Last week we provided an outline of the Sartharion encounter, promising to deliver more detail this week on how to beat the boss with all three of his drake companions alive at the pull. This is commonly called 'hard mode' and, although it's not for the faint hearted, it's by no means impossible either. However, excellent co-ordination and DPS are required in order to keep the fight under control and things can quickly degenerate into chaos.
When to attempt 3 drakes
Is your guild or raid group ready to even try 3 drakes? There's no hard-and-fast rule that says 'you need to be this awesome to leave three drakes alive'. If you're thinking about trying it, we'd hope that you've already killed Sartharion, probably with one or two adds already alive. You've cleared Naxx and are decked out in gear, you have a diverse pool of people to draw from, and you can communicate with each other. That's all you need, really, although a couple of things can help, including a well geared tank and complementary DPS.
Sartharion deals large fire breaths which peak at around 70k. Your tank will need to survive these somehow, and part of the challenge with Sarth+3 is working out exactly how. Two of the most common approaches are: to use a feral druid, who can get a ludicrously large health pool if geared for it - the Polar set, although frost resistance, has a lot of stamina after gemming and enchanting; or to use a death knight, whose many cooldowns - used wisely - mean every dangerous breath can be survived. There are also tricks from within your raid that will help, such as Blessing of Sanctuary, Pain Suppression, Guardian Spirit and Hand of Sacrifice.
Especially for the 10-man version of the encounter (normal mode), getting your DPS to complement each other is important. Min-maxing class synergy, such as building a group that contains all possible melee buffs and solely melee DPS, allows for maximum DPS. Your group makeup will depend on who is available, but a shaman is recommended for heroism and you will probably need replenishment as well. Misdirection is helpful, although not absolutely required. One of your DPS should ideally be able to tank the disciples in the twilight world -- a plate DPSer with a hybrid healing is enough (Judgement of Light is a great help), although some groups have used pets successfully.
On heroic mode, synergy is still important - you want as many raid buffs as possible covered - but you can mix both casters and melee to take a fairly normal-looking raid. Heroism, replenishment, misdirection and Judgement of Light are still helpful here, as is a plate DPSer who can healably tank.
The Offtanks and Healers
Less crucial in terms of exact class composition are the drake and add tanks and the healers. You need a tank to pick up all three adds, who will also be taking large hits, especially when tanking two drakes who can both breathe at around the same time. This tank needs to be able to build threat quickly to allow DPS to go all out on the drakes, but beyond that any well geared tank should be able to do this job. Bear in mind tanks can bring useful synergy, so -- for example -- using a warrior tank on the drakes will ensure sunder is up quickly for a melee-oriented setup.
The other tanking job involves controlling the fire elementals that spawn throughout the encounter, and also the dragon whelps that Tenebron hatches. Keeping these under control is important, as casters cannot tank enraged blazes and whelps for very long. You can either use a full tank on these or a DPSer, depending on your players; since there will always be mobs to tank, and large amounts can be painful to heal through, we usually use a protection warrior (vigilance, charge and intervene are lovely) but groups using anything from a prot paladin to a DPS deathknight have been successful. AoE tanking is the key here, so a druid isn't recommended, but it's ultimately up to who's the best and fastest-reacting AoE tank from your lineup.
In terms of healing, you can use six or seven healers (depending on your DPS and whether your healers can keep everyone alive!) on heroic mode and two or three on normal. Three is safer, but if you have a hybrid who can heal in the twilight world, you can get that extra bit of raid DPS by only bringing two; you'll probably find that if you have three healers, a DPSer can tank the elementals and whelps, whereas if you only have two you need a tank-specced person with that extra survivability. Each healing class has different tricks that can help, so bring your best players and work out how best to use their class-specific skills to your advantage.
The encounter itself
On paper, beating three drakes is simple. You have a bit of time DPSing Sartharion before the first drake lands, though you really don't need to do anything much to him -- be conservative rather than offensive here, especially if your tank is decked out in HP gear or a strange maximum mitigation spec. Tenebron lands, you DPS her down as fast as possible (usually with bloodlust to avoid two waves of whelps hatching). Shadron lands, ideally around the time Tenebron dies, and you AoE down the adds then DPS him; when Shadron summons a disciple, fire damage taken increases by 50% (plus 100% from Shadron's aura, present from the pull) so raid and MT healing will need to cope with the increase.
The dangerous bottleneck in the fight happens when Vesperon lands and summons a disciple as well, causing the Twilight Torment debuff. This increases fire and shadow damage taken by 75%, and brings Sartharion's breaths to a level that will one-shot your tank without judicious use of cooldowns. As a feral druid, this is where I barkskin and use survival instincts, yelling for pain suppression or guardian spirit once survival instincts has run out.
Depending on your DPS, you can choose to finish Shadron off (thus removing the danger of the 100% multiplier) or take the twilight portal and kill Vesperon's acolyte. Twilight Torment also causes your DPSers to take damage as they deal it, so depending on your healing and Shadron's remaining health, you may be able to burn through it. Killing the acolyte - you can leave Shadron's acolyte alive, as killing both takes too long - reduces the danger temporarily, but if your DPS is low you will find yourself continually jumping in and out of portals and may run out of tank-survival cooldowns.
Once Shadron dies the danger is past; you can either take Vesperon's portals to reduce the 'emo' damage or simply heal through it, but you should kill the last Shadron acolyte to reduce the fire damage to almost trivial levels. Generally you have a guaranteed kill by this stage, if nothing else goes wrong. The tank's main danger once Vesperon dies is from melee damage, so some strategies (with a druid tanking) involve the drake tank taking over once she has nothing to tank.
Notes on tanking
Having done this fight primarily as a tank, there are a few things to mention. Firstly, plan your cooldowns. This includes working with healers so that they know roughly when you will want a certain buff -- for example, ensuring a paladin is in range to use Hand of Sacrifice by warning them a breath in advance. You also need to be aware of what is going on and especially what is alive so you don't waste cooldowns -- it's easy to notice a drake dying and believe you're in more danger than you actually are!
Although main tanking Sartharion is relatively simple, you still need to ensure you're awake enough to dodge all void zones and lava walls, as well as turn off auto attack when you have Twilight Torment (you may as well do it when Shadron lands, due to the immunity buff). Even one tick of Twilight Torment or Flame Tsunami can finish you off after a big breath.
Drake tanking varies in difficulty. If you have a hunter, it's more or less a walk in the park, as Misdirection does most of the hard work for you. Picking up Tenebron and getting a decent aggro lead can be hit and miss depending on which wave you get first, and where you tank the drakes. Our strategy involves moving the drakes some distance, whereas others open fire on Tenebron more or less where she lands; warn your DPSers if you know aggro is going to be flaky, especially if you have a caster group setup and you don't get many buffs increasing your threat.
Moving the drakes is best learned with practice, as ensuring they don't swing round and breathe on melee can be tricky occasionally. You also need to make sure you don't drag a drake through people when positioning to pick up a new drake. The best way to do this is to yell at people to get out of the way; you can hardly ask the drake to stop breathing.
When you have both Shadron and Vesperon, balancing aggro on two drakes versus killing yourself with Twilight Torment can be tricky. It gives you something to do while the DPS are having fun downstairs, at least. Once the drakes are dead you can either help out on adds, DPS or take over from the MT.
Whelp and blaze tanking is a hard job and is enough to drive the best tank insane after hours of wiping. Learn where the whelps spawn so you can pick them up reliably every time; one trick to congregate the blazes in one place is to ask your healing paladins to use Righteous Fury, ensuring they will gain the bulk of the healing aggro. You should be in control of when to AoE these adds, calling on vent when you have built up a good amount of threat; dragging them to the drake currently being killed ensures melee AoE will hit them as well.
Bear in mind that Sartharion and the drakes are all tauntable. This is usually a bad thing; tabbing or clicking to select an unruly add can cause an unwanted case of dragon halitosis. However, you can pull off some interesting tricks if needed, such as taunting a drake to let the druid tank combat res someone.
Fusion have an absolutely excellent guide to this fight over on StratFu including a detailed, annotated video (embedded below) and an account of their learning progress. Definitely check their guide out for a different, in-depth walkthrough of the encounter.