So by now, I'm sure everyone is aware of the huge tanking changes recently announced by Lead Systems Designer Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street. Of course, there are the immediate threat increases, but the really interesting part regards their plans for patch 4.3. They're planning to put all four tanks on active mitigation models, similar to what death knights have currently with Death Strike, which is primarily the focus of today's column.
There's been an uproar from many corners with this announcement, with many tanks declaring that if they wanted to tank like a death knight, they would have rolled one. Funnily enough, many death knights who rolled the class to tank back when they could do it as frost or unholy, or back before Death Strike spam, might protest that they never wanted to tank this way either -- but that's not the point. The point to make here is that active mitigation won't put the other three tanks in the same dire straits as we are, per se. While there are arguments to be made for and against active mitigation in general, active mitigation isn't our only problem, if it's a problem at all. Our problem, among other things, is that we're reactively mitigating.
Reactive mitigation and the death knight tank
Before we start, I am going to assume most of us are familiar with the basics of death strike spam and rune Tetris. If you aren't, go back a few weeks and read my post on why death knight tanking needs a few tweaks.
Here's the thing about active mitigation. In theory, we've had it before. Warriors used to struggle to reach a certain plateau of stats so that they could throw up Shield Block as an active cooldown and have it block most incoming physical damage. Actual active mitigation will probably be more complicated than that, but it gets the point through. The thing with that mitigation is that it prevents damage. You will block damage from ever happening.
It's much more complicated with Death Strike. With Death Strike, half of what you're doing isn't preventing damage; it's reacting to damage. You hope the Death Strike heal is enough to keep you alive. While you do then, in theory, get an absorption shield in the form of Blood Shield, this blood shield is an all-or-nothing thing. In other words, even for your average heroic 5-man boss, it will only take one to two hits to get that thing down, especially if it's during a spike damage phase where in theory you would need more active mitigation.
There's also the issue of resources. With the other three tanks, mana and rage are much more free-flowing pools of resource to draw from, and using a cooldown like Shield Block doesn't immediately lock out other abilities like, say, Thunder Clap. With Death Strike, you have only 4 runes that use Death Strike, and once you use them, they won't regenerate for a while. In addition, they will vie for regeneration privileges with 2 blood runes via Runic Empowerment. This means it is much, much more involved to manage resources as a death knight, to the point that it has its own name, "rune Tetris."
Finally, Death Strike can be parried, dodged, or just plain miss. While the chance for this to happen is low, it does happen, and it can lead to big trouble when it means you don't get the healing or Blood Shield you need at a critical moment. Sure, you can gear for hit and expertise, but that means you give up other, better defensive stats, make yourself a worse tank overall in terms of passive mitigation, and don't completely edge out parries unless you want to make yourself ludicrously bad at taking damage.
It's not so bad for paladins and warriors
So how could this happen such that, say, paladins and warriors won't see the same issues? First, when you consider what active mitigation they're likely to get, we know that Ghostcrawler talked more about cooldowns like Shield Block and Holy Shield. Since their tanking theme is based around shielding, it seems likely they'll get something thematically similar to these, if those abilities aren't plain modified into what the dev team wants.
But here's the thing. These don't just create a static absorption shield. Instead, they create a heightened chance or value of blocking, something that, over a short window of time, will cause a certain amount of damage to be absorbed or avoided over multiple hits. This means their HP will gradually drain a manageable rate, one that will be much easier for a healer to manage, rather than a death knight's sudden rock-bottom health drop; this not only provides a larger chance for the death knight to just plain die to spike damage, but also leaves the healer panicking to heal up a huge health pool all at once.
It's also worth noting that armor class and block will still be in play here. Death knights still have a lower armor class. Passive block, while it probably will be nerfed somewhat, likely won't be out of the picture completely. Finally, a reactive shield ability probably won't be required to hit the enemy, thus removing the need to waste itemization on hit and expertise and removing the chance of its "missing" and failing to activate on the tank.
The resource issue is also in play here. Ghostcrawler specifically said in his address that he doesn't want to see, for example, warrior tanks pooling all their rage for Shield Block. This is what death knights do with runes at the moment, so unless that changes, expect the already more flexible rage and mana resource pools to continue to be superior to runes for active mitigation purposes.
All of this means that while it may be a pain to go back to a more active style of mitigation, the type of shield block mechanics paladins and warriors use are more likely to be less cumbersome, smoother to engage, and easier to use than Death Strike is right now.
So how do you fix death knight tanks?
If there's one light at the end of the tunnel for death knight tanks, it is that we do get the odd blue post that claims the devs know about our issues and would like to look into fixing them. Of course, they always add "without stripping your unique flavor." I'm not sure that addition is all that much of a given, considering they stripped a lot of flavor out of blood to begin with in patch 4.0, not to mention completely removing frost and unholy tanking -- but that is what it is, and I understand why they did it. I just think they may need to make similar drastic changes this time around. However, given the restriction of trying to keep the current flavor, here's one idea set of ideas to fix this.
First, they just need to remove most of Death Strike's healing potential. They removed most of our self-healing as it is in patch 4.0, so perhaps they should just admit that it's over and remove most of the rest of it. Let self-healing primarily be the realm of cooldowns. I say this because with that self-healing gone, they can then bump our passive mitigation just a bit more, primarily by increasing our armor to be on par with other tanks, likely via a Blood Presence buff. Relying on self-healing isn't doing much but putting us closer to death and making our healers panic, so let's deemphasize it.
Next, they'll need to change our mastery. Likely what they'll want to do with Blood Shield, if they insist on keeping it, is make it work a little more like a Shield-Block-type skill. It shouldn't blow its protection all at once, but rather provide a longer-lasting shield to allow for a smoothing out of the damage. Let's say, it still creates a shield for X amount of damage, more or less as before (independent of Blood Strike healing, thanks to that nerf) but can only block Y% its total amount every hit. This should allow it to stay up for multiple hits, giving your healers time to smoothly heal the more consistent damage you're taking -- which should be less in the first place, thanks to the extra armor.
Resources are another problem. We'll still have to deal with rune Tetris. It's possible that simply modifying Blood Shield so we don't have to Death Strike spam will be enough, but it may also be that we'll want to try something more drastic. Now that Rune Strike will in theory not be needed for threat, it may be that making it trigger Blood Shield will give us the more flexible resource pool we need, leaving our more finicky rune pool free to use for cooldowns and disease applications.
Finally, there's the issue of hit and expertise. Rune Strike's being the new Blood Shield applicator might help with this, as it cannot be dodged, blocked, or parried. Of course, Ghostcrawler has said he considers the death knight need for hit and expertise a good thing, so who knows if we'll get any relief on that front. Still, considering the active mitigation abilities of paladins, warriors, and druids are unlikely to need to hit the boss, it will leave us at a disadvantage if our ability can miss.
One thing's for sure: The patch 4.3 PTR can't come soon enough. Hopefully, once we have a better idea of the changes Blizzard plans to implement, we'll better know where all tanks will stand in the brave new world of active mitigation for all.