(An mp3 I recommend playing in the background while reading this post, or particularly the latter half of it, is Like A Dog Chasing Cars from the Dark Knight soundtrack. It's a good song for listening to where Survival in general is concerned, IMHO...Creates the right mindset. ;-))
Thanks for posting this, especially the part about about knowing your role. I've been trying to adjust to the spec, and it's been frustrating. I know that it's because I just haven't figured it out yet, but I still feel like a dork when the BMs and MMs routinely out dps me. I'm not making the kind of impact you described when you described saving the priest and the party from a wipe.
I had this in a comment from Ardent attached to the post about SV mana efficiency. His frustration is understandable. The common belief among Hunters both on the forum and off is that our role, first, last, and everything in between, is pure ranged DPS. I suspect that also the venerable BRK himself would be nodding and saying Amen at this point. For a BM Hunter, (and to a lesser degree, Marksmanship) he's right.
However, I'll also say that from what I've been seeing him write recently, BRK is actually starting to display an intuitive understanding of what Survival is about as well, and that is greatly appreciated. Given the degree of prominence that BRK has in the WoW-related blogosphere, his depiction of Survival has a lot of potential for influencing people's perceptions of the spec one way or the other; so him understanding the potential value of our role is as important as us understanding what Beast Mastery can do for us in a group.
What BRK has been noting recently (if only in passing and by implication of course, as Survival understandably is not his main area of focus) is that the main area where Survival differs from the other two specs is that the other two specs are predominantly offensive. Survival, on the other hand, is predominantly defensive.
Hence, Ardent is absolutely correct when he notes that in many situations, a Survival Hunter is going to get schooled on the damage meter by a Hunter of either of the other two specs. That's working as intended, and it's just fine; I don't have a problem with it at all.
A point of reference; in WoW earlier, although I was beaten by one particular Alliance shaman, (also level 70) I won the next three out of four duels with a second, and also ended up beating off an Alliance cat form Druid who had surprised me and managed to get in an initial Mangle before I'd started my own attacks. I can also say with certitude that before the introduction of Vanish, Cloak of Shadows, and Resilience, I never lost a single fight against a Rogue as a Hunter, and that many of those were won via hybrid melee.
I also don't do that via greater damage output. Compared to just about anyone else I know of, my damage sucks. PvE, I have topped 1200 DPS, but I need to go close to breaking my wrist to do so. Again, that's just fine.
I do it by keeping the enemy where I want them, and by where appropriate, utilising those abilities (Immolation trap, Serpent Sting, that supposedly "elite" Hunters turn up their noses at) that can deliver regulated and gradual threat, rather than burst, and which also mean that even if I need to spend time dodging, I'm still doing damage to the target. I remember in one particular duel against another Hunter, I managed to first freeze his pet, then apply Wyvern Sting to the Hunter himself, and I then actually paused for a second before continuing to destroy him in order to allow him to appreciate just how utterly powerless he was at that point.
This is a perfect illustration of the exact point. Beast Mastery is about giving you the ability to win, via superior raw damage output. Survival is about removing the ability to win from the enemy, via the utilisation of various tools at the appropriate time.
Survival is thus not about winning a fight purely or primarily due to greater potential damage output than the enemy. Survival is first and foremost about taking inventory of every last one of your abilities as a Hunter, (and having an intuitive knowledge of when the use of each is appropriate) and secondly, is about controlling, in every detail, the execution of a fight from the first step down to the last. Another reason for my adoption of this spec was an early realisation of (and actual enjoyment of) the fact that initial planning is often far more critical to the successful end of a fight than the actual fight itself.
Solo, that means that initially the individual scenario is carefully analysed. Distance and the proximity between mobs (if there are multiple present) is assessed, as is the likelihood of the Hunter surviving the encounter. For this, a realistic assessment of one's abilities is critical, as is the mod Mobinfo-2. Strategy (in terms of a sequence of steps) is planned, a trap is laid in an appropriate place if need be, and the Hunter carefully chooses the appropriate position to commence the fight without drawing the attention of other mobs if they are present. After all of this has been done, then, and only then, is the first arrow let fly. Sun Tzu wrote that winning 100 victories in 100 battles was not the epitome of skill, but rather that winning said 100 battles without fighting at all was the epitome of skill. Although that can't be applied to WoW directly, where it can be applied is in realising that, with Survival anyway, you can actually be far more effective doing less overall damage, if said damage is applied in the correct way.
In terms of groups, that means understanding and accepting that in many scenarios, other members of your group may well have a raw damage output which is substantially higher than your own. It is vitally important to understand here that damage alone will actually quite rarely ensure that a given PvE fight in WoW is won. The most powerful melee character in existence, if outnumbered, will be worn down and crushed, and this is especially true in WoW because of the game tending to favour single mob combat.
Another example; if you've got a sympathetic group, you can ask them to wait for a few seconds while you go ahead a bit in order to find a safe pull. You find a group of three mobs in a room ahead of the current one, isolated from any others. Assuming hypothetically that you don't have a Mage, for a moment, you mark two of them as trap targets, and one of them for tanking and general dps. (Skull) You then tag one of the three with the lowest rank Arcane Shot, pull the three back to the group in the other room, (thus entirely eliminating the possibility of a wipe due to adds) let the tank taunt the Skull target, and draw the other two back to you behind the fight. Taking care not to hit either of the mobs melee, you drop a freezing trap, freezing the first mob. You then immediately hit Readiness, drop the second trap, and freeze the second mob. With talents, this means that both mobs are now locked down for a maximum of 26 seconds.
The tank and primary DPS now have only a single mob to worry about, which they can take care of easily. You can offer them supportive fire, while with the aid of the Kharthus' Hunter Timers mod, monitor the cooldown status of both traps. If you spec for utility rather than straight damage, you will get a three second reduction on the cooldown time of Freezing Trap, which means that you can drop a second trap on an already frozen mob ahead of time, allowing for totally seamless re-trapping.
Another hypothetical scenario. (although you will need an intelligent group for this) While you have mobs 2 and 3 locked down with freeze trap, and the tank and primary DPS are engaging mob 1, something bad happens. You get a patrolling add. Retarget from skull to the add momentarily, fire Wyvern Sting, refocus fire on Skull, and inform the group that the asleep mob is now the next mob to be killed after Skull, rather than the second frozen mob. If the second frozen mob gets loose while the Wyverned add is still being fought, use Distracting Shot and set your pet onto it, while also applying Mend Pet. If you've also got a boar, (the ideal Survival pet for a few different reasons) there is an excellent chance that it will survive until the tank can arrive. Note the intent here is not for the pet to be able to kill the mob, as for it to be able to do so alone is usually an unrealistic expectation. The intent is for the pet to stand as a buffer between the mob and the rest of the group, doing incremental damage until the tank has finished with the previous mob and can thus safely intervene.
Final example from the same fight; the fight ended up going south. The second frozen mob got loose, and it and the wyverned add ended up surrounding the tank. The tank and healer tried their best, but the tank and the primary DPS are now lying cold on the ground. The mob the tank was on is near death; the other has taken a fireball or two to the face as well but is also still alive. Because you've been using both your boar and yourself as a secondary shield, the healer is also still alive, but you're going to have to move quickly if you want her to stay that way. What to do?
Put your polearm away for the moment, break out a pair of these, switch to Monkey, drop an Explosive Trap, hit Deterrence, Blood Fury, and whatever other ap trinkets you've got, and emit a 10 second long primal scream. Focus on dropping the one near death before Deterrence runs out. Once it's gone, grab the other mob with your pet, throw Growl on, feign once the mob is firmly on the pet, and then jump back and kite/shoot.
The mob will die, the Priest will res the others, the BM Hunter or 'lock will still take home first place on the DPS meter, the Warrior will still think he's the most important class in the game, a few of them will still probably think you're a crazy gimp for rolling the low DPS spec that hardly anyone uses, and you'll be lucky if anyone explicitly thanks you. At the end of the group however, the warm, feral sense of satisfaction you'll have in the pit of your stomach will be a little different to that felt by most of the other people who play this game...because even if nobody else says it, (or actually, especially if they don't) you yourself will know damn well who it was that made sure that group finished the instance.