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Scattered Shots: Survival hunter 101

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.

Survival saw its first brief moment of raiding glory early in Wrath, just after the great BM nerf dethroned BM from the top position it had held for over two years. Now again at the start of Cataclysm, SV is the frontrunner of hunter raid DPS, in the lead by quite a large margin at the moment.

In addition to the highest DPS, survival also provides the best mobile DPS and the best CC. SV has long ago left behind its roots as a spec built around survivability and instead is the magical damage hunter spec, with only auto-shot, Kill Shot, and the pet contributing any physical damage at all. The SV rotation is very reactionary, rather than planned, but many players love the spec because of that reactionary feel.

Join me after the cut as we dig down into the details of the SV spec in Cataclysm, from talents to glyphs to rotations to stat weights.

SV talent spec

The survival raid spec heads down the MM tree to pick up the powerful Sic 'Em and Careful Aim talents, with a point left over to toss into the BM tree. As always, we're focusing on maximizing our boss damage with our specs. Trash will die either way; it's on the bosses that eking out every ounce of DPS can mean the difference between success and failure. Thus, we aren't maximizing this spec for AoE and only have one point in Serpent Spread. If you really want both ranks there, take the extra point away from Bestial Discipline.

Interestingly, I get a lot of questions about why talents points should go into Bestial Discipline or Sic 'Em. "After all," the logic usually goes, "we aren't BM; why do we want point there?" We may not be BM hunters, but we're still hunters. We still care about our pets, and our pets are still providing thousands of DPS -- even in SV. There's a disturbing tendency among non-BM hunters to completely dismiss our pet's contribution, which is very significant.

We're putting our talents where they will give us the most DPS on boss fights. It's true that Bestial Discipline, for example, may not add a whole lot of DPS, but it's certainly more than the lackluster One with Nature.

SV glyphs

As always, our prime glyphs are our DPS options. We have a lot of nice utility and quality of life options in the major and minor glyph categories, but nothing that's a straight DPS boost. As a result, your major and minor glyph options are a matter of choice, based on your playstyle.

Prime glyphs

SV is the one spec that is probably going to want to give the incredibly powerful Glyph of Arcane Shot a pass. As SV, we fire our Arcane Shot very seldom, maybe once every several rotations at best. The end result is we just don't use the ability often enough to get a lot of use out of the glyph in a raid environment. On the other hand, SV rocks out the Glyph of Serpent Sting, thanks in large part to the Toxicology talent.

Major and minor glyphs

Choose whichever major and minor glyphs suit your playstyle the best. These are primarily utility-based glyphs, not DPS-increasing ones, and what glyph is best depends on how you play.

SV rotation

SV's rotation is very reactionary, which can make it feel a bit clunky at times, but it has the advantage of being fairly automatic without a lot of head-scratching mid-rotation. The only real struggle in the SV rotation is balancing Black Arrow, which can be tricky to get in without pushing Explosive Shot back, particularly if you're wasting focus on Arcane Shot when you really shouldn't be (a common mistake).

You will always want to start by putting up Hunter's Mark and be in Aspect of the Hawk, then get Serpent Sting up on your target at the beginning of the fight. Thereafter, your standard priority looks like this:
Explosive Shot is your bread and butter, a massive amount of damage on a very short cooldown. It is the SV signature shot, and you want to be sure to save your focus so that you can fire it on cooldown. On nearly the same priority as Explosive Shot is Black Arrow; Black Arrow's DoT deals a significant amount of damage, in addition to proccing Lock & Load. You really want to be sure to have enough focus to afford both Black Arrow and Explosive Shot on cooldown. The way that you'll (usually) be able to do this is by being very conservative with your Arcane Shot. Only fire Arcane Shot if you'll cap focus without firing it. So if you're at 80 focus, you do not fire Arcane Shot -- you only fire it if you're about to cap and start losing focus.

Lock & Load

Cataclysm has brought SV some fantastic improvements to Lock & Load. Now when L&L procs, it instantly resets the cooldown of Explosive Shot, enabling us to fire it right away. Note that Arcane Shot is also on the L&L proc, so you do not want to fire any Arcane Shots during L&L procs, since it's far less damage than Explosive Shot. Your L&L rotation looks like this:
  • Explosive Shot
  • Cobra Shot (or Kill Command)
  • Explosive Shot
  • Cobra Shot
  • Explosive Shot
With our new 1-second global cooldown, we want to weave another shot in between our Explosive Shots for Lock & Load. However, it is possible for L&L to proc when you're at nearly full focus. If your focus is capped after your first Explosive Shot, then you want to bleed some of it off by hitting Kill Command between the first and second Explosive Shot. You'll only want to do this after the first Explosive Shot (and even then you usually won't). If you're capped after the second Explosive Shot, you're better off staying capped rather than wasting the focus on Kill Command. (Alternatively, you can fire an Arcane Shot after the second Explosive Shot, but only if you know you aren't going to need that focus soon for Black Arrow.)

The first 20%

Much like marksman, SV benefits from Careful Aim, and this changes the rotation for the first 20% of the boss fight. During that first 20% of boss health, SV's Cobra Shot will actually average more damage than Arcane Shot. This means you will not want to use Arcane Shot for that first 20%, even if it means capping out on focus.

However, since you have to start the fight with Explosive Shot, Serpent Sting, and Black Arrow, you're usually spending most of that first 20% without enough focus for as many Arcane Shots anyway.

Rotation rumors

This is also a good point to address various SV rotation rumors that are floating around here and there.

It is a very bad idea for SV to take Improved Steady Shot and try to weave Steady Shot into the rotation to get the haste buff. Steady Shot does significantly less damage than Cobra Shot (it is reduced by armor, which is huge) and is not affected by SV's mastery. It works out for MM hunters because they have Piercing Shots and Master Marksman that combo with Steady Shot.

You want to use Black Arrow, and not Explosive Trap. At one point during the beta, it was better to use Explosive Trap because it gave you more ticks to proc Lock & Load; however, Black Arrow's damage was buffed significantly since then -- yet somehow the logic of that moment during the beta still lingers.

It's generally a bad idea to trap launch an Ice Trap to force Lock & Load procs. It costs you a little bit of focus and a big bit of time. With launched traps requiring two button presses and targeting plus triggering the GCD and no guarantee of the proc (I know it should proc now, but it does not always proc on immune targets), you're losing more DPS than you're gaining.

You want to use Explosive Shot. I know that Cobra Shot does crazy-good damage for SV, but even during the first 20% when you have Careful Aim active, Explosive Shot is still better. In fact, even if every Cobra Shot crit and zero Explosive Shots crit, Explosive Shot would still be more damage. Keep in mind that Explosive Shot is ticking three times every time you fire it -- so you don't see that one giant number, but those three ticks are huge when added together.

SV stat weights

Your stat weights will change not just with your spec, but also with every single change you make to your gear. Literally upgrading one piece of gear will change the exact value of the weights. I'm going to provide some general qualitative SV stat weights as a guideline to at least identify which stat is better, but the only way to get accurate weights for you is to use a tool like Zeherah's DPS Analyzer.

SV stat weights, from highest to lowest:
  • ranged DPS
  • agility
  • hit rating
  • crit rating
  • haste rating
  • mastery rating
It's important to note that just because mastery is last doesn't make it a bad stat -- it's just not as good as the others. It's also worth noting that while the amount of damage you gain from 1% crit stays the same from 0-1% and 99-100%, the percentage of DPS you gain goes down. Mastery, however, is always a percentage. Thus it's possible that our weights could change positions as we get into the second tier of raid gear.

Scattered Shots is dedicated to helping you learn everything it takes to be a hunter in Cataclysm. From leveling your hunter to optimizing for heroics to gearing up with pre-heroic loot and pre-raid loot, we've got you covered.

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