When I was selecting my first class, back in the early days of WoW, I chose the rogue for its awesome killing potential. Mindlessly grinding mobs used to be a valid way to level, especially since questing in the past involved so much travel and downtime. Our unique mix of stuns and damage allowed rogues to chew through enemies quickly and efficiently. My strategy was to find an area populated by caster-type mobs and then simply burn through them all day long.
Over the years, rogues have continued to evolve, and we're now one of the strongest leveling classes in the game. Our past weaknesses were our lack of self-healing and our difficulty against elite mobs, but Recuperate and the near total removal of any quest-based elite mobs in Cataclysm has solved both of our problems. Leveling a new rogue today is an enjoyable experience, as we have the finesse to avoid unwanted encounters and the brawn to handle any combat that we do have to engage in.
Tips and resources
Stealth is a rogue's greatest weapon, as it allows us to dictate the terms of an engagement. There's nothing wrong with avoiding a fight, and you can use Stealth to grab a quest item or target a specific quest enemy without facing needless enemies. When it comes to mechanics, rogues are based on the energy resource system and the rotation system, which combined give us an experience that's unlike any other class in the game. Because our energy system lends itself to fast-paced action, you need to have quick reaction times (mixed with good keybinds) to succeed.
Choosing a talent spec
Luckily for rogues, all three of our talent trees are viable for leveling up. Combat rogues are able to handle multiple mobs at once with Blade Flurry, assassination rogues have nearly no downtime via Deadly Momentum, and subtlety rogues are able to dispatch their targets in just a few hits. I prefer combat builds for leveling due to their simplistic playstyle, but you can't go wrong with any of the three trees. The key to creating a great leveling build is to focus more on burst damage and less on average damage. Rogues never spend more than a few seconds killing an enemy, and our builds should reflect that.
The general idea of rogue leveling is to simply unload a ton of damage into your opponents to minimize your damage taken. We can use Recuperate to heal ourselves while continuing to attack, while Evasion and Sprint give us options to avoid damage altogether. Typically, Recuperate will heal us for enough health that we don't need to sit and eat. Rogue attack rotations can be complicated in a raid environment, but when you're leveling up, you want to keep things simple. I also recommend using Pick Pocket as often as possible while leveling, as you'll find free potions and plenty of gold to help support your character.
Combat is all about brute force
Leveling as a combat rogue is incredibly easy. You walk up to an enemy, unload a few Sinister Strikes into them, and then finish them off with an Eviscerate if necessary. Combat rogues don't even need to use Stealth, as none of their openers are impressive. Killing Spree and Adrenaline Rush allow you to annihilate your targets every couple of minutes, so make sure to use these as often as possible. While you might want to save your cooldowns for a desperate situation, it's better to use your DPS cooldowns constantly and to save defensive CDs like Vanish for escaping.
A leveling combat build picks up Improved Recuperate and Reinforced Leather to reduce incoming damage taken and to reduce downtime. We can safely skip Revealing Strike, since it only adds complexity to a rotation that doesn't need to be complex. You can easily tackle any challenge with Sinister Strike spam, so there's no reason to waste your time on other abilities. The only exception to that rule is when you're facing an elite mob, as Slice and Dice is very valuable when engaged in a longer battle. If you want to speed up your experience gain, you can activate Blade Flurry (with the Glyph of Blade Flurry, of course) and attack two mobs at once. Combat rogues are strong enough to chew their way through multiple mobs, so don't limit yourself to just one enemy at a time.
Assassination rogues never stop
Deadly Momentum is the talent that defines the assassination leveling build. If you can kill one enemy every 30 seconds, your Recuperate and Slice and Dice have their durations reset. An assassination rogue focuses on moving swiftly from target to target, leaning on the damage bonus from Slice and Dice and the healing from Recuperate to cut their downtime to zero. Quickening helps you close the distance between targets quickly, while Puncturing Wounds and Lethality enable you to deal a ton of burst damage. You can use Cold Blood to knock out high-priority targets quickly, especially when paired with Eviscerate. I included Blackjack in this build because I think it's very valuable for fighting elites, as you can Sap them and then use a traditional opener while they're dealing less damage.
Assassination rogues will be opening on their opponents from Stealth with an Ambush or Garrote, and then using Mutilate to build up combo points. Don't bother with Backstab, as it's too much trouble to attempt to get behind a mob. When fighting your first and second mobs, you apply Slice and Dice and Recuperate. When fighting subsequent mobs, once you're up to 5 combo points, you unleash them via an Eviscerate (which is buffed by Coup de Grace) and your target is always dead. After quickly looting your opponent, you immediately start making your way to your next target. Assassination rogues can make their way through multiple mobs per minute, especially if they're able to exploit Deadly Momentum to the fullest.
Subtlety opens with a bang
Subtlety rogues thrive on Stealth. If you're using a subtlety build to level, you want to open every engagement from Stealth, as Master of Subtlety and Find Weakness boost your early damage and Improved Ambush gives you an amazing opener. Use the speed boost from Nightstalker to position yourself behind your target, unload a quick Ambush and enjoy the extra combo point from Initiative, and then start spamming Hemorrhage. Backstab is the typical combo point generator for subtlety rogues in raids, but Hemorrhage is what you want to use when you're by yourself. Don't bother with Rupture, as the bleed effect from the Hemorrhage glyph activates the Sanguinary Vein bonus. You won't get access to Hemorrhage right away when you're leveling, so use Sinister Strike as a substitute until then.
Subtlety rogues need to get the opener in order to be effective. You should always open from Stealth with Ambush, and then the rest of the fight become simple. You can use Shadowstep to quickly move from mob to mob, blowing them out of the water instantly. Ambush is your biggest weapon, and as long as you're fighting mobs near your level, it should remove most of their life in a single blow. Once you get access to Recuperate, you can utilize Energetic Recovery to give yourself some extra energy as you're healing yourself.
Weapons and poison selection
When choosing your weapons as a rogue, you only need to worry about your main-hand weapon. Your off-hand weapon will always be the quickest weapon you can find, which will usually be a dagger. Your ranged weapon can be a bow, gun, or throwing weapon, as Fan of Knives isn't an important leveling ability. Subtlety and combat rogues will want slow weapons like swords, maces, and axes for their main hand, while assassination rogues are aiming for a slow dagger for their main hand choice. I recommend using Wound Poison on both of your weapons while leveling up, as mobs don't last long enough for Deadly Poison to be effective at all. Deadly Brew, Blade Twisting, and Waylay should take care of any mobs that try to run away.
A rogue's primary stat is agility, so every piece of gear you acquire needs to have agility on. Hit and expertise rating are your next two strongest stats, and any gear with either of those stats will typically be the best available option. Haste and critical strike rating are the other two stats that you'll find on your gear, and they're both good to have. Hit rating, for non-combat rogues in particular, should be your first concern when picking out gear. As long as the gear has agility on it, you really can't go wrong.
Sneak in every Wednesday for our Molten Front ganking guide, a deep-dive into the world of playing a subtlety rogue -- and of course, all the basics in our guide to the latest rogue gear.