Tobold's Blog
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Arcane vs. Frost in heroics

So I spent several hours studying builds and spell rotations for my freshly minted level 80 mage, visiting sites like Elitist Jerks, specialized mage blogs, and looking into programs like Rawr. The result of all that research went into two builds, so now I'm dual-spec Arcane and Frost. The Arcane build is a very standard 57/3/11 build, with a standard spell rotation of 4 x Arcane Blast, followed by Arcane Missile, augmented by Icy Veins whenever possible. The Frost build is a 20/0/51 build, with a minor modification to *not* use Brain Freeze, because a) Elitist Jerks claim that Brain Freeze isn't all that good as it appears to be, and b) there is currently a bug with Brain Freeze not appearing in the combat log, thus any addons alerting you to the possibility of casting that free fireball not working right now. The Frost build is using the Glyph of Eternal Water, thus all measurements were taken with a permanent water elemental.

I then went to test the two builds. First test was against target dummies, using all available self-buffs, but no flasks, food, or buffs from other classes. As expected, Arcane performed better than Frost under those conditions. With my 4k Gearscore, I ended up doing 2.5k dps in Arcane, and 2.3k dps in Frost.

But then I went doing heroics to do a more realistic test of the two specs, and the situation reversed. Of course in a heroic the overall dps depends on the dungeon itself, especially for a mage, because some dungeons have more opportunity for AoE than others. And the result also depends on the rest of the group, because if your tank can't hold aggro, you're not doing as much damage. Nevertheless after repeated runs the overall result was very clear: In heroics I ended up doing more damage with my Frost build than with my Arcane build.

The difference was not due to AoE, and surprisingly not even due to mana management issues, even if the Arcane build is more mana hungry than the Frost build. But the main difference in heroics turned out to be whether you were able to pull your spell rotation off. The Frost build conveniently doesn't really have a spell rotation: You use Frostbolt all the time, and sprinkle in Icy Veins, Deep Freeze, and Mirror Image whenever you can. The Arcane build isn't really complicated either, but depends on building up a stack of 4 Arcane Blast buffs and preferably the Missible Barrage buff to fire off a very powerful Arcane Missile spell. That works fine on target dummies and some bosses, but not so well on trash and some other bosses. On trash the problem is the trash being dead before you get to use your Arcane Missile, and the buff ending before the next pull. On some bosses the problem is various boss abilities either interrupting your spell rotation, e.g. with some form of pushback or stun, or forcing you to interrupt your sequence yourself, by having to move into safety. The effect is the same: You're not getting to cast a fully buffed Arcane Missile as often in a heroic as in on a target dummy.

Now add the additional "safety" features of a frost build, like Ice Barrier, and the AoE being somewhat better due to slowing effects, and the conclusion is that for heroics the Frost build is performing better than the Arcane build overall. Better overall dps, better survivability. The Arcane build would probably improve in comparison if I were doing raids, at it will perform better on some big bosses, but in heroics at the moment it isn't really the boss fights that are slowing the group down.
I got opposite results and like arcane very much in 5-mans. At first Arcane has -40% threat while frost has -10, that's a huge difference in PuGs.

I also find Slow better self-(and healer)-defense spell than ice barrier. You can also damage on the move with arcane barrage.

Also, you have to improvize on trash, like shooting Barrage when monster is low, blink-Arcane-explosion as AoE when the tank doesn't hold aggro well.

Frost is easy and mediocre, anyone can be a tolerable frost. With arcane being much more complicated, you can excel or you can fail.
The addon EventAlert2 correctly reports Brain Freeze procs (tested yesterday with my mage alt).
Only tangentially related, but if you're having trouble with proc alerts, you may want to give GoodNewsEveryone a try. Post-3.3 it's the most (if not only) reliable proc alert addon.
I've actually come to the opposite conclusion about Arcane for 5-mans. My tanks have not always been so reliable, so the 40% threat reduction can be a bigger difference. Meanwhile, if you pay attention, you can start to learn how quickly your group is killing targets and switch slightly early.

Also note that you can A) use ABarr if the lone target is about to die and B) you can cast MBarr (or, if it hasn't proced, Abarr) with less than four stacks of Arcane Blast. Is this less sustained target dummy DPS than 4x blast + MBarr? Absolutely. However, it's still more DPS than effectively wasting the last second of each trash mob kill because you were halfway through casting your fourth blast when it died.

As I read once, the only time a mage should not be casting a spell is when they want to purposefully lower their DPS. The damage to your DPS for casting the "incorrect" spell is almost always less than the damage to your DPS from indecision.

(All that said, there may be a personality side to these things. Some specs just don't feel intuitive to one player and feel natural to another. Also, I started Arcane back when the blast debuff lasted twice as long, but only stacked to three, so I had better training wheels than you do.)
There are lots of things that dps classes just don't think about when speccing and gearing - they just go with whatever the spreadsheet says is better without actually engaging their brain at any time.

Simplicity of rotation is a key point as you rightly say.

Another is reaction times - the fact that fire (for example) has a longer casting time on it's main nuke can in some fights (those without much movement) make a massive difference in dps because the more spells you have to cast the more that your reaction time (and none of us are perfect with zero reaction time) reduces your dps. A cast time of 3 seconds pre haste rather than 2 seconds means that you have up to 50% fewer spells to cast (ignoring procs in the fire rotation) and therefore up to 50% reduced reaction time in the fight. Suppose you have very fast reactions with 0.1 seconds - in a five minute fight a reduction of your total reaction time by 50% equates to 15 seconds of dps time. On the other hand where there's lots of movement fire can fall back because you are more likely to lose more cast time if you have to interrupt a cast to move.

I get a little depressed by people who post "best" builds - try different things, think about the mechanics of the fight, think about your available gear, and use something which gives good results for you.
I thought Arcane was 3x blast and then Missile, or if you have plenty of mana 3 blast and keep blasting until you get a barrage proc, then missile.
All that said, there may be a personality side to these things. Some specs just don't feel intuitive to one player and feel natural to another. Also, I started Arcane back when the blast debuff lasted twice as long, but only stacked to three, so I had better training wheels than you do.

Agreed, me having leveled from 1 to 80 as frost might have influenced the result and given me better performance in Frost than in Arcane. I think it is good that ultimately the various talent trees are close enough to allow for personal preferences, and not forcing you to choose "the" build.
I like the progress on your mage, however i do get the feeling that you will get very bored with it in it's current state. Both of the builds you have are extemely repetitive. Both lead to boredom pretty fast. For heroics, i'd be very inclined to trying a fire build as soon as your gear can support the hit requirement (not too tricky now), it's got less cooldowns to use, but has far more in terms of a rotation (actually more of a priority order than a rotation) and is far more fun to play in a heroic, where instead of a single spell spammed, with procs or a simple 4 to 1 rotation, you have living bomb on any targets that will last more than 12 seconds, scorch for 3% caster crit debuff, fireball as a primary nuke laced with instant pyroblasts when they happen to proc (fire blast can be used when moving, but it's not ideal if there's any other option).

This scales very well as your gear improves, but is likely to give you greater dps than your current frost build in heroics.

Mages are great fun to play, i'd hate to see you put off ultimately because the specs are a little boring.
Mages are great fun to play, i'd hate to see you put off ultimately because the specs are a little boring.

The bigger risk is me being put off playing a mage because my shadow priest already does 3k dps on that same target dummy, with a Gearscore only 10% better than the mage. They'll probably be pretty much equal at the same gear level.

Thus when Cataclysm comes, I'll have the choice between a character who deals damage AND heals (thus getting faster dungeon invites), or a character who ONLY deals the same damage. Guess which one I'll level first! The mage risks to come third or fourth, after priest, warrior, and paladin, due to simple lack of functionality.
You're taking the rotations as far to concrete. Arcane is a very dynamic spec. While ABx4,AM is a standard rotation for a longer boss fight, the spec is flexible enough to use in 5 mans by using 2-3 stacks of AB+AM and/or even ABarr if the mob is about to die and you don't have time to get another set of AB debuffs up. It takes some experience to know your cast times vs. expected time to live. You should be able to blow past Frost easily with Arcane, even in a 5 man.

Shadowpriest DPS doesn't scale nearly as fast as mage so stick with it if you want a competitive DPS'er.
I have a few problems with your test:

1- No one cares what kind of DPS you do on trash as long as you're doing at least 2k. If you're using Recount and taking trash into account, you're making decisions based on flawed criteria. Yes, killing trash faster gets you through the instance quicker, but the rate at which you deal damage only plays a real factor on boss fights where boss abilities are on timers and healers have a finite amount of mana.

2- Aggro, even with a very below average tank should not be a problem. I very rarely pull aggro even throwing out 5k dps in a heroic with a crappy tank.

3- Moving around in any boss fight affects a mage no matter the spec. If you're dodging frostfire as an arcane mage, you're going to be doing it as frost too. I find arcane especially superior in mobile fights due to arcane barrage.

4- Arcane offers vastly superior dps at the expense of a lot of utility and survivability. You have to admit that a simple test performed by Tobold (someone completely unfamiliar with playing arcane) is not exactly convincing evidence.

5- While arcane is a superior PvE spec, the difference in the long run is somewhat negligible. You may lose 500-1k dps once geared up heavily, but you will still be able to bring enough to the table to get through any wotlk raid you want.
Tobold I think you need to test both specs raiding as well. In heroics, mobs and bosses both die way too quickly. This means you really never get 4 stacks of AB. In heroics I actually don't follow the normal rotation because I don't have enough time, usually I just AB until I have the missle buff and fire away, ending with an arcane barrage, and usually that's about all I have time for.
The addon PowerAuras also does correctly display when you have the Brain Freeze buff.
Yes, killing trash faster gets you through the instance quicker, but the rate at which you deal damage only plays a real factor on boss fights where boss abilities are on timers and healers have a finite amount of mana.

Tobold I think you need to test both specs raiding as well.

As I said before, it is unlikely that my mage will ever raid. My guild might be forgiving enough to take me, but personally I couldn't forgive myself the selfishness of ditching a better geared healer in favor of a less well geared dps for anything beyond "fun" raids.

Thus, as I said, with boss fights in heroics rarely a problem, a spec that deals with trash faster is actually what I'm aiming for. This is why my post has "for heroics" mentioned several times. I make no claim whatsoever about Frost being better than Arcane in raids. It's just that not everybody is raiding, so what the best raid spec is might not be relevant for everyone.
My mage is pretty casual that's been working on getting the triumpth badges using the LFD tool. He did a ton of BG prior to acquire the honor gear before, so his gearscore is just over 4k now.

I've played the Arc builds in the BG as well as Frost in the BG's but never either in the Heroics. Granted this toon's hit is really low but it's getting higher. The point I'm trying to make, though, is at least try out the Fire spec. I've used the Frostfire build, but personally I prefer to use the heavy Fire build with Fireball vs Frostfire. It's alot of fun and keeps me busy. Give it a shot at least.
@ Green Armadillo: "Some specs just don't feel intuitive to one player and feel natural to another".

I couldn't agree more. Additionally, Tobold, since you leveled Frost all this time, you have reached a comfort-level that's hard to break out of. I understand, I leveled my Shaman enhancement, now everyone just wants me to heal and it feels uncomfortable, foreign.

Perhaps with enough practice you will find that Arcane will become more and more comfortable, but I reckon it will take a little time.
There are alot of dynamics for mage dps, especially in 5 mans. You dont have any of the mechanics below working on a target dummy.

You have focus magic in your arcane spec. Did you correctly apply it to the highest spell critting player in the party? Destro warlocks and other mages first, elemental shamans and shadow priest next, or a healing pally in the worst case. If you have no spell casters and a druid healer it nerfs your dps right away (3% crit).

Torment the Weak in the arcane tree needs a snare for 13% more arcane damage. Is your tank applying thunderclap (warrior) or judgement of the just (paladin), or frost fever (dk)? If you dont have a snare on your dps target you just got 13% more damage nerf right there.

Does your warlock apply curse of elements plus his party buff for spell damage? There is another 10-15% more or less damage for the mage.

Dk's have a debuff that causes 12% more magic damage to a target. Is that debuf on all your targets in an aoe situation or just one? Are you dpsing the correct single target?

Is your shaman dropping proper totem to buff spell casting haste or is he dropping wind furry for the melee? Again, another 10% of your dps.

Are you hit capped?

So, as an arcane specced mage, in a 5 man dungeon, I can do 3K dps or 6K dps depending on what other party members do and its class composure.

Also MageAlert addon still correctly notifies Brain Freeze procs.
Very interesting post... I don't find much anywhere on the Net about builds, rotations, etc, for Instances, heroic or otherwise. All anyone ever talks about is the best raiding spec/rotation for whatever class. As Tobold mentions, not everyone raids and there's real information gap between leveling and raiding.

For myself, I don't intend to raid for various reasons. But especially since we now have the LFG tool, I'll be doing lots of heroics. It seems that every guide out on the web goes from getting you from 1-80 and then telling you what drops you need from the latest raid content. What happens in between?
I can guarantee that arcane will do more damage/dps on trash than frost, regardless of the gear you have equipped.

If there are more than 2 mobs, just rotate between flamestrike and blizzard to do the most damage and dps possible on large pulls. If there are a lot of mobs, you're just wasting your time trying to do a regular arcane rotation. Trust me, do flamestrike, blizzard, flamestrike, blizzard, etc, until mobs are dead.

If it is 1 or 2 trash mobs, just arcane blast each mob until the mobs are dead.

If you are on a boss, you can also choose as to whether you want to use arcane missiles when Missile Barrage procs, or skip it and just spam arcane blast. Remember, you only use arcane missiles *if* you have a Missile Barrage proc. If its just a heroic, your mana pool + evocation + mana gem will be more than enough to allow you to spam arcane blast without arcane missiles or arcane barrage to reset the buff. You'll do more damage/dps.

Arcane is all about using your full mana pool to destroy things. I try to run out of mana after each boss fight (right at the end of the fight of course), and try to use at least half my mana pool for each trash means I maximized my damage and dps done. As another poster said the other day, after you get out of combat, power-drink for as long as you can. Be ready to spam your drink button. Arcane isn't a hard rotation...its all about managing your mana.

Also, I highly recommend making a couple of "burn" macros, that pop your abilities. Make it so the macro pops everything at once; Arcane Power, Icy Veins, Mirror Image, and any use trinkets by the press of 1 button. Pair that macro up with a shaman's heroism, or for the start of a boss fight or long trash fight. You'll substantially increase your damage/dps done using a burn macro on boss fights, or whenever the abilities are off of cooldown. Those three abilities mentioned above are a large part of arcane, so make sure you are actively using them!

And don't forget, mirror image and invisibility drops aggro. So if you are over-aggroing, make sure to use either to drop some threat.

Ultimately, do what you want, its your character. If you prefer frost, then have at it. But I guarantee you if you follow my advice, you'll do a lot more damage/dps as arcane in heroics. I played as frost for 3 years before I tried out arcane, so I understand the comfort zone thing. But if you give it a try and get everything figured out, I think you'll get the hang of arcane and like it.
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