Something is amiss in druid land. Although balance and resto druids seem to be doing ok (which isn't the same as saying they're perfectly fine), something doesn't feel right about feral druids at the moment. My relationship to druids has always been characterized by a dichotomic attitude. On one hand I love the idea of being a little bit of everything, and the reason my first main was a druid was because I wanted to be able to bring everything to a group - be the jack of all trades. On the other hand, I quickly learned that Blizzard didn't seem to be certain themselves how they wanted druids to be these jack of all trades. At first, druids did a little bit of everything, just not as good as everyone else. That turned out to be a bad idea, because having someone who was a little less good at everything, but that could fill every role turned out to be a lot less valuable than just bringing "the real deal" to the group. Back in Vanilla, balance and feral druids were hardly ever heard of, only as some for fun out of instance and raid specs. So Blizzard started designing the various trees to actually be able to stand alone, giving restos their tree form and balance their chicken form. But while they focused their efforts into making the balance trees and resto trees into real healing and dps trees, feral druids got stuck in their Pinocchio shape, and never really got turned into real classes. Although Blizzard have actually adressed a lot of the things I was whining about before, I somehow feel like bears have returned to the role they had in Vanilla - doing the same thing, only not as good. Why do I say this? Let me see if I can explain.
My frustration with bears has a long history and I'll admit that it might be completely personal and not founded in any real issues with bears. I like bear tanking the least, so that I wouldn't even put it on my top 4 list, eventhough there are only 4 tank classes. It would be 1. DK, 2. Warrior, 3. Paladin, 15. Druid. But that doesn't have to mean anything. I don't enjoy rogues either, and there isn't anything majorly wrong about them just because I don't like playing them (but I bet I'm going to hear I'm wrong about that ;)). My aversion towards bear tanking (which are based on reasons I'll get to in a moment) have given me a general distrust towards bear tanks however. In raids I just don't like having to heal a feral bear as much as I like healing the other classes. In instances that becomes even more of a problem, when paladins and dks can basically take care of themselves, and warriors ... well warriors at least are good raid tanks. Bears on the other hand just lack so much. The one thing that I felt made bears better than all the other classes was that they had "free" crit immunity throughout Wrath, something that made less difference in raids but was very welcome in lowie instances. Now, all tank classes have that. Don't get me wrong, my aversion to bears aren't in any way connected to what I may feel to the player who plays it. Love has mained feral bear many times for example.
Bears weren't always the worst of the four. Back in BC when bears had humongous hp-pools, most raids didn't want any other tank. But then they changed it so that bear tanks has about the same hp as all the tanks. The reason bears had more hp and armor than paladins and warriors (no dks back then) was to compensate for the fact that they didn't have block or parry. Instead they used their face as avoidance, taking bigger blows than their fellow tanks, but having more hp to soak it with. When they removed the extra hp, Blizzard still had to figure a way to compensate for the fact that bears still didn't have block or parry, so they introduced Savage Defense. Problem is, SD isn't as good as block and parry. One reason most holydins dislike their mastery at the moment is because if a bigger shield procs, it will replace a smaller, rather than adding to it. Blizzard tried compensating by making the shields bigger overall, but somehow that just doesn't cut it. SD takes this one step further since it must actively be applied through crits, meaning it's not passive like parry, dodge and block. Also, any shield will replace an old one, whether it be smaller or bigger. They've at least changed it so that shields will be fully soaked before going away, previously any attack, no matter how small, would remove a shield. That way, an attack of 1 damage could remove a shield worth 30k absorb. But that's a small comfort for a skill that still has a lot of issues surrounding it. Eventhough I don't want to paint the devil on the wall, as we say in sweden, there is still a difference between how much damage bear tanks take and how much damage every other class takes. The harder the boss hits, the bigger the difference. And that's not the only problem with bear tanking at the moment.
The problem about bear tanking is the fact that you have to be a bear. Warriors had long suffered under the fact that they had to use different stances to be able to access all their skills. In Vanilla, stance dancing was standard procedure for warrior tanks, having to switch between stances to be able to charge and gain access to other useful tanking tools. Warriors started pointing to paladins and asking why they didn't have to go through all that trouble. So Blizzard thought - "Hmm, maybe we shouldn't make it so troublesome for warriors to use those tanking tools" and made loads of previously out of range tools available in defensive stance. But for some reason they forgot about the bears. Bears are currently the only tank class that has to drop their tanking abilities to gain access to some utility. Innervate, Rebirth and Tranquility are currently all out of reach for the tanking bear. As comparison, Dks just got a combat res, which they can use in any stance, warriors got a raid cooldown (Rallying Cry) which they can use in any stance and protadins have a special raid cooldown that is available to them when they're tanking. Paladins can also shield fellow party members and use some (albeit mediocre) group healing if needed (LoH, Wog and Holy Radiance). Bears are now the only tank class limited solely to tanking, without being able to bring any utility to the group. This makes it feel like a waste of druid potential to use them for tanking, when they could've been healer/dpser and have free access to all those utility tools.
Sadly, the best way to use a feral druid right now is having them go hero bear. It's ironic that what bring bears down are that they excell over the other tanks in being able to quickly and efficiently swap between dpsing and decent tanking, since in a sense that is exactly what druids should be all about. But it also means that people don't want to bring players who love to just tank or dps with their druids. Here is something mentioned by Sunnier at A Sunnier Bear as an anecdote, but it exactly describes the problem;
'I spend about half my progression raids as cat, half as bear. While I think part of this is due to my guild's Divine Guardian guilt ("we really like bears, but Divine Guardian is just so overpowered that we're forced to use two paladin tanks; here, have a dps cookie"), it's unmistakeable that bears bring the best off tank dps around'
When hardcore raid guilds don't want feral druids it doesn't mean that we have to care, but it still means that there are reasons not to choose feral druids, or no reasons to choose them - and that's not how it should be. Currently, bears don't have any edge towards the other tank classes as long as they're main tanking, and as Rax of Raid Trauma asks us - why bring someone you don't need? One of our main tanks is a feral druid, and our guild will bring him any day of course. But there is still no denying that he is more useful to us as an off tank rather than the main tank, and that feral druids have problems competing with other tanks for the MT spots. Should we accept that that is the role Blizzard have designed for bears? That maybe that is the only way to play a bear druid? That maybe it shouldn't be seen as something hampering, but rather as something that sets feral druids out as special compared to other tanks?
If not, the solution to the problem is actually rather simple. Just make bears work like any other tank class, giving them access to all or some of their utility tools while still being in bear form, and using rage as resource instead. Rebirth = 50 rage, Tranquility = 70 rage, Innervate = 40 rage, just to throw a suggestion out there.