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Spiritual Guidance: A shadow priest leveling guide in 1,500 words or less

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Spiritual Guidance for discipline, holy and shadow priests. On Wednesdays, shadow priesting expert Fox Van Allen's takes a brief respite from writing articles about how he refuses to date Magic: The Gathering players -- long enough, at least to write this entertaining nonsense.

So, you've no doubt been seeing all these commercials on TV and these all-star athletes talking about how exciting and fun shadow priesting is. And it's true, all true -- shadow priesting is a high-end, VIP-exclusive lifestyle with a dope aftertaste. You should level a shadow priest.

And lucky you -- leveling one has never been easier. In the olden days, talking leveling used to take pages after pages of information. Why, my old Wrath leveling guide was, like, four or five weeks long until I got distracted, started talking about something else, and never actually finished that guide.

But for Cataclysm? Nah, nothing that intense. In fact, I'll bet I can give you a leveling guide in 1,500 words or less. (Give or take 157 or so.)

Gearing a shadow priest

In a post-Cataclysm world, gearing a shadow priest is fairly easy. We're a cloth-wearing spec, and pretty much every piece of cloth you'll find will have a stat that's beneficial to us. Intellect is the most important stat; it makes our spells stronger and gives us a larger mana pool (allowing us to cast more consecutive spells without resting). If you're thinking about taking your Dual Talent Specialization, grab gear with spirit, too. After all, shadow priests convert spirit to hit via Twisted Faith; holy and disc priests rely on spirit to regen mana.

The first 10 levels

You can't choose the shadow priest spec until you hit level 10, so the first few levels have you fighting your way though packs of enemies with an incredibly limited toolbox of spells. You'll find yourself using Smite a lot, because there aren't many other options. Shadow Word: Pain is another option for enemies with larger health pools or for when you wind up having to fight more than one enemy at a time.

At level 7, you learn Inner Fire. It's a great spellpower buff that you should have active at all times while you level. At level 9, you'll get Mind Blast, which will serve as one of your most powerful shadow spells well into shadow priest adulthood. When you can cast it, cast it.

Level 10: Shadow specialization

At level 10, you're forced to make an important choice: specialize as holy, discipline, or shadow? Obviously, if you're reading this, you're considering choosing shadow. (Good for you!)

Choosing the shadow specialization means a few different things. First, while you'll still have access to your healing spells, they won't be as effective as they would be had you chosen to specialize as holy or discipline. While you could theoretically level by healing a dungeon as shadow, doing so will result in you running out of mana a lot sooner than your holy or disc counterparts. Save your heals for yourself, and leave group healing to the professionals.

Second, choosing shadow means you're gifted with a great new shadow spell, Mind Flay. It's one of the most important spells in the shadow priest rotation even at level 85, and it has a relatively low mana cost. It also slows your enemies' progress toward you, making it a great follow-up spell to Mind Blast.

Third, by choosing shadow, you'll be eligible to start generating Shadow Orbs. The way they work is actually somewhat complicated (I wrote an article about Shadow Orb mechanics in April), but here are the absolute basics:
  • How you get them You have a chance to generate a Shadow Orb with each tick of Mind Flay or Shadow Word: Pain. They appear as a stacking buff, up to a maximum of three.
  • What you do with them They increase the power of your next Mind Blast and give you a 15-second buff that increases the strength of your damage over time spells (including Mind Flay). The more Orbs you consume, the stronger that shot of Mind Blast will be.
Choosing to level as a shadow priest also means your shadow spells will have more punch behind them -- 15% more, to be exact. They'll also be capable of critting for 200% damage, instead of the 150% that holy and disc priests have to settle for.

Levels 11 on up

At level 18, you're going to be able to learn Holy Fire. It's a holy school spell capable of delivering some pretty decent damage. Because it has a DOT component, it's a terrific spell to start a pull with. Use it regularly until you gain access to Shadowform at level 29.

At levels 28 and 49, you'll learn Devouring Plague and Vampiric Touch, respectively. These are powerful DOTs, but you need to learn when to use them. Generally, if you're soloing or fighting trash in an instance, using all your DOTs is overkill. Vampiric Touch is the most efficient DOT to use, so if you use only one, make it VT and save DP for boss fights.

Smart shadow priests will put their level 29 talent point into Shadowform. It increases the strength of your shadow spells by 15% but essentially locks you out of holy school spells. From that point on, you should actively avoid casting any spell that kicks you out of Shadowform if you can help it. (Emergency healing can usually be accomplished, in effect, using Power Word: Shield).

Level 32: Shadow Word: Death and mana regen

If you've ever played a level 85 shadow priest, you'll know that we almost never want for mana. It's a benefit to our class -- we just have so many different mana-regen tools at our disposal. Unfortunately, though, you don't gain access to some of the most important tools (such as Dispersion) until late in the leveling process.

The first of these tools come at level 32 when you finally get access to the Shadow Word: Death spell and, by extension, the Glyph of Spirit Tap. Once you train it, you need to immediately adjust your playstyle such that you're finishing off all your opponents with SW:D. Any leveling priest will be able to appreciate how valuable it is to restore 12% of your max mana every time you kill something.

Be sure to combine that with the tried-and-true "Vampiric Touch followed by Mind Blast" combo. Those two spells in conjunction give you the Replenishment proc, good for another 10% of your max mana over 10 seconds. With both Spirit Tap and Replenishment running after every encounter, you'll minimize your downtime (and maximize your face meltin' time!).

Mind Spike (level 81) changes everything

For the most part, your shadow priest's rotation will be simple while leveling: Mind Blast as a priority, Mind Flay as filler, DOTs when you need them, and Shadow Word: Death to finish. Things change slightly when your priest hits level 81 and gets access to Mind Spike, a spell that revolutionizes the way shadow priests solo content.

As soon as your shadow priest gets to level 81, you're going to want to make sure you have the full two points in the Paralysis and Mind Melt talents. You'll pull enemies by casting Mind Spike two or three times in quick succession, guaranteeing your next cast of Mind Blast will be both instant and a crit. And when it crits, your target will be frozen in place for 4 seconds -- more than enough time for you to finish it off. Just remember, though -- Paralysis only stops movement, not attacks.

The talent tree

Since Blizzard's redone the talent tree for Cataclysm, it's pretty hard to get your talent tree wrong. You should obviously take those talents that increase your damage output, as well as anything else you think appears to be more useful for your playstyle than the other options.

If you're looking for a good leveling talent tree and you're super super-lazy or whatever, I threw one together for you.

Some general advice
  • If you're trying to level quickly, take advantage of all the holiday buffs you can -- things like Brewfest Enthusiast (the holiday starts in two weeks!) can offer you bonus experience from killing mobs. You should also consider crafting (or buying) a stack of Adventurer's Journals, as they offer various damage buffs as well as a chance to increase experience earned by quest turn-ins by 10%.
  • Don't know what zones are level appropriate for you? Visit the Hero's Call board in Orgrimmar, Stormwind, or any other major city. It'll have a nice little "!" above it, and quest(s) pointing you towards the zones best suited for your level.
  • Try to run at least every instance once. All of them now offer quests with some pretty nice gear rewards and some pretty nice experience rewards. Plus, every random instance you run via the Dungeon Finder tool gives you a chance to be in the same group as Fox Van Allen. Exciting!
  • Give PVP a try at least once while you level. It's not necessarily my thing, but a lot of people seem to like it. PVPing will award you experience and honor points; the latter are redeemable for some great gear as you level. For instance, check out Kelm Hargunth (Horde) in Northern Barrens or Illiyana Moonblaze (Alliance) in Ashenvale -- both sell terrific blue- and purple-quality rings and bracers to help fill out your non-heirloom slots.
  • At level 30, head to a priest trainer and give Dual Talent Specialization a try. While I don't actively encourage being a holy or disc priest, it is nice to see how terrible those other specs are so you can appreciate being shadow even more.

Are you more interested in watching health bars go down than watching them bounce back up? We've got more for shadow priests, from Shadow Priest 101 to a list of every monster worth mind controlling and strategies for raiding Blackwing Descent.

Filed under: Priest, (Priest) Spiritual Guidance

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