Getting Into Theorycrafting

January 15, 2014

The idea for this post came from a Twitter discussion between myself, Poneria (author of the Warlock column on WoW Insider), Dayani (author of Healiocentric), and Theck (author of Sacred Duty) about how someone should start theorycrafting. Something that was brought up is that noobie theorycrafters find it far too daunting of a hobby to get into. So I thought I’d share with you how I got started, and maybe you can take some inspiration from it.

In an Expansion Far Far Away….

Some (or most) of you may not actually know this, but I only started seriously “theorycrafting” at the tail end of Wrath. As you may or may not remember when the pre-Cataclysm patch hit, Swipe was doing basically no damage. It was actually causing some pretty significant problems for Bear tanks (including myself) that were still dallying around in ICC. I looked around the on the forums, and didn’t see anything that would explain why this had started happening. Since nobody else appeared to be doing anything, I took it upon myself to do some digging. Back then I didn’t do any sort of empirical evidence gathering – or turn out to be right even – I did dig deep enough to get a response from a Blizzard CM. That got me noticed by a couple people you might know. Reesi and Fasc.

I had gotten a taste of what it felt like to be recognized…..and to be honest I liked it. I wanted to pursue it a bit further. So naturally the first step was to learn more about combat mechanics. I had a bit of an understanding based on the years of experience already playing the game. I knew what the various stats did but I didn’t really study them in great detail. So I took the next step.


I took Fasc’s spreadsheet (at the time) and started playing with it. I learned what each of the stats did, how they interacted, coefficients, ratios, the list goes on. This knowledge helped me find defects in the spreadsheet and help Fasc fix them. Not only that, but once I understood how Armor worked, I moved on to what would be my first serious bit of theorycrafting.

Back in Catactlysm beta Astrylian had started a thread on EJ for basic storage and updating of Guardian information. During Cataclysm beta it quickly became evident that this information was not being kept up-to-date. I found that abilities were not doing the amount of damage they should’ve been doing, at least according to the listed AP coefficients. Since Astrylian was no longer updating his post, I decided that I might as well start doing tests myself. This lead to what is now known as the DPS/TPS Spreadsheet which you can find in the menu above. Not only that, but it would also lead to determining what the ideal DPS rotation was for Bears in both Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria. Tangedyn and Yawning would go on to use this information in Mew, and most recently Pawkets has been using it to keep SimC updated.

None of that would’ve happened if I didn’t first take the time to learn WoW’s combat system, and how it affected my class. Pretty much all of that information is available somewhere on the internet nowadays for your particular class and spec. A quick Google search is usually all you need to get started.

It’s All About Accuracy

One of the things that will make or break a serious attempt at theorycrafting is accuracy. I’ve previously mentioned that my first attempt wasn’t even remotely accurate, primarily because there was no practical way to gather the data to make a diagnosis. For most of you out there, this is not the case. There aren’t any ambiguous mysteries left in this game, and any that are introduced are swiftly clarified by Blizzard themselves. Therefore it comes down to making sure that the data you’re presenting is actually accurate. The two methods that I use the most to ensure accuracy are In-Game Experimentation and Peer Review.

In-game experimentation is actually relatively simple, and usually involves things like target dummies. For example the method of verifying the AP ratio on a physical attack reduced by Armor:

  1. Strip all gear and buffs.
  2. Use the ability on one of the respawning target dummies in a starting area (I used Stormwind). These dummies have 0 armor – verified by testing for a difference in damage between a dummy affected by Weakened Armor and one that wasn’t).
  3. Add various levels of gear and repest (2).
  4. Compile the results and determine the slope. This is your AP modifier.
  5. Check the slope by calculating the damage value from AP at various levels of gear. If all have the same base damage, you have the correct slope and your damage equation.

Of course, when you’re presenting your information it’s a general rule that you will include your data and your methods so that they can be replicated by others. That way they’ll know you’re right.

Peer review is the act of asking someone to look over your work. For the information I compiled on trinkets in ToT, I asked Theck and Hamlet to look over it to make sure I had done it right. Since they were the ones that did the original proofs (one of them even at my request – remember Talisman of Bloodlust?), it made sense to ask them for a little help. It’s worth pointing out that asking someone in private – in game or a DM over Twitter – is much different than doing it publicly. Most theorycrafters are actually quite nice, and are very willing to help out when asked. However when you do ask for peer review, don’t harass the person you’re asking. We’re typically a very busy bunch. Here’s a general overview of the projects I have going on right now:

  • Writing Blog Posts for TiB
  • Hosting, Scheduling, and Recording TWP
  • Moderating and Responding to TiB Forums
  • Checking in on the Official, MMOC, Icy-Veins, and EJ Forums
  • Running a Heroic 10m Raid Team
  • Creating Video Guides
  • Streaming

And that’s just the WoW related stuff. We’re very busy people. Nice, but busy. We’re happy to help, but if you ask us you can’t harass us to get it done for you. If you don’t hear anything in a week or so, it’s fine to just check in and see how things are going. But if you nag us daily or something else equally ridiculous, you will swiftly become ignored.

Remember if you want anyone to take you seriously – be it your audience or someone reviewing your work – you must be professional.


  • Theck says:

    You’re going to have to show me where these 0-armor dummies are; I generally end up using the raid dummies with known armor values, but a zero-armor dummy would be useful.

    • Arielle Arielle says:

      The ones that re-spawn inside of Northshire Abbey. I haven’t been able to find similar ones anywhere else.

  • Hamlet says:

    The only caveat here is that empirically measuring spellpower/AP coefficients is not the foundational skill it used to be, mostly due to Wowhead (or more specifically, to the fact that coefficient info now lives in a place in the game data where Wowhead can see it). I know you posted on it since Slowpoker mentioned in our twitter talk that that’s something she wanted to know, but it’s worth saying anyway. Long sessions of trying out spells at different SP levels, taking the slopes, and backing out talents and other bonuses, to finally get a coefficient aren’t something I’ve had to do in quite a while.

    You still have to be able to check in-game for a few reasons–verification that there aren’t hidden or confusing mechanics, or making sure you’re taking all relevant bonuses into account. But very often it amounts to a sanity check. I look here: , I see what my tick size should be at my current SP, I add in Naturalist/Harmony, I check in-game that it matches. Then I know I’m not missing anything. So overall the things described here are good, since you need to understand all that stuff, but the “wet work” of taking coefficient data in-game mostly doesn’t need to be done by hand anymore.

    • Arielle Arielle says:

      Oh, I totally agree. Once the change was made to include the TTs in the spelldata that methodology became completely irrelevant. I simply included it as an example of something that can be tested with experiments in-game.

      In terms of current-state, a better example would be verifying RPPM uptimes or proc rates. But that’s just a matter of going /afk at a target dummy for a period of time and having the log parsed.

    • Hamlet says:

      (reply here since I can’t seem to reply to Arielle)

      That’s a good example too since detailed knowledge helps make testing a lot easier. You can test RPPM uptime by taking a long log of continuous attacks and backsolving the proc rate (which incidentally required correcting for things like USP, which is tricky). This is why I try to make posts like this that walk people through the math:

      But it can also be helpful to that RPPM chance pools up to 10 seconds. So if your RPPM rate is X, and you haven’t attacked for 10 seconds, your probably of proc on the next swing is X/6. So a collection of single hits separated by 10 seconds (or slightly more) is an easy way to get a probability estimate.

      Of course, worth mentioning that RPPM info is _also_ on wowhead anyway :P
      (including spec-specific modifiers)

  • Hinalover says:

    Even SimC’s DBC has the AP co-effient in the Spell Data information of the DBC or the SP co-effient in the Spell Effection section of the co-efficient. But for someone new to the theorycrafting scene, just using Wowhead is generally a good place to start.

  • says:

    I am afraid that I am not even close to being a mathematician and the idea of trying to calculate complex math formulae is daunting.I do try and study my stats, read various websites and experiment with rotations to try and increase my effectiveness.
    Is there a way I can do this without being Einstein? Any help/comments appreciated.

    • Arielle Arielle says:

      Most of the stuff involved in WoW isn’t more complicated than linear algebra. Most people struggle with figuring out how an individual stat affects a given ability or class mechanic. Since each class – or spec even – is different, I usually try to analogue a given mechanic to a word problem and solve it from there.

      There isn’t any one specific way to get started. Just remember that anything involving calculus can usually be easily approximated with something much simpler, except in rare cases like RPPM.

  • says:

    Thanks Arielle! I will take a different approach now and see if I can come up with anything meaningful. Again thanks for your time :)

    Wú (Nagrand – EU)

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