Players who have been around for a while will recognize this as an update on Shifting Perspectives: Bear 101, written in February 2010 after the Icecrown Citadel patch had gone live. The spec feels like it's in a weirder place than it was a year ago, consequence of some early improvements on the beta followed by a few unpopular developer decisions. As far as I'm aware, bears are still the least-played tank, and I'm not really optimistic that our numbers are going to rebound as things stand.
As with our earlier 101 guide, I'm addressing this to people with no prior knowledge of the spec who want the tools to become a reasonably competent tank quickly. Readers looking for an extended and mathier version of this article should look for the Feral Bear -- Cataclysm Release guide recently published at Elitist Jerks.
The bear is a sub-spec of the feral talent tree and specialized shapeshift form allowing the druid to tank.
The bear's advantages
- Excellent, even overpowered, single-target threat.
- Traditionally a high-damage tank. This is all to the better in Cataclysm, given how well bear mitigation and avoidance scale with offensive stats (i.e., agility's effect on Vengeance, Savage Defense, and dodge).
- In an interesting reversal of our usual fortunes, we are now the tank with the highest passive magic damage reduction and the highest average avoidance (at least in tier 11).
- The only tank with a cooldown usable while stunned or incapacitated (Barkskin).
- Immune to Polymorph, Seduce, and Disarm (more accurately, the worst effect of Disarm).
- Able to supply Faerie Fire, Mangle's bleed debuff, a debuff to boss/mob attack speed (Infected Wounds), a debuff to boss/mob melee damage (Demoralizing Roar), and consistent self-healing in addition to a raid critical strike buff (Leader of the Pack).
- When not required to tank, can shift to cat to generate more damage. I will grant that this is a less compelling advantage in the age of dual spec.
- As with all druids, can supply Tranquility, Innervate, and a battle rez to the raid. However, bears are generally the least able to do so at any given time, and the feral Innervate has the approximate effect that a horse tranquilizer would have on Godzilla.
- Due to the bear's lopsided reliance on Mangle and (when permissible) Maul for threat, even one or two misses in the early part of a fight can get hairy. Someone on EJ observed recently that it seems like everything in the bear arsenal is either Mangle or exists solely to make Mangle hit harder, and there's some truth to that.
- Blizzard's efforts to nerf the other half of the feral tree often exercise an unfortunate impact on bears. The upcoming patch 4.0.6 is a particularly infuriating example.
- Non-set melee leather in raid content is almost always designed to match rogue tier sets, and we're usually consigned to hunter-themed polearms for weapons. At best, a feral druid in caster form looks visually schizophrenic; at worst, we look like we hired Liberace as a personal shopper -- a very sad state of affairs for people with fond memories of the Wildfury Greatstaff and Stanchion of Primal Instinct.
- Static form design. The druid is not the class to play if you enjoy seeing what Liberace bought for you in action.
- Bears are the only tank without a ranged silence. While not usually an issue in raids, it can make pulling and positioning mob packs in 5-mans a messy business with impatient or uncooperative DPS.
- Early bear leveling is, to be charitable, a nightmare. There is no AoE threat skill until you get a heavily-nerfed Swipe at level 36, and everything in your arsenal with the exception of Demoralizing Roar is a cooldown until Lacerate at level 66.
- No burst AoE threat outside of a cooldown (Berserk) and no Fear break as of patch 4.0.6.
- Having to compete with DPS for tanking gear can be a huge pain in the ass. While plate tanking gear, jewelry, and trinkets are usually distinguishable by the presence of defensive stats that DPS don't want, you will find yourself rolling against a legion of cats, rogues, hunters, and enhancement shaman in 5-mans and raids.
- The spec still feels much clumsier these days than I would like. This is entirely a matter of personal opinion, but as someone who's played both, the bear still feels too much like the warrior tank's idiot stepchild. The bear is also rarely singled out for praise or even commentary on the Blizzard Tanking forums.
Precise stat weights are a function of the gear you're already wearing, and you'll need to use Rawr to find your own. However, theorycrafters are generally agreed that stat priority is armor, stamina, agility, dodge, mastery, expertise, crit, hit, and haste.
- Armor This reduces melee damage taken and is pretty much your raison d'être as a tank.
- Stamina Slightly less important than it was in the days of go-go effective health Wrath, but still a big deal.
- Agility The bear's best all-around stat, granting attack power, crit, and dodge (although it no longer grants armor).
- Dodge You will not find native dodge on agility gear, but you should reforge less useful secondary stats into it. Strength tanking jewelry and cloaks will often have it, but it's rarely worth dropping an agility piece to get. Raw dodge is only ever dodge, whereas agility means bigger Savage Defense shields, more shields, and dodge.
- Mastery Not anywhere near as good as it used to be before the big (and deserved) feral nerf at the end of the Cataclysm beta, but still an excellent stat. Agility pieces with mastery > agility pieces without it.
- Expertise This is a bit like hit, but it works to reduce your target's avoidance rather than increasing your own chance to hit. Slightly less compelling than it used to be, given that the parry-haste mechanic is now blessedly Gonesville, but still good. The soft cap versus a level 88 (raid boss) is 26 (pushing all dodges off your target's avoidance table) and the hard cap (pushing all dodges and parries off its table) is 56.
- Critical strike Raw crit isn't that great, but it does mean more Savage Defense procs.
- Hit Increases your chance to hit, although most of our attacks are "yellow" (i.e., specials) with a greater chance to hit anyway. The bear's cap versus a level 88 is 961.
- Haste By far the bear's most useless stat, though Blizzard is considering ways to make it less pointless. For the time being, plan on reforging it into dodge.
Avoid strength tanking jewelry and cloaks unless something has a massive ilevel advantage on whatever you're already wearing. It's usable gear in a pinch, but agility is king.