The Emergence of the Sturdy Damage Dealer

This is the first of a two-part post on the emergence of damage dealing-focused tank. This one covers the elements of the game that contributed to this attitude, and the next will cover how small raid sizes contributed to the changing paradigm and how 20 man Mythic Mode may help bring back the defensive tank. It’s something that I’ve been working on for more than a year, growing as the expansion aged and as knowledge of the next expansion increased.

Over the course of Mists of Pandaria, the role of the tank has evolved from the traditional, passive damage soaker. Active Mitigation has put our survival into our own hands, instead of relying entirely on our gear and healers. Vengeance has been nearly limitless and brought us to new damage-dealing heights. Traditional damage stats have emerged as an acceptable way to gear, thanks to more tanking classes who gain defensive benefits from them.

All of this has contributed to the emerging transformation of our role. Tanks, especially in small raid sizes, are no longer prized for surviving hard-hitting bosses or relieving their healers. Because survival can be easily achieved, a skilled tank is prized for their damage output. The role of tanks has steadily changed from “person who survives really well” to “person who can survive while also dealing damage”.

Tanks caring about and contributing to raid dps is not a bad thing. That our defenses are rarely challenged by bosses is a bad thing. That our dps depends on a nearly-invisible, highly-variable number is a bad thing. That a tanking class can often deal more damage than a damage dealer is a bad thing.

DPS has been an important aspect of tanking for years without becoming the most important aspect. It has slowly grown from an action of a few log chasers and min-maxers into something of a requirement. Instead of focusing on “survival first, dps second”, the goals were swapped. Or if they haven’t swapped, they’ve become nearly equal in importance.

The belief is that most people want to deal big damage, and so I was convinced the conservative, unkillable tank was a thing of the past. Like threat, a relic of ancient game design that had no place in an expanding and inclusive MMO market. Fortunately, we have some hints that the next expansion, Warlords of Draenor, will alleviate these side effects.

Vengeance Variance

Vengeance has been with us since Cataclysm. Originally, its goal was to provide tanks with a way to gain dps and threat with their defensive tanking gear. That gradually evolved into modern vengeance, which aims to provide a scaling mechanic to increase tank dps and scaling for defenses. This way, our shields, heals, and damage could scale with content: the harder the content, the stronger our defenses, and the more we could contribute to raid dps. Of course, since Vengeance has been with us for so long, why has it only recently led to the sturdy damage dealer? It’s because the cap to Vengeance was (for the most part) removed. Our damage as tanks became limited only by our ability take it.

Vengeance Creates a Wide Variance

It’s easy to see the logic behind removing the vengeance cap. Beyond giving an avenue for active mitigation to scale with whatever content you’re doing, it allowed tanks to contribute less miserable dps in both raid sizes. In fact, far from miserable dps, it was clearly competitive dps. Even in Cataclysm, tanks in 10 mans were responsible for a significant portion of dps. It was about time this was expanded so that even 25 man tanks could contribute.

Some unintended side effects arose, such as tanks soaking damage intended to be avoided, just for the damage boost, or quick taunt swaps for maximum vengeance uptime. Blizzard decided that some of those tricks could stay, and some had to be prevented. Vengeance gaming created a significant delta between competent damage-dealer tanks and fantastic damage-dealer tanks. A competent tank would be able to compete with some damage dealers just by executing mechanics in the most obvious way, while someone who maximized vengeance by soaking big hits and taunt swapping at opportune times would deal significantly more. It opened a Pandora’s Box of new tanking goals: maximizing dps. Once that box is opened, it’s never going to close.

Once Vengeance is untied from attack power in Warlords (and renamed to Resolve, the difference in dps between a competent tank and an exceptional tank will not be so many magnitudes apart. Our DPS should not depend on boss uptime or damage taken, or monitoring a number through addons, and will only depend on whether we manage our rotation, cooldowns, and the encounter correctly.

Lopsided DPS vs. Survival Tradeoffs

In order for dps and survival to encourage interesting decisions, they must present the proper tradeoffs. If one choice gives a big dps increase for only a small survival decrease, then the tradeoff becomes obvious and is no longer interesting. For example, when the legendary meta gems were first introduced, the tanking gem was relatively weak, with low uptime and a limited effect, while the dps gem was incredibly strong for tanks that favored dps stats, often increasing certain tanks’ damage by more than 10%. Tanks only had to sacrifice the loss of a weak proc for the gain of significant dps. Blizzard eventually amended this by improving the tank gem and harshly nerfing the dps gem, and that was enough to change the community’s mind. The problem right now is that far too many tradeoffs fall into the earlier pattern, where you gain quite a bit of damage for little to no sacrifice to survival.

DPS Stats vs. Purely Defensive Stats

Druids have used traditional dps stats for tanking since WotLK, but with the addition of monks and active mitigation that scaled with offensive stats, it became less of a quirk of a single class and more of an expectation for all tanks that could make use of offensive gear. It’s difficult to argue against the “fun value” of these dual-purpose stats, and I don’t want to do that. However, the obvious consequence is that tanks can easily gear for dps while moderately increasing their tankiness.

DPS stats for tanks are more likely to be engaging, and it’s fun to gain the double benefit of tankability and dps. This is why Blizzard is making the transition so that all tanks will be able to enjoy this model in Warlords. Plus, it’s boring when you out-gear content and are never in danger. Why not give us tanks some goal beyond survival in those situations? And to take it further, why not reward skilled tanking with extra damage? It makes people feel good when they get rewards for skill like that.

The balance of dps stats (like crit) and fully defensive stats (like mastery) lies in the relative power and defensive nature of each stat. For all tanks, mastery provides a purely defensive, smoothing mechanic. That is, mastery makes you easier to heal and survive burst, but with no dps benefit. It is designed to be reliable. In contrast, for the tanks that have access to them, dps stats are designed to provide unreliable mitigation — avoidance and resource generation.

However, the downside is that it enables and encourages a dps build, especially if you consider yourself an experienced player. In 10 mans, most encounters can be survived simply by intelligent usage of active mitigation, which means that tanks have the opportunity to prioritize their dps stats. Because they can be survived in a dps build, that becomes the new norm. A crit build Brewmaster has become the expectation in a ten man raid, and it’s relatively easy to accomplish this.

The consequence of rewarding good play with dps is that as the community opinion sways, instead of feeling rewarded for good play, you feel that you’re admitting to being a bad player when you gear defensively. Once pushing for damage becomes the norm, conservative play becomes the suboptimal choice.

The solution to this is two-fold, and both are coming in Warlords. First, as I mentioned before, all tanks will have defensive uses for crit, haste, and the new offensive stat multistrike. Second, all defensive stats will offer a dps increase — mastery and armor will both increase attack power.

Taking More Damage to Deal More Damage

Having scalable defenses was great, since it made tanks be similarly powerful no matter the raid size and difficulty. Increased contribute to raid dps was nice, too, but as Blizzard soon found out, encouraged strange, and ultimately un-tanky, behavior.

At some point, more risk leading to more reward is an interesting decision. However, the risk in most of these cases was low and the reward was high. Before they fixed it, AoE tanking or soaking a predictable damage event could easily be alleviated with the defensive vengeance provided and, if needed, defensive cooldowns, while doing these things provided a huge boost in dps.

The major offenders have disappeared, but the underlying conflicting idea of a tank contributing more to the raid when they take more damage is still there. With the offensive component of Vengeance gone in Warlords, that specific trade off will no longer tempt us.

In part two, I’ll talk about how tank damage intake in small raid sizes contributed to a sturdy damage dealer attitude, and why a large raid size may provide the tools necessary to challenge even a defensive tank.