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Tank Talk: Do you feel lucky, punk?

Allison Robert
June 5, 2008

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Tank Talk is WoW Insider's new raid-tanking column, promising you an exciting and educational look at the world of getting the stuffing thrashed out of you in a 10- or 25-man raid. The column will be rotated amongst Matthew Rossi (Warrior/Paladin), Adam Holisky (Warrior), Michael Gray (Paladin), and myself (Druid). Our aim is to use this column to debate and discuss class differences, raid-tanking strategies, tips, tricks, and news concerning all things meatshieldish. At least, that's what the others said they were doing. I intend to use it mostly as a soapbox to complain. Absolute power tends to......something something.

Welcome to Tank Talk. I am your bear Druid hostess for this week, with a topic that occurred to me while reading a recent article here on the site. Eliah Hecht wrote that his guild is facing a not-uncommon tank shortage and that he has considered the possibility of leveling a tanking class to 70 before Wrath, or tanking on a Death Knight afterwards. A number of people on my server and in my guild have talked about doing the same thing, or switching mains once Wrath hits. With so many people playing Death Knights, I think it's very possible that more people will discover they enjoy -- or at least, don't mind -- tanking, and may seek to do so in a raid environment without necessarily knowing what they've really signed up for.

From those of us who have tanked raid content in vanilla WoW or BC, here are the 10 questions you'll want to ask yourself if you're considering the possibility of tanking serious raid content:

1. How often can you realistically be at raids?

As one of our commenters noted recently, the burden of attendance tends to fall most heavily on the tanks. As a general rule of thumb, it's easier to swap in inexperienced DPS and healers than it is to swap in an inexperienced tank. There are exceptions to this rule -- fights like Teron Gorefiend most notably, and healing Kaz'rogal and Naj'entus -- but any given encounter is made significantly more difficult by the presence of a tank who doesn't know the fight. The attendance issue becomes a particularly important one when you've been the person tanking a tough progression fight that the guild hasn't mastered, and you can't (or won't) show up.

It's both a bad use of raiding resources and, to be frank, kind of a waste of everyone's time to spread what are already unpredictable drops and gear across a large tanking corps. The raid doesn't benefit from having 10 tanks with inconsistent experience and great drops unevenly scattered across everyone's toons. The raid benefits significantly more from having 4-5 well-geared tanks who all know the encounters cold and plan on hanging around a lot, because if a middling-to-high percentage of the corps can't make it on any given night, then the raid has to be canceled. You are not going to see "LF1M Illidan need Flame tank" turn up in Trade chat anytime soon.

This is one of the reasons why tanks in raiding guilds are typically: a). among the less casual players, and b). more likely to burn out, but there are certainly others:

2. Do you have the time and undivided attention even for boring trash clears?

This falls squarely into the realm of "no choice." You can't AFK on trash clears. You usually can't take a bathroom break without holding up the raid. You can't tab out to check your email, or spend most of your time watching TV, or do your homework (one of the reasons that students should generally not be tanking in progression-oriented guilds that raid during the week), or do much of anything else that's not directly related to making sure your mob doesn't get loose.

While other players are in the same boat (especially the Mages, because they have to watch their sheeps, and the raid leader), there are fewer tanks than anything else in a given raid, and one of them going AFK is a more serious problem than a healer or DPS having to AFK. Unless you have sufficient crowd control to cover the tank's target if they have to take a break (assuming their add can be CC'd at all), the raid has to wait for them to get back in order to go anywhere. This is a nuisance on farm content. On progression content, with the trash respawn rate being what it is, it goes from being a nuisance to being irresponsible.

The bottom line, padawan, is that once you sit down to raid, consider yourself there for the night.

3. How comfortable are you with the notion of wiping the raid because you made a mistake?

If you're the kind of person who is going to obsess endlessly over something like this, do yourself a favor and don't tank.

You will make mistakes. These mistakes will cost the raid an attempt, and the raid will continue to wipe until you know what you're doing (at which point the raid can start to wipe for other reasons, but hey, it's progress). You are doing a job where a mistake is very likely to earn both yourself and 24 other people a trip to the graveyard. It is certainly your problem if the raid wipes because of you, and you need to fix this as fast as you can, but you are not responsible for the encounter design that puts you (and other tanks) in this position.

How your guild handles this goes a long way toward tank retention. If you find yourself in a raiding guild where reasonable tank mistakes and the learning curve are greeted with sarcasm and anger, then do yourself an additional favor and don't raid with them. Countless raiding guilds have learned the hard way that people who are willing to tank difficult raid encounters are very few and far between if they can't learn their jobs without being subjected to ridicule.

What you need to do is settle into the emotional happy medium of being able to apologize sincerely for the wipe without developing a guilt complex or becoming an arrogant bastard who just doesn't care.

4. Are you OK with the idea of spending time doing content with no real benefit to you?

5-man groups are typically composed of a tank, a healer, and three DPS. 10-man raids are usually two tanks, three healers, and 5 DPS. 25-man raids are usually 3-4 tanks, 6-9 healers, and 13-15 DPS. The math is very straightforward; there's a lot more of them than there are of us, and assuming that your services are frequently required for, say, 5-man content and heroics, you're going to finish your rep grinds and get your drops fairly quickly. That still leaves a large pool of people who need things from the smaller content you just "finished."

You are certainly welcome to log off right after raid or just play alts or PvP or whatever on the weekends, but you're not doing what's best for the guild and your raid if your DPS and healers get stranded looking for a tank for smaller content. Nobody expects you to be at the guild's beck and call, and yes -- it is absolutely annoying to feel as if you can't get uninterrupted time to yourself in the game -- but if the same guildies who helped you get your awesome gear can't get you to tank anything for them once you're "done" with content they still need.....well, that's highly uncool.

5. On that note, how much do you enjoy respeccing?

Sometimes people won't or can't tank the lesser content because 5 minutes after the raid ends, they ain't the same spec. While Blizzard is looking into the possibility of tanks being able to do more damage in Wrath, suffice it to say that you're still going to farm or quest much faster while DPS-specced than you will while specced to tank. Yes, Protection-specced Warriors and Paladins can do dailies and farm, but there is no real way around the fact that you are built to take damage rather than deal it. You will not farm as quickly or efficiently as you will while specced Arms/Fury/Ret. Druids have the undeniable edge here with Cat Form, provided they have the gear for it (I don't advise attempting to farm while in bear kit).

The Protection trees (and, again, to a lesser extent the Feral tree) also have limited application in PvP. A lot of tanks respec out of their tanking trees on the weekends for this purpose, leading to the perennial complaint (at least on my server) that it's almost impossible to find a tank for a 5-man between Friday and Sunday. See #4. To what extent this will be a problem with Death Knights remains to be seen.

Naturally the respeccing question dovetails into our next issue:

6. Can you afford to tank?

Tanking is expensive. Plate is not cheap to repair, and even Druids can manage a fairly hefty repair bill (we can't block or parry, so we get hit more and take a fairly constant rate of durability damage). Warrior and Paladin shields will often be shot after a lengthy session of multi-mob tanking. Warriors have to spend gold on food, Paladins and Druids have to buy reagents and water, and all three (soon to be four) tanks should ideally be running full (and costly) consumables on progression or otherwise difficult content. With good gear and class knowledge, a DPS can often phase out the extensive use of consumables on farm content, but even a Tier 6 tank is well-advised to buff up versus a boss whose melee is going to land in the region of 8-10K.

Some raiding guilds cover tanks' repairs and consumable costs; some don't. For 5-man content, you're almost certainly going to be on your own, and if you do your job well and the group is good, you're the only person who's going to walk out with a repair bill. If you don't have a certain amount of time to devote to farming, and if respeccing your tank for that purpose is prohibitively expensive, you're probably better off playing a DPS, or at least leveling a DPS toon whose sole purpose is to support your tank.

7. Are you ready to be expendable on certain fights?

Tanks are somewhat like the body's immune system. They take a lot of space, resources, and time to maintain and are an absolute necessity when you need them....until all of a sudden they go back to hanging around trying to look helpful.

All tanks are highly-armored, high-HP, low-damage characters. With the current design of raid encounters, the number of tanks required to clear trash is not necessarily the number of tanks you'll need for the actual boss fight. This leaves raid leaders with the unenviable dilemma of whether to keep otherwise unproductive raid members in for the fight -- not generally a good idea on progression content with a razor-thin margin for error -- or booting your low-DPS butt onto the bench. Yes, it really sucks to have to come in and absorb the repair bill and boredom of tanking trash only to listen on Vent as the raid goes on to their tier tokens and cool drops, but this is fairly likely to happen on progression content while your raid is still gearing up and struggling to avoid enrage timers.

Prot warriors can DPS, tankadins can offheal or DPS, feral Druids can offheal or DPS -- but none of us are substitutes for people who are specced and geared to do these jobs and, more to the point, do them all the time. Again, Druids going kitty have an easier time with this, but you need the gear to support it, and your damage will be outscaled rather quickly by pure DPS as you make your way through raid content.

Tanks will typically be rotated into fights like this for both experience and a shot at drops, so all is not lost, but on fights like Vashj, Leotheras, Morogrim, Archimonde, Naj'entus, and Gorefiend, a raid may very well deal with the problem of a one- or two-tank fight by benching or respeccing most of the tanking corps. It's not personal, but it is irritating, and sometimes you'll get unlucky with drops. This is all the more reason to make yourself useful in other ways. Or, at least, less useless:

8. Fancy spending DKP, badges, honor, and gold like a drunken pirate?

Everybody in a raid spends, or should be spending, DKP on main-spec upgrades to enable the raid to progress to more difficult content. As a tank, you are additionally required to obtain the following, depending on your class:
  • Resist gear: fire resistance for Anetheron adds, possibly Al'ar adds, and the Flames of Azzinoth on Illidan, nature resistance for Hydross the Unstable, frost resistance for same, and shadow resistance for Mother Shahraz. The fire resist set will run you 100 badges, frost and nature will cost hundreds of primals in addition to other mats, and the entire guild has to farm Black Temple for weeks in order to obtain Hearts of Darkness in sufficient quantity to equip the raid. The saving grace of Shahraz for the tanks is that we don't need to be (and in fact, shouldn't be) kitted in full SR gear, but you'll probably need it anyway to have a shot at getting in the raid if you have to respec for any reason. Moreover, if your guild is going all the way to the Eredar Twins in Sunwell, you'll need SR gear regardless. Get it made.
  • Badge gear: Paladins and Druids still suffer from inconsistent itemization and there are slots that, at a certain level of progression, can't realistically be filled by anything other than badge gear. Warriors and Druids are also on the same Defender token in Tier 4 and Tier 5 content, which means they are basically forced to gear at each other's expense until your guild reaches Tier 6. If you can save DKP by using badge gear and let somebody else get a needed drop so you can click along faster to Tier 6, go for it. However, if the tier set bonuses are sufficiently good that you should really be using that instead (e.g. Tier 4 feral), that's yet another reason that the tanking corps needs to be in close communication about drops.
  • PvP gear: This is a Druid-centric problem because there really isn't much, if any, PvP gear a Paladin or Warrior should be using to tank. Druids get no +defense on their Tier gear, a smattering of +hit on Tier 5 and 6, and no +expertise until Tier 6 boots off Felmyst. Their non-set pieces have to be very carefully coordinated to ensure that they stay at the required (talented) 2.6% crit reduction versus a level 73 raid mob. In general, it is easiest to do this by PvPing for Vindicator's and/or arena gear, which you will probably need to do anyway in order to stay defense-capped while tanking in resist gear.

  • Offspec gear: It's not that difficult (if, yes, expensive) to build up decent DPS and healing sets with non-set drops, offspec tier, badges, and PvP. You can have the best-geared tank on the server, but if that's the only set of gear that toon's got, they are useless to the raid in any other capacity. You are virtually certain to go DPS or healy at some point, even if it's not for long, so don't show up to Teron Gorefiend or Naj'entus with a bunch of level 63 quest greens expecting to do a good job. Moreover, you'll probably want a good DPS or healing set if for no other reason than having decent gear to use on those occasions when you absolutely have to respec out of tanking for a weekend or go insane.
  • Gems and enchants: Yes, it is necessary to enchant all of this stuff. Yes, I know that Mongoose and +35 agility are amazingly expensive. Yes, I know it's a huge financial drain to gem and enchant a good healing set in addition to your tanking set in addition to your DPS set in addition to your multiple resist sets. You may not want or need to slap expensive gems and enchants on gear you use mostly for fun, but be sure to do it on any gear that's likely to see use in a raid.

9. Can you maintain a good, or at least cordial, relationship with your healers, your DPS, and the rest of the tanks?

As a tank you are extremely dependent on the rest of the raid, and their experience is equally dependent on you. If you screw up your stats and get crit or crushed, it's your healers who have to deal with it. If you itemize badly or are just undergeared, and more healers have to be assigned to keep you up, there's less healing available for the raid. If your DPS is learning the fight or just isn't doing a good job, the fight goes on longer, extending the time that you have to (for example) avoid Eye Blasts from Illidan, or get a perfect taunt on Al'ar, or maintain razor-thin margins of threat on Gurtogg Bloodboil.

It might be easier to swap inexperienced folks into these positions rather than your own, but do not underestimate the impact of experienced healers and skilled DPS. You can't kill anything on your own, and despite your armor and health you will die without healing. Healers make your job possible and good DPS makes your job easier. You need to search for ways to make their jobs easier too. At the very least, try to educate yourself about their role and learn enough about their classes and specs to remain aware of what is going on outside of how much threat you're producing (this will also come in handy on those occasions where you respec for a raid). Watch raid health and mana. Try to have a sense of the cooldowns your healers blew to keep you up. Trinket if you know the raid is going to encounter problems.

You do not necessarily have to like someone in order to raid successfully with them (although it sure helps), but at the bare minimum you need to respect what they do, and also respect that you probably don't know everything they do. Raid tanks have acquired a prima donna reputation and quite sadly with good reason.

10. Are you willing to do your homework on the encounters?

Luckily for us, there are still some fights out there that don't amount to much more than "Stand there and build threat," but frankly there aren't a whole lot of these anymore. While better and more creative fight designs result in more interesting raids, they also demand more preparation. The tanks' learning curve on a fight is to some degree entirely unavoidable, but you can still improve your initial performance by watching YouTube videos of tanks who've done the job previously, and reading strategies on Wowwiki, Bosskillers, and (not to toot our own horn or anything) Ready Check. None of these will guarantee your perfection out of the gate, but a tank armed with a sense of positioning and boss abilities is one who's less likely to wipe the raid. You owe it to your guildies not to half-ass your job.

The ultimate conclusion I can leave you with that is that tanking is a great deal of work both inside and out of raids, and that there are going to be demands made on your time, skill, and e-wallet that would not necessarily be made of other classes or specs.

Is it worth it? Hell yes.

Tank Talk will continue every week with a new column.

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