But in the Mists era, have our three rogue specs truly lost all of their unique flair?
In the context of a thread that discussed class uniqueness more generally, Blizz Community Manager Daxxarri (who has been known to prowl the WoW rogue class forum in the guise of a stealthy Protoss) took a detour to specifically address a person who asked why all rogue specs feel the same:
Rogues are something of an edge case, and moving previously spec defining abilities into the talent tree probably contributes to this, though I’d argue that it’s resulted in a class that’s more fun to play overall. Still, I find that Combat feels different from Assassination feels different from Sub. The differences are admittedly more subtle (no pun intended) than some other classes, though.
It’s Daxxarri’s last point that, for me, gets to the heart of this particular issue. He concedes the point made by many that what “feels” different about each rogue spec can be hard to tease out. But depending on how each of us plays, and on what particular characteristics of a class/spec are most important to us, the three rogue specs can be either glaringly different or impossible to tell apart.
Since before Mists had even launched, rogue players were bemoaning the imminent demise of spec identity. The redesign of the talent trees for this expansion took some of the iconic abilities long tied to the Subtlety spec — Shadowstep, Preparation and Elusiveness, most notably — and made them available to all specs. Some of the changes implemented during this expansion — such as the de-overpowerization of Blade Flurry against two targets — have only further cemented the perception that our specs are being same-ized. Players have also compared and contrasted each rogue spec’s PvE toolkit and found them strikingly similar.
But comparisons don’t end there. If the specs were so similar, Assassination wouldn’t be the overwhelming spec of choice right now in end-game raiding (as I type this, the latest incarnation of Nik’s “Rogue Lookup” spreadsheet has Mut as the active spec for 49 out of 51 top raiding rogues). If the specs were so similar, Subtlety wouldn’t be far and away the choice du jour among competitive PvP rogues in the class’s Patch 5.2 resurgence (despite Blizz PvP honcho Brian Holinka’s suggestion that Mut could be pretty good as well).
“Similarity” is subjective. Is Earth similar to Mars? Are people similar to monkeys? Are Roman Catholics similar to Protestants? That depends on what you feel makes those things similar to, or different from, one another.
The farther out you look at the rogue specs, the more alike they tend to seem — heck, the more alike every melee class/spec, or even every DPS class/spec, tends to seem. All three specs use relatively low-damage abilities to build combo points. They spend those combo points for higher-damage finishers. They need to maintain/refresh self-buffs or debuffs (Slice and Dice, Rupture, Recuperate). They have one or two longish-duration cooldowns they can use for burst damage. They all wield one-handed weapons. They all use stealth similarly. They all rely on the same set of abilities for closing gaps or controlling opponents. They all look damn sexy in Bloodfang Armor.
But the closer you look — or, maybe more to the point, the more you look at certain specific characteristics — the more specs take on a flavor of their own. Assassination is often lampooned as the “slowest” of the specs because its main combo point builder, Mutilate, costs way more energy to use than the CP builders of the other two specs. Subtlety is so widely preferred for PvP right now because the combination of Shadow Dance and the Cloak and Dagger talent help make it extremely bursty (which can be especially powerful when it’s coupled with the burst and crowd-control strengths of other classes, such as hunters and Discipline priests — which is why the “thug cleave” comp is so popular at the moment).
You’re probably asleep already, so I’ll wrap this up, but my point is that spec differences, much like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. I’ve discussed this before, but I’ve long preferred playing Assassination over the other specs in PvE because I’ve enjoyed its flow; Combat tends to feel too frenetic for my taste (especially while its button-mash-inducing DPS cooldowns are active), and Subtlety has felt alien because I haven’t been able to master the efficient use of Shadow Dance. That said, I’ve been playing Combat exclusively for the past few months because LFR bosses refuse to give me any pretty daggers, but are more than willing to throw entire crates of fist weapons at me.
So, to me, the three specs are quite different. To you, they may be virtually identical. Either way, I suspect that spec differentiation (or lack thereof) is not part of the reason why the rogue class as a whole is relatively unpopular.