So, Khizzara, of [Blog of the Treant] wrote a very cool post building upon some things I wrote about earlier. Now, like the blog equivalent of a Prayer of Mending bouncing back and forth, I'm going to write a post inspired by what she wrote.
I very much enjoyed her recounting experiences as a vocalist and how practicing that can be applied to practicing healing. She then provided an excellent list of tips on how to proceed...and that list inspired me to try to formalize an approach to first reducing your toolkit to a manageable, but still usable, level and then adding layers of sophistication.
To some extent, this is for those who would like to start healing...but I think formalizing things can provide benefits even to those who are veterans. I am reasonably veteran as a healer, but I found this a useful exercise and it paid dividends when trying to raid at a high level with an alt healer of a new class.
Edit: Let me make a clarification at the outset, based on some feedback that I've received. This is not meant as a priority guide. The steps of this guide are not meant to display the order of your most important spells, nor your most used spells. That isn't the mapping I am aiming for. The idea was to create clusters of logically connected spells (in my opinion, of course) that don't create an overload of concepts at any one time but hang together reasonably successfully. Once you understand your entire toolbox, you should be discovering for yourself which spells are most effective for you to use most often and when to employ them. This guide is meant to ease you into your toolbox in what I view as the simplest way while still getting you into your entire toolbox.
Reduce Your Toolkit To Only The Needful
Forget your longer cooldowns. Go on, just forget them. They don't exist. They're gone. (By "longer cooldowns," I mean anything longer with a cooldown that is more than around 30 seconds.)
Cooldowns will be important, but they're an added level of complexity that you don't need to start with.
Of your remaining spells, focus on three as your core:
1. Your slow, cheap, weak heal. This is Heal for priests, Holy Light for paladins, Healing Wave for shamans and Nourish for druids.
2. Your slow, expensive, big heal. This is Greater Heal for priests, Divine Light for paladins, Greater Healing Wave for shamans and Healing Touch for druids.
3. Your fast, expensive, moderately large heal. This is Flash Heal for priests, Flash of Light for paladins, Healing Surge for shamans and Regrowth for druids.
With just these spells, you can conceivably heal a Cataclysm dungeon on normal mode. And if you're just starting out, you should start in a normal, no matter your gear level, just to get acquainted with your spells. It's not optimal to just use these three spells, but they are robust enough to get the job done in a normal dungeon. In a heroic, it would be very difficult to use just these spells...but even then, it's possible if the tank marks kill order, CC is applied and everyone does their job. So, on second thought, no, it's impossible.
These three spells, though, can be practiced outside a group setting, sitting in Orgrimmar or Stormwind. Get thee to the training dummies, injure yourself (hop on your flying mount, fly up a little and dismount) and attack a dummy to ensure you're using combat mana regen and not out-of-combat regen. The main thing is to get a sense for how fast the spells "feel" (numbers are numbers, but as I said in a previous post, you need to develop a feel), their effect on your health and their effect on your mana pool. Experiment and get a sense for how much each can be "spammed" and effective mixes of each spell that allow you to maintain your mana pool for different lengths of time.
Adding A Layer Of Complexity: Flavor
So you understand your core, the spells you can always fall back on. However, the real power of healers comes with the spells that they can sprinkle in around the core. Spells that are meant to be used regularly but aren't meant to be spammed nonstop. I call the the "flavor spells." These spells give each healing class their unique flavor.
Let's look at the most commonly used flavor spells.
Priests have two specs, discipline and holy. Discipline is going to be making heavy use of Power Word: Shield and Penance, while Holy is going to be making heavy use of Renew and Circle of Healing. Both specs should be utilizing Prayer of Mending whenever possible.
Druids have a few spells that could fit into this category, but I'm going to suggest focusing on three of them to start with: Wild Growth, Lifebloom and Swiftmend (be sure to notice the Efflorescence effect from your talents).
Paladins have Holy Shock, Word of Glory and Beacon of Light as key flavor spells.
And finally, our shaman wolves have Chain Heal, Riptide and Earth Shield.
Let me take a moment here to clarify something: This is not a "how to heal as a paladin/druid/shaman/priest" or even a "how to heal" piece. I certainly have my opinions on that, and there is a ton of content on the internetz on those topics. My aim here is to help you narrow your focus at first and then gradual widen your scope as a healer, as it regards your toolbox. So I won't be going through how precisely to use each of those abilities. I've simply highlighted the spells that, in my opinion, you should be focusing on as your "next layer" after mastering your three core heals.
So really study the tooltips on those spells for your class and glance through your talents for any additional effects that your talents might provide for any of those spells (I gave an example of one for the druidic arts). Get a solid sense of what each of those spells and think about when each spell would be most useful and when it would be least useful. For example, Chain Heal: this is clearly maximized when four injured targets are within the spell's jump range of each other. This spell is minimized when just one person is hurt (leaving out the trivial case, in almost every spell's case, of no one at all being hurt).
That's an easy and obvious example, but going through each spell and really understanding when it's maximized and minimized builds structure in your mind that you can apply to novel situations. If one or two people are hurt, that's too close to the minimization scenario of chain heal, so you don't need to spend time calculating the healing you'll do versus the mana and time you'll spend...you can guess immediately that it's not the best spell and not use it. Five people are hurt? Well, that's very close to the maximization scenario, so fire it off and see where you are after that. You don't want to get stuck, as I've explained in a previous post, cogitating on what spell to cast next, weighing the pros and cons and mathing it out. You have to have a "feel" for what comes next. Forcing yourself to identify simple characteristics of each spell you have, like maximization and minimization scenarios, helps you develop that feel.
Weave these spells in around your core heals. Always fall back on your core heals when you're unsure of what to do but you know you must do something. Stay on the look out for good opportunities to use your flavor spells. Your core heals are trusty vanilla...your flavor spells add the sparkling sprinkles whenever the situation calls for more than vanilla. Swirl them into the cool delicious....mmmm, ice cream.... what were were talking about again?
You now have six spells in your arsenal, acquired through two steps. Neither step involved learning a large contingent of spells. Further, you now have enough in your active toolbox to heal a heroic. It will be hard, especially at first, but you have the tools to get it done. You aren't maximizing the potential of your class yet, of course, and the result is that some people will die that wouldn't have if you had mastery of every spell...but trying to jump in and effectively use ten spells that are new to you, in the fast-paced environment of heroic dungeon healing, will likely lead to more deaths and potentially some trauma for you. A lot of people try to pick up a new role and, not being sure of what to focus on, use everything badly, feel like a failure and quit. Don't let that happen to you!
The Filler Spells
I feel bad. I've given some very great and noble spells a pretty lousy name. "Filler"...as if they were the pork anuses and chicken snouts that fill in your hotdog. I couldn't think of a more dreamy name for them that was usefully descriptive, though. These are the spells that you should be turning to when you've internalized the above six spells and can use those six spells quickly without having to think much. They should bore you, like a teenager who can parallel park and and drive from stoplight to stoplight without incident. "Give me more, man!" you should be thinking. "Let me open this thing up on the open road and slice through the wind like a...wind-slicing...thing. That goes fast." That is what you should be thinking if you're moving on to the next step.
So get a load of these spells, spells that fill in the gaps around your core heals and flavor spells. They occupy niches and are unlikely to be spells you want to use constantly, usually for mana reasons. But not always.
Priests should be eying Prayer of Healing and Binding Heal.
Paladins should study Holy Radiance and Light of Dawn.
Shamans should research Healing Rain and Unleash Elements.
Druids should scope out Rejuvenation and, um...that's all. Hey, what can I say...some classes have slightly smaller toolboxes than others.
Some of these spells are used more often, some are used less often. Mana cost, length of cooldown and effectiveness will dictate to you how often you use them, but none are essential to making it all the way through a dungeon. All of them are essential to maximizing your healing potential, which will keep deaths to a minimum in a dungeon setting and will matter a great deal whenever you decide to hit the raiding circuit. So once you're very comfortable with your Core Heals and Flavor Spells, start mixing in some Filler Spells. Every great chef will tell you that the best dishes require some filler.*
*May not be true of many, or any, great chefs.
Hey, Cool Down, We're Not Done Here
Remember those long cooldowns I told you to forget? Something about them being gone? Well, they're back. In pog form.
Cooldowns are the final frontier of the healing game. It's where good healers become elite and elite healers discover they can do more with their lives than wasting it playing World of Warcraft. Cooldowns, to put it another way needlessly, are where you take it to another level.
This is not for beginners. These spells take uncommon flair, brilliance and subtlety of mind. The uninitiated, the unready, can have their minds warped just as surely as gazing unprepared upon the home world of Cthulu*. Needless to say, we're getting into serious juju here.
*Cthulu is my neighbor's dog. My neighbor's apartment is positively filthy. I shudder to even think about it.
Holy priests need to figure out Chakra and what it converts your Holy Word spell into.. Discipline priests need to wrap their minds around Power Word: Barrier. Both species of priests need to master the fine art of singing away the hurt: Divine Hymn and Hymn of Hope.
Paladins, well, you have about a thousand types of Hand spells and Protection spells. Often they're named the same with little accent marks differentiating them. Learn them, live them, employ them. And don't forget Lay on Hands. Or Avenging Wrath. Or Guardian of Ancient Kings. Or Divine Plea. So, basically, paladins don't heal, they merely cooldown. Or something.
Druids have Tranquility and Tree of Life. And, technically, Rebirth. They also have Nature's Swiftness if they choose (so do shamans...Blizzard's design team sometimes needs an afternoon off, after all).
Shamans, in addition to having the aforementioned druid cooldown if they choose to take that talent, have Spiritwalker's Grace. (I'm not going to get into the non-healing-related cooldowns, so Tremor Totem and Bloodlust will not be mentioned. At all. Besides, if I mentioned Bloodlust, then I'd have to field complaints from weirdos who call it "Heroism." Best not to rile those people.)
Okay, We're Done Here (i.e. The Big Finish)
I have not hit on every single spell a healer might employ. This isn't meant to be a complete compendium of healer spells for each class. I've largely included the ones that feature the most, but you should dig around in your spellbook and look at talents and figure out other creative applications of spells. I haven't even gone into Atonement healing for discipline priests (smite your friends to better health) or Telluric Currents mana regeneration for shamans (lightning bolts are weaponized mana).
The main idea here is to start small and build larger and larger towers of healing expertise. I tried to lay out a logical plan for where to start and how to grow. This may work for you or it may not. The general concept is paring down to essentials and building from there, ensuring that you always have enough tools to survive but not more than you absolutely need at each phase of development.
However, you may be the type that likes to put everything in your spellbook on your bars, queue up and see what happens. If that is you, I salute you. We can't all drink Mountain Dew, though.