I went on record during the PTR saying that the 4.2 Protection Paladin would be overpowered, probably in an unbalancing way. In private discussions with Theck and Anafielle, I’ve made the claim in stronger terms, but I wanted to see the toolkit in action before making a scene. I’m willing to go on record now and say that in my opinion the 4.2 protection paladin is the most unbalanced tank of the “tanking parity” era – more out of line than a patch 3.1 death knight or druid.
There’s a number of factors that push the prot paladin out of line in my opinion, and so I’m going to address them all. The first thing I’m going to discuss is scaling with gear. The second is damage profile, the third is cooldowns, and the fourth is utility kit.
Gear Scaling: “Uncrushable” isn’t a choice anymore
In 4.0.6/4.1 it wasn’t automatic to chase the block cap. To do so, even in perfect gear, you were giving up more than 2000 stamina, and the dangerous tank-killing bosses all had high levels of magic damage. There was a significant tradeoff involved in choosing to chase the block cap. It was worth having two sets, but with the damage profiles from Cho’gall, Sinestra, and Al’akir, your main set was *probably* stamina based. There was roughly an 8%-10% chance of taking an unblocked hit which is somewhat in line with a DK or Warrior or Druid’s chance at not having being able to mitigate said swing, and the classes had some semblance of EH parity. For hard-hitting bursty bosses in progression, that still matters. Less than in Wrath, certainly, but it’s not a completely irrelevant consideration, either.
Fast-forward to ilvl378/ilvl391. I’m personally at 208k hp while block capped now, with primarily ilvl372 and 378 gear. The total cost to do so, in stamina, is roughly 1200. Gear scaling has made it cheaper to get uncrushable, which means there really isn’t a tradeoff anymore. At a certain gear level, it’s just always a good idea to be block capped. In full 391 gear that stamina cost will be only a few hundred. If the situation were to continue into 4.3, the stamina cost would be zero.
Warriors will begin running into this problem soon. It’s likely that by the end of T12 they’ll be able to block cap at a significant stamina cost – they’ll have the same choice paladins faced in T11, and the same T13 gear-scaling away from the problem. Bears and DKs are not in so pretty a situation, though, and can never mechanically guarantee mitigation on every boss swing.
Damage Profiles: Crushable Tanks are Squishy
Taking it as read that a prot paladin in mid-Firelands progression has gotten themselves uncrushable, your paladin will take a maximum melee swing of 70% from the boss. Normalized to that paladin, your bear takes ~90% (higher passive mitigation), your warrior takes 100% (regular hits), and your DK takes 110% (lower armor). In TBC, we called those 100% hits “crushing blows”: 50% harder than normal hits that we took great pains to push off the combat table. In Cataclysm, only the paladin can do this right now, all other tanks have to soak crushing blows, like TBC druids. In TBC the druids were designed to soak those crushing blows – they had higher armor and health to do so. In Cataclysm, we’re all sort of mechanically similar on the armor/passive mitigation front. So being the uncrushable tank is a scarily large advantage.
The only sticking point in calling this a clear and obvious runaway victory for the paladin is DK self-heals. They ARE designed to take the large hits, and heal them back up again. And it’s an interesting model. I certainly agree that the active mitigation model is much more entertaining – which is why I’m a huge supporter of WoG and Holy Shield as paladin tools – but the old tanking adage goes something like “Damage prevented > Damage healed”. The DK model is predicated on bosses that hit weakly enough to enable them to DS at opportune times – and can be broken by parries. The DK has to take the hits and then has the opportunity to react to them.
In tanking, the mantra of “be able to take 3 hits” goes back a long way. It seems to be a number that Blizzard aims their bosses at. But whose 3-hits do you tune the bosses around? If it’s 3 hits for a DK, it’s 5 hits for a paladin. If it’s 3 hits for a paladin, it’s 2 hits for a DK. A 2-shottable DK just doesn’t work anymore, they don’t have the runes or the DS’s to keep up.
I’ve discussed the concept of minimum sufficient cooldowns on this blog before. Block capping creates situations where the minimum sufficient cooldown for a paladin is nothing at all, where every other tank will need something. It creates situations where other tanks need a major cooldown, and paladins can get away with something minor. The guaranteed reduction of a significant portion of every burst situation makes paladins the least burstable tank, baseline.
Hard hitting bosses are the ones that best expose tank balance problems. 2-shottable DKs seems to be a reality on encounters like Baleroc. 2-shottable paladins is very nearly a reality there – and that makes everyone else look… crushable.
Cooldowns: But everyone has Shield Wall, Right?
Everyone does have Shield Wall. And Last Stand. And Barkskin. Or some generally accepted equivalent. I’m going to come back to this point in just a second, because our Last Stand equivalent, Ardent Defender, is broken in a number of ways on it’s own, and our Barkskin equivalent, Divine Protection, is potentially even more broken. But in theory this basic kit is designed to be equivalent, and it’s fairly close to the bullseye.
Paladins have 5 more survivability cooldowns that I can think of off the top of my head. Divine Shield, Lay on Hands, Hand of Protection, Holy Shield, and Word of Glory. I’ll admit that the first three have pretty long cooldowns and narrow application, but you can use them to keep yourself alive sometimes. They are strictly more useful than nothing at all.
Holy Shield is incredibly powerful, though. It’s a 30% relative damage reduction in melee damage for 10 seconds, on demand – on a 30 second cooldown. If you’re block capped, it’s enough ON IT’S OWN to reliably survive a tantrum-ed hatchling at Alysrazor. Where another tank will use Last Stand and Barkskin, or Shield Wall, or call for a Pain Suppression, your friendly neighbourhood paladin pops Holy Shield and laughs all the way to the bank.
I’ve been accused on being the only person on the planet who considers WoG a game-breaking survival cooldown. That’s okay, though, because I’m still right about it. Good use of WoG requires some foresight. You need to be in touch with the rhythm of the encounter, and when things might start to go wrong, so you can bank up your holy power – but being able to drop 30-35k health onto yourself on demand is amazingly good. Are you low on health because healers moving? Most of the time 30k is the difference between “die on next swing” and “live through it”. Living through one more swing is pretty awesome. It’s especially awesome when it can be done every 20 seconds.
We have two extremely powerful survival cooldowns that synergize extremely well with block capped paladins on cooldowns of 30 seconds or less. We’re not only the least burstable tank mechanically, but we also have the best anti-burst toolkit. So far it’s looking good for our fearless paragons of the Light. But anti-burst isn’t everything – required healer attention matters, right?
Healing, in my experience, is generally GCD/Throughput capped, and not mana capped. The unburstable tank takes less GCDs to keep alive, because that healer can spend GCDs on the raid while being fully confident that they have time to return to the tank and get a cast off before anything can go horribly wrong, where a more burstable tank requires more/heavier pre-casting. That’s obviously only true for a light-hitting boss, but for a hard hitting boss being unburstable is it’s own reward.
I promised to talk about Ardent Defender and Divine Protection very quickly. Ardent Defender is almost exactly a Last Stand analogue, except that damage reduction is almost always better than an equivalent amount of health, and Cheat Death (uncapped, no less) is fairly silly. What AD does to Majordomo and Baleroc is just all kinds of silly. Divine Protection, and specifically it’s glyph gives us a lot of flexibility on dealing with damage. Turning DP into a shield wall for magic damage is very very strong. Especially with Holy Shield around to be a shield wall for physical damage. That flexibility has value. We don’t need the added value on top of everything else.
Utility: The next arms race
This is generally a hard category to evaluate. You’re comparing mobility (warriors, bears) and battle rezes (bears, DKs) with offtank DPS (bears) with raid cooldowns (warriors, paladins), and single target cooldowns (paladins) and threat cooldowns (paladins).
What utility kit is the best tends to play into encounter design. Sometimes mobility is extremely exploitable, other times it isn’t. Sometimes some cooldowns shine (I’m looking at you AD and Shield Block) above other options. But in the raid cooldown arms race, Divine Guardian stands out as one of the strongest and most universally applicable raid cooldowns. It’s often reason enough to bring a prot paladin to an encounter in 25man, and I assume it’s even more valuable in 10-mans where cooldowns are harder to come by. Similarly, Hand of Sacrifice is extremely strong. Warriors have similar but weaker utility in both categories, with Rallying Cry and Intervene/Safeguard. The other tanks don’t really have anything to compete. Their various utilities can have value – but generally in progression the name of the game is survival. First you live long enough to see the enrage, then you find the DPS to beat it. Tanks that bring raid survival and survival for the other tank extend learning attempts – they get you to the next phase sooner. That kind of utility is hard to replace.
Conclusion: TO THE GROUND, BABY!
I cannot imagine that there will not be significant nerfs and adjustments to protection paladins for the next patch. In my opinion nerfs are fully justified, things are too far out of balance right now. I’ve always been okay with tank balance being “in the ballpark”. I think 4.0/4.1 was generally as close as tank balance has ever been, although it was clear that paladins would scale too well with those mechanics.
There were no changes for 4.2 that mitigated the effect of gear-scaling, essentially forcing all paladins to block cap, but there are bosses that hit hard enough to make the survivability gap extremely obvious – and Holy Shield tends to play nicely with those mechanics. I maintained that it was a net buff for a long time, and I think it’s clear that it’s a survivability gain for us over the passive block value we used to have.
On top of the survivability advantage, there’s a utility advantage. It might be okay for one tank to have the utility edge, and another to have the survivability edge – not really, it leads to permanent offtank syndrome – but for one tank to have the whole package that nobody else has is pretty questionable.
If I had my choice, I’d remove raid cooldowns from tanks completely. It’s a better solution than giving one to every tank and stepping the arms race up to eleven. That basically addresses the utility imbalance completely. In order to address the survivability gap, the primary change needs to be fixing mastery to make paladins (and warriors) crushable again.
Make no mistake, warriors are going to be the problem tank of 4.3 unless they’re also adjusted. But either way, capping needs to go away. Once that’s gone, Holy Shield is no longer a high-powered cooldown, it’s closer to an avoidance clicky – it’s not something you can rely on, but it’s something that can weight the dice in your favor. That’s about the level of strength it should have – it certainly shouldn’t be a physical Shield Wall on a 30s cooldown.
Prepare yourselves, Paladins. The Nerfbat is descending. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t go too far.