I thought a lot about trying to write a really basic guide to Demon Hunter tanking, but I thought I’d be retreading a lot of ground – Sunnier has excellent ones for Vengeance on her site – so rather than that, I thought I’d get into the nuts and bolts by analyzing some of the core abilities that Demon Hunters bring to the table and how to really use them well.
First up, then, in this ongoing series, is our core active mitigation ability – Demon Spikes.
For those of you new to tanking in general, let alone Vengeance, let’s start with what Active Mitigation is.
Starting around Mists of Pandaria, and arguably during a lot of Cataclysm as well, tanking has been built around what Blizzard calls Active Mitigation gameplay. Basically, what differentiates a tank from a DPS or healer is that we have a rotation, but that rotation is fluid as we often have to deviate away from our normal damage buttons to press a damage reduction ability. Some classes (Guardian Druid) do this rotationally anyways, as they have Active Mitigation mechanics that are up nearly 100% of the time. Active Mitigation is shorthand for nearly any ability that reduces incoming damage by a moderate amount, and is frequently available due to a short cooldown, charge mechanic, or resource cost that can reliably be reached.
When the Active Mitigation model first took hold in MoP, dungeon and raid bosses were all given “AM Checks” – effectively, a boss would cast a big, tank-busting ability, and you’d have to have your AM ability up to prevent it from killing you dead.
In Legion, this has somewhat taken a backseat – while in MoP and WoD these abilities were coded as Active Mitigation, to the point it showed on your tooltip, now, they are not. They still count as such, and there are still abilities that bosses will use (mainly in 5 player dungeons) that check for AM being active to avoid the brunt of the attack.
Demon Spikes is our core AM ability. When activated, it grants us 20% parry and a physical damage reduction for 6 seconds. The physical damage reduction is based on Mastery, so it starts out at 10% and increases based on your Mastery from gear. (As an example, my total Mastery right now is around 22%, meaning my Demon Spikes reduces my physical damage taken by 22%.) This bonus is on top of armor damage reduction, meaning while active, it is very potent (case in point – our base mastery was much higher at Legion launch. With a Mastery-heavy gearing, you could approach 50% physical damage reduction just from Demon Spikes, making it too powerful, and resulting in nerfs both to the baseline mastery value and the mastery rating per percentage point scaling.) It has a 15 second recharge time, and has two charges.
Given that it has two charges, the baseline recommendation for using Demon Spikes is to keep one charge on cooldown, using it constantly to reduce your damage taken throughout an encounter. You generally want to save one charge for any mitigation checks or large physical damage abilities from the boss you are fighting. This helps your healers significantly, reduces your reliance on low-pain Soul Cleaves, and ensures that the ping-pong of health is less drastic than it can be. If you hit Demon Spikes while you already have the buff active, it simply adds to the duration. You cannot stack it to gain higher parry and physical damage reduction. Generally, when starting out, you want to learn how to not double-stack the ability, as it will hamper the benefit gained from an artifact trait later on (see below). You will learn over time what bosses have mitigation checks you’ll need to wait for, and what bosses you can use both charges on cooldown. Generally, for trash, you can keep both charges on cooldown – if you’re doing Mythic Keystone dungeons, while doing this, you’ll need to be mindful of the time before your next boss so that you can ensure you’ll have a charge available by then.
Some fights, you may be able to roll it consistently to reduce damage (Smashspite the Hateful in Black Rook Hold is actually designed for you to do this, keeping the ability on cooldown consistently in order to stop his big ability from coming out at all.)
With talents and artifact traits, you can empower this ability further.
Razor Spikes – this talent makes DS a DPS cooldown of sorts, giving you 30% increased physical damage dealt while DS is active. It also adds a 50% snare to targets you hit while it is active, however, this only works with some trash mobs, and so is of limited value – great for Mythic Keystone dungeons, though!
Feed The Demon – this talent makes DS more available, by reducing its cooldown by 1 second for each soul fragment you consume. Seeing how you’ll passively be consuming a pretty decent number through Soul Cleave healing, this is quite potent. Its value does decrease somewhat with the Tier 19 4-piece set bonus, which we’ll discuss in a moment!
Demonic Infusion – this new talent, added in 7.1.5, gives you the ability to keep Demon Spikes up a lot more easily. With this 110 tier talent, you can, once every two minutes, immediately activate DS, refill both charges of DS, and gain 60 pain. This is potent for new Demon Hunter tanks, as it makes passing mitigation checks far easier, and allows you to have Demon Spikes up far more often for baseline damage reduction. It’s hard to say where this falls relative to same-tier talent Last Resort for learning Demon Hunter tanking, but I will save that analysis for another post.
Defensive Spikes – to round out our list, this artifact trait grants you an additional 10% parry when activating Demon Spikes, but only for the first 3 seconds. This adds a lot of flat avoidance to the ability, making it even more valuable. It is worth noting that due to its activation mechanism, this trait only works if you allow DS to fall off before activating it again – if you recast Demon Spikes while it is still active, you do NOT get a new Defensive Spikes buff. Thus, once you gain this trait (it is relatively late into the recommended trait progression), you want to ensure you are not overwriting your Demon Spikes.
Lastly, our Tier 19 set offers a compelling 4-piece bonus that increases our uptime on Demon Spikes. This bonus gives you up to 3 seconds off the recharge time for Demon Spikes, based on the pain spent on Soul Cleave. Since you typically want to spend the full 60 pain on Soul Cleave as-is, this represents a massive increase in available charges over the course of a raid fight.
In theory, the talents and bonuses can change your use of Demon Spikes significantly. With Feed the Demon and the Tier 19 4-set bonus, you can reduce the recharge time on a charge of Demon Spikes to 7 seconds (assuming you can cast one full 60 pain, 5 fragment Soul Cleave per charge). Coupled with haste offering a cooldown reduction, it is possible to go over 90% uptime of Demon Spikes if you focus on it. Is it worth it? Maybe. I wouldn’t recommend such a talent build to everyone, but, for example, in Mythic Keystone dungeons, it would increase your survivability (and DPS if you take Razor Spikes) substantially to do so – particularly during a Fortified week. Likewise, such a build with Demonic Infusion could in theory get very close to 100% uptime of Demon Spikes, drastically reducing damage taken, and also ensuring enough Pain to cast a full-effectiveness Soul Cleave once every two minutes.
At a baseline, assuming no haste, no bonuses, and full charge usage, Demon Spikes uptime starts at around 40% – which means that for the other 60% of the time, you’ll need to be prepared to utilize the remainder of the Demon Hunter toolkit to survive and ensure smooth damage intake. In reality, you’ll probably have less uptime to start due to saving charges, low haste and the like. It’ll serve you well to focus on maximizing uptime of Demon Spikes, but also to understand when you want to use it, and most importantly, when it won’t be necessary.
But, I mean, it is the coolest AM ability in the game. No one else gets spikes out of their back.