With the recent round of changes from blizzard which saw beast mastery get a significant buff to improved focus fire (5 percent AP per stack up from 2 percent) and survival get a nice buff to serpent sting (60 percent increase to initial damage) those two specs are now closer in line with markman, which had been the only choice hunters had if they wanted to pull the best numbers.
It seems, based on various sims, that at nearly all levels of current gear the three specs are less and 5 percent apart from each either with marksman actually falling behind in fights with many adds or extremely hectic movement.
Many people will use this as an opportunity to get away from marksman with its caster like feel that sees it have cast times longer than even caster classes have to deal with, and they would not be wrong for doing so now. Just a short time ago anyone not playing marksman was basically doing it wrong. Yes, I have always been a supporter of play what you want, but when the gap was as large as it was that kind of went out of the window.
My Take on Marksman:
Even with the changes I would still personally suggest marksman for most fights. While it might be true that marksman does not fit the feel of being a hunter over the last few years with our rapid fire approach to always shooting and lots of instants, it is still the best raiding spec in many cases for reasons beyond looking at the bottom line of some simcraft numbers.
There is a downside to marksman however, two actually.
The first one is the fact that marksman is very luck dependent. I have always been against specs that rely on luck to do well, but when you get lucky as marksman it really pays off. Still, a luck based spec is a downside in my opinion because whenever you leave your performance up to the random number generator you never know what you will get.
In my current gear if I get lucky with thrill of the hunt procs on the pull I will see myself bust into the 60K range on the pull and I could end a fight upwards of 26K but if I do not get lucky on the pull and have no thrill of the hunt procs I could end that same exact fight at 16K. As I said, a completely luck based spec. Over all however it seems to average out. To say I am currently doing 21K on most fight is fairly accurate. Doing the LFR yesterday, which I did to test things out and practice rotation on a live action training dummy, I did 21K, give or take 1K, on 5 of the 6 fights. So those outliner 26K and 16K, while they do happen, do not happen all the time.
The other downside is the fact that as far as hunter specs go marksman has the highest skill cap thanks to sniper training. Standing still is something hunters have not needed to do for many years so most hunters needed to get used to doing it again, or for the first time if you only started in the last 4 years.
Monitoring and keeping up sniper training can be no easy task on many fights and that is where the skill cap comes in. Not always the skill of playing the class, but the skill of being able to know the fights and remember them so you will know when you can move, how you have to move, and then work in keeping that buff up for the most time. The reason I call this a disadvantage is because sometimes is it just easier to run around and pew pew and there is no denying that.
So with the downsides of being dependent on luck and having a higher skill cap than the other specs and the huge difference in AoE situations where they are low, and it is huge, dragging it down some, why would I still suggest marksman for many fights you might ask.
Raiding should be not so much about high numbers, it should be more about killing bosses and I personally believe marksman can help in ways that other specs can not. On any fight where there are adds that need to die in a timely manner marksman will always be considered a quality choice while single target numbers are so close otherwise. The reason for that is careful aim and the 35 percent kill shot which effectively means a marksman hunter is in some sort of increased execute type range 55 percent of the time. More if you happen to have rapid fire available during the point you are burning down an important add.
Being there are more than a few fights that you will run across adds that need to die this tier that means that marksman has a leg up. While the other specs can cleave them and maybe even end up with better numbers, over all marksman will get the mob down faster single target focusing it.
Marksman is still lacking in instants and the fact that it has long casts and standing still is integral in its game play make it a very unattractive option for some but it is still a solid choice and the right choice, in my opinion, for many fights.
My Take on Beast Mastery:
For anyone that has not played beast mastery this expansion they might be in for a little bit of a little bit of a learning experience when it comes to focus fire and the frenzy buff it supplies, which is the buff that bought beast mastery in line single target with marksman and helped boost its already decent AoE even more.
Last expansion many hunters did not even bind focus fire, some did not even have it on their bars at all. The DPS increase for using it correctly was so small that it was easier to just ignore it than use it for a DPS increase that would be roughly equivalent to squeezing in one extra kill shot over the course of the fight. It just was not worth it unless you were cutting edge and trying to get every tiny little bit you could get and even then it was not always worth it, and hunters much better than I said that, so don't take my word for it.
Now with improved focus fire from the leveling perk and the buff to the improved focus fire not only is it worth binding, it is worth using, and it will be one of the keys to getting the most out of the beast mastery spec. The boost it gives is significant now.
This might mean a lot of people jumping back on the beast mastery bandwagon could be in for a little surprise because they are not used to using this ability appropriately. Some might even forget they had it and not even think to look it up. So if you are going back to beast mastery and not seeing the same numbers you did with marksman, like you believe you should, or at least should be close to, maybe this one ability is why.
For those that do not know how to use this ability, and speaking to many hunters over the years that means most hunters, the simplest way to explain it is this. You want five stacks on your pet during bestial wrath, and you want five stacks on yourself when bestial wrath is over. So build stacks, leave them on your pet until bestial wrath ends, then hit focus fire and take the stacks for yourself while you work on building more stacks for your pet and the next bestial wrath. The key is to never use focus fire before or during bestial wrath. Only use it right after it ends.
If you can get a hang on the frenzy stacks and focus fire switching than you will do fine single target and have the added bonus of much better AoE than marksman has, giving BM a huge advantage in multi target encounters and most certainly on trash.
I still worry, probably because I have not used a pet in raids this expansion so far, about pet pathing. Having played a hunter for so many years I have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of pathing errors in the game, some of which actually hurt hunter DPS. While I have not used a pet this expansion yet, I have tanked, and I have seen a lot of odd pathing while tanking, so I might still question some fights with a pet because of that. I'll leave it to the people that were playing BM already to let people know if there are any fights which there are issues because I can not currently help there as I have no first hand experience with pets in them.
So outside of pet pathing and possible lost time do to pet travel between adds that might be spaced far apart, thanks to the buff there really is no reason why you can not play BM in a raid now. It is fine single target and has solid AoE, which is considerably more than the single target leader marksman.
My Take on Survival:
Survival is what I always said I loved about the wrath hunter model, it is predictable. If you start the fight at 20K you will end the fight at 20K. It does what it does. Small peaks and valleys but nothing like marksman with its all over the place based on luck peaks and valleys. However there is a downside to that which means you have no burst as survival. No matter what you will be doing 20K.
Consistency is nice when you look at it from the point of knowing what you can do but when it comes to target switching you are not exactly going to be in any position to help burn down that mob fast. While I like things being a little less luck dependent it would be nice to see a cooldown of some sort added to survival for some burst on demand.
The buff to serpent sting means that not only does survivals single target move up to be much more respectable, even if behind the other two specs, but so does their AoE by a large margin. As a side effect the cleave ability to survival moves up a great deal. Being you suffer no losses due to movement, like you might with marksman, and no possible pet problems, like would be much worse with beast mastery if there were any, on fights with two targets and lots of movement, like the twin orges, survival can really shine. Keeping a sting running on both while moving all over the place to avoid things can actually make what is usually a very boring rotation a little fun.
The fact that there are no cooldowns for survival means that there are few, if any, chances to totally screw up on your rotation. Each mistake you make would mean less over all DPS loss than it would for say beast mastery timing a focus fire wrongly, or missing some kill commands during bestial wrath or having to deal with the luck of the draw for thrill procs on the pull and throughout the fight for marksman.
With less pressure, fewer chances to make mistakes, complete movement, and still having the ability to play pet less if you choose, survival becomes the perfect beginners spec for any hunter trying to jump into raiding so you can worry more about learning the fight and learning the movement without sacrificing your DPS to do so. Its ease of play and lower skill cap means that survival can easily be seen as the spec of choice for many as it can compete single target even if lower than the other two and excel on cleave and multi target.
Beast mastery still feels like the only finished product in the hunter arsenal, marksman needs some love in the form of instants and smoothing out the luck factor and survival needs some love in the form of on demand burst and some sort of execute but when push comes to shove, you can really play any spec you want because in many cases they will all be within 5%, at most, of each other in most cases, and that is not a bad place to be. Now if only we can boost them all up a little, like 10% across the board, that would be even even better. ;)