Let's face it, rogues don't really have any spontaneous abilities to look forward to. Each spec has its own toolbox of cooldowns to use as soon as they're available, and we can typically predict our actions a few steps out. We've been using the combo point system for so long that there's really nothing that can surprise us. We know how energy works, and a quick look at our buff and debuff timers let us know exactly what the next step is in our priority system.
Rogues and their rotation
The basic model for rogue DPS is the rotation system, which has two core parts. We start by using techniques that generate combo points and then release those combo points in the form of finishers. We have a variety of CP generators that vary by spec, and we have a similar selection of finishers for every situation. The pacing of CP generation provides the necessary amount of DPS ramp-up requirements to ensure that we're not too powerful in short fights, while also allowing for us to reach our peak DPS when we're allowed to attack uninterrupted.
Generators: Defining the spec
Every talent tree has typically had a preferred combo point generator, with specific talents to boost that move's effectiveness. Assassination rogues have been defined by their generator, Mutilate, due to its unique ability to generate two to three CP at a time. It took several buffs and the removal of Mutilate's positioning requirements to even get rogues to use it, and now it's probably the most powerful CP generator around. Without Mutilate's unique properties, the assassination rogue experience would be fundamentally different today.
Sinister Strike has been a combat staple since the game's launch and is sort of the most vanilla CP generator we have. There are a few talents that buff it in the combat tree, and it picked up an interesting glyph in Wrath, but it's still just a main-hand attack with some extra damage tacked on. Combat has never really been about flare, though, and so Sinister Strike keeps plugging along as our generator of choice. Subtlety rogues have had a love/hate relationship with Hemorrhage since its creation, as it's been buffed and nerfed more times than I can count. It used to be the source of a unique, although trivial, debuff and is being changed to give us a bit more raid utility in Cataclysm by attacking the valuable bleed damage debuff to it.
Our bread-and-butter finisher
While most of you haven't been subjected to my long-winded rogue ranting in person, I have a mantra that I like to repeat as often as possible to new rogues: The purest way to increase your damage is to simply attack more. The reason that rogues complain about mobility is not that we want to ride around on a permanent Segway, it's that we want higher melee uptime, which means that we can attack more. The reason that hit and expertise have the highest EP values of any stat before their respective caps is that they provide the most important benefit -- they let more of our attacks land. Attacking more will always produce higher DPS.
With our toolbox of finishers, you'd figure we'd pick them out of the lineup like a fine artist chooses the right brush for each stroke. Fire mages certainly don't have any options other than Fireball, but rogues have some choices, right? Not really. We do whatever it takes to attack more, and that's where Slice and Dice comes in. It's been our go-to finisher since Blizzard first breathed life into the rogue class, and it's carried us for years. When Blizzard got tired of messing around with our DPS mid-Wrath, it simply nerfed everything else and gave Slice and Dice a 33 percent buff to make everything just work.
Varied finishers by spec
So, you're a good rogue, and you've built up a few CP and then released them into a nice Slice and Dice. You've got 30 seconds until you need to refresh it. Now what? Again, Blizzard has purposefully buffed various finishers in the different trees to promote diversity, and the plan worked. Mutilate rogues will begin popping off Envenoms as soon as they can, even if they only have 4 combo points. Their goal is to maximize the uptime of the Envenom buff, which luckily refreshes Slice and Dice for them. Cataclysm has assassination rogues slated to start using Rupture as a third finisher to regenerate energy, but we'll see if that design actually shakes out.
Combat rogues have swapped between using Rupture and using Eviscerate for their secondary finisher since Molten Core, and the pattern has continued to this day. Currently, a combat rogue in a 25-man raid can feasibly use Rupture if there's someone around to provide that bleed damage debuff, and the same rogue could use Eviscerate and see nearly similar numbers. Cataclysm doesn't look to be changing anything for us, though the removal of armor penetration from gear may make Rupture more attractive at level 85.
Subtlety rogues have no idea what they're doing. Their "rotation" used to consist of spamming finishers and praying that their teammates crit a lot. In Cataclysm, their rotation looks to be Slice and Dice, Rupture, Recuperate and Eviscerate, which will be a handful to coordinate, to say the least. Blizzard finally buffed Serrated Blades (as I previously suggested) to ensure that Eviscerate will keep Rupture active, although we'll see how much luck our shadowy friends have keeping up with the remaining three-finisher cycle.
We also have an entire kit of utility finishers like Kidney Shot, Expose Armor and Deadly Throw that give us the versatility we crave and the counters we need to compete in both PvE and PvP situations. Most rogue techniques fall into one of the three categories: CP generators, finishers and cooldowns. The rotation model of DPS has served rogues for years, and there's no reason to think that it won't continue to be our workhorse in the expansion to come. A retribution paladin may look at our static ability usage pattern and scoff, but when I look at their chaotic, button-mashing FCFS playstyle, I really don't envy them at all. Learning to love rotations is part of playing a rogue. It's our biggest weakness and our silent strength, and I wouldn't trade it for the world.
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.