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WoW Rookie: Understanding item levels and gear decisions

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Last week, I talked about a handful of tips intended to be helpful to folks leveling up and getting started in the game. These aren't tips really suited for folks who rock out with advanced tools, nuanced spreadsheets, and extensive experience. I was aiming at people who largely play the game in-game and rarely visit outside websites. (Yes, I know, it's not like WoW Insider is piped into the Dungeon Journal, but we're trying.)

One of my tips was that item level counts. Rightly so, commenters pointed out the huge gaping flaws in the statement. A lot more goes into your gear choices than just item level or even quality color. And while my advice is true, going simply by item level is so simplistic as to almost be misleading. So let's talk a tad more about why I say item level counts and how you can use that as a rough guide to making basic gear choices.

Caveat reador: if you're at the point you're deciding between two endgame items at 378 item level, you've left the realm of simply going by item level. Even some 359 items trump 378. But at the point you're rocking endgame raids, you've probably got a grip on looking up your character stats.

All about item level

Item levels weren't always visible in game. They were this odd, Force-like presence that bound itemization together. You could only view the item level of gear using a mod or third-party web site. This is because item levels were essentially a back-end function, a way of letting the designers know how many stats an item could have.

Rarity played a role also, of course. Blue, green, purple, or that weird legendary color could assign additional itemization points to a piece of gear. Because this itemization system was obfuscated, players spent ages deciphering and breaking down how pieces of gear compared to one another.

The last thing you should know is that primary stats like strength and stamina weren't always the same for gear of the same item level. Stats were all over the board, and the whole mess could be pretty confusing.

Now in Cataclysm, things are more straightforward. Gear of the same type -- meaning plate, leather, and so on -- have the same primary stat allocation. The means if you see a piece of plate with intelligence and stamina, it will have the same amount of intelligence and stamina as any other plate drop with the same stats.

In general, most classes and most specs care about their primary stats more than any other stat. These stats are strength, intelligence, agility, stamina, and spirit. There are exceptions here and there, but what it boils down to is if this is the right stat and the right type of gear, then you want the highest item level.

PVP gear doesn't count

This is where things get super-ugly, unfortunately. In the same way that you have your gear has primary stats, your gear has secondary stats. These includes stats like mastery, haste, dodge, and so on. These secondary stats are where your gear choices come from. Do you want more haste or more hit rating? That's what makes gear interesting, trying to decide between these secondary stats.

PVP gear has a secondary stat called resilience. It is very important in PVP because it mitigates the damage you take from other players. However, resilience is very expensive in terms of itemization, and it does absolutely nothing whatsoever in PVE.

Therefore, PVP gear is almost never as good as PVE gear, outside of huge ilevel differences. Maybe you'll get more bang out of your ilevel 378 PVP piece than an ilevel 328 piece, but it's still not likely.

So if you're questioning whether to wear a PVP piece for PVE purposes, chance are you should just avoid it.

Stick with the stuff your class likes

The next point in working with item level is that you need to stick with the gear and primary stats your class and spec like. It should go without saying that strength won't do a priest any good, but let's just say it to be sure.

Secondary stats make a huge difference in your performance, obviously. But for the purpose of this column, let's stick with the primaries. Hit up your local class columnist for more refined secondary stat explanations as appropriate.

Here are the basics of who uses which gear:
  • Paladin, death knight, and warrior tanks and DPS Strength plate
  • Paladin healers Intelligence plate
  • Cloth casters Cloth gear
  • Enhancement shaman and hunters Agility mail
  • Restoration and elemental shaman Intelligence mail
  • Feral druids and rogues Agility leather
  • Restoration and balance druid Intelligence leather
In general, stick with the highest item level gear with that primary stat. But to take your game to the next level, start looking up those secondary stats.

Visit the WoW Rookie Guide for links to everything you need to get started as a new player, from how to control your character and camera angles when you're just starting out, to learning how to tank, getting up to speed for heroics and even how to win Tol Barad.

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