Back towards the end of Wrath, Blizzard shared with us a lot of information about the then-upcoming Cataclysm expansion. The new 31-point talent trees were unveiled, along with the mastery bonuses for each tree. The mastery bonuses were heralded as the ultimate balancing tool: Developers could tweak these numbers without touching a tree's talents. Mastery would ensure that any given spec could be tuned independently of the other specs.
The concept made sense, as buffing individual talents had a tendency to cause players to just cross-spec into those newly powerful talents. The other option at Blizzard's disposal is buffing talents that are deep in a talent tree, which works well since we can only go 10 points deep into our secondary trees.
In order to buff rogues in the upcoming patch 4.2, the developers have used both approaches. Our assassination and combat masteries are both being buffed by 5%. Deep talents in each tree, like Vile Poisons, Savage Combat, and Sanguinary Vein, are also being improved. Finally, subtlety rogues will see Hemorrhage's base damage improved by 40%, although it remains to be seen how this change affects the spec's viability.
Even with these buffs, combat and assassination rogues are still slated to be well behind most other classes. Rogues are generally middle-of-the-pack in DPS for most tier 11 bosses, and these changes will just make us "less behind." Other classes might ask us why being "average" is so bad. Average might be okay for a hybrid, but rogues need to top the meters -- not for our egos, but by design.
Rogues are struggling
I talked last week about striving toward being the best rogue you can be and letting Blizzard sort out the rest. Unfortunately, while we're working as hard as we can, the developers aren't holding up their end of the bargain.
So what's wrong? The question has been a popular area of discussion on the Elitist Jerks forums, as the conversation on rogue DPS problems was literally dominating three different threads at once. Notable rogue Aldriana even wrote a blog post about the issues, complete with his assessment of the problems and a few suggestions for fixing them. I've heard that rogues just need better AOE and we'd be fine; I've heard that combo points are the problem; and I've heard that our poison ramp-up time is the source of our issues.
The truth is that it's all of these things at once.
It's all Wrath's fault
Take a trip with me down memory lane, back to Icecrown Citadel and the waning days of Wrath. Rogues were performing incredibly well on nearly every encounter in the instance. Everything must've been balanced then, right? If we start to take a critical look at the bosses of ICC, we realize that it was an incredibly simple raid zone. Against Lord Marrowgar, rogues could just focus on the boss while using Fan of Knives or Blade Flurry to cleave down any nearby Bone Spikes. We sat in cannons and nuked enemy hunters while aboard the Gunship. We stood still on Festergut, minus the occasional sidestep to dodge a Malleable Goo. Finally, Saurfang was the ultimate rogue encounter: a short, simple burn that emphasized cooldowns and single-target DPS above all else. The only fight that had us running around and never getting a chance to ramp up our DPS was Valithria Dreamwalker, which was a healer-centric encounter anyway.
The problems that people talk about today still plagued us then. We still needed to stack up our poisons before doing anywhere near reasonable DPS on adds, and our combo points were fixed on our current target, as we didn't even have Redirect to move them around. We simply didn't notice these glaring flaws as much, since nearly every single fight in the tier could be condensed into a single-target burn with a few mechanics to remember. The casters never really had an opportunity to double-DOT two targets or to shoot the boss while we were left helpless. As long as rogues remained competitive for single-target DPS, we could sustain the slight loss of DPS from various mechanics while remaining on top. Single-target dominance carried us through Icecrown and Trial of the Crusader, leaving all of our issues undiagnosed.
We can't even win Argaloth
In Cataclysm, there are no more simple bosses. Every single encounter in tier 11, save Chimaeron, involves target swaps or time spent off target. When we're looking for the simplest fight of the tier, the one that most closely resembles Patchwerk of Naxxramas, Argaloth comes to mind. Rogues can stand behind the pit lord and simply attack away, ignoring the entire Meteor Slash mechanic and dodging the fire patches.
Even on this ideal fight, rogues are still behind nearly every other class on the Argaloth meters, and it's not even close. Right now, the best hunters and the best mages are blowing the best rogues out of the water on a fight that has traditionally been controlled by rogues.
The rogue design philosophy, to this day, has been that rogues will do an unparalleled amount of single-target DPS but that we'll lose DPS as soon as the encounter shifts away from that paradigm. Let's look back to the Wrath model. Rogues were easily doing the best DPS against Saurfang, but our damage was cut if we had to shift to kill an add. Rogues could win the meters against Rotface if we were only sitting still, but we suffered the greatest from having to run out with an ooze following us. Rogues were demolishing Lady Deathwhisper, but we had to expend energy on Kicks to keep her locked down.
It was okay for rogues to do 110% of everyone else's DPS on a single target, because our other weaknesses would drop that down to 100% on anything but a pure tank-and-spank. Our weaknesses weren't flaws; they were harnesses to ensure that we didn't get out of control.
It can't work both ways
When rogues switch to a new target, we're required to build up our Deadly Poison stack from scratch before we do any real poison damage. When rogues switch to a new target, we're typically left without any combo points available once Redirect has been used. When rogues switch to a new target, we lose Bandit's Guile. When rogues switch to a new target, we have to reapply Rupture to activate Sanguinary Vein and Venomous Wounds. When rogues start to use Fan of Knives for AOE, we have to build up our Deadly Poison stack on every mob. When rogues switch targets, we can perform at most three moves for burst before being limited to auto-attacks. When rogues switch to a new target or AOE, our DPS is left in shambles.
Assassination outperforms both combat and subtlety on AOE encounters due to its stronger poison damage, while combat wins any fight with exactly two targets that are both in melee range. The specs have no unity in terms of AOE or target-swapping, which makes them difficult to balance against each other.
Subtlety is clearly behind both specs, yet the buff to Sanguinary Veins still leaves it even further behind combat and assassination after their improvements. The simple buffs to our masteries and a few talents are simply salves to lessen the pain and not an actual fix to the core issue.
Rogues need to either return to the Wrath model of doing amazing DPS but being kept in check by our weaknesses, or we need to see these weaknesses resolved. Arcane mages have zero ramp-up and do significantly more AOE and single-target damage than rogues do. Hunters can apply Serpent Sting to a new target and continue as if nothing ever happened. Warlocks have a bit more to do when swapping, but they get to continue to damage their previous target as well.
No other pure DPS class in the game has the same restrictions for target swaps and AOE that the rogue class does. There's nothing wrong with that, but if rogues are already operating at 90% of other classes' DPS, then we drop even lower when we're ask to do anything non-standard.
There are a lot of suggested fixes for the issues that we're facing. Our single-target DPS could get better via any number of mechanisms or changes, while our ability to swap targets quickly and AOE down clusters of mobs could also be improved.
Regardless of what the developers decide to do, it's clear that some action is needed. If you've been reading this column for any length of time, you know that I don't regularly call for rogue buffs, and I try to be understanding when we're nerfed. Rogues are the least-played class in the game, and we have been for some time. How is the rogue class supposed to draw in new players when we're getting slaughtered on the meters? Until rogues return to being an asset and stop being a liability, the attrition of rogue players is only going to get worse.
We don't need to win every fight -- but right now, we're not winning any fight.
Check back every Wednesday for the latest rogue strategies, from rogue basics and kicking your interrupts into high gear to how to handle your dual-spec rogue and how to pickpocket top tips from top-performing rogues.