Over the past few years, I've been accused of playing favorites with the rogue specs. During Wrath, I was characterized more than once as the ArP-mongering combat rogue who neglected Mutilate builds. In Cataclysm, I'm supposedly the devoted assassin who never gives combat or subtlety a fair shake. The truth is that I don't care what spec I'm playing, and I'll play whatever gives me the best results.
I played Mut/Prep, HARP, and even pure subtlety in the arena during The Burning Crusade. I've raided extensively as both combat and assassination, and I've leveled my rogues (plural) with each of the three specs, as well. I frequently swap specs. I love combat for solo PVE play, while subtlety holds a special place in my heart for ganking and world PVP. I currently raid as assassination simply because it's how I get the best results. I'm not alone in this philosophy, as most rogues will do whatever it takes, including a respec, to get the most out of their characters.
Subtlety's bad reputation
Despite the developers' clear attempts to resuscitate subtlety's raiding viability, it's been lackluster throughout Cataclysm. When talking about viability, I'm referring to subtlety's DPS when compared to assassination's DPS. In order for a spec to be viable, I should be able to see similar DPS results to the class' top spec. They don't need to be exactly equal, just close enough. If I can increase by DPS by 5-10% simply by dropping subtlety and switching to assassination, then subtlety isn't viable.
I can't, in good conscience, recommend that you drop 10% of your potential DPS to be a special snowflake. When damage is on the line, viability comes down to how the specs perform. If you're happy with hearing that subtlety is "good enough," then by all means go spec subtlety and have a blast. If you're looking to do your absolute best, you simply can't spec subtlety.
Subtlety has been weighed and found wanting
The argument that I hear often is that if rogues are topping their raid's meters and downing content as subtlety, they're obviously viable. I am here to tell you that sacrificing DPS for any reason other than pure necessity is not a viable course of action. Subtlety's DPS is merely passable, like a C- rating on your report card. While you passed the test, your rogue peers far exceeded your performance. It doesn't matter if you've got the best grade in your class; your entire class is probably underperforming. Your teacher may allow you graduate, but you aren't going to be earning any honors. You certainly won't even be considered by any serious colleges, like Paragon or Premonition. I think I've exhausted this metaphor.
Scaling and rotations
If I give 1,000 haste to each of the three rogue specs, their DPS will go up by different amounts. Each spec values haste differently, and so their relative power also changes as they acquire new gear. Based on the latest round of Simcraft results, subtlety rogue DPS can actually eclipse assassination's DPS when geared in the best gear from Firelands. Subtlety rogues have always looked relatively strong in Simcraft, but Firelands gear pushes them into the #1 spot. The additional haste they acquire helps them smooth out their rotation while also allowing for more finishers.
If subtlety is so strong, why are the world's top rogues still assassination or combat? The reason is simple: It's almost impossible to play subtlety perfectly. The rotation itself bucks and twists like an enraged bronco, desperate to toss you off its back and stomp in your skull. I don't care if every spreadsheet in the world says that subtlety does the top DPS. I need to be able to actually deal that damage for it to be meaningful. Theory is great, but bosses don't fall over from napkin math and charts. If subtlety wants to take its supposed throne at the top of the meters, someone is going to have to start posting parses that show it beating assassination on identical encounters.
I played subtlety
I always have a subtlety spec available. As a player on a PVP server, I never know when I'm going to need to stop doing my dailies and start severing some spinal cords. I have been committing xenocide at the Molten Front, executing more than my fair share of draenei and gnomes. There's no better spec than subtlety for world PVP, and most of my favorite WoW memories involve my daggers embedded in someone's rib cage right after a clutch Shadowstep. I squeal any time I hear there's going to be a daily quest hub in a no-fly zone.
After talking with a few subtlety rogues in the comments section of Encrypted Text over the past few weeks, I realized that I haven't raided as subtlety since the HAT bug was all the rage. I have focused on combat and assassination in raids, leaving subtlety alone in the PVP box. I decided that I shouldn't rule out the spec without giving it a fair shake, especially since I've been less than flattering to subtlety on more than one occasion. While the numbers are still on my side, I needed to eat my own dog food.
More difficulty with less reward
While I don't have ideal subtlety gear, I did respec and reforge into all the right stats. I cringed as I turned all of my mastery into expertise, although luckily, my haste from assassination carried over well. I studied the rotation and cooldown usage of a subtlety rogue. I examined World of Logs parses for best practices and neat tricks. I focused on uptimes and finisher priorities, learning to mimic the best-parsing rogues of the spec.
After two full 12/12 clears of tier 11 as a subtlety rogue, my DPS declined from my assassination parses. On some fights, the difference between sub and assassination was minimal; on others, it was huge. I was in the top 100 parses for every single fight as subtlety, yet my assassination DPS was still higher two weeks ago. On Chimaeron, the difference was less than 1% DPS, while I performed nearly 20% worse on the AoE-heavy Maloriak encounter.
Subtlety performs its best on simple fights. There's plenty of time for you to establish your long rotation, and as long as you're not interrupted, you can continue beating up the boss with a deadly efficiency. As soon as you introduce adds or AoE or target swaps or anything, your DPS suffers.
With tier 11 haste values, it can be difficult to maintain the rotation. You're trying to maintain Recuperate, Slice and Dice, and Rupture, all at the same time. Shadow Dance is a powerful cooldown but requires careful planning to utilize it properly. Honor Among Thieves is fun but punishes you for not spending your combo points fast enough. Subtlety has amazing burst for low-life targets, as Backstab and Ambush can both see huge crits, but it can't compete with Fan of Knives or Blade Flurry for AOE. Subtlety also has amazing mobility with Shadowstep, but fights aren't tuned around requiring it. Subtlety's survivability between constant Recuperate and Enveloping Shadows is amazing, but again, Feint does just fine so far. Subtlety has the bonus utility that we all love, but its DPS just can't bridge the gap.
Subtlety is genuinely hard
I spent 8 hours raiding as subtlety, and I still don't have Shadow Dance quite perfected. You want to score a lot of Ambushes, but you also want to save your last Ambush for the end to extend Find Weakness. Should you use a finisher while in Shadow Dance? Do you just waste your extra combo points? Should I use Hemorrhage or Rupture when switching to a new add, or just burn it down? I let Rupture or Recuperate drop plenty of times, sometimes more than once on the same encounter. I am not that good at subtlety, yet somehow I'm parsing in the top 20 with awful DPS.
I wouldn't play subtlety in PVE right now, even if it were viable. The rotation and cooldowns are more difficult than either combat or assassination, and there's really no reward. I realized that I lost much of my raid awareness, as I spent most of the raid glued to EventHorizon. It's just not worth the effort just to have a shot to do as well than an average assassination rogue.
Coming into this experiment, I was already convinced that subtlety needed a DPS adjustment to be adopted by mainstream rogues. After my experiences, I think it needs a rotation revamp on top of that. Why play a spec with the highest skill cap for literally no reward? There are very serious subtlety rogues out there, and they're all still parsing worse than assassination. Subtlety simply can't hit its theoretical DPS with the level of randomness in Firelands. Until subtlety rogues can start outparsing assassination, the spec is going to continue to be reserved for PVP and nothing else.
For those of you who want to play subtlety, realize that I'm still on your side. You're convinced that subtlety is ready for prime time right now, while I think it still needs work. Would you really be upset if the developers made subtlety even stronger and more forgiving? I'm not saying that I never want subtlety to work in PVE -- I'm just saying that I don't think that's where it's at right now.
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.