In my last post about subtlety I briefly mentioned the goal of spec balance without really going into details on how Blizzard can create it. A recent post by Lore about combat dps addresses the question of spec balance at the high end of progression raiding so lets talk about spec balance a bit more.
Rfeann, over at his essential rogue blog, questioned whether spec choice is possible for players on the high end. This is a common view however I think it ignores the fact that high end players have the same sorts of spec preferences as everyone else. They may not act on their preferences as often but if given the opportunity they certainly will. The issue is giving them that opportunity which requires two things:
1) The specs are overall reasonably close. What reasonably close means is a tricky question but probably within 3-5% all things being equal.
2) Specs have slight advantages on certain fights that cater to their spec strengths.
To use a recent example, consider combat in T14. During T14 there were a number of players, most prominently Killars in vodka, who played combat as their primary spec. This was viable because combat and assassination were reasonably close in dps potential and more importantly there were a number of fights that catered to combat’s cleave advantage. As we all know, Blizzard did decide to nerf combat’s cleave advantage because it was too powerful however even in its nerfed form combat would likely have been equally viable in T14. While combat would have been weaker on fights like Stone Guard and Garalon fights like Empress Skekzeer and Sha of Fear would have benefited from the new blade flurry design.
Spec balance at the high end hinges heavily on (2), a player, even a high end progression player, can to an extent, justify weaker dps as a tradeoff for stronger dps on other fights. If the dps difference on sub-optimal fights for a given spec is small enough (point (1)) greater gear optimization and spec familiarity can cover that difference.
The problem in T15 is twofold, first combat while close on paper required putting up with the excessive spamminess and latency dependence of T15 4pc. Secondly, and more importantly, there isn’t much in ToT for combat to take advantage of it’s niche, blade flurry is useful on Council but does not have a strong advantage over assassination rupture multi-dotting on much else. Compare this to the number of fights this tier with an important execute range burn and its easy to see why most players gravitated toward assassination.
Blizzard has shown that it can balance dps reasonably well, the tuning knob abilities like Assassin’s Resolve and Vitality serve their purpose well however for spec balance to be achieved more attention needs to be paid to dps niches. Assassination is too good, at too many things or at least too many broadly applicable niches whereas combat and subtlety are left with much more situational niches. There is also the issue of difficulty, while balancing around spec difficulty can undermine spec balance and difficulty is difficult to objectively judge, it is hard to honestly say that assassination is as difficult as combat or subtlety. Assassination is a substantial difficulty outlier compared to other rogue specs and other specs in general and increasing the complexity of the spec is probably needed for long term spec balance. Additionally if T16 design features more fights that favor combat’s cleave niche that would go a long way toward making combat a more common default spec.
Spec balance isn’t easy, it exists at the intersection of a lot of complex mechanics, dps niches, rotational complexity, fight design and even loot distribution play a role (If your raid group runs an enhance shaman, windwalker or brewmaster monk combat may be less optimal given weapon sharing) but it isn’t impossible. I am fond of citing T8, T12 and T14 as tiers where at least two rogue specs were used as default specs in high end raiding. If Blizzard is serious about spec balance, and the 5.2 blade flurry nerf suggest they are, more attention needs to be paid to combat and subtlety spec niches as well as assassination rotational complexity. This is probably not something that can be solved in a mid-expansion content patch however if rogues do get a substantial redesign for 6.0 hopefully these issues will be looked at carefully.