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.