This section will always be pertinent to your group, though it will be a variable as to who serves as the leader. Typically, if there isn't someone assertive (and sometimes even if there is), this job will be expected of the tank. That said, it does not *have* to be the tank, but the tank is often the easy choice for the nature of their job. The tank is the first person into a fight and will care most in what order things are attacked. There is no reason this job cannot be done by anyone else, but it is ideal that someone does take the leadership reins to make sure that the group is coordinated and acting as a whole, instead of a collection of individuals doing what they please.
Target Assessment - Kill/Manage Priority - Marking
Every time you face a new pull, encounter, or group of opponents, you will need to size them up and handle them carefully. If you simply race into the pull blindly, often enough, when things explode and fall apart you may not have a clear idea of how you can improve or what you can do differently. Worse are the pulls where you don't fail outright, but pull it out by the skin of your teeth. If you do not learn from your encounters you will simply always struggle through and instances will be a far more stressful ordeal than they need to be.
Fights have sufficient risk in the current climate, and take long enough, that it is well worth your while to take a moment or two to plan/prepare and coordinate. This is exceptionally the case if you or any member of the group has not fought this enemy before. Do not assume that just because you *have* done it that your group will know what to do without asking.
"That's all well and good," you say, "but how do *I* know what to do when I'm leading the group; Especially if I have not done the pull before?!" I'm glad you asked!
1.) Identify your tools!
Every class and spec comes with its own set of tools that they can offer to the group, in 3 major forms: Active Class skills (the buttons you press to fill your role), Passive Buffs (Applied, Auras, and Short-term maintained buffs and debuffs to improve your group and weaken your enemies), and Secondary/Control abilities (spells that incapacitate, immobilize, slow, confuse, stun, and interrupt your enemies to reduce or limit their effectiveness).
Primary class skills will be the province of each member. You do not *need* to know them beyond any secondary significance such as Control/Debuffs that may be offered through the course of them just doing their normal routine.
Buffs and Debuffs will usually be applied ahead of time. There is a fairly short list of group buffs, and many listings of who can provide those abilities. Debuffs are frequently applied through abilities, but sometimes involve using non-central abilities. If you take a minute at the beginning of an instance you can potentially improve your group's effectiveness, which can actually save appreciable amounts of time later on. At very least, you can more than gain back the few moments spent making sure everyone knows what buffs they are responsible for providing. There are convenient addons that can track what buffs and debuffs your group can offer, personally I use "Raid Comp."
Every class and spec has Secondary and Control abilities of varying use and value. I won't list them all completely as there are a great many, but I will highlight the categories for reference later:
Full Control Abilities = these abilities will completely take the target out of the action for a longer duration (20-50 sec), these include a Mage's Sheep (Polymorph), Shaman's Hex (Froggy), Shaman's Bind Elemental, Priest's Shackle Undead, etc. These abilities vary in sensitivity; Some will break to any damage, others can take a little hurt without breaking free completely.Identify the abilities your group has, and keep them in memory when it comes time to deciding how you want to manage each pull. It can be better to err on the side of coverage and have multiple people trying to do the job, than put all your eggs in one basket.
Quick Control Abilities = these abilities will take the target(s) out of action for a short duration, but can be more robust for their short duration. These abilities include a Druid's Cyclone, Warlock's Fear, Paladin's Hammer of Justice, Frost Death Knight's Hungering Cold, Warrior's Intimidating Shout, and Priest's Psychic Scream. Some of these abilities can be chained, but their shorter durations can make that less ideal for long-term control.
Movement Impairing Abilities = these abilities will root (stop movement) or snare (slow movement) opponents without otherwise incapacitating them. These abilities are important for settling chaotic situations so people can set up longer-term solutions, or for handling more complex scenarios like "kiting" opponents (luring the opponent around while staying out of reach). Roots tend to be very sensitive to damage and/or very short in duration, while snares are usually very robust. These abilities include Mage's Frost Nova (root) and Chill effect (snare), Hunter's Frost Trap (snare zone) and Concussive Shot (targeted snare), and Shaman's Earthbind Totem (snare, Elemental can talent for a short root as well).
Interrupts = these abilities will stop the cast of an opponent's harmful spell/ability. Typically only spell-type abilities can be interrupted, while physical abilities that have a "cast" preparation time cannot, though there are exceptions. If a spell can be interrupted it is often well worth your while to do so. Many class-specs will be able to interrupt without interrupting their own actions to do so, particularly melee classes. Almost every class-spec has a form of traditional interrupt with a cooldown period between 6 and 40 seconds. The exceptions are: Discipline Priests, Restoration Druids, Beast Mastery and Survival Hunters (though certain pets are capable of interrupting), Holy Paladins, and Warlocks not using the Felhunter pet. These class-specs may have an ability that can effectively interrupt, provided the target is not immune to the true nature of the ability (for example, Holy Paladins can use Hammer of Justice to stun the target, but if the target is immune to stun it will not stop the ability from casting).
2.) Identify your opponents!
Even if you have never done a fight before, you can often tell by the names, appearances, and presentation of your opponents what sort of part they will play. For ease of comprehension, until you start become familiar, let's create some archetypes to identify. Blizzard uses classic concepts as well as class-based concepts. Most mobs in the game will follow fairly predictable roles, though they will sometimes mix and match.
Type 1 = The Grunt
Grunts are the rank-and-file, simple, no-frills fighters. They are largely filler, something to give you multiple targets to pay attention to without having too much concern about what they do. They will not be a major concern, and often enough may be low priority for controlling or killing.
Type 2 = The Bruiser
The Bruiser will stand out because you will not encounter more than one or two at a time or in a group, and they will usually be noticeably bigger, meaner looking, or possibly be shackled/controlled/"buffed" by the staging of the group. Bruisers are often resistant to control abilities, which means they are usually higher priority targets for killing for their increased threat to the tank. In other circumstances, when you have higher priority targets, the healer will simply have to be ready to heal the tank more heavily.
Type 3 = The Healer
There are a variety of healer types, and often they will carry obvious names, sometimes as obvious as "<blank> Healer." These mobs will have the direct ability to restore health to your enemies. Usually, if there is such an enemy present, their heal will be significant enough that you will want to be sure to avoid that healing; where that healing will be far greater than the damage you would cause in the time it takes to stop and interrupt or otherwise avert their healing. Usually, "avoiding" the healing will simply be a matter of interrupting a cast, but sometimes it will involve dispelling a buff (HoT or self-regen buff) and possibly mitigating a heal with healing reduction abilities like Mortal Strike. If there is a single healer and no other particularly dangerous opponents, it can be easy to simply focus and kill the healer first. If there are any other dangerous opponents (particularly ones that are immune to control), it may be equally worthwhile to control the healer and focus on the other risks first.
Type 4 = The Mage
I use the term "mage" in the general sense, more than the class-specific sense. They may shoot fire, frost, shadow, holy, or nature bolts (or something else altogether), but they are offensive spell casters, and they will often hurt. Tanks have heavy tools to handle physical attacks, but limited abilities to counter spells. This means these targets will usually be focused for control and/or interruption to reduce the threat to the group. Note: there are a distinct sub-set of the mage type that will ignore traditional threat and will pick enemy targets at random, these are usually the heaviest wear on the healers and will be high priority for control. Mage-types will also present a positioning challenge for tanks (see below) so interrupts will be key even if they are only to make sure the enemy moves to where you want them to be. Learning Line-of-sight (LoS, see tank section) tactics will also be valuable against these opponents.
Type 5 = The Controller
Controllers are mobs who specialize in trying to control and restrict the players. The mob itself is rarely as big a concern as their spells. Some will attempt to control your group members (Hex/Sheep/Fear/Mind Control) and some will apply damaging or performance reducing debuffs. These will be easy targets to prioritize for long control while you kill the rest of their groups, and are rarely high priority for killing unless they are immune to control.
Type 6 = The Swarm
Swarmers are always present in high numbers. Any individual in the pack will not be very dangerous, but when there is a large number of them, the damage adds up and can become a threat for survival and a challenge for the tank to gather their attention. These are rarely controlled because taking one or two out of the swarm will have little effect, but some abilities can be very useful for handling them should you choose to try. Mage's Ring of Frost, Frost Death Knight's Hungering Cold, and Warrior/Priest AoE Fears can be important for occupying those targets while you focus on another part of the pull (like a pack master who directs the swarm). Be wary of the "pack master" scenario, staged as a single humanoid who has a collection of pets, as they have a tendency to direct the swarm with no traditional threat behavior.
Type 7 = The Boss
This may literally be a dungeon or raid boss, or it may be a mini-boss of sorts. The boss-type is a larger version of one of the first 5 types, is always immune to control abilities, and is very dangerous. These targets, when not encountered solo (most boss fights are solo, and/or with "adds," additional mobs who will join the fight and are usually taken from the above categories) will be a decision whether they are managed/tanked while you kill off the supporting mobs, or if you control all the supporting mobs and focus on the boss first.
There are many interesting variations and many twists that the developers will place on this, but these should create a baseline for identifying potential elements in the composition of a group before you pull them. Once you do engage you and the group can coordinate and observe what each mob does so you can refine your strategy in the future.
3.) Identify Priorities and Assign Marks!
Now you need to decide on how you will try to kill them. The two major factors for this will be their risk to the group, and the ease with which they can be killed or controlled. If a target can be controlled or sufficiently stifled (by kiting or interrupting) that can reduce the priority with which they need to be killed. No matter how large a risk, if something can be killed markedly easier than the others, it may be best to take that enemy out of the equation to simplify the field. The biggest priorities will always be the best combination you can make of risk and ease of killing. If one mob can wipe out your group, but can be kept completely covered with your group's control, you may want to leave it controlled, or you may want to kill it first and try to keep it locked down until it is dead. There is no universal right answer.
Marking is a key skill, and one usually left to tanks, but it should fall to the group's leader to use it to direct the group. Set marks, and explain to your group what significance the marks will play for your group. Note: everyone has their own short-hands, and while there are common elements like Skull being the first target to kill, Square being a Hunter trap, and Moon being a Mage Sheep, it is still well important to spell it out for the group so that everyone is on the same page, especially if you have a group of strangers.
Marks and/or priorities can and should change mid-fight as needed. If you have a high risk enemy, like a healer, who is unsuccessfully controlled, or the control is made impossible (or you discover it to be impossible) you need to be ready to set aside your pre-planned order and kill the new risk immediately, or find another way to keep it shut down temporarily. Communication is always key. The tank needs to be ready to pick up the new target and the interrupters need to be ready to stop the heals.
If you are on live communication (VoIP or in-person) it is easy to leave marks the same and simply inform people to "kill the star" instead. If you have no voice communication, it may be easier to simply change the skull to direct people's attention. If necessary in a raid, the Raid Warning (/rw) chat ability can make a loud announcement to shift this priority.
I highly recommend keybinding marks. I set them to the same numbers on my keypad for every character. Keybinding the marks will let you assign them as quickly as if you were typing or using your other abilities, and speed may be imperative if you are setting or changing marks mid-fight.
3a.) Kill order crossed with control type!
When you set your priorities and start deciding which control ability to use on which enemy there are a few key things to pay attention to:
- How important is it for the control to stick?
The highest risk enemies that you choose to control should get the most robust control effects. So, durable control like Hex, Banish, and Cyclone should be your first choice for these. Less durable but infinitely re-castable controls like Polymorph (Sheep), Bind Elemental, and Shackle Undead should take second status to those. Sensitive control abilities with cooldowns should be your last choice for the highest priority targets; spells like Repentance (Ret Paladin) and Sap (Rogue) will break easily and cannot be replaced quickly (Repent) or at all in combat (Sap).
- What order are you going to kill them in?
Plan your control abilities so that you can break the most sensitive and/or shortest duration abilities first as you follow your kill order. Repent and Sap are easy and obvious candidates for the first controlled target to pick up and kill, while the more durable ones, as listed above, can be left for longer. Note: Hex does not break easily, but it *does* have a cooldown; it may be smart to break Hex before you break the re-castable controls.
- Does the enemy have any range considerations?
Roots work very well at keeping an enemy who is not being touched out of the melee and off the tank, but that is meaningless if they attack happily at range. Most enemies will fall into one of three categories in this respect: 1.) Full Caster/Hunter = will just stand at range by preference and not care about roots, 2.) Throwers = some enemies will have a single infrequent use (short/long cooldown) ability that they can use at range but they will not use it constantly, 3.) melee-only = these mobs will stand helplessly at range with nothing to do. #1 is a poor candidate for any rooting abilities; #2 can be rooted, but the tank will need to make sure to keep threat unless the damage is truly negligible as the mob will shortly start throwing stuff at the healer; #3 is perfect for roots and they can be used to great effect, especially when they can be recast indefinitely like a Druid's Entangling Roots.
Always be ready to change and reassess based on what you learn as you progress with the fight. If you see something you did not expect, it may change your priority and risk assessment. Perhaps what you thought was a Mage turns out to be a Healer, or what you thought was a Bruiser was really no more threatening than a Grunt. Perhaps that one mob actually summons a swarm if left untouched, so you want to control or kill them first.
If you are inflexible you will find you have to start more pulls from scratch, while those who can adapt mid-stream can salvage a pull the first time and remember the lessons to start it better the next time.
Let's construct an example pull, and break it down to see how these can be applied to strategy. Let's say your group consists of a Protection Warrior, Elemental Shaman, Marksmanship Hunter, Subtlety Rogue, and Discipline Priest. You face a group of 5 opponents, all humanoid-type, named the following: Ironwall Reaver (x1), Ironwall Pledge (x2), Ironwall Acolyte (x1), and Ironwall Commander. They are staged surrounding the Commander who appears more heavily armored. The Acolyte is wearing robes. We can guess that the Pledges are grunt-types. They will likely be less concerning. The Acolyte is most likely a caster of some sort, so it may be a healer, mage, controller, or all of the above. The Commander and the Reaver are question marks, but we can expect something more than grunt behavior, and the Commander may be a likely candidate for Boss or Bruiser behavior. The group wants to be careful so they decide to take the Acolyte out of the situation with the Shaman's Hex. They also decide to limit their exposure by trying to sap the Reaver, who is immune (fortunately they tried to sap which they could do without entering combat, Hex/Hunter's trap would've required them to readjust mid-pull). This means the Reaver may be a bruiser-type and they'll have to handle him carefully. The Commander is sap-able, so they Sap the Commander, and the Hunter drops a trap for one of the grunts to catch. The tank gives the Reaver a Skull to be the first target killed. The tank initiates combat and pulls back giving the time to Hex and Trap, and so only the Reaver and one of the Pledges come to the tank. The Shaman notes that the Acolyte was casting Holy Smite before he was Hexed. Mobs rarely use cross-element abilities, and they tend to be fairly class-oriented, so Holy Smite suggests a healer-type with some offensive spells. That likely means the Acolyte *can* heal, but will also resemble a light Mage between heals.
As fighting starts, sure enough, the Reaver comes out with two weapons and starts hammering the tank (Bruiser). The tank marks the Pledge that doesn't get caught with an X to kill second. The group kills the Skull-Reaver as quickly as they can, and starts working on the X-Pledge. An accidental mis-fire by the Shaman breaks his own Hex and the Acolyte comes loose and starts healing the X-Pledge. On the fly, the tank puts the Skull on the Acolyte and the Rogue helpfully Shadow Steps and Kicks (interrupt) the Acolyte. The Warrior tank charges the Acolyte and proceeds to keep the Acolyte interrupted and stunned while the group kills it. The X-Pledge is mostly ignored until the Acolyte is dead (possibly with the occasional Multi-Shot from the Hunter or Chain Lightning from the Shaman (which are carefully applied since the tank pulled the enemies away from the Hunter trap and Sap). The Sap runs out and the Commander charges the nearest party member (the Shaman who had been closer to Hex). The tank immediately taunts him and begins tanking him. The Hunter trap breaks and though the Hunter was ready to kite the Pledge into another trap, the tank picks it up and lets the group kill it along with and after the Commander. The tank also notes positioning concerns (see Tank meta-skills!) from the Commander in the form of a Shockwave (forward cone stun and damage) along with a Demoralizing Shout that reduces the groups damage. The latter is deemed ignorable, but the tank makes a note to the group about the Shockwave.
So, in retrospect you have learned:
1.) The Commander is a Controller type that needs to be faced away from the group, but can be controlled and taken out of the action.
2.) The Acolyte is a Healer and represents a high risk.
3.) The Reaver is a Bruiser and cannot be controlled, but appears to only single-target. This means the smart response will usually be to control the Acolyte and kill the Reaver first, but if there is no control available, or your healer is confident, you can simply let the tank get beaten on, and kill the Acolyte first.
4.) Pledges really are nuisances, and their only real threat is stacking their damage on top of the Reaver should they all be active at the same time. They may be controlled if you are trying to protect the tank, but probably won't need to be.
In the future, you know all this before the fight and can plan and direct the group accordingly. Learning all the groups you come across can allow you to move through instances at a good pace while being safe and tactical in how you manage your enemies.