What Happened to Rogues: Niches and Weaponlock

Two months ago I interviewed Vigilate and Flim, rogues in World 20 and 25 respectively, and they both agreed that rogues looked good coming into WoD.  Two months ago when we were looking at T17 none of us expected that rogues would be widely considered the one of weakest melee and a poor choice for mythic content during the most melee friendly tier in recent memory.  And none of us could have imagined the most recent batch of balancing hotfixes, hotfixes that contained buffs for rogues, being mocked all around.   So what went wrong? 

There is no one answer, the problems facing rogues in current PvE content come from the accumulated crud of several expansions worth of questionable or short-sighted design decisions and changing philosophies.  Numbers can be fixed, and they may be fixed yet but there are much deeper issues with rogue design and how rogues fit into the current raiding environment that need to be addressed long term.  This is going to the first in a series of posts on what went wrong with rogues coming into WoD.  Today the first and probably most pressing issue facing the rogue class, spec niches and weapon lock.

Blizzard likes spec niches, they’ve said as much many times.  The problem is their application seems inconsistent.  Blizzard’s logic has always been niches are fun, it’s fun to have a fight where you can shine but it creates problems with single-spec-per-role dps.  If you only have one spec it doesn’t seem fair to limit the spec to only a single or small number of niches because if one of your niches isn’t needed the alternative is swapping characters or feeling like a liability to your raid comp, neither of which is particularly fun.  Instead you end up with ret paladins (not picking on rets, some of my best friends are actually rets) above average single target, cleave and burst.  I should note here that not all single-spec-per-role dps are good at everything, some such as ele and enhance shamans for example still have a relatively rigid AoE niche.

The logic here is basically sound, and if the game were only made up of single-spec-per-role dps it would be a fine design but when more than half the classes in the game have multiple-specs-per-role there are problems.  While a ret paladins can do everything in a single spec, a rogue needs to swap between multiple specs for the same effect.  To achieve the same effectiveness as many single-spec-per-role dps a rogue needs to be comfortable with several, often dramatically different playstyles and rotations.  In fairness to single-spec-per-role dps, talents often define different rotations for different situations. For instance a serenity windwalker, specializing in burst and single target plays very differently from a chi explosion windwalker specializing in cleave and AoE.  Even in these cases however the windwalker can still use the same spec, similar binds, the same mechanical primitives, and a similar basic rotation while the rogue cannot and this ignores the elephant in the room, weapon lock.

Rogue specs are defined by our weapons, combat needs a slow main hand and now more than ever a slow off hand as well (recent discoveries about main hand daggers for combat AoE may change this somewhat but during beta a slow MH was noted as the design goal for combat), subtlety needs a dagger main hand and assassination needs two daggers.  To be fully effective a rogue needs four weapons and each poses it’s own set of challenges.  Daggers as niche loot tend to be quite rare, in Highmaul for instance there is only one dagger drop.  Since both assassination and subtlety need a dagger this single dagger drop boss can effectively lock rogues out of those specs with poor loot luck.  Slow weapons are much common however it doesn’t feel right (or smart) to take a slow weapon you will use for 50% of the bosses over another dps who will use it for 100%.  In the long term things mostly work out but over short progression gearing windows when weapons are the most important upgrades getting weapons for multiple specs is often a major concern.

The key problem here is Blizzard has been inconsistent with spec niches, on the 5.2 PTR Ghostcrawler said of Blade Flurry, “We feel like the implementation of Blade Flurry on live forces rogues to go Combat on any cleave fights, while leaving Combat too far behind on any single target fights.”  During WoD beta when combat looked to be far ahead of the other rogue specs on AoE, Blade Flurry was nerfed from 40% mirror to 30% mirror and the other specs AoE buffed significantly.  This quote makes the most recent combat hotfix even more baffling, with combat appears to be suffering on single target dps (player bias likely plays a role here however there are enough combat parses on Kargath and Butcher, possibly due to weapon lock, that I think WCL numbers have some validity) and yet the hotfix buffed combat’s AoE only.  The problem for combat is unlike in T14 it doesn’t have any perfect encounters, fights with all cleave all the time.  Instead T17 is full of partial cleave fights, sometimes you get to cleave, sometimes you don’t and on those fights combat’s below average single target dps rapidly becomes a liability despite its theoretically strong AoE/cleave toolkit.

Blizzard needs to figure out a consistent approach to niches.  If single-spec-per-role dps can do everything competently in a single spec, it doesn’t seem too much to ask for rogues as well.  If Blizzard plans to stick with the current niche heavy design where a rogue is expected to play multiple specs for full effectiveness weapon lock needs to be addressed either by increasing weapon availability or by making rogue specs more weapon agnostic.