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.