With the last announced content patch of Wrath of the Lich King released, and the devs stating that they don't plan to make any major class changes until patch 4.0 and the Cataclysm expansion, It's a good time to start taking a look at how our trees have fared this expansion. Yes, I know that death knights were technically introduced this expansion. Certainly this means there's a comparative breadth to what we have experienced, but Wrath was a time of great change and turmoil for all of our mechanics and trees as well. Let's start our look back with Unholy, specifically by looking at two of its most volatile abilities: Unholy Blight and Scourge Strike.
Unholy Blight gets blighted
Unholy Blight has had a pretty huge free fall from its former pinnacle. At its peak, it not only served as a functionally constant aura of high damage around the unholy death knight, pushing AoE damage to unbelievable heights, but it served as a fourth disease, which in turn pushed Scourge Strikes and Blood Strikes to unbelievable levels, as they do additional damage for each disease on the target.
The downfall started pretty quickly. The loss of the fourth disease pushed unholy death knights down to three diseases and gave an immediate secondary nerf to Scourge Strike and Blood Strike damage. UB also suffered from a switch down to the 21-point slot. This was because Gargoyle was so overly powerful that blood DPSers were taking it over their own 51-point talent, and Blizzard decided to fix that by putting it well out of their reach. Of course, being a 21-point talent, and low enough on the tier to continue to tempt both blood and frost DPSers (who were also creating a weird hybrid frost/unholy AoE build until Blizzard moved Howling Blast from 31 points to 51 points in the tree), that left it open to more damage debuffs. However, as unholy death knights dominated damage meters in the big AoE trash fights, the calls to nerf the blight became louder and louder. Finally, Blizzard reduced it to a small DoT that did first 30% of Death Coil's damage, then 10%. In short, our poor, neglected 21-point talent, once a signature identity of the unholy tree that made both AoE DPSing and tanking simple and fun, isn't even recognizable, and certainly is not much fun these days.
But it's worth it to ask a question: Was it justified, and how can we restore Unholy Blight to its former glory?
Unfortunately, it probably was justified. Part of the issue with AoE Unholy Blight wasn't just the AoE damage itself, but the fact that it was being magnified so much. Unholy, as a tree, is tailor made to magnify magic with Ebon Plaguebringer and Impurity. Add on to that Rage of Rivendare, and you're looking at massive amounts of damage on top of what Unholy Blight does at its base. With all those variables working together to keep Unholy Blight powerful, it may be no surprised that they despaired of the whole thing and changed the most basic way Unholy Blight works.
Of course, frost does have an extra AoE attack in Howling Blast, so one could argue that unholy deserves it as well. But Howling Blast has some drawbacks (at least in its most current balanced state) that make it easier to keep than AoE Unholy Blight. The cost of a frost/unholy rune combination means you are giving up a much stronger single target Obliterate. Plus, since Unholy Blight was activated by runic power, you'd pretty much have no trouble activating it and keeping it activated as long as you were in combat. That makes Howling Blast a much more complicated AoE attack.
That said, there are arguments for bringing back Unholy Blight, too. With Blizzard completely revamping the talent trees in Patch 4.0, it should, in theory, be easier to rebalance Unholy Blight to bring back the old AoE damage utility. It provides some break to the monotony of using all your runic power for Death Coil spam, and with low enough damage, it shouldn't be overpowered or usable by tanks for easy-mode threat. It adds some much needed variety for a tree that was once the king of shadow damage but more and more leans to pure physicality, a sort of second cousin of blood DPS instead of its own unique style. In addition, if Blizzard succeeds at making AoE mob burn down a less viable form of dungeon clearing in Cataclysm, it also provides an additional balancing point for the new Unholy Blight; it wouldn't always be the most opportune button to push if it would disrupt crowd control.
The zen of Scourge Strike
Scourge Strike might be one of the most confused skills of the Wrath era, alternately supremely overpowered or near useless, depending on the patch. The main issue with Scourge Strike was shadow damage. Making Scourge Strike a completely shadow damage related strike, as it was in the early Wrath days, caused two complications. First, its damage was then exponentially inflated by unholy's various shadow damage buffs. Secondly, it completely negated the need for armor penetration on gear. Where blood death knights had to stack armor penetration to get their Heart Strikes to do the big damage, unholy death knights just started doing their top damage straight out the gate. This turned out to be a drawback for unholy death knights too. As new raids came out and drops had armor penetration on them, unholy death knights found themselves saddled with a stat they had little use for. Blizzard first tried to fix this fiasco by simply dropping the damage of Scourge Strike in various ways. Unfortunately, they were a little too overly enthusiastic and ended up making Scourge Strike drastically underpowered to the point that many unholy death knights skipped it altogether and started using Obliterate for their Frost/Unholy needs as soon as they had a pittance of armor penetration.
In a perhaps inevitable move, the final fix came late in the Wrath game, when they turned Scourge Strike into a primarily physical strike, with the shadow damage a smaller portion of the total damage, determined as a fraction of the physical damage. It was a pretty ingenious fix, really, one that keeps a small portion of the shadow damage flavor while putting the Scourge Strike under the control of traditional melee scaling versus armor and making armor penetration useful to unholy death knights.
Again, this was probably a move that needed doing. Unholy death knights needed to be bought in under the armor penetration stat umbrella for reasons of both class balance and ease of itemization. As of the latest patches, we're actually hanging tough, and in this case, the fix didn't completely gut the ability as did Unholy Blight's fix.
Once more, with feeling
Overall, we've probably done all right with the unholy tree. Currently, I'm giving it a B-, and that's primarily because of the issues with certain patches leaving us (or at least our signature attack, Scourge Strike) underpowered and the current somewhat bland implementation of Unholy Blight. We're actually sitting pretty going into Cataclysm, and as long as they keep the balancing act going, unholy should hold its own against frost DPS and remain a viable spec.
That said, there is once issue I'd like to address: feeling. Current, unholy feels a little bland. Of our signature abilities, Unholy Blight is now a very slight debuff; Gargoyle is, at least in feel, very similar to blood's 51-point talent, Dancing Rune Weapon; and Scourge Strike is now primarily physical. We have our Ghoul, but the other trees can summon Ghouls too; they just don't stick around as long. We no longer really have an iconic-feeling attack like Howling Blast, something that's big and flashy, or the Bloodworms and incredibly health-draining power of blood. We need a flashier gimmick. Bone Shield is probably the closest thing we have right now, but they're (understandably) giving that to blood in Cataclysm.
So that's my challenge to Blizzard. Give us a good, flashy signature attack or unique look in Cataclysm. That can be bringing back AoE Unholy Blight, implementing a new explosive runic power dump of a new sort or maybe even letting unholy remove the taunt from Army of the Dead and otherwise modify it in survivability and attack power so we can possibly justify summoning it more often than we currently do. Whatever it is, I'm pretty happy where we are powers-wise. Now give us something fun to work with. That's all I ask.
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.