Encrypted Text: First glimpse of the (revised) Subtlety Rogue in Legion

You know the old saying: If at first Subtlety doesn’t succeed, try, try again.

After releasing the first playable version of the Subtlety Rogue into the untamed waters of the Legion alpha on January 27, WoW‘s design team was buffeted with gale-force winds of player opposition. Turning into the storm, they unfurled a partly redesigned spec on February 10 — and with this new set of adjustments, our fickle sea was appeased, and the waves calmed.

At this point, I feel the design situation is more or less stable enough to put e-pen to e-paper and walk you all through some of the highlights of the Subtlety spec as it’s currently implemented in the alpha. As I did with the Outlaw first glimpse late last year, I’ll keep my own judgements at a minimum for now, and focus on explaining how some of our key areas of Subtlety gameplay look to be changing as we move from Warlords of Draenor into Legion.

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The basic rotation

At first blush, the new Subtlety may look pretty similar to the one you’ve known for years: We’ve still got Backstab as our primary combo point generator, Eviscerate as our primary damaging finisher, and although Rupture is gone, we’re adopting a close cousin that matches the spec’s Shadow-heavy theme: Nightblade.

Gone and not replaced, however, are two other key abilities that have long been part of the Subtlety rotation: Hemorrhage and Slice and Dice.

Hemorrhage has traditionally served two main purposes:

  1. To provide an alternative combo point builder when we’re in front of the target and thus unable to use Backstab and…
  2. To apply the Sanguinary Vein debuff when using Rupture is impractical or we have no combo points on our target.

In Legion, however, we’ll be able to use Backstab while facing our target (insert your own “how I’d rename Backstab” joke here) — although it will deal about 23% less damage when we do so — and Sanguinary Vein will no longer exist. And with that, poof, the reason for Hemorrhage’s continued existence vanishes.

Speaking of vanishing: Appropriately enough for a spec whose fantasy will become steeped in Shadow magic, Vanish looks poised to become an even more integral spell to Subtlety’s DPS rotation than it currently is. In fact, the integration of Vanish — and of stealth in general to Subtlety’s gameplay — is where we begin to see why Subtlety will likely retain its reputation as the most complex of the three Rogue specs.

Stealth changes everything

Subtlety has always had a special relationship to stealth. Vanish is a big part of that, but probably not as big as Shadow Dance. Historically, Subtlety’s iconic, once-a-minute cooldown gave us access to viciously yummy spells normally only available while we’re stealthed — most notably Ambush, our most powerful combo point builder, which we used to apply Find Weakness, a debuff that we relied on heavily to increase our damage.

In Legion? Ambush is gone. Find Weakness is gone. But Subtlety’s stealth party will keep on thumping.

In addition to some pretty major (but fascinating!) changes to Shadow Dance that I’ll get into shortly, our stealthy belt is getting some shiny new destructive tools. Ambush may be gone (and Garrote, too), but we’re getting three new baseline spells: Shadowstrike, a shadowy version of Cloak and Dagger‘s teleport-and-Ambush; Symbols of Death, which is almost like a new incarnation of Find Weakness that we apply manually; and Master of Shadows, a passive ability similar to, but more powerful than, the Quick Blades buff granted by our Tier 17 (Blackrock Foundry) two-set bonus.

The interplay of these new abilities with Vanish and the new Shadow Dance will significantly alter the Subtlety DPS rotation. Yet it’s just similar enough to the “old” Subtlety in overall approach and style that veterans of the spec may find it feels strangely familiar. This may be, at least in part, why even some of the most skeptical Rogue theorycrafters are pretty stoked about the new design.

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DPS cooldowns

Let’s talk about what’s happening to Shadow Dance.

To start with, the spell is shifting from a single-use cooldown (once per minute, lasting for 10 seconds) to a charge-based system: Each time we cast Shadow Dance in Legion we’ll consume a charge, and each charge will last four seconds. We’ll have a maximum of three charges, giving us the flexibility to either fire them off in brief, sporadic bursts or in succession, depending on what we feel the situation demands.

Do you have sustained damage as your priority or a target constantly on the move? Spread those Shadow Dances out. Is there a DPS burn phase coming up or a planned extended stun on your target? Save them up and use them one after the other.

Further complicating this decision is Deepening Shadows, a new passive ability that gives us a chance of recovering a Shadow Dance charge each time we use a finisher. It’s like a Shadow Dance slot machine: Although we’ll naturally regain a charge of Shadow Dance once per minute, Deepening Shadows — if it’s balanced well, so that it procs neither too often nor too rarely — will add an extra layer of strategy and risk that will help set skilled Subtlety Rogues apart from the rest of the shadows.

Oh, and I haven’t mentioned yet that we’re getting another DPS cooldown as a baseline spell — one whose name Mists of Pandaria Rogues may remember (possibly even fondly). Shadow Blades is making a return in Legion as a Subtlety-only spell that briefly grants an extra combo point to all combo point builders. This’ll be Subtlety’s first long-cooldown spell in years, only usable once every three minutes, which may lead to some interesting decisions regarding when to use it alongside one or more Shadow Dance charges.

Ranged damage and AOE

By comparison to what we’ve seen of the Outlaw spec to date, Subtlety in the Legion alpha currently has only the barest skeleton of ranged damage options. It also appears to have scant ability to easily dish out damage to multiple nearby enemies.

Remember how a few weeks ago I sighed over the impending loss of Shuriken Toss as a talent? I noted at the time that the spell wasn’t going away completely — it’s just becoming Subtlety-only, where it will be available as the sole ranged damage spell in our basic spellbook. On the plus side, it’s slated to unlock at Level 11, giving new Rogues the ability to use it throughout almost the entire leveling process. Unfortunately, it’ll lose its ability to trigger autoattacks, making it less valuable as a kiting tool.

Shuriken Toss is all we appear to be getting in the form of ranged damage options at the moment. However, it’s worth noting that Subtlety will retain the ability to quickly close gaps with their target through spells like Shadowstrike, Shadowstep (which was initially slated to be Assassination-only, but has since been made available to Subtlety), and the finishing move Nightblade, which slows our target in addition to dealing damage.

On the AOE front, where Subtlety Rogues currently have Fan of Knives (a builder) and Crimson Tempest (a finisher), in the Legion alpha we currently appear to be getting only a single spell as part of our standard spellbook: Shuriken Storm, which is basically Fan of Knives with a more fantasy-appropriate name.

Of course, this is still alpha, as we’re oft fond of saying, and it’s still possible that WoW‘s designers plan to offer the spec more ranged viability — and to follow through on their stated intent to give all specs “competitive” multi-target damage.

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But wait, there’s more

I won’t say much about Subtlety’s utility toolkit in this column, but the main point to keep in mind that by comparison to Outlaw’s relative dearth of crowd control (especially while stealthed), Subtlety looks like it will retain plenty of tricks up its sleeve.

For instance: Sap, Cheap Shot, and Kidney Shot are all still on the menu; Smoke Bomb will become spec-exclusive as a PVP talent (albeit without its AOE damage-reducing component); and a fascinating new (PVP-only, sadly) spell called Shadowy Duel may take the concept of “peeling” to a whole new level. We’ll also have access to the aforementioned Nightblade, and the level 75 talent tier includes a couple of handy options that can add a stun component to Shadowstrike (which hopefully doesn’t share diminishing returns with Cheap/Kidney Shot) or enhance Nightblade’s movement-slowing effect.

Speaking of our talent tiers: As I described above, Subtlety will already have a pretty complicated baseline DPS rotation, albeit with arguably fewer balls to juggle than the spec currently has in Warlords. The current slate of Legion talent options offer to toss a couple of additional balls into the mix, if we so choose. Take, for example, the level 90 tier, where we can opt into an extra finisher called Enveloping Shadows, which would give us another self-buff to maintain alongside Nightblade (almost as though we’d never lost Slice and Dice). Or the level 100 tier, where our old friends Marked for Death and Death from Above will be eager to add their icons to our action bars — as will a new version of Relentless Strikes, which may shift our approach to how and when we cast Vanish or Shadow Dance. There’s a lot more to delve into when talking about Subtlety’s talent tiers — and I haven’t even touched on our Artifact traits! — but I’ll save those explorations for another day.


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I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention an easily overlooked new member of Subtlety’s talent tree that might resolve one of the persistent complaints I’ve seen about the spec: its relative weakness when we have no choice but to fight enemies face-to-face, like during solo PVE play. For those of us who share that complaint, WoW‘s class designers have given us a chance to opt into Gloomblade at level 15 — and in so doing, replace Backstab with a spell that hits for the same damage regardless of where we’re facing. Freedom!

That’s all I’ve got space for in this first glimpse of our (re-redesigned) Legion alpha Subtlety Rogue, but don’t let my preview be the last word on what’s to come. Hit the comments section below to add your own observations and thoughts on how Subtlety is shaping up in the alpha so far!

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