Tips for new Death Knights from a fellow tank, part 2

Allison Robert
A. Robert|10.08.08

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Tips for new Death Knights from a fellow tank, part 2

Dear corpsified bundles of beautifully-armored joy (but more particularly those who tank Azjol Nerub while wearing Expedition Bracers of the Bandit),

We had a little bit of controversy in the first installment, so I'm just going to state this as baldly as possible; if you hated what I wrote last time, there's a good chance you'll walk away from this one thinking I eat babies. Delicious, delicious babies. While I never mean to offend people, I reserve the right to tell them the truth, or at the very least a highly entertaining and plausible lie.

Truth, she be at times an ugly mistress. And she ain't gettin' any prettier as we move from DPS to tanking.

Tanks have significantly more responsibility, both in groups and raids, and they face the competing directives of maximizing mitigation (to keep their healers happy) and maximizing threat production (to keep their DPS happy). I've healed dozens of Death Knight tanks at this point, and while the average pugged DK tank has gotten noticeably better, there are still a few trends you'd want to be aware of as a healer. The problems in beta right now are made worse by Blizzard unintentionally overselling the ease of tanking on a Death Knight in 5-man runs. Many people seem to have interpreted the statement that they should be able to tank well with Blood, Frost, or Unholy specs as being tantamount to saying they can tank well regardless of how their talent points are spent in those trees.

Any experienced tank can tell you right now that this is not true, but people believing that it is is how you wind up with 11K-life Death Knights taking 7-8K enraged hits from Keristasza in the Nexus. If you've never tanked before but you're interested in tanking on a Death Knight -- or pragmatic enough to know you'll probably wind up tanking a certain number of 5-mans on your DPS Death Knight -- I hope this article helps you avoid what I went through in May 2007 when I started tanking and sucked at it.

I came to the beta to slowly lose my mind trying to heal insane tank damage and gulp Extra Strength Tylenol. And I'm all out of Extra Strength Tylenol.

"The PuG Group Trash Pull
The Ninth Circle of Healer Hell"

A Play in One Act
by Allison Robert

Scene 1
Our setting: the humanoid hallway in the Nexus, with clusters of three or four mobs arranged and making polite conversation while a patrol makes its way up and down the corridor. Our intrepid group of adventurers pauses just outside to discuss their strategy, while their tank, a Death Knight new to the job, marks the first pull: skull and X on two melee mobs, triangle on a caster.

Death Knight tank: K, skull is first DPS.
DPS: Sounds good.
Allie the Plucky and Alluring Druid Healer: (thinks) I have a bad feeling about this.

The DK tank pulls the skull using Death Grip. Skull immediately begins to hit him, landing two blows of three and reducing the tank's health to 60%. The caster, able to hit the tank without moving, begins to chain-cast while the X starts to run for the tank.

DPS: (whack whack, stab stab, pew pew).

Allie, mindful of her capacity to pull early aggro, shifts restlessly, knowing that the tank must be healed but that she will pull aggro on X and triangle. As if on cue, the skull lands another blow on the tank, whose health reaches 35%.

Allie: (at computer) Oh, s**t.

Rejuvenation is put on the tank, Swiftmended, and a full Lifebloom stack then applied. She pulls aggro on both the X and triangle and pops Bear Form. As Death Grip is on cooldown, the DK tank turns around to try to get X off her, leaving his back exposed to the skull. Allie shifts out of bear to heal up the caster's damage and heal the tank, who is dragging the X back to the original tanking spot.

Allie and Tank: Huh?

DPS has pulled aggro on the skull while the tank has been busy with X. Skull is cutting a swathe of destruction across the group. Allie frantically spreads heals around the group while the triangle continues to chain-cast various unpleasant abilities at her. Just in time the shaman notices that the patrol is nearing, Earth Shocks the caster to force it to move, and proceeds to tank it. Skull finally dies and DPS is now split between the X and triangle. Triangle dies and X is focus-fired and then killed.

DK Tank: Drink and let's keep moving. Can you try to keep my ghoul healed on the next pull?

Allie reaches, trembling, for the bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol to quell the rising ache...only to discover that it, like her soul, is now empty.


Any of this sound the least bit familiar if you've run any 5-mans in the beta?

First off, if you haven't tanked before but your guild's counting on you to be the DK tank in raids at 80, please read this and decide whether you really want the job.

Still with me? Next, tattoo the following ancient proverb on some prominent part of your body:

If the tank dies, it's the healer's fault
If the healer dies, it's the tank's fault
If the DPS dies, it's their own damn fault

And now, let's go through my little play ("Based On A True Story!") because pulls like this are a very common occurrence when you have a new tank, overzealous DPS, a new dungeon, or some combination of the three. In general this guide assumes that: a). you've never tanked before, and b). you're not overly familiar with the dungeon content you'll see in Wrath of the Lich King, which is going to be true for a lot of people pressed into service as Death Knight 5-man tanks.

If you level your non-tanking main to 80 before you start leveling a Death Knight, then try to get into the habit of viewing the dungeon as a tank would as early as you can. What attacks do the mobs use? How often do they do it? Are there any patrols, and where do they path? What architectural features of the dungeon make it possible to line-of-sight the mobs? Where can you safely pull a mob pack to avoid unwanted attention from others? Is there any mob or boss ability that will interfere with your ability to build aggro or the healer's ability to keep the group topped off? And is there any stage during a boss fight where you'll need a plentiful supply of rage, mana, or runic power for adds or an aggro wipe?

And so on. These are all things you will need to know in order to tank well, and to avoid the mistakes made above:

Mistake #1: Pulling a melee mob as the primary target while building insufficient aggro on other targets.

If you have a choice between killing a mob with a big empty bar under its name and a mob with a big blue bar under its name, kill the caster first. Even if you've never seen the dungeon before and you're not actually sure what these mobs are, you'll be eliminating potential healing mobs first, and it's not as big a deal if you lose aggro to DPS on the caster while you're building threat on the other mobs.

Even though you'll probably take less damage from a 3K Frostbolt than a DPS will, a 3K Frostbolt is still going to be pretty much the same no matter who absorbs it. But those 1.7K swings you're taking from melee mobs could easily be 6-9K swings on cloth. A healer in decent gear can heal through most caster damage, but it's a lot harder to heal through the damage typically done by a loose melee mob. Think of the early dungeons as training for later heroics and raids, where a loose melee can and will one-shot a player wearing anything less than mail.

Mistake #2: Don't pull in a manner that makes healer aggro virtually certain to occur.

The tank's second mistake was to pull using Death Grip without line-of-sighting the caster mob. Death Grip is an excellent skill, but it doesn't function in the same way a Warrior's gun, Feral Faerie Fire, and Avenger's Shield do. After the other tanks pull using a ranged weapon or an ability, there is a short period wherein the mobs all stumble after the tank, and the tank can position him or herself wherever they like.

Death Grip, by contrast, will pull a mob to you immediately. And the mob will just as immediately start attacking you, and you will start taking damage, while the rest of the pull is still on its way over. If the damage is bad enough that you need to be healed before the rest of the pull reaches you, your healer will pull aggro by having to get you topped off before you have solid threat on all the mobs. An experienced healer will not and should not heal you before you need it, but Death Knights tend to be a little more susceptible to burst melee damage than other tanking classes. We'll go over why this is, but the situation's made worse by their limited access to high-mitigation tanking gear while leveling.

This is by far the most common issue I've seen with Death Knight tanks in the beta. When you Death Grip something to you, the only aggro you've got on the other mobs in the pull is something known as proximity aggro -- i.e. the mobs know you're there and they'll aggro you by default because you smacked one of their buddies, but you haven't actually given them a reason to attack you above other people in the group. Anything that other players do that creates aggro will peel them off, and it could be anything from a warlock Life Tapping to a healer having to heal you. Heals don't create a lot of aggro (especially if the healer has talented into aggro reduction; with 5/5 Subtlety I produce around 30-50 TPS, which any tank can out-threat while asleep on the keyboard), but it can still be enough.

If you're going to use Death Grip in order to pull, you can get around this problem by doing one of the following:
  1. Taking less damage so you don't need to be healed until after you've got some aggro on all the mobs. This will come naturally with better gear, or by blowing a cooldown like Mark of Blood, Bone Shield, or the Anti-Magic Zone. If you are going to use one of these cooldowns, you're probably better off doing it early in the pull anyhow, as that's when you'll be taking the most damage.
  2. Always Death Gripping a mob into Death and Decay. This is a less-powerful but still effective version of the Paladin's Consecration and it should snag and keep the pull securely on you long enough for you build more threat. In order to cement AoE threat, get an Icy Touch and then a Plague Strike up on your primary target, then use Pestilence. All mobs in range will now have a few ticks of Death and Decay in addition to Frost Fever and Blood Plague. You can still lose aggro to focus-fired DPS on an inappropriate target (that's the DPS' responsibility, not yours), but your healer is very unlikely to pull.
  3. Get around the annoying problem of ranged or caster mobs by Death Gripping them instead of their melee colleagues. Not only does this remove the need to line-of-sight them, but you can also Mind Freeze their first cast provided you have the runic power for it. Or -- even sneakier -- face-pull the group, then Death Grip the caster after it starts its first cast.
Assuming you have the tanking talent Blade Barrier in the first tier of the Blood tree, you will also want to use both Blood runes as soon as possible in order to get 10% more parry. Up until the last beta patch, the talent used to be all runes on cooldown, but Blizzard's changed it in the interest of keeping its uptime as close to 100% as possible.

I split the tanking article as it was getting a tad long, so we'll finish tomorrow with the mistakes made by this particular tank, some notes on gear, and advice I've solicited from good Death Knight tanks I've met in the beta.

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