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Lichborne: Frost tanking 101


Welcome to Lichborne,'s weekly death knight column.

This week on Lichborne, we're looking at yet another endangered death knight play style: frost tanking. Frost tanking is one of those strangely misunderstood specs in that many players consider it to be the only tanking spec, or at least the only viable one. This is based on the old pre-beta outline of the death knight class that dedicated frost as the tank tree. Blizzard decided to allow all three trees to tank well before even the alpha was over, but the myth of frost tanking supremacy persisted. Now, there really will be only one tank tree, but instead of frost, it's going to be blood. That means that if you want to experience the original death knight tanking tree, you only have a few more months max to do it. That's why we have this guide.

This a 101 guide, so the usual disclaimers apply. This is meant to get people well on their way to being a viable frost tank, but it's not a be all, end all guide, so there are additional tricks and talenting tweaks experienced tanks will know and pick up. These are just the basics.

Frost tanking pros

  • Excellent damage reduction from multiple talents
  • Howling Blast is excellent AoE snap threat

Frost tanking cons

  • Little to no group or raid utility

Stats to look out 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 or Rune of the Nerubian Carapace. 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.
  • Stamina Stamina means more health. Much like blood tanks, your general goal as a frost tank should be to get the highest effective health possible. If you're at a loss as to what to gear for, it's very hard to go wrong with stacking stamina.
  • Armor Armor mitigates a percentage of all incoming physical damage. For physical damage boss fights, it's invaluable. After stamina, you're going to be wanting a ton of this. 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. Finally, more armor means more of an armor buff from Unbreakable Armor. Always keep items with lots of armor handy.
  • 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 part, a beginning tank shouldn't have to worry about stacking so much dodge he reaches the cap, so it's pretty safe to equip dodge gear as you find it.
  • 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.
  • 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. You don't really want to give up too many valuable defense stats to hit those goals unless your ability to keep threat is abysmal, but don't eschew hit and expertise if you find them on gear either.
  • 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.

Notes on weapon and disease choices

Before we get into the PvE talent builds, we should discuss the differences between two-handed tanking and dual wield tanking. Two-handed tanking is still very viable with frost, simply because your top DPS doesn't matter. Two-handed tanking will still allow you to keep adequate threat. In fact, it's arguably superior to dual wield tanking simply because it gives you more talent points to work with, since you aren't obligated to take Nerves of Cold Steel and Threat of Thassarian.

That said, dual wield tanking is still solid, as long as you take the dual wield talents. That said, be careful about what weapons you choose. While it may be tempting to choose tank one-handers for the stats, they are not always the optimal choice. The fast attack speed and lower high-end damage on them means that you will not put out as much threat as you need. You're much better off using DPS weapons with slow speeds and high damage. Parry gibbing is also a concern with fast weapons, though not as much as you'd think, since most high-end bosses no longer use the parry-haste mechanic and healer output is usually high enough to compensate for the few bosses that still do.

The other choice you have is whether to go with a single-disease or double-disease rotation. Since Glacier Rot and Tundra Stalker provide a large amount of extra damage potential to Frost Fever and targets infected with Frost Fever, many frost tanks find that they can put out enough threat simply by using one disease. This method generally involves glyphing Howling Blast and using it to keep Frost Fever up. This method can be useful in that it greatly simplifies your rotation and provides quicker up-front aggro on AoE pulls, but it does provide less sustained threat. With two diseases, you need to build up a bit more, but you'll have more powerful Obliterates to provide more solid sustained single target threat.

Basic PvE talent builds

Your weapon choice, as mentioned above, matters a lot for your talent voice, since a two-handed tanker will have six more talent points free than a dual wield tanker. This, in turn, allows for a more flexible build with a chance to pick up a few more toys and useful talents. For a beginner's two-hand build, I'd suggest something like this.

I've put the extra points primarily in Scent of Blood (for more runic power for Frost Strikes), Epidemic (for easier rotations), Deathchill (for snap aggro with a crit Howling Blast) and Acclimation, for the defense, but you can pretty much switch around any of those points your hearts content, be it to fill Acclimation for better defense or fill out Two-handed Weapon Specialization for extra single-target threat.

Dual wield tanking, of course, comes at a slightly higher price, since you will need to spend six points specifically bringing your weapons up to snuff. Your finished product will look something like this. Here, your easiest option for tweaking is to remove points from Epidemic or Chill of the Grave if you want to grab Deathchill or Hungering Cold for the snap aggro potential or Acclimation for the magic defense.

Rotations and rune usage

For single-target tanking, you'll essentially want to use the frost DPS single-target priority system:

I. If Killing Machine procs, use Frost Strike. If Rune Strike is lit up, use it.
II. Make sure Frost Fever is up.
III. Make sure Blood Plague is up.
IV. Use Obliterate.
V. Use Blood Strike (if you have blood runes up and don't need one for Pestilence).
VI. Use Frost Strike.
VII. If Rime has procced, use Howling Blast.
VIII. If all your runes are down and you don't have the runic power for Frost Strike or Rune Strike, use Horn of Winter for the extra runic power.

For multiple target tanking, your proper rotation will depend on whether you're doing a double-disease rotation or single-disease with the Glyph of Howling Blast.

For double-disease, your rotation will looking something like this:

Death and Decay->Icy Touch->Plague Strike->Pestilence->Howling Blast->Blood Boil->Pestilence

If you're trying out a single-disease rotation, your rotation will look like this:

Death and Decay->Howling Blast->Blood Boil

After that initial throw-down, alternate with Blood Boils, Howling Blasts and Obliterate as your runes refresh.

In the case of multiple targets, saving your Killing Machine procs (or your Death Chill button, if you have the talents) for Howling Blast if possible. You'll get some pretty sweet snap aggro that way. For runic power dumping, use Rune Strike when it's available, Frost Strike when it's not. Rime procs should be used immediately so as not to waste them.

On glyphs

There's a lot of good threat-bearing major glyphs for frost tanking. My personal setup is to go with these three:Glyph of Howling Blast is mandatory for single-disease tanking, since the whole strategy is based around using Howling Blast to apply Frost Fever. Glyph of Obliterate is great for single-target threat, as is Glyph of Frost Strike, since more Frost Strikes is more threat. If you feel like you need more defense, you can replace one of the above glyphs with Glyph of Unbreakable Armor.

On gems and enchants

Again, you can pretty much following the gemming and enchanting advice in the blood tank guide. In the case of dual wield weapon enchants, the argument is the same, only applied to the one-handed versions of the runes, namely Rune of Swordbreaking and Rune of The Nerubian Carapace.

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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