Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Problem With Meters

It's been said so often that it's cliché: Healers cannot be properly be measured by meters (like Recount, Skada, World of Logs, etc).

What is perhaps less discussed is why that's the case, though everyone has a vague sense that healing is not purely about numbers (nothing is purely about numbers, but DPS is maybe a little closer to it).

Therefore and hence, I have decided to chat a little about this topic and explicate my own ideas on what makes for a good healer.

Your Assignment Doesn't Die

This is not so much insight as it is the most basic requirement. First and foremost, if you've been given an assignment, you keep that assignment alive for as long as necessary to win (bonus points if they survive the encounter, but winning's the thing). It's great if you can help out with other targets that another healer is struggling with (thereby boosting both your real value and metered value)...but if your assignment dies as a result, your real value drops like the corpse of what used to be your buddy (while your metered value doesn't take a hit).

You can see, then, the first approach to answering why meters can provide an inaccurate view of the action: losing your assignment really doesn't affect your numbers. But it sure affects your chances of winning. And every member's value is tied to how much they assist in defeating an encounter.

So always focus on your assignment (even to the exclusion of yourself, if "yourself" is not a part of your assignment unless you are on the verge of death)--trust your fellow healers and only help out if otherwise you'd turn into an onlooker because you have nothing else to do. Or if your fellow healer dies or goes out of mana and therefore is not available to trust.

Different Assignments Yield Different Numbers

Tank healing yields less healing numbers than raid healing. A tank requires less total healing, generally, than the rest of the raid. However, the tank generally needs more stressful, urgent healing. That's why different healing classes exist.

Unquestionably, Blizzard has brought all healing class-specs closer together in versatility. However, while any class-spec can potentially handle any assignment, certain class-spec toolkits shine more than others at specific tasks. You could ask a pastry chef to make some dinner entrées, and he or she would probably do a credible job, but why not have your, um, entrée chef (I'm clearly very knowledgeable about the chef scene) do them and have the pastry chef make desserts?

When you're assigned to healing a tank, here's an abstract description of your job: You will heal less but more urgently and swiftly when you do heal.

Similarly, the abstracted description of your job as a raid healer: You will heal near constantly, but in a more gradual and smoothly predictable manner.

The second job heals more. The first job heals more swiftly. They're equally valuable roles, but the raid healer (assuming strict adherence to roles, which is not always true and shouldn't always be the case) will generally out-heal the tank healer.

The Shape Of Healing Output Is Different By Class

Some class-specs are designed to be strongest at burst healing. Some are designed to be stronger at continuous healing. I often joke that the restoration druid in my raid is a "heal sniper" because her HoTs are always ticking, so they address small damage immediately, before I can heal. Her HoTs snipe a lot of healing, therefore she's bad and cheating me out of my numbers!

Well, not really, but it does help to illustrate the point. When I look at World of Logs, I see a few things:

  • My DPS (even healing is placed in a "DPS" context on WoL) is usually highest
  • My DPS(e) is usually lower than said restoration druid
  • My Active Time Percentage is always the lowest

The third point explains the difference between the first two. On World of Logs, DPS measures the healing/damage done when one is active (using a skill/spell) while DPS(e) simply divides your damage/healing done by the encounter length.

I'm not refusing to heal or unable to heal due to mana concerns. I heal when my assignment needs healing or when other targets seem to be unstable (the damage they're taking is not being easily handled by another healer). Small damage being tossed around I know will be addressed by things like Wild Growth, Healing Stream Totem, Healing Rain, etc. All those silly little heal snipers! Where I feel I shine, as a discipline priest, is providing bursts of healing when torrents of damage are hitting targets. Then I swing into action and my burst healing is pretty strong.

My fellow healers are not heal sniping and I'm not being lazy. We have different tools at our disposal and it doesn't make sense for me to try to rush in heals to beat a Wild Growth or a totem. Let those gradual, consistent heals soak up the gradual, small damage and be ready to blast away when someone's health suddenly spikes downward.

Utility Can Make Or Break Healer Contribution

As a discipline priest in Wrath, I used to say that I wasn't a healer, I was a shielder. This reflected the originally unnoticed and then more and more celebrated value of absorption that discipline priests brought...and the fact that end-of-expansion infinite mana pools made spamming shields far and away the most effective way to help the raid survive as a discipline priest.

Shield spamming is no longer the rule of the day, and discipline priests are no longer underrated due to the hazily understood value of absorption. Everyone understands the power of absorbs and now paladin healers and death knight tanks have horned in on the industry.

So I moved on to a new place to whine about how I am misunderstood: mitigation. That is, damage that is not healed nor absorbed, but lessened at the time it happens, like so. Or like this. Or even in this manner. Truly, I am the armor of faith.

But this section is not about mitigation (though I could talk for hours about mitigation) or even about the greatness of disco priests (I could talk for days, weeks and years about that). It's merely an example of healer utility that can be crucial to your effectiveness of play and yet won't be measured on meters (so far as I am aware).

Paladins have tons of utility, what with their many Hands and Shields. Shamans have the signature group/raid utility through their totems and druids bring Replenishment and can resurrect in combat (I would have mentioned Innervate but with the latest patch, it's largely been neutered as a tool to help others).

Maximizing the use of these non-healing, non-absorbing mechanics is a large part of what separates a passable healer from a high-level one, in my opinion. It won't make you look any better in the quantitative analysis, but it increases your raid's likelihood of winning an encounter. 

Stand In Fire, Burn Your Raid

Hey, we all stand in fire sometimes. Yes, even you. Sometimes it looks like fire and sometimes it looks like a wall of cyclones. It's still fire.

Everything pictured here = fire (image courtesy of Orcish Army Knife)

Of course, you want to minimize the amount of time standing in fire. Being a healer is not just healing, absorbing and utility-ing. It's also handling the mechanics of the combat and it's the final key component of being an excellent healer: raid awareness.

Being able to see your surroundings, process what's happening and what you need to be doing in terms of movement...all without losing any focus on your job, which is Healing (when capitalized, it folds in [small-h] healing, absorption, mitigation and utility). Moving may prevent you from Healing to your highest potential for a period, which means you need to plan ahead to decide either what measures to take to ensure your target doesn't need your best Healing while you're handling mechanics or else what measures to take later to recover.

Everyone needs raid awareness, but I think it can be most stressful for healers. DPS can often stop DPSing if they absolutely must, in order to get out of Dodge, without imperiling the raid. Tanks are all about raid awareness, but it's almost their entire job since in raids, threat is often an afterthought beyond the first thirty seconds or so.

Healers need to handle mechanics while actively healing non-stop and if they stop, people are at risk of dying. I am not attempting to suggest that healers have the toughest job in raids or that they are the noblest heroes/heroines in your raid (though if you've come to that conclusion on your own, I won't try to dissuade you), but I think they have the toughest row to hoe in balancing raid awareness with other things. It's not that important a point to what I'm saying, so I wouldn't really attempt to defend it more than I have above, but I think it is important to stress that healers evaluating their role and performance should be paying especial attention to how they balance healing with playing the specific encounter's mechanics.

So Are You A Good Healer Or, As The Kids Say, A Baddie?

Who knows? While I have some beliefs on what makes for a good healer, and why meters really won't answer the question, they're very hard or impossible to definitively analyze other than whether the healer keeps their assignment alive...and even failure on that account does not yield cut-and-dry conclusions, as it also depends on factors like A. whether it was a reasonable assignment to give a single healer, B. whether that healer's toolbox was well-matched to the assignment and C. whether that healer's assigned target did stupid things that can't be healed through.

Evaluating a healer is really more art (a euphemism for "bullshit" most of the time, unfortunately, and not just in regards to evaluating healers) than science. The numbers on the meter will give you an imprecise idea of the healer's throughput potential, but considering we're talking about "imprecise," "idea" and "potential," we can already see that nothing particularly conclusive will come of that, except at the extreme margins. If a healer is only putting out, say, 5k HPS they don't have the throughput for the current tier of content. If a healer is putting out 30k HPS (in a significant sample, not in 5 seconds of an encounter before dying), well, they're likely a pretty big asset to the raid.

But outside of somewhat obvious edge cases, everything else is in the murky middle where you're going to have to spend some time raiding with them, watching them a little and getting a feel for whether it seems like they're alert, making smart decisions and taking initiative at appropriate times. In some sense, it's a lot like evaluating a business executive: you can't compare her to the counter-factual universe in which she wasn't your executive, thereby giving you a basis for comparison. You simply have to develop a feel for the processes she's using to do her job and see whether the results are good over time: whether dragons are dying (as important a goal in the corporate world as in World of Warcraft).

If you're trying to evaluate yourself, I would suggest trying to improve along these vectors:

  • Is my assignment surviving to marry and settle down and have a family?
  • Am I being as proactive in using my mana as possible without trying to beat others to healing damage?
  • Am I using all my useful cooldowns?
  • Am I using those cooldowns at times when they'll do the most good?
  • Am I avoiding as much preventable damage as possible?
  • Am I communicating with my raid so that my actions support everyone else's?
  • Have I hidden my cloak and/or helm if they are intensely ugly?

As long as you're paying attention to your performance in these ways and always trying to improve your performance in these ways...then, to be honest, it doesn't matter whether you're a "good" healer or a "bad" healer. You're the best healer your skill and gear will allow and you'll find your natural level. That's all you can ask out of a game.

That and some options for body type at the character creation screen.

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