Encrypted Text: An interview with the ever-cautious Aldriana

Every week, WoW Insider brings you Encrypted Text for assassination, combat and subtlety rogues. Chase Christian will be your guide to the world of shadows every Wednesday. This week, I interview Aldriana, the infamous author of rogue spreadsheets.

Nobody likes rogues. Whether it's due to an instinctive fear of being stabbed repeatedly in the back or a Freudian bout of jealousy, we are easily the most reviled class in WoW. Death knights may be characterized as noobs while hunters are blamed for rolling on every single weapon, yet rogues still receive the least amount of good will. Because of this, it's rare to see anyone talking about rogues outside of asking for massive nerfs for all of our abilities. Playing a rogue has become a thankless job.

I'd like to take this opportunity to reverse that trend. With the last tier of content for level 80s (and the associated gear), Aldriana released the final copy of his infamous Wrath spreadsheets, which had been maintained since Naxxramas' release. Aldriana has a long history of involvement in the rogue theorycrafting community, particularly on the rogue forums of Elitist Jerks. With spreadsheets dating back to The Burning Crusade and numerous contributions before that, Aldriana has been dedicated to keeping rogues informed for years. Blizzard itself even gave Aldriana a nod via an in-game item, Aldriana's Gloves of Secrecy (thanks splodesondeath). I recently had the pleasure of asking him a few questions about his rogue, his spreadsheets, and life as an EJ moderator.

A few personal questions to start

Encrypted Text: What's been your favorite time period for playing a rogue? I really enjoyed the fun factor and PvP functionality of subtlety rogues in early BC. Has there been a favorite patch or period where you enjoyed playing your rogue the most?

Aldriana: My enjoyment of the game as a whole tends to be more about who I'm playing with and less about the game itself. So if I had to pick a favorite era as a whole, I'd probably say late AQ-40 and Naxx-60, not because I necessarily think it was the best time to be a rogue but because I had a good guild situation in that era -- people I got along with, the right amount of responsibility, and so forth. Though to be fair, that's probably partly nostalgia speaking.

What about alternate characters -- any worth mentioning? Any reason you chose the alts that you have?

I've had characters of more or less every class at one time or another; however, only three of them (my rogue and two others) have ever made it to max level. (The rest of them were abandoned when I either got bored with them or was server transferring Ald and didn't feel like bringing them along.) At the moment, the only alt I play with any regularity is my DK. To the extent that I do raid on my other toons, I make a point to fulfill a completely different role to the extent that I can, as the entire point of playing them is that they're not my rogue, so it sort of defeats the purpose if I play them like a rogue.

The sheets that guided thousands of rogues

Let's talk about your spreadsheets for a moment. How did you get started on the creation of them? Was it a personal project that you opened up to the community, or were you planning on a tool that every rogue could use from the beginning?

Spreadsheet writing in general is a personal project that has expanded. It's one of those things I do when playing games -- when it comes to gear/talent/skill/whatever selection, I'd rather work out the right answer than guess. However, most of the sheets I write for personal use stay personal. The spreadsheets that I've released for use by the community at large were generally written with a larger audience in mind.

Basically, around the start of BC, I had become aware of EJ as a theorycrafting community, but I wasn't terribly impressed with the established spreadsheet of the time -- I felt I could do better. And since I needed to write a new sheet anyway (as the personal one I'd been using had been rendered obsolete by new mechanics, notably Combat Potency), I took a crack at it. Whether I succeeded in writing something better, per se, can be debated, but over time (and with some help from the community), it did develop into a reasonable competitor. And since that success, I've sort of assumed that there exist people who are interested in seeing what I have to say and wrote my sheets accordingly. In general, any sheet I have released was designed from the outset to make such a thing possible.

Obviously, experimental data is important to creating a working model of rogue DPS. Every mechanic is not explicitly explained to us, and so there's a fair amount of work that goes into figuring out exactly how all of our moving pieces interact. Armor penetration, for example, had an incredibly complex formula working behind the scenes. We have to take our observations and figure out how to use them to make better choices. Which of these sides of theorycrafting do you personally prefer, the empirical phase of making and testing hypotheses, or the mathematical phase of figuring out how to boil mechanics down into an Excel spreadsheet?

I'd argue that the empirical phase is largely a solved problem at this point. We basically know how to do it, and target dummies make the actual testing straightforward, so there's not a lot that's hard or interesting about it -- it's largely a matter of finding enough people with enough time to actually test everything that needs to be tested. The modeling component, on the other hand, is actually fairly sophisticated and interesting -- there's actually a lot of fairly complicated math that goes into making a really good model. So personally, my preference is for the latter.

The majority of theorycrafting work that occurs revolves around PvE and raid optimization, as PvP is so variable that it can be very difficult to model. Do you feel that
PvP and PvE infringe on each other in a negative way? Or do you think that PvP and PvE sharing the same ruleset is the best design?

I would characterize the interactions between PvP and PvE as a necessary evil. It's pretty clear that the demands of PvP sometimes limit the ability to make PvE balanced, interesting, and fun (and vice versa). But it's not clear that you can do much to fix that, short of a situation where you're basically playing two different characters that happen to share the same name. And I would argue that in addition to the obvious stylistic issues with such an approach, it also risks being horribly confusing in (for instance) world PvP situations. So while both PvE and PvP might in a vacuum benefit from having the connections between them severed, I don't think the game as a whole would.

Can all three specs ever actually work?

Do you think that Blizzard's plan to have three separate but equal talent trees will succeed? Sure, mastery tweaks can force DPS equality, but is there really room for three distinct rotations that scale similarly?

If the question is whether I think it's possible for three interesting, well-distinguished, similarly scaling specs to exist, the answer is yes. If the question is whether I think Blizzard will actually pull it off, the answer is no. Realistically, combat and mutilate have been remarkably close in this expansion -- the fact that both have had time on top, and that both have been continuously competitive for the entire expansion, is actually somewhat impressive.

My suspicion is that even if the Blizzard dev team wanted to, they'd have a hard time repeating that with three specs. The best we can hope for is two continuing to bounce back and forth, and one that you can swap to in a pinch if your guild needs the buffs. Anything more than that seems unlikely, both because the balance problem is hard and because I question their resolve in this respect. It would not surprise me if they decide at some point that having two viable PvE specs and two viable PvP specs is enough.

Obviously, each spec will not do exactly the same DPS as another spec. What percentage of DPS must you lose before a spec would be considered non-viable, for you personally? (For instance, if mutilate were 90 percent of combat's damage, would it be viable? What about 95 percent? 99 percent?)

I would argue that viability is not a question of exact percentages; it's a question of whether they're close enough that the specific nature of the fights, or gear availability, or even personal preference or playstyle can sway the balance. That is, when discussing balance in the abstract, we usually talk in terms of having comparable gear for both specs. But in practice, sometimes your sword is a tier better than your best dagger. Sometimes different specs are better on different fights. Sometimes you just have more practice/familiarity with one spec, which can easily make a percent or two difference. And as long as these factors are enough to tip the balance, both specs will see play.

Expanding the scope to include all specs and classes, what is your stance on the "hybrid tax"? Do you think it will be necessary in Cataclysm?

Realistically, all classes aren't going to be perfectly balanced from a DPS perspective, or from a utility perspective; hence, in the name of maintaining good class representation, it makes sense to have the classes with better utility do slightly less damage, and the ones with better damage have slightly less utility. The hybrid tax is a name attached to certain applications of this principal. Given that class representation has generally been good across Wrath (not perfect, but certainly not bad), I see little reason for them to reconsider that approach.

Aldriana writes awesome posts and trashes awful ones

You're a well-respected moderator on Elitist Jerks, which is a premier locations of rogue class discussion and dissection. Because of this, many people consider you to be one of the de facto voices for rogues in the WoW community. Is this a responsibility that you accept, embrace, reject, or even acknowledge?

I suppose that depends to some extent on what you mean by being a voice of the community. For instance, I doubt Blizzard pays much more attention to me than they do to anyone else -- I rather expect their team weighs people's suggestions on their merits without worrying too much about exactly where they come from. That said, it is probably fair to say that my opinions and analysis carry a certain amount of weight with the community itself. And I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fun to be a known member of the community, and it's certainly always nice to know that people value your opinion; on the other hand, there's also a certain sense of responsibility that results.

The fact that people do pay attention to what I say means that when I make a mistake, or even just phrase something poorly or ambiguously, it can have real consequences in terms of inducing people to re-spec or to re-gem or to re-gear. The fact that people do follow my advice means that I feel obligated to make it good advice to the extent that I can. The net result is that I find I need to be far more careful to always say exactly what I mean than I ever did previously, which can be burdensome at times.

A thanks for years of contribution

I think that every rogue who has used one of Aldriana's spreadsheets or benefited from one of his many posts can agree that his caution and expertise have been invaluable. While it's impossible to say what the state of rogue theorycrafting would look like today without Aldriana, it is clear that we are in a better place due to his contributions. Work is already being done on a new spreadsheet for Cataclysm, and I eagerly await its release. Thank you, Aldriana, for your hard work and for sharing your thoughts on what is yet to come.

Check back every Wednesday for the latest strategies in Encrypted Text! Get ready for Icecrown Citadel with our rogue guide, part 1, part 2 (Plagueworks), part 3 (Crimson Halls) and part 4 (Frostwing Halls). Just hit 80 and need information? Try Combat 101 or Mutilate 101.