When we last left our devious, poison-festooned heroes, they were assassinating the heck out of every raid boss in sight, much as they have been this entire expansion. Assassination has been the spec of choice for raiders of all stripes in Mists -- but might Patch 5.4 change the balance?
The answer may depend as much on you as on the gifts that WoW's designers wrapped up and handed us for the new patch. Combat and subtlety both are looking like perfectly good options in almost every situation. Unless you're with a group that is seriously trying to squeeze every last drop of damage out of its DPSers, and you're already playing your spec perfectly, your main criteria for which spec to use should rely on 1) whether you enjoy it and 2) whether you've got the right gear for it.
A Little More Combative
While assassination spec has spent the expansion honing a finely-sharpened sense of superiority, combat has found itself slipping deeper and deeper into an identity crisis. Combat began this expansion with perhaps the most powerful two-target cleave in the game -- a longtime truth that became glaringly obvious when it absolutely obliterated the rest of the field on Stone Guard, the very first raid fight in Mists.
So the devastating two-target cleave was instead rejiggered into a strong two-to-five-target cleave -- and combat hasn't been the same since. As much to blame as anything is the fact that Throne of Thunder offered very few situations in which a multi-target cleave was valuable. By contrast, it did offer a situation or two where using one of the spec's signature abilities could potentially prove suicidal.
So what do you do to salvage the viability of a spec that's lost its niche? You bust out the Swiffer and get to buffing.
Although Eviscerate took a small hit (probably to make it less brutal in PvP), Sinister Strike got a net buff (a 66% damage increase tempered by a 25% energy cost increase, intended to reduce the spamminess many were starting to feel at higher gear levels), Revealing Strike got a 28% damage bump and a boost to Vitality further increased damage across the board. Meanwhile, Killing Spree received a major improvement that many combat fans have long been praying for: a way to force the ability to only strike a single target. Together, these changes portend greater competitiveness with assassination on single-target fights.
That is, depending on what you're wearing.
If something felt a little "off" to you about the combat spec when you started Patch 5.4, it may have been partly because of the Sinister Strike change, but it was more likely because WoW's designers nerfed the living daylights out of the four-piece Tier 15 bonus that many of you likely had. That bonus was incredibly powerful for combat rogues in patch 5.2/5.3; it single-handedly brought combat up to par (theoretically) with assassination.
But the danger with such a strong set bonus is that, when a new tier of raid gear becomes available, combat rogues may avoid grabbing it, since the previous tier's bonus was just so durned sexy. To make sure that didn't happen, the designers reluctantly eviscerated the four-piece Tier 15 -- and in so doing, sliced off a nice chunk of damage potential for all combat rogues just starting out in 5.4 who had what used to be a much better bonus.
The good news is that gearing up will quickly help level the playing field again. Especially if you manage to nab the Assurance of Consequence trinket from the Sha of Pride, the fourth boss in Siege of Orgrimmar -- that's the fight you'll be wanting to spend those shiny new Warforged Seals on, as well as the bosses that drop one-handed +agility weapons. (Yes, that's right, slow-weapon lovers: The new raid offers us one axe, one fist weapon, one mace and one sword, in addition to the heirloom axe that drops from Garrosh.) The AoC trinket synergizes extremely well with combat's core cooldowns, which is where a major chunk of the spec's damage potential comes from; once you've got the AoC equipped, you'll need to watch your cooldown timers especially closely, because you'll often find yourself ready to mash a cooldown again very shortly after the previous one ends.
Oh, and in case you were wondering: It's looking like Rupture can be tossed back onto combat's rubbish pile for the remainder of the expansion, especially once we drop the Tier 15 two-piece bonus that had made it more desirable. (It appears to technically have a teeny-tiny amount of value when you're able to use up every tick, but the difference is so marginal it's probably not worth the effort.)
Finally, as has been the case all expansion, keep on equipping an axe/fist/mace/sword in your main hand and an axe/dagger/fist/mace/sword in your offhand. The difference between a dagger and a non-dagger in your offhand is tiny; it's one of the great successes that the developers have had with our class in this expansion. Stats/Item level, not weapon speed, should be your guide on what to equip. (Use ShadowCraft to help you decide; we'll talk more about this magical tool soon.)
So Subtle, You Can't Even See It
If combat spec was the neglected stepchild of the previous raid tier, then subtlety spec is a fleck of dirt on combat's boot. Even though theorycrafting has consistently put it right up there with the other two specs in damage potential, the challenges of achieving that potential -- it's got the most complex rotation to manage, and its main combo point builders require you to be behind your target -- have left the vast majority of players avoiding it entirely, especially in raids.
But don't count out the wily underdog just yet. For those willing to put in the effort to master it, subtlety may provide the greatest gift of all: single-target damage numbers that give assassination a serious run for its daggers.
A 38% Backstab buff, a 14% Hemorrhage buff and a boost to Sanguinary Vein (25% increased damage against bleeding targets, up from 20%) apparently weren't enough to get the spec treated seriously by a considerable number of raiders. So the designers turned that Sanguinary Vein boost into a springboard: A hotfix brought the damage increase up from 25% to 35%, nearly doubling the power of the passive ability and giving subtlety an additional 8% or so DPS boost, according to theorycrafters. That ain't chump change.
Meanwhile, a new glyph added with Patch 5.4 -- Hemorrhaging Veins -- offers the tantalizing promise of a simpler rotation, since it means far less damage loss when Rupture isn't active on the target. Don't get me wrong: It's still best to weave Rupture in. It's just not as catastrophic as it was when you don't, which basically means a reduction in the spec's "skill gap."
Assassination, and to a lesser extent combat, have benefited from this for a while: In comparison to subtlety, they tend to show less of a DPS difference between someone who is "meh" at playing the spec and someone who's awesome at it. By shrinking the skill gap a bit for subtlety and simultaneously dangling a large DPS reward for those who can play it superbly, a few more people may feel encouraged to try it out.
Whether that holds true or not remains to be seen. Signs are encouraging: There's been a rare flurry of discussion lately over on Elitist Jerks about the spec, and some of our class's brightest theorycrafting minds are hard at work trying to help those brave souls who choose to venture out into that subtle wilderness.
The next step is yours. Assassinate your way to raiding glory, or give one of our long-shunned specs a second (or third, or fourth) chance?
Or are you already running raids as the under-rogue?
Sneak in every Wednesday or two for our RPPM guide and tier 16 set bonus review, a deep-dive into the world of assassination and combat rogue AoE rotations -- and of course, why we'll always be the bad guys.