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.