After a chunk of heavier posts on issues facing the MMO community(mostly the FFXIV one!), I wanted to look at something lighter but also still interesting to me.
Dragonflight is set to see the first class added to the game ever with no tanking specialization. Instead, like Demon Hunters in Legion before them, we get a two-spec class, but this time with a single damage spec and a single healing spec.
Why is this interesting to me?
The first thing that comes to mind is that this seems to reflect an outlook on tanking that is positive for the first time in a while. In the past, Blizzard has always added new tanks to the game to shore up what has traditionally been a role that is difficult to get new players into. If you make the aesthetic of something uniquely appealing to players and tie it to the tank role, you can convince some people to give it a try, even if they don’t normally tank or have tried it and rejected it before. And, in truth, tanking is a hard sell to some people, which is something that I remember feeling a lot in my early days in WoW and then all over again in FFXIV.
In MMOs with holy trinity design in general, a tank tends to feel like the most “responsible” role in dictating how a run goes. Damage Dealers can dictate the pace to an extent, as can healers, but the tank generally has the most control as the person who generally pulls, needs to establish threat/aggro/enmity, and that creates a certain level of burden that is not always easy to shoulder. “Tanxiety” is a very real thing that people feel, and while a lot of efforts have been made at least in the two games I am most familiar with in the MMO space to remove some of that or make it much simpler, you don’t really know how it will feel until you try, and sometimes that is a frightening prospect in something you play for enjoyment.
WoW in Shadowlands has made tanking both very similar to the general direction the game has been trending tanks in for multiple expansions now, and yet also returned some small measure of complication to it. Damage mitigation remains largely simple depending on the spec you play, where the core game is cycling a mix of damage reduction cooldowns and self-healing, with no more true Active Mitigation (in caps because it was a feature!) checks in fights meaning that you basically cycle the charges of your once-AM ability, keeping one on standby for tankbusters and big hits. On the other hand, threat management in Shadowlands became something more of a challenge, after nearly a decade of it being largely dead in gameplay terms for tanks. A lot of the first season Mythic Plus runs in Shadowlands were tanked by Vengeance Demon Hunters because they had a large number of tools for keeping threat at-range and while kiting, between Sigil of Flame, the Kyrian Covenant ability, passive AoE cleave from Immolation Aura, and a threat-boosted multi-target menace in Throw Glaive. That mattered a lot there because it was possible on heavy kiting weeks to lose threat, the first time in quite some time (short of that bullshit M+ affix Skittish!) that threat generation was a thing that actively mattered. It also mattered throughout depending on how your tank opened a fight – if you ran M+ with a Night Fae Guardian Druid who insisted on opening with Convoke the Spirits in caster form, it was possible to rip threat, get bopped, and be very frustrated with your tank (definitely no personal experience mixed up in that one, oh no).
To a point, tanking being easier led to more tanks, at least it felt like. I can speak to my own experience – I was a committed healer for most of my WoW time right up until the very tail end of Warlords of Draenor, at which point I switched to half-heals and half-tank on Monk due to a scheduling conflict with one of our raid tanks, before he dropped out altogether and I became locked in to tanking. I didn’t try tanking until Wrath of the Lich King, when Blood DK was both the best DPS spec for that class (I miss DPS Blood so much!) and the best tank spec, because of the insane self-heal, strong cleave threat, and general survivability. Learning tanking on WotLK-era Blood DK was the most safe, training-wheels way to learn the role back then – I never really “mained” a tank until WoD, but I kept coming back to DK tanking expansion after expansion until Monk pulled me into the role in WoD. Even then, what happened there was a consequence of multiple factors – raid needs, Brewmaster Monk being incredibly OP at the tail end of WoD (one time on Heroic Archimonde I hit Guard and got a shield for 1.2 million health, which was 2x my actual full health pool), and the incoming Demon Hunter class being the newest and shiniest shiny. All of that together pulled me in and I ended up spending 5 years tanking.
I do think, with some reflection post-Shadowlands and with my experience tanking in FFXIV now (I’ve been doing some raid and EX trial tanking to feel it out more), that tanking being easier to get into at a base level of competency is a net good. Groups are bottlenecked by a lack of tanks, and having more tanks coming in and playing is good. However, I think the Shadowlands threat changes in particular highlight something interesting to me that is the second point I want to discuss here – that it seems like the WoW playerbase is reaching a point of skill and familiarity to try things they haven’t before.
When I first tanked a raid in Wrath, I had been playing WoW for nearly 5 years. I didn’t become a main tank until a full decade of play was under my belt and I had seen more of the game. I think that my confidence, adaptability, and willingness to learn at those points came from a simple baseline truth – I was more comfortable with the game as a whole and understood it enough to take some of the fear and uncertainty out of tanking. I knew how threat sort of fundamentally worked and had a concept of how to keep it. Defensive kits had evolved into the Active Mitigation model which made knowing when to hit your defensive buttons a lot simpler and more straightforward. Exposure to the role, including close friends playing it for years, had led me to the conclusion that it wasn’t that the role was harder per se, but that I just had to carry myself more confidently in-game. If I didn’t know a dungeon as a healer, I could stay close to the tank, but as a tank, I had to learn to set my own pace and know when to pump the brakes as well as when not to. Learning in WoD when gearing my Brewmaster was actually tricky at times – dungeons like Bloodmaul Slag Mines tested my ability to set a route and watch for trash patrols, without even talking about the challenges brought about by places like Everbloom or Iron Docks.
Had I never reached a point of baseline comfort with the game as a whole, I would likely never have tried tanking at all. I think that a fair number of people run into a similar level of discomfort with learning the role at first – if you’re still learning the game as a whole, trying to learn how to tank adds layers to that which can be complicated and can get in the way of enjoying the process. On the WoW side, I imagine that a new player starting to tank can be very overwhelmed, given that you start in the BfA dungeons, modern designs that were initially built with larger toolkits in mind. I’ve seen it firsthand, in fact – one of my guildies brought a friend in whose first WoW experience was with tanking on a Druid, and when we would do content with her, it was sometimes frustrating, because basic things we take foregranted (pulling with an ability, spamming an AoE rotation, resource spend) were not concepts she was fully familiar with, so when we would run M+ with her, it would often get dicey – I got threat a lot of times in the keys I ran with them and it was scary – but it was also fun in a way, because I haven’t been able to be party to that kind of learning process in a long time in WoW.
The Shadowlands changes to threat, to me, reflect that Blizzard is confident that players will still be able to play tanks fresh with some level of comfort and that they want to introduce a bit of depth to the role, and that is a good thing. Threat in Shadowlands, while slightly more difficult in a small number of scenarios, is still nowhere near vanilla threat (no one is waiting for 1 Sunder, much less 3 or 5), but building long-term hold on your pull is an interesting and fun part of being a tank. You can and likely still will reach a point where eventually, no DPS is ever going to pull off of you for the time the mob still has to live, but there is a slight skill component to it – when to default to AoE threat moves, how to handle burst from the DPS in the party, adding new mobs to the pull in a dungeon or on a boss add phase, and the like. It’s not much – I still think that tank gameplay could be more interesting if it focused on different ways to mitigate damage or made more use of abilities like Protection Warrior Revenge or DK Rune Strike, where you get to use an ability more or even at all when you successfully mitigate/dodge/block/parry, giving you a structure where you could use a wider array of defensive tools to set up a burst window with high-damage counter-attack abilities – but it offers something to chew on that is greater than the standard taunt swap, infinite threat, just cycle those cooldowns gameplay that was what defined my era of tanking in WoW.
To be fair, I think there is some reason to believe that tanks are common enough now too. In the tail end of my WoW time in Shadowlands, when running keys, it was fairly rare to not have a tank readily available in PUG groups. I had to wait sometimes, but it was increasingly rare to see a group without a tank even just seconds or minutes after listing in LFG. In smaller-scale social groups, it is definitely still possible – my guild had a pool of around two or three tanks that were comfortable doing Mythic Plus at any given time, and it often ended up happening that tank alts or a DPS main with a tank spec would switch and help get a key going, but I think the game as a whole is starting to see more tanks than usual and that is reflected in this decision by Blizzard.
The next point for me today is how this impacts healing as a role and what it says about healers in the game right now. While in a lot of content, I feel like healing is the easier of the two roles between it and tanking, I do think that WoW is hitting a sort of interesting phase with healing as a role. Healers have been most consistently in the spotlight in a lot of competitive play environments this expansion because of a lot of factors like healer damage output (the outcry around Ashen Hallow for Holy Paladins!) and ability to recover quickly from problematic pulls. In many ways, it almost seems like healing is becoming much more the bottleneck in Mythic Plus, which has been true at points since the mode was conceived – building routes with drinking breaks, taking healers with strong mana efficiency, and such – but it has turned more consistently into a game built on the backs of healer gameplay. Provided a tank is using their cooldowns and resources effectively and the group is pumping to keep things moving, the healer has the most room to add to a run while still doing their role. In a lot of cases, this is by maximizing damage done while waiting for healing, or in the case of Season 2 Venthyr Holy Paladins, by lining up tough trash pulls with signature abilities that allow you to absolutely annihilate the challenge. If things go awry, it is not usually the tank, but the healer, who has the most ability to save a wipe or pull victory from the jaws of defeat.
I think that Evokers having a healing spec speaks to that quite readily. While Blizzard has added a healing spec before, it pales in comparison to the number of tanks added (1 new healing spec since vanilla versus 3 tanks) and I find it interesting how it speaks to an inversion in the well-trodden role draughts the game has seen for the longest time. One thing I definitely enjoyed about WoW in Shadowlands was that the healers felt pretty distinct and interesting, but I can also say that the time I spent healing as a main role to start the expansion and the hours I put in on Holy Priest near my departure from the game had more challenging dungeon experiences than what I had tanking on my Demon Hunter as an alt spec, and that includes a timed +2 early on where I had no talents selected for Vengeance and a +17 in Season 2.
WoW healing has always been one of my favorite roles in the genre, as I got into WoW fully the first time I played a Priest and healing was my main raid role for the majority of my time in WoW (10 years healing, 5 tanking, 2 DPSing), and I think the role is actually in a good place and direction overall. Balance issues aside, I think healing is a lot more interesting now and reminds me a lot of the Wrath-era of healing, where I really enjoyed the role the most. Each class and spec felt distinct and unique, had strong toolkits with clear use cases and niches, and the game of resource management was at its peak with Spirit having a strong impact on healing throughput and the thought of efficiency being much more challenging than it is today. Today, some elements of that kit are not quite as present (at a certain power level, mana regen isn’t an obstacle and there is a fair bit of the baseline rebalancing done in Cataclysm that is still felt in the toolkits today) but the fight design is much stronger at drawing out healer strengths through a varied and interesting use of damage along with mechanics that interact specifically with healers more.
I do think that healing can end up being a bottleneck role for group makeup, perhaps even more than tanks, especially as more are required for larger activities like raids, and I interpret a part of the Evoker spec decision as being a sign that healer representation is falling. It’s definitely possible I am reading too much into that, but given the past precedent, it feels fairly likely that Blizzard is seeing a gap in healer play they want to close before it becomes a problem. New classes are one of the best tools to do that with, and once we have alpha and beta Dragonflight content we’ll see the other side of that puzzle with how the existing healers are tuned and tweaked to fit together with healing Evokers.
Obviously, all of this is largely conjecture from the most basic news about the forthcoming expansion and could end up being a whole lot of nothing. However, the long history of WoW has shown that they’ve consistently pushed to add tanks to the game as a priority, both through new classes and through opening up classes to new factions (Paladins in TBC coupled with a lot of viability tuning for Prot) or races (adding Blood Elf Warriors in Cataclysm after removing the option during early development of TBC) and it has always been apparent as a response to low uptake of tank play in the community as a bottleneck for dungeons and raids. Given that, I find it very telling that we are nearing the point where we see a new healer spec added for the first time in a decade and the first time ever without an accompanying tank spec, and I’m curious to see how much early testing and balancing of healers feeds into my theory.
Either that, or they’re hiding a third Evoker spec that is Black Dragonflight-based as a tank. /s