The rogue is the most feared class in player vs. player combat. While other classes may have had their 15 minutes of fame at the top, the rogue has been perennially powerful. In WoW, we were so hated that an entire video series was dedicated to how overpowered we must've been. In The Burning Crusade, the legendary Warglaive combo made us infamous in arena play. Death knights did dominate in the early stages of Wrath, but rogues came back strong throughout the patches.
Cataclysm was the first time that I ever worried about the survival of the class in PvP. With health pools skyrocketing again and the much-maligned stunlock nerfed, it was obvious that fights were going to last longer than ever. Our energy system enables us to keep up offensively for an indefinite period of time, but our defenses typically gave out once our cooldowns had been consumed. Figuring out a way to stay alive throughout prolonged combat was going to be the key to success.
Add more cooldowns
Whenever there's a problem with the rogue class, the answer is to tweak our cooldowns. Rogues are so solid at a basic level that cooldowns are really the most effective way to adjust us without breaking us completely. As fight durations increase, we need added survivability. Combat Readiness helps us deal with being focused on, while Smoke Bomb gives us the opportunity to avoid ranged attacks. Recuperate seals the deal by allowing us to easily heal ourselves, which was a feature we've always lacked.
The rogue class is doing well in PvP today. While we're not dominating the 2v2 arena bracket like death knights are, we are doing well in the brackets that matter. Rogues are still executing their prey in battlegrounds, and few people survive an encounter with a rogue in the open world. Combat is still the weakest PvP spec, and so you can see that it's really business as usual for rogues in Cataclysm.
Picking a role in PvP
I find that it's difficult to accurately give advice to rogues about PvP. Just saying "PvP" instantly opens up so many possible situations. Our strategy for a tight arena match is going to be completely different from our plans for a massive Tol Barad battle. I find that the simplest way to compartmentalize PvP is to use the idea of "roles" that you can fill as a rogue, and then explore the pros and cons of each role.
The three roles I usually envision match our specs: the assassin, the brawler, and the shade. Each rogue spec can play any of these roles, but the talent trees and abilities of any given spec typically line up with one particular preferred role.
Assassins destroy high-priority targets
Between Overkill, Cold Blood, and Vendetta, the assassination rogue is uniquely suited for the assassin role. Subtlety rogues can also perform the role quite well, although Ambush isn't the killer attack that it used to be. The goal of an assassin is to eliminate high-profile targets quickly, pursuing their targets tenaciously. In an arena match, this means focusing on killing and locking down one particular opponent. In a battleground, the assassin will pick out a healer or other key target and focus on controlling and murdering them. Rather than running in blindly, you pick your target with care and then focus on countering their abilities with your own, keeping the enemy inactive.
Picking your target is crucial to succeeding as an assassin. Healers typically make perfect targets, as they're usually vulnerable and their healing can turn the tide of a battle. Many of the other casters are capable of insane amounts of damage when left unmolested, and so I'll often find myself going mano-a-mano with a frost mage. We'll go back and forth, as I use Cloak of Shadows and Vanish to counter his abilities and he uses Ice Block and Frost Nova to counter mine. If I can make him focus on avoiding me, he can't unload on my allies.
If I see a caster who's out of mana, I don't bother focusing on him first, as he's not going to be very effective anyway. Assassins pick out the highest-value targets first and ensure that they don't get to put their assets into play. In order to be a good assassin, you need to know the other classes in extensive detail so that you can counter their actions. There's nothing wrong with Vanishing and switching your target when a situation gets rough, and similarly, it's fine to swap to a wounded target to help ensure a kill.
The brawler makes himself a target
While combat isn't the best PvP spec, it's clearly suited for playing the role of the brawler. With perma-Blade Flurry mirroring our attacks and Adrenaline Rush and Killing Spree at our disposal, combat rogues can dish out some serious damage to several targets. The brawler runs into combat with his weapons drawn, and his goal is to both get his opponents to focus on him and to deal as much damage as possible before dying. In order to be a successful brawler, you need to know when to use your cooldowns and how to position yourself to deal maximum damage. The role is rarely effective in the arena, as running in blindly will typically get you killed in quick order, but it can work well in battlegrounds.
When I'm playing the brawler role, I like to use a few different throwing weapons. I'll apply Wound Poison to one, Crippling to another, and even Mind-Numbing on a third. By activating Adrenaline Rush and spamming Fan of Knives while rotating weapons, I can get several valuable poisons up on an entire group in short order. Whenever I'm feeling pressure, I can use Killing Spree to avoid attacks for a few seconds and possibly confuse my opponents. I use my defensive cooldowns aggressively, especially since I can die in a moment's notice if trained. Combat rogues can also incapacitate a target for quite some time by using Revealing Strike (with the glyph) and Kidney Shot. In fact, a glyphed KS preceded by a Revealing Strike is now the longest form of CC available in PvP, and it's a stun on top of that.
The goal of a brawler is to disrupt the flow of combat. You're attacking several targets at once, you're applying tons of poisons and debuffs, and you're incredibly hard to kill with your cooldowns active. By buying your teammates time and generally avoiding damage, you can shift the momentum of a fight very quickly. The brawler only really works in larger group combat, but this makes it a great choice for having fun in Tol Barad. With a few healers behind you, the brawler can survive for an incredibly long time while damaging the entire enemy team all at once.
The shade is all about finesse
Subtlety rogues make the best shades, largely due to their special abilities and improved Stealth. The goal of the shade role is to use finesse to control several targets while remaining incredibly mobile and hard to catch. The shade will rarely fight someone directly, preferring instead to use a lot of DoT attacks like Rupture and Deadly Poison and letting their target bleed out. While it can take a long time for someone to die from bleeds with today's six-digit life pools, the shade might be engaging with several different targets, applying DoTs to each. The shade is slipping between targets, dealing damage to each in turn, trying to avoid being trapped.
Shadowstep and Preparation play huge roles in being a successful shade. Shadowstep allows you to have great mobility and keeps your opponents from being able to easily catch you. Preparation gives you an extra set of mobility cooldowns, including the aforementioned Shadowstep. With an extra Sprint and Vanish also at your disposal, it's easy for a shade to avoid being caught while attacking different targets. The shade's target selection can vary on the situation, but the idea is to prevent anyone from escaping from combat and ensuring that you can switch quickly to apply pressure. In the arena, shades are the masters of quickly switching between targets, which is key to scoring kills against a rival team.
The shade realizes that fights can go on for minutes, and so they play the long game. By using efficient DoTs and avoiding damage, they can whittle their opponents' life to a reasonable number or cost them valuable mana. The shade can also provide amazing levels of crowd control via Sap. Sap can now be refreshed on a target in combat, although it can't be applied to a target that's already in combat. With two Vanishes and Shadow Dance available, a subtlety rogue can keep targets locked down for incredibly lengths of time. It can take a lot of practice to learn to use Sap, Blind, and the other CC tools to their full effect, but that's the finesse part of the spec. If you know what you're doing, you can turn the tide of a battle.
Nothing's written in stone
Assassination rogues can still play the brawler role by applying Rupture for extra Venomous Wounds procs and spamming Fan of Knives with Vile Poisons and Deadly Brew, applying tons of poisons at once. Subtlety rogues can be assassins, using Shadow Dance and Preparation to exhibit unparalleled control over one target. The key is to figure out which playstyle you enjoy the most, then focusing on tailoring your build and strategy to reinforce that concept. Adjusting to the situation at hand is also important, as every PvP fight is its own encounter. There's no script for what your opponent will try, and learning to make changes on the fly will ensure that you can control the tempo in any engagement.
Check back every Wednesday for the latest rogue strategies in Encrypted Text! We'll show you how to navigate Cataclysm rogue basics, dig into new rogue mechanics, and gear up for heroics.