This is a thought in progress. A little rambling.
My wife is a combat rogue. Always has been. When she joined the game she fell in love with being a rogue, and she asked what the highest damage version of rogue was. I went off to the internets, and came back with the answer: Combat Sword build. So that’s what she chose. When we got to the endgame, she did the most damage in our 40-person raids, virtually every raid. She gave the other dps people fits. (although she never spammed damagemeters) She flourished in that role.
When TBC was released, the raiding game was suspended and everyone is back to the beautiful leveling game for a while. In TBC leveling, there are quest daggers given throughout the leveling process, with rogues in mind. She thought, “why not experiment?” and then rebuilt as Combat Daggers.
Guess what? Combat Daggers is simply more fun to play than combat swords. Managing position and Backstab is more fun than mashing Sinister Strike x1000. To non-rogues, I’m sure this sounds like a minor distinction. It sounded that way to me, and I told her so.
I happened to have a very infrequent rogue alt that wasn’t far from TBC content, and I had gone the whole way as Combat Swords (following her lead). I picked up that alt again, partially out of curiousity regarding her experience. Once I got to TBC content, I switched to Combat Daggers.
She’s absolutely right, of course. Backstabbing is simply more fun for entirely vague and hard to quantify reasons. For me, it just feels more roguelike. When I was Combat Mace rogue, I couldn’t tell the difference between that character and a dual-wielding warrior or shammy, but I didn’t care because I was effective. Now I had seen for myself: backstabbing is just more roguey, nothing like any other class in the game, and simply more fun to play.
According to the Elitist Jerks class forums (who will apply their glorious theorycraft polish to any facet of the game) given everything else equal (two robots playing two identical characters perfectly, with identical gear except for weapons)… Combat Dagger rogues do 3% less damage overall than Combat Sword rogues. It’s like refutation in chess.
Chess is a fixed game with fixed rules. Some combinations of moves simply have an answer that wins 100% of the time. At that point, the refuted move in question is no longer a difference in strategy, it’s a guaranteed loss if the opponent is aware of the correct response. Those are called refuted moves.
Combat Daggers is a refuted build. Rogues and mages have but one job in a raid, so they can maximize on damage. There is no situation in which Combat Daggers outperforms other Combat builds.
It gets worse! From what I’ve read, Mutilate (assassination) is even more fun to play than the entire combat tree… and is even less effective. Never mind that it’s overall harder to play a Combat Dagger/Mutilate rogue perfectly, because Backstab and Mutilate are position-dependent and Sinister Strike isn’t. So these builds are not only less effective, they’re less likely to bring all their tricks to bear with the ease that other combat rogues do. That 3% difference is really 5–7%.
Back to the now.
My wife remains a Combat Dagger rogue. She’s not going to switch back to swords, even though she knows that it will make her better at her role. She struggles with wanting to be more effective but not wanting to have less fun, and is resolved to being the best Combat Dagger rogue she can be. And she’s great! I completely support her decision, because more than anything else, I love to play this game with her and I want her to have fun. If she stopped playing, I’d stop. Furthermore, I know firsthand that her chosen playstyle is simply more fun for that character.
I also know that it’s suboptimal, and it used to be part of my job as GM and Raid Leader to help people play their characters better. I’m still a quasi-leader in my guild, in that the leadership looks up to me. Many of our new recruits don’t know that I used to run the guild (for which I am quite thankful) but I still get asked “how do we handle stuff like this?” from officers all the time. One of the perennial question is: “How do we push for higher performance and stay true to our casual roots?”
Luckily, she still does a mountain of damage. So the raid leadership never wonders about her in particular. She has a low error rate, and is basically loved on every group quest, instance, or raid she goes on.
However, there’s another rogue in my guild who is also Combat Dagger, but this rogue’s skill level is much lower. This rogue does not do a mountain of damage. Raids and instances that include this person go slower, and overall find less success. When gently prodded about perhaps rebuilding to a more effective spec (not by me, obviously), this friendly and awesome guildmate says, “Well, what about [my wife’s character]? I copied her build.”
Hmm. Yes, there is that.
Could this be another axis on the design of PvE? Fun vs performance?
Nah. It’s just that although Blizzard is great, they don’t get everything right on the first try. Heck, it took them until TBC to get pallys and druids right. Compare the previous endgame to the current one. I think that Blizzard is still trying to figure out a way to have dagger-rogues do the most damage without completely removing the other kinds of rogues.
Or is it that good players play well enough to overcome suboptimal choices?
Probably. Excellent execution is always better than perfect character design, but try telling that to someone who has neither. There is the real problem. My wife’s choice doesn’t scale to other people, who in part look to her as an example.
Anyway, there’s something meaningful here about “leadership, performance, and being an example”, versus “raw numbers, optimal builds, and the need to succeed”.