Build Theory: How to be Tanky but not a Tank in Guild Wars 2

I’m going to be putting up a series of build posts to show my philosophy for character build design and roles in the game through each of the classes I have reached 80 on.

The core of my thinking comes down to resting somewhere between ‘balanced’ and ‘tanky’. That is where these builds will stand. Here I am going to define these terms and talk about the general method of arriving at a ‘tanky’ build.

I don’t do ‘bunker’ builds and I don’t do ‘glass cannons’. I sometimes dip into ‘support’ builds, but tend to try to avoid them as well.

These will be PvE only builds. I lack expertise in PvP, be it Structured PvP or World vs World.

I am suggesting ‘tanky’ and ‘balanced’ builds for, specifically; dungeon runs and open world content. In that regard I am going directly against the popular ‘glass cannon’ trend you will find in many other guides, blogs, and forums. I see too many ‘glass cannon’ builds faceplanting in PvE content to be able to agree with the folks who have ‘run the numbers’ and decided having no defense is the best defense.

If you’re looking for ‘All DPS zerker speed run CoF p1 farming builds‘ this article is not for you. Its pretty much the opposite of that playstyle.


My definitions, and mine alone, which might not be the same as yours, but I’m not going to repeat ‘IMO’ in every sentence, now that I’ve just noted it here…:

A ‘Bunker’ character is pure defensive. This character attempts to be one side of a trinity MMO tank: survive any hit. Usually also combined with being able to stay in one spot. ‘Bunker’ builds seem to have a solid place in some forms of PvP where your team can continue to control a spot as long as one teammate is there and alive.

A ‘Tanky’ character is a step away from ‘bunker’ in that it not only tries to stay alive, but also tries to hold aggro or otherwise control an opponent’s actions or choice of actions. ‘Tanky’ characters can take a lot of damage before they go down, or can heal back a lot of it quickly, or some blend there. A ‘tanky’ character can ‘stand in the fire’ or take direct mega-hits from a boss 2 or 3 times before needing to step back. They don’t get one-shot unless they’ve run out of cooldowns (and then its not really a one-shot, it might just look like one because they were so good at shrugging off all the prior shots but have now played all the cards in their hand). To hold aggro a tanky character in Guild Wars 2 needs to also be able to do a lot of damage. You can’t really go below about 10-20% less damage than anyone else and still hold aggro… so ‘tanky’ characters need to squeeze out every last bit of damage they can, without sacrificing any “effective” mitigation.

(Where a bunker character over-mitigates to handle every possibility, a tanky character looks for the effective breakpoints in mitigation and makes a choice about which to cover and which to avoid with aggro dumping tricks.)

Playing ‘tanky’ is not easy. You will have an insanely disproportionate share of the aggro. Mobs will sometimes glue themselves onto your backside. Because you are not a ‘tank’ you will need to learn effective ways to dump these mobs onto other people. Your goal here is being in control of when that aggro swap happens. You will naturally take much more damage than anyone else in your run. During ‘normal phases’ as others run around dishing out damage with impunity, you will still be balancing cooldowns to stay up and do damage. Its when the big windups and gimmicks occur that suddenly the less aware folks are in the downed state and you, you’re just carrying on as usual.

A ‘Balanced Build’ tries to skirt the middle of the road. The jack of all trades. This is what I consider to be the best all-around choice for dungeons when not doing one of the ‘speed farmer’ locations. Balanced builds carry enough mitigation to survive the occasional hit when they fail to avoid it, they carry enough support abilities to buff and heal ‘in the background’ in a way that smooths over group rough edges and mistakes. They have some control conditions, and can handle short term aggro should it land their way. They might also be doing a mix of both condition based and direct based damage, or set for one or the other. Balanced builds will switch between being team damage, support, or control on the fly and with a team full of them – toss the roles around the team like a hot-potatoe during the fight.

A ‘Support’ build tries to be the team cheerleader. Everything is focused on healing, boon application, reviving, and otherwise making your team-mates more powerful. I feel Guild Wars 2 by design has tried to keep this role from being effective in PvE. In Guild Wars 1, this was my main (a protection monk), and 2 more of my characters (a second monk and a ritualist). They might be useful in World vs World, I’m not sure – I don’t know how many people can be affected by a heal or area boon at once, but if not capped, that might be a niche they could fill. And I have no idea how they would factor into structured PvP. Support favoring players have been complaining since launch about the problems of the role, such as not even getting event credit much of the time. When Guild Wars 2 announced the monk and healer would not be present, I gave up on the idea of ever even trying this role. But since I have figured out how to make a ‘tanky’ warrior, I’m sure somebody out there has figured out how to do good ‘PvE support’.

The ‘Glass Cannon’ is all about doing damage as much and as fast as possible. Everything else is sacrificed in the name of pushing out more damage. Many a Glass Cannon will give up 1000 ‘points of mitigation’ to gain 3 points of damage. ‘Glass Cannons’ are favored by speed runners of ‘certain low incoming or easy to avoid damage’ PvE content where saving 30 seconds off the time to complete the entire run becomes a justifying factor. The only mitigation of a glass cannon is to not get hit: the dodge roll, and I suppose trading away aggro while waiting for dodge endurance to regenerate.

Designing a Tanky Build

I’ve almost never played the ‘DPS’ role in trinity MMOs, so its no surprise I do not care for the ‘glass cannon’ role in Guild Wars 2. Nonetheless there is a notable segment that assumes that because this role works in certain farming content, it is best everywhere. I do not subscribe to that view, as I showed in another blog post.

To build ‘tanky’ in Guild Wars 2 comes down to a couple of basic steps to achieve:

  1. 1. Aim for an armor score up to 3000 or higher. At 2700, I have read that the value of armor suffers extreme diminishing returns (an argument starts in that link, so see also here where he adds to it). The extra 300 therefore becomes your ‘aggro buffer’ to get an edge over others in the group.


    Here there is a bit of a conundrum in the debate between toughness and vitality. Many will argue Vitality gives more effective health than toughness does unless on certain classes like guardian, warrior or necromancer (and necromancer only because they come built in with lots of vitality). But vitality and being fully healed seems to lower aggro… So if you go the vitality route, your path to being tanky requires you to stay about half injured: as being injured boosts aggro. But with less armor, that is very risky.For a tanky character that stacks vitality, I would still say try to get armor to above 2200 to 2500… Without giving up any of your damage. If possible.

  2. Have solid condition removal. You will likely have had to give up vitality to get armor up, so you need on demand condition removal. But as there is an endless supply of new incoming conditions, you will need decent vitality and the best self-heal your class supplies. Regeneration if an option, should be looked into.
  3. Try to get ‘power’ as close to 2000 as you can. This means ‘close to’, not above, and not below. This is a break point where after that, it is better to use critical hits to boost up damage. Alternatively, focus on dealing out a massive variety of conditions and “several hundred” in bonus condition damage (I do not yet know an ideal number). You can also blend the two, but this gets tricky – most of the time it is better to focus on one or the other. If using two weapons, one of them for me will usually have Sigil of Force to help boost this up.
  4. Get critical chance to above 40%. The higher the better, so once all of the above concerns are met, you go here for the rest. Glass Cannons often blow past 60, 70, or even 100% on this. To be competitive while tanky, you will need to put value into this. One of the best Sigils in the game for a tanky build is Sigil of Accuracy as it lets you get this up without sacrificing other stats. Note that if your focus was condition damage, that is not boosted by critical hits (condition damage cannot critically hit), so just boost up condition damage and duration.

    As I don’t know the ideal numbers for condition damage… I end up just tweaking things to maximize and then seeing how it plays out… At the moment my condition characters still have high critical chances, in an effort to use the critical hits as a way to get aggro spikes while waiting on conditions to build up their impact.

  5. Slot weapons and utility skills designed to interrupt bosses (note that CCing them is useless, but you can usually still get the interrupt that causes them to start their attack over). This is a huge part of your mitigation. As you will have dominant aggro, you will need to ‘slow the boss down’ by making them restart attack chains or skip attacks. If you can interrupt a boss’s big stomp move, they are likely to just move on to a regular attack and you will have saved a dodge for later. Note that this is a usually thing – if you see ‘immune’ pop up on the screen, your interrupt didn’t work. If the massive attack that was about to happen doesn’t, it did work.
  6. Slot one weapon designed to have lower aggro than the other. One trick for this is a 1-hander and shield that both have toughness – for aggro, and then a ranged weapon without toughness, to dump aggro. Alternatively, get good at kiting when you switch to ranged. Really good.
  7. Use a shield. If you are a warrior, guardian, or engineer, and you are still having trouble attracting aggro, part of the aggro mechanics in this game specifically looks for people holding shields. This is like carrying a sign on your back that says “kick me” – they will. This is the big gimmick that lets my own warrior push past most guardians in aggro.
  8. Don’t dodge everything. Yeah… intentionally take the hit often enough, that you always have dodge when you need it, and you are always less than full in health or bouncing up and down. Mobs love attacking people who are injured… so if you can stay up while perpetually at less than 50% of health, you will be an aggro monster… Where a glass cannon maintains a careful balance of timing dodges, you will maintain a careful balance of when to heal, when to dodge, and when to not just stand in the fire, but jump into the kettle pot…

    The time one is dodging is also time one is not attacking. So this is space you will be able to use to partially catch up to the DPS of the glass cannons. Dodge moves are pretty slow, and can mean the loss of one to two attacks. More if not well placed and you roll out of range, or off a platform, or as I’ve done before – over a ledge and out of the fight.

But what if you end up being a tank?

All of this is very situational. What is tanky with one group will be a tank with another.

You’ve become “the tank” when you end up with almost complete aggro for the entire fight. When you alone have the ability to dictate boss actions, and when you start getting the ability to dictate actions people think cannot be dictated – you’ve crossed that line.

And tanks just cannot survive in GW2. Mitigation in this game is good, a lot better than popular belief holds. But it is not that good. You need some downtime to let cooldowns, health, healing, and even personal stress recover.

If you go above 80% of the aggro, you’re probably going to faceplant no matter how well you run it. Try to hold between 40 to 70%.

This is going to depend a lot on your teammates. If you run with a pack of glass cannons you might find yourself too easily having way too much aggro, and when they faceplant on some gimmick, you’re all alone.

With the Living Story Aetherblade dungeon launched, my second PUG run of it was with my Guardian, and her 3100+ armor. I had total aggro the entire run. No one to trade it to, and I also discovered that if I was not in range of a mob to get aggro for it, they would faceplant. That dungeon has a number of damage fields – and the glass cannons would wipe on these constantly (it would take me two the three fields back to back to get downed from them). But with constant aggro, I often could not out-maneuver knockbacks or other effects. On the final boss, I had complete control over where she went. She would work her aggro table (me), and then randomly teleport onto someone, and then back to her table (me). This was great for shield busting, but also meant I had no room for error in any of the field or cannon phases as all my cooldowns were going into boss pressure.

Being tanky is fine, being a tank is not what the game is designed to allow.

If you run with another tanky character, and a team full of balanced builds – you can much more easily set up an aggro trading rhythm.

If you have too much aggro, adjust some of my suggestions down, if you have not enough, adjust them up. If your armor is a few hundred above most of your team, but not almost a thousand or more, you’ll be in the sweet spot.

If like me you PUG a lot, just get really good with your cooldowns. One PUG you will have a bunker in there who does no damage at all but also has no aggro (damage is needed to get aggro outside of PvP), the next another tanky, and then a pack of glass cannons.

Note that if when running with a pack of glass cannons you just set yourself as a glass cannon with about 500 more armor… you won’t have enough… you will get the aggro, but a glass cannon cannot survive being in that situation.

More on build design:
– A great read for informing on what drives aggro, and how to gain or dump it.
– General warrior design, notes the 2,700 (use the comma if searching the page for the relevant part, not 2700). Don’t agree with everything here, but it shows the ‘numbers’ thinking.
– Why armor of 2700 is the pivotal number often talked about.

– I am not a fan of the gw2guru community. The gw/gw2 guru community has been the least friendly side of Guild Wars since the days of Guild Wars 1. But some good articles have been posted there. I find the forums are often full of single minded ‘cookie cutter or the highway’ thinking that will accuse anyone not using the ‘build of the month’ of assorted profanity and trolling or what not.
– The debate between vitality or toughness. Seems inconclusive to me. The debate here favors vitality for some classes, toughness for others -but not all agree on where the cut lies.

Previewing your build ideas: – This is my favorite editor as it has a very easy to use interface. Sadly they keep no database of builds made by people (that I have found), but you can make links to your builds to share with people.


5 thoughts on “Build Theory: How to be Tanky but not a Tank in Guild Wars 2

  1. Pingback: Profession Build: Skirmishing Hardy Ranger | Kichwas

  2. Love what you wrote, I’ve been torn between everyone talking about dps and tanking and i didn’t realize that there was an even better option in the middle. Keep it up i’ll be looking through your blog more often.

  3. Pingback: Thief Build: The Bandito – Bruiser | Kichwas

  4. Pingback: Elementalist Build: Building a better Gandalf | Kichwas

  5. Came here looking for a touch more ability to survive in dungeons (have open world mastered) and was amazed at how similar our builds are (with a few play style tweaks.)

    Your blog has shown me a few tips and tricks to help me survive and also gave me some new ideas that follow your line of thought but are not used by you. I will be getting back with you as I try some of them out. Kuddos.

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