I know the size of this post may be a bit of a deal-breaker for you, but I promise you that this post can help you if you have any doubt in your abilities. Or who knows, maybe even if you don't- you might learn something. I advise you to give the whole thing a read when you get the time.
So You Want To Be a Death Knight: A Guide For the New or Returning Player
Perhaps you’re considering starting a Death Knight and want to understand some basics beforehand.
Perhaps you’ve already made your Death Knight and couldn’t make heads or tails of the starting zone.
Perhaps you’ve already completed the starting zone and have been redirected here because someone saw you wearing level 42 leather intellect shoulders as a level 60 Blood Death Knight.
Perhaps your Death Knight is at level cap and your guild or a pug redirected you to Elitist Jerks, where all of the numbers went right over your head, and you’re now hoping to find a simpler solution to your troubles.
Perhaps you’re returning from a long break from WoW and need a refresher course, especially with all of the craziness that is Pandaria.
I remember when I started my Death Knight, the place everyone told me to go to learn about my class was Elitist Jerks. Browsing the pages there, however, was a very daunting task because there was loads of text that assumed you knew a little theorycraft beforehand (and at the time, I didn’t even know what the word meant!). Those threads were for people who wanted to be the best; so what about someone like me, who was just starting out?
There’s no judging here. The following is a guide or primer, for whom every other source on Death Knights is just too much to understand right away. While I am definitely wordy, I mean to be as clear and concise as possible in your education. The intent is that this will be a bridge of sorts, between starting out and a higher learning elsewhere; with any luck and a bit of practice, these concepts will become second-hand to you as they eventually did for me and so very many others.
For those of you just returning to WoW following the release of Mists of Pandaria who already have an understanding from Cataclysm, I’d like to redirect you to this helpful overview to filter out the most recent changes from what you already know.
What You’ve Been Told By Character Creation, and What It Really Means: The Fundamentals
Starts at Level 55
In all likelihood, this was the big selling point for you. You get to start a new alt character and don’t even need to do half of the leveling that is normally required. You get to join a top raiding guild in only 35 levels, as opposed to 90. In 3 levels you’ll leave your starting zone with a full set of kickass blue armor and a unique mount. You get an early taste of power and can jump right into the quests that make you feel important. It’s what it truly means to be a “Hero Class”.
That’s not the intention though.
The intention of starting off at level 55 is that you’ve played another character up to that point and can understand the gist of things. What Blizzard didn’t account for are shared accounts, and that the ability to skip the leveling process is just as appealing to first-timers as it is to veterans. Blizzard didn’t account for people who are used to playing healers or casters. Blizzard didn’t account for people with varying experiences in the Pet Class area who are trying something different. By starting at level 55 you have removed your opportunity to learn these skills at a natural pace, and must now take a truncated course. Thankfully, that’s exactly what this thread is for.
Tanking or Damage
If you’re a member of some groups mentioned above, you probably don’t understand what this means in the slightest. So to rephrase:
The Tank role does NOT mean you are an iron machine with all the firepower of a cannon that simply rolls over enemies. The Tank role means you are responsible for the well-being of a party or raid consisting of at least 4 other individual players. You are literally the living meatshield that protects the group- your biggest job is to make sure the party’s enemies remain focused on YOU and keep attacking you, using your abilities to distract foes long enough that the damage-dealers can kill them without being put in any danger themselves. You should be driven by a selfish desire to have the healer stay on you, but you don’t want to make the healer’s job hard enough that they can’t do it; for that reason, you are given heavy armor and a plethora of abilities that reduce or undo the damage you take so the healers can pick up the slack. THE HEALER IS YOUR BEST FRIEND, SO DON'T ABUSE THEM. The Tanking role is usually associated with group leadership; the group should not target an enemy without your OK. The Death Knight’s tanking specialization is the Blood tree.
The Damage role, as a Death Knight, is associated with short-range closed-quarters combat, or “melee DPS” (DPS stands for “damage per second”). Your job is much simpler than the Tank’s and holds less responsibility; your only job is to kill the enemies who are attacking the party’s Tank, focusing solely on the amount of destruction you can deal out in a short period of time. However, DPS specialized classes are common and easily replaced. The Death Knight’s damage-dealing specializations are the Frost and Unholy trees.
Your first job as you’re leveling up is to decide which of the two you want to be- a Tank or a DPS- and focus on it; don’t walk the line between the two, because then you’ll be less effective at either. A group will always be more satisfied with a damage-dealer who deals a high amount of damage, over a damage-dealer who maximizes their health pool.
Heavy Armor (Plate)
There is one common mistake that beginner Death Knights make, because the game isn’t very specific. It tells you that you want to use Plate armor, which is true; you should never be caught dead using Cloth, Leather, or Mail armor. What it doesn’t tell you is that the Plate armor you want to wear should have Strength and Stamina on it, but never Intellect or Spirit (Intellect and Spirit are stats reserved solely for Holy Paladins, which you are not). Yes, this applies even as a Damage-dealer; to help you remember this, most armor you'll encounter with Strength on it will be either Plate or garbage to sell to a vendor.
Remember what I said about Tanking or Damage before? As a Tank, you want gear with higher Armor, higher Stamina, Parry, Dodge, Mastery, Hit, and Expertise rating. As a damage-dealer, you want to focus more on higher Strength, Haste, Critical Strike, Mastery, Hit, and Expertise rating. You want to focus on those stats and only those stats; this isn't like eating healthy where Intellect and Agility are part of a balanced diet, nor are Stamina and Armor something a Damage-dealer should concern themselves with, or Critical Strike and Haste for a tank. Those leather Intellect shoulders are just wasting a slot that can definitely be used better.
One last thing: if you lose the blue armor you received from questing in the starting zone, you can purchase the whole set for a very low cost (literally a few silver) from a vendor in Acherus named Quartermaster Ozorg, located on the upper floor (the one with the runeforges)- AFTER you've completed the starting zone experience and ventured to your faction's capital. You never need to go out and purchase an item under level 58, ESPECIALLY not non-plate items.
Spells, Diseases, and Undead Minions
This is one of the more misleading parts of early Death Knight-ing. The advertisement of Spells, Diseases, and Undead Minions may lead one to believing that Death Knights are a spellcaster class like Mages and Warlocks. What it doesn’t tell you is that most of your spells are channeled through your weapon, and they always scale based off your Strength and Attack Power rather than Intellect and Spell Power. As I said before, you want to avoid Intellect gear like the plague (pardon my pun). Most of your disease and minion focus will come from the Unholy spec, though all three specializations make frequent use of spells.
Runes and Runic Power
Runes and Runic Power are a resource system unique to the Death Knight class.
You initially have three types of rune: Blood Runes (red), Frost Runes (blue), and Unholy Runes (green). Depending on your specialization and talents, certain abilities will allow you to convert Blood, Frost, or Unholy runes into a fourth rune type, Death Runes (purple), which act like wild cards and can be used in place of any type of rune, or can be consumed as their own resource for the spells Necrotic Strike and Death Siphon; thus, Death runes are your most valuable resource. One pair of Runes is comparable to a Rogue’s Energy bar: They constantly generate at a rate increased by your Haste rating, and your abilities cost you 50 ‘Energy’ of that type. It’s important that you try to get the most use out of your Runes by using your active/usable Runes before your inactive/unusable Runes finish regenerating; otherwise it’s like leaving perfectly good food out to rot in a world without refrigerators.
Whenever you use a Rune, you generate 10 Runic Power (12 in Frost Presence)- a resource much like Rage for those more familiar with Warriors or Guardian Druids- although there are other methods to generate it which can vary based on your specialization. Runic Power is used in abilities such as Death Coil, Frost Strike and Rune Strike, referred to as “runic dumps”. Think of the runic dump like a type of finishing move; you want to try to use your Runic Power whenever your Rune-based abilities aren’t available to you. Your runic dumps can also activate our Level 75 tier of talents, which will refund your Runes.
What You Didn’t Know Before Starting Your Death Knight
One of the skills unique to the Death Knight is our ability to enchant our own weapons through Runeforging. Runeforging doesn’t stack with standard weapon enchantments (or even with other Runeforges- one per weapon!), but they’re more powerful than standard enchantments anyway. Runeforged weapons can’t be traded to other players, but to be fair, Runeforges are designed specifically to be used by Death Knights. Despite what Instructor Razuvious tells you, you can only apply and change Runeforges at certain stations in Acherus (and a place called The Shadow Vault in Icecrown); while Naxxramas and Icecrown Citadel have Runeforging stations in them, players cannot interact with these stations.
Depending on your specialization, you’ll initially be using Rune of Razorice as a Frost Death Knight, and Rune of Cinderglacier as an Unholy or Blood Death Knight. Blood Death Knights will upgrade to Rune of Swordshattering at level 63, and then have the option to switch to Rune of the Stoneskin Gargoyle at level 72 if they encounter opponents that hit particularly hard (as in hard enough to kill you in one swing, in case you want to edge that into two swings through the increase in "Effective Health") – otherwise it's better to stick to Swordshattering's Parry. Frost and Unholy Death Knights will upgrade their main weapon Runeforges to Rune of the Fallen Crusader at level 70, though Dual-Wielding Frost Death Knights will want to keep a weapon with Razorice as well.
Weaponry and Equipment
I’ve already gone over armor, but otherwise Death Knights are a little weird in this department. Unlike normal tanks, Blood Death Knights don’t use one-handed weapons and shields, preferring to use two-handed weapons instead – typically Strength swords/maces/axes (and the occasional Strength polearm) with some combination of Mastery, Hit, or Expertise (since Dodge and Parry never naturally show up on two-handed weapons). Unholy Death Knights exclusively use Strength two-handed weapons as well, but have an expanded palette with Mastery, Hit, Expertise, Haste or Critical Strike. Frost Death Knights can choose to use either a two-handed weapon (through Might of the Frozen Wastes) or dual-wield a pair of one-handed weapons (through Threat of Thassarian), each with similar tastes to Unholy. While a Frost Death Knight who chooses to dual-wield has weaker physical attacks, they have the benefit of a second Runeforge and consequently tend to focus more on magic damage anyway.
When it comes to weapon damage and weapon speed, Death Knights always want to use slow weapons (Speed 2.60 for one-handed weapons and between Speed 3.40 to 3.60 for two-handed weapons- the time in seconds that elapses between "swings", in case you thought it was some sort of speed class or whatever). Slow weapons are compensated with higher weapon damage, which is good for Death Knights since our Strike attacks draw from our weapon damage and compel extra swings, so we don't need to worry too much about how quickly we're swinging.
Mists of Pandaria provides a new leveling experience to the class as a whole. Instead of wading through a tree of 50 or so passive talents with one inevitable outcome you looked up on Elitist Jerks, you can instead pick a Specialization which will automatically give these benefits to you as you level up. So what about the element of choice in the trees, and those 3 extra talent points you always cherished blowing on a pointless utility passive at the end of every tree? Fear not, because Mists has legitimately improved this system: You now can pick up only 6 talents (at levels 56, 57, 58, 60, 75 and 90, no longer receiving talent points from questing in the starting area), but this time it really is a choice.
Tier 56 emphasizes saving runes through disease application. Tiers 57 and 60 emphasize survival and self-healing abilities that will make your healers happy. Tier 75 works with resource regeneration. Tiers 58 and 90 are actually tiers dedicated to PVP gimmicks, not to say they lack PVE uses as well.
What Do Our Stats Do?
Stats are divided up into two categories: Primary stats and Secondary stats. You can increase your character's stats through various methods, including collecting, Enchanting and Reforging gear for a semi-permanent boost, or consuming potions and certain foods for a temporary boost.
Primary stats are all-purpose bonuses that appear in white text on an item, and are divided up into Strength, Stamina, Agility, Intellect, Spirit, and Armor. Of these, only Strength, Stamina, and Armor are valuable to us. Strength increases a plate-wearing Tank's chance to Parry, but also raises a damage-dealer's Attack Power (AP), which increases the damage of our strikes, spells, and pets- thus, Strength is a damage-dealing DK's most powerful Primary stat. Stamina increases our health so we can take more hits, which is especially valuable as a Tank. Armor reduces damage taken from non-magical attacks, giving you what is called "effective health", and will always show up on an armor piece no matter the quality- though more will show up on items designed for Tanks. Agility provides some small benefit to Death Knights by providing a bonus to Critical Strike chance, but not a significant enough amount to consider over Strength, or even over actual Critical Strike rating. Spirit and Intellect are utterly useless to Death Knights and provide literally zero benefits to us.
A Secondary stat is any stat on an item that shows up in green text. Secondary stats (and Spirit, just to confuse you) can be altered through “Reforging”, a process that will reduce a Secondary stat by 40% but allow you to add another stat to an item equal to the amount lost. This process allows you to maximize the effectiveness of your armor's stats.
Hit and Expertise rating prevent you from missing your target with attacks, and prevent your enemy from dodging or parrying your attacks, respectively. As a melee class, these are important to a Death Knight – 7.5% Hit and 7.5% Expertise are known as “caps”, meaning your character no longer benefits from any amount of Hit or Expertise higher than that because your “yellow” attacks (strikes and spells) will always hit. Now that spells are affected by Expertise as well, and 50% of it governs your pets’ Hit and Expertise scores (the other 50% coming from Hit of course), all three specs want both Expertise (yes, even Unholy) and Hit. Tanks will want to cap these stats just as much as a damage-dealer does, as you will need to hit enemies to keep them fixated on you.
Parry and Dodge rating are “avoidance” stats useful to a Tank but not to a damage-dealer, which give the Tank a chance to completely ignore the damage of an incoming attack. As stated above, Death Knights can gain additional Parry chance from their Strength score. Your Parry and Dodge rating should be reasonably close together, as each one suffers from "diminishing returns" (DRs) that dramatically reduce the effectiveness of whichever is used most often, meaning it's better to alternate frequently between parrying and dodging than it is to just keep parrying over and over again. The additional Parry or Dodge chance you get from Strength, Rune of Swordbreaking or racial abilities are not affected by these DRs, meaning you should compare their numerical ratings and not their percentage chances, both of which you can see by hovering your mouse over the stat in question in your character panel.
Haste and Critical Strike rating are stats that are most useful to damage-dealers such as Frost or Unholy Death Knights. Critical Strike rating (or simply, "Crit") gives you a chance to deal double damage on an attack. Haste rating, for a Death Knight, increases your rune regeneration speed (allowing you to cast abilities more frequently), your auto-attack speed (effectively increasing the odds of activating a proc like Sudden Doom or Killing Machine or trinkets), and your minions’ attack and casting speeds. However, because of its connection to your resource generation, Haste rating's value needs to be gauged by the player to know when to stop stacking it, or else your resources can potentially generate too quickly for you to spend them all.
Mastery is a stat you gain access to at level 80 that completely changes between classes' specializations – thus, it’s useful to everyone, but to some people more than others. For Blood, Mastery reduces the damage they’ll take by providing them with a shield whenever they heal with Death Strike (tying their Death Strike to their damage reduction in a manner known as "active mitigation"), and is more valuable than Dodge or Parry because it's not affected by DRs. For Frost and Unholy, Mastery directly increases the damage of their elemental attacks: Frost spells for Frost, and Shadow for Unholy.
Remember, not all stats are equal, especially for damage-dealers. A single patch can change the values of each stat – reducing your Frost or Shadow damage and Mastery with it, raising physical damage and the effectiveness of Crit and Haste, and so on!
If you're new to reforging an item, ask a guard in your capital city to point you to the nearest Arcane Reforger, where you can converse with an Ethereal. The Ethereal will then give you an interface, where you can give him an item (equipped or otherwise), select a secondary stat already on it to diminish from the left side of the interface, and add another secondary stat that isn't already on the item from the right, then press the Reforge button.
If you would like help Reforging to maximize your character's effectiveness, you can use a tool such as WoW Reforge or the ReforgeLite addon to calculate the best combination for you.
What “Stat Weights” Are, and How to Read Them
If you’ve looked around at higher-level DK forums, you’ve probably found the term “stat weights” followed by a bunch of numbers. Quite simply put, a “stat weight” helps you find the value of a piece of gear to a DK of your spec. As stated before, not all stats are equal, and a stat weight can completely define whether you want to maximize a stat (with a high weight) or not (with a lower one).
If you’re looking at a forum that lists off numerical stat weights, then just take a piece of gear that you’re wearing, take the value of the stat on the gear and multiply it by the corresponding weight on the list. Do so with all of the stats on the item, add them up and you have the total value of the item. By comparing the total values of items you can decide whether or not a piece of gear is worth taking or replacing.
Stat Weights are really only used in PVE, as encounters with NPCs are more predictable than with players.
Some stats have a certain weight up to a cap like Hit or Expertise, meaning any more of that stat automatically has a weight of 0. This is because after a certain point in stacking that stat, you can't possibly miss an NPC opponent anymore, so further reducing the chance to do so is a waste (there are no negative percentages in WoW, 0% chance to miss is the lowest you can go).
What is a "Rotation" or a "Priority System"?
To be brief, your "rotation" is the series of attacks Death Knights of your specialization use when fighting an enemy if they want to deal as much damage as possible. Often times learning a rotation can be frustrating when starting out a new character, as rotations tend to "ramp up" to higher damage, building damage-over-time effects before you can hit anything you consider to be powerful.
Damage dealing classes in Cataclysm run on a priority-based rotation. This means that instead of having one series of buttons you push over and over (↑ ↑ ↓ ↓ ← → ← → B A Start, rinse and repeat), you have to decide for yourself what button you need to push next based on the situation using the knowledge of your class (a proc came up, should I use it now or wait until I can't do anything else?).
For a Death Knight, your highest priority is to keep your diseases up at all times. Applying diseases is as simple as using Icy Touch (or Howling Blast for Frost Death Knights) and Plague Strike in tandem (unless you're Unholy, then just the Plague Strike), or just one Outbreak. While keeping diseases up is simple for Unholy Death Knights after receiving Festering Strike, and Blood Death Knights can refresh them with Blood Boil, Frost Death Knights will need to apply diseases more often. Diseases allow you to maintain debuffs that simultaneously enhance the damage of your own strikes, and weaken your opponents.
Tanking specializations like Blood Death Knights don't have a set priority beyond applying debuffs, as many of their tools are situational damage-prevention, threat-generating or self-healing abilities. That said, I find that Blood Death Knights prefer to cast Death Strike to maintain Blood Shield, over casting Heart Strike for threat.
After applying diseases, two-handed Frost Death Knights want to cast Obliterate as often as possible- especially when Killing Machine is active. If you no longer have the runes necessary, you simply cast Frost Strike until your runic power is spent. After Frost Strike, you can spend your Rime procs on Howling Blast. Dual-wielding Frost Death Knights only use Obliterate to burn off Unholy runes, to cast Howling Blast and Frost Strike as often as possible- unless using the Masterfrost variant (see the key terms at the bottom of this post).
After applying diseases, Unholy Death Knights want to cast Dark Transformation as soon as it becomes available- but since it's not immediately available to you, you'll want to cast Scourge Strike as often as possible, every time you have Unholy or Death runes (minus runes spent casting Dark Transformation, of course). When your Frost and Blood runes are available, your next priority is Festering Strike, and when your runes are completely spent, you want to cast Death Coil until your Sudden Doom procs are spent or you no longer have enough Runic Power to keep casting.
For all three specializations, if you have nothing left you can do and are forced to wait for runes to come up before you can do anything else, you can cast Horn of Winter to generate 10 free Runic Power. I should warn you though, Horn of Winter does no damage, but casting it to generate runic power is preferable to doing nothing, and can be helpful in maintaining the buff's uptime.
It should be noted that using a "rotation" assumes you are of high enough level to obtain all of the abilities you need. If not, then precise damage output shouldn't matter too much, and I recommend simply using a rotation beginning with Icy Touch and Plague Strike, and intermixing Death Strike, Blood Strike/Heart Strike, and Death Coil (Frost Strike for Frost) as they become available to you until your diseases run out, replacing each piece as the necessary abilities come to you.
What Your New Talents and Abilities REALLY DO: Common (Mis)Uses
Death Grip: How the Coolest Ability In The Game Is Also The Cruelest
Death Grip is a type of ability known as a “gap-closer”, a spell that unites your character with a faraway target enemy, much like a Warrior’s Charge or Mage’s Blink. However, Death Grip is unique amongst gap-closers in that instead of moving your character to the target, it pulls your target to you like a lasso, which is useful for things like plucking specific enemies out of a pack of mobs or interrupting their spells with the suspiciously knockback-like effect. Really cool, right?
Well, there are three downsides to this. First of all, Death Grip is also a type of ability known as a “taunt”, a Tanking spell that compels your enemies to attack you; when you’re leveling on your own, it’s perfectly fine because the target would have attacked you anyway, but in a dungeon or raid this can be hazardous to you if you aren’t the designated Tank. However, you can pick up the minor Glyph of Tranquil Grip to eliminate this hassle. Just keep in mind that Death Grip is your only taunt as a DPS, which can be useful to have if the target is attacking a healer or a squishy mage. I know, tough choices- pick wisely!
Second, Death Grip attempts to move the target, which is a double-edged sword; where an enemy is can be just as sensitive to a dungeon or raid encounter as who it’s attacking. Between these first two points, it's a good idea to use Death Grip sparingly, though any familiarity with an encounter can potentially teach you how to save party members with it.
Finally, Death Grip doesn’t always work: many enemies can resist the pull effect altogether (especially if they're Elite, marked with a gold dragon surrounding their portrait when they're targeted), making it one of the least reliable gap-closers in the game. The minor Glyph of Resilient Grip will attempt to refund your Death Grip in some instances where your target is Immune to both the pull and taunt effects, while many types of resistance (such as Deflection or Reflection) will not refund the cast- yeah, kind of a ripoff. With practice, though, you can get an intuitive grasp on who it will pull and who it won't.
Diseases: Because Screw Combo Points, That’s How
Many of the Death Knight’s abilities either cause or interact with Diseases- "periodic" or "Damage-over-Time" (DoT) debuff effects that deal a significant amount of damage to your target. Over time. Hence the name. Since DoT effects are essentially the most reliable form of damage you can deal to an enemy (they stay on even when you can't!) and become more and more of your damage the longer they're active, you'll want to start fights by applying them to your target and keep them up for as long as possible.
Diseases, for a death knight, scale their damage with your Attack Power (granted from Strength, Vengeance or item procs), your Critical Strike chance and percentage-boosts like Unholy/Frost's respective Masteries, but NOT with Haste (because we're a melee class, allowing Haste to benefit us in ways it can't benefit casters at the expense of this one thing). For a death knight who has trinkets or enhancements with a chance to provide a bonus to one of these stats (such as Rune of the Fallen Crusader), applying your diseases (or hitting Pestilence) during the time these procs are active will allow your diseases to hold these stat values for the rest of their duration (or until manually re-applied). Unholy Blight has the distinct ability to passively re-apply diseases up to 11 times over its 10-second duration (once when you cast it, and again every second after that), which can allow it to automatically refresh diseases with stronger attack power values if you open fights with it- a double-edged sword, depending on whether your present stats grow or deteriorate during the time it is active.
Plague Strike, Icy Touch, Chains of Ice, Howling Blast, Unholy Blight and Outbreak allow you to afflict your target with Blood Plague and/or Frost Fever for 30 seconds. The general rule of thumb is that you don’t use these abilities again until you have less than 3 seconds left on your diseases, though each spec has exceptions. Frost, for example, uses Howling Blast frequently due to its high instant Frost damage, consequently keeping Frost Fever up a lot longer than Blood Plague. Unholy DKs may gauge the benefits of re-applying diseases early, such as periods when procs align, and don't often worry about disease uptime through the use of Festering Strike. Blood DKs can also keep diseases up by using Blood Boil.
You want to open every fight by afflicting the target with Blood Plague and Frost Fever. In a scenario with multiple enemies, you also want to use Pestilence (or with Roiling Blood, Blood Boil), a spell that will spread your diseases around a wide area; alternatively, you can use the talent Unholy Blight when it's off-cooldown, and click it off or "/cancelaura Unholy Blight" when its purposes are fulfilled.
Blood Strike is the first ability you will gain that interacts with your diseases, using them to increase its own damage. Blood Boil, Obliterate, Heart Strike and Scourge Strike follow Blood Strike’s example but are more powerful. Festering Strike is a unique example in that it allows Unholy Death Knights to further increase the duration of their diseases without dealing much more damage of its own- however, if the diseases were initally applied at a point where your procs would make them strongest, Festering Strike allows you to exploit their increased damage for as long as needed; alternatively, it could simply be used to keep the diseases active on your primary target until Outbreak/Unholy Blight comes off cooldown. In direct opposition to this, Plague Leech sacrifices your diseases to provide you with runes (which will often be used to re-apply diseases at lower levels – it may seem pointless but that’s only because it is).
For certain specializations, diseases have additional meaning. To a Blood Death Knight, inflicting Blood Plague will reduce the target’s damage dealt. To a Frost Death Knight, inflicting Frost Fever increases your physical damage dealt. To an Unholy Death Knight, inflicting Blood Plague will follow Frost’s example and increase physical damage dealt.
Because certain abilities have their damage increased on diseased targets, I must emphasize that the first thing you should do in any fight is apply diseases to your target via Icy Touch (or Howling Blast) and Plague Strike, OR just use Outbreak and save yourself two runes. If you're an Unholy DK, you don't even need to Icy Touch!
Anti-Magic SHELL: Not Just a Tanking Cooldown
Anti-Magic Shell is probably the most underrated and most iconic spell in our arsenal, and possibly even the most powerful tool you have- especially as a damage-dealer. The greatest mark of skill for a DK is learning when to use this- do NOT write this off as a niche skill, you will sorely regret it if you do.
What’s misleading about the tooltip of Anti-Magic Shell is that it not only absorbs direct incoming elemental damage (including things like Frost Strike, which deals Frost damage despite not being a "spell"), but prevents the application of most debuffs, including Magic effects (whose debuff icons are edged in blue), Curses (purple), Poisons (green), and Diseases (orange)- but NOT Bleeds/Physical debuffs (red). It does not instantly dispel or remove these debuffs if they are already active on you, but will absorb any non-Physical damage they deal and prevent the debuff from stacking further (if it can at all).
What makes it a great survival tool for DKs, though, is that most NPCs deal some degree of magic damage; every boss you'll encounter will probably throw bombs, breathe fire, pulse raid-wide auras, create "void zones" (areas you should NOT stand, such as fire) or, as stated above, spray around debuffs. Every raid boss fires recklessly into the party, and any elemental damage they deal when they do is eligible to be absorbed. As for those times where the rest of the raid has to clear the area before the boss nukes the room, you can just sit still and pop AMS at the critical moment, wailing away at the boss and barely pausing to ponder the gentle breeze that just brushed past.
When Anti-Magic Shell absorbs damage of any sort (from debuffs or direct damage), the Death Knight is refunded an amount of Runic Power that scales with the damage prevented – if it blocks a large enough amount of damage, you’ll get a full Runic Power bar, giving you more RP dump attacks for each encounter. However, there is a cap on the amount of damage AMS can absorb, so be warned that sitting in the fire to generate RP may not always be the brightest tactic, especially if the first tick purges it or you already have a debuff eating away at you. Learn to keep an eye on AMS’ uptime.
Overall, a DK that uses Anti-Magic Shell properly will feel resource-starved by comparison on fights where they don't or they can't soak damage using AMS, which doesn't happen often. Suffice to say, our ability to soak damage using AMS affects everything about our damage- from our Haste value to the numbers we're balanced around by devs during a tier.
Oh, and one last thing: The Glyph of Anti-Magic Shell. While the glyph increases the amount of damage that will be absorbed from the hit, it doesn't raise the cap at all- if your target is going to shoot two blasts at you worth 50% of your health apiece, then someone without the glyph would absorb part of each, while someone with the glyph absorbs the first and is smacked by the second, effectively taking the same amount of damage. However, if the blasts wouldn't even reach the Shell's cap either way, then someone who could block the whole hit would be at an advantage over someone who couldn't.
Horn of Winter: Because Free Is A Good Thing
Horn of Winter looks like your average buff spell, so you should make sure that you have it up at all times. So why does Horn of Winter have such a short duration- 5 minutes as opposed to 30 minutes or an hour? It’s simple really: You’re supposed to cast it a lot. The hidden advantage of Horn of Winter is that it’s a free source of 10 Runic Power whenever you need it. Because Horn of Winter’s free, it’s best to save casting it until you have no runes or runic power to spend. Even if you think that it’s a waste, it’s 30 extra Runic Power every minute, which is just under 1 Runic Dump.
Presences: Which Ones You Should Use
The easy answer to this question is that we use the presence named after our spec, as Blizzard has (after two expansions) finally perfected this art.
When you start your Death Knight you’re automatically put into Frost Presence. As a Frost Death Knight, you will never switch out of this.
As an Unholy Death Knight, you want to use Unholy Presence when you get it at level 64.
Do NOT use Blood Presence if you are not the Tank. Blood Presence increases your Threat generation, meaning your attacks make enemies want to attack you more. It bears all of the same dangers as a taunt spell. If you ARE the Tank, however, feel free to stay in Blood Presence, and never leave it.
Death Coil, Death Siphon, Icy Touch, Chains of Ice, Howling Blast, and Outbreak: You're A Melee Class
If a group is advertising that they need some ranged DPS, it means they're asking for:
What it does NOT mean is that you should wave your hand asking if you can come in and spam Icy Touch and Death Coil. Many of your core mechanics (Killing Machine, Sudden Doom, Scent of Blood, and the Strikes that make up at least 70% of your rotation) require you to be within auto-attack range, not to mention it being extremely wasteful of Blood and Unholy runes that each lack a decent ranged attack. So why do these abilities have a range then, you ask yourself? Among other things, you can cast Outbreak, Icy Touch or Howling Blast to apply diseases while you're running up to your target, leading into a Plague Strike (if you didn't use Outbreak); Howling Blast an enemy in the middle of a pack to afflict the whole group with Frost Fever; Death Coil, Howling Blast and Death Siphon during any part of a fight where running away from the boss for a prolonged period is key; or Chain down an enemy who is fleeing or being kited. Some damage when you're forced to be at a range is better than no damage at all, but not wasting runes (from the melee) is far better.
- Balance Druids
- Shadow Priests
- Elemental Shamans
- Hunters of any specialization
- Mages of any specialization
- Warlocks of any specialization
Death and Decay: Not Quite Consecration
If you’re a Blood Death Knight, Death and Decay is a tool used to maintain threat, even outside of AoE. It lacks Blood Boil’s snap threat inside AoE, but has more sustained threat than any other ability in your arsenal. You’ll want to cast it whenever possible. You might want to consider the glyph for Death and Decay, which allows you to slow enemies in its radius; this will allow you to generate threat on these enemies for a while longer, though it might make fights a pain if you need to move around a lot.
If you’re an Unholy Death Knight, Death and Decay is both your strongest AoE, and one of the most powerful abilities you can use an Unholy rune on, as its 11 ticks of pure Shadow damage make it only a little weaker than Scourge Strike after you gain access to the Mastery stat at level 80. If you end up fighting two or more enemies at once, you'll want to cast this whenever possible.
If you’re a dual-wielding Frost Death Knight, Death and Decay is a stronger use of an Unholy rune than Plague Strike. You’ll want to cast it whenever you have an Unholy rune up, if you can.
If you’re a two-handed Frost Death Knight… you actually don’t need Death and Decay outside of an AoE situation. Save it for then.
Lichborne: The Leveling Equalizer
At first glance, Lichborne is a spell that’s directed at PvPers. Those of you who looked at it and thought “Makes me immune to fear, sleep, and charms? Isn't that kinda limited in PVE?” wouldn't be wrong in that snap assessment. However, you would be wrong in believing it’s a completely useless skill. Lichborne has an additional function that makes it very valuable while leveling (or as a Blood DK): When it’s active, you can heal yourself with Death Coil, because it treats you as an Undead ally. For that reason, if you pick it up, you want to make the following macro*:
As long as you have enough Runic Power to cast Death Coil, you can keep pushing this button for as long as Lichborne is active for additional healing.#showtooltip
/cast [target=player] Death Coil
Lichborne is equally useful for all three specs when leveling up: Frost has extra runic power generation, Unholy has additional Death Coil healing through Mastery, and Blood can use Vengeance to increase healing from Death Coil.
A word of warning though, is that using this method consumes resources, making it less valuable once you reach level cap. That said, Blood tanks may consider keeping it due to its versatility, though the others can be better in niche situations.
* To make a macro, simply type /macro, press the “New” button on the bottom of the box that appears, then enter a name. You may also choose an icon for your macro, but with the #showtooltip command at the beginning of the macro, simply using the default “?” icon will automatically change the icon when the macro is on your bar. Click “Okay” and you can enter the above code into the dialogue box above the “New” button. Once the code has been entered, you can simply drag and drop the icon into your actionbar. Exiting the macro box will save your changes to the macro.
Purgatory and Anti-Magic ZONE: Choices Are Hard
Continuing on from the previous, after you reach level cap you’ll probably want to move on from Lichborne.
Anti-Magic Zone is the first spell you will pick up that can actively help the raid beyond just another stat buff. It is recommended for Unholy and Frost Death Knights to pick this up when they’re done leveling, since it’s also the only spell of such description that they can provide (Blood has Blood Worms, although that isn’t much consolation). While you may be thinking “But it only absorbs X0000 damage for the whole raid!”, it should be noted that AMZ calculates the percentage of damage blocked before taking into account whether the bubble should burst, so it can almost completely absorb one big hit if you time it properly and it doesn’t try to eat DoT damage.
Oh, and unlike Anti-Magic Shell, Zone doesn't stop debuffs from being applied. In case you had any unsavory ideas or delusions of grandeur.
Purgatory is our "Cheat Death" mechanic, which keeps you alive for a short period after taking lethal damage, allowing you to crank out a couple more attacks or possibly even be saved by a healer (or a well-timed Death Pact combo). That said, it should be noted that casting big heals like Death Pact or Lay on Hands doesn't necessarily mean Purgatory went away completely, and that bad timing and poor burst healing can still lead to your death immediately following the Shroud of Purgatory effect regardless of whether you healed through it or not - being healed back up to 10 hit points may mean you survive, but only through the next hit. If you're short on cash, though, death through the Purgatory effect can save you a bit of a repair bill compared to standard deaths, since it's considered by the game to be a form of suicide. (As opposed to jumping off a cliff and taking a planet to the face, which was clearly orchestrated by the Old Gods. Don't think too hard on it.)
Death’s Advance: The Better Gap-Closer
Let’s face it, from a PVE perspective you’re deeply unimpressed with Tier 58. Your choices are a slow, a stun, and some sort of slow resistance, what even is that! In reality though, Death’s Advance is probably the most versatile choice of the three- from a PVE standpoint- as it also gives you additional movement speed and a sprint effect. Given that Death Grip isn’t very friendly to DPS, Death’s Advance gives you more freedom to close the gap with enemies, as well as an additional escape mechanism. Also of note is that Death’s Advance stacks with Unholy Presence, meaning you can have up to 26% additional (unmounted) movement speed at all times before even activating the effect, since movement speed-altering effects are multiplicative.
Chilblains and Asphyxiate: What Measure is a CC
Continuing on from the previous section, Death’s Advance isn’t the only useful choice.
For a Frost Death Knight in particular, Chilblains makes any situation with kiting simple – one cast of Howling Blast every few seconds is enough to keep a group of enemies at range for up to 8 seconds. One Chains of Ice can root a target for 3 seconds, slow them by 60% for 3 more seconds, and then slow them by 50% for the 2 seconds after that. Even if you're not a Frost DK, you can always cast Unholy Blight or a combination of Icy Touch and Pestilence to slow a group down.
Asphyxiate’s stun effect is unlikely to be used often in PVE, but for any fight with frequent interrupts, you get an additional, free, ranged silence every 30 seconds. This bumps up your number of potential interrupts to 6 per minute, which can be very useful to your party.
Frost/Blood’s Raise Dead: Getting Your Minions to Work For You
The brilliant thing about this little 2-minute cooldown is that the duration of it means you can have 50% uptime for zero cost and matches up perfectly with Death Pact, so feel free to cast it on cooldown. Your Ghoul (affectionately termed "Timmy" by most Death Knights) benefits from your attack power, stamina, melee haste and critical strike rating, and will update dynamically based on your stats- meaning that when a proc activates increasing one of your stats, Timmy will automatically gain the same bonus, but loses it when you do.
Unholy's Summon Gargoyle: The PLAAAAAAAAAAGUE!!
Patch 5.2 included some changes to the Unholy death knight's cooldown, Summon Gargoyle. For starters, the cooldown will no longer have a Runic Power cost for the first time in three expansions, but that's not the interesting part.
You may have been confused by the wording, but the "Plague damage" that the Gargoyle (also known as "Gary") deals is a combination of Shadow and Nature damage, which was once termed "Shadowstorm" damage. This allows Gary to get the best of both worlds: scaling with anything that increases based on Shadow damage (such as Unholy's Mastery stat), while simultaneously acting as Nature damage to enemies more vulnerable to that, and vice versa.
Otherwise, Summon Gargoyle functions very similarly to the Raise Dead ghoul for a non-Unholy DK, scaling with any stats you have as you gain them: Just pop it with Unholy Frenzy, Blood Fury and any other potions or trinkets you might have to try and boost its damage. The 3-minute cooldown's a bit unusual to deal with in that regard (most trinkets have two minute cooldowns), but you should normally be able to pop Gargoyle two or even three times in one fight depending on the timing, so you'll likely be able to line them up at least once.
Army of the Dead: Try To Look Unimportant...
If what pulled you into the Death Knight was the original Wrath of the Lich King trailer, then you recall the scene with the Death Knight channeling a spell that raised dozens of undead creatures to fight for him. That was the moment you realized you wanted Army of the Dead. So, a word of warning to you about Army: the ghouls will taunt every target in sight if they can. If you pick up the minor Glyph of Army of the Dead, this shouldn’t be an issue. Without the glyph, you should save the Army for dungeon or raid encounters where you won’t have to deal with summoned adds. Due to the channeling period on the spell, it’s optimally used for damage pre-pull, but with the damage buffs it has received with Mists of Pandaria, it’s not as punishing to cast during combat. The channeling period can also reduce incoming damage rather significantly for Tanking death knights who stack Parry and Dodge, but that short, interruptable channel period is... just about its only facet for tanks.
When you’re questing after level 80, Army really is an extremely powerful cooldown that can help you to solo encounters normally designed for a group of 3-5. These are the situations where the ghouls’ taunts shine: keeping focus off of you, when a mob is too busy switching between you and 8 ghouls to land an attack on anything.
Vengeance: Best Served... Bloody?
One of the mechanics Blood obtained with the Cataclysm (alongside Guardian Druids, Protection Paladins and Warriors, and the new Brewmaster Monks) is known as Vengeance. Basically, the more damage you take, the more damage you deal, since this turns a portion of health lost to NPCs into bonus Attack Power. The intent of this is to make sure you maintain high levels of threat regardless of how your group's damage-dealers are geared. However, Mists of Pandaria has removed the cap on Vengeance, so tanks can actually do extraordinarily high damage within minutes... if they play dangerously. Just remember that you and your healers have limitations on how many times in a row you can be Impaled without any mitigation, and that Vengeance can still generate through Absorb effects like Blood Shield and Anti-Magic Shell (but not direct "reduces damage taken by X% effects" like Icebound Fortitude), so feel free to use those. Remember, your goal is to make sure your party survives; being able to out-damage the whole party is just a nice perk.
Death Strike, Death Pact, Death Siphon, Conversion, Rune Tap, and Vampiric Blood: To Heal or Not To Heal
As noted below in the Blood section, Death Knights have a lot of self-healing potential. Death Strike, Death Siphon and the Glyph of Dark Succor can provide small bursts of healing to you, while Death Pact can be used for a larger burst in a pinch – provided that you siphon from a pet such as your Risen Ghoul, Gargoyle, or an Army of the Dead minion (using minions harnessed via Control Undead doesn’t work, sadly). Blood Death Knights also have access to Rune Tap (think of it like a weaker Death Pact that can be used more frequently) and Vampiric Blood (a skill that will temporarily grant you health and increase the healing you receive).
Death Siphon may not provide a large amount of healing like other abilities, but the healing it provides scales precisely with damage dealt – increasing with Mastery for Frost or Unholy, or with Vengeance for Blood (which provides a large amount of attack power and thus a potential for more healing per rune than Death Strike). In addition, it has the longest range of any damaging spell in our arsenal (save for a good catch from Dark Simulacrum), making it useful in caster-friendly fights. The most important note is that Death Siphon is one of two abilities that consumes Death Runes to cast, meaning that each spec can cast it up to 4 times within 2 rune cycles, but also that it's not immediately available to Blood and Unholy.
Conversion, however, is a far less useful ability, as the healing provides is weak, and it renders you unable to generate extra runic power through Anti-Magic Shell, Frost Presence or Scent of Blood. It's one of the few Runic Power-costing abilities that doesn't activate our Level 75 talents, meaning it actually takes away from your damage output or active mitigation. It is not recommended over Death Pact or Death Siphon for any spec or purpose.
But you’re probably asking, “Why should I care about healing spells as a DPS? Why do my healer’s job?” Well, think of it this way: you’re not the only person in your group. Whenever your healer isn’t focused on you, they have to heal everyone else in the group. You want to work to benefit the group, or else nobody will want to heal you at all! And besides, a healer won’t always be available to you, so focusing on these abilities is a good skill to pick up.
Runic Corruption, Runic Empowerment, and Blood Tap: Our Pointless Tier 75
Our Tier 75 is one of the tiers most easily mathed out for the highest DPS. The consensus is this:
Runic Corruption is one of the weakest mathematical choices (as it scales inversely with Haste), but by a very small margin. The lack of attention required to use it optimally makes it a preference for many raiders. The biggest selling point of Runic Corruption is that, unlike the other two talents, it can affect all of your runes simultaneously- regardless of how many runes are fully depleted- which is good for specs that focus on strikes that use multiple runes.
Runic Empowerment, on the other hand, is the strongest mathematical choice. However, it requires you to “game” runes for optimal use- withholding low-value runes (like Unholy runes for Frost) and timing out exactly when you use a runic dump so that you can only regenerate a certain type of rune, typically one of high value (ie a Frost or Death rune for a Frost DK), essentially micro-managing your resources. This “gaming” technique is even more difficult in Mists, now that the original Blood Tap has disappeared and is unable to be used for correction. It’s pretty high maintenance and really only a preference to some Frost Death Knights.
Blood Tap, much like Runic Corruption, doesn't require much attention to give you exactly what you want (as all choices come out the same- a Death Rune), so you can macro it to automatically cast whenever you fire a Runic Dump. Blood Tap is also the most predictable of the three choices, as you can watch the Blood Charges you generate to cast it. However, more advanced players will try to "game" Blood Tap as well in a sort of inverse of Runic Empowerment, so that it will only be cast using runes of low value to you (such as Unholy runes for Frost DKs), allowing you to always have runes you can use for more powerful abilities on-hand. You should never let Blood Charges go to waste by staying over 10 charges for too long, just like you should never let Runes go to waste by keeping them off cooldown for too long. All-in-all, Blood Tap will theoretically yield you the best results in a boss fight assuming it's used optimally, but it can be extremely difficult to master. If you are not a fan of ramp-up or micro-management, this is not the choice for you.
Gorefiend’s Grasp, Remorseless Winter, and Desecrated Ground: Very Funny, Blizzard
First, I warn you not to look at another class’ tier 90 talents, because you might become jealous.
Our level 90 tier of talents is supposedly dedicated to AoE Crowd Control effects. However, these effects tend to have limited usefulness in PVE, making it seemingly an additional PVP tier. This is effectively a tier that you have a real choice in only because they’re equally irrelevant to your performance as either a DPS or a tank. As you haven’t got much choice to pick one of them up at level 90 anyway, let’s review for the sake of completion:
Gorefiend’s Grasp is essentially an AoE Death Grip effect. It CAN be placed on allied targets such as your tank, or on enemy targets such as the boss. It does NOT pull allied targets and will only pull enemies, even if cast on an ally. It does NOT taunt or CC affected enemy targets. All Gorefiend’s Grasp does is attempt to pull a multitude of enemies to one target – but much like Death Grip, this does not always work, especially in a raid environment. However, it can be useful for stacking adds to AoE or pulling them closer to your off-tank.
Remorseless Winter is an AoE slow effect that ramps up into a stun. While useful on non-elite enemies, only recent raid tiers have produced enemies that will be stunned by it. However, it can be briefly useful for kiting in situations where you didn’t pick up Chilblains, as well as acting like an AoE interrupt or generally increasing your raid's survival by removing some of your enemies from combat for a short while.
Desecrated Ground isn’t even a Crowd Control effect. It is effectively a PVP trinket that doesn’t affect slow or root effects. Despite appearing to have such potential, Desecrated Ground doesn’t free or protect allied targets standing in it. However, there are some bosses who will attempt to apply Crowd Controls such as Fear or Incapacitates, effects which this will often mitigate- the catch here being that, as with PVP trinkets or Lichborne, not all boss effects are intended to be removed by you.
Soul Reaper: So You Want To Be The Lich King
Our new level 87 spell in Mists of Pandaria is an Execute-style strike known as Soul Reaper. If you weren’t using percentages on your UI before, you will when you get this. Soul Reaper strikes the opponent and, after a short countdown, hammers them with Shadow damage increased by Unholy’s mastery… but only if the target has less than 35% health left, which makes it really not worth hitting unless you know the target will be that low by the time it goes off. This countdown mechanic allows you to cast the spell before the target reaches 35%, giving you time to burn them down low enough for it to detonate. Even though it’s Shadow damage and clearly favors Unholy, Blood and Frost will find that it still is more powerful than any of their other abilities during the execution phase, especially since Frost lost the Merciless Combat passive. If the target dies before Soul Reaper detonates, you’re temporarily given a significant Haste buff, which can be useful in situations with multiple enemies- finish one guy, move on to the next one.
Specialization Overviews: The Quick and Dirty
I Only Drink The Blood of My Enemies
Blood is the Death Knight’s sole Tanking specialization. What is misleading about the Blood spec is that your Death Rune Generator, Death Strike, will optimally be used more often than Heart Strike – You’re the tank, your most important job is to survive, which outweighs your damage output. Heart Strike is not completely useless, however, because it provides more “Threat” than Death Strike, meaning enemies will want to attack you more rather than your healer or your damage-dealers, so it’s okay to hit it when you have extra Blood Runes. That said, Heart Strike is also an ability known as a “Cleave”, which will hit up to 3 targets at one time for the price of one; for this reason, you have to take care not to use Heart Strike around enemies who are under crowd-controlling effects that will be broken by damage, like Polymorph or Freeze Trap - the party is applying those to save you from being overwhelmed by enemies. Blood also has no issue with disease uptime, as the use of Blood Boil (through Crimson Scourge procs or even just burning a Blood rune) allows you to reset the duration of diseases, keeping them up indefinitely. Finally, with the Mastery stat at level 80, Death Strike's abilities double for a Blood Death Knight, allowing it both to heal you and create a shield to block further damage based on how much you've healed; the process of building up the shield from this effect is known as "Active Mitigation".
Click Here to go to the Elitist Jerks Blood thread, written by Tyvi.
Click Here to go to Icy Veins' Blood guide.
- Spammable Damage Strike: Heart Strike – Note: Just because you CAN spam it doesn’t always mean you should.
- Death Rune Generator: Death Strike – Note: Often preferable to Heart Strike.
- Runic Dump: Rune Strike
- Procs: Rune Tap (Will of the Necropolis), Blood Boil or Death and Decay (Crimson Scourge)
- Notable Passives: Blood Rites (Death Rune Generation), Vengeance (Attack Power Generation), Veteran of the Third War (Expertise and Stamina), Scarlet Fever (Disease Duration), Scent of Blood (Improved Death Strike), Sanguine Fortitude (Free Icebound Fortitude), Blood Worms (Raid Healing), Improved Blood Presence
- Mastery: Healing from Death Strike also prevents incoming damage
- Auras and Debuffs: Scarlet Fever (Damage Reduction)
- Notable Cooldowns: Dancing Rune Weapon, Icebound Fortitude, Rune Tap, Vampiric Blood, Death and Decay (for threat)
- Notable Glyphs: Anti-Magic Shell, Vampiric Blood, Dancing Rune Weapon (use at your own discretion, as the threat generation it provides can often be less valuable than the damage it takes away, especially with high levels of Vengeance)
Now Is The Winter of (Others') Discontent
Of the two damage-dealing specs, Frost is probably the most active and random. You have a lot of freedom as Frost in choosing between two-handed or dual-wield specialization. What’s important to note about Frost is that those who use two-handed weapons will have stronger Obliterates (meaning you should use Obliterate when you get Killing Machine for maximum damage), while those who dual-wield will have stronger Frost Strikes and emphasize Mastery as a result, which also enhances Howling Blast. Frost doesn’t have to use any strikes to generate Death Runes, so the rotation is primarily just using Frost Strike and Obliterate/Howling Blast over and over again (until Rime procs). For those who choose to dual-wield and pick up Runic Empowerment, leftover Unholy runes from Howling Blast spam can instead be used on Death and Decay (when it’s up, as it’s stronger) or Plague Strike- though using two-handed weapons or Blood Tap means you should use more Obliterates. Yet another warning, Howling Blast is far more powerful than Icy Touch in single-target and has splash damage that also makes it very potent in AoE, but much like Heart Strike this means that it will break CC effects, so if you're worried about removing the Sleep or Incapacitate or Freeze on the target nearby, use Obliterate or Icy Touch (on a Rime proc) until it's safe to use Howling Blast again.
TL;DR: Frost is big on burst damage, starting fights very strong and holding out until the end. Dual-wield Frost can be complicated, but brings better utility and AoE damage. Two-handed Frost is less complicated, but consequently brings less AoE.
Click Here to go to the Elitist Jerks Frost thread, written by Mendenbarr.
Click Here to go to Icy Veins' Frost guide.
- Spammable Damage Strike: Obliterate as 2H, also Howling Blast as DW or in AoE
- Death Rune Generator: None! It's a passive ability, so you automatically have two Death Runes from Blood of the North without needing to push any buttons.
- Runic Dump: Frost Strike
- Procs: Howling Blast/Icy Touch (Rime), Guaranteed Critical Obliterate or Frost Strike (Killing Machine)
- Notable Passives: Blood of the North (Passive Death Runes), Icy Talons (Haste), Threat of Thassarian (Dual-Wield Specialization), Might of the Frozen Wastes (Two-Handed Specialization), Improved Frost Presence
- Mastery: Increased Frost damage (applies to Frost Strike, Howling Blast, Razorice, Icy Touch and Frost Fever)
- Auras and Debuffs: Unholy Aura (Haste), Brittle Bones (Physical Vulnerability)
- Notable Cooldowns: Pillar of Frost, Raise Dead
- Notable Glyphs: Anti-Magic Shell, Tranquil Grip, Pillar of Frost (again, use at your own discretion, as mobility can be just as key to your performance as the act of dealing damage)
Your Minion and You: An Unholy Matrimony
Unholy is sort of the inverse of Frost, because instead of starting off strong and ending "okay", you start off "okay" and get stronger as the fight goes on.
Unholy is the Death Knight spec that focuses on pets and magic, so it’s like playing a warlock in Strength-plate armor. An Unholy Death Knight’s primary advantage is that it has a permanent ghoul minion following it through use of Raise Dead, turning them into a “pet class” akin to a Hunter, Warlock, or Frost Mage – keeping the ghoul alive/active and maximizing its damage are your biggest responsibilities. In the area of “maximizing pet damage”, Unholy Death Knights have a spell called Dark Transformation, which mutates your ghoul into something stronger, provided that you’ve cast Death Coil often enough to charge up the spell. Unholy also has a higher focus on diseases than the other two specs; Festering Strike is a strike devoted to maximizing disease uptime (allowing you to draw them out long enough to reapply them with Outbreak or Unholy Blight), and Ebon Plague empowers your disease damage while allowing you to apply both diseases with one Plague Strike (for those who played Unholy previously, I regret to inform you that Ebon Plague is no longer a disease itself).
The most unique aspect of Unholy since Cataclysm is that it focuses on single Unholy runes (between Scourge Strike, Plague Strike, Cata's Dark Transformation and Mists' Soul Reaper) and converts Blood and Frost runes into Death runes with Festering Strike, rather than coupling Unholy and Frost runes like the other two specs. The Unholy DK's relationship with their Death runes is similar to Blood's, but with the added caveat that some single-rune abilities like Blood Boil and Pestilence won't turn the Blood- or Frost-turned-Death runes back into their original form, making for a unique multi-target rotation.
Finally, Mists gave Unholy the Soul Reaper ability, which hits extremely hard (about 3-4 times harder than Scourge Strike) on targets with low health for the cost of only one Scourge Strike per rotation; one of the marks of skill for Unholy is learning to weave these into your rotation during the Execute phase so that you can greatly increase your damage output.
As of 5.2, a disease-focused "sub-spec" of Unholy has been created, known as Festerblight (see the Key Terms below). If you would like to attempt the Festerblight variant, I recommend picking up a DoT-tracking addon like DK Diseases to help you manage the spec.
TL;DR: Unholy has a bit of ramp-up, but holds up better walking away from the target than Frost would and has strong Execute damage to boot.
Click Here to go to the Elitist Jerks Unholy thread, written by Matron Heartless.
Click Here to go to Icy Veins' Unholy guide.
- Spammable Damage Strike: Scourge Strike, Blood Boil in AoE
- Death Rune Generator: Festering Strike
- Runic Dump: Death Coil
- Procs: Death Coil (Sudden Doom), Empowered Ghoul (Dark Transformation)
- Notable Passives: Mastery of Ghouls (Permanent Ghoul Pet), Unholy Might (Strength), Reaping (Death Rune Generation), Shadow Infusion (Ghoul Damage), Ebon Plaguebringer (Improved Plague Strike and Diseases), Improved Unholy Presence
- Mastery: Increased Shadow damage (applies to Death Coil, Scourge Strike, Death and Decay, Blood Boil, Blood Plague, and Soul Reaper)
- Auras and Debuffs: Unholy Aura (Haste), Ebon Plaguebringer (Physical Vulnerability)
- Notable Cooldowns: Raise Dead, Unholy Frenzy, Summon Gargoyle, Death and Decay (for damage)
- Notable Glyphs: Anti-Magic Shell, Unholy Frenzy, Death’s Embrace, Tranquil Grip
What Should I Level As?
When it comes to leveling, there really is no right or wrong answer as a Death Knight.
Tanking dungeons early on as a Blood Death Knight will make the leveling process significantly faster, and can train you in skills that are good to have in case you want to tank at level cap. You pick up Death Strike very early on, and you may also find that Blood Boil deals an impressive amount of damage at low levels due to its high base damage (but weakens over time due to its low scaling) which is all the more reason to start as Blood.
Solo-leveling as a two-handed Frost Death Knight is also an enjoyable experience, especially considering Death Strike and Obliterate share a cost, so transitioning back-and-forth between survival and damage is seamless, and many of the tools used to play the spec properly can be obtained fairly early on. Obliterate hits like a truck for 2H Frost, and Howling Blast is a decently strong cleave if you accidentally bite off more enemies than you can chew, allowing you to gleefully glide from corpse to corpse. I personally don’t recommend leveling as dual-wield Frost, however, since it loses the advantage of strong Obliterates.
Unholy can be very slow to level as due to its long ramp-up times on top of receiving its basic toolkit fairly late in the leveling process, and is not recommended, but isn’t an impossible experience now that Glyph of Dark Succor gives you a free Death Strike whenever you kill an enemy and Plague Strike applies both diseases. Unholy is designed to be stronger tackling longer fights, which aren't encountered very often below the level cap. Be warned, while you may enjoy amplifying the challenge of leveling, the rewards of this self-appointed challenge are exactly the same as having leveled Frost.
What’s the Best Spec?
Word to the wise: Never ask this question.
Frost and Unholy are theoretically balanced as far as DPS is concerned (although we’ll always have people running the numbers). The major differences between the two are mechanics: Frost's burst damage, range and ability to cleave versus Unholy's sustained damage, execute-phase performance and pets. Trying to compare either to Blood is comparing apples to oranges.
In short, there isn’t one. Play how you want: tanking, 3 button bursting, or playing puppetmaster.
If you’re asking about TALENTS, then you either haven’t been reading this guide after all (shame on you for skipping down to this!) or you haven’t looked at the Elitist Jerks threads or Icy Veins guides I tracked down for you! Frankly son, I am disappoint.
Common Abbreviations and Key Terms (As They Pertain To You)
2H (Wep): Two-handed weapon. As most death knight specializations use two-handed weapons, the distinction is most often used when referring to one of the two Frost specializations.
Add/Adds: "Additional Mobiles", any monster involved in a boss fight that isn't the boss itself
Aggro: A term that generally refers to having the highest amount of Threat against an enemy target. If you "have aggro", then something is specifically attacking you. It's better for Tanks to have aggro than it is for healers or damage-dealers to.
AMS: Anti-Magic Shell
AMZ: Anti-Magic Zone
AoD/AotD/Army: Army of the Dead
AoE: Area of Effect, an attack that can deal damage to multiple enemies in an area in one cast
→ PBAoE: Point-Blank Area of Effect, also known as a Nova, turns the caster into the epicenter of a limited-range attack such as Blood Boil
→ GTAoE: Ground-Targeted Area of Effect, can be manually placed on an area from a range, such as Death and Decay or Anti-Magic Zone
→ Splash: Area of Effect spell similar to a PBAoE but with the target at the epicenter rather than the caster, such as Howling Blast
→ → Cleave/Chain: Any Area of Effect spell that is cast on a main target (such as a boss) and also damages a limited number of peripheral targets, such as Heart Strike. The term is generally used to refer to any AoE phase with a focus on the boss target.
BB: Blood Boil
BiS: Best in Slot, a term used to refer to armor pieces (from dungeons or raids of your level) which will provide the largest performance boost to your character, be it measured in DPS or general survival. Typically, the end-game Best in Slot pieces will come from the Heroic difficulty of the newest raid dungeon for the current level cap, which can make collecting Best in Slot gear difficult (if not impossible) for inexperienced players.
BP: Depends on context, but typically either Blood Plague or Blood Presence
→ IBP: Improved Blood Presence
BS: Depends on context, but typically either Bone Shield (for Blood) or Blood Strike (for Unholy)
BT: Blood Tap
Buff: Any effect that will increase your stats, damage output, or survivability. Many of these can be provided by your party members from other classes, though you may also get them from "procs" or special boss encounters. Buffs are normally presented to the upper left of your minimap in the standard User Interface, though some encounter-specific buffs are sorted amongst your debuffs. As a death knight, you can bring the raid-wide buffs Horn of Winter (Attack Power), Path of Frost (water-walking) and (if Frost or Unholy) Unholy Aura (passive Melee Haste), and talent into the Anti-Magic Zone (magic damage reduction).
→ Debuff: Any effect that decreases your stats, crowd controls you, or increases the damage you receive. Almost all debuffs you receive will either be from enemy attacks, or from standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. While all debuffs are presented below your buffs, it is important to note that some encounter-specific buffs will be sorted amongst your debuffs as well. As a death knight, you can bring the debuffs Blood Plague and Frost Fever, which can be enhanced to inflict other debuffs based on your specialization, as well as Soul Reaper and a handful of minor CC effects.
Burst (damage): A term referring to damage specializations with low ramp-up and a very prominent initial performance, especially during shorter fights, though possibly weakening as their cooldowns and resources wear out. Currently, this field is a specialty of Frost death knights.
→ Sustained damage: A term referring to damage specializations whose damage holds up or even increases over longer periods of time, though often with longer initial ramp-up that makes shorter fights a slow process. Currently, this field is a specialty of Unholy death knights.
BW: Blood Worms/Blood Parasite (for Blood)
CC: Crowd Controlling effects, which will prevent or deter enemy action towards you or your party members. These include Stuns, Slows, Roots, Charms, Knockdowns, Knockbacks, Silences, Disarms, Disorients, Incapacitates, Polymorphs, Banishment, Horrify, Fear, Passify, Sleep or Immobilize effects. As a death knight, you have access to slow (Chains of Ice, Chilblains, Remorseless Winter), root (Chains of Ice/Chilblains), stun (Remorseless Winter, Asphyxiate, Gnaw), silence (Strangulate/Asphyxiate), and charm (Control Undead) effects, while your Death Grip can be used as a reverse knockback effect.
CD: Cooldown, the amount of time you must wait after using an ability or resource before you may use it again. "Popping cooldowns" refers to the activation of spells or abilities with extended cooldown periods noted in their tooltips (regardless of the resources used in it), ie Anti-Magic Shell, Army of the Dead, Unholy Frenzy, etc.
CoI: Chains of Ice
Crit: Critical Strike rating
CS: Crimson Scourge (for Blood)
CU: Control Undead
DA: Death’s Advance
DC: Depends on context, but typically either Dark Command (for Blood) or Death Coil
DG: Depends on context, but typically Death Grip
→ DeG/DGr: Typically Desecrated Ground
→ DsG: Always Desecrated Ground
DnD/D&D: Death and Decay
DoT/DoTs: Damage-over-Time effects, debuffs such as our diseases, Blood Plague and Frost Fever, which periodically deal damage to afflicted enemies.
DP: Death Pact
DPS: Damage Per Second, calculated from the amount of damage you can deal with all spells, DoTs, pets, Strike-abilities and auto-attacks used over a short period, and typically measured using addons such as Recount or Skada. Also used as shorthand for damage-dealing specializations in general.
DT: Dark Transformation (Unholy)
DR: Damage Reduction (for Blood), a Tanking concept towards decreasing the damage dealt by incoming abilities, either Actively (through defensive cooldowns and Death Strike) or Passively (through boosts to stats)
DRs: Diminishing Returns (for Blood), which will severely reduce your ability to Dodge or Parry if you do one more often than the other.
DRW: Dancing Rune Weapon (for Blood)
DS: Depends on context, but typically Death Strike
→ DSim: Dark Simulacrum
→ DSip: Death Siphon
DW: Dual-Wield, which focuses on using a pair of one-handed weapons, a specialization type only viable for the death knight's Frost specialization.
EH: Effective Health, a Tanking term for how much damage a monster has to be able to deal to a guy without armor to be able to kill you, calculated by combining your Health with your Armor (so having 300k Health and 50% Armor is "Effectively" equal to an unarmored guy with 450,000 Health)
EP: Ebon Plaguebringer (for Unholy)
ERW: Empower Rune Weapon
Festerblight: A term for a variant of Unholy's playstyle that takes cues from Blood's, using Plague Strike/Outbreak to apply diseases at their highest point and emphasizing the use of Festering Strike to keep these empowered diseases active at all times. Unholy rune-based abilities such as Scourge Strike, Soul Reaper, Plague Strike and Dark Transformation are timed so that they exclusively consume Unholy runes, allowing all Blood, Frost and Death runes to be used on Festering Strike. Festerblight increases the availability of Death runes for use in AoE and maximizes the potential of Unholy's diseases, allowing more damage to be dealt while the death knight is out of melee range, but delays the DK's "burst" damage until the diseases will be up long enough to finish the target off.
FS: Typically Frost Strike (for Frost)
→ FeS: Festering Strike (for Unholy)
FF: Frost Fever
FP: Frost Presence
→ IFP: Improved Frost Presence
Gary: Summon Gargoyle (for Unholy)
GCD: Global Cooldown, a term for the momentary countdown on most abilities after using a spell, allowing you to space about casting abilities over time. Some abilities are "off of the GCD" and can be cast simultaneously, such as Blood Tap or many of our cooldowns.
GG: Gorefiend’s Grasp
GoX: Glyph of X
→ GoCE: Glyph of Corpse Explosion
→ GoDE: Glyph of Death’s Embrace
→ GoEI: Glyph of Enduring Infection
→ GoFM: Glyph of Foul Menagerie
→ GoG/GotG: Glyph of the Geist
→ GoRG: Glyph of Resilient Grip
→ GoSP: Glyph of Shifting Presences
→ GoTG: Glyph of Tranquil Grip
→ GoUC: Glyph of Unholy Command
HB: Howling Blast (for Frost)
HoW: Horn of Winter
HS: Heart Strike (for Blood)
IBF: Icebound Fortitude
ICD: Internal Cooldown, a term used for the invisible countdown on certain effects that prevents you from getting a Proc twice in a row
IT: Depends on context, but typically either Icy Talons (for Frost) or Icy Touch (for Blood or Unholy)
Kite/Kiting: A term meaning "to waste the enemy's time by forcing them to chase after you but never catch you." Kiting is a very CC-intensive skill to learn. As a DK, this is generally accomplished singularly through the constant application of Chains of Ice, or en masse combining Howling Blast spam with the Chilblains talent.
KM: Killing Machine (for Frost)
Masterfrost: A term for a dual-wielding Frost DPS playstyle that focuses on stacking the Mastery stat and executing as many Frost-elemental spells as possible. The Obliterate attack is removed from the rotation entirely, instead replaced with Death and Decay and Plague Strike, while Frost and Death runes are exclusively spent on Howling Blast, and all Killing Machine procs used on Frost Strike.
MF: Mind Freeze
Mob/Mobs: "Mobiles", a term for NPCs that are willing and able to fight your character.
MoFW/MotFW: Might of the Frozen Wastes (for Frost)
MT: Main Tank. In a Raid encounter that uses two Tanking-specialized characters, the Main Tank is whoever the boss is attacking. In situations where both tanks must focus on the boss, it becomes both tanks' jobs to keep the other tank alive, typically by swapping the positions of MT and OT back and forth as necessary to the encounter through careful timing of Taunts.
NPC: "Non-Player Character", a computer-generated targetable creature.
NS: Necrotic Strike
OaPH/OPH: On a Pale Horse
Ob: Depends on context, but typically either Obliterate (for Frost) or Outbreak
OT: Off-Tank. While the Main Tank focuses on the boss, the Off-Tank acts as support for the Main Tank by keeping the attention of adds, helping to soak damage that is split between two targets, or taunting the boss away from the Main Tank while he recovers from debuffs. This position is only relevant during Raid encounters.
PoF: Depends on context, but typically either Pillar of Frost (for Frost) or Path of Frost
PL: Plague Leech
Proc: "Procedure", a term for any item or ability that grants a "chance on hit" to trigger its effect, such as Sudden Doom, Killing Machine, Rime, Crimson Scourge or Rune of the Fallen Crusader.
PS: Plague Strike
RA: Raise Ally
RB: Roiling Blood
RC: Runic Corruption
RD: Raise Dead
RE: Runic Empowerment
Res/Rez: Resurrection, any spell that will revive a player when they die
→ Bres/Brez: "Battle" Resurrection, instant-cast Resurrection spells such as Raise Ally that can be cast in-combat but are limited to a certain number of casts per fight, shared between the whole group
RoX: Rune of X
→ RoFC/RotFC: Rune of the Fallen Crusader
→ RoR/RoRI: Rune of Razorice
→ RoSSG: Rune of the Stoneskin Gargoyle
RM/RW: Remorseless Winter
RP: Runic Power
RS: Rune Strike
SB/SoB: Scent of Blood (for Blood)
SD: Sudden Doom (for Unholy)
SF: Depends on context, but either Scarlet Fever or Sanguine Fortitude (both for Blood)
SI: Shadow Infusion (for Unholy)
Spam: A term meaning "to repeatedly activate just one ability, over and over, as often as possible and more often than is healthy".
SR: Soul Reaper
SS: Scourge Strike (for Unholy)
Strang: Strangulate (and by extension, Asphyxiate)
Threat: An invisible number that grows as each player heals or deals damage, which defines who the enemy monster is most likely to attack. A good Tank will always have the highest Threat number (or share it with their off-tank).
Timmy: Risen Ghoul/Raise Dead (for Unholy)
ToT: Threat of Thassarian (for Frost)
TPS: Threat Per Second, your ability to generate and sustain Threat against enemies
T#/2pT#/4pT#: (Two-piece/Four-piece) Tier # Armor, which gives you a class-specific bonus for wearing multiple pieces (Helmet, Shoulders, Chest, Gloves, or Pants) of the same set.
→ T56, T57, T58, T60, T75 and T90 refer to talent tiers, based on their levels.
UA/UhA: Unholy Aura
UB/UhB: Unholy Blight
UF/UhF: Unholy Frenzy (for Unholy)
UM/UhM: Unholy Might (for Unholy)
UP/UhP: Unholy Presence
→ IUP: Improved Unholy Presence
VB: Vampiric Blood (for Blood)
VoTW: Veteran of the Third War (for Blood)
WoN/WotN: Will of the Necropolis (for Blood)