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What makes a “great” tank? Here’s one possibility


Y’know, it still amazes me that people sometimes come and ask me for advice about tanking.  Seriously.  I tell them, every time, look, I’m not a great tank.  I’m a good tank.  I’ve put a lot of time and effort into learning my craft, learning encounters, what buttons to push, what gear I need, what my capabilities allow me to do–and what they don’t allow me to do.  I’m good at what I do, but by no means legendary in any sense of the word.  There’s a lot of tanks on Feathermoon with equivalent gear, spec, and experience to me, and I don’t consider myself any higher than the 50th or 55th percentile among them.

So this leads, logically, to a question.  If you’ve got two tanks with the same gear, the same spec, and the same “time in type,” as they say in aviation…what makes one just good, and the other “great?”  Obviously, it’s got something to do with the carbon-based interface behind the keyboard.  But what?

Well, over the weekend, some tiny part of my brain was background-processing on this, and came up with a possible answer.  It’s an answer that doesn’t normally come up in terms of an easy recreational activity like MMORPGs.  It is, in fact, an answer that is associated more with life-and-death combat in the real world than the virtual.  It is…

…situational awareness.

Wikipedia has a surprisingly long and detailed entry on this subject, but the thumbnail of what they call “situation awareness” gets the job done for this discussion.  Situational awareness, or SA, is:

[t]he perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, big guy,” you’re probably thinking.  “This is World of Warcraft, dude, not some graduate-level human factors course.  Kill pixels, get phat pixellated loots, maybe look at some pixellated boobies.  Why all the big words?”  Stay with me here, and I’ll explain.

The term situational awareness first entered my consciousness in the mid-1990s, during my combat flight sim addiction phase.  SA was coined by Air Force fighter pilots coming back from Korea and Vietnam.  They applied the term to mean the ability for a fighter pilot to constantly know what was going on around them, process the information, and use that information to act correctly, faster than the opponent(s) could (part of John Boyd’s famous “OODA loop“).  It was, basically, the ability to form a “moving picture” in your head of where threats and allies were, and what they were doing, so you had a base of information to make quick, accurate decisions.

Now, translate this forward into World of Warcraft.  As a main tank, you are going to be the leader of your instance group–in a raid, you’re generally going to be the man who pushes the button to start the carnage.  You control the flow of the whole encounter, at least, that’s the theory.  You have a metric asston of information you have to process, every second.  Mob health.  Mob positioning.  Your own health.  Your threat in relation to your party.  Are all the mobs still on me?  Is anybody else being hit?  Is there a patrol coming?  Is that mob’s big whammy on cooldown or do I need to get ready to use an ability to survive the next five seconds?  Am I getting enough heals?  Is my main agro generator off cooldown?  Do I need to switch targets to spread threat around?

Start to see the parallels with real life?  No, you’re not strapped into an F-16 25,000 feet above the desert with two MiGs on your six and SAM batteries locked onto you.  But you are in a situation–albeit virtually–where some of the same things apply.  This is where situational awareness comes into play.  From what I’ve seen, the guys with truly superlative SA can take this torrent of information that’s flooding through their eyes and ears and process it with lightning speed.  They take the raw information and turn it into something that can then be used to make decisions.

They’re the tanks who seem to have an uncanny ability to never lose agro because they’re always switching targets to stay ahead of the DPS or healer agro.  They’re the ones that if they do lose agro, nobody may ever know, because they’ve got the mob back on them in a heartbeat.  They’re the ones that never pull extra groups because they always seem to know exactly when to fire an arrow or a spell to pull only what the party wants.  They’re always in control, even on those rare occasions when things go wrong.  They’re constantly one step ahead of their surroundings.  That’s good situational awareness.

SA is something that can’t be taught…but it can be learned.  (No, that’s not me channeling Mr. Miyagi.)  The only way I’ve ever found to build up my ability to process information like that is to just do it.  When I was heavy into combat sims, it meant flying a lot and getting my ass handed to me, a lot.  When tanking, it means just get out there, grab some peeps, and do it.  You’ll probably wipe.  You’ll certainly make mistakes.  But what I think you’ll find as you keep tanking, and tanking, and tanking, is that gradually, you will start to see things more clearly.  Stuff will almost look like it’s happening more slowly.  You’ll be able to drink from that firehose of sights and sounds, of BigWigs warnings and funny little noises, and figure out what to do as a result.  Pretty soon, if you keep at it, you’ll be a “good” tank.

Who knows?  Maybe even a “great” one.

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11 responses

  1. Anea

    Situational awareness is a very good idea for what can make a tank a “great” tank. Applying this same concept to healing makes for good food for thought as well.

    ‘What makes a “great” tank?’ could also make a very good series of articles. Just sayin’ :)

    February 18, 2009 at 13:57

  2. Lewis

    I was thinking (and chatting with Anna about it) that raid healers also need excellent SA as well. I’ve never leveled a healer character, but I can imagine that sitting there, staring at up to 25 green bars moving up and down, knowing who each one is, what they’re doing, where they’re supposed to be, which ones should and shouldn’t be getting hit and taking damage, how much damage they’re taking in relation to their health, which heal(s) to prioritize on which characters, who the most important ones are to heal…that’s a heck of a lot of information to process.

    I’m not saying that DPS doesn’t need situational awareness, but in general, the amount of information they need to focus on is lower. There’s exceptions, of course.

    February 18, 2009 at 14:21

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  4. Crofe

    I think you’re right about the getting out there and doing it thing. But not only because you get practice processing information. You also get experience with the “encounter” (used loosely to mean any fight, including trash pulls). Stuff like “Does that pather come any closer?”, “What’s the aggro radius on that guy?”, etc. I personally hate tanking an instance I’ve never been in. My tank use to be my alt, and I saw all the BC instances as a DPS class first. Which meant my role was to 1. Do damage and 2. Don’t die. Not a lot of responsibility. Tanking is much harder to walk into an instance with zero knowledge.

    February 19, 2009 at 18:08

  5. Niyahti

    In agreement with Lewis (above) and the notorious Anna, healing also requires a lot of situational awareness. My main is a healer (second time around, different character) and my RL husband plays a warrior as our MT and raid leader. I understand a portion of what it takes to tank, simply from watching him. In fact, I think I’d be terrible at it! =P I find it a lot easier to see what’s going on and have situational awareness from a ranged perspective than a melee perspective. Scrolling out the camera doesn’t compensate for the drastic difference.

    Good tanks can keep all the mobs looking at them, barring incompetent dps who decide to unleash a pyroblast or nuke .5 seconds after aggroing the mob. Great tanks, as you said, are familiar not only with aggro control, but mob abilities (whirlwind / stun / omg-hit) and know how to respond accordingly. Good tanks are easy to find today, especially on Feathermoon. Great tanks are much rarer.

    Good healers can keep people alive and *react* quickly to incoming damage. Great healers can *predict* incoming damage and respond accordingly. It becomes proactive healing. It’s not just whack-a-mole for a great healer. It’s understanding your tank(s), your dps, the rest of your healing corps (knowing who tends to heal who in a situation beyond healing assignments), and of course the mechanics of the fight when it comes to the mobs and AoEs and rain of fires. Then they make the split-second decisions that may save the raid. It’s being able to make the decision to sacrifice a hunter pet or a lower dps player, in the interest of keeping the tank alive (and killing the boss).

    I’ve been playing since release. One thing I have learned is that if you’ve got a great tank and a great healer, you can overcome many more challenges and bosses than an average of either. There’s a reason my hubby and I make a good team. =)

    Keep up the great posts Panzer. =P

    February 20, 2009 at 03:17

  6. Niyahti

    <– n00b. Lewis being Panzercow. Sorry!

    February 20, 2009 at 03:21

  7. Kihara

    In my experience, the type of SA that a tank and a healer needs is entirely different. Healers need to be aware of the character situation, i.e. who is hurting, who is dying etc. A tank is focused a lot more on the environment, who is where, who is going where, where is the boss.

    While I agree that DPS in general needs less SA, I think it’s oversimplifying. Caster DPS people can usually get away with very little SA, while melee most often have to be quite on their toes. Bosses that move, cleaves, whirlwinds, wing buffets (the BWL classic)…all are examples of things that casters usually avoid by default. “Blizz hates melee” comes up more often than “Blizz hates casters.”

    February 20, 2009 at 08:00

  8. Niyahti–Thank you! Your mention of proactive vs. reactive is a good one. It’s about keeping control and not becoming controlled by the situation to the point where you’re fighting fires and flailing around falling further and further behind. Situational awareness is only half of it really…the other half is speed and appropriateness of reaction. That’s the “DA” part of the “OODA loop.”

    Kihara–That’s a good point. Each role in an encounter–heck, each class or even spec, really–has its own different type of SA that it needs. Everybody needs “don’t stand in voidpoo” SA. Healers are looking at everybody’s health and its rate of change. Ranged DPS need that plus focusing on mana, pets, threat, etc. Melee DPS need that plus positioning, and so on.

    My contention is that a tank has a wider scope of inputs that they process than most other roles do. For example–no, a tank isn’t going to be looking at health bars to the level that a priest or holydin is. (Heck, I forget to look at MY OWN half the time.) But especially in a five-man, catching a glimpse of somebody else’s health bar plummeting is a sign that you’ve either lost part of your pull, or you’ve got adds. It’s the kind of thing that if you react fast, it can give you a second’s jump on fixing the problem, before the aggrieved party can get on Vent or type “OHGODNOTMYFACEAAAAAAAH.”

    Crofe–I’m with you. The first time doing any instance or encounter is always a trip to Stressville with me. I don’t care how many videos I watch or strats I read, there’s absolutely no substitute for the experience of actually doing the encounter or working through the instance and seeing it live, real-time.

    February 20, 2009 at 14:44

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  11. malista

    SA is great but what makes a great tank in my mind is the person playing the tank being a fun person to play with :)

    March 31, 2009 at 19:38

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