While summoning people to the raid last night, a guildie asked me if I do requests.
"What?" I asked. "For your blog, do you do requests?" "Oh!" I said, "Sure!" She asked me to write about non-BM hunter leveling for, if I remember correctly, "non-stupid people".
Man, it's so nice when topics just sort of appear out of thin air. Thanks Jove!
To start with, I have to say that leveling a hunter as SV or MM is going to be a lot like leveling one BM: easy. Wait. I mean, that's true, it's a really great leveling class, but not what I was thinking. The thing is, all the different specs are going to be looking for the same stats on their gear, and the talent trees don't even really start to differentiate themselves until about level 40, when they each start to be able to get into some defining abilities (Trueshot Aura, for example). Not only that, but the way you're spending your talent points while leveling is fundamentally different from the way you're spending them as an end-game raider. For a raiding hunter, if a talent point doesn't make you do more damage, it's worthless. While you're leveling though, you're primarily looking for quality of life talents.
That's why BM is so popular: it has things like Improved Mend, Improved Revive, Pathfinding, and Spirit Bond. A cheaper hot for my tank that cleanses debuffs? Faster resurrection if she dies? Just plain old being faster? Free passive healing? Yes please!
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's back up and take a look at the hunter basics and then see where those take us.
First off, the biggest thing you should be looking for on your shiny new hunter is agility. It gives you AP and crit at the same time, and even some dodge and armor for the inevitable times when leveling when something is going to be hitting you. Heirloom items will help a lot with this, but even if you can't get those because this is your first WoW character or you don't have the emblems or shards on your main, you can do perfectly well by checking the auction house regularly. If this is your only character, pick up a gathering profession or two and finance your gear that way. Every couple levels, when you head back to a capital to see a trainer, check the auction house for stuff in about a 6-level spread around your current level. You're looking for items of the Monkey, of the Falcon, of Agility and later, of the Bandit. Try not to let any particular slot go more than 6 or 7 levels out of date. This will help a lot, and you don't have to bother with it any more often than you have to go train new skills anyway.
A lot of new hunters post on the official class forum asking what pet they should use for leveling. Answers are various, but the two main camps are ferocity ("does more damage!") and tenacity ("tanks better!"). I'm a member of the tiny minority that agitates for people to choose the pet they think looks coolest.
I'm serious! If you think Mazzranache is the cutest thing ever, then break out the birdy snacks and make friends. The reality is that it honestly doesn't matter too much which pet you use, especially at the lower levels. Before you start getting into that 40+ range, a lot of what you're going to do is auto shot. In fact, here's a handy soloing macro:
/petattack /cast hunter's mark /cast auto shot
If you occasionally want to use serpent sting or arcane shot, that's fine, but using them on every mob will mostly just drain your mana.
If you're indifferent to pet appearance and just want one to make things easier, then by all means, go with a tenacity pet and get Thunderstomp as soon as possible. The number one killer of leveling hunters is when you accidentally get a bunch of mobs and, if your pet doesn't have an AoE threat ability, mend pet ends up pulling them with heal aggro and getting you killed. Thunderstomp can make the difference when that happens.
That mostly concludes the general hunter leveling advice, so on to talent tree specifics. Of the two trees other than BM, I'd go with marks over survival to start with. The lower-level talents in the marksmanship tree are so fundamental to hunter damage that every raiding spec since BC has taken 15-20 points in the marks tree. The low-level talents in the survival tree, on the other hand, are mostly about PvP utility and survivability. The thing about leveling as a non-BM hunter is that you're a lot less worried about your pet's ability to tank things because you plan on killing them a lot faster, and marks helps you do that from the very start.
Your first five points can go into Lethal Shots. Crit is hugely powerful at low levels, and you can easily find yourself killing on-level mobs in 2-3 auto shots.
5/5 Mortal Shots makes those occasional arcane shots count, 5/5 Efficiency keeps you from having to drink, and on down the line.
If I were leveling a hunter as marks, my talent spec would look like this at level 40: 0/31/0. You may notice I haven't picked up Careful Aim yet, even though it looks like a great talent. In fact, it is a great talent, and is absolutely required of any raiding hunter spec. Hunters wear leather until level 40, though, so there's just not going to be a whole lot of intellect on their gear. Even after 40, in fact, your gear is just not going to have a whole lot of intellect on it. I would recommend holding off on those talent points until you've got a few drops from, say, some Outlands dungeons.
The next big talent you're going to want - and this is huge for solo leveling - is Rapid Recuperation. Since you're going to be frequently killing things that grant experience, you'll have the rapid recup mana regen buff happening pretty much constantly. Between this and efficiency, you shouldn't have to drink very often at all. You can get this talent filled out once you hit 46. By the time you hit 60, your talent tree should probably look something like this. It's skipping a lot of those upper tier marks talents because most of them interact with steady shot in some way, and your instant-cast, talented arcane shot is going to fulfill most of your mob-killing needs.
Your first major glyph at 15 should absolutely be Glyph of Hunter's Mark, since the AP bonus stacks additively with the bonus from your improved hunter's mark talent points. Your next major glyph should be Glyph of Mending, since it goes a long way towards giving marks some of that quality of life you're missing from the BM tree.
At 60, you've got a couple choices. You can stick with the marks tree, at which point I'd start branching out into the other two trees to pick up some of their goodies, things like Hawk Eye and Improved Aspect of the Hawk, always remembering that you're less worried about your pet tanking things and more about killing them before they reach you.
Alternatively, at 60 you could respec to survival and pick up Explosive Shot. I took a long break from WoW starting at the end of BC and ending about a month before 3.1 came out. When I came back I specced into survival and went from 70 to 80 in a pretty short time span. Explosive shot is a truly excellent leveling ability and has the added benefit of being a little less gear dependant than the things marks hunters use. Once you've got ExS, you could probably change your old attack macro to:
/petattack /cast hunter's mark /cast explosive shot
and be just as well served. I would still probably glyph hunter's mark and mend pet, but I could see replacing either of those with the glyph for explosive shot.
Sometime shortly after 60, you should definitely pick up those points in careful aim, regardless of which tree most of your points are in. Even if you do have a tenacity pet, be careful around densely packed mobs: without the ability to heal ourselves or deal meaningful melee damage, hunters are extremely vulnerable to large packs. Feel free to experiment with talent points while you're leveling. Read the tooltips and, if something seems like it would be neat, useful, or fun - try it out! You can always respec, and you're leveling anyway. Quality of life and fun are always going to be more important while leveling than the optimum theorycrafted DPS.
If you can afford heirloom items, I would at least consider getting the heirloom bow before anything else. The delay on getting the experience bonus from the shoulders and chest will be made up for when a single white-damage crit kills an on-level mob for you.
Ok! Now head on out there and roll a hunter, y'all. There's never been a better time to level one.