What's the best leveling build going to be?
I've been asked this question since WoW was initially released, and my answer has always been exactly the same. Combat is the best leveling build for rogues, and now, possibly in the entire game. In my opinion, there are three important aspects to a leveling build: simplicity, survivability and cooldowns. While every tree has a few points in each category, combat wins all three with ease.
In terms of simplicity, combat has the other specs beat easily. Combat rogues can snag Deadly Momentum from the assassination tree, which allows them to refresh Recuperate and Slice and Dice automatically when killing a mob. Improved Slice and Dice also ensures that our SnD timer is long enough to last between kills. What this means is that combat rogues can basically walk up to an enemy, already have both Recup and SnD rolling, and just spam Sinister Strike and Eviscerate to kill whatever they're facing. With no Overkill or Master of Subtlety promoting the use of Stealth, combat is the simplest killing machine. It might be mindless, but with hours and hours of leveling ahead of you, do you really want to be micromanaging timers on every kill?
Improved Recuperate is pretty much the best survivability talent in the game. The tooltip implies that it only boosts the healing by 2 percent, but that's actually 2 percent per tick, resulting in a 60 percent boost to overall healing done. The 6 percent reduction in damage taken is simply icing on the cake, as the healing from Recuperate will allow you to survive nearly any reasonable encounter. Now, IR is available to all rogue specs, so it's not combat-specific. However, combat does pick up an extra 9 percent dodge from Lightning Reflexes, which is comparable to Deadened Nerves. The real key to combat's survivability is Reinforced Leather, which we can grab without missing out on any DPS talents. The armor boost is quite significant, and there's no parallel talent in any other tree.
It wasn't so long ago that when we talked about offensive cooldowns, combat was the only tree we could even mention. Times have changed, and assassination does have Vendetta and a revamped Cold Blood at its disposal. Unfortunately, both of these pale in comparison to Killing Spree's ability to instantly kill whatever we're attacking, and Adrenaline Rush's capability to turn the tables in any fight. Blade Flurry, with its incredibly short cooldown, also allows us to basically attack two mobs at once all the time. How many of you have ever had to pop a defensive cooldown or run away from a fight when too many mobs had aggro on you? With Blade Flurry, you're actually inefficient if you're not killing more than one target a time.
Is assassination any good?
While Mutilate builds have been viable for most of Wrath, there are still a lot of rogues who have never tried it out. Assassination is a very complete tree, and its talents provide it with a rich and functional rotation. With combat's potency in question, many rogues are picking up their neglected daggers to keep their raid spots secured. Assassination handled the patch 4.0.1 changes with grace and actually came out better because of them. It now has a reasonable DPS cooldown in Vendetta, a rotation-swap at low life via Murderous Intent, and even a great raid debuff in the form of Master Poisoner. You really can't go wrong with a Mutilate-based build at this point.
Assassination does have a few quirks, though, for those of you migrating from the combat tree. Since it's the only rogue build with Improved Poisons, using Instant Poison on your main-hand weapon is crucial. Combat used to use IP, but after patch 4.0.1, Wound Poison is back on top. In addition, it's one of the few specs in the game that actually values its mastery bonus, which increases poison damage done. Haste is still the build's top stat after the hit and expertise caps are met, but reforging your crit to mastery is a good thing. Luckily for those of you making the exodus from combat, the removal of armor penetration means our gear is actually well-suited for Mutilate builds now.
Should I level as subtlety to get the hang of it?
Subtlety has some exciting theorycrafting going on now, with many different areas being researched. There's working being done on proper opening sequences, figuring out a priority system for finishers and timers, and experimenting with best practices for Shadowstep and Shadow Dance. While subtlety in PvP has been used for months and continues to be viable today, we're still working on squeezing every last drop of DPS out of subtlety's PvE capabilities.
Unfortunately, no matter what the results end up being, subtlety is a poor leveling build. Its core talent, Honor Among Thieves, simply works better in a raid environment. In addition, due to the typically short duration of fights while leveling, you never get a chance to really explore the rotation and the functionality of the build. Subtlety in PvE really favors a long fight that allows the rogue to get all of their finishers active to really spread its wings. However, if you're on a PvP server and you expect to engage with the enemy faction while leveling, having subtlety as your secondary spec isn't a bad idea at all.
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.