WoW's healing model

First up, to set the scene, I want to talk about the very fundamentals of healing in WoW, the framework every healing spec and class plays in. If you want to know healing, you’ve got to know this stuff. A lot of it will sound obvious but every time I talk about healing here, it’ll be built on this understanding of how it all works.

Healing is all about making decisions and making them well, to keep people alive. For a given situation there is always an optimal choice for the best outcome and the more often you make that correct choice, the better a healer you’ll be.

So the decision flow for healing looks like this:-

(1) Who needs healing? Look at people’s health levels and form basic priorities by guessing at the incoming damage.

(2) Can I afford to heal them? Evaluate the costs from the resources you have to spend. There’s only so much of you to go around.

(3) How should I heal them? Evaluate the type of damage and select an appropriate type of heal from your toolbox.

That deserves a little more detail, so brace yourselves.

Levels of health

Players in Cataclysm might have huge health pools compared to previous expansions, but there are still essentially only four levels of health you need to care about.

(1) Dead. The player has no HP and is not just pining for the fjords. Someone screwed up, but right now that’s not worth thinking about, the only decision to make is do you burn a battle rez or not to get them up. Forget about them and fix assignments to cover their role, or communicate to rez them safely.

(2) In immediate danger of death. What level of HP this actually is depends on encounter mechanics; what you’re trying to be aware of is the level of health someone can die from before you reasonably get a chance to react and intervene. Heal them, like, right now.

(3) A bit battered. This player isn’t at max HP, they’re not about to die, but one or two hits could put them in serious danger if you don’t do something. Sometimes you’ll heal them, sometimes you’ll ignore it, depending on how much else you’ve got to do.

4) Good enough. Not in any danger right now so you don’t care. Regen some mana if you’re not doing anything else. Bear in mind is this doesn’t have to mean they’re at max HP, various specs can passively heal themselves or even the raid, little hots like Holy priests’ mastery will be ticking, and so on. Don’t get too OCD about that missing sliver, or even a large chunk.

Types of damage

Someone has to take damage before they die, so how that happens is something we have to care about.

(1) Burst vs sustained damage. This is how we differentiate in the size and timing of damage. Damage will either come all at once, like a boss meleeing a tank for a good chunk of health, or spread out over time, like a ticking aura. Often an ability will have components of both: typically an initial burst, followed by a ticking dot. We care about the difference because burst damage will mean someone can be in immediate danger of death at much higher HP than when faced with something that hits more often for a smaller amount. Of course sometimes damage will be both for large amounts and sustained and you’ll have to burn a lot of resources to keep up.

(2) Predictable vs random damage. There are two dimensions to this, timing and targeting. Damage can happen at set or random times, and you’ll either know who it will happen to or it’ll hit a random player. When you dig into a healing spec’s toolkit you’ll find certain spells cover specific roles here much better than others and this will play a huge part in your decision making.

(3) Focused vs spread. The obvious extremes being single target damage vs a raid-wide damage aura but it could be anything in between.

Types of healing

Not all heals are the same, or serve the same purpose. There are generally two branches of heals in the game, heals that remove a deficit of health, or heals that add a surplus of health.

(1) Direct heals. These are your bread and butter spells that you cast and they remove the damage a player has taken. They are better suited to reactive healing; that is you see some damage and then you decide to heal it, although they might be pre-cast if you’re anticipating damage before the cast or heal effect ends (very common for hots like Rejuvenation). Direct heals are highly susceptible to overhealing as they do nothing beyond a player’s maximum health.

(2) Temporary health. These heals are the various ways in which you can extend a player’s health beyond their normal maximum, the total of your health plus the extra is sometimes known as your effective health. There are two sides to this, the first being spells that simply add health on top, like absorbs or say Rallying Cry. And then there’s damage mitigation which reduces incoming damage by a certain amount, if you’re taking 10% less damage, you’ve effectively gained 10% health even though what you see on your unit frames is the same number. Temporary health effects aren’t really heals until a player takes damage and because they have to be present beforehand, they’re useless for reactive healing; if someone’s been hit, it’s too late. Adding health can overheal if it isn’t used before the effect ends, mitigation never overheals but scales with the amount of incoming damage, right down to zero if you really screw up.

Resources for healing

One person can only do so much. Your heals cost you a variety of resources you have a finite amount of.

(1) Mana. Well this is pretty obvious, some spells are more expensive than others for various reasons and you only regen so much over so long. Increasingly as we get through an expansion this matters less and less, because Blizzard want you to feel more powerful as you acquire gear.

(2) Time. You only have so long to heal someone before they die of the damage they’re taking, how you manage your time is crucial in how effective you are. Chain casting heals with no pause is known as being GCD capped, ie you’re using every spare global cooldown and you can’t squeeze more out even if you wanted to. But you don’t have to do everything as fast as possible and you’ll want to trade this off, primarily against the mana cost.

(3) Focus. Generally spells won’t automatically choose to heal the people most in need of it so how much you concentrate the healing you do is an important decision. Typically this would mean either casting an AOE/group heal or a single target heal and it can be really difficult to judge whether one person needs to be healed a lot or several people need to be healed a bit, to prevent deaths. Raid healers healing cross assignment to tanks absolutely must master this to play to their best. Occassionally you might be lucky enough to be able to heal EVERYONE for LOTS eg Tranquility or Barrier.

(4) Attention. How many perfect decisions can you make in a given time frame? The human brain finds it impossible to truly multitask, the difference between say a fighter jet pilot or skilled rally driver and the average person is in how information is prioritised and serialised to be acted on. Healers have to analyse the current state of 10-25 people, make good predictions about their future and then choose from many possible actions to ensure the best outcome. Sometimes there’s so much going on you reach decision paralysis and end up doing nothing at all. There’s some stuff you can’t really teach and valor points won’t buy you a better brain, but practice and experience go a long way. Without doubt, some healing specs have more obvious, easier decisions than others with how their spells work and it’s worth finding the one that works for you.

You should now be well armed to understand the decisions you have to make. To recap:-

(1) Who needs healing?

(2) Can I afford to heal them?

(3) How should I heal them?

So that’s it, once you know how your spells work, you know everything you’d ever have to about how to heal well, the rest is just experience and execution. Good luck!

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