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World of Warcraft: Adventures in Tanking Azeroth


I’ve been leveling a tank the past two weeks in World of Warcraft. I’m leveling a Death Knight in the Blood specialization. I first made the character back in 2008 and completed the starting area that same day; Death Knights start at level 55 and leave the starting area at level 58—59, if you’re not rushing through it. Once I got to Hellfire Peninsula, I found I didn’t really care for playing a Death Knight.

After I read people were discontent with the classic Blackrock Depths dungeon, I decided to pull my Death Knight out of retirement and run a group through the Dark Iron capital. Much had changed since I first lead groups through flawlessly on my Paladin. The talents had received their Cataclysm overhaul—Frost, which was the spec I had originally intended for my Death Knight to tank in, is now purely a DPS spec—and the dungeon itself had been streamlined to expedite the new generation of leveling players. And now, with the latest patch, things have changed all over again.


The first thing I noticed is that tanking is easy, ridiculously easy: Run in, spam Heart Strike and Death Strike, hit Blood Boil for AOE. This is very shocking to me because for most of Wrath of the Lich King, nobody knew how to play a Death Knight. Most new Death Knights (which you would start seeing when you made it to Burning Crusade dungeons) were absolutely horrible at what they do. Granted, there has been a huge change in tank threat mechanics between when I created my Death Knight and when I started tanking, so this isn’t the most objective of assessments. However, I’ve leveled several characters through Burning Crusade content since those changes were made, and the facts haven’t changed: new Death Knights, for the most part, are horrible at what they do. That’s what made picking up my own Death Knight so shocking, because I had no experience with what I was doing, but still managed to outperform 90% of my peers. My first group in Hellfire Peninsula complimented my ability, saying how rare it is to see a Death Knight know what they’re doing at such an early level!

Tanking The Burning Crusade

Another thing I noticed is that tanking is easy. I’m not really rehashing the same point. When I leveled my Paladin, Burning Crusade dungeons were very unforgiving. There were several dungeons where if you botched the first pulls, you’d wipe the group; every dungeon had several areas where, if you were reckless, you’d wipe the group; in Auchindoun’s Auchenai Crypts, if you didn’t kill the Phantasmal Possessor, then it would take control of a party member and you were very likely to wipe the group; tanks had to use line of sight, establish kill orders, and call for crowd control just to lead a group safely. The densely-packed dungeons required a good tank, and so being able to lead a group through was a sign of being a good tank.

For Cataclysm-era tanks, Burning Crusade dungeons are a joke. You can still wipe from all of the old standbys, but you have to actively try to wipe the group. If you find yourself with an amazing healer, then you could do those previously suicidal, wipe-causing pulls and just clean house. The worst scenario a tank has to deal with is one of the damage dealers accidentally pulling more than the tank and/or healer can handle. For tanks, the challenge has shifted from leading the group through a merciless dungeon to navigating the dungeon while outmaneuvering the rest of the group. Wandering patrols are a thing of the distant past, having been replaced with trigger-happy damage dealers.

Damage dealing is easier than ever. Before the 5.0.4 patch, everyone was doing an appreciable amount of damage. After the patch, it seems like everyone is able to blow mobs up like never before. This bothers me greatly because damage dealers don’t seem to be able to grasp the concept of tanking. When you’re leveling a tank, you don’t have access to all of your cooldowns; you won’t have your survival abilities or your threat generators. When the damage dealers open up before you’ve had a chance to do much of anything with what little you have, it’s really frustrating because they blame you for being a bad tank if anything goes wrong. You can’t avert a wipe by popping three different survival cooldowns because you don’t have any. You can’t pick up mobs like it’s no big deal because your one threat-grabbing ability has a 30-second cooldown. As a Blood Death Knight, all of this means there will be loose adds and the only thing you can do is let the healer pick up the slack and take care of the reckless damage dealers.

It’s not like healing is difficult, though. Before the patch, I never had any healers run out of mana in an instance. They have all been able to keep everyone up. I rarely saw my own health dip below 90% for more than a second. Despite this, I never ran through a dungeon recklessly and pulled more than I thought my healers could manage; again, I had to take into account how if I pulled too much or pulled without consideration of positioning, that we might end up with a mess that either myself or the healers wouldn’t be able to deal with. After the patch, not much has changed except healers use less mana and can even spend some time dealing damage themselves.

I think part of the problem with damage dealers being careless has to do with healers being bored. A bored healer will enable bad damage dealing behaviors, as the healer will heal those who pull. Only once did I have a healer who didn’t care; if a damage dealer pulled, she made it very clear she wasn’t going to heal them. It was an amazing night, because it meant tank and healer were on the same page. Not only that, but she was totally cool with me making big pulls; our damage dealers were aware if they pulled, they would die. We had a mutual understanding. (What also made these crazy pulls possible was the Burning Crusade content is still, despite a minor overhaul, more densely populated than any other content; moving from pull to pull was effortless because each pull would be less than five seconds apart.)

Tanking Wrath of the Lich King hasn’t changed

After the patch, I had moved into Wrath of the Lich King content. Like Burning Crusade, I remembered the pulls and all of my tricks for getting through each one quickly. However, where I could pull extra groups for convenience in Auchindoun dungeons, this wasn’t really an option in Wrath of the Lich King. The group mentality had changed. In Burning Crusade dungeons, damage dealers would wait for chain pulls, while in Wrath of the Lich King dungeons, they were far too eager to open up as soon as they could. This meant that I had to pull groups one a time. It was very rare to find packs of trash mobs close enough together to pull them all together. Wrath of the Lich King managed to offer less challenge, be it by design or player-driven, than Burning Crusade did.

There’s an artificial cap on dungeon accessibility. As you’re leveling, you unlock new dungeons as you gain new levels and old ones become inaccessible. When you reach the end ranges of 58-60, 68-70, and 78-80, your options become severely limited: classic gets Sunken Temple and Blackrock Depths – Upper City; Burning Crusade gets Sethekk Halls and Escape from Durnholde; Wrath of the Lich King gets The Culling of Stratholme. This results in many players just dropping from the instance as soon as they zone in because they’ve run it too many times and are sick of it. Additional dungeons can be queued for specifically, but the rewards for completing a random dungeon—experience and gold—are lost. This doesn’t have to be the case. Classic players could benefit greatly from having Lower Blackrock Spire and Upper Blackrock Spire added to the rotation; Burning Crusade players lose out on Botanica, Mechanar, Arcatraz, Shadow Labyrinth, Steamvaults, Shattered Halls, and Magisters’ Terrace; Wrath of the Lich King players are missing out on Utgarde Pinnacle, Halls of Lightning, Trial of the Champion, and Forge of Souls. This is baffling because these dungeons are more difficult than the others offered randomly, and the rewards are often better than what is normally provided.

I’ve also noticed that Trial of the Champion and Forge of Souls both have additional requirements; you need a minimum average item level of 180 for both, and Forge of Souls also requires players be level 80. Going into Cataclysm content these restrictions become the norm, as players must level up and acquire new equipment to increase their item level; to get into Blackrock Caverns or Throne of Tides, players need to be level 80 and have an average item level of 226. For reference, Forge of Souls (as well as Pit of Saron and Halls of Reflection) and the 10-man Ulduar raid all drop equipment at that item level, but these instances (and thus the drops within) are not easily accessible to leveling players. This has the perverse effect that dungeoneering players must either quest in Cataclysm zones or acquire Cataclysm-level equipment from the auction house.

Moving into Cataclysm

Currently I’m in Cataclysm content, and in tanking those instances for the first time I’ve discovered something confounding. There is a remarkable jump in difficulty from Wrath of the Lich King to Cataclysm for tanks. Positioning and movement become mandatory, when they were optional in previous expansions. This is an obvious fact to any long-time players of Cataclysm, as I am; even though I know all of the mechanics from my time healing and dealing damage, I’m still having a hard time adjusting to the mechanics as a tank. Turning a boss away from the group without causing the boss to move is hard. Getting the boss to move into or out of something (such as Karsh Steelbender in Blackrock Caverns) is really difficult if you’re not used to dealing with that.

The problem isn’t me being a bad tank (I’m not), but rather that for the last twenty levels I have grown accustomed to doing whatever I pleased. Instead of executing the strategy, I was tanking mobs and bosses on my own terms: where we fight, what I do, and how the boss is approached are all things which are firmly in the designers’ hands now. This change, this increase in complexity, is sudden and jarring. Tanks are not trained for any of these things while they are leveling. I suspect this is why there are so few tanks at level 85, actually.1 It’s discouraging to go from being a total badass who sets the terms to being bent over a barrel by trash mobs and wiping because you were never taught how to deal with movement.

We can read outdated theorycraft that is tailored to max level players all we want, but this is a very poor substitute for actual experience. Before I hit level 80 on my Death Knight, I didn’t have mastery so everything theorycrafters had to say—about timing Death Strike and Blood Shield procs and other abilities or talents I didn’t have—was completely lost on me. We need challenge built into the leveling experience. Tanks, healers, and damage dealers could do with a bit of challenge every now and then so that they may learn the intricacies of their respective classes; otherwise, what is the point of leveling? Blizzard might as well allow paid class changes if our skills are not going to be tested.

  1. I have no empirical evidence to support a lack of tanks. My main is a healer, so my dungeon queues are pretty much instant regardless of how many tanks there are.

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