Most classes have to group with someone before they ever have a chance to think about, much less practice, threat management. But we have a built in tank: our pet. We can practice this as clumsily as we need to, dying as often as we have to, all without an audience to mock us. Your pet'll never mock you. He's your best friend! Just don't ask what he tells the other pets when you're not listening.
I'll be discussing "threat," also known as "aggro" or "hate" depending on the group. All of these words refer to one thing: how mad the target is at you and all your allies. Lots of things can cause threat to rise, such as standing within a mob's range, smacking a mob with a gigantic slab of marble, or even healing a party member who is in the process of doing either of those things. Lots of things can also cause threat to drop, such as being feared, being polymorphed, or being killed. Understanding a little about how to manage your own threat will help you prevent that last option from happening to you or your party members.
Basics: Why You Want to Manage Threat
The basic function of a hunter can be summed up as "stand back and shoot." Our most effective attacks, by and large, are our ranged attacks. Targets which get too close to us cannot be shot, which severely hinders our capacity to do damage to them. You'll see as you progress (and in this article) that we have a few skills to assist in this regard. In addition to various threat management skills, you'll come across a few skills which aid in getting away from a target, by moving you faster, or slowing them down, or even halting them in place entirely. All of these skills are well suited to maintaining distance between the hunter and his target.
Meanwhile, the basic function of a hunter's pet can be summed up as "go chew on that target while I stand back and shoot." Your pet will serve as your tank, keeping the attention of your target while also holding it far enough away that you can continue donating ammunition to it. Your pet will have several skills it, too, can learn, to assist in keeping that function going. The most common way you'll be doing damage is in that standard configuration: Pet and target at range, hunter shooting.
Hunters have three basic ways we gain or lose threat. We can do damage, we can heal, or we can apply skills. Damage is very straightforward: the more damage you do, the more threat you generate. Healing, too, is self explanatory: healing a party member generates threat, though not often as much or as fast as damage. Even a dumb mob knows that the healer's going to have to die eventually.
This is where we have to pay attention, though. The damage we do is competing with the damage done by others. In most fights, you will not want to exceed the threat of your tank. Your tank, be it your pet or a warrior in your party, is made to take damage directly to the face. You are not.
Our skills are where we really excel. We have skills to raise our threat, or lower it. We have skills to assign our threat to someone else in our party for a short time. We also have a skill which allows us to drop threat so effectively that many targets will act as though we are dead, and wander back to their business.
Practicing With your Pet
As I mentioned above, most players don't run into this sort of thing until they're running instances with other people. Hunters, however, have a built in tank they can employ. While you're leveling up and questing, keep an eye on your pet, and watch how threat affects you on your own.
When you first send your pet in to attack, the target will be immediately drawn into combat, focusing on the pet. As far as most hunters can tell, the target has not even noticed them. To get a sense of the speed at which your pet builds up threat, try a couple exercises.
1) Shoot first. Send your pet to attack a target and begin shooting immediately. Watch how the target reacts. In many cases, your pet will be unable to catch up to your damage output. You'll see the target wavering back and forth between you and your pet, but if you keep up a steady barrage you'll likely pull the target to you, and your pet will be unable to get the target's attention back.
2) Shoot quick, but not first. Send your pet to attack a target and begin shooting after the pet has initially attacked. Letting the pet get a brief head of steam (give it a two count) before you start shooting should give you a demonstration of threat. Rather than running to you and attacking, your target will probably remain focused on your pet...for a while. If you put out a steady stream of damage, even starting after your pet attacks, you can easily overcome his threat, and you'll end up discussing the matter with your target face to face.
3) Give him his head. Send your pet to attack a target and count to five. Begin shooting after the five-count. You will probably notice that your target never wavers from your pet, despite the damage you produce. The extra five seconds you give your pet to generate threat before you start often means that you won't have to take a hit.
All of these exercises may vary, but with practice and attention, you should get a sense of how long your pet needs "to itself" before you start shooting. Different pet species generate threat differently. Some species require longer to establish threat, while some can establish threat even after you start shooting. We'll have to leave pet species selection for another article.
Applying this to Players
As you practice threat management with your pet, you will get a good sense of what rate at which you generate threat relative to the threat your pet generates. By the time you're in groups of players applying these skills, you should know very well how you and your pet work together, threatwise. Groups, however, will add several variables into the equation. A player tank has many more ways to do damage and to generate threat than your pet does. It's possible that a mage or rogue in your group will be doing just as much damage as you are, and without a care in the world about threat management. What's more, a healer who's healing everyone in the group will be generating a good amount of threat on his own, often more than you are.
This can lead to heated arguments in a group, wherein the hunter is told to stop pulling aggro and the tank is told he's not holding the mobs well, and the priest is told he's not healing well enough. Here is your chance to make a name as a hunter of note.
Do not get defensive. Remember, you've been practicing threat management since level ten. Your tank might not have any concept of it. Your healer and casters likewise will probably not have much practice managing their own threat, trusting either their massive damage, their movement hampering, or just a good tank to protect them. So don't get defensive.
If the tank tells you to stop pulling aggro, slow down your shots a bit. There are plenty of ways to mitigate the frequency and quantity of damage you put out. The easiest is to slow down in your shots. Let an autoshot go off, then another, then use Arcane or another special shot. Watch how fast you build threat compared to the warrior. If you begin shooting as he is engaging the target, you'll overdo it just as in exercise 1 above. Many hunters often do as much damage as they possibly can, thinking that more damage faster equals success. However, if your tank's threat does not outweigh yours, you'll soon find yourself tanking. That is not a recipe for a successful encounter.
Skills to Manage Threat, for Hunter and Pet
The most commonly used threat management skill is Growl. Growl generates threat. The skill is balanced to produce a disproportionate amount of threat for the cost, since it does no damage. This is the tool your pet will use to stay above you in threat even as you surpass him in damage. Pets have an opposite skill they can also learn, Cower. Cower reduces a pet's threat, should you need that to happen. Cower is not a skill I use often myself, as it takes up a skill slot I'd rather assign to damage.
A skill you'll learn early is Distracting Shot, at level 12. Distracting Shot generates a high level of threat without any damage, akin to growl. Since the skill only generates threat, it can be balanced to generate a higher level of threat alone. Distracting Shot is useful when trying to get a mob to attack you rather than its current target. As a hunter, you may be thinking here "why on Azeroth would I want someone to attack me instead of them?" To which I can only say, priests wear cloth. If you are in a group with a healer whose threat generation from healing surpasses the threat generated by the tank, you'll see a mob leave the tank and head for the healer. At this point it might be wise to use Distracting Shot on that mob. The mob will head your way, and you can deal with it better than the priest can. Once you have the mob coming at you, you can kite it as I discussed the week before last, or just run up to the tank and hope he takes the initiative to whack that mob once or twice to get it off you. In either case, it's better for a mob to hit you than to hit your healer. Your healer can bring you back if you die. You might have a harder time bringing back your healer.
Another nice skill to work with is Disengage, at level 20. Disengage is a melee attack which drops your threat suddenly when it lands. Here's a more sensible threat management skill: it makes you LESS threatening. You can use Disengage to attempt to shrug the mob off on another party member, or your pet, any target which has any threat at all on that mob. I use it most often in conjunction with the Distracting Shot method I mentioned above. A very basic approach to this would be:
- Mob heads for healer
- Hunter shoots mob with Distracting Shot
- Mob heads for Hunter
- Hunter runs to Tank
- Tank hits mob
- Hunter Disengages mob
- Mob is back on tank.
One of the more popular (and commonly misused) skills you'll learn is Feign Death, at level 30. Feign Death is one of our signature moves, so it's a good idea to get accustomed to the concepts of it. When you Feign Death, your character will fall down as if dead. Unless your spell is resisted, all threat you have generated on all current targets will be erased. You will no longer be a threat to any mob: they think you have died. In most cases this will also drop you out of combat. This, however, is where it becomes problematic for your party members. Remember that every mob you fight has a list of people it's threatened by. In many cases, in a group that list will start with the tank and proceed to you and then the healer. It's very common that your DPS will bring your threat to #2, while the healer's healing threat will keep them pretty high up there too. And here's the problem: When you feign death, the mob will proceed to attack the next person down on the list: often the healer. Remember above where I mentioned how to become your healer's New Favorite Hunter? This would be another approach entirely.
It's not always a problem, but it's something to be aware of in any case. Often the reason a mob is attacking you instead of the tank is that the tank has been removed from the threat list. Either he's dead, or he's feared, or he's polymorphed, there's a lot of ways he might be taken off the mob's threat list. In any case, be aware that when you feign death you are passing the danger one step down the list of threat. The next person on that list might not be ready to take it.
Perhaps the most fun you can have with threat management is Misdirect, learned at level 70. MIsdirect is cast on a friendly target within your party or raid group. Once cast, all aggro you generate for three shots or thirty seconds will be assigned to that target rather than you. This has a host of applications, but a few of them are listed here:
Misdirect to your tank and pull a group with Multishot. All three shots will give the tank threat on their targets, giving him a head start on his threat level.
If a caster pulls a mob off the tank, cast Misdirect on your tank and use Distracting Shot followed by two more shots. The resulting Misdirected threat should send the mob right back to the tank. As above, saving a healer from certain death is always a good way to make friends. They will see what you've done, and know who did it.
Let your tank pull the group, then cast Misdirect on him and fire a Volley. The Area Effect of Volley will assign that threat to the tank, so the entire group within the area will be angry at the tank about it. What's more, Volley does not consume one of Misdirections "charges," so after the Volley timer has elapsed, a Multishot will only help matters.
Place a trap far out of the way of combat, and have your pet stay on the other side of it. Cast Misdirect on your pet. Then, while Misdirect is still in effect, you go to the next pull and hit your target with Distracting Shot. The target will run all the way over to your pet, hitting the trap on the way.
It is a great idea to look into getting a threat meter addon. I believe that Addons are not required for the game, nor should they be relied upon. However, there are some things you just can't trust to judgement, and threat management is one of them. The threat meter I use is called Omen, and it's very common and is compatible with several others. It provides a little bar graph on your screen which reflects, in real time, the threat your current target has against the members of your party. What's more, it provides a red flashing full screen warning when you pass 90% of another party member's threat. This mod allows you to see not only where you are on the threat list, but who is beneath you. Getting back to Feign Death, above, this is an excellent way to see who's going to get attacked when you Feign Death and shrug all aggro.
Clearing the Chamber
Threat management is a big issue with higher end groups. The earlier you get a sense of how fast and how hard you accumulate threat both alone and in a group, the more comfortable, and successful, you'll feel when you're putting your skills to the test.