/wave WowInsiders! :)
Here's a little secret about Shaman: we're totally OP in PvE. We can melee with the best of 'em, sling deadly spells with the best of 'em, and certainly heal with the best of 'em. (And sometimes, do all three in the same encounter!)
But there's more... we have totems, too! These portable buff givers are the very thing that define our class and make us the "swiss army knives of WoW."
The four types of totems we have match the elements: earth, fire, water and air. Generally these map to defensive, offensive, restorative and hastening (but not always). Lets break down totem usage by level ranges:
Early on we're introduced to the concept of totems, starting with Stoneskin (a nice armor buff for lowbies rocking leather armor). For most encounters through level 9, Stoneskin works great, but get used to dropping Earthbind for slowing runners or in PvP, and Stoneclaw for when you've overpulled a mob or two - it's our only "CC" (crowd control) until Hex at level 80.
At level 10 we gain two important totems: Strength of Earth and Searing. This era marks the transition towards DPS-centric thinking (ie: down the mobs before they down you!). SoE will be
used all the way to endgame, and should be your default earth totem. Use Searing with a bit of caution, it has a mind of it's own! Here's a handy macro for this level range:
/castsequence reset=combat/9 Strength of Earth Totem, Searing Totem, Healing Stream
The idea is that you'd press the macro twice to get the first two totems, and only use Healing Stream (gained at level 20) when really needed, to save on mana. This "only use what you need" theory continues for the rest of your soloing efforts, but remember in groups you will be expected to (and should whenever possible) drop all four totems.
Level 18 brings one of our most important situational totems, Tremor. Arguably the number one reason to bring a Shaman to your heroic, this totem will clear fear effects, hopefully keeping you and your party mates from running straight into another pack of mobs. Learn which mobs fear and always have it down for those fights.
Also in these levels we get our first cleansing totem, Poison Cleansing, and our first resist totem, Frost Resistance. Start using these early to get a feel for when they should be used. (you may find resistance totems unnecessary until very specific encounters, but practice anyway) Later in life we also get Disease Cleansing, Fire Resistance and Nature Resistance.
At levels 26 and 28 we gain our default water and fire totems: Mana Spring and Flametongue. For soloing, you may still opt to use Searing over Flametongue, but otherwise you can evolve your totem macro to something like this:
/castsequence reset=combat/9 Mana Spring Totem, Strength of Earth Totem, Searing Totem
Note the shift of Mana Spring to the front in order to maximize mana return during the fight.
Level 30 brings the very important Totemic Call, an ability that lets you kill all your totems and return a portion of the mana spent on casting them. Also at 30 you gain a very nice PvP/anti-caster totem: Grounding. At 32, Enhancers gain their default air totem: Windfury, a nice haste buff for yourself and all the melee in your group.
During this level range you've likely set on either leveling melee or caster, and since you don't always need to drop all four totems while soloing, we've moved the important ones up front:
/castsequence reset=combat/9 Strength of Earth Totem, Magma Totem, Windfury Totem, Mana Spring Totem
(this will be your default set all the way to endgame!)
/castsequence reset=combat/9 Flametongue Totem, Mana Spring Totem, Strength of Earth Totem, Windfury Totem (the last two being mostly for other's benefit)
For those healing-focused, at level 40 you'll gain Mana Tide Totem, but given it's powerful-but-short mana restoration you'll likely want to use it situationally rather than in your default totem set.
At level 50, Elementals can gain the signature Totem of Wrath, and should be used instead of Flametongue from now on:
/castsequence reset=combat/9 Totem of Wrath, Mana Spring Totem, Strength of Earth Totem, Windfury Totem
At 64, Elementals can finally get excited about their own hasty totem, Wrath of Air, and can finalize their default macro set to one that will be used all the way to endgame:
/castsequence reset=combat/9 Totem of Wrath, Wrath of Air Totem, Mana Spring Totem, Strength of Earth Totem
Restos can also finalize a similar set, just with Flametongue instead of Wrath.
At 66 and 68 you gain two awesome situational totems: Earth Elemental and Fire Elemental. Earthy acts as your own personal tank, allowing us to solo elites or taunt mobs off squishies (remember he can be healed, too!). Fire Elemental can add a nice amount of DPS, handy for when you lose a DPS or two and need to push damage.
Cleanup on aisle six!
As mentioned, way back at level 30 we received Totemic Call, important not only for the mana return but also for killing off the totems. Mobs can and will aggro off your totems, so it's important to pick up after yourself! Don't be "that guy!"
(prior to level 30 you can just manually right-click the individual totems under your name plate)
Personally I like YATA (yet another totem addon), as it creates a simple totem bar and a handy set of totem timers. This in conjunction with my default totem dropper macro seems to cover all my totemic bases.
Update: I realized the macros I had previously listed didn't totally match what I was using in-game (notably the reset timer), so I updated the above to reflect 9 seconds on each. The thinking here is that on fights that require movement, sometimes you want to relocate your totems to your new spot - and therefore want your most powerful totems down first in case you can only spare a global cooldown or two.