Before we do though: if you have a main who can pick it up for you, get the Tome of Cold Weather Flight as soon as you can. If you can get it, it makes the starting areas much quicker and gives you the option to cherry pick out quest hubs faster than before. (This is doubly true if you have access to an epic flyer but even the upgraded regular flyers are faster than regular epic land mounts and can also skip right over obstacles.) With this ability, doing both starting zones (which I highly recommend even if you have heirloom armor and weapons you won't replace... remember, all that stuff vendors or DE's and you can still use the big XP for the chains) has never been easier, and that means that you'll be more likely to be max level before you start Icecrown and the Storm Peaks, meaning that all those quests will be gold in your pocket. With both heirloom chest and shoulders and some luck on rested you can easily be 80 before finishing up Zul'Drak, especially if you do both Borean Tundra and Howling Fjord.
Questing in Northrend is about as well designed as questing has ever been in WoW. The designers learned from their experience with classic and BC, and as a result, I can't imagine why anyone but the most die hard would entirely avoid it. But if for whatever reason you want to avoid all quests (perhaps this is your ninth or tenth alt) you most certainly can level without questing. In fact, leveling without doing a single quest has never been easier. You can of course chain run instances, but if you're also weary of that (or you can't for one reason or another) then there's always PvP as well.
The battlegrounds (even Alterac Valley post the nerf to the ridiculously high XP which we all knew was coming) are a strong alternative for the player who can't spare the time to run instances or who just likes to queue up and go. And with shamans being hybrids who can heal, you can more or less pick your playstyle and run with it and still help your faction out with the occasional clutch heal if you're of a mind to.
Also bear in mind you aren't restricted to any one of these activities. You can run through an area's quests (I especially recommend this for places like Grizzly Hills and Zul'Drak that have very rewarding group quests as well as quests that lead to instances like Drak'Tharon Keep or Gun'drak) then run a few instances and then queue for a BG or two to cleanse the palate. If you've managed to pick up dual specs you're in even better shape, as you can have an instance spec and a solo spec, or a PvP spec and a PvE spec. It's never been easier for a shaman to get to 80.
Finally, an overview of the gear available to you as a fresh 80 from TotC/Heroic TotC. TotC5 gear is roughly the same quality as Naxx 10 and TotC Heroic matches up with Ulduar 10, putting you in purples with a solid outlay of time as soon as you hit 80. (Some friends of mine were even running TotC normal before they ever saw 80 and stockpiling the purples.) The one downside to TotC is that each boss/encounter has a fairly large loot table. I'm sticking to mail drops here, in the interest of space, but there are several leather and cloth drops that will no doubt be desired by shamans.
- Abyssal Rune - a solid caster DPS trinket for elemental shamans
- Banner of Victory - For enhancement, I would say you'd be better off with a Mirror of Truth or a Darkmoon Card or any Naxx 10 drop. Even some blue DPS trinkets would outperform this, since it's got a large chunk of static Armor Pen on it. The proc is nice enough.
- Belt of Merciless Cruelty - haste for Maelstrom Weapon procs and solid stats and a gem socket.
- Brilliant Hailstone Amulet - a fairly solid elemental piece, especially for a new 80 who might be low on hit.
- Carapace of Grim Visions - I'd actually use this as restoration before elemental with that crit on it, but it could work for either.
- Leggings of the Bloodless Knight - same as the Carapace.
- Scale Boots of the Outlander - solid for enhancement even with the armor pen on them.
- Signet of Purity - sigh, why can't shamans get anything good from spirit? Of all the caster/healer classes this is the worst for us with Holy Paladins probably a close second. Luckily I don't care about them.
- Tears of the Vanquished - this thing seems to proc a lot. I'd say it's better even than it looks, and it doesn't look bad at all.
- Uruka's Band of Zeal - ah, for the enhancement shaman trying to catch up on expertise this is a ring to be seized.
- Writsguards of Ceaseless Regret - even with the armor pen these are pretty solid. But I prefer the Interwoven Scale Bracers, if you can get them. And of all the heroics, heroic Nexus is by far the easiest.
- Aledar's Battlestar - In a world where 2.6 speed weapons are hard to get and we're already fighting for them with DK's and rogues, pick this up as soon as you can. It's easily as good as anything that will drop for you before Trial of the Crusader 10.
- Ancient Pendant of Arathor - yes, it has armor pen. But it's still solidly itemized otherwise.
- Chestguard of the Ravenous Fiend - same as the APoA.
- Girdle of the Dauntless Conqueror - solid for resto, decent for elemental.
- Gloves of the Dark Exile - would it have killed you to have put haste on one of these drops, Blizz? I guess the Belt of Merciless Cruelty was your one present to enhancement shamans.
- Kurisu's Indecision - here's a cape to fight with every other DPS caster for, elemental shamans.
- Mariel's Sorrow - a very nice healer mace.
- Pauldrons of Conceal Loathing - no armor pen! It's a Winter Veil Miracle!
- Pauldrons of the Deafening Gale - okay, caster shaman shoulders with hit and crit. Since hit is useless for restoration I'll give the nod to elemental, although that crit is just weird for a class that can force crits.
- Sinner's Confession - a ring that repeats the Pauldron's gearing issues, but presumably the ring is meant for any DPS caster.
- Spectral Kris - I've seen elemental and I've seen resto with it. It won't drop on any run I'm on, of course.
- Symbol of Redemption - a healing neck for sure, and a nice one too.
Okay, and with that we should be more or less done with our 68 to 80 climb and should have an eye on where to go for some gear. Next week, we'll be shifting gears to really talk in detail about what shamans will look like in 3.3.
Check out more strategies, tips and leveling guides for Shamans in Matthew Rossi's weekly class column: Totem Talk.