Lichborne: Further death knight nerfs hit the patch 4.2 PTR

Daniel Whitcomb
D. Whitcomb|05.31.11

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Lichborne: Further death knight nerfs hit the patch 4.2 PTR
Every week, WoW Insider brings you Lichborne for blood, frost, and unholy death knights. In the post-Cataclysm era, death knights are no longer the new kids on the block. Let's show the other classes how a hero class gets things done.

While we've already talked a bit about some of the changes coming for death knights on the patch 4.2 PTR, it's been a few weeks, and we've seen more changes inbound. Not only that, some changes have slipped onto live servers a little bit early. A lot of these changes have some serious repercussions for PVP and PVE DPS death knights, so it's certainly worth it to take a look at these changes, not only for their immediate impact, but for what they say about the history and future of the class and Blizzard's attitudes toward the whole thing.

Obliterate and Howling Blast get hotfixed

We didn't need to wait for at least one change to hit the live servers. A week or so back, Blizzard actually decided to hotfix in a couple of the nerfs. Howling Blast received an 8% nerf to damage, while Obliterate got that 10% nerf. The good news is that Blizzard's left Annihilation untouched, so we at least dodged that bullet. The bad news is that this is still a sizable damage nerf.

Most immediately, this nerf makes the previously competitive Howling Blast spam rotation pretty much obsolete, at least at current gear levels. Obliterate is once again the way to go in PVE, with Howling Blast regulated to Rime procs. Unfortunately, Obliterate is once again lower damage. It's not as low damage as it could have been since the Annihilation nerf was rolled back, but we are creeping lower on the damage meters in PVE, for certain.

We've already gone over most of the reasons for these nerfs a few columns back, so I won't cover too much old ground, but with this whole thing going down, it's worth it make a few more observations and answer a couple more questions.

The Howling Blast nerf was probably expected and, in theory, maybe even needed. Blizzard's pretty protective of its preferred way for a class to play, and Howling Blast, a powerful single-target attack with a powerful secondary AOE, both of which do magic damage that bypasses armor, has been a perennial issue. Howling Blast is, at this point, a fixture of the frost spec, so Blizzard may not feel comfortable taking it away, but there's a line that's hard to walk when balancing it. Too much, and and death knights turn into a machine gun in PVE and PVP, blasting out multiple Howling Blasts at once and mowing down opponents with relative ease. Too little, and it becomes more or less an afterthought.

In addition, the Obliterate nerf continues to confound. Given that frost death knights are still middle of the pack in PVE DPS, the one-two whammy of a damage nerf is a thorn in the side of PVE frost death knights everywhere. We're still not in the basement on DPS, and we still beat out unholy death knights, but the drop in DPS has been noticeable. While the Howling Blast nerf is understandable, the Obliterate nerf continues to seem to completely miss the point and unfairly penalizes PVE DPS death knights for a rarely used PVP trick. Luckily, the devs seem content to stop the damage nerfs for now, but a new issue has reared its head in the form of massive utility nerfs.

The suckage of Glyph of Dark Succor

When patch 4.0 rolled around, Blizzard introduced a system revamp that, in part, seemed to try to inject a bit more challenge into the game. One of the ways it did this was by severely nerfing the self-healing ability of various non-healing classes and specs. Death knights, once the kings of self-healing, found themselves nerfed with the removal of the passive heal from their DPS presence and with the conversion of Death Strike from healing based on damage done to healing based on a fraction of the death knight's health and damage taken. This change became even more drastic when the amount healed was cut back to counter perceived blood overpoweredness.

At the time, Blizzard claimed that it still wanted frost and unholy to be able to count on Death Strike as a clutch heal in a tight spot. To facilitate this, it introduced the Glyph of Dark Succor, which allowed Death Strike to heal a minimum of 15% of max HP when used in a DPS presence. In the latest patch, that functionality has been taken away. Instead, it will now heal 20% of max HP, but only on the first Death Strike used within 15 seconds of killing an opponent that yields experience or honor. In other words, we now get to glyph for Victory Rush, without the added talent and glyph benefits warriors can get to their Victory Rush.

Once again, the main reason for this nerf was likely PVP. When frost death knights gained their permanent death runes in a recent patch, it set up the way for a very nice healing burst method. With all six runes up and no other prior preparation, a frost death knight could heal themselves for nearly half their health in three global cooldowns.

So, once again, we see a nerf due to PVP circumstances -- death knights becoming too survivable. Unfortunately, this nerf has very much gutted death strike for DPS and once again left it much as it was before -- ineffectual and barely worth using. DPS death knights have once again gone from self-healing as a major class theme to being somewhere south of warriors and barely on par with rogues as far as healing potential goes. This nerf also does nothing to help the plight of unholy death knights. Whereas frost death knights can at least still get around 24% health from three Death Strikes in a row, Unholy death knights still have to convert death runes first and/or greatly disrupt their rotation, which runs counter to Death Strike thanks to the unique rune cost of Scourge Strike and Festering Strike.

This is a case where it really feels like Blizzard could have given us a bit more, perhaps only nerfing the glyph to 10% health returned or even just giving us back our lost damage in return for the greatly lessened survivability this change brings. Regardless, we once again find ourselves at a loss, as this nerf will leave us with greatly lessened DPS survivability -- which, given our former status as self-healing and survivability masters in the era of Cataclysm where healer mana is dearer than ever, is a rather demoralizing and confusing state for us to be in.

Hungering Cold isn't so hungry

Yet another PVP nerf came in the form of the addition of a 1.5-second cast time on Hungering Cold, the frost talented short term 10-second AOE crowd control method that's a prerequisite for Howling Blast.

It's likely again that this is a PVP nerf. The ability to leap into the middle of a massive PVP fray and immediately freeze everyone is very useful. Even if it only lasts for a few seconds, it can be enough for your team to regroup or focus down a target while his teammates remain frozen. Apparently, this was useful enough that Blizzard felt it needed to be nerfed. Interestingly enough, for a while, the mage's Ring of Frost spell had a similar cast time on the PTR, but Blizzard removed it again, likely because it felt that the ability to run out of a ring before it activated was enough of a "drawback."

Of course, a similar argument could be made for Hungering Cold. Since it applies Frost Fever to its targets, it ruins the target for all other forms of crowd control as soon as it wears off. In addition, there are other reasons to dread this change. Since it has a cast time, it can now be interrupted, which means that an interrupt could in theory also block access to Chains of Ice and Howling Blast, two of the major tools of a frost PVP death knight. The ultimate question, then, is whether this change is a justified nerf to a mindlessly easy-to-use, overpowered, mass crowd control, or a crippling blow to a PVP tool with proper weaknesses that has made it near unusable.

As usual, this has had some PVE side effects as well. It's well known that many PVE frost death knights were peeved that Hungering Cold is required for Howling Blast, but it has proven to some nice 5-man dungeon utility for a class somewhat lacking in said utility. It gives another emergency interrupt and can be used to quickly wrangle a stray mob if it's whacking on a healer or other DPSer. With this change, it'll need that 1.5-second cast time, which means more lost DPS and the inability to use it as an instant interrupt. In other words, it'll mostly be useful as a secondary way to spread Frost Fever -- something that you should be able to do with Howling Blast anyway.

Again, it seems like Blizzard could have looked at another way to nerf the ability without going so drastic. One idea is to remove or modify the Glyph of Hungering Cold. By making sure Hungering Cold always has a runic power cost, it gives it a much higher opportunity cost (by using the runic power for it, you must eschew using said runic power for Mind Freeze or Frost Strike) without removing a good portion of its emergency crowd control utility). You could also turn into a Ring of Frost-type ability that requires a couple of seconds before it freezes the enemy, but can still be cast instantly. That gives PVPers a chance to dodge, while making it still useful for wrangling PVE mobs, though it does remove the emergency interrupt utility for most spells. At the very least, though, Blizzard could unhook it from Howling Blast in the frost talent tree so people could choose if they want to deal with the nerfed version of not.

Communication, flavor, and the death knight rollercoaster

The theme for the death knight class in patch 4.2 remains the same. We're confused why a middle of the pack PVE DPS class needs so many nerfs. Unfortunately, Blizzard's new communication method of general interest blog posts and heavily moderated Q&A sessions leaves little chance for us to get a direct answer specifically targeted to death knight DPS.

Another issue is the fact that it's not even about nerfs as much anymore. We can take a few nerfs. We're not an overpowered class right now, but while unholy is hurting, frost at least can afford a little bit of nerfage without being completely useless. (Again, though, it really doesn't seem to need or deserve these nerfs, at least in PVE.) What is disappointing is that we're right back on the death knight rollercoaster, in which every major content patch seems to bring a major overhaul to the class, leading to new rotations, new stat weights, and so on.

DK community member Magdalena had an excellent guest post on this phenomenon over on the DK blog Son of a Lich. What it boils down to is that while it won't change our class as drastically as some patches, patch 4.2 still greatly nerfs and/or changes some of our signature class features and abilities, once again leaving us as a class with a very different feel on the other side. We had hoped patch 4.0 would stop this, but the issues continue, and we're left with the same questions. What is Blizzard's vision for this class? Will we ever be allowed off the rollercoaster? Can't we have just a little bit of normalcy?

Learn the ropes of endgame play with WoW Insider's DK 101 guide. Make yourself invaluable to your raid group with Mind Freeze and other interrupts, gear up with pre-heroic DPS gear or pre-heroic tank gear, and plot your path to tier 11/valor point DPS gear.

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