So the most recent hiatus lasted about three months. Or at least it is three months between updates. I had hardly been playing at all before finally canceling in March, and I started fairly slowly when I began again in June. I leveled my shaman from 77 to 80 over the course of a few days, then stopped playing. I tried the group again for quests but found it boring.
I decided to try leveling a new group of five together, that wasn't as mixed as the original group. I rolled up two warlocks and three mages, but around level 18 that got a bit tired as well. Then I rolled up a shaman and four hunters, and that group is 32 as of today, and I've enjoyed leveling them. My intention is to level via questing, and that is what I've done so far. They have not set foot into a dungeon, and while I won't rule it out, I have not made any plans to. I am hoping to get them to 58 in relatively short order so that I see how they fare in Outland and then Northrend.
One thing that I learned as I worked with the mixed group was that it's important to avoid trying to do too much. Each class gets lots of cool abilities and attacks, and I tried to incorporate as many of those as I could, and that would often cause me problems. So I've been trying to keep things simple, even though it means ignoring a lot of abilities and utility. With a coordinated group like this, the simple approach works best. Send the pets, mark the mob, fire away, heal when/if needed. In fact, one of the best things about the hunter group is that a considerable portion of their DPS is "fire and forget." Pets will auto-attack and use special abilities, and the hunters will continue to shoot their bows/guns with a single keypress. Additional keypresses can increase the DPS and utility, but that steady stream of non-interactive damage is extremely convenient.
Another area where the shaman/hunter group seems to be better than the warlock/mage group is in dealing with higher-level mobs. Since I've been skipping certain quests as I go along (mostly the more onerous collection quests) and since leveling as a group provides less experience from mobs, I have found myself with a quest log that has mostly orange and red quests in it, and dealing with mobs that are 5-8 levels above the group. Mobs that high will resist a lot of spells and spell damage, and they even make it rough on melee. But they have been surprisingly susceptible to ranged physical damage. My first taste of this was taking down a level 25 named mob (along with a wandering add) in The Barrens when my group was level 15. My most recent taste was taking down a level 40 named (and a level 37 add) in Stranglethorn Vale at level 28, as well as a level 40 named (and a level 38 add) in Stromgarde Keep at level 31. Things can get a bit hairy in these situations, because the low melee damage from the pets and the chance to resist a taunt means that sometimes the mob heads to the group. But so far they've been able to do some pretty impressive stuff with orange/red mobs.
In fact, despite doing so many red quests versus red mobs, the group of five has experienced a total of three deaths. One of those was when they were swarmed by eleven mobs (eight NPCs and three pets) in Stromgarde Keep. I did manage to kill them all with only that one death, but I've been considering putting the hunter ice traps on a hotkey, in order to keep such situations from getting out of control. Even with occasional resists, it should help with crowd control when I get a lot of adds. Thankfully, at level 30 the questing has opened up a bit, and I should be able to get more yellow/orange quests to complete. There seems to be a point, around the +6 level mark, where the pets have a lot of trouble keeping a mob's attention. Anything within 1-6 levels of the group is generally easy meat, especially if I see it first.
As for pets, I went with two tanks (bear and boar) and two DPS (cat and hyena). I initially had a bat, which has a nice stun attack, but it's on a fairly long timer and thus was not reliable (I prefer not to macro such things, at least for now). The cat has a bleed attack and the hyena has a snare, and those are on relatively short timers and thus more useful. If I plan to use traps for crowd control, I may need to find a replacement for the cat, since bleeds will break the trap. But with four traps to place, it may not be that big a problem. Eventually I will have each hunter tame a tank pet and a DPS pet, and see how different combinations work out. For outdoors mobs (even elites) I expect that any combination will suffice.
I did not plan out the talent specs very well up to now, but will probably reset them today. I was thinking of going with a mixture of specs, but with the aggro problems that the hunters have had (due to the higher level mobs) I will have them all go with beast master specs for the time being. The pets will have more health, more armor, and more DPS and they'll benefit more from heals. The hunters will trade off a bit of DPS, which should help the pets keep aggro. I will also re-spec the shaman to reduce healing aggro (she will be full resto in any event). That should make for slightly smoother leveling, especially in areas with higher level mobs and the larger aggro ranges that result.
I'll provide updates as I go. One note for now is that among the improvements that Blizzard made to leveling speed, they have increased the drop rates on some collection quests. Or at least that seems to be the case. I know that at least one quest that used to have a moderately-low drop rate (the raptor hearts quest in Arathi Highlands) has had the drop rate increased to 100%. It certainly made for a more enjoyable grind to know that I needed to kill 60 raptors instead of 100-180...