Lichborne: Unholy tanking 101

Daniel Whitcomb
D. Whitcomb|05.18.10

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Lichborne: Unholy tanking 101

Welcome to Lichborne, the weekly death knight column. This week, we're refusing to say goodbye to a dying friend.

Unholy tanking is both a unique and endangered form of tanking in WoW. Unique, because of Bone Shield, which makes unholy uniquely suited to be an avoidance tank, and endangered, because it's going to go away in Cataclysm. That said, there's still reasons to be an unholy tank, whether it's one last hurrah for your favorite playstyle, wanting to try the playstyle before it goes away or wanting to get used to Bone Shield before it moves over to blood to become a core tanking talent for all tank death knights. Whatever your reason, read on. This guide is meant to provide you with the basic talenting, glyphing and technique for starting out as an unholy tank.

Pros of unholy tanking

  • Bone Shield has the potential to be the best tank cooldown in game with high avoidance.
  • Anti-Magic Zone allows for multiple raid members to stand in the fire.
  • Unholy offers superior AoE threat.
  • Ebon Plaguebringer is the superior magic debuff, thanks to spreading via Pestilence.

Cons of unholy tanking

  • Bone Shield has the potential to last as little as 8-10 seconds if avoidance is not high enough.
  • There's a need to give up effective health/stamina to optimize Bone Shield.
  • Lower single-target threat, though this is less of a problem since Patch 3.3 buffed Scourge Strike.

Stats to look for

  • Defense rating Pushing critical strikes off your incoming damage is one of the most important steps you can take to become a full-fledged tank. To do that against heroic dungeon bosses, you'll need 535 defense. To do it against raid bosses, you'll need 540. Mind you, that is defense skill, not defense rating, which is what is on most gear. You'll need 4.92 defense rating at 80 to get a single point of defense skill. You can also get 25 points of defense skill by using Rune of the Stoneskin Gargoyle. Those are actual skill points, not rating, so it will be a very significant boost. It's also worth noting that while 540 and 535 are the defense "caps" for getting critically hit; defense points above that are still useful, since they provide dodge and parry rating. You'll be better off getting raw dodge and parry rating instead, but if you squeak a little past 540, don't sweat it too much; those points are still useful.
  • Dodge rating Dodging allows you to completely avoid incoming physical attacks. That means you survive longer and your healer has less work to do. In other words, it's very handy to have. Dodge is subject to diminishing returns, but for the most, a beginning tank shouldn't have to worry about stacking so much dodge he reaches the cap. It's pretty safe to equip dodge gear as you find it. This stat is more important for unholy death knights, since each dodge means that Bone Shield stays up that much longer.
  • Stamina Stamina means more health, especially once bonuses from Frost Presence are figured in. While unholy tanking focuses on avoidance more than the other trees because of Bone Shield, you do still want a good amount of stamina.
  • Armor Armor mitigates a percentage of all incoming physical damage. For physical damage boss fights, it's pretty hard to beat. It's also valuable in that it does not really diminish in value as you get more armor, because every percentage point of reduction becomes that much more valuable. Always keep items with lots of armor handy.
  • Parry rating Like dodge, parrying also allows you to completely avoid incoming physical attacks. Like dodge, it is also affected by diminishing returns. Since death knights get parry from strength to begin with, thanks to Forceful Deflection, they actually don't need to worry much about grabbing parry rating and should instead focus on dodge, especially when gemming. Like dodge, this stat counts for allowing Bone Shield to stay up longer.
  • Hit rating and expertise rating You can't gather threat if you don't hit your target. While it's not essential, it's still very helpful to try to get to the 8% special attack plateau for hit rating and the 26 expertise plateau to prevent the enemy from dodging your attacks. If you're having trouble with threat and aren't "capped" with these stats yet, get more of them.
  • Strength The more strength you have, the more threat you'll get. In addition, death knights get a chance to parry from strength. That said, you don't really have to go out of your way to get strength. You should get more than enough it just from grabbing good tank gear.

Basic PvE talent build

This talent build here is a nice, solid unholy two-handed weapon tank build that grabs all the important talents and focuses on a few extra threat abilities to maximize the AoE threat of the build.

If you want to move around points here, the easiest place to take them from is Wandering Plague, which, while useful for AoE, isn't as good for single-target threat attacks (although still useful, that extra disease damage hits the original target as well). You can easily place those points in Blood-Caked Blade or Two-Handed Weapon Specialization for a bit more single-target threat or in Virulence for a bit more spell hit.

Rotations and rune usage

Using the above talent set-up, a single-target threat rotation will look somewhat like this:

Icy Touch->Plague Strike->Blood Strikex2->Scourge Strikex3->Blood Strikex2

This rotation is a little tight, so if your diseases are consistently falling off before you get all your Strikes off at the end, you may either want to put in a second set of Icy Touch and Plague Strike right after the first pair of Blood Strikes, or invest in a Glyph of Disease or Glyph of Scourge Strike (in place of the Icy Touch Glyph in the linked talent build above).

For a multi-target rotation, you'll do something like this:

Death and Decay->Icy Touch->Plague Strike->Pestilence->(Tab to new target)->Scourge Strike->Pestilence->Blood Boil

The tabbing will keep your diseases refreshed on all targets and allow you to put out more Scourge Strikes.

As far runic power dumps, for the most part you'll be saving your runic power for Rune Strikes. When Rune Strike is up, use it. If you've been stacking avoidance for Bone Shield, that will be often. If you still have runic power when your runes are down, go ahead and use Death Coil, or just save the runic power for Icebound Fortitude.

Notes on Bone Shield

Bone Shield is a complicated and flighty enough cooldown that it bears some extra explanation. Essentially, it need avoidance to work well. The charges are spent every time time you're hit, but there's approximately a two- to three-second window after one charge is consumed in which another charge can't be consumed. Dodging also helps keep Bone Shield up for longer, since only successfully landed attacks consume a bone. Essentially, an unholy tank's goal is to keep Bone Shield up as long as possible by stacking avoidance. In theory, a sufficiently geared unholy death knight should be able to stretch Bone Shield to near 100% up time, with other damage reduction skills like Anti-Magic Shell and Icebound Fortitude to plug in gaps on unlucky hit streaks.

Of course, the downside to this is that if you're stacking avoidance like that, your effective health is somewhat low, and if you don't have Bone Shield up, you're much more squishy than any other tank. Still, if you can keep Bone Shield up most of the time, you will take less overall damage than any other tank, so for many players, the risk is worth it. For tips on how to work Bone Shield into your rotation, check the Blood Tap section of this back issue of Lichborne.

On glyphs

For a basic outlay, I'd suggest the following glyphs:
Glyph of Bone Shield's use should be obvious, I'd hope. I'd call it pretty much mandatory. Glyph of Rune Strike is useful for threat, especially considering you will be using it a lot thanks to your higher-than-usual avoidance. Glyph of Icy Touch, thanks to unholy's naturally high disease damage, will actually generate a lot of extra sustained threat on both single targets and (with Pestilence) on multiple targets as well.

There are, of course, other glyphs you can use as well, usually to replace Glyph of Icy Touch or Rune Strike. Glyph of Death and Decay adds a very nice amount of AoE threat, but since it's primarily an AoE attack, it may not be as useful as it first appears. That said, if you do most AoE tanking, it may be worth picking up. Glyph of Disease or Glyph of Scourge Strike will give your rotation a little bit more flexibility by either allowing you to refresh disease with one rune or extend disease length another few seconds. However, Glyph of Scourge Strike can make your rotation a bit overly complicated if you want to get the absolute most use out of the extra disease duration, so I'd probably stick to Glyph of Disease if you want to go the route of disease ease.

On gems and enchants

For the most part, you can use the blood tanking gems and enchants we discussed a few weeks ago, although it is worth noting that if you want to gem for avoidance for Bone Shield, dodge is generally the stat you want to gem for, via Subtle Cardinal Ruby or Regal Dreadstone.

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, 5-man Icecrown dungeon gear 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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