PLEASE NOTE: This guide was written in 2011 and has not been updated since. Some of the information is still applicable, but as far as actually playing the class consider all of this incredibly outdated.
It occurred to me a few days ago that I haven’t actually put anything related to Shadow Priest PvP on the blog since shortly after I first started. Since that’s really the only thing I’ve done on that toon since the time I first got into arenas, I think it’s time I shared some of what I’ve learned.
As Fox Van Allen of WoW Insider was looking for Shadow PvP sources for his article this week, I decided I’d better fire up that speech-to-text software and get my virtual blogging fingers moving.
Getting Your Rear in Gear
The first step of getting into PvP is your gear. If you’re starting from scratch then your quickest method of gearing is crafted gear, which will be consist of pieces from the Bloodthirsty Embersilk and Bloodthirsty Fireweave sets. Overall, the Embersilk set has more pieces with the stats you’re looking for, but you should look at Fireweave as well just in case there are pieces you’d rather have from it (the Fireweave Pants in particular). The only set bonus on these is a 2 piece that grants +400 Resilience, which most likely stacks if you want to grab at least two pieces from each set for twice the bonus.
These new crafted pieces are actually really good, almost as good as the Vicious pieces. While they’re very close in raw stats, even higher in some cases, than the Vicious gear, they have a comparatively weak set bonus and no sockets where the Vicious gear has 8.
From there you’ll have to start your grinds of Honor and Conquest points to purchase better gear. Honor farming will get you the Vicious Gladiator’s Raiment and Vicious Gladiator’s Investiture sets. The Raiment set is the DPS version, and Investiture is the “healer” version. I list both of them because even though the healer version is supposed to be for healers, many Shadow Priests will still prefer it over the Raiment for the 4 piece set bonus since the DPS 4pc kind of sucks.
Blizzard has discussed methods of preventing Priests from getting dual 2pc bonuses by taking some pieces from both sets, but as far as I know they haven’t actually done it yet so you can still double-dip in the Vicious sets, or you can go for the 4pc bonus of your choice. The Raiment gives you Crit, Haste, and Mastery while the Investiture gives you Spirit (Hit), Crit, and Haste. The Raiment 4pc lowers the cast time of your nukes while the 4pc Investiture makes your PW:Shield remove movement impairing effects and make you immune to slows for 4 seconds when cast on yourself.
Regardless of which Vicious set you aim for first, make sure your first purchase is the gloves for an extra 3 seconds off of your Psychic Scream cooldown. Gloves are cheap, and they’re the only piece that offers an additional bonus on top of just raw stats, so they’re your best initial purchase.
Once you start farming your Conquest points via Arenas and Rated Battlegrounds, it’s time to start grabbing Ruthless Gladiator’s set pieces. The set bonuses and which stats are given from which set remain the same as the Vicious set, they just have higher values of the attributes. If you want your gloves to be your first Ruthless purchase instead of your first Vicious, that’s fine as well.
I’d give you a Wowhead link to the Ruthless gear, but those links are a little odd right now. If you want to look at individual pieces then you can do a search for “Ruthless Gladiator’s” on Wowhead and it will pull up the list for you. Once Wowhead gets the items linked right, I’ll add a link to the post, but right now the set bonus is linking back to a set a few seasons ago so I’m going to leave it out for now.
Are You Ready? (Stat Goals)
There are a few stat goals that you want to meet before you get started with PvP, though what goals you have is going to depend on what PvP activity we’re talking about.
If you’re just now getting started and BG’s are what you’re focusing on, then just go in there with whatever you’ve got quick and easy access to. If that’s all PvE gear, that’s fine. If you can get your hands on some crafted pieces or have some Honor points sitting around for Vicious, then grab what you can and keep on going.
If you’re getting ready for Arenas, then you want to shoot for around 1,500-2,000 Resilience before you get started unless you aren’t too bothered by losses. If you’re looking at RBG’s or more serious Arena play, then you want to shoot for a minimum of 3,000 Resilience before you get too serious about them.
Spell Penetration is a pretty big deal. If you’re new to BG’s then whatever you can get is better than nothing. If you’re looking at serious play though, then you want to shoot for the cap of 240. This cap is easy to hit, you can do it with a cloak and a ring, or a cloak and an enchant and call it done, but make sure you don’t skip out on this cap. Only Mages can actually reach that 240 range, while all of the other classes can be covered by just 195. Mages can deal some crazy burst damage though, so I suggest you aim for 240.
Hit is another important stat, and PvP being PvP, the cap on hit is fairly low. Shoot for around 4-5% hit, preferably through the use of Spirit rather than the actual Hit stat so that you’re getting mana regeneration out of the deal as well. A lot of off-set PvP gear will give you the option between a piece that offers Hit and another that offers the same amount worth of Spirit – always go for the Spirit piece. You’re shooting for somewhere between 400-500 Spirit to hit that cap.
Spec’tacular (Shadow PvP Spec)
Above is spec that I prefer to use in the arenas. I didn’t put any points Improved Shadow Word: Pain which other shadow priests often ask about, mostly because I rarely use my DoT spells when doing arenas, which is my preferred method of PvP at level 85. I also didn’t put any points into Paralysis, even though it’s another CC ability, which is another question often asked. This one I don’t use mostly because it’s only situationally useful, and in my arena teams our first kill target is usually a caster which makes limiting their movement worth very little.
Improved SW:Pain isn’t bad if you’re actually using your DoT’s. If I were focused on larger arena teams or BG/RBG’s then I might try to find points I could place there. Paralysis can be good, especially against melee teams or in other PvP settings, I just don’t take it as a matter of personal preference for my 2v2 setups.
I use the glyphs that best fit my playstyle. With 2v2 being my focus, I’m primarily dealing damage via nukes rather than DoT’s and using my glyphs for extra survivability or utility.
Prime: Dispersion, SW: Death, Mind Flay
Major: Psychic Horror, Fade, Mass Dispel
Minor: Fading, Levitate, Fortitude
Dispersion reduces the spell’s cooldown, which is especially useful to me in arenas and RBG’s. SW:Death causes the cooldown to instantly reset itself once per 6 seconds if you cast it on a target below 25% health and it doesn’t kill them, which is almost always when you’re dealing with PvP targets because of Resilience; it’s one of the most important glyphs you can take if you’re going to do arena. Mind Flay is the only damage spell that I use in every match regardless of my opponents or which form of PvP I’m doing, so I take it over SW:Pain because I know I’ll utilize it no matter what.
Psychic Horror is one of the most useful spells we have access to, so reducing it’s cooldown by any amount is worth it to me. Fade is great for reducing the cooldown of its spell which allows me to break movement debuffs with Fade instead of having to potentially waste something more important like Dispersion. Mass Dispel is one I value a lot for reducing the cast time of Mass Dispel down to 0.5 seconds, as the reaction time on removing a Paladin’s bubble can easily be the difference between victory and defeat, and not removing a DK’s ice cubes in time can cost your team a BG match.
The minor glyphs are all pretty boring. I use Fading only because there’s so many freaking Frost DK’s out there right now slowing me every 2 seconds, so reducing its mana cost is a real bonus. Fortitude is for those Purge-happy Shamans out there removing your buffs like nobody’s business, cutting the cost of reapplying the buff in half. Levitate is there just because I hate dealing with reagents and never want to find myself needing to do a crucial BG jump only to find in midair that I have no reagents.
Your Tears Fuel Me… (Crowd Control and Cooldowns)
Arena matches are more or less decided by two things: Crowd Control and Cooldowns.
We have a few different forms of Crowd Control (CC) available to us. First up is Psychic Scream, an AoE fear spell. By default this has a 30 second cooldown, which can be lowered by 4 seconds with talent points, and by an additional 3 points with the PvP Gloves. You can also use the Glyph of Psychic Scream to cause the targets to tremble in place instead of runny around crazily, but it increases the cooldown by 3 seconds. I’m not a fan of using the glyph for this spell, but I do love reducing its cooldown for more frequent use. You can use this spell either defensively, causing melee targets to run away from you or your teammates, or you can use it offensively as a spell interrupt or to get some free cast time on a target while he and/or his healer can’t respond.
Next up is Psychic Horror, a talent-purchased spell that causes the target to tremble in horror for 3 seconds and also disarms them for 10 seconds. The default cooldown on this beauty is 2 minutes, though you can lower it to a minute and a half with the Glyph of Psychic Horror which I definitely suggest that you do. Defensively, I use this to strip melee classes of their weapons and to get some distance from them (or closing that distance if it’s a Hunter). Offensively, I typically cast this on healers to either burn them or their teammate(s) down during the 3 second “stun”.
Next we have, Silence which is semi-CC, I guess. It’s a ranged silence that lasts for 5 seconds. The cooldown is 45 seconds long, and sadly there’s nothing you can do to reduce that. Defensively this is best used on enemy casters, Paladins, or Shamans. You can also use it defensively on Warriors, especially when you see them rushing into a group of your team during BG’s as they’ll often use their Shouts which this will stop. Offensively, this is for healers first and DPS casters second. I typically use this on healers unless I’m facing a Mage, in which case I’ll hit the Mage right after he burns his cooldowns.
Then we have the crowd favorite, Mind Control which lets you take control of an opponent for a few seconds. In BG’s I use this to make people jump off of cliffs, or in AV I like to control the tank or healer while they’re fighting our bosses. In Arena this is best used either to remove a healer while your partner(s) focus the DPS, to force people into Line of Sight (LoS) situations, or in a chain AoE effect. The chain AoE effect is Mind Control (which turns them into an ally), Leap of Faith to pull them to you (which also breaks the MC channel, turning them back into an enemy), and then Psychic Scream to fear them away.
Last on our list is the nearly worthless, Shackle Undead. It’s only useful against Death Knight ghouls in PvP. I see very, very few DK’s in PvP actually using their ghouls right now other than to summon and then immediately sacrifice for health. Power shifts all the time though, so you want this somewhere that you can easily cast it even if it doesn’t necessarily merit its own keybind.
We have a lot of really good cooldowns as well. Some of our cooldowns are also our CC, but here are the others.
Fade doesn’t seem much like a PvP cooldown at first glance, but talents in the Shadow tree cause it to become one. By default its only real use is to make enemy pets drop you as their target, though that typically only works in BG’s against people who don’t really know what they’re doing. The cooldown is 30 seconds, but you can reduce that by 9 seconds with the Glyph of Fade and another 6 seconds with the Veiled Shadows talent. The Phantasm talent in the Shadow tree also causes Fade to remove all movement impairing effects which is why it’s on my cooldowns list. I do use the Glyph of Fade, but don’t get it confused with the Glyph of Fading which just reduces the mana cost.
Fear Ward is a fairly good defensive cooldown, preventing the next fear effect used on the target. It has a 3 minute duration and a 3 minute cooldown, with a glyph that reduces the cooldown and duration by 60 seconds. I don’t bother with the glyph, but I do like the spell itself. The best use of this spell is to use it when you actually need it rather than just starting the match off with it, but it’s hard to judge when your opponents might use a fear and when they won’t so you might want to use it as a starting buff regardless if you’re not good at reading your opponents.
Hymn of Hope is a mana regenerating cooldown, the use of which is hard to really say in a blog post as it can be very situational. It’s a channeled spell that can restore mana to your teammates as well, but because it’s channeled it leaves you vulnerable. If you have a chance to cast it without being harassed then great, but if not then you’re best bet is to get whatever use out of it you can and sick your Shadowfiend on someone either right before or right after you cast Hymn of Hope. Doing this will maximize your mana return. The cooldown on this sucker is a whopping 6 minutes, so don’t expect to be able to use it very often.
Shadowfiend is a really cool mana return cooldown which summons a little shadow monster to go beat up your enemies and restore your mana every time he hits. The cooldown is 5 minutes, but it can be reduced by 10 seconds with points in Sin and Punishment and another 60 seconds with points in Veiled Shadows. The glyph is pretty mediocre, and I wouldn’t suggest it as my Shadowfiend almost never gets killed.
Divine Hymn is an AoE healing cooldown. It’s similar to a Druid’s Tranquility spell, restoring a fair amount of health to targets within range while you channel it. I use it for my 2v2 team every now and then, but most often in BG’s and RBG’s.
Leap of Faith is a fantastic spell, pulling a friendly target to yourself. The cooldown on this one is 1.5 minutes with no way to reduce it. I most often use this to actually save my teammates in arena, pulling them to me followed by a bubble and then a heal if I can afford it and have the time to do so, or to just give them time to run and heal themselves or whatever they can do. However, you can also use this offensively both to pull your melee members over to a target or in a CC combo that I mentioned above which is to Mind Control an enemy, followed by Leap of Faith to bring them to you, followed by Psychic Scream to make them run away. This is best used on healers, but it’s also great for peeling melee off of your teammates.
Dispersion is last up on the list, our keystone talent at the end of the Shadow tree. Dispersion is great for restoring your mana, but it’s also fantastic for breaking out of CC since it removes all roots and snares, and it also reduces all the damage you take by 90% while it’s active. The cooldown on this is 2 minutes, but can be reduced by 45 seconds with the Glyph of Dispersion. I usually use this for the damage reduction, and pretty often for the mana regen as well. I usually cast either a Psychic Scream or a PW:Shield when the effect wears off, depending on the situation. I like to try to force tunnel visioned melee targets to follow me during Dispersion and then CC them where I can LoS their healers before burning them down.
Face Melting (Offensive Spells)
There are two methods of damage dealing that we can use: direct damage and damage over time.
For arenas I almost never bother with DoT’s other than to pressure healers. With so many high-burst classes in arenas right now I have to go with direct damage in 2v2 which means Mind Spike and Mind Blast spam. Using these nukes along with CC, I typically kill my focus target within two rotations unless I’m forced to play defensively. When I’m forced to defense, I will use my DoT’s, but if there’s a healer on the other team I won’t bother unless I can afford the time to cast Vampiric Touch first. I use Mind Flay primarily to set up Archangel procs for mana regen and the damage boost, or to slow melee that are harassing my team, or to slow our kill target if he’s trying to get LoS.
When I’m doing a direct damage rotation I use either Mind Spike x2, Vampiric Touch, Mind Blast, or Mind Spike x3, Mind Blast, depending on my current mana situation. To get the most damage out of this rotation you want to build up your Shadow Orbs (at least 1, 3 if possible) through Mind Flay cast, activate Archangel once you’ve got 5 stacks of Evangelism, and then go to town with the nukes.
In BG’s or in 3v3+ arenas I use my DoT’s all the time to keep pressure on as many people at once as I can so that I can then focus my nukes on the healers. When I’m not in 2v2 arena, I also tend to use the majority of my cooldowns and CC defensively, save for when we’re burning down a healer or a flag carrier in which case I’m likely all offense. If you are going to use your DoT’s, then your optimal rotation is SW:Pain, Mind Flay until you get at least 1 Shadow Orb, Mind Blast, Vampiric Touch, Devouring Plague, and then spam Mind Flay.
Devouring Plague deserves a special mention here because it’s our only source of spammable, instant damage. The mana cost for spamming it is pretty steep, but if you need to kill someone who’s low on health or you need to get them within that 25% range so that SW:Death deals its full damage, then it’s worth the price. Typically, I kill targets with SW:Death casts, and it usually takes two casts to kill someone, but for those times that I don’t manage to finish them off Devouring Plague is the answer.
Shadow Word: Death is how I kill almost every target because that’s what it does and it does it well. With all the resilience and healing that goes on in PvP though, I almost never kill a target with a single cast, I have to have the Glyph of SW:Death to instantly remove its cooldown when it fails to kill so that I can cast it again. When I’m not close to killing someone, and I have spent at least 10% of my mana, I use SW:Death if it’s active to trigger the Masochism talent which restores 10% of your mana when SW:Death fails to kill a target.
Heward’s Handy Haversack (Other Useful Spells)
You get bonus points if you know where that title came from, and extra bonus points if I spelled it wrong and you can prove it.
Some spells that you need to keep in mind whenever you’re doing PvP can be the deciding factor in a match.
Power Word: Shield is one of the few healing-type abilities that we can use that doesn’t kick us out of Shadow Form. In my 2v2 team I’m typically casting this on my partner because everyone loves to focus him while they let me melt their faces. When my partner switches to his other toon in the team though, the rolls are switched. Combining PW:Shield with Dispersion, Fade, Psychic Scream/Horror, and Silence make me one of the best kiting machines around which is often an easy when if we’re facing opponents prone to tunnel vision.
Cure Disease does just what it says, and it too can be cast without breaking Shadow Form. Other Shadow Priests are about the only ones you’ll use this against.
Dispel Magic isn’t quite as great as it used to be (no) thanks to current changes which allow only the healing specs to dispel your teammates. You can either remove two Magic debuffs from yourself or to remove 1 buff from an opponent. I don’t often use this offensively, even though I really should, instead I’m typically defensive with this.
Mind Vision is a spell that so many Priests simply dismiss, but it’s so incredibly useful in PvP. It won’t do you much good in arenas because they’re all so small, but in BG’s and RBG’s it’s fantastic. I use this most often to track down EFC’s so that I can tell my team where the flag is going, or to find my own EFC to know his path so that I can move to assist him. It’s also great for spying on other locations around a map such as Arathi basin or Eye of the Storm, though, allowing me to report on the defenses of each location.
Mana Burn is another spell ignored by the PvE crowd, which means a large portion of the PvP crowd forgets it exists as well. If you’re having trouble bringing down a healer, it’s because you didn’t burn his mana first. It’s especially effective against Paladin healers, but it’s a great spell against any caster. Whether you’re better off burning mana or just nuking someone has way too many variables for me to go over, but definitely do not ignore this spell, especially in arenas.
Holy Nova deserves a mention just to find those stinking Rogues, Druids, and Mages (invisibility). You don’t want to spam this because of its mana cost, but it’s the only proactive method you have to finding stealthers.
Mass Dispel is last up on this list. It’s an AoE dispell that can clear up to 10 debuffs from your team and up to 10 buffs from your opponents. The most important thing to remember about this spell is that it can dispel buffs that are otherwise impervious; namely a Paladin’s bubble and a Mage’s Ice Block spell. Letting a Paladin be immune to everything for 10 seconds is never a good idea if you can help it, nor is allowing your whole team to sit frozen in a Death Knight’s Hungering Cold spell. Mass Dispel can take care of all of that. And don’t forget to use the glyph that goes with it, reducing its cast time from 1.5 seconds down to 0.5 seconds.