I planned to do this post after I’d had all four tanking classes at 85 and a goodly few more dungeons on each under my belt, but the way things are going that’s not going to happen for a long long time, so I’ll just put my biases up front: I raid and dungeon as a protection paladin, I have raided and still dungeon as a protection warrior (I’d love to get her into raids but probably not until 4.1 will that be possible), I’ve done some dungeoning as a blood death knight but not nearly as much as the other two, and my bear experiences have been strictly vanilla dungeoneering plus talking to the various people I’ve actively tanked with in raids, which have been a DK and three different bears. (Yes, we have had a lot of druid tanks. Their supposed scarcity is amusing to me.) So if you think I’m hideously wrong about bears or DKs… you’re probably right.
There are a ton of arguments, QQ, and epeening on the tank forums about which tank class is strongest or easiest or OP or obviously gimped, and it gets pretty tiresome to read, pretty fast. There are also a lot of “my first tank, which should I roll?” threads. This isn’t meant to evaluate which tanks are strongest in raids; honestly I think that depends a lot on the fight and much more on the player behind the keys. It is my observation, though, that the four tanks are structurally quite different and which tank you should roll depends a great deal more on your temperament rather than how things spreadsheet out. This post is about those differences- what the play and flavor feel like and who they’ll most appeal to based on that.
Protection paladins have now and have always had the most static tank rotation in the game. It used to be that we had six-second buttons and nine-second buttons and it barely mattered what order we pushed them in so long as they all stayed on cooldown; now we have a choice of two three-second buttons to push, depending on whether the situation is AoE or single-target, and then an assortment of other buttons that also, at the end of the day, are mostly about keeping everything on cooldown. We also have a resource system to blow that gives us a choice between single-target threat, multi-target threat, or healing of self or others, which after 4.1 is mostly going to be a choice between single-target and multi-target threat with much more occasional healing. Either way, once you get the holy power system down, the business of controlling mobs is not terribly exciting. We get a stun on a long cooldown (talentable/glyphable to improve), and we finally have an off-the-gcd interrupt, although until 4.1 again with our lack of use for hit it’s a very unreliable one.
The real strength of paladins as a tanking class other than baseline survivability and threat is its big raid utility toolbox. You get most of the same tools that holy paladins do to back up the healers and support the raid, and a good protadin will use them. My pally is the only tank I have that I not only run Grid, but use the same setup as I do when I’m healing. Given that many boss fights for the main tank are mostly a matter of using your survivability cooldowns intelligently and moving the boss or yourself out of the bad stuff, that doesn’t leave much else for the protection paladin to do other than their as-stated simple threat rotation, and threat doesn’t even matter that much beyond the initial ten seconds anymore thanks to Vengeance, as long as you don’t actually go AFK. On the Valiona and Theralion fight, for example, I spend about 2% of my focus keeping threat, 30% watching for things not to stand in and boss ability timers, 10% on my own survivability cooldowns and when the optimum time to use them is, and the rest on throwing Word of Glory, hand of protection, holy radiance, lay on hands, and the raidwall as-needed or as-most-helpful.
All tanks have a much wider and further-out focus than healers or DPS, but with a resource system that’s either almost completely ignorable (mana) or simple with a few basic reminder addons (holy power), passively applied in-combat buffs and debuffs, and a (relative) dearth of specific control abilities that apply to the mobs rather than to the group, paladins are arguably the most eye-in-the-sky of them all. This can make them a touch boring to play in five-mans once things get routine, and give them a stronger sense of control in raids.
Despite the relative simplicity of paladin threat rotation, pallies have one of the most active and intensely mathy theorycrafting communities of any of the tanks, with death knights coming in a close second. I don’t think this is a coincidence, but rather reflective of the kind of temperament the tanking end of the class attracts.
You want to play this tank if: You’re really into the idea of being the group’s protector rather than just the guy getting all the monster’s attention and abuse. You’re a healer looking to take a walk on the pointy end of things and can’t bear the idea of not being able to do anything when you see group members’ health bars dangerously low for any reason other than “mob I don’t have locked down beating on them”. Your response to the notion of knowing the precise combat table coverage value or added threat per second of any given change to your stats, tweak on the PTR, or moved talent point is “oh boy!” rather than “what’s a combat table coverage?”. The idea of being the channel for holy righteousness is a flavor you like.
You want to run away from this spec if: You need a lot of fast active decision-making about which buttons to press for a class to be fun for you. You want an in-your-face feel to your tanking. You think healing is for healers and you want to worry solely about the boss/mobs rather than the party/raid. People that use MATLAB to improve their game performance make you want to punch them in the face. You can’t stomach the idea of being holy crusader-flavored.
In direct contrast to paladins, warriors have a very fluid and reactive priority-based system that will require you to make a lot of fast decisions about which buttons to hit when in order to maintain good threat and survivability. They also have to worry somewhat more about their resource system; they don’t have a combolike system like holy power, but smart rage management is important for warriors far more so than smart mana management is for paladins. (In contrast to Wrath, when warriors either had too much or too little, and which it was depended on gear.) Warrior buffs and debuffs are much more actively maintained than the paladin versions, and even a five-man run is going to be at least a little tied up keeping these up and smoothly juggled in between your threat maintenance.
Warriors arguably have as large a toolbox as paladins and death knights, it’s just completely differently focused. You get a lot of tools for handling specific kinds of mobs and situations, it’s just that almost none of them apply to your party/raid as opposed to yourself or the mobs. The place where an individual tank’s skill stands out is still in his or her use of the full potential of this toolbox, but rather than supporting the healers beyond smart survivability cooldown use, a warrior shines with superior control of mobs, maintenance of multiple important raid buffs and debuffs, and an unmatched ability to be anywhere on the battlefield they need to be within seconds. Happily, they’ll be getting their own raidwall in 4.1, adding yet more utility to the class.
Warrior mobility is always mentioned in any discussion of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the tanking class, and it deserves to be; a warrior making proper use of charge, intercept, intervene, and heroic leap rarely has an excuse for not being where they needed to be, and they make up for their relative lack of ranged tools with it. Combine this with their more reactive threat priority system, and this gives them a very immediate, in-your-face feel to tank on. Paladin tanking feels measured and waltzlike; warrior tanking feels more like DDR.
Despite being nearly identical to paladins in terms of how much of their survivability can be mathed out, there seems to be far less theorycrafting in the warrior community than there is in the paladin, death knight, or even bear communities. The warrior talent tree also offers a lot of room for personal stylistic choices in terms of where to put talent points, and you’ll likely see more variation between perfectly workable warrior builds than you will among any of the other three tanking classes.
You want to play this tank if: You like the idea of having a lot of snap decisions to make. You want your play to feel frantic and in-your-face even as you maintain perfect control. You’re thematically attracted to the idea of being the one class that doesn’t use any kind of magic, just brute force and will. You want a lot of different ways to control and lock down mobs. You don’t want to be forced into a cookie-cutter build and want your talent choices to make a lot of meaningful difference.
You want to run away from this spec if: The idea of having a lot of balls to juggle while being the tank gives you heart palpitations. You like to make everything come to you easily rather than moving to where you’re needed. Having a lot of tools in your toolbox, and needing to use them all in order to do your job well, sounds like too much to remember and put on your bars.
Paladins have a simple and relatively static rotation, warriors have a fairly simple-to-grasp but extremely reactive priority system, and death knights have a complex priority system that requires mindful resource management to execute correctly. The rune and runic power system is also more damaged by poor play than mana or rage; if you overstress your mana or bleed off too much rage, your problems resolve in seconds and can be potentially resolved by pressing a button on a relatively short cooldown, but bad decision-making on rune usage will reverberate through your rotation for longer, and the rescue-everything cooldown is quite a bit longer.
Likewise, their survivability must be equally well managed. Outside of specific survivability cooldowns, warrior, paladin, and bear mastery and mitigation are passive; they’re either chance-to-activate things like avoidance, block, and savage defense, or simply baked into the spec passively in some other fashion. Death knights have some passive survivability, but their mastery and the balance point they hang on as a tanking class are completely in the player’s hands: self-healing and absorption shields from death strike. Good death knight tanking play is maximizing the potential of this mechanic, and there is much beard-stroking in the theorycrafting community about the best way to do this. Suffice to say you’ll want addons for this class more than any other, just to more clearly see what’s going on with your rune management and your blood shields than the default UI will give you.
Death knights are arguably the kings of cooldowns. Depending on which abilities you count as cooldowns and what talents are taken (some, like rune tap, are in a greyish area, and you have to specifically spec into frost for Lichborne), they have at least five and up to eight survivability cooldowns, small and large and some very situational. A good death knight that remembers all the buttons he potentially has and remembers to use them in the right situations is very, very difficult to kill. If you’re grasping that power in exchange for mastering complexity is the death knight tradeoff, the pattern continues here; none of them are quite as strong as the strongest warrior, paladin, and bear cooldowns unless they’re used intelligently, often in concert with other abilities.
Along with their cooldowns, they also get plenty of mob-control abilities; they get a combined ranged interrupt and silence in Strangulate, and another interrupt on a shorter cooldown in Mind Freeze. Add a ranged gap closer with Death Grip and death knights become the polar opposite of warriors- designed around choosing a place to tank the pull and forcing everything to come to them, even moreso than paladins. Picking up and keeping mobs, and keeping them debuffed, is relatively straightforward- it’s managing yourself that’s the bigger challenge of the class.
Death knight tanks in general can be summed up in a permutation of the poem about the little girl with the little curl, right in the middle of her forehead: when the player is good they’re very, very good, and when they’re bad they’re horrid. In terms of the sheer feel of play, they’re a good bit more intense than paladins but not quite as frantic as warrior. More of a rave feel than waltzing or DDR.
You want to play this tank if: “Complexity” is a word that attracts you to a spec rather than repelling. You’re an even bigger control freak than most tanks already are. You like having lots and lots of tools for very specific purposes in your toolbox. You dislike the idea of running around after mobs rather than setting things up exactly as you please. You dig the idea of being themed around being a blood-crazed zombie.
You want to run away from this spec if: You absolutely hate micromanaging. You want smoother, more constant and guaranteed damage reduction from a shield rather than having to manage self-heals and absorbs to get the same result. You don’t want your action bars cluttered with a lot of buttons. The RPer in you is uncomfortable with the idea of that touch of evil that being a vaguely vampiric undead former Scourge minion comes with.
Paladins command the power of the Light to protect their allies. Warriors use soldierly techniques to tie up the enemy. Death knights plague their enemies and feed off their life. Bears? Bear SMASH.
If paladins and warriors occupy polar opposite positions in terms of play style and design philosophy, bears and death knights are on their own poles away from one another. Bears have probably the simplest priority system, and also the smallest toolbox; where a DK has a finely milled tool for every occasion, bears get the same job done with a hammer, a screwdriver, and a bit of brute force. This is not to say that they’re easier to play; any bear will sometimes feel the lack of equivalent tools to their tanking brethren, especially the lack of any sort of ranged silence or even attention-keeping tools like a warrior’s spell reflect. (Warriors, of course, now have both.) If death knight tanking is the art of mastering complexity, bear tanking is the art of becoming very skilled at doing a lot with a little.
Like warriors, bears rely on their mobility, using feral charge and stampeding roar to move quickly around the battleground to where they’re needed. They can’t silence casters except briefly with skull bash or bash, so a good bear player learns to line-of-sight and exactly how far away they can get from a caster before it’s forced to move- and then charges back in. If any class has to take the most advanced classes in the art of the pull, this one is it.
Bears have middling to good raid utility, suffering a bit because a lot of their class’s native utility can’t be used while in bear form, and shifting out of bear while tanking is an immediate death sentence unless you’re at a point in a raid where you’re off-tanking and not taking hits at that moment. Their biggest high mark is that when they *don’t* need to be in bear form- as an off-tank in a fight where the design includes a phase where they’ll spend a relatively long period of time DPSing rather than tanking, like off-tanking Halfus or the Twilight Ascendant Council- they can shift to cat, and the fact that bear gear and spec is automatically at least decent if not optimal kitty gear and spec means they can pour on a lot more DPS than other tanks during these burn phases, which can mean all the difference to a guild trying to beat an enrage timer or get the boss down before the last few raiders fall. Given their gear is usually more designed originally for DPS than tanking in the first place, with the survivability conversion taking place in talents and baked-in effects of bear form, they usually do pretty high DPS for a tank even when not in kitty as well.
The fact that druid tanks and melee DPS share a talent tree is both a blessing and a curse. It’s the easiest for bears of any tanks to build and maintain a good off-set for DPS, or even swap their main spec to DPS on short notice, since much of the gear is shared and the biggest differences are in the gemming and reforging. On the other hand, this also means they compete with the leather-wearing melee DPS for gear rather than plate-wearing co-tanks- which can be fantastic if your raid doesn’t lean heavy to such classes, and miserable when they do, as there will always be more of the DPS than other tanks. The marriage of the two feral specs also means that when a nerf is aimed at one side, the other is likely to feel the effects as well. (Same goes for buffs, of course.)
Bears have fewer survival cooldowns than their tanking brethren, but they make up for it by just being very natively hard to kill, with very high avoidance and the fact that they get both a lot of threat and a lot of survivability off the same stats. (Agility, which affects both dodge and crit- and savage defense, their mastery-based absorption shield, procs off crit and scales off attack power.) They also get some nice plus effects from the fact that they tank shapeshifted- they are immune to polymorph, and disarm doesn’t do a whole lot to them either. They do become vulnerable to scare beast and hibernate, but nothing in the PvE half of the game ever does that that I’ve found, whereas Blizzard does like to work in some polymorphing and disarming trash mobs for lulz. The fact that most of their attacks aren’t affected by silence is nice, too- a bear will have a much less frustrating time tanking mobs that silence than, say, a paladin.
As for the feel of the playstyle… welcome to the mosh pit.
You want to play this tank if: You believe in the Keep It Simple Stupid principle. You’d rather juggle targeting mobs than buffs and debuffs. You want to have the most different options possible for your off-spec. You like having your bars uncluttered by a lot of rarely-used situational abilities. You’re not really sure whether you’d rather be a tank or a DPS and you don’t want changing your mind to be difficult. You get a bit of a stiffie from your DPS even as a tank. Because being a bear rather than a plate-wearing mook is just fundamentally cool.
You want to run away from this spec if: You want to have a tool for every occasion. You’d rather stand still than have to move around. You don’t want to look like you spent the weekend hitting garage sales held by rogues, hunters, and resto druids when you’re not shapeshifted. You don’t want to wrap your head around stat and gearing priorities that seem counterintuitive for a tank.
Bonus tank selection cheat sheet for Top Gear fans: If you like what Clarkson likes, growl “POWAAAAAH” as you roll your warrior. If you like what May likes, enjoy your paladin. If you like what Hammond likes, a bear’s life for you. If you can’t help but drool at the things that go like a bat out of hell but have more complicated computing systems than a space shuttle, death knight it is.