I published Shifting Perspectives: The disappearance of the bear in October 2009 during patch 3.2.2. It was a means of collecting and examining eight common arguments as to why bear players had vanished during Wrath of the Lich King, and the column resulted in a number of insightful comments from readers on the issue. I decided it was time to revisit that column and ask: Have things improved in Cataclysm, gotten worse, or not changed much at all?
I have to preface this by stating that we have no hard information on what spec populations look like right now, and it's possible that this column's been written about an issue that's resolving. However, I don't think that's the case. Bear players are still the least represented on the tanking forums, their thread on Elitist Jerks is usually a ghost town, and their appearances through the Dungeon Finder -- at least from what I've seen of it -- are few and far between. Insofar as the Call to Arms system is a sideways acknowledgment of the shortage of 5-man tanks, the apparent lack of bear players (and quite possibly blood death knights as well) is a concern to more people than just druids.
#1: Bears aren't as visually compelling as other tanks.
Then: As Alex Ziebart observed behind the scenes here, the druid class in WoW breaks one of the cardinal rules concerning MMO design -- it is impossible to "advance" the character, given that the druid is almost always in form.
Now: No change. The druid is not the class to play if you like seeing your cool gear in action, unless you're a restoration player (which was its own can of worms). However, I'm still not sure that the static form is a strong argument for why druid players aren't playing the bear particularly, as it's a problem that, until Cataclysm, was shared by all four druid specs. As far as I can tell, druids have a 10-11% share of characters at level 85, which is ideal representation given that there are 10 classes in the game. If static form design isn't keeping people from playing the class itself, then there's no reason why it should be keeping people from playing the bear.
Unless people just really hate the bear model while tolerating the moonkin and cat forms. Are you out there?
Otherwise, I was surprised to see a few players on the tanking forums make note of the animation issue recently. We finally got a neat avoidance animation during Wrath (it's in the screenshot above), but the bear is still the least compelling tank from both an art and animation perspective.
#2: Gear consolidation had a more demoralizing effect on druids.
Then: No matter what you're using, it feels like Blizzard's irritably shoving you into someone else's gear.
Now: Cataclysm has been a solid win in this respect -- at least so far as leather is concerned. The introduction of armor specialization discouraged players from seeking gear outside their own armor class, so we're no longer competing with just about every physical DPSer for melee leather. The huge benefit conferred by armor penetration toward the end of Wrath led to drops like the Frostbitten Fur Boots and Toskk's Maximized Wristguards being best-in-slot for just about every physical DPSer in the raid barring the enhancement shaman, and that was maddening.
However, plate tanking gear is still overwhelmingly distinguished by the presence of defensive stats like parry, block, and dodge that DPS players don't want, and there are relatively few "crossover" plate pieces suitable for both roles. To the extent that plate tanks can expect to compete with DPS for gear at all, they'll only be interested in strength gear with hit and expertise on it. Even that's only going to be attractive (if minimally so) to death knight players; paladin and warrior survivability is in no way impacted by either of these stats.
So the situation is definitely much better than it used to be, though bears still have more potential loot competition in any given raid. Agility leather is now functionally "restricted" to rogues, cats, and bears, but agility rings, cloaks, necks, trinkets, and weapons remain attractive to rogues, cats, bears, enhancement shaman, and hunters. Now that I think about it, we're actually somewhat worse off in Cataclysm because strength tanking jewelry and cloaks are so inferior to their agility counterparts.
So maybe the gear issue's ultimately a wash. We're better off with respect to melee leather and worse off with respect to jewelry and cloaks.
Then: A raid that chooses to prioritize drops toward a bear tank is, at least in the short term, costing itself improved damage from its melee DPSers and/or hunters ... (By contrast), if your raid doesn't prioritize drops toward tanks, odds are pretty good you're going to be upgrading your tanking set a lot more slowly than your buddy the prot pally.
Now: No change, but I never thought this played a big role in tank selection anyway. It's just an unintended nuisance for agility-based DPSers if your raid prioritizes tanks for gear first. If it doesn't -- or if you pug the majority of content and have to roll against everyone for drops -- then yes, you will spend a lot more time trying to get gear than your plate tank counterparts.
#4: Early weakness in the expansion bled through to raid content.
Then: We're not bad tanks. We're just the tank whose particular weaknesses are least suited to how players expect to complete modern heroics.
Now: Eh. The bear started Cataclysm in a much better place than it did in Wrath. The lack of Savage Defense in early Wrath, coupled with the bear's relatively weak AOE threat generation, was noted by players fairly quickly in 5-man content. This was also before Swipe was changed to a no-target, 360-degree ability; the previous version left the bear as the only tank without a 360-degree aggro generation tool. As you'd expect, this wasn't fun on any event with moving mob spawns. We entered Cataclysm much better equipped to handle the strain of tanking new heroic and raid content in blues.
However, as long as Savage Defense works the way it does, the bear -- and for that matter, the death knight -- is doomed to start every expansion at a noticeable disadvantage relative to block tanks. There is no substitute for block's impact on survivability while trash/AOE tanking, and there are certain raid encounters (most notably heroic Nefarian) where this is a real problem. More on this next week.