Lichborne: A guide to leveling your death knight in the Cataclysm era

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.

So the news that pandarens can't be death knights in the new expansion is a bit of a bummer, but it does mean you can start a new death knight right now without worrying about missing out on a new race choice. If you've read my guide to death knight racial abilities, you probably have a good idea of what race to roll, too. With that done, you've already taken the first step into a larger world.

Death knights, of course, start at level 55 and have that starting experience, which for the most part is pretty intuitive. You'll get more talent points as you finish quests, which can be fun in that you get your goodies a lot faster than other classes, but frustrating in that you don't have as much time to get used to everything. Luckily, we're here to help.

This guide isn't about maximizing your DPS at the raiding level or even the dungeon level; it's about getting you to level 85 as smoothly as possible. With that in mind, let's look at each talent spec and what they have to offer, starting with my favorite leveling spec, frost.

Frost is a great leveling tree (if there's a best leveling tree, this is it) because not only does it have On A Pale Horse, which allows you to move between mobs and quest objectives faster, but it has Lichborne for emergency heals and Howling Blast for superior AoE capability.

You'll start with a spec that looks something like this at level 60. Unfortunately, you won't start out with Howling Blast, but you'll have a lot of good tools such as the aforementioned Lichborne, which lets you heal yourself with Death Coils; Hungering Cold to give you some breathing room when a fight turns bad; and On A Pale Horse.

At level 70, your build will look something like this. You'll finally have Howling Blast, and I would strongly recommend dropping some cash on a Glyph of Howling Blast, as allowing your Howling Blast to apply frost fever will up your damage potential considerably.

At level 80, I'd recommend a build something like this. You can take points out of Unholy Command if you want and put them in Epidemic, Virulence, or even Bladed Armor or Butchery. but I find having Death Grip nearly always off cooldown and ready to wrangle in your next target is very nice for chain pulling and finishing kill quests faster.

You will notice I'm going for a two-handed build. This is because I find it easier to find two-handed weapons, both as quests and as drop rewards, during the leveling process, and because it gives you slightly more flexibility in talent choice. If you want to try dual wielding, take Threat of Thassarian instead of Might of the Frozen Wastes, and take some points out of Icy Reach and Unholy Command to get Nerves of Cold Steel.

Your leveling rotation as a frost death knight should be performed in Unholy Presence and will look something like this:

  • Keep your diseases up. Use glyphed Howling Blast and Plague Strike, or Outbreak once you hit level 81.

  • Use Obliterate. If there's a Killing Machine proc, try to use it with Obliterate for the most damage.

  • If Rime procs, use it to cast a Howling Blast

  • If neither Rime nor Killing Machine is up, just keep using Obliterate until you run out of runes.

  • Use Frost Strike to dump any runic power you built up. Try to keep your runic power below 130 at all times so you don't waste any of it.

If you're in an AoE situation, you can just lay down Death and Decay and spend your death and frost runes on Howling Blast for some quick, amazing damage.

blood deathknight trainer

Blood keeps you on your feet

Blood is a tank spec, but it also doubles as a pretty solid leveling spec. You'll have a lot of ways to avoid damage or heal damage, and staying alive is the best way to have a smooth leveling experience. Of course, it may not be as fast as frost. Blood also gives you the option of tanking dungeons, and you can check out my guide to leveling as a death knight tank for further information on that.

If you're looking to level as a blood death knight without tanking, try something like this build at level 60. It eschews a lot of the solely survival focused talents in favor of extra damage and healing. Note that if you want to tank, you're better off with a build something like this, which goes back to taking survival and damage-reducing talents.

At 70, you can flesh out your build a bit more, adding some more utility and survivability. For tank-focused death knights, try something like this. You'll notice both builds at very similar at this point, thanks to those extra 10 points. For the 70s, I would focus on grabbing points in Epidemic and Virulence. Long-last diseases are important for blood death knights, so you can spend more runes on Death Strike. You can also fill out Improved Blood Tap here for extra utility and control or Unholy Command to grab enemies so you don't have to run to them.

A leveling rotation for a blood death knight is performed in Blood Presence with a two-handed weapon and looks something like this:

  • Keep your diseases up. Use Icy Touch and Blood Plague or Outbreak once you hit level 81.

  • Use Heart Strike to spend your blood runes for up to three enemies. Use Blood Boil if there are more than three enemies.

  • Use Death Strike to spend your frost and unholy runes. If there are multiple enemies, you may want to spare an unholy rune for Death and Decay.

  • Use Rune Strike to spend your runic power.

unholy deathknight trainer

The unique challenge of unholy leveling

Unholy is probably the least desirable of the leveling specs. This is so for a few reasons. It doesn't really have much self-healing power, and the rotation means it's very hard to fit in any Death Strikes. It doesn't have much burst damage, as most damage is done via the synergy provided by diseases or a Dark Transformation ghoul, meaning by the time you're ready to put out big damage, the mob is probably already dead. Unholy's damage is in it for the long haul, and while leveling, you generally don't take that much time to kill a given mob.

Still, if you have your heart set on unholy, it is possible to level that way. For level 60, try to aim for a build something like this. This gives you some of the most important tools an unholy death knight has, especially Ebon Plaguebringer and Runic Corruption. The two points in Unholy Command are negotiable, but again, I like having the ability to pull enemies to you. It really does make leveling a bit faster. As you push to level 70, just fill out the last two tiers, adding Sudden Doom and Summon Gargoyle to your repertoire. For the trek to 80, you can add Butchery and Bladed Armor from the blood tree.

Unholy's rotation is performed in Unholy Presence and goes something like this:

  • Keep your diseases up. Use Icy Touch and Blood Plague or Outbreak once you hit level 81.

  • If Dark Transformation is available for use, use it. It increases your ghoul's damage exponentially.

  • Get Death and Decay up as long as it won't aggro anything or break crowd control. Unholy's magic damage is high enough that this is worth using even for single targets.

  • Use Scourge Strike for your unholy and death runes.

  • If you have frost and blood runes up, use Festering Strike to turn them into death runes.

  • Use your Sudden Doom procs before they expire.

  • Unleash any runic power with Summon Gargoyle or Death Coil. Remember, don't let your runic power cap if you can avoid it; you don't want to waste any of it.

Other leveling tips and tricks

  • Rune of the Fallen Crusader is the holy grail of DPS runeforges and what you'll want to use on a two-handed weapon. Unfortunately, you have to wait until level 70 to get it. Until you get it, you can make do with Rune of Razorice. Dual wielders will want to keep Razorice on their main-hand weapon, then put Rune of the Fallen Crusader on their off-hand weapon. This is another reason it's good to level as frost; you'll have a more useful runeforge at an earlier level.

  • Keeping diseases up isn't a huge priority for leveling solo, at least as frost and blood. If you head into dungeons, you'll want to keep them up to maximize your DPS. If you're unholy, you'll want to unleash them as much as possible because they are a huge part of your damage. This is another reason frost is at an advantage. They can use Rime procs to keep Frost Fever up without even trying.

  • You'll want to focus on getting strength-based plate armor upgrades, of course. Agility and spellpower do nothing for us. Even your spell-like abilities like Death Coil just use your attack power to determine damage.

  • If you need a quick two-handed weapon upgrade once you hit level 80, go to Hyjal. One of the first quests you'll get will award the Poisonfire Greatsword, which will almost definitely be an upgrade to what you had before. Honestly, gear won't really matter that much from a DPS perspective until Cataclysm level, at which point gear will jump up exponentially in power.

  • While this isn't as important while leveling, try to keep your runic power below your total allowed as much as possible. This means that all the runic power you generate from other skills won't be waste by going over the cap and being lost.

  • Horn of Winter is your friend. Keep it up for the buff, and if in the middle of battle you find all your runes on cooldown and with no runic power left, use it. It'll give you a bit of extra runic power that may give you enough to use a runic power dump.

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.