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Arcane Brilliance: Frost 101

Christian Belt

It's the weekend again, and that means it's time for another Arcane Brilliance, the weekly mage column that would like to continue its ongoing series of "Pictures of things you're hitting that warlock in the face with." In today's installment, we'll be hitting that warlock with a large chunk of ice. As you can see, the ice has sharp edges, pointy parts, and is hurtling toward the warlock at an absolutely painful rate of speed. Other things we'll be hitting that warlock in the face with in future installments include massive balls of flame, rapid-fire salvos of arcane energy, and of course monkey feces.

To contribute to the increasingly awesome collection of guides that make up's class 101 series, I bring you Frost 101. As with the Arcane 101 column I did a few weeks back, let me begin with what this guide is, and also with what it is not:

What it is: A general overview of the spec from a PvE perspective, directed at relative newcomers to either level 80 or the spec in general. It will provide basic idea of where to start, how to spec, how to gear, and what to do as a frost mage.

What it is not: A guide to in-depth theorycrafting, detailed hard-mode raid strategies, min-maxing, which weapon kills Sparkman fastest, how to pull off an ultimate combo, or burn an entire quarter on one play with Bo Jackson. We'll cover all of those topics on some other day. Well, maybe not all of them. But definitely the Bo Jackson run, because that was crazy.

1. What is frost?

Long considered the PvP tree for mages, frost has lately been making something of a comeback in the PvE aspect of the game. Though still lagging behind fire and arcane in terms of pure DPS, frost is becoming more and more formidable on both major sides of the game.

2. Frost Benefits

  • Ridiculous survivability (for a clothie)
  • High burst damage
  • Excellent raid utility
  • Mana and threat efficiency
  • A freaking water elemental for a pet
  • Excellent kiting abilities
3. Frost drawbacks
  • Low overall damage compared to fire and arcane
  • Damage drops severely if pet dies
  • Boring rotation
4. Stats to look for

As with every mage spec, you should never need to look for intellect or stamina, important though those stats may be, since they will be present in large quantities on just about every piece of gear you see.
  • Spellpower. No matter how much of it you get, spellpower will always, always increase your DPS, and by a larger amount, point-for-point, than any other stat except hit rating (until you reach the hit cap).
  • Haste. This increases the rate at which you cast spells. One point of haste rating is more than twice as valuable as one point of crit rating in the current end-game for frost mages.
  • Crit rating. Still valuable, but significantly less so than haste or spellpower. Each point gives you a slightly better chance of getting a critical strike when one of your spells land, but you'll get most of what you need here from talents. You shouldn't avoid crit, but if given a choice between a piece with haste and a piece with crit, most of the time the haste piece is going to be more valuable, all other stats being equal.
  • Hit rating. This increases the chance that your spells will hit what you're aiming them at, and it's the single most valuable stat to your DPS until it is capped. Your cap as a properly specced frost mage is 368. Any other point of hit rating beyond that number is wasted. In most raids, with the usual debuffs applied, your cap drops to 289.
5. Stats to avoid

These stats aren't terrible, they're just less valuable than those above. They still help, but not enough to go hunting for them.
  • Spirit. This increases your out-of-combat mana regeneration, your in-combat mana regen if you use Mage Armor, or your crit chance if you use Molten Armor. It isn't valuable much at all early on in the end-game content, but becomes significantly more useful once you get yourself 2 pieces of the tier 9 set. You'll get more than enough of it from what's already on your gear.
  • Mp5. Okay, I lied. Mp5 is a terrible, terrible stat. It's a healer stat. If you see gear with this stat on it, that item is healer gear. You don't want it. Don't enchant your gear with it. Don't put any gems in your gear slots that have Mp5 on them. If you see a mage running around with Mp5, punch that mage squarely in the face. Someday, he'll thank you for it. Trust me.
6. Typical PvE talent setup

This is a common cookie-cutter spec. It takes all of the core DPS talents in the frost tree, and also takes a quick dive into arcane for Torment the Weak.

Frost 20/0/51

A quick note: The word I used up there was "typical." Typical, as you may already know (but I've read enough of your comment over the years to know that sadly, not all of you do), does not mean "only," or "best." You have 71 talent points. You may find other ways to distribute them. You may even prefer some of these other setups. That's why we play the game. I present this spec only as an example of one relatively popular method of speccing your frost mage for PvE. Do with that information what you wish.

7. Talent overview

  • Improved Frostbolt: This is a no-brainer frost talent. It decreases the cast time of your main nuke, increasing your DPS by a great deal.
  • Ice Floes: These two talent points are mostly fillers, useful from a DPS perspective only because they lower the cooldown on Icy Veins. Still, it's always nice to have shorter downtime on Ice Block, too.
  • Ice Shards: A massive amount of your DPS as frost is dependent upon crit damage, and this doubles the amount each of your crits will do. Absolutely essential.
  • Precision: This is your hit increasing talent. I suppose it's possible to get enough hit rating from other sources to shave points off this or possibly skip it entirely, but it's very likely that doing so would gimp your stats from gearing in such a way as to be silly. For 3 points, the 3% hit rating you gain here is indispensable.
  • Piercing Ice: Gives you 6% extra damage for 3 talent points. Essential.
  • Icy Veins: A quintessential frost talent, Icy Veins is an on-use talent that will ramp up your DPS by eliminating spell pushback and drastically improving your casting speed for 20 seconds. This is what you click when something needs to die now.
  • Improved Blizzard: The point here provides a snare to your AoE, for trash control purposes. If you feel you don't need the snare, or have a better place to put this point, do it.
  • Arctic Reach: This increases the range of all of your main frost spells, allowing you to stand at max range with everybody else when max range casting is called for.
  • Frost Channeling: Essential for reducing mana cost and threat generation, which in turn increases your DPS sustainability.
  • Shatter: One of the great bookends of frost burst damage, this talent increases your chance to crit anything that's considered "frozen" by a whopping 50%. A no-brainer.
  • Cold Snap: Useful for a number of reasons, most notably for allowing you to throw down a second Icy Veins during the burndown phase in boss fights, or to get a second Ice Block in emergency situations.
  • Winter's Chill: One of frost's excellent raid buffs, Winter's Chill applies a stacking crit chance debuff (up to 5%) to anything you can consistently cast at, as well as a passive self-buff of 3% to your own Frostbolts.
  • Ice Barrier: You can skip this if you so choose, since it costs you a talent point and keeping it up will cause a DPS loss, but the survivability option it gives you is more than worthwhile. There will be some fights where the buffer between living and dying this provides will be absolutely vital.
  • Arctic Winds: For 5 talent points, you get a 5% damage increase. It's not as efficient, talent-point-wise, as Piercing Ice, but it's never smart to pass up a talent that increases your DPS by such a flat amount.
  • Empowered Frostbolt: This is another essential DPS talent, one that reduces the cast time and increases the damage of your primary nuke by a significant amount. The damage increase scales with your spellpower, which is always nice.
  • Fingers of Frost: Pair this with Shatter, and you've got a Shatter combo. This is your ticket to burst damage, and though it's dependent on the random number generator, is a consistent enough damage increase that you have to take it.
  • Brain Freeze: This is a nice DPS increase when you first hit level 80, but because the free, instant Fireball it provides you doesn't benefit from any of your scaling talents, it becomes a smaller and smaller increase as you get better gear. In fact, once you get to a certain level of gear (item level 245 and above), it actually becomes a very slight DPS decrease if you interrupt your normal rotation to cast that Fireball. Still, it's useful to have for situations where mobility is called for, and it will become far more useful when patch 3.3.3 hits and it applies to Frostfire Bolt as well. For now, if your gear is good enough, you can consider moving these talent points elsewhere, if you can find anywhere more useful to put them.
  • Summon Water Elemental: Not only is you big blue buddy big as well as blue, he also represents a large chunk of your DPS when he's up, which, god-willing, should be all of the time.
  • Enduring Winter: Pre-water-elemental-permanence, it was useful to take more than one talent point here, but now that you never have to wave goodbye to big blue, you can get away with just the one point, which should be more than enough to keep Replenishment up for the raid. Your raid will thank you.
  • Chilled to the Bone: Gives you a 5% damage buff for 5 talent points, as well as adding 10% more snare to all of your snares. Essential.
  • Deep Freeze: Once upon a time, this was useless in PvE. Now it's mandatory. It's like your own little instant Pyroblast every 30 seconds, only more powerful. Nothing feels better than the giant damage numbers this conjures. Nothing.
  • Arcane Subtlety: This is pretty much useless for frost mages, but everything on the first tier of the arcane tree is. You have to get to Torment the Weak somehow, so throw 5 points into the first tier somewhere. Anywhere, really. At the very least, I suppose this reduces the threat you'll generate if you use Counterspell to interrupt a mob's spellcast. It's not much, but we're really grasping at straws here.
  • Arcane Focus: See above. Gives you a better chance to land a Polymorph, and lowers the already insignificant mana cost, I guess. Not that you'll ever be casting Polymorph. Whatever.
  • Arcane Concentration: The extra mana this provides is sizable, but it's entirely defensible to take 2 points out of here and throw them into Magic Absorption for the extra spell resistance and mana return that talent provides. Just get 5 points into this tier somewhere and for the love of God don't put them into Arcane Fortitude.
  • Spell Impact: These are, for the most part, throwaway points to get to the Torment the Weak. Still, a damage increase to Ice Lance and Cone of Cold, spells you won't be using much, is better than nothing, which is what most of these early arcane talents will get you. Feel free to distribute the points elsewhere if you can find a reason to.
  • Student of the Mind: Increasing your spirit increases your crit chance, and thus, your DPS. Not by much, mind you, but it's probably worth the 3 points here, especially considering the other options at this point in the tree.
  • Focus Magic: This is a good buff for an arcane mage, and it's a good buff for a frost mage too. Put the buff on a fellow caster (preferably one who crits a lot), and you should have it up most of the time. Not to mention that you'll be making the other caster very happy.
  • Torment the Weak: The whole reason we came to this tree. Blizzard keeps threatening to nerf this talent, but for now it's about as essential as talents come. In a normal raiding environment, you can consider the 12% damage bonus to your primary nuke pretty much passive. 12% is a lot of percents. Like 12 of them.
8. Leveling as frost

Pound for pound, frost is probably the best leveling spec out there for mages. It brings so much to the table even early on in the leveling process: high damage, great control options, a pet, and the ability to (gasp!) survive a fight against more than one mob.

As with all specs, spend your first 51 talent points exclusively in the frost tree before you start looking elsewhere. You want several talents as early as possible, including Ice Shards, Icy Veins, Shatter, Ice Barrier, Fingers of Frost, and Summon Water Elemental, so make a beeline for them.

Certain talents that aren't of much use in endgame raiding are of great value while leveling, so snag them too. Look for talents like Frostbite, Improved Blizzard, and Cold as Ice.

One of the great advantages to leveling as frost is the option to AoE farm large groups of mobs with the combination of Frost Nova and Improved Blizzard. It's boring, and not nearly as preferable over questing as it once was, but can be a solid alternative for power-levelers.

Not too awfully long ago, Arcane Brilliance posted an entire series on mage leveling, so visit that if you want a more comprehensive guide.

9. Your basic frost rotation

Spam Frostbolt.

Really, that's about it.

Oh, and cast Deep Freeze every time it's up, assuming you're fighting a boss. Also, if you have taken Brain Freeze and aren't geared to the point where it has become a situational spell, cast Fireball when it procs. If you've out-geared Brain Freeze, just save the proc for times when you're forced to cast on the move. Sadly, no other frost spell does enough damage to warrant a spot in the rotation.

For AoE: Use Blizzard on AoE pulls. That's about it.

Someday, the class developers will hear my pleas and bring Ice Lance back into some semblance of viability as a DPS spell. Until that day, I will continue to send them care packages containing cookies of questionable origin and locks of my hair. Maybe I should stop sending those, actually. Nah.

10. Gems

Long version column on gemming that I posted in January here. Short version below:
  • Gem for spellpower first. The only gem that comes close to the +23 spellpower Runed Cardinal Ruby is the Reckless Ametrine, which grants 12 spellpower and 10 haste. The straight spellpwoer is almost always going to be better.
  • If you need hit rating, go with the Veiled Ametrine (12 spellpower, 10 hit rating) until you don't, then replace these gems as the hit on your gear improves.
  • Socket bonuses largely don't matter. Just plug spellpower gems into red and blue slots, and consider the Reckless orange gems in yellow slots if the bonus is worthwhile.
  • Don't gem for intellect, spirit, crit, or any other stat you might feel tempted to gem for. None of them are weighted high enough for frost to bother with.
  • Your meta should be the Chaotic Skyflare Diamond.
  • To meet the two blue gem requirement for that meta, just shove a couple of Purified Dreadstones into any blue slots your gear might have. Spirit isn't good, but it's the best of the blue gem choices.
11. Enchants for endgame

Again, I just covered this recently. The column lists the best enchants for every slot as well as lower-cost alternatives for those on a budget.

12. Glyphs
  • 1st major slot: Glyph of Frostbolt. This one is a bit of a sacrifice, in that you lose the snare effect of your Frostbolt. This means you'll need to open with a Frostfire Bolt when soloing, and you can't kite in raids. You will want to keep a few of these in your inventory in case your raid needs you to switch up for specific fights. Still, the damage increase is substantial enough that passing on this glyph simply isn't an option in most cases.
  • 2nd major slot: Glyph of Eternal Water. mandatory, as it makes your water elemental permanent, a very large DPS increase.
  • 3rd major slot: Glyph of Molten Armor. You don't need the mana from Mage Armor, so this is the way to go. It's a sizable DPS increase, and makes every point of spirit you have far more valuable.
So, frost mages, this is the part where I call upon your collective wisdom to fill in the gaps. What would you add to this basic compendium of frost magery?

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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