As soon as the Warrior is stripped of all his buffs, a target switch is called out on vent and we all focus on the Warrior. Cooldowns are blown, a Counterspell thrown, and in about ten seconds their Warrior is dead and we switch to another target. After another five or ten seconds, two of them are down and it's all cruise control from there. The Shaman was a bluff. The Warrior was always our primary target, but we needed the opposing team to commit enough resources to protecting their Shaman in order to pull off a Warrior gib.
In PvP, particularly in Arenas, choosing the right target can make or break an encounter. It's probably one of the most critical skills in PvP. From the Battlegrounds to the Arenas to world PvP, it's important to learn how to choose your battles. Last week we glossed over the important factors in learning to pick the right target, such as awareness of your limitations and a good grasp of your opponents'. Exactly how to do that, however, is much trickier.
Prey on the weak
Because there is no way to tell an opponents' skill until you actually engage (sometimes not even then), the easiest way to identify an ideal target is gear. Even without memorizing the myriad assortment of gear available in the game, it's important to at least be familiar with Arena and Battleground (or Honor-bought) gear. For the most part, gear with Resilience is visually distinctive. This late in the Season, most players who participate in PvP will be equipped in anywhere from 5/5 Season 1 to 4/5 Season 3 gear. Commit most of these pieces to memory.
The weak also refers to the dying. Sometimes, a target switch is necessary if you see an opponent who is low on life. This ensures that the target goes down instead of getting resuscitated to full health. In the Battlegrounds where there's little communication or focus fire, switching to low-health targets can rapidly turn the tide of prolonged encounters. Turn on the health bar display to better quickly determine at a glance who is dying.
Cut down the strong
There are times, however, when the best target is the strongest one. The 4-DPS comp was created to counter 2345, which hinges on a Warrior and her ability to keep Mortal Strike on a target. Warriors can be caught with their pants down, starting off in Berserker Stance, making them more susceptible to damage. Faking a first target will ensure that the Warrior will be in Berserker when making the switch, as well. With focus fire and 4-DPS -- more than a few of whom will be spellcasters -- a Warrior will go down extremely quickly. Without their key assist, most teams who lose their Warriors are unable to recover.
The strong also applies to damage-dealing capabilities, not just their stamina or resilience. In particular, when facing off against opponents in Battlegrounds or World PvP, where healer support isn't guaranteed (and sometimes even non-existent), it's a wiser choice to pursue the highest damage target. This target often varies from class to class. Taking out the class with the higher damage allows you to stay in the encounter longer.
Sometimes, it's a mixture of both. I once assaulted the Gold Mine in Arathi Basin which was guarded by two relatively undergeared (Season 1/blues) Warriors and a Mage. On a Paladin, I was most susceptible to the Mage, so I went after him. Wearing plate, I would be able to shrug off Physical attacks much better than Magic. I ended up killing the Mage twice, one of the Warriors twice, and the other Warrior once before running out of mana and eventually going down without support. It was an extremely fun sequence that wouldn't have lasted half as long had my first target been one of the Warriors.
Another determinant of target selection is circumstance. In Arena matches, particularly, some targets are chosen first simply because of their location. Each team has a 'kill zone' that is determined by a combination of proximity to teammates and range of spells. This is more defined when a Shaman and her totems is on the team. When one of the opposing team overextends to your team's kill zone, that player becomes your target, no matter which class.
Overextending into the opponent's kill zone usually also means going out of range of healing, because healers usually stay at the back. Rogues are primary targets for overextension because they often advance ahead of their teammates in order to Sap a target. Because this must be done while out of combat to a target out of combat, Rogues almost always enter the opposing team's kill zone far ahead of her own team.
The trick, of course, is detecting the Rogue immediately before or after the Sap. This makes timing the use of Perception key, as well as having a Felhunter's Paranoia important. Warriors can sometimes become first targets because they need to Charge in order to generate Rage. Although this is usually followed by the rest of the team charging in, there's a small opening that allows the opposing team to isolate the Warrior for focus fire.
The idea behind this form of target selection is cutting them off from help. This can mean switching to targets who have LOS'd their healers or other teammates by going around the pillar in the Ring of Trials or dropping down the bridge in the Circle of Blood. Being able to switch to isolated, overextended targets requires a high awareness of the situation and clear lines of communication.
Choosing the right target doesn't just refer to kill targets but also to crowd control targets. Classes with CC abilities need to find the right targets as well as cycle through them in order to abuse diminishing returns. Most CC break on damage, so needless to say these shouldn't be applied to targets with Damage-over-Time effects. Usually, the target should be the dispeller herself as a CC'd target won't be able to dispel her own debuff. For example, Priests and Paladins make great Polymorph targets because they can dispel it from their teammates.
On the other hand, it is also a good tactic to spam CC on cycled targets to keep healers dispelling. Cleanse and Dispel Magic both activate the global cooldown, which locks healers out of healing for 1.5 seconds. When used in conjunction with a focused target, crowd control becomes a double-edged sword, forcing healers to choose between dispelling and healing. If the CC target is the other healer (in multiple healer teams), the pressure becomes so much greater.
Of course, there are other forms of control, such as draining mana. There are sensible targets and pointless targets for mana drain. A Paladin, for example, is an excellent drain target because she has no real way of regaining mana quickly. On the other hand, Hunters would be better off not wasting mana on Viper Sting on Shamans, who can toss up Water Shield for free. Druids are awful drain targets, as well, because their different forms preclude drain spells from going off or breaks them.
Just as there are ideal targets for mana drains, there are great targets for snares and roots. Without external help, for example, Enhancement Shamans can be kept in place indefinitely with Entangling Roots. On the other hand, a PvP-specced Rogue can easily escape it with Improved Sprint. There are numerous examples and varied situations, and no single rule applies to target selection. In the end, it will all boil down to experience.
Experience is the best teacher
No matter how thoroughly a guide is written, experience will prove to be the best teacher in learning how to select the proper targets. It is a combination of awareness of gear, of knowing how classes interact, and realizing that there are team synergies in place. When using crowd control, always be aware of the ways by which a player can break them. It is safest to assume that all players have the trinket that allows them to break CC once. After that, it's a keen awareness of all other abilities such as Escape Artist or Will of the Forsaken.
Something that only experience will teach is understanding opponent cooldowns. One of the easiest to spot is a Paladin's vulnerability after using Divine Shield or Avenging Wrath. Forbearance will reveal that the Paladin can easily be killed. After a Rogue has blown Cloak of Shadows -- if you survive the inevitable onslaught -- then you can be sure that she'll be vulnerable to spells for the next minute. It will take numerous battles in numerous circumstances to reveal the many abilities of opponents and how they use them. In time, choosing the right target will become second nature and when that time comes, PvP becomes truly fun and rewarding.
Zach Yonzon writes the considerably irregular PvP column The Art of War(craft) when he actually gets online, that is to say when Chain Lightning decides not to crit his modem and router. He is teaching his 7-month old daughter how to guard flags in Arathi Basin.