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Assigning Healers

Posted by Malevica on March - 23 - 2010

Something that’s varied a lot over the course of my raiding career, across a number of guilds, is the way the healing team is organised and healing resources are allocated on a fight-by-fight basis. This post will be a potted history of my healing experiences through TBC and WotLK, and a look at the broad approaches I’ve encountered.

My Experience

The early days

When I began healing 25-man raids properly in mid- to late-TBC the raid team was mostly decided by looking at who was online at the time and allowing for decent balance if we had too many healers on the night. At this time we took two priests along where we could with typically the newest, or lowest-geared, speccing 23/38/0 specifically for the Improved Divine Spirit buff. Holy Paladins at the time were highly sought-after because of their ability to heal essentially forever, while Druids would be juggling triple-stacked Lifeblooms on up to three tanks.

The raid leader, who was also the healing leader for a while, would assign healers carefully based on the fight. Typical assignments would call for a healer per tank, usually a Priest or Paladin, a Druid would roll HoTs on the tanks, while the Shaman and spare CoH Priests would be assigned to “raid heal”, spamming those AoE heals on anyone with a deficit.
Looking back on those days, it felt that you first covered your tanks, then made sure you had a Druid (it really mattered to have one, but usually no more), and then the raid healers made up the numbers.

Possibly because of the slower pace of the fights, and the importance of mana conservation at the gear levels we were raiding with (T4 with a smattering of T5), healers often cross-healed in support of other people, and we all knew each other’s strengths, weaknesses and preferences.

Early WotLK

Raiding Naxxramas was a strong crossover point between the more organised style, which was necessary for learning the encounters while healers were relatively underpowered (in terms of mana regeneration and throughput) and a less formal style of assignment once content was being overpowered and encounters were more familiar.
Having become raid and healing lead by this time I made it my business to understand my healers for their individual differences again, especially since, compared to TBC, the class balance made less difference than the players themselves.

With the addition of Beacon of Light a Paladin became more-or-less mandatory: when every encounter uses more than one tank the Paladin effectively becomes two tank healers for the price of one. Druids were able to shift away from constantly maintaining Lifebloom stacks and were able to devote a lot more time to raid healing through Rejuvenation and Wild Growth. Typical assignments would have a Paladin on the tanks, a Druid on the raid, and the other healers assigned as needed to meet the demands of the fights.

Ulduar

At this time I moved to another guild for a short time. This guild took a very different approach to raid composition, switching raiders in and out for individual fights depending on the fight and the needs of the characters for drops from the boss.
Healers were assigned to tanks or to positions in the room, and those not explicitly assigned were assigned to heal the raid. Logs were kept for all fights, this was when WowWebStats was not yet defunct, and used to check who was healing whom.

Unfortunately this guild did not last very long, and I joined a new guild in time for the end of Ulduar and the release of ToC.

ToC and ICC

In a strong contrast to the previous guild, the raid team is set a day in advance, although it may change if short-notice factors prevent everyone from being online for the raid. Unless someone goes LD for an extended period the team is the same for every fight on a given night, and generally there is no particular focus placed on aiming for a specific composition. The guild has 8 healers, all of whom are regular attenders, so there is a relatively high degree of continuity.

The typical culture in this guild is not to assign healers explicitly unless it becomes necessary for some reason. Generally healers have ‘default’ roles which we fulfil: Paladins divide the tanks between themselves and their Beacons, the Shaman Chain Heal through the mêlée, our Druid defaults to Rejuv-blanketing, the Holy Priest takes on the raid healing on the ranged and I tend to either assist with the tanks or bubble/spot-heal the raid, depending on the number of Paladins that night and the damage coming in. These are only broad roles and there is a lot of fluidity.

Specific fights may be assigned specific healers, once it has become clear that healing is the weak link. Some examples recently have been Heroic Northrend Beasts, Heroic Faction Champions and Sindragosa Phase 3.

Assignment Schemes

In my relatively short time healing raids, a mere two and a half years, I’ve seen a number of systems for assigning healers. Each has advantages and disadvantages, and different reasons for their use. Here’s my take on the general concepts.

Specific (Strict)

Typically this means that every person will be assigned a target or set of targets (maybe groups or roles (i.e. mêlée or ranged)) which they will be expected to heal almost exclusively. Excessive cross-healing is frowned upon because in theory the assignments have been designed to be close to optimal, and too much straying from the assignments could undermine that optimisation.

Except for quite specific fights where this is the obvious approach to choose, such as Heroic Anub’Arak, because several people need focused healing and the limitation is GCDs, this approach depends on the assigner having good information about the fight and the healers, and skill at setting up effective assignments. It also depends on the healers having trust in the assignments and not straying, as well as good feedback from the healing team to help refine the assignments quickly.

The advantages are generally higher accountability and higher predictability. If everyone has an assignment, then that gives a raid leader or healing leader a starting point for analysis of a death, whether the cause is healer distraction, insufficient healing assigned, excessive damage taken or the dreaded ‘RNG’ that person should be in a good position to understand the causes and offer advice.

Specific (Loose)

I distinguish this from the strict approach in the degree to which the healing plan is tuned in advance, and to which cross-healing is tolerated or encouraged. While a strict system might assign raid healers to specific groups or camps, the loose system will simply assign three or four raid healers and allow them freedom to cross-heal and play to their strengths. Alternatively this scheme might include four assigned healers and one or two ‘floating’ who can heal as they see fit.

This approach tends to work better when the damage is changeable or spiky, as the inclusion of floating healers, particularly if they are different classes or specs, allows for healing to be redistributed on the fly to react to a changing situation. It also transfers some of the mental load from the healing assigner to the healers, and can be more empowering for the healers, they may perceive a strict system as respecting their instincts less than a looser system.

The downside of this, compared to a stricter scheme is that typically the ‘base load’, the healing required throughout the fight, such as standard boss swings and raid auras, is only just covered, so there is still the potential for problems if the floating healing is not distributed correctly. This relies on the floats anticipating or reacting to each other’s healing output.

No Assignment

This sort of scheme works on the basis that your healers have default roles which they fall into automatically, and that they can and will cross-heal freely to ensure that heals go where they are most needed.
Generally this is not the chaos that might be imagined. Despite healing specs having been brought much closer together in WotLK compared to TBC, each spec still retains an area in which it specialises. Paladins are best-used on tanks, Shaman are well-suited to healing closely-grouped raiders, and so on. With a non-pathological raid composition and intelligent cross-healing this can be quite efficient for many fights.
This also allows healers to play to their own strengths, gravitate to the role they most enjoy playing, and values the healing corps for their ability to work as a team and react appropriately.

Note that under this scheme specific people can be assigned to specific tasks as needed, this is just the exception rather than the rule.

The downsides to this are a higher degree of unpredictability during a fight, and lower accountability for deaths.

During a fight the damage may shift from one tank to another, or the raid may take a large damage pulse, standard events in any fight. With a stricter assignment scheme there are players specifically assigned to patch these holes, while in a much looser scheme it is quite possible that everyone or no one will switch to patch these holes. What’s more there is an amplification effect which can occur where too many healers, including the tank healers, switch to heal up a large raid damage pulse, which can leave tanks abnormally low; as a consequence tanks may needlessly use cooldowns, and it may be that raid healers throw emergency heals onto the tanks, leaving the raid without heals. And so on.

When someone does die, what often happens is that every healer can point to the productive healing that they were doing, just not on the person who needed it at that moment. The raid as a whole has adequate healing available, there was simply a breakdown in coordination; this is often chalked up to bad luck or a one-off, and the wipe gets written off and nothing is learned.

Conclusions

Having healed under all three of these schemes, I have to throw my weight behind a Specific assignment scheme with a relatively small degree of floating. None of these schemes are perfect, but the accountability of a scheme with more explicit assignments appeals more to the raid leader in me.

The number of healing failures I’ve experienced in recent months due to incorrect assumptions about who is supposed to be healing whom has thoroughly disillusioned me of this way of doing things. I’ve played with a very cohesive healing team in the past, and know how it feels to be able to predict their play and cross-heal seamlessly, but whether it’s because of playstyle differences, or because of the pace of encounters and healing these days this approach just seems to be ineffective at the moment.

The bottom line though is that every healing team needs to find a way that works for them. There should be no stigma associated with using assignments, in fact it shows that the raid leader or healing leader cares and wants to understand their team. Finally a healer should not be afraid to ask for assignments if they seem to be needed, or offer to set them up if there is no natural healing lead.

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What Makes Healing Hard?

Posted by Malevica on March - 9 - 2010

A hot topic lately is the level of challenge in the game. In this post I will look at the factors that add challenge to healing, and ask if healing is challenging enough, and where the future lies for stretching healers as Cataclysm information trickles out.

Game Mechanics

The designers of classes and encounters have several different aspects of healing to work with to set the difficulty. Those this post will deal with specifically are: spell availability, reaction time, the need for triage, mana management and coordination.

Spell Availability

Consider a “standard” 25-man healing team of 6 people. You might aim to include one or two paladins, a disc priest and then at least one each of the other specs, ideally no more than two of each. This allows you to have a baseline level of cover for sustained tank damage, increase the general raid survivability, and then have a full range of spells to use against the various extra types of damage thrown out in the encounter, from raid-wide auras to targeted flame patches and everything in between.

Depending on your guild you may or may not choose adapt the healing team to the encounter; it seems sensible if you’re interested in min/maxing, although these days for most raid groups this isn’t necessary as long as your composition isn’t too pathological. I have happy memories of 2-healing Ulduar as a Disc Priest alongside a Holy Paladin, and adapting just fine.

Blizzard’s stated design is for most encounters to be accessible for a most healing teams, and they succeed to a large extent, but in my experience this is one thing that can dramatically increase the relative difficulty of 10-man compared to 25-man raiding. In the previously-mentioned Disc + Holy Paladin example we lacked the tools to handle raid-wide damage fights effectively, Kologarn being a good example. We managed, but a Holy Priest or Resto Druid would have laughed that off.

In a 5-man this problem is even more acute since the only spells available are those you bring with you. The contrast between Forgemaster Garfrost as a Holy Paladin and as a Resto Druid is quite simply day and night. The contrast of course reverses once the group moves beyond Ick and suddenly the tank is taking insane damage and I wish I had my spammable Holy Light back.

Has this philosophy of allowing a broader range of compositions to succeed detracted from the difficulty? I’d argue that it probably has not. What has changed is that the more extreme damage profiles which strongly favoured stacking one class or another have gone away, and classes have been strategically nerfed to remove over-reliance on single spells (CoH being the prime example).

I would not like to see a total removal of unusual damage profiles, because drawing healers outside their comfort zones is a huge positive. However the playerbase tends to react to this by insisting that Blizzard has “forced” some sort of odd composition upon them. This can be avoided to an extent by varying the healing requirements throughout the fight, much as Festergut does well in Icecrown.

Reaction Time

Unlike the spells, which are largely fixed as a function of the healers you have available, reaction time is a property of the individual healer. Healers are often called upon to respond to things like spike damage debuffs (Frost Blast, Penetrating Cold), Tank killers requiring cooldowns (Plasma Blast, Flame Breath), or to cover for each other (healers being taken by a Val’kyr, or just about anything on Sindragosa). Reaction time demands can be adjusted by designers to increase the difficulty of an encounter.

The reaction time of a given healer depends on a number of factors. First there’s their client-server latency; then once their client has the information there’s another delay while their UI digests that information and presents it to them; next comes the human response time while they notice the event, decide on an action and execute it; finally there is a second client-server latency while the server notices the action the player chose to take.

Having played on the Oceanic servers I can understand the impact of latency. My guild at the time was working through Karazhan but simply could not defeat Maiden because both of our main healers were running with ~1k ping and could not react to the Holy Fire in time.

As a raid leader or healing lead it is crucial to understand the reaction times of your healers when assigning them roles. Tank healers can often get away with worse latency than raid healers since the rotation and reactions are less demanding, although the players at the top of your external cooldown rotation should be those with quicker reactions.

My view is that this can be a great way to stretch your healers, as long as it is used relatively sparingly. I enjoy being called on to pay attention and it is a good way to distinguish myself as someone with
higher awareness. However obviously the game designers need to allow for a wide range of connections and not unduly penalise those with fairly high latency.

Triage and Throughput

Triage is the art of prioritising limited resources according to greatest need. This becomes relevant when throughput is inadequate to cover everyone, and there is a need for quick decision-making, as opposed to just quickly executing a pre-defined action.

Triage is definitely more of an art than a science: in practice the best triage healers draw on their experience of the damage profile of the fight, the individuals taking damage, and the habits of their fellow healers when making their decisions, reacting almost instinctively.

In Wrath triage has fallen by the wayside in many cases, a fact which has been acknowledged recently by Ghostcrawler when commenting that generally people are not left at low health for extended periods of time. This is as a result of large hits and large heals becoming commonplace, creating a situation where allowing people to be left to be healed to full over the duration of a mana-efficient HoT is a dangerous business.

Generally Wrath felt like it scaled too far: healing output and tank avoidance/mitigation scaled overly high, so boss damage was scaled to compensate, to the point where everyone ended up in real danger of being 2-shotted. I expect lessons have been learned though.

I’m extremely excited by the proposed changes for Cataclysm which will alter the ratio of heals to health pools. When the throughput the healing team is capable of doesn’t overwhelm the incoming damage by so much, the question of where that scarce healing is spent becomes much more important. Currently a 25-man Decimate can be recovered from fully in a couple of seconds with AoE heals, rather than having to prioritise the lowest members until you can get around to the rest. Contrast this to Naj’entus in the Black Temple, where it was a huge challenge to keep as many people as possible above 50% before the next bubble needed to be burst.

I’m looking forward to more orange health bars in Cataclysm. This is a valuable tool to increase the challenge of healing which should get more use.

Mana

In conjunction with the throughput-mandated triage described above, there is also mana-mandated triage: can you afford to use that AoE heal or should you heal only those people under 50%? Can they survive long enough for a HoT to be used instead?

When working through the more difficult heroics in my quest blues back in November 2008 I had significant mana issues. I just couldn’t heal the way I had been healing in TBC, so I had to be very careful with who and how I healed. Sometime during the Tier 7 content, and certainly by the time I was raiding Ulduar, I had all but lost the ability to go OOM unless I really worked at it. Clearly it is still possible to burn through an entire mana pool, but under normal conditions there is no compelling reason not to always be casting and to select efficiency over throughput.

Throughput requirements are inextricably linked to mana management: if healers go through phases with lower damage then efficient but slower heals regain their value, while in high-damage scenarios the pressure to use the quick, expensive heals overrides other concerns.
And when throughput or mana are at a premium there is also pressure to reduce overhealing to a bare minimum, another test of healer skill and coordination.

The trouble is that mana management is a difficult balance for class and encounter designers. Spell costs remain fixed over time, while regeneration from gear can more than double as an expansion progresses. Retaining the ability to run out of mana in Icecrown while not making Naxx unmanageable would be all but impossible without also changing the character of healing as the expansion progresses as well, requiring the more mana-profligate style that the acquired gear allows.

The challenge for the designers of future raids and for the class designers come Cataclysm then is to rein in mana regeneration or increase spell costs, and to better differentiate the efficient heals from the inefficient so there is a real choice to be made.

A lot has been posted on forums and blogs about whether mana management is “fun” or not. Personally I would state categorically that yes, it is fun. A mechanic which presents you with a decision to make adds to the interest of playing a healer. These sorts of decisions test your ability to appraise the global situation and predict how that will change, as opposed to the reaction-based mechanics that dominate current raiding.
After all, if you prefer to cast a standard rotation or spell for 5-10 minutes without regard to your blue bar, you’re essentially just DPSing in the opposite direction, without the interactions, procs and target switches which make DPS interesting.

Coordination

Much has been written about the healer rotations in Vanilla, where one group of healers would heal until they ran low on mana, at which point a second group would take over while the former stood around regenerating mana. Few people would argue for a return to this situation, but designing encounters with more coordination in mind would be a good way of challenging healing teams.

How many times have you joined a PuG and been given little or no direction about healing assignments, only to see tanks fall over shortly afterwards? The trouble is, more often than not this actually tends to Just Work. Paladins will gravitate towards tanks, Resto Druids will tend to rejuv-blanket (if it’s appropriate), Resto Shaman will throw Chain Heals left, right and centre and so on.

A good example of a fight where coordination is more valuable is Sindragosa, especially in Phase 3. You will likely have 3 healers out of action at any one time, possibly more if the healers with Unchained Magic are also losing their stacks at the time. Awareness and coordination are vital for this to provide cover for the roles which are unavailable.
Another great example is Anub’Arak, where assigning healers to Penetrating Cold targets is vital, and cover needs to be assigned in case that assignment will not be covered due to death, lack of mana or any other reason.

Where coordination feels required in Wrath is where either a number of healers are removed from the equation, or where the damage profile is unusual enough that “standard” healing practices simply won’t cover it. I hope to see more of both types of encounters in the future, but there needs to be a way to reintroduce more coordination across the board.
Perhaps including larger spaces in which to fight could be another mechanism for coordinating healers, since it is much more difficult to cross-heal when sections of the raid are out of range. Recent painful experiences with Infest + Defile combinations on the Lich King have inspired this thought.

My suspicion is that restricting throughput availability alone, either through constrained mana or low output to damage ratios, will drive us further in the direction of reducing overhealing and getting healing efficiently to where it’s needed, which will in turn raise the level of coordination that feels natural in raids. But of course this remains to be seen.

Conclusions

On the whole I feel that healing in Wrath is still challenging, but isn’t as cerebral as it once was and could be again. Healing is less about decision-making, spell-selection and intelligent cross-healing and far more about maximising throughput on a general assignment. My admittedly rose-tinted memories of TBC have “spam-healing” as a rare exception rather than the rule. Triage has been marginalised in favour of “blanketing”.

For Cataclysm I would be happy to see a return to a slightly slower-paced approach to healing where using the right spell at the right time is the peak of performance, and strong teamwork trumps sniping and heal-stomping.

The lessons learned from Wrath should prevent the kind of massive surplus of throughput and regeneration we’re currently seeing in Icecrown from requiring such large amounts of boss damage, and the proposed change to health pools and mana costs should push healers back towards efficiency again.

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