Healing aggro can feel like a major negative when you’re starting out as a healer. I feel it even more on my druid: we lack threat lowering tools like fade or salvation. And especially on large trash pulls and for boss fights where adds spawn and spend any time untanked.
But managing and taking advantage of healing aggro can change it from a feeling of helplessness “TANK! GET THESE ADDS OFF ME!!!” to using your threat a powerful tool.
Threat and aggro
What’s the difference?
Threat is a measure of how much a mob hates you.
Once you’ve reached a threat level where a mob decides they hate you enough to become their main target and starts attacking you, then you’ve said to have pulled aggro.
For a given combat, each mob has their own threat table: a ranking of how much they hate each party member that’s engaged in combat.
Omen showing Ulthok's threat table while we were giving him what for.
Addons like Omen display the threat tables for mobs, so you can see who hates who and how much, as well as how much threat is required to pull aggro (always handy).
So. I’m just healing… what do I do that causes threat?
- Every point of effective healing you do generates threat. Overhealing does not generate threat.
- Every time you cast a spell you generate a small amount of threat.
- Every gain in power generate a small amount of threat (drinking a mana potion for example).
And all of those things generate threat for ALL of the mobs currently engaged in the combat.
Healing generates about half as much threat as damage, point for point.
Threat when healing – and aggro!
Okay, so when am I likely to pull aggro?
It means that in combat, whenever a mob does not have much threat generated on it by anyone else it will probably end up deciding to attack you. You’re standing there healing away merrily, and all of the mobs know about your heals. Any mob that is being tanked actively, or is being dpsed actively probably won’t pay any attention to you, because other players are higher on its threat table.
But that caster that’s standing back at range by itself, and starts off shadow bolting the tank will end up shadow bolting you, if nobody else is attacking it: because you’re constantly climbing its threat ladder, but noone else is.
And that melee mob that didn’t catch the first thunderclap and isn’t getting any dps or tank attention, will have all of your healing in the forefront of its little AI mind. And unless the tank is whacking it occasionally, it will eventually walk away from the tank and start hitting you.
And those scarabs that spawned once the boss dove under the sand? The first thing they hear when they emerge are all of those HoTs you’ve already got ticking on the party. And they’ll scurry straight over to you.
And all of that is actually okay, because there are ways to handle all three of those situations.
To be honest: sometimes when a mob is attacking you, you're doomed.
It also means that on the pull is the most likely time for you to gain heal aggro, as that’s the time when mobs are more likely to have ‘not been hit yet’ and so have a pretty empty threat table.
The short/simple translation of all of that: any ‘stray’ mob in a combat that noone else is bothering with will eventually start attacking you.
I’ll run through some tactics for dealing with threat on the pull, as well what to do if you get aggro later in the combat from ranged mobs or melee, or from those pesky spawning adds.
On the pull – positioning and timing
The pull is the most threat-sensitive time for a healer, because even with a great tank, there may be a few seconds where there is a mob or two that hasn’t had anyone actively engage with it.
The pull is also the time when you feel most pressured to have all of your hots rolling and streaming out big heals, because it’s the time when the most mobs are alive to do the most damage: the tank is about to be hammered. So your threat is more likely to be high on all of the mobs, and tank threat may be low on individual mobs.
This is where it’s time to take stock of what style of tank you have, and what sort of CC (if any) is being used, and predict which pulls might have threat issues.
Tanks that ask for the CCer to initiate combat, or range pull just one mob and then pick up the others as they come take less damage on the pull – but may be more likely to have stray ‘untanked’ mobs if they are new to tanking.
Tanks that run or charge in to the mobs and start using all of their AOE abilities are less likely to have stray mobs – but will be less likely to use CC, and will be taking more damage, so are harder to keep alive if they are undergeared.
If the tank is line-of-sight (LoS) pulling (where they use a range attack and then duck around a corner and wait for the mobs to arrive) then the best place to stand is with the tank, or just back behind the tank a bit, along the wall/edge. The usual reason to LoS pull is because some of the mobs are casters/hunters, and the tank wants to have all of mobs bunched up for AoE tanking. If you stay in plain view and are healing away merrily, the mobs the tank wants to funnel to her will instead stay at range and start casting at you. This kind of ruins the whole point of the LoS pull. So if a tank says ‘LoS’, I follow her closely.
You can set your positioning up so that you use your healing aggro to your advantage. Stand so that stray mobs have to move through the tank to get to you. Another way of putting it: on the pull stand so that the tank is in a direct line between you and the mobs.
Standing close to the tank can make things easier in gauntlets as well
Also – try to avoid standing too far away from the tank (30+ yards is too far). If the tank has to chase you to catch a stray, you’re best being close. Also, standing miles away runs risks of the tank going out of healing range if they have to reposition, or get feared or knocked away. Within 15 yards (ish) is pretty comfortable for me. It means I’m not in melee range if there are mobs cleaving/nova-ing, and it’s far enough back that it’s obvious to the tank when a mob wanders over and starts attacking me.
I always try to have LBx3 and RJ on the tank when the pull occurs, but timing this is crucial. The HoTs that are ticking on party members when they are at full health don’t generate threat, so it’s fine for the tank to be pre-hotted; but the act of casting a spell generates a small amount of threat. For this reason I avoid casting when the tank initiates the pull or soon after. If the tank is a ‘charge in and aoe the lot of them’ sort, then timing isn’t as crucial; again it depends a bit on your tank’s style.
But despite all of your best positioning and timing, there can be times when your threat gets high enough on an otherwise-ignored-mob that they aggro on you during the combat.
Okay, this tank sucks – I have a mob attacking me. Now what?!
Firstly – the tank might not suck – there are lots of things that can go wrong on large pulls. So lets assume that the tank is doing her best, and help her out: using our aggro to help her pick things up.
I handle different types of aggro differently:
Ranged mob aggro!
Firstly, a ranged/caster mob aggroing on you should never be a surprise. I’ve watched the pull and know that everyone’s ignoring the caster back there pewpewing away.
My initial response is to throw a Rejuvenation on myself while continuing to heal the party/tank. If this is enough to outheal the damage, I leave it at that, the tank can pick it up at her leisure.
If I am taking more damage than I can comfortably heal through, I will Barkskin myself and look around to see if I can break LoS with the caster. This does two things: gives me a few seconds of not taking damage, and secondly it will force the caster to move up to the party, where it will be easier for the tank to pick up. Sometimes finding a convenient LoS break is easy – sometimes it’s not. It depends on the layout of the combat.
Ducking behind a corner to break LoS with a caster aggroed on me.
if there’s no easy way to break LoS I start back-pedalling (while still healing, being a druid has its advantages) to try to move out of range of the attacks. The aim here is again to move the mob into the tank’s field of view/AOE attacks.
In both of these scenarios, if you’re losing range or LoS on the tank/party, then stop. If the mob is still attacking you, this is where you cast Cyclone on the mob and take stock. If you need help, ask for a long-term cc or a tank pickup in party chat. “Sheep the caster please when my cyclone wears off” or similar.
Melee mob aggro!
I find melee mobs easier to deal with than casters. The most usual time to get aggro from a melee mob is on the pull, especially I’ve just tried refreshing a HoT, casting after the pull but before the tank’s established AoE threat. This also means it can be more than one mob. But that’s fine.
Melee mobs usually hit very hard on our soft leathery armour, so I immediately pop Barkskin and run to the tank. That’s right: run TO the tank, not away. Running away will make it harder for the tank to grab the mob from you, and the mobs don’t just give up because they think you’re a coward.
Once I’m at the tank I cast Nature’s Grasp and take a step or two away. Then, if the mobs keep hitting me, they will get rooted in place – right next to the tank – and I can walk away. This will work on up to three mobs, so it’s a very powerful tool for handling this situation.
Adds spawning aggro!
Some 5 man and raid encounters have mobs that spawn at predetermined intervals.
Your best bet in all of these situations is to stand right on the tank. If the tank is running around willy nilly picking the mobs up, I follow them. I stick to them like glue. If I have trouble in the ensuing confusion seeing where my tank is, I mark her with a raid icon. (Handy hint – anyone in a 5man group can mark. If you’re in a raid you’ll need assist, or ask your raid leader to mark for you.)
Tank marked with star, me marked with diamond - so I can see where we both are.
This is one of those times it’s great to be a druid healer, and be able to keep casting on the move. Trust in your tank to be using their AOE threat abilities, but make it easy for them: the additional mobs will be drawn by your healing aggro: use that! Bring the adds straight to the tank.
The best tools you have to manage aggro: positioning, timing and defensive abilities. To make best use of these, it pays to know the combats and pay attention to your tank’s style, and use your positioning to bring the adds to the tank.
If you’re in trouble, heal yourself! Use Barkskin, Cyclone, Nature’s Grasp and Entangling roots as needed.
Your tank probably doesn’t suck, but she may be struggling… and we have lots of tools to make tank lives easier (and ours!).