By Phosphor (with special thanks to Bastion, our first shield healer)
Last updated: 7/31/23
I've seen a number of people struggle with learning how to heal, so instead of replying to everyone individually, I thought I'd do a central writeup on the basics.
This guide will NOT give you a one-size-fits-all healing rotation, go into the details of your opener, discuss the nuances of every individual button, or make you Ultimates Ready, or whatever. It's a very basic 101 for people who are totally new. If you want the non-101 stuff, consult the Balance's guides.
As a healer in FFXIV, you have three tasks, in order of importance:
Hopefully you're familiar with the first one from playing other jobs! Let's take a closer look at the others.
First, here are some things to know about how damage in FFXIV works.
(The above applies mostly to boss battles. Wall to wall trash pulls in dungeons are special and will get their own section.)
Now, what does this mean for you?
It means that as long as you know which attacks will result in unavoidable damage and which won't, you do not have to immediately heal every scratch or scrape. You can wait until unavoidable damage is going to happen, and top people off before it does.
(This is especially true if you're, say, playing AST instead of WHM. WHM likes to heal people in big immediate bursts and lends itself well to filling people up right after they take damage, but AST prefers regen and delayed burst heals instead, gradually refilling health in time for the next mechanic.)
That being said, there are situations in which you might want to heal people up even if the next mechanic is just avoidable damage:
Likewise, it means that you do not have to stand around waiting for damage to happen. You're given plenty of time to react and plenty of tools to react with. You can (and should!) attack in your downtime if people are healed up and not taking damage. It might be scary, especially if you're coming from healing in other games where damage is faster and more random, but the only way to break yourself of the fear is to try anyway.
(This is also relevant to a degree to WHM and AST, as they do have some amount of mitigation that is still important in higher-end content!)
Shield healing operates on a slightly different philosophy than pure healing - this is especially noticeable when you're the only healer available. Fundamentally, healing is about making sure a bar never reaches zero. Pure healers (WHM and AST) do this by filling the bar back up whenever it goes down. Shield healers, meanwhile, do this not just by filling the bar back up, but by controlling the rate at which the bar goes down. They do this by applying shields and damage-reducing buffs.
For you, being able to predict what's going to happen is doubly important. Compared to the pure healers, your ability to restore lost health is significantly weaker, and you suffer more if you run out of resources (Addersgall for SGE, Aetherflow for SCH). You more than make up for it with your shields and buffs, but these are effective when applied before the damage hits.
(This does, unfortunately, also mean that you are at your best when the party is at their best. No amount of shielding can save someone who keeps collecting vuln stacks, and having to heal all that extra damage taxes your resources something fierce. You CAN hold together a whole party of newbies through E5N or the like as a shield healer, but you will have a much rougher time than a WHM. Just remember: avoiding avoidable damage is everyone's responsibility.)
If you're unsure how much mitigation to stack on people before the damage goes out, my personal rule of thumb is that I don't want to make my cohealer's presence completely obsolete, but I do want to eat enough of the damage for them that they have to do less work, whether that means the WHM/AST presses one button fewer, or the other SGE/SCH doesn't have to burn an extra resource on health restoration. You'll get a feel for it through practice.
...and of course, you could always become an omnihealer for the comprehensive experience! (For legal reasons, this is a joke.) (Maybe.)
If it's just one person who goes down, you can pick them up immediately by using Swiftcast and then Raise (or whatever your job's equivalent is called). Otherwise, you can hardcast Raise to pick them up, but don't do so if it puts you or others at risk.
For more details, including what to do if things go absolutely tits up and over half your party is dead, please see my healer triaging guide.
If you're coming from other games where damage is a lot more unpredictable and healers actually do nothing but heal, you might find this a baffling concept. But in FFXIV, where damage is steady and predictable outside of player mistakes, there's not only no reason not to do damage when people aren't in need of healing, the game is balanced around it. There are cases where if you, the healer, do not contribute damage, the boss will hit their enrage and kill everyone. This is more prevalent in high-end content, but I've had some close calls even in normal content!
So, while it may be scary, it's something you should get used to sooner than later. (In JoCat's words: "Remember, DPSing is just mitigating future damage.")
Optimizing your damage output is a whole other guide, but here are some general tips.
First: almost every skill in FFXIV is one of two types. It's either on the global cooldown (aka a "GCD") or off the global cooldown (aka an "oGCD").
What's the global cooldown? You'll notice that for a number of your skills, like your basic attack and healing spells, using them will cause it and a bunch of other skills to display the grayed-out cooldown wheel, and you can't use them until it's gone. That's the global cooldown, and the skills that are affected by it are GCDs. For most of your spells, the global cooldown will be slightly longer than your actual cast time, meaning that there'll be a second or so between when you've finished casting your spell and when you can cast it (or any other GCD) again.
Now, you'll also notice that there are some skills which are unaffected by the global cooldown. You can use them any time they're available, even if the global cooldown is spinning. Those skills are oGCDs.
(Bonus tip for telling GCDs and oGCDs apart: in the tooltips that appear when you hover over a skill, GCDs are usually labeled "Weaponskill" or "Spell", and oGCDs are usually labeled "Ability".)
This leads us to the first fundamental: always be casting. You should be using GCD skills whenever possible, and your global cooldown should be spinning constantly. If nothing is forcing you to stop, there is no reason to not be casting. You should also sneak in oGCDs in-between your GCD casts, while the global cooldown is still spinning, in the small window between when you've finished casting and when the global cooldown goes away. You'll hear people refer to this as "weaving."
(If you have to stop casting now and then to do a mechanic, that's fine. High-End Play(tm) will have you doing things like using instant cast GCDs and prepositioning to minimize this, but if you're new, don't stress about it. Remember: you cannot heal or do damage if you are dead.)
If you're optimizing for damage, you'll want to minimize your use of GCD heals. This is because every GCD spent healing is a GCD spent not doing damage. You'll instead be using oGCD heals where possible so that you can spend as many GCDs as possible on damage. (WHM after level 77 is an interesting exception: their lily-based GCD heals "refund" them in the form of charging up an attack that does multiple global cooldowns worth of their basic attack spell.)
That being said, optimizing your damage as a healer is very much a 201 level concept, and even in high-end content you will be pressing GCD heals now and then. Keeping people from dying is still a higher priority for you than doing damage. A DPS dying and taking the damage down penalty is a much more significant DPS loss than you missing a few GCDs. If in doubt, err on the side of healing.
A wall-to-wall pull is when a tank literally runs forward in a dungeon until they can't anymore, grabbing every group of enemies (aka "packs") along the way. The healer and tank then work together to keep the tank alive under a tremendous amount of incoming damage, while the DPS unload everything they've got to burn all twelve or so enemies down at once. It's very common in dungeon groups that you'll pick up via Duty Finder, and is the norm at endgame.
That being said, it is always okay to ask the party to go slow. I've found that two packs at a time is usually the sweet spot, where a single pack is kinda "why am I even here" and three begins to verge on "oh shit oh fuck oh heck." However, it's still okay to ask them to go one pack at a time, especially if you're new. Wall-to-wall pulls are not faster if people die.
If you are going to heal a wall-to-wall, keep the dungeon's layout in mind. Post-ARR, most dungeons will consist of three bosses, with two sections before each boss. Each section will have 2-3 (sometimes 4!) packs that need to be killed before the path to the next section will open. You do not want to blow all of your most powerful skills on the first pull if you can help it. Instead, you'll want to ration them out so that you have a big skill or two available for each pull, letting them recharge in time for a future one.
As for how to ration, it's something that you'll pick up through practice. I've personally found that at endgame, in a group where the tank and DPS are on point, I'll usually use one or two long-cooldown skills, along with a smattering of smaller cooldowns that'll recharge by the time we get to the next pull. (Here, I classify "smaller" as 60 seconds or fewer, and "long" as 120 seconds or more, with anything in-between that being context-dependent.) That being said, this changes depending on the dungeon and the skill of the party!
Err on the side of overhealing when you heal wall-to-walls. Big dungeon pulls are easily the most damage over the longest period of time that you will see a tank take, especially in normal content. Use that big cooldown skill you were planning on saving if the tank's gonna die. Cast a bunch of GCD heals if you need to - if that's what it takes, then that's what it takes! And if you're a shield healer, remember that you have a much harder time restoring health than the pure healers, and pop your shields and mitigations as soon as the tank stops. Even as a pure healer, do not underestimate how fast the tank's health will drop. Use the few mitigations you have early and frequently, and unless you've got an ace in the pocket like Benediction, don't wait until the tank is at 10% health to begin healing them. (And even if you have Benediction, beware the server ticks!)
Finally, remember that this is a collaborative effort between you and the rest of the party. If your tank is pulling wall-to-wall and not pressing any of their mitigations, of course their health is going to evaporate faster than you can restore it. If your tank pulls wall-to-wall and your DPS twiddle their thumbs, attacking one target at a time instead of using their AoEs, of course you and the tank are going to run out of resources and lose the war of attrition. You can still salvage these kinds of groups if you're unlucky enough to land in one, but don't be hard on yourself if you can't.
If you're nervous, you can always use Duty Support to enter a dungeon with NPCs and practice there. It's janky because you'll have to run ahead of the tank and do extra pulls yourself, and the DPS only attack one enemy at a time, but if you can heal multiple-pack pulls with Duty Support, you can heal multiple-pack pulls with the majority of players. (The outliers are those with tanks who don't use mitigations and DPS who don't DPS, and as previously mentioned, this kind of thing is a group effort.)
Healing is rewarding, but it's a big shift from DPS and tanking. There's a lot to absorb here, so don't be afraid to take it slow and focus on one thing at a time. Be kind to yourself if shit happens, dust yourself off, and try again. Nothing was lost except some time.