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Lichborne: Death knights from the outside looking in

Tyler Caraway

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.

Alas, poor death knights, your usual master of death, decay, and other rather gross things, Daniel Whitcomb, is indisposed this week. This leaves you in the hands of WoW Insider's resident column thief, yours truly. Much as Tempest Keep was for a certain unmentionable blood elf, I'm sure this is but a temporary setback.

In light of Lichborne's being in the hands of another for this brief moment, I want to take this time to share the views of death knights from an outsider. I am an avid altoholic by nature, and it's been my goal to have one of every class at max level. Sadly, every time I get close, I change servers and start all over again. A death knight, however, I do have, and while I don't have the expertise of the class that your normal master of ceremonies might, I've got a Blue's Clue of an idea. Dare you to know what others think of you?

Survivability through self-healing

I think every class in the game has the exact same weakness: They tend to die when focused. Honestly, it's true. I don't think I have ever seen a single class or spec that doesn't claim to crumple under pressure -- after they've used their cooldowns, of course. Death knights really aren't any different; focus one and it's going to die. Odd how those things work out.

The matter of death knight survivability has been the forefront of a lot of talk around these parts and the official WoW forums do to the recent PTR nerf to the Glyph of Dark Succor. It's not exactly overpowered in its own right; the larger issue seemed to stem from the combination of Death Runes and Empower Rune Weapon allowing for a rather extreme amount of self-healing.

The concept of self-healing both is and isn't new. Death knights have certainly enjoyed it for an expansion now, while shadow priests and warlocks have benefited from the design for a long while. However, spreading out this concept to nearly every class and spec is a rather new phenomenon. With this, how much self-healing everyone is capable of has come under more scrutiny.

With all of the major rebalancing that Death Strike has gone through, it has taken Blizzard a while to find a balance that it feels comfortable with. Death knights have a few self-healing tools at their disposal, regardless of how "effective" they may or may not be. This makes it difficult to also provide them with a more on-demand method of regenerating health.

Too many Death Strikes, or too much effect?

In comparison to the self-healing capable of other melee-based specs, however, Death Strike and the respective glyph is now far too weak for DPS death knights, and that's not a cool thing. The issue is obviously that frost death knights are capable of "bursting" out a silly number of Death Strikes in a row and return absurd amounts of health by doing so. While this nerf certainly addresses that issue, it does so in the completely wrong manner.

Death Strike still has a minimum of 7% health, and it's likely that you actually heal for more if you're actively being attacked -- which is when you'd be using it, anyway. Frost could still theoretically Death Strike three times, pop Empower Rune Weapon, and do it all over again to restore a minimum of 56% of their maximum health. Unholy can somewhat match that getting at least five, but that requires having Death Runes up, which they may not be.

Clearly, Death Strike was too weak before the change of Glyph of Dark Succor, so reverting that change doesn't solve any issues. Just as clearly, allowing frost and unholy to chain a large number of Death Strikes isn't balanced, either. I would say that the better place to look to balance this would be the number of Death Strikes possible within a given time frame, not the amount they heal for.

Survivability through cooldowns

When it comes to judging cooldowns, I may be a little bit biased. It just so happens that I play the classes/specs with some of the weaker defensive cooldowns right now, so seeing other people's shiny stuff makes me jealous. Be that as it may, I think I can understand the place of most things.

Death knights aren't particularly strong or weak in the cooldown department; instead, I would say that they are currently well-rounded overall, just as they should be. As melee, they need some form of magical protection in order to deal with those pesky mages -- and trust me, I want you to kill them -- which Anti-Magic Shell provides.

Now, I have seen on the rare occasion that AMS isn't all that grand or that it isn't enough, but I'm going to chalk that up to the player's not being, how should I say, the most neon crayon in the box. In both PVE and PVP, AMS is a godsend of an ability. Forget the stellar damage reduction; the blocking of magical effects alone is pro.

Icebound Fortitude is another fantastic ability to have, as are the passive talents, interrupts, and other myriad defensive tools that are at your disposal. Are they so amazing that you'll be invulnerable? No. If you play poorly, you'll still die; if you get focused and trained, you'll still die. That's how it goes for everyone. These abilities will keep you alive much longer, however, and they are certainly worth their salt.

Again, death knight defensive abilities aren't overpowered and they aren't weak; they're perfectly where they should be. Having that be balanced alone puts DKs leaps and bounds ahead of many other classes. Be proud.

What you bring to the table

If there is one thing that I feel most players take for granted these days, it's utility. Raid buffs and debuffs may have become easier to get, but that hasn't made utility any less useful, nor has it become any easier to get. Bringing whatever buff or debuff that you might have is nice, but that is no longer the face of utility; instead, players now focus on the intangible, non-DPS-boosting abilities they can bring to the table.

In this manner, both types of DPS death knight perform excellently. The ability to spread Ebon Plague in an AOE manner has always been a huge advantage for unholy, and they haven't lost that perk at all. Despite the fact that warlocks could easily spec into this handy-dandy benefit, I've found that there are still quite a number who don't. (It's a shame, really.)

Anti-Magic Zone should also not be scoffed at. Damage reduction cooldowns are the new "it" thing when it comes to healing this expansion. Nothing is about how much healing any healer is actually capable of putting out; instead, everything is about how much damage they can completely negate without having to cast a thing. AMZ is a huge benefit to any raid at this point, especially because every form of AOE damage that the raid takes is going to be magical in nature.

Knockback abilities are fairly few and far between, but a few of them do exist. Pillar of Frost is a neat ability to defend against it. No, it won't be up for every single ability that you encounter, nor is it some super-awesome power that's going to make you a special star. It is, however, a nice little bonus that's placed on top of a DPS cooldown you'll be using anyway. I happen to like those types of things.

Oh Hungering Cold. This ability has gained so much attention recently, and all of it has been focused on the PVP ramifications of adding a cast time to this spell. While there is no doubt that the cast time is going to cause some major changes for how a death knight uses Hungering Cold in PVP, I can't help but feeling that the reason it was altered wasn't exclusively limited to PVP.

It might seem ridiculous to suggest that there's a PVE side of the HC change, but hear me out for just a moment. Frost death knights are currently one of (if not the) best kiters in the game right now. Perhaps other classes can single-target kite better or just as well, but frost is the go-to guy for getting large groups of little minions chasing them around.

The thing about kiting, however, is that it is a very precise science, if you will, that doesn't always allow for a margin of error. Normally, you mess up on a kite, and you'll find yourself taking a dirt nap rather quickly. Frost actually avoids that. In current raiding content, nearly every add that you encounter can be controlled by some means, and that includes Hungering Cold. The adds on heroic Conclave of Wind? You can totally HC them. Same with the little imps on Maloriak.

The ability to say "oops" and instantly stop a large group of mobs from attacking you is a wickedly amazing thing. It's also very powerful. Again, on Conclave, you can actually use Hungering Cold to completely stop the adds from using Toxic Spores, which is their deadly one-shot ability. Being able to do that on the fly is perhaps just a bit too strong.

Let's face it, 1.5-second cast times are very specific. They are the GCD; they're the exact same as an instant in terms of spamming ability -- the only difference is that there's a delay in going off, and you can't use it while moving. Whenever Blizzard smacks you with the 1.5-second cast, it's because the devs either want to delay the onset of the ability or they want to prevent mobility. Given that death knights are a melee class, targeting mobility doesn't sound as likely; probably, they want the delay.

While that's going to be big for PVP, it's going to have just as much of an effect on PVE add kiting as well. Losing an instant reset button sucks.

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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