As I mentioned last week, there was one big issue that the patch 4.2 PTR hadn't addressed: the discrepancy between frost and unholy death knight DPS. Just like that, Blizzard seems to have heard and has in fact both changed the tier 12 set bonuses and added a few changes to the patch notes that mostly seem tailor-made to address that gap. Let's take a look at the changes and how the death knight class is shaping up in patch 4.2.
The tier bonuses, they are a-changing
The four-piece DPS bonus, as expected, has been changed. Here's the new data:
Frost/unholy death knight four-piece: Old bonus removed and replaced -- Your Obliterate and Scourge Strike abilities deal 6% additional damage as fire damage over 4 seconds.
This is a pretty clever change that immediately removes the questions of frost's critical strike supremacy. Since Scourge Strike is unholy's cornerstone strike, this should at least make the four-piece bonus competitive for unholy, especially if the fire damage goes off the combined total of Scourge Strike's physical and unholy components. This, at the least, somewhat equalizes the benefit the two specs gain from the bonus.
Of course, the question of if or how the DOT stacks is even more urgent now. If it stacks over multiple applications, it will be a lot more desirable. If it doesn't, we once again have serious questions over whether the bonus is worth it.
Tanking also got a slight change to their four-piece bonus, as follows:
Blood death knight four-Piece: The bonus to parry from Dancing Rune Weapon now begins when Dancing Rune Weapon wears off, instead of lasting while Dancing Rune Weapon is active.
If we assume that the 15% parry bonus lasts the same 12 seconds as Dancing Rune Weapon, we're looking at nearly half a minute of solid physical damage avoidance every 90 seconds. This gives it some continuity with the tier 11 four-piece bonus, which extended the uptime on Icebound Fortitude. In the debate between large amounts of avoidance for a short time or smaller amounts for a longer time, I'm not sure there's a clear winner, but the longer duration does at least allow you to weather a longer period of increased physical damage from a boss and means more total uptime for active damage mitigation abilities. Overall, it seems like a solid change.
Unholy's first steps
There's only one direct change to the unholy tree so far this patch, a quick increase of Unholy Might from 5% to 10% extra strength. This, of course, simply a quick reversal of a previous nerf to the passive skill. Unfortunately, preliminary math suggests that this really won't be enough to bridge the gap between frost and unholy, at least not on its own. It's possible that the new tier 12 itemization might provide a bit more help, but frost is going to be getting that same itemization, so they bar will be moving. We'll see if Blizzard decides to add a bit more help for death knights as the PTR goes on.
Frost gets flung back
While the devs may be inching forward cautiously on unholy, they gave up a quick double-dip nerf on frost. Specifically, Obliterate has been knocked down from 160% weapon damage to 150% weapon damage, and Annihilation will top out at a 36% damage buff. Preliminary math (which may, of course, change in actual in-game situations) suggests this will be about a 10% damage nerf to Obliterate itself and around a 4% nerf to our total damage as 2H frost DPS.
The act of nerfing frost itself is shaky to begin with. While the frost tree certainly is dominating the unholy tree in current death knight DPS play, it still solidly middle of the pack when it comes to overall position on the DPS totem pole in heroic raiding. With this in mind, nerfing frost to equalize it with unholy may make sense if you are focusing on the death knight class and the death knight class alone, but in the context of the DPS game as a whole, it doesn't make quite as much sense. It may be that Blizzard is making these nerfs in the context of full tier 12 itemization, but even then, it's unclear that frost DPS would be climbing enough with tier 12 gear to merit such a nerf.
If that wasn't enough, the act of nerfing Obliterate is where things really fall apart, at least in the PVE game. Obliterate is not only more or less our cornerstone strike, it works that way because it's a hard hitter. It can overcome the ease of use, mastery benefits, and armor-ignoring powers of Howling Blast and Frost Strike to take its place at the top of our damage readouts. When you nerf Obliterate, you run a strong chance of putting a chain of events in motion that could topple the entire frost DPS playstyle. While we'll never see the days of the 32/39 frost/unholy hybrid dual wielding build again, this nerf is going to cause some pretty major wonkiness in the patch 4.2 PVE death knight rotation. Simply put, Obliterate's damage is now low enough that preliminary math suggests that a switch to mastery-focused itemization and a Howling Blast spam rotation (with Plague Strike to use up the spare unholy runes) may be our best bet for DPS in patch 4.2, with Obliterate being used primarily for Killing Machine procs. Of course, more real-world parsing on the test server may be needed to confirm this, but it is certainly looking likely.
Of course, if we look at PVP, the reason for nerfing Obliterate becomes a little clearer. Obliterate is actually not a normally used ability in frost PVP. It's situational. For example, when you have a Killing Machine proc up and you're facing a cloth-wearer, it's pretty much a perfect time to cut them down with a critical Obliterate. It's likely due to this fact that Obliterate's been nerfed. Once again, a PVP nerf has earth-shattering consequences for PVE.
It seems then, that we are in at an impasse. Obliterate must be nerfed to squash frost death knight's PVP burst damage, but if it is nerfed too much, it may negatively affect the PVE damage rotation -- and Blizzard has not, in the past, been very forgiving of frost DPS' dalliances into Howling Blast spam.
Overall, this will be an interesting conundrum simply because we never expected Blizzard to take very long on throwing this patch out. There's still a very good chance this patch will be out just around June, and that may be too late to take another pass at death knight balance. Still, either in this patch or the next, I would expect to see the Obliterate nerf reworked to keep PVE DPS a little bit more normal and unholy DPS to be buffed a little bit more. The question is, does Blizzard have time to juggle this all now, or will the Firelands mark another return to the age of the Howling Blast?
Learn the ropes of endgame play with WoW Insider's DK 101 guide. Make yourself invaluable to your raid group with Mind Freeze and other interrupts, gear up with pre-heroic DPS gear or pre-heroic tank gear, and plot your path to tier 11/valor point DPS gear.