Last updated: 03/14/08, patch 2.3.3.
There are two extremes to the way people interpret game mechanics:
- There are those who rely solely on their personal experiences in game as a means of determining how they play the game.
- Then there are those who research (through internet forums and other means) how to get the best benefit out of their character and play according to the math.
Theorycraft is the art of looking to the middle of those two extremes. It is knowing what is mathematically best and being able to maximize that within the context of actual gameplay.
Here is an example that I see come up often with priests:
A priest new to using the spell Shackle Undead in instances may notice that it will occasionally break early, sometimes a matter of seconds after being cast. The player then develops the habit of reshackling the mob after every few seconds as a means of trying to limit the spell from breaking early.
In this case, the player’s lack of understanding of the concept of spell hit led them to develop a habit wasteful of mana and not actually preventative. Their personal experiences led them to believe one thing, and no research was done as to understand why the shackle would break early.
Here is a common example of the other extreme:
Shadow priests have this great spell called Vampiric Embrace. It heals party members for a percent of the shadow damage that the priest does. In instances and raids, many people insist that it should be cast all the time, as to maximize utility done by the shadow priest.
This is a example (albeit basic) of theory ruling over practicality. It is rare that a shadow priest will be able to keep Vampiric Embrace up all the time due to threat issues, especially in entry-level raids when priests tend to out-gear tanks significantly (due to their nifty crafted tailoring gear). With constant application of VE, they will sometimes pull aggro or will have to hold back their DPS (and, hence, mana regen through VT) to avoid aggro. With enough play time, a shadow priest should learn when this spell can be safely used and when to hold off.
In both the above cases, quality of gameplay was sacrificed due to the player being misinformed or misunderstanding. Even though intentions were good, the intended results were missed: spam shackling doesn’t prevent the shackle from breaking early, and VE doesn’t necessarily maximize the shadow priest’s utility.
Brand new players tend to rely mostly on their personal experiences as their source of game knowledge. This is okay! When you are new to a game, you learn by playing it. You shouldn’t have to spend hours researching before jumping in. You shouldn’t need to read up on how to kill level 6 boars, either. However, there comes a point when it pays to spend a bit of time understanding the various game mechanics and learning how to maximize your potential (and not just in the context of instancing/raiding, either. It pays to be able to solo mobs faster, PvP better, etc.). Understanding how the game works allows you to make informed decisions about stats, talents, spell casting, and more.
The best source for learning about the game are forums. They provide information and a way to ask questions. Check out your class-specific forums on WorldofWarcraft.com. Non-official forums, like Shadowpriest.com and the Elitist Jerk forums, are fantastic resources as well (and tend have more constructive and insightful posts than the WoW class forums). Read the stickied posts. Ask some questions. (Do use caution when reading WoWwiki.com, WoWInsider, and various blogs. Oftentimes the information isn’t reliable, is a matter of opinion, or is out of date.)
Theorycraft isn’t just about having memorized spells, stats, mechanics, and talents. Acquiring the knowledge is only the first step. For instance, you might read that stacking spell damage is the best way to increase your DPS, but practical play experience will quickly show you that if you sacrifice too much stamina in the process you won’t live to DPS through the encounter.Theorycraft is about knowing how various mechanics affect each other, and being able to make good judgment calls depending on the situation. As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect”, and while in a dynamic game like WoW you will neve be able to hit “perfect” status, a more appropriate phrase may be: “practice makes improvements”. You can only truly learn to be better by applying your knowledge. Go out there and test some things for yourself. Don’t be afraid to make a few mistakes proving that things really are the way you read them to be.
The acquisition of knowledge can make a mediocre player into a good one. The ability to apply the knowledge makes a good player a great one. That is what theorycraft is.
A final note: I enjoy that World of Warcraft is a game with various dynamics and mechanics. It keeps the game from being too one-dimensional. However, I do regret that there is so much work that has to go in to truly understanding these mechanics. The most frustrating thing for me is how little information Blizzard actually gives us about certain things (such as threat and resistances). Our knowledge in many areas are the products of extensive player testing, and can change at any time, without notice.
- Schools of Magic and Spell Lines
- Spirit, MP5 and Mana Regeneration
- Spell Hit, Spell Penetration, and Resistances
- Spell Resistance as a Defensive Stat
- Spell Haste