Arcane Brilliance: Gearing a mage for Cataclysm heroics

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Arcane Brilliance for arcane, fire and frost mages. Come for the mage talk; stay for the warlock-bashing.

So you have a mage. After literally days of grinding out experience points, your mage has dinged 85. Re-energized after the climb from 80, you allocate that final talent point, rush off to the mage trainer to learn Time Warp, and then open the dungeon finder tool, ready to leap feet-first into your first Cataclysm heroic. Visions of vast piles of justice points dance in your head as you click the button to queue yourself ... but what's this? Your average gear level needs to be ilvl329 to queue for a heroic? And your gear level is well below that? Bewildered, you pore over your character sheet, noticing with some dismay that you're still using that wand you found off a crab in Vashj'ir on the first day of the expansion, and you somehow never replaced that off-hand from PvP Season 8 in the last five levels. What to do?

Those of us who are used to having the gearing process spoon-fed to us by the past year or so of the Wrath endgame progression are likely in for a bit of a shock. Plentiful and easy-to-obtain purples like those offered in normal 5-man instances like Trial of the Champion and the Icecrown instances are nowhere to be found here. There's no short-cut. This is the beginning of the endgame, and baby steps are still required.

Past the break, we'll dive headlong into the various options available to us at this very early stage in the expansion. Gearing up in Cataclysm is gradual, challenging, and rewarding. We'd better get started.

I'm not a fan of giant lists of loot. They're no fun to read and definitely no fun to write. I will be listing a few items, to be sure, but if you came here in search of a comprehensive gear encyclopedia, you're in the wrong place. Instead, I want this column to be something more akin to a signpost or roadmap. I'll point you in the right directions, dole out some unsolicited advice, and leave the actual gear lists to other folks.

One thing you'll notice is that I'm ignoring anything with spirit on it. Spirit is worthless to mages, but a large amount of the caster gear we'll see out there just reeks of the stuff. You may see an upgrade that's good enough to overlook the item budget spent on spirit, and you should feel free to take it, reforge the spirit into something useful, and tide yourself over until you find something better. Totally up to you. But I won't be listing any of that crap here.

Quest rewards

The first place to look for pre-heroic gear is the same place you've likely already been spending the majority of your time: questing. You were right in the middle of establishing a beachhead on the east coast of Twilight Highlands when you hit 85, and just because you're no longer farming experience points doesn't mean the quest givers there no longer require your services. Believe it or not, that particular world-shaping conflict is still in need of resolution, and those involved are still more than willing to exchange some very solid gear upgrades for your time and effort.

Quest rewards in Cataclysm shouldn't be looked at inferior items. In many cases, the rewards you'll be picking up in the expansion's final two zones are perfectly serviceable entry-level heroic gear, and in Twilight Highlands, you can pick up a good amount of things with an item level high enough to actually help you get into those heroics. Head back, quest out the zone.

In fact, you may also want to head back to any zones you didn't quite finish (or didn't quite start) and finish up the chains there, at least enough to gain the precursors for the instance quests for that zone. The rewards for some of those dungeon quests are fantastic and may help you fill a slot with something high enough to up your gear average.

Some examples:

Justice point gear

Click on your character sheet. Go to the currencies tab. How many justice points do you have? If your answer is 950 or more, congratulations! You can purchase a fine piece of iLevel 346 gear. In many cases, you may even find you have enough to buy a couple of pieces, which may well put you over the heroic bar right off the bat. You may have stockpiled justice points at the end of the last expansion cycle, having no more to purchase with them. You may have been gaining them at a tidy clip from running random normal Cataclysm 5-mans every day since the new expansion hit. Whatever the source, take stock of what you've already accumulated and plan out your purchases. If you don't have enough to buy what you want, just hop into a few daily random 5-mans until you do.

Once you can start farming random heroics, these points will come with almost obscene rapidity, but that's still a ways off. For now, earn your pieces a few points at a time, focusing on replacing the slots you're least likely to get upgrades for from other sources.

A list of what's available and prices:

Dungeon drops

While you're running those dungeons, cursing the name of the jackhole in every group who insists on breaking your sheep every single pull, and soaking up as many justice points as you can, you're also giving yourself a shot at some nice gear drops. The upside of getting a drop is that it's basically free. You were running the dungeon for the points anyway, so seeing something you need drop along the way is just a pleasant bonus.

The downside, of course, comes from that same randomness. You can't count on a dungeon drop, and God help you if you set your eyes on something and start farming for it. Twenty-seven dungeon runs later, long past the point at which it has become a numerical miracle that your piece hasn't dropped yet, you may find yourself wondering why you didn't just spend your time questing or ramming your face repeatedly against a blunt object.

So while it may not be a particularly good idea to target specific dungeon drops to provide needed upgrades, it doesn't hurt to pray to the random number generator gods while you run randoms. The later Cataclysm 5-mans, especially, can be rich sources of upgrades. Keep your eyes open, and feel free to kill the warlock if he steals your stuff.

The stuff that'll help you get into heroics will be found in the final three 5-mans: Halls of Origination, Lost City of the Tol'vir, and Grim Batol.

Here's a Wowhead-created list loot to look for.

Reputation rewards

While questing, you may have noticed yourself gaining reputation with some of Cataclysm's new factions. The very moment you hit friendly with any of them, you need to hunt down that faction's quartermaster and purchase its tabard. Begin wearing this tabard in every dungeon you run from that moment on, soaking up reputation while you gain experience, justice points, and loot drops.

The factions in this expansion are in my opinion more practically useful earlier than in previous expansions. By the time you hit level 85, if you've been questing through the new zones as normal, you should be at least honored with one or more of these factions. One of your earliest destinations once you hit 85 should be to revisit any quartermasters you've hit honored or above with and see which of their wares would be upgrades for you. Chances are that you'll find a couple, and these items are plenty good for heroics. By wearing the tabards, running 5-mans, and doing normal questing, you can even get to revered or exalted with one or two of these before long, granting you access to more blue upgrades and some pre-raid epics.

Here's what the various factions have to offer for mages:

Guardians of Hyjal (Mt. Hyjal)

The Earthen Ring (Vashj'ir)

Ramkahen (Uldum)

Therazane (Deepholm)

Dragonmaw / Wildhammer (Twilight Highlands)

Baradin's Wardens / Hellscream's Reach (Tol Barad PvP factions)

Crafted gear

Are you a tailor? Do you know one? Are you capable of slaughtering humanoids and rummaging through their bloody leavings for Embersilk? Maybe you're a blacksmith or a jewelcrafter or some other crafting profession. There are a great many highly serviceable crafted items out there to be created or bought that are perfectly capable of filling a pre-heroic slot or three.

The ridiculous cost of materials here at the opening of this expansion make relying too highly on crafted gear a bit inadvisable, but maybe you're rolling in money. Maybe you've got so much cash you're melting down your extra gold pieces to erect a giant statue of yourself on your massive front lawn. Maybe you have hounds. Maybe you sometimes release those hounds. I don't know. If you're willing to blow 13 grand on a crafted piece that you'll be replacing in your first raid, that's fine.

A more realistic option is to craft whatever you can for whatever professions you have access to, then provide the mats to guildies and have them make things for you. Remember that the goal here is to open up a gateway to better gear. As soon as you craft things to bypass that barrier to entry, you're going to start immediately replacing the gear that got you there. I'm not saying don't invest too much in getting there, but that's exactly what I'm saying.

The same applies to gemming and enchanting. Enchant your gear. Put gems in the empty slots. But maybe don't put the best gems in those slots, and maybe save your most mat-intensive enchants for the good gear when you finally get it. The upgrades begin to come fast and furious once you can start running heroics. There's not much sense in blowing your wad on a shiny enchant of glowy awesomesauce for that dagger you just had the blacksmith hammer out for you, only to kill 6 kobolds, turn in a quest, and earn a replacement for it five minutes later.

And don't get me started on BoE epics. Yes, there are some out there. Yes, you will see them in the auction house. Yes, they will sparkle and look all kinds of sexy. Yes, they will look good on you for approximately a minute. And yes, you will eventually vendor them for like 20 gold after you find out that everything in the expansion's first raids is way better. If you're the guy who has so much money that renting a piece of loot for a week for about 20k is worthwhile to you, well, you know who you are and you don't have to apologize for your disgusting opulence. Must be nice.

Here's a Wowhead-created list of crafted items to farm mats for.

That's about it! Random sidebar: Does anybody else miss the days when enchanters could craft their own wands? What happened to that? Not sure what that has to do with anything, but it just occurred to me, and if you've been reading Arcane Brilliance for long, you know that I am incapable of filtering my thoughts before vomiting them out into my word processor.

Go forth, young wizards! Get heroic-worthy, then farm those heroics until you're raid-worthy. Keep going long enough and we may even find that first random group where nobody breaks our Polymorph.

Every week, Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Check out our recent Cataclysm 101 guide for new mages or our mage Thanksgiving spectacular. Until next week, keep the mage-train a-rollin'.