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For Priests in World of Warcraft, choosing a spec revolves around the role to be performed. There are two main roles for Priests: Healing and DPS, however there are several differences between different types of specs within those two roles. In general:
Each of the different specs also will have different focuses between the three tree. For example, a Circle of Healing priest will spend their Holy points different than an Improved Divine Spirit priest. These variations may be subtle, but they are at the core of making a proper spec for the role that priest is performing.
Much like other healing classes, Priests are recommended to spec differently for PvE and PvP, even if the role remains the same.
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.
A Circle of Healing (CoH) specced priest well suited for a variety of healing roles. However, they truly shine in situations where several members of the raid are taking damage at once, and especially when those members are within the same group and general vicinity of each other. This build is usually augmented strong amounts of +healing, mana per 5, and spirit.
A typical CoH build Priest would be:
Unlike the CoH spec above, an Improved Divine Spirit (IDS) specced Priest functions best when assigned a single target to heal. Through use of stopcasting macros, pre-casting techniques, and a heavy focus on Spirit, an IDS Priest can sustain tank healing almost indefinitely.
A typical IDS build would be:
Shadow Priests are a unique mix of damage and utility. They are highly sought after for raid slots due to the mana return they provide through Vampiric Touch. It is also considered the best leveling spec, as the high DPS along with shortened downtime allows for efficient grinding and questing.
In general, a raiding Shadow build will look like:
The hit cap is the term where adding more hit rating will no longer improve a character's chance to land a successful attack or spell on the mob. Shadow Focus translates directly into hit rating at roughly 25 points per talent rank. Starting backwards with 5/5 Shadow Focus, a Shadow Priest's hit cap is 76 hit rating. Every time the priest's hit rating raises by 25, they can safely remove one point out of Shadow Focus and place it elsewhere.
Leveling as Shadow will give the player a different set of priorities and therefore the spec will be different. The key changes are:
"Smite spec" is mostly a theoretical build that many Priests have toyed with over time. The basis of it was the judicious use of Smite and Holy Fire to drive a mage style DPS. Theoretically, the pure burst DPS from this spec can be on par with or possibly greater than similarly geared "pure-DPS" classes. However, there is little to no efficiency nor is there any utility offered by this spec.
Smite speccing varies widely, however a typical one may look like: