Pedro Lopes gives us an explanation of what MAXDOP really does for us:
There are plenty of blogs on these topics, and the official documentation does a good job of explaining these (in my opinion). If you want to know more about the guidelines and ways to override for specific queries, refer to the Recommendations section in the Configure the max degree of parallelism Server Configuration Option documentation page.
But what does MAXDOP control? A common understanding is that it controls the number of CPUs that can be used by a query – previous revisions of the documentation used this abstraction. And while that is a correct abstraction, it’s not exactly accurate.
This is definitely a nice companion piece to Paul White’s article on how MAXDOP works.