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The problem with skill is that there's no number on our character pane or armory to measure it. Everyone will swiftly agree that skill is the most important thing -- more important than this talent or that reforge -- but without having a number right there to look at, everyone ends up ignoring it and instead focuses in on this talent or that reforge.

"Your DPS is low? Well you should really reforge your boots to haste," or "Why aren't you gemming for agility u noob!"

Let me assure you something: If you're underperforming by thousands of DPS and can't make it to the top of the meters, 95% of the time it's a skill issue. Even if your talents/gems/glyphs/reforging aren't very optimized, odds are you aren't really seeing that difference. But if you have even a moderate slip on skill issues, it's immediately apparent.

So let's today step back a moment and consider hunter skill once again. We're all used to obsessing over every tiny part of character optimization, so we're going to put skill into terms that correlate to that: DPS.

Optimization does matter

I want to say at the outset that character optimization does matter. Perhaps tweaking your talents or glyphs or reforging will only net you a theoretical 500 DPS gain -- something that is lost in the RNG of boss fights -- but on average, that's still a nice DPS gain, and all of those small tweaks add up.

DPS is, after all, like beer. Sure, you could sit there and drink down your beer, but you get more if you also grab the bartender's rag and wring it out into your mug. (Hint: Skill is your beer; those final tweaks and talents and reforges are the rag.)

I just often get frustrated when I see a hunter complaining about being low on the charts -- thousands of DPS low -- and the first thing that people always point out is optimization tweaks. Maybe he's half a percent under the hit cap or is missing a socket bonus that he shouldn't. Certainly these things will help, but it is not going to close that DPS gap; in fact, the hunter won't likely even notice the difference of those tweaks.

Any time you have a hunter who is substantially far below another hunter on the charts, you can be pretty sure that when you look at the logs the hunter with higher DPS fired more shots.

What I mean by hunter skill

Hunter DPS comes from a number of different factors: knowledge (how to optimize our character and the proper rotation), gear, buffs, RNG, and skill. By far the largest contribution is skill (well, buffs are up there, too).

Hunter skill is the ability to execute our rotation properly amidst the chaos of a boss fight. This is different from just knowing what your rotation is. This means you never stop shooting. When you're running out of the fire, or clumping up, or spreading out, or any of the other mechanics that require us to move, you never cease to fire your ideal rotation.

This means minimizing movement as much as possible to maximize Aspect of the Hawk uptime -- and advanced hunter techniques like jump-Disengage contribute to this. This also means flawlessly aspect dancing, moving instantly into Aspect of the Fox when you have to move during a Steady Shot or Cobra Shot part of your rotation and always being in Aspect of the Hawk when firing instant shots or standing still. This also includes timing DPS cooldowns to stack together and be used during the best possible moments in the boss fight.

Maintaining your ideal rotation in the chaos of a boss fight can be hard. There are a million things going on, and you have to pay attention to all of them. You have to move out of the fire at a second's notice. It's very easy when moving to miss a Cobra Shot or Steady Shot here and there, or to delay your signature shot just a fraction of a second, or get tunnel vision on the fire and miss a focus dump and end up capping out on focus.

And to be fair, missing a shot here and there happens. But it has a DPS impact, and in most cases, that DPS impact is greater than most tweaking to your optimization.

DPS loss of missed shots

I did some playing around on FemaleDwarf to get some comparisons for this article, modeling a SV hunter in tier 12 gear. I considered a couple things: how much damage do you lose out on if you miss a Cobra Shot (and I modeled this with no Careful Aim talent) and how much do you lose if you delay your Explosive Shot a fraction of a second longer than you should.

So let's look at a boss fight. There's plenty going on; you have to move out of the fire (or into it) and reposition yourself from time to time, paying attention to the mechanics. Let's say that in the course of an average minute, you slip up only a couple times and skip a Cobra Shot -- your least important shot -- while moving.

Over the course of a 5-minute fight, that DPS loss is approximately the same as:
  • Not spending your last three talent points at all
  • Gemming for mastery priority, rather than agility
  • Using no glyphs at all
  • Using no enchants at all
Now let's say you're just a tiny bit slow on firing your Explosive Shot. If you tend to delay it just a tenth of a second, that's about the same as taking one of your agility gems and removing it, leaving that socket empty. Delay it a few tenths of a second, and now you're getting all the same losses listed above.

If you're always in Aspect of the Fox during your Cobra Shots (a technique that some people deliberately macro in), that's also about the same as all of the above.

But here's the thing: If you did any of the above, you and I both know you would be called a noob and a huntard. No enchants? Idiot! Gemming for mastery? Fool! And yet none of that is nearly enough of a loss to cause a hunter to be doing thousands of DPS less than his potential.

But significant skill issues will.

Substantial missed shots

Most often when I see a hunter who's 4,000 or 5,000 DPS behind, it's because he's using the wrong rotation. But very often when I see a hunter who's 2,000 or 3,000 DPS behind and there are parses to compare to another hunter of the same spec, we quickly see that the issue is missed shots.

What we typically see is a hunter who's missing several Cobra Shots each minute and delaying Explosive Shot a few tenths of a second on average (or more probably delaying it substantially just a few times), possibly shooting in Fox often when he should be in Hawk.

All of a sudden, you add all that together and you have a loss of thousands of DPS. In fact, adding it together is the same DPS loss as:
  • Using no gems at all, and forgoing all socket bonuses as well
  • Not spending the last six talent points
  • Not using a pet at all
Imagine for a moment the hunter who has tier 12 gear and doesn't have a single gem in any socket. That hunter would get slapped upside the head and probably would not be invited to raids. But if that hunter played well, he would absolutely be out-DPSing the average hunter in any raid encounter -- because the average hunter is really that far behind.

Rule of thumb skill test

Here's a good rule of thumb test if you're concerned about the contribution of your skill to your DPS. Go to the boss target dummy (alone) and do your full maximum DPS rotation, with all cooldowns, for 5 minutes. Do this a few times, and note what your average DPS is.

You should be doing more DPS than this in any raid. After all, in a raid you have all of those raid buffs and group synergy boosting your DPS -- and boosting it a heck of a lot. The contribution of all raid buffs accounts for 29% of our test SV hunter's DPS -- about 8,000 DPS.

There are only two reasons why you wouldn't do a more DPS in raids than at the dummy: Either there's a boss mechanic that artificially lowers it (boss takes less damage during a certain phase, or is untargetable, etc.) or, more commonly, because you aren't doing the same thing in a boss fight as you are at the dummy.

If your DPS in a boss fight is the same or lower than your target dummy DPS, then you know you're failing to execute your rotation in the chaos of the boss fight. Improving your execution will gain you many times more DPS than any optimization tweak ever will.

For bonus fun, if you're able, you can do what I did in Wrath: Bring your entire 25-man raid team to the target dummy for a series of 5-minute DPS tests, using all cooldowns and consumables. That gave me an absolute target of what my potential DPS was. If I did less than that on a boss with no DPS-reduction mechanic, I knew that I had room to improve my rotation execution.

Scattered Shots is dedicated to helping you learn everything it takes to be a hunter. From leveling your hunter through optimizing for heroics, pre-heroic loot and pre-raid loot, then on to choosing the right spec for the right job and how to "aspect dance" to maximize your DPS, we've got you covered.

This article was originally published on WoW Insider.