Update: this guide is out of date! I'll be writing a new series for Cataclysm.(Previously: Part 1)
So with the first post in this series in-hand, you've started working on the list of pre-raid gear you're trying to acquire. You're ready to run heroics - and lots of them! - but you're unsure of your spec, rotation, and pet choice. Maybe you've heard that Survival is a good tree to spec into as a new 80, but what talents should you take? Which glyphs? What should you do when Lock and Load procs? All these answers and more below, in the
Survival Hunter PvE Primer!
To begin with, I'll expand a little bit on the notion that "Survival is a good tree to start with." This is true in one way and untrue in another. It's true because a SV hunter's primary damaging ability, Explosive Shot (or ExS), doesn't factor base weapon or ammo damage into its damage-done equation. This means that it's not as limited by weapon as Marksmanship hunters are; a SV hunter's damage output scales more evenly with their gear considered as a whole. It's untrue because the SV rotation is actually a little more complex and it has an ability proc to deal with. When Lock and Load (LnL) procs, you have to react to that proc correctly before resuming your rotation. And the word "rotation" isn't even really accurate any more, merely convenient! Hunters, like most DPS classes these days, operate by assigning priorities to various abilities and always using the highest-priority available ability.
More on that in a bit, though. First, the spec. For a new hunter just starting out and running a lot of heroics, I would recommend this spec: 0/15/56. Here's what you're getting with that spec:
- 5/5 Improved Tracking is a free 5% damage that all hunter specs should be taking.
- Trap Mastery and Survival Instincts are the only 2nd-tier talents that actually do more damage: the only thing that matters for a PvE hunter.
- Resourcefulness is required because it decreases the cooldown of Black Arrow (BA). BA not only gives you temporary free 6% damage, it's where you get your LnL procs, and those are an extremely important part of your damage. I think the reason you'll occasionally see hunters without this talent maxed out is because they didn't read the last sentence in the tooltip.
- Lightning Reflexes and Expose Weakness are defining talents for the tree. Survival hunters have truly insane amounts of agility, and a quarter of that agility turns into free AP. 2/3 Expose Weakness is, however, sufficient: even a hunter in poor gear will see something like 80% buff uptime with two points in this talent, and the remaining point is better spent elsewhere.
- Noxious Stings is another talent new and inexperienced hunters skip. The reality is that few other talents in any tree (or for any class) have returns as high as Noxious Stings'. A few moments reflection is good enough to see this. If you're pulling 2k DPS on a boss without Noxious Stings, you would be pulling 2060 with it. 3 points in improved aspect of the hawk, for example, will never get you 60 DPS, and Noxious Stings just gets better the better your gear is.
- 3/3 Thrill of the Hunt (TotH) and 2/3 Hunting Party (HP) are mostly good for hunters running a lot of five-man dungeons. A good tank/healer team that chain pull the instance (getting it done faster) can also run their DPS out of mana pretty quickly, so the efficiency from TotH and the replenishment from HP are good for everyone. Once you're regularly raiding 25-mans, you'll shift those points to other talents, but this is the best place for them for now.
- The talents from the Marks tree are required for every hunter spec, with the possible exceptions of Go for the Throat (GftT) and Aimed Shot (AiS). Beast Mastery hunters can choose to regenerate pet focus by other means and so may skip GftT. Aimed Shot is a matter of preference. I prefer to have an instant-cast healing debuff as part of my rotation. Many hunters, however, prefer to put that point into Improved Aspect of the Hawk (IAotH), and that's perfectly valid.
- The glyphs are fairly standard. Glyphing Serpent Sting (SrS) means you waste fewer GCDs re-applying SrS for the Noxious Stings benefit, allowing you to spend those GCDs on abilities that actually do appreciable damage. The ExS simply provides more crit for your most damaging ability. The Kill Shot (KS) glyph isn't ideal for 5-mans, but there aren't any really suitable replacements. Minor glyphs are matters of convenience and, in my opinion, the feign, pack, and mend pet glyphs provide the most of it.
Whew, ok! So that's spec and glyphs. Now what? Oh right, that thing about assigning priorities or whatever. Ok. Here's the thing: "rotations" have pretty much disappeared from WoW since the vanilla/BC days. No one just memorizes a sequence of abilities and uses them in exactly the same order for the entire length of a boss fight. How it works these days is that you figure out which abilities do the most damage, and then use your abilities in that order. The priorities for a SV hunter look like this:
What this means is that if, for example, KS had no CD and no restriction on its use, you would just mash your KS button the entire time, because that would do the most damage. KS has both a cooldown and restrictions, though, so if you can't Kill Shot, you use ExS. If you can't ExS and BA is off of cooldown, then you put BA on the boss, and so on all the way down the line. There are a few things that are possibly confusing about this priority, so I'll address each of these in turn.
The first thing that trips up a lot of hunters is that ExS comes before BA. "If I used BA first," the new hunter says, "won't my ExS do 6% more damage and wouldn't that be better?" The answer is that yes, that particular ExS would do 6% more damage but you're delaying the firing of that ExS by 1.5s (the length of the GCD) in order to do so. Over the course of an entire boss fight, you're going to lose several Explosive Shots if you try to set them up with a black arrow. Think of it this way: ExS has a 6 second CD and BA lasts for 15 seconds. Either way, you're getting in at least one ExS with an extra 6% damage. If you use BA before ExS, you're electing to get 6% more damage on a single ExS use instead of firing more total Explosive Shots. Firing another ExS will always do more damage than 6% of one.
The second possible point of confusion is the Aimed vs. Multi Shot entry. Aimed and Multi Shot share a cooldown, so this line is basically saying "if you've specced into AiS, use it now. If not, use Multi". The only caveat here is that if you're clearing trash or fighting a boss with adds or multiple components (think Grand Magus Telestra), then a Multi that will hit multiple targets will do more damage than an AiS. Against a single target, AiS will always do more damage, especially if you've been able to stand still long enough to get the Sniper Training buff.
The third and last thing to note is Serpent Sting. All this line means is that, if SrS has fallen off the boss, now is the time to re-apply it. Much like BA vs. ExS, the extra 3% damage is worth speccing for, and it's more important than another Steady Shot, but anything else is more worthwhile, because those things have cooldowns and SrS/Steady Shot do not.
A mod like Watcher (discussed in a previous post) and some time on a training dummy can help get used to the priority system. You'll find after a while that it's really not too difficult to maintain, except for one little problem: Lock and Load.
The thing that makes this proc interesting is that ExS is actually a 3-second DOT (Damage Over Time effect). The GCD is only 1.5s, which means that if you just mash your ExS button three times when you get an LnL proc, you'll overwrite the last tick of the DOT when the new ExS lands, meaning an overall loss of damage. A lot of hunters realize this and try to compensate by putting things like an instant-cast AiS in between Explosive Shots. The problem with this is that hunter shots have a travel time - they actually travel through the air before they land on the target and apply their effect.
The upshot is that you only need to wait half a second, a full second less than the global cooldown. That is to say, the correct way to deal with an LnL proc (where "correct" means "the way that does the most damage") is this:
ExS > wait half second > ExS > wait a half second > ExS
All of this, of course, sort of neglects one of the defining elements of the hunter class: the pet. Sadly, there's not a whole lot of choice between pets for raiding hunters right now. Most hunters you see in Dalaran will have a wolf at their side, and pretty much the sole reason for that is Furious Howl. In (if I remember correctly) patch 3.1, they changed things such that the AP gain from the wolf's howl stacks with other AP effects such as Blessing of Might. The free 320 AP from the wolf overrides all other pet abilities in most cases, although certain raids will have certain exceptions. For most hunters, though, your best bet is going to be a wolf. I would recommend speccing your pet like this. There is of course more to pet management in a raid, especially during bosses with lots of targeted AoE, but that's a subject for another post.
This almost brings this post to a close. The last things to consider are gems and enchantments. I'll address this in more detail in part 4 of this guide series, but your guiding principle is agility. By far your most numerous gem should be the Delicate Cardinal Ruby, to the point of ignoring socket bonuses. Very, very few socket bonuses will be worth as much damage as the 10 agility you would be losing if you used a purple or orange gem to get them. When choosing between enchants, if an agility option is available, you should take it.
That just about covers it! Don't sweat the little stuff too much - your damage will improve quickly at this stage, both with gear and with improvement in managing our abilities. Raiding guilds will appreciate the effort and research you've put into your class, and any competent mid-level raid guild would rather have a recruit with a gear deficit rather than a skill deficit. Have fun!