Tank design in most holy trinity MMOs boils down to managing a trifecta of gameplay components for a player to focus on and learn – managing threat, dealing higher damage to enemies, and taking less damage through defensive play and mitigation abilities.
When I first started WoW back in 2005, no one I knew tanked. When I got into raiding in late 2005, it was still the era of Warrior tanks and “wait for 5 Sunders.” Threat management seemed to be the only thing in the game for tanks, because their defensive capabilities were less fleshed out and focused upon much less as a result.
My first time tanking was in Wrath of the Lich King, on a Blood Death Knight. It was an awesome learning spec to use – Blood in Wrath had high damage output with smart gameplay, incredible self-healing, and managed threat superbly through large amounts of cleave and AoE damage alongside fun threat-boosted abilities like Rune Strike which allowed you a high threat attack on a successful dodge or parry.
In Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard made the largest fundamental shift to tanking they’ve made, one that still forms the foundation of tanking gameplay today. Instead of a laser focus on threat generation with defense being something you gear for exclusively, the game shifted to the Active Mitigation model. Each tanking spec received an ability (or a modification to an existing ability) that was labeled as AM, and each boss in a dungeon or raid was designed with an explicit AM check. When the ability was about to be cast, hit your AM button to reduce the damage and avoid a nasty side effect – a debuff, DoT, or the like would be ignored if you had met the check, while not meeting the check would chunk your health and debilitate you with a nasty debuff that varied by the ability.
AM gameplay as stated only lasted for Mists and the subsequent Warlords of Draenor, but even as “AM” was removed in Legion, the model remained. Tanks focused on defensive abilities, casting their mitigation to avoid nasty incoming damage, but also then being able to use these defensives more rotationally. That model continues to exist even today – with the old AM abilities still largely present but instead being used more as a mix of damage intake smoothers and to meet particularly nasty incoming damage checks.
What you’ll note is that I haven’t talked much about threat yet.
In Cataclysm, the development team added a new concept to all tanks – Vengeance. This buff was an increase to attack power that stacked to a given percentage of total health when a tank was attacked. It was designed for a simple concept – as DPS specs had damage that scaled exponentially, it could get difficult for a tank to maintain threat with the slow pace of increasing damage from a tank. Vengeance was meant to counteract this, giving a tank consistently increasing damage at a similar pace. Later in Cataclysm, base tank threat bonuses were buffed, and between both of these changes, tank threat had been settled as a non-issue. Eventually, Vengeance went away and we were all still fine.
This is the model by which I came to enjoy tanking. While it didn’t offer me the full trifecta of improvement points to up my gameplay, it gave me a solid 2 out of 3 – I could focus on defensive play and increasing my own damage output. In late Warlords of Draenor, my raid main switched from my priest for the first time ever to a monk, specifically to play Brewmaster in raids. Similarly, in Shadowbringers, FFXIV has made a similar shift, with tanks getting their threat bonus via tank stances with no downsides, meaning no more need to stance dance to increase damage dealt, and thus far, Shadowbringers has been my first and only foray into tanking in FFXIV – and I’ve enjoyed it.
I recognize this first because it is important to say that without threat management, you do lose something in gameplay. It is a lesser model for tanking design, because the ideal in most holy trinity designs is that trifecta of skills – you should have points to improve on each pillar of your tanking.
For as much as I write about, play, discuss, and otherwise engage with World of Warcraft, I hadn’t really followed tank design particulars through Shadowlands alpha and beta phases. I was more curious about healers and about the ways in which Covenant abilities might work for hybrid classes. I was more closely following my own possible raid main specs over the particulars of their tank options where present.
In the first weeks of the expansion, I did tank a couple Mythic Plus dungeons for guildies on my paladin, and it was fairly low stress. It felt a bit more frenetic, but I hadn’t really played prot paladin for an audience before, so it was a bit new.
In the last two weeks, however, I tanked a Sanguine Depths 9 on my paladin and a Necrotic Wake 2 on my Demon Hunter, and hoo boy, it was awful. Just a fundamentally bad, humbling experience.
When we first zoned in to the Sanguine Depths run, I mentioned that I expected no threat problems because I’m Kyrian, and I have a huge burst of AoE threat through the class ability that offers me. I was wrong, and since I didn’t have a tank-supporting UI, it made it incredibly difficult to manage threat, watching for which mobs weren’t glued to me, trying desperately to flail against the loss of aggro on my targets.
The Necrotic Wake experience was a little less solely my fault – I had a sort of bad healer and two iffy DPS, so things died slowly, people weren’t paying attention to their backs and flanks for adds, and I am scared for resto druids because any large health deficit became a massive obstacle. It was also awful in a funny way – it was the first time I had specced into Vengeance since 9.0, and I made sure to fly to my Covenant sanctum and set a tanking soulbind first. Great move, with one slight problem – I had not selected tank talents, and once a Mythic Keystone starts, you can’t choose talents, even if you have none. So…I tanked a +2 and failed the timer, with no talents. Awesome!
However, the common observance I had was that threat was universally a problem. I handled it better on my DH (and the DH toolkit is a huge part of why) but compared to the threat design of the last nearly decade of WoW, this was a sharp wakeup call. When I had tanked on both characters previously, it was almost effortless to get mob attention – Paladins have sort of iffy AoE options, but because of Avenger’s Shield procs, you can toss a ton of shields and get attention easily. Demon Hunters, on the other hand, have always been easy threat because almost everything they hit has a cleave or AoE component, pulsing damage that helps maintain threat is everpresent in the spec, and their one majorly threat-boosted ability is a 3 target ranged attack, which is a good thing to have.
Either way, both of these experiences were awful, and I fled from the dungeons quickly and felt like I wouldn’t want to tank again. I know that it is learnable, but it sucked and it wasn’t that long ago that I was a great tank and could manage a lot.
It kind of led me to a few points about the way in which change is communicated in WoW, as well as the overall design philosophy for tanks and what these changes mean.
Change Needs Clear, In-Game Communication: I know that Blizzard cannot hold my hand through every change, nor should they, but even someone who no-lifes the game like I do missed these threat tweaks completely. I would love for Blizzard to offer some sort of in-game discussion or quick briefing on changes, like a note that maintaining threat on a target is more difficult and requires focus would have helped a lot. This is a less severe example of a problem that is pervasive throughout Shadowlands – so many of the game’s new systems are poorly explained, if at all, and I feel class changes definitely get shuffled to out of game discussions, which something like 80% of the playerbase never reads or even sees.
Tanking Might Be Better Off For This Change: I hate to say this, because ultimately, I personally don’t like the increased emphasis on threat and fear where it leads as DPS players exponentially improve their DPS output (time is a flat circle and now we’re back to pre-Cataclysm design considerations the team had solved!). However, I think the best thing an RPG can be is a meaningful simulacrum for skilling up at something. Tanking involves threat management, and WoW has been a notable leader in the movement to eradicate threat for nearly a full decade, so while it is a sudden reversal to not be that, I can see how it offers a meaningful expansion of gameplay that will allow tanks to continue to improve throughout the expansion. I don’t expect every tank player will feel that way, and I know I don’t right now – but I can see myself feeling like I will have to tank more to get better at it, and in a weird way, it is testing my resolve with the role.
DPS Need Better Threat Management Tools: My guild currently has an overabundance of balance druids in both raid teams, and one of them was present for the Necrotic Wake fiasco. One thing I noticed is that they have incredibly front-loaded burst DPS with reasonable sustained damage, which seems to create a big problem for tanks. Likewise, the SD9 run on my paladin had an enhancement shaman, who could come out of the gate swinging on a fight and get threat pretty solidly for a hot minute. This player is also kind of a douche and I didn’t necessarily mind seeing him get thwacked, but again, it builds to a common point. Not all DPS specs have good threat management, and some don’t have any. If the expectation of the modern game is that everyone can go full throttle with opening combos and huge burst, then I would like to see ways for DPS to mitigate some of that harm as well. In the past, things like threat-reducing set bonuses, enchants to reduce threat, and active abilities to reduce or remove threat all added to a DPS toolkit, such that it made them responsible for their own threat and how they handled it. I’d very much enjoy seeing that come back in some form – we already have a variety of sort of niche enchants, and it would be cool to have a threat reducing one.
Tanks Need Better AoE Threat: One of the things I definitely feel is that a lot of tanks were propped up in AoE scenarios by the passive threat bonuses. Paladins feel like they lose a lot of luster when Consecration isn’t getting a passive +500% threat boost. Thunderclap for warriors feels like it would be similarly problematic (although, I haven’t even seen a warrior tank in my groups this expansion yet, which might speak to that more!). Druids have great AoE kit, as do Brewmaster Monks and Vengeance DHs. I want to be clear and say that this is spitballing from my prior understanding of the classes and I’ve only tanked as prot paladin and vengeance DH thus far, so I’m certainly not an authority on this topic. But I do think that AoE threat can be made more manageable through some mix of boosts to abilities or even perhaps new ones, opportunities to create snap threat on multiple targets, that kind of thing.
Tanks Need Better Threat Management Tools: I’d love for threat boosting enchants to come back, in the same vein as the DPS threat reducing ones. Perhaps some sort of stand-in for the old Vengeance buff, but perhaps as something you gain through gameplay momentarily that you can use to run a threat combo to snap mobs onto you. Like a proc that enables you to hit a series of attacks with boosted damage (and thusly threat), like a paladin being able to hit a high-powered Consecrate and then gain a chance to proc a guaranteed-crit Avenger’s Shield that hits an extra target or something like that. Or a Demon Hunter combo that lets you hit Fiery Brand, spread it to all targets hit by Immolation Aura, and then get a boosted Fel Devastation that leaves a ticking fire DoT. Now I’m just making cool things I want instead of actively trying to recommend real solutions, but if you’re reading this Blizzard, I’d take these in a heartbeat.
Overall, it was an experience I more or less wanted to share as a PSA to other players on top of telling my bad, no-good story about the time I did a full Mythic Plus without talents. Be kind to each other, and especially be kind to your tanks as they learn, because there are too few of them as-is and the threat change may exacerbate that problem in the long term.
Also, for any tanks – get a good nameplate addon that has visual threat indicators. I use Threat Plates, and like it a lot so far as it is very large and obnoxious, which makes it easy to notice and thus a Good Addon.