Totems are the class-defining feature of Shamans. No other class can provide the number and variety of buffs to a party that a shaman can. That, of course, is the upside to totems. The downside is that they're stationary and they have very little health both of which make using them in PvP somewhat problematic. In PvE, however, these shortcomings can be easily managed and can bring a great deal of utility to groups and raids.
Shaman totems are tied to the four elemente: Earth, Fire, Water and Wind. In order to use the totems associated with a specific element, the shaman must have the associated totem in their bags. (for a breakdown of available totems by element, please see the Shaman_Abilities page). Shamans unlock an element's abilities and receive the totems via quests that are obrained from the shaman trainers at set levels:
A note about Totemic Call: This spell returns the 25% mana cost regardless of if there's 2 seconds remaining on the totem or 75 seconds. The best time to use this is just before the totem(s) are going to self-destruct. In fact, it's often better to use Totemic Call instead of simply letting the totems expire just for the mana return. It's not a lot, but what it means is that the next drop of totems costs 25% less.
Using totems when soloing can make a big difference to survivability as well as add significant DPS. However, depending on what the Shaman is doing, it's not always necessary. This is something that's commonly unclear to newer shamans: it's not necessary or required to use totems all of the time for every fight, particularly prior to level 30 when Totemic Call has not been learned. If the shaman is highly mobile, running through an area, totems can actually be a waste of mana with very little return.
Most totems use between 5 and 8% of the shaman's total mana. Putting down 2-3 of them can thus consume between 15 and 24% of total mana for a little damage reduction/Mana or Health return if they're only used for a single mob. The best thing to do is to set up what's commonly referred to as "totem camps". Since many of the buffing totems last 2 minutes, the way to get the most use out of that two minutes is to place the totems in a strategic area that mobs can be pulled to. What totems are placed is entirely up to the Shaman and the situation. If the mobs are doing heavy melee damage then Stoneskin and Healing Spring totem may be good choices. However, if the shaman is going for more DPS than survivability then Strength of Earth and Mana Spring may be better options. These are by far not the only two options, any combination of available totems can be used to fit the player's specifc scenario.
A note about the Searing Totem: This totem should be used with caution. It's relatively cheap and can add some nice DPS to battles. However it reacts like a very stupid warlock imp. Meaning this totem is always aggressive and will attack any enemy that wanders into or is positioned within its radius - whether the Shaman would draw aggro from that mob or not. Sometimes this is desirable, a shaman can stay within the center of the totem camp and pick up the mobs that the searing totem has pulled right after a mob has been killed (but make sure to pick it up before the mob hits the totem as it only has 5 health). However this can be a drawback if the fight that just ended left the Shaman with depleted health and/or mana and isn't ready for another battle. Post level 30, a quick click on Totemic Call can pretty much eliminate this danger but prior to that, it can be a problem.
Shamans can bring a huge amount of utility to groups though it should be noted that many groups themselves don't know how to take advantage of them. They'll drag mobs out of the radius of the totems causing the shaman to have to reposition them or they'll not bother to pull the next batch back within range. It's possibly to try to talk to the group about this, but it's more likely that they'll still continue doing what they were doing so it's up to the Shaman to make sure that the correct players are in range of the correct totems, which means a lot of repositioning of totems during group play.
It's important to stay on top of this repositioning. While shamans can do some great DPS and even cover some off-healing role, the totems and their buffs are what brings the most utility to the group. Remember, too, that the untalented range of totems is only 20 yards while most ranged/caster DPS classes and healing classes have a 30 or more yard range to their spells and abilities. This means that it's possible, if all totems are dropped together, that the ranged or melee may be out of range of the totems if they're not placed carefully.
How this is accomplished is up to the shaman. All totems can be placed midway between the ranged and melee party members to ensure that all players get the effects. But beware that there is one totem that should never be placed anywhere near the tank (and this Melee DPS): the Tranquil Air Totem. Placing this totem so that the tank receives its effects is just the same as not placing the totem at all. It needs to be far away from the tank to ensure that only the DPS receives the threat reduction.
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