Monday, September 17, 2007

Theorycraft vs Trial-and-Error

In response to the previous post, Jason comments:
Hmm what this is showing me is that DPS actually takes a lot more brains and initiative to play well. More than it does to play a tank or healer well. As tank and healer might have results slapped in front of them, so they can correct easily.

The DPS game is more subtle and requires keener observations and more diligent research.

This is not quite true.

(As an aside, I don't really understand why people care if DPS or healing is innately harder or easier. I care if one is unnecessarily harder.)

There are generally 3 ways that people learn to play:

1. Theorycrafting. This means looking at the math behind the game, and extrapolating tactics based on the math.

2. Trial and error. The player tries something new, sees if it works better than the old way, and decides whether to use it or not.

3. Appeal to authority. Get someone who is better to tell you what to do.

The third one inevitably chains back to the first two, so we'll discount it for now.

Of the first two, most people learn through trial and error. As they get new abilities, they try them out, and based on their experiences they use the ability or not.

A few people, though, are theorycrafters. They build mathematical models, and the models imply that certain abilities should be better than others. They test out the abilities and use the results to improve the model.

Certain activities are easier to learn or improve with different strategies. For example, crowd control is generally learned through trial and error. The difference between a good trapper and a poor one is more a matter of practice than theorycraft. Healing is very similar. Theorycraft helps, but the better healers tend to be the ones who heal a lot.

Trial and error requires feedback. Test something, see the result, incorporate the change. If you can't see the result, or if the result is hard to understand, you can't use trial and error to learn something.

So raid DPS is hard to improve if you use trial and error, like most people do. However, doing good raid DPS is relatively simple from a theorycraft point of view. Where the theorycrafters go into their long discussions and crazy math is determining the optimal raid DPS. But you don't need optimal DPS to start with, you just need good DPS.

Here's a general algorithm for doing high DPS:

1. Rank your spells from highest DPS to lowest DPS.
2. Cast the highest DPS spell.
3. If you cannot cast the highest DPS spell again (because of a cooldown), cast the next highest.
4. Repeat steps 2 and 3, going down the list as necessary.

It seems very simple, but following this will provide you with a decent spell rotation for every class. It won't be the optimum rotation, and you might have to drop a spell because it costs too much mana, or does too much threat, or has a really short range. The work comes in ranking your spells correctly. (The main trick here is that when calculating DPS for a non-burst fight, you only look at the cast-time of the spell, not the lifetime of the spell. For direct damage they're the same thing, but not for DoTs.)

This is a good starting algorithm to develop a rotation. After this, you have to consider "enablers" such as Mangle, or Improved Scorch. These are spells which have a lower DPS, but improve spells above them on the DPS chart. Then you have to see if the DPS lost while casting the enabler is made up by the gain on the rest.

And then after that, you have to consider mana costs, which is where it gets complex. But getting a decent DPS rotation is not very hard from a theorycraft point of view. (Getting the single best rotation for a given fight is where the fun lies.)

A very simple example is the Frost mage rotation. If you ranked the spells, it would probably look something like:

1. Summon Water Elemental (3 min/45s cooldown)
2. Ice Lance (against a frozen target)
3. Frostbolt
4. Fireball
5. Ice Lance (against a non-frozen target)

So when looking at the DPS rotation, you go Summon Water Elemental first. Then you can't cast Summon Water Elemental again, so you move down the chart. The boss isn't frozen, so you move down to Frostbolt. You can cast Frostbolt again and again, so you don't go further down the chart. When Summon Water Elemental comes off cool-down, you cast it again.

That's a relatively simple rotation (in the game you should also Cold Snap to reduce the cooldown on the elemental). But the basic principles apply to every class.

So that was a really long post, but it essentially boils down to: raid DPS is easier from a theorycraft point of view; healing is easier from a trial and error point of view; and tanking is a bit of a mixture of the two. The problem is that the majority of people learn using trial and error, not theorycraft.


  1. "(As an aside, I don't really understand why people care if DPS or healing is innately harder or easier. I care if one is unnecessarily harder.)"

    It's only important in reference to the fact that many tanks and healers have a holier-than-thou attitude toward DPS. Since the effects of thier sucesses/failures are more obvious and less subtle, they often mistakenly believe their skill is more critical to the raid. The fact that DPS learning is more subtle and requires greater alerness and study, should help balance this self serving belief.

    That aside, I fully agree with your analysis here. In fact I am going to link to this at my guild site. It provides a pretty logical guide to starting to pick apart your rotations and general dps practices. Good work and well laid out.


  2. As a first comment, I would say that dps and raid dps is a different thing. In a 5 man instance, 3 dps can easily see which one do not deal his share of the damage/control job. In a 25 man raid, with about 15 dps, one bad dps can easily hide in the crowd, and not be aware at all of his bad stats.

    Tools like all dps meters can help you get feedback on that, but that is already a big path towards theorycrafting, as it means you're taking care of your dps, and are probably reading forums and blogs like this one (very nice one btw ^^).

    This "hiding effect" is also true for healers in a big raid, on 6-7 healers, analyse the total heral/overheal after a raid and you'll probably sea that some healers are much better than others. Healing clearly requires skill.

    So yes, when you arrive in the raid part of the game, theorycraft is necessary, most of the time dps is more a matter of designing the right talent tree and spell rotation than a matter of deep skill (as healing more tend to be from my point of view).
    So theorycrafting is hense even more important for dpsers around.

    On a second small point, typical frost mage rotation in a raid boss ight is more something like :

    - opening :
    *wait 5s* !! (high critical rate makes your first spell a potential high aggro, especially if you decide to open with frost bolt, and even your elem can generate about 3-4K aggro in 10s so take care)
    Water Elem - auto shot
    Ice Lance (if tank is still under 3K aggro and if you have the frost debuff talent, as bosses won't be frozen it's not effective for anything else)
    then go to standard

    - standard rotation :
    Forst Bolt, Forst Bolt, Frost Bolt ...
    (add trinkets use according to yours)

    Frost mage isn't that hard, but that's also why theorycraft is needed to get a really good dps with such a "simple" rotation.
    With constant trinkets use, Frost Elem as regularly as you can, and about T4 gear, you can realatively easily achieve a 900-1000 dps range if you put some efforts in your talent tree and take care of what you're doing :)

    frost mage - Suramar EU

  3. I disagree with the concept of trial and error.

    Trial and Error requires several basic conditions to work as a way to learn.

    1) There must be enough trials so that you can learn from your errors.
    2) The trials must be representative of what a kill will be like.

    In an instance, you do 4 bosses within a 2 hour timespan, with each boss requiring a few minutes to kill.

    There is enough of a sample size to improve under these conditions.

    In typical raids, you wipe something like 75% of the time well before even 25-50% HP on the boss, and you only get maybe 10 attempts on a boss in a week.

    So not only do you not get a lot of trials, most of the trials are unrepresentative.

    3) You must know what constitutes an "error."

    One way of discerning errors is through simple DPS meters of which swstats is buggy and recount/recap is not used by enough people. The best stats analyzer, wws, is not easily usable.

    Also, the errors made by dps in a raid setting are often related to making the proper tradeoffs to maximize sustained damage.

    My last point is that trial and error is simply ineffective. People often do not play often or consistently enough to learn from trial and error. Its simply more efficient in the long run to have an intelligent player who knows how to look up information.

    Its not really that hard to theorycraft. If you want quick info, wow-europe forums can provide a lot of what elitistjerks does without all the trash you find in normal wow forums. I can scroll trhough most good forums and find a thread about how maxing +heal and stacking lifeblooms is the best way to heal in raid as a druid, but I'll be damned if I can find more than 1 or 2 druids on my server that actually do this instead of the normal druid healing rotation of cycling hot's and throwing in direct heals as needed.

  4. For me, #3 - Appeal to Authority, is my primary technique. This is a lot harder than just listening to bossy people in your guild or raid, as those people are not necessarily good authorities (though they may be). The real trick is to research and find out what the community authority actually is. If I hear the same advice from several trusted sources, it's time to try it out.

    #2 - Trial and Error is my secondary method, and some hints on how to do that are well demonstrated in this post from Coriel. The reason this is secondary is only due to time limitations. I find this most useful for fine tuning the recommendations I get from the community authority.

    # 1 - Theorycrafting is right out for me. I totally respect the work people do in this area and find it interesting. But I just don't have near enough free time to dive into this field. I recognize the theory crafting is really what drives community understanding, so sit down with the professors, and listen to their findings.

    - Jason

  5. i think defining "skill" might help here.

    SKILL is something that comes with experience, and does not boil down to a formula.

    It generally represents a combination of reaction time, situation awareness, and action selection.

    All DPS rotations boil down an optimal formula based on spec that ANYONE can be instructed to perform. For example, two rogues(one with years of experience and another with a month) with equivalent gear are told to spam sinister strike, then use rupture if rupture isnt applied, SnD otherwise, and evisc if both are up. You tell them which poisons to apply if they are not getting windfury. And explain the boss cleave/aoe/whatever. They WILL perform nearly the same assuming they have never been to this boss before.

    For a healer, you tell them "fill health bars." "anticipate damage" and explain that the boss may use some aoe on party members, or may debuff people. What else can you say? Healing is intuitive. You can tell them to anticipate swing timers on bosses, cancel heals, and all sorts of other things. Main tank healspamming boils down to a harder to execute formula than dps, but raid healing requires far more experience and concentration to do properly, especially in higher end raids. Shade of Aran is a good early example that differentiates good healers from bad, as reactive healing can result in a wipe if a player is targetted repeatedly.

  6. Really in most fights, dps now requires the same quick judgment calls and improvisation, you are describing with healing.

    Aran is a fight where a rogue can pretty much just follow the tried and true formulas the whole fight.

    Not so on Moroes where he might be required to rotate stuns to tank adds. Or on the Prince where he'll have to judge what attacks would maximize dps based on the fact that he may have to leave to run out while enfeebled. Or on Illhoof when he'll need to keep some CDs free for bursting down demonic chains. Other DPS classes have similar switch-ups they might have to worry about and interpret.

    Or there are all the other unexpected things that may happen. Can a rogue he be aware of the tank remaining and have the presence of mind to grab aggro fast and evasion tank while the real tank is being battle ressed? Can a mage switch gears fast and kite kill a boss add that broke free of the control plan?

    I could blab up scenarios forever, the point is, the healer whack-a-mole game is no more skill oriented than the improvisation required by DPS.


  7. All this talk of skill and improvisation makes me think of another topic. Heroic 5 mans.

    It's always been my belief that real player PvE skill shows up most in heroic 5 mans. Here you have much less formulaic play and many times where improvisation or precision is required. Not to mention the fact that you are 20% of the group rather than 4%, and have a much more significant effect on the success/failure. Tards can hide in a raid, but not so much in a hard 5 man.

    - Jason

  8. As I commented in my post, crowd control is one aspect of DPS classes that they can practice and improve fast. Most DPS who have to CC tend to get decent at it quite fast. You can literally see the improvement in trapping/shackling over a night of Moroes wipes.

    It's the other part of their game, delivering massive amounts of sustained damage, where they are failing to improve. Unfortunately, this aspect happens to be the most important one. (There's a reason we call them "DPS classes".)

  9. all those scenarios listed, prince, moroes, etc, are formulaic by nature. moroes for example, if the rogue is assigned to stun, he can be told exactly how to do it beforehand. you are speaking of uncommon strategies, however, and rogue tanking seems more of an improvisation than a real strategy. its far simpler to have a paladin gain aggro(190% aggro per damage versus 0.71% on salvless rogues). exorcism/judge/shock will generally hold the mob.

    for prince i dont think the rotation changes much. you still rupture/snd/evisc, only that you do not SND if enfeeble is coming.

    a rogue, lacking a taunt, is unlikely to grab aggro in a competitive dps situation when the tank dies. the monster will switch to the highest aggro target, which generally should be a caster, as casters generate more AGGRO put pull aggro at a later threshhold. for the rogue to have aggro after a tank death, the caster must have recently dumped aggro(and it is likely the rogue should have as well) and then not caught up somehow. also most RAID bosses are not tauntable.

    saving CD's is not situational, and can simply be instructed. illhoof shackles on a schedule, so a rogue is simply following directions.

    my entire point is, dps's role boils down to a set of actions that do not require an active mind. you perform thi set of actions and it is the best you can do. they are limited in scope to how well they can perform, and it is not difficult to achieve. underperformers do in fact, suck at wow. "saving cooldowns for shackles" on illhoof is not SKILL, it is simply a consequence of the fight sequence. it COULD be considered skill if you never had read a strategy and were going into illhoof for the first time. then your adaptive play could possibly matter as years of rogue experience teach you the set of moves you need to use on the fly. my point is that unless you are pushing the edge of content, dps really has no excuse to suck as there are instructions for each fight and every situation. healing by contrast is not a set of instructions, you cannot simply spam heals on the main tank. a noob healer told what to do in a fight versus an experienced one has a vastly larger difference when compared to new/experienced dps, when told what to do.

  10. I hate how you refer to healing as "whack-a-mole" Jason.

    A good healer heals reactively. They see someone with low health and heal them. There's your whack-a-mole right there, someone who simply watches the raid frames and casts a heal when someone takes damage. And that is a good healer.

    A great healer heals proactively. A great healer knows how the cast-cancel so they always have a heal going on the Main tank. A great healer has spell rotations just like any dps, weaving in downranked Holy Lights to keep LG up or knowing which HoT to use at which time. A great healer times their casts with the boss' attack rate. Every healer has to move just as much as any dps class to avoid the same things.

    There is a difference between a good healer and a great healer, just like there is between a good dps and a great dps. But healing is never as simple as just "point and cast", and its rather insulting to have our job (which is just as important as yours) degraded so much.

  11. Glad to hear you hate the term, as that is the intended effect. The offhand way healers often value DPS, can be thrown back in your face with this term. This is the bigoted attitude healers direct at DPS because they haven't experienced the role in an advanced way. How does it taste?

    @ Anonymous wall of text before that one - If those scenarios you described are formulaic, then certainly all aspects of healing are also formulaic. Just as a DPS may have to be aware of cool downs ready to use at the right times, healers simply have to be aware of which healing spells to use when they notice something. Throw renew at rogues or melee who may have taken some cleaves, use rank x heal if the health bar is at y. Rotate preprogrammed heals on the tank in your planned heal rotation. Just as boring and mindless as your skewed understanding of DPS.

    Do I really think healing is just whack a mole? Of course not. Good healing takes skill and alertness. Almost as much as is required for good DPS.

    - Jason

  12. there is a really big problem with people who go trial-and-error DPS...

    in my past and current guild, and i think most guilds, there are a few elite people who stand out, in DPS, maybe a handfull or less that you can really say "wow, that dude knows what he's doing"... those are fine, obviously, the rest, are not.

    for example, a lock wants to see which build is better, a ruin build or a fire destruction build, so he tries both on a grull fight, for example, he tries, two times, different builds, but there is no error, grull still dies. Does this mean both builds are the same? no.

    theorycrafting is really important, especially for DPS, because as you said before, their feedback isnt as obvious and smacked on you as mine as a tank, or yours as a healer, our erros tend to lead to wipes, their error, usually, just tends to prolong the fight for another minute, tops, with the exeption of a few encounters, as every rule has its exeption.

  13. I'd like first to say that I have played a dps class in endgame raiding (shadow priest, Angellus on Draka if you want to look it up). I've tanked and healed on my pally. So don't for a second pretend that you're talking to some gimp noob who hasn't "experienced the role in an advanced way". I'd rather hoped we could have a civil conversation, but you seem to simply be resorting to low blows (that are sadly false). Anyway, on with the discourse.

    Do you really believe healers don't value their dps in raids? If we didn't give two shits about you then you wouldn't get those renews when you're dumb enough to get cleaved (READ: Stand behind the boss, not only are you protected from cleaves but you also avoid the boss parrying your attacks). Most healers have a lot of respect for the dps, but at the same time we can get angry if they keep repeating mistakes (i.e. standing in a damn cleave) that we have to compensate for.

    By the offhand way you seem to regard healing skill ("Good healing takes skill and alertness. Almost as much as is required for good DPS.) it seems much more likely that you are lacking endgame healing experience. Healers have to be just as aware as DPS player. We have to worry about threat issues just like dps. We have cooldown timers to watch just like dps. We have to watch our positioning on boss fights, just like dps. We have to watch our own health and mana bars to make sure we're as topped off as possible at all times, just like the dps. The sole difference lies in what health bar we're worried about. Healers are worried about your health bar, and you're worried about the boss'. Neither requires more skill than the other, both require a great amount to do the job effectively. But just as the dps players can blame the healers when a tank dies, healers have the right to blame the dps when they pull threat or a boss enrages. And thats what the OP was about, dps not being able to do their job correctly and why feedback is required to rectify this.

    This is entirely my experience and does not go for anyone else, but I honestly find healing on my pally more stressful than dpsing on my priest. Thats not to say one is easier than the other. I personally had a very hard time learning to use Shadow Word: Death correctly in my rotation, but after a lot of practice I've gotten better. Its that way for all classes and raid roles.

    Everyone needs to step back and realize that raids are not about you. As much as the raid needs you, you need the other 24 people with you. A boss doesn't die because 1 person is the penultimate power in the universe, he dies because everyone works together as a team. That includes the tanks, the healers, and the dps, no exceptions. You can't kill a boss without a strong dps group, you can't keep that boss from instagibbing said dps without a strong tanking team, and you can't keep those tanks going without strong healers.

  14. the whole issue with having one or two targets through an entire fight makes dpsing rather skill-less. some people play better whack a mole than others, and that is skill.

    the game simply limits how much skill affects dps. you cant SS any faster than any other rogue because of your pro skills. you can almost always improve your healing reaction speed and pre-emptive heal timing.

    renewing a target that took off damage is certainly formulaic, but fail to address my main point in which pre-healing, downranking, and target selection(the core of any good healer) are not possible to explain as a simple list of moves to perform in order.

    and yes, i do in fact look down on dps. why? because good healers are much more in short supply than good dps. does this mean all healer players suck? all dps players are amazing? or that its simply EASIER to be a good DPS than a good healer?

    its simply easier to be a good dps. as a terrible tank once said "just keep me alive until we can kill the boss. its not hard, healers. heal me and we get our loot"

  15. Lots of anon.

    In reply to this "its far simpler to have a paladin gain aggro"

    In a typical moroes, 4 adds. Shackle 1 , Paladin on 1, Hunter on 1 and rogue on 1. mind you its hardly a uncommon strategy, we probably use a rogue on 1st add ie shadow priest 90% of the time. You dont want a shadow priest add anywhere near your holy pally.

    A raid leader does not want to give individual instructions to his raid members on each fight, Indeed it can be very annoying when you delegate someone to new to do a task and they dont have a clue. Is a raid leader supposed to be able to play 9 classes as well as the individual members?

    In reply to this "the game simply limits how much skill affects dps." their has been plenty of evidence that limit is easily 2x. ie between someone making a effort and someone with similar gear level but hasnt worked on improving their dps.

    Even back in the MC era a annoyed rogue to prove a point was sitting at no 1 in dps for the rogues until the level 2 Grey dagger he was using for a mainhand broke. Why was he using a grey daggger? because the standard complaint was your using perditions and thats why your dps is good.

  16. @ Dazanna, I get from your tone that you probably think I'd disagree with you. In fact, most of what you've said is some of the more balanced observations written here and I agree.

    @ Anonymous healer looking down on DPS, your example of downrankig heals is just another type of formulaic play by your own strict definition. If you are aware of a wounded target in need of a lesser heal, use it. This can in fact be taught to a noob in advance. All it takes is a willingness for him to listen, and apply the formula directions when he notices them. I'd argue this vaults him out of noob status if he succeeds. You'd call it formulaic play.

    - Jason

  17. i think your comments are a joke least on my server, i being a hunter can find 2 other dps in about 3 minutes and never have a problem for 5 mans. for raids you should have good dps's in your guild cuz normally you raid with your guild not with nooby pugs. maybe your guild is slacking on getting good players....

  18. excuse my typing...not these peoples comments but the bloggers "theories"