As things currently stand in Cataclysm, much of the death knight's famous ability to take tons of punishment and get health back, even in DPS mode, has been removed with the removal of health stealing from the main DPS presence. Unholy and frost death knights will find themselves resorting to using the less damaging (for them) Death Strike while leveling to stay alive and lessen downtime.
Of course, there is one spec that still maintains much of the health-stealing power of our Wrath heyday: blood.
The feel of blood leveling
While blood is a tank-only tree in Cataclysm, it certainly wouldn't be unprecedented for a tank tree to be the best leveling tree for a class. Protection paladins have had a reputation as leveling powerhouses for some time, and in mid-to-late Wrath, even protection warriors have shown some real staying power in the leveling arena.
Especially with the recent upward adjustment of mob damage in beta, the argument for leveling blood is strong. Death Strike's health-stealing portion is not only improved by blood talents, but blood mastery provides extra absorption from those same strikes. Rune Tap provides an extra, accessible emergency heal. Blood Parasites provide a pretty steady source of extra "passive" healing, and it's not insignificant, either. They had over 10k health when spawned by my 10-man, T10-equipped guinea pig death knight, meaning they also proved up to taking a hit or two if the need arose. And if all that isn't enough, you can activate Dancing Rune Weapon for some quick extra defensive power and Vampiric Blood to make all those other heals that much better.
As far as damage, It honestly did not feel as if I was going any slower than unholy or frost. This may have partially been because of Vengeance helping to close the gap. Either way, while it still probably won't top any DPS meters in dungeons or raids, I didn't feel like I was going artificially slow because of it while leveling.
All in all, these advantages make me think that unless death knights get another huge round of changes between now and live, we'll probably see a lot of people leveling blood, and with good reason. So the question I've heard some ask about this reality, which is quickly dawning on a lot of death knight beta testers, is, is this OK?
The ethics of protection leveling and blood
The argument against blood leveling is that leveling as a tank will give newbie death knights the wrong idea. If they level as blood for the healing, they may think they are prepared to tank as soon as they hit 85, or they may try to DPS as blood and find they're not contributing as much as they should in the much more unforgiving world of Cataclysm-era instancing.
In theory, these are valid concerns, especially since lately, Blizzard seems to be working pretty hard to make sure as much of the game as possible is intuitive and easy to grasp, as far as the basics go, with better tutorials, a new level-up UI and descriptions of each tree you read before you choose your talent path. At the same time, if protection warriors and protection paladins have both found their own leveling niches, why not our tank spec?
Of course, blood leveling aside, this amazing utility and survivability of blood leveling does highlight even more some of the drawbacks of frost and unholy leveling. Frost can make up for it somewhat by swapping out Obliterates for Death Strikes, but Unholy no longer has a rotation that involves a frost/unholy strike, leaving it as sort of the ugly stepchild. My suggestion? Bring back Vendetta, give it a few buffs, maybe an extra health stealing proc for midway through a battle, and stick it in tier 2 of the blood tree. This way, the other trees can get some much-needed health returns to help them keep pace with blood for leveling purposes, while (in theory) raiding and dungeon crawling builds can skip it for more DPS-oriented talents. In the meantime, however, I think I may just be leveling blood with Cataclysm drops, if the current state of the trees stays the same until then.
Leveling through Vashj'ir
I did my blood leveling testing with this build, and leveled through the watery zone of Vashj'ir. Vashj'ir is a strange zone of infinite contradictions. It's incredibly beautiful and expansive, and it feels lot like a huge ocean, but yet it feels incredibly restrictive and claustrophobic. You have tons more freedom to move, but you feel more lost than ever because it just means you're searching frantically for one opening among a bunch of sea rocks. Part of the problem, I think, is that the story itself never lets you feel like you're inside it. Essentially, you're shipwrecked and marooned for more or less the entire time you're in the zone. You never actually set out to invade the lost city of Vashj'ir, you simply crashed there, and getting free of and fighting off the deep sea terrors trying to drown you becomes your whole duty.
While you do eventually uncover a story and plot that is as epic as the other zones, you never quite own the story, because it feels like you're being dragged along rather than progressing. The story does eventually have some very epic moments, but they never really last because you're pulled along on the tide almost immediately. I'm not sure yet whether that's a good or a bad thing, but either way, I'm thinking I'll just start leveling in Hyjal, to be honest.
Loot is also a consideration in Vashj'ir. It's more or less the same quality as Hyjal, but you don't really start getting it until much later in the instance, it seems. If you're not in tier 10 gear, it might make more sense to go to Hyjal to get geared up faster. Still, by end of the zone, you should still have a decent outlay of gear to upgrade your clunky, outdated tier 9. Here's a few examples:
- Wheelman's Shattered Grasp won't quite beat tier 10 gloves, but basic tier 9 conquest gloves it does outpace by a decent amount. This is one of the first gear drops you'll get in the zone.
- The Prismatic Periwinkle Band is a solid blue ring that has more strength than all but a few heroic level Wrath offerings, although many will beat it out when properly gemmed. Still, expect to replace badge offerings such as the Bloodshed Band, and anything worse, with this ring.
- You'll get Captain Taylor's Chopper relatively early in the zone, and it'll be pretty close to any old normal 10-man ICC weapons for frost dual wielding, even if it is itemized for hunter and rogue types.
- The Barnacle-Coated Greataxe will come much later in the zone than the Poisonfire Greatsword did in Hyjal (I was near level 82 on this death knight before I managed to find the quest mob to kill for it, though I'd gotten the quest somewhere closer to mid-81), but it's a pretty solid equal for said sword and should beat out any weapon obtained before 10-man Lich King normal drops, such as the Citadel Enforcer's Claymore.
- Submariner's Weighted Treads are blue DPS boots from the last quest in the zone, which should give you an idea of where things are ending up. This'll beat out a lot of tier 10 options, for sure, though the real deal-breakers are still to come in Deepholm, as we discussed a few weeks ago.
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