So, as of right now, at least for warriors, the following things can be said.
- Warriors are still competitive as tanks. Two issues that are of concern for warrior tanks is that reaching total coverage for the combat table requires more work than, say, paladins (it's still doable) and once you reach it, stamina becomes far more potent than avoidance, and the tier 13 four set bonus basically puts you in an unenviable position of having to save your Shield Wall (a personal cooldown) to try and cover group damage. In general, warrior cooldowns are lackluster in comparison to other classes.
- Arms is king of PvE DPS for warriors. It's not really because arms got better, but fury got a lot worse. Mastery is still lackluster for fury (bad for SMF, slightly less bad for TG), hit is still way too hard to cap, and the nerf to Dual-Wield Specialization combined with the fix to the Deep Wounds bug has hammered fury fairly hard.
- In all cases, Gurthalak is basically the Band-Aid that keeps warriors viable as DPS. If you don't have one, you're doing less DPS even if you have a weapon with competitive stats. I'd replace a heroic Zoid's or Skullstealer with a Raid Finder Gurthalak and consider myself lucky.
- PvP isn't a lot of fun on a warrior right now. We lack real survivability buttons outside of Shield Wall (which needs a macro to work due to stance switching unless you're prot) and don't put out enough damage or debuffs to stay competitive in the Dragonwrath/Fangs of the Father universe that is PvP right now. (I know, right now it's far more likely the rogue merely has stage 2 daggers. Those are enough.)
Mastering mastery and the combat table
Warrior tanking is still mobile and engaging. For warriors who mainly tank in 5-man groups (and I'd say, for all tanks mainly in 5-mans), no one tank class is so far above any other that it's worth worrying about balance at this point. We know that 5.0 is going to see significant changes to tanking and tanking stats, so reworking tank balance at this point would probably be a bad idea.
Right now, it's possible to hit the magical number of 102.4% combined block, dodge and parry to render a warrior tank unhittable by normal attacks. If you're a long-time warrior who looks at that number and says "Hey, waitaminute," you're right -- it's the same number we used to aim for to push crushing blows off of the table, and it used to only be reachable via Shield Block.
Please keep in mind that combining block, dodge and parry to hit 102.4% does not mean you're actually not being hit at all. It means that no hit will be unmodified. In other words, if a boss swings at you, the hit is going to be a dodge, a parry, or a block no matter what. Remember, blocks still connect with you; they simply lose some of their damage to the Block mechanic. For a warrior, a blocked attack does 30% less damage unless it is a Critical Block, in which case it does 60% less damage. Using Shield Block, a warrior who is already completely covered on the combat table can increase his or her chance to Critically Block by up to the full 25% extra block from the ability.
Mastery is still the strongest stat for tanking warriors right up until you hit that combined Block/Dodge/Parry chance of 102.4%, but once you're there, stacking a ton more won't do you any real good. Once all attacks are going to be a block, a dodge or a parry, making more of them blocks will just mean you take more damage, ultimately, since dodges and parries are complete avoidance while blocks just reduce incoming damage by 30/60%. There's no way to increase how much damage a block can reduce outside of Critical Block's effect, and mastery doesn't make it reduce damage any more than that 60%; it just makes it more likely blocks will be Critical Blocks when you use Shield Block.
In essence, focusing on mastery until you're at that combined 103.4% makes perfect sense, but focusing on it beyond that is fruitless. This means that past that point, stamina is again your best friend. This is certainly more nuanced then the old days of Icecrown Citadel tanking, where people just mindlessly stacked stamina. Now you need to play a kind of Avoidance/Mitigation Tetris, shuffling toward 102.4% combined before starting to work on stamina.
It's no secret that it's a lot easier for paladins to hit this than us, but it's still possible in current gear to get there, especially with proper gemming, reforging and enchanting. This is the reason people say mastery is too good for tanking warriors and the reason we're going to see changes in 5.0. Right now, however, it's your best gearing strategy. Rendering incoming damage nice and predictable is the goal, and it's achievable.
As far as the two- and four-piece set bonuses for tier 13 protection, well, two-piece is really nice. Four-piece isn't bad except that it forces warrior tanks to make a choice I don't think they should have to make. (I wouldn't be in favor of it for any tank, but I don't write a generalized tanking column, so warriors are the class I talk about here.) Making Shield Wall into a lesser man's Divine Guardian just steals Shield Wall from us and forces us to rely on Last Stand too much. (As it is, since Last Stand and Rallying Cry share a cooldown, some tanks don't even take LS anymore.) It's up to individual taste, of course, but since Shield Wall is the big warrior tanking cooldown, I don't like making warrior tanks nervous about using it.
I actually went arms back in 4.2, when it was behind fury. Since then, the fairly savage beating fury took from the 4.3 nerf combined with the bug fix to Deep Wounds (either of which was justified on its own, but combined were not) left me glad I did. Arms isn't burning up the charts, but we're actually fairly solid on fights like Ultraxion where you don't have to move around a ton, or fights like Yor'sahj where you can AoE your brains out. I'm finding that I have to have a single-target arms spec and an AoE arms spec, which I find kind of annoying, but it works, so I guess I can't complain.
What I found amazing and heart-rending is how fast fury fell out of favor, to the point where it's not even worth discussing it when comparing top DPS specs in Dragon Soul. Part of this is the fact that Gurth is basically the prop that's keeping warriors competitive at all. Gurth's proc is very good, and if you take that proc out of the equation (SMF warriors don't have a clear equivalent, as the Souldrinker proc just isn't as good), warriors would be even lower down on the food chain. TG warriors are still simming and arguing which weapons are best for them, but the fact remains that arms is both easier to gear and is putting out better DPS in most cases right now for most warriors. (Personally, I'd love to have conclusive numbers telling me if off-handing my Ataraxis would give me better numbers or not; I just don't yet.) The very fact that so many people abandoned TG fury so quickly in 4.3 makes me wonder if the numbers are going to be skewed against it, since it's harder to determine how it's doing if no one uses it to provide data about how it's doing.
Neither arms nor fury sets the world on fire in PvP right now. Both can work, if you have the right comp (if you know a warlock and shaman who like to PvP and like you, for instance), but neither are making anyone quake in their boots at the sight of you. Basically, any comp that's good with a warrior will probably be better without one, unless the warrior's skill is just sky-high. When it comes to PvP, I'm not that guy.
To sum it all up, warrior tanking is a solid B, as good as it needs to be right now, but marred by a mediocre set bonus that doesn't manage to detract much. Mastery is still king for warrior tanks until you hit absolute coverage of the combat table. What we used to do to push crushing blows off now works for general use. Arms is our DPS spec. Fury needs love, and quickly. I'd like to see some PvP buffs.
Next week, a basics guide to how to tank -- specifically, for the beginner, what buttons to hit and when.
At the center of the fury of battle stand the warriors: protection, arms and fury. Check out more strategies and tips especially for warriors, including Cataclysm 101 for DPS warriors, a guide to new reputation gear for warriors, and a look back at six years of warrior trends.