A Look at Tanking in Legion and Battle for Azeroth – The Design Ideas, The Reality, and The Future

Legion has been a rather fascinating look into how a concept that sounds really great on paper can sometimes degrade in reality.

To start with, my tank experience in this game is relatively light. I only started maining a tank about 3 years ago now, during Hellfire Citadel, as Brewmaster Monk. I’d dabbled in tanking before that, primarily with Blood DK, but never would I have said that my main spec on any character was tank. My guild had a half-present second tank at the time, so I took my monk through the gearing process so I could heal on nights he was there, and tank for the nights he wasn’t. The design in the twilight of Warlords of Draenor was fairly interesting, but ultimately not that new – Active Mitigation abilities were the focus, with mitigation checks throughout most fights, and self-sustain largely being constrained to a select few tank specs.

Legion sought to change the tank model as it had been – that tank gameplay stripped of threat management, as had been the case for several expansions at that point, was basically taunting off your co-tank at the right time and hitting the button labeled AM at specified points in the fight. Sure, you could do some great defensive stuff otherwise, but largely, the measure of a competent tank was how well they performed these mundane, basic tasks. Legion was going to put your survival largely in your own hands, by enabling every tank to have some fashion of self-healing, and for AM gameplay to be shuffled into the background in favor of…well, the same basic template, but now the abilities aren’t labeled AM, but your survival cooldowns have more decisions to make. Basically, every tank got a model where multiple damage reductions were packaged into the spec toolkit with specific flavors. Blood DKs get more self-healing and chargeable damage reduction, plus the popular Empower Rune Weapon. Guardian Druids got lots of flat damage reductions alongside their core AM turning into a flat percentage armor increase – arguably, they had too many, as at launch of 7.0 they were also the only tank spec with a no-cooldown magic damage reducer. Warriors got Ignore Pain alongside their already good toolkit, Monks gained a revamp removing Guard and adding a new AM ability in Ironskin Brew, which increases Stagger percentage momentarily, along with changes to Purifying Brew, locking it to charges of ISB and also making it not purify all staggered damage in one use. Lastly, Paladins gained the ability to reduce magical damage through their base Shield of the Righteous and maintained many of their great defensive cooldowns.

So this model basically set out to build tank gameplay around a new pillar – self-sustain. Tanks could, if played to a moderate degree of mastery, become completely self-sufficient for their survival, requiring no outside healer intervention. This would not always translate to full health, but to a triaged level of survival. Some tanks skew hard on damage reduction rather than healing, like protection Warrior. Some balance on the side of massive self-healing over damage reduction, like Vengeance Demon Hunter and Blood DK. But basically, on most fights in Legion, as a tank you are a self-sustain machine.

This lined up with another large change for the game – as tank DPS grew with points into the artifact weapon, maximizing tank DPS has become the second pillar of Legion tanking gameplay. Often, this does actually create an interesting dilemma of choice for many tank players – can you maximize DPS while maintaining self-sustain. For some classes, this is a very easy choice, as much of the damage capability wrapped up in the spec also confers self-sustainability (Vengeance Demon Hunter). It is not uncommon these days to see a tank doing 1 million DPS themselves – I frequently do this, and trash pulls can see my DPS soar over 2 million. These are not the largest numbers in the game (nor should they be) but they are astronomical to contemplate when thinking of how little tank DPS once mattered. At this point, I can often make up the difference for a lagging DPS – I often match or exceed our Havoc Demon Hunter, which is more of a reflection on him than me, but that kind of performance can help a raid push through rough DPS checks.

The problem is that in practice, self-sustain has meant less and less as the expansion has gone on, and this has meant that tanks are effectively just DPS with twice the health, requiring half the healing. A mix of percentage reductions in damage taken, magic damage cooldowns alongside strong physical damage reductions, and baked in additional reductions through artifact traits, has meant that the core tenets of tanking – threat management, self-defense, and survival – have largely become irrelevant. There are fights in Antorus where this is barely toyed with, like Argus and the Felhounds of Sargeras on higher difficulties, but for the most part, playing a tank is just being DPS with taunt responsibility at this point. It has some depth, and maximizing damage output is fun in its own right, but it is not necessarily tanky.

Now, before continuing, I find it important to say that I do enjoy the modern tanking paradigm. It suits me well, and the ability to brag about my DPS, or my mix of horror and amusement when I beat under-performing DPS players, is something I find value in as a player. It is a thing that bestows a sense of achievement that I can feel – a degree of mastery earned that demonstrates my skill.

This model of gameplay, however, is not really tanking anymore. And so I am glad to see some substantial changes in Battle for Azeroth’s datamined class changes, which I must stress are likely totally preliminary and will be subject to iteration and improvement right up to, and after, release.

So let’s break these down!

-More Armor for More People: Current AM abilities tend to reduce physical damage (or all damage) by a flat percentage. Vengeance, for example, gets Demon Spikes, granting a baseline reduction to physical damage for its duration which is increased via Mastery, and also grants Parry chance. Abilities like this are changing to instead increase armor in a scaling value based on the spec’s base damage stat (Agility or Strength). What this means is that these abilities will scale up to a greater degree based on your gear – any piece that increases Agility or Strength innately also improves your survivability. This comes alongside the additional Armor increase that comes with just getting such a piece, which will also increase your Armor value. My gut instinct, without much in the way of math, is that this will improve damage reduction overall, and will make this more equitable between tanks, since item level has a fixed scaling component for Armor and base stats. There will be outliers -Protection Paladins still wear plate, of course, which means their base Armor will be notably higher, and Vengeance Demon Hunters gain a further improvement to the empowerment granted by Demon Spikes through Mastery, but it overall feels like for classes with damage reduction pegged to these values, they should run about even with one-another. For those that don’t get this change, it is largely because their mitigation is not overly powerful already – at least in terms of balance. Stagger and Ironskin Brew interaction remains the same for Monks, in fact is buffed, as brew recharge time is now set to 16 seconds and is decreased the same by Keg Smash and Tiger Palm.

Overall? I think this change is unlikely to have a huge effect. It feels like a more intelligent way to balance these abilities across the board, by fixing them to a known, predictable statistical value which will allow Blizzard, in theory, to ensure that they are balanced for the entirety of the expansion, instead of, say, Demon Hunters being able to reduce their physical damage taken by 50% at the end of the expansion, on top of armor.

-Healing Snapshots, But Not The Photogenic Kind: Some tank healing abilities are being swapped away from current models and moved towards the old-school Vengeance(not DH) model. For Demon Hunter soul fragments and Paladin’s Light of the Protector, the healing done is now based on the amount of damage taken in the 5 seconds before the heal. Oddly enough, while Blood DK’s currently have this and will still have this on Death Strike, Guardian Druids who currently have this model on Frenzied Rejuvenation are losing it in favor of a percentage of maximum health value. There will still be 3 models for tank abilities to calculate healing – rolling snapshots as mentioned, fixed to a percentage of maximum health (Guardian Druid and Protection Warrior) or attack power based (Soul Cleave base healing for DH, Gift of the Ox for Brewmaster). Overall, I think this will lead to more interesting gameplay for the two classes shifting to rolling snapshot models. Hitting Light of the Protector as a prot Paladin is sometimes a no-brainer, since it has no resource cost and is off GCD. Likewise, soul fragments for Demon Hunters will become an interesting puzzle which will add gameplay complexity – making it so managing the number of them is no longer the key element to mastering them. This will incentivize smart gameplay, encouraging you to Soul Cleave for healing when you have taken large amounts of damage, while also ensuring there will be scenarios during which you still must continue to use that ability to heal smaller damage hits. This also should reduce the frantic ping-pong in a world without Charred Warblades, since it will mean you can no longer simply wait to drop dangerously low before smashing in one Soul Cleave and healing to full.

-Threat Might Matter Again for DPS and Heals…Maybe?: This one isn’t based on a direct view of threat values, but rather, the fact that Enchanting has a new recipe to enchant weapons with a threat reduction value. This is an interesting idea, but if self-sustain is being nerfed, is a return to threat-management beyond simple taunts going to fill that void? Admittedly, I only very seldom tanked on an alt during the times that threat mattered, so I think this could be cool, but I do recall as a healer having sometimes out-threated a tank in the very early parts of a fight, which was highly annoying. If threat returns as a factor in tank gameplay, and is well-balanced, I think it could be cool.

Overall, this is a lot of wait and see. The alpha has not started yet, as far as we can tell, and so while this datamined information details a rough shape of the changes to come, we obviously cannot jump to any well-reasoned conclusions as of yet.

But having said that, I do like the changes I see, as they promise to add a strategic layer to tank gameplay without heavily changing the fundamental role of the tank from today. I suspect that means that we will continue to want to maximize DPS, although that decision will seemingly carry more weight given that it appears we may need to focus on survivability slightly more alongside threat as well. But, if threat scales well on our offensive abilities, I could see this addressing the concern of older threat models – if a tank is just as wanting to run a heavy, bursty DPS rotation up front, then with high threat modifiers, they will easily take the crown.

So bring on Alpha already Blizz!


2 thoughts on “A Look at Tanking in Legion and Battle for Azeroth – The Design Ideas, The Reality, and The Future

  1. Your posts are gonna keep me busy this weekend, when I have more time to read things with a lot more detail xD

    Great post, once again. I really like how you make such detailed observations, even sharing your personal views, without sounding too biased. Plus you make comments with proof, avoiding speculating too much about things unknown.

    A lot of the so called mvp commenters on the shark infested waters that are the bnet forums could learn a lot from you 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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