Friday, February 18, 2011

Anatomy of a Cataclysm Tank: The Bear

In Wrath, I was a bear.  In Cataclysm, I am a tank.

"Bring me another one!
I'm gonna be here a while!"
Let me put that differently...  One of the things I love about having all four tank classes at high level is the objectivity it provides. I used to be fiercely loyal to my bear, but now more than anything, I just love tanking--I'll probably tank on whatever class provides the best experience. I love to contemplate the relative strengths and weaknesses of each, and the similarities and analogies between them. I've even found that learning more about one tank class actually helps me play some of the other classes better.

This is the first of a four-part series about my impressions of each of the four tanks and how they're faring in Cataclysm. With my guild(less) situation pulling me somewhat out of the game, I haven't done a lot of tanking post-4.0.6, but I will be sure to get some experience in on my pally and DK before I write those parts.  (I'm particularly interested to see how the Crimson Scourge change plays out.)

Bears

There's not a lot of love for bears right now. Both the Druid and Tank forums on the WoW community site are rife with lamentations and conspiracy theories about the state of bear and the viability of the spec in progression raiding. Considering Paragon brought a bear tank to the world-first Lady Sinestra kill, I'm not sure if the panic is completely founded. Post-4.0.6, bears are less likely to be brought along for their DPS, which is a good thing--a high-DPS tank is an undesirable gimmick. But there is clearly nothing so broken as to keep bears out of progression raids. Not on paper, at least.

"Bear tanking feels like so much work
without any real payoff."

Perception is everything, though, and many bears just "feel" like their spec is broken.

The biggest complaint is the relative difficulty in holding AoE threat--in an age without Swipe spam, bears are left with few options--chiefest among them being frantic tab-targeting. The common advice is to get Thrash up as soon as possible, Swipe on cooldown, and otherwise spend your time playing JOHN @!$#ING MADDEN with Mangle, Lacerate, and your tab key, proactively distributing as much threat as possible. It's rough. With good DPS, you're bound to lose aggro on an add or two every now and then. Realistically, if you're playing smart, I don't think it's much worse than with any other tank. But because it takes some practice and hard work, a not-insignificant portion of the playerbase has begun to perceive bears as inferior tanks.

Let me say this: thank god Swipe spam is no more. In its Wrath form, it was mindless and still wasn't much fun.  Bears still need plenty of work, but a change to Swipe was necessary.  Okay, moving on...

Personally, I tend to lead with Swipe, saving Thrash for a second or two to ensure (1) I'm in range of all of my intended targets, and (2) I'm clear of any late CC. I continue to spam both on cooldown, but rather than tab-Lacerate, I actually tend to just rapidly tab through all of my targets, watching my threat meter. When I see my threat-lead on a particular mob in jeopardy, that is when I apply a Lacerate, or if it's dire, Mangle. I know some feral theorycrafter is going to balk at the potential waste of GCDs. This is also more of a reactive tanking style than I would prefer.  But somewhat counter-intuitively, I find this is the best way to keep from being overwhelmed. Of course, I'll weave in Maul if I'm good on rage.  And if I don't see any real concerns on the threat meters, I will distribute Mangles, and Lacerates around the group as I can--I wouldn't just sit there waiting for bad things to happen.

Single-target threat, I can't complain about.  Sure, it's boring, but it usually is.  Plus, bears put out the numbers.  Better to be boring than to watch that enhancement shaman get one-shot, or that careless warlock pull threat and drag the boss halfway across the room.

My beef with feral tanking is not with the spec's overall capability, but rather with its component parts. There are just too few abilities to go around, and yet none of them feel very powerful. Mangle is our primary direct-damage dealer and our only ability with a bonus proc, but it doesn't seem to hit or build threat with the force of, say, Shield Slam. Lacerate hits like a wet noodle. Swipe and Thrash provide neither the snap aggro nor the blanket threat at levels common to the other tank classes.  Worse, the two abilities are practically one and the same--360-degree area-of-effects with identical cooldowns. This leaves the "rhythm" of AoE bear tanking very flat and meaningless. Where is the frontal-cone ability, or the AoE proc?  Where is the nice, 15-20 second cooldown ability akin to a Warrior's Shockwave or Pally's Avenger's Shield?

Bears also find themselves in a strange place with regards to damage reduction--but when haven't they?  Druids (and DKs) have always had to play catch-up with shield tanks due to block.  DKs make up for it with Blood Shield, which procs with every Death Strike and scales with health and with damage taken (as well as mastery)--good tank synergy.  In contrast, the feral "block", Savage Defense, is in a very strange place right now.  SD procs randomly based on critical strikes and scales with attack power.  Because of this, it's also highly reliant on Pulverize (for crit) and Vengeance (for AP). The dependence upon offensive stats, uptimes, and pure random chance makes it somewhat of an unreliable mechanic for tanks. Blizzard has tried to make up for this in 4.0.6 by boosting feral armor significantly, but I question how well this will scale.  Hopefully, Savage Defense will get fixed in a patch or two.

Feral tanking "works". As far as I know, a bear can tank any of the content currently in the game and succeed. But there is no variety to the spec, no flavor or life to it. I suspect this is what has so many bears frustrated right now, though they may not have expressed it so: Bear tanking feels like so much work without any real payoff. That's the classic formula for burnout, isn't it?

There's just nothing fun about being a bear right now, and personally, I prefer to have fun when I play this game. Speaking of which...

Next time: Warriors!

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