There is often debate about which of the three primary roles in Warcraft is the toughest: tanking, dps, or healing. As someone who has done all three with varying degrees of success, my answers may surprise you.
Most people dismiss Damage Dealing (more commonly called DPS) out-of-hand, treating the debate as a 2-horse race. This isn’t exactly fair. DPS has many intricacies that can be difficult to master, and any error in your rotation causes a direct and measurable decline in your output. Yes, DPS has to be wary of ground hazards and boss abilities, but these concerns are shared by all three roles. However, DPS has many things to worry about that are largely ignorable by the other roles, such as target priority and target switching, both of which are tied into threat management. Yes, threat is your responsibility, too, not just the tank’s. Damage dealers should also concern themselves with cleanses and supplemental healing, when applicable. Not all do, which is in my opinion a good way to gauge the quality of your dps: a dps that takes 50dps off his personal stats but prevents a wipe from timely heals or debuff removal does more for a party than the OMG-I’m-So-L33T-because-I-did-MOAR-DPS guy, although he rarely gets as much praise. All of this is without ever considering that some (though not all) dps have complex rotations to maintain while doing everything else. Letting a buff or debuff fall off, or having poor uptime on DoTs can really drop your dps total, especially on classes with long ramp-up times and/or complex rotations. All of that being said, I don’t think DPS is the hardest job in WoW. The reason, however, is not that DPS is a facerolling job, as so many have claimed. Sure, it’s easy to attack something, but to do it well is another matter entirely. It’s not that DPS have fewer opportunities for error, typically, they have as many or more than anyone else. It’s that DPS have fewer and less severe consequences for screwing up. When a dps screws up, it’s likely that no one will even notice. Even if they do screw up in a noticeable way, they have two roles ready to cover for their error. They also have the most forgiving error-check: an enrage timer (that’s often either very generous or sometimes even nonexistent). DPS don’t get nearly the respect they deserve. On the other hand, they usually don’t get the blame they deserve, either, so it sort of balances things out in that respect.
This obviously leaves us with only two roles: tanking and healing, the traditional finalists in the debate. Both have aspects that make it more difficult than DPS (on average). Don’t get me wrong, I agree that these two are the toughest roles in WoW, I just don’t think the margin is as wide as most people like to make it out to be.
Much like DPS, the quality of tanking is open to various degrees. A tank can successfully tank an encounter with only two goals in mind: maintain threat on all applicable targets and don’t die. And death is largely outside of the tank’s control. Sure, intelligent use of defensive cooldowns makes things easier for both the tank and the healer in this regard, but oftentimes this is viewed as a luxury for the healer, rather than a necessity for the tank. A tank is expected to get heals regardless of how well (or even if) he used his CDs, much less used them to maximum effect. The other pass/fail test for a tank is maintaining threat on his assignments. This, too, is both fairly forgiving and a shared responsibility . If a tank loses aggro on a mob, he has an instant “save” button in the form of his taunt. Some tanks have more than one taunt, and all of them are on a fairly short CD. Additionally the loss of threat on a mob is rarely viewed as being solely the tank’s fault: dps are supposed to manage their own threat (although this is rarely an issue when they are attacking the appropriate target). Even if a tank is slow to react, the healer can often keep the offending aggro-hound alive long enough for the tank to regain threat. Some tanks even look at not saving an aggro-pulling dps as a desirable outcome: letting the guy die is “a learning experience” for the dps rather than an error for the tank. Because of this, the only sure-fire way to tell that a tank failed is that the healer (or enough healers) died to mob-aggro that it caused a wipe. Much like DPS, however, there are ways to tell the cream of the crop – i.e. the “good tanks” – from those that are not up to snuff for whatever reason. I’m not just talking about gearing, although this is extremely important. A tank needs to know which stats to stack and which to ignore and be sure that his gear will get him through a dungeon before he goes. Indeed, tanking is somewhat unique in that they have a lot of “homework” to do outside of the instance. Tanks are expected to have researched the fights: they are expected to know how many mobs will be in a corridor, and what abilities those mobs have, and how often the boss at the end of it will cast Shadow Volley before they turn the corner for the first time. However, there are other intricacies that make a tank superior, such as picking the best placement for tanking (decreases the likelihood of adds/patrols), and turning or positioning the enemy so that AoE damage is minimized (i.e. turning a mob away from the party so that frontal cone attack hits only the tank). In short, they are expected to lead and control the instance. This is certainly a difficult job, and in the bigger picture, could be fairly argued to be the most difficult role in WoW. It’s certainly the one that I had the hardest time with and the one I enjoyed the least.
But before we hand the Gold-plated Shield trophy to the tank, let me make an argument for healers. Healers are unique in WoW in that they often work without a safety net. Healers have the shortest and most obvious pass/fail meter, and the most severe consequence for failure: a character’s death. Often the difference between death and a save happens in under 2 seconds. A healer has to very quickly make a decision to either try to save an aggro-hungry dps or let them die. Saving them can be a risky prospect, because if you cast a big heal or even a HoT or shield at the dps as they use an aggro dump, the creature can quickly change directions and come after you (making it possible that you die and in that case, it’s likely that everybody dies), and attempting to save the dps and failing becomes even riskier, because the longer you postpone the death through healing, the more threat you build on the runaway mob. The thing is, this is often a no-win situation: the average player would consider either the single death or the party wipe a failure on the part of the healer, forgetting that it was his poor aggro management and/or the tank’s unwillingness or failure to taunt that even made the life-or-death situation happen in the first place. Of the 10 possible DPS classes, only 4 are even capable of acting as a backup healer in an emergency situation,anyway. Even if you are lucky enough to have one of those 4 classes acting as a dps in your party, there is no guarantee that the person will have the willingness or situational awareness to act as a back-up healer if things get dicey. I’ve often found that players fail to use even the basic emergency healing options available to everyone (potions and bandages) or bonus ones provided by select classes (healthstones or lightwells) to keep themselves alive, let alone having the mental wherewithal to stop attacking and start helping the healer. The average player views managing health bars (even his own) as somebody else’s problem. That somebody else being the healer.
That, in a nutshell, is why I view being a healer as the most challenging role in WoW. Yes, they have some of the smallest margins for error. Yes, they have the most severe consequences for even a temporary lapse in peak performance. But mostly, it’s the viewpoint of the average player that the healer’s job is to take care of his health no matter what. It’s the “no matter what” that often becomes the problem. People forget (or maybe don’t realize) that things like range and line of sight matter in healing. They fail to understand that there is an upper limit to our healing output or that sometimes “just heal through it” isn’t a valid strategy. They tend to forget that cleanses aren’t just the responsibility of the healer. Why else do you think Blizzard made debuff removals castable without breaking special forms (like shadowform or boomkin form). I always get extra rankled when I get yelled at for not cleansing by a dps that can cleanse himself. I was kind of busy spamming heals on you because you were standing in fire, so maybe, uh, cleanse yourself. I promise nobody will notice the 2dps it drops you on recount.
Of course, it’s sort of hard to blame them when it sometimes seems like even Blizzard is feeding into this misconception. The mechanics that they work into encounters to keep damage dealers on their toes frequently either affect everyone equally or punish someone else entirely. The silence mechanic makes all casters, regardless of type, stop casting or be silenced for a number of seconds. This seems equal, except that, as outlined above, the penalty for failing this check is far more severe for a healer (who can lose several people in 5 seconds) than for a dps (who loses only a few seconds of damage). The latest content also makes a big use of damage redirection and spell reflect. This, too, does little to deter sloppy dps, but places a heavy toll on healers. If a caster mistimes his spell or keeps spamming while spell reflect is up, it’s the healer that faces the burden of healing the avoidable damage caused by the dps’ error. If the dps don’t stop attacking during damage redirection, it’s again the healer that has to cover the mistake. And if the toon dies or the party wipes, who gets the blame? The healer.
Yeah, healers have it hard, and tanks don’t have it much better, both because the game mechanics make it a tough job, and also because few players do anything to make their tasks any easier, and almost all expect something akin to perfection out of a very human player on the other end of the line. So, the next time you’re tempted to yell or type a nasty comment about the quality of the healing, try to keep in mind that their role is probably a lot harder than yours. Or, if that’s not enough to curb your tongue, at the very least, try to remember that they are a human being with thoughts and feelings of their own. Oh, yeah, and if you’re impressed with the way the tank picked up those adds or the way the healer pulled everyone back from the brink of death, please say so. A simple “hey, nice heals” will probably make their day just as much as “wow, great dps,” or “man, those were fast kills” makes yours. Remember, no matter what role you’re playing, we’re all people and we’re all playing the same game. Most of us are here for fun, and being polite to one another makes the game more enjoyable for everyone. Even if somebody screwed up royally, polite and constructive criticism will do more to help than “you suck” or a silent vote-kick. I’ve yet to find any player who was helped by being disrespected or insulted, but most can handle helpful hints and everyone loves a compliment. Remember,at the end of the day, the hardest job in WoW is dealing with other people.