The Journey to Level 80 Gunbreaker, and Lessons Learned on Tanking in Final Fantasy XIV

Now that my Gunbreaker in Final Fantasy XIV has hit 77 and is closing in on the current level cap of the game, it is time to revisit the topic of tanking in FFXIV and compare it to World of Warcraft, which is going to be something of a recurring theme going forward.

WoW tanking is largely the most predictable role in the game. You have a fixed set of mechanics you interact with, usually the lowest number of them in a given encounter, and your primary role becomes managing damage spikes and smoothing your overall damage intake to be a manageable amount of damage for healers to cover over with healing. This is also a fundamental difference in WoW’s healer gameplay compared to FFXIV, which is a topic for another time. Where WoW tanking tends to become chaotic is in the rapid adjustments one might need to make – re-positioning for mechanics so that your melee DPS can maintain an un-dodgeable back attack, remaining in range and in line-of-sight to your healers, and dealing with adds in a smart way to reduce incoming damage while also minimizing disruptions to the DPS flow of your group.

FFXIV tanking has the silhouette of these things, but the ways in which they manifest is quite different.

First, managing pulls. Threat (called Enmity in FFXIV) was once more similar to old WoW than current WoW, although changes in Shadowbringers have made FFXIV tanking much closer to its genre brother. The early part of any pull is ensuring a strong initial snap of enmity to start a lead, and then using your main combo to sprint ahead while you still have that lead so your DPS, whose combos are also ramping up in damage, can’t catch up to you. It actually is fairly easy to do in Shadowbringers – the largest factor here is ensuring you are in your tank stance, a buff that in Shadowbringers does nothing more than increase the enmity all of your actions generate. Your core pulling abilities, which every tank job has in some form, include a ranged attack with an enmity modifier to further increase your enmity lead on a given target, and a gap closer that also has a low to moderate potency attack tied to it.

Using both of these while in tank stance makes a pull downright simple. For me as a Gunbreaker, that means making sure Royal Guard is on, then hitting Lightning Shot and following it immediately with Rough Divide, closing distance and giving me a few extra seconds to position the boss for any melee to begin ramping their combos.

Second, positional play. It is vastly more important in FFXIV that a tank be strong with positioning, with measured movement and steady pulling tactics. Melee DPS combos require a mix of rear positioning with an occasional flank, meaning that any jittering you do with your positioning negatively impacts the group’s DPS – if you have melee, that is. For ranged and casters, it is largely irrelevant, but FFXIV makes up for this by making nearly every boss have some sort of frontal cone or cleave attack, meaning the boss cannot face a non-tank player as a minimum requirement. This is made tricky on many bosses by the fact that large room-filling AoEs are a major factor in fights, meaning that you cannot simply anchor yourself unmoving to a single spot, but must instead find a graceful way to thread the needle, avoiding unnecessary damage while also keeping the boss’ facing in mind.

Third, mitigation. Avoiding damage is a constant on most pulls in WoW, with all tanks having very short, usually charge-based mitigation mechanics used on all encounters to reduce the majority of incoming damage. As a Demon Hunter, I constantly weave Demon Spikes into my DPS rotation in order to ensure I live through rough pulls, and to spare the healers any menace from the aggressive ping-ponging of my health bar. In FFXIV, however, mitigation is both less and more important. Tanks have a wide array of different cooldowns, all of which are fairly consistent across the board. As a Gunbreaker, I have a parry buff with a small damage reduction, a large damage reduction, an AoE magic damage reduction, a HoT, a damage reduction that I can opt to also cast on another party member, and a temporary invulnerability. On top of that, I have a larger damage reduction that is a Role Action in Rampart, which all tanks have access to.

The catch with this toolkit is that despite all of these tools, they all have fairly long cooldowns for someone coming from WoW. My Demon Spikes on my WoW Demon Hunter recharges in around 20 seconds and holds two charges, granting me a strong, steady baseline of damage mitigation. I can constantly roll one charge to reduce common forms of damage intake (as long as they are physical!) and then save a charge for a big attack that requires me to prepare. In FFXIV, because most tank cooldowns for mitigation are on 2-3 minute cooldown timers, their usage is drastically different.

In dungeon play, most cooldowns are commonly used on trash, in order to enable wall-to-wall trash pulls (rounding up all the trash available before a boss, pulling it to the bosses’ room boundary, and then murdering it on the spot prior to the boss. There are a few reasons for this. The biggest is that FFXIV boss design tends to not use much steady damage on the tank, or really a lot of damage in general. Most dungeon bosses in FFXIV cycle a pattern on about a 30-45 second window – there is usually 1-3 AoE bursts of damage in that window, and somewhere near the middle is the dreaded “tankbuster.”

Tankbusters are, generally, just big, heavy-hitting attacks, usually one-offs without lingering effects like DoTs or anything. Right now, for example, my GNB was running the dungeon Holminster Switch last night. The first boss has a cycle where it casts The Path of Light around twice in a 45 second window, and between casts, it will hit the tank with Pillory, which, unmitigated, hits for around 35,000 damage (out of a health pool of 82,000) and with better mitigation, can hit for as little as 14,000. The point of a tankbuster is that it largely serves as healer fodder – the tank doesn’t suffer any large penalty for failing to mitigate the ability, so long as their current health total at the time of casting is sufficient to absorb the blow and the next 1-2 auto-attacks from the boss without folding. Healers have off-global cooldown abilities they can quickly cast here to restore enough health to secure the tank, and the fight marches on.

The challenging thing to shift from WoW mindset to FFXIV mindset is to remember that things happen slower in FFXIV. The global cooldown is 2.5 seconds baseline, auto-attacks are molasses-slow compared to the twitchy combat of WoW, and no other force exists in most fights that is going to chunk down your health after a tankbuster. Generally, you have about 10 seconds to recover from one before it can even be a threat!

Trash, however, is another matter altogether. Even when not wall-to-wall pulling, trash in FFXIV hits harder than what a WoW tank might be used to, and requires more active management. A strong tank in FFXIV will generally cycle their cooldowns through a wall-to-wall pull, with only small bits of overlap if additional mitigation is strongly needed to account for low healer MP or a lack of oGCDs on the healer’s part. The good news is that you don’t really need to be intimately familiar with the healer kits in game to account for these – you’ll feel them fairly strongly and they’ll express via your health bar. For trash, you’ll learn to get comfortable sitting at uncomfortable health totals – commonly, most healers are only going to act with oGCDs and their stronger tools once you hit around 25%, and the thing is, if you are properly chaining your mitigation and managing your DPS rotation through your available combos, that offers enough time for a healer to nearly top you off. White Mages, for example, have a strong oGCD instant heal, the oGCD Benediction, which is an immediate, instant top off, Afflatus: Solace which is an instant oGCD that restores a moderate amount of health, Assize which restores a moderate amount of health to all players in-range while also dealing damage to enemies in the radius and restoring MP to the WHM, and Divine Benison, a smallish absorb shield that can be used to smooth out a pull. Astrologians have Essential Dignity, a strong oGCD instant heal that gains potency as its target is reduced in HP percentage, and Scholars have Lustrate and faerie abilities that can help.

Once you get used to this, it becomes a bit more fun. WoW tanks do rely on their healers, yes, but the shape of that interaction is much more full in FFXIV, and you need a healer you can trust. The first pulls of a roulette are often a feeling-out process, finding the limits of the healer, not wanting to push them too hard but needing to understand how capable they are of keeping you afloat once your mitigations are on cooldown and worn off. It means you might need to, gasp, talk to your healer – or develop a good relationship with a healer friend to pocket heal for you.

After gaining a relative mastery of these concepts, you get to dig in to the meat of the gameplay, which is damage combos. Like with healers in FFXIV, a responsibility tanks also have is to contribute as much DPS as possible to keep a group on-target with their kills. GNB is probably the most fun in this aspect, as they have a main 3-hit combo made to acquire Cartridges, a resource used for a few other abilities. Early on, Cartridges just go into a single ability, a single-target hit that offers higher potency than the rest of the abilities that came before, and has a cool explosion sound effect. As you come up through the higher levels, you gain a Cartridge combo, where the initial ability spends the Cartridge and opens up a new combo full of abilities, which then is further expanded at level 70 through the ability Continuation, which gives your Cartridge combo filler abilities that do not share a cooldown with the core combo, allowing you to hit a main combo ability, hit the Continuation for that ability immediately, and then as the GCD finishes from the first main combo ability, hit the second combo ability and then its Continuation, and repeat this for what ends up being a 6-hit combo in the span of 3 GCDs. It is immensely satisfying finding ways to properly weave this combo and one the high marks I’ve been able to hold myself to successfully is fully rotating the combo while weaving defensive abilities and moving out of avoidable damage while maintaining proper boss facing and positioning for melee.

The damage combos are augmented with two separate DoT effects, one single target, one AoE, a strong single-target hit in Danger Zone, a two-button AoE rotation that also grants a Cartridge and has a Cartridge-spender later on that hits pretty hard, and the buff No Mercy, which increases all damage done by the Gunbreaker by 20%. My favorite thing to do is to pool two Cartridges, have the combo executed to gain a third (you cap at two), hit No Mercy, execute a full Cartridge combo with the 20% buff, hit the single-target Cartridge spender, gain another cartridge for completing my base combo, hitting that ability again, then applying both DoTs before No Mercy wears off.

After all of this learning, I’ve hit the groove I’m currently at with tanking in WoW, minus the familiarity – I’m having fun with the job, fun with the role, and overall, I’m really enjoying playing Gunbreaker and glad that I decided to give it a shot between leveling Red Mage and especially happy since it means I’ll be able to finish all the role quests sooner, rather than later, which means I’ll be able to do the special final role quest that adds a ton of lore to the Warriors of Darkness plot from Heavensward and better explains a lot of what has happened to this point!

Mostly though, just as when I really tackled tanking during Warlords of Draenor in WoW and that helped me better understand healing, having tanked now in FFXIV gives me a deeper appreciation for the role in FFXIV and a better understanding of how to help a tank play better through my actions in the other roles.

Plus, I get to smack things with a sword and make the sword explode, and I mean, who doesn’t want to do that?

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