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Scattered Shots: What spec should I use?

Brian Wood

Welcome to Scattered Shots, written by Frostheim of Warcraft Hunters Union and the Hunting Party Podcast. Each week, Frostheim uses logic and science (mixed with a few mugs of Dwarven Stout) to look deep into the hunter class. Got hunter questions? Feel free to email Frostheim.

I get a lot of emails, and this is awesome. I love to hear from all you guys. While there are disappointingly few offers of sultry Blizzcon trysts or suggestive photos, there are lots and lots of hunter questions. Some of these I answer with lengthy explanations, some with only a few words and some with just a link to a guide that already answers the question. But I have a little tally running in my mind that pings with every type of question. Once enough emails come in on a topic, I figure it's time to write about it.

Today's topic is a perennial favorite that I really should have covered long, long ago: What spec should I use? This question is usually accompanied by a description of the hunter's gear, and often an explanation of where the hunter's DPS currently is and where he or she thinks it should be.

So join me after the cut as we tackle the question of what spec you should be, and what factors go into the decision. With any luck, putting this one to bed will make room in my inbox for more pressing emails so I can start scheduling my Blizzcon downtime.

Respeccing is not a miracle cure

Right off the bat, I want to stress that respeccing is not a cure for all your DPS woes (unless you're doing something silly with your talents, like a hybrid spec). Every single hunter spec is capable of putting out high DPS. They aren't equal -- far from it -- but if you're struggling to do over 2k DPS in heroics, your problem is not which tree you chose. Every tree can be played well and every tree can be played poorly.

I say this not to be mean, but because one of the frequent reasons I get in my emails for wanting to know what spec to play begins with "I'm only doing 4k DPS in ICC ..." Even BM, the lowest DPS spec by far, can put out over 7k or 8k DPS in decent gear. Switching specs can definitely boost your DPS -- sometimes by 20% or more -- but just keep in mind that the better you play, the more DPS any spec will give you. And a lower-DPS spec played well can outperform a higher DPS spec played with average skill.

Hunter spec rundown

Here is a brief synopsis of the hunter specs, with their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Beast mastery More hunters have a deep emotional attachment to BM than any other spec by far. BM just seems to call to that spark within us that motivates us to be hunters in the first place -- that giant red, pet-shaped spark. BM is the easiest hunter spec to play (though like all specs, it still takes skill to play well) with the simplest rotation. It's also the most forgiving of ... well, of total incompetence. Even if you're keyboard turning and trying to shoot your healer by mistake, your pet will still be doing 30% or more of your DPS. BM also brings some of the strongest survivability of any spec and the least threat problems. BM is incredible for soloing and BM can even tank any dungeon or heroic if needed. On the downside, BM is the lowest DPS spec, and it's on the bottom by a fairly large margin. See the BM 101 Guide.
  • Marksman After falling out of grace for an entire expansion, MM is back in force for the latter half of Wrath. MM is very likely the most difficult spec to play well. While the rotation is in the middle in complexity, MM really benefits from stacking cooldowns with trinket procs and successfully managing Readiness to get at least four Rapid Fires per boss fight. MM raiding is all about planning exactly when you'll use your cooldowns and where you'll need to be so that you don't have to move during your many Rapid Fires. MM also brings the most instant shots and the strongest AoE, as well as the best DPS at high gear levels. See the MM 101 Guide.
  • Survival SV rose to prominence after the great Wrath BM nerf and remains a popular spec for all playstyles. SV has the most complex rotation but is a bit easier to play well than MM. Where MM is all about planning, SV is all about reacting, with a rotation that constantly breaks its pattern. SV relies heavily on magic damage through Explosive Shot, and as such is very strong in fights with a lot of target switching to burn down adds, as their magic damage ignores armor and is less dependent on the presence of the right debuffs. See the SV 101 Guide.
The question of which of these specs is right for you depends entirely on what you're hoping to accomplish in the game. Let's take a look at your possible goals and see what's going to fit best for you.

I want to level my hunter

If you are not yet at level 80, your focus should be on leveling. You don't care a whole lot about DPS -- who cares if the silly mage out-DPSes you in Gnomeregan? Your focus is just on the XP, so you can hit 80 and make that mage start blubbering illogically that his lack of armor should translate into more raid DPS than you.

Every single hunter spec can be used for leveling, and the leveling process is easy with all of them. Only death knights enjoy an easier leveling process than hunters, and other classes envy our leveling experience. The original Blizzard design document sketching out the hunter class identity looked something like this:
  • best-looking class
  • has pets; pets are totally awesome and can eat warlock pets as an idle action
  • ranged DPS, but physical damage; only class that can auto-fire a ranged weapon
  • really good-looking
  • really easy to level -- I mean, really, really easy to level; every time a paladin completes a quest, the hunter gains an entire level, as a point of comparison
  • has some traps; make them suck
  • seriously -- ridiculously good-looking, like some kind of mythical siren -- only, you know, if instead of singing, the siren just looked so hot it didn't need to sing, it just had to shoot a smoldering look at sailors and they'd drown going for her (Or him. Are there boy sirens?)
  • you know what, make them even easier to level; they should get two levels for every quest a paladin completes, three for every quest a priest manages to complete
The point here is that you can level in any spec. However if you really want to optimize your leveling, I strongly recommend leveling in BM. First of all, Pathfinding is probably the best leveling talent there is -- anything to get you around faster is golden. BM also lets you solo just about anything, and in dungeons BM has the strong advantage of splitting your DPS between you and your pet, making it far less likely that you'll pull aggro.

I want to solo the unsoloable

BM remains strong for soloing and is the spec of choice for any kind of extreme soloing.

I want to kick ass in heroics

Every hunter spec can perform well in heroics and top the meters. BM again has the advantage that your DPS is more split between hunter and pet, making pulling aggro less likely. If you're one of those hunters who just can't seem to control your threat ... well, learn some self-control. But if that's too much work, BM can help you out by moving some of that threat over to your pet.

SV is probably the highest single-target DPS for most heroic-geared hunters. However, the highest overall DPS in heroics is usually going to come from the MM spec. MM has the strongest AoE, and their Volley isn't interrupted by taking stray damage. And of course, heroics these days are mostly giant AoE-fests.

I want to kick ass in raids

Once you reach the point where you want to perform as best as possible in raids, you are leaving the BM spec behind. BM is simply not competitive in raids right now.

The starting hunter is going to see the best DPS from the SV spec, and many hunters continue to keep their SV spec into very decent gear levels. Once you hit high gear levels, though, MM comes out clearly in the lead, and again by a sizable margin. You do not need to be armor pen-capped or any such nonsense for MM to overtake SV, but you will need a good ranged weapon (preferably ilvl 264) and good gear in general. Figure that if the average ilvl of your gear is around 245, you're pretty safe in going MM -- though the crossover point is very changeable, depending on your specific gear. I once made up a set of good pre-raid gear attainable only through heroics and emblems, and even at that gear level, MM clearly trumped SV.

If you're used to SV, the change to a MM mentality can take some adjustment but will reward you with the best possible DPS the hunter class can provide in a raid environment. Keep in mind though that on add fights like Saurfang and Putricide, SV's magical damage is likely to let it outperform MM until very high gear levels. On the vast majority of fights, however, MM will be on top in most raid-geared hunters.

I just want to pwn in PvP

Again, every single hunter spec can perform admirably in PvP. Unlike heroics, there is no spec that is a clear leader or even an unclear leader. The choice of spec is going to depend on your own strengths and weaknesses or on your arena team composition and strategy. You can get a brief rundown of the specs in PvP in the Hunter PvP Stats and Specs guide. But again, it's not going to tell you which is the right choice, because there really is not a right choice here.

I just want to have fun

Of course, not all hunters want to push the limits or be at the top of the meters, and that's fine too. But if your enjoyment doesn't come from optimization, then I can't tell you which spec to choose. Only you can decide what's the most fun for you!

You want to be a hunter, eh? You start with science, then you add some Dwarven Stout and round it off some elf-bashing. The end result is massive DPS. Scattered Shots is the column dedicated to helping you learn everything it takes to be a hunter. See the Scattered Shots Resource Guide for a full listing of vital and entertaining hunter guides, including how to improve your heroic DPS, understand the impact of skill versus gear, get started with Beast Mastery 101 and Marksman 101 and even solo bosses with some extreme soloing.

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