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Lichborne: Unholy DPS 101

Daniel Whitcomb
Daniel Whitcomb|February 16, 2010 6:00 PM

Welcome to Lichborne, your weekly peek at the world of the death knight. This week, we're looking at what may be the most volatile, versatile, finicky, and powerful of the death knight dps specs.

1. What is unholy DPS?

Unholy DPS is one of the biggest roller coasters you can step on as a death knight DPSer, in that almost every major patch has bought huge changes to the tree, sometimes making it totally overpowered, sometimes slamming it down into the dirt, sometimes making a basic unholy spec look like a convoluted Escherian nightmare. In Patch 3.3, it's leveled off into a solid, dominant powerhouse that combines stronger diseases and physical damage with the added bonuses of a cool pet and a very powerful magical debuff. It's essentially the choice for any death knight DPSer who wants to maximize their DPS.

2. Unholy DPS benefits
  • Ebon Plague, which counts as a 3rd disease and makes your diseases and the magical damage of your group and raid members hit for much more. It's also superior to the warlock and moonkin versions in that it can easily be spread to other targets via Pestilence
  • Since Patch 3.3, unholy offers competitive single target damage to blood, if not outright superior damage at high gear levels.
  • Superior sustained AoE DPS. Despite the loss of the AoE version of Unholy Blight, unholy still brings enough toys that it easily out paces the other trees and many other classes to deal superior AoE damage.
  • Permanent ghoul pet
  • Bone Shield provides both DPS and survivability if you accidentally pull aggro
3. Unholy DPS drawbacks
  • You may have to respec multiple times depending on your gear level and other factors to maximize your DPS.
  • Slightly more complicated damage rotation as compared to blood.
  • Unholy continues to be the most volatile and changeable of the death knight talent trees, and may see further adjustments in future patches, if only to put blood or frost in better competition DPS wise.
4. Stats to look for

These stats are listed in order of general purpose. It doesn't always hold true, of course, and things do switch up a bit depending on whether you are using a Reaping spec or not, but as a general rule of thumb, these are how you should prioritize while gearing.
  • Weapon DPS: You will need a big, slow, high damage 2 handed weapon to get the most out of your spec, since you'll be doing most of your damage from weapon strikes. Dual wielding did used to work for unholy DPS to a limited degree, but since patch 3.3, two-handed DPS is far and away the better path to take.
  • Hit Rating to 8%: At 8% hit rating, all your two-handed damage and weapon strikes will hit. Since most of your damage will come from weapon strikes and auto attacks, it's a good idea to make sure they never miss. You'll also want to get all 8% hit from gear if you can (That's about 263 hit rating), since that will also grant additional combat stats to your ghoul that the draenei aura won't. While hit rating past that 8% will still technically benefit you, since it will give a better chance to hit to spell-like effects like Death Coil, the benefit will be so low that it will be far better if you get other stats instead. You'll make up most of the gap with Virulence and (if available in your group or raid) Misery anyway.
  • Strength: This stat buffs all of your damage, both physical and spell-based. You'll get 2 attack power per a point of strength, and an extra 3% strength buff from Ravenous Dead. This is the stat you want to stack for more damage.
  • Armor Penetration: Now that Scourge Strike does a portion of its damage as physical, Armor Penetration has become a very attractive stat for us. Strength still wins out point for point, but armor penetration is very attractive, especially after you have 2-piece Tier 10, which offers a substantial boost to Scourge Strike damage. It's slightly less useful before then, but still more than worth taking.
  • Critical Strike Rating: This stat is, if nothing else, valuable for Wandering Plague procs, as well as 4-piece tier 9wearing death knights. It performs deceptively well overall in most unholy DPS theory crafting, though not as well as it once did now that the shadow portion of Scourge Strike cannot crit.
  • Expertise: Surprisingly, this isn't as valuable as you'd think. Unholy currently has a very loose rotation with a few free global cool downs, so it's not the end of the world if the enemy dodges your strike. You can probably hold off on getting the 26 expertise you need to prevent dodges until you're in raid gear.
  • Haste: Once the crown jewel of unholy DPS, this stat has fallen out of favor. Now that our damage rotation is looser and a bit more forgiving, you don't need haste to force in all your abilities before your diseases drop, and you can focus more on strength and armor penetration again. It is worth noting that ghouls do receive 100% of your haste rating as well.
5. Stats of marginal benefit

Much like in our blood DPS guide, these stats here are not exactly worthless, but it is far, far better to get one of the above stats. Again, if a stat isn't listed here, you can pretty much assume it's more or less worthless for unholy DPS.
  • Agility: Agility will at least give you some melee critical strike, but you really want critical strike rating for that, especially since raw critical strike rating will also apply to spell-like stuff like Death Coil. Leave the agility jewelry and capes to the rogues and hunters.
  • Attack Power: Sure, we do get some benefit from attack power. It does make us hit harder. But strength, again, gives you more bang for your buck, especially since strength can be directly buffed by Ravenous Dead. Again, leave the attack power jewelry and capes to the hunters and rogues
  • Armor: You probably want to wear plate armor just to get more use out of Bladed Armor (and to avoid the ill effects of the Cataclysm itemization change somewhere down the road), but don't go overboard with it either. The benefit is marginal compared to more straight up strength.
  • Stamina: Stamina certainly isn't a bad stat, it keeps you alive. But chances are getting straight up DPS gear will give you enough stamina to survive, at least at the raid and heroic dungeon levels. Let the stamina come to you, don't go to it.