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Four Ways to Die - why the Tank Meta feels "off"

So there's been a lot of discussion over the past months about the state of the current tank meta and its huge focus on DPS. There's a huge number of players who not only adore the current tank meta, but have gravitated towards playing a tank instead of a DPS -purely- due to this shift in focus. However, there's a smaller number of players, the type that gravitate towards tanks in MMOs out of a desire to feel as tough and durable as possible, who are having a less than stellar time in the current state of FFXIV.


(Warning : Huge Boring Essay incoming. Feel free to ignore entirely or just skip to the TLDR if you're not interested! This is what happens on a Thursday between Node Repops...)


On forums, a lot of tanks asking questions pertaining to things like Str vs Vit, dropping tank stances for DPS stance, and maximising mitigation are being told one universal thing: maximise your dps. If you don't try to maximise your DPS you suck as a tank. There's a lot of truth in this, but I feel there's a great amount of misunderstanding in the community regarding the players who don't favor the DPS style: namely that it isnt because they're shirking responsibility or arent -capable- of maximising dps, just that to them it feels "wrong" at a very core level and isnt fun. I wanted to discuss a few things pertaining to this, and why it's going to be hard to please everyone.


What IS the current Tank Meta?


As anyone with some 3.0 raiding experience will tell you, the current tank meta is very much focused on DPS. Contrary to how a lot of veteran MMO players might expect to have to build and play as a tank, the way top end raiding works is such that if played properly a tank can contribute a large amount of DPS to the raidgroup's overall total. The catch? In order to do so, they have to sacrifice quite a large amount of "tankiness".


This is causing quite a bit of friction in the tank community. The majority of tank players love it - tanks are now in a state where they're very dynamic to play and you can truly compete as a DPS. Players who hated low damage tanks in other MMOs are flocking to the Warrior and Dark Knight because suddenly they're able to play as a tank but as a class that feels like the DPS classes they enjoy. 


The minority though are silently seething. There's something quite "off" about the tank meta in terms of expectations and satisfaction for a small number of players - in general these players are often "career tanks" from previous MMOS, and tend to gravitate towards the Paladin class. For them, the current tank meta is making them unhappy, but it's very difficult to articulate this feeling without simply being accused of being -bad-.


In this post I hope to bring up some discussion topics that might help explain why these players feel unhappy at the current situation, and if anything can be done.


Four Ways to Die - what other MMOs do.


What's caused a lot of confusion in the tank community is the expectation brought into this game from other MMOs, be it WoW, Tera, Rift, whatever. There are SOME MMOs that have a DPS focus on the tanks (Aion springs to mind) but in general, a lot of the traditional MMOs allow tanks to focus primarily on their tanking stats and tanking rotation. They might still contribute a lot of DPS naturally, but they'll mostly be looking to make themselves as tough as possible via gearing/talents/playstyle etc.


In order to fully understand the way tanks are expected to play in FFXIV at the top level, you have to ask the question "what causes a tank to die in an MMO?". Two obvious answers which don't really pertain to the argument are "lag/dcs" (which can happen to anyone) and "messing up a mechanic". There's plenty of instakill mechanics in FFXIV raids that will kill someone or the entire raid if you don't move in the right place or pass a debuff over or somesuch, but those arent really relevant here.


What we need to understand is how a tank that is tanking a boss in an MMO can die, assuming they have a healer healing them. Usually an MMO will have encounters that tend to fit into only one or two of these ways, forcing tanks to gear appropriately. Here's the four primary ways an MMO can setup raid bosses to kill tanks:


1 - Constant Incoming Damage. This is the kind of fight where a boss throws so much damage at a tank that even with a healer spam healing them the healer literally cannot keep up with the rate of incoming damage. The tank dies because the incoming damage rate is higher than the heal rate. This is fairly rare, but usually used in gearcheck encounters. Provided that this sort of heavy tank damage is happening for the entire encounter, the way a tank survives is simple: they get as much mitigation as possible. Dodge, Parry, Armor, Block, whatever, along with a huge health pool. It all helps. In addition, the healers probably need to gear up for bigger heals too. Tanking cooldowns will help, but if the damage is constant for an entire fight you'll need to be able to survive outside of cooldowns via raw tank stats.


2 - Healers Out of Mana. This one was fairly common in earlier days of WoW raiding. You basically throw lots of damage at the tank, but it's fairly easy to heal. However, the fight is quite long, and eventually healers will simply run out of mana and THEN the tank dies. In order to prolong healer mana, the tank would need as much mitigation as humanly possible. Maximum health wasnt important really, just dodging, blocking, parrying and flat armor. Healers would gear up for bigger heals and mana regen, and thus the fight just got easier and easier the more gear you had provided the tank geared for being tanky.


3 - Random Burst Damage. This method of tank damage was notably present in Black Temple era WoW, and eventually was moved away from. Here, the tank takes a constant very very heavy stream of damage, but the healers have very powerful heals and almost infinite mana. The idea being that a tank can survive maybe 2-3 seconds at max without a heal, and as long as heals are incoming they're fine, unless they take something like a double crit in a row, or two undodged attacks, or an attack and an AOE. In other words, they need to be able to survive the possibility of a big spike of damage at ANY TIME whilst healers funnelled massive heals on them constantly. The only way to gear up to survive these fights was to stack massive amounts of Health and armor - Effective Hit Points. Dodge/Block/Parry would make the bursts less common, but a tank needed the ability to survive 3 undodged attacks without a heal or there was always a risk of them suddenly dying from 100% -> 0 in 2 seconds.


4 - Predictable Burst Damage. THIS is the style that FFXIV uses in the most part. What you have is a boss that does constant damage on a tank, but in general the damage isnt particularly tough to heal through. You can generally survive it without any cooldowns, outside of your tank stance, and usually without that much health. The thing that kills tanks here is a huge tank buster move, usually on a strict timer and with an obvious cast bar. The damage incoming during this moment of Ouch is far beyond the incoming damage of the previous 3 death types, but only happens for a short time. Thus, for these encounters the tank merely needs enough mitigation to be able to survive the 2-3 second moment of tank buster - usually, popping one or two tanking cooldowns will be enough even in low vitality gear. Outside of that 2-3 second period of damage, tanking stats basically don't matter.


So those are the four ways MMOs over time have thrown damage at tanks, and you can see that for the first three tanks are encouraged heavily to be as tanky as possible at all times during the fight - the success of the fight hinges on their ability to take as little damage as possible from start to finish. In FFXIV though, that test on damage taking often only comes in very short bursts, and tanks tend to have a much larger amount of "Oh Shit" tanking cooldowns to cope with them.


When you then couple that method of tank death with the fact that:

a.) A lot of FFXIV raids have very tight enrage timers.

b.) Tanks can contribute almost as much DPS as a pure DPS class if played properly.

The message is clear - being tanky is very much superfluous to being high damage. You can stack mitigation and health up the wazoo if you want, but it will only have a very minor impact on the success of your raid. Healers wil be able to heal you fine anyway, and all you're doing is giving them a slightly bigger cushion to allow for them to make mistakes.


That's fine... but the benefits gained from maximising your DPS output far outweigh a small cushion for making mistakes. Certainly in the early days of Alex Savage raids, fights were literally -impossible- to do without tanks meeting certain dps levels, because a raid otherwise wouldn't be able to meet the enrage timer and would die.


The Fifth Way to Die.


It's worth mentioning there IS a fifth way a tank can die that doesn't really fit in with the four ways above: the tank misplays their tank rotation. Now this isnt usually a factor in a lot of the more passive MMOs like FFXIV/WoW etc, where you're mostly relying on RNG rolls and raw tanking stats to survive. In an action oriented game though, something like TERA, tanks are often expected to constantly watch a boss and their animations and time blocks and dodges with pinpoint precision every couple of seconds. A good tank in these kind of MMOs could often kill a boss without taking a single bit of damage if they were really good at timing their blocks/dodges. 


This sort of active mitigation isnt present in a lot of the less action-based MMOs of course, but it's worth mentioning that there ARE MMOs out there that have a way to test a tank's ability to take and deflect damage outside of just "what gear are you wearing" and "did you pop a big cooldown at this particular moment".


Sacrifice for the Cause.


So we've seen that in FFXIV at present, there's a lot of emphasis on the DPS element of tanking. What does this mean in principle though, and why are some people against it? The key to understand here is that FFXIV's skill and gearing system is setup that you have to make several choices between DPS and survivability - but what ARE these choices and what are their impacts?


- Prioritising Strength over Vitality. This is the big one. You can either have a 20k health pool by having 35 stat points in Vit, and wearing 5 Vitality Accessories... or you can have a 15k health pool by having it all in Strength instead and do about 25% more damage. 4-5k health is a massive amount but... just doesnt really matter. Outside of the cooldown'ed tankbuster, this is just a cushion to make healers feel safer. Nevertheless, it's still a "tank stat" and a high health tank IS easier to heal even if not by much, due to slightly more time before they need that lifesaving heal.


- Completely ignoring the Parry Stat. Parry is garbage in FFXIV. It's all over the place but every single tank ideally wants to avoid it. It's the only "tank stat" that we actually have on gear other than Vit, the other secondary stats are purely dps boosting, but even then we still ignore it. Parry gives terrible returns point-for-point, and even if it DID give returns, more frequently parrying low damage attacks doesnt really affect the success of a fight. Healers arent running out of mana and tanks can't rely on parry in the tank buster moments. It's just better to ignore it and stack more DPS stats.


- Fighting in DPS Stance as much as possible. This is the "scary" one. To maximise your DPS, a tank should be tanking in Deliverance, Sword Oath or dropping Grit as much as humanly possible. That's a flat -20% damage taken gone due to maximising damage. 


- Ignoring the damage-reducing debuffs. All three tanks have attacks that debuff the target and reduce the damage that target deals to some degree (10% by storms path, around 7-8% less damage done via physical/magical stuff for Delirium/Halone). There's virtually no need to keep these debuffs up 100% of course, and generally they're only applied for the tankbuster moments, if that. Tank rotations prioritise the moves that do the highest damage and keeping up these debuffs will usually result in a DPS loss (though delirium less so due to its use in a dps rotation).


Individually all of these make perfect sense. Combine them together and you have a MASSIVE difference between a tank that maximises their damage and one that plays tanky. A 20k hp full Vit Paladin who's stacked parry, keeps Rage of Halone up and stays in Shield Oath WILL be miles easier to heal than a Sword Oath full Strength dps monster... but that doesnt matter. The sword oath paladin can still survive those tankbuster moments, and whilst there's a higher chance of random death during the "quiet" periods, the damage they put out vastly outweighs that cushion.


Player Fantasy and the Joy of Axe.


So why is any of this a problem? One reason: Player Fantasy.


When players roll a class in an MMO, they generally have an idea on what they want out of it. They'll want to feel powerful, they'll want to feel like they're doing their job. Everyone wants to feel useful, everyone wants to feel good at the game and everyone wants to feel like they're doing the best they can for their teammates. But in addition to this, people gravitate towards a class for a "feeling".


You look at the Warrior, and you see a hulking berserker with a huge axe. A complete brute, raw strength and unrefined damage. What would your "average" Warrior player want to feel when playing their character? They'd want to feel like a threat. They'd want to feel scary to their opponents, to feel that every slow swing of their axe was capable of massive damage. They'd obviously want to feel tough too, but the archetype of the berserk warrior charging into battle with no shield is one of aggression, damage and power. The current tank Meta is perfect for this kind of desire - balancing damage done for incoming damage, that element of risk. The ability to do almost as much damage as the dragoon next to you... and huge satisfaction from seeing gigantic numbers pop up when that Fell Cleave crits.


I'm not saying ALL Warriors have this fantasy, but you can see how satisfying this image of a Warrior is when aligned to the way a Warrior plays. Dark Knights likely feel similar - a lot of players gravitated towards them simply because they were "the class with a two handed sword". They want to feel powerful and threatening, this magical behemoth that strides into battle wielding a huge weapon and dark magics, diverting their power between vicious destructive attacks, and self preservation.


But what about your average Paladin player? It's a little less black and white. The image of the stalwart knight protecting their comrades, clad in plate with a huge shield, deflecting blows left and right. THIS kind of archetype tends to attract the kind of player that wants to feel like they're swatting off incoming blows without harm, this immovable wall between danger and their friends. What would the satisfaction be for such a player fantasy? To see huge gigantic bosses swatting them and see tiny damage done numbers popping up. To face the fire breath of a gigantic dragon and shrug it off as if it were a fly coughing on them. To stand whilst a whole army of smaller opponents wail on them to no avail.


There are obviously some paladins who favor the idea of being a master of the sword, weaving in fast and powerful slashes and forgoing their shield in favor of rapid elegant damage. These players are also the kind who'd adore the current tank meta.


But for the immovable brick wall lovers, the current tank meta feels very very wrong. Sure, they'll get the satisfaction of seeing high damage numbers, of maximising their class, of feeling like they're contributing highly to their team, but in order to do that they have to give up their fantasy of the immovable wall. That high crit Royal Authority might feel great, but probably wouldnt feel as great as being hit by a gigantic tank buster and seeing your health bar move about 1 pixel. 


That opportunity to swap to a DPS stance and do raw dps during a moment of lesser damage would feel fantastic to the aggressive tank players, but to the player who gravitates towards the Brick Wall tank fantasy, there isnt much enjoyment there. They'd do it, but the satisfaction of higher damage would be countered by the awkward feeling that you've chosen to make that part of the fight harder to heal for your healer... even if it's a very low risk of death.


Rewards and Power.


Above all, the current state of the tank meta means that if a tank joins a group with 20k health... they'll be laughed at. It's almost like a test of manhood amongst the community now - high health is (rightly) synonymous with low damage, and people don't want that. A tank who wanted to pride himself on being incredibly tough to kill will be pointed and laughed at in the current meta.


The issue with this is that MMOs in general are about increasing the power of your character. You raid, you kill stuff, you get rewarded with loot. Loot that increases your power. For DPS this is easy - you get loot that increases your damage output and you see a marked increase in your DPS. The rewards you get increase your "player fantasy". For healers, their rewards increase the size of their heals but ALSO increase the amount of damage they deal - Cleric Stance means that a healer who has a power fantasy of being a controlling warlock type, as equally able to destroy as to heal, can thrive from the same loot drops as those that want to heal for millions.


With tanks though... the reward system again goes against the Power Fantasy of a tank that favors feeling tough and immovable over the high damage threat. A tank gets a new chestpiece? Awesome, they'll do more damage and have more health... but that health boost probably means that they can then just swap out a vitality accessory for a strength one. They needed X vitality to survive the tankbuster but any more is excessive and should be shaved off for more damage. Increasing the item level of a tank's left side gear generally means that they can just wear more Strength gear on the right side.


The end result? A tank in i200 gear will probably feel just as tough as a tank in i180 gear. They'll do a LOT more damage of course, but probably will have dropped all hints of vitality accessories and be tanking things in pure strength. Thus, a tank that has the power fantasy of being as tough as nails doesn't really see any huge impact into the aspect of their play that they like the most. They'll see huge dps improvements but that health bar will still move the same amount when hit in the face by the Oppressors plasma beam.


Couple this with the fact that Fending Accessories are often seen as a wasted drop, it's impossible for a tank to get excited about anything which improves their tankability. They're neither praised for their toughness or expected to enjoy any rewards that improves it.


The Downward Filter into Casual Content.


Now if it isnt clear by now, the vast majority of what i've been talking about is related to raiding, specifically the more cutting edge Savage raids. It always amused me that people defend the need for tanks to minmax their damage in order to hit enrage timers due to the fact that raid teams were tackling the first weeks of Alex Savage "undergeared".


If players were "undergeared", how come tanks could survive by tanking almost entirely in DPS stance and using strength accessories in a lot of cases? Where was the incentive for tanks to improve their tank-ability if the content was clearable in the first few weeks whilst playing that high risk high damage style? The answer is in that good old fourth way to die - there's no incentive. Boosting your health pool and mitigation beyond what's needed to survive an encounters tankbuster is just not important compared to improving your DPS.


The issue now is that the philosophy of high damage high risk tanking is filtering down from the raiding scene into the casual scene. It was always there to a degree - it was generally better to wear strength accessories in easy content as it made it go faster, but it's pretty much a coin toss of personal choice. Full vitality tanks are "fine" in 4mans as long as they can actually keep aggro, but they're undesirable. They gain nothing from the high health pools really unless they're pulling four rooms at once with a laggy healer.


The problem with that though is that the mentality of Str>All and "tank outside of tank stance" is filtering into levelling players who don't really understand the positives and negatives. It's one thing to tank the A1S Oppressor in Deliverance with a good healer keeping you up, it's another to pull a pack of Aevis in Stone Vigil normal mode at level 41 with an undergeared healer and drop Defiance and expect not to get killed in 3 seconds. There's a time and a place, and I'm a little worried that the downward filter from how to optimally play a raid tank is going to start having awkward effects on new players who are told how to do it and then fail miserably.


A minor point though - but for tanks who enjoy feeling like solid walls, at least levelling content allows them some kind of arena to do this. The problem is that whilst a high health full-tank style actually tends to result in MORE success in levelling dungeons, the community's disdain for this kind of tank playstyle is likely to gradually filter across. I've already seen it happen - fresh dark knights wearing vitality accessories being chided before they even reach level 40, whereas it's probably the right thing to do given gear levels and the way Duty Finder works.


So what can be done?


The million dollar question... and we don't know. Does anything even need to be done? The next hard raids wont be coming out until 3.2. All we know is there'll be a bit more physical damage rather than magical so Paladin mitigation wont be quite as far behind Dark Knights as it was on A4S... but this doesnt really say if anything is going to change for the meta.


The problem we have currently is the binary notion of tanking. If you change encounter methodology in FFXIV to be more like first three "ways to die" listed above, then you're likely to upset FAR more players than you please. Imagine if every encounter in the next raid requires Warriors to stay in Defiance 100%, only ever using Inner beast as much as possible for mitigation, and to stack vitality due to huge burst damage. No fell cleaves, no strength spec, no interesting stance dancing. I'd wager most Warriors would probably consider rerolling to dragoon or something.


This is currently where a lot of Paladin players sit though. They do their best, they maximise their damage, they prioritise strength and use Sword oath as much as possible... but they don't feel like their archetype of a tank doing this. They might enjoy it to a degree, and I'm sure a LOT of paladins do like it, but there's that small subset that just feel the current way of doing things is unsatisfying for how they want to feel about their character.


The Fifth Way to Die is perhaps the thing to look at. Some way of allowing tanks to use skill to reduce damage more, a more active tank playstyle with viable payoffs. Imagine if Sheltron lasted 3 seconds and had an 8 second cooldown, but bosses would throw in constant physical mini-tank busters at random points with telegraphed animations. A good paladin would mitigate a huge amount of incoming damage via skill and timing rather than just stacking stats... but the imbalance with the other classes would mean it would either be pointless or paladins would be too vital. 


Is there a tradeoff? Should they try to balance it that playing in a way that forgoes personal DPS but makes a tank a lot easier to heal somehow increases party damage via making it easier for OTHERS to dps? On paper the idea of the Warrior needing constant healing but doing huge dps themselves, vs a Paladin who needs so little healing that healers can dps much more frequently SOUNDS good... but it never really works like that in practise.


So.. that TLDR.


The current tank meta is fun and rewarding to any tank that enjoys a dynamic class that focuses on DPS, yet deeply unrewarding for any tank player that wants to feel like their progression as a character comes from being more and more unkillable. This feeling is not just a factor of the requirement for strict enrage timers, but many other factors including the philosophy of incoming tank damage and the bizarre gear stat system that forces tradeoffs.


If the current tank meta doesn't change, I feel a lot of disgruntled tanks will quit the role. However, these tanks are very much in the minority, and changing the way things work is likely to drive away the much larger numbers of tanks who enjoy FFXIV tanking purely BECAUSE of the high DPS focus.


Just spare a thought for the few tanks that want to do their best but hate having to purposefully make themselves squishier to do so.

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