Raiding and the Great Tank Problem

One of the most difficult things to do in WoW (and probably any game with similar class/ endgame design) is to get a regular spot as a tank in a raiding group.

The reasons for this are basically a pure numbers game. There isn’t room for very many tanks in a typical raid encounter. Often only one main tank. By comparison, every instance or small group needs someone to tank for it. So by the time you get to end game, you need lots of tanks to work the small group content but there’s no room for most of them in raids. Something’s gotta give.

If you have few enough tanks for everyone to get a raid spot then groups will be sitting around for hours waiting for their tank spots to be filled. If there are enough tanks for the groups to form quickly then most of them will never get to tank in raids.

There are other reasons too. Because the main tank is such a singular position, it makes sense for them to need the best gear, the most practice, and be among the most reliable in attendance. Raids are really far too dependent on their tanks, which makes it tough for more casual players to break in.

Add to this the fact that tanks tend to stick with their raid groups. They all know how difficult it is to find a spot as a raid tank so they hang on when they have achieved one. Mature raid groups rarely seek tanks. So as well as struggling to find a spot at all, it’s also not a very mobile role. In a game where you can argue that it’s sensible to move around until you find a group that suits your needs, being a tank is a real detriment. The group you want may not want you (and probably won’t.)

Unsurprisingly, a lot of endgame tanks quit once they give up on getting raid spots. They may respec and try out a different role, but they mostly stop tanking. After all, what’s the point in gathering gear that is intended for content where you’ll never be able to use it? So there is a shortage of non-raid tanks, and then new people roll alts and the cycle starts again.

I’m quite sure that this is why so many people have unplayed warriors and that as soon as the class gets buffed they’ll quite likely switch back to them. There’s an underlying demand from people who want to play the role but can’t, due to numbers.

If you think WoW is bad, EQ2 is worse

This is a post from the EQ2 boards where Nutznichts looked at the class balance in some of their top raid guilds. Four out of the least common eight classes are tanks. It’s worse than it sounds because the most common classes are significantly more common than the least (23 times more common in this sample!)

This is like saying, “If you think you might ever even vaguely consider raiding, don’t roll class X.” And to add insult to injury, the most common classes in raids are not the worst soloers. It is absolutely possible in that game to pick a good soloing class that is also needed in raids. Just make sure it isn’t a tank.

EQ2 is working on the class balance in the next patch, making some of the same decisions that the WoW designers made at the beginning of Wrath and letting buffing classes buff the whole raid. That should even some of the imbalances out. But it won’t help the tanks.

How WoW is trying to help

In Wrath, the situation is better than it has been since vanilla WoW. Ten man raids really do help a lot, because they require tanks in the same ratios as 5 man instances. i.e. a 5 man instance needs one tank, a 10 man raid needs two. So that works. I’d recommend anyone who want to try end game tanking to get into some ten man raids. It’s a good way to learn the encounters, the more geared tanks are probably bored of them, and they do need tanks.

Dual specs helps a lot also. It’s easier than it has ever been to play a character that is dps or healing in 25 man raids and switching to tank in 10 mans and instances. There’s still a lot of work involved, you need to gather two sets of gear, but the game caters much better to that playing style than it ever did before.

But still, tanking for a 25 man group is pretty much the premier tanking content in the game. And it is an experience reserved for very few people, excluding casual players by the intensely competitive nature of getting a spot.

Sure, you can tank for a casual raid group (like I do). But the process of getting that spot is connected with the fact I’ve been playing with them for the last two years. It’s hardly easy.

Is the tank/heals/dps model the problem? Or is it the raids themselves?

It’s the combination of raiding and the standard PvE class model that raises the issues. There are very few games which allow tanking to be a coordinated and shared role in the same way that healing or dps can be. DaoC allowed a tank to block for someone else as long as they were nearby. So raid tanking always involved two people. One main tank and one specialist shield tank who was blocking for them. The shield tank job wasn’t especially exciting but it did let another person have a role in the raid.

You could imagine a game where tanks (or anyone who can pick up a shield) could execute complex roman army-style formations with actual shield walls, wedges, tortoises, and squares.

You could imagine games where tanks have to swap aggro a lot because they can only tank for limited amounts of time.

But I wonder increasingly if tanks are the real problem in the tank/heal/dps model. I enjoy the role, but I also know that I get the lion’s share of the complexity in most encounters. It’s fun, but is it fair that I do all that while dps are getting bored at the back?

The best designed raid encounters keep everyone busy on useful tasks. But I think current class design makes that a tougher challenge than it needs to be. If we got rid of the idea of the main tank and the main tanking classes altogether, it might be that games would become more fun all round.

Otherwise, the majority of tanks are doomed to never see a raid spot.

27 thoughts on “Raiding and the Great Tank Problem

  1. Blizzard balances everything. I’m completely sure that tanking unbalance is NOT a mistake.

    The reason is simple: if the DPS is useless, that doesn’t matter unless you do hard modes.
    If the healer is useless, you just give him some spamming work.
    If the tank is useless, the raid wipes. Even in piss-easy encounters.

    In Naxx, (and siege, and normal antechamber) the common raid composition is (except hard mode guilds):
    – 2 tanks
    – 2-3 healers on the random-but-big damage
    – 4-5 interrupt-kite-DPS
    – 14-15 random people doing things like being dead after the first sec, autoattacking, spamming some rotation in the fire and so on

    Tanking job cannot be given to idiots, so if we would require 5 tank spots, it automatically require 5 non-idiots. That’s way out of reach for “casual” guilds.

    • I suspect strongly that the numbers got skewed at the start of TBC when they decided to open up raid tanking to other classes AND add 25 man raids, and it was simply going to be too much work to sort it out (if that’s even possible within the tank/heal/dps model, which it may not be).

      So at that point it was easier to run with it and let the players work something out. (Which is sometimes the best solution.)

  2. It’s funny that just about every other guild I know has tanks sitting out, when all my guild has is two main-spec Ulduar tanks, one off-spec tank who would rather go laser pew-pew and that’s it. It’s true, girls don’t seem to enjoy tanking as much as guys do.

    But an allied guild we know really has the issue you describe above. Craploads of tanks, and yet barely any healers.

    • Hmmm.
      I’m sure thats the case for you. However of the 4 Main Tanks in our guild 2 are girls. The off-tanks are mostly guys although we did pick up a new Healer/off-tank the other day.

      Healers:- Everyones a guy bar that new recruit.

      Previously of the 5 or 6 Main tanks I worked with its been about 1/3 or 1/2 girls. Very few healers have been girls. I think 1 from about 20 before my current guild. Odd neh?
      But I’m part of a tank/healer couple. Just the other way around.

  3. I’m sure Gevlon is right. Making raid tanking more accessible is opening the doors to a world of pain for the people the tank is protecting.

    As for EQ2 I believe that Fighters are really just tanks at end game. (Maybe Monks and Bruisers can offer genuine dps). In other words the population of Fighters in raids should be close to the population of Prot Warriors, Prot Pallies, Bear Druids and Tank DKs in end game WoW.

    Interesting what Kadomi says because it matches an experience Larisa at Pink Pigtail Inn discussed yesterday.

  4. You could imagine games where tanks have to swap aggro a lot because they can only tank for limited amounts of time.

    This is essentially the Turtle fight in LotRO.

    In fact, I don’t think LotRO shares many of the issues you’ve talked about here, perhaps because the raiding group size is limited to 12 and there are very few encounters were you won’t want at least 2 tanks.

    I also don’t think your comment about tanks getting the lion’s share of the complexity applies to LotRO either. Of course, tanks have an important strategic role in most encounters, but usually no more so than the majority of other classes. A tank’s role is essentially aggro, positioning and mitigation, which can be challenging, but I’d take that over a typical Lore-master’s task list any day of the week!

  5. Had to leave a reply to this as its how I feel.

    I play tanks in all the MMOs ive played its the role I think im meant to play, even when rolling DPS alts ill still play my tank more.

    What you say about EQ2 is the thing which stopped me playing again. In a raid of 24 people you will take maybe 3 tanks, 1 Fighter, 1 Crusader and maybe one Brawler. I played a Zerk in EQ2 and couldnt for the life of me get a raid spot in our guild. Even when the OT left I still didnt get a shot. Trying to find an established guild who will take a “new” tank is hard. Not to mention that tanking in EQ2 is different from a few other games ive played. The tank sets the pace of the run, he needs to know the instance inside and out before even stepping foot inside.

    The only way ive found to be able to tank anything in games is to either
    a) Be guildmaster and put myself in the spot
    b) Form my own raids

    Right now in WoW im on my lock, but when I was on my warrior I was tanking for us.

    In WAR I would say that my Chosen is our alliances premier tank, I can tank anything in the game.

    To be a successful raid tank in these games that have been out a while you either need to start your own guild, or start things rolling yourself, to most that never seems worth it.

  6. I think your last two paragraphs show what the solution could be: Get rid of the ultra specialized tank-healer-dps trinity.

    We need a different aggro model, and no main tank concept. Not uber high damage spikes that only the main tank can stand. No squishies that go down after 2 hits.

    The problem is that this can take away class diversity, making classes more equal. But it not necessarily has to happen: Enrich the role of the former tank warriors, let them debuff enemy groups with shouts, encourage the own party giving some bonuses. Different kinds of warriors could offer their special flavor buff.

    Major changes to this system would require completely new MMOs. I think Age of Conan, even if it still has a lot of issues, introduced some interesting concepts: I.e. Healers do damage by healing, or generate mana through damage or get a bonus to healing power if they nuke, too.

    I think the main tank concept simply has to go away, there must be a way to have interesting mass battles without falling back to the trinity scheme of most raids.

    • I don’t want to depend on a lucky ultra-high skilled mage who blink-tanks through an encounter, hoping not to get caugth. It doesn’t feel right. I want the bold recovering and crying for more, after he/she got hit.
      Doesn’t matter if phantasy, modern warfare oder scifi: We allways need the Protector, the Killer and the Caretaker.
      And the ratio in WoW is just fine, if not, how comes that we all still play it?

      • The self-evident “we’re all playing it” argument is silly, but useful. On the one hand, if you only ever stick with the “that’s the way things are, so we must like it” logical fallacy, the genre will not progress. On the other hand, why give Blizzard sub money if you want something different?

        As for the trinity of combat roles, it’s absolutely not the only way of handling combat. You can shoehorn people into the roles, but even historically, armies like the Roman Legion tended to do just fine with their phalanxes, no healers or lasers.

  7. Mmm, I know the problem, but as a part time raid tank I suppose I’m in a rather biased position on this. My raid (WoW) has a pool of 6 tanks. We more often than not take 4 tanks at any one time into Ulduar. Yes, dual spec has made this a lot easier, I will spend a good chunk of my (feral druid) time in cat, but that’s also a role I enjoy.

    Even out main tank position is shared between who is best suited for the role, something I’m honestly glad to see rather than the warrior just domineering all. So it is possible to have a bigger pool of tanks, but I also understand why some groups would rather compact that learning into as few people as possible. Less to go wrong, but you also rely on them showing up for the majority of the time. My group is somewhat mature, a good chunk of us can’t have that commitment and my lot pretty much know I’ll only be there for two out of the three weekly raids. And in that we are something of an oddity as well, most raid groups on the server raid four nights a week.

    So it is possible, I just think most groups don’t wish to try it to a greater extent.

    • I find that although the offspec thing is a real boon (I know I enjoy swapping to dps for the odd fight or three), it’s getting harder and harder to maintain a good offspec gear set.

      ofc that was predictable, but getting weapons in particular is a nightmare for non-druids. My chances of grabbing two ulduar 2-handers for my fury offspec? Very low, especially as that stupid 10 man FL thing never ever drops for us.

      So my dps as compared to a specialist dps is pretty low at the moment (although obv still better than if I didn’t respec and switch gear.)

  8. There’s only one tank in the bottom ten most popular EQ2 classes, and that’s the paladin. Monks and bruisers are dps (though with some limited tanking skills). In the top 10, only brigands and shadow knights (a tank) are really effective soloers. Not to say it isn’t a problem in EQ2, but it’s not as bad as you say. The raid tank classes (guardian, berserker and shadow knight) are all medium popularity.

    • Sorry Tipa I don’t really buy this.

      Brawlers were meant to be tanks. The fact that they are so terrible at doing their main job they have to do dps in raids instead doesn’t change that.

      The Fighter (tank) archtype has 10th, 13th, 17th, 20th, 22nd and 24th out of 24. An archtype that has 25% of the classes has 13% of the raid spots.

      There’s no way you can gloss over that and imply that they’re doing ok.

      In fact I suspect the numbers are skewed by availability. There are a lot of good players at end game who want to play fighters and don’t want to swap. Some of these raids will be taking a good Fighter over a bad Mage even though ideally they’d want a good Mage.

      So not only are tanks only getting 13% of the raid spots but I suspect that if the raid leaders could pick people’s classes they would get even less.

      It’s certainly very much true in WoW too that some great tanks can’t get guild or raid spots when as an officer you have to recruit less good players who have picked more useful classes.

  9. Back when I played Phantasy Star Online, there were no Tank classes; if monsters hit you, you suffered the same damage no matter whether you were melee or ranged.
    The idea on most fights was to avoid damage, or at least reduce it as much as possible.
    There were plenty of mobs (particularly bosses) that could one-shot you.
    Healing was possible via potions, and you could always ress via Scapedolls, but those would usually be given to Forces (powerful spell casters) who would suicide to get their full mana bar back.

    You could quite easily apply a PSO-style of gameplay to WoW, but then it wouldn’t be WoW any longer.

    I think people who have a Tank as their main, will always be able to get a raid spot, if they want it enough. It really depends how much they want it.

  10. I think part of it is, and no offense to any tanks out there, is that a lot of older palyers are used to seeing tanks treated as superstars. Main Tank is a position that carries with it a lot of prestige. Tanks in Vanilla and BC were relatively rare and something a guild often put a good sized chunk of effort into gearing up. You can probably replace heals or dps but if your geared main tank was gone? You’re screwed.

    Now, however, you have a more diverse range of classes available to fill the slots and everyone wants to be the superstar for a post that, due to the more commonly available tanks, no longer quite warrants the same treatment. So I’ve been in the position a couple of times of getting a flood of tanks but having to scrounge around for DPS which given the hours of fun that was ‘LF tank Slabs’, is something of an improvement but I think’ll have repercussions in the longer term.

    • I think the whole superstar thing is purely down to game design. If you make your whole raid so dependent on one player, that’s how it’s going to go.

      I think getting away from that is a good thing, so I agree with you there.

  11. The tank problem is particularly bad for those tanks that are behind the “first wave” whenever new content comes out. Tank classes who came along fairly late in Burning Crusade found themselves stuck; groups wanted T5+-geared tanks to ease them through heroics, and there were no spots available in raids because there was (and still is) very little tank turnover.

    The situation isn’t as bad in Lich King because the heroics aren’t quite as difficult for up-and-coming tanks (remember trying to tank heroic Shattered Halls as a non-raiding warrior?) and soon even heroics will allow access to come T8-level gear. But there’s still very little turnover for tanks in raids.

  12. This has always been a problem with raids in general and the guilds that do them. We (Sodality) would always focus very heavily on one to three tanks. Anything over and beyond that and we felt it was a wasted slot. I know that sounds harsh but I’m just being honest.

    EQ2 was a major offender though with the idea that there are six “tank” classes. There were a lot of raids way back when where shadow knights and both monk classes just sat out. They didn’t tank well enough, buff well enough or dps well enough to justify taking another classes slot in a contested or difficult raid. We did our best to reduce that but it was rough.

  13. I think you need to get rid of this scheme, it has poisoned your mind. You embraced it by far too much, Rurjaos.

    This is why you have the image in mind of squishy mages zipping around to avoid getting one-hitted.

    Think of BattleTech and the MechWarrior games – no need for healer mechs, no tank mechs and all that. And there is still need for tactics and strategy.

    “Modern Warfare” and applying that to computer games is quite tricky. Tanks are not tanking exclusively, they have quite a huge gun, and they are not the only ones shot at after throwing some insults at the evil attackers. Gandalf did not get two-shotted either in Lord of the Rings, but well… 🙂

    OK, Boromir died because no healer was around, but yeah…^^

    As long as we go with Tank-Healers-DPS as basic scheme, we will get nothing else than that. And then people also want to pvp in such games and dare to wish for “some balance”.

    For the DDs, their contribution is usually limited to their damage related stats and critical hit chances… the need for player skill is only that the player is no “movement cripple” and understands the need to move out of glowy crap.

    I wait for the day when I can swing my sword in MMOs like in Mount & Blade. When my gear is still important but secondary to MY personal performance.

    • For technical units this might be possible. Someone build some very nasty gadgets into them and here we go. Energy limits speed, size limits energy, speed limits size. But we talk about… uhm… more or less human units. Time limits all!
      My poisoned mind wants some limits, even in a world full of heroes. There might be few superheroes, breaking the rules or… uhm, extending them, like the rogue, evade-tanking illidan or even the singing barb, back in D2/LoD. But even those just took, what “their parents” gave them and did something unexpected with their limited time to learn to survive.
      All those thoughts are somewhat translated from RL through OOC to RP, so don’t take them too serious.

  14. Longasc, you wrote the magic word: MechWarrior. Mmm…

    Indeed, there is no trinity there. There are combat roles (fire support, recon, front line) and a variety of ranges and weapon types that sketch out an interesting balance (projectiles tend to hit harder at close range, energy weapons tend to hit harder at longer range, firing rates, heat and ammo adjust further), but no holy trinity. It’s a delightfully tactical setup, where player skill and ‘Mech loadout are key. (The ability to tweak your ‘Mech payloads is FAR more tactically relevant than fiddling with a talent tree.) You can change your ‘Mech’s role for each mission, a flexibility that WoW doesn’t even come close to because of the class system.

    I’d love a system like that in a fantasy MMO, where it really is “bring the player, not the class”. It would be even better if there were raid encounters that could be tackled by a variety of tactics, all the way from a “tank phalanx” (no healers or DPS) to all fire support, where a foe could be 100% kited by a team of savvy ranged fighters (who may well be squished if they screw up, to be fair).

    Tangentially, then there’s also the whole “repair cost” of getting squished. Perhaps that’s another reason to keep the “tank” spot to one player, in a mild concession to the player pocketbooks.

    Also, when speaking of a “wipe”, in my book, the loss of one player out of 25 should never automatically lead to the destruction of the whole team. That’s imbalanced design, and it doesn’t fit well with the whole “we’re a team” ethos.

  15. The other way that might be interesting is if we abandon the idea of just playing one avatar in raids. If instead we commanded little platoons, then that would naturally give a different range of strategies. Granted, it would be more of a massive wargame though …

    • I would love to command a team. Not only would it be more tactical, but it would be a great way to keep the class system while providing flexibility. (I don’t mind classes in FFTactics, for example, since I can build a hugely variable *team*, and shuffle around classes as I see fit.) Collapsing gameplay to a single avatar changes a lot of things.

      Yes… controlling a team in an MMO would be great fun. I played Atlantica Online for a while, and it worked well there. It might not translate to the quasi-realtime of WoW, but it sure was fun in AO.

  16. I would personally like to see “boss” encounters more often have multiple bosses that require multiple types of tanks simultanously. Maybe a boss that hits slightly harder requiring a plate wearing tank, another boss that is required to be stunned/silenced for a duration, or even a magic boss that requires a caster to tank while the melee types do damage.

    I have always found it interesting that the player side has to have multiple avatatars to achieve victory, while more often than not, the boss stands alone.

  17. There’a bad side to being the main tank….

    I played as a prot warrior in Vanilla and BC, and I got burnt out. That lovely gear that the guilds beloved tank gets makes you property of the guild. I tanked everything from RFC, to SSC and everything inbetween.I was at their beckon call.

    I loved being up and close, and being THEE guy who made things happen, but also I felt trapped not being able to do what I want to do in my game time.

    You can tell someone to stop standing in the fire so many times before you snap.

  18. Pingback: A holiday, a holiday, the first one of the year! Best of 2009. « Welcome to Spinksville!

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