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The Light and How to Swing It: Being the main tank

Every week, WoW Insider brings you The Light and How to Swing It for holy, protection and retribution paladins. Protection specialist Matt Walsh spends most of his time receiving concussions for the benefit of 24 other people, obsessing over his hair (a blood elf racial!), and maintaining the tankadin-focused blog Righteous Defense.

I've been watching an unhealthy amount of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares lately -- not the trashy Fox reality drama production, but the U.K. version, which is more focused on the food and, y'know, kitchens. Anyway, while watching the interactions between the various members of the kitchens depicted, it's interesting the parallels you see between the various degrees of chefs and how that correlates with the various degrees of tanks within a raid operation.

Without getting too, er, French, the two biggest fish in a kitchen are the chef de cuisine (or, as the rosbifs may call the job, the head chef) and the sous-chef de cuisine. This correlates directly with most tanking hierarchies you'll find, where there is a main tank and an off tank. (In some guilds, there may be a number of off tanks.) Much like how the head chef is the boss when it comes to what's being served, the main tank is in charge of handling the burden of developing the tanking strategy and executing it. And likewise, while the sous-chef is second-in-command and chief substitute, the off tank handles a similar role within their own structure.

Similar to how the head chef might not be the one always sitting there and actually preparing every single dish, the main tank isn't always the one on the boss. For both, their personal strengths might lend them better to a different, lesser role while the lieutenant gets a chance to step up and carry some of the burden. You see this in fights where one tanking class is stronger against a particular mechanic than another, like perhaps putting a highly mobile warrior on Shannox's dog Riplimb. Essentially, there is more to being a main tank than the jobs you perform. It's also the experience, the leadership, the dependability, and the prestige.

How to become a main tank

Much like how one becomes a head chef, one can't just dive into the main tank position right out of tanking school. That's a setup for disaster right there, especially if one doesn't know the fights, doesn't have much tanking experience, and can't finesse certain mechanics (both their own and those of an encounter) in the same way a more experienced tank can. As with anyone who dreams of being the person with the biggest, fanciest hat, the journey requires practice and, often, apprenticing under a more experienced practitioner.

I can still remember what it was like the first time I tanked in a raid, who the main tank was, and how I used to observe the ins and outs of that main tank's playstyle in order to refine my own. Can you remember your first tanking mentor? (That's not to say there aren't tanking savants, if you will, who thanks to experience with older MMOs or just natural talent picked up the role with nothing less than pure instinct.)

The tanking hierarchy is seldom static and will inevitably change as the people on the various rungs either burn out, jump ship, or fall behind to lower rungs. In my own case, I started off tanking a raid back at the beginning of Wrath and didn't officially become a main tank until midway through Icecrown Citadel. As that journey progressed, the dynamic between myself and the main tank changed as well. We began to refer to ourselves as "co-tanks," denoting a mutual respect.

But nonetheless, there was definitely still a glimmer of hierarchy. He often took the bigger jobs, while I was in charge of holding the line against adds and miscellaneous mechanics. Sure, we'd swap if our class was stronger for a particular job within an encounter, but at the end of the day, there was an unspoken understanding that he was the alpha. (It also helped that he was the raid leader!)

Nonetheless, one day, as these things often happen, the main tank quit the game and his mantle fell upon my shoulders. I assumed my own tanking apprentice, and the cycle continued with a reorganized hierarchy.

What does it mean to be a main tank?

Up until now, I've spoken rather vaguely about exactly what a main tank is, because in some cases, it's hard to define the job exactly. In some guilds, the main tank is the alpha dog who tells the tanks relegated underneath them exactly what to do and what to tank where and how. He is the conductor of the tanking orchestra.

On the other side of the spectrum, the main tank can be more like mentor than a boss. He will suggest the best course of action and through his own experience and the respect paid to him and his skill by the rest of the guild, his suggestions are carried out. It's an implicit style of leadership, rather than explicit. Often you'll find this style of leadership is practiced by tanks who excel at their role and are regarded more highly than the other tanks as a result.

The common thread between the two seems to boil down to almost a set aura, invested within the person bearing the mantle of main tank. The main tank is a psychological symbol, regardless of how the style in which they perform their role. It's being "that guy" -- the tank everyone can depend on to be there in the hardest content, to do their job to the best of their ability, and to act as a "rock" for the raid.

Throughout my tanking history, I've never really encountered the former style of main tanking. And even when I became a main tank myself, I always preferred the latter. When you're a member of a tanking team, it's critical to maintain a level of camaraderie -- you won't get far if you act like your off tank is someone who needs to be held down and shown who's boss. Tanks who respect either other work far more in tune than tanks that are essentially competing with one another.

It should be noted that not every guild falls into this pattern. Every rule has an exception. There are many guilds and raid organizations out there where the elusive concept of co-tanking is practiced honestly and with both tanks being equal partners. And it works just as well as a strict hierarchy can, simply because (as noted) the ultimate requirement for success in a tanking team is that critical aspect of respect.

I'm curious, dear readers, what your experience with tanking in raids is. Are you a main tank? Does your raid have that structure? What does your tanking team look like?

The Light and How to Swing It shows paladin tanks how to take on the dark times brought by Cataclysm. Try out our four tips for upping your combat table coverage, find out how to increase threat without sacrificing survivability, and learn how to manage the latest version of Holy Shield.

Filed under: Paladin, (Paladin) The Light and How to Swing It

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