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Arcane Brilliance: A preliminary look at the Pandaria talent tree for mages

Christian Belt

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Arcane Brilliance for arcane, fire and frost mages. This week, we engage in wild, baseless speculation and make hasty, groundless assumptions based on that wild, baseless speculation. So ... just like every week.

A quick recap for those of you who have limited internet access and choose (understandably) to use each of your precious online moments reading this column each week, but otherwise ignore the internet completely:

Blizzard announced a new expansion for World of Warcraft. It has pandas. The WoW online community appears to be simultaneously overjoyed, mildly excited, meh, and borderline suicidal. Monks are the new class, and they will be able to tank while drunk, which makes them pretty much identical to every other tank I know. Most importantly, though, the design team plans to throw our current talent system into a virtual wood chipper, pick up the pieces that come out of the other side, and mash them together into a completely new, singular talent tree for each class.

The three distinct mage trees will survive, but the majority of the school-specific talents and spells we have now are slated to become baseline abilities that we'll gain as we level (automatically -- no more going to a mage trainer). Ability customization once Mists of Pandaria hits will exist as six talent choices available regardless of spec, one choice between three talents every 15 experience levels. Talent specs as we have known them since the game began in 2004 will cease to exist once patch 5.0 hits, and I expect that to occur in less than a year.

A necessary disclaimer before we begin in earnest: Though Blizzard appears to already be remarkably deep into development of this forthcoming expansion, these talent builds will likely change substantially by the time they ever go live. We're still far enough from the release of MoP that this new talent philosophy might not even survive the extensive testing process intact. The specifics of the talents themselves will undoubtedly change as we move forward. So take everything we discuss here with the appropriate amount of salt grains. It's all conjecture based on a very preliminary mock-up of the mage talent tree that Blizzard happened to have ready for the BlizzCon announcement. As such, we won't be putting much (if any) stock in specific values like damage, mana cost, etc., as those values will absolutely be changing.

Even having said all that, I still feel like there are some important things we can learn from this new talent setup about the direction the designers have in mind for our class. Let's glean what we can, shall we?

Level 15, the freezy/CC tier

Our first choice is a selection of three frost spells, all related to crowd control. This first is Ring of Frost, which apparently has made the journey to Pandaria unscathed. It still conjures an AOE freeze ring that you place on the ground in front of the Hot Topic and then sit back and see how many warlocks wander into it. Always effective, never boring, it's Ring of Frost, 68 levels earlier than we're used to.

Choice two is an upgraded version of Cone of Cold. It's a mash-up of normal Cone of Cold as it exists now and Improved Cone of Cold, a frontal cone damage spell that also roots and snares those who find themselves caught in its radius.

Choice three is an entirely new spell called Frostjaw. It sounds like something you'd catch from eating tainted snow cones made under unsanitary conditions, but in reality it's a powerful-sounding, single-target silence/root that lasts 8 seconds on mobs and 4 on other players.

All of these spells sound like they will have multiple PVP and PVE root/silence/snare applications for any kind of mage. Choosing which one you want at this early stage of the leveling progression will be a matter of personal preference. I see no clear frontrunner, no "best" option that every mage will feel required to take. And that, above all, seems to be Blizzard's goal with these new talent trees: the ability to truly customize some aspect of your character's abilities. Six times. Over the course of 90 levels. Everything else will be exactly the same, but six of your abilities stand a pretty good chance of being different from the other fire mage in your raid.

But never mind that -- at least at this point in the talent tree, the designers have successfully cobbled together three CC abilities to choose between that are all useful, but different enough that picking one and giving up the others will feel light a choice with actual weight.

Level 30, the defensive/survivability tier

The theme here seems to be ways to avoid becoming a steaming puddle of mage when things go badly. The first choice is an upgrade to what I assume will be our standard mage ability, Invisibility. At least I hope it will be standard. Right? Blizzard? Anyone? Sigh. You're going to make this the only version of Invisibility mages can get, aren't you? Dammit.

Oh well, this version, Greater Invisibility, is instant (no fade time), reduces all threat, and removes up to two DOT effects. That's worth using. With the drastically reduced importance of managing threat, the current version of Invisibility isn't good for very much in PVE. The additional DOT removal will help, but I still see this as being a mostly PVP ability.

Cauterize is the second option, and it still functions as a get out of jail free card, staving off certain death but applying a powerful DOT effect to the mage in question. The nice thing is that the effectiveness of the death-staving-off has been increased to restoring you to 60% of your health pool, while the effectiveness of the powerful DOT has been reduced to removing 40% of your health pool over the next 6 seconds. So this talent will save you without also potentially killing you now, which is nice. Too bad you'll never be able to couple this with Greater Invisibility.

The MoP version of Cold Snap is actually a more limited ability than it is now. Instead of refreshing every cooldown-based frost spell, it now only finishes the cooldowns on three very specific spells: Ice Block, Frost Nova, and Water Elemental. So you potentially get access to an extra cast of one of two survival spells in Ice Block or Frost Nova, or the ability to restore a downed Water Elemental.

I want every single one of those spells for entirely different reasons. I could see a min-maxers justifying Cold Snap for the simple reason that restoring a dead Water Elemental would be a DPS increase. For me, the clear PVE choice is Cauterize, since it's essentially a passive extra life, and everybody knows that a dead mage does terrible DPS.

Level 45, the movement/DPS tier

So here we have three abilities that add damage potential during movement phases. The first is Presence of Mind, which remains largely untouched. Every 90 seconds, it'll make a spell that normally requires a cast time instant. That means one extra Pyroblast, Arcane Blast, Frostfire Bolt, or Frostbolt that can be cast on the move or just because.

Scorch provides a spammable movement spell, but it will, of course, be most effective in the hands of a fire mage. I'm assuming they'll still have abilities that make their fire spells more effective? I feel like I'm assuming a lot of things, and as we all know, assuming makes an ass out of u and ming. So you'll take this one if you're a fire mage or if you just want a baseline movement spam spell to switch to whenever you have to hike up your skirts and stagger drunkenly from one place to another during a fight. We'll see how the DPS for non-fire mages on this spell shakes out, which will determine if anybody but fire mages will even consider this an option.

Arcane Flows is more intriguing. It provides you the ability to cast two spells every 45 seconds on the move that you wouldn't ordinarily be able to cast on the move. I like the cut of this talent's jib. At first glance, it'll be my clear choice at this tier, simply because I have always wanted to cast an Arcane Missiles on the move. That may not be the best use of this spell, but I don't care.

Level 60, the Ice Barrier tier

OK, remember when I said that Blizzard's goal was to provide three equally viable choices at each tier with no clear frontrunner "best" talent that everybody would pick? Well, this tier ignores that goal. Because everybody and their mom will will be picking Ice Barrier here. Granted, there are some tweaks to the other two abilities offered here to make them seem more appealing: Mana Shield also knocks enemies back when it goes away, and Blazing Speed is now a triggerable root/snare-breaker.

But every non-frost mage has coveted the incredibly powerful damage-absorbing, penalty-free awesomesauce that is Ice Barrier for years, and we're not going to pass up the ability to take it now. Especially not for Mana Shield. I don't care how many enemies you throw back, Mana Shield -- I will never, ever, allow you to drain my mana pool again. Stop asking.

Blazing Speed is better, as a triggerable speed-increase and movement-imparing effect removal spell, and I can see some PVP mages staring longingly at it as they click on Ice Barrier anyway.

Level 75, the Polymorph tier

When these new talents were announced, this was the slide that drew my attention most completely. Three new flavors of Polymorph? Yes, please. Double Polymorph? As in two? Oh Blizzard, you shouldn't have. I'm not kidding, you probably shouldn't have.

Sickly Polymorph is intriguing too, though. My polymorphed targets will regenerate life at 10% of the normal speed? I assume that means they'll regenerate health more quickly than usual, but only 10% as quickly as normally polymorphed targets. My only question is this: Will that 10% be slow enough that I can out-DPS it in between sheep casts? Because that will mean that, barring outside interference, any mage could kill any enemy, given a long enough time in which to alternate damage spells and Polymorphs, without ever having to worry about getting hit, ever. That can't be right. Can it? My guess is that this won't survive testing intact.

Heavy Polymorph works like the current Improved Polymorph, adding a stun buffer to your sheep target anytime some fool breaks your Polymorph. It's a known quantity.

But Double Polymorph ... yum. Now, granted, your second sheep target will only be sheeped for half the duration of your primary sheep target, but holy crap. If I'm reading this right, I'll be able to cast Polymorph on two seperate targets at once, and the only limitation is that I'll have to refresh my second Polymorph twice as often? I'm so excited about that prospect I can't even type straight. I have to go back and edit literally every word in this paragraph now. Some of my original phrases didn't even make sense as strings of cogent thought. At one point, I typed the following sentence:

"Cats double polymprho on two warlcoks at same? I will yes." What does that even mean?

Anyway, I know what I'll be picking at this tier.

Level 90, the fiery AOE/Slow tier

I guess the theme of this tier is "spells that fire mages used to have and Slow." Blast wave still does big damage and slows multiple targets. It's still targetable, and it's still powerful.

Dragon's Breath still packs a wallop, still damages enemies in a cone in front of the caster, still looks cool, and still disorients anybody caught in its blast.

Slow is still Slow.

Two of these spells are AOE damage spells with a CC component that I assume will be more effective for fire mages than for anybody else. The other spell is a single-target, spammable snare and attack speed reduction.

I anticipate that PVE mages will choose between Dragon's Breath and Blast Wave. PVP mages will choose between all three, but a large majority of them will probably take Slow.

So what do we think, mages? I've rambled on for far too long, but I'm anxious to hear your reaction to this upcoming talent setup. Try to keep the panda hate to a minimum.

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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