With the final content patch of this expansion on our doorstep and Cataclysm following close behind, we'll be taking the next several weeks to look back on Wrath of the Lich King and everything that made it what it is, for better or for worse, in Wrath Retrospective.
Wrath of the Lich King is coming to an end, and with it one of the largest experiments that Blizzard has ever done in the history of WoW. At the onset of this expansion, we were all introduced to a new class; the death knight. The addition of a new class has major complications on the game as a whole: how they fit into PvE, how they work in PvP, what buffs and debuffs they bring, what roles they fill, what unique utility that they provide. All of these things have changed the face of the game as we know it. though fairly new arrivals, death knights have been integrated into the game almost seamlessly; the craters that they made when they first arrived, however, are still highly visible to those that know where to look.
There were a lot of misconceptions about death knights when they were first released. Once they were announced, Blizzard classified them as being a hero class, not to be confused with your ordinary, run-of-the-mill class. To many people, this caused worry that death knights would be grossly overpowered and far superior to all of the others. Blizzard was quick to point out that this was not the case, but it did little to assuage many of the fears that players had. Still, death knights have had their ups and their downs all throughout this expansion, and if that is not a case for removing then from hero status then I don't know what is.
What can we learn from death knights? What has all of the work done with the significant re-balancing changes and the major talent changes taught us about WoW in general? How can we apply that knowledge to all of the other classes in the game? That is what I wish to explore to day, and I hope that you will join me.
The PvE death knight
Death knights were a total experiment right from the beginning. One of the major promises that Blizzard set out to fulfill was that each tree would be able to both tank or DPS depending on the player's preference. That was an excessively tall order, and it really does not come as a surprise that it has since been rescinded. Attempting to balance out a single talent tree for both DPS and tanking, as has been done with feral druids, is difficult enough, but to do it with three trees within a single class? That takes an enormous amount of investment; something which Blizzard rather quickly learned that they simply were not able to keep up with.
Death knight tanking
This major philosophy shift on tanking that has come about with death knights has shown us all a great deal about the limitations of game balance. When it was first announced that death knights would be able to tank with any tree, there were many players that voiced concern over this. First, there's the utility concern of having a tree with a dual purpose. Hybrid classes, those which can fulfill two distinct roles depending upon spec and gear, are a controversial topic when it comes to how versatile they actually are. How hybrid should hybrid classes be? How powerful should classes that can perform multiple roles be at each of those individual roles? Whatever your feelings may be on the topic, one thing is fairly clear: having a class which is capable of performing multiple roles within the same spec will cause balancing issues.
When allowing a single talent tree to have the capacity to fulfill two separate roles, the talent point investment for each role has to be distinctly different from one another. As a feral example, a druid focusing on DPS should not be able to have enough free points to pick up talents such as Protector of the Pack nor Thick Hide, while a tanking spec shouldn't have access to key DPS talents.When you lose this distinction, you create an issue where a single spec is able to perform two roles within any given raid -- that's problematic given that no other talent tree has this ability. When it came to death knights, the approach that Blizzard took simply didn't end up working out in the end. Their original theory was to have a few of the core tanking talents at the top end of each tree so that every death knight would have access to them; these talents being Blade Barrier, Toughness, and Anticipation. The problems came about after that point, where there simply wasn't enough of a distinction between tanking and DPS talents.
Frost, as an example, really only has three pure tanking talents after Toughness -- Frigid Dreadplate, Improved Frost Presence, and Acclimation (which is a poor talent choice anyway). Unholy really only has two, Magic Suppression and Anti-Magic Zone; while it is Blood that is laden with talents that are more geared towards tanking, or at least survivability in some manner. The reality is that, barring the 5/5/5 base that every death knight tank has, there generally isn't that much of a difference between a tanking spec and a DPS spec. Now, I am not saying that a death knight specced to tank is going to be able to keep up with a DPS specced to DPS; quite the contrary. What I am pointing out is that, aside from the initial 15 talents points, there is usually isn't much of a difference between the talents that most tanking and DPS tanks take. Generally speaking, the difference beyond that point is usually in the tune of 4 or 5 additional points. The caveat to this is that there are other minute differences -- for example, DPS unholy goes for the Ghoul talents while tanking unholy does not -- yet these other differences are generally about differences in threat generation, not survivability.
This is not to intended to seem unfair towards death knights either: feral druids usually only have an approximate 20 or so point difference between specs as well. The crux, however, is how much those talent points contribute towards survivability. Comparatively, Blade Barrier is far less mitigation than Protector of the Pack, Natural Reaction is worth more than Anticipation and Infected Wounds is far more valuable than Improved Icy Touch. Death knights were simply designed with a vast majority of their tanking prowess baked into the class, which makes blurring the line between tanking and DPS that much easier.
It is also those baked-in abilities which have caused another issue that has shown us all a great deal about tank balance. Tanking cooldowns are always excessively difficult to balance. There isn't a perfect way to create tanking tools which are different yet also afford the same equitable level of mitigation or survivability. It is for this reason that many tanking cooldowns have been progressively homogenized throughout Wrath of the Lich King, for difference breeds situational instances which allow a single tanking cooldown to outshine all of the others. Death knights were at the center of this, though they are not alone; paladins have had quite a lot of upheaval over Ardent Defender. Still, Sartharion taught us a great lesson when it came to tanking cooldowns -- as did General Vezax.
Death knights, and WotLK in general, have shown us a good deal about tank balance. In TBC, many boss encounters were specifically constructed around certain tanking mechanics, particularly warrior skills. This was done to assert that warriors remained as the main tanks throughout this period, yet also to ensure that tanking itself didn't become a bland repeat of running face first at every boss and sit there going through the same standard threat rotation until it dies. Boss mechanics need to be interesting for tanks as well, yet there simply aren't many methods in which Blizzard can accomplish this. Generally it is done through various abilities, such as Illidan's Shear or Kael'thas' Fireball, that hit so hard they need a particular tanking ability to avoid. For this reason, tanking abilities do need to be homogenized, yet it is also through homogenization that each individual tank loses their flavor. How then shall Blizzard progress? Only time will tell I suppose.