Death Knights are an unknown variable in the PvP equation, fairly certain to throw class balance in for a loop. A majority of players will create Death Knights because the barrier of entry is so low (like myself, for example). Getting a Level 55 character right off the bat removes a huge chunk of the frustration in leveling an alt -- skipping repetitive content. Throw in the fact that Death Knights get an entirely new starting zone, an easier grind to Level 70, and I'm willing to bet more than a few people will actually get to Level 80 on a Death Knight. This means man players will know how to play a Death Knight -- and how to counter them. While abilities will surely change, observing how the class develops now will allow us to have a better grasp of how to play -- and fight -- a Death Knight when the finally go live (oh, the irony).
The spellcaster's bane
Death Knights are a caster's nightmare, with abilities like Anti-Magic Shell and Strangulate, which is a Counterspell that silences and damages opponents. Within melee range, I can even use Mind Freeze for pure caster torture. Mind Freeze is a spell interrupting ability on a 10 second timer... if it interrupts a spell cast, it also locks out that school for 4 seconds. Timed right, it will make casters cry and go into a fetal position. The only consolation that casters have is that it eats up Runic Power, which Death Knights need to generate and manage like Rage. [CLARIFICATION: Mind Freeze apparently costs 1 Frost Rune to use, but the talent Aneurysm states that "In addition, Mind Freeze consumes no runic power," which means it eats Runic Power somewhat, but does not seem to be part of the spell cost]
When engaging full health and all, I'll probably want to go with all guns ablaze (or swords aswingin', as it were) and have Unholy Presence up. Death Knight abilities aren't on the subtle side, so I'm thinking I'd like to unload as much damage as possible, and Unholy Presence helps towards that, the reduced Global Cooldown contributing to faster attacks. With the Rune system and a 1 second GCD, it's quite possible to open with up to six abilities in succession, with a 4 second downtime before the first spent Rune is back up. After those six seconds, it's highly likely that I've built up enough Runic Power to unleash another spell. From the look of things, Death Knight combat will hardly be dull.
Healing and hurting
Not only are Death Knights well-equipped to handle casters, there are more than a few abilities that put the kibosh on healing. I mean, Degeneration is huge. It's the game's best counter to HoTs -- it won't even proc Lifebloom because it doesn't remove the HoT, it only corrupts it. Stack this with a buddy's Mortal Strike effect, and healers suddenly find themselves in a real predicament. Throw in the Death Knight's numerous disease Damage-over-Time in the mix, and we have ourselves one dead healer. With HoTs out of the equation, the only healing option is a cast spell, which should managable with Mind Freeze and Strangulate.
There're also a few options for self-healing. On the passive side, it might make sense to swap to Blood Presence when I'm anywhere from half- to three-fourths life. My offense continues while I heal passively. If there are Ghouls out, Death Pact works like a Mana Potion with a 2 minute cooldown. The Rune Tap talent is another potion-like effect with a shorter 1 minute cooldown. Death Strike won't help with your current target, but it helps to ensure you don't get immediately gibbed by another.
Freeze! Don't move!
Death Knights can also break kiting with Death Grip, a 30-yard pull, making getting into melee range a breeze. I can just imagine someone writing an AddOn that plays Scorpion's "Get over here!!!" every time this spell is used. This spell greatly changes mobility in PvP. How do you kite someone who doesn't even need to try and get close to you? Once I've pulled an opponent, I can keep them in place with Chains of Ice or Hungering Cold.
Defensive combat isn't quite the Death Knight's style of play, but being a tanking class, it's also certainly a viable option. Even though the class' specialty is against casters, Death Knights are far from short of anti-melee abilities. Frost Presence is a good choice when getting the beatdown from melee classes like a dual-wielding Titan's Grip Warrior. Spam that Icy Touch, which gets even better with the Frost talent Icy Talons. If against hard- and fast-hitting opponents, the Blood talent Mark of Blood is a good equalizer.
The Blood tree seems like the anti-melee tree, with talents like Forceful Deflection working synergistically with Blade Barrier. Will of the Necropolis will help fend off those Executes, for sure, and there's Scent of Blood for a free lifestealing effect. The Blood tree concentrates on Strength and Armor, making it a perfect foil for physical damage. Of course, the other trees have defenses, too, like Toughness early in Frost, as well as Frigid Dreadplate and Unbreakable Armor deeper into the tree. Unholy is more focused against spellcasters, but Lichborne affords an additional 25% chance for opponents to miss. The Unholy tree is also a PvP-friendly tree, with On a Pale Horse and Unholy Aura, so players thinking of PvP might want to consider an Unholy-heavy build. I know I am.
Best fiends for life
Death Knights are a melee class with spells, but are also a conditional pet class -- worse than a Hunter or Warlock, but better than a Frost Mage or Moonkin Druid. Raise Dead is an ability on a five minute timer that gives Death Knights a Ghoul for two minutes. With the Unholy talent Master of Ghouls, the pet behaves more like a pet, and Ferocious Dead keeps them around for three and a half minutes instead of two.
Having a pet in PvP is a boon, although Ghouls have fairly limited abilities. The real PvP application? I'll be able to raise my allies as Ghouls. Players can choose to accept the Raise Dead similar to a Resurrection spell and control the Ghoul as though it were their own character -- think Darkrune quest in Ogri'la or the Chess event in Karazhan. In Arenas, this affords my teammates an extended lease on (un)life. In close matches, it might even snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
A sickening class
On top of fantastic utility spells, there's the disease mechanic we've been buzzing on about. They have disease-based DoTs. It's notable that a Death Knight's diseases are Shadow-, not Nature-based like most diseases in the game, affording some classes a bit of defense, like a Priest's Shadow Protection or even the Warlock talent Nether Protection. Death Knights can stack a plethora of different diseases, too, and strikes like Obliterate can deal massive damage when an opponent has max debuffs.
Let's theorize a bit more, looking through the Unholy tree. There's one debuff from Plague Strike, an Unholy Death Knight's bread and butter strike; Ghouls have an ability that infects their target; there's Blood-Caked Blade, which gives the Filthy Weapon debuff; Crypt Fever looks like it'll stack over existing diseases; Ebon Plaguebringer might replace Crypt Fever when it procs; and then there's the 51-point Unholy Blight, of course. Casting Death and Decay also gives a short, 6-second disease for a total of six different disease debuffs. Immediately follow it up with a Blood Strike or Blood Boil.
I'm really excited to roll my own Death Knight, if only because there seems to be many ways to play it. It looks like the class has many solutions to different classes and playing styles that it will be challenging and fun to PvP with one. Who knows, if I have enough fun PvPing with my Death Knight, I might actually even be talked into tanking something.
Zach Yonzon writes the PvP column The Art of War(craft) while waiting for his Beta key to arrive. Any minute now. Really. He's just sitting there, twiddling his thumbs. Any minute now.
Enjoy reading practical PvP thoughts and sometimes impractical theorycraft? Check out more of Zach's The Art of War(craft), where he talks about all sorts of PvP-related subjects like how WoW can work as an eSport, or choosing the right targets in a PvP situation.