After several more tries, the Warrior mounted up and proceeded to taunt me away from the group, the only one he hadn't yet ganked, but I simply brushed him off with a /bored emote. My wife wondered why the Warrior kept on going for the Shadow Priest instead of herself. It only made sense, I replied, pointing out that the Shadow Priest was the most logical target considering he was undergeared. My wife countered that she wasn't equipped in PvP gear, either, but I reasoned that since he'd killed her once, he knows she's not specced Discipline because he's seen Spirit of Redemption pop up. That meant no Pain Suppression, and that there's no way she could heal through his damage.
One of the most crucial skills in PvP is choosing the right target, and encounters, matches, are won and lost through choosing the right target. This necessitates a full understanding of the limitations of one's own class, a moderate knowledge of other classes, a familiarity with gear, and an awareness of one's surroundings. It's rapid threat assessment and measured response. Almost every encounter will be different, even with the same players involved. Even with a lot of experience, choosing targets in PvP can still so often go wrong.
In the case of the Warrior we encountered, he knew he was solo and would get no healing. He needed to take down one source of damage in order to ensure his longevity in the encounter. My wife's Holy Priest posed no threat and my Shaman in mail, a shield, and Arena gear would take too long to kill. The Warrior chose the right target but was simply outnumbered. Despite his taunting and the fact that we'd beaten him multiple times, I had no inclination to take him on my own. As confident as I was about my PvP skills, I wasn't about to take on a full Vengeful Gladiator + Vindicator Warrior with my Restoration Shaman in Season 2 and 3 gear. Choosing the right target means picking your battles, too.
Know your limitations
Blizzard has worked towards balancing all the classes in the game, particularly in Arenas and PvP in general with moderate success. They'll never balance it for one-on-one, but they have managed a pretty good rock-paper-scissors synergy among the classes and specs. As overpowered as some classes might be (*cough* Druid *cough* Warlock), there is no one God-mode class that can beat all others with ease. There is a virtual counter to every class, and part of choosing the right target is knowing which classes and specs you can beat and those that you might have trouble with.
It also requires a humbling awareness of one's skill. As 1337 as we think we might be in PvP, there's always someone better out there. It's quite possible that a player can be the best of a particular class, but it's unlikely that there's one player who can beat all players of all classes. The game simply isn't designed that way. Personally, I like the challenge when I'm playing a DPS spec and quite often take up any challenge. When I'm specced for support or healing, however, my mindset changes slightly on my Shaman and greatly on my Paladin.
I can't beat everyone. I'd like to think that I do rather well, and Azaziel's Book of the Dead used to be one of my favorite AddOns that helped stroke my epeen. With enough experience and some luck, it's quite possible to beat a superior opponent, but it takes time and the right conditions. Even Sun Tzu said, "There are roads that must not be followed, armies that must not be attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions that must not be contested, (and) commands of the sovereign which must not be followed."
He further explains in The Art of War, "the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but cannot make certain of the defeat of the enemy. Hence the saying: one may know how to conquer without being able to do it." It is one thing to know the weaknesses of a certain class, and quite another to exploit them with the class you're playing. With experience, you will learn which classes give you the most difficulty as well as your capacity to handle opponents. A mixture of these two is the first step in determining who to attack in a group, or if your should attack at all.
Know your enemy
Beyond knowing your limitations, it's important to be able to size up opponents at a glance. Knowing their class is the first step, understanding your places in a rock-paper-scissors scenario. More important, however, is the estimation of gear. As much as skill and class balance plays a part in the outcome of combat, gear is a major differentiator that makes up for shortcomings in other areas. In fact, with the introduction of Resilience, gear more than ever plays a more substantial part in PvP.
In an Arena match, the very first thing we scope out is gear. Through quick tab-selection viewing of character portraits, we generally have a good idea of the classes we're up against if they keep their helm graphic on. If they are wearing Season 3 shoulders, then we know their relative experience. This is why the visual impact of Arena shoulders is so important. It immediately gives you a general idea of how tough the match will be. Players in full S3 will likely have over 10k hp and over 400 Resilience, depending on the class and spec. A full S3 SL/SL Warlock, for example, will easily have about 12-13k hp and over 400 Resilience.
Identifying weapons is slightly more difficult but will also give a general idea of an enemy's strength. Season 1 and 2 weapons share the same graphics, so it's harder to identify. Season 3 weapons, on the other hand, are distinctive and share models with Black Temple and Mount Hyjal weapons which have relatively the same power. A review of Brutal Gladiator weapons will come in handy because these will be the most common way to identify opponents of relative skill.
With the new mechanics in place for Arenas, Season 4 will more or less weed out the chaff from the grain. With a personal rating requirement of 2050, Brutal Gladiator weapons are far from being "welfare" and those who possess it must be approached with caution. Those who will sport the Season 4 shoulders that require a personal rating of 2200, in particular, will be few and far between and will almost assuredly be forces to be reckoned with.
There are many ways to assess threat and choose targets, but experience will always serve as the best teacher. Next week, in the second part of this article, I'll try to outline some basic tips and guidelines to identifying the most dangerous threats and estimating the proper course of action. Although only experience and countless hours of PvP will teach you to make these decisions on the fly, a handy guide might be of some help. Until next week, try to stay away from ganking parties of five on the Isle of Quel'danas!
Zach Yonzon writes the intermittent but supposedly weekly PvP column The Art of War(craft) in between bouts of the flu and Third World Internet. He would like to assure everyone that his shoulder pieces are not a true measure of his skill and encourages all Alliance to approach him anytime they see him flying around with his 2-handed hammer.