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With current World of Warcraft gameplay, there are 3 basic designs for how talents are spent, and then a good number of variations on some of them. Most specs fall under one of three categories, however:
Each of these styles has their own preferences, and can certainly be used outside of the scope they are primarily designed for, but this is the general flavor players classify hunters under.
Please note that not every player will spend their points exactly like the examples given below. These are just general designs, and often stereotypes. Many personal preferences go into exact builds, however the majority of players will fall within 2 or 3 points of some version below.
Due to the mechanics of Serpent's Swiftness, which has a tremendous impact on hunter shot rotations, Beast Mastery is vastly regarded as the top hunter DPS spec. The additional damage the pet does over other builds is remarkable, but the hunter himself does damage that can usually keep up with a marksmanship hunter when the pets are excluded.
Unlike other builds, beast mastery builds are very cookie cutter. There is only one widely-accepted way to create this build, and very little room for flexibility. In general, a BM build includes:
Builds, which are always (41/20/0), usually look like this. Although there are a few points that can get moved around, the spec is very rigid and should not be considerably tampered with for maximum raid effectiveness. Individuals who use this spec do so for the explicit purpose of generating maximum PvE damage output. These hunters will most frequently use a ravager for a pet, or perhaps a cat. The odd wind serpent does appear from time to time.
This player will want either a weapon with a shot speed of around 2.7 for performing a 1:1 cycle, or as slow a weapon as they can find for a 3:2 cycle. (See shot rotations.) Although they will still want a reasonable blend of normal hunter stats, they may have a slightly elevated interest in attack power since it also directly helps the pet.
Marksmanship builds have slightly superior hunter-only DPS, but fall behind considerably after the pet is considered. However, in PvP where the pet is an afterthought, this build is preferable. Throw in two abilities that can help control the battlefield considerably, and marksmanship is regarded as the best arena spec.
Most marksmanship builds will include the following:
The build, which usually runs as (7/43/11), can be adjusted depending on the needs of the player, however it is pretty much a given that they will go 41-deep into marksmanship for Silencing Shot. The points spent in the survival tree are VERY fluid, and it is not uncommon to dump the beast mastery points into survival as well, for an 0/43/18 arrangement instead.
Marksmanship hunters normally use a scorpion for a pet because the poison will help maintain their stings on other players past a first cleanse. Their weapons are typically slow for maximum single-shot impact, although in arena it is not often a hunter can stand still and shoot. They value longevity stats like stamina and resilience, but mana pool is also a major concern for hunters in PvP.
When a marksmanship hunter focuses on PvE, they are likely to spend their points in very different places, (Improved Concussive Shot is worthless for example,) and their shot rotations usually mirror those of a survival's 1:1.5.
Survival hunters fall under a great many different categories, and it is hard to put a label on them. However, a hunter that chooses survival as their primary tree values utility and support. Survival is the "not DPS" tree for hunters, and although there are a few deeper talents that help a survivalist keep up, they are by no means DPS specialists by comparison. Surprisingly, survival is usually not especially good at PvP either, although it does have some very useful tools.
The centerpiece of survival for most players is Expose Weakness, which adds attack power to anyone attacking the hunter's target. In a raid, this effect can be tremendous, but because it is based on the hunter's agility, it forces survivalists to stack agility at the expense of other attributes.
Because most survival talents are somewhat good, rather than essential vs. non-essential, the list of standard talents on a survival build is not that long. Also, players tend to have a great many different variations on their build under survival, but most frequently-taken talents include:
It is more or less understood that a survival hunter will have Mortal Shots from marksmanship and Expose Weakness from their own tree. This means at least an 0/20/33 build with 8 points leftover. However, the points spent getting to that point, and after that point, are often VERY different.
(0/20/41) is perhaps the most common build, if there is such a thing, since it does a reasonable job of helping the hunter bolster their lower damage levels. Other hunters may choose to put the extra 8 points into marksmanship instead, resulting in a (0/28/33) build. Others still may use (5/20/36) for damage.
Those variations are all for enhancing PvE damage. Some hunters prefer to be a master of the battlefield, and use traps and other abilities to help control the battle. For those hunters, a different selection of talents is often used, normally resulting in a (0/21/40) build that adds Scatter Shot, but leaves out Master Tactician and Readiness for more utility-based talents like Wyvern Sting, Counterattack, and the various trapping talents. This hunter still provides the same Expose Weakness support to a group or raid, but is a very valuable member of 5-man teams.
Survival hunters seek a slow weapon for executing a 1:1.5 shot rotation, and favor agility much more than other specs. The tree is also very crit-dependent, however it has slightly less need for mana regeneration and hit rating thanks to Thrill of the Hunt and Surefooted. They are likely to use the same pets a Beast Master would, however pets have tremendous difficulty holding aggro from a survival hunter due to the way growl functions. As a result, since pet choice is fairly open, another common choice besides ravagers and cats are owls, who generate slightly higher threat with their AE ability Screech, even if they deal 3% less damage.