Where fire ranks
At the start of this expansion, fire was the absolute best mage spec for PVE, hands down. Arcane and frost weren't even close. The disparity was downright striking. Fire was the generally accepted raiding spec, frost took its customary place at the head of the PVP table, and arcane just stood in the shadows, lurking, waiting for its chance to shine. Gradually, the gap between fire and arcane shrank. Patch after patch, hotfix after hotfix, arcane made up ground.
Then patch 4.2 hit. Overnight, arcane was king. Suddenly every mage was switching specs, then hightailing it to the forums to complain about how much they didn't want to be arcane. Arcane was putting out better numbers than fire, so all at once everybody's main spec had to be arcane, coupled with a secondary fire spec for the Alysrazor encounter.
But here's the thing: The difference really isn't that big. Yes, arcane now has the most single-target potential in the majority of fights. But it isn't as if fire has suddenly become terrible. It's still more than capable of putting out high-caliber numbers in the right hands. Frankly, I'd like to see more of those who bitch about being forced to be arcane mages go back to being fire mages. The difference is small enough that if you're really good at fire, you should just stay fire.
I'll get a lot of arguments for saying that I accept that and welcome it. And at some point when I'm not trying to write specifically about fire mages, I'll go into this subject in more detail, but for now, let me say this: I'm sick of perception dictating reality.
The going wisdom is that arcane has the most damage potential. Everybody switches to arcane. Fire's not behind by anywhere near enough to warrant such a mass exodus, but never mind that. Everybody switches, so suddenly fire's nowhere to be seen on damage charts. Numbers parses can't reflect specs that aren't participating in fights, so fire appears to be even farther behind than it actually is. And don't even consider speccing frost. That spec's been terrible since Molten Core, and everybody knows it. Right? It must be true, because everybody accepts that it's true. Only nobody bothers to stay fire, so the numbers only reflect what everybody has already decided they'll reflect.
If I tell you that cake is better than pie, and you accept that and decide that from now on, you'll only eat cake, does that make cake better? How do you know? Pie is still pretty damn tasty. Pie does some sweet AOE damage. But nobody cares, because everybody's already switched to cake. They don't really like cake. Cake's too simplistic, boring. But they have to eat cake, because the current groupthink has declared cake best.
Well, I still like pie. I'm good at pie. Pie works for me.
The numbers are still close enough that you can spec fire if you want to. If your raid leader has a problem with that, scream "I LIKE PIE" over Vent. It'll be fun.
Strictly speaking, fire's a very close second to arcane in raw DPS numbers on most fights. It's far and away the best spec for movement-based fights and fights with multiple kill targets. And it's still the only spec with Pyroblast.
The primary nuke decision
There are two primary nukes that work fairly well with fire: Fireball and Frostfire Bolt. They both do essentially equal initial damage, they both cost the same amount of mana, and they both require the same amount of time to cast. Frostfire Bolt also adds a 40% slowing effect, which doesn't help unless you're using it on something that is vulnerable to snares.
Fireball's glyph adds a 5% crit chance increase, which is a very important bonus for a fire mage. Frostfire Bolt's glyph removes the slowing effect but adds a relatively minor DOT effect that can stack up to three times and increases the initial damage of the spell by a flat 15%. That's a pretty solid buff. The recent semi-fix for the issue of Ignite munching, preventing Ignite from activating on DOT crits, has solved the problem this glyph used to cause, where damage was lost because Ignite was activating on minor DOT ticks and "munching" other, potentially bigger Ignites. The difference now between these two nukes is so minor that you really can justify using either.
I go with Fireball, simply because the entire spec depends on crits, and most of your damage will come from things like Hot Streak procs, not Fireball spam.
The strengths of the spec
There's a reason fire's not only the best mage spec on Alysrazor, it's quite possibly the best DPS spec period for the fight. When movement is required in a fight, nobody shines like a fire mage. Fire's main stand-still rotation involves Fireball spam, Living Bomb refreshes, reacting to Hot Streak procs, spreading DOTs to any secondary targets with Fire Blast, and well-timed Combustions. When moving, the only thing that changes is instead of spamming Fireball, you spam Scorch. Everything else works pretty much the same. Your damage will drop a bit, as Scorch simply isn't doing as much damage as Fireball, but your rotation remains almost unchanged. Movement is a massive, massive strength for fire mages.
The other area where fire outstrips the other two mage specs is whenever more than one target needs to be killed at once. The AOE options for fire are many and powerful. As an arcane mage, I dread any time I'm called upon to do AOE damage to anything. As a fire mage, I relish it. Got a large crowd that needs to be set aflame? I'm your man.
All other considerations aside, fire is purely and simply a well-designed spec. From top to bottom, the talent tree is full of spells and abilities that play off of each other so well that playing a fire mage is as close to pure, distilled joy as this game is capable of providing.
Fire's still far too dependent upon the random number generator. Any fire mage who has ever cast like 26 Fireballs in a row without a single Hot Streak proc knows the soul-crushing despair the RNG can cause. It's like rolling a dice and getting a 1 every time. And it seems to happen far, far more often than it should. You just sit there, hammering the 1 key over and over, each time praying you'll get that crit you need, each time not getting it, each time realizing anew that God hates you, that evil triumphs over good, that Duckie will never get the girl. It's the single most frustrating thing in this game, for me anyway, and getting the wrong end of one of these epic runs of bad luck can foul my mood in a way that nothing else short of a real-life problem can. It's a problem. A series of electronic dice rolls should never determine your fate, and yet for a fire mage, it always does.
Ignite munching isn't nearly the problem it once was and will likely never be truly fixed, if the developers are to be believed. It's still a constant source of lost damage, but the loss is minor these days, and the class is supposedly balanced around it.
The only other real issue fire faces isn't really a weakness at all. Fire's second to arcane in terms of pure DPS numbers. If playing the flavor-of-the-month spec is all-important to you, then I guess you should probably spec arcane for the next 5 minutes. Then things will undoubtedly flip-flop, and you'll be able to switch back.
The importance of a good Combustion
The single biggest determining factor between a good fire mage and a great one, in my opinion, is his ability to time a Combustion.
It's fire's only major cooldown spell, and skilled (and lucky) deployment of it can spell the difference between adequate damage numbers at the end of a fight and kickass damage numbers at the end of a fight.
Combustion is capable of doing a great deal of damage over time. The problem is that it can also, if used at the wrong moment, do an altogether unimpressive amount of damage over that same period of time. It's also on a 2-minute cooldown, so if you blow it, all you're left with is 2 minutes of gut-wrenching failure. Then the spell becomes available again, giving you another shot at not feeling like an ass.
When you cast it, Combustion combines all of your DOT effects on a target into one uber-DOT, which then starts doing damage alongside all your other DOTs. So in order for it to perform to its full potential, you need to deploy it when you have all of your best DOTs fully active on your target. You need Living Bomb to be active, you need a meaty Pyroblast crit DOT to be burning, and you need a particularly fat Ignite from that Pyroblast crit to be ticking away when you cast your Combustion. Addons like CombustionHelper can really make things easier here, because keeping track of all your DOTs while also trying to do all of the other things you need to be doing during a given fight can be quite difficult. It requires a constant awareness of which DOTs you have working on which target, and how long they have left, and whether or not they are high-quality DOts or comparatively wimpy ones. And then you have to be watching for Combustion to come off cooldown and deploy it at precisely the right moment. It's a combination of skill, timing, and luck that only starts to happen regularly with practice. Good luck with it.
A flaming conclusion
Throughout this expansion, fire has been the most fun you can have as a mage. The spec is incredibly well-balanced. The interplay between the talents is almost perfect. The damage is high. The propensity for turning a warlock into a flaming puddle of failure is high.
Fire's not where it was a few months ago, when it was the accepted top spec. But it hasn't dropped off the map -- not as long as there are still those of you out there who play the spec, despite the conventional community wisdom. Fire's fun, it's powerful, and it still burns as brightly as we'll let it.
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.