I've gone back to my roots and started levelling a second priest to help build a new guide for first-timers.
I wrote my first levelling guide back in February 2008. It began with five points in wand specialisation and recommended a healthy stack of spirit on early gear. That was the golden age of priest levelling, when wands hit like trucks and it was virtually impossible to run out of mana.
But talents that once shone in early levels have now either lost their lustre or vanished altogether as an unfortunate consequence of Blizzard's end-game balancing act — which is a shame, considering how much trouble they have gone to in other areas to improve the levelling experience (for 'improve', read 'speed up').
Rolling a priest now is a bit like rolling a mage — but without the nukes or free water.
The early years
When Lanchester crawled out of her tomb she had a mace and knew only how to smite, which is a kind of ranged tickle. Smite had a long cast time and did marginally more damage than the mace, at the cost of half her mana bar. At level 4 she leared shadow word: pain, and at level 6 she got power word: shield, neither of which helped us kill things much, but both spells proved marvellous mana dumps.
Thus it was that while limping round Death Knell the true cost of the mana regeneration nerf first began to dawn on me. We all looked at it as level 80 raiders, never giving the poor schmucks stuck grinding the barrens a second thought.
Levelling priests in the past have been able to rely on their natural mana regeneration to minimise down time and compensate for their steady dps. Even base mana regeneration was enough to replace a mana bar in a few seconds — the time it takes to set up your next target, say. But with Lanchester, I found myself drinking regularly in-between pulls, even at levels 3 and 4.
The nerf to out-of-combat regen has hit low-level priests hardest of all, so it's good to see that Blizzard are at least revisiting this issue.
At about level 5, we ran out of starter quests and set off into the wide world. The first thing we did was get a lesser magic wand. Our wand had a higher dps than our spells. We sometimes shielded, set the wand and nipped out for a cup of tea. We think somebody got the item levels of wands wrong somewhere along the line but hope nobody important notices.
Wands were the only fun thing about the next five levels. We still used spells, but more out of habit than effectiveness. Massive amounts of wanding was the only thing standing between us and a drinking problem.
We learned a new rank of smite at level 6, renew at 8 and - thank god - mind blast at 10. Like an old woman with corns, we crawled our way to talent points.
We bought some extortionately priced auction house greens, stacking spirit and intellect. We dropped our first three talent points into spirit tap. We settled into a comfortable pattern of nuke > dot > shield > wand that left us well outside the five-second rule when spirit tap kicked in and we stretched back to watch the mana roll in (we'll come back to these things another time). Nothing happened.
Well ok, something happened. We got the green hand icon and I presume the tooltip was correct but the effect was utterly underwhelming. We persevered for another seven levels, stacking as much spirit and intellect as is inhumanly possible from uncommon cloth on a budget, but at level 20 we finally accepted that the glorious days of unending mana were over.
This is when we learned devouring plague and holy fire - this latter the spell equivalent of a St Bernard. Finally something that did higher dps than our wand. And it got slightly easier. Shame about the cooldown.
From here on out it's never as hard as the first twenty levels again, though you won't really be able to relax until shadowform at 40 and you are going to spend more time drinking than seems quite reasonable. You will get very, very bored of wanding and resent the fact that killing things any other way takes almost as long and most of your mana bar. There will be a time — several levels, in fact — where you will despair of your talent choices and wonder why spend them at all. You will think it can't possibly be this boring as a mage or a warlock and darkly contemplate re-rolling. But you won't, because at level 40 you learn shadowform, you get a new button, which makes a delicious hiss and turns you a creepy purple colour, you will look cool in anything, even eye-wateringly ugly Outland greens, it will get much easier to kill things and, you may hope, even a little bit fun.
I'll get to the practical stuff next, I promise :)
2 days ago