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Learning to Internalize Your Healing Toolkit

April 5, 2011

My friend Minstrel over at Holy Word: Delicious recently posted about what healers can learn from athletes. He makes some great points about how thinking while healing can be both a bad thing and a good thing: It’s bad because you often don’t have time to think everything through in the short term, but it’s good because you have to be constantly monitoring the fight and planning your use of cooldowns.  Essentially, in order to be a good healer you have to have internalized your spells and be able to recognize which spells/spell rotations are best to deal with given patterns of incoming damage.  The only way to be able to do this is to practice and then practice some more.  I’d like to add to his post with some advice on how to practice healing.

A Slight Digression About Learning Music, Which Really Does Pertain to the Topic, I Promise

I am no stranger to activities that require lots of practice.  I’m not a great athlete.  (In fact, I’m a laughable athlete.)  However, I have a degree in theatre and am a classically trained vocalist who also played trumpet.  Minstrel claims that musicians are more like DPS classes and athletes are more like healers, and I agree with him up to a point.  However, musicians do practice in ways that are transferable to learning both DPS and healing.

When presented with a piece of music, a musician must be able to read the notes on the page.  Beginning musicians are first taught the names of the notes and where they are on the musical staff, and then some basic rhythms.  Mnemonics are often used, like “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” for the names of the notes on the lines of the treble clef, from bottom to top.  However, if a professional musician had to count up or down the lines on the staff to figure out what note to play next, every time a new note was presented to them, then look at a fingering chart for their instrument to map that note onto it, and then, finally, play the note, well… it would take a very long time to learn a new piece.  So, musicians start to recognize patterns in the notes, and patterns in the rhythms.  They make mental maps of the notes onto their instruments.  They practice scales and arpeggios in all the different musical keys so that when they see that pattern appearing in a musical score they don’t have to think about playing it – it just flies from their fingers without conscious thought.

Internalizing the basics of notes and rhythms frees up the conscious part of the brain so that it can think about all the other aspects of making music.  As I said, I’m primarily a vocalist, so I’m going to use singing as an example here.  This is a short list of everything that I’m “thinking” about when performing, in no particular order:

  • notes
  • rhythm
  • breath support
  • phrasing
  • dynamics (how loud something is)
  • accents (if a note “sticks out” or not)
  • posture, and tension in my body
  • the lyrics
  • intonation (tuning/pronunciation, particularly of vowels)
  • articulation (consonants primarily)
  • open resonating space in my mouth and placement of the sound within my body
  • blending my voice to that of the others around me
  • vibrato
  • what the instrumentalists are doing
  • what the conductor is asking of me
  • audience feedback
  • planning ahead a few bars for what comes next in the music.
  • expressing the emotional content of the music
  • that tickle in my throat and whether it might cause problems on certain passages

I’m probably forgetting a few things that should be on the list, and here’s why – most of them I no longer have to think about.  I used to have to think about everything on that list, but now I don’t because they just “come naturally”.  But I didn’t learn everything at once.  I started learning notes and rhythms, added perhaps breath support, phrasing and dynamics, then started thinking more about posture, intonation etc.  If I handed that list to a beginning vocalist and expected them to be able to do each of those things well, they would be completely overwhelmed.  It’s only possible to think about a couple of things at a time.

Of course, by the time a musician is performing a piece of music, the final product is pretty much guaranteed.  Normally the string section isn’t going to pull aggro on the audience while the tuba player is AFK, forcing the conductor to blow all his baton-waving cooldowns.  (Though I would pay to see that.)  A concert is generally more predictable than a raid, and there isn’t a giant, fire-breathing monstrosity trying to kill the players.  So yes, ultimately the athlete metaphor is probably a bit more apt than the musical one.  Still, the idea of practicing the basics until you no longer have to think about them in new situations is the same in either context.

Learning to Internalize Your Healing Toolkit

As a healer in the World of Warcraft, you have a large and varied set of tools at your disposal to help you manage different types of incoming damage.  The trick is to get so familiar with your tools that you can use the right tool for the job without having to think about it too much, so you can be thinking about more important things.  (Like staying out of the fire.)  The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to learn your basic toolkit first, then gradually add more and more spells until you are using them all naturally.

While leveling a new toon this process happens anyway, because you start with only one or two spells and get more as you level up.  However, there are several situations that could make it necessary to go through the process again.  Perhaps you didn’t start healing until you’d already reached max level.  Perhaps you recently changed your keybinds or your UI and have to re-learn a few things.  Perhaps in the recent expansion your class was entirely redesigned and so now you have a ton of new spells and/or your old spells no longer work the way they used to and you have to figure out what situations to use them in now.  (Nah, that last possibility could never happen…)  Regardless, you need to start simple and add complexity to your rotation later.

The problem with trying to learn (or re-learn) how to heal at max level is that you can’t scale things back too far or you won’t be able to keep people alive.  If you decide that you’re only going to heal with Healing Touch and Wild Growth until you learn those two spells inside and out, well… people will die.  The max level instances are designed based on the assumption that you know what you’re doing and use everything at your disposal.  So you have to be careful not to prune back so much that you are guaranteed to fail.

Step 1: Figure out which spells are absolutely essential, and then focus on learning to use them.

The best way to do this is probably to read healing strategy guides and pay attention to the spell rotations they are recommending.  The first few spells mentioned are probably going to be your primary go-to spells.  I’d ignore anything with a long cooldown (2-10 minutes) at first, since these are probably going to be spells you use rarely.  If you have a lot of spells with short cooldowns, (less than a minute), pick and choose them carefully.  However, some spells on a cooldown might be essential for you, like Beacon for Paladins.  If you’re having trouble deciding, try asking a good healer of your class to help you choose.  Choose spells that will work for tank healing and group healing, since you will probably be practicing in 5-man dungeons.

Step 2: Practice your healing in 5-man normal dungeons or in guild groups.

Even if you have a decent healing set because you’ve been running heroics in another spec and rolling on healing gear, it’s probably best to start out healing in normal dungeons.  The incoming damage is lower and much easier to deal with, and you will have more time to think about what to do next.  It will be even easier if you can run with fellow guild members.  If you do run heroics, it would definitely be better to run with a guild group or at least a guild tank.  Guildies will (hopefully) be more patient and helpful.

Because you are using a limited number of spells, you might end up in situations where someone dies, and you could have saved them if only you had another spell at your disposal.  That’s ok – you’ve just discovered the limitations of your basic toolkit.  Remember that situation and think about what other spell may have worked.  Start to look for other opportunities where you could use that new spell too.

Step 3: Choose a few more spells and start using them as well.

Once you feel comfortable with using your basic healing spells, choose a few more spells and start using them too.  These are likely going to be more situational spells, so you can say to yourself, “Ok, I just added _____which is on _____ keybind.  If I see _____ type of situation, I’m going to use it.”  If you find that you aren’t really “needing” to use the spell, try blowing it a few times anyway, just to get a feel for it.  For example, maybe you can heal just fine through Rajh’s recharge phase in normal Halls of Origination, but you decide to use Tranquility anyway, just to get used to where the button is.

Don’t beat yourself up if you use the wrong spell, forget to use a life-saving spell, or waste a cooldown so you don’t have a big spell when you need it.  Mistakes are part of the learning process.  Take note of what went wrong and think about what you can improve for next time.

Step 4:  …

Repeat Step 3 until you are using all (or most) of your toolkit.  Remember that your toolkit does not only consist of healing spells – chances are you have some defensive or offensive spells with situational use too.  (Interrupts, for example.)  You can also practice your situational awareness by making a mental note to watch where you’re standing instead of focusing intently on your party frames.

Step 5: Profit!

Once you feel comfortable, make the jump into heroic dungeons and raids.  You don’t have to be perfect or have figured out the best use for every one of your spells.  (I know I sure haven’t yet!)  You’ll have lots of opportunity to continue to practice in new and more challenging situations.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2011 4:47 pm

    There are some excellent tips here. I’m levelling a shaman to 85 to try a different style of healing, so I probably won’t heal much/at all until then. I’d planned to start with normals as you describe, but your post has added a lot of detail to my hazy idea! Thanks :D

  2. April 6, 2011 10:03 am

    This may seem obvious, but I’d add: 1) read the tooltip and 2) read the talent tree. (Especially after a major patch!) This tells you roughly what the spell will heal for, how quickly it casts, whether it has a HoT component . . . lots of things. Also, reading the talent tree helps you to figure out the synergy between spells and whether there are extra uses. For example, holy priests have Body and Soul, which adds a speed component to Power Word: Shield–that part’s easy to figure out It ALSO makes a priest able to cure poison on herself, however, which you’d never know if you didn’t read the tooltip. (Especially since the effects work on two completely different spells.)

    • April 9, 2011 1:28 am

      Yes! Very important things to do. For example, Druids need to keep Lifebloom up at all times right now. Why? Because we have two very important mana regen talents that depend on Lifebloom: Revitalize (gives a 20% chance to regen 2% of our total mana per tick of Lifebloom or Rejuvenation) and Malfurion’s Gift (gives a 4% chance to proc Omen of Clarity, and is now the only way to get OoC procs). Knowing how talents affect spells is very important!

  3. April 8, 2011 10:43 am

    All Cows Eat Grass.

  4. April 12, 2011 10:00 am

    I love the music analogy! I play the piano and I think healing and solo performances have a lot in common. Practice is key but there’s still a bunch of things that can happen by chance during the performance itself such as my brain hiccuping and forgetting the next part, messing up a trill, messing up the pedal phrasing, or starting out too slow/fast, or getting distracted and wondering if the audience is bored etc.

    Similarly in a raid I could badly time a tranquility, miss a critical heal or get tunnel vision and be slow at getting out of purple goo etc. And to be honest, I can see some of my pieces feeling like fire-breathing dragons at times! =P (Hello Chopin….)

    Thanks for the great read! =)

    • April 12, 2011 11:24 am

      Thanks!

      Your comment also reminded me about another transferable skill that musicians learn: How to make a mistake and keep going. Musicians and healers both make mistakes, but if they dwell on a mistake they just made, they won’t be paying attention to what they’re doing at the moment and it’ll turn into a domino effect of additional mistakes! So people in both roles learn to note the mistake for later then put it aside and concentrate on the here and now.

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