Brewmaster Basics: What Makes Stagger Strong
Welcome to PeakOfSerenity's Brewmaster Basics series! This set of guides is intended to be an introductory look at Brewmaster fundamentals. While the primary goal here is to provide a casual overview of the specialization and its mechanics, we hope to explain not only how things work, but also why you do certain things and what makes them important.
This guide builds off of concepts introduced in Brewmaster Basics: Stagger and Brews, so if you haven't, I recommend reading that first! The topic of this guide is damage smoothing and what makes stagger strong in a progression or raiding enviroment. We'll also take a look at tankiness and what makes tanks feel strong, as well as tank interactions with healers.
This guide has been updated for Patch 8.0.1 and is regularly updated when discussion, theorycrafting, or testing yields new information.
The Feeling of “Tankiness”
So, we’ve got stagger nailed down, and have a good grasp on the main brews. But what part of this whole setup actually makes a monk a strong tank? Well, to answer that we need to talk about what “tankiness” really means, first.
We’ll start out with self-sustain, because that’s the straightforward one. Self-sustain is basically a combination of mitigation and healing. How much can you heal yourself, and how does that amount compare to the amount of damage you’re taking? If you’re taking 1000 damage per second, and you’re also able to heal for 1000 per second, you can self-sustain. Or, if you can only heal for 500 per second but you have enough mitigation to make it so you’re only taking 500 damage per second, you’re still able to self-sustain. That’s what can make Death Knights and Demon Hunters feel so powerful, in the right situation. Particularly in low-damage situations, both classes have good self-healing relative to the amount of damage they take, which makes it possible for them to self-sustain for a while even if the healer dies. It’s always fun to be the last one standing, and BDK and VDH excel at doing just that. Brewmaster, unfortunately, is a bit lacking in the self-healing department. We do have a little, with Vivify and orbs from Gift of the Ox, but it’s just not on the same level as BDK or VDH. You can’t win them all…
Brewmasters make up for what we lack in self-healing with our excellent spike mitigation. It’s basically what it sounds like — the ability to take a big spike of damage, such as a tank ability, and mitigate it so that it doesn’t hit you as hard. It also refers to reducing the both the strength and frequency of the spikes of damage you’re taking over the course of an entire fight. That’s not necessarily just tankbusters, it can also be the regular melee damage or AOE damage a tank takes over the course of a fight.
So, how do you mitigate spikes? Well, you use your defensives! For a brewmaster, that means Ironskin Brew. For a paladin it’s typically Shield of the Righteous, Ironfur for a druid… you get the idea. The buttons you press all the time to reduce the damage you take. Make sure it’s up for a tankbuster, and bam! — suddenly you’re hit for a much smaller amount of damage, which is less scary for you, makes you feel more powerful and tanky, and means you’re less likely to die. That’s the first type of spike mitigation.
The other type is sometimes actually the harder of the two to manage. Think back to that boss you’re tanking. You’re cruising along, you’ve got your mitigation up, you see the boss hitting you with melees and you’re taking damage, but overall it’s not too bad. But… then your active mitigation falls off, and suddenly you feel like you’re getting crushed! The melees are hitting for more, you’re getting chunked by everything, life is scary. Then you’re able to get your mitigation back up, and it’s back to smooth sailing. That’s a spike that you created with the gaps in your mitigation. Sometimes they’re inevitable and part of learning the class is learning to deal with them: maybe chaining your shorter cooldowns to cover gaps, or using your healing skills wisely, etc. Some tank classes are simply designed to be more spiky than others.
Because the paladin doesn’t stagger damage and has occasional gaps in mitigation uptime, it’s pretty easy to get chunked very quickly–sometimes resulting in panicking healers, a panicking tank, or both. Definitely not what you want mid-boss fight! The paladin does have the ability to self-heal during mitigation downtime, but healers generally have limited visibility on tank self-healing.
In contrast to the paladin, the brewmaster takes very smooth, slow damage intake.
Let’s start by looking at what actually kills tanks. Usually, it’s either a one-shot or a short period of time where the amount of incoming damage was higher than the healing the tank got. When you get one-shot, most of the time it’s your fault—you probably didn’t have your defensive up at the right time, or got hit by something you weren’t supposed to. Maybe you panicked earlier and used a cooldown too early, maybe you missed the timing and it fell off a split second before the hit, maybe you just spaced out and didn’t press the button. Who knows? But regardless, now you’re dead. The thing that makes brewmaster strong in situations like this is that we are able to have 100% uptime on ISB, which is generally the only defensive you need to have up for most tank hits. You get to (mostly) remove the possibility of dying to screwing up the timings on your defensives, which is pretty awesome if you’re unfamiliar with a fight, new to tanking, or playing a new class, because it’s one less thing to need to focus on. And believe me, even the best of us sometimes die to silly, avoidable things because we got distracted or lost focus. We’re human beings, playing a video game.
Tank Damage versus External Healing
Which brings me to the other reason tanks die—lack of external healing. Like you, healers are just trying to do their best too. But they can only heal a tank when the tank is missing some health, and that goes back to the idea of spike mitigation. Healers will always try to heal tanks, but the way you take damage can change the way they try to heal you.
The amount of healing a tank needs is going to vary a lot over the course of a fight; tank swaps, dodge RNG, tank mechanics, gaps in mitigation uptime — these are all things that can cause a tank to temporarily take more damage than normal. If you get hit by something without mitigation and it hits you for 30% of your HP, then the healers are going to try to dump big heals into you ASAP to top you up. However, they’ve got GCDs and cast times and cooldowns too, and sometimes they need a few seconds to get that healing out to you. If the thing that chunked you was a melee and you don’t have any defensives or cooldowns available, they’ve got 1.5-2s to heal you before a second melee drops you to 30%, and then another 1.5-2s before the third melee kills you. That’s only 3-4 seconds between the time you take the first melee and the time you die, and if the healers were busy with raid damage at the same time, it can be easy for you to simply fall over and die to an unexpected spike of damage just because they weren’t able to get to you in time.
Of course, most of the “spiky” tanks have healing of their own, to help the healers out when the tank gets chunked. Think of the BDK—they barely mitigate any damage at all, but when they get hit they can heal a lot of it back. That’s both good and bad, because the BDK can Death Strike when they’re at 30% and heal back up to a safe level, but if a healing spell goes off at the same time as the Death Strike, sometimes that heal can be wasted. It also makes it harder for a healer to tell when the tank is truly in danger, unless they’re paying close attention to the DK’s resources. Are they at 30% and about to die, or are they at 30% and about to Death Strike?
The Power of Smoothing
None of that is a problem for brewmasters. When you get hit by those three melees, only 20% or so of the initial damage hits you right away in the face. So after those three hits, rather than being dead, you’re probably still at 70-80% HP. Without intervention you’ll still slowly die, because the amount of damage in your stagger bucket is enough to kill you, but you’re alive and healers can swap over to you and start quickly healing you as stagger ticks. Simply by existing, stagger buys both you and healers a few extra seconds to react to tank damage, and that alone can be super powerful. Healers can finish healing up the raid or saving the dps who dropped dangerously low before turning their attention back to the tank.
The other nice thing stagger can do is allow a tank to coast along on free raid healing. A lot of the time you’ll be standing in AOE heals like Efflorescence or Healing Rain, and if you’re topped off, they’re just being wasted. Because brewmasters nearly always have stagger ticking, those AOE heals can actually be useful to you. Same thing for any HOTs on you; if you’re topped off they’ll just overheal, but you can end up in a situation where stagger ticks, and then the HOT ticks, and then stagger ticks again, etc.
Here we’ve got a brewmaster in a low-damage situation with some HOTs rolling. This is just a fun little interaction which allows the brewmaster to coast along with HOT ticks counteracting stagger ticks. The brewmaster stays safe while all the healer has to do is toss out the occasional HOT.
Types of Tank Healing
Let’s continue that idea by taking a look at a couple of graphs. Both of them show damage taken, but I’ve marked them up a little as well. Once again, we’re going to start out with a paladin — one of the spikier tanks.
The most important thing I want to point out here is the green line. We’re going to call that line the amount of passive tank healing that’s currently available — those are the AOE heals like Healing Rain or Efflorescence, any casts such as Chain Heal that might be bouncing off a tank, HOTs ticking, etc. These are spells that healers will be casting regardless of how much damage the tank is taking, that also happen to be able to passively heal the tank.
Then, there’s active tank healing. These are casts like Holy Shock, Flash Heal, maybe even a cooldown like Guardian Spirit or Life Cocoon. When healers are using spells like these on a tank, it means the tank is taking so much damage, or spiking so much that the healers need to directly (and quickly) heal the tank to prevent them from dying. These are usually big, fast, inefficient heals.They do the job of keeping the tank from dying, but they usually take a lot of mana or have long cooldowns. Ideally, you want to minimize the amount of active healing you need.
So, what’s that graph showing? Well, the idea of passive tank healing basically means that as long as the tank is staying below the green line, they’ll be easily healed up from all that free healing floating around. But, each time the tank goes above the green line, suddenly they need to be actively healed. The passive healing isn’t enough, and they need direct healer attention. Their damage taken is suddenly much higher than the healing they’re getting, and they could be in danger.
That’s why the smoothness of damage intake matters. If you take a lot of damage in a very short period of time, your damage taken is going to spike waaay above that green line. But if you take the same amount of damage as a brewmaster, because of the way stagger naturally smooths damage and spreads it out over time, it’s possible you may not go above the green line at all. Stagger will be ticking hard, but while it ticks you’ll also have all that free raid healing ticking on you too. Spiky damage intake often means you need to be healed up right away to prevent you dying to some small damage event afterwards (such as a melee), but smooth damage intake gives you time to soak up passive healing over time.
Think of it this way: when your damage intake is spiky, you need spiky healing to keep up. When your damage intake is slow and smooth, you can rely on smoother and slower healing.
So now I’ve got the same graph, from the same fight, but this time on a brewmaster. Green line is the same thing, passive tank healing.
Looks totally different, right?
One of the big things you might notice is that the brewmaster is snuggled right up to that green line all the time, and generally seems to be at higher DTPS (damage taken per second). And that’s true; brewmasters do have higher DTPS than tanks that can mitigate a lot. But the big thing here, and the reason stagger is so powerful, is just how smooth that graph is. Yeah, the brewmaster might be taking more damage, but so much of it is covered by passive healing!
The brewmaster does still need to be actively healed, but it’s much less frequently, and when they do, it’s still pretty smooth. Even when the brewmaster does go above the green line, it’s not as high above. If the healers are really in a pinch, often they can let the tank slide a little lower while they finish healing up the raid, because they can trust that the tank won’t get chunked suddenly and die. And that’s pretty powerful.
Now, some side notes just so we’re clear. The green line was straight to help demonstrate the point, but passive healing isn’t always constant. So, during times where the raid is taking a lot of damage, there might not be a lot of passive healing to go around. That’s because if the whole raid is damaged, AOE heals such as Chain Heal will probably be bouncing around on DPS and may not hit the tanks. Healers may not be targeting tanks with AOEs, or might not have the GCDs to toss out small cheap heals. If you know the raid is taking a lot of damage and there will be less passive healing, sometimes it can be worthwhile to pop a cooldown of your own just to make sure healers don’t have to cast on you–but only if you’re sure you won’t need it later in the fight!
And on some fights, there’s just nothing you can do to avoid needing active healing. There are some pretty big tank damage fights out there, and healers are just going to have to heal you. The trick is just recognizing the patterns, and playing to your class’s strengths and the rules of the fight.
So… What’s the Catch?
We’ve covered brewmaster strengths pretty thoroughly by now, so it’s only fair to take a quick look at weaknesses.
We already touched on it a little, earlier, but brewmaster doesn’t have much self-sustain. We depend a lot on free raid healing, and being able to take advantage of HOTs and cheap, filler casts from healers. When that’s gone, we typically start hurting. You can end up feeling pretty powerless in a situation where you’re just slowly dying because you’re missing out on all of that free healing.
A contributing factor to that, and another of our weaknesses, is the fact that we don’t really mitigate as much overall damage as other tanks. We dodge a lot, and that can be very strong mitigation in the right situation. But when there’s damage that can’t be dodged, we don’t have many cooldowns to use to reduce it, and purify can’t be used too often without dropping ISB. Normally our damage smoothing is just so valuable that taking a bit of extra damage doesn’t matter all that much, but if the healers are struggling to keep up, it can be noticeable.
Other tanks have to deal with occasionally getting one-shot or flattened; we occasionally have the issue of slowly ticking down due to lack of healing. We do have some tools we can use to try to minimize our healing requirement, and purify finesse will always help in that regard, but that’s a topic for another time!
As always, if you’ve got questions, stop in at the Peak of Serenity discord.