The role of the tank in a group

As with all of my other posts, what I’m going to say represents my opinion. No more, no less. 

The tanking role is a mighty strange one. 

There is a saying that floats around sometimes, “Perception is reality”. I think some of the implication is that it doesn’t matter what may have been intended; once something goes live, people build expectations, and the longer it’s around, the more entrenched those expectations become, and the more people accept them and work to fulfill them, the harder it’ll ever be to change it.

Take tanking. There is no rule that says a party has to be led by the tank, any more than a raid has to be led by one.

Early on in Warcraft*, folks formed parties wondering how all this “group instance” stuff was gonna work out, and everyone stood around looking at each other, wondering what to do. Nobody wanted to get their face eaten off by a mob, so they turned their pitiful gazes on the tank and suggested, “You go get ’em, and we’ll tag along and kill ’em and keep you alive. We’re squishy.”

So what happens? The tank is looking at all the mobs, and decides who to pull first. The players who are there to kill things are looking to the tank for their next target. The healer is watching the health bars, and their positioning if there is lava.

So the tank is seeing more of the instance, and the reactions of the mobs, than most players tend to.

When wipes happen, sure everyone sees it and everyone speculates on what the cause was, but the tank is the one that feels guilty for letting the party die. So the player that tanks tends to do research on what happened so it won’t happen to him again, and comes up with a few ideas on how to approach it differently next time.

It didn’t take very long before the expectation in vanilla WoW was that the tank was the party leader, because the tanks you met led the way through, and in self-defense researched what would happen and how to handle the pulls safely, and spoke with the voice of experience… or faked it well.

Perception became reality. As more people expected tanks to be the leaders, new players that wanted to be tanks figured that in order to be a good tank, they had to learn everything about the instances first before they could successfully try tanking it.

Tanks came to be expected to know each instance or raid intimately.

By intimately I mean that sometimes you get screwed really hard a few times before you learn what not to do. I am on intimate terms with a lot of instances.

The tank knew what the enemy would or would not do, knew where to go next for quests, knew who needed to be sheeped or sapped or banished, knew when poison cleansing was important, knew when to ask for a chain trap, just bloody well knew.

It’s pretty intimidating if you’re new to the game.

Is it laziness on anyone else’s part that the tank almost always leads? No. It’s just the way the three party role paradigm works out. The player that does the pulling tends to be the one others look to for direction on where to go next. 

When you get in a multiple tank environment like a raid, it’s a lot easier to break the mold and have anyone be the raid leader, provided the tanks aren’t control freaks and are open to direction. But in a group of five, one tank, three DPS, one healer, the expecation was, and remains, that the tank will lead the run.

If you have never been the tank, and you’d really like to try it out, there is so much baggage tied up in the role that it’s hard to know where to start.

So, let’s break things down and build on them, one piece at a time.

Is playing a tank, the actual mechanics of being a tank, more difficult to master than any other class or spec?

No. Absolutely not.

You can easily learn the basics of being a tank.

Each class has it’s own niche in a group.

If you’ve played a DPS you’ve already learned that success is measured by doing top DPS and performing your crowd control (and other class abilities) wisely.

If you’ve played a healer, you’ve already learned that success is measured by keeping everyone’s health up and cleansing, and using other class abilities wisely.

As a tank, it’s the same thing. To be a successful tank, you hold threat on all the mobs, and intercept the ones that get away from you, taunting them back. And you try to be hard to kill, but that’s all about gear first, and proper talents/cooldowns second. Oh yeah, and use your class abilities wisely.

You can practise all that without being in a group. You can ask any friend you’d like to come along in a party with you, and you can grab large groups of mobs out in the world and go to twon. Shadowmoon Valley has some great places to find clusters of mobs to try yourself out on, especially just east of that honking big volcano thingie in the center of the map. Or maybe you’d prefer grabbing huge groups of undead in Icecrown. Whatever, as long as there are both melee and casters in the mix.

Grab a group of mobs, let your friend use whatever AoE they have, and try and drag the baddies around with you. This let’s you practise moving while keeping your front to the group. You don’t want mobs to get behind you.

If the groups have runners when they get low on health, it’s wonderful. The mob will run, they’ll likely grab another group and drag them all back to you. You’ll have spell casters at range shooting at your friend, you’ll have melee running into you or at your friend, it’ll be chaos.

It’s the perfect chance to learn how to do ranged taunts to get mobs off your friend when they’re outside your immediate range. Or to learn how to Feral Charge all up in the ranged mob’s face. Or to learn how to do line of sight pulls around architectural features to make ranged mobs run to you, and find out what happens when you friend stands out in sight, and gets aggro because he keeps shooting them. Or to Death Grip, or use your shield throw, or whatever.

If you’re nervous about the mechanics of playing a tanking class, you can practise without being in a group. You can gain confidence and learn how to respond to the mobs. It’s really not hard to do, I promise you.

What is hard is trying to learn the mechanics of playing a tanking class without previous experience or confidence, at the same time as you try to perform the tasks of party leader in front of a crowd of strangers.

So, learn the mechanics of your class. Practise. Try things out yourself, in the “real world” before you go into an instance. Take a friend or two that has some patience and is fine with experimenting. I know of very few DPS players that would be upset to be told, “I need you to blow things up as hard as you can for me so I can see if I can grab aggro back. Can you do that?”

“Aw, shucks. It’s a hardship, and you’re gonna really owe me one, but if I really have to, I suppose I can help you out.”

The second part, leading a group of experienced strangers, that’s the part that I think scares a lot of people. And rightfully so.

It’s going to be hard to lead a group somewhere, especially a group that may already know the ins and outs of an instance, if you don’t know where you’re going.

Doing an instance as DPS or healer the first time, and keeping your eyes open, can help you out. It gives you an orientation on where things are, what to expect. So can watching any of the thousands of videos on YouTube showing walkthroughs of instances or raids.

Reading about what the mobs in an instance can do in advance, what their attacks and abilities are, can also help you know what to expect. Wowhead and WoWwiki are both excellent resources for researching mob tactics. Both websites have sections giving very complete details of instances and raids. WoWwiki tends to be out of date on things, but it’s still a good resource.

But the single most important thing you can do, is break down every mob fight into it’s component parts, and practise basic tactics based on those components. No matter what instance you go into, trash fights are basically going to work the same.

You’ve got two types of mobs. You’ve got melee and ranged casters.

If you walk up to your extreme range from a group, and you taunt (or shoot an arrow, or whatever) into the crowd, the ones that are melee will run to you, and the casters will stand in place and shoot at you.

It’s really that simple.

So what do you do about it?

If you learn which mobs are melee, and which ones are ranged, then you’re going to be able to move yourself with confidence right at the start of every pull.

The mobs themselves may do different things, ranged DPS or heal others or AoE or Hex or Curse or whatever, but the important distinction is ranged or melee.

When you attack a group, the melee will run right to you. The ranged enemy will stand in place and shoot/cast. Period.

With that in mind, the most basic tactical manuever is to run/charge into the group, targeted on a caster first, and use AoE as you go to do damage/threat to all the melee. Your first goal is to get within your melee range of as many ranged mobs as possible. Move yourself so as to get as many of them as you can in your AoE/multiple mob attacks.

At that point, when you Swipe, or Death and Decay, or Consecrate, you’ll be getting the casters as well as the melee.

Clear out the ranged casters first. If you have to move around, have no fear, the melee will follow you around. They like you!

Build your threat on all the mobs, and burn them down. Squishies get to die first. Once they’re all dead, you’ve won.


Congratulations, that’s how 90% of your isntance run trash pulls will work.

Now, if you can’t get all the casters into your melee range in one shot, then you’ve got more tactical decisions to make from there.

Your first step is always bringing the fight to the ranged. If you can’t get all the ranged in one go, you can get them to come to you.

You can do that using a line of sight pull. This takes into account the fact that mobs will move the shortest distance possible in order to get their target within line of sight to continue the attack. Line of sight is blocked by most architectural features. Like walls and corners and really, really wide pillars.

The line of sight pull means you taunt/shoot one mob in a group, then duck around a corner out of sight to them. This does threat to one mob, and gets the attention of the rest. (While doing no threat to those other mobs. For more on how threat works on group pulls, check out my incredibly ancient post on the subject from 2007. Most of the multiple mob stuff there is obsolete with the introduction of Maul Glyphs and Swipe, but threat still works the same way.)

So, you stand there hiding around the corner, and the entire group will come running in a straight line least distance manuever until they can all get you within their sights to attack. This clumps them up beautifully as they round the corner, right into the maws of your fully automatic machine guns and nuclear powered chain saws.

Sadly, most heroic groups don’t let you do this anymore. If you do a line of sight pull, you’ve got a good chance that someone will either shoot them, pulling aggro and making them stop to attack their new favorite target, or the healer will run forward to stand within sight of the mobs and “top your health off”, thereby pulling aggro so that they stop in their tracks and shoot him.

Another tactical choice you could make is to move to and stand on as many ranged casters as you can just like normal, build aggro on them with your AoE, but keep the most distant ranged caster(s) targeted, and use ranged attacks/Taunts on them to keep them focused on you for a short time while you build up a nice threat lead on your current group.. After the current group within your melee range is nice and smacked up, you can do whatever you’d like to get the distant mobs. Feral Charge over, Shield Throw with Silence, Death Grip, walk over swinging a sledgehammer, whatever floats your boat, honey. 

The point is, the goal is to keep threat on all your targets. The melee targets will run TO you and even follow you around, conveniently staying in your AoE and multiple mob threat attacks. The ranged casters will not. So, your special attention goes to planning how you intend to get the casters’ attention and keep it.

It doesn’t sound all that hard, does it?

That’s the secret. It’s not.

You don’t have to know the exact names of every mob, and what they all do. It helps, sure. Experience, and knowing when to apply the right ability at just the right time is great. Studying instances beforehand will help you feel confident, at keep you from getting lost.

But that works the same for all classes. Is the tank the only one expected to know what mobs do? Of course not. Every Shaman knows that when you’re going up against King Dred in Drak’theron Keep, that’s a real good time to drop Tremor Totem, amiright?

But my point is, if you already know how to, and feel confident with, tanking and holding groups of combined melee and ranged, then you’re in the zone.

From there on out, it’s fine tuning the process for each situation, learning from experience what flows best from group to group.

Do that, and you’ll quickly build up the confidence to tank any random you’d like.

Confidence built from being comfortable with what your abilities are and how to use them. Confidence that when you pull a group, you know how you’re going to handle casters and melee mobs.

Once yuo’re solid with the basics, go for it. The more real experience you get from that point on, the more confident you will be that when the shit hits the fan, you’ll be ready. 

Sure, mistakes happen, but they happen to everyone. Tanking can be a lot of fun, and take it from me… you really don’t need to be an obsessive control freak to be one, and do well at it.

No, no matter what you think, I’m serious. Really. You don’t.

No, put down the straight jacket and back away, I swear I’ve seen tanks that aren’t obsessed control freaks with an encyclopediac knowledge of every mob and instance in the game.

Like… and… well, then theres… hmm. Right! Oh, wait no….

Okay, I’ll get back to you on that.

* Changed from Everquest, since I never played Everquest, and while my friends have told me stories about tanking, someone said I was wrong, so hey, go with what you know.

13 thoughts on “The role of the tank in a group

  1. I think about mobs in this way: Blue bar means kill first, if they have a healer-ish name or priest-ish name they die first of the blue bars. Then the non-plate wearering melee, and lastly the plate wearers. Sometimes a fellow pug’er will CC or trap something at range, and I love that. Those guys get a personal thanks from the tank. Sometimes you can leave the hunter-mob to last, but it depends on what abilities they are going to bring to the fight. Most of the time they are junk more junk range dps.

    Oh, and as a tank never use a taunt to pull. You need that taunt for 3 seconds after the pull. I learnt that the hard way, and now will resort to a quick facepull if no other option is there before completing the LOS pull.


  2. I think being a tank is more about leadership, that you own the place and you are going to be the most skilled, most geared person in the group (usually). You can tell bad tanks just from their gear/talents before you even step foot into places. Is it tank gear? Is it enchanted? crit immune? etc.

    When I first started tanking I didn’t know much, and I did a ton of research. It was easier since I had a dps toon as my first toon, a healer as my second toon, and tank as a third toon. So I saw everything already. But #1, look like you know what you are doing. Mark the right mobs. Do the right pulls. Follow the right strategy for the bosses. Be nice to everyone. Be in charge and in command. If you make a mistake, admit it. Don’t stand for trash talk. Wait for the freaking healer. Wait for the healer to have mana (screw the dps). Simple things that really show you are a good leader, will make people love you long time.


  3. Ummm… I tanked HoR first time on reg, I started off by taking over for a warrior who quit the group because the pally healer wanted the shield that dropped in there as well, but not before bailing in the middle of a pull and wiping us all.

    With that said. I took over as tank and warned the group. “Hey guys this is my first time here and I need you all to let me round up the mobs before dpsing.” The first set of waves went smoothly. I had tanked the place on reg and heroic dozens of times with my pally tank so much it was boring. I had to really work to round up the mobs on my bear but it went really smooth. Until we downed the first boss and got the second waves. It was like everything I said early magically disappeared and they went back to crazy dps. The DK and Mage quickly nuked themselves leaving us with me, the healer and one dps for the second boss. It was rough and long but we made it through the boss. The pally healer decided he would be the “official wow police officer” and inspect peoples gear and talents and tell them what they needed work on. I mean I am all for constructive criticism but you really don’t have to do it in a condescending manner and in party chat. You can quietly whisper them and say hey you may wanna give this some more attention. Neways i dropped group because i pointed out that he had point less talents for a pally healer and we kinda got into it. I mean does a holy pally really need increased damage from judgements??? I never used my judgements on my holy pally and healed all the ICC 5 mans with out a problem not to mention VoA 25 and Ony 10 so oh well. My point is I felt 30% reduced stun and fears is good for a tank, I could be wrong and willing to admit but, dont be an ass clown about that.

    Oh man sorry for the crazy rant that was suppose to be about the dps and need for cooperation between the tank and dps but turned into a vent session my bad. o.O!!!!!


  4. I appreciate your tank tactics artilces BBB. They are helping me out greatly. Last night I pulled Heroic UK: the last time I had attempted to tank the place it ended up in an aggro loss wipe fest. My gear is now better, and I have a better knowledge of the mechanics (thanks you you and your wonderful articles) and I had perhaps one of the smoothest runs of that place ever. And for the first time, I think I kept the rage meter in the red the whole time, chain pulling mobs like a pro. /salute to you BBB!


  5. I remember on my first tank (warrior) I was so scared because I was suddenly aware that I had to know all that stuff about what mobs pulled and which stood and pinged you and all that stuff. On my DPS classes it wasn’t that I didn’t know, sort of, in general, what was what, but I tended to follow the tank, hit what the tank was hitting, etc. It’s because of wipe guilt that I suddenly wanted to know everything when I was the tank, haha! I could rarely cause a wipe on my DPS characters unless I pulled accidentally.

    I’m more confident now but it hasn’t changed–when I’m on my bear I am looking freaking all over the place for where stuff is and making sure no one’s getting gnawed on by a sudden pat. On my DPS I just stand around and hit things and try not to over-aggro and/or avoid whirlwinds and such. Even knowing I may someday tank a particular instance doesn’t seem to make me pay more attention to what’s around me to learn it, I dunno, it’s really like there’s a mindset for each role.


  6. My first time in POS I was in a tanking role, I announced to the group that “I Don’t know this place, never done it, don’t have the achievement to prove it. And if anyone could mark and provide some guidance I would be greatly relieved.” The group didn’t respond in groans, they welcomed the knowledge that I was new to the instance and needed their help for our combined success.

    That was an excellent run BTW..

    Last night, i pulled heroic HOL. It had been a while, but i still knew which way was up. I started the run off with a message to the group.
    “Please keep all arms and legs in the vehicle, holler if you need a mana break, you pull it you tank it.”
    the group responded with a chuckle and the run went really well. Only one person died that I was aware of, my guild rogue that came along got melted by the elementals before the blacksmith boss.

    I then pulled a normal culling of strat, gave them the same message and they were overjoyed. one actually thanked me for knowing what to do. They had some less than knowledgeable tanks that day apparently.


  7. Qwick, to you and everyone else that mentions missing CC, all I can say is that I have tentative hopes that some of the changes Blizzard is working on for Cataclysm will encourage us to resurrect CC for smooth, successful runs.

    My worry is… in a world with random LFD and no consequences for being lazy, will there truly be a majority of players who step up to learn how to CC?

    I know that the players that had to learn and use it from the beginning will take pride in dusting off their skills and ‘bring it’ to the party. It would be a mark of honor that when asked, “Hell yeah, I can chain trap” is the answer.

    But what about all the people who picked up the game afterwards, and just never learned it?

    I had a Rogue in Scarlet Monastery the other day, and he kept stealthing and moving ahead of the group, and I was all, “What the hell is he doing?”

    Then I got a chance to see… and he was sneaking in and sapping targets!

    Most of the time the other mobs aw him and gave chase, but I had to grin at seeing a Rogue in level appropriate instances practising their CC when they knew I was giong to be running in and breaking it with a Thunder Clap anyway. Seeing him made me grin.


  8. I played a hunter and a feral druid back before the Great Nerf. I remember being on my hunter and having to learn proper CC mechanics to even get accepted into dungeon groups. I would be sitting there and the tank would place marks on different mobs and then tell me what I was to do. I guess more than two mobs at a time was pure deadly.

    Now a days I don’t even think our CC abilities come into play much at all. I hate the no CD on aoe crap now everyone just blows things down at a steady rate the only problem is it puts more strain on tank and healer. Tanks have to hold aggro on bigger groups for longer with more threat than ever. Healers have to keep a tank up that is being beat on by four to five mobs at a time every pull. I would really prefer to go back to the old days. Perhaps they can split wow. Leave the easy game for the inexperienced gamers and let us vets have a challenge.


  9. I’ve seen tanks that aren’t obsessed control freaks with an encyclopediac knowledge of every mob and instance in the game. Unfortunately most of them weren’t much good. 🙂

    It was fun to read this explanation of how and why tanks are the default group leaders. I’ve noticed that it makes a huge difference when I try to lead as tank versus trying to lead as DPS or healer. I think the biggest factor is simply that the tank controls the pull speed and the target mob(s).


  10. An excellent series of ‘back to basic’ articles Bear. Thanks much! I’d add that a great way to practice pulls in Wrath is in the ICC5 mans, specifically the early trash in Forge of Souls where you have melee and caster mobs (some with two casters even!) and teleporting mobs. Another fantastic place to practice pulls is Pit of Sauron, specifically “the hill” before the gauntlet. And, of course, Halls of Reflection is chock-full of add-management. Bump up to Heroic for more of a challenge.

    At lower levels (and even those levels), I’d recommend trying to start a PUG that you could call a “classic PUG” or “get better at our class” PUG or some sort of descriptor in /2. The objective would be to assemble a PUG of members at the low end of the dungeon’s range and NOT rely on the LFD tool for the group composition. (The LFD tool gives you a buff and picks a range of levels that basically ensures a smooth run even if things are handled smoothly). Take that group into the instance and you’ll find you need to think through every pull. You will have AoE abilities that weren’t available when the dungeons were initially tuned, but being on the low side of the level range will guarantee you won’t want to rely on the current standby of collect ’em up and burn ’em down.


  11. /clap
    /standing ovation

    I’ve been bringing up a pally, and learning to tank in the process. I’d say that my #1 fear has been “I’ve never been in this instance before, what do I do? Where do I go?” It’s amazingly, intensely scary to not have any idea what you should be doing, let alone having four other people looking at you and wondering how this is going to work out. Seriously. I’ve organized PuG raids to do some of the Naxx weeklies – that was *less* stressful than first time in a new instance as a tank.

    I ran into that exact situation running Slave Pens with some guild mates a few days ago. One of my guildies who was far more experienced with the instance did what I think was probably the nicest, most restrained, and most helpful thing they could do to help me out… they marked for me. That was it. Just a skull over the next group of mobs that we needed to crush beneath our iron boots. It told me which group I needed to pay attention to next, which way we needed to go, and was just enough of a hint that I could figure out what I wanted to do in terms of tanking.

    Lead a bunch of folks though a completely unfamiliar instance? Scary time. Having someone tell me “Now that group over there”… well, hey. *That*, I know how to do. One group after another, a few comments about “watch out for…” and before you know it, you’re done.


  12. Now THAT is a guild all tanks (new and old) should read through. Read it well, too.

    Nice work, Bear.

    I think it might also be fun while training the fledgeling tank to make sure he knows that even if his helper friend is a healing type – he gets no heals. He has to keep himself up. That makes sure he knows how to help keep himself up when it gets rough in a raid. That helped me hugely.


  13. Actually tanks didn’t pull in Everquest. Monks and Rangers pulled in Everquest (Who here remembers Feign Pulling?). One thing EQ was really good for was the need for good crowd control. WoW, pretty much, has given up on good CC techniques for the most part in PvE, a typical trash pull consisting of “Aggro everything to the tank and blast it down”.

    It’s really evident in the Faction Champs fight in TOC how bad CC skills are neglected. Hardcore PvE groups still struggle with that fight, which is all about control.


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