If you’re thinking about tanking, then no matter what class you might intend to try, there are a few ideas you should have in the brain housing group to help you along the way.
Over the years I’ve said all this stuff, so none of it is particularly new or ground breaking. I don’t think I’ve ever put it together and stickied it before, though, so here we go.
When you want to play the game, you want to be successful. You want to be a good tank, a successful tank, a tank that other people will want to run with again.
Before you prepare, you need to get it clear in your mind, what is a successful tank? How do you measure success as a tank?
A successful tank is one that can hold threat on all appropriate targets, and can regain threat when it’s lost as soon as possible.
You can go above and beyond that, but aggro is the key measure of success.
In any combat encounter, there are mobs you intended to fight. Maybe you as the tank pulled them, or charged into them, or maybe another player attacked from range, or maybe a Rogue stealthed in and got busted before you got there.
However the pull happened, if you immediately grab aggro on all intended mobs, you build threat on those mobs to the point that your other players find it difficult to pull it away from you when they are dealing strong DPS, and you ride the group down until they’re all dead without chaos or confusion, then you are performing well as a tank.
I’d like to say you would be graded as “meeting expectations” on a performance review, but I’ve BEEN running heroics and randoms in LFD at all levels, and I’m here to tell you; a tank that can grab and hold aggro is exceeding my expectations these days.
That’s it. All the rest of this post is going to be meandering tips and suggestions on how to prepare for the mission of grabbing and holding threat.
First, study your abilities as you get them when leveling up. Take the time to read the player comments on Wowhead for any abilities you are not intimately familiar with. You’re not expected to know everything about how an ability works the second you get it. If you read what other people have to say, very often you’ll get some helpful tips on how other people use it… or whether people even use it at all.
As you read about your abilities, make a list of the ones that specify they deal “high amounts of threat”. What that phrase means is that, while all normal attacks will have a standard amount of threat per point of damage, some abilities have a built in multiplier; they do more threat per point of damage, or even do massive threat without dealing damage at all.
Also, make a list of abilities that affect more than one target. Those are your prime “multiple mob” abilities.
Read through the list of Glyphs available to your class. Some of them may modify an ability to affect additional mobs, or cause your AoE to have a greater range of effect. Any time you can use a Glyph to have a core threat generating ability affect more targets for free, it’s something to take notice of.
With Glyphs, don’t get locked into the idea that what works best at max level or for raiding is what you need to use all the time, or at all levels, either. You can find some things helpful at lower levels, then upgrade as you go.
So, build up your own repertoire of abilities based on threat, and on affecting multiple targets. Plan your Glyphs to help out.
Put your Taunt abilities, single target and group, someplace on your bar or hotkeyed where you can get to them fast. No matter how good you are, every tank has experienced someone pulling threat from them. Everyone. It’s how quickly you grab that aggro back that counts.
Finally, try and control the battlefield.
Controlling the battlefield is the absolute hardest thing for tanks to do.
I like to suggest that, when you don’t know how the group will work together, you try and mark a Skull target for a “first kill”. That will be the target you’re going to focus on when you’re not spreading AoE/multiple mob threat around.
A lot of players seem to resent such marks these days. I’m not sure why, since the idea is to help the tank hold aggro and let the DPS open up without worrying about pulling threat. Maybe people WANT to pull threat. Maybe people resent being told what to do by anyone, and want to be their own boss. Maybe some people are just dicks. I dunno, a little of part A, a little of part B with some C mixed in for flavor?
Still, it’s a fact. I’ve seen people bitch about Skulls, I’ve seen people intentionally target anything BUT Skull, I’ve even frequently seen Skull be the last mob standing in runs, even after asking everyone to please focus on Skull first.
Like I said, I suggest using Skull as a starter. All you can do is try. If you get good enough at threat generation, if you have your own ways of knowing whos got threat on what, you always have the option of not using a kill mark, and if someone pulls off you, just taunting the mob back and moving on with your life. There’s less drama that way.
Amazing how quickly people get prickly if there is the slightest suggestion that maybe, just maybe, they aren’t the greatest group player in the universe if you mention that they’ve pulled aggro fifteen times during the run so far. So, you can just deal with it as an added challenge, suck it up and move on.
Or, if you feel like you’re doing everything you possibly can and should do and they’re still pulling aggro, you can always let them pull and die. What the heck, it’s their repair bill. Tough love, right?
Back to controlling the battlefield.
Knowing which mobs in a group you DO or DO NOT have aggro on is very, very difficult. You’ve basically got three options.
The first option is what I call “Spray and Pray”. You start with your AoE threat ability, like a Druid’s Swipe, Warrior’s Thunder Clap, a Paladin’s Consecration or a Death Knight’s Death and Decay.
Then, you build on that by spreading around attacks that have multiple mob affects. Specifically, you target the mob on the center and use a multiple mob attack, then target the left most mob and attack, then the right most mob and attack. Since you have no control over who the extra mobs are that get hit by “target plus x” attacks, this is an attempt to spread your damage/threat as wide as possible among the group.
An example of Spray and Pray for a Druid is, start with Swipe, target the left most mob and get a Maul triggered (plus attacks), Swipe then target right most mob and Maul plus other attack, Swipe and hit the center, Swipe and Maul the left again, etc.
You’re hoping to build up group threat across the board before settling in on one main kill target. Then if you haven’t already, you can mark with Skull and keep the Swipes going, and hope that the group either switches their main focus to your Skull target, or that your Swipes and the Mauls you laid down at the start stay ahead of the DPS. Your healer will be fine.
If you lay a Skull down at the start, use that as the target you keep coming back to as you spread threat around. That’s the target that would get the Sunder Armor, the Mangle or Feral Faerie Fire, etc.
The problem with this method, of course, is that you won’t know if you’ve lost threat until a mob breaks from the pack and either heads for someone, OR if they’re ranged, begins shooting someone else. In a messy enough scrum, you might not have noticed you lost threat at all.
Still… guess what? It’s what at least 50% of the tanks out there do. And it works. If you really work at it, work on threat generation and gear, you’ll never need anything else. But when you do lose aggro, it’s gonna be frustrating as heck to get it back.
The second method is what I call “Information Overload”. It’s a variation of Spray and Pray, but instead of working blind, you add in the results of a threat meter like Omen. If you use Omen to show you threat levels on targeted mobs, then as you target various mobs in the group using your Spray technique, you can glance over at Omen on each mob, doing spot checks on threat levels.
As you do the circuit of mobs, if you see for example, that the Mage is building threat really fast on one particular mob, then you can choose his target as your primary kill target. If that’s who the Mage wants to kill first, and you’re way above threat for the rest of the group, just switch to that target for the rest of your main attacks, right?
The problem with Information Overload is exactly that; lots of things to watch all the time. If you’re always glancing at Omen, then you’re not watching the mobs, and you might react a few seconds later when one breaks from the pack.
On the other hand… if you’re doing it right, then you’ll know long before the mob breaks loose, right? This is the method I’ve used since just about forever.
The third method, and one I just started using a few months… oh heck, I have no idea how long ago now, is what I call “Evil Overlord”.
I call it that because, first, I’m silly, and second, using it can feel like you ARE an evil overlord when you feel so in control of the battle. It’s just using mob nameplates with a Threat Plates addon like Tidy Plates (with Threat Plates plugin) to be able to see in real time exactly who you do or do not have threat on.
With a nameplate addon, If you start to lose threat on someone, you see it as it happens, because that one nameplate will change size and color. If you’ve got thirty mobs in front of you all with tiny green nameplates, and one suddenly turns yellow and grows in size, you know exactly who to target and unload on to bring him back in line.
Just like smiting an uppity minion.
The wonderful thing about Evil Overlord is that you can see you are losing aggro before it happens. You get a warning, as the mob’s nameplate shifts from green and small, to yellow and bigger, to red and big, to flashing red and really big and THAR SHE GOES!!!! Plenty of advance warning to give you a chance to taunt and keep going, leaving nobody else the wiser.
Wrapping up threat.
So, a tanks main responsibility, and your means of measuring success, is grabbing and holding threat. You’ve got abilities that do lots of threat to one target, to multiple targets, and to every target within an area of affect (including behind you). You’ve got taunts on fairly short cooldown to grab threat immediately if someone breaks from the pack. You’ve even eventually got a mass group taunt, although they vary in ultimate effect. Some of them just force the mobs to focus on you for a few seconds… and then if you didn’t build up enough threat, off they go again.
Aggro and threat management is the core of it. Sure, if you are too damn squishy, you won’t get TOO far, but if you can hold aggro on your targets, all of your targets, then you’re well on your way.
Yes, study your class, learn what makes you tough and strong. Stamina never goes out of style. Be as hard to bring down as possible. Be as tough, as strong, as healthy as a brick shithouse.
Advice on that is better found elsewhere, depending on your class.
A few of the basics, if you intend to tank, you’re going to want to have your armor value as high as possible to reduce the physical damage you suffer as much as possible. We call this physical damage mitigation.
Then, you’re going to want to talent into whatever abilities you have that reduce damage from magic. Physical armor values do NOTHING to reduce magical damage, you might as well be standing there naked against it. Fortunately, most Talent trees have some form of Spell Damage reduction.
After physical and magical damage mitigation, you want to really build up your health. It’s fine to reduce how much damage you take overall, but you really want to have a high health pool, too.
Finally, you’re going to want Agility, Defense Rating, Dodge Rating, Parry and Block (where appropriate), whatever your class uses to increase your avoidance. Not only do avoided attacks do no damage, but most classes have special attacks/threat generating moves that activate when you Parry, Block, or Dodge. The better your rating in these areas, the more often you get your special moves.
The importance of high damage output.
Don’t worry about your DPS. The important thing to know about DPS is that DPS is NOT your job.
I’ll say it again. Doing tons of Deeps AIN’T YOUR JOB.
Your job, as the tank, is to hold aggro and survive. That is the only standard by which you should measure your success.
Now, once you learn the ropes, nail down threat, and know exactly what your capabilities are, you can change your style if you want to. I still hesitate to recommend ever tying to go for DPS over threat.
IF you decide you can do so much threat that the other DPS players cannot possibly come close to matching you, THEN you can start mixing in DPS attacks over threat attacks.
Never forget that your job is to hold threat.
Why is it hard to hold threat sometimes? It’s hard, because DPS players are trying to do as much damage as possible. That’s how they measure their success.
So they are often going all out to be top cock of the block. They want to prove their worth. To be the baddest badass in the group. To strut, if only to themselves.
Or, to be kind, to feel that they contributed the best they could to the group’s success.
In order to do damage without pulling aggro and getting killed, the DPS have to stay under the threat of… guess who?
So, the higher your threat output is on targets, the more DPS the other DPS players can safely put out. EACH of them.
There is one of you, and at least three or more of them. If you worry about your DPS, if that’s what you are pushing instead of threat, then great, sure you’ll be up there on the meters, but if your threat output suffers for it, you’re bringing everyone else down. The DPS players will have to throttle back on their potential just so you can get your jollies.
It hurts the entire group.
If your threat output is so high that nobody can ever come close to you, then sure, do some DPS. Just like a Healer that never has to heal, so they start using Hurricane or Chain Lightning.
But if you are the tank, then every other properly played DPS class is using your threat level as their benchmark for how much DPS they can do without going past you.
If you’re worried about your DPS, and your threat output suffers for it, you might never actually LOSE threat, but most DPS players doing comparisons will quickly decide you can’t tank, because they can’t go all out with you like they can with good ol’ Frank.
Don’t be that tank. Focus on threat first, not DPS.
If, at the end of any given run, you can look back and see that you either held threat all the time, or were able to regain threat as soon as you lost it, then you did a good job.
If, when you look back over a run, you know that you put out so much threat that players could go hog wild on their damage without fear, you did a GREAT job.
You have to start with grabbing and holding aggro. You build on things from there, being able to take a beating and survive for a while, giving your healer a chance to stay on top of things.
But that’s where it all begins. If you start with “I’m going to grab this group, get aggro on them all, and hold it”, with the addition of “Now I got ’em so I’m watching the area around me, and any other mobs that get pulled are getting taunted on me right away”, then you’re going to be doing a great job.
End of line.
Rambling thoughts… I’ve seen people in various forums ask for advice on abilities, Talent specs and gear ratios for tanking while leveling. Often, in fact more often than not, the return advice seems to be that you don’t have to spec as a Tank. Warriors are told that they can just go Arms as a tank while leveling and they’ll be fine. Paladins can go Ret. Druids can focus on Kitty spec and gear (which, okay, is actually pretty accurate).
There is a significant difference between “you CAN do something” and “you will do WELL at something”.
The truth is, if you’re going to tank a random instance with strangers, if you do it in anything other than tank spec with properly prepared abilities, you are letting yourself in for a miserable ride.
I’m leveling a Warrior as Protection. I hit level 35 last night. I’ve tanked a ton of randoms, and I’ve done a ton of quests. I am 100% Prot specced (except for 5 points in Parry, which in my mind still counts as Prot).
My gear is Strength and Stamina. I have enchants for even more Stamina.
I find that I like Battle Stance when questing for the fast Charges, Rend and the slow debuff to keep mobs from running when they get low on health. But it doesn’t really matter what spec I am, I’m questing just fine, and it’s really nice knowing that if things get tight, I can switch to Defense Stance, and swap in Sword and Board. You can change Weapons/Shield while in combat, unlike other armor pieces. So, just like with Lances, I put the icons for them on my button bar to swap faster in combat.
It doesn’t matter in questing. Sure, my DPS is undoubtedly lower than it could be. But I sure don’t notice it being slow to kill things at all.
But when I’m in instances as the tank, every single run I hear variations on “Good lord, finally someone that knows how to tank”. Almost every time, they want me to run another one with them, queueing us up immediately, or asking me to keep going for more.
With a new group in a random, I kept seeing DPS just run ahead without waiting for me, and start pulling themselves. As a longtime tank, this pisses me off. It’s hard to grab and hold aggro when some jackass just takes off without a word and starts pulling. The first thought that comes to MY mind is, “You want to tank, next time queue as tank, jackass.”
And some of them probably would if they let Hunters queue for randoms as tanks.
What I’m starting to figure out is, based on running in groups as DPS on other classes, lots of people are used to having tanks that may have plate armor or high health, but do not have high threat generation. They have standard DPS spec threat generation.
Those wonderful Arms specced Warrior tanks in Gnomeregan. Yay.
People leveling in groups at this point have gotten used to thinking it’s a free for all, every DPS for themself, everybody try and kill targets all by themself and hope the healer keeps them alive.
As soon as I run in and grab the whole group and just take them away, the attitude of a run typically changes immediately. Well, that coupled with my “Hi, I’m leveling as Prot and am gearing and specing for it. Give me a chance, and I’ll control this chaos, and we’ll have a smooth, fast run. Thanks!” macro.
People calm the heck down and approach it as a regular old run, instead of a chaotic free for all. Although amazingly, I get snotty “macro lol” comments, too. At least, I do until they see I actually hold the damn aggro on the group.
That can be you. No, really. And a LOT easier than you might believe.
If you want to try tanking, and you’re nervous about it, you’re scared you’ll suck, people in randoms are mean pricks, etc… give yourself every advantage first.
Get a nameplate addon and try it out on your own, or in a party with a friend. You don’t have to have one, but it can sure give you a feeling of improved confidence that you’ve got better control over the fights. I love seeing that distant nameplate turn bright red, Taunting it back to green, and then watching it stay green as I take care of business where I’m at. And, if someone panics and starts shooting it cause they don’t know I got aggro and am ignoring it because I know, for a fact, that I’ve got aggro but they don’t… well, there’s always Feral Charge, or another ranged Taunt, or running over and beating heck out of it before moving back to the first group.
Get some gear that focuses on Stamina and high Armor value, and get some enchants on it for more Stamina. Look at Glyphs, you get a Major as early as level 15.
And get your tank spec settled, know what your abilities do, and focus on the ones that give you the biggest bang for your global cooldown.
I’m serious, as a Warrior tank at 35 in instances, I rarely use more than Thunder Clap, Sunder Armor, Cleave and Revenge. Sometimes I have to Taunt when someone pulls the next group before we’re ready.
In Scarlet Monastery Library, there are lots of mobs that Stun you. I don’t lose aggro, because I’ve already blasted the hell out of the groups with Thunder Clap, Sunder Armor to left and to right, and Cleave. I get stunned, and I watch the nameplates show that I don’t lose aggro the whole time.
You can do it. You can even do it easily, especially if you give yourself every advantage.
Remember the tired old saying; Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.
It may be a tired old saying, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true!