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Arcane Brilliance: What to expect for mages in patch 4.0.1

Each Saturday, your computer is visited by the Arcane Brilliance fairy, a delightful creature that sprinkles your computer with mage dust. All you have to do is leave a warlock corpse under your pillow on Friday night ...

Let's do a patch 4.0.1 mad-lib!
This patch is a (act of aggression) in the (body part)! (Class developer) has ruined (spec you like). (Changed spell) is a joke, and (new talent) is completely (inappropriate term for the developmentally challenged). I'm rerolling (other class) the second this (derogatory noun) goes live. What the (expletive), Blizzard?
Yay, that was fun. But pre-expansion patches always are, am I right? People who haven't played in six months suddenly resubscribe, excited to see the new content. Some players are optimistic, looking forward to new life being breathed into their classes. Others are terrified, convinced the sweeping changes will destroy everything they ever loved about the game. The official forums become a teeming mass of wild speculation, irrational fear and baseless end-times prognostication.

And the thing is, nobody's really wrong. Nobody's really right, either, but that's the beauty. Is the end nigh? Absolutely. Is the dawning of a new era of fun upon us? Yes. Are the changes good? Mostly yes, but also sort of no. Bad? Not really, but maybe. Indifferent? Meh. The questions aren't even remotely uniform, and their answers are entirely fluid. Turn off the lights, then start throwing darts, and you'll have an idea of the precision involved here.

Still, I'd like to put one very concrete answer out there. The question at the heart of the matter is this:

Should I panic?

And the answer, as firmly as I can state it:

No.

Generalities

We've been told what this patch will and will not involve, but I think it's important to reiterate.

What 4.0.1 will bring:
  • Class changes including new spells, talents, specs and mechanics
  • UI changes
  • Game mechanics changes
What 4.0.1 won't bring:
  • New zones
  • Changed old-world zones
  • Levels higher than 80
  • New races or race/class combos
  • Cataclysm gear/items/quests/dungeons
  • Old-world flight
So basically, we'll be able to start playing around with our new mage mechanics and abilities. We'll get free respecs, and we'll need them because our talent trees -- and indeed, the entire system upon which they operate -- will be completely revamped. But we won't get to play any new content. We'll be using our new talents and such on current, level 80 content, but with one key concept to consider ...

Yes, everything will be wildly unbalanced

Seriously, if you're worried about how your DPS will stack up after the patch, just stop right now. Put away your spreadsheets, and forget about figuring out optimal builds and spell rotations. High-end PvP will effectively be put on hold until the expansion hits and everybody levels to 85.

Blizzard has already stated that everything in this patch is going to be balanced around level 85. Nothing is going to be balanced around level 80. Since nobody's going to actually be at level 85 after the patch, we're all going to be completely unbalanced, and there's nothing we can do about it. Might as well stow our concerns for now, because they aren't going to do anybody any good.

If you want to wrap your head around what it will be like, imagine if Blizzard were to suddenly put the current level cap at 75. Think back to running instances at that level. You can cast Frostfire Bolt, but you don't really have access to the full potential of that spec. Spells that might be incredibly powerful at level 80 are hardly worth wasting a cooldown on at level 75. You've got talents that affect spells you can't even cast yet. Every other class has similar limitations. One spec might be able to produce high-quality DPS, but another might need another level or two to put out similar numbers.

That's the idea we'll be working with here. The levels between 80 and 85 bring with them more talents points, new spells, new gear, emphasis on different stats, and a chance to grow into our endgame roles. So forget about what this patch will do to your numbers. Those numbers won't matter again until you reach the new cap. The developers aren't going to worry about balancing anything around Wrath content in patch 4.0.1 any more than they would have worried about balancing anything around Molten Core in patch 3.0.1.

The best thing to do is put it out of your head. Wait for level 85, then feel free to start complaining about class balance again. And to be honest, if you're a high-end raider, your new numbers aren't going to keep your guild from running Ruby Sanctum, anyway. You may lose or gain some DPS, but you'll survive.

I don't know about you, but I plan to use this patch to experiment. I'm going to try out new builds, figure out what kind of mage I want to be as I level through the scarred landscape of post-Cataclysm Azeroth, and just have fun.

Let's take a look at each of the three specs and go over what you can expect from them once the patch hits.

Arcane

After going through a lot of passes on the beta, this spec has basically come full circle. Arcane Blast is still your primary nuke, Arcane Missiles is still the proc you watch for (the spell itself replacing the current version of the Missile Barrage proc), and Arcane Barrage is still a spell you only really cast when moving. Your rotation is still going to be AB x 4 >AM. No mystery there.

The real change comes in the form of Mana Adept, arcane's new mastery ability. It gives you a spell damage bonus that tops out at 12 percent and goes down as your mana pool goes down. It encourages a playstyle based around juggling your mana return cooldowns and increasing or decreasing your mana-per-second output accordingly.

How does this work in practice? Surprisingly well, actually. The going wisdom involves high initial output, when Evocation and your mana gem are off cooldown, burning through mana until your mana pool reaches 40 percent, then reining in your output until your cooldowns come closer to being back up. It's a style that you'll probably screw up a bunch at first, because doing it well requires you pay close attention to several things at once. Maybe that's why the spell rotation is still so essentially boring. It'd be more than a little bit difficult to keep track of casting more than two or three spells when you've already got to watch your mana pool and your cooldowns. This entire process will undoubtedly go through a few more tweaks, but trust me when I say that your success in relearning to be an effective arcane mage is pretty much going to depend on your ability to adjust to this new and demanding mechanic.

Fire

I have the feeling that fire is going to be incredibly popular after this patch. The spec is simple, unabashed fun and stands as an example of class design done right. The talent tree is designed with synergy in mind, and multiple talents play off of multiple other talents throughout. The spec focuses on the use of DoTs and AoE spells, encouraging and rewarding the skillful application of both.

The beauty of the design is in the interplay between the various spells and talents. Everything just seems to work so well with everything else. An example:

Your little cloth-clad fire mage gets reamed by something large and hostile. Instead of cleaving your soft flesh and taking you out of the fight, the attack procs Cauterize. Your health goes to 40 percent and you gain a powerful DoT debuff that will, if unattended, kill you 6 seconds hence. You throw up Mage Ward. Molten Shields is triggered. You run about with Blazing Speed, letting loose with mobile Scorches, gaining Hot Streak procs and hurling out free Pyroblasts, all while getting mana back thanks to Master of Elements. And there are interactions like that throughout the tree. It's just a ridiculous amount of awesome. I'm not kidding. Nothing you've done so far in this game has fully prepared you for the wonders of the Cataclysm fire tree.

Frost

Some major and immediately apparent changes to discuss here. I'll mention the most important ones.

To begin with, your water elemental is permanent, without the need for a glyph and without losing the ability to cast Freeze. In fact, casting Freeze is now a valuable part of the raiding frost mage's rotation, thanks to the new talent Improved Freeze.

Frost's playstyle still revolves around increased damage to frozen targets, but never before have frost mages had access to so many raid-viable methods for freezing their enemies. Fingers of Frost now only procs a single charge, but it procs all the freaking time, meaning the burst damage isn't really all that bursty anymore. Frost can rely on consistent DPS output, and the rotation they use to get that DPS is simply more fun to use.

Frostburn, as a mastery ability, isn't flashy, but it's highly effective. It'll increase the best kind of damage you do, and it's a flat, passive increase. As with all the mastery abilities, you won't get a full handle on its potential when the patch drops, because you won't have access to items that will increase your mastery stat. Still, the difference is noticeable.

The basic rotation may at first seem to be more of the same. Yes, you'll still be spamming Frostbolt. The difference lies in the rest of the rotation, which is actually interesting, instead of the dull mess it's been since vanilla. When Brain Freeze procs, you'll cast a Frostfire Bolt. When Fingers of Frost procs, you'll want to fire out a Deep Freeze when the cooldown is up, and an Ice Lance when it isn't. You'll be forcing your elemental to cast Freeze whenever you can. There are a number of spells to consider and procs to watch for, and it all seems far more cohesive and well thought out than frost ever has in PvE.

We'll go more in depth into the three specs as the release of the patch -- and the expansion it heralds -- draws closer, including talent builds and detailed overviews of the new spells and talents. For now, just take a breath, enjoy the final weeks of the Wrath era, and remember:

Don't panic.

Every week, Arcane Brilliance teleports you inside the wonderful world of mages and then hurls a Fireball in your face. Check out our recent look at how much I hate damage meters or our lengthy series of mage leveling guides. Until next week, keep the mage-train a-rollin'.

Filed under: Mage, Analysis / Opinion, (Mage) Arcane Brilliance

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