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Scattered Shots: Leveling a Cataclysm hunter, part 1

Brian Wood

Every Monday and Thursday, WoW Insider brings you Scattered Shots for beast mastery, marksmanship and survival hunters. Each week, Frostheim of Warcraft Hunters Union uses logic and science (mixed with a few mugs of dwarven stout) to look deep into the hunter class. Mail your hunter questions to Frostheim.

It's common knowledge that hunters are not just the best-looking players in WoW, but they are also the best class in the game. In the words of Ghostcrawler (lead systems designer), "Hunters are just awesome." Thus, it comes as no surprise that Cataclysm is bringing with it a host of new hunters, taking advantage of the new class combos (everyone but gnomes can be hunters now) to start a brand, spanking new hunter from level 1.

We've already covered leveling your hunter from 80 to 85 for those of you already at the level cap, so today we're going to talk about that haul from level 1 on up. Ah, the joys of the fresh young hunter -- I remember them well! Taming your very first pet that will stay with you for the rest of your days. The moment you first truly understand that nothing in the game should ever hit you. The funny falls and failures of first learning to kite. I am almost envious of all you new hunters out there, getting to explore the greatest class for the first time.

Join me after the cut for the rundown of what you need to know to grow into the good-looking, radiant beacon of death that you deserve to be.

Levels 1 to 10

Before we get into talent specs, we need to talk for a moment of what those first 10 levels are going to be like. You start off the game with a pet type based on your race. For these early levels, your pet is not yet a real pet; it is instead a guardian. You will have no control over your pet at all -- it's going to decide what to do on its own.

Your pet will defend you by attacking anything that damages you. It will also attack anything that you attack. In general, it's going to go after the first mob to attack or that you attack and won't switch until that mob is dead, so be careful about big pulls.

If you pet does die, you have a spell in your spellbook to resurrect it; however, this shouldn't be much of a danger.

At level 3, you get Steady Shot. This is going to be your standby filler shot until you're all grown up. Any time you don't have enough focus to fire off your other shots, Steady Shot is there and ready to contribute damage.

Below level 10, your pet isn't a very reliable tank, since it won't actually start building threat on your target until you start attacking. One solution is just to burn your targets down fast -- start out by casting Steady Shot, then immediately follow up with an Arcane Shot or two. Your Steady Shot and Arcane Shot will hit at almost the same time, along with an auto-shot followed shortly afterward by your pet. You will have unshakable aggro, but most mobs will be dead before they reach you.

Beast mastery: The leveling spec

I strongly recommend BM for leveling. It is the perfect spec for soloing and questing. You get movement boosts to get you around the game faster, and you have a pet that will hold aggro better than in any other spec. While leveling pet aggro can be an issue, and with BM, you'll be using Kill Command as your signature shot. Even though you're paying the focus cost for this ability, the attack actually comes from your pet, meaning all the threat it generates is directed to your pet as well. Particularly with recent nerfs to low-level damage, BM is the way to go.

Without question, hunters are an easy class to level, and you can absolutely level in any spec at all. However, leveling as BM will truly optimize your leveling experience and make leveling a joy. Give it a try; I don't think you'll regret it.

If you plan to level doing nothing but 5-mans via the dungeon finder, survival will probably give you the best DPS. On the other hand, that DPS might be too much for the rest of your team, and half the time, you'll want your BM pet to pick up tanking duties when your tank fails to hold more than one add.

We'll get into details of talents and glyphs and specifics later. For now, let's talk about the more basic concepts of playing the hunter class.

Love your pet (but don't love your pet)

Hunters are the pet class. Our pets are our stalwart defenders, our boon companions, willing to put their lives on the line to defend us. Alone, we are a simple DPSer, but with our pet by our side we are tank, DPS, and healer all in one. Other classes have looked on in jealous awe of the bond between hunter and pet and have tried to get pets of their own, but they are but poor shadows of the unstoppable duo of death that we can become.

Remember to treat your pet right. Carry around plenty of pet food to feed your pet to keep him or her happy. When your pet is happy, it does more damage! If it gets too unhappy it will actually do less damage.

Your pet will have a handful of abilities, and when it gets high enough level it will also get a new special ability specific to that pet family. In general, you just want to leave all your pet's abilities on auto-cast (right-click on them to turn auto-cast on -- you'll know it's on when there's a shimmering glow around the ability).

Your pet has three behaviors that affect when and if it decides to attack:
  • Passive Your pet will not attack anything under any circumstances. If you click on passive while your pet is attacking, it will stop attacking until it gets new orders from you.
  • Defensive Your pet will attack anything that you're attacking and will attack anything that damages you or the pet.
  • Aggressive Your pet will attack anything that gets near it. Just like a mob, it now has an aggro radius. Note, however, that you will not get XP or rep for anything your pet kills entirely on its own, nor will you be able to loot those mobs.
You will almost always want to leave your pet on defensive. When you want to send your pet in to attack, you can either click the pet's attack button on your pet bar or press Control + 1.

How hunters fight

Your pet is your tank. Get used to that concept. When you're fighting, let your pet attack the target first! You will always want to lead off with Kill Command, which along with your pet's auto-cast Growl will help your pet establish firm aggro right off the bat. Thereafter, you assume your DPS and healing roles. Keep Mend Pet up while your fighting (it doesn't cost you anything), and take down your target with a mixture of Arcane Shot and Steady Shot.

Quest mobs rarely stay alive long enough for Serpent Sting to be worth your while; likewise, you don't want to blow the large focus cost of Kill Command on something that's almost dead -- save that focus for the next mob in line. If you're fighting an elite or a mob many levels higher than you, then Serpent Sting and reusing Kill Command are well worth your while.

Pet threat

Your pet gets threat in three ways: by using Growl, which generates a set amount of threat; by the Kill Command ability that you use; and by the normal damage that the pet causes. Remember that your pet's Growl ability just generates a set amount of threat; do not confuse it with the druid's Growl ability (which everyone else will), which is a taunt. Your pet's Growl is not a taunt.

One of the keys to making sure your pet generates as much threat is possible is for you to be hit-capped. Yes, even while leveling, this is important.

Your pet inherits your hit rating, but more than that, your pet gains expertise with your hit rating as well. If you're at the hit cap for the mobs you're fighting, then your pet will not miss and will not be dodged or parried. That dodge and parry is a big deal! That can increase your pet's damage while tanking by 20 percent -- which increases its threat generation from melee attacks by 20 percent.

When fighting mobs of significantly higher level than you (which as a hunter you can do just fine), threat becomes a big issue. Not only is your pet suddenly doing less damage (and thus causing less threat), but its Growl can also be resisted. The safe bet when fighting mobs several levels higher than you is to wait until Growl has cast twice before DPSing -- though of course you can use Kill Command at any time.

How real hunters fight

It won't be long before you get used to killing mobs with your pet tanking, and you'll start to get antsy for things to move faster. The yearning for challenge lurks in the hearts of all hunters, along with an endless wellspring of kindness and death. Fortunately, we have to tools to satisfy these urges.

The hunter toolbox is littered with ways to handle multiple mobs at once. We have our traps for CC or slowing and the beautifully redesigned Concussive Shot that is free and has a cooldown nearly equal to the duration. When things go wrong, we have Disengage and Scatter Shot.

Start pushing yourself when you have to kill a lot of mobs. Send your pet after one mob while you get to work killing another mob (just don't forget to toss a shot to your pet's mob at some point so you get credit for the kill). Start practicing the ancient hunter art of kiting: Shoot a mob without your pet helping and then run away from it. Keep Concussive Shot up so that it will never catch you, and keep running away from it, turning to shoot it when you can until it dies. Maybe you'll accidentally run into more mobs while kiting -- no problem! Just Scatter Shot and drop a trap to keep it there until you have time to get around to killing it.

Now try the classic jump-shot technique. Run away from your mob by holding down both mouse buttons. Then jump, turn around 180 degrees in mid-air and fire an instant shot (Concussive Shot, Arcane Shot, Serpent Sting), then turn back around facing forward before you land. This way, you're able to DPS without slowing your forward momentum at all.

Similar to the jump-shot (though slightly less efficient), strafing while ever so slightly facing your opponent and firing on the move that way is another option. Kiting can let you kill targets that are way above your level and is a skill that every hunter should possess. Practice it here and there while leveling.

Also experiment with taking on huge groups of mobs at a time. Send your pet to collect a bunch of whatever you're killing, and get used to keeping Mend Pet up while tabbing your pet from target to target to maintain threat (remember that the healing from Mend Pet is causing threat to you). Take your pet's Cower off of auto-cast and manually use it to reduce spike damage to your pet at crucial times.

Eventually, these hunter movement and crowd control skills will become second nature, and you won't even have to think about them. Learn them now, while leveling, and burn them into muscle memory. The last thing you want is to make it to the level cap without learning these powerful hunter arts, and then have to try to learn on the fly in a raid. Another advantage to these skills is you'll be able to recover from disastrous situations while leveling that would kill any lesser class.

The details

We've now covered the important basics of the hunter class. The details of each ability as it comes up are fairly intuitive, and just reading the tooltips will explain them. The important thing is to understand the underlying concepts of the hunter class: the concept that your pet is your tank, how pet threat works, and hunter movement skills.

Now with those basics out of the way, let's look into the specifics of talent specs, best pets, pet specs, and glyphs.

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