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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.