Arcane Brilliance: The mage survival guide, part 1

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Arcane Brilliance for arcane, fire and frost mages. This week and next, we look at the time-honored tradition of mages dying whenever something looks at them funny and discuss a few ways to break that tradition. Way #1: Stand next to the warlock, pull aggro, cast Frost Nova, then Blink away.

I'm just kidding; that's a terrible idea. Funny, but terrible. Only do it once, purely for the humor value, then concentrate on downing the boss. Okay, maybe twice.

If you've run a heroic in Cataclysm, you may have noticed something: Nobody's healing you. In Wrath, when I'd take my holy pally out for a spin, everybody got heals. I was healing the tank, the off tank, the off-off tank, the DPS, the other healers, the hunter's pet, the death knight's ghoul, the guy standing in the fire ... they all got heals. Now? Not so much.

These days, healers spend 75% of their time healing the tank and the other 25% praying that their mana bars will go back up. That leaves exactly 0% of their time to spend on keeping your mage alive.

We're on our own, guys. When you see your health bar start to drop in a Cataclysm heroic or raid, just know that it won't be going back up any time soon. Our survival as DPSers is squarely our own responsibility. And what's the first rule of magehood? That's right: Dead mages do terrible DPS. We need to stay alive, our raid needs us to stay alive, and the only way that's going to happen is if we do it ourselves.

"But Christian," you might be saying, "I'm a mage! I wear a dress into combat! A particularly vigorous sneeze could kill me." Those things are all true. But you do have a few tricks up your sleeve that can help stave off death, if not forever, then at least long enough to pump out a few thousand more points of damage before you port up to that last great mage table in the sky.

Assessing the situation

For mages, death is always imminent. But exactly how imminent is it? Will the next round of AoE splash damage kill you? Have you drawn aggro but still have a couple seconds before the mob reaches you? Is it something you can kite? What aggro drops are off cooldown? Do you have time for them? Is crowd control an option? If you break for the tank, will he be able to re-grab aggro before you die? If you continue nuking, will the mob die before it gets to you?

It's always a bad moment when a mage realizes he's about to get smacked. There simply isn't a whole lot of room for error in mageville, and any threat is generally a serious one. We're always one big crit and inattentive tank away from death, and too often our response when a savage beatdown heads our way is to panic. We turn turtle, hitting Ice Block and hoping for the best, or we just keep nuking and accept our fate.

For a mage, each encounter is filled with potentially fatal scenarios. We must learn to quickly assess each of them as they arise and determine an appropriate response. I've broken these responses up into four categories:

  1. aggro drop

  2. damage mitigation

  3. movement

  4. crowd control

We'll go over the first two this week and tackle the other two next week.

Aggro drop

You're a DPS machine. The tank can't keep up with your threat generation. Maybe you're just a moron and were attacking the wrong mob. Whatever the case, you've got a giant monster made of fire and knives running toward you. Your job now is to get that nightmare creature to stop attacking you and go back to the tank, who is wearing actual armor and can take a punch.

Mages have several tools at their disposal to reduce, prevent, halt, or drop aggro altogether.

Invisibility This is an aggro fade, and eventually, an aggro wipe. Over the next 3 seconds, it lowers your threat until you actually become invisible, at which point your threat becomes zero. Arcane mages can remove the 3-second fade completely via Prismatic Cloak, making this an instant aggro reset.

With a 3-minute cooldown (which can be talented down to 2:15), you need to pick your spots with this one. I find it's almost better used as a preventive measure than as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Using Omen, I track my threat levels. When they get dangerously close to the tank's threat level on a mob that isn't about to die, I pop Invisibility just long enough to achieve that total reset, then come out of it and resume casting. That way, no scary monsters ever start my way in the first place.

Ice Block This doesn't actually reduce your threat at all. It does bring it to a standstill, however, giving the tank time to regrab aggro from you. This means a few things. First, when you Ice Block, the mob you had pulled will immediately begin attacking whoever was second on its list of things to kill. If that's the tank, then no problem. But if you were attacking the wrong mob, and the second name on its kill list isn't the tank but the healer, you've just dodged a bullet by hiding behind the guy keeping the tank alive. There are better ways to use this spell, which we'll go into later.

Stop casting This is a tried-and-true method of halting threat production. It has no cooldown, requires no mana, and doesn't even necessitate a button press. In fact, quite the opposite. If you've generated too much threat on a mob, sometimes the best thing to do is to just stop generating threat for a minute. That means no more Pyroblasts for you -- for a little while, anyway.

This is best used when all you did wrong was be a little too awesome for a little too long, and all the tank needs is for you to stop being so awesome for a second so he can catch up to your awesomeness. The preventive version of this strategy is just to throttle back your DPS a bit. Pay attention to how much threat the tank tends to generate, and adjust your DPS output accordingly. If you never pull aggro, you never have to drop aggro. Again: Dead mage DPS is just awful. Don't be a dead mage.

Mirror Image Not a threat drop, this spell does reduce your mage's threat significantly the instant you cast it. In addition, your mirror images inherit your threat list, meaning that until your own threat generation catches back up to them, the mob you aggroed will attack them instead of you. This spell is not good for helping the tank regain aggro, but can be useful as a last-ditch threat fade against mobs that are near death or as an initial threat buffer near the start of a fight.

Damage mitigation

Remember: You're wearing a fancy gown for armor. Though we do have some abilities that can mitigate incoming damage temporarily, you're never going to be able to absorb punishment like the guy wearing the spiked football pads of steel.

Ice Barrier Only available to frost mages, this is the best damage shield we've got - and boy, is it good. Is it a damage reduction to waste a global cooldown on casting this spell in the heat of battle? Yes. Is it a damage reduction to get killed by stray AoE splash damage? You betcha. One of those DPS losses you can live with, one of them ... not so much.

Does this defensive barrier need to be up constantly? No. With a 30-second cooldown between casts and a relatively high mana cost, keeping it up is likely not even a possibility. Pay attention to the parts of each fight when you are likely to take damage. Cast Ice Barrier in anticipation of those parts. Have it up at the start of each fight. Throw it up during movement phases. It's an excellent damage buffer, and your healer will appreciate you using it.

Mage Ward This works similarly, but only against fire, frost, or arcane damage. Use it as a preventive measure when you know you're likely to incur such damage or as a buffer to help you when you get caught standing in the fire. It has a 30-second cooldown, so judicious use is required. Arcane mages can actually use this as a DPS boost in conjunction with Incanter's Absorption. It's also very useful when paired strategically with another talent, which I'll go into below.

Mana Shield The worst of our damage-absorbing shields, this spell can at least be spammed. The problem with doing so is that in keeping yourself alive, you will also be draining your mana pool more quickly than is strictly advisable. I've long maintained that the ability to cast this spell on our enemies in PvP would make mages incredibly overpowered. This is useful only as a last-ditch method of staving off death in most cases.

Ice Block There are several ways to use this spell to shield yourself from incoming damage. You can throw it up as reactionary tactic when things go south, preserving your frail mage body for a few seconds and redirecting your problems elsewhere. You can use it preemptively, walling yourself off in advance of guaranteed incoming damage. I actually like this method a lot, using it just prior to things like Baron Ashbury's Asphyxiate to take the stress off the healer. I also really like using Ice Block as DoT remover. Whenever something particularly nasty gets applied to me, I just Ice Block it away and then resume the business of mass destruction.

Cauterize I love this talent. I love everything about it. Not so much a way to mitigate incoming damage as it is a way to cheat death, rogue-style. Cauterize allows us to survive any attack that would otherwise kill us outright. It can only occur once per minute, but that's actually pretty damn often in most fights. If you're having to cheat death more than once per minute, you may be doing it wrong -- and by "it," I mean the act of actually being a mage.

The downside to this talent, of course, is that it also applies a very powerful fire DoT to you that will kill you over the next 6 seconds without intervention. That's where Mage Ward comes in. I try to save my Mage Ward cooldowns specifically for times when Cauterize comes into play, giving me a small buffer during which the healer might be able to throw a bit of health my way. Ice Block, if you have the luxury, is another good tool here, if you notice the DoT quickly enough to Ice Block it away before it's done much damage to you.

Learn how to avoid damage I'll be repeating this theme again next week, I'm sure. Learn the fights you're going to be taking part in. Read up on them beforehand, and learn from your mistakes and the mistakes of others during the actual fights themselves. Learn the safe places to stand, the times when you need to move, and the best points at which to mitigate incoming damage. Do your homework. It'll save your life more effectively than any spell in your book.

I've gone and run out of room this week, but I feel like the conversation on this topic is far from finished. Surely you, my fellow mages, with your vast reservoir of experience and wisdom in the area of getting killed, can provide us with some tips, tricks, humorous anecdotes, or cautionary tales in the comments section below. Share your pain, friends, that we all may learn, and then come back next week so we can put this particularly morbid topic to bed.

Read the Mage survival guide, part 2.

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'.