An Examination of the Emergence of the Threat Tank Meta, the Viability of Feral Bear Druids in Classic World of WarCraft, and the Dangers of Misconceptions Based on Casual Retrospection:
Often, I hear people, in our community and in many others online, talking about the viability, or the lack thereof, of particular classes in Vanilla/Classic World of WarCraft, To be honest, I’m guilty of condemning particular builds and build applications to a certain extent, as well. The truth is, however, that so often these opinions are dangerously predicated upon Vanilla World of WarCraft as we remember it, and not upon Vanilla World of WarCraft as we’ve come to understand it in the years since it released.
To unpack the subject, and to better understand the issues I framed in the title, we have to go back and look at World of WarCraft from the very beginning —
WoW was not the first MMO; not by a long-shot. But (Classic) Blizzard always had this knack for taking niche gaming genres, making them more accessible, and turning them into wildly successful franchises: they did this with RTS games (WarCraft, StarCraft); Rogue-likes (Diablo); FPS titles (Overwatch); collectible TCGs (Hearthstone); and they honestly created one of the best MOBAs on the market (Heroes of the Storm, which failed for a number of other reasons — but that’s an entirely different post); etc. And one of their greatest achievements was in the way they took the MMO framework, made it more accessible to gaming audiences, and created the greatest, most successful MMO of all time — World of WarCraft.
For many, many people in 2004 (almost certainly a majority of the playerbase, even), Vanilla World of WarCraft was their first MMO. And, honestly, because of it’s meteoric rise in popular culture at that time (remember when there was an entire South Park episode rendered in Machinima dedicated to it?), there’s a not-insignificant portion of the population that came to WoW as their first game. And what I’m getting at here is that, in 2004, people were learning. Lots of folks were just objectively bad at the game, but also remember that information was not as readily available then as it is today — we didn’t have access to many of the numbers under the hood at that point, and we didn’t have resources like Wowhead and Youtube to inundate us with guides. So even the players that were progression-driven and mechanically sound were very much experimenting with builds and classes, basically just throwing ideas at the board and seeing what stuck.
Additionally, there were a lot of misconceptions about classes and how they functioned at that time. If you were a Blizzard fan, let’s say, and you rolled a Paladin of the Silver Hand in Vanilla WoW expecting it to be anything like your Paladin of Zakarum from Diablo II … you were going to be sorely disappointed. Lots of those players never “gave up the dream”, and tried all throughout Vanilla to turn the classes they picked into the classes they wanted. Some of them succeeded, many did not.
Because this was the environment at the time -with lots of folks who were brand new to MMOs; others who were jamming square blocks into round holes; and others still who had the best of intentions, but were experimenting with builds and itemization at a time in WoW’s history when experimenting with builds cost you 50g- the game had a very well-established meta: for starters, because all (or a vast majority of) a raid’s DPS was “bad” (little-to-no previous raid experience, poor character optimization, uninformed about the importance of world buffs and consumables, etc), fights had a tendency to drag on. Forever. And because this was the case, Tanks favored high mitigation above all else, and Healers favored sustainability and efficiency above all else.
I healed in a progression raid all throughout Classic World of WarCraft, and I can tell you from personal experience that the one and only metric that we cared about was Overheal. Because that was the one stat we could reliably look at on a report to see who in the healer core was the most efficient. If you were not an efficient healer, you were going to be a liability because you were going to run out of mana and that would fuck the raid group over. Tanks, then, wanted to mitigate as much damage as they possibly could, because that meant they’d be less of a drain on their healers’ resources over a long fight. They didn’t have to worry too much about Threat, because for the most part, all of the DPS was shit.
So, with that scenario in mind, which class was the best tank? Well, Warriors are the only class that can permanently push Crush and Crit off of the attack tables of Bosses, so that’s your answer. If all that matters is mitigation, you have to go with the class that can max out that particular stat.
Okay, so fast-forward to 2019. It’s been 15 years, and the game’s changed a lot since then: for starters, the community has access to a wealth of online resources, in the form of professionally-written guides on WoWhead and YouTube, personal interaction with highly-skilled players on Twitch and Discord, and even a series of calculators that parse your records and tell you exactly, step-by-step how to improve your performance. In addition, even though WoW’s moved on with a half-dozen expansions since then, radically changing essentially every element of World of WarCraft in the process, the Vanilla iteration of the game’s been thriving on private servers for years. And the theorcrafters haven’t exactly been hibernating.
Did you know that Feral Cat DPS in Vanilla is actually insane? That their Best-In-Slot helmet was a level 45 crafted item? That one of their Best-In-Slot trinkets was also crafted? And that both of them are super easy to get hold of? Did you know that one of the most important consumables in a Feral Cat’s arsenal was the Manual Crowd Pummeler, a two-handed mace that drops from Gnomeregan? To the extent that Feral Cats that want to stay competitive with Fury Warriors in DPS have literally entire bags full of them because they only have 3 charges each that don’t replenish? Honestly, nobody knew that shit. Some of it has only recently been discovered.
So, if the community is objectively better now, and more experienced, than it ever was during Vanilla World of WarCraft; if we have access now to infinitely more, and higher quality, guides and resources than we ever had before; and if we’ve discovered, even as recently as last year, how to unlock the secret potential of classes like the Feral Cat, how does that affect the tank mitigation / healer sustainability meta on the sides of the Holy Trinity?
Well, it means tanks need to be able to push more threat now than they ever did during Vanilla. And this can actually be a problem for mitigation-focused Warriors toward the top-end, because they have an important relationship between damage taken and rage generation. Basically, when you’ve reached the point where enemies struggle to hit you, you’re massively impacting your ability to generate rage. And you need rage to generate threat. Again, just to clarify, this was never seen as an issue in Vanilla because generally DPS was poorly-optimized, and weren’t riding the tank’s ass as easily as they could do today.
Thus, came the emergence of the Dual-Wielding Fury Prot tank. These Warriors can pump out a lot more damage, meaning they can generate a lot more threat. They also take a lot more damage, meaning they can generate more rage than mitigation-focused Warriors, which they can then convert into even more threat.
And this all combines to have a drastic impact on the healer meta, as well. Tanks taking massive damage, to the extent that they require spammed heals from one or two dedicated healers throughout an entire encounter, would have been a huge problem in Vanilla 2004 World of WarCraft. But because everyone’s doing so much more damage now, Bosses are dying a lot faster; Hell, I’ve seen guilds on YouTube full-clear Naxxramas in about 2 hours, for example. So it’s really not a problem.
What does this mean about the viability of Feral Bear Druids as tanks in Vanilla? Well, if you examine how Bears stack up to Warriors, you’ll find that they actually output a fair amount more threat (particularly single-target threat, and especially before Warriors gain access to Thunderfury), but they obviously can’t defense cap, so they’re taking a lot more damage than a mitigation-focused Warrior might. They have a shit-ton more HP to make up for it, but their health pool’s still pretty swing-y.
So, wait … Feral Bear Druids output higher threat than mitigation-focused Warriors but they need a healing core that’s willing to spam them with heals every pull? Isn’t that exactly like a Dual-Wielding Fury Prot Warrior?
I mean, yeah. Basically.
The point I’m trying to make in all of this is that, even though it may seem like Classic World of WarCraft is exactly the same experience as Vanilla World of WarCraft, it actually isn’t. These two games might be literally statistically identical, but they’re not the same, because the community has changed: we’ve grown up, done our homework, gained over a decade of on-the-job experience, and now we can look at it with a fresh perspective. Possibilities have opened up that never would have been considered viable 15 years ago, and nothing’s changed except for the community. I just think it’s important to keep that in mind concerning Classic.
Basically, a lot of the opinions I hear being thrown around about class viability in Classic are predicated dangerously upon misinformation and misconceptions from 15 years ago, and I think it’s important for everyone to consider thoughtfully how few of the things we cling to as truths are actually written in stone.