Thanks for posting, Zax.
I know this is an old entry but I also see this problem, that the breaking point, when an amount of AP is on par with mitigation from an amout of agi/armour, is pretty low. What would certainly help this issue is a possibility to stack SD.
So e.g. lower SD to 15% of AP. Then implement:
Nurturing instinct 2/2 AND Natural Shapeshifter 3/3 - in bear SD can stack up to 2 times, in cat you can proc SD with 30s CD with the basic 15% value, while those 10% are reflected back (subject to critical attack chance ArP and armour mitigation, can't be dodged etc.).
If you have both talents, then it's up to 3 times for bear and 15 CD for cat and with 25% AP value.
The choice of talents, values etc. was just an example, but the point is the should be a way how you can improve this ability from talents.
The hard luck is that Blizz doesn't care about ferals and doesn't give a damn about feral tank and feral cat itemization. I just hate seeing feral set with AP, where should appropriate amount of strength. But this list could be endless x).
I do think that there is definitely some degree of truth to this. I've written before about how bears use rogue leather, hunter weapons and plate tanking jewelry, and that's still the case. Because of the changes to how armor is done, there's no 'wow' stat that says "I'm a feral" item on it.
Conversely, I don't feel it's true for cats. Cats have been designed well to do well with most of the stats rogues want (though not with the same scaling on each stat) combined with doing well with the stats on hunter weapons and the occasional DK weapon. Cat itemization is better than it's ever been both from the perspective of choice and the perspective of things being designed with ferals in mind. That we continue to have debates about whether agility or armor pen is the best stat is a good indication of this - if there are two stats that can compete for best, it's a sign that the spec is fairly healthy. Furthermore, no dps stat is truly worthless any more.
But still, we have bears and their annoying itemization. I ask you - is that all that problematic? I recognize that the feeling can be sometimes upsetting (side note: why are ferals so emo?) and it doesn't feel good to be getting weird scraps of gear to get things to work. It doesn't feel like your class is finely designed and tuned; it feels like afterthoughts.
But in terms of actually getting things done, bears are in a better position than almost any time in their history (save possibly the end of T6, when they were stupid good). And if you take one thing away, take this away:
As long as bears have the highest armor of all tanking classes and the highest potential health of all tanking classes, they will remain a solid choice for the majority of tanking encounters.
There are going to be gimmick fights where certain things benefit one tank over another. Cooldown usage in Ulduar and Sarth3D, BoPs on heroic Beasts, being unhittable on the adds on Anub'arak, lots of blocking and avoidance on Algalon, AoE threat, burst threat - all of these can favor one tank or another here and there. But in general, having super high health and the highest armor (and more accurately, the highest overall mitigation) will make druids always competitive in tanking.
And with the way blizzard is choosing to do their itemization for bears, this will stay this way. As I talked about in the right way to nerf bear stam went, as long as gems, enchants and buffs scale with the bear multiplier bears are going to have stupid health. Armor is going to also have an advantage due to agility and having higher armor per tier than the other tanks by a small margin (about 100-200 per tier). Keeping protector of the pack means bears will have close to the same consistent amount of base mitigation too. So for the foreseeable future, as long as encounters do not emphasize high avoidance, high threat, or large cooldown requirements bears will do well.
Now, it's reasonable to fear that encounters WILL have those things. But even so, falling back on effective health and mitigation is not the worst thing in the world here, and should result in bears being competitive if not optimal.
Savage defense is basically an afterthought here. I'd honestly like to see it entirely removed and replaced with something more functional and less kludgy. It does do its job, but it's unintuitive, hard to model, hard to predict and rely on, and tends to just be a pain. Like Zax mentioned, making it stronger would also be a good choice. It's curious to think about what it's going to be like when block gets so radically changed.
On a less theory/QQ note, Bears have quite a few advantages going into ToC that I've not seen talked about, especially on hard modes. For starters, their damage output is very strong. Their cooldowns work well with Heroic Beasts (barkskin is available on every tank swap and every worm swap), bears are awesome on faction champs, the high health and damage multipliers on Twins makes them keep threat well and combined with mobility, make them a good choice.
And then there's Anub'arak. I'm talking heroic, mind you. Normal mode is easy enough (not easy, just easy enough) that any tank works fine.
Anub'arak's adds are problematic for a feral. They don't have the interrupts of a warrior, so they can't stop Shadow Strike nearly as easily. They don't have the blocking capabilities of a warrior or paladin, so they'll end up taking a lot of damage. Add tanking is somewhat problematic.
But tanking Anub? Oh, it's great. For starters, barkskin is usable while stunned, meaning that on some of the freezing slashes you can have 20% less damage taken; no other tank can reasonably do this. Oddly enough health kind of sucks to have here; you need to be topped off but want to have as little health as you can possibly afford to due to how leeching swarm works. So you'd think that bears would suck, right? Take away that health advantage and what do they have?
Well, they have superior armor. Armor helps where blocking does not, on those freezing slashes (where avoidance is 0) and in general. If you stack things like Defender's Code and The Black Heart you can get quite a lot of mileage out of having lower health, and Glyph of Indomitability is better still.
They also have much more flexible gearing choices. If you want to drop most of that tanking gear for DPS gear with more avoidance (particularly if you're using agility instead of arpen) you can without unduly hurting your chances. But more importantly, they can easily go with resistance gear.
Why resistance gear? Well, frost damage is part of it, but the big win is Nature Resistance. Leeching Swarm is completely resistable, and as the main tank you will be kept at 100% health most of the fight. That's a lot of healing done to Anub'arak. For our 10-man heroic attempts, I was somewhere between 25 and 30% of the overall healing to Anub'arak.
So what if we go for nature resistance? If we go for a head enchant and cloak enchant, still have leatherworking as our profession and go for the bracer enchant, choose the lesser flask of resistance as our flask and go with a nature resist totem, we can get to 295 total resistance. That's not quite enough to make sure we resist 30% or more, but we don't care about that here; we care about average resistance, and the average would be around 38%.
38% resisting of 30% of the healing corresponds to about 10% less healing done. Basically, by wearing that gear you're contributing your very own mortal strike debuff, albeit a weaker one. And you're taking less damage while not having a ton of stam.
Other tanks can do this, but bears do it best. They can easily remain uncrittable regardless of gear. They can usually maintain a high amount of health while doing this due to how they scale with those health benefits. Most plate tanks aren't leatherworkers; being a leatherworker adds 6% resistance by itself. Losing the flask doesn't hurt that much either compared due to the high health as well.
This was one part of the strategy that we came up with on our Heroic Anub'arak kill, and the overall strategy worked really well; we killed him after 4 tries, getting A tribute to Mad Skill. We had thought about doing it before, but seeing that Premonition did this as well for their bear (Melaar) on 25-man heroic really brought it home. Reducing his healing by 20% meant that we spent the same amount of time in the leeching phase with our dps, but did 6% more overall damage in less time. Part of that was some gear upgrades, but a lot of it was that he healed for 300k less in that time. That's a big difference.
So yeah, you might feel like Blizzard doesn't care about you, Zax, and they don't care about the bear. But that same lack of caring works to your advantage if you think about what your options are.