Every week, WoW Insider brings you Lichborne for blood, frost, and unholy death knights.
By the time you read this, there's a pretty high chance that patch 4.0.1 will be on the live servers. If it's not, it's probably coming next week. Either way, that says to me that it's time to finalize your spec choices and get your rotations figured out. We talked pretty extensively a couple of weeks back about patch 4.0.1 changes in general, but now we'll get down to specifics, going through each tree and checking out some general talent spec and rotation advice to help you start WoW's newest era off on the right foot.
Unholy looks the most polished
Unholy remains perhaps the most finished of the trees in that it has a relatively solid tree with varied and interesting mechanics, decent DPS numbers and a few "free" points that you can spend anywhere at level 85. While it does lag very, very slightly behind frost as far as DPS goes, most tests I have seen put it so slightly behind them as to be nearly irrelevant, so you should feel free to spec it for your raid. As things stand now, this is going to be the base level 85 build in Cataclysm, and you can just fill out the unholy tree and the first part of the blood tree when patch 4.0.1 hits. Also, just to be clear, unholy dual wielding is no longer a viable DPS method. The last few beta patches have pretty much gutted it as a viable form of DPS. You'll want to pick up a two-handed weapon.
As far as rotations go, unholy currently has a bit of a priority system going on in patch 4.0.1 and beyond. Luckily, it's not a completely hard to follow priority system. Here are the basics:
- Make sure your diseases are up.
- Use Dark Transformation if it's up.
- Use Scourge Strikes if all unholy and/or death runes are up.
- Use Festering Strike if both sets of blood and frost runes are up.
- Use Death Coil if Sudden Doom is up or runic power is capped.
- Scourge Strike.
- Festering Strike.
- Death Coil.
While it looks a bit daunting, it does get easier as you use it. Essentially, the first five steps are all ways to make sure you are not wasting resources or forgetting debuffs or buffs. Once you get past that, it's just using Scourge Strikes and Festering Strikes and Death Coils -- three simple buttons. The multiple target rotation is similar. You'll simply slip in a Death and Decay after diseases are up and replace Festering Strike with a Blood Boil and Icy Touch. Remember, as well, that all of this will be done in Unholy Presence, which is the best DPS presence for unholy in pretty much all PvE situations.
The one real issue unholy will have in patch 4.0.1 is that we won't have Outbreak. Outbreak, by applying our diseases without runes, makes things run a lot smoother for us, as far as our rotation goes. If we have to apply diseases the old-fashioned way, we end up with a hanging blood rune. Luckily, all we'll really need to do is convert it to a death rune with Blood Strike or Blood Tap, which is something we'll likely need to do at times even in Cataclysm, thanks to Outbreak's restrictive cooldown.
Frost remains the least changed
Frost remains perhaps the most unchanged tree for death knights. While it did get the usual trimming down to 31 points, the actual playstyle of the tree remains much the same, with the only major difference being that you can choose to use a two-handed weapon or dual wield. This will, of course, slightly affect how you spend you spend your points. A dual wield build will look something like this, while a two-handed weapon build will look more like this. There's unfortunately not much wiggle room in these builds. You can take those two points out of Endless Winter and put them in other talents, and dual wielders can get Icy Reach instead of Runic Power Mastery, but that's about it.
The biggest change to frost's priority system in Cataclysm comes with the addition of Obliterate to the Killing Machine buff. This means that when you have Killing Machine up, you use Obliterate. Your new single-target priority system will look something like this:
- Get your diseases up (if glyphed for it and there's no chance of crowd control breaking, use Howling Blast to apply Frost Fever).
- Use Obliterate if Killing Machine is up or both pairs of frost/unholy rules are up.
- Blood Strike if both blood runes are up.
- Frost Strike.
- Howling Blast if Rime is up and it won't break crowd control.
- Blood Strike.
- Horn of Winter.
It's worth noting that the presence issue is a bit murky for frost. Dual-wielders will use Frost Presence, but two-handed weapon users will, as of this writing, actually want to use Unholy Presence. This is because Might of the Frozen Wastes will generate so much extra runic power that you will need the shorter GCD of Unholy Presence to use it all effectively.
The AoE rotation for frost is actually significant different than the single-target rotation.
- Use Howling Blast if both frost runes or both death runes are up.
- Use Death and Decay and Plague Strike if both unholy runes are up.
- Frost Strike.
- Howling Blast.
- Blood Strike.
- Death and Decay/Plague Strike.
- Horn of Winter.
You'll pretty much want to be in Frost Presence for AoE fun times, regardless of your weapon type.
Blood goes all tanking
Blood is now a tanking tree. If you're not tanking, go respec. That's the long and the short of it. As far as specs, blood's a little bit more flexible as to what it takes for points. Here's a sample level 80 blood tank build. In this build alone, you could swap out the Abomination's Might points if you already have your attack power buff provided by one of your DPS. I chose to put points in Scent of Blood because I want to have the runic power to use Rune Strike as often as possible, but some tanks prefer to put it in Improved Blood Tap for an emergency rune switch. Of course, you can always get both if you those points out of Abomination's Might.
Like the other trees, blood now has a priority rotation of sorts as well, at least threat wise. It's a little bit simpler than the other trees just because of lack of procs, but here are the basics for a single target:
- Get your diseases up.
- Rune Strike.
- Death Strike.
- Blood Boil if Scarlet Fever isn't up.
- Heart Strike if Scarlet Fever is up and there are three or fewer targets.
- More Blood Boil if there are more than three targets.
Essentially, Rune Strike remains a threat powerhouse, and Death Strike remains the most reasonable thing to use on single targets when you have the runes, because it provides extra healing and absorption. You'll then want to make sure you keep that debuff up, which is why Blood Boil gets such high priority. Finally, it should be noted that you do need to stay alive, so burning a tanking cooldown when needed is still very much top priority.
Why we're changing (to) priorities
One of the most subtle changes for death knights, as you may have noticed, is a switch to a priority system for all specs, bought about by the new rune system and Runic Empowerment. Essentially, you want your runes on cooldown as much as possible so that they can regenerate and be procced by Runic Empowerment, and then you want to be able to take advantage of those procs. As a result, death knight rotations look a little bit more frantic on paper and may in some cases take a bit more finesse, but they are surmountable. Understand this concept, and you're halfway to mastering the new style of death knight play. Good luck.
We have advice for everything from PUG etiquette and buttons you should push more often to Icecrown loot and gear stat weights. Check out WoW Insider's DK leveling guides, and visit Lichborne every week for more death knight strategies and tips.