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Lichborne: Closing the unholy gap in patch 4.3

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.

If you read Brian Wood's state of the DPS feature a week or so back, you probably noted something that the death knight community's been arguing since somewhere back around patch 4.0.6: The unholy tree is lagging behind, and it's only getting worse. While the raid attack power buff coming with patch 4.3 should help out a bit, unholy may still need a bit of extra help to get back to at least that median DPS area. Today, we'll look at the problems facing the unholy tree and what we might like to see in the way of buffs on the patch 4.3 PTR.

Why Unholy Might is not enough

The last buff unholy received was a huge boost to Unholy Might, giving unholy death knights an extra 20% strength. At first glance, this would appear to be a perfect little button to press. After all, it affects all damage. Our ghouls get a portion of our strength, and so do diseases and Death Coil, which are both cornerstones of the unholy rotation. Plus, it still buffs weapon damage and strikes as well. So why was it a bad idea?

I think you can best sum it up by pointing out a simple fact: Death and Decay is a part of our single-target rotation. The power of Death and Decay is so great that it's worth casting even on single targets. Now, from one point of view, that's sort of nice. You can just throw out a Death and Decay to mop up adds on a given fight while still focusing on your main target, and it's all good. Of course, on the other hand, it can mess up positioning and threat for your tanks and crowd control, so that's not as good.

It's also a bit confusing that Blizzard, which went through such trouble in Cataclysm to separate AOE and single-target rotations for most classes (see paladins and Divine Storm) has left it alone so thoroughly for unholy death knights.

It also shines through in that it causes a good portion of our damage to need a lot of ramp-up time. To get the full effect of that strength buff, we'll need to cast diseases, which take a couple GCDs to get out and do damage slowly over time, and Death Coils, which take a good chunk of runic power or a lucky proc, and to activate Dark Transformation on our ghouls, which requires a set number of death coils to go out first. Of course, this damage evens out after a bit, but it means we feel a little silly on quick dying trash, and it still means it takes a bit to get damage going and keep it up even on boss fights.

Now, in some ways, it's part of the price we play as a class. We're perhaps the closest to a "mage knight" type of hybrid there is in game, a melee fighter that uses a good amount of spellcasting to cause damage. But we're well aware that melee damage can and does make up a good chunk of our power, and part of unholy's problem is that they're not buffing it enough.

On making Scourge Strike a true scourge

Possibly the biggest reason frost beats out unholy for damage is that frost's weapon damage just scales better. There are many reasons that just about every melee DPS guide out there will tell you to get higher damage weapons before everything else. This is because weapon damage just scales better. More high-end damage on a slow weapon will increase your damage faster than anything else.

This is a big part of why unholy falls behind. Since unholy does less of its damage as pure melee damage, weapon upgrades aren't as good. That Sulfuras or that Obsidium Cleaver will just do so much more for frost than a similar upgrade could ever hope to do for unholy.

This is why probably the biggest thing unholy could use is a buff to Scourge Strike or Festering Strike. We need to get firmly set in our melee roots again, and more damaging strikes is going to do more damage up front and will scale better with new gear than that straight strength buff.

Ghoulish lamentations

Another thing that holds unholy back is our friend of friends, the ghoul. Don't get me wrong, I love my ghoul. When I switched to doing most of my DPS as frost, my ghoul was the thing I most regretted leaving behind.

That said, the whole existence of the ghoul is a very sticky thing to begin with, for a few reasons.

  • First, it is a pet, with a pet's AI. That means that sometimes it takes the long way to get to a boss, sometimes it stands in the fire, and sometimes it just plain doesn't work the way you want it to. Leap helps a little bit with getting it positioned, luckily enough, but it can be on cooldown pretty easily.
  • Second, since the ghoul needs Dark Transformation to get to its highest damage potential, that's a severe amount of ramp-up time in a spec already plagued by a lot of need for ramping up.
  • Third, ghouls continue to not scale with their owner's critical strike percentage, thus severely damaging that stat and making gear with critical strike rating practically toxic.
  • Finally, there is the issue, minor though it may be, of your ghoul's dying and depriving you of a huge chunk of your abilities.

The ghoul issue is a lot harder to fix and may just be a result of having a single "pet spec" for a class that is not specifically a pet class. To be frank, I think it's time to make the ghoul a little more token. Nerf its damage (you can do this at the base, at Dark Transformation, or both) at the same time you buff Scourge Strike and Festering Strike's weapon damage percentage.

Of course, it might be nice to fix that critical strike scaling either way, but frankly, I think it's time to de-emphasize the ghoul in favor of weapon damage. Keep the ghoul's utility with Gnaw and the like, and let it sit as part of the look and feel of being an unholy death knight, but let it be a more minor source of damage so that forms of damage that scale better and don't depend as much on a faulty AI can be buffed. I would never want to see the ghoul permanently removed, and it should stay durable, but we aren't a pet class, and having us too dependent on the ghoul for damage is crippling us.

In the long run

To be frank, death knights are not in a horrible position. While unholy is lagging more than it should on damage, we're finally getting some attention to our blood tanking issues, and frost is mostly fine other than some arguments over proc issues and 2H nerfs. (I still believe Might of the Frozen Wastes should be unnerfed.) There are issues that can and should be addressed, from Runic Empowerment's existence, to the weird way unholy's damage rotation works against every other death knight ability's rune resource spending, but patch 5.0 is probably the best time to get those really sorted out. For now, I'm hoping what we'll see is some good, solid fixes that will allow unholy to be a strong alternative for patch 4.3 and 4.4 PVE DPS.

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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