed is that there doesn't seem to be much call for mix-and-match specs anymore in the beta. Each tree can pretty well support itself. Talents that complement a specific tree are generally found in that same tree, and going 17 or so points into another tree for something like Improved Counterspell now seems like far more of a waste. A 61/0/0 build or a 0/0/61 build is actually a perfectly advisable way to spend your talents at level 70 on the beta right now. In fact, it's tough to find reasons to advise anything else.
The lone exception, from what I've seen so far, is a Fire/Frost elementalist build. Builds that take multiple damage and crit talents from the two elemental trees really shine once you have Frostfire Bolt at your disposal, taking advantage of all talents that affect either Fire or Frost spells. The problem is that Frostfire Bolt won't become available on the live servers until the expansion hits and Mages begin to hit level 75. For the purposes of patch 3.0.2, even elementalist builds aren't really advisable over deep-tree, focused builds.
Old stand-by's--like PoM-Pyroblast specs, or Frost with Improved Counterspell--fall by the way-side once the new talents become available, and not because they get less useful, but because other talents become more useful. Once the patch hits, there will simply be too many valuable talents in each tree to justify losing so many points in another tree for a single good talent. As more Mages experiment with various theorycrafting numbers and the damage output of each class is balanced, this may change, but for now, if you're a Frost Mage, you're going to want to throw just about all of your talent points into Frost. If you're a Fire Mage, the Fire tree will need almost every point you have. And if you're an Arcane Mage, well God bless you, go kill something (cough...Warlock...cough) and know that all is right with the world.
The choice then, comes down to which of the talents in each tree you wish to take. Trust me when I say the choice is actually really difficult. Even throw-away talents that nobody ever took before (I'm looking at you, Magic Attunement) have evolved into outstanding options that are very difficult to pass up. Each of the 51 point talents--assuming any remaining bugs have been ironed out by the time they go live--is worthy of its lofty spot in the tree, and tough to justify missing out on.
After much monkeying around and the slaughter of many innocent mobs, below are a few of the builds I've been most pleased with so far.
Mana efficiency: Moderate
Survivability: Incredibly low
This build produces the highest single-target DPS I could find. It is set up around a rotation I have spoken of before:
Arcane Blast-->Arcane Blast-->Arcane Barrage (cast upon proc of Missile Barrage)-->Arcane Missiles-->Arcane Blast.
When it is off its cooldown, you'll want to throw up Presence of Mind as you see Missile Barrage proc, so that it stays up throughout your Arcane Barrage/Arcane Missiles sandwich, giving each of those spells an additional 30% chance to crit, and then consume it with your next Arcane Blast. You'll then repeat the Arcane Blast spamming until you next see Missile Barrage proc again a few casts later, and repeat the whole cycle until the boss begs for mercy. It's a fun, interactive rotation that keeps you on your toes, and just feels exceptionally powerful.
As for the rest of the build, I've skipped anything that doesn't directly contribute to the DPS of your Arcane spells, so your utility will be low, and God help you if you run into Arcane-immune mobs. The three points in Fire are just to up the extra crit chance for your primary nuke, Arcane Blast. I picked up Focus Magic with my last point, despite the fact that it doesn't work properly yet, and may or may not actually be worth casting even when it does due to the high mana cost, simply because once it is fixed, and if there are a lot of casters in your raid, it will hopefully be worth the one point.
Purpose: PvP, Arena-focused
Mana efficiency: Low
Survivability: Surprisingly high
Basically, this spec is designed to be slippery, mobile, and able to dish out massive amounts of instant-cast pain in between turning things into sheep or pigs or penguins or whatever. Keep in mind that PvP is in short supply on the beta, so this is pretty untested, but I still can't wait to try it out in Arena after the patch. The concept behind it is escapability (via instant Invisibility fade-outs, Improved Blink, and Frost Novas with shortened cooldowns), survivability (thanks to the damage mitigation of Prismatic Cloak, the insane resistances of Magic Absorption, and lowered cooldowns for Ice Block), control and utility (via Slow, Improved Counterspell, the aforementioned short-cooldown Frost Nova, and an increased chance to hit with Polymorph thanks to Arcane Focus), and high instant-cast damage capabilities (Arcane Barrage, fully-talented Arcane Missiles, Presence of Mind-Arcane Blasts, and lowered-cooldown Fire Blasts).
I feel like the Arcane Missiles talents are necessary because that's such an invaluable Arena spell already, and the ability to follow Druids around corners with a damage spell will only become more useful with the promise of "moving obstacles" and such in the new Arenas we're supposed to be getting in the patch.
Thanks to Incanter's Absorption, judicious use of spells with damage absorbing mechanics (Mana Shield and Fire/Frost Ward) will up your spell damage temporarily, packing a lot more punch into those instant casts you're pumping out as you Blink and Frost Nova your way around the Arena. Though Torment the Weak is pretty bugged right now, it should be worth taking for use against Slowed targets--in therory anyway.
Fire 60/0/0 (+1)
Purpose: Raiding, high-AoE capabilities
Mana efficiency: Moderate
Survivability: The approximate durability of a wet kleenex
In spirit and function, this build isn't actually that far removed from the Fire Mages of today. You will begin with Scorches to apply the Improved Scorch debuff, spam Fireballs on bosses, throwing in the occasional Living Bomb to up your damage output and Scorch to keep the debuff up. You could also try keeping an almost infinite Hot Streak going by cycling through Fireball-Scorch-Fire Blast. This works on the beta (you wait until you have hit three criticals in a row and the Hot Streak buff pops up, guaranteeing your next cast will crit, starting the 3-crit counter over again, only as soon as you cast the guaranteed Fireball crit, you follow it with a quick Scorch/Fire Blast combo. The buff lasts just long enough to allow those two spells to crit as well, and just like that, you've hit 3 crits in a row again and can start the combo over again), but not every time, and is likely unintended and will be fixed at some point. What's with this column and all the long paretheticals, huh? Sheesh.
One talent point is left up to you here, as I simply couldn't decide where to put it. I'm sure you'll find a place to stick it, and if you don't I'm sure you'll find there are plenty of other folks out there who love to suggest locations for other people to shove things.
Purpose: PvP/Arena, but also reasonably high raiding DPS. So pretty much any purpose you want, really.
DPS: Um...reasonably high? (see above)
Mana efficiency: Nothing to sneeze at
Frost is still the PvP spec of choice. Your control and survivability options in this tree are still the best out there. The major additions here are Deep Freeze and Fingers of Frost. Put simply, your opponent will be frozen more often, and you will hurt him more when he is. Shatter combos are still the heart of this tree, and Deep Freeze just gives you a stronger finishing move and control option when its cooldown is up. Your snare effects will be even stronger than ever, thanks to Chilled to the Bone and Permafrost (I didn't take it here, but you certainly could). Frankly, a skilled Frost Mage will find they can keep an enemy at bay almost indefinitely after the patch. I know some of you feel you can already do that, but believe me, it's getting just that much easier.
In raids, The major additions are Improved Water Elemental (which is where I'd be putting my next point at level 71) and Brain Freeze. Improved Water Elemental is bugged to the point of uselessness right now in the beta, but if it ends up being as incredible as it could be, your raid will thank you for taking it. Brain Freeze gives you a mana-free instant cast Fireball pretty frequently. It's a flat DPS increase and adds a fun bit of interactivity to your Frostbolt spamming.
A final word you can probably ignore:
As always, my overarching philosophy in regards to talent specs is that there are no right or wrong ones. Spend your talent points as you see fit, in ways that fit your playstyle and personal taste. If your guild laughs at you, respec or find another guild. Far more than was ever true before, there simply aren't any useless talents anymore. Each one seems to fulfill a purpose, and it should be possible to truly customize your character to fit your desired method of killing things once the patch hits. The above specs are just ideas, templates upon which to build and adapt to conform to your own personal vision. I'm putting them here because they've worked for me, and I fully understand that they may not work for you.
Just know that messing around with these new talents on the beta has been an incredible amount of fun, and I simply can't wait until they go live. Yesterday, I began fiddling around with the talent calculators on Wowhead at around noon. An hour later, my wife went out shopping. At three, she came home to find me still experimenting with various builds. She gave me the "is it too late to anul this thing?" look, sighed deeply, came to terms once more with the sad reality that her husband is a huge dork, and went about the rest of her day.
That's the beta, guys: making wives everywhere reassess their marriages one nerd husband at a time.
Bring on the patch!
Every week Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of Mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Check out our recent look at the potential of the new Frostfire Bolt spell, or our analysis of the WotLK beta changes to the Arcane, Frost, and Fire trees. 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'.