Now for whatever reason, I've been tanking lately, usually due to a connection issue or what have you. It's one of those confluences of my gear's being just good enough and my no longer being burned out on the role. While I still define myself as a DPS warrior and raid with that as my main spec, I was surprised to find tanking wasn't that hard to pick back up. In fact, it may be a little too easy.
I hesitate to make this statement because, in part, I know I'm not a typical player. I main tanked for years. I tanked in vanilla, in The Burning Crusade, in Wrath, and for the opening of Cataclysm. I was the undergeared tank trying to do heroics in greens when the expansion came out. I was the guy tanking heroic LK. I've tanked in all sorts of situations and gear and specs. I tanked when TC only hit four mobs and did not work in Defensive Stance. What I'm saying is, I've been tanking for so long there's almost no way for me to evaluate how difficult tanking is for other players. I have years of muscle memory. I've kited. I've done adds; I've done bosses. I've picked up murlocs and traded adds on Yogg.
For a DPS player without this body of experience, would going from haven't tanked in months to suit up, we need a tank for heroic modes be more daunting? Probably. One of the things that really annoyed me about tanking was that I had to go drop my DPS off spec in order to do it. I know, I know, boo-freaking-hoo. But tanking this week has me thinking about where tanking is intended to go ... and where it could go.
Bashing skulls and taking hits
At lower levels, it really doesn't matter what spec you are. You can slap on a shield, go into defensive stance and tank well enough to get through an instance. Meanwhile, protection is as capable of soloing and questing as any spec.
The issue with doing this at later levels is that damage from critical hits becomes impossible to heal through for gear-appropriate content. In other words, a level 85 tank in a level 85 heroic dungeon wearing gear at the cusp of being able to enter that dungeon cannot survive tanking it if he or she takes critical hits from the boss. That's why Bastion of Defense and other, similar talents exist. While this critical hit immunity used to be based on the defense statistic, it was folded into talents for Cataclysm.
In general, this was a good change, but it's also led to shifts in gameplay. Since critical hit immunity is based around a talent only tank specs can get, serious tanking is impossible without that one talent. It's folded in. I expect in Mists of Pandaria that the Bastion-style talents will be folded into the tanking specs as a baseline ability. This will keep critical hit immunity out of the hands of DPS or healing specs for tank classes, keeping their dedicated tanking trees in parity.
The change to resilience has me thinking: Why not embrace this trend? Rather than baking critical hit reduction into a talent or a spec, just make all tanking forms and stances provide critical hit reduction against all NPCs and provide nothing at all against players. This will already be the case for Vengeance as of patch 4.3.2. If we're going to push tanking abilities so that they don't work in PvP anyway, why make them cost the player a specialization choice or a talent point?
The specter of PvP rears its head
I personally dislike seeing people who chose tank specs being penalized for it in PvP. If you choose to spec prot, blood or feral for PvP, you're making a trade-off, and things like critical hit reduction and Vengeance are the goods you get in exchange for the bad of being effectively unable to kill anyone unless idiots try really hard to kill you.
But if we're going in this direction anyway, then I say let's go more proactively and make certain aspects of tanking class wide so that they can be done by any member of the class in the appropriate stanc, presence or form. My argument is not that an arms warrior should be as good a tank as a prot warrior, at all. My argument is that an arms warrior should be able to pop into defensive and hold a boss long enough to prevent a wipe or tank a 5-man if his group needs a tank without respeccing. If you're going to say they can kind of do that now, then my return volley is that let's make it easier, then.
How we fight, not if we fight
There shouldn't be two wholly different ways to play for tanks. Tanking should be intuitive. A tank should know how to go in there and tank because it makes sense and feels like something you'd do.
With Vengeance and improved forms of AoE threat and the threat buff, we've made strides in that direction. The active mitigation model we're looking toward, where you use offensive abilities to generate resources to use defensive ones, is a start in the right direction, but attacking should itself provide defensive benefit. Choosing a dedicated tanking talent spec should not say "I have chosen to tank" but rather "I have chosen to be the ultimate tank." Prot warriors should be the absolute best warrior tanks, the ones with the most health and survivability, the ones you use on bosses. But moving crit immunity to stance-based solutions could allow for the following changes.
- Variation in trash design Trash is actually important in 5-mans and raids alike. It can drop random epics and patterns, it gives pacing and flow to the zone, and it provides a sense of scope and scale and setting. If DPS players were capable of tanking in a pinch, you could design trash pulls that required a significant amount of tanking without forcing raids to pull in six tanks for trash and then benching four of them for the boss. Similarly, if an encounter spawned a wave of adds that don't hit particularly hard but that will swarm down the healers if not dealt with, DPS players could use their tanking stances proactively to hold them in place just long enough to be burned down.
- Justifying the hybrid tax If you play right now as a DPS feral druid or arms warrior or unholy DK, you're not really very hybrid. Ferals are, more so than the other two, for being able to pop out of form -- but really, how often do you? The idea that these classes should do less DPS because they can switch specs or port to Stormwind and respec to do a job two other people are probably already doing effectively makes the player pay for the raid's benefit. Why not let the player also benefit from it? Giving us back some of that actual hybrid flexibility in combat would make the pill of being actually nerfed for potential viability less painful to swallow, and it would let talented tank class players show off a bit. Win/win.
- Reducing the tank shortage To a degree, I think this is less crucial than it was before the Raid Finder -- but then again, I'm not advocating it for Raid Finder. I think two tank-specced tanks per RF is absolutely where it should be. But for 5-mans (especially ones that friends and guildmates have to ram themselves through face first to get geared), why not let a fury warrior with tank gear from Dragon Soul strap it on, use a shield in the off hand and a Gurth in his main, and go tank for her friend? Again, if you're arguing they already can do this, then let's make it official.
- Resolving PvP difficulties Most PvP players hate seeing tank specs in PvP. Usually this is because they're whiny. Mages especially hate it when anything can actually fight back, as do rogues. These are classes designed for players who run away if they stub their toes, so it makes sense. Weakling complaints aside, having tanking abilities work in PvP seems to be causing design balance difficulties, so why have them do so? Remove them and balance tanking specs in PvP with the assumption that they'll have to stack resilience and can be targeted without automatically feeding them attack power.
- My fondness for bullet lists No, seriously, I do like them. I'm weird that way.
Of course, now I'm thinking about arms or fury specs designed around tanking. I'm thinking about allowing players to decide which stats they want. Imagine no tanks with dodge, parry and block, but all tanks being able to choose which two of the three they had -- an arms warrior could be a dodge/parry tank or a parry/block tank, a guardian druid could be a dodge/block tank, etc. -- leading to viable two-handed weapon tanking for warriors. I'll save some of this for a future column; we've gone on for a while today.
At the center of the fury of battle stand the warriors: protection, arms and fury. Check out more strategies and tips especially for warriors, including Cataclysm 101 for DPS warriors, a guide to new reputation gear for warriors, and a look back at six years of warrior trends.