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Lichborne: The rise of PvE frost DPS on the patch 3.3.3 PTR

Daniel Whitcomb
Daniel Whitcomb|March 9, 2010 6:00 PM

Welcome to Lichborne, your weekly look at the world of the death knight.

With Patch 3.3.3 on the PTR and looking closer and closer to going live, the buzz around death knights is just about where you'd expect it to be, squarely on the frost talent tree. This is especially true of frost DPS. While it once reigned supreme as a cornerstone of the famous 39/32 builds, it's fallen out of favor, and even Threat of Thassarian hasn't been enough to keep it from being consigned to the status of third rate, a pariah from any raid that already has a shaman to provide Windfury.

Blizzard's obviously dedicated to getting the tree properly buffed in Patch 3.3.3, but have they succeeded? Let's take a look at the frost tree thus far, and what we may be doing with our own builds and talents in a few weeks' time.

Frost Dual Wield

Frost dual wield got an incredible flurry of upgrades on the PTR from more innate strength from Endless Winter to a buff to Nerves of Cold Steel. Of course, the big question is simple enough: Is it enough?

Preliminary tests suggest that, yes, it is. Specifically, this 1/52/18 build looks to be the new favorite contender for PvE DPS. Blood Caked Blade continues to make unholy the top dog secondary tree. There's a single point of conversion simply because rank 5 of Killing Machine is considered wasted - you won't be able to churn out Frost Strikes fast enough to keep up with it. You'll also be using Glyph of Disease to refresh your diseases. Other than that, your priorities are about the same. Use Frost Strikes for Killing Machine procs, use Howling Blast when Rime is up, and otherwise churn out Obliterates, Blood Strikes, and Frost Strikes in between keeping your diseases up. Due to the high physical damage from this build, some are suggesting armor penetration may be better to gem than strength, though the jury is still out on that.

Regardless, the preliminary results are promising, to say the least. Sims put dual wielding frost with the build above well on top of Unholy DPS, even by as much as 1000 DPS in some simulations. That said, if you're a blood or unholy death knight, I wouldn't retire that Bryntroll just yet. Frost seems to over perform on simulations quite a bit, and we'll need more actual in-game testing to be see exactly where it falls. That said, it looks like there's a very good chance that one will be able to walk into a raid with a frost dual wielding DPS spec and not get laughed out of the thing. Overall, Blizzard seems pretty dedicated to make frost PvE DPS viable again, so I'd stay optimistic, personally.

Frost as unholy's secondary tree

The Scourge Strike damage change contained in Patch 3.3.3 is essentially a non-issue on its own, but what's really shaking up the unholy DPS world is the prospect of switching over the frost tree as your secondary. The idea is this: With the incredible buffs to Endless Winter and Icy Talons, grabbing those will more than make up any lost DPS from anything in the blood tree. You get a straight up extra boost to all your damage from Endless Winter's strength, and Icy Talons' new stackability is, in theory, pretty much insanely good.

Preliminary tests suggest Frost is a competitive secondary tree on one condition. You may have guessed said condition already. That's right, you have to drop Reaping. Since you lose the extra Scourge Strike damage from Subversion, Reaping once again becomes non-competitive. But a Reapingless unholy/frost build on the order of 0/17/54 does end up pulling ahead on damage sims and preliminary testing. Not only that, but if things stay the same, we may perhaps see a resurgence of Unholy dual wielding, as some sims are reporting that they're doing relatively competitive DPS with the build we just linked, only swapping 3 points of Black Ice for Nerves of Cold Steel.

That said, there's a few things to keep in mind here before you start planning to live with the cold. First, understand that you are losing not only Reaping, but Subversion with this build. That means you'll be putting out a whole lot more aggro, which could, in the long run, mean less DPS as you spend more time sprawled on the floor, dead. Second, testing of the new changes is still very much in progress, but what little information we do have generally puts the difference between Unholy with a blood sub-spec and Unholy with a frost sub-spec between 20-80 DPS. If you aren't an absolute min-maxer, that means you can probably stick with your blood sub-spec and not be too far behind the game.

So the ultimate question: If the patch as it is now came out tomorrow, would it be worth it to switch? I think at this point, it probably comes down to whether you like the extra haste from Icy Talons or the flexibility of death runes with Reaping. The DPS gap is so small as to hardly be worth it unless you're a stickler for min-maxing. Beyond that, testing is still ongoing, so with so much upheaval, it may be weeks before we have a good enough sample size to say for sure which sub-tree is better, and by how much.

In addition, there's always the ultimate wild card: Blizzard. The PTR is still up, and changes can be made. I wouldn't be completely surprised to see Icy Talons moved further down the tree, especially since Blizzard did something similar to Howling Blast some time ago. They already seem to be hinting at their dissatisfaction with Icy Talons in the recent Mastery preview, where they imply that Icy Talons may be replaced altogether by Mastery haste for frost death knights. Whether they will act ahead of Cataclysm to change things up, however, remains to be seen.

One thing we can say for sure in all this is that, as usual, patch day should be an interesting time for death knights. Watch this space, and we'll keep you updated as we know more about what exactly the new "it" specs will look like, and whether dual wielding will once again be king of the hill...

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 andDPS,andbasic Death Knight statistics and mechanics. You might also want to check all the other articles in our Death Knight category.