Theorycraft: What it Means and Why it Matters

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 Non-official forums, like 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, 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.

Some theorycraft:

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7 Responses

  1. “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 spells cast as a means of trying to limit the spell from breaking early.”

    The advice on several other priest blogs (e.g. Egotistical Priest, PriestPower) seems to suggest that reshackling every 10 seconds or so needs to be done *in addition* to getting the +hit gear too.

    Certainly practical experience seems to suggest that re-shackling often seems to reduce the chance of breakage (although I don’t understand why the mechanic should work like that – surely the breakage chance per tick should be the same whether it is the original shackle or a reshackle after 10 seconds?)

    Any thoughts?


  2. I’m in the middle of making a large-ish post about spell hit, etc., that will explain this all in much detail.

    In a nutshell, crowd control spells, like Shackle Undead and Mind Control, have a chance to break early. There are periodic checks every few seconds to see if the spell continues to hold. These checks are based off of your spell hit stat. Here’s the thing: the chance on check #1 that you fail your check and the spell breaks early is determined by the same roll on check #5, or check #7. Each check will give you the same chances.

    Really, the only benefits to casting Shackle every 10 seconds is if you are fortunate enough to “catch” the mob right as the shackle breaks. It’s been suggested that if you have nothing better to do, you can keep starting to cast shackle, and interrupt it if it isn’t needed. Also, you will want to reshackle the mob a few seconds (maybe 10) before the spell ends, as to give you some buffer time if you have to do some emergency spam healing, have to move, etc., so that you do not have to worry about the shackle coming loose if things get hairy.

    The drawbacks to fully recasting the spell every 10 seconds is that you are wasting mana, you are keeping yourself in the 5SR (if you are a healer), and you are dropping some of your DPS (if you are shadow).

  3. your explanation is exactly how I *expect* shackle to work.

    However in practice I haven’t seen this happening. In particular in Kara with another holy priest with comparable +hit, I was reshackling regularly and she wasn’t. My shackles were staying up for the duration and hers were breaking typically after about 15 seconds. It was only a short part of the run and not statistically valid as a result, but got me questioning things.

    The following posts appear to backup what I’ve seen in practice (reshackling), vs what I’d assume the case (and would like to be the case), of reshackling being irrelevent:

    Seems like an interesting issue and I’d like to get to the bottom of it, not least ‘cos I’d like to see Moroes dead (starter Kara guild here) :)

  4. I’ve been spending a lot of time extensively testing spells, like Shackle Undead, as I have been trying to work out an accurate threat model as well. I’m 99% sure that Shackle Undead works that way we both think it should.

    As for the differences between your Shackles and the other priest’s, could positioning have been an issue? Could there have been a Totem of Wrath, a draenei, or some other unaccounted for factor affecting hit chance?

    When healing or DPSing in Kara, I got myself in the habit of reshackling when Moroes vanishes. It times out very well and I haven’t had any problems (even with the lack of hit on my healing gear). Sure, it will occasionally break early, but that is expected.

    One trick is to keep some Netherweave Nets (from tailoring) around, and make a macro to toss them on your focus target when you notice that the shackle has broken. Another helpful tool is a mod called “CCBreaker” (download from that will tell you who breaks crowd control spells. It was really helpful for me and my guild when first starting out in Kara when supposedly shackled mobs kept running free. Thunderclap, Whirlwind, Consecrate, and Blade Flurry were the prime culprits in our case.

  5. I really enjoyed the article. I always find myself reshckling early just to prevent the mobs from breaking free and killing me. This is especially an issue when fighting the 5th boss in Zul’Aman, when a shadowpriest is typically recruited to shackle the ghost mob; namely, me.

    I did not know how spell hit factored into that equation and I have not run the instance in a while since i respecced and now have +16% spell hit.

    Thanks for the information. :)

  6. Okay, I found some back up from an independent source that spell hit on Shackle Undead works out the way I tested it to be. The Lux Et Umbra priest guide stickied on the WoW US forums says:

    “Not everyone agrees with me here, but I don’t recommend casting Shackle “every few seconds.” Each periodic check is the same as the initial resistance check. Instead, start casting and cancel repeatedly if you want to improve average response time to a break. Better yet have a Mage or Hunter stand ready to freeze the mob as you reapply Shackle. Also, lower Rank Shackle is no more likely to break than top Rank…but with proper Spellhit your Shackle will often outlast Rank 1′s 30 second limit. “

  7. Can Death Knight undead pets be shackled, and do you suspect that the mechanics would be slightly different than with a PvE situation (as they often are)?

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