Myth Busters: Tanking is Hard

First, my credentials. For the vast majority of my time in WoW and for nearly the entirety of my time at level 80, I have been a tank – primarily because it was fun. I tanked every single encounter of WotLK, all of them. Having said that, I am here to tell you now: tanking is NOT hard.

I’m writing this because all the usual suspects have crept up again to elaborate how incredibly hard tanking is, how tanks are actually gods in human disguise, who shoulder the entire responsibility, carry the entire load, rule over life and death. Healers are their archangels, who help the tanks to right the wrong, and everyone else is clearly worthless, exchangeable, irrelevant. It is being stated as indisputable fact, and most people boggle at the notion that the tank is not the cornerstone, the pillar and the rooftop of a group all at once. And I am going to once again tell you that this is nonsense.

I wrote about the difference between skill and entry barriers before, and this is pretty much a continuation of the reasoning, which is based on the following: it is no more difficult to be a good tank than it is to be a good damage dealer. The difference is that as a tank you are required to be at least decent (if we cyclically define “decent” as “sufficient to beat the encounter”), while as a damage dealer you can get away with less than that. It is much harder to compensate for a sub-decent tank than it is for a sub-decent damage dealer. But it is not inherently harder to be a decent tank than it is to be a decent damage dealer. It is equally demanding to be a good tank as it is to be a good damage dealer. And being an excellent tank requires the same effort and dedication as being an excellent damage dealer.

Tobold designs a hypothetical encounter which, by intentional design, challenges tanks and healers more than damage dealers and, despite being an actual scientist in real-life, goes on to claim that this scenario, which has precious little in common with any currently available non-trivial encounter, proves the higher difficulty level of playing a tank. I don’t think it proves anything, because there’s a difference between hypothesis and proof. Encounters like that don’t exist. Actually existing encounters these days require the damage dealers to mind where they stand, group up, spread out, to quickly switch targets, burst on cue, AoE on cue, don’t do this, do that, interrupt, don’t interrupt, etc. It is not more or less difficult than what tanks have to do, it’s just different. What does the tank do, for example, when everyone needs to “spread out, spread out!”? Stand in place, of course, and not be bothered. For some reason you rarely see bloggers citing this as evidence for “tanks having it easy”, although that was pretty much always what I thought when I was tanking and everyone had to run somewhere while I could just stand where I wanted. Of course it is, in many cases, easier to slack as a damage dealer than it is to slack as a tank, as long as there are enough others to pick up the slack for you. That makes it more urgent for a tank to be good, but not more difficult.

Rhii makes an ad-hoc list of things different roles need to be aware of and goes on to observe, without any mean intent, I shall add, that the list for damage dealers is the shortest. Well, sure the DPS awareness list is going to be short if you sum all of “fight mechanics” up in a single bullet point – it’s understandable, in fact, because hers is a pretty strictly healer point of view, so for her, most of what’s happening is pretty much “all that wicked stuff that’s going on”. Goes back to healing being broken. By the way, damage dealers also have to coordinate cooldowns, among themselves as well as with encounter events. Sure the lists for tanks and healers are going to look more impressive if you include items like “everybody’s threat”. I can’t remember, when tanking, being overly interested in the threat of the fourth-highest person – you only care whether anyone’s creeping up on you and not to inadvertently pull off each other in tank-swap fights. Healers don’t actually care about threat at all, they only care about aggro (i.e. who has it). Then, she concludes the listing with an interesting phrase: “and of course, raid leaders have to watch EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL THE TIME”. That is interesting, because I would claim that being more or less aware of all crucial parts and element of an encounter is not characteristic of only a raid leader, but of a good raider. In different encounters, different roles (not necessarily always the damage dealers) are able to get away without concerning themselves with what the other roles have on their plate. But ultimately, every problem is everybody’s problem. Why would a tank, for example, be always more concerned about healer mana than damage dealers? There is very little a tank can do about healer mana, while on the other hand damage dealers can adjust to healer mana expenditure, both by avoiding taking damage (it’s not universally always bad to risk some extra damage, if you can do relevant good stuff in return, but you need to be aware whether your healers can afford to keep you up through it) and by realising a necessity to dial up the damage output to shorten the fight duration. Or the other way round, realise that things are fine and care is more important than speed. Good damage dealers (in a game that is deep enough to provide them such options) can do that, EJ-monkeys can’t.

Every role has its challenges. Tanking is not inherently harder than dealing damage, it is simply less forgiving at the low end. It is possible to be a good tank, and it is possible to be a good damage dealer. It is possible to strive for excellence in both roles. Bad tanks usually have a greater (negative) impact on the group than bad damage dealers, but on the other end of the spectrum, the one which should matter, very good tanks and very good damage dealers have a very similar (positive) impact, varying mostly due to encounter mechanics. Being a very good tank is as hard or as easy as being a very good damage dealer. Not being a good damage dealer is less consequential than not being a good tank, but that should not be mistaken for one being harder than the other. Climbing the curve is equally hard, and the one who did expend the effort of climbing will make your life easier, in either role.

I shall conclude quoting a former friend and companion from LotRO. She played both a damage dealer and a tank character, both at very good raid-level, and once quipped, half-joking half-serious:

“Tanking is easy, you just spot the biggest thing in the room and thwack it ’til everything’s dead.”

Don’t let your heads grow too large for your hats, dear (fellow) tanks.

10 thoughts on “Myth Busters: Tanking is Hard

  1. Kring

    I think that myth comes from back in the old days. Tanking was harder. Tanking Shattered Halls on a Warrior without CC pre 2.4 was much harder then it is today. Tanking got much easier, too easy for my taste to be honest.

    Playing a DD got more difficult because you use now 10 abilities instead of 1 or 2.

    But I think when we’re talking about “tanking is hard” people mean “tanking is hard in a 5 man LFD heroic” and there you have some additional points. Yes, the game mechanic doesn’t change but ofter you have to babysit your group. That’s the hard part which isn’t for everyone.

    Plus the fact that a tank can compensate for nearly every error someone makes. Remove taunt from the game. We don’t need it. And give DD something to get rid of their aggro and push the mob back to us. If they fuck up, they should fix it. The tools are on the wrong side.

    1. Rem Post author

      Once again, I refer to Nils:

      Trouble is, this is not what most people are saying. Yes, leading is a different kind of beast, and being an actual leader consists of more than having an addon to paste boss tactics into chat. Yet leading and tanking are not necessarily glued together, they just traditionally grew together in WoW. In general it can be argued that the tank is not the ideal group leader, because they have a very specific focus and responsibility that prevents them from being able to keep an overview over the entire raid as well as participate in reacting to encounter events.

    2. Kring

      In a 5 man you can’t do anything that the tank doesn’t approve. If the tank doesn’t want to go your route, the group won’t go your route. If the tank wants to do a boss, you’ll do the boss. If the tank wants to skip a boss, you’ll skip that boss.

      DD don’t have that power as there are very few bosses in Cata 5 mans that require all 3 DDs (which is bad design).

      Healers also don’t have that power because all they can do is not start healing 20 seconds into the boss fight when everyone is at low health and that would be considered much more dickish then pulling/not pulling a boss.

      That means you can’t enforce your will onto a tank in a random 5 man but the tank can enforce his will onto the group.

      The only person able to lead in that situation is the tank. Everyone else would have to get approval from the tank for every decision he made. And that’s why the tank always will be the leader, because HE HAS THE POWER and you can’t lead without power.

    3. Kring

      Sure, but consider the following situation.

      You’ve signed up on LFD for a random heroic with the following options checked: tank, DD and leader. LFD chooses Grim Batol heroic which you know very well as you’ve done it many times before. The formed group consists of 5 people from 5 different serves. You’re the tank. Firemike, a random mage get’s assigned the function of the party leader as he happened to also check that box.

      The group walks up to the first pack of enemies.

      Firemike: Ok, we’re going to do it this way. I’ll sheep star. Bloodrogue saps the circle and you’re going to tank skull and X.

      What would you do?

      Would you just play along? Even if he marks the mobs in a way that’s inconvenient to you? The correct kill order depends a lot on the classes involved and the play style of the tank. A dangerous caster might be the best target to sheep but with a DK tank it might be even better to grip it and burn it down immediately. The first few seconds in which you have to pick up all mobs are the most important ones.

      I consider it my right as tank to specify which mobs to CC and the kill order and I’m not going to let you mess with that. (And I’ve also asked the group which one to CC on the next pull if I wasn’t sure, of course. But if I’m sure it must be done my way…)

      That’s what I meant. If I’m the tank, DON’T TRY TO LEAD ME. EVER. You can make suggestions but I’m not your underling. And in the end I’m the tank and therefore I have all the power.

      On the other side I would never try to lead a group when I’m on my warlock. And if the tank marks the mobs in a different order then what I would have than… so shall it be, I have no problem with that. In the end he’s the tank and has all the power. Even if I think his way is stupid I wouldn’t be able to do anything about that.

      If LFD would assign party leader to your mage. Would you actively try to lead a heroic and tell the tank what to do?

    4. Rem Post author

      I’m sorry, I don’t want to offend a regular reader and commenter (I don’t have that many to begin with :P), but that’s a bad, bad case of tank-entitlement you have there. You’re far from the only one struck with it, I’d go as far as to say it is one of the severe problems that plague the WoW community.

      You’re pushing the “the few, the proud, the tanks” card with full belief. I have a very different view on tanking. And not from the outside, not only have I been tanking for the most part of the last two years, in LotRO raids I’ve usually been a damage-dealing off-tank, the regular Raid Assist Target, the one who would pick targets to DPS, freeing up the main tank to focus on tanky stuff. I often play in small groups and am frequently the one to “lead the charge” even if I’m not actually tanking – you could say I have something of a leader personality. So I tend to end up de-facto tanking even when I’m not tanking.

      So, my different view of tanking. As a tank, I serve the group. Not the other way round. I’m not the master, I’m the servant. I’m not the a superstar, but an enabler. It is my job, my sacred duty, one which I proud myself of very much, to protect the other members of the group (it says “protection warrior”, not “popstar warrior”). My goal is to protect the healer(s) from harm and to enable the damage dealers to do their job.

      This tends to get somewhat lost in all this tank-adulation: the actual purpose of a tank is to enable the damage dealers to deal damage. Because that damage is what kills the boss. And no, let us not take the cheap out and refer to trivial content (late-Wrath heroics, cf. next blog post) claiming it can be done without DPS, as content so trivialised can equally be done without a tank. To protect and to serve, that’s my goal as a tank, to make sure the mean thing we’re fighting does a minimum of harm and can be done a maximum of harm to.

      Our first raid leader in LotRO was amazing. Whether raid or group content, when he would herald a venture, it would be organised, pleasant and successful. He wasn’t playing a tank. He was playing a hunter (and a loremaster. And a minstrel. And later, in fact a guardian (tank), although he’d curiously and non-coincidentally prefer for someone else to lead when he was tanking), of all things. And while there was much teasing and jesting, as it must be, when he said “jump”, the tanks asked “how high?”. Not because of fear, not because of oppression, not because of some sort of “DO NOT TRY NOT TO DO WHAT I SAY. EVER” predicament. But out of deep respect and, dare I say, love.

      Back to Grim Batol and Firemike. You’re forgetting something in that scenario. Two things, in fact: cooperation and communication. Your assumption is that he simply wants to meddle, but my hypothetical Firemike really just wants to help. It is possible, under that assumption, to agree on conventions and work together, rather than one party enslaving the other to do their bidding. You’d be surprised, maybe Firemike really knows his stuff and can really help you have an easier and more pleasant time.

      Of course that doesn’t really happen. Of course when I join a party on my mage, all I want to do is put the tank on focus, /target focustarget, /cast Fireball. Of course while I tank and you’re on your mage (or warlock), I don’t really want to hear your opinion, I want you to /assist me and /cast Fireball, or whatever it is warlocks /cast. But just because that’s how it is, doesn’t mean it’s good.

      The problem is our lack of trust. You don’t trust Firemike to usefully contribute – and really, neither do I. Furthermore, we don’t really care – and really, neither does Firemike. We treat each other as NPC companions. For all we care, when we’re tanking, that mage could simply be a multiplier buff to our own damage – it probably would even be safer that way. For all we care, while we’re DPSing, the tank may as well be some other buff that prevents us from taking direct damage.

      We’re not there to run the dungeon together with Firemike – if we were, we’d be interested to involve him, rather than turn him into a line on Recount. We’re not even there to run the dungeon, in fact. We’re there for the shiny. And the easiest way to the shiny is to /assist the tank and to /cast Fireball. Who cares if the tank is beating up the Berserker while the healer mob in the background casts undisturbed and it’s taking forever. At least I’m not pulling aggro. I’m a well-behaved, invisible damage buff, I could help make things better, but I know that if I try, the tank will give me a speech on how I’m not supposed to TRY TO LEAD HIM, EVER. So I shut up and /cast Fireball. Sincerely yours, Firemike.

      You are right, that’s how it is. Doesn’t mean it’s good.

      PS: my mage is actually only level 72, just for the record.

    5. Kring

      No offense taken. You can’t offend me by having a different opinion. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Actually, I’m a nice person and I don’t abuse my group. I play for fun and if I don’t enjoy it I don’t do it. Yes, I did drop Oculus quite a few times. Not because it’s hard or anything but because I didn’t feal like wasting 30 min of my life in a dungeon I hate. But that’s about it.

      After zoneing into e.g. old kingdom I’ve always asked my group if they would prefer a frost run or all bosses. Because, honestly, I didn’t care. If I need more badges, I can just insta-queue again for another heroic. And if they would like to do a full run I’ll buy some DD gear with the badges.

      Most players say “I don’t care” which is understandable. That’s what I say on my DD even if I do care because after 45 minutes queue I’m you’re bitch and do whatever you want me to do to get the daily done… I won’t risk being kicked for whatever reason.

      There are players who DEMAND that you do a fast run “I only have 15 minutes, I don’t have time for a full clear”.

      There are players who want a full run because they need badges to gear up a toon.

      What do you do if a DD wants to do a full run and another DD demands a fast frost run? We’re back to square one, only the tank has the power to decide which option it is. I had that quite often… I’ve always decided on the full clear because I can’t stand people without time and if you don’t want to run a dungeon, don’t sign up to run a dungeon. (Back in the old days we didn’t join a dungeon group if we didn’t have enough time to finish the dungeon.)

      > Youโ€™re pushing the ‘the few, the proud, the tanks’ card with full belief.

      Interesting point.

      I’m a control freak. When I play Magic: the Gathring I always play blue/something. I love to control chaos. That’s probably why my main is a warlock. He’s a master of controlling chaos.

      And that’s why I like tanking. There’s nothing more satisfying then a difficult pull which, after a few seconds, lines up in front of you all attacking you and they all have their back towards the group.

      Then, I also think that “the pull” is the most challenging situation in a 5 man heroic. That’s also why I think raids are boring. A nice heroic which challenging pulls is much more fun then to move when BigWigs tells me to move.

      That’s why I think the group should play in a way to make it as easy as possible for the tank to pull.

      > As a tank, I serve the group.

      I played like that as a healer in TBC. But unfortunately WoW is designed that every fun one player has comes at the expense of another.

      And there was a point where I had to recognize that my fun is as important as some random mages fun.

      I once had a random rogue in a Pit of Saron run and he kept pulling new packs. But he did it in a way to always maintain a healthy amount of mobs on me. It had the advantage that devine plea never dropped, which was nearly impossible in that dungeon. I think he played a tank because he had “the eye” for how and when to pull. That was a plesant run.

      > the actual purpose of a tank is to enable the damage dealers to deal damage.

      Fully agree about that. I love nothing more than a DD who draws aggro from the correct mob. I love being challenged because that’s what forces us to play even better. Besides that, a DD who produces a shitload of threat is also doing his job which is refreshing.

      > Our first raid leader in LotRO was amazing.

      There is a huge difference between a raid leader and a random PUG. You will never hear me complain in a raid or not follow a stupid advice. Because I’ve chosen a leader by applying to his raid and I have enough respect for his work to not undermine his authority.

      In a random PUG you don’t have my respect just because the tool selected you as leader nor because you have the highest gear score.

      > Your assumption is that he simply wants to meddle

      Not really. Even if he just wants to help I don’t like being told what to do. The LFD only allows me to select “willing to lead”. Maybe there should be another option “must be leader”? ๐Ÿ™‚

      Your last 3 paragraphs made me sad… because it wasn’t like that before the LFD. And it was obvious that this will happen with the LFD…

      Oh… and I didn’t knew you have a mage… Being a warlock myself I love to use mages for bad examples. :-p

    6. Rem Post author

      Ah, now we’re talking the same language ๐Ÿ™‚

      Indeed, we’ve been joking that we should get an achievement for how many people we’ve seen get their “Dungeon Hero” achievement in OK, HoS, Gundrak etc.

      Re: raids boring: You know, that’s been one of the reasons I stepped down from tanking, the WoW raid tank seems to be more and more turning into a “survivability bag”, where you just stack your best stat and then stand there, with few interesting tasks to solve.

      Re: sad paragraphs: Well, it is sad. You commented on my next post how people perceive heroics as taking too much time for 70 VP. I’d like dungeons to take even more time and even more effort, and I’d like to do them for the experience (not to confuse with XP), not for points. Unfortunately, Skinnerboxes are much better at generating subscription revenue.

  2. Alq

    A very good post, with very good points. But this I DO want to say, I said it before over at my blog, and I’ll say it again! Not everyone can tank, not everyone can melee, not everyone can heal with ease. I play support roles because it’s what I love to do, it’s in my blood. I have tried tanking in WoW and I found it hard, because of my mindset, because of my muscle memory.

    It’s like playing a musical instrument. I can play the piano, and I wasn’t too bad at it when I was doing so. Music theory came easily to me. But give me say a guitar, or a violin, or worst case scenario, a harp (ohmygod HOW many strings?!) and suddenly I’m all fingers all over the place. This is partially because I’ve trained my mind and muscles to play something completely different. And stringed instruments scare me!

    Yes, I COULD overcome that, and learn to play the guitar, violin, harp, whatever, but it’ll take a lot of hard work plus overcoming my mindset, and I see tanking in much the same light!


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