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The Light and How to Swing It: What happened to encounters that were interesting to tank?

Matt Walsh

Every week, WoW Insider brings you The Light and How to Swing It for holy, protection and retribution paladins. Protection specialist Matt Walsh spends most of his time receiving concussions for the benefit of 24 other people, obsessing over his hair (a blood elf racial!), and maintaining the tankadin-focused blog Righteous Defense.

Cataclysm has been a fairly, er, cataclysmic expansion when it comes to the status quo of tanking. For starters, threat was decimated with the introduction of Vengeance and nigh removed from the game with the recent buffs to threat generation. Likewise, variability in the number of tanks a fight required seemingly died along with Halfus Wyrmbreaker. And, perhaps most troubling of all, the profession of tanking has generally been made less and less interesting as far as encounter design is concerned.

What makes a fight "interesting"?

If you think back to some of the fights in previous tiers, the most interesting ones were always the most demanding ones -- the ones that required you to juggle multiple balls over the course of the encounter. These balls could be one of many mechanics. To name just a few:
  • Picking up adds that are dynamically joining the fight
  • Shepherding adds to a specific location
  • Hitting cooldowns to counter a near-death attack
  • Moving out of hazards constantly
  • Taunt swapping boss on a debuff
  • Combating the threat output of buffed DPS
And countless other tropes that I've neglected to list.

Reading any of these, you can think of a number of mechanics that Blizzard has constantly repeated that encompass them. It's a fairly limited bag of tricks, and Blizzard has done a bang-up job mixing and matching a handful of them and compiling the resulting smorgasbord into some of the fights we have known and loved.

Think of fights like Freya, which threw the entire toolbox at you. You had to stay out of Solar Beams, quickly pick up a trio of adds, drag the boss away from bombs on the ground, bring the boss to a specific point, and so on. It was a headache to tank as current content simply because there was so much going on. But at the same time, that first kill was invigorating because you were running around like a madman, sweating bullets -- while possibly chewing the same. In short, the fight was so damn compelling. It felt like a real accomplishment to overcome it.

Consider also Nefarian in Blackwing Descent. One of Blizzard's beloved multi-phase fights, each phase was a delightful hoop to tank your way through. Phase 1 required picking up adds as they made an appearance around the ring of the map (and while being staggered, at that), then dragging them to a set place to kill them in an optimal spot. All the while, you needed to blow a cooldown before a raid-wide nuke occurred and knocked a chunk off of everyone's health. Or if you were tanking one of the dragons, you had to position them correctly in relation to your other dragon-tanking comrade. (That's right, three tanks! Perish the thought.) The Onyxia tank in particular had to take care to move the dragon about to do the least amount of damage to the raid, depending on how volatile Onyxia was feeling.

Then in phase 2, the room flooded and you had to get the hell out of that hazard and onto your assigned pillar while battling the dreaded Lip of Doom. On the pillar, you'd furiously damage the add while contributing to interrupts (that is, after the patch giving us a real interrupt), as well as using your cooldowns to mitigate the damage to your fellow pillar-mates.

Finally, in the last phase, the most harrowing part of the encounter began and you had to pick up that same pile of adds you left for dead. As you and your co-add tank began to make a circuit of the room, you had to balance keeping the adds out of the fire that would sustain them, picking up any reanimated laggards that had fallen behind and furiously activating cooldowns to keep yourself standing during any Electrocutes or as the fight dragged on, healer mana ebbed and the adds' voraciousness grew.

The downfall

Compare that to most fights in Firelands and Dragon Soul -- fights like Rhyolith, where you follow the boss around, pick up adds and hold them while DPS burns them down, and you're never in danger that entire time. Or Ultraxion, where you stand still the entire fight and just hit the appropriate buttons (while very fun thanks to the cooldown mechanics). Or Majordomo Staghelm, where you stand still and try not to die, occasionally dancing around a cat. Or Warlord Zon'ozz, where you juggle cooldowns to not get gibbed, all while praying that your healers get the debuffs off.

Now, you might say it's unfair to compare an end boss in T11 with a bump-in-the-road boss from T12 or T13. Granted. However, I'd assert that even the speed bump bosses of T11 were vastly more interesting than just about any fight in the last two tiers.

Ever since we first set foot in the Firelands, there seems to have been a constant descent in how much encounters challenged the tank. Most fights required only one or two (max) tasks to perform at a time, with some even requiring zero tank movement. Dragon Soul continued the trend, what feels like even more dumbed-down tanking assignments. There's even a Patchwerk fight! At least in the original Patchwerk, you had to watch your threat relative to the other tanks and melee; in this new Patchwerk, threat doesn't matter and your only focus is taunting off the co-tank and occasionally hitting a cooldown. Homer's drinking bird could tank the fight.

Why did this happen? What was the cause of all the spice being slowly sucked out of tanking with these last two tiers? I suspect it has something to do with the reasoning behind the neutering of threat a few months ago, the idea that tanks have too much on their plates and its discouraging possible new tanks from picking up the craft.

In an ironic bit of prescience, Ghostcrawler's hypothetical argument for threat in his original Dev Watercooler column about the impending change back on Aug. 16 said, "Threat's role, just so we're all on the same page, is to make fights more interesting. ... We have always been concerned that if threat was not a big part of tanking gameplay that tanks might get bored just waiting around until it was time to use a cooldown."

The future looks dim

And here we are, nearly half a year later, and what Ghostcrawler mentioned has come to pass. Fights are less interesting, though obviously not because of threat -- we're talking by design here -- and our primary focus in fights these days is just firing off cooldowns and dealing with the one or two mechanics that the encounter demands we deal with.

I obviously must admit that the idea of interesting fights lives on -- to a degree -- in hard modes, if only because often the way they make fights harder is just by throwing extra mechanics with bigger numbers at the raid. Nonetheless, I'm more concerned that the bar is seemingly being lowered for the remaining modes of difficulty, especially normal mode. (Though, ask hard mode raiders and they'd likely tell you the same thing: Fights are generally less interesting to tank in their content these days, as well.)

Ultimately, my true fear is that in the name of content accessibility and making the profession of tanking more accessible, Blizzard has removed a lot of our opportunities to rise to the occasion of any given encounter.

The removal of threat, the standardization of two tank fights, the reduction in mechanics that a tank has to combat -- it's a trend I am very much not a fan of, and I'm very, very curious to see how Mists of Pandaria approaches the subject.

The Light and How to Swing It shows paladin tanks how to take on the dark times brought by Cataclysm. Try out our 4 tips for upping your combat table coverage, find out how to increase threat without sacrificing survivability, and learn how to manage the latest version of Holy Shield.

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