Arcane Brilliance: Guide to leveling a mage in Cataclysm

Christian Belt
C. Belt|12.18.11

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Arcane Brilliance: Guide to leveling a mage in Cataclysm
Mage character creation screen
Every week, WoW Insider brings you Arcane Brilliance for arcane, fire and frost mages. this week, we seek to aid those of you who have made or will make the noble decision to level a mage in the coming months.

In the past, we've done our leveling guides here at WoW Insider as sprawling, multi-post epics, spanning 10 or 20 levels a week over the course of a month, covering every aspect of every facet of everything you could ever want to know about leveling each class in the game. The problem with that approach is that you could probably just go in blind and level your mage from 1 to 85 faster than I could tell you how to do it. The simple fact of the matter is that the leveling game just isn't terribly difficult. The process has been streamlined over the years to the point that I don't believe such detailed leveling guides are really necessary anymore. Most of this game is intuitive and user friendly now, and the part of the game that really requires in-depth strategy doesn't really start until after the experience-gaining part of it has stopped.

Knowing this, I won't be filling this guide with talent analysis, ways to optimize your level 45 boss fight rotation, or a detailed travelogue of every quest hub you'll be traipsing through along the way. This will be a more stripped-down endeavor, focusing on the parts of leveling that I think are important -- not the spell coefficients and spreadsheets, but the basic concepts your mage needs to learn while leveling, not only to make the process easier and more enjoyable, but also to help them step from mage adolescence into mage adulthood so they can shoot Deathwing in the face with a Fireball of wisdom and maturity.

Leveling as arcane

I'm listing a basic leveling spec for each spec, but it's important that you understand that all of these specs are entirely adaptable to your own preferences and playstyle. I've tried to incorporate talents I feel are particularly suited to solo play and leveling, including several that aren't ideal at endgame. Consider most of the points in these builds to be floating and the talents selected to be suggestions. Pick what you like while leveling, and don't stress out about which point should go where too awfully much. You'll be switching specs and redoing your build at level 85 anyway. Get there first, and worry about the details later.

Suggested leveling spec 33/5/3

Playing an arcane mage early on is all about Arcane Barrage. It's instant and powerful, and you only have to wait three seconds to use it again. Cast it as often as it's available. Once you hit level 20 and Arcane Blast enters your spellbook, you have your basic rotation set for the next 60 levels. You'll be opening every ranged fight (and as a mage, you should be opening every fight at range) with Arcane Blast, followed by as many Arcane Blasts as you can fit in before the mob is on you. To conserve mana, you can feel free to weave in Arcane Missiles procs and Arcane Barrages. The basic tenets of the arcane mage are these:
  • Arcane Blast is always going to be your highest damage spell and spamming it, your highest damage rotation. The problem is that it burns mana too quickly and burns more each time you cast it in sequence. The mana cost and damage stacks with each cast, so you will need to weave in other spells to reset the stack and keep your mana from vanishing.
  • Arcane Barrage is the spell you cast on the move, and at close range, and to reset the Arcane Blast stack.
  • Arcane Missiles is the spell you use to reset the stack when you can stand still. Its mana cost is free, but it doesn't do a whole lot of damage.
  • Arcane Explosion is your multi-target spell, but you have to be at close range for it to hit. It's far more powerful with an Arcane Blast stack active, so typically, your AOE rotation is to get in close, cast as many Arcane Blasts as you feel appropriate, then spam Arcane Explosion until the stack expires, then repeat.
Leveling as fire

Suggested leveling spec 3/35/3

Fire mages are your #1 choice for hosting a warlock barbeque. Fireball's the cornerstone upon which your rotation is built, and everything else procs from it. You piece together that rotation gradually as you level, from Fire Blast at level 5, to Pyroblast at 10, to Hot Streak at 29 (at the earliest), to Living Bomb at 69. Fire's also the best mage spec for multiple-target situations.
  • Fireball is you main nuke and should be cast whenever standing still and Hot Streak isn't up.
  • Pyroblast is a spell you can open with when you have time to do so, but due to its long cast time, it should only be cast during an onging fight when Hot Streak procs. But man, does it pack a punch.
  • Scorch is your movement spell -- at least, it is once you can take Firestarter at level 39. Add in Improved Scorch (totally optional) and you have a movement spell that's also completely mana-free and spammable. Very handy when leveling.
  • Fire Blast is also great for movement, but its cooldown limits it. Use it at close range and whenever you need an instant-cast. At level 21 you gain access to Impact, which makes Fire Blast useful for spreading your DoT effects (like Ignite) to additional targets.
  • For AoE, you have Flamestrike, Blast Wave, and later, Dragon's Breath and Living Bomb. They vary in range, radius, cast time, and cooldown, so experiment a bit to find the best uses for each. Just know that when confronted with multiple enemies, you have numerous options at your disposal.
  • Living Bomb, once gained at level 69 at the earliest, is a godsend. Put it on everything you'll be fighting for any longer than a few seconds. Then spread it to other targets with Fire Blast. Then put it on anything that's not yet on fire. Because fire!
  • Combustion becomes available as early as level 39, and learning to use it effectively is one of the keys to skilled fire mage play at the endgame. Addons like CombustionHelper are useful, but the main idea is to wait for the perfect moment to use it (though waiting too long can is counterproductive). Ideally, you want all of your strongest DoT effects up on your target at once -- that means Pyroblast, Living Bomb, and a strong Ignite. Practice every time you run a dungeon, getting used to watching for the right procs and effects to be up at once, then clicking Combustion and ending your target's miserable existence, one tick at a time.
Leveling as frost

Suggested leveling spec 2/3/36

Frost is probably the easiest spec to level with. Frost's numerous control and defense options make surviving even the most troublesome quests a cinch, and if PvP is part of your leveling strategy, you can't do better than the skillset of a frost mage.

Frost's spell rotation is priority-based, which essentially means that you cast spells based on how important a spell is and what spells are off cooldown. If spell A is up, you should always cast it before anything else, and the same goes for B unless A is up, and so on. The list at endgame goes like this:
  1. Frostfire Orb, if off cooldown
  2. Deep Freeze, if off cooldown and Fingers of Frost is up
  3. Frostfire Bolt, if both Brain Freeze and Fingers of Frost are up
  4. Ice Lance, if Finger of Frost is up
  5. Freeze, if off cooldown, Deep Freeze is off cooldown, and Finger of Frost is not up
  6. Frostbolt
Now, that doesn't mean you'll be using Frostbolt less often than anything else. Frostbolt is the hamster that gets the whole wheel turning for you.
  • Frostbolt is your major nuke. You'll be casting it until something else comes off cooldown or procs, and then you'll go right back to casting it once the procs and colldowns go away. The idea is to have Fingers of Frost proccing as often as possible, and for that, you need Frostbolt.
  • Ice Lance is your secondary spell when nothing else is up but Fingers of Frost has procced.
  • Brain Freeze is always fun, giving you a free Frostfire Bolt to fling out instantly. You'll want to use it pretty much immediately every time it procs.
  • Deep Freeze is your highest damage spell, but it only works on stun-immune targets, which basically means bosses. It's purely a stun on most enemies while leveling.
  • Blizzard, and by extension Ice Shards, allows you to round up and slaughter even large crowds of enemies. This used to be a leveling strategy all its own: AoE farming. Questing and dungeon running are more effective uses of your time in this day and age, but if you find a likely clump of bad guys to decimate, it's never a bad idea to gather them up and lead them through a storm of razor sharp shards of ice.
Tips for leveling your mage
  1. Frost Nova + Blink + tactically retreating/running like hell = a mage who might live to sheep another day.
  2. Polymorph is your friend. Don't overlook it. You'll actually get more use out of it while leveling solo than you will as crowd control in dungeon groups, since dungeon groups are typically in such a rush that sheeping only slows things down. Use it whenever you need to pull in more enemies than you're entirely comfortable fighting at once, and you'll find things much easier. Remember: Your enemies have pointy implements and you are wearing a dress.
  3. Learn the following skill as you run through the leveling dungeons: Don't attack anything the tank doesn't have the full attention of. It's a good idea to set the tank as your focus target and turn on "target of target" in the interface options. Then make sure any time you're in doubt that you're attacking the tank's target.
  4. If you do happen to anger something you shouldn't have, know your defensive options. You can use Invisibility to shed threat or Ice Block to make yourself immune to damage. You can use snares like Frostbolt or Slow to kite your target around until the tank can regain aggro on it, or use your ward or shield spells to mitigate some of the incoming damage if the mob is close to death. Polymorph can be a lifesaver if you aren't already sheeping something and your target doesn't already have DoT effects on it that will break your sheep.
  5. Learn to kite, by which I mean apply a slowing effect, then lead your enemy on a merry chase, doing damage until it is dead. It's a necessary skill, and one a lot of max-level characters never bothered to learn until they needed it in some raid boss fight or other. As a mage, your job is never to get hit if you can help it. Practice keeping enemies at bay, keeping their stabby things away from your soft nerdflesh.
The most important takeaway from all of this is that you should totally level a mage. Already done it? Well now's a great time to roll another one. I guarantee you, you'll have a much different experience this time around. I can't imagine another game with a more polished leveling process than WoW's. Plus, we absolutely need more dead warlocks, and scientists have proven that the number of dead warlocks can be directly correlated to the number of living mages. Do your part, people.

Every week, Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Start out with our recent beginner's guide to being a mage, then check out our three-part State of the Mage columns on arcane, fire and frost. Don't forget to look at some of the addons your mage should probably be using.

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