Theoretical spec balance
In theory -- in a perfect, mathematical, single-target world -- MM is currently the highest DPS spec, coming up maybe around 7% better than SV, which is the theoretical lowest single-target spec. Of course, this exact balance will change based on your gear and exactly which raid buffs you have access to (I'm assuming good, heroic-level raid gear and all raid buffs).
Even with that theoretical number alone, we are seeing the best hunter balance ever. Never before have we had the highest hunter spec within 10% of the lowest hunter spec.
But of course, in practice that difference is smaller, because when we actually fight a boss in game, it's not a perfect mathematical world. We have to switch targets, move out of void zones, AoE, clump up and spread out.
One of the great things about the current state of hunter balance is that different specs have different strengths, so if you really want to optimize your hunter for that absolute peak DPS (and really, who doesn't?), then the "right" answer is to switch to different specs for different bosses.
Let's take a look at a rundown of the strengths and weaknesses of the hunter specs.
Marksman: Single-target DPS
As we mentioned, MM is the highest single-target DPS spec in the game, and it scales very well with gear -- specifically, with ranged weapon damage. A big chunk of the MM DPS advantage comes from the ability to hardcast Aimed Shot (meaning using the 2.9-second cast version of the shot, rather than the instant proc) during Careful Aim range, when MM also has its first two Rapid Fires shortening that Aimed Shot cast.
In fact, during Careful Aim range, MM does nothing but Aimed Shot and Steady Shot, in an ideal world.
Of course, the downside of this is that we cannot move while casting Aimed Shot, and it's a pretty long cast. If you're halfway though an Aimed Shot cast and then have to scuttle out of a void zone or have to clump up or move for any other reason, canceling that cast is a very significant DPS loss.
This means that during very mobile fights, MM can't reliably hardcast Aimed Shot -- and if that's the case during that first 20% Careful Aim range (like Halfus with the fireballs drake), suddenly MM is no longer such a great choice. Don't get me wrong -- MM can still put out very respectable DPS without hardcasting aimed, but it's no longer the best single-target DPS spec.
On top of that, MM has the most fragile rotation. It can be very easy for the Improved Steady Shot buff to fall apart with one error, and then the rotation crumples for a while. If BM or SV hunters mistime a shot or have to delay a shot to Tranq, their rotation just shifts down one and the DPS loss is much smaller.
Additionally, while MM does okay at AoE (Wild Quiver can proc off every target affected by Multi-Shot after all), it isn't nearly as good as SV.
Thus, MM hunters excel at single-target fights in which they can stand still -- or at least in which they don't have to move much and the movement is predictable and can be anticipated.
Beast Mastery: Single-target DPS with mobility
BM is the other single-target spec, and it also does very respectable single-target DPS with the ability to time cooldowns well to get, ideally, a larger benefit than the averaging of spreadsheets would indicate.
The big advantage of BM single-target DPS is that it's highly mobile. Unlike MM hunters, BM hunters don't have to stand still to execute any part of their rotation. Additionally, BM hunters have the strongest Kill Command of any spec by leaps and bounds. While there isn't any fight currently for which that's a huge advantage, we could see a Sindragosa-like fight in the future in which the raid has to hide out of line of sight, but the BM hunter gets to keep executing his brutal Kill Command throughout.
On the downside, BM is really hurt in fights with an air phase like Atramedes, and is it hurt a bit by target switching fights like Omnotron. With a well-specced pet, BM hunters don't have to wait long for their pet to reach the new target, but even a 1-second delay in a signature shot hurts if it happens often enough.
Finally, BM is probably the worst AoE spec of the hunter class. Its AoE comes from a tenacity pet, meaning that to provide AoE, BM really sacrifices single-target DPS, even once the AoE phase is over.
Survival: AoE DPS
SV is without question the AoE spec of the hunter class, with a brutal combination of AoE talents that lets it rival the AoE of just about any other class. The recent change to Aspect of the Hawk makes SV AoE stronger than ever.
SV is the clear hunter spec of choice for AoE fights like Maloriak, and its AoE capabilities will probably make SV the most common off spec (for non-main SV hunters). You just always want that AoE spec in your pocket, after all.
Additionally, SV is a fairly forgiving spec that can maintain its DPS more easily even in the most complicated fights. It's not necessarily that SV is easier, but that firing one shot at the wrong time doesn't make the rotation crumple, as it does with MM. Because of this, many hunters can often perform better in SV when learning encounters than they can in the more complicated MM spec.
SV doesn't really have any clear weakness other than the fact that in non-AoE fights, you could do slightly more DPS by playing a different spec -- assuming you can play that other spec well.
Spec for the buff
One of the consequences of this beauteous state of hunter balance is that, assuming you are familiar with all three specs, it's almost always the right choice to choose the hunter spec that brings the buff that you raid needs.
If your raid is missing the 3% damage buff, then BM is the way to go, except for air phase fights. If your raid needs 10% AP, then go MM. If you need the 10% attack speed buff, go SV.
With the DPS of the different specs so close to each other, the benefit to your raid of bringing the needed buff is going to be much greater than any slight personal DPS decrease you'll see from choosing one spec over the other. And of course, the whole point here is to kill bosses -- and what helps the raid most is always, always more important than what helps just one person the most.
The future of hunter balance
It's worth pointing out that just because hunters currently exist in this magical state of balance -- Play the spec you want! Choose the spec for the buff! The best spec is different for every fight! -- doesn't mean that it will always be this way.
Different hunter specs scale differently, and changes that have been made since Cataclysm launched have altered the scaling of the specs. This means that in theory and if nothing changes, the specs will be skewing out of balance as new content is released and our gear gets better and better.
Of course, it's unlikely that hunters will just spin out of balance as gear is released. More likely, Blizzard will continue tweaking the class and our specs as new items become attainable. With any luck, we'll be able to hit this delicate chord of balance a second time.
Once again, it's a good time to be a hunter! Cataclysm has brought us to the top of the meters with the best spec balance in the history of the game.
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