Arcane Brilliance: Beginner's guide to being a mage

Christian Belt
C. Belt|07.09.11

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Arcane Brilliance: Beginner's guide to being a mage
Every week, WoW Insider brings you Arcane Brilliance for arcane, fire and frost mages. This week, we're taking a trip through the first 20 levels of the game, which are now eternal. The important thing to remember about rolling a mage is that you've made the right choice; congratulations.

Between the newly adopted unending demo, the extended Recruit-a-Friend promotion, and the freshly bargain-priced WoW/The Burning Crusade bundle, it seems Blizzard is making a concerted effort to woo new players. And from my limited viewpoint, it seems to be working.

I have a brother, a year and some change younger than me, who doesn't live near me. This sucks, because he and I have absolutely everything in common. We grew up taking turns watching each other play Shining Force, or designing Dungeons & Dragons campaigns to force each other to play through, but then college, family, and career separated us. I'm here in Las Vegas playing copious amounts of video games and ignoring my kids, and he's at Purdue, working on his doctorate and just generally making me ashamed of the waste my life has become. Naturally, I've been trying for years to drag him down to my level. Thus far he's resisted, but when I notified him of these new opportunities to play the game on the cheap, he finally took the plunge.

And rolled a warrior.


Oh well. At least it wasn't a warlock, right?

Still, there's a lesson to be learned here. First, the lure of the eternal demo and the cheap game is strong. My sample size of one person has yielded incontrovertible evidence of this promotion's effectiveness, I think we can all agree. And secondly, we don't want this presumed influx of new blood to just be rolling whatever they want, willy-nilly, without regard for the non-magey, potentially warlockian nature of their choices. We must educate them.

So this column's for you, person who is just now taking up the habit. You know something about the game, but most of your information comes from that one episode of South Park and the Mr. T ads. Your workable knowledge is limited at best. You rolled what looked fun on the character select screen, and now you're off and running through the wilds of Azeroth, killing plainstriders and wondering why only some of them seem to have beaks once you kill them, even though it's fairly clear when they are pecking you to death that all of them do indeed have beaks -- razor-sharp, flesh-piercing beaks of fear.

The game seems fun, the quests are interesting, the rewards and levels come quickly enough to keep you motivated, the graphics are simplistic by today's standards but have a certain charm to them, and you think you might want to stick with the game. Only now that you've got your feet wet, you have the growing idea that you might want to start over. You know what you like about your first character and what you don't, and you think you're ready to hit the ground running with a new character, armed with the wisdom of experience. Now you're staring at that character creation screen wondering what to pick. Good news: Arcane Brilliance is here to help, with our handy, three-step character creation guide:
  1. Pick a race that can be a mage.
  2. Pick a mage.
  3. Click "create."
That's pretty much it for that guide. Now that you've made the correct choice, read on for Arcane Brilliance's other handy guide, this one with slightly more steps.

Beginner's guide to being a mage

Welcome to magehood! You have selected the game's best ranged damage-dealing class. By "best," I don't necessarily mean "able to deal the most damage." I mean "best."

Reasons mages are the best:
  1. Our pants are a secret. We wear them, but most of the time we're wearing a robe that completely conceals them. We could have anything on under there. Or nothing. Mysterious.
  2. We get around. Seriously, I cannot overstate the value of portals. We eventually get the ability to teleport to any major city in the game, which comes in really handy all of the damn time. With other classes, you will sometimes find yourself waiting for a blimp. Or riding a horse into the city every time you need to learn a new ability. Or standing in one city, begging a mage to come port you to another city. Being able to transport yourself around instantly is a massive timesaver, make no mistake.
  3. CAKE. We can wiggle our fingers and conjure delicious baked goods. We can also conjure type 2 diabetes. The two are completely unrelated.
  4. Pyroblast! Nothing -- nothing -- is as satisfying as hurling a fiery boulder at a warlock and watching that warlock explode into tiny, eyeliner-caked nuggets of failure.
There are, of course, many more reasons, but I have a guide to write and I keep eating up all the space available to me with odes to mage awesomeness. It's fun, but not especially useful. It's time to get down to business.

Choosing a race

The following races can be mages:
  • everybody but tauren
Yes, I used a bullet-point list for one item. I don't know what tauren did to deserve being left out of the mage party. They seem like such a nice, nature-loving race. My guess is an ancient, secret pact with Satan or Cthulhu or Deathwing or Megatron or something. It must have been something bad.

Whatever it was, I hope you didn't want to be a cow-person. Your remaining options are plentiful, though. So which race makes the best mage? The answer, actually, is "all of them."

Choosing a race is really an aesthetic choice. Which race do you like the looks of? Which starting area looks fun to you? Which race has a backstory and lore that intrigues you?

The actual impact of your choice on the potential of your mage is next to nothing. The only non-cosmetic differences between the races are the various racial abilities, which have little to no tangible effect on your potency at the end of the game.

So pick what you want, go forth, and have fun.

The first 10 levels

Your first few steps in the world as a mage can be frightening. You're wearing cloth armor (not so much "armor," per se, as "a shirt"), waving a stick, and a bear is charging at you. Mages are fragile, delicate creatures, and we don't like to be hit.

The good news, though, is that you excel at killing things before they can get close enough to hit you. Even early on, your abilities are all geared toward striking at range, doing copious amounts of damage quickly, and keeping the enemy at bay as long as possible.

Use Fireball for your main damage-dealing spell, Frostbolt as your opener to slow the enemy down, and Fire Blast as your last-ditch, close range instant attack.

Learn to flee courageously. This is an important skill to master for a mage. Early on, your best flight ability is Frost Nova. Use it whenever you're outmatched or to gain some distance to dispatch multiple enemies. Then run, turn around, and start Frostbolting and Fireballing. Or alternatively, just keep running. It's a perfectly acceptable tactic when you're wearing a dress and have no healing spells.

Like no other class in the game, mages really do trade raw power for painfully limited survivability. The proverbial glass cannon personified, mages must learn to cut their losses more quickly than any other class. It'll take a few violent, embarrassing deaths before you get a good feel for a fight you can manage and a fight that will eventually kill you, but you'll figure it out. A good rule of thumb?
  1. A single enemy at range? Good.
  2. A single enemy close up with full health? Doable.
  3. Two enemies at range? Doable.
  4. Two enemies close up with full health? Frost Nova might make this doable.
  5. Three or more enemies close up with full health and Frost Nova on cooldown? Painful death.
Things aren't as bad as they used to be. The game's better designed these days. Enemies are more spread out in the early going, less likely to smell clothie-blood and descend upon you like a plague. Still, it pays to learn how to not get frustrated by multiple corpse runs. Mages are better off now than they've perhaps ever been in the history of this game, but mages are still mages, yo.

Picking a specialty

Level 10 is decision time. This one, though completely reversible, is of much more vital importance than your choice of a race. You're essentially picking what kind of mage you'll be with a single click of the mouse. Each of the three talent trees is defined by a unique and radically different set of core abilities and playstyles. The shorthand version of each spec can be found below.

Arcane The core ability isn't available until level 20, but once you have it, this spec is marked by high single-target damage, steady, controlled burst damage, and mana management issues. Your core abilities are Arcane Blast, alternating with Arcane Missiles when necessary for mana conservation. Arcane Barrage is far more useful during leveling than it is at end game, becoming a spell you only use while moving.

Fire This is perhaps the most well-rounded of the mage specs. Damage is high but often too reliant on luck. No mage spec is better at dispatching groups of enemies, due to multiple options like Blast Wave, Flamestrike, Dragon's Breath, and eventually Living Bomb. Fireball and Pyroblast are big, flashy damage spells, serving as your main nuke spells. Movement damage is incredibly fun, due to the ability to spam Scorch on the move. Of all the specs, my personal opinion is that this one just feels the most ... magey.

Frost If you want to not die, frost is your spec. Survivability is high due to defensive/control spells like Ice Barrier, Frostbolt, Deep Freeze, and Frost Nova. Your damage comes in the form of Shatter combos, which come from stringing spells together that alternatively freeze the enemy then blow him up while he's frozen. Damage isn't as high as that of the other specs, but if you're looking into using your mage for player versus player combat, frost is absolutely the way to go. Plus, you get a big blue water elemental to follow you around and do your bidding.

Again, you can always reset your talents and pick a new spec, or simply pick a second spec and switch between the two. Still, this is an important decision. It'll affect your enjoyment throughout the early levels. Don't go with what you think is more effective. Go with what you think you'll like most.

Random tips
  • Pick up everything. Sell it. You need money early on to train new abilities. Even the copper you got for that handful of dead rabbit pubes adds up.
  • Train a profession or two early. Gathering professions are good for earning money, but crafting professions (like tailoring) are rewarding in their own way (mostly for letting you craft new gear for yourself). There's no good reason to wait.
  • Don't bother with buying gear upgrades. In fact, the only thing you should be using the auction house for is selling your excess crap to suckers who didn't get this advice. Gear upgrades come more than fast enough from questing, with zero cost to you. Money's too hard to come by early on for new players; don't waste yours on something you'll outgrow in 15 minutes.
  • Read the quest text. It's quality stuff and adds so much to the game in terms of flavor, depth, and actual plot beyond "kill 10 smurfs." The story of this game is told entirely through quests. I know the game gives you giant blinking neon arrows that tell you where to go, but I promise you that if you go through the entire game just skipping past what those quest givers say when you pick up or turn in a quest, you're missing out. This is still, first and foremost, an RPG. If you hate story and reading, go play something else.
  • Pay attention to your mana. This doesn't become much of an issue until you're in the midrange of leveling, but once you start running low on mana, you'll realize how important it is to conserve. Learn a good, mana-smart rotation to use in longer fights or when a string of short fights will prevent you from being able to sit and drink for any extended period of time. It'll serve you well when you start running dungeons. Which reminds me ...
  • Run dungeons early and often. The tangible incentive for running dungeons is obvious: sweet gear, fast experience points. But less tangible and more important in the long run are the benefits of learning your role in a group. Your job is to stand back and hurl damage at the group's main target (usually the thing the tank is attacking). Learn to do your job well, take advice from more experienced members of your group, try not to take unnecessary damage and tax your healer, use Polymorph to control a single enemy in each group if your group wants you to, use Remove Curse to help the healer out if you see somebody get cursed. Learn to be a good mage. Group combat is the heart of this game, and nothing will help you at endgame better than a firm grasp on the role of a mage in a party dynamic.
I've run well and truly out of room, but let me finish by saying this:

Welcome to magehood. Now go find a warlock, and don't come home without his head under your arm. No wait ... we don't want warlock heads in the house. Leave that thing outside.

Every week, Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Start off with our Cataclysm 101 guide for new mages, then find out which spec is best for raiding, get advice from the poor mage's guide to enchants, and learn how to keep yourself alive.

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