Lichborne: Switching death knight specs for patch 5.2

Lichborne Switching specs for patch 52

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.

When a new patch comes, especially one with some major class changes like patch 5.2, it becomes a good time to reflect on your play style and priorities. Does your spec serve those priorities? With a new patch coming, it's a good time to experiment with new stuff. You can do it pretty easily on the PTR, and when the patch goes live, the game's got some fresh new content, so it's as good excuse as any to jump into a new spec and get used to it while killing trolls for all these new quests. You'll also be getting new gear, so changing up gearing priorities becomes easier.

Today, we'll take a quick look at all the death knight specs, with some of their pros and cons, so you can make a solid judgment call as to whether to switch and try something new, or stick with the familiar. This isn't meant to a complete guide to playing each spec, just a quick overview so you can decide if the play style and responsibilities of the spec are right for you.

Two-handed frost DPS


  • Possibly the easiest damage priority

  • Lots of big physical hits

  • Easier to manage gearing


  • Killing Machine adds randomness and streakiness to damage

  • Some consider it too simple

Two-handed frost is all about churning out big numbers using a two-handed weapon and Obliterate. Since you have permanent death runes as frost, you can pretty much smash out 3 Obliterates real quick off a full bar, so there's not much setup to be done. About the most complicated things will get for you is making sure runes are properly depleted before you start using Frost Strike, in order to get the most benefit from your tier 5 talent. You'll pretty much stack as much haste as you can get, after capping expertise and hit rating.

The downside here is that two-handed frost is sometimes seen as the "easy" spec, the one where you don't have to think and just have to hit the Obliterate button as much as possible. If you care what others think of your specific spec choice, this is where you may run into a few issues. On the whole though, this is an intra-class issue. Most people outside the class probably won't care what type of death knight you are as much as that you are one.

Dual wielding frost DPS


  • High frost damage

  • Lots of AoE damage

  • Fast, furious dual wielding style of damage


  • Killing Machine adds randomness and streakiness to damage

  • Emphasis on frost damage can make spec feel more "mage" than "warrior"

  • High use of Howling Blast can lead to delicate situations when AoE isn't appropriate

Dual wielding frost has, with the latest Mists revamps, become nicely unique from two-handed frost. Obliterate is no longer a cornerstone strike, but is instead primarily a way to convert unholy rules into death runes for use on Howling Blast. Frost Strike becomes the main strike for use with Killing Machine, meaning most of your special attack damage will be frost and your gearing priorities will generally focus on mastery.

The biggest downside of this spec can be the heavy amount of AoE. While it's not common to need crowd control these days, if you have a dungeon challenge group who uses it as part of their strategy, for example, dual wield's heavy use of Howling Blast and Death and Decay means you will have to work extra hard not to break crowd control. It can also make it a bit harder for your tank to keep aggro on adds. In a pinch, you can switch to Icy Touch for a "single target" nuke, but your overall DPS will plummet. The other complicated part of this spec is learning when and how to spend unholy runes for optimal use of your tier 5 talent.

Unholy DPS


  • Permanent pet

  • High disease damage

  • Good balance of magic and physical damage


  • Permanent pet can be high maintenance, and your DPS will drop if it dies.

  • Optimal disease upkeep can get complicated

  • Ramp up time

  • Awkward rotations, especially for AoE

  • No dual wield option

Since around the start of Cataclysm, unholy DPS has come across a bit as the unfavored child of death knight DPS specs, the victim of a somewhat unpopular revamp and the associated mechanics problems that have plagued it from then on.

The good news is that the patch 5.2 unholy changes have gone a long to making unholy look better, removing some of the more annoying mechanical hang-ups. Plague Strike applies both diseases, meaning that to apply diseases, you are never giving up more than a Scourge Strike. Before, spending a frost and unholy rune meant hobbling your entire rotation with an extra orphaned rune hanging out. In addition, with haste and critical strike rating generally being unholy's strong stats, you'll need to change very little about your gearing if you switch from two-handed frost.

Other than that, the two things you'll need to master is unholy are disease usage and pet usage. Your pet ghoul will be a permanent and deadly part of your arsenal, which means you will need to know how to take care of it. This means not only judicious use of Leap to close gaps and maximize time spent DPSing (versus time spent running around trying to get to the mob), but learning how to get Dark Transformation powered up and applied for maximum DPS. Diseases are also going to be a strong part of your damage, and while simply having them up is going to be important for better Scourge Strike damage, you may also find, with the new Plague Strike mechanic, that there will be times it's better to reapply them because you have more strength buffs up and they'll be that much more powerful. Calculating these times will be a huge part of being an effective unholy death knight.

Blood tanking


  • Near impossible to die while soloing

  • Ability to solo old content other classes and specs cant

  • Ability to tank means shorter queues for Dungeon and Raid Finders

  • You will be in high demand for groups


  • You will be expected to lead groups

  • You will be expected to know encounters and teach them to others

  • Gear level requirements are higher than for DPS in most cases

  • If things go bad, you will likely shoulder a lot of the blame, deserved or not

  • No dual wield option

With blood, a lot of the pros and cons are going to revolve around your role as a tank, for better or for worse. I could probably write an entire article about the social aspects and pressures of being a tank, but I'll try to keep it short for this article. As blood, you will be able to get groups faster, much faster, than you would as DPS. Blood death knights have solo'd old raid content even as recently as the last tier of last expansion.

But on the other hand, being tank has responsibilities. While it is possible for a non-tank to lead, people will by default expect you to lead. That means expecting you to set the pulling pace and expecting you to know the boss encounters in a given dungeon or raid, and, where needed, teach others. You will need to become fearless enough to pull quickly, but knowledgeable enough to know when your healer needs a mana break. You will also need to have the gear to survive a pull. While DPS should strive for good gear, it's easier for a DPS to slip under the radar with a green item or two. If a tank has a green item or two, their healers are going to feel it. And when you wipe, unless your performance is impeccable, there's a good chance someone will point to that one piece of ilevel 450 gear, or that one mob you forgot to taunt for 3 seconds, or any little thing, as the reason for the wipe. You will need a thick skin to get through that.

On the mechanics side, it's mostly about building up a good Blood Shield. If your Blood Shield is down, you're a lot more vulnerable than your average tank. Almost everything you do is going to be focused on getting one more Death Strike up to keep that blood shield up. Remember that about being blood, and everything else falls into place surprisingly easy.

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.