Lightsworn: Shaking up how WoW’s encounters are tanked
With WoW now ten years old, I find myself enjoying thinking a lot about past expansions and especially previous raids. I’ve been tanking raids since halfway through Burning Crusade and there’s a part of me that feels like we’ve seen it all — and perhaps on a certain level we have.
No matter how many moving parts an encounter has, how it is ultimately tanked can be boiled down to one of a few formulas that Blizzard repeats over and over again when designing fights. As human beings, one of our evolutionary survival skills is recognizing patterns — many times, if you’re like me, you’ll be tanking a new encounter and think to yourself “hang on, I’ve seen this before.”
Breaking it down
How an encounter is tanked can be boiled down to three general tropes. One is what we could call the “swap-and-passive” where a harmful debuff necessitates a tank switch and then the inactive tank stands there and waits for a debuff to fall off before they taunt the boss back. From this expansion’s encounters, examples of this trope include the Butcher, Gruul, Oregorger, and Kromog.
The second is the “swap-and-active” where a debuff necessitates a swap, but then the debuffed/inactive tank goes and picks up an add or actively handles a mechanic (and doesn’t just stand there and soak damage) until they can be the active tank once more. Examples from this expansion of this trope include Kargath, Flamebender, and Beastlord Darmac.
The third trope is the “no swap” where each tank has their own enemy or boss that they are in charge of for the majority of the fight and they never swap that enemy with the other tank. You see this trope always on council or twin fights. Examples from this expansion of this trope include Twin Ogron, Hans’gar and Franzok, and Iron Maidens.
On a scratchpad I broke down the (non-mythic versions of) raid encounters in this expansion and I counted five swap-and-active encounters, eight swap-and-passive encounters, and four no-swap encounters.
It could be worse
There were worse tropes in past expansions that have thankfully gone away. Back in “the day” it was all too common to have encounters where two tanks would not alternate handling the same role, but rather one tank would have one role, and the other tank(s) would be brought along to handle a particular mechanic or add as needed and do middling DPS or provide a utility until their tanking moment to shine.
Consider the famous video of the druid off-tanking Blood Queen Lana’thel. I guess we could dub that an example of the “wait-and-wait” trope (thankfully this encounter was one of the last gasps of this kind of fight design). The inactive tank just stood there and helped soak some damage without taking an active role in tanking the encounter.
We are fortunate that in recent years Blizzard has changed how they design encounters for tanks. They set in stone the concept that each encounter requires exactly two tanks (rare exceptions apply) and that both of those two tanks must have a job of their own or to alternatively share the burden of the same job. This new approach has made tanking more inclusive, and opened up the world of tanking for a larger number of folks interested in the role.
It’s also painted Blizzard into a corner, though. Whenever an encounter is designed, what the tanks are doing needs to be designed around. How many different ways can you architect an encounter where there is one boss that is shared by two active tanks?
Foundationally, the fact that there is only one boss at a time means that there must be a swap. One tank will be on the boss and one tank will not, but that inactive tank needs something to do. How do you keep that tank busy and mentally engaged in the encounter?
Well, you can release an add (or many adds!) that need to be tanked or have the inactive tank stand in a specific spot and soak damage so that they feel involved. Then eventually you’ll want there to be a pause where the tanks can change places once more. Rinse and repeat.
Or you can have more than one boss and let each tank handle one boss at a time so that they are actively tanking for the entire duration of the encounter. But every encounter cannot be a twin/council fight; that would be terrible.
Now, this is not me saying we should go back to a time where there was only one tank and the other tank stood there, resplendent in their poison resistance gear, waiting for a muck creature to emerge every three minutes so that the other tank could enjoy their raison d’etre. No! That was awful.
It’s a good thing that Blizzard wants both tanks to have something to do at all times. But it’s time to shake things up and explore new tropes.
Can we try something different?
That said, I would die a happy man if I never had to tank another encounter where the tank swap was necessitated by a harmful debuff that made it impossible for the current tank to continue handling the boss. That mechanic has been done to death and Blizzard really needs to think of a new reason to force a tank swap other than “tag, you’re it!”
So there’s the first avenue for a change: in what other ways can a tank swap be motivated? What other mechanics can make the active tank drop off the boss and the inactive tank take over? Some encounters, like Sha of Fear, have played with physically removing the active tank to a separate location after a period of time. This might be a mechanic that can be explored further, along with other new drivers for tank swaps.
The other major avenue for change is finding new ways to give the inactive tank something to do. Presently the two main options for keeping the inactive tank busy is handling adds or soaking damage in a specific spot for the raid or the active tank. Is there a new task the inactive tank could have that keeps them engaged in the encounter?
Lastly, is it possible to design no-swap encounters that still only have one boss (that is, not just another council or twin fight) but feel meaningful and engaging for both tanks? Is it possible to keep the tank that isn’t handling the boss actively challenged as the encounter continues, and in a way that doesn’t make them feel like a “subordinate” tank within the raid?
In this expansion Blizzard has designed some really fun, interesting, and dynamic encounters. We’ve come a long way in the past few years and the encounter design team is doing great work at making raiding engaging. Under the surface, though, there’s a lot of copy-pasting going on; we’ve all sensed it in that primal part of our brain that notices patterns and repetition. Reusing the same tropes over and over make a fight painfully boring to tank on a subconscious level and can create fatigue. As much as I hate this expression — Blizzard desperately needs to think outside the box and give tanks some encounters that test them in ways they have never seen before.
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