In StarCraft, my favorite RTS, there's a common term known as APM. APM stands for actions per minute, which refers to how many commands a player is able to enter per minute. If you have fast fingers and you're incredibly skilled, your APM can soar into the hundreds with your flurry of multiple commands per second. If you're an average player, you will probably stay under 100 APM for the majority of each game. APM isn't a direct indicator of player skill but rather a measurement to describe the way the player is interacting with the game via a keyboard and mouse.
The tempo of our rogue rotations is a topic that I love exploring. Subtlety feels fast to players, while assassination rogues often complain that their rotation is slow. By applying the concept APM and a few other input metrics, we can try to quantify exactly what makes a rotation seem fast or slow. Rogue rotations are constantly evolving between expansions and even as we acquire gear, and math can help us examine the net effect of these changes.
Let's talk terms
The flaw of the APM metric is that it measure actions on minute-by-minute basis, which fails to capture many of the nuances of a rogue rotation. For example, there's no difference between 30 APM gained by regularly pressing Backstab every 2 seconds for a full minute and 30 APM gained by idling for 30 seconds and then spamming Sinister Strike for 30 seconds. A combat rogue is much more active on his keyboard during Adrenaline Rush than any other time, and that's not reflected in APM itself, since it's only an average.
Wait time is a metric that measures how often we're waiting for energy before we're able to make our next move. Because none of our core abilities have cooldowns, energy starvation is almost always the source of our wait time. Most rogues use their wait time spamming their next action key as their energy bar fills up. Many keyboards have been destroyed by rogues spamming Mutilate while waiting for the button to light up.
Decisions are another core part of our rotations' tempo. For example, a combat rogues has to make very few decisions about his rotation, typically only three to four per minute. These decisions consist mostly of the choice between finishers and maintaining uptimes on our buffs and debuffs. Combat really only worries about keeping SnD active and using Revealing Strike, so the rotation is pretty basic.
Combat is fast and boring
Currently, the maximum APM a rogue can achieve is almost exactly 60 APM, due to our 1-second global cooldown. During my testing, my combat rogue is capable of about 50 APM at level 85. There's very little time spent waiting on energy, due to combat's amazing energy regeneration rates and Sinister Strike's relatively cheap energy cost. While under the effects of Adrenaline Rush or the legendary dagger proc, I'm definitely hitting 60 APM for as long as the buffs lasts.
Even though our APM is still relatively high compared to other classes, the combat rotation can still feel very boring. Outside of popping Slice and Dice every so often and using Revealing Strike when we're at 4 combo points, combat rogues don't have to make any decisions. Mists of Pandaria will spice things up a bit with the redesigned Revealing Strike and the supposed reintroduction of Rupture into our rotation. Combat's current rotation is proof that even a high-APM build can still leave something to be desired if there's no variety or choices to be made. Hopefully these new timers will give us more to pay attention to.
The frantic pace of subtlety
While playing subtlety, my APM was floating between 45 and 50, which is close to what I was experiencing with combat. Slaughter from the Shadows allows subtlety to generate combo points cheaply, and Honor Among Thieves tosses some free combo points on top of that. Subtlety rogues are pressing a lot of buttons, with a slightly higher wait time when compared to combat.
Subtlety feels so much more frantic than combat because of the constant stream of decisions that have to be made. With a handful of buffs and debuffs that have to be maintained, a variety of finishers, and the erratic nature of Honor Among Thieves, subtlety rogues have to be quick on their feet. I was making about 15 decisions per minute on a target dummy, which makes subtlety significantly more difficult than combat. If you add in a few boss abilities, it's easy to see how a subtlety rogue could be overwhelmed.
Wait time kills assassination
Assassination rogues have a far lower APM than subtlety or combat rogues. The reason is simple: Mutilate costs nearly 40% more energy than either Sinister Strike or Backstab. Mutilate itself is balanced because it does a lot of damage and generates more combo points than its competitors, but that doesn't fix the APM issues it causes. Assassination rogues simply don't have the energy regeneration to keep up with subtlety or combat's APM. My testing showed that assassination floats around 40 APM on a target dummy. That's 20% lower than what I saw with the other rogue specs.
While the APM situation obviously makes assassination feel slower than the other specs, the real issue is wait time. Assassination rogues wait on energy far more often than subtlety or combat rogues, due to Mutilate's inflated energy cost. In addition, assassination rogues often pool energy before unleashing an Envenom, which serves to exacerbate the wait time issue. Assassination rogues push fewer buttons than other rogues, and they have to often wait quite some time between button presses.
Assassination rogues are faced with more decisions than combat rogues, to the tune of about seven decisions per minute. Rupture timing and energy pooling were the two most common decisions I found myself making. However, the decisions felt hollow because I had plenty of time to make the decisions before I actually had to act. Combat has to act fast to avoid energy capping, subtlety has a sense of urgency so that combo points aren't wasted, but assassination rogues simply have all the time in the world to pick their next move.
Scaling in Mists crushes our APM
Haste's affecting energy regeneration might have been the biggest mistake that Blizzard has made with the class since its inception. I know that it was necessary to do things like balancing Bloodlust and various other haste buffs, but there are side effects. The negative consequence of this scaling is immediately evident: Our APM will increase and our wait time will decrease as our gear improves. The speed and engagement of our rotation improves as we gear up and move through an expansion.
As we sit now, at the end of an expansion, energy regen scaling with haste seems like a pretty cool idea. We're nearing the cap of 60 APM, and our rotation is more engaging than ever. The issue is that we're all going to be in for a shock when Mists drops and our current haste rating becomes trivial at level 90. My testing on the beta servers is showing assassination dropping to barely 25 APM while combat is scoring just over 32 APM. I only have 2% haste.
At level 90, my rogue simply feels slow. I can see my daggers stabbing my enemies several times a second, and that's great, but it's not the same as active damage. There's a visceral feedback that comes with pushing a button and watching big yellow numbers pop up on your screen. Like Pavlov's dogs, our brains are trained to release dopamine as we see our combat text scroll by. The gap between today's fast-paced 50 APM rush and tomorrow's 25 APM spoonful of molasses is incredibly stark.
I feel like the pace of our rotations should be more static with almost no reliance on haste. Obviously this would require a complete reworking of the haste stat for rogues and would cause plenty of other issues; I get that. However, there are going to be a lot of upset rogues who aren't going to be satisfied raiding at 25 APM for two years until they're geared up again. The slow pace might be nice for a week or two while getting acquainted to our new mechanics, but I am certain that I will find myself falling asleep at the keyboard before long. Rogues should always feel like a fast-paced class -- we have a 1-second GCD for a reason.
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.