Arcane Brilliance: The early levels for Cataclysm mages

Christian Belt
C. Belt|08.14.10

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Arcane Brilliance: The early levels for Cataclysm mages
It's time again for Arcane Brilliance, the weekly mage column that loves warlocks. Arcane Brilliance loves warlocks so much. It loves them right in the face. With a Pyroblast. Can you feel the love? Does it feel like your heart is melting? And like your brain is running down the side of your face? Because it totally is. And ... I think that used to be an ear. Oh, warlocks. So much love! If you still had anything resembling a face, Arcane Brilliance would totally kiss you.

Let me get this out of the way: I love my goblin mage.

I love him as much as it is possible to love a short, ugly, green man who values profit above anything else. When I'm playing my main, trying out new talents and abilities, I can't stop wishing I was spending time with my irredeemable little goblin, attaching rockets to chickens and riding robotic laser-sharks. It's not healthy, but I just can't quit the tiny little monster.

So my beta testing this week has been pretty focused on the low-level stuff in Cataclysm, rather than clicking Fire Orb and hoping that this time it actually works. I figure this is okay, since Cataclysm itself is an expansion focused not just on the endgame stuff, but also on overhauling the leveling process. So today, put down your spreadsheets and your nerdrage; we're going to have a brief conversation about leveling.

This isn't going to be a leveling guide. So much is still unfinished in the beta, and by the time it goes live, a lot will have changed, making any sort of in-depth look at leveling a ridiculously premature activity. The numbers are still very unbalanced, the new spells and talents still raw, rough and unpolished, and the zones and quests still rife with bugs both hilarious and deadly. It's a beta test; a great many things simply aren't there. But what is there is the overall feeling that the class developers are working toward with each class. Rather than spend an entire column analyzing the specifics of the leveling process in an unfinished product, I thought we'd look in general terms at how the early levels of magehood feel in this new expansion.

Starting out

For you old-timers, starting a new character in Cataclysm will probably surprise you. Here's the shocker: the starting areas don't suck. No more trolls telling you the Horde needs 17 boar entrails and you're the only noob that can get the job done. No more boring, bland starting areas where nothing of consequence is going on. No matter what kind of mage you roll, that mage is going to have a good time from the moment he springs into existence.

The new starting areas plunge you into the center of the major Cataclysm plotlines: dealing with the aftermath of the various seismic events, fighting off the new antagonists and generally doing significant things pretty much immediately. I'll spare you the more specific spoilers, but suffice it to say that the starting areas are genuinely epic.

Here, have a tutorial on how to read tutorials

From the moment you take your first steps into Deathknell, or Elwynn, or wherever you choose to begin your magely existence, you're going to be bombarded with tutorials. First time you take a quest? Tutorial. First time you go up a level? Tutorial. First time you kiss a girl? Tutorial. That one's actually quite interesting.

The thing is, I actually didn't mind. Blizzard spreads them out so that they don't overwhelm you, and they pop up in a fairly attractive little window during gameplay, as you're doing the very thing that you might need instruction on. For a veteran, they may seem a bit too hand-holdery, but my guess is that they won't even show up if you're not making your first character. The good news is that new players (those who take the time to read the remarkably concise tips, anyway) will now learn a good many things early on that far too many max-level players don't seem to know now. Things like the ability to use your mouse to orient your character instead of the arrow keys, for instance. It's a well-implemented starting system, integrating gameplay instructions relatively well into a game that for new players has always had a relatively steep learning curve. Those of you who are too cool for school can simply turn the tips off in the interface menu and continue onward, secure in the conviction that you already know everything.

Leveling up

At some point, about five minutes after you create your mage, you'll probably level up. This whole process goes a bit differently in Cataclysm than it does now. Early on, before you get your first talent point at level 10, the only things a new level will bring are increased base stats and possibly a new spell. The spells are spread out so that some levels you'll get access to a new one, but then you may go several more levels without getting another. Once you hit level 10, you'll begin gaining talent points at a rate of one every other level, give or take. Most of the time, gaining a level will get you a new spell or a new talent point, one or the other. Unfortunately, there will be some levels where you'll ding and get nothing. You'll see the flashy new leveling animation, gain a few base stats and then sit there, wondering what the fuss was about. It's a bit anti-climactic, but hopefully more tweaking during the rest of the beta process will even things out somewhat.

Your new spellbook

I really dig the new spellbooks in Cataclysm. When you open it up, you can see every trainable spell you'll ever learn, and the level at which you'll gain access to them. It's good to know what you'll be getting and when. Here are the first 20 levels of that list as it exists now, annotated for your reading pleasure:

Level 1: Fireball This is your primary DPS spell until you choose your spec at level 10. It still does what it has always done, which is to say, it sets warlocks on fire.

Level 3: Arcane Missiles We talked at length about the new Arcane Missiles last week, so go read that if you're not sure how this spell works in the beta. When you get it, you'll want to start using it pretty much every time it procs, because it is free, and it does more damage than a single Fireball.

Level 5: Fire Blast Here's where you get your first instant spell, which you'll be using every time a mob actually makes it close enough to you to smack you in your squishy little mage-face.

Level 7: Frostbolt From now on, this is the spell you open with. It still applies a snare, and it still fires fast, and it still does some decent opening damage. You cast Frostbolt, then you cast Fireball, then you probably cast Arcane Missiles, because chances are that it has procced, then you loot the corpse. Then you do it again.

Level 8: Frost Nova And here you get your panic button.

Level 9: Counterspell For countering spells. Just in time to start PvPing.

Level 10: Talent point I mention it here because you'll be getting a new spell here, possibly two, depending upon which spec you choose. More on this in a minute.

Level 12: Evocation Not that mana is any kind of problem, this early on, but here's where you pick up your big mana-regen ability. This is one I'd like to see come a fair bit later in the leveling process.

Level 14: Polymorph Your signature crowd-control spell. Right in time for the random dungeon finder, where every single person you group with ever will immediately break your sheep every time you cast it. In fact, I'm convinced this will be one of the new tutorials for everybody but mages: "Whenever the mage turns something into a sheep, you should hit it as hard as you can right away, because it is an unnatural abomination before god and must be destroyed."

Level 16: Blink Yay, Blink! Mobility spells are awesome, especially when level 16 is pretty close to the point where a new mage begins to realize that yes, I am a man wearing a dress, engaged in combat with a beast that has claws. Escape options are good.

Level 18: Cone of Cold Another nice panic button spell, useful for when more than one clawed beast takes an interest in killing you.

Level 20: Mage Ward A versatile, short-duration defensive spell, you will find yourself using this far, far more often than you ever used Fire or Frost Ward. Pretty much any time you encounter any sort of spellcasting enemy, really.

Your first talent point

Level 10 is a milestone now, but in Cataclysm, it's an occasion of such monumental significance that it warrants some kind of family gathering, gift-giving and an awkward coming-of-age speech from your drunken uncle. Blizzard was trying to make the trees feel distinctive from the word go in this expansion, and they have succeeded.

Instead of simply plunking a talent point into whatever tree looks sparkliest, you are told to choose your talent tree, given a colorful description of said trees and told what spell(s) you'll be getting when you make your choice. And all of those spells are pretty fantastic for the level.

Arcane gets Arcane Barrage, which is an incredibly pretty, incredibly useful spell while leveling. Fire gets Molten Armor (significant, since no other spec will have an armor spell until they can train Molten Armor at level 36), and freaking Pyroblast. Frost gets water elemental, which is more or less a permanent pet in the beta.

Then you also get a talent point to spend in your chosen tree, with some pretty spectacular tier one choices to select from. I went frost with my little goblin mage and immediately picked up Shatter. Frostbolt spam and petattack ensued.

Each spec immediately feels very much like it should feel. You get instant access to some very tree-specific abilities and can begin learning the basic playstyle of the spec right away. It's quite well done, really.

Mana conservation? What's that?

One thing I hope will change a bit during the balancing process to come is the lack of anything resembling resource management in the early levels. I'm not asking for a return to the days of drink/fight/drink/fight/drink, but holy crap, guys. My goblin's level 20, and he's never had to drink anything, not once. Which is probably why you don't learn Conjure Refreshment until level 38: you don't need it before then.

Seriously, even in lengthy fights, I can't remember a single time when I worried about running out of mana. Health, sure. Any time a mob brought a friend to the battle, I worried about my health. But my mana pool was an unending mana ocean that stretched to the horizon and beyond. For me, resource management is part of the fun in a roleplaying game. I want to know there's a limit to my power and learn ways to remain deadly within that limit. I want to have to use the occasional mana potion. I want to have to take a drink every now and again. Not a lot, mind you, but a little.

Itemization is way better

Really, I'm impressed. You'll find that quest rewards look better, fit together as an ensemble more seamlessly and have stats that you actually want. In general, aside from cloaks, if a reward or drop is made of cloth, it will be something you want. And not just in the new starting zones, but beyond. It appears that every quest reward has been reworked, and most if not all of the old lowbie items have undergone a makeover. It's nice, and in a game where new loot is the primary dangling carrot, it's probably good that that carrot doesn't look like garbage.

In conclusion ...

I'm a fan of the new leveling process. It's streamlined (perhaps too much so), balanced (for the most part), and most of all, fun. I've always had a special place in my heart for the first 20 levels of this game. I like starting from scratch and working my way up. Cataclysm has made those first 20 levels far, far more awesome.

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'.

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