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The tank in World of Warcraft - Protection spec Warriors, Feral Druids, Protection Paladins, and Death Knights - are an at once seen as both a role of finesse and yet simplicity. The tank is the 'bravest' of the group; they literally stick their nose into the face of danger and laugh at it, all while getting their heads bashed in repeatedly.
They are at once the target of an enemy's hate and yet strangely unlike the rest of the party doesn't crumple inward like a weak fence but hold up like a fortified wall. A tank basically tempts fate, lasting as long as a healer can keep up with their damage - or as fast as their damage dealers can dish it out.
But tanking in World of Warcraft isn't a walk in the park. Tanks fulfill in most parties three main roles, each that can at times tax the most patent of players. But if pulled off, each role can become personally fulfilling and land a great tank lots of group invites.
The tank as the meat shield.
At the most basic of definitions, a tank is a meat shield. Tanks are built for endurance not for dps nor have many abilities that heal; the few abilities that do are temporary stop gaps in case the healers need wiggle room. As the group meat shield, a tank is at its best when they have high defense and a decent amount of health.
A tank will at times be sitting, bashing away at the knees of a boss for over 10 minutes. In another instance a tank will be 'dancing' around a mob, positing and moving them around constantly for the benefit of the group (or their own health). And in other instances a tank may be too far for a heal, or the heals may be unavailable due to a boss mechanic. A tank must be able to endure such events as the group depends on their survival. If they die, the group might as well be dead.
The tank as leader.
As a tank faces down mobs and bosses, it would make sense for said tank to be in control of the pulling and positioning of a mob. Having anyone else pull the mob means threat is generated onto that person and not the tank (unless it's a hunter misdirect) and that there is a high risk that the non tank puller can die from the mob deciding to bash them to a pulp.
This usually requires the tank to take the lead, working around tricky pulls, waiting for the right timing to pull patrolling mobs, and to work out mob/boss positioning. This adds the tag of tactician to a tank as many pulls especially in higher level dungeons are very tricky.
The tank in doing pulls sets the pace of the group as a whole: the speed of the pulls and the amount of mobs pulled at once sits solely on what the tank feels comfortable with. Groups that respect this tend to flow smoothly; groups that do not tend to have a tank overwhelmed, a healer that becomes over taxed in keeping up the tank and as they both fall a group wipe. In other words, trust your tank!
The tank as protector.
Tanks protect the group by doing three things: keeping top threat over the healer, then over the dps, and lastly out surviving the hits from the current target. Healers due to them healing various people generate threat automatically against themselves. But you wouldn't tell the player keeping you alive to stop healing due to this would you? In order for a healer to do their job a tank must generate ample amounts of threat to counter the innate agro they generate.
Couple this with the agro that the dps generate, and the tank now has to not only cover agro from healers but also from 3+ dps. Though in the dps' case, the use of agro wiping abilities and just plain stopping damage periodically can help the tank in this.
But the biggest thing the tank does in protecting the group is to merely survive. A living tank means there is hope that the group will down a boss; as soon as a tank dies a wipe is usually called. A tank is a big brother for the group, the last defense for the group before a mob decides to massacre them all.