Warlords Retrospective: Part 1

Before we start talking about what we want for rogues in Legion it’s important to reflect on WoD for rogues. What worked, what didn’t work, what can be salvaged and what needs to be changed. This will be the first part of a series of WoD retrospective posts, today talking about macro level issues with rogue class design.

Spec Niches
The handling of spec niches during Warlords has been incredibly confusing. The most telling example is the saga of Blade Flurry over the past 30 months. Think back to MoP launch, blade flurry was a 100% mirror on a single target. During 5.0 many rogues felt that a combat spec was mandatory for cleave centric fights such as Mogu’shan Dogs and Garalon so in 5.2 Blizzard changed blade flurry into the version we have today.  At the time Ghostcrawler summed up the change with the sentence “It’s fine if the rogue specs have niches, but the niches shouldn’t be so rigid that you don’t feel like you have any choice in spec.” This was for most of MoP the way we viewed niches and during WoD beta that looked like Blizzard’s solution too. During beta when blade flurry appeared much stronger than assassination and subtlety AoE Blizzard nerfed blade flurry and buffed the other two spec’s AoE.
Once the expansion went live however things changed. While both subtlety and assassination have received primarily single target buffs this expansion combat has seen blade flurry buffs such that now we are in the exact situation that we were during 5.0 and during beta. Combat is the AoE spec, if you need to AoE you play combat but the spec is broadly uncompetitive on sustained single target, more than 10% behind second place assassination. Every rogue spec question is “what spec do I pair with combat?” No one considers assassination/subtlety to be a viable spec combination for progression raiding.
Blizzard’s stance on spec niches for multiple spec per role classes has always been something of a moving target but the Warlords implementation has been particularly unpleasant. While great effort was made during MoP and WoD beta to relax the impact of niches, as we’ve moved through the expansion the niches have moved back to prominence with increased importance. Combat set bonuses and perks have continued to buff AoE capabilities up while assassination and subtlety have focused solely on increasing single target. Even if Blizzard hadn’t buffed blade flurry during the first round of hotfixes in 6.0 combat likely still be the the dominant rogue AoE spec.
Another problem with the current rogue niche design is subtlety. During beta it was explained that subtlety was tuned slightly higher than other rogue specs because of difficulty and to counterbalance its weaknesses in other areas. In other words, single target was a subtlety spec niche. This was more than a year ago so I don’t want to hold Blizzard to that statement but their recent behavior reflects similar thinking. When subtlety was only competitive with assassination single target at the start of 6.2 it was given several buffs, seemingly to make sure subtlety would always be the top dog for single target. This has major balance implications on its own as Ashunera explained very well during 6.0 but it also creates major problems for rogue spec balance as well.
Combine this goal of a single target spec with the AoE dominance of combat and its no wonder that assassination has been a mostly dead spec in high end raiding this expansion. Assassination theoretically has advantages on low target split cleave but fights like this are rare enough and the other specs are close enough that it generally isn’t worth optimizing for. Assassination also has its execute to fall back on however in its nerfed state (<10% dps increase over non-execute for most of the expansion) subtlety’s burst niche can do comparable amounts of damage during execute phases while being far more versatile.
The takeaway here is that, spec niches need to be reexamined. If Blizzard prefers the MoP and early WoD design of niches as perks or bonuses but all specs have reasonable tools then there needs to be far more emphasis on combat single target and subtlety/assassination AoE. If niches are going back to a more central role then assassination’s execute niche needs to be strengthened and perhaps the spec needs another niche.  Additionally we need to stop defining subtlety as the single target spec unless assassination is intended as the simple spec for new players that is never designed to be used in mythic raiding.
Weapon Lock
I started writing this post before the Legion announcement and at the time weapon lock was a really big deal, mostly for the reasons I mentioned back in my 6.0 blog post on the topic. However as Rfeann pointed out in his Blizzard Watch column last week the artifact system has the potential to solve a lot of the weapon lock issues that have plagued rogues during WoD. There are a number of open questions about how much work keeping multiple specs worth of weapons raid ready will be but those are not limited to just rogues so there should be a relatively broad coalition if Blizzard does something boneheaded.
The Rogue Survivability Toolkit
The strength of the rogue survivability toolkit isn’t new. Rogues have been the hardest to kill class in raids since Cataclysm and the creation of the first feint glyph. Today we all consider that part of the rogue class identity but there are a few problems. The first we saw this expansion very clearly on mythic Blackhand, only rogues have a spammable damage reduction ability strong enough for repeated soaking. In theory this strength is balanced by the energy cost, and by extension dps cost, of feint. At one point this was true, when the feint damage reduction was added in Wrath 20 energy with a 10 second cooldown was a pretty substantial expenditure, 15-20% of your total energy. As energy regen has increased over the past several expansions the energy cost of feint has become less relevant allowing rogues to spam feint without substantial penalty. I suspect many rogues use feint too much but the energy cost isn’t high enough to actually punish those decisions.

All that said increasing the cost of feint brings us to the second issue with the rogue survivability toolkit. Feint makes up so much of a rogue’s toolkit that nerfing it would leave rogues at best middle of the pack among melee dps survivability. Rogues do not have the generic 20-40% damage reduction cooldown of many other melee classes and as we’ve seen a few times this expansion, on Brakenspore for instance, without feint rogues tend to be pretty squishy. If Blizzard is going to nerf feint through at a cost increase like I am advocating rogues probably need a reliable, generic 20% damage reduction ability.

The rogue survivability toolkit is unique, and as the developers, Ghostcrawler in particular, have reminded us many times, unique isn’t bad. Unique is how we keep classes and specs from being too homogeneous but unique mechanics can cause balance problems and the rogue survivability toolkit is probably too unique. If Blizzard is going to continue designing fights like Blackhand another class or spec probably needs some form of spammable damage reduction ability.