Are hybrid tanks going to *be* left behind?

Allison Robert
A. Robert|03.13.08

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Are hybrid tanks going to *be* left behind?

In the wake of Alex Ziebart's recent post for Hybrid Theory, we received a number of comments from paladins on their ability to main-tank a 25-man raid. Behind the scenes, the subject was equally controversial; many of us here play tanks and we all feel passionate about our classes. An email discussion started about hybrid tanks in general, and it got to be so interesting that we were threatened with being fired if we didn't post it we were asked to share it with our readers.

Warriors? Druids? Paladins? And the people who love them? This one's for you. Now, I've previously fielded complaints that my posts are too long, so far warning; if you're not in the mood for a pretty thorough look at the current state of hybrid tanking, you'll probably want to keep moving. If you play any tank at all, just want to know more about them and the people who choose to play tanks, or are considering rolling a tank class, I hope you find the following to be of interest.

Please note that the headers below are not, as in portions of Matthew Rossi's post, quotes from anybody involved; they're just a means of helping me organize my thoughts and translate our email conversations into the blogging format. I'm attempting to condense the content of multiple email conversations.

My perspective on Alex's post

For reference, my main is a tanking feral druid in a Tier 6 raiding guild. Our main tank is a protection paladin, and we're on Reliquary of Souls at the moment. This guy main-tanked Vashj, main-tanked Kael for a certain period until we found out his computer settings made it really tough for him to see Flamestrikes (so we substituted a warrior for that reason, not because of the pally/warrior divide), and has main-tanked most of Hyjal and a fairish amount of Black Temple.

More past the cut.

The recent discussion about Alex's post has made me think a lot about the situation my guild is in; we haven't been using warriors just because we couldn't get a reliable warrior tank for months. We had a lot of difficulty finding warrior tanks in no small part because most of the ones available on our realm are either dps- or pvp-specced and geared, with absolutely no desire to change. In fact, when we lost our previous warrior MT in August, our resident dps warrior refused point blank to spec prot. So it didn't have anything to do with tanking preferences, but for a long time, we only had a protadin and two feral druids tanking just about everything (which, thank God, is something you can get away with for most Tier 4 content). We have three excellent warrior tanks right now, but we still tend to default the MT position to our tankadin, who's showed up patiently to just about every raid, took the humiliating add-tanking jobs over and over and over again, farmed up his epic fire resist set, farmed up the primals for the Hydross nature resist yeah.

This is one of the primary reasons I have difficulty with the quarrels over who makes, or should make, the "best tank." There is an actual person behind that character every night, and if the gap in overall "tank quality" between the classes has narrowed to the point that it doesn't matter whether a warrior, druid, or paladin is tanking, then you have the choice of giving the job to the person based on skill and experience, and just secondarily on whether their class is the most ideal for the encounter.

So what's the problem? There's a paladin main-tanking for your guild, oh happy day!

The problem is that we're hitting the limits of his class more and more in Tier 6 content; paladin tanks are not ideal for encounters like Gurtogg Bloodboil or any situation which requires threat to be controlled carefully. They're also lousy offtanks for that reason, and their threat suffers badly on high-mobility fights. It's horrible watching this happen to our faithful tankadin, and to a certain extent it's also happening to the bears; you break your back tanking to get your guild to the coolest, best, most engaging encounters in the game......which you are then not meant to be a part of, judging from a number of fight mechanics. The feeling just gets worse when I look at the endgame itemization for paladins and druids (bear itemization? What bear itemization?), and how they are meant to scale (if indeed they scale at all). It's hard to escape the conclusion that bears and paladins are basically being used to get people through the scut work of 5-mans and 10-mans, but as soon as the prestige tanking slots for endgame raid bosses looms, it's "Bye-bye, and don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out!"

It says a great deal about the direction that BC has taken that the hybrid tanks have become sufficiently viable that they CAN function as main tanks in most progression content -- but I don't think our pally's experience is all that dissimilar from others. Hybrid tanks tend to be very sensitive to criticism (whether that criticism is correct or not) in part because many feel embattled from two ends - Blizzard's and the players'. Most feel (and I am among them) that Blizzard will never allow warriors to be challenged for a prestige job. Too many of the developers played, or play Warriors, and considerably more people play Warriors than play Druids or Paladins.

So you resent Warriors?

If I did, I wouldn't be tanking. We are, after all, playing on their turf, and it's them that I go yammering to in my guild's private tank channel during an encounter.

There is something to the notion that the Warrior class should never be displaced from its pre-BC role. Warriors are indeed the specialist tank class; I'm raising a warrior myself in no small part because of their pedigree, but I know the size of the nerf bat they took when the expansion hit. I completely agree that Warriors got the short end of the stick with respect to 5-man tanking and that they are the twitchiest of all three classes when it comes to aggro generation and retention (although, having played both a Druid and a Warrior tank at this point, I think Matthew vastly underestimates the degree of similarity between the two rage-using tanks. The Druid in bear form is, after all, meant to function as copy of a Warrior). Warriors are entirely correct about the degree to which BC upset their class mechanics, and there is nothing more maddening than seeing your class or your role reduced to a shadow of its former self.

What happened to warriors was not right -- although I do not understand the frequent inclination on the part of the warrior boards to blame and in some cases hate their former, pre-BC healbots (really, what were druids and paladins doing for the most part before the expansion hit?) for their predicament in BC. It's an unpleasant shock to join the tanking sandbox so happily and then realize that its current inhabitants are hellbent on a grudge match.

So why does all of this matter?

Because, like it or not, there's still a tanking shortage, and the hybrid tanks are upset about a (perceived, and possibly genuine) lack of support from both Blizzard and the community (and also a perceived lack of acceptance, bordering on outright hostility, from many warriors). Matthew is not wrong about warriors getting the shaft. Unfortunately, I don't think I'm wrong about hybrid tanks also getting the shaft. Each tanking class just so happens to get screwed in different ways:

  • PALADINS: It was pointed out to me after my Magister's Terrace article that paladin tanks don't have a single weapon in the entire game for them past a blue level 70 sword that's a very rare drop in Ogri'la (Crystalforged Sword). The delicate balancing act that they have with their gear - maintaining the defense cap, stacking armor and health insofar as is possible, keeping themselves uncrushable, AND retaining a sufficient amount of spell damage to hold aggro against the loldps -- I do not envy paladin tanks their gear problems. At all. Paladins are basically bottle rockets; they frontload a large amount of fast and consistently rising threat in no small part because they don't always have the ability to sustain a significantly longer fight. I remember before every Void Reaver kill dumping a ton of mana pots on our pally MT because any time he got hit by the knockback, he'd go OOM at the speed of light trying to catch up and nearly always had to get a Misdirect. A paladin who goes OOM is a paladin who's run out of fuel for Holy Shield and is thus crushable, which is why they're terrible offtanks; a paladin who isn't getting healed is a paladin who ain't getting much mana back. Paladins are typically tougher to heal than comparably geared bears and warriors, although this is a twofold problem arising from: a). lousy itemization yet again, and b). simple class mechanics dictating that they are at their most mana and threat efficient on larger pulls where naturally they'll take more damage. They also have major problems, as I've mentioned, maintaining consistently high threat on high mobility fights and on caster mobs, are the only tank who can be silenced, and again, the only tanks whose ability to hold aggro actively deteriorates as the fight continues.
  • DRUIDS: For my part as a feral tank, it drives me absolutely nuts trying to stay defense-capped. I do not understand the rationale behind endgame feral itemization and the absolute, total, 100% lack of +defense on every leather piece in the game past the level 68-70 blue Heavy Clefthoof set. Warriors may have trouble maintaining the defense cap, but if they encountered a similar absence of the most basic and fundamental tanking stat on their own gear, they'd be screaming bloody murder. It is literally impossible for a bear to be defense-capped in tier gear without resorting to PvP (it's wonderfully ironic that, unless you blow a ton of money on respecs, you have to PvP on what is indisputably the single worst druid PvP spec -- and your 2's partner in arena sure doesn't mind at all that you have to save up arena points for gear that in no way benefits your arena rating!), tanking enchants on the helm, shoulders, and possibly bracers, plus tanking necklaces, cloaks, and rings (which, don't forget, we have to compete for with every other tank). This cuts pretty heavily into much-vaunted catform dps, which doesn't begin to approach rogue levels even in full cat gear with nothing but dps buffs, much less in bear gear. What rogue out there is using Ring of Unyielding Force? We are the only tanks who have to eat crushing blows regularly, we have no means whatsoever of mitigating magic damage, we are entirely dependent on our healers, our armor and health, and a high dodge rate to stay alive without any chance of being able to pot in forms, and additionally, we are the only tanks for whom there is an almost total lack of non-tier drops for them in 25-man content. We get the Wildfury Greatstaff off SSC trash, and we get a Tier 6 weapon of questionable usefulness, the Pillar of LOL off Anetheron in Mount Hyjal and that's......about it. Everything else is either a general, all-purpose tanking piece that has to be shared among all three tank classes, a Kara trash drop or BT trash drop if you get really, really lucky, or rogue leather. Moreover, we share the warrior's irritating problem of diminished tanking effectiveness with better gear due to rage starvation, and we additionally share their problem of weak AoE threat generation (Swipe before clearing 2K AP in bear is monstrously bad at holding aggro against your dps. In a heroic, it won't even hold aggro against your healer). Warriors may be fairly twitchy 5-man tanks, but bears aren't all that far behind them when it comes to the hell of constant tab-targeting and praying Mangle comes off cooldown in enough time to slap one on the mob that your destro warlock is happily nuking. I wish I had a nickel for every time people cited the supposed ease of AoE tanking as a bear with Demoralizing Roar and Swipe, but trust me, if that's what you're doing in Shattered Halls, you ain't tanking. See that mage behind you in a panic looking for his Iceblock button? He's the one tanking.

So what's going on with the tanking shortage? Wtf is up with all these whiny tanks, huh huh?

Because tanking sucks, that's why.

Well, it might be more appropriate to say, it has a higher chance of sucking than any other job in the game -- and what we're arguing about here is very much affected by common dps-class impatience with unavoidable tanking mechanics. Of all the people I've read on the subject, this guy here put it best. Paladins and bears are better (in the paladin's case, MUCH better) at dealing with the unfortunate realities of the player base; I guess you could call paladins the ultimate idiocy-proof 5-man tank. People don't like to wait for the tank to get aggro. They don't necessarily substitute lesser- or no-damage moves like Kick or Counterspell to prevent the tank from taking damage or eating a fear because it reflects poorly on their dps. And, if my months tanking in 25-mans are any indication, even experienced raiders are highly unlikely to notice that the tank has been stunned or CC'd and can't build aggro. Tunnel vision on the mobs' status bars is endemic amongst dps, and most people who have not played a tank (which is just most people, period) do not realize that mobs don't like being tanked and will escape control at the first available opportunity. Warriors in their current state suffer the most from this in 5-man's, but the tanking job is still a sufficiently unattractive one that any given warrior, druid, or paladin is unlikely to want to do it.

I respecced at level 69 from balance/resto to feral because no one on my realm could PuG a tank for love or money, and it was a rude shock. Tanking is in many ways the single worst job in the game and the one with the most responsibility for the outcome of an encounter. To add insult to injury, it's a job where an appalling amount of your success hinges on the ability of other people to play their class responsibly. You can be an experienced bear or a warrior geared to the teeth, full Tier 6, so frigging shiny that people go blind just looking at you on the screen, and a level 69 hunter in greens can make you look like an idiot just because they do not know how to play their own class.

I still remember wanting to die when I went with my GM to a heroic SV - a dungeon I have done hundreds of times, to the point of playing those mobs like a piccolo - and losing aggro to him seven seconds after a pull because he multi-shotted into one of the four-pulls I was positioning out of line of sight of a CC'd caster mob (you know the Oracle/Siren/Siren/melee four-pull at the bottom of Thespia's ramp? That one). His excuse? "I give all tanks 5 seconds after the pull's been made. That's fair." No, that's not fair, that's just wishful thinking.

Don't get me wrong; I love to tank. I love to help people get through dungeons they might not otherwise be able to do. I love the feeling of being able to stand up to the biggest, meanest, son of a bitch raid boss, the monster that will one-shot everything else in the raid if it gets loose, and make sure my guild gets through the encounter. I even love having to obsess over my gear and spec, squeezing out every last little drop of mitigation from the options I have available in order to improve, however minutely, the chance that I'll live long enough against hideous damage to keep a boss attempt going.

And I am not by any means unique among people who tank. Regardless of the class, just about every warrior, druid, or paladin who treats tanking as a vocation feels pretty much the same way.

What I don't love is the growing feeling, when I see the itemization and encounters that await me, that I am being punished for not being a warrior.

So where does this leave druids and paladins?

Most dedicated paladin and druid tanks aren't doing the job for ha-ha's, and they're certainly not doing it to shove their warrior brothers and sisters aside. There is no freshly-respecced tankadin or bear atop Aldor Rise in Shattrath bellowing in /yell, "Im in ur raids tankin ur mobs!" They're doing it because people need tanks, and because they can either tolerate tanking or actively enjoy it. Moreover, the existence of viable hybrid tanks is one of the factors that enables warriors to spec for dps or PvP. Very few warriors would be able to get away with being consistently specced for either if all that awaited their class at 70 was the protection tree. The damage and aggro demands of heroics up through 25-mans has inflated to the point where you really can't get away, as you could pre-BC, with using dps warriors as tanks or offtanks; whoever your tank is, they'd better be specced for it unless the heal team feels lucky that night.

I also disagree strenuously with Matt over the protection warrior's being unwanted for "lesser content" like 5-man's and 10-man's and would venture to guess that it is indeed a more realm-specific problem. That's crazy. The supply of tanks has always been outstripped by the demand by them. Blizzard changed the viability of hybrid tanks in no small part because of this, and the WoW community as a whole benefits when more tanks - or at least, potential tanks - become available for the lesser content that everybody wants, and in fact, NEEDS to run (for attunement, for gearing, etc.).

I still PuG 5-mans a lot for that reason and it remains one of my favorite things to do; I know exactly what it's like to sit forlorn in LFG for hours waiting for a tank to show up, and, on the off chance that you actually get one, not knowing if it's going to be someone who has gear or knows the dungeon. While I still PuG as a resto on occasion, a decent healer is rarely going to compensate for an inexperienced and/or undergeared tank who can't or won't hold aggro (in fact, a well-geared healer is all that much more likely to pull healing aggro from a badly-geared tank). A bad tank means the mobs die more slowly because the dps throttles their damage (theoretically; in my experience what usually just winds up happening is aggro blows up in our faces), and longer fights are more likely to run the healer OOM. A good tank is the single most decisive contribution to the success of most encounters.

But smaller content is where the viability of the hybrid tanks seems to peak, and it's the source of much of the hybrid's unhappiness over what looks like a bleak future. It can be tough not to feel used, almost as if Blizzard is plugging you in to fill the 5 and 10-man tanking gap, and then drop-kicking you out of itemization and encounters as soon as the going gets good. It's already hard enough to be a tank on the roster when the need for tanks on any given encounter in 25-man raid content varies so wildly.

What Matt cites as the strengths of the bear and the paladin in small-scale tanking (and I think he both underestimates the degree to which the difficulties of the warrior tank are the difficulties of the bear tank in the same environment, and overestimate how well the paladin's strengths here translate to a 25-man raid environment) are what the paladin and bear see as being the life Blizzard has doomed them to as matter of their own convenience and the misguided sense that warriors should never be challenged for a prestige role. Yes, bears and paladins are stronger 5-man tanks overall (paladins especially), and warriors desperately need to be buffed for this content. Depending on group composition and particular encounters, bears and paladins are situationally stronger 10-man tanks too. But what we see of 25-man content, where we want to take our characters and our guilds, where we want to keep tanking because that's what we do, is an increasing number of contexts where we'll be smacked back into place, tanking content and contexts that warriors have no desire to be bothered with.

Any warrior worth his salt can tank a 5-man, even though it requires a greater degree of skill and twitchiness than it requires from a paladin.

But no paladin can tank Phase 2 Reliquary of Souls, no bear can tank Illidan, neither should really be tanking Archimonde, and there are a host of fights out there in all three tiers of existing 25-man content where we are constantly reminded that we are fast outliving our usefulness.

And as a class for whom a streak of nostalgia is clearly evident in accounts of what happened to warrior tanks when BC hit, warriors of all people should understand what it is like to have done your job faithfully, over and over again with no personal benefit to you, and then see a future where you are neither wanted nor needed. The extra and particularly cruel touch for offspec tanks is that our gradual insignificance was a deliberate design decision, and we are simply going to recede into the background so that the big boys can go back to the job that was theirs all along.

So, in the end?

What warriors hear: "Stand in the back, the real tanks will handle this."

What hybrid tanks hear: "Shut up and go back to healing me."
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