With patch 3.3.5 upon us and the absolute last raid instance of Wrath of the Lich King set to go live in a week or two, we're finally at the end of the roller coaster of class design for this expansion. Whether you love your class (i.e., play a warrior) or hate it (play one of those other classes like mages -- that one's for you, Dom), it's fair to say that barring any last-minute surprise redesigns, what you see is what you're going to get until Cataclysm.
So where are warriors as a class right now? Since we're a tank/DPS hybrid with two roles and three specs (if you count PvE, anyway; if you include PvP, then we effectively have four roles and three trees to fill them), how well does the class do in each role, and how do our specs shape up? This week we'll discuss protection, the dedicated tanking tree for warriors.
At the beginning of Wrath of the Lich King, warrior tanking saw a pretty significant shake-up in terms of its talents and abilities. Tanking in general was redesigned to be more fun, and a new hero class that was a tank/DPS hybrid was introduced. All of this changed the playing field for warriors pretty significantly. Warrior tanks found that for the first time, protection was possibly the most viable leveling build.
Talents like Warbringer brought unparalleled mobility (so unparalleled that protection actually saw a brief window of PvP viability in arena and is still fairly strong for certain kinds of BG play). The addition of moves like Shockwave, target cap removal for Thunder Clap, and passive talents like Damage Shield helped increase warrior AoE tanking viability. (Other tanking classes may have taken AoE overboard, but while warriors have been solid at it all expansion, it's fair to say the warrior AoE tanking model is probably the least brokenly overpowered.)
However, as the protection warrior progressed through content, it's fair to say that at times that old green-eyed monster of jealousy reared its head. Other classes had an easier time trash tanking; other classes had better cooldowns, better effective health, better talents. A lot of warriors deeply envied Consecration, Death and Decay and Bear Swipe. While some of this was the usual grass is greener syndrome, it can't be ignored that during the first tier of Wrath raiding content, the tank of choice for the hardest fight then in the game was a death knight, a druid or a warlock pet. Still, it wasn't so much a problem with the warrior class/protection tree or its design or balance.
Blizzard has touted the warrior protection tree as one of their success stories for this expansion, and while I've not always agreed with the fulsome levels of praise it's gotten, by patch 3.3 it's fair to say that they have every reason to be proud of it. The warrior class has benefited from and been hampered by its legacy as the oldest and most continuous tanking tree in the game. The idea of warriors as tanks is so ingrained into the game that even when the design process changed to broaden the tanking ranks, the result usually ends up with other tanking classes viewed as more or less in balanced in relation to how well they do against warriors. This unfortunately causes bias that makes evaluating the protection warrior tank on its own merits highly labor intensive.
It's fair to say that, unlike in Burning Crusade, there has been no major point in this expansion where a warrior tank was manifestly inferior for 5-man, 5-man heroics or either 10- or 25-man raiding. While it might be true that specific fights or specific instances might be easier with a different tank, in general, the wide array of tools brought by the warrior class means that as a whole warriors have proven most durable in terms of tanking longevity. The legacy of BC's tanking flip-flop (where druids and paladins were by far the strongest tanks for the first six or seven months of release, especially in 5-mans and 5-man heroics, only to find themselves dethroned halfway through the Tempest Keep/SSC tier of raiding by warrior tanks on bosses for the most part due to specific mechanics designed around warrior abilities) caused paranoia among all tanks that saw expression in the debate over massive spike damage from bosses.
I don't think that warriors fared any worse than any other tank in dealing with that new, extremely bursty kind of boss damage. Sartharion breaths, the raw damage of an angry Thorim, or Mimiron's plasma blast replaced the old "crushing blow" and put tanks and tanking cooldowns under a spotlight. Fights like heroic Anub'arak showed us that warriors (and paladins) could use or even abuse the block mechanic in ways it never seemed to be intended. The woes of block served to emphasize how the change to the crushing blows mechanic and its replacement with more spike damage created a stress test for tanking mechanics.
Throughout Wrath, warrior numbers declined behind those of our fellow hybrid tanks. But that's a misleading statement, because while warriors as a whole did indeed dip below paladin, DK and druid numbers, protection-spec tanking warriors are possibly the highest percent of the class, and in end-game raiding at least, warrior tanks still thrive. Their relative decline in 5-mans may be explainable by the complexity of their tanking priority system: there's no "rotation" for a tanking warrior. Abilities like Devastate and Heroic Strike are used fairly consistently, while others like Demoralizing Shout, Cleave, Shockwave, Thunder Clap and Revenge are used either when they come off of cooldown or when their effects will fall off of a tanking target or targets. The breadth and depth of the patch 3.3.5 protection warrior (effectively the 3.3.3 prot warrior; there have been no changes since then) require an investment in learning and understanding the abilities and their use (especially since rage is unlike mana or runes/RP in its use), but rewards the tank with a fairly active and engaging style of tanking that demands more attention from the tank.
As things stand right now, going into the last content for Wrath of the Lich King, the protection tree comes out a winner. It performs its designed role and does so well -- perhaps never the master of any particular tanking role or niche (you'd never think of a warrior first for multiple mob tanking or anti-magic cooldowns), but capable of doing pretty much anything that needs doing as a tank. It also should be said that in terms of pure flavor, the warrior arsenal probably has one of the best aesthetics in the game. (This isn't important to every player, but some view it as a positive must to have their class aesthetics match their idea of the class.) One drawback that has never been satisfyingly addressed is the idea that to achieve cooldown parity with other tanks, two major glyphs should be used up, but in the face of the spec in its entirety, that concern doesn't outweigh the overall strength of protection warriors.
Simply put, the protection warrior is still the standard by which all other tanks are judged. In great part, that is due to the spec's having received a great deal of positive attention across the duration of the Wrath expansion life cycle. Protection is a viable leveling spec, has seen in recent months changes to mechanics like Revenge and Devastate that give it more offensive punch than it has ever had, and possesses a tool kit for tanking that other tanking classes envy for its breadth and scope. The protection warrior is complex to unlock and understand fully and rewards the player of the class with options for just about any situation he or she might come across.
I'd give protection a solid B on launch, a B+ for the majority of Wrath's existence and an A from 3.3.3 onward. It's had its pitfalls, but most of those came due to outside mechanics or issues and not the spec itself. The PvP interaction with its talents and stats like armor pen caused hiccups that will be discussed in a PvP report. At present, the prot warrior does exactly what it was designed to do, and it does it for the most part as well as one could expect it to.
Next week, we're looking at more leveling, and then we'll talk about DPS warriors and how they fared this expansion.
Check out more strategies, tips and leveling guides for warriors in Matthew Rossi's weekly class column, The Care and Feeding of Warriors.