On “Cookie Cutters”


No, not those cookie cutters, although Ninja Bread Men are cool. “Cookie cutter” refers to a popular/predefined selection of options, or in WoW it refers to an “ideal” set of talents. There’s been some recent discussion about whether these are good, and whether players are too hard/hostile towards individuals who vary from the perceived idea.

There’s two parts to this problem, and I don’t think the problem lies with guide writers like myself.

Problem One: Player Demands

A lot of players want to know the absolute best options available, whether it’s talents, glyphs, trinkets, enchants or even race. In my guide I note that even though there is some variation, the difference between the best and worst races comes down to less than 1% of total DPS, but I still get asked questions about this and people still spend money race changing to the “best” one when conditions change.

Similar questions about regarding Best in Slot (or BiS) lists or on trinket optimization as well. For trinkets in most cases running sims will only confirm what you already expect: higher item level generally means better trinkets, taking into account how certain effects or stats interact with your class.

For example, Elemental players often ask about Prophecy of Fear vs Gaze of Sethe vs Core of the Primal Elements. Core is the obvious first choice here, as its effects multiply with talents & abilities to result in fairly large multipliers that go over 800% thanks to the damage and duration increases.

When considering Gaze vs Prophecy, Prophecy has a 5 ilvl advantage but has a unique effect that triggers off the number of casts in a 10 second window, and while it is on RPPM it isn’t affected by haste. The unique effect for Gaze is just a simple damage proc with RPPM affected by haste. It’s that difference in RPPM behaviour that swings things in favour of Gaze, as Elemental favours haste (after multistrike) and has haste buff off the T18 4pc with a fairly high uptime.

That said, the difference between these two trinkets is actually fairly small, with Gaze being only 1.4% better than Prophecy. When you consider that this difference is less than 100 dps overall, it’s a very very small portion of your overall damage, considering most players are now in the 60k-100k range in Hellfire Citidel.

The ultimate problem here is that a large number of players see things as binary options: either you select the best option, or you haven’t and you’re bad.

The solution is to try to educate people that while going for the best option may be an okay choice, going for an option that is almost but not quite the best option is also an okay choice. Players also need to realise that focusing on the ultimate end game best in slot set isn’t helpful in making the best choices about what gear is available to you right now. An upgrade is an upgrade, even if it’s not the theoretical best gear option an upgrade will help you do more damage.

As for talents, which the recent BlizzardWatch articles focus on, selecting a different talent from the one considered to be the most optimal may actually be better, depending on the players skill, play style, and other factors. I was a great fan of using Elemental Blast as my L90 talent back in Mists of Pandaria, while the popular and perceived best was Unleashed Fury. The difference between the two was actually fairly negligible, but most people used Unleashed Fury best everyone said it was the best. Even with L90 talents in Warlords of Draenor, I’m still advising players that while one may be “the best”, other talent options are still perfectly viable.

The TL;DR version of all this is that even though choices are X or Y or Z, evaluating them isn’t a case of X > Y > Z but rather X:100, Y:99.9, Z:99.8 and understanding where the differences are small enough to have no practical effect.

Problem Two: Actual Balancing

The other side of this is that there are a number of cases where certain options aren’t in this “almost the same” but are instead drastically worse than other options, for various reasons. Sometimes this is intentional, like with Elemental L100 talents, where once you get Core of the Elements (which is very useful with the T18 2pc bonus) the clear best choice is Elemental Fusion, so taking Storm Elemental or Liquid Magma is usually the clear wrong choice (LM is still good with AoE fights like Hellfire Assault).

I don’t have any Elemental examples of when talents are clearly sub optimal, although clear problems like the 6.0 version of Echo of the Elements (a proc making the next shock, Lava Burst or Earthquake not trigger the cooldown) have been fixed with newer versions (Echo now gives certain spells charges).

So when there are talents where the performance difference is vast, and there’s no qualitative bonuses to it (ie: something not defined by numbers), then there’s very little reason to take a particular talent.

This means that there is some onus on the Developer team to make sure that talents are reasonably balanced based on the talent tier intent. In Warlords a lot of talent tiers were designed to be different ways of doing the same thing, whereas in Legion the intent seems to be certain talents will be preferable in different situations. The Warlords method requires that balance between the talents is fairly even, whereas the Legion approach offers some lee-way because AoE talents don’t need to be perfectly balanced with constant throughput, burst damage, resource or cooldown enhancing talents.

The challenge in Legion for the developers will be making sure that players can easily understand when to use certain talents, but not to the point that there appears to be a clear “wrong” choice to players, ie: taking a single target talent over an AoE talent on a heavy AoE fight.

So are guide writers to blame?

One of the parts of this discussion has been around how guide writers have a tendency to write “absolute” answers.

How we, as a theorycrafting community, present advice that influences people’s behavior towards other players. Absolutist advice not only promotes a negative attitude, it’s counterproductive to the goal of improving play.
Source – BlizzardWatch – Side Effects of Cookie Cutter Builds

Unfortunately this is where we get into a negative feedback loop from Problem One mentioned above, where players demand to know the absolute best answer and won’t settle for anything else. I have had multiple questions on some of these subjects and have since decided that the sheer amount of time invested in some of them are not worth the effort (trinket rankings & best in slot lists). Other writers I have spoken to have bowed to pressure from players to change their guide to match the “accepted” preference, even when there is virtually no difference.

There are certainly some guides that just focus on these absolutes, but there are also a lot of guides that give qualitative reasoning for choices, and advice for both experienced and new players.

Part of the problem here is that many people believe guide writing & theorycrafting is some Arcane and/or Mystical Art that they could never hope to develop, but in practice it just comes down to basic logic & writing skills, with a little bit of spreadsheet knowledge on the side. If more people were involved in these areas (which is something many of us regularly say on Twitter) then I believe the WoW community as a whole would be better off.

So what’s all this mean?

In the end, everyone has to share some blame, but I believe the large portion of it falls on the WoW community at large and their expectations of Developers, Theorycrafters, Guide Writers and their fellow players. Certainly the Devs need to balance & design things well, and the guide writers should include more information on choices, but until the wider community stops the obsession with choices that make up less than 1% of their performance I don’t think anything will change.

Remember, the ultimate thing to remember is that this is all just a game, and we’re supposed to be having fun. While there’s sometimes a right answer or a wrong answer to character customization, the difference these choices make are a fairly small portion of how effective a player is at doing their job. Executing boss mechanics better will have a much larger impact on getting that first boss kill than trying to get a little bit more damage via a race change or obsessing about opening rotations.


About binkenstein
I'm a geek, living in Christchurch, New Zealand.

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