A friend of mine asked for advice on good solo specs for level 80 mages. It doesn't seem like there's much discussion of this question, perhaps in part because daily quests are more focused on travel time than actually killing anything. I don't think my raiding Frostfire spec is very good at soloing, but it's somewhat of a moot point when you consider that, fully raid buffed (including a flask), I have a 40% crit rate and will one-shot many daily quest mobs on a crit. So why am I less than fond of the spec for soloing?
(Note: If you're not familiar with mage specs, I did a bit of a rundown of the major mage specs in my discussion of the new dual spec feature last month.)
Balancing Mana, Health, and Time
When a frost mage is soloing and ends up with more mana than health, the frost mage can turn that excess mana into HP quickly and efficiently by casting Ice Barrier. Indeed, I used to make a point of NOT casting ice barrier to conserve mana by taking damage while solo farming/questing. Recovering from half empty health and mana is much faster than recovering from full health and no mana because the current mage foods regenerate both at once.
When an arcane mage ends up with more mana than health, they might use mana shield, though this is very inefficient, or they might simply break out the big guns. The Arcane Blast combo mechanic, paired with missile barrage, gives the spec the ability to convert mana into damage very quickly, which kills the mob and thus indirectly causes the mage to take less damage. Meanwhile, Arcane mages will have a 2-minute cooldown on evocation, which makes the [Glyph of Evocation] a substantial source of healing. Again, this gives very efficient use of downtime, if you even need any between evocation breaks.
By contrast, the fire mage's mana sink, the talent Hot Streak, triggers only when the mage gets two consecutive critical hits. The very situation in which you would WANT access to extra burst damage - because a mob is hitting you - is precisely the one where you will generally NOT have access to Hot Streak. Maybe this factor is less pronounced with Fireballs than Frostfire bolts, but most solo enemies aren't going to SURVIVE two consecutive crits in the first place (i.e. either it doesn't proc, or it does but the mob is already dead).
(The tables turn in group content, where you will be nuking a large target repeatedly enough to count on using your hot streak proc. Meanwhile, keeping the mage healed in a group is someone else's job, so it's the frost mage's ice barrier that becomes irrelevant.)
Creating the impression of downtime
The frost mage avoids damage through a variety of snares and freezing effects, and by having a pet up 50% of the time. You really don't have to take much damage.
The arcane mage also has several damage avoidance tools, including Slow and access to a wider variety of spells that can be cast while kiting a slowed foe.
The fire mage, by contrast, doesn't have either a snare or the impressive combo between the old form of Impact and Molten armor. Spells like Dragon's Breath, Blast Wave, and the new Impact+Fire Blast buy the mage barely more time than the global cooldown for casting them. Though mobs will occasionally get burnt to a crisp by a single massive crit, I feel like I'm taking more damage. Without either ice barrier or 2-min glyphed evocation, recovering from that damage means sitting and drinking more.
Maybe I'm still killing faster in the aggregate, but it FEELS like more downtime. This is especially true by comparison to the arcane spec, since that short evocation cooldown will count off while you're en route to your next destination.
Considerations for future content
As I discussed in my dual spec post, players in WoW no longer need to choose between a spec that works much more efficiently in a group (such as the Fire and Frostfire specs I avoided for so long) and a spec that is better for some combination of solo and PVP.
On the other hand, it does seem odd that, relatively early in the expansion cycle, it doesn't really seem to matter that much which spec I'm using. If I forget to swap out of raid mode and decided to kill a few mobs using my Frostfire spec, they still die pretty quickly. Perhaps my memories of the TBC era were colored by not having raided, but I really don't remember the combat portion of daily quests getting so trivial so quickly.
I guess this may have been part of the impetus to go to a vehicle interface for the Argent tournament quests. The current quests are equally difficult no matter how good the player's gear is. Still, it will be a bit disappointing if the only solo tasks for my mage to tackle for the next year til the next expansion are little more than fed ex runs, with the occasional stop to loot.