This is the second in a series of posts discussing our tanking rotation. In the first two parts, we’ll be investigating the topic in an abstract sense to try and describe the features that make a given rotation enjoyable and interesting. In the finale, we’ll look at paladin rotation mechanics in Cataclysm and see how closely they match up to these ideals.
Last time, we talked about the tempo of a rotation and the amount of interactivity it included. These are pretty easy concepts to understand, and probably what most players subconsciously think about when they decide whether a rotation “works” for them or not. However, there are other mechanics that are equally important even though they’re a little less visible. These “under-the-hood” effects can make or break a rotation, and more often than not define not only how a class plays, but how it’s perceived by other classes or players.
Casting spells or abilities is only part of the equation. Those spells have to have some sort of cost, both to keep things balanced and to make the decision of what to cast interesting. The cost needs to be in the form of one or more resources that the player cares about, generally because each is in limited supply. If this is done properly the player is rewarded with higher performance for managing his resources effectively.
We usually think of things like mana/rage/energy bars as resources without too much trouble. But there are other resources that we don’t even think of as such most of the time; the Immolate debuff can even be viewed as a resource of sorts for a Destruction warlock because of Conflagrate. And we frequently overlook the most fundamental resource of all: time. The GCD ensures that most spell casts carry a time cost, and spells with a cast time carry a heavier cost. For casters, haste increases the “time” resource in much the same way that Intellect increases the mana resource. Ability cooldowns serve as another type of time cost, this time one we can’t usually alter by stacking stats.
For a rotation to be engaging it needs to directly tap a player’s resources and encourage them to make decisions based on those resources. If all of the resources become irrelevant the rotation degenerates into casting one spell over and over – imagine what your “optimum” rotation would be if you always had maximum mana/energy/rage/Holy Power/Combo Points and could cast every ability instantly and off of the GCD with no cooldown. The most interesting and arguably the most fun rotations ask the player to manage multiple resources if they want to achieve their maximum potential. The management process includes making decisions about availability (“Do I have the mana to cast X?”) and efficiency (“Should I skip X to make sure I have mana for Y?”), and ranges from simple (“Yes, so I’ll cast X”) to complicated (“If I cast X now I won’t have mana for Y, but casting X sets me up to cast an empowered Z, which offsets the loss of Y, but then debuff W will drop off since I didn’t cast Y, and all of the mages will be angry at me, and… Christ, can someone just innervate me already??”).
Prot and Ret paladins spent most of Wrath being primarily cooldown-limited in raids. Spiritual Attunement kept the mana flowing freely enough for Prot that we rarely took both points of the talent, and Ret’s Judgements of the Wise (now Judgements of the Bold) was designed to fully sustain their mana expenditures. For the most part, time (in the form of ability cooldowns) was our only resource mechanic for the majority of that expansion. Mana only became a consideration in certain gimmick fights (Vezax) and occasionally in overgeared 5-mans where Spiritual Attunement income was limited. The move to a three-resource system in Cataclysm (mana, cooldowns, Holy Power) was jarring for a lot of players as a result. But it’s a good move in the long run, because it has the potential for more gameplay depth than a one-resource system does.
High Skill Cap
The game has to cater to players that span a wide range of skill levels. As a result, the rotation needs to be simple enough that a novice can figure out the basics and perform adequately with a little thought and effort. But it should also have enough depth that an experienced player can show off their talent. In other words, it should be “easy to pick up, difficult to master.” This helps keep the class accessible to new and returning players while still providing ways for expert players to challenge themselves.
Another way to phrase this is to say that the rotation should have a high “skill cap.” Strong players always strive to be better, and that head room above “adequate” simultaneously gives them a path for improvement and a way to gauge their performance. Every player wants their button presses to matter, and a high skill cap ensures that hitting your buttons “correctly” results in an observable increase in performance.
The Wrath-era 969 rotation was the opposite extreme. It had a very low skill cap, such that it could even be distilled down to one or two macros. While this undoubtedly made it easier to learn, it also meant that there was very little a great player could do to separate themselves from an average player, at least within the confines of the rotation. The Wrath feral druid (cat) rotation was the antithesis of 969 – it had arguably the highest skill cap of any of the class/spec combinations, such that even one spell cast out of order was a noticeable loss of DPS.
It’s been argued that a tank’s rotation should be simpler than that a DPS spec because we have so many other duties: boss positioning, movement, planning proactive cooldowns in response to boss abilities, using cooldowns to react to spikes in damage intake, interrupting spell casts, and so on. I don’t completely agree with that sentiment, because DPS players have to worry about many of those things to perform at high levels too. So I don’t think that it’s a good justification for artificially limiting the depth that a tanking rotation can contain.
At best I think it justifies a design in which it was relatively easy to perform at an “adequate” level, but included added difficulty that carried with it extra performance. Again, “easy to pick up, difficult to master.” In some sense, Vengeance already provides this sort of mechanic for all tanks, since it makes holding threat relatively simple even without following a proper rotation. Thus, there’s no reason that a tanking rotation can’t have some interesting complexity to keep the players at the top end of progression on their toes and give them some room to strut their stuff.
While the topics covered in the last two posts may not be an exhaustive list, I think it covers most of the bases. What constitutes “good” is always a bit subjective anyhow – there are players that really like to have a simple rotation so they can focus on other aspects of the game, and there are players that like their rotation to be very challenging because they enjoy the personal test of skill. It’s a tall order to satisfy both crowds, though the success of WoW suggests that they’ve managed to do an acceptable job of that, at least in recent history.
In the next installment, we’ll assess the current (4.1) prot paladin rotation mechanics and see how it fares in each of these categories. In the meantime, what features or details make a rotation enjoyable for you?