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Tank Talk: The better (and lesser) angels of our nature

Allison Robert

Tank Talk continues this week with one requisite "Why does my ingame life have to suck so hard?" story in deference to a point made by commenters on our first column. We will then take a look at the most fundamental decision you will encounter as a raiding tank -- and one you are likely to make, and then re-make, on just about every boss encounter in the game.

There is a Druid on my server who messages me almost daily asking me to come tank his heroics. What annoys me is not being asked to tank per se, but that he, too, is a feral Druid. His gear isn't as good as mine simply because he hasn't raided past Magtheridon, but he's sitting on at least three of the better pieces of Tier 4, crafted epics, and several of the badge pieces that I'm still using to tank Tier 6. At a matter of fact, with the advent of two different badge vendors and badge drops from 10-man and 25-man bosses, his stats are significantly better than the ones I had tanking most of Tier 5. This guy literally has the gear to do just about anything in the game short of the more advanced content in Black Temple and Sunwell Plateau, and I used to point to him with no small measure of Druidic pride as proof of what a little elbow grease could accomplish.

But he still wants me to come tank for him.

I started getting irritated with the constant begging at one point and asked him, "How can you possibly have any difficulty getting groups? Everybody in LFG is looking for a tank, and your gear is excellent."

At his computer, I'm sure he was shrugging. "You do it faster than I do."

"I really don't. Just get some good DPS and you'll be fine."

And then the truth came out: "Well, I don't really like tanking. I'd rather DPS."


This is time, I thought to myself, for the proverbial bucket of ice water, especially because I have taken this guy to heroics and Karazhan on many occasions, often by way of sitting understanding guildies who didn't need the badges as much as he once did.

Since respeccing to feral in June 2007, I asked him, how often do you think I have DPS'd in groups?

"It's been a year, many dungeons have you run since then, you must have --"


Let's think about this, folks.

That's a year's worth of 5-man dungeons and heroics. I am fully exalted with the Cenarion Expedition, Lower City, Thrallmar, Keepers of Time, the Sha'tar, the Shattered Sun Offensive, and the Consortium, on top of the game's raiding factions (the Ashtongue Deathsworn, the Scale of the Sands, and the Violet Eye). Nearly all of the 5-man rep past Honored was acquired by tanking PuG after agonizing PuG, and I didn't have anybody to make it easier on me, and why is it that every person you help decides to become a co-dependent barnacle on your arse, and I just want to get FIVE MINUTES to myself to pick some herbs so I have enough elixirs for the next raid but nobody thinks about that, they just want you to come tank something for them NOW and they'll keep messaging you until they get it but they'll whine tomorrow if you don't show up with your consumables, and why can't I get any quiet time, you'd think that DND message was a f#%$#*(@g neon sign shouting Please spam me with tells! and this is why you can't level a damn alt, you can't even get off your main for a second, and HELL YES everybody would rather DPS than do anything that required the smallest measure of responsibility and --

And I had to stop myself.

Such thought processes are rather unhealthy, to say nothing of being a disservice to people who meant no harm. Unfortunately for the majority of the tanking population, these sentiments are not that terribly uncommon from time to time. Ktok and Calaana, commenting on the first Tank Talk, are regrettably correct about the degree to which you will be hounded outside of raids as a tank. I maintain that your guild does not, deep down, expect you to be on call 24/7 but concede that you will get considerably more traffic than an average member, and that it is necessary to say no to people with uncomfortable regularity (maybe one of these days you'll get a column on how to say no to people without feeling guilty about it, but you'll have to wait until I learn how to do it myself). So today's column is more about a conundrum that you will encounter inside of raids, and the whole new can of worms that results.

A certain degree of resentment is practically a design feature (albeit an unintentional one) of the tanking lifestyle. Why is this? Well, your average raider gets accustomed to thinking of 25-man content as Us Vs. Them. You go in with, as Brutallus so charmingly refers to them, 24 of your closest friends, you learn how to beat the trash and the boss, you collect your shiny purples, and then you go home happy (in theory, anyway. Some of us, six months into Hyjal, still do not have Pillar of Unbelievably Stupid Drop Rate in our hot, armored little hands).

As a DPS or healer's gear improves, their DPS and healing gets better and/or more efficient. While I realize this glosses a bit (especially on the constant +crit versus +haste issue that many classes and specs have to deal with, and the extensive theorycrafting that goes into squeezing the bejabbers out of your toon's capabilities), one of the truly attractive things about playing a DPS or a healer is that it's relatively easy to get a sense of your character's progression. Juggle stats as you will, you know you got it right when your DPS or HPS improve, and there's no small sense of satisfaction in watching your character get better at what it does. What ho, Dr. Boom.

This is not the case for a raid tank. Raid tanks quickly learn that Us Vs. Them encapsulates two sets of Them: you're fighting the mobs and the boss, but you're also fighting your own raid. Your gear may improve, but that doesn't necessarily mean that your job is going to get easier. Different fight mechanics from boss to boss cetainly ensure this, but weirdly enough, gear improvements may very well make your job tougher than it was previously, and the raid's DPS gear improvements always make your job harder.


Well, Sparky (she said, swirling her port), your role as a tank is twofold:
  • Present a sound, mana-efficient target for your healers: what is a tank, after all, but a character who is among the most mana-efficient targets in the game to be healed? You can only take so many healers on a raid before you risk hitting a boss' enrage timer, so you need someone around to absorb the majority of the punishment in a such a fashion as to occupy some of the raid's healing resources but not all of them. Tanks who take less damage from a boss free up more healing resources for raid damage, or free up a raid slot for an additional DPS to kill the boss faster, and/or simply reduce the likelihood that the raid's healers will go OOM over the course of the encounter (if you want a quick and dirty guide to this mechanic and you've done Black Temple, gauge your raid leader's reaction to Gurtogg's Fel Rage going to a tank versus a Mage or a Priest). OOM healers = dead raid. This is one of the reasons that the overall quality of your tank has such far-reaching implications for your raid's prospects.
  • Hold aggro against the raid's DPS: there's no point to being a mana-efficient target to be healed when you're not the person who needs those heals. Losing aggro to your DPS means (in all likelihood) lots of one-shots while you desperately try to recapture and reposition the mob. Having to resurrect and rebuff players on trash slows the raid considerably, and losing too many players on a boss usually means a slow bleed toward the enrage timer or an even faster failure depending on who died and when. You have to hold aggro (although the DPS have the responsibility to not pull it....which does not always happen).

So, at its heart, tanking is a job with two core responsibilities. The paradox is that mitigation -- the first goal -- generally clashes with threat generation, the second. There are a few hybrid stats on tanking gear, most notably +expertise, shield block value, and agility -- but not all of these are available on tanking gear for each class, with a notable lack of +expertise on Paladin and Druid gear and of course the lack of +block on Druid items, and they're not all equally effective for each class. Hybrid tanking stats will support both threat generation and mitigation to a certain degree, but beyond those, you are nearly always exchanging aggro for damage reduction and vice versa.***

Leaving aside the notion of hybrid stats, the problem is also one of the fuel your mitigation will leave you with to use high-threat abilities; bears and Warriors generate most of their rage from taking damage, and Paladins get mana back only while chugging pots or getting healed. The better your gear gets, the less damage you take, and the less rage you generate or mana you get back (this is one of the more perennial issues plaguing Warriors on smaller content especially).

In plain English, it's significantly more difficult to generate and hold aggro in the gear that is the most likely to keep you alive versus a maddened level 73 raid mob. In my high+hit/+expertise gear (the so-called "threat set"), I'm exchanging about 5,000 armor and 4% dodge in return for about 200-500 more TPS (threat per second) on average, in addition to a steadier rage supply as I invariably take more damage. This means DPS can unload earlier and faster than they normally do. The trade-off is that the healers -- not me! -- now have to make up the difference between the damage I'm taking now, with the damage I'd be taking with all that armor and dodge back. Over the length of an average boss fight, 5,000 armor and 4% less dodge on your tank is one hell of a lot of damage. You have to be exchanging all that mitigation for a reason, and a damn good one at that.

Let's discuss. I always do.

"Myself," I think, sitting in front of Teron Gorefiend and watching him glower at us from just beyond aggro range, "Here is a 2H mob that typically melees for 6-9K and can crush me for 10K+. He wants to kill us all and has, in the past, succeeded admirably. I like my healers. I don't want them to send me hate mail. They have to heal raid damage from Doom Blossoms on top of my sorry carcass. High armor sounds good here, yes?"

Yes, nods the angel on my right shoulder, the Angel of Mitigation ("Bob"), the one who rescues puppies from wells, is driven to ecstasy by a raid-buffed dodge rate of 50%+, wants the heal team to be happy, and eggs me into pushing armor unto levels as yet unreached by man. Armor up! 35K! Lots of dodge! This horrid, horrid boss hits ever so hard! The healers have so much damage to heal on this fight! Do the right thing, Allie! -- he chants, jumping up and down, admonitory finger held high -- DO THE RIGHT THING!

Bob is the guiding light of all new tanks and their heart and conscience forever after, world without end. Love that little guy.

You f%#^@%g twit! bellows the angel on my left shoulder, the Angel of Threat Generation ("Larry"). Larry is more the cynical type. He knows that the Hunters aren't going to Feign Death. He doesn't believe the Warlocks have Soulshatter hotkeyed. He's aware there are reasons we have to BoP people on Illidan. He snickers at the notion of anyone watching Omen, and has total faith that the DPS would happily replace my furry butt with a tanking rogue if they could. Let's get real! Half this raid blows chunks at doing constructs! This is a DPS race before that guy, you know the one, gets Shadow of Death and sends constructs spewing all over the raid like a drunk freshman at a frat party! Expertise! Hit! Crit! Forget the armor! The healers will hate this fight no matter what you do!

Larry is what a not-unremarkable number of tanks turn into after a certain amount of experience raid-tanking, and while he's not someone whose impulses you want to give into all the time, you'd be a fool not to listen to him.

So we have a problem, my fellow tanks. And it is a problem that refreshes itself with every new boss the raid does, from Karazhan through Sunwell.

Neither of our pesky little angels is right all the time -- although it might be more accurate to say that each is slightly more correct than the other on different fights -- and with every new encounter you must stop, evaluate your gear and the options you have, evaluate the raid that is likely to go to the boss and what you know of how they've handled previous encounters, and then start rummaging around your likely-overfilled bags for the gear that's going to make the magic happen. The type of gear you use for Prince is not necessarily the same that you'd use for Maiden, but it's probably similar to the set you'd want to use for High King Maulgar given the amount of melee damage you'll absorb. Going from Leotheras to Karathress? Snap aggro will make or break the Leo fight, but it's virtually worthless on multi-mob fights like Moroes, Karathress, Hex Lord, and Illidari Council. Paying a visit to Mother Shahraz? Just about everyone in the raid but you is going to be in shadow resist gear, but that doesn't mean Saber Lash will hit for less. Mitigation gear is your friend when your healers are struggling in resist gear with nonexistent mp5.

The list could go on, but the bottom line is that one of your two angels is going to be happier than the other on any given encounter, and there's not much shy of experience (and some knowledge, however ugly, of how effectively each portion of your raid tends to function) that's going to give you an inkling of how the boss fight is going to go.

Watch your healers. Watch your DPS. Read up on the boss, examine your combat logs, check WWS reports if your raid uses them (and I recommend you do if your guild is at least somewhat serious about raiding), and take a critical look at how best to optimize your gear on progression encounters. It's not flashy, but there's a lot you can do behind to scenes to try to ensure that the boss' health will hit 0% before yours does.

Matt Rossi will be writing next week's Tank Talk column.

***Expertise isn't truly a threat generation stat for Paladins but they benefit from it mtigation-wise the same way all tanks do. Reducing the number of boss parries is always a good thing unless you're on one of the very few mobs, e.g. Brutallus and Shahraz, for whom the swing timer is not reset upon a parry. This is one of the reasons for the existence of Combat Expertise in the Protection Paladin tree and Defiance in the Protection Warrior tree. Unfortunately, Druids do not currently have an equivalent talent.

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