When a character operates alone, you have the simple imperative to live. You have many tools to do so while defeating your opponents but the game is simple and there is little more nuance than the design of a single class to dictate your challenge.
When you put together a group of characters, however, those class details take on a special nuance. Each of the characters can combine their abilities to accomplish things that one alone may not have been able to. This is further nuanced by adding specialized combat roles. In WoW there are 3 primary combat roles with 3 utility tasks provided by the group, regardless of group size. These traditional roles are Tank, Healer, Damage Dealer (DPS for short, usually only distinguished from there by strength as “ranged or melee”). The utility tasks provided are Crowd Control (CC for short), Dispels (the ability to purge debuffs from friendly or enemy combatants), and Buff/Debuffing (applying beneficial or detrimental effects to friends and/or enemies to improve the groups effectiveness). These concepts were not created in or for WoW, and in fact, because they were invented previously it has allowed WoW to be designed to support these concepts.
Before we get into specifics, we should consider what the game expects of us. The first and most simple imperative is survival. Ideally at least one member of the group should survive to the end of a battle, though it is a desirable conclusion that the whole team survives (and it may be rare, but occasionally battles are won with everyone dying in the process). In combat, the typical measure of success is that your team survives in some part, and your opponent does not.
To move the range of success from barely (few team members survive) to complete (no one is lost), the Combat Roles are valuable, and the Utilities make that easier.
Tank = specializes in taking the punishment
The Tank or Tanker role is a character who is prepared to be beaten up. Typically the class/spec and gear preparation are designed around reducing damage taken. The Tank will be the front line, the foremost edge of your team, and their goal is in two parts: Hold the attention of the enemy, and make the healer’s job easier and/or more predictable.
In WoW these job goals take on a simple balance in the form of Threat versus Survival. The tank will be taking most of the damage the group will face in most situations, and to that end will need sufficient Survival tools to make that damage non-lethal within a reasonable time-frame. At the same time, WoW uses a system based on Threat to determine who the enemy targets will attack, and if the tank is not the target of the enemy his survival attributes are wasted.
Threat is a static, linearly building value based on threatening actions. In general there are 2 major forms of threat and one minor: Damage Threat, Healing Threat, and Attention Threat. Simply put, if you hurt something it will feel threatened. If you help (heal) someone that your enemy is trying to kill, it will be threatening to the enemy. And simply drawing attention to yourself will draw initial threat, but in the face of a lack of healing or damage you can draw attention to yourself by doing anything even without damage or healing (such as buffing). The game also has a modifier system to improve on the group dynamic. Tanks are given multipliers that make their contributions more threatening, while damage dealers are given baked in or acquirable modifiers that reduce the scale their threatening actions. Healing has a built in reduction that puts it on a proportionally different scale from damage.
When I say Threat is static and linear, here is what I mean. Any action that causes damage or healing will cause an amount of threat per point of damage or healing. As stated there are other modifiers to affect this. This threat value will build additively and indefinitely so long as combat continues. The base values for this are 1 damage = 1 threat and 1 health restored = 0.5 threat (*Paladins only receive 0.25 threat per 1 point of health restored). Note: only “effective” healing will cause threat, “over-healing” or the portion of healing that goes over the target’s maximum health will cause no threat. Tanks are given a standard modifier built into their “tanking stance/mode/form” on all damage and healing that approximately doubles the value, so when a tank deals 1 damage it is worth 2 threat (2.0735 to be precise). One other aspect of healing threat is that it is normally split across all enemy combatants you are fighting. In other words, if you restored 2000 health to a friend while fighting 2 opponents, that would first become 1000 threat, and then be split so each enemy only sees 500 threat from you. To illustrate how threat will grow throughout a fight, let’s take a simple 3 person group, one of each role, tank, healer, and damage dealer. The numbers I use here are arbitrary in absolute scale but should roughly mirror possible game values.
At the start of the fight, the tank will run in and smash the target for 4000 damage. With the modifier this is 8000 threat (T: 8000, H: 0, D: 0). The target in turn hits the tank for 8000 damage, which the healer promptly heals in full. After modifiers 8000 health restored will be 4000 threat (T: 8000, H: 4000, D: 0). At the same time the damage dealer will start hitting the enemy while it is distracted by the tank, dealing 6000 damage (T: 8000, H: 4000, D: 6000). Because the tank has caused the most threat in total so far in the fight the enemy will continue to attack the tank as the most threatening individual, even though the damage dealer did hit for more damage, and the healer restored more health. Each successive hit will be added to each character’s total, and the enemy will choose to attack whoever has the highest total (with a special small margin built in to keep threat from waffling too quickly should two character’s threat become too close).
The game also provides utilities for certain classes to help deal with threat that can sometimes allow you to either reduce or remove your threat temporarily or permanently. There are also tools for tanks that allow them to “taunt” the opponent effectively forcing the target to focus on them and letting them instantly match the highest threat in the group.
A tank that does not hold the attention of the enemy cannot fulfill their role.
As the tank is planning to take a beating, he will need tools to survive that beating. These tools come in two forms: passive survival attributes gained from gear and talents, and active survival skills often referred to as “tanking cooldowns” or “cooldowns” for short. The design of a tanks gear and spec are very important and require the character to be prepared before they enter combat. The passive survival attributes come in two general categories: Mitigation and Avoidance. Mitigation can be defined as any scaling factor that reduces the scale of a hit taken. Mitigation is usually found in the form of Armor, which provides a percentage reduction to physical damage taken, Resistance, which provides a similar reduction to magic damage taken (and can be specialized per school of magic), Tanking Stance/Mode/Form, which provides a smaller but constant percentage reduction to all damage taken, and Absorb and Block mechanics, which remove a static amount from the damage after considering the percentage reductions from stance and armor/resistance.
Mitigation effects act in an inversely multiplicative fashion. In other words if your armor reduces damage taken by 70% and your stance reduces your damage taken by 30%, you will not take 0% damage, but rather (100%-70%) x (100%-30%) = 30% x 70% = 21% taken.
So as an example, let’s say the tank’s armor reduces the damage they take by 65%, their tanking stance reduces damage they take by 15%, and they have a shield that will block 2000 damage. When a monster hits them for 50,000 damage armor will remove 32,500 damage leaving only 17,500. The defensive stance will reduce that remaining amount by 2,625 leaving only 14,875 damage, and the shield will cut 2,000 damage off that, so the tank will only get hit for 12,875 rather than the “unmitigated” 50,000 damage hit.
Avoidance, as a passive survival attribute, is a chance to not take a damaging hit at all, to avoid it. This avoidance comes in the form of the chance to dodge, parry, or be missed. Normally, as opposed to Resistance and Stance modifiers, and certain sorts of Absorb mechanics, Avoidance is usually only applied to physical attacks (and usually only melee attacks, but there are exceptions).
These two attributes make up the bulk of the tank’s passive arsenal for doing their job of taking less damage: damage reduction and damage avoidance.
Tanking cooldowns and other special active skills fill in the rest and make survival an active affair in varying degrees for some tanks. These cooldowns may provide an additional source of passive, short-term mitigation as a percent damage reduction, or an increase in armor, or they may increase the tank’s avoidance or health for a period of time. This active portion of survival is important as the game is designed specifically to create a varying profile of damage taken with periods of increased damage on certain fights. It is a special tank skill to be able to use these abilities at the most appropriate times. Used too little, the tank will not offer the best he can to the group, while if used too rashly the ability may not be available when it is needed most and the tank may die, or the healer may have to work harder to pull the group through the battle.
Balances and Minimums
Finding the ideal balance between these two key aspects is first a matter of meeting the minimums. Strictly defined, the minimum amounts of threat and survival are easy to describe, though they are not fixed but instead are relative to the other two roles in the group. The minimum amount of survival required would be described as the amount of survival that enables the healer to keep you alive. It is hard to label an exact crossover point as there will be a sufficient range within which the healer will have to work harder and harder to heal the tank, and some situations will require more of the healer’s attention than only the tank. To set an arbitrary minimum, we will describe it as a point at which the healer does not have to work *too* hard to keep the tank alive in most reasonable situations.
The minimum amount of threat required is dictated by the second highest non-tank threat generated by the group. This is easy to describe, but can be highly variable with situation. The use of threat “dumping” (dropping your value to zero or by an amount) may allow the damage dealing section to reduce their threat and lower the minimum threshold for the tank to meet, but in the process it will also come at the cost of damage output. This is an element in the Grand Triangle to be discussed in the final installment of this series. An ideal level of threat should allow the tank to outpace the damage dealers’ best output when it is needed most, but should not far exceed that comfortable margin if it comes at the expense of survival.
The healthy amount of gray area and variability in this balance allows most tanks to play around a fair amount. Each tank will find their ideal balance and work to maintain it as they improve their gear.
Advanced Tactics and the Art in Tanking
As in all things there is a place beyond pure requirement in which a great tank can surpass average tanks with an artful touch. The particular places where this can be seen are in the following topics:
Group Action Pacing:
The tank is the first wave of the group. He will normally be the first one into the fight and as such will determine the rate and the pace at which the group can move through a dungeon. It is often in the interest of the players that they not take more time than they have to in a given engagement, but it is in that very same interest of time that efficiency and safety are important. Pulling at a faster speed than the healer can keep up leaves the group open to danger of losing the tank or damage dealers, which would in turn slow the group down. Similarly, pulling too fast for the damage dealers is simply wasted speed as the damage dealers will be responsible for the bulk of the damage and as such the length of fights. Pulling recklessly without regards to the principal values of Threat and Survival can strain the group by either exposing the tank to more damage than the healer can comfortably handle, or by exposing the damage dealers to undue damage for loss of attention by the mobs. Finally, at the end of the day, we all want to have fun. Often times it is a small price to pay to set a slightly slower pace if it means that no one will feel harassed or frantic to fill their duty.
The ideal tank can keep a pace consistent with the skills and interests of their party members. No one is left waiting without good cause, and no one is left stressed out because they’re being pushed unwillingly beyond their comfort zone.
Enemy mobs are placed strategically throughout instances, usually in small sub-groups. A skillful tank can pull and position groups of enemies with four main concerns in mind:
1.) Tank mechanics have certain special exceptions. A tank cannot dodge, parry, or block attacks made from behind. As these can be significant factors in survival for the tank, all mobs should be in front of the tank unless there are very special extenuating circumstances.
2.) Environmental concerns may change the situation as you fight. Normally, this means you simply want to be aware of roving enemies that could be accidentally added to your fight if you aren’t positioned out of the way. There may also be concerns about dangerous environments that the group will need to avoid.
3.) The group’s interests are important as well. A tank needs to be within “line of sight” with his healer to receive healing, if he breaks that even for a moment or in such a way that requires the healer to move to regain it, the tank could risk death in some situations, and in a less dire situation will simply stress the healers or cause them to work harder to do their job. Similarly, damage dealers will often be concerned with the positioning and location of the enemies. Melee will want to be behind their targets, and ranged will require line of sight the same as healers. Furthermore, to facilitate area of effect damage dealing (AoE for short), enemies will need to be grouped up fairly tightly, and in a static location for some.
4.) Enemy abilities will add a context to how some need to be positioned. It is not uncommon for enemies to have abilities that attack in a forward cone (like a breath weapon) or are capable of hitting multiple targets in front of them in melee range (like a cleave/lash). Some enemies may simple deal damage in close range, or have some special ability that will impact the group in a different way. It is up to the tank to determine where the enemies stand and in which direction they point.
The savvy tank moves through an instance deliberately, positioning each group to maximize his own effectiveness, and to make the group’s job as easy as can be.
Every instance, every collection of opponents will not be the same, and as such you will always have to decide who will be killed first. There are multiple criteria that need to be considered. This job can be done by anyone, but as a tank it is often best done by you, as you will be the one responsible for grabbing the targets and holding the most important ones.
So how do you set priority? There are four criteria that should be considered:
1.) Can anything in the group heal? If any of your enemies can heal it will mean that they either need to be killed immediately or be shut down sufficiently so that another target can actually be killed. A healer left unmolested can mean that other targets take significantly longer to kill or are unkillable with the constant stream of life.
2.) What will hurt you or the group the most? The highest risk targets will be your top priority next as they will tax or compromise the group the most. If a particular target will really hurt the tank, fire shots at random group members who are not as hearty as the tank, or will provide debuffs or other problems that will make the group struggle to do their job, these are the targets you want to make sure die early in the fight.
3.) What will die most easily? Sometimes it may be tempting to kill the one hulking brute who hammers on your tank, but that may not always be the best choice. If the hulking brute has 200k health, but his 8 friends who all hit much softer only have 20k health, it is possible you can just crush all the little guys first, then tackle the brute alone. This is tricky balance, and is not often a consideration as many groups will be fairly uniform or close enough, but it is always worth keeping in mind.
4.) What can be rendered ineffectual? If there is anything you can do to shut down, lock out, or otherwise control your enemies, it may often be worth doing. For example, if there is a healer, but you can turn it into a harmless, inert sheep for 45 seconds, it may be more worthwhile to do so and kill the other targets. Alternately, maybe that big brute can be stunned taking him out of commission for long enough that you can kill other targets without worrying about the tank.
As with most things there is not a single correct answer to every problem, and this is where the artistry comes in. A skilled tank can identify target priorities on the fly and direct the group to attack the targets of greatest interest. In an ideal world the damage dealers can make the same threat assessment without direction, but it is important that the group always act as one entity when possible.
The game provides a valuable tool for this function in the forms of target marking. It is very much in your interest as a tank to be able to mark targets quickly, and when you use marks to ensure that your group understands what they mean. In current game social contract, the Skull invariably means your #1 target to kill, while an X represents the second kill target. Many groups will establish marks for crowd control as well, with classic marks being Squares for Hunter traps, Moons for Rogue Saps or Mage Sheeps, and Diamonds for Banishes, but you will frequently find these change with a given group of players. The most important thing is that your group establishes its own internal meaning for symbols.
Identification and Mitigation of Abilities and Conditions
The tank is the first line of defense for the group and to that end they are the first person who needs to identify the risks an enemy presents and quickly find ways to minimize or remove those risks where possible. This may involve recognizing special abilities or debuffs the enemy has, or it may involve spotting dangers for the group. Everyone should be responsible for their own well-being, but as the tank it is already your responsibility to protect your teammates, it is a small extension to help them protect themselves.
Coming soon, Part 2: The Healer.