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Lichborne: Death knight masteries and other Cataclysm beta tweaks

Daniel Whitcomb
Welcome to Lichborne, your weekly source for news, guides, tips and opinions on the death knight class.

With the latest build having just hit the Cataclysm beta test servers, this seems like a pretty good time to take a quick inventory of the changes, maybe say a few things about the direction that the class is heading thus far in beta. I can tell you right now that some of the latest changes are either confusing or just plain silly, and while some things are looking cool enough, we really are long overdue for another major change patch. However, before we get too hardcore into that discussion, let's look at the latest changes.

Mastering death knight masteries

Blood Shield Each time you heal yourself via Death Strike, you gain 50% of the amount healed as a damage absorption shield. Absorb increased further by mastery rating.

The blood tree mastery is pretty straightforward and also pretty nicely useful for tanking. Currently, dressed in a random array of Deepholm and Hyjal quest drops, my level 83 death knight is up to an 85 percent shield. Of course, it's hard to say right now how much mastery endgame death tanks will need or want, but with health totals rising, the absorption shields you create with this mastery probably won't be too shabby. Plus, it's an active mastery, which I personally prefer, since it gives you a choice of when and how to use it, at least to a limited extent.

The one concern here is that it does interfere with Death Rune Mastery, which essentially makes Death Strike a death rune factory for the purpose of churning out more Heart Strikes. However, Blood Shield seems to suggest that we should instead be using those now superfluous death runes for more Death Strikes. Of course, it's possible that Blizzard wants us to have to make the choice between the superior threat of Heart Strike or the damage absorption of Death Strike.

Even so, if that's the aim, it does leave death knights with more to worry about as far as which skill to use and when, and to make that work best, I think this is another case where we can ask for a new rune display interface. Being able to keep better track of our death runes (or runic energy pools, as I like to think of them now) will go a long way in helping us to successfully juggle the new dimension of rune usage that this mastery has bought up, while still being able to juggle the responsibilities of a tank.

Frozen Heart Increases all frost damage done by 20%. Damage increased further by mastery rating.

Unfortunately, frost's mastery is not as dynamic as blood's, but at the same time, it does fit the style very well. Between Frost Strike, Icy Touch and Howling Blast, frost does a not insignificant amount of damage as frost. Since previous iterations of frost mastery involves overload frost with runic power, this also helps alleviate frost's overabundance of the stat as well, thus also freeing up some of those spare GCDs we're supposed to have this expansion. All in all, despite the somewhat lackluster passiveness of the stat, for frost's unique playstyle, it may turn out that it just fits in too well to be revamped to something active.

Blightcaller Increases the damage done by your diseases by 20%. Damage increased further by mastery rating.

Unholy's mastery is perhaps the most disappointing. On one hand, it's at least useful for unholy's ostensible status as master of disease, and it does make up a little bit for the (still undeserved, in my opinion) nerf to Pestilence. That said, it's also incredibly boring and puts yet another arrow in the quiver for dual wield unholy (which is fast overtaking two-handed unholy for superior damage, thanks to Sudden Doom procs and Runic Empowerment) by increasing spell-based damage instead of strike damage. I'd very much like to see this mastery switched out for something that specifically reinforces the two-handed playstyle, even if it's as simple as adding more physical damage to Scourge Strike based on high-end weapon damage.

A dirge for runic power

As of the latest patch, Dirge now affects Blood Strike, Plague Strike and Icy Touch. However, it no longer affects Scourge Strike and Festering Strike. Essentially, this makes it near worthless for endgame two-handed unholy, while further cementing the dominance of dual wielding.

Here's the main issue: Currently, endgame unholy rotations completely skip the use of all three of these skills by using Outbreak to apply diseases and Festering Strike to maintain those diseases and use up blood runes. Assuming everything works out, other than emergency disease reapplication when Outbreak is on cooldown, we'll not be using those skills, meaning Dirge does next to nothing for us.

Blizzard's main aim with this change is probably to relieve Unholy's GCD problems by giving us fewer Death Coils to shoot off this. This is certainly understandable, but part of the problem is that it once again bolsters dual wielding. Since dual wielders find that Icy Touch plus Blood Strike will do more damage than Festering Strike for them anyway, they can cast those, get the runic power, cast more Death Coils and continue to dominate.

At this point, I'd say Dirge just needs to get wiped out. If we have enough runic power generation without it, throw it away. Personally, I'd love to replace it with a talent that resets the cooldown on Outbreak (or gives you a temporary free cast of Outbreak) when you kill an enemy that grants experience or honor, thus cementing the new unholy rotation.

Morbidity and the slow death of AoE

Blizzard's latest salvo in the war against AoE has been to apply restrictive cooldowns the "set it and forget it" types of AoE spells such as Consecration that have allowed huge pulls and AoE speed runs since the BC days, and apparently, it decided Death and Decay needed another hit. The Morbidity talent no longer reduces the cooldown but gives it a damage buff.

Unfortunately, this continues to complicate the death knight tank's life. Even with the morbidity cooldown, Death and Decay was not constantly up, but now that it's even less available, we're left with two major AoE damage options: Heart Strike and Blood Boil. One provides an important debuff, the other better threat against up to three targets. However, they both use the same runes, blood runes, and using them means you give up using the damage absorption on your mastery. Blood tanks currently wait too long for runes to refresh anyway (and may need to save those runes for tanking cooldowns anyway), and this will just make things worse for them.

What a death knight needs

In short, we're obviously not done as a class in Cataclysm, and the latest changes and the new masteries only highlighted this. Hopefully, we'll see another patch with some major death knight changes soon. Specifically, I'd like to see the following points addressed:
  • the lack of free global cooldowns, especially for unholy
  • the dominance of dual wield unholy
  • the over-focus on blood runes for tanks, to the point of rune drought
  • the current failure of the rune system revamp, or at least the failure of the current default rune display UI
There are more issues that can be bought up, of course, but these are, in my opinion, the most urgent. We're not hurting, per se, but we could be doing a lot better, and we're really overdue for another pass. Hopefully, our turn comes soon.

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