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Lichborne: Guide to PvE unholy death knights in Mists of Pandaria

Daniel Whitcomb
Daniel Whitcomb|September 4, 2012 1:00 PM
Lichborne Guide to PvE unholy death knights in Mists of Pandaria
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.

With Mists of Pandaria less than a month, it's a good time to get caught up on your chosen class' mechanics and playstyle in order to get a good start in the new expansion. With that in mind, we've spent the past few weeks discussing the various specs and how they'll play. This week, we add to the collection with a guide to unholy death knights in PvE. As a reminder, the following guide is for the basics of the class and spec.

Unholy basics

Unholy, much like its sister trees, remains more or less unchanged in basic look and feel. Of course, there's enough tweaks that there's stuff to learn, but if you liked the way unholy played back in patch 4.3, you'll like the way it plays in patch 5.0.4 and Mists of Pandaria. The biggest change you'll notice is that the new version of Ebon Plaguebringer no longer has the magic damage debuff or the third disease. They have upped the damage on our strikes to compensate, but it's one more little piece of unholy look and feel that's gone.

Unholy is, of course, played with a two-handed weapon enchanted with Rune of the Fallen Crusader, as you will need its power to get the most damage from your strikes, and in Unholy Presence. You will also want to make sure you have your ghoul out as much as possible, as it makes up a not insignificant amount of your damage. If you don't want to deal with a pet or want to dual wield, you're better off switching to frost DPS.

Stats to spread disease to

Your stat priorities have seen some changes over the course of Cataclysm due to selected buffs and nerfs, and Mists of Pandaria nudges this along again. The basic order is as follows:
  • Strength remains king. It informs all damage we do, even spell damage, and boosts it more than anything else, especially with Unholy Might in the mix. You will continue to gem for it whenever possible, switching to purple or orange gems only if the gemming bonus is incredibly good.
  • Hit/Expertise In patch 5.0.4 and beyond, hit has a soft cap of 7.5%. Hit 7.5% hit rating, and your melee attacks won't miss. However, you will also want to get expertise to 7.5% now. This is because Expertise can now affect spell miss as well as dodges, and with Runic Focus gone, you will want to get it capped so you don't miss all those important abilities. Don't be afraid to use your reforging power to hit these caps.
  • Haste increases not only attack speed, but rune regeneration. It also affects pet attacks, and since pets are such an important part of unholy death knight DPS, that stacks the deck even more in its favor. If you're hit and expertise capped, you'll want to focus on getting more haste.
  • Critical strike rating comes in second to haste, in part because it affects our pets now, and therefore provides a bigger boost to all of our damage.
  • Mastery generally lags behind the other secondary stats because it does not affect pet damage in any fashion. It can become more important if you have a weapon with a shadow damage proc such as Gurthalak, but on a day to day basis, it'll be your least desired secondary stat.
A talent for pestilence

Unholy continues the trend of having no real cookie cutter spec, although there are some talents that come across as more mandatory than others.

Tier 1 Plague Leech will be a DPS increaser on this tier if you can consistently use it every time your Outbreak is up and/or your diseases have only a couple seconds left before they drop. That can be very hard to master though, so don't be afraid to take Unholy Blight instead simply to avoid having to deal with that issue. Unholy Blight is a great backup for those moments when you really need your diseases up, but Outbreak is on cooldown. Roiling Blood can also certainly help if you're doing a lot of AoE, too, especially since Blood Boil is affected by Reaping now. If you're chain pulling, you can use Roiling Blood to essentially keep diseases up indefinitely.

Tier 2 Lichborne continues to be a very solid self-healing mechanism, and something you may want to keep in reserve for soloing or when your healers just don't have the mana to heal you. On the other hand, Anti-Magic Zone gives you a very nice group defensive cooldown that could save your raid or dungeon group if you're facing down a boss with some nasty magic AoEs. Purgatory is the distant 3rd runner up. Sure, it might keep you alive if you accidentally pull aggro or get stuck in the fire while Anti-Magic Shell is on cooldown, but you'll only die 3 seconds later unless someone's willing to dump a lot of mana on the DPS that got himself killed. I'd only take Purgatory if I had a very strong bond with my raid healers.

Tier 3 Death's Advance is a pretty clear winner on this tier. Its passive speed boost does stack with Unholy Presence, and you'll have that cooldown to chase down runners. In most cases, you'll want to take it without hesitation. Chilblains and Asphyxiate are primarily going to be situational, something you'll spec into if you're called on to kite mobs or help keep them otherwise locked down.

Tier 4 Death Pact probably has the best return for the least amount of resources on this tier. It won't actually kill your ghoul, it's off the GCD, and 50% of your max health is a pretty sizable chunk. The only real downsides are the 2 minute cooldown and the possibility of your ghoul dying to a stray hit until he heals back up. Death Siphon and Conversion both have no cooldowns, but they will require giving up resources you could be using for DPS, and Conversion just plain locks you out of your rune regen talent for all intents and purposes while it's up.

Tier 5 Used properly, Blood Tap provides the most bang for your buck, since you can use it to refresh a depleted frost or blood rune and have a "free" Scourge Strike ready to go. If manipulating the system like that is a bit much for you, though, you can either macro Blood Tap to your Death Coil button, or just call it even and spec to Runic Corruption instead.

Tier 6 This tier, since no ability does damage, is preference based. Remorseless Winter can help keep trash pulls locked down nicely, ready for your tank to pick off. Gorefiend's Grasp can be used to help reign in a pull that's starting to go bad. Desecrated Ground may prove useful if you come up against a boss fight mechanic that it can break or protect you from.


Glyphs, for the most part, no longer directly affect your damage or play in incredibly meaningful ways, so much of what you choose will come down to preference, at least for PvE. I would recommend you go for Glyph of Anti-Magic Shell, as you should be using that ability to absorb magic damage and generate runic power as often as possible. Other than that, you can feel free to go wild. I would suggest reading our death knight glyph guide (don't miss part two either) to get a handle on what each glyph may mean for you.

Damage priorities: Promoting death and decay

As has been the case since Cataclysm, a death knight's damage is less a pure rotation and more of a priority system, but let's go down the list and get a basic idea for how to run a single target mob fight.
  • Keep your diseases up. You'll need both the debuffs and the extra damage they provide to your scourge strike. Whenever possible, use Outbreak or Unholy Blight, as using runes will almost always mess up the rest of your priority.
  • Use Dark Transformation. Getting your ghoul pumped up and powerful means more damage, and the sooner he's through with it, the sooner your death coils can build up for the next one. Don't waste any possible stacks of Shadow Infusion if you can help it.
  • If your target is below 35% health, use Soul Reaper.
  • If your runic power is capped or near-capped, use Death Coil. You don't want to waste the runic power generated by your other attacks.
  • Use Death and Decay if the target is not moving and it won't pull adds. Death and Decay is still a net DPS gain to our single target rotation, believe it or not, thanks to our high shadow damage.
  • Use Scourge Strike if both unholy runes or all death runes are up.
  • Use Festering Strike if both sets of frost and blood runes are up. You will also want to make sure you use it often enough to keep your diseases refreshed.
  • Use Death Coil if you have a Sudden Doom proc
  • Use Scourge Strike
  • Use Festering Strike
  • Use Death Coil
For AoE, you'll want to focus on keeping your diseases up, as well as getting Dark Transformation and Death and Decay out there on cooldown, but after you that, you can then focus on Blood Boil spam. If possible, use Festering Strike to convert all 4 of your frost and blood runes to death runes first, at which point you can spam Blood Boil with impugnity.

As always, be sure to use your cooldowns to supplement damage. If you have 60 RP and the mob won't die before he's done, summon your Gargoyle. He still has a lot of problems, but he is a DPS boost overall in most situations. Unholy Frenzy is also a decent DPS boost if you can take (or glyph out of) the health drain, but don't use it in conjuction with Heroism or similar abilities, or you will more or less waste the haste. Anti-Magic Shell should be cast whenever you're the target of a major spell, not only survivability purposes, but for the extra runic power it generates. Finally, our guide to using Army of the Dead still applies, and you can make it even easier to use if you glyph out of the taunt.

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.

Lichborne: Guide to PvE unholy death knights in Mists of Pandaria