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Cataclysm Beta: Death knight talents and specializations

The huge, earthshaking 31-point talent overhaul has hit the Cataclysm beta servers, taking the death knight class to new ground, back to the old vanilla era of 31-point trees. It may be for this reason that Blizzard's specifically said that our trees are far from done. With that in my mind, the trees and specialization skills we see can and will change pretty extensively between now and release. That said, there's no harm and certainly some good to be had in sizing up the trees as they stand right now and seeing how they pan out.

Specializations

First, let's take a look at the new class specializations:
You notice immediately that each tree gets its signature strike and its death rune conversion talent. I have a feeling that if we keep anything from this iteration of the talent trees, it's probably going to be those. Death knight talent differentiation has long revolved around the replacement of strikes in the base rotation and the use of death runes to maximize usage of those strikes. It hasn't always worked out that way, of course; sometimes the death rune conversion talent hasn't been worth picking up, and sometimes Obliterate has overshadowed Scourge Strike. But now that the skill's free, Scourge Strike's balanced and a new rune system is being developed to allow us more freedom in our rotations, it looks like we've seen the last of those days.

The other skills still seem solid enough to establish the differences between the trees. Unholy's last real signature ability, the perma-ghoul, certainly makes sense as a base skill. Given that unholy is generally a physical tree these days, the presence of Impurity may seem a little strange, though. Otherwise, blood gets a few solid survivability talents to jump start its tankability, and frost gets Icy Talons, which certainly has made a name for itself in the tree. Interestingly enough, Blizzard hasn't corralled dual wielding into one tree as with warrior fury, but then again, it seems likely one will still need frost's talents to be tops at it, anyway. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to see Dual Wield and Nerves of Cold Steel as specializations in a future iteration of the trees.

The blood tree

Overall, blood's quirks and issues remain much the same as they did in the Lichborne column where we discussed them a few weeks ago. The tree starts out with the choice of Bladed Armor, hung nice and low, likely to entice DPSers to get into blood as a secondary tree. Of course, most tanks will probably take a couple points of that and round off the first tier with Blade Barrier, now only three points. The last first tier talent, Butchery, will probably just hang out and not get much use, unless we find ourselves runic power starved enough to be desperate with the new system. Depending on how frost measures up, we may see some unholy death knights taking it to get at Blood-Caked Blade on the second tier.

Also accompanying Blood-Caked Blade there will be Scent of Blood. Tanks may actually want Scent of Blood with the new rune system, which may leave us with enough downtime between rune refreshes to fill up with Rune Strikes. Also mandatory on this tier will be Scarlet Fever, the physical damage absorbing debuff. It won't act as a third disease, in case you were wondering, but it will still definitely provide more threat and less incoming damage.

On the third tier, Bone Shield and Abomination's Might are now definitely out of reach of unholy and frost, so no luck for DPSers who're nostalgic for those old skills. Tanks will probably be picking up both, along with Sanguine Fortitude, which will make Icebound Fortitude stronger and free to cast at max level. At the fourth tier, Toughness is a no-brainer to pick up, although Blood Parasites may or may not be, depending on how well they stand up to AoE damage and how much they heal for when exploded.

At the fifth tier, Rune Tap's stronger than ever, having folded the benefits of Improved Rune Tap into itself. Improved Blood Presence, while mandatory, still feels like it could use some extra goodies for tanks who take it (at this point, you could just make crit immunity a specialization perk anyway), but Vampiric Blood and Will of the Necropolis are still solid.

Improved Death Strike will definitely be a pro buy at sixth tier. Crimson Scourge is a little more iffy, depending on how much AoE tanking you see yourself doing. After all, you have three-target Heart Strike and Scarlet Fever to serve you well enough, especially since Morbidity is relative easy to reach in the unholy tree. So essentially, you'll probably want to choose to grab either Morbidity or Crimson Scourge. Finally, Dancing Rune Weapon tops it off.

Overall, Blood still has the same issues and strengths we've discussed before. However, right now it doesn't look half bad. It has a good selection of cooldowns. I can see a lot of death knights going with an unholy secondary. While the first-tier talents are sadly somewhat lackluster (although a bit of spell hit never hurt anyone), it might be worth it to gain Morbidity. That said, it will be tough to pass up Improved Icy Touch and Runic Empowerment in frost. What would definitely be optimal is if Morbidity and Epidemic switched places in the unholy tree. With diseases lasting 30 seconds baseline, Epidemic likely won't be close to mandatory anyway, and blood tanks could split their extra points between frost and unholy, passing up Crimson Scourge and Blood-Caked Blade in the blood tree to afford it all.

The frost tree

The frost tree is still being set up to accept either dual wielders or two-handed weapon wielders, which may be one of the reasons it doesn't receive dual wield as a sole specialization. The first tier contains at least one possibly drool-worthy skill in Runic Empowerment. With the new system being designed to give us more GCDs, being able to conjure up a fresh rune to fill them with could prove invaluable. Improved Icy Touch will likely prove valuable to frost DPSers, while Icy Reach stands out for PvPers.

The second tier is about evenly split between PvP and PvE Utility, although it's sadly lacking as a tier with much value for unholy or blood death knights looking to spend their extra 10 points. Annihilation is a must-have for frost, but the other trees don't use Obliterate. Nerves of Cold Steel is a must for any dual-wield death knight, though two-handed weapon wielding PvErs will have to take the relatively less useful Lichborne to move on to the next tier. PvPers will be happy to take it, though, along with Endless Winter, which no longer provides extra strength but still provides a free spell interrupt.

On the third tier, old favorites Merciless Combat, Killing Machine and Chill of the Grave return, ready for use and looking much the same as ever, albeit a bit cheaper to buy in some cases. Brittle Bones will be a must grab on fourth for a double whammy of extra damage given and extra strength, as will the new Pillar of Frost, which provides extra strength and immunity to knockbacks, making it great for PvE and PvP. The classics, Rime and Improved Icy Talons, are here, and will likely be mandatory for a good talent build. At 45 percent proc rate, Rime's nothing to sneeze at indeed, although I can see that rate getting nerfed.

On the fifth tier, Improved Frost Presence will very likely be worth taking for the extra damage. While it's possible unholy will remain the dominant PvP spec, if you find yourself this deep as a PvPer, Chilblains is still here for you. Hungering Cold is still here as well, as a prerequisite for Howling Blast. This has some PvE DPSers in an uproar, as they see Hungering Cold as relatively useless, but what could redeem it is if the Frost Fever applied by the blast works at full force on all targets. Remember, Pestilence-spread diseases now only do half damage.

On the sixth tier, we have the dueling weapon types. Threat of Thassarian survives for dual wielders, while wielders of two-handed weapons can pick up Might of the Frozen Wastes. It seems Blizzard's expecting that we'll have enough downtime that two-hander DKs will be able to keep pace with dual wielders by throwing out a few extra Frost Strikes using their extra runic power. Testing, of course, will be needed to see if that's true. (Preliminary reports say DKs wielding two-handers hit monstrously hard anyway, so we'll how the numbers pan out in future patches). Finally, Howling Blast still holds the top spot and should probably be taken if only to use with Rime procs. Incidentally, it now costs only one frost rune, which leaves the unholy rune free for a Plague Strike or a Death and Decay, which now only costs one unholy rune.

As far as secondary trees go, I'd expect most frost knights to head into blood up into Blood-Caked Blade. Butchery is filler points, but the tree's DPS skills are probably going to be overall more useful for frost knights, who won't have much use for Morbidity since they don't use Death Coil.

The unholy tree

The unholy tree starts out with Vicious Strikes, Virulence, and Epidemic, all of which more or less keep their old functions. However, with diseases lasting 30 seconds on their own, Epidemic seems a bit redundant. That said, there are only three pure DPS points on the second tier, so many may take it simply to unlock the third tier. On the second tier, Unholy Command and Morbidity fulfill their usual functions, while Resilient Infection will be a welcome tool in the PvP death knight toolbox, especially now that Virulence has lost its dispel resistance.

On the third tier, Ravenous Dead and Necrosis remain as they've always been. Unholy Frenzy is Hysteria moved to the unholy tree and made to boost haste instead of physical damage. Corrupting Strikes is Outbreak with a slightly more utilitarian name. Either way, you'll probably just fill up on all of these levels.

On the fourth tier, Unholy Blight and Dirge are the same as ever and certainly worth taking. (I still wish UB were flashier, I won't lie). Strangely enough, Magic Suppression still holds a place in tree. I would have expected it to have been removed from the class, or sent to blood. Instead, it's not only remaining as a magic damage absorption talent, but the language on the first level of the talent's tooltip suggests that you must take it in order to get any runic power back from Anti-Magic Shell at all. That seems like a sad nerf to what was a pretty fun and unique death knight boss survival trick. Whether or not we'll see death knights actually take the skill would seem to depend primarily on whether the extra runic power gain will translate to more damage overall that Blood-Caked Blade. It may be closer than you'd expect, since we'll essentially have to "waste" two points in Butchery to get it. Then again, Butchery may pump us up with the runic power we'll miss from AMS. Either, I'm sort of hoping this talent gets scrapped or changed to be more solidly DPS-friendly.

On the fifth tier, Desecration, Ghoul Frenzy and Anti-Magic Zone have about the same function and power they have on live, but just as they currently have little place in a PvE DPS build, I don't expect that to change much. You'll probably primarily grab Improved Unholy Presence from here for the extra move speed and move on, unless Ghoul survivability's nerfed enough that Frenzy's heal becomes a good investment of a talent point and a GCD.

The sixth tier provides Ebon Plaguebringer, which still provides the full disease powers it does on live, but without the need to spend points in Crypt Fever first. Sudden Doom's been moved here from the blood tree as well, but strangely enough, the free Death Coil is once again no longer auto cast. Presumably, Blizzard believes the need rune rotation system will leave us enough free time to spend the procs. Time and testing will tell if they're right about that. Gargoyle tops off the tree.

As far as a secondary tree goes for unholy, the struggle here is whether you go full out and grab Blood-Caked Blade from blood, or if you save some points for Runic Empowerment in frost. If we have as many free GCDs as Blizzard seems to want us to have with the new rune system, again, being able to conjure up a new rune will be tempting. It's also worth noting that Scourge Strike is currently a one-unholy-rune strike. If that remains, it will mean that the unholy rotation will have two extra frost runes. If that pans out, it's possible that Improved Icy Touch might beat out Blood-Caked Blade for damage. Again, testing will be needful.

The lowdown

Again, death knights have a long way to go until these trees are done. Know for a fact that things will change. Still, we're getting a general idea of how Blizzard will shrink and rearrange the trees. Here are my thoughts for the next few iterations.
  • Get another few good, low-tier talents for frost to make it a desirable secondary tree. I suggest adding some more general damage boosting to Improved Icy Touch, or make Annihilation work on Heart and Blood Strike as well.
  • Let Rime be a prerequisite for Howling Blast rather than Hungering Cold, in order to give frost death knights more choice and flexibility in their build.
  • Remove or revamp Butchery so it doesn't feel like wasted points to DPSers going for Blood-Caked Blade. This point may be needless if we turn out to need the extra runic power Butchery provides.
  • Swap Morbidity and Epidemic for the sake of the tanks, and replace Dark Command with a talent that provides more DPS rather than somewhat superfluous leveling utility.
  • Remove Magic Suppression and Anti-Magic Zone, or send them to blood (maybe in exchange for Abomination's Might?), or tweak them to make them more useful for DPS purposes -- and seriously, can't Anti-Magic Shell still give RP as baseline? That was a pretty fun death knight mechanic.
To get a good idea of where we're going, we probably need a few more patches of shuffling and a lot of testing to figure out numbers and how talents interaction, but it's an interesting first step. I look forward to seeing how things shape up.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm will destroy Azeroth as we know it. Nothing will be the same. In WoW.com's Guide to Cataclysm, you can find out everything you need to know about WoW's third expansion. From goblins and worgens to mastery and guild changes, it's all there for your cataclysmic enjoyment.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, News items, Death Knight, Cataclysm

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