Lichborne: 2009 in review for death knights

Daniel Whitcomb
D. Whitcomb|12.29.09

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Lichborne: 2009 in review for death knights

Welcome to Lichborne, where Daniel Whitcomb has decided that Boom Boom Pow is our class anthem for the new year, if only because those chickens are totally jackin' our style.

So here we are, at the end of 2009. This marks the first full year of the Death Knight class, and it's definitely been an eventful year as Blizzard's balanced and rebalanced our class to help us fit into the ranks of the more established classes. We've been called flavor of the month and overpowered. I dislike the former label on philosophical grounds but grudgingly admit that the latter label has probably been correctly applied at certain points in time. Still, overall we've definitely had the ride of our lives over the last year as the devs have worked on a patch by patch basis to get us all figured out and settled in. Lets look at each tree and look back at the highlights and lowlights.

In a lot of ways, Blood is a very underrated tree. While Unholy is flashier and Frost coasts on that whole "tank spec" myth and the dual wield thing, Blood has been a solid workhorse that many non-death knights and even many death knights don't notice.

What really crippled early early Blood DPS was the problem with the dichotomy of 21 point Summon Gargoyle beating out combined with the need to pick up Annihilation to use Obliterate effectively, combined with the problem with the early frost tree containing far too many frost-only skills, such as Glacier Rot, which was a first tier spell despite primarily buffing late tree frost talents.

This lead to some enterprising Death Knights testing out a diseaseless Blood build, and finding out it worked surprisingly well. The extra disease damage on strikes was negligible, and since diseaseless blood was almost completely physical damage, it interacted very well with all the expertise and armor penetration provided by both Blood talents and DPS gear.

Still, Blizzard's been pretty quick about squelching "alternate" play styles for the DK (Or rather, has been quick at making sure one can make full use of one's abilities and trees as a death knight), so they almost immediately started making adjustments. in patch 3.1 and following, they started making adjustments. Improved Death Strike accompanied a shift in all strikes to add more damage to the disease end and less to the initial damage end. This allowed Death Strike to take the place of Obliterate and freed up on Blood Death Knights to choose either the Blood or Unholy tree for their secondary tree. While Heart Strike lost its haste removal, it got a cleave effect (one that would later be nerfed), which allowed Blood a bit of much needed AE DPS.

This lead to an incredibly solid Blood tree that did more than respectable DPS. In fact, for much of this year, it's been the quiet powerhouse of Death Knight DPS, helped along by the fact that it does so much physical damage that it makes very good use of all the expertise and armor penetration that Unholy especially has very little use for. It's also a good choice for PuG DPSers in the new Dungeon Finder, since all the self-healing (less than it used to be, but still a formidable amount) from the spec just might help offset healers who have tunnel vision or tanks who can't keep the mobs off you.

That said, don't underestimate Blood tanking either. In 3.0.8, the Vampiric Blood tanking cool down received a hefty nerf, but in return, Blood Presence and the now defunct Blood Aura (now Improved Blood Presence) got a slight healing buff. Combine this with other choice tanking talents like Spell Deflection and Will of the Deflection, and Blood Tanks soon found themselves at the forefront of raid tanking, even being the arguable best choice for 3-drake Sartharion back when it was the pinnacle of raiding. Later nerfs have bought Blood tanking a bit closer to earth, but it's still more than solid.


The big story of Unholy DPS has of course been Scourge Strike. When it was first established, it essentially rocketed Unholy DPS up the charts, as the shadow damage completely bypassed armor. Super stacking shadow damage bonuses (such as Black Ice) bought Scourge Strike up to incredible heights. A few nerfs by Blizzard bought it down to earth - and sent it crashing through the floor. As more raid dungeons came out and people got more and more armor penetration, suddenly Obliterate rocketed past a freshly nerfed Scourge Strike with a pittance of armor penetration that you could easily pull out of 5-man ToC. In response Blizzard bumped up Scourge Strike damage a bit, but not enough. While Scourge Strike was once again worth using, it still wasn't as good as, say, two Blood Strikes. This, among other things, lead to a rotation that completely eschewed two cornerstones of the Unholy play style, Reaping and Epidemic. It became a better idea, at least for a raid geared death knight, to simply reapply their diseases and two blood strikes every 10 seconds, because Scourge Strike was just that weak.

That bring us to Patch 3.3, in which they've introduced a new Scourge Strike which does physical damage with an added shadow damage component in an attempt to keep things balanced. As it is, Scourge Strike remained volatile even so, with the shadow damage receiving a quick hot fix nerf soon after Patch 3.3 went live. The nerf, which prevented it from critting, is considered serious enough that some Death Knights advocate returning back to the no-reaping builds of yore, but for the most part we've remained stable enough, and our DPS is at least respectable.

Of course, Scourge Strike isn't the only example of Unholy growing pains from the past year. Gargoyle and Unholy Blight also got their share of tweaks. Unholy Blight, in it's original form, was a very handy AE runic power dump that pretty much guaranteed, along with Pestilence (especially before they removed the damage component at the beginning of the year) and Morbidity that Unholy death knights would always reach the top of the charts. Gargoyle has been and remains Gargoyle. It was originally a 21-point talent, but one so powerful that Blood death knights were ignoring their own 51 point talent to grab it. This resulted in a switch up to the 51 point talent, with Unholy Blight coming down to 21. Gargoyle's otherwise remained mostly unchanged, beyond being put in melee range and being set to 60 base runic power. Unholy Blight, thought, has seen more than its share of change. First it was nerfed, then changed completely to a 30% extra damage DoT applied on Death Coil. That 30% was eventually nerfed to 10%,

I have to admit, I understand why they nerfed Unholy Blight, but I still miss it pretty hardcore. It was a nice bit of flavor.

On the tanking edge, Unholy tanking has done alright for itself despite repeated Bone Shield nerfs and the Unholy Blight change, which took away a good chunk of AE threat (Not that Death and Decay isn't more than up for the task anyway). Other than that, Unholy has remained a pretty solid tank tree, all told.


Frost is probably the least known and least understood tree. Many people still call it the tanking tree based on some preliminary Death Knight concepts that were dropped before the Wrath beta even got started. Certainly, Frost is hardly a bad tanking tree, but it isn't the only one, as many a Death Knight Blood or Unholy tank has explained in vain as they're kicked out of a PuG for a "bad" tanking spec.

Of course, Frost can DPS too, and has had its own share of issues, mostly with the struggle between 2-handed and dual wielding styles. 2-handed style managed to carve out a small niche for itself in the deep Frost tree for the first part of the year, but the focus with Frost was pretty much dual wielding.

Strangely, Frost dual wielding started out as much in the Unholy tree as anywhere else. The point of the Frost tree was essentially to grab the massive Frost damage of Howling Blast (which was then only the 31 point talent), then spent the other 39 points in Unholy to grab Necrosis and Blood-Caked Blade. Necrosis, back then, counted auto-attack damage done by the off-hand, and since dual wielding did tons of off-hand damage, Necrosis was perfect. In addition, Killing Machine was not yet on a proc-per-minute basis, meaning you could not only do good weapon damage, enough to make up for the weaker main-hand-only strikes, but you could do some amazing AE damage by churning out critical strike Howling Blasts at your leisure.

Blizzard quickly moved to prevent dual wielding from overtaking two-handed DPS by not only moving Howling Blast down to the 51 point talent, but nerfing its damage output. They also tried putting Killing Machine on PPM and nerfing Blood Caked Blade in various ways, including normalizing its weapon damage and adding an internal cool down. Dual wielding enthusiasts tried various new specs and ways to DPS, including retreating almost completely to Unholy, before Blizzard finally found their happy medium in the form of Threat of Thassarian, which provided dual-weapon weapon strikes, but adjusted downward slightly to avoid outshining two-handed DPS. So far, it seems to be working, as dual wielders can at least go forth and DPS without being laughed out of their raids.

To the Future

But seriously, if I discussed every major change to the class since January 1st of 2009, we'd be here til 2011, I'm pretty sure. There's been so many buffs and nerfs, both specific and general, whole abilities and talents have disappeared (I still think they should have just given the aura buffs to more classes instead of removing them, and I really hope we get a flashier Unholy Blight back eventually), and so on and so forth.

So for now, I'll focus on where we are now and where we're going. In Patch 3.3, it seems we've shed most of the vestiges of overpoweredness, but we aren't really too underpowered anyway. We'll see what comes up as ICC opens more and more, but for now, we really do appear to be alright. We still have those who call us overpowered, but we'll likely always have those.

But with Cataclysm on the horizon, things will change again. Between new levels, talents, and even more important, changes in some of the most basic ways that stats and game mechanics actually work, 2010 is promising to be nearly as wild a ride as 2009. Luckily, we'll still be with here at Lichborne every step of the way. Stay tuned.

Welcome to Lichborne, the weekly class column on the newest WoW class, the death knight, where we discuss PuG etiquette and Emblem of Triumph gear for the Death Knight tank, 5-man Crusader's Coliseum gear for tanks and DPS, and basic Death Knight statistics and mechanics. You might also want to check all the other articles in our Death Knight category.
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