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Arcane Brilliance: The difference between good and great

It's time again for Arcane Brilliance, the weekly mage column that believes frost mages shouldn't be the only mages to experience the joy of pet ownership. Reader Doidadetanga, aside from having more syllables in his character name than is reasonably necessary, sent in this picture of his very own Arcane Elemental, which (if Blizzard listens to my nightly prayers at all) will be a new spell in Cataclysm ... along with Anti-Warlock Bolt, the new 56-point talent in the Arfrostfirecane tree.

I'm about to make a bold statement (literally; it's in bold typeface):

I'm a good mage.

My GearScore is adequate. I am fully capable of putting out an acceptable amount of damage over an acceptable timespan. When folks want free food and water, I somehow manage to provide it for them. My dress is appropriately pretty, and my staff is sufficiently formidable in terms of both size and the manner in which I employ it.

I'm about to make another bold statement:

Anybody -- absolutely anybody -- can be a good mage.

I can, you can and yes, even that defecting warlock who has finally outgrown his dark eyeliner, Taylor Lautner posters and hating his parents can be a good mage.

The problem is, not nearly enough of us manage to move beyond that particular tier of magehood. I know I'm still working on it, five years after I started playing this wonderful game, and chances are you are too. There are a whole lot of good mages out there -- but not a whole lot of truly great ones.

But fear not, my fellow mages. Though I have not yet attained greatness, I can recognize it when I see it. I'm willing to bet a good number of you can, too. Follow me past the jump and we'll discuss the fine line that separates a good mage from a great one. Because I'm going to make one final statement, and this one isn't even bold:

Every mage can become great. Every single one.

I won't waste your time with any more preamble. Here's my list of seven absolutely essential things a good mage needs to master in order to become truly great.

1. Situational awareness

I'm listing this first because it's so incredibly vital. Unfortunately, it's also quite difficult to define. It can be something as simple as learning not to stand in the fire. Or it can be something as potentially complex as learning when it's safe to blow all of your cooldowns and go for broke without fear of pulling off the tank. The main concept here is to be as aware as possible of the various facets of the battle raging around you.

Because it is our primary role, too often we mages develop a bit of tunnel vision when it comes to DPS. We learn our rotations, gear up, get our specs just right and focus entirely upon putting up the biggest numbers we can. The problem we run into is that DPS isn't everything.

The best mages are those who not only pump out massive damage but do so while also knowing when to move, when not to move, when to pull the add off of the healer, when to pop Invisibility, Ice Block or Mirror Image, when it's time to hold back and when it's time to pull out all the stops.

As difficult as it is to define situational awareness, it's even harder to tell you how to master it, for the simple reason that it changes from fight to fight. Great mages learn their roles implicitly for each encounter before they ever attempt it and then learn from their mistakes during the battle itself. What works in one encounter may be a fatal mistake in another, and it's our job to do the homework necessary to prevent the worst of mistakes.

The best advice here is that true situational awareness comes with experience. Find the best mage in your guild. Watch what he or she does. Then work as hard as you can to become better than they are.

2. Decursing

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: Remove Curse is one of the most important spells we have. Sadly, far too few mages make use of it.

We are one of only three classes in the game that can dispel curses, along with druids and shaman, and yet the various curses that can be placed upon us are some of the absolute nastiest debuffs in the game. It is essential that we assist in curse removal duties.

Our DPS tunnel vision is often the culprit here, as we are trained from creation to focus our energies on the mob we are currently setting fire to and not on the status of our teammates. Mods like Decursive can help greatly with this, giving us an easy-to-read and easy-to-notice one-click solution to removing curses.

Great mages are those who can multitask, and the ability to dispel curses while still maintaining high DPS is one of the things that divides the excellent from the merely adequate.

3. Crowd control

I know, I know. Crowd control is dead, and all that. The thing is, it really isn't. Sure, we aren't called upon to sheep on every pull anymore, but there are many, many situations where a great mage's ability to control a mob can spell the difference between victory and disaster.

Dusty and covered in cobwebs as it may be, we still possess what is perhaps the most reliable crowd control spell in the game in Polymorph -- if we happen to be fighting mobs that are susceptible to it, that is. If not, we still have some very nice snares available to us in the form of Frostbolt or Slow.

Be on the lookout for opportunities to use your crowd control abilities. If the healer is being ravaged by something ugly, it might fall to you to pull that nasty thing away and kite it back toward the tank. Great mages are the ones who master the art of being johnny on the spot. Nothing will earn your healer's respect like saving their bacon when you could have just kept pumping away at the boss.

4. Utilitarianism

Here's an easy one every mage can begin doing now. It requires no skill, just an awareness of need and a unfailing desire to help.

Mages are blessed with several of the most helpful utility spells in the game, and because these spells are so popular, we often come to resent them. The terms "vending machine," "table monkey," "portal-bot" all come with derogatory connotations. But there's a reason those spells are so popular: they're awesome. Think about all the unique things mages can provide for the raid:

  • free and virtually unlimited supplies of food and water

  • instant group travel to any major city

  • replenishment

  • raid-wide damage and crit buffs

  • intellect buff

  • an impeccable fashion sense

Never, ever look at these gifts as a burden. Dole them out generously, and be grateful that you have the ability to do so.

5. Not dying

Seriously. Nobody likes a dead mage. We just sort of lie there, not blowing anything up. It's pathetic.

It's easy to blame the healer when you die, but the sad fact is that most of the time, when a mage dies, it is because that mage was an idiot.

Here's a short list of things mages do that get them killed:

  • pull aggro

  • forget to cast Invisibility

  • attack the wrong mob

  • forget to Ice Block

  • stand in the fire

  • stand in the green stuff

  • stand on the black circle

  • do something stupid to get the healer killed

  • fail to use damage mitigating spells (Fire/Frost Ward, Mana Shield, Ice Barrier) when appropriate

  • get out of the line of sight or range of the healer

  • stand too close to AoE attacks

  • don't notice when spell reflect is up and blow themselves up

Remember, mages are frail and brittle. An overly-energetic sneeze, a stiff wind, walking too quickly on an uneven surface, swallowing a bite of strudel before properly chewing it, a stern glare from a death knight ... all of these things could cause a mage to spontaneously combust. A great mage does whatever is necessary to stay alive, taking upon him or herself the sole responsibility for not dying. Always keep the larger picture in mind. Is it better to throttle my DPS back a bit right now, or keep blasting away and die a gruesome death, losing all of the DPS I might have put out from that point on? Be wise, use the life-saving tools you have in your repertoire and stay alive. Unlike warlocks, mages are worth far more alive than dead.

6. Maximizing your DPS

There's a reason I'm putting this so low on the list, and that is because it's probably something you're doing already. DPS is a mage's highest priority from conception, and we condition ourselves to ignore all else. Though this singular focus can often prevent us from turning the corner and truly becoming great, that doesn't make it a bad thing. We need to embrace our need to blow things up with greater and greater efficiency, so long as in doing so we don't neglect our other duties.

Maximize your DPS outside of combat by min-maxing your gear, enchants and gems as best you can. I'm not saying you need to pull out a spreadsheet, abacus and slide rule, but a little research is probably wise. Be aware of your spec's hit cap, and make certain that you do not exceed it. If you have access in your usual raid group to a hit buff, take note of that fact and adjust your hit rating accordingly. As you are no doubt aware, any points in hit rating that take you above the hit cap are wasted.

Don't be afraid to spend a bit of money tweaking your setup and experimenting on training dummies to find the best arrangement of stats to meet your needs. Always keep a stock of buff food, flasks, elixirs and potions to maximize your potential. Perfect your ideal spell rotation and learn the best way to shorten it if need be or keep DPS up while moving.

Do what's necessary to maximize your damage output, but always be aware that simply producing numbers on a damage meter is not the hallmark of a great mage. A great mage produces excellent DPS but manages to do so while doing everything else a mage needs to do.

This isn't as hard as it may sound. The most important part is learning to be aware of non-DPS needs as they arise, slip out of your rotation long enough to address those needs, then resume casting quickly enough that you don't sacrifice an undue amount of damage output. That ability comes with experience, but it does come.

7. Not being a jerk

I'm not kidding. This is as important, if not moreso, as any other item on this list. Having a douchebag in your raid has a tangible effect on the raid, increasing stress levels, decreasing enjoyment levels and just generally ruining it for everybody. Just as NOFX believes it is their job to keep punk rock elite, I feel it is my sworn duty to keep mages from being dicks.

A great mage does none of the following:

  • Spams the DPS meter when they're at the top of it, or worse, requests for someone else to spam the DPS meter when we all know full well that they could spam it themselves but don't want to appear to be tooting their own horn. Protip: You're not fooling anybody.

  • Gets angry at someone else for doing something wrong or points out someone else's failings in front of the group. Even if you feel that something needs to be said in order to prevent a wipe, or feel like you just want to offer friendly advice, that advice is probably best offered in a private whisper and not accompanied by swear words over Vent. "Constructive criticism" is the almost exclusive province of the douchebag, and even if necessary, is always best when given on the down-low.

  • Makes fun or is dismissive of gear choices, specs, spell selection, etc. If you have advice to offer, see the above paragraph. If you're simply assuming that the beast mastery hunter or frost mage is using an sub-ideal spec and should be berated for doing so, you're wrong, you're a dick and I don't want you in my raid. Part of the reason I listed "maximizing your DPS" so low on this list is because being a great mage is a combination of things, and raw damage output is only one of those things. If someone believes they can do the raid more good as a so-called "lesser" spec, let them do it. If the mobs are dying, and they're doing so at an acceptable pace, you all win, whatever the spec.

  • Mocks DPS output without considering the circumstances. Maybe that hunter's DPS was low because he spent a large portion of the fight kiting an add around. Maybe that feral druid had to switch to healing on the fly because one of the other healers went down. That might explain why his spot on the Recount list is so mediocre. In fact, I'm going to assert that if you are mocking DPS output at all -- or anything else, really -- you're a jerk. Humor that comes at the expense of others (unless they are warlocks) is categorically useless.

In general, you know if you're being a dick or not. Don't be one. A truly great mage is one who expends all of his energy in making the raid better and none of it on making it worse.

This list is by no means comprehensive. What other ideas do you have, mages? We've all run into mages who we look at and say, "Wow, some day, I want to be that awesome." Who were those mages, and what made them great?

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 how much I hate damage meters or our lengthy series of mage leveling guides. Until next week, keep the mage-train a-rollin'.