With so much gear flying around these days, it can be rather confusing trying to interpret tier levels, what level of content they're intended for, and what they mean for your toon. Let's take a look at the current state of tiered gear (Patch 3.2):
- Tier 7: entry-level raiding sets (Naxxramas, Obsidian Sanctum, Eye of Eternity, Archavon). Comes in T7 (10-man) and T7.5 (25-man) versions. Purchasable with deprecated Emblems of Heroism. Since Patch 3.2, there's generally better gear to be had for Emblems of Conquest, so I wouldn't worry about farming this gear if you're a new 80.
- Tier 8: Ulduar-level raiding sets (Ulduar, Emalon). Comes in T8 and T8.5 flavors. Helm and chest pieces are purchasable with Emblems of Conquest, which drop in heroics and most raids. New 80s will usually want to pick up these two tiered pieces first. There's also a plethora of non-set gear in this range that's quite good.
- Tier 9: Icecrown-level raiding sets (yet-to-be-seen Icecrown Citadel, Trial of the Crusader, Koralon). Comes in three levels (T9, T9.33 and T9.66):
T9 pieces are purchasable with Emblems of Triumph (daily heroic dungeon quest, Trial of the Crusader, Koralon).
T9.33 are purchasable with EoTs plus special tokens that drop from 25-man TotC.
T9.66 tokens drop from heroic 25-man TotC (and presumably Icecrown when it's released).
Most level 80 characters - newbies and hardcore raiders alike - will want to save their EoTs to buy a few T9 bits, if not the whole kit - although generally only top-end raiders will have access to T9.33 and T9.66. Also, there's some very good non-set gear available in this range: like the currently best-in-slot Totem of Electrifying Wind for Elemental (and some say Enhancement) Shaman.
Note that you can mix/match gear from the same tier level in order to gain the set bonus. For example, a T8.5 helm with T8 gloves will still activate the two-piece bonus.
Bub-Bye Tier 7
Until yesterday, I had been running around with four-piece Tier 7.5 because of the set bonus (10% bonus to Lava Burst's critical strike damage). So even though I had already bought the two Tier 8.5 pieces (helm and chest), I found a net loss of DPS when initially abandoning the 4p T7 bonus. The Elemental 2p T8 bonus just happens to be rather weak (periodic damage from Flame Shock can now become critical strikes). /yawn
However, with the purchase of the Tier 9 Elemental shoulders and some other recent random upgrades, the question became: will this new mash-up of T8+9 finally overtake the 4p T7 bonus? After some testing, the answer seems to be yes - due mostly to improved Haste (1.5 sec Lolbolts ftw!). I'm also expecting another slight DPS bump when I add the T9 gloves for the 2p bonus (increased duration of Flame Shock by 9 seconds, allowing us another Lava Burst cycle without having to refresh the FS DoT). /cheer
Now, it's important to note that not all classes/specs are equal when it comes to deciding whether or not to abandon your 4p bonus. For example, mages have an excellent 2p T8 bonus (chance for 350 spell power when casting nukes), so it may make sense for them to abandon 4p T7 earlier than I did. I suggest a combination of research (Elitist Jerks) and personal testing to get the right answer for your class/spec.
Shaman Lore Corner: Nobundo and Thrall
In case you're wondering who Nobundo is, here's his story. Although I admit I'd much rather be wearing Thrall's namesake gear (the Horde version of Shaman T9), since he was my favorite character from my Warcraft 2 and 3 days. :)