I’ve run some of the new instances in Cataclysm, and along the way I’ve seen a lot of really good tanking out there. It’s exciting the way the tanks I’ve found in random pugs are taking the content seriously and using some pretty solid movement, positioning and spell balance abilities in their play.
What is this ‘communication’ you speak of?
One thing I noticed in the pugs was that, while the tanks were individually skilled, and DPS players and healers played their roles well, each person played as individuals, without much in the way of teamwork or communication.
The only points where communication came into play was for a brief pause to ensure each player understood the strategy for the next boss encounter.
In a random pug, this is a fairly common story. But it shouldn’t be, and I’ll explain why I feel that way before getting into specifics.
In each pug, I had a different tank. Each tank controlled group pulls in a different way. There are two different core styles of group tanking, and each tank used one of those styles, with personal variations, without telling the rest of the group what to expect.
The DPS players in these runs played with their own expectations of how the tank would be pulling, but in some of the cases, it was clear that what they expected, and what the tank was actually doing, were not the same thing.
That right there is where communication should come into play.
I’ll get into a more comprehensive breakdown of the two core styles of group tanking in a minute, I want to nail down why this is important first.
When the DPS players are unsure of what the tank is going to do next, or how the tank is handling the pulls, the single greatest effect is to instill confusion in the group during the transition from target to target.
I noticed some DPS players were trying to follow the tank’s lead and always stay on whichever mob the tank currently had targeted. This caused problems when the tank used a style that involved frequent switching of targets to apply threat evenly amongst an entire group using direct theat spells.
I also noticed that some DPS players were picking a mob and sticking with it during the entire course of each pull until that mob was dead. These players had higher overall DPS during the run due to being able to fully engage a DPS rotation on a single mob, but sometimes the DPS player picked the first mob the tank targeted in the pull and stayed there while the tank had moved on to another mob, and did not continue generating sufficient threat to hold aggro in the face of determined DPS. Also sometimes, but much rarer, the DPS player just picked something at random regardless of the actions of the tank, and fired away until the mob died. This caused problems when the tank wasn’t applying enough threat to that particular mob, which would happen pretty frequently.
My opinion is, if the tank took the time at the beginning of a run to explain how they would handle group pulls, and what their expectation of the rest of the group would be, then the likelihood of the group overall to succeed would improve.
Here is an example. If you do not communicate what you intend to do, the assumption for most DPS players will be, without a way to read the tank’s mind, to believe that whichever mob the tank is currently targeting is the mob having the most threat generated upon it.
The logic flow is simple – DPS players can generate damage up to the limits imposed on them by the tank’s threat output. If they go over, intentionally or not, they pull the attention of the mob away from the tank.
In a group of four mobs, the one the tank is focusing his attention on tends to have the highest threat generated if the tank remains on that target and uses Direct Threat spells, and thus is the mob the DPS has the best chance of dealing massive damage to without pulling it’s attention off the tank.
If you, as the tank, intend to spread your threat amongst the mobs equally, and thus will not be focusing on and building threat more on one mob than any other, and you do not tell your group that’s what your plan is, then the other players will not know who they’re supposed to kill at any given moment. They’ll have to guess, based on direct observation.
“Is it this one? That’s the one the tank grabbed first. Okay, shooting, shooting, OOPS! Tank’s on someone else now. But this one is still over half health. Do I switch to his new target or stay? I don’t want to go over and pull, I’d better switch. Damn, now he’s moved on to a different one!”
This level of confusion results in reduced effectiveness at it’s best, and pulled aggro and an unhappy healer at it’s worst.
Why this is mostly directed at the tank
As the tank, you are going to be pulling or charging into mobs, either mobs you’ve personally selected or at the direction of a raid leader.
Once you have engaged the group, how you generate your threat amongst those mobs is all in your paws.
Your threat generation is very important to the team. Every single member will be counting on you to hold threat on the mobs to prevent healer aggro, and to build sufficient threat to allow the DPS players in the group to perform their tasks to the best of their own abilities.
You are the one that the rest of the group takes their cue from. Everyone watches you to see where to focus their attention next.
As the tank, even if you are not the one directing or leading the raid, you ARE the one choosing how you will prioritize threat generation.
As there is more than one valid way to generate and prioritize group threat, communicating to your team exactly how you intend to control the group of enemies will allow everyone to anticipate your actions, prepare themselves for the fight, understand their own responsibilities and help the entire team work together.
Tanks lead from the front, no matter who sets the overall goal.
Laying a little groundwork on the terms
For the rest of the discussion, I’m going to talk about threat using two terms, direct threat and AoE threat.
Direct Threat is when you use a spell or ability that must be targeted on a specific mob, and when the majority of generated threat from that spell or ability is applied to that one targeted mob. Splash damage from a direct threat spell tends to affect other mobs less severely than the primary target.
AoE Threat is when you use a spell or ability whose function is to generate threat amongst a group of mobs equally. The AoE may take the form of a circle targeted on a position on the ground, a cone in the direction the tank faces, or an area centered on the tank himself, and the threat may come from a persistent Damage Over Time effect, a single pulse or burst, or a combination of them both.
Got it? Let’s go.
Our tanking style is based on our intended goals
There is a reason we try to study how to generate threat, and look for ways to improve our style and technique.
It’s all about controlling what we can.
We don’t have any control over the rules of the game, the basic stats, the cooldowns, the spell effects, or the actions of the mobs.
What we can control is what gear we choose to seek out and equip, and how we play our own character using the tools provided.
Gear lists and stat prioritization are all about learning how the core rules work, and making sure we are personally seeking out and equipping the best gear we can, reforging the stats that are most important, enchanting and gemming most efficiently, and basically becoming as powerful as the rules of the game will allow us to be. It’s all about timing, stats, offense and defense, and can be mathematically calculated.
What cannot be mathematically calculated, and thus is frequently overlooked, is how to actually play our character using the tools provided.
If Blizzard chooses to reduce the effectiveness of an ability, we have no control over that. If some of our gear is buffed, or nerfed, or removed entirely, all we can do is recompute the importance of stats and make new lists.
What we do have control over is understanding how our abilities work, what situations or conditions they are most useful for, and using them to the best of our skill based on our intended goal for the fight. How to prioritize which abilities to use, based not on more powerful over less powerful, but more useful for one situation compared to another.
Intent. How we pull and handle a group is going to depend on our intent.
The core styles of group threat
There are as many styles for tanking a group of mobs as there are tanks out there, but there are two core group tanking philosophies most commonly in use today.
Prioritized and Even Split.
Prioritized is what I call it when the intent of the tank is to build as much threat as possible on one target to give the DPS a double rainbow opportunity to go all out. The general technique is to identify a first kill target that you will focus the majority of your Direct Threat against, with the expectation that all DPS players will be focusing on that one target to kill it first. AoE Threat abilities will be used to maintain anti-healer threat on the rest of the group, and no more.
Split Evenly is what I call it when the intent of the tank is to try and spread the threat from all of your AoE Threat and Direct Threat abilities evenly across the entire group, to provide the DPS the ability to use AoE damage spells and target whoever they wish freely.
Prioritized group tanking style breaks down in the following way.
The tank identifies a mob in the group that will be killed first. That mob is the first kill target.
The tank targets the first kill target, and charges into or otherwise pulls the group.
In the first few moments of the pull, the tank starts by dealing Direct Threat to the first kill target, immediately followed by AoE Threat to counteract healer threat amongst the remainder of the group of mobs.
Over the course of the next several global cooldowns, the tank focuses all Direct Threat on the first kill target, while using just enough AoE Threat to maintain a respectable lead over the threat generated by the healer.
At this time, it is the expectation that the DPS players are all focused solely on the first kill target. It is also expected that, because the tank is focusing his Direct Threat generating capabilities solely on the first kill target, that the DPS players are limiting themselves mostly to single target attacks rather than AoE, and if AoE is used, it is of the low-threat style.
Once the tank judges for herself that she has generated sufficient threat on the first kill target to hold aggro for the remainder of the fight until the mob is dead, no matter HOW much threat the DPS players cause, the tank switches over to a second kill target.
The tank begins using Direct Threat on the second target, and continues using AoE Threat as a secondary mission just to stay above the healer.
The rest of the DPS rides the first priority kill target down until it dies before switching over. They do NOT follow the tank to the new target.
By the time the first target dies, the tank will have built up sufficient advance threat on the second target that the DPS players will have a healthy cushion allowing them to go all out immediately.
The rest of the encounter is, for the tank, about watching and preparing for emergencies. With the continued use of AoE Threat for the duration of the fight, there is rarely any need to mark a third target to prioritize. The DPS players can focus on and burn down whichever remaining targets they wish. If someone begins to accrue high threat, well, that is what Taunt is for, along with Tidy Plates/ Threat Plates for pinpoint threat accuracy.
This style of tanking has several advantages. Every player knows who to be targeting at all times; whoever the tank has targeted first until it’s dead, then whoever the tank is on next. If the tank is practised in using them, this is the style that supports marking targets with Skulls and Stars and Green Nachos. Using these marks only improves the flow of the fight, because it ensures that every player remembers who the first priority kill target was supposed to be.
By knowing exactly who you should be paying attention to, it allows the tank to devote the majority of her Direct Threat spells to one target, providing the highest level of threat possible. This allows the DPS the best opportunity to go ‘all out’ on a target with a full rotation, and still stay under the threat threshold.
Confusion in the transition from one mob to another is HIGHLY reduced, and the chance that aggro will accidentally be pulled is minimized.
Another advantage to this style, is that it’s excellent practise for incorporating marking targets for Crowd Control. Once a team is comfortable with the idea of using single target damage spells and marked kill targets, it’s a small step to suggest that a target be marked as the “last to die”, and be crowd controlled by one of the DPS players for the duration of the fight.
There are drawbacks to this method, though.
The first issue is, this style is very rigid. The tank directs who the DPS is to kill, and the DPS players are expected to obey. There is very little room for independant decision making. For some DPS players, it can feel as though the tank is having fun, and the DPS players are merely along for the ride, and are not trusted to innovate or unleash the full potential of their characters. This is actually a pretty telling argument, as most characters have a wide variety of tools available, and many players are keen to experiment and vary their methods of play to enliven a run.
The second issue is, this style requires willing teamwork and coordination. If a player in the group decides they simply will not follow the marks or first kill target priority, then this style will result in a run that quickly degenerates into chaos. The tank is not focusing on building infinite threat on everyone; just the maximum possible on one mob. If a DPS player decides to go ‘off the mark’, they will easily blow past the tank’s threat on the secondary mobs and pull aggro.
Take as an example a pull of a group of four mobs, where the Prioritized system is being used, but one DPS player decides to ‘do his own thing’.
The tank marks a target with Skull as the first kill target, another with a Star, and leaves the last two untouched. The tank charges in, uses two instant cast Direct Threat spells on the Skull target, followed up with an AoE Threat spell, then a Direct Threat DoT, and another AoE Threat. From this point, healer aggro is counteracted, and some serious pounding on the Skull can begin for the next three global cooldowns.
Dri$$t the Night Elf Hunter decides the unmarked mob with the bow tie is looking at him funny, and goes all out on it. He blows right past the tank’s meager threat on the mob, and it goes running after him.
At this point, your average Dri$$t will panic, forget that he has Feign Death, and go nuts with even MORE DPS, in the hopes of killing the mob before it reaches him. If this fails, then he will begin running around the room screaming and wailing while the mob smashes him in the back, which, of course, means he’s not Parrying or Dodging.
The healer will change focus from the tank to the DPS in trouble, and begin chain casting like crazy to keep him alive. Most healers will, anyway. The instinct to try and save a life is strong with healers. It’s a pride thing. “You’re not dying on my watch” and stuffs.
The tank will stop attacking the Skull target in order to grab the loose mob, Taunt it, and get it back under control. Unfortunately, in such situations, the mob is frequently out of Taunt range, and the tank will have to go chasing the mob down first… leaving the group he was fighting to begin chasing the tank from behind… where, again, the tank has no Parry or Dodge chance. The tank thus takes accelerated damage. This happens because most tanks take their responsibility to hold aggro and protect the party very seriously, and like a hound can’t resist chasing that fox that he lost aggro on.
The healer sees the tanks’ health suddenly drop like a stone, the DPS player is dying, there’s running all over the place…. and since the tank is no longer on the Skull target, one of the DPS that were following the original game plan just got one sweet crit, and pulled aggro himself. Oh crap.
It is usually at this point the healer has a nervous breakdown, and Dri$$t says, “Learn to tank, noob.”
Does any of that sound familiar?
No. Of course not.
Split Evenly group tanking style breaks down like this.
The tank does not mark a target. The tank instead selects one for other reasons, spellcaster perhaps, and charges in/pulls.
The tank uses all AoE Threat abilities, uses one instant cast and one cooldown Direct Threat ability on the current target, and then switches to a different one.
The tank uses more AoE Threat, and then applies two more Direct Threat abilities, trying to include DoTs if possible. Then the tank switches to different target #3 and continues the process. The whole idea is to use AoE Threat at all times when off cooldown, and fill in with Direct Threat on every mob in rotation evenly. Spread all the threat out like cheese on a cracker.
The DPS players are given no direction as to which mob to attack. It is understood that each DPS player is on his or her own during this encounter.
The tank is operating under a much different priority list. First, the healer must be protected. Second, the tank must survive to deal threat and stay as still as possible to give the DPS players a clear field of view, and third, the tank must be on overwatch during the entire battle, prepared to shift attention to any mob that shows signs of breaking free…. if necessary.
This style is much more fluid, and puts more of the responsibility on skillful play and proper use of judgment on the DPS players.
This style is where you will frequently see a tank stand back and not interfere if a DPS player decides to go all out on a mob that is close to death, to try and burn it down before it reaches them.
The difference between doing that in this style as opposed to prioritization, is that in this one, the responsibility of NOT pulling threat is solidly on the DPS players. If they go over, that’s their ass.
In this style, it is expected that a DPS player knows how to watch their own aggro on a targeted mob, and if they are getting close to going past the tank, they will simply switch targets to one they haven’t blasted yet.
The biggest advantage to this style is that it requires no teamwork or communication with the rest of the group at all. As long as everyone understands that all mobs will have threat spread evenly among them, and that it’s up to the DPS players to NOT go over the tank, then it doesn’t matter who attacks what when. Anyone can attack anything, and the tank’s main priorities are right up front; healer, then tank.
The second main advantage to this style is that it really does open up the DPS players to pulling all the tools out of their toolbox. If a hunter decides to use a Frost Trap, or kite a mob around, or send in their pet on one mob while attacking another, it’s no problem at all. DPS players are trusted to know what they are doing, and that if they get into trouble and just can’t drop aggro, to run TO the tank to get the mob pulled off, and to use threat reducing abilities if possessed.
The main disadvantages is that the higher the individual DPS of the player, and the higher the health of the mobs, the harder it will be for the tank to generate enough threat spread out on all the mobs without having someone go over. It works best on groups of mobs with relatively low health that die quickly, so that even if a DPS player pulls, it’s a simple task to burn it down fast.
Another disadvantage is that it does not train groups in how to incorporate Crowd Control skills, at a group level. Individuals may see their use of CC increase as they play with their food, but it does not train a player how not to break another players’ trap. This style also encourages DPS players to use low threat AoE damage spells more than direct damage, and that is a bad mix to have been practising when it’s time to worry about Crowd Control.
With this style, as long as the tank focuses on AoE Threat and spreading Direct Threat out evenly, and watches the entire field of battle closely, then most group pulls will go very smoothly, with the additional frequent use of Intercepts, Charges and Taunts. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as playing in this fashion and succeeding can be just as exciting for the tank as for the DPS players.
The last major disadvantage, of course, is that with the hijinks of the DPS players to consider, the healer is likely to have a very, very rough time if they don’t prioritize their heals and give DPS players a chance to pull themselves out of the weeds on their own.
A Bit of Wrapup
Both core styles work very well depending on the intent of the players using them. Many long time tanks don’t even think of these as the seperate styles they are; they blend both styles together to greater or lesser degree, depending entirely on the situation. Perhaps they mark one particular mob with a Skull because of the special attack or property it has, but go half and half on Direct Threat and AoE Threat, and switch to a Split Evenly style as soon as that mob is dead.
The key thing about them, and blending them together, is that if your group has no idea why you are targeting the mob you are at any given time, they’re not going to know if they should go all out, or switch around, or follow your target on /assist, or anything else. This means that your groups aren’t playing to their full potential.
So, please do me a favor. If you actually care about tanking a smooth run, then take the two minutes at the start to let the party know your intention.
Macro a mini-speech if you like, or type a simple sentence, but do something to let them know, “Hey, I’m going to be spreading my threat around as evenly as I can, so attack whichever mob you want, but if you go over my threat and pull from me, you either better kill it yourself, feign it off or run it toward me to taunt.”
Or, alternately, “I’m going to be marking Skull as the first to die, stay on it until it’s dead, don’t worry if I switch my target to Star halfway through, it’s cool. Kill Star second, and Mage, please sheep the Moon, and everyone leave Moon untouched for last.”
A Last Word, or, Advanced Teamwork
The way I have described Prioritization and Split Evenly may sound melodramatic, but that’s because I used the extreme examples of the styles. As I mentioned briefly, many players already use both, blended together smoothly.
If you’re new to tanking, and these styles make sense but sound kind of boring, please keep in mind one thing; when you play with a team often, and get to know each other a little, everything loosens up and you all learn to trust each other.
Being able to trust each other means that, even when using the Prioritization style, your DPS players change up who they attack based on how they flow through mob transitions.
For example, you mark a Skull and a Star as first and second kill targets. All DPS players get on Skull to start, but once it is down to about 40% or less health and the tank has switched to Star, the melee DPS can feel comfortable switching over to Star and letting the ranged DPS burn Skull the rest of the way.
Why would this make sense and make your players happy?
It’s because the melee DPS players can use an extra two seconds to move over to and get properly behind the Star. During those two seconds, the ranged DPS can finish killing Skull, and then with a single click be already going to town on Star. No manuevering or physical repositioning necessary.
Those are the kinds of things that a group of players comfortable with each other, and trusting each other, do all the time without worrying about it.
But it all starts with clear communication of your intentions, and the understanding and cooperation of the rest of the team.
And above all else, having a healer with nerves of solid chrome-plated steel.