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…
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.