Friday, March 5, 2010

More thoughts on threat scaling and the threat game

Speaking purely from a game-play perspective here, and explicitly trying to stay away from the game design process, I think that one of the game play elements that directly contributes to the difficulty of managing threat during AE pulls has to do with the User Interface. It is presently difficult to see how much threat, or what proportion of overall threat, we have over groups of multiple mobs.

I'm speaking here from the perspective of a Bear Tank and also from that of a former Fury Warrior. DPS can do certain things with macros to reduce the likelihood that they'll pull from a tank, but some classes don't have threat wiping skills, and it can be difficult to see which of the 8 mobs you might be attacking at a given moment is about to switch their aggro.

Perhaps a built-in threat bar on nameplates similar to the one provided by Aloft would help in cooperative play.

Blue Review: 03/05/10

The wife made a good point last night about the high volume of dev posts on the forums lately. If they keep feeding us blue posts, people are bound to develop delusions of entitlement about it. It would probably not be a terrible idea for GC and the crew to lay off their responses for a while, and let the community simmer a bit.

But, if they're going to post, I'm going to parse. Here's what I've been able to find from recent days that's relevant to the future of our ursine alter egos. (I'll include relevant bits of the OP for the sake of context)

Cataclysm: Druids and the Parry/Block Problem

Based on the just-released information, not being able to parry or block is going to be a huge handicap for raiding Druids in Cataclysm.

This isn't because it will inherently make us weaker; even with the changes to parry and block, it's probably possible to balance a theoretical Druid with only dodge with a theoretical plate tank with dodge, parry, and block.

The problem is itemization. Any item with parry, block, or both is likely to be very undesirable to Druid tanks, and will likely be a downgrade from items 1-2 tiers lower.

Why will this problem likely be worse than it is now?

  1. There will be 2 wasted stats which will be common on tank gear, instead of just one. (You don't see block on much tank gear currently).
  2. With our Stamina multipliers reduced (and EH probably less important), the increased Stamina on the higher-tier item will be less likely to make up for the avoidance/threat loss, as sometimes happens now.

Why is this a huge problem?

Bears will gear up more slowly than plate tanks, since they have fewer gear choices. This means that when a guild starts doing the hard content, the Bear will likely be weaker as it will be less geared.

What are some solutions?

  1. Allow Bears to parry and block. The argument that this breaks flavor is nonsensical; with low-level NPC bears able to parry, not being able to parry breaks flavor.
  2. Let Bears use block and parry rating on gear. These stats would be translated to stats we can use.
  3. Design Bears to not share tanking jewelry with plate tanks.

I disagree with a lot of the sentiments in this post. For starters, at least on my server, the Druid population outnumbers Hunters and Rogues combined. There are more opportunities for 10-person progression than ever before, and with the coming changes to guild design, we might just see an uptick in small raiding guilds, so I'm not sure that we'll be backbenched by the game design.

I don't know that I've ever seen leather items with block or parry on them. Besides, this post seems to forget the importance of damage negation resulting from Savage Defense on combined probability crits when using Swipe. Druids do more than dodge and absorb damage. Crit IS block for Bear tanks, it's just a lot harder to work combined probability crit strikes into our effective health calculations.

Let's see what GC has to say:

Ghostcrawler: If druids have lower avoidance (assuming you call the new parry and block avoidance), then they'll have higher armor and health to compensate. There is no reason druids must have block and parry to be competitive. They really haven't missed it much in WotLK.

I think the only real risk to druids from a design paradigm perspective is the risk of being a mana sponge. Druids were worried about that coming into this expansion, but as we've seen, it wasn't an issue. With mana mattering more, it could be, but high armor will still help with that.

The comment about leather was just that if leather provides as much health as plate, then the Bear multiplier doesn't need to be as high for druids still to have higher health than other tanks.

We can conclude the following points:
  1. Bears will continue to have higher health than other tanks as an element of their core class design.
  2. Bears will not be getting block or parry (with Savage Defense, who needs block anyway?)
  3. We could see armor and heath buffs if our avoidance is seen to suffer. This seems like a slight clawback from last year's nerfs.

@Cataclysm stat change preview

Parry - Parry no longer provides 100% avoidance and no longer speeds up attacks. Instead, when you parry an attack, it and the next attack will each hit for 50% damage (assuming they hit at all). In other words, Dodge is a chance to avoid 100% of the damage from one attack, Parry is a chance to avoid 50% of the damage from two attacks, and Block is a chance to avoid 30% of the damage from one attack.

Let's not forget that Dodge also feeds Rage to a Bear, indirectly giving us more ways to mitigate damage. Currently, I don't know how well our dodge chance is expected to scale with gear in Cataclysm, but if, as some people fear, we lose a little competitive edge on other tanks whose avoidance stats scale better than ours, it seems from the posts above (merely reiterated by GC in this topic thread) that Blizzard will buff our health and armor.

My concern is that this could pull us back from one of our strong roles, which is magic avoidance. Considering that we can expect to be fighting large dragons in Cataclysm, buffing our armor might not be the way to proceed.

For the record, here's GC's pithy response:

Ghostcrawler: Tanks will still be required to tank raids and I expect most heroics. You're not in any danger of being upstaged by a dps spec who has slightly more armor and health than they do now.

Do Warriors really need another Cleave?

Buried in this post was a nice little nugget for Bears.


The actual problem, in our minds, is threat scaling. Warriors (and all tanks) could AE tank just fine in Naxxramas.* It only became a problem over time when the dps of the dps classes grew so much more quickly than the tanks, largely because the dps classes have so many dps stats on their gear while plate tanks have Strength. Tank damage was pretty close to 50% of dps damage in the first tier of content, which was our goal, but has slipped to 25 to 30% of dps (your mileage may vary) in Icecrown.

We need a system that keeps tank damage scaling at the same rate as dps damage. However, that system can't be dependent on gear stats (unless you're willing to see tank gear go away) and can't be as ridiculous as deep talents that say "You get 5 AP per point of Strength."

I think you just notice threat issues more on AE pulls because things like Tricks and Misdirect mask any problems on single target pulls. Separate problem.

And yes Paladin tank AE damage and threat generation is still too high, largely because of Seals and HoR, but long-term we're going to nerf that instead of making all tanks able to trivially maintain threat in all situations. Referencing the other thread on threat a little, why as a tank would you even care what buttons you push if maintaining threat is a foregone conclusion?

* - AE tanking was fine in Naxxramas. AE damage was, and has remained, over the top. We prefer a model where the risk of tanking too many mobs is that the tank dies, not that you can't maintain threat on them all (within reasonable limits of course). We also prefer a model where the dps do AE damage on some pulls and switch to single target dps on others.

This is a refrain on his previous posts from February on threat scaling, and trying to determine how to make the threat game more fun for tanks. There seems to be a growing concern that the threat game is inhibiting the development of new tanks, because the Journeyman tank queues up with an ICC geared DPS and cannot for the life of them keep agg during trash pulls.

So, with the subject focusing on threat scaling, GC continues:


Dude pulled aggro does not represent a failure of class design any more than you sometimes dying represents a failure of class design. Both are going to happen sometimes unless you're absolutely at the top of your game. That's part of the challenge of playing your role. For our part, we'll make sure you have the tools to do your job, and for the most part you do. I don't think the tools are the issue, as I said above.

I'm talking philosophy here, because I assume that's usually more interesting to a wider audience. Philosophically, tank threat generation is working correctly (i.e. as we intend) with perhaps 4-5 exceptions that we would like to fix:

1) Paladins can do a little too much AE tanking "splash" damage, often without even setting out to do so.
2) Tricks and MD take too much of a burden off of the tank / hide issue #3.
3) Damage and therefore threat generation aren't scaling well at very high levels of gear. <-- this is the big one. 4) There is too much incentive to AE every pull, which puts a burden on the tank to AE tank every pull. 5) You could probably add that bears need a button to hit besides Swipe.

That last little nugget is what made me smile. It might be cool if they'd work toward a system that rewards combinations and rotations with extra threat, similar to the damage of rogues and cat Druids. It would seem to come naturally for Druids, considering how we already use combo points while leveling in Cat form.

Plate wearers have things like Armored to the Teeth which helps them scale up their damage commensurate to their armor.

Generating massive threat might be more fun if we had to pay closer attention to the order in which we mash buttons, and this would also reward skills like target cycling and stacking bleeds, thus providing us with incentives not to just spam Swipe. It would also preserve current PvP mechanics, since threat has no affect on other players.

Interesting things coming from the blue posts these days. I'll keep my eyes peeled for more, but don't be too surprised if they get quiet for a bit and let us all fester.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Feral Tank Q&A with Ghostcrawler: Then, Now, and Soon™

Ghostcrawler's comments from last July as part of the Class Q&A Series on Druids probably still represent, overall, the most current and accurate window into Blizzard's current design goals for the class. Although, at the time of writing, there have been a glut of blue posts pertaining to Druid tanking in the first week of March 2010, I'll reserve my commentary on the new posts for a future date.

This post is intended to bring newcomers up to speed with where the class and, more specifically, our role as Bear Tanks stands.

I know this post of his is from last July--I was not actively playing during that time, but it seems that the overall design goals are still relevant today and will probably remain relevant as we move into Cataclysm. I will only focus on the parts of the Q&A session with Ghostcrawler (lead game designer for World of Warcraft) that affect feral tanks.

The biggest surprise is the hinting toward completely eliminating the cost of changing forms. This could really spice up the class and open up very interesting new play styles. It would also harmonize with the stated intention of continuing convergence for Druid melee itemization.

Note, all italic emphasis on the following text is mine, to draw attention to certain parts.

Form Flow Play Style

Q: What is it that makes them unique compared to all other classes?

Ghostcrawler: Forms is the big answer. The druid versions are more meaningful than other class equivalents in the game, such as Stances or Presences. One could argue they are too meaningful, because players sometimes don’t want to use any other form but “theirs." Perhaps the most unusual facet of the druid forms is that they use three different resource systems depending on the form, and these are not reset when they shift. A leveling druid can shift out of cat form to heal themselves, then shift into bear form while their mana regenerates.

Here there seems to be a renewal of focus on the shifting of forms.

Q: What do we think about making spells like Warstomp and Innervate usable while in forms?

Ghostcrawler: We like the fact that Innervate requires shifting. We want druids to shift more. [Emphasis mine --Ed.] Warstomp I could see an argument to allow in forms since it’s nice (but not mandatory) that racial benefits are useful to a variety of classes.

Q: Can you describe for us what the intended identity and versatilities of the Tree of Life druids are supposed to be?

Ghostcrawler: This is a pretty philosophical answer here. If you only read one answer in this Q&A, you might want to check out this one.

. . .

In addition to having to give up utility in order to heal as a Tree of Life, we have become less enamored with druids locking themselves into one form.
[Emphasis mine --Ed.] In fact, you really never see the basic tauren or night elf druid form (you know, the one that actually shows off the awesome armor art) because all druids are in cat, bear, tree, or moonkin form nearly 100% of the time. I’m not saying we would just cut Tree of Life from the game. It’s been around awhile and for better or worse, it’s part of World of Warcraft now. However, we could see taking the druid in a direction where shifting was much more common and easy to do. . . .

Q: Do we plans to alter how the GCD works for form changing so that shifting into a form is as easy as shifting out of one?

Ghostcrawler: As I mentioned, long-term we’d love to get druids shifting more often, which means shifting has to be less painful. I don’t know for sure that changing the GCD needs to be a part of that, but it could be.

I was very happy to read this. I think the important thing to take away from this is that Blizzard clearly wants Druids to change forms more, and are investigating removing transformation costs. I've recently argued in favor of reducing the costs and increasing the incentives for form shifting, and believe it would allow an interesting style of dynamic play (especially for solo play such as in world PvP or leveling).

I'd like to think I've been an advocate of the "form flow" play style since I was making my flying bear maneuver videos. I tend toward this style now at the cost of constantly sitting down to renew my mana pool.

When I'm not tanking (leveling, for example), I find myself starting pulls on large clusters of humanoid mobs (think Dark Iron Dwarves in Eastern Wetlands) with a Wrath or Starfire on Mob A followed by an immediate Entangling Roots / Moonfire combo, then switch to Cat form to stack DoTs on Mob B, then dropping Nature's Grasp on myself, rooting Mob B, backing up to get a little breathing room, blow my Enrage cooldown, Maul Mobs C and D until the rage runs out, drop an FFF on Mob A which is now root-free and incoming, maybe Bash Mob C, switch back to Cat form to Rake Mob A, hit Mob B with a Rip, then back to Bear form for another FFF on A and Maul to finish up B and A, blow Lifeblood and cycle Mauls then back to Cat form to finish dismantling the remaining mobs.

When I don't run out of mana, this dance can be quite fun. It's a mess, but it's a lot of fun to play. I should make a video of this.

By trying to squeeze every last drop of utility from all of my various forms I can usually take on groups of 4-5 mobs that are 2-3 levels higher than I am.

Basically, as a feral druid, I am always trying to push past my level for combat effectiveness, and removing the form changing cost entirely would allow me to play even more effectively in this "Form Flow" style whenever I'm not tanking.

Clearly we have not yet seen the changes to the cost of form shifting indicated by GC last summer, but hopefully we can look forward to them in Cataclysm.

Feral Talent Tree

Community Team: We are going to switch gears from the ranged caster damaging druids to the up close and personal Feral talent tree.

A number of players have brought up questions regarding the over-arching goal of the feral talent tree. In the past they were able to change forms regularly and cast spells and then go back into a Feral form to continue playing. Once we merged their gear with rogues this playstyle was significantly reduced in effectiveness. As it currently stands, even with the low mana pool, they feel their mana regeneration is very poor in comparison to other hybrid classes like Shaman and Paladins which in turn continues to minimize feral druids’ ability to cast spells which they feel is pushing them further and further away from the hybrid playstyle.

Q: What are our intended goals for the playstyle of feral druids?

Ghostcrawler: The druid class overall is intended to be flexible, and we feel that it is. What we don’t want is a class that can do all things with a single spec -- do damage like a rogue, then tank if the MT falls down, then battle rez the MT and heal her back up, etc. That might sound like a lot of fun, but that’s because you’re fulfilling the role of half the raid all on your own (which means it’s less fun for everyone else watching you be a superstar). Every cat worth their salt will shift out to cast Rebirth or Innervate. But in order to justify cats doing credible melee damage, we felt like they had to give up some of their ability to tank, cast, and heal. Note than you can still take a more hybrid-focused build. Players don’t often do that though because they’d rather do one thing really well. Now I will say that long term something we’d love to do is get rid of shifting costs altogether. We want to see druids in lots of different forms -- more on this in a minute.

I think it's worth pointing out here that GC's comments specifically pertain to the raid / dungeon experience, and not to solo play such as when leveling. It strikes me that being able to be very self-sufficient is the principle advantage of playing a hybrid class, when it comes to leveling.

Bear Tanking

Community Team: Bear tanks have often felt inferior compared to the other tanks.

Q: How do we feel druid tanks are doing and do we have any immediate changes planned?

Ghostcrawler: We think bears have felt inferior because for a long time we basically said “You are designed to be inferior.” Sometimes old perceptions die hard. Bears are not inferior tanks in Ulduar and it’s possible their survivability is too high in 3.2.

Community Team: Savage Defense has been the source of a number of debates as players feel it is somewhat lackluster and doesn’t provide enough of a benefit, especially in PvP.

Q: Do we have any plans to change and/or improve Savage Defense?

Ghostcrawler: We’re pretty happy with Savage Defense for now. It accomplishes its goals, which were to make dps stats more useful on leather and to keep bears from hitting the armor cap so easily. You might consider it lackluster if you’re counting on it saving your life, but it does account for a lot of damage over the course of a boss fight.

Here again we see reiterated commitment to itemization convergence for feral Druids and Rogues. I wonder what their thoughts are with respect to how useless these stats are for low level tanks who don't have Savage Defense. The mid-20s was a nightmare for me in terms of tanking as there were so few Bear skills introduced and almost no tanking leather. I'm still wearing legs from Deadmines. Ugh.


Q: Do we have any plans to improve how players obtain relic items such as a relic token?

Ghostcrawler: The alternative to “clutter to loot tables” is that they go on vendors. We view vendors as an absolute last resort. They are there as a hedge against being very unlucky with drops and to give players motivation to do bosses even when that boss no longer drops any upgrades for them. When the best relics are available on vendors, then every druid will have those relics quickly. They essentially just become part of the core identity of the class rather than an upgrade that you get at some point along your progression. The best solution is probably something where a boss has a 10% (or whatever) chance to drop a relic in addition to its normal loot table.

The difficulty of getting relics appears to remain baked into the game design for the foreseeable future.

Community Team: Tanking druids have regularly expressed complaints on how their tanking gear was homogenized but statistics like Block and Parry do not help them and defense provides a very marginal benefit.

Q: Do we have plans to make these statistics more helpful for them since they are on a wide variety of tanking gear?

Ghostcrawler: We think it’s interesting that a bear and a warrior tank might look at the same piece of gear and place different values on it. That’s one of the elements that makes looting interesting and rewards players who understand their class. You shouldn’t take a ring because it says “TANK” on it. You should take it because it benefits you. And really, when players say “wide variety of tanking gear” they really mean rings, neck, cloak, and possibly trinkets. Currently we’re in a world where tanks emphasize Stamina and Armor as much as they possibly can, which makes other stats feel lame by comparison. But that will likely not always be the case, and we kind of doubt it will be as much of an extreme in the Coliseum.

The last statement follows from their announced intention to further blur the boundaries between (and ultimately seek convergence for) DPS and tanking leathers. No surprise here, but it's good to see it reiterated.

Q: Have we considered providing more tanking leather and to prevent extra loot clutter possibly finding ways for Balance and Restoration druids to use solely cloth item since they often use them already?

Ghostcrawler: No. Druids are a leather-using class. We are just going to have to make three types of leather (melee, ranged and healing). You have to understand that even though we have pushed bears and cats farther apart, we still consider them to be part of the same spec. We can’t get into the business of itemizing for niches within a particular spec or we’re just going to have too many items per tier. I can see the argument for having tanking and dps leather and making the casters use cloth. That’s just a different design and we currently like for certain classes to be associated with certain types of armor. We like that druids look different from say priests or mages (even ignoring the forms thing). We like that we can kit druid tier piece armor to look a certain way.

Also note that if we buffed bear mitigation through more tanking-oriented leather that we’d just have to nerf them in other ways. In my experience, most bears end up with “tanking leather” anyway because they want to gem and enchant their bear gear differently. Having one set of gear that you wear as cat or bear isn’t really feasible in Ulduar.

This follows from previous posts GC has made regarding Druid itemization, so is not much of a surprise. I'm very glad that they're holding firm on the block / parry stats and keeping the distinctions between various tanking classes more architectural than aesthetic. However, the explicitly expressed notion that there will be melee, ranged, and healing leathers, and that they'll be distinguishable for people who know their class, is noteworthy. Expect more unity in the itemization for Tanking and DPS items (sorry, Rogues).

There have been very recent discussions on the forums about the anticipated removal of current parry mechanics, and the impact of this change on tanking, but I'll reserve my commentary about that for a future post.

Quality of Life / Aesthetics

Q: For the official word, do we have plans to update more druid form models at some point in the future?

Ghostcrawler: I know for a fact that the current Travel Form and Aquatic Form are loathed by the artist who redid bear and cat. We do have plans to update additional forms at some point in the future.

New Aquatic and Travel Forms? Yummy.

I will post a follow-up to this, which will incorporate recent developer commentary from the last month. Hopefully this will help ground some of the players who are new to Druid Tanking or are currently leveling a feral druid with the intention of end-game tanking get a sense of where the class direction is currently heading.

Cutting My Losses on L29 Weaponry

There is a good, clear successor to Rhahk-Zor's Hammer from the Deadmines, and that's Slaghammer from Razorfen Kraul.

But it's dropped by trash mobs.

RFK is a long instance, and one where your party members are likely to be either impatient lolret geezers in heirloom gear, or noobly huntards lost in an epic fog of auto attacks and overeager pets, oblivious to the scary blue bar next to their portrait.  Neither breed will help you clear the gutters of Razorfen at the end, looking for that awe inspiring trash-drop of lore.

Therefore, if you get the Plains Ring or Slaghammer from a dungeon finder pick-up group, consider yourself the official target of my ursine envy.

It seems that the 20s really have it in for a Bear's self image, pushing us relentlessly toward the feline angels of our nature.  Resist it, I say.  Ignore the laughable absence of a clear blue leg-armor tanking successor to your tattered Smelting Pants, put the drool-inducing Slaghammer out of your feral minds, and take your tank points where you can get them.

There are worse fates than to wear the Barbaric Leggings and the Acrobatic Staff of Stamina. We'll make it up in the Scarlet Monastery.




Keeping Aggro at Low Levels

One of the old complaints about Bear Tanks, which (lucky for us!) is just a myth, is that Bears have an innate difficulty in getting snap aggro at the beginning of a fight, and in keeping their threat high throughout the fight.

There are some things that we can do to overcome the challenge of keeping aggro during fights at low levels. The first, clearly, is to be know how much threat you're actually dealing out.

  1. Install the Omen Threat Meter add-on.  This is the most important tanking add-on you will use.
  2. Install the Aloft add-on.  This surrounds the name plates of all mobs that you have aggro on with a highly visible red bar.  When you get close to losing aggro for a mob, the nameplate border turns yellow, warning you so that you can change to that target for your next FFF-Maul combo.
  3. Use the Glyph of Maul.  In the end game, you might have good reason to remove this glyph, but while leveling, it's your bread and butter.
  4. Always always always show name plates for mobs when you are tanking.  Do this by pressing "v".
  5. Cycle your targets by clicking on the nameplates of the mobs you are attacking.  Make sure to spread out your Maul, so that every Maul attack hits a new primary target.
  6. If things start to go badly, jam Enrage and lay down a Swipe to remind all the mobs within 5 yards of you who's in charge.
  7. Fight with your back to the wall.  This lets you keep the mobs in an arc in front of you, further ensuring that you are able to distribute your Maul damage across the crowd.
  8. Backstrafe, never run away.  You can't dodge attacks that come from mobs behind you, and you sure as shootin' can't auto-attack or Maul them back.  Backstrafing will eventually add up to faster rage gain.
  9. Keep Thorns up all the time, but don't be lazy about it--skip the Glyph of Thorns.
  10. Always keep Faerie Fire (Feral) on cooldown.  Start your pulls with it.  Then, every six seconds, pick a new target and hit them with FFF.  Consider this a permanent part of your tanking rotation, from now until forever.

Assume that most players ignore raid targets--the end game has spoiled a lot of players into expecting every trash pull to fall to AoE damage.  You can try using raid targets, but will probably catch flack for it.

If you try to establish threat dominance over a crowd of 4+ mobs using only damage superiority, you'll probably fail.  Particularly if you are new and grouped with a bunch of fire-hardened raider alts in bind-to-account gear.  The truth is, it's pretty easy for dealers to pull a mob out of your threat-well if you are trying to spread white damage out over a large group.  In the early game, Swipe doesn't really give a good return on the Rage investment per use--it's a great tool for establishing a fast burst of threat at the beginning of a fight, but you'll be experiencing relativity directly, as time seems to slow down when you have no Rage, Enrage is on cooldown, and you're losing aggro to multiple dealers.

Your only real chance of keeping high threat (and thus aggro) on multiple mobs is to target cycle Maul, and keep Faerie Fire (Feral) on cooldown.  If you're dealing with a mix of caster and melee targets, catch the melee with a Maul and FFF, then drag those bastards over to the caster.  If he tries to root you and run away, power shift and punish him.  Let the melee mobs fall to your Maul splash-damage, the caster's attacks ignore your armor anyway.

Keep an eye on your healer, too.  If you body pull a mob and catch a heal, you might inadvertently transfer aggro to your healer.  FFF comes in handy for these situations.

In many ways, tanking is like fighting with your own party members.  The threat game is a tight rope, but can be quite a bit of fun.  If you think one of them is really trying to pull a mob off of you, drop an FFF-Maul-Maul combo on it to discourage them.  If one of the mobs you're fighting breaks and runs to get help and your ranged dealers let him run, and you aren't ready for adds, if you decide that the situation warrants it, shift to Cat form, punish the bastard with Shred for showing his back, then back to Bear form before your healer can complain.  If nothing else is attacking you, why not?  If the mob gets a head start, you can hit him with an FFF-Moonfire combo the same way.  If you look at your threat bar on Omen and see that you've got 5x as much threat as the next contender on a mob, cycle to the next one.

It's like boxing.  Stay on your toes.  Cycle your mobs, watch for incoming and pull them with FFF before your dealers body-pull.  Spread out that Maul damage and save your Swipes for when you've got Rage to burn.  Keep an eye on the nameplates.  And you will see, when you bring your A-game, there'll be nothing that your dealers can do, at least while you're leveling, to take your aggro away from you and keep it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Good Advice from PuG Members

Yesterday I set aside some time to run Razorfen Kraul. There are a number of items I want from that instance, including two rings and a weapon upgrade.

Many of the items that I'm looking for drop off of trash mobs, so of course I took the first left turn to hit that optional part of the instance. Predictably, some of the members of the party told me that I was going the wrong way. I explained about the trash drops, and most of them were very understanding.

While crossing the chasm bridge, I lightheartedly said "no falling". The Warrior DPS got hostile at that point, and the rest of the group precipitously did the same.

"Don't tell me what to do, just keep pulling mobs" (Warrior)
"Absolutely, no problem." (Me)
"Pull very large groups so we can AoE" (Warlock)
"And trust my healing" (Paladin)

And just like that, I ate my humble pie and, throwing caution to the wind, decided to get really aggressive with my pulls, hauling in groups of 6-8 mobs at a time, strafing forward like a train, pulling the assembly along behind me and making frequent stops for Rain of Fire. Everyone seemed to enjoy the fight quite a bit more. The healer had more to worry about, I had a more challenging time keeping aggro off of the warrior in B2A gear, so kept FFF on cooldown, but the overall rate of completion was much faster and I only had to pop Lifeblood once. There were no more complaints, or talking for that matter.

So, in the balance of things, it was great advice, and a very good group. And in the final boss fight, I fell off the edge and into the pit. Epic fail. The warrior tanked. Chalk this up as an "experience" post.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Focusing on the Game, Not on the Game Design

Ghostcrawler pulled back the Emerald Curtain a bit today in order to swat down calls for a "consistent philosophy" with respect to tanking. Here's what he had to say:

Ghostcrawler: Effective Health is a very powerful concept for purposes of choosing how to gear your character and even tank encounters. It has limitations when you use it as the one true measurement for "tankiness." The community is also quick to try and give the same abilities and mechanics to every class filling the same role. If you want to be on a similar page as us, I would steer away from those two things.

In general, my advice would be to worry more about the game and less about the design process. We're confident in our process. It's not without mistakes, but it has served us well for a long time.

As usual, when the man is right, he's right. Effective Health is a useful tool, but is a mighty bloodless substitute for playing well. In that vein, I'm focusing heavily on a "form flow" style of play right now that involves constant form shifting, pulling bits and pieces from the various forms to use in the circumstances that call for them. This style of play is heavily influenced by solo leveling, but I can see how it would have uses in PvP later on in the game. I'm having fun doing it, and last summer's class design Q&A seem to indicate that Blizzard intends to support this style of play by removing or significantly reducing the cost of shifting forms in future expansions.

The fourth tier feral talents were too juicy, and I just hit level 29, so remapped my talents (bye bye blue rage, we will meet again!). I will be turning off XP, building some gear lists, and spending some quality time running instances for the next week or so.

I hope that everyone has a fun tanking weekend!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wowhead Improvement Wishlist

I love, I use it all the time. I've got this blog integrated to show pop-up tooltip panels for items and skills.
But there are two things I wish it did better.

  1. The Druid Talent Calculator on correctly shows Feral Charge as a 5th tier talent in the Feral Tree.  However, the page which enumerates all of the Druid Skills incorrectly lists Feral Charge as being available at level 20.
  2. I wish that on the talent calculator pages for each class, there were tooltips for the various skills affected by any given talent.  Perhaps a sidebar on the left with an alphabetical list of skill tooltips so that we can quickly look up the skill a talent refers to without leaving the page.  Another potential solution would be to build a list on the left or right column of the page that indexes every skill affected by the talents currently chosen.  For example, if I put 3 ranks into Feral Instinct, it could add Swipe and Prowl to the list of affected skills.  For added clarity, it might default to the highest rank of any given skill that the user can train for, as indicated by the "character level" required to have the current number of skill points.
That's it, these are really the only two things that I constantly wish for when I visit Wowhead.  I have nothing but admiration for that site, though--it really is the best information portal for the game that I know of, and I've spent time on just about all of them.  Kudos to them on the continuing tradition of excellence.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

In Favor of Furor: Seeing Red over Blue Rage

To those of you who are trying to spare me from the fate above, I thank you.  The argument against Furor, which I've gotten twice now in the last two weeks, is this:

"Furor is not needed now that Enrage gives instant Rage."

This is the orthodox, safe, standard, popular opinion. If you want to go with the flow and save the TL/DR below, awesome. /salute

This snap rage is nothing new. Enrage alongside Improved Enrage which later became Intensity used to give snap rage, though not as much, and the above argument against Furor was just as popular back then as it is now that they consolidated the two talents. For more on this, see BBB's July 04 2009 post on endgame raid tank bears vs "facepulling" 5-man bears.

Ultimately, Furor lets you use you mana as rage. It's that simple. It gives you a guaranteed infusion of rage whenever you need it, as long as you have enough mana to make it back to Bear form. If you can take advantage of this during a powershift to break out of a root (Deadmines Frost Novas come to mind), more's the better. And you don't have to choose between them--you can use both Enrage and Furor if you want (I do often).

So, with respect to Bear tanks talented into Furor, Mana is not Mana. It's blue rage.

The most rage efficient mechanism for generating threat at level 20-30 for four or fewer mobs, is to keep Maul and FFF on cooldown. Swipe's "threat per rage" vs fewer than 5 mobs at low levels is abysmal, and without Savage Defense there's really no reason not to save the extra 5 rage for your next Maul and to target cycle.

The only mobs that you're going to be able to actually make stick to you when spamming Swipe are melee combat mobs (casters stay put and cast), so blowing Enrage in order to Swipe spam a pack of melee mobs is probably a very poor idea for low level encounters.   Swipe's threat generation isn't worth the rage cost.  I don't think it can stand up to a Mage's Blizzard at early levels.  Even if you can keep the melee mobs on you, Enrage comes at the expense of 27% of our base armor, which is exactly what you don't need when you're Swipe spamming melee.

Not that I'm arguing for the value of the extra armor, really.  The early value of Thick Hide is possibly worth debating, but probably not worth it.  Armor's contribution to survivability is pretty limited for low level Bears.  I never ever stack armor in the 20s, but the time when armor would conceivably be most useful at my tender level is when I'm surrounded by melee mobs, making that a very poor time to blow Enrage.  So, Enrage for Swipe spamming, I'll conclude, is not useful at this point in my tanking career.

Conversely, armor doesn't contribute at all to survivability vs. magic damage, so saving Enrage cooldowns for caster encounters is probably its optimal use.  The armor penalty means nothing at that point, so it's just free rage and makes a great burst if you need to drop a Bash, for example, in WC when the druids are about to cast sleep on your Healer.

Once you get Savage Defense, then combined probability on crit strikes vs. melee mobs becomes a major contributing factor to survivability, and Swipe is totally redeemed. Also, by this time you can talent into Feral Swiftness / Natural Reaction to fuel extra rage generation from dodges. At this point, temporarily speccing out of Furor is probably very smart.

But, between target cycling glyphed Maul, watching my autoattack swing timer and rage meters for good opportunities to powershift, and my Dealers following the kill order, I have zero problems right now with threat generation or keeping aggro. I'm pretty darned good at it, actually. So, dropping furor on the premise that my talents can do my tanking for me is not in the cards.

Survivability is really not impacted by Thick Hide at my level. At all. In fact, I dropped 20 gold to respec and ran a TankPoints comparison on it, and three ranks in Thick Hide left my overall damage mitigation completely unchanged. At these low levels, tanking is all about Stamina, and paying attention.

The 4% added dodge from Feral Swiftness is really tempting, though, and I'm looking forward to having it, but it doesn't become a no-brainer until it can be combined with Natural Reaction. Savage Defense with Swipe Spamming makes Feral Swiftness / Natural Reaction (FS/NR) a murderous combo.

There are two feral talents that are absolutely worth speccing out of Furor for, in my opinion. The first is Feral Charge at L30. The second is Mangle at L50. The FS/NR is also a worthwhile combo to spec into. But Swipe and FS alone are just not worth it.

I'll probably spec into and out of Furor a number of times as I climb the tree. It's sort of a "training wheels" talent, scaffolding to prop us up as we level. Furor / powershifting enables a certain style of play that I find challenging and rewarding, so I will keep it for the time being. If I could use mana (which I don't need) for rage (which I constantly need) without burning 5 talent points, I'd love that. The bonus ability to keep my energy in cat form should take some of the pain out of leveling.

What can I say?  I think there's value in blue rage.

Anyone who decides to play differently, devoting themselves to deep feral from the beginning, and forsaking the impurity of the Resto tree, as long as they are having fun with the results of their decision, is doing what they ought to, and I won't recriminate.

Form Flow for Feral Tanks

I want to have a way to preserve the "spirit of the bear" for a brief time while assuming other forms.

I envision this as a cooldown deep in the feral tree that would give me 3/6/9 seconds in which the tanking bonuses that accrue from my being in bear form will remain even though I switch briefly to caster, cat, travel, aquatic, flight form. I would not be able to cast any new spells that required Bear or Dire Bear form, but I would be able to keep the tanking bonuses conferred from talents such as Survival of the Fittest, Heart of the Wild, and Natural Reaction

I also want more advanced talents to further smooth the mana cost of shifting between cat and bear form. The 30% bonus conferred from Natural Shapeshifter is nice, but why are shapeshifting talents in the Resto Tree?

This could usher in a new style of "form flow" play that would let Bears use more of the skills from their other forms for brief periods of time without risking a full-on wipe. A good example of this would be Innervating a healer, or casting Rebirth on a dealer that "took too much", or

Target next target
Cat Form
Feral Charge - Cat [10 energy]
Mangle (Cat) [45 energy]
Rake [40 energy]
Savage Roar [Instant Finish]
Bear Form [10 Rage from Furor]
Maul [Bonuses from Mangle (Cat), Savage Roar carry over]

We could also have similar talents that let us briefly build mana from damage dealt instead of rage. This would allow us to refuel our mana pool while dealing/tanking.

The essence of the "form flow" style of play would be for the player to blur the lines between rage, mana and energy, and to flow between the various forms as the needs of these resources dictates. It would lead to a highly dynamic play style and let us bring more of the full spectrum of our abilities to bear (no pun intended) during combat.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

GC On Picking Gear in Cataclysm

This is a heartening post by GhostCrawler:

"Actually, we aren't trying to make gear choices easier. We like when it's a hard call on whether to upgrade vs. stick with what you have, etc. In designer parlance terms, that is an "interesting decision." Non-interesting decisions are typically no-brainers.

We want to remove some of the confusion over a complicated stat system, which we think we can do without reducing the system's depth. In fact, the other motivation for the stats overhaul was to solve some of the problems where a certain stat trumps all or a certain stat is always junk. If we nail that, then gear choices will actually be harder in Cataclysm, not easier."

There's been a little hyperbole on the forums this week that Blizzard's essentially reducing the game to two stats--one that makes good stuff happen and one that prevents bad stuff from happening (sometimes).

Needless to say, we prize our gear choices, sweating bullets over whether to use a pair of gloves that gives me more stamina and survivability, or using the Gloves of the Fang for the 2-piece bonus has been a challenging decision, and I'm really just getting started. Hopefully the future of Druid gear choices is as rewarding as it has been in the past.

Not that we need to necessarily have tanking leather again, but they do need to preserve the challenge and unique flavor of our class in itemization.

Future of Tank Balance in Cataclysm

It seems that the game design team intend to keep the four tanking classes individually unique, rather than only superficially different:

"Rather than have all the tanks have the same health, armor, avoidance and cooldowns, we’d rather have four unique tanking classes rather than just superficial or artistic differences. Yes, that design is harder to balance, but we think class distinction is ultimately more interesting, which is better for the long term health of the game. The goal remains to have all four tanks be viable for any encounter, assuming sufficient gear and skill, and any differences in performance on individual encounters to be minor."

Any encounter? I wonder if that includes 25-man hard modes.

Bear Tanking Items at Level 20

While the 20s have very little to offer Bears in terms of new skills, they certainly do bring a wealth of new items. I'm going to start compiling a list of items that are available at given levels, and will commit to keeping these lists up to date and adding items as I learn more about them.

The items listed below are superior to the best that was available at the previous level, as measured in TankPoints.



If you know of items I have missed please let me know in the comments and I'll add them to the list. Thanks for your help!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I ... Have Pink Fur?

Last night I crushed Deadmines for the Miners Cape and the Smelting Pants, completing my collection of top-shelf L19 tanking gear. I landed a fantastic dungeon party that included a Ret Paladin pulling about 75 DPS. The party was very skillful, it was as good an ending as I could have asked for in my first bracket of instances, so I ponied up my 10g and then went back to Ashenvale and leveled to 20.

It was a bittersweet thing, to bid farewell to my first real gear crawl on Brick. Going from auction house greens to top of the line in just a bit over a week, got me over being nervous about getting back into tanking.

It turns out I have pink fur in Cat Form. Pink. I feel like a quadripedal, pixelated, Night Elf analog of Conan O'Brien. Not that that's a bad thing, at all. But I'm not sure about pink fur. It's just not me.

Now begins the 20s bracket. The next ten levels will not see much in the way of skills for Bear form. Instead, I'll be looking for ways to amplify my Bear form with my Cat abilities. I've already been practicing a caster-form combo that involves Bash, dropping into Caster form, casting an instant Moonfire, then back into Bear Form for Furor and 10 rage. By the time the mob falls out of the stun from Bash, they've got a HoT on them and a reinvigorated bear. Working this trick against two mobs requires a little Nature's Grasp and some dancing, but it's fun. Having done a lot of cat-bear form-flow work in the past including my now infamous Flying Bear Maneuver, I'll be looking for more combos that cross the lines of form.

Looking into a change of hair color. Pink being pink and all.

On PVE Twinking, Thick Skin and Kid Gloves

The new Dungeon Finder has literally revolutionized the game. Why race to the endgame and wait in line to raid tank? Tanking is fun, that's the bottom line. It used to be that you raced to the endgame in order to increase your chances of finding other players who were on your server and looking for a group. For example, getting a group together to take on Sunken Temple was notoriously difficult when I was leveling my first five or six characters to 80 on The Venture Co. Getting parties together for Lower Blackrock Spire was just impossible, and entirely out of the question. I never even saw the inside of these dungeons until much later on, when I was leading tours for my alts with my main, and at the time I was overwhelmed with a sadness that these dungeons would never get played honestly again, at least not on my server.

All that is over. With the ability to find dungeon groups, and especially the ability to slow down one's experience and level progression, the option to savor these old instances is absolutely back on the table. Players like me, who are "new" to the game, having come in in the latter half of the Burning Crusade expansion, can get a taste of how the game used to be, and it has really broadened my ability to have fun with and appreciate the old instance content.

Blizzard has hit a silent grand slam on this matter. I don't see people talking about PvE Twinking, but I'm here to say it's a renaissance for the game.

Gushing aside, in the first bracket of instances (I don't count RFC--there's not really enough gear in there for it to be considered anything but a trailer to the dungeon game) you're very likely to run into players who have never run an instance before. It's especially sad, given the funny and well written article today at about how Death Nuggets are the new Huntards, that for truly new players, the Hunter class is still a strong and popular choice, and despite the potential of the class, its subtler aspects do not lend themselves well to novice play in dungeon instances.

By the time they hit level 19, a rogue is either learning how to play their class, or they're getting killed with every pull, and this while leveling. Same goes of a warrior, shaman, all of the classes really. The pet-as-protector does so much to insulate the hunter from harm, that the class stands out in instance play when that dynamic changes.

And, yes, I am specifically talking about novice hunters who leave their pets on aggressive mode, leave growl turned on, can't manage their mana, and generally make a tank's job unreasonably challenging. Not because they're bad or not worthy of playing in dungeons with the rest of us, not at all. Maybe they just spend too much time in the woods and need to learn a bit of teamwork is all. I'm just sayin'.

I've had a couple of great experiences in the last two days in dungeons with solid hunters who knew exactly what they were doing and rained holy havoc on the damage meters. And they make up for the others, but they are rare. I cannot lie. When I see a hunter in the ranks I tend to expect the worst. But, as this is not a productive attitude, I've been trying to be proactive and helpful instead.

A few bad encounters have gotten me into the habit of starting out the event with a standard spiel. First I'll ask if this is anyone's first instance encounter, and if there is a hunter whether they have Growl turned off and passive mode turned on. I'll also look on the party roster to see who is the healer, and then ask who the healer is. Not to be insulting, but I've had Druid Healers who immediately took to Bear form and then ran out and started pulling, then barked at me over and over and OVER again for a res when their laughable 700 hit points were splattered all over the walls and floor.

You can get a general feel in the first couple minutes whether the party is going to be a wash or if it's something you can stick with. If the DPS characters just run out and start going wild, the healer is in there swinging their staff in the melee, or leaving to go back to town for "milk", your hit points are slooooowly creeping downward and never coming back up, and you're scratching your head wondering what cradle these kids just crawled out of, there's nothing wrong with wishing them all the best and move on to another instance for a while. This is the "thick skinned" part of the life. If your party wants to do the dungeon without a tank, it's their call.

You're a tank, after all. You're not going to have to wait for a new group.

On the other hand, if you've got an alert, good natured healer and the players seem to take well to your starting spiel, you might have the makings of a very fun evening. In general, if you're tanking well and you have a good healer, the two of you should be able to offer a lot in the way of coaching and guidance to the dealers. The damage meters will tell you who needs coaching and who doesn't. The hard part about this is not being a sarcastic, arrogant jerk about it, and also not being a patronizing, smug know-it-all. It's worse with the stress of the dungeon and the limitations of text. In these cases, whispering might help--you're not chewing them out in front of the others.

In all cases, chewing them out never helps. Assume positive intent, go in with the goal of being a resource for them, praise them for their successes, and protect them from their mistakes if you can.

Besides, walking a hunter through the process of setting their pet to passive and turning off Growl for the first time might just transform the game for them, and mark the beginning of a new awareness of the potentials of their class.

I don't know if I'll see as much of the new player mentality in higher level instances, but I'm growing to see putting on the kid gloves as just another element of tanking.

No matter how bad it seems, remember this--at least we don't have to deal with Death Nuggets in the early dungeons.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Mob Handling Notes from Wailing Caverns

When I was running Wailing Caverns last night I was forced to do a lot of fancy mob handling.  WC is chock full of casters, and they know not to come running when you slap them with a Faerie Fire.

One common method used to force the casters to actually come to you is to use a Line of Sight (LoS) tactic.  Since they can't cast at you if you're not in line of sight, you hit them with a Faerie Fire, then back around a corner and they'll come running over.

But using an LoS is not always in the cards.  Sometimes, as is frequently the case in Wailing Caverns, you have dangerous multi-caster pulls, where you have to keep multiple mobs on you that don't want to move.  If you're fortunate enough to have a patient and cunning party that will back up and let you use an LoS ambush, that's great.  But sometimes you just need to throw caution to the wind and get into the thick of things.

It's during these situations that effective aggression management is so important.  One of the things I always try to do is to use Faerie Fire (Feral) on as many targets as I can, and preferably early in the fight.  FFF actually generates threat, unlike Growl.  Having the Glyph of Maul is useful for building threat against a large number of opponents, if you take the time to frequently change targets to spread the love around a bit, but casters are very problematic because they don't line up in front of you the way you'd like them to, and you can't kite them around by walking backwards.

In 3.1, Swipe was changed to affect all mobs in a 360ยบ area around you, a major improvement from Burning Crusade, in which its area of effect was a frontal cone.  This helps in the beginning of a fight, especially if you have spare rage from an earlier encounter.  However, it costs 15 rage with 5 ranks of Ferocity.  Unless you are literally surrounded by mobs, this is not a very good skill to use in terms of threat-to-rage ratios.  Compared to Maul, which costs 5 less rage and generates far more threat, Swipe becomes, at least at the early levels that we're talking about, an emergency button to be used only in special circumstances.  Not until much later on will it become a mainstay, front line workhorse of an ability.

So, barring the frequent use of Swipe to maintain aggression on multi-caster mobs with meat shields tossed in, and potentially adds or patrols, what I do is keep tabs on my threat meter.  If I have at least 3x as much threat as the next guy, even if I'm dealing with a caster, I just leave them and go to the next caster.  Try to get two mobs in front of you if you can, but focus on the casters because the melee mobs will follow along with you.  If you see a caster going after one of your party members, use FFF to suck them back into your threat well.  And if you really start to lose control in a heavy melee situation, because we're in the level 10-19 bracket here and don't have a cooldown to force every nearby mob to attack us, just punch Demoralizing Roar to at least hamstring the attack power of the nearby mobs.

Two more tips for Wailing Caverns.  First, armor doesn't mitigate magic, so building a massive effective health pool is the best defense against these sorts of encounters.  Eat your buff food.  Second, save your Bash for when the druids try to use their sleep spell--losing your healer or one of your dealers in a big fight could get you squished.

Tanked to the Teeth

Just a few more pieces now, and I can move on to new content.  I saw two of the remaining four pieces tonight in WC, but the party was heavy on leather wearers.  I decided not to "need" the Deep Fathom Ring, because the healer (who did a rock star job) needed it, and I can't wear it until level 20 anyway.

I can still upgrade to the Smelting Pants and Serpent's Shoulders without proceeding to level 20.  At that point, there'll be nothing I can improve on, in terms of tanking gear, for this batch of dungeons.  The biggest improvement, in terms of raw effective health, that I can get at level 20, will be the Black Wolf Bracers from Shadowfang Keep.  At that point, there'll be nothing from WC, SFK, or DM that I need for tanking, and I can change focus to leveling for a while.

I had a fantastic group for WC tonight, which made up for two false starts earlier in the evening.  Looking forward to cross-realm friend lists so I can keep in touch with some of these good healers.

Shout out to Reilynn on the Mannoroth realm.  Fast, clear headed, well geared healer, I never saw her mana bar go down all night.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The "Bear Prayer"

Whence flows our health pool
Hallowed be thy mane
The rage will come
When dodge be done
In Azeroth and too in Draenor
Give us this Swipe our Savage Defense
As we defend those who Swipe before us
And lead us not to chain wiping
But deliver us from combat
For thine are the crit strikes
And the dodges
And the purples
Forever and ever

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Addon Review: WhoPulled

I installed an addon called WhoPulled a couple of days ago and had a chance to use it last night.  For the most part, it seemed to work like a charm.

It basically whispers to you in white text whenever anyone pulls anything.  Yourself included.  Then, you can type:


And you'll yell "SomeDude pulled SomeMob!"

I discovered and remembered some things as a result of this process.  First, as suspected, a couple of my crew members were pulling naughtily when they ought not to have been.  Second, and not entirely surprisingly, it was my fault.

The reason it was my fault is that I was tanking with an "Inside Formation", which looks something like this:

     [add]     [add]

    [mdps]    [mdps]



A much more ideal Melee Formation for tanking, especially now that Bears have 360° swipe is the Outside Formation:

       [add]     [add]

   [mdps]   [mdps]



If this formation is used, then Swipes bring incoming adds into the "Threat Well" of the tank, not of the Melee DPS characters. So, while I used the /ywho features of WhoPulled very sparingly, it did help me keep tabs on whether any of my crew members had made nice with the locals during midfight, so I could drop a growl and keep things flowing in a good direction.

I'd like to see a much more comprehensive tool (not Omen, which only shows me aggro for the mob I am targeting) to give me details whenever someone pulls aggro off of me, for any of the mobs that I hold aggro with. Ideally, there'd be an icon I could roll over in a "stack" then I could use a rollover /assist macro to yoink the agg back from them. It would be similar to WhoPulled, or potentially a useful extension to the existing functionality.

Get To The Wheel!

Get to the choppa! wheel!

This was the cry of salvation last night when I was tanking the Deadmines and pulled an epic fail Brick Blunder, accidentally using Faerie Fire (Feral) on a mob at the top of the scaffolding / ramp on the gangway leading up to the final boss encounter.  I had meant to pull the mob directly in front of me but missed by two entire stories on the scaffolding.

The mob heap snowballed on the way down the ramp.  It was a Bad Thing™.

I think, by the time the entire group of mobs got down to me there were 10-15 of them, and my healer had the presence of mind to let me twist in the wind and bust their Disciplined chops up the ramp and onto the water wheel.  At the very least, I think I bought them some time to escape.

Once on that wheel, the mobs cannot attack you, as they lack ranged abilities.  If you wait long enough, they de-aggress and return to their leashed starting points.

After that, wipe recovery and we were back up and running.

I will likely go back to the Deadmines after a level or two and try those pulls again with my patented Flying Bear Maneuver.  I'll try to get some screenshots of those pulls as well.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Endangered Species?

I wasn't dead.  I was just hibernating.

Seriously.  Tanking the snot out of my mission-fit Dominix in EVE Online.  They call us "care bears" in that game.

But I come back, and everyone is . . . just . . . gone.  Karthis, Tarskin, Marino, Kalon, all of the bear bloggers of old.

I'm adding Darksend to my list--as far as I can tell, she's the only one right now.  And she is a darksend if for no other reason than that there are no other beacons in the fog.

Blizzard might have messed up worse than I thought.

It's become clear that I need to do something extra special to get the old excitement flowing again.  I think that I'm going to keep writing about this fun PvE twinking, but also something extra special for old time's sake.


I'm going to start a new category called "Experience" which is a euphamism for "my personal screw-ups". Articles tagged "Experience" probably will have stories of how I made a big bear blunder.

Two nights ago I entered a Shadowfang Keep instance through the dungeon finder interface.  As soon as I got into the instance I was disappointed to see that they were already pulling trash and I needed to buff up, figure out who the healer was, etc.  Someone was poisoned and asked me to Cure Poison for them.

I had not been in the instance long enough to change form, I signed on as the tank, not the healer.  Pulls were coming in, and then, to make matters worse, I accidentally backed out of the instance portal.

It brought me back to Astranaar, where I'd just been.  There was no portal to get back, and I could see the members of the party talking, not quite realizing that I'd accidentally exited the instance.  I frantically cast my eyes around the user interface, trying to find the button that would bring me back in to help.  But I couldn't find it.

And I didn't even have cure poison trained yet.  Didn't do the quest line for it.  (since corrected)

I dropped out of the group, and hid under the lake so nobody could see my deserter flag.  Lesson learned.

Effective Health versus Technique

In article after article, and in page after page, guide after guide, and gear list after gear list, the importance of itemization is hawked to us as the ultimate consideration and metric for determination of how "good" a tank is.

But we know it's just not so.

Whether one item or talent or profession gives you 20% more effective health than another item or talent or profession assumes that your character is a complete system independent of additional input.  I get the distinct impression that consideration of the effect of end-game professions for bear tanks assumes that all the other variables are perfect, which we know is far from the case.  What use, for example, is another 1030 health if your healer is running out of mana because you can't keep aggro off of that Fury warrior?  What benefit does additional crit confer if your hit rating is laughably poor?

But I would like to believe that how a person plays their character distinguishes them as "good" as much as, if not more than the cumulative item level of their gear, or the purely numeric effect their gear has on their effective health calculations.  Experience (being the cumulative mistakes I've made) tells me that this is the case.

For example, what is the effective health contribution to a well-timed use of Nature's Grasp or Bash to slow down a fight?

Or, more to the point, what effect does rage augmentation through powershifting confer on us at early levels?  Is it worth the tradeoff between Mangle at level 50 and level 55?  Is the choice to take one over the other purely personal and entirely dependent on play style, or does it actually have an impact on our effective health, and can this impact be measured?

I've made the decision for now to keep five points in Furor, because it gives me an additional weapon to use in a fight, at a time when I am having difficulty keeping my rage bar full.  On paper, it does not confer as much effective health to me as the second tier feral talents, but if I have the rage to keep mobs off of my DPS for a much higher percentage of each encounter, then hopefully it keeps my healer from going OOM as often and in a roundabout way that improves my effective health.

Not through the numbers, but through technique.  And, in my mind, technique is what the game is really about.

PvE Twinking

Since the addition of the "XP Freeze" feature in WoW, players are able to do something we never could before--we can twink our characters for dungeon instance play.

Yesteryear you had to content yourself with whatever you were lucky enough to pull from a dungeon, or go through the excruciating process of grinding an instance with a high level "main" character while your "twink" stayed back far enough to not get any experience, then bring them in for the boss encounter so they could grab the loot at the end.  I did my share of both methods, and they were nowhere near as fun as this is.

With the ability to turn off my experience, I can now run dungeons with my PvE-twinked bear tank and get the blue items that I always wanted from dungeons that are my level.  Moreover, with the dungeon finder I can nearly always get a group together, and really can savor the experience.  At that level, you need to actually learn some of the pulls, and genuinely play the instance to the best of your extremely limited ability.

The experience is like riding a very well built and maintained fixed gear.  There are fewer moving parts, so you really need to learn to make the most of each of them.

I might really enjoy the option to preferentially join groups with gear scores similar to my own so that I don't get the odd healer with 500 mana on a trial account who insists on drinking ice cold milk at level 19.  Being in a group of other PvE-twinked characters who really knew their class and role might be a lot of fun.

Or, the ego-bleed might drive me insane.  But I'd give it a whirl.  In fact, this might mark a renaissance in WoW for me.  With this type of gameplay we could put together a guild for running some of the classic raiding instances.

I only have a couple more slots before I've gotten everything I could from this bracket of dungeons, and will likely move on after that.  But it's been a really fun way to get back into the swing of things, and I'm proud to say Brickflank is looking mighty tanky these days.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Terrible 20s

From the standpoint of an ursine enthusiast, the 20s bring very little to the table in the terms of feral tanking improvements.  They are, in order of appearance:

  1. Demoralizing Roar, Rank 2 - Level 20
  2. Feral Charge - Level 20
  3. Swipe (Bear), Rank 2 - Level 24
  4. Maul, Rank 3 - Level 26
  5. Challenging Roar - Level 28
This is a fairly sparse list, and the 20s seem to be more dedicated to the introduction of the various Cat abilities, as well as some respectable improvements to the Restoration skills.  I am on the brink of leveling to 20, and will likely do so if only to achieve the remaining skills needed for The Flying Bear Maneuver.

My thoughts on the 20s, however, are rather grim with respect to feral tanking.  My next entry will focus on the love-hate relationship we have with the Maul skill, how it is best used, what its relationship is to swipe, and other Maul-related things.

Sunday, January 31, 2010


Powershifting is a technique that involves instantaneously changing form from one's current form to a different form and back.  For example, you would drop out of your Bear Form and immediately back into Bear Form.

There are two major reasons for powershifting.

First, changing forms breaks roots such as Entangling Roots and Frost Nova.  This is invaluable in a tanking setting as it allows you freedom of movement and the ability to move dangerous mobs away from your rooted teammates.

The second reason for powershifting, especially as a Bear, is that it "procs" or activates the benefit conferred by the talent "Furor" and instantly give you 10 rage if the tank is dry.  This, essentially, turns mana into rage.

I will only discuss powershifting from Bear Form into Bear Form, with Caster Form as the intermediate step.

There are two ways to powershift.  The first method is to manually press the button, either on your keyboard if it is mapped to a key or to a slot on your action bar, wait for your character to change forms back to caster form, and then press the button a second time in order to change back.  The second method is to press a button that activates a powershifting macro, which will instantly transform you from your current form into your current form, without visibly halting at the caster form stage.

I have not tested whether there are actually practical reasons to use the macro, in the form of taking damage while in caster form.  But, my intuition tells me that for that split second while I am in caster form, I am vulnerable in a way that is circumvented by the use of the powershifting macro.

The basic powershifting macro is simple:

/cast !Bear Form

Once you reach sufficient level you will need to switch this to Dire Bear Form, but the general principle is the same.  You put the commands to drop your current form, and to assume Bear Form on the stack.  They are executed in that order, in one action.  The effect of each happen at the same time, and you thus receive 10 rage.

If you are forced to shift form in order to escape a root during a dungeon encounter, this technique helps you prevent the complete loss of all of your rage in the bargain.  It also helps you prime the pump for the first several seconds of an encounter.

I've heard stories of people being roundly mocked during pick-up-group instance encounters for taking five points in Restoration talents so early in their leveling process.  I'll examine whether five points in Furor is worth the tradeoff for Feral talents in my next installation.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

On Technique

A professor of mine suggested this week during a lecture that a "technique" is a trick that you can use more than once.  To me, that is a very good working definition.  When I categorize techniques on this blog I will try to make sure that they are not just one-off tricks, but those which are generally applicable.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Bear's First Glyph

I chose the Glyph of Maul, doing myself the disastrous disservice to put it off until L14.  What a difference a glyph makes.

Aside from being able to get more mileage out of your Light, Sweet, Rage for the damage meters, it also keeps your corpse off the turf.  If I could do it all over again, I'd have had this precious addition to my arsenal on standby when I hit L10, no question asked.

On other notes, without any form of instant root or means of slowing down fleeing opponents, I've been using Moonfire as a finishing stroke if I'm low on rage.  But if it doesn't stop the fleeing mob from bringing back help, it's probably effort--and especially mana--wasted.  In that case it might be best to double down, self-cast Healing Touch and grit your teeth for the adds.

Form-flow gets expensive until we rank in Natural Shapeshifter, but it's definitely my style of play so I cut corners on mana where I can for now.  While Moonfire has an attractive element of instant gratification, it chews through mana like porcupines through the outhouse wall.

When I get the 5th rank of Furor I'll write a bit about powershifting.  For the next couple of levels its still just statistically likely to be useful so I don't risk wasting mana on it.

Two more levels and I'm going to hit pause and run some instances for a few nights.  I hope everyone has a great tanking weekend!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Attacking While Backstrafing

I use a Belkin n52te device when I play WoW.

I have all key strobing turned off, and the first four keys in each of three rows mapped to 1-4, 5-8, and 9-= respectively. I also have shift and control mapped to keys. Target next and target previous are mapped to the scroll wheel, and having everything well within reach saves me some wrist strain.

But it's the little thumb toggle that really helps me with backstrafing. In order to completely eliminate the possibility that I'd truly run from an enemy, and by doing so lose my dodge bonus, I decided to map the up, down, and back positions on the thumb toggle to "q", "e" and "s", respectively. The important thing to note about this is that I do not have "w" mapped on the Belkin, which means I can only reach full speed by strafing or using my mouse.

In order to turn or change direction, I use my mouse. To run forward I use the mouse. When the time comes to backstrafe, I take over on the Belkin, and use the mouse to control my direction. This has been good practice, and I'm finally starting to really get the hang of it after a couple of false starts. But it's not easy mode by any means. In order to get the benefits from this you have to keep a careful eye on whether or not, as you are strafing away, the enemy is running along in front of you or behind you.

Consider if you were facing away from a target. You could circle strafe it with your back facing it the entire time, if you wanted. But in order to always keep it in front of you you need to be facing the other direction. It's the same way with backstrafing. If you go off at the wrong angle the enemy will be behind you, and you won't be able to dodge or use your attacks. Fortunately the game gives an audible whenever you try to attack something that is behind you, so I advise that you keep Maul on cooldown when practicing your backstrafing.

By the time you get Bear form, you should be able to head back to Teldrassil or Mulgore and practice your professions while getting in some backstrafing practice. You can use your keyboard, or get all fancy with the peripherals if you prefer. But practice makes perfect. Once you've got it down you should be able to switch orientation so that you're traveling in the same direction but facing the opposite way. Any opponent that was just behind you is now "in front" of you again. You can still move away at a running pace, dodge and attack as normal.

With practice you should be able to switch back and forth effortlessly, always keeping your enemy "in front" of you as you backstrafe. Once you have that down, we can talk about ways to do this with some semblance of situational awareness, so you're not running blind.

Simple Target and Attack Macros for Bears

You creep just into range of your quarry. The Moonfire icon lights up, signaling that you are ready. You steel your nerves and begin casting Wrath. The green bolt flies through the air even as you cast Entangling Roots. As the bolt hits the target it lunges at you, but becomes ensnared in the roots. The white bolt of Moonfire bursts out of the sky. Knowing you have only moments, you let loose a second bolt of Wrath as your quarry tears free of the entangling roots and races toward you. With only a split second to spare, you slide into Bear Form and then . . .

Nothing happens. The mob sits there hitting you, but for some reason you're not hitting it back. What the hell? Frustrated, you scramble with your mouse to right click the target and start the melee attack. There it goes! You see that rage bar slowly inching upward, but by now you're no longer in the zone, and the rest of the fight is just waiting for that Maul to proc and hoping you can sneak in Bash when the mob tries to self-heal.

This has been my experience for the last several nights. Whether I'm pulling with a complicated opening sequence of Wrath-Root-Moonfire-Wrath or with Growl, I pull and then grit my teeth when the mob comes in and I realize I'm still not attacking them. I finally broke down last night and cobbled together a very basic targeting macro, which I'll share now.

/cleartarget [help][dead]
/targetenemy [noexists, nodead, nohelp]
/startattack [harm]

This does the following:
  1. If I am currently targeting something that is dead, or friendly, drop the target.
  2. If there is a nearby enemy that is not dead and not friendly, and if I do not presently have a target, target that enemy.
  3. If the current target is an enemy, start attacking it.
Now comes the fun part. A targeting macro is something I will be using over and over again, as long as I play. I'll need functionality similar to that above throughout the game and eventually will want to augment it for special scenarios such as party assist, healer innervation, emergency threat snaps to pull mobs off of DPS and Healers. Moreover, I'll want to have the functionality above in most of my other combat macros.

In the Escape > Interface > Action Bars panel, there is an option to show the "Right Bar" and "Right Bar 2". These are caolled the "MultiBars" and we want them both visible. I place my new targeting macro icon in the bottom slot of the left MultiBar. Once the macro icon is in place in slot 12 of the left MultiBar, I can now create a second macro:

/showtooltip Growl
/click MultiBarLeftButton12;
/use [stance:1]Growl

As you can see, my new Growl Macro references my targeting macro.

Now, I pull Growl off of my action bar and replace it with my new Growl macro. Whenever I use the Growl Macro, it goes out and looks for a nearby target, with preference to ones that are directly in front of me. Once it has the target, it sets my state to "in combat" with the target, and then uses Growl. The instant the mob gets within range of my autoattack, I start swinging. No right clicking in panic involved.

I use a similar simple macro for Maul:

/showtooltip Maul
/click MultiBarLeftButton12;
/use [stance:1]Maul

The nice thing about this is that if I'm fighting two or three mobs at once and every millisecond matters, the instant the mob I'm fighting dies, if I jam the maul macro button I immediately get a new hostile target and start swinging. If I have sufficient rage, I start out with a Maul.

Most importantly, however, if I want to upgrade my targeting macro later on, I only have to do it in one place.

These are intentionally very simple, very basic macros and should be usable by any Bear Druid level 10 and up. Once we get Faerie Fire, Growl will take on a completely different role. There are very complex limits to what we can do with macros, which I will not enumerate here. For now, this is a simple macro that I use regularly, and it's a good introduction to macros for baby bear tanks.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Bricks, Backstrafing, Talents and Professions for Baby Bears

After doing more work last night with backstrafing, I wanted to share a couple of my observations. But first, a note on the name "Brickflank". Since choosing this name for my new Bear Tank, the word "Brick" has been marinating, infusing itself into my whole mindframe regarding Druid tanking. Bottom line is that it's just a fun word, and a damned fine metaphor for the tank role.

But enough on that. On to the sauce.

First, I have absolutely confirmed that while backstrafing away from an enemy, I can not only dodge their attacks while withdrawing, but also deliver my own attacks. And, at the moment of my choosing, I can drop a Nature's Grasp for the root and make a little distance. This could be very useful for tricky pulls where you are forced to pull two mobs but need a little one-on-one quality time with one of them.

All in all, it led to quite a few interesting encounters. Imagine me, strafing into trees and shrubberies while trying to learn how to backstrafe while still remaining aware of my surroundings. I still feel like a baby bear, batting around bunnies in the backyard. But, I tell you, there's a Brick inside, just waiting to claw his way out.

The day after I got Bear Form, I continued to struggle with what professions I'd pick up, and spent an evening doing prep work and chores. First, I took the long boat and train ride to Ironforge and trained up maces, happily ending my fishing pole's reign as the best weapon I could afford. After that I decided to grind out some startup capital and get the old economic engine up and running, churning out about 30 gold with various fish, herbs, leather, and other farmed goods, as well as a few well placed local recipes that tend to sell for a lot on the auction house. Some poor guy also bought a stack of Refreshing Spring Water from me for 10g. Now I know how Coca Cola Company feels.

I immediately dumped this income into a couple of green tanky items and a respectable lumberjack shirt. Let's face it. I'm going for the "Brick" effect, and nothing about a wiry pink-skinned Night Elf with his chest-bits showing says "Brick" to me. Lumberjack shirt took care of that issue. I now feel that I can call myself an ursine of promise. That shirt will be with me forever, I have a feeling about this.

Fully recognizing that these profession choices are temporary, I picked up herbalism and skinning, and started to make the most of them. While doing so I had time to think about the three main gathering professions. Each of them "feeds" one or more of the crafting professions (I'm not talking one-off recipes that require a crossover item, but honest daily working relationships here). Skinning feeds only Leatherworking. Herbalism feeds both Inscription and Alchemy. Mining feeds Engineering, Blacksmithing, AND Jewelcrafting. Experience tells me that there's a glut of glyphs on the auction house, because people rarely need to change their glyphs out, so there's not a great deal of income in Inscription, effectively negating it from the list of potential professions I could feed with a given gathering specialist. Some time ago, I recall reading a comparison of the end-game profession benefits on Druid effective health, and Engineering was high on the list. Experience confirms that engineering makes for fun tanking. So, I can guarantee I'll switch Brickflank into Engineering at some point. It's also worth noting that as you go through the leveling process you tend to accumulate tremendous amounts of various materials. I don't think that maintaining two serious gathering professions on the same character is in the cards for me, at least not for very long. Brickflank is destined to be an engineer, but I'm not resolved on whether or not I'll make him a miner as well. Skinning begets Crit and leather for tanky gear as I level.

I had a proverbial "moment of fear and pain" deciding how to allot my first handful of talent points. It really comes down to two choices. First there is Furor, which gives us that rush of Light, Sweet, Rage upon first switching into Bear Form and helps to prime the line for an opening Maul. The second is Ferocity, which reduces the Rage and Energy requirements for a host of our front line skills such as Maul, Swipe, Claw, Rake and Mangle.

You want them both. It's true, but until L19 you can't handle them both. Too much power in one so young leads only to the dark side. Or so I'm told.

I went with Ferocity, because it comes with a guarantee, whereas climbing the ladder to Furor 5 still leaves a chance of zero effect in the crucial opening moments of an encounter. It could mean the difference between holding aggro on a group fight and wiping on a pull.

Level 12 brought with it Enrage and Revive, both of which will prove tremendously useful for when I get in over my furry little head or things go South in a fight. And I will. I've got a full slate of quests lined up in Darkshore and plan to pound back some levels tonight and push for L19, at which point I might actually turn off XP for a bit and do some tanking in Deadmines and Wailing Caverns, try out the new random dungeon feature, and get back out in front of a crew.

Coming up: A glimpse at glyphs, tanking cuisine, bartender and macros for baby bears and a special surprise for old times' sake.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

First Encounter in Bear Form

Fresh from the Moonglade at level 10, and flush from having just achieved my Bear Form, the first thing I did was savor the beautiful new druid bear model, then promptly ran off into the forest to pick a pixel fight and get a sense of where I need to improve.

Immediately, insight. Armed only Growl, Maul, and vendor whites, I took a few nasty hits and a year and a half of tanking memories came flooding back to me.

The lesson I took away was this: the essence of playing a druid tank is knowing when and how to use your abilities from non-bear forms to amplify your bear abilities. In my case, as a level 10 Bear fresh from the press, this means using Thorns, Mark of the Wild, Wrath, and Moonfire, and then switching to Bear form. In the first few levels as a feral druid, we really need to learn to get the most out of our other abilities, and to get used to switching between our forms.

And, as the march of progress slowly drums along, it's very easy to forget that lesson. I'm glad that I'm coming back to the game in this way--starting from scratch really makes me appreciate my other Druid, and what other players go through on their first journey to the top.

One thing I'm doing right away, as long as I'm relearning how to tank from scratch, is teaching myself to strafe backwards. Instead of tucking tail and running from an encounter, a Bear tank should turn sideways and strafe away from the attacking mob. This back-strafing technique allows us to dodge attacks even as we withdraw at full speed. Tucking tail is (rightly) punished by completely disabling our Dodge ability. This technique can save our skin when shadowmeld is on cooldown.

Remember: A Leatherbelly never runs away from a fight. They backstrafe. Also, a Leatherbelly goes into combat buffed, with the target debuffed, whenever possible.

The Leatherbelly Tank Blog has a New URL!

After a 10 month hiatus from World of Warcraft, I have returned to Azeroth and on January 25th 2010, launched my first Alliance character, a Druid (naturally) named Brickflank. Brickflank is my new main on the eve of the coming cataclysm, and I hope to have him fully leveled by the time the expansion hits.

My reason for the fresh start is this: Right now, today, is probably our last chance to explore and experience "Old Azeroth". With Cataclysm, the whole of the world will change. It's now or never. I've never played an alliance character, so am giving myself a fresh start and hopefully new perspectives on druid tanking.

In order to keep my blogging consistently focused on druid tanking, I have decided to keep the names of my characters out of the URL and move the blog to If you were a follower of the old blog, you'll find that you're still following it, just under a new name.