Behind the Mask: The Art of War, tanking edition

Patrick Mackey
P. Mackey|05.26.11

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Recently, my girlfriend told me that Behind the Mask hasn't had enough "fun" articles lately. What is "fun," anyway? And why is my girlfriend nerdy enough to actually understand what CON and PRE are? She doesn't even play Champions Online!

However, I did promise this week I'd do an article on CO tanking techniques. It'll include very little on specific powers and more on how to use those specific powers. I had a video guide planned, but my project file got corrupted. Hopefully the information presented here is enough for you to get a good idea of what to do.

One key element of of my techniques is that they are heavily geared toward a character with Acrobatics. If you do not have Acrobatics, you are at a massive disadvantage compared to a tank who does. In-battle mobility is extremely important for a tank!

Technique 1: Active defense rotating

Active defenses are the most underestimated element of tanking for new players. They have a 1.5-minute cooldown with a 30-second shared cooldown, but this means you can rotate active defenses every 30 seconds if you have more than one in order to make the initial spawn-clearing easier. In harder team content, battles tend to last a minute or two, so doing this every fight is a definite possibility.

Timing your active defenses, regardless of how many you have, is very important. In general, a tank wants to take some damage before hitting his panic buttons.
  • Field Surge is best used when you've taken some hits and need to buy some time to heal.
  • Resurgence restores HP; don't waste it by clicking the button when heal will be wasted.
  • Unbreakable can be used even at the start of fights, but its power diminishes if you attack too much, so it's best used after you have some aggro.
  • Masterful Dodge is best used right away if you're not a dodge tank; if you're a dodge tank, it's a full heal as well so it's more of an emergency button.
Other powers, like Ice Barrier and Electric Sheath (with Matter-Energy Union), also work similarly to active defenses. Ice Barrier is similar to Masterful Dodge (you want to use it early), while MEU is similar to Field Surge (you want to use it a little ways in to buy yourself some recovery time). Palliate is basically a better Resurgence for tanks with lots of HP. Ascension also works with heal-based tanking (most good tanks), boosting its effectiveness and giving you a lot of mobility for a while.

Technique 1.5: Common sense applies

The worst thing that can happen to a dodge tank is forgetting to re-apply Bountiful Chi Resurgence. Tanks who rely on self-healing (all good tanks do) are incredibly dependent on hitting those heals as fast as possible.

A lot of this can be alleviated by good UI placement (press F12 to edit the UI). If you have your character portrait and buff window near the center of your screen, it's a lot easier to see the Bionic Shielding debuff active on your character. If you play a character for whom Bionic Shielding is your main heal, it's not too hard to program your brain to see exactly when that debuff expires without losing focus of the battle.

Having your buff window and HP near the center of your screen lets you be more alert in general. Defiance tanks need to see how many Defiance stacks they have, as it dictates their strategy a lot.

For tanks, the other things you should be paying attention to are:
  • Your power tray -- needs no further explanation.
  • The alert indicator is really important for knowing things you must block; being knocked back sucks a lot more for tanks than it does for everyone else.
  • The target status window shows you if Challenging Strikes has dropped and also if other debuffs are active.
  • The target of target status shows you if you have aggro.
Some other things, like the teammate status window and the pet status window, can be important. The teammate status window is generally not as important as it is in other games. A teammate who is taking damage might not be at any real risk, and a teammate who grabs too much aggro should just block until the aggro can be pulled off or killed. The team status window is vitally important for support characters, but it's a secondary feature for tanks.

Another thing that is very important to mess with in the UI is camera view distance. It is absolutely critical for tanks! You must be able to see everything that is going on in a battle. This means you should be rotating your camera frequently to see whether any adds have arrived or whether any of your allies is in trouble. This is much more important than watching your team window.

In order to change your max view distance, just go to the options menu and click the controls tab. Under "max camera distance," set the number to 70 (or drag the slider all the way to the right). You won't always need to play at maximum zoom, but you will want to play zoomed farther out most of the time.

Technique 2: Jousting

In the days before City of Heroes PvP was totally ruined, there was a trick you could do with melee attacks. Melee attacks only needed a brief window of proximity in order to activate and hit the opponent; the rest of the animation was window dressing to the initial power activation. Because of this, a player could start a jump and queue a powerful, slow-animating melee attack that would activate as she passed her opponent. The attack would begin animating, but jump momentum would carry the attacker very far away while she was stuck in the rooting melee attack animation. I called the practice "jousting," although some players called them "drive-bys" and other similar names.

The same basic principle can be used in any game that has attacks that root you but aren't canceled by movement (as in World of Warcraft). Jousting can be used to advance into a group of enemies while you're charging a power or to move through a group while you're maintaining a power, even if those powers would normally root you. Because power ranges are checked at the end of a charge, you probably want to joust to get in range rather than get out of range.

Technique 3: Cone Down

This is a technique most useful for fliers, but it is applicable to any hero with improved vertical mobility. It is especially good for people with Swinging.

It is not very complicated -- just aim a cone attack downward. This gives you two benefits: It lets you see more clearly which enemies are getting hit and taunted (assuming you're aiming your camera down), and it also allows you to hit a wider part of the enemy group without accidentally getting adds.

It also lets you adjust your position to hit different groups of enemies; attacks tend to hit enemies closer to the origin point of the attack (the epicenter for AoE attacks, you for cone attacks), so if you move, you can strike more enemies at once. Moving while maintaining is very important in general if you're using a cone attack with Challenging Strikes. If your maintain is normally stationary, remember that you can still joust to move.

Technique 4: Advanced keybinding

Instant self heals (Conviction and BCR) are the best choices for this next technique. It is not very good with other self heals.

This is a pretty simple use of keybinding to minimize the need to remember your maintenance heals. The concept is that you can bind your heal and your main attacks to the same button; when you push that button, you'll heal instantly, then attack. If you push it when the heal is recharging, you'll just attack (it'll give you a spam message telling you the power is on cooldown). This is best for tap attacks, since you hit them more often. If you use maintains to taunt, you'll need to eyeball your cooldowns more closely. As I've already stated, you should be doing this anyway. The syntax for the keybind is:

/bind [button] "+powertrayexec [slot]" $$ "+powertrayexec [slot]"

If you have more heals, you can use another $$ "+powertrayexec [slot]" in order to add a third power to the same button. Since this is probably confusing to all but the most nerdy readers, I will elaborate. First, check out the sweet diagram below:

Confused yet? Each slot on your power tray corresponds to a number, so 0 is your energy builder, 16 is your block, 17 is your passive, and so on. If you use slot 1 as your main taunt and Conviction is in slot 7, your keybind would look something like this:

/bind 2 "+powertrayexec 7" $$ "+powertrayexec 1"

This lets the number 2 on your keyboard activate Conviction (or whichever power is in slot 7) and then activates your normal #2 power, which will either tap, charge or maintain just like a normal charge or maintain power. You must put your attack power last, or else it will only tap before being interrupted by your heal.

That's all for this week. There is some other stuff you can do -- mainly weird things with blocking -- but I'm intending to do a full guide on blocking sometime in the future since it's a pretty detailed concept. See you guys next time!

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.
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