My warrior finally hit level 80, so I've now got the levels I would need to tank. With the gear I'm getting from random dungeons I run as DPS, I've got the stats I would need to tank. With dual spec, I've got the tools I would need to tank without having to sacrifice solo and DPS options.
The challenge, then, is getting the personal experience I would need to actually know how to tank. This is one area where the game comes up pretty short at the moment.
Off-tanking some trash
Like many good PUG stories, the Gun'Drak run crisis began with a hunter's pet. The hunter maintained that the healer was responsible for keeping his pet alive and the tank (who claimed to have a "top Shaman healer" as one of his other characters) took the hunter's side. The mage and I just tried to get the the tank and the healer to tolerate each other for the ten minutes it would have taken to clear the dungeon, since, as DPS, we would have been staring at lengthy queues to find a new group. Unfortunately, after squabbling our way through three of the four bosses, bickering over whether it's okay to need a blue item that no one wanted for off-set, and a failed vote kick attempt, the tank decided to pull a group of mobs and then drop group.
As the highest DPS party member, aggro fell directly on my Bladestorming shoulders, and the healer was apparently good enough to keep an Arms warrior in battle stance carrying a two-handed weapon alive, because we survived the pull. The remaining group members suggested that I should try to tank the rest of the dungeon in case we couldn't get a replacement, so I switched over to my tanking spec and gear and made my first ever pull as the tank of an instance group. As it happened, the group finder got us a replacement tank shortly thereafter, but my curious lack of failure in this brief role tempted me to see what exactly I could do.
Looking for easy mode
In all likelihood, there will never be another dungeon I know quite so well as Utgarde Keep; the first dungeon of the expansion, it was also the easiest heroic and therefore the most reliable source of emblems back before 5-mans became a playground for bored and overgeared raiders. At level 79, with a gearscore around 2.5K in my tanking set, I was way above what should be needed to tank the level 70-72 normal mode of this dungeon, so it seemed like the safest possible way to give tanking a chance.
I queued up and was shocked to get a group before I had even finished switching over to my tanking setup. Off we went. Realistically, I had set a very low bar for myself to see if I could physically find the buttons needed to tank stuff. Apparently I passed that basic standard, as we burned through the dungeon with no deaths and minimal if any cases of loose mobs running after other players.
Next up, I queued to try the Brewfest boss. In terms of absolute difficulty, this should have been a relatively attainable goal, as that fight is not especially challenging. Unfortunately, this otherwise easy content is a bit harder to tank in a PUG precisely BECAUSE it is too easy. My first attempt at a group had started and nearly finished the event before I even finished zoning in. The second time, I bungled badly because someone has to talk to the boss to get him to attack, and I somehow lost track of him in the commotion. The third time I actually managed to pick up the boss, but all-our DPS from raid-geared players pulled him off. Because the fight is so easy, none of these resulted in a wipe, and therefore no one had any reason to slow their attacks for a noob tank.
Back up to the high end
My curiosity was mostly satisfied, so I went back to work on the last few bubbles of exp I needed for level 80 as a DPS. Then disaster struck in the Halls of Lightning.
My queue number came up as a replacement for someone who dropped after a wipe. The tank was clearly new and struggling. Given my own inexperience, I would have been happy to be patient with him, but he had apparently had enough, and quit without a word after a wipe on the third boss. I warned the group that I was inexperienced but offered to try tanking the rest of the dungeon, figuring that the worst that could happen would be a group disband (which they were considering before I offered to tank).
HOL was the hardest of the 5-mans at Wrath's launch, and features lots of AOE splash damage. At Wrath's launch, players were required to do a variety of things to avoid this damage (e.g. the person who is giving off damaging sparks should run away from the rest of the group), but it started to become standard practice to ignore these mechanics and try to heal through them as players got more geared. The challenge is less about holding aggro and more about somehow staying alive and doing enough damage to kill the bosses before the healer runs out of mana. In other words, definitely not an ideal training ground for new players.
Anyway, we gave it a shot and ultimately cleared the instance with me tanking. I am very unfamiliar with defensive stance in general, and found myself scrambling for cooldowns I barely even knew I had just to stay alive long enough for the healer to get back to me (while also keeping the DPS up). On both of the boss fights I tanked, my self-heals from herbalism and alchemy were the difference between life and death. We wiped once, on trash, because I was standing in the wrong place (having always done this dungeon as a ranged attacker) and got several groups of adds, but overall it was about as great of a success as anyone could have hoped for.
I don't really plan to continue on as a tank on this character. I am glad that I tried it, though, because the challenges were not what I expected.
As a DPS, I figured that holding aggro would be hard, because the thing that I notice is when I produce more threat than the tank and the mob comes to kill me. As a tank, I found that I never really had trouble holding down a mob against comparably geared players.
The thing that really challenged me was the reactives - where to stand, when to move, what buttons to press in what situations. Part of this is due to WoW's health pool design, which is currently far too heavily weighted towards massive damage spikes - Cataclysm promises to revamp the system to make survival and healing more a matter of strategy, though time will tell how they succeed.
The bigger design problem, though, is that there is no way to learn this system other than to try (and possibly/probably fail) to tank for real live groups of other players. Cataclysm may worsen this aspect of learning to tank because the game will be shifting to a more rigid sub-class-like system where solo builds will not see even the basic tanking tools. There really needs to be some way for me to learn what I need to know without screwing over four other players by showing up and claiming that I can serve as their tank when that could not be further from the truth.