I am often asked about my favorite aspect of the rogue class. While our plethora of cooldowns are quite amazing and Stealth defines the class from an outsider's view, they're simply not relevant that often. Stealth is what rogues do when they're not in combat, and our cooldowns are only effective occasionally. The most pervasive portion of the rogue experience is our rotation system, which we're dealing with during every single second of every combat engagement.
I have played my wife's retribution paladin a few times, and suffice it to say that I hate the spec with every fiber of my being. I hated their old FCFS priority system in Wrath, and I hate their new, holy power-infused "rotation" of Cataclysm. There are so many procs and random events that it's impossible to work out any sort of fixed strategy or priority system. Rogue rotations are actually true rotations, capable of being quantified and easily repeatable. Our combo point and energy systems work together to create a functional DPS model that hasn't changed since the game's original inception.
The definition of rotation
Rogues are a completely rotation-based DPS class. We don't have any procs to manage or ability priority systems. We create combo points via a generator, and then we unleash them with a finisher. The generator might change based on our talent spec or positioning, and every build uses different finishers, but the pairing of generator-finisher is responsible for our entire DPS rotation. Every attack we have either generates combo points or releases them. None of our attacks have cooldowns, and we don't rely on buffs or procs to activate any special abilities.
I can understand how, at first glance, rogue DPS can seem very vanilla. In the old days, we could describe our rotations with just a few letters like "3s5r5e" or another jumble of letters and numbers. The truth is that there is more depth to the rogue rotation than meets the eye. Even though we only use a handful of abilities and our rotations are relatively fixed, there is still plenty of room for optimization. Rogues thrive on maximizing their performance, and knowing the subtle differences in our attack strategies is one of the aspects that separates the professionals from the amateurs.
Assassins worry about debuff uptime
For an assassination rogue, debuff uptime is our most important concern. Deadly Poison is the backbone for our poison damage (via both our poisons and Envenom), and Rupture provides us with bonus damage and energy via Venomous Wounds.
Maintaining our debuffs is one of the simplest ways to increase our DPS. For example, when we're forced to spend time away from a boss, we can use our Throw ability coupled with Deadly Poison on our throwing weapon to refresh our Deadly Poison stack. Rogues need to be looking for opportunities to ensure that Deadly Poison stays active if at all possible. We can also refresh Rupture at fewer than 5 combo points to maintain uptime, as keeping Rupture active at all times is far more important. We also want to burn our final combo points on a dying add into a Rupture, as we'll get a huge energy boost once the add dies.
A more advanced tactic for assassination rogues involves maximizing your Envenom uptime. After using Envenom, we get a boost to our poison proc rates via the Envenom buff, which increases our DPS. In order to get the biggest benefit from the Envenom buff, we want to ensure that we don't overwrite our Envenom buff. Once we Envenom, we could actually be ready to Envenom again after just one Mutilate. Rather than Envenoming again immediately, we should pool our energy until the previous Envenom buff wears off. In addition to ensuring we don't overwrite the Envenom buff, we can also use the pooled energy to sneak in extra attacks in the Envenom window, further boosting our DPS.
Combat rogues keep it simple
The combat rotation has varied dramatically through the years, beginning with Backstabbing as combat dagger rogues and moving toward today's axe-wielding lumberjack. Today's version of combat is quite possibly the simplest yet. We focus on keeping Slice and Dice active, and then using damaging finishers to deal additional damage. The simple nature of combat's rotation is contrasted against the complexities of Bandit's Guile and energy regeneration, which play a large role in optimizing the spec.
Rupture has long been a mainstay of the combat rotation, but it's actually fallen out of use lately. Without the bleed debuff to prop up Rupture's damage, it's actually a DPS loss to use. In most dungeons and 10-man raid environments, you're better off just Eviscerating instead. Even when you have all of the appropriate buffs and debuffs, using Rupture is only a slight DPS boost, and even then only when we're fighting a single target. Because Rupture is a debuff, it isn't applied to our Blade Flurry targets, making Eviscerate the obvious choice whenever Blade Flurry is active. Many combat rogues are moving to an entirely Eviscerate-based rotation, because the simplicity of the spec allows for us to focus on more important things in the encounter.
Bandit's Guile is the most interesting part of the combat rotation. It is often times worth it to delay swapping to a new target if we're currently at 30% BG, as we'll be resetting BG when we switch. We also want to line up our Killing Spree cooldowns with a 30% BG period, while avoiding capping our energy. Adrenaline Rush can also make it difficult to keep our energy regeneration under control. Before popping Adrenaline Rush or before your raid uses Bloodlust, you should be prepared to unload abilities on every global cooldown. If Slice and Dice is already active, you'll just be mashing Sinister Strike and Eviscerate. Don't allow energy surpluses to take you by surprise.
Subtlety's mixed signals
Subtlety is a spec that has the least theorycrafting background, and because of that, every model of subtlety DPS is somewhat incomplete. Aldriana and others have poured hundreds of hours over years into our current understandings of combat and assassination, but subtlety remains uncharted. Even the leading subtlety rogues operate independently, prioritizing Rupture, Slice and Dice, and Recuperate differently. The spec has a long way to go until it is fully mature.
The key to playing subtlety effectively is to never be wasteful. With a plethora of finishers to choose from, subtlety rogues need to use every combo wisely and quickly. Assassination rogues can sit on 5 combo points while their energy pools, but Honor Among Thieves forbids subtlety rogues from waiting to use a finisher. As a subtlety rogue, you're aiming to maximize your Rupture, Recuperate, and Slice and Dice uptimes. You need to constantly be monitoring the durations of each, and then making the appropriate choices to keep all three active as often as possible.
Shadow Dance also provides an opportunity for experienced subtlety rogues to show off their skills. While Shadow Dance is active, sub rogues have to deftly weave Ambushes into their rotation, which completely throws off their normal groove. In addition, you want to ensure that you end your Shadow Dance with a final Ambush right as the buff is about to expire, extending Find Weakness as long as possible. Subtlety rogues are able to express their DPS in so many different ways, but it's hard to give definitive advice when there's so much yet to be discovered.
Sneak in every Wednesday for our Molten Front ganking guide, a deep-dive into the world of playing a subtlety rogue -- and of course, all the basics in our guide to the latest rogue gear.