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Raid Rx: The limits of cognitive bandwidth for healers

Matt Low

Every week, Raid Rx will help you quarterback your healers to victory! Your host is Matt Low, the grand pooh-bah of World of Matticus and a founder of No Stock UI, a WoW blog for all things UI-, macro- and addon-related. If you're looking for more healing advice, check out the Plus Heal community.

How much cognitive bandwidth does a healer need? At what point is too much "stuff" actually too much?

In terms of information processing and responses, healing is a pretty demanding position to play. We're getting additional spells to work with in the expansion. That means there are more situations we need to learn how to "read". But first, let me try to paint what goes on in the mind of a healer (or at least, in my mind). I'll use Sindragosa as an example of an extreme case, in terms of encounter mechanics to watch for and healing that needs to be done.

The healer's stream of consciousness

If anyone here has played Mass Effect 2, then the following might sound suspiciously like Mordin. But this is a short snippet of what goes on through my head as I'm attempting to heal through heroic Sindragosa.

Here is a typical phase 1. It can be fairly hectic, but nothing too dangerous.

Three healers with Unchained Magic -- two of them are tank healers.

Switching to tank healing to compensate. Casting Renew. Casting Prayer of Mending.

Switching to melee group, casting Prayer of Healing.

Deus Vox Encounters alarm fires off and am getting pulled in to the middle due to Blistering Cold. Mouse-turning and running away. Rogue is behind me by 6 yards. Will not escape the explosion. Casting Power Word: Shield with Body and Soul. Should be safe.

Hunter* is standing directly in the middle. No attempt to escape. Possible disconnect. Explosion in 3 seconds.

Casting Guardian Spirit.

About to run into player with a two-stack of Unchained Magic. Casting Holy Nova twice to mitigate and survive. Explosion has gone off, running back to the ranged area.

*Note: I picked a hunter randomly as the class. It easily could have been any other class.

After that, it becomes a straightforward rinse-and-repeat process. I'm going to skip over phase 2, as the cognitive requirements on that phase aren't as high.

This is phase 3, and this is where I get taxed to my mental limits as a healer.
Boss is now at 35 percent, entering phase 3. Stacking Renews and Prayer of Healing glyphed HoTs on as many people as possible. Firing Prayer of Mending. Frost beacon is up, on a different player. He is moving to his assigned location.

Going to refresh his Renew just before the ice block encases him. Players are moving behind the block.

Paladin call stating he has Unchained Magic. Discipline Priest calling out he also has Unchained Magic.

Switching to tank healing (via Binding Heal) to compensate, not going to shake off Mystic Buffet yet.

Ice block has been destroyed, Sindragosa being taunted by second tank. Switching targets. Timer shows Blistering Cold soon.

Unchained Magic debuff gained, stopping all spell casts. Pulled to the middle, running away. Standing behind ice block and waiting for Mystic Buffet to fall off.

Directing the mental traffic

You get the idea though, right? The furthest I've ever gotten was taking down heroic Sindragosa on both 10- and 25-player mode. Heroic Halion is something that I'm hoping to get before Cataclysm. This encounter is extremely daunting because there is so much stuff going on. At the peak of the encounter, you have to watch for:
  • Unchained Magic
  • Dodging Frost Tombs
  • Tank switches
  • Overall raid health (and waiting for defensive cooldown use)
  • Mystic Buffet
  • Line of sight with Frost Tombs
  • Blistering Cold timers
That is all mostly encounter mechanics; it does not take into account things like healer mana management and spell usage. That type of decision-making plays a big part of healer mentality.

How the UI can help us

Last week, I mentioned the changes and additions that are being introduced soon to help us manage any procs and cooldowns. If we can just take things a step further and add the ability to customize any spell or ability name (such as boss abilities) , it would cut down on the amount of bars and timers to watch for. I don't know about you, but I'm getting to the point where I'm watching six different timers, my own debuffs and the tank.

Another idea I just thought about off the top of my head: sound usage.

Any Counterstrike players out there? I used to invest hours of time just mindlessly playing online before WoW came out. When the bomb was planted, players could hear audio beeps. They could rely on the intervals between beeps to determine how much time and urgency was left before the C4 detonated.

The development team has made great strides in introducing default boss modifications into the game. If there were a way to play a tone or a sound file and have it gradually speed up or change pitch, it could be one less bar to watch for. Hearing the beep start going every half-second might make us actually run out on time.

I'm positive that Halion and Lich King on heroic modes require just as much (if not more) mental bandwidth. Again, though, this is just the top end of things when it comes to progression raiding. Most of the encounters are challenging in their own right, and they do keep us busy and engaged. There is enough going on and enough work to keep everyone on their toes.

I don't know how complex future raid encounters will be. I just hope they don't get any more complicated than they are now. As a healer, being pushed is fun. Having the opportunity and time to react is fun. I enjoy reacting to scripted and random events as they occur. However, what isn't fun for me is watching eight timers on my screen, keeping an eye on debuffs, and keeping my other eye on my frames while figuring out if I have the time to use a medium heal or a fast heal. You might find that fun. But don't forget that the definition of fun will vary from person to person.

Need advice on working with the healers in your guild? Raid Rx has you covered. Send your questions about raid healing to For less healer-centric raiding advice, visit Ready Check, and don't miss our strategy guides to Icecrown Citadel and Halion/the Ruby Sanctum.

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