Subtlety and Positional Requirements

For the past week or so I’ve been engaged in several long arguments on the official forums about the viability of Subtlety PvE and positional requirements. In this post I want to present an organized case for why positional requirements should be outright removed from subtlety for PvE balance reasons. If you’ve read some of my official forum rants this will look somewhat familiar, if you haven’t this may still look somewhat familiar but hopefully a bit less so. This is going to be the first in a series of posts about subtlety, with a guest post from Haileaus on this topic and either this week or next week I plan to run subtlety during my farm this week to actually get some experience with the spec.

The basic problem with positional requirements in rogue PvE is that rogues have options that means that subtlety’s positional requirements must be balanced against the other rogue specs. This makes the balance picture for subtlety substantially more complex than it is for feral although for consistency and because positional requirements don’t work well given current raid design trends I support removal of feral positional requirements as well.

Before I get into a discussion of why positional requirements are a balance mess lets first outline our goals. The fundamental goal of spec balance is to allow all players at any level of progression to play their prefered spec without feeling like they are a liability to their raid group. For LFR and normal mode raiders Blizzard has already achieved this but for heroic, progression oriented raiders it is still a problem. Getting the exact tuning target for this correct is hard because you have to balance around dps niches and other factors such as target swapping capabilities but Blizzard has been able to do reasonably well with combat and assassination balancing in the past so clearly its doable.

This brings us to the big problem with positional requirements they make this already difficult but basically achievable balancing act that much harder. Blizzard must set a positional uptime to balance subtlety around, on fights where subtlety can achieve greater positional uptime, subtlety is doing more damage than intended and vice versa. What distinguishes this from other forms of dps niches (cleave, multi-dot, execute, etc.) is how all encompassing it is. If Blizzard wants to limit multi-dotting they can have tools for that, if they want to limit cleave they can reduce AoE damage taken or force targets to be separated but with single target damage it is much harder.

There is a larger problem as well that I mentioned above, rogues can swap specs. If a fight isn’t good for subtlety because of lack of positional uptime a rogue can always swap to combat or assassination. The question becomes if you are swapping to another spec on a decent number of fights in a tier and you aren’t gaining any benefit from playing subtlety then why play subtlety at all? This is the real question for anyone looking to play subtlety, if for some fights I may have to go combat then why not be combat all the time? If subtlety with good positional uptime only does comparable damage then it becomes very hard to justify without some other substantial utility advantages. This means our balance point must be fixed such that subtlety is balanced versus other rogue specs with less than ideal positional uptime and doing significantly more damage with full positional uptime. This design of course has the opposite problem, now every progression rogue is sitting on a subtlety off spec for those fights where you can achieve high positional uptime.

In discussions on this topic there are a few frequent objections or solutions proposed to the above mentioned balance problems. The most common and popular response is a proposal to remove the positional requirements from backstab and ambush but grant some form of buff when attacking from behind. There are a couple problems with this solution, first and most importantly this solution doesn’t actually solve anything. If backstab now has no more positional requirements but does 236% weapon damage when attacking from the front, and 275% weapon damage when attacking from behind, congratulations you have changed nothing (note that hemorrhage deals 203% weapon damage at 5 less energy so 35*(2.03/30)= 2.36). This solution despite being functionally identical to the current system is in fact worse because it provides no feedback mechanism. In the current design if backstab isn’t usable you know you aren’t behind the target, in this new design if you are just outside of the positional arc you will be doing less damage without an obvious indication.

The basis of this proposed solution is an objection from flavor saying positional requirements are an integral part of what makes subtlety, subtlety. The central problem with objections from flavor is that flavor should not override balance or good game design. For instance it would make sense from a flavor perspective if plate wearers moved slower since plate armor is heavy and restricts movements however that isn’t a WoW mechanic because it creates its own balance difficulties. Blizzard has on occasion held onto flavor mechanics despite balance considerations but most of those cases, most prominently shaman totems during Cataclysm were eventually removed because of balance considerations. Fundamentally flavor must be subservient to balance if balance is the primary goal.

Another common objection to removing positional requirements from subtlety is, you should be behind the boss anyway to avoid parries so positional requirements shouldn’t be an issue. This objection ignores current raid design trends and mechanics. As I suggested above there are certain raid mechanics which are fundamentally not amenable to positional requirements. Consider for instance Durumu, most groups to handle the maze stack up below the beam and then move to the start location when it appears, on heroic you stack even earlier to handle the ice walls. Clearly during this stack period players cannot be behind the boss and then during the maze getting behind the boss is unlikely since you are attempting to outrace a beam coming from the front of the boss. Similarly fights like Tortos provide only a small area that is considered “behind the boss” which you frequently have to move out of to dodge rockfalls. Fights are becoming increasing mobile creating a far greater likelihood that a player will be forced to attack from the front for some portion of the fight.

I understand why many players have glommed onto positional requirements because they are really all subtlety has left of its original kit. However as I hope I have shown positional requirements create fundamental spec balance problems that are very difficult to resolve without outright removal of positional requirements. Subtlety does need an actual kit that defines the spec but that kit must be defined in terms of mechanics that can be balanced such as Find Weakness uptime or similar rather than by positional requirements.

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6 thoughts on “Subtlety and Positional Requirements

  1. Agree with this, but I think it actually goes deeper. When people think about bosses where it’s problematic to need to be behind the boss, they only think of big stationary bosses where it’s literally impossible to get behind them; i.e. Kologarn. But it goes well beyond that. Let’s just use ToT as an example of 100% behind the boss uptime as a problem:

    Jin’Rokh: Lots of tanks (especially during progression) would face the boss during the raid at the start of pools so they could benefit from the damage buff as well.
    Horridon; Any fight with lots of adds and ground effects is going to make 100% behind uptime nearly impossible, even for very skilled players.
    Tortos: The area where you’re considered “behind” tortos is really small, and it’s essentially impossible to say there the whole fight due to rockfall and bats.
    Ji-Kun: Mostly fine, but you can get screwed with really bad pool placement.
    Durumu: Brief periods at the start of the maze phase where you need to stay in front.
    Iron Qon: Bad luck with the ice walls in p3 can screw you; also almost all groups stack in front of the boss in p3 to soak smashes.
    Consorts: Especially during Suen phase, positioning can get really wonky with her fire trails and can cause a bit of behind the boss uptime loss.

    This doesn’t even mention the incredibly annoying instance of bosses turning to cast a spell or ability on a raid member, turning your direction, and parrying something in the process. This whole thing is actually part of a larger problem about melee, and the hidden costs of melee when ranged really has no downside. That’s a bigger conceptual problem, but for now I just want to point out specs like Sub really get screwed on all sorts of fights, not just the obvious ones. And oh, there’s also that whole “literally has no viable AOE” part, but again that’s a separate discussion.

    • I agree a lot of fights can be quite problematic in somewhat unpredictable ways. I didn’t have any experience with subtlety so I didn’t want to comment without experience. I’ve been running sub tonight amd I’ll be making another post to talk about this exact point.

    • You have to consider though that melee are balanced around some level of uptime behind/in front of the boss. I am speaking from possibly faulty memory here, but consider that on many fights where melee have 100% the uptime as casters with no parry (A prime example being Ultraxion), melee do relatively well.

      The problem is that subtlety has a much larger penalty than any other rogue spec. In a WoW where switching specs is easy, well yeah. If all rogue specs had the same frontal penalty as sub it wouldn’t be an issue outside of large guilds benching/stacking rogues on certain fights.

  2. T16 set bonuses is useles to sub rogues on “cant go behind” bosses. And you cant benefit from them with slow MH.

    • To be fair if you are playing sub in PvE with a slow MH you are doing it wrong. Good point though with the 4pc, next patch sub rogues who want to fully optimize might want to keep a frontal set. Of course that’s always been optimal….

      • Sub can roll on slow MH but t16 negate set bonus on hemo spam, its like frost DK cant benefit from set bonus with 2H but only dw.
        Or Subtlety has become only dagger spec too??? (its alwas been…)

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