My four-year anniversary on WoW Insider came and passed in February without my realizing it at the time, but that's OK. A fourth anniversary is kind of a weird one to single out for special attention, so I think I'll leave any back-patting or celebratory champagne until next year ... assuming the editors still haven't canned me by then.
But the anniversary did poke me into trawling through old team email lines and reading my older articles on the site. (That's how much I love you guys: I read my stuff so you don't have to.) I started kicking around the idea of doing a March 2008 through March 2012 retrospective. March 2008 and March 2009 (my first and second years on the site, respectively) jumped out as being especially compelling months for druid players, with a lot of issues being discussed that wound up being pivotal to the class' development. But March 2010 and 2011 weren't quite as interesting, although it would probably be more accurate to say that they were interesting in ways that weren't very class-specific.
Since we haven't gotten any major class news from the recent Mists of Pandaria press event (although you'll probably want to see the five new druid glyphs), I thought we'd buck the dominant trend this week and spend some time in the past rather than trying to get a handle on the future. Predicting the future is a difficult business that is best left to people who charge $5.99/minute over telephone hotlines.
The big news from March 2008 was a discussion -- a big, serious argument spanning 56 posts and approximately 13,000 words on the WoW Insider team email line, in addition to the rivers of digital ink spilled elsewhere online -- surrounding a Hybrid Theory post that Alex had written concerning druid and paladin tanks and their problems being taken seriously as main tanks. After Dan O'Halloran threatened to fire everyone involved if we didn't post about it, Matt Rossi went on to write Have prot warriors been left behind? and I went on to write Are hybrid tanks going to be left behind?
I think all three articles are a pretty good guide to what was going on with tanks in the late Burning Crusade era -- which is to say, nothing good. Let's face it, BC players: Tanking sucked. I don't think the problems were felt more acutely by one tanking class over others so much as just felt differently. Warriors hated their weak AoE tanking capabilities, rage starvation, Shield Block spam to avoid crushing blows, and threat problems in heroics. Druids had all the problems of warriors (barring Shield Block) in addition to no cooldowns of note and terrible itemization. Paladins had equally bad itemization, resented being pigeonholed as heroic and add tanks, and both hybrid tanks faced growing problems in endgame raids.
I'll give you a few examples for anyone who started with the game after the BC era. Mount Hyjal and Black Temple, the expansion's then-final raids, had a lot of encounters that obviously had not been designed with the so-called hybrid tanks in mind -- or worse, designed specifically to exclude them. My guild was on Reliquary of Souls at the time I wrote that article, and phase 2 of Reliquary featured an ability called Deaden that a warrior could Spell Reflect for a ton of additional damage and threat, making them a virtually required tank for what was then an incredibly difficult encounter. Gurtogg Bloodboil featured an intricate threat dance among two or three tanks (no taunting, folks!) that was hell on paladins, who were then dependent on reflective threat. And then of course we got to Illidan, who had Shear -- essentially a bear-killing mechanic, because we couldn't block it -- and Archimonde, who had Fear. Two of the three tanks couldn't break Fear. Guess which.
(Never mind. There's still only one tank with a Fear break. Rabble, rabble.)
I wrote at the time that I felt like I was being punished for not playing a warrior, and looking back, that's still how it feels. As The Burning Crusade advanced, the odds of being able to clear raid content without a warrior tank at the helm shrank. That was bad news for all those of us who couldn't recruit one for love or money at the time or even convince our DPS warriors to spec protection. Not that anyone blamed them. Being a prot warrior at the time was miserable.
March 2009 saw us comfortably into Wrath of the Lich King, not so comfortably into recent news concerning the upcoming disappearance of the Plagued and Black Proto-Drake rewards from Glory of the Raider, and mired in endless discussion over how to beat a three-drake Sartharion. Behind the scenes, another email line had started about ideal raid composition for the 10-man version of the fight, which was universally acknowledged as one of the game's most difficult encounters with brutal tanking, healing, and DPS requirements. Players usually stacked the group with either all melee or all ranged players for comprehensive buff coverage and then prayed for ideal fire wave placement and a bit of luck. Most of the time they did so fruitlessly. The Nightfall title was second only to Immortal in scarcity.
And then -- literally hours after this email discussion had taken place -- we got a tip from a player named Azagal on Gordunni (EU) and a link to this video.
And that, my friends, is how revolutions happen.
Sarth 3D wasn't exactly the biggest of my worries at the time, but the mechanics behind the encounter were really starting to bother me in a way that I initially had trouble articulating. The three-drake version of the fight featured a series of rising magic attacks that did huge damage -- in fact, more damage than any tank at the time, geared or not, could realistically live through without a cooldown or massive stamina stacking. The new death knight tank had been designed around these cooldowns and could comfortably survive the most dangerous part of the encounter by simply popping one for each breath attack. Druids stacked health and prayed. Warriors and paladins ran out of cooldowns and died.
The game had changed, but the three older tanks hadn't really changed with it. Warriors and paladins -- and the block stat, more particularly -- were oriented around a crushing blow mechanic that no longer existed. Druids had retained a health advantage that, while not making them optimal for Blizzard's new Level 5 Death to Tank attacks in Wrath, allowed them to survive. And of course, death knights had been designed from the ground up from Wrath and lacked the other tanks' convoluted and often messy approaches to raid content.
After thinking about it, aimlessly writing bits and pieces over a month, panicking in the face of a deadline and pulling an all-nighter to try to smoosh the damn thing into a coherent whole, the result was Shifting Perspectives: Tanks, Wrath, and crushing blows.
What I've realized after this trip down memory lane
- Most of the game's balance problems today are peanuts by comparison. This is one of the reasons I find it hard to get riled up about game balance these days. (I used to credit this to a growing sense of maturity before realizing that no such personal improvement had actually occurred.) A 0.03% survivability difference between tanks on heroic What's-His-Face isn't something that comes remotely close to the problems once experienced by classes that literally were not designed to survive specific raid encounters. Yes, we have problems -- every class does. But PvE balance problems are not a big deal.
- Druids are in a pretty good place right now. Maybe too good, judging from population figures I've seen.
- It's relatively easy to write compelling content about a game that serious issues. One of the things you start to notice after reading through back issues of long-running WoW sites is how Blizzard eventually got around to fixing just about everything that was really bugging players. That actually poses something of a problem to those of us tasked with covering the game, because eventually people get tired of reading articles to the effect of, "Man, life is sweet."
- The odds of writing something that Blizzard didn't already know about are basically zero. After publishing the tanks, Wrath, and crushing blows piece, I got some credit for bringing the issue to the developers' notice. Except I hadn't. If you read through back issues of MMO-Champion's blue tracker in early 2009, it'll quickly become obvious that developers knew about the Sarth breath + drakes up = tanks go boom problem. At best, I think the article put the problem into context for players -- namely, that achievements had surpassed strict progression as the means by which a raiding guild was judged and that raiding achievements favored death knight and druid tanks.
- The audience is collectively smarter than me. This is probably something that merits an article all on its own, but it's something you come to realize very quickly once you start writing professionally.
Shifting Perspectives: Bear and Resto Edition takes a peek at healer balance in Dragon Soul, discovers why bears and PvP gear are a pretty good mix, lends advice on gearing up to hit the Raid Finder, and helps you level a druid in the Cataclysm era.