With the Cataclysm beta well under way, the death knight class does still have some bugs and glitches to work out and maybe even a bit of balancing work needed. But for now, the beta is definitely where the action is, as we work out some of the major changes to our rune systems and trees and figure out where the future of the class is headed. With that in my mind, I'll be playing through the beta for the new few weeks using various builds and heading to various zones and dungeons, getting a feel for how a death knight plays in Cataclysm. This week, we're headed for Mount Hyjal as a freshly copied-over level 80 unholy DPS death knight.
Note that for the most part, I plan to discuss only specific items and death knight mechanics and will do my best to keep out actual zone and quest plot line spoilers, but if you're afraid of spoilers from item names or discussion of quest mechanics, some of them may appear in this column.
Killing in the name of XP
After finalizing my talent build and making sure everything was properly trained, I headed to Stormwind, where a message board in the trade district eventually led me on a flight to Mount Hyjal and the first few quests of my new career. The first thing I noticed as I started laying into mobs is that I'm missing the extra health-stealing on the old Blood Presence a lot more than I thought I would. I found myself using food and bandages a whole lot more than I currently do while doing dailies on live servers, for certain.
Luckily, death knights still have a backup health restoration tool in the form of Death Strike. That makes it easy enough for frost and blood levelers -- blood uses Death Strike as its primary frost/unholy strike anyway, and frost can just switch out Obliterate for Death Strike. The main issue is with unholy, which now has a rotation that includes a frost/blood strike instead of a frost/unholy strike. This means that while you're trying to learn a completely new unholy rotation, you may find yourself needing to switch out of it and back to a more familiar but ultimately less damaging rotation that allows you to use frost/unholy runes to cast Death Strike. It's not the end of the world, of course, but I'd much rather be able to learn my new unholy rotation while leveling instead of constantly having to switch off to death strike to stay alive. Still, at least we know a bit more what it's like to be one of those poor melee classes without massive self-healing moves now.
The observation I noted is that the reduction of AoE damage is very, very pronounced, at least for unholy death knights. The 50% disease damage restriction on Pestilence means that mobs will not be dropping as fast as you think. Almost without fail, on anything more than two or three mobs at a time, I found myself taking quite a while to bring them down and almost always spamming Death Strike near the end. Of course, I'd imagine someone who had, say, a Heroic Bryntroll might have had less trouble that way, but for now, I'd suggest not being so cocky as thinking your AoE abilities in Wrath will translate completely intact over to Cataclysm. Of course, I was also generally alive at the end of it, too, so not all is lost; we do still have the ability, it's just little longer and hairier to get through it. Staying alive became more important than ever to me as I went through the zone, because dying is not fun at all in Hyjal, currently. The spectral gryphon that you can fly back to your corpse moves at incredibly slow speeds, which I imagine is a bug that will be fixed before launch.
I'll also confirm my rune system annoyances from last column. They definitely exist. I'm hoping they allow addons soon or revamp the rune display system, because the current default system feels only barely workable and far from intuitive as far as figuring out what runes are on cooldown and what are ready for use and so on and forth. Admittedly some of this may be kinks and bugs in the system, but I think unholy, at least, demands a more streamlined rune display meter to be successful with its new rotation.
Gearing up in Hyjal
Gear upgrades in the mount of Hyjal zone came fast and furious, split about evenly between DPS and tank upgrades. Blessedly, holy paladin plate does not dominate the zones' rewards, as has been an issue with certain other starting zones in the past. The gear was generally item level 272, but don't lose your cool. It's also all greens and blues, so it still doesn't outpace a lot of epics. The general rule of thumb is this: If you're in Emblem of Triumph gear, you're probably upgrading pretty quickly. If you got yourself into ICC-10 or better and got geared up with Emblems of Frost and drops, you're probably keeping your old gear for at least a couple more levels. I found that the gear was generally a slight bit better than tier 9 10-man gear and a slight bit worse than gemmed, enchanted tier 10 10-man gear.
Just to give you a general idea of what to expect, here's a small sampling of some of the gear you'll pull out of Hyjal in an afternoon of questing (assuming they don't change stuff before the expansion goes live, of course):
While both the icon and on the on-character graphic on the Crown of Chelonian Freedom look like a cloth cowl, this is a very passable plate DPS piece. That 176 strength blows away even a well gemmed non-heroic tier 9 helmet, and I'm a pretty big fan of off-beat-looking graphics. That said, I imagine most gearing has placeholder graphics right now anyway, but hoods are awesome.
The Heatbinder Wristplates are an example of the new generation of tank gear. Remember, defense is now a talented thing, so no more of that on your tank gear. But regardless, it pretty much blows away that old emblem mainstay, Bracers of Dalaran's Parapets, and even has more raw stamina than Gargoyle Spit Bracers from normal ICC, although it falls behind once that gem slot gets filled.
As far as weaponry goes, check out the Poisonfire Greatsword, which I got as a quest reward option literally within two quests of dropping into Hyjal. If you have a ilevel 251 epic weapon, you'll probably be able to justify keeping it for a bit longer, if only because it'll have more gem slots and usually a slightly higher max damage, but if you're still holding on to, say, a Keen Obsidian Edged Blade, you're going to want to consider throwing it out. Don't worry, dual-wielding death knights, you're not left out either. You'll find the Firestorm Hackblade pretty early on to replace your old pre-ICC one-handers.
Finally, the Egg-Lift Talisman provides a quick and easy trinket upgrade. There's no procs, no use ability, just pure, awesome strength.
The word on Hyjal
Unfortunately, I was unable to finish the entire zone before this writing as one of the final quests is bugged, but so far I've been pretty impressed by what I've seen. Despite my lore issues, I'm pretty happy with the feeling of the quests, both the background and the unique mechanics. The one dark spot is this: They have made jousting worse. Since I said I'd try not to spoil above, I won't go any deeper, but seriously. Hyjal jousting makes me nostalgic for the old days of the Argent Tournament. The only bright spot there is that it's over in three quests instead of being a daily thing.
Beyond that, the quests that we did see are, for the most part, pretty fun and manageable, given in easily digestible, bite-sized chunks and featuring some fun mechanics to break up the "kill 10 rats" type of monotony that shows up even in zones as epic as Hyjal. At this point, I may just make Hyjal my first stop when it's time to level up on the live servers.
Next week (barring any earth-shattering news that deserves further commentary), we'll be in a new zone with a new spec. We'll see you then!
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