What Active Mitigation Actually Means, and the Future of the Blood Death Knight
We recently buffed tank threat significantly and suggested that we would fill in any potential lost gameplay with new gameplay. What I meant by that was that if tanks don't need to hit their buttons to generate threat, they may realize they don't need to hit most of their buttons at all, and just stand there waiting until the right time to Shield Wall. Going a GCD or two without using a combat ability is fine with us. Standing around much longer than that gets boring quickly.
What we proposed is that tanks should ideally want to hit their buttons because it keeps them alive. I didn't elaborate on that too much except to say it would feel more like the Blood DK method of tanking, which prompted some players to state that they didn't like the DK model, or to point out that the DK model is not just active but reactive. Fair enough.
To better explain what we meant by that we need to define active mitigation. We define it as hitting buttons regularly that have a meaningful impact on your future mitigation. You should occasionally alter your rotation depending on what is going on in the fight, but you should still mitigate regularly and not save everything for the really big, predictable hits. DKs have a little of this, but Death Strike is ultimately a heal, which is a response to damage, not damage prevention. I also think the DK model gets a bad rap because of some other mechanical problems, which aren't really problems with active mitigation per se. So let me go into a bit more hand-waving about what active mitigation could mean for other tanks, and then I'll share a little DK info.
Some Active Mitigation Models
Here are three different models for why hitting buttons can matter to tanks. It's easy to come up with alternative models, and none of these are perfect, nor are we ready to announce which is the one we're going to try first. But these ideas can get some discussions going.
Model One: Tank DPS matters
This one really isn't active mitigation per se, but it is a way to make pushing buttons matter. We have berserk timers or other DPS checks on a lot of our encounters. Typically tank DPS isn't taken seriously on these fights, which is a little puzzling at first glance. Yes, the tank may not be able to match the Enhance shaman for damage done, but also consider that the Enhance shaman would absolutely love it if she could improve her DPS by a paltry 3K. That 3K may be enough to meet that DPS check. Note that I'm not talking about tanks being able to beat out skilled DPS players; I think most of us agree that would be a little bizarre. But that doesn't mean tank damage has to be a non-factor either. Sure, the Feral tank may be doing 16K DPS to the shaman's 30K, but 3K is 3K.
I polled all of the class designers who raid Heroic content (which is all of them, I believe) and only one had ever given his tanks a hard time for low DPS. Sometimes it's just not possible because of the fight dynamics. In other cases it is, but as a community, we tend to not focus on tank DPS. We sometimes ask healers to Shadow Word: Pain, even though the contribution is trivial. Go figure. Maybe we assume tanks already have enough on their plate. Maybe they really are prima donnas and we don't want them to /ragequit. (I kid.)
One potential downside of this model is that it's just the old threat rotations but with the emphasis on DPS rather than threat per second. Ultimately, we want tanks to feel like their rotations are related to tanking and that they aren't just doing a DPS rotation with the occasional long cooldown. Another is that it makes not only stats like hit and expertise desirable, but also crit and haste, which aren't typically on plate tanking gear. We want to make tank itemization more interesting than just "stack mastery," but we don't want it to be baffling either.
Model Two: DPS buttons provide mitigation
This is the model that several players in the community have predicted will be our approach, and the idea has some merit. Under this model, imagine that a warrior wants to hit Shield Slam because it makes his next Shield Block larger. Imagine Revenge procs a short parry buff. Devastate and Thunder Clap already have roles applying debuffs. This model we think could feel pretty intuitive. One downside is that each individual button might feel less impactful and make the experience less visceral. Shield Block feels awesome because when you push it, the damage numbers go way down, and you feel "safe" for the duration. If you replace one slice of that pie with Revenge and Shield Slam, then everything gets watered down. If the rotation is very simple, then it feels like passive mitigation; if not then it's a stressful juggling act. Another potential downside is that keeping up multiple buffs and debuffs can be tedious. Rather than it feeling like a bonus to get those procs, it can feel like a penalty whenever they're not up. Even if you are hit and expertise capped, sometimes you have to move away from the boss to avoid a fire ring, or you need to leave to pick up an add. If you can't bank the mitigation benefit, then the risk is you feel like you don't really have control over your survivability.
Model Three: DPS buttons build up resources
This model lets you bank the benefits. Imagine you have to build up a resource to use on short-term cooldowns. We couldn't include the Shield Walls and their ilk here, because an "oh snap" button needs to be available immediately and not in the future once you've earned some resources. But weaker cooldowns such as Shield Block and Holy Shield could certainly work this way. Imagine the paladin tank needs Crusader Strike to land to generate Holy Power, and can then decide to spend that Holy Power on Holy Shield Block or Word of Glory. Neither of those would have a cooldown in this design, so more hits landing will always be better -- it's not just a matter of hitting enough to have 100% uptime. (You'd probably also need the ability to save Holy Power more than you can today so that there was less pressure to spend a cooldown as soon as it became available.)
The choice can then become whether to use Holy Shield Block or Word of Glory. Holy Shield Block is probably your first choice, but if you screw it up or the damage is magical, or you need a reactive button instead of an active one, then Word of Glory might be a better choice. Either way, there shouldn't be any simple answers. (As a counterpoint, deciding to spend that Holy Power on threat instead of mitigation is just never going to be interesting -- smart tanks will always use it to survive, as we saw before Protection had a Word of Glory cooldown.)
As an aside, the Feral druid's mitigation is arguably the most passive right now, and we'd want to change things like Savage Defense to be active buttons under this model. One downside of Model Three is the risk that the rotation could be too formulaic: AAAAB, for example. It could also be asking a lot of tanks -- rather than just hitting buttons to generate threat, tanks would need to pay active attention to managing a resource. No more infinite rage just for getting beat on. We want tanking to be fun, and we think that needs to include a certain degree of risk of failure for not playing well, but that doesn't mean it needs to be frustrating. Challenging and frustrating don't need to go together.
Again, these aren't the kind of change we will hotfix in. It's going to take a lot of thought and a lot of feedback from players to get things feeling right. As a comparison, we still stand behind the mana adjustments we made for healers for Cataclysm. We think the healer gameplay is more engaging than it was at the end of Lich King, but that's obviously very subjective and took a lot of getting used to, even for seasoned players. We'd like to introduce the tanking changes more smoothly, but we still want to introduce them.
Bloody Death Knights
The risk of talking about one particular spec in a blog is then everyone will wonder when BM hunters or Disc priests are going to get "their" blog. It's not going to work like that, but since I referenced the DK tanking style so much in the previous tanking blog, I feel like it's appropriate to go into a little more detail about what we don't like about DK tanking (and how we're going to fix it) so that all tanks have a better idea of what the future might hold for their own character.
One of the fundamental tensions in DK tanking is deciding whether to spend a rune on diseases (which offer necessary tanking debuffs) or save the rune for Death Strike. Our hope was that choosing how to spend the resources would be interesting. A rogue for example has to decide on whether to spend resources on Slice and Dice or Eviscerate (or a number of other things). In reality though, we don't think this decision has been a fun one. You feel cheated if you refresh diseases and then need to Death Strike a moment later, and you feel like a bad tank if you just neglect diseases. For 4.3, we're going to give Blood DKs a 30 second Outbreak, so they will never have to manually apply diseases to a single target. Yes, that can lead to even more Death Strikes but we think adding a fun alternative to Death Strike is not the kind of thing we can easily change for 4.3.
I feel the need to point out that we're not just being lazy here. We understand that many players get really worn down by constant class design change, especially mid-expansion, even if they end up improving the experience overall. Deciding when to make serious changes and when to wait is a major challenge of MMO game design. I'll try and explore this more in a future blog.
We originally designed this talent to encourage DKs to not sit on their runes, and it worked fine for that. However, the current model of Death Strike, which we also like, is that the timing of the Death Strike matters a great deal, encouraging you to... you guessed it... sit on your runes. We're just going to change Blade Barrier to something more passive (and yes, temporarily more boring) for 4.3.
It sucks when Death Strike misses. "Stack hit and expertise" is an answer to that, but not one that's really viable or even fair given that other tanks will care even less about hit and expertise in the short term. Rather than making Death Strike always hit, we're going to let it always heal you, and proc Blood Shield, even when it misses. This kind of tweak may very well be an interim solution given that everything I said above was that we want tanks to care about hitting to drive their mitigation. But we don't think it's fair to penalize the DK for working the "new way" while everyone else is still working the "old way," and it's too much of a change for 4.3 to apply the "new way" to the other three classes. In the long term, as in the Protadin example above, the rotation can't just be Death Strike, Death Strike, Death Strike... Death Strike.
This change is something we're exploring but may not pan out, so no claiming we "promised" this *cough*Abyssal Maw*cough*. So... CAVEAT: this may not come to pass. What we're considering doing with Bone Shield is have it mitigate damage spikes. DKs are prone to spikes more so than the other tanks, particularly the paladin and warrior who can "block cap" (I assume most of you know what that entails, if not, a helpful explanation if someone asks in the comments would be appreciated). Death Strike can theoretically handle the spikes, but if you miss (less of an issue with the above change) or time your DS poorly, you might take much higher damage than other tanks from a single hit. Our idea is that Bone Shield would expend a charge to dampen those spikes specifically. If a single attack did a huge percent of your total health, then some of that attack would be automatically lessened for the cost of a charge. Smaller hits wouldn't spend a charge.
This is an even longer-term change. Death Strike feeling reactive is fun, and one of the things we like about how the DK tanks. Death Striking after a big hit can heal you more than Death Striking before a big hit, so you should ideally pay attention to what the boss is doing instead of just mashing buttons as soon as the runes come up. When you heal a novice DK, you may just notice they take a lot of damage. When you get in sync with a talented DK, you come to know when they are going to Death Strike and recover from big hits. However, sometimes inevitably the tank is going to hit DS too soon and not have it available a second later. Our idea is to somehow turn Blood Shield into more of a pool that you actively try to build and maintain. A system where you're able to add to a pool of absorption would provide more granularity, which in turn would be more forgiving of errors or streaks of bad luck.
There you have it. When we're ready for the 4.3 PTR, you'll hopefully see some of these DK changes in place. The blog we wrote that dove into our thought process for the 4.2 patch notes ended up being the most positively received blog that the class team has ever done, so we'll definitely do one of those again for 4.3. As I mentioned, more active mitigation will probably wait for farther in the future. We might talk about how we decide on when a change is more appropriate for a hotfix, patch, or full expansion in the next developer blog. While it might be short on upcoming class changes, hopefully it will still prove interesting to some of you.
Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street is the lead systems designer for World of Warcraft and he probably listens to your podcast.