This week, Blizzard was forced to admit that tanking in Shadowlands was broken.
Okay, that is somewhat hyperbolic, but a genuine bug had led to a metagame that was untenable – full Vengeance Demon Hunter tanks all over Mythic Plus and a typical one VDH in most guild raiding rosters. The bug, simply put, made it so that magic damage reduction, granted passively to Demon Hunters, was doubled. This made them incredibly tanky in situations where they were taking a lot of magic damage, while leaving them on a relatively fair footing with most other tanks on physical damage – a little weaker, but not enough to balance out the reductions in magic damage taken. So it made sense – coupled with the increased magic damage taken debuff they put on enemy targets, having a DH tank in your party or raid was often too good to pass up, and the metagame shifted thusly, to the point where almost the entire Mythic Dungeon International minus specific dungeons with specific teams was VDH tank spots.
Now, balancing tanks is more of an art than a pure science (as is balance in most of the game, really) and it is generally fine if each tank has a niche, provided a few factors. That niche needs to give way to weaknesses where other tanks can then shine, and the current metagame balance (dungeon and raid) need to allow each tank their niche without leaning too hard in a singular direction. That wasn’t the case here – the magic damage that could overwhelm in dungeons made VDH strong, and while raid damage is more balanced (arguably closer to physical emphasis this tier) they were still too strong against most damage sources in the raid tier, with tools to overcome most incoming damage and to manage incredibly high self-sustain.
But, then a second problem. If you take away the bug alone, it creates a new gap, where there are few magic-strong tanks and where the physical damage gap on VDH threatens to completely upend them.
This is a problem. We’ve actually seen a great example of this recently, where Windwalker Monks and Marksmanship Hunters were both benefitting in 9.0 from bugs that made them more powerful than intended. In the case of MM, it was bug-fixed, representation fell, and they got a small buff. In the case of WW, it is a hot mess even still, as they were bug-fixed and nerfed, then suffered from negative new bugs that made their damage even worse, which has led to multiple rounds of still-ongoing bug fixing, buffing, and adjusting to fit them back into a relatively fixed state.
So just removing the bug for VDH was untenable right off the bat, because it would just make all DH tanks weak in far more scenarios and remove any incentive for bringing them, at a time when Havoc DPS is seen as ascendant and perhaps worth bringing instead for their raid buff.
Tanking in Shadowlands then layers more challenges on here. If you’ve been watching any of the MDI cups this season, the challenge presented is that tanking kind of sucks ass right now. Ideal pulls mean getting gangbanged by a pack of mobs with all sorts of different types of damage, such that the only sustainable path forward for a good Mythic Plus tank is to learn severe kiting. Now, on it’s own, kiting isn’t bad or aberrant gameplay – it is a tool that all tanks should know and be prepared to employ from time to time. The problem isn’t that kiting is being asked for at all – but rather that it is the only viable way to manage a majority of pulls inside Shadowlands dungeons on Mythic Plus. Sure, on lower keystones you can outgear that challenge easily, but once you reach 12+ and especially 15 or higher, the only way to tank most pulls in an M+ is to grab threat, run away, and hope your DPS burn the pack down enough before you run out of kiting space.
VDH was compounding this problem because the DH toolkit is high mobility and flexible to an extreme for kiting. With Sigils, you can slow, fear, and silence whole packs of mobs, or talent Chains to bring them in together for other control. You have a damage sigil you can place at range and a frontal cone mega-AoE that also heals you and has a reasonable forward reach. You can jump into a pack, do damage to them for snap threat, place a Sigil of Flame and Misery, run out to start kiting, and have a reasonably high threat lead, which you can continue through placement of further Sigils of Flame and Throw Glaive. Lastly, Covenant choice made this even worse, because you would take Kyrian, which gives you a ranged sigil for strong damage, with a healing component and the ability then benefits from any sigil talent selections you’ve made? Too strong – VDH tanks were dominant in MDI and other high Mythic Keystone settings because the toolkit was tailor-made for kiting. You took more physical damage than many tanks, but so what? – you can just run like the wind with a path of sigils and thrown glaives leading the way to victory. Other tanks have their own strengths in kiting, but none were this strong.
So you have a huge set of compounding problems if you’re Blizzard. You’ve created a situation where the tank meta is to pull and run, which creates gaps in balance for tanks, causes groups to not want to bring melee DPS as often because managing strong AoE while running isn’t always a part of the melee DPS toolkits in the game, and where the tanks who should be strong at physical damage mitigation never get to shine because they still take too much magic damage while also still taking a high amount of physical damage. All of this then puts increased pressure on healers, who need to know not just where a tank is but where they plan to be and to ensure that heals manage to come in as needed while the tank is mobile while also then managing the rest of the group’s health, which is then a compounding problem where the meta healers are high damage throughput ones, like Discipline Priest in 9.0 and Holy Paladins (especially Venthyr) in 9.0.5 so that healing can be done while also helping the group bring packs of trash down efficiently before the tank gets eaten alive. Yikes!
You might look at all of this and say that it’s metagaming bullshit from eSports players, and yes, it is that. However, the unfortunate reality of modern WoW is that whatever ends up being popular at the top trickles down, so you have groups asking for VDH tanks only or Disc/Holy paladin healers only and trying to push MDI pull routes and obnoxious play styles without understanding why they are being done or simply parroting what their favorite streamer said. And I won’t even say that you necessarily need to fully understand it – but if you bring a VDH tank who isn’t familiar with the routes or kiting methods used, or bring a Disc Priest expecting them to be the best thing ever when that person is still grappling with the high skill floor of the spec, it leads to frustration.
Player rating site (and equal parts scourge/savior of M+ PUG play) Raider.IO documents how many runs are undertaken each week that they can see and the general trend, minus favorable push weeks, is down. Down a lot more than average in BfA, in fact, to the point where a few weeks after the season began, participation began to drop sharply and has remained relatively low. I can speak to this trend in my own guild, as there was a lot of fervor for low keystones in the first months of the season, and then a bit of a downturn, and now everyone is slowly coming back to the mode with 10+ keys. People of all skill levels have generally been burning out on Mythic Plus to a lower level after a higher start and a semi-sustained population through the early weeks. This is a problem.
Blizzard’s method of addressing it will need further player feedback once live, but it seems to actually start at a good place with tanks. They’re fixing the aforementioned VDH magic mitigation bug, but then offsetting it with an overall buff to reduce physical and magic damage taken, meaning they’ll take less physical and more magical damage, while still retaining the rest of their toolkit unaffected. All other tanks, meanwhile, are gaining buffs to their passives for tanking that offer a flat 10% damage reduction, bringing them in-line (in theory) with the VDH post-fix. This is a pretty strong way to address it, all told, but I would label it as a starting point.
In truth, it reflects an ugly truth about this expansion in general that has become more apparent over time. While Blizzard did the right thing delaying the game, and the launch gameplay state was pretty decent, there was a lot of work still to be done, and with the delay being focused on gameplay and endgame reward systems, it is blatantly obvious that a lot of work on balancing the classes and specs was left undone, or at least not revisited. Tanks characterize this, but the changes I mentioned above with MM hunters and WW monks also highlight it, as do the aura-buffs and baby step balancing bullshit Blizzard has been doing slowly post-launch. Sure, right now there are tanks of all stripes with the Season 1 Keystone Master achievement. Some of our best guild M+ runs are with a guardian Druid tank, with Resto Druid and Holy Priest healers, with heavy-melee compositions and other such challenges. Yet, these runs are still possible, and that feels like it has been the sole justification for the slow walk on changes, which – okay, fine, but it still feels bad and it creates inflated tensions in PUGs and even guild groups. My desire to DPS in M+, where I perform well, is offset by an undercurrent of desire to push for a DH tank to carry groups to success, and I’ve not yet found the role in Shadowlands to be anything other than frustrating and unfun for me personally.
And to me, the tank change should absolutely be the start of a round of pre-9.1 balance tuning. Healers need some love to bring balance in – Mistweaver monks feel pretty bad right now in particular. DPS continues to be contentious as several specs are stuck in a level of low performance due to undertuned ability damage or overly unforgiving burst windows and openers. Of course, tanks may still need additional balancing after this week, as new problems surface from the changes allowing more classes and specs to see play.
My problem is that I highly doubt Blizzard does anything substantial with balance until 9.1, a patch which remains ephemeral and I might be convinced that I hallucinated the presentation about it at this point. Its news article in my Blizzard launcher has even disappeared, which only further makes me concerned if it is real or not! The tank changes are good and a needed breath of fresh air for the Mythic Plus scene, which has grown smaller and staler due to stagnant spec balance and overdone meta compositions. At first, I loved seeing my class up there all the time but then it got boring, because it’s a slew of cookie-cutter Vengeance Demon Hunters all playing the same way. The fact that many are starting to go Necrolord post-9.0.5 has been the only interesting wrinkle, and even that only held my interest for two Fodder to the Flame procs.
At this point, the unfortunate feeling I get is that Blizzard tends to treat class balance as a hobby instead of as, you know, their actual job, and while you can interpret different specs as better or worse based on your playstyle, level of content, and the like, it just doesn’t feel like Blizzard really takes it seriously enough – a thing that was made fairly clear with Covenants in beta and has been exemplified through the slow rate of change post-launch. I wish it weren’t so, but it certainly feels that way right now.