I spent the majority of my time during The Burning Crusade as a subtlety rogue. Hemorrhage provided me with the damage I needed to crush anyone wearing cloth. Shadowstep allowed me to keep up with even the most slippery druids. The shadows were my ally, and I Cheated Death more than once. The Mutilate build that rules today's raids was still in its infancy, while combat was the only viable raiding spec. Even then, subtlety couldn't hope to compete, and our only purpose was to slaughter the opposing faction with stealth and grace.
On the timeline of WoW, subtlety did enjoy one blip in the PvE spotlight. During the early months of Wrath, a bug with Honor Among Thieves made subtlety rogues the best DPS class in the game, at least when stacked in a raid environment. Once the loophole was closed, the spec was relegated back to its PvP-only jail cell. Cataclysm was heralded as the new age of True Balance, with every spec getting a slice of the DPS pie. Unsurprisingly, the rogue utility spec of subtlety is still falling behind (along with frost mages, our old rivals for the bottom spot). The meters can be deceiving though, as subtlety is nowhere near as limp and lifeless in a raid as it once was. There's talk of high-end rogues even choosing to play subtlety. The whispers of the dead spec's long-waited return have been spreading through the shadows of the rogue community like a bad rumor.
Subtlety gets a lot of bad press
Take a minute and go beat up a target dummy in your capital city with Crippling Poison on both of your weapons. Not very effective, is it? I feel the same way about people who refer to sites like State Of DPS as proof that subtlety is the game's worst spec. While State of DPS is a valuable tool for evaluating many specs, it's simply ineffective when trying to gauge subtlety's potency. Let's look at the average DPS for subtlety on a fight like Chimaeron. SoD says the average sub rogue is doing around 16k DPS, which is pretty awful. SoD also notes that the standard deviation for subtlety is many times higher than it is for other classes, which is the cause of all this confusion.
Let's take a look at enhancement shaman on Chimaeron. Their average DPS is around 20k, but they have an incredibly low standard deviation. The low value tells us that the majority of ranked enhancement shaman are very close to 20k. Subtlety's high SD implies that there are a ton of rogues doing way more than 16k, but also rogues doing way less. Subtlety's true strength is so hard to gauge because there's such a huge difference between an experienced shade performing optimally and some PvP junkie wearing all resilience gear while napping their way to valor points. There are plenty of parses on World of Logs showing subtlety rogues pulling over 20k on Chimaeron, but you'd never see that without looking deeper.
Assassination: Still the best
Let me make this clear: You are always performing suboptimally by playing subtlety in a raid. A well-played assassination rogue will always beat a well-played subtlety rogue, provided that their gear is equal. Just because you're the best DPS in your raid group doesn't mean the spec is the best. When comparing with the thousands upon thousands of parses on World of Logs, it's clear that subtlety simply can't outperform assassination unless there's a major gear or skill difference. While doing the best DPS in your raid might be your only goal, doing the best DPS you can do means changing to assassination (or combat if appropriate).
Subtlety rogues are commonly seen on fights like the heroic version of Valiona and Theralion, as sub rogues are nearly impossible to kill. Sub's utility actually outweighs its DPS deficit on encounters like these, and there's nothing wrong with using the spec when the situation calls for it. Outside of these rare encounters, however, the DPS gain from an assassination build is worth losing Shadowstep and the other sub perks.
How to play sub, if you have to
If you play sub in a raid, you're either a die-hard sub fan who refuses to respec, or you've decided that subtlety's survivability is required to keep you alive. If you have to play subtlety, there are a few keys to doing it right. Every rogue rotation starts the same way, and subtlety is no different. You're going to need to keep Slice and Dice active at all times. In addition to SnD, sub rogues want to keep Recuperate rolling on them in order to gain all of that bonus energy from Energetic Recovery. ER is a huge source of energy for sub rogues, and keeping Recuperate up all the time makes you require less healing.
For damaging attacks, you'll be using Backstab as your primary combo point generator, which means the spec has a hard positional requirement. Hemorrhage is reserved for maintaining the bleed debuff or making your target bleed (with the glyph) for Sanguinary Vein to take effect. You'll want to maximize your Rupture uptime and spend any spare combo points on Eviscerate. Between Backstab's low energy cost for sub and Honor Among Thieves generating free combo points, you should be able to have over 95% uptime on SnD, Recuperate, and Rupture if you play your cards right and even get several Eviscerates in.
Eviscerate refreshes Rupture for sub rogues like Envenom refreshes SnD for assassination, so it's not too hard to maintain everything. Finally, you'll use Shadow Dance to spam Ambush on your target. Try to coordinate Shadow Dance with other cooldowns or effects like a potion or buff. The Ambushes you land during Shadow Dance can be up to 10% of your overall damage, so it's important not to neglect them. Remember that due to Mastery of Subtlety, Vanish can also be a DPS cooldown if you use it at the right time.
Subtlety uses the same dagger setup as assassination, with a slow dagger in the main hand and a quick dagger in the off hand. The poisons are the same too, with Instant gracing the slow dagger and Deadly on the quick dagger. Agility is the stat of choice for subtlety, as Sinister Calling boosts the amount of agility we get by 30%. Once you're past the yellow hit cap, hit is relatively worthless. Most of sub's damage comes from special attacks, and so you can focus on haste and expertise instead. The stat balance has the most in common with combat, where mastery and crit are considered to be second-tier stats. The current subtlety modeling doesn't have the years of vetting that the assassination and combat models have, and so the exact stat priorities aren't 100% certain at this time.
The best subtlety glyphs vary based on who you talk to, but there are a few frontrunners. Subtlety prime glyphs typically match our usual rogue glyph formula: We glyph our main combo point generator, our finisher, and our cooldown. Glyph of Backstab is an obvious choice due to our reliance on it as our main combo point generator, while Glyph of Slice and Dice helps smooth out bumps in the rotation. Glyph of Shadow Dance rounds out the trio, allowing us to score extra Ambushes. The major and minor glyphs are identical to assassination's typical choices.
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