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Intentionally Undergeared: The Role of Instinct in Skill

May 22, 2012

I have a confession to make.

This is my alt druid, with whom I have healed Hour of Twilight PUGs, and more recently Raid Finder groups:

My alt druid is your random group nightmare.  Her main spec is Bear, so I’m only even able to queue for HoT heroics because of the iLv of the tanking set I got from running guild alts through Firelands during the last patch cycle (which is also the reason she has any of those healing epics at all).  She obviously has no right to be healing any group in a HoT, let alone in Raid Finder – and I’ve also never had an unsuccessful dungeon or raid run with her.

I’ll get the caveats out of the way upfront:  This is no way to act with a character with whom you intend to raid seriously.  Every time I zone into an LFR, I wait for the moment when someone will inspect my gear, “out” me in raid chat, and then demand that people start voting to kick me … but it’s never happened.  You absolutely should fully gem and enchant your gear if you want to do your fair share of the work in a dungeon or raid group.  There are moments, particularly in progression heroic raiding, when a boss kill is literally a matter of seconds away, and extra stats could easily make the difference between killing a boss as it enrages, or wiping a few seconds after.  The thing is, LFR isn’t progression heroic raiding.

Tzufit, you’re probably wondering, Why the heck haven’t you taken care of this druid?  You know how she should be gemmed and enchanted, you have the gold and the crafting toons to make it happen – what’s up?  Well, it’s pretty simple, really – I wanted to see if I could get away with healing like this.  I pushed myself slowly at first, working my way through the original Cataclysm heroics until the Dungeon Finder thew me into an Hour of Twilight run that I wasn’t expecting.  (I’d forgotten that HoTs would still pop up in my queue if my collective iLv was high enough, even if I had selected the “Random Cataclysm Heroic” option.)  In that way, pushing myself on this toon happened almost by mistake.  I zoned into the End Times dungeon and used the teleporter to get to the first boss – and it was Tyrande.  My heart skipped a beat and I prepared for the worst – to wipe, to be ridiculed, to be kicked from the group.  But, you know what?  It was fine – just like it always is when I’m on my main.

This will sound overly simplistic but the reason I succeeded in that dungeon is pretty simple:  I knew I would succeed.  Now, I don’t mean this in some silly, motivational poster kind of way (Believe it and you can achieve it!).  I mean that I knew I could heal HoT heroics and LFR with a resto druid, even an undergeared one, because I already had.  This feeling, though, is significantly different than when I go into a new dungeon or raid with my priest or shaman healers.  This feeling, this confidence, is specific to a resto druid.

In the last few weeks, there have been a handful of posts asking to what extent healing is a skill that can be taught.  Aunaka began the conversation and asserted that good healers are “created,” not born, while Matticus later responded that there is a certain element of “hunger” and unorthodoxy that “can’t be taught but maybe it can be learned.”  Finally, Sometimes a Tree really meshed all these ideas together into exactly what I was thinking:

The most important element of skill however, which does not have an innate baseline, is the ability to make informed decisions … You need to practice after you gain the knowledge, in order to internalise it. Every healer needs to develop a feel for their heals in order to make the right decisions. You can give someone ground rules, like ‘keep refreshing Lifebloom’, ‘use Omen of Clarity whenever it procs’ and ‘fill with Nourish’, but in the end their decisions like “should I use WG, or 3 Rejuvs?” or “should I spend my OoC proc on Healing Touch or Regrowth?” need to come from their own experiences and they need to be made in a split second.


This is absolutely the thing that makes the difference between an adequate healer and one who can adapt, progress, and maybe even save the day.  It’s the reason I knew that I could handle anything HoT heroics or LFR threw at me, even if I was on an undergeared druid.  Anything that went wrong along the way was something I could handle.  I was confident in not just my own ability, but in my instinct and troubleshooting; and, most importantly, I was confident that I could react in a split-second, without having to mentally weigh all my options.  I could heal without thinking about it.

Compare this to my experience with my other two 85 healers, the shaman and priest.  Each of them has a significantly higher iLv than my druid (probably by at least 3o points), but I always step into a random group with them with much less confidence.  Sure, I have mapped out my keybindings to be similar between all my healers, so that I know I can always hit one button when I need to use a major throughput cooldown, or another button for my mitigation one.  Similar spells share the same mousebinds – Rejuv and Renew, for example.  And my alt healers always have the benefit of my main druid’s experience; she does all the new dungeons and raids before they do, so I know when to expect large damage spikes and what aspects of a fight will be particularly challenging.

Inevitably, there’s always a problem with my shaman and priest – they aren’t druids.  So while I’ve prepared myself as best I can to heal with them at the same skill level as I do on my main, at the end of the day I know it’s just out of reach.  When a tank is about to die, I experience a moment’s hesitation on my priest.  Do I put a shield on him and  spam my largest heal?  Do I use Pain Suppression?  Do I just keep healing?  It’s possible any of these answers could be the right one, but my fault is that I can’t just DO something, I feel compelled to think through my options.  In that same situation on my either of my druids, I might do any one of a number of things, and I might not even respond the same way every time, but the difference is that I just don’t think about it.  I know that I have the tools I need to keep the tank standing, and I act.

This type of instinct isn’t exclusive to healers.  Any player who has spent a great deal of time practicing on their main can experience this kind of understanding of their character.  Back at the start of Cataclysm, a group of guildmates and I spent two and a half hours in Heroic Stonecore the first time we attempted it.  Slabhide ended up being a one-shot for us, but only narrowly so.  When the dragon came down from her first air phase and eventually used her shard attack (the one that you’re supposed to avoid by hiding behind the stalactites that drop down), our all-melee group didn’t realize just how far away from Slabhide’s hitbox they had to be so as to not be hit by the shards.  In that one phase, we lost our tank, our fury warrior, and our rogue.  Our deathknight and I were the only ones left standing, and Slabhide still had nearly 40% health.

Lyshra, our deathknight, hates tanking.  She claims to be allergic to it.  But Lyshra immediately went into tanking mode as soon as our tank fell.  She went into Blood Presence and, well I’d be out of my element to describe any more than that, but suffice to say that she hit all those cooldowns and buttons that a DPS death knight should when she has to tank in a pinch. I healed like crazy, and I managed to keep both of us standing long enough to kill Slabhide.  When we finished, I had no mana and Lyshra didn’t have much health, but we had won.

Lyshra and I didn’t spend any time thinking or coordinating what we were going to do when our party members died – we didn’t have time to.  We didn’t even speak in vent or in chat about it.  We just kept going, we just acted.  Instinct, confidence, and an unwillingness to give up when we knew we could win made it possible for us to complete the encounter.  Those are the qualities that make for a good player, and they truly cannot be taught.

It doesn’t matter how many articles or guides I read about how to heal as a shaman or priest.  In some ways, it hardly matters how much time I spend raiding or running dungeons on them for practice.  My druids will always have an edge over them because my main has been there first.  As obvious as it is, you only get one opportunity to see a dungeon the first time.  You only have that one time when you work out how an encounter works and how your tools will fit within that encounter.  After that, even if you switch roles, you will still be viewing that encounter through the eyes of the character who was there first.

Expansions are WoW’s only true skill equalizer.  Gear may be reset each patch, but only an expansion asks us to look at our abilities from a fresh perspective and apply them to content for which we are, often, undergeared.  If you’re considering switching mains or if you simply want to develop your instincts on your current main, the beginning of Mists is going to be an essential time for you.  As the bloggers above have mentioned, great players are not born, they can’t be taught, nor can we learn everything we need to know my reading a guide to our class.  If you’re ready to advance your level of play, prepare to throw yourself into Mists content on the character with whom you most want to excel.  Don’t worry if you don’t feel ready – you may not be.  But the experience of learning to think on your feet, and then – eventually – knowing how to simply do without thinking is the best way to learn how to be a good player.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2012 7:44 pm

    Great post! I wholeheartedly agree – instinct and automatic reflexes are so, so important. You really see it on healers when it comes to their large CD moves, like Lay on Hands for paladins – pallies who aren’t entirely comfortable with their toolset either use it far too early (out of panic) or hesitate to use it when it really counts.

    The analogy about being familiar with your teammates is also a really good point – you see this in skilled Arena teams, who don’t have to waste time/thought on communication, but rather, they just seem to *know* what the other person is doing.

    Back in Wrath, when I raided as a Hunter, the other Hunter in our raid team and I had a similar synergy, where we just sort of knew what the other would be doing. This arose every now and then when we would taunt/kite mobs/bosses when the tank died, or when we needed to buy the bear tank a few seconds to battle rez someone. If both tanks bit the dust, he KNEW I would be taunting (Distracting Shot) the boss immediately, and I knew that as soon as I feigned, he’d be taunting it next. And if I ever announced that I was taunting the boss, he knew to start getting some distance, and in fact, the rest of the raid knew it was for an incoming battle rez, or that it was to let some stacks fall off the tank, etc.

    • May 22, 2012 8:09 pm

      Hunters are such foreign territory to me that what they do comes across as premonition. My 10 man is fortunate to have a very skilled hunter who has pulled off similar feats – things like kiting a boss well past the point when it enrages while the rest of the raid team is already dead on the floor. I’m always amazed by a skilled hunter who can save a kill when it seems like a sure wipe.

      Instinct as it relates to teamwork is so important, too, and I’m glad you brought it up. It’s why I find it so essential to have a stable raid team with people you know you can count on. I’ve healed with the same priest and paladin since the beginning of Cata, and I love that I know exactly when they’ll take care of healing someone so that I can concentrate on another player – especially because it all happens without any of us having to say a word.

  2. May 22, 2012 9:34 pm

    When I first started reading I was blushing at my own confession of bringing in my paladin as a healer to LFR: this is a very heartfelt post and gets at the essence of what makes “good”…all things that are good. When you get a chance read my post called Bedside manners…
    Can’t figure out how to link it.

    I am and did gear my paladin as best I could Nd her healing spells are lovely. But I would have fallen on my face had I not started a priest, e en before the shaman and my up-and-coming Druid.

  3. May 23, 2012 10:12 am

    I know *exactly* what you are talking about. I’ve healed HoTs and LFR on a paladin in mostly blues like I was taking a stroll in the park, but when I put a priest in purples and tried to heal a regular heroic it was a disaster.

    • May 24, 2012 4:13 pm

      Yep. I can get by on my priest and shaman and I’m fine 95% of the time. But when something unexpected crops up that’s when I start to falter and realize how out of my league I am.

  4. May 23, 2012 9:24 pm

    This is an amazing post Tzu. And interestingly, we subconsciously think the same thing. My guild is losing tanks, and though I love healing, it’s easier to find healers than tanks, I find (though with Monks coming that could change). I have decided that when the expansion comes I am going to try to tank properly so I can fill that role, which makes me anxious because I really wanted to concentrate on my healing which is going to be a little different come expansion. But I wanted to do it when the expansion hits so I won’t start out as a total noob, because everyone will be the same, relearning their characters and allow me to start at the same level as everyone else.
    I liked what Rades said, about a good arena team not needing to communicate. I think of tanks and healers like that. A good tank/healer combination don’t need to talk when their doing their thing – they just do it. And it’s amazing how instinctive it is, when you’ve played with someone for a while.

    • May 24, 2012 4:15 pm

      Yeah, the tank/healer instinct is really interesting as well, though I have experienced that feeling a lot less in Cata than I did in Wrath. I guess that’s because so many Wrath fights required tanks and/or healers to use cooldowns at very specific times so they wouldn’t die, whereas Cata fights don’t often have mechanics like that.

      Good luck with your tanking! I really enjoy playing bear myself. 🙂

  5. June 9, 2012 2:17 pm

    This post made me grin. 😀

    I only inspect party members if we aren’t doing very well at something. I would be completely clueless about your toon aaaaall the way through the dungeon, haha.

    When I’m healing on my priest, instinct often kicks in. I personally think I’m a terrible healer, yet I’m somehow able to keep my party alive through some pretty bizarre stuff. My paladin has been the same way — the proverbial crap hits the fan and at the end of it all, we’re still alive and the party is patting me on the back.

    When I’m healing for my Kiwi or he’s healing for me, we don’t usually need to communicate about it. He has an idea of what I’m doing, I have an idea of what he’s doing, that’s just how it goes.

    COMPLETELY lost my train of thought, but um, anyway, great post!

    • June 10, 2012 8:30 am

      LOL, thank you!

      Yeah, I also rarely inspect someone in LFG or Raid Finder – for the most part, I just don’t want to know. If their numbers are really low, or in the case of LFG if they claim they don’t have some essential ability, I might at least check their spec to see what crazy thing they did. 😛 Sadly, I don’t need an inspect button to see just how many people out there still haven’t quite realized that you *have* to wear your own armor type now. Every time I see a druid in cloth, I cry a little.


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