So recently, Lead Systems Designer Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street posted a new Dev Watercooler discussing the ins and outs of the new active mitigation tank philosophy. Since he dedicated a whole section to proposed death knight changes in patch 4.3, I figured it would be a good idea to take a look at the stuff and see what it does.
My preliminary verdict would be pretty simple: It's a pretty big help. It fixes or mitigates a lot of our quality of life issues, it makes a little less squishy, and it nullifies rune tetris nicely. I can't really disagree with the individual changes or the rationale behind them. That said, it doesn't completely solve our problems, and there are probably one or two more little things to be done before stuff looks really good. Let's take a look at the specifics.
The skills, they are a-changing'
Outbreak The dev team has realized that we have a unique issue when it comes to applying the standard tanking debuffs offered by our diseases. Because they generally use the same runes as our main defensive ability, Death Strike, we leave ourselves uniquely vulnerable to damage by applying them, leaving us vulnerable to extra damage for the 8 seconds or so it takes those runes to refresh. Outbreak could, in theory, fix this by allowing a rune-free way to apply diseases, but at a 1-minute cooldown, it's not viable for long stretches of time.
In patch 4.3, we'll see that cooldown reduced to 30 seconds for blood death knights. This should handily take care of most issues, since Pestilence should take care of spreading diseases where needed while Outbreak is on cooldown. It's a quick, dirty fix, but it works. I think the only other idea I'd have would be to make Blood Boil a Thunder Clap-style move and allow it to spread our diseases, if only because Outbreak has the issue of not doing much up-front threat. That said, that's probably not as huge of an issue with the recent threat changes. Two global cooldowns and 1 blood rune to put our diseases on a large group is a pretty solid Band-Aid fix.
Blade Barrier Blade Barrier is one of the two issues that keep us in the involved and distracting task of rune tetris, in which we keep our blood runes juggled just so so that we can keep as many Runic Empowerment procs refreshing Death Strike runes as possible. The dev team currently plans to make Blade Barrier into some sort of passive ability, just to prevent the issue of pooling blood runes, while they figure out a more elegant solution.
In the short term, while this will get rid of rune tetris as we know it, what it will leave shaky is the status of Runic Empowerment. Since Runic Empowerment refreshes a random rune, what we will probably see is death knights avoiding using blood runes at all. If Blade Barrier lasts 30 seconds, we'll only see death knights using blood runes every 30 seconds. If it's completely passive, we'll only see them using blood runes when absolutely needed, such as for Pestilence or in an extreme AOE situation. A spent blood rune is one that could regenerate on a Runic Empowerment proc instead of a rune used by Death Strike.
In other words, it's just plain time for Runic Empowerment to go. I'm in favor of making Runic Corruption's rune haste proc baseline, or at least giving it to blood. You still have the basic runic regeneration factor, but a death knight isn't punished by spending all their runes by having a less desirable one regenerate.
This has bought up some concern in some corners that it may create a scenario where it's more useful to miss Death Strike. Since Death Strike currently doesn't spend runes when it misses, you could conceivably stack huge amounts of healing and damage absorption simply by missing multiple times in a row.
It's more than possible that Blizzard might fix this on the patch 4.3 PTR by simply making Death Strike spend runes even if it misses, but that brings up the hairy question of death knight threat deficiencies. If Death Strike misses, you gain no threat, since 500% of zero is still zero.
This is where math comes to our rescue. Death knight guru Pennyrush offered this post on the official forums with the basic math: Even with the bare minimum of 0 hit and six expertise, a blood death knight has only a 6.5% chance to miss two Death Strikes in a row. Once you hit four missed death strikes in a row, that chance is under 1%. With that in mind, it may be that the scenario of the unlimited blood shield due to Death Strike misses is so unlikely as to be not worth risking death knight threat numbers.
Bone Shield Here's where the changes get really interesting. Ghostcrawler specifically made it clear that this change is in the early testing stages and may very well be scrapped, but it's a great change that I hope sees the light of day. Death knights are very prone to spike damage, moreso than shield-bearing tanks for sure, and a missed or unused Death Strike can completely ruin the day of a death knight where a paladin or warrior would have survived thanks to a high passive block rate.
This is where Bone Shield comes in. Blizzard is considering changing Bone Shield such that it reduces any hit that takes away more than X% of your health by Y damage, only taking away a charge when it does that. This simultaneously makes Bone Shield a style of passive blocking and an emergency savior for those times when you can't fit in enough Death Strike to your rotation due to misses or the need to use your runes for other threat or disease-spreading purposes.
I also like it because it puts one of the few remaining unique, iconic death knight abilities from the old days back front and center. Sure, we've lost auras, Corpse Explosion, AOE Unholy Blight, and the rest, but Bone Shield, at least, can still be an iconic, easily noticeable, central ability to a death knight's oeuvre.
Thus, Blizzard is actively looking into making Blood Shield a pool that you can build up and use across multiple hits. If you've been following this column and the death knight tanking community in general, this is definitely a familiar idea to you. As a pool, Blood Shield would in theory only absorb a given amount of any hit but would stick around longer, over many hits, meaning you take the damage on a more gradual downward slope rather than suddenly falling to 10% health because your Blood Shield absorbed 100% of one hit but 0% of another two or three hits.
If there's any fix on this list that should stick around past patch 4.3 as more than a simple temporary Band-Aid, it's this one. The one downside would be that it might make the proposed changes to Bone Shield redundant and/or overpowered, but it's probably the better long-term solution that ties in with gearing and scaling via mastery on a much more consistent basis.
So where do these changes leave us?
As you may have noticed, many of these changes are Band-Aids -- things that fix our problems in arguably inelegant ways, or at least ways that contradict Blizzard's active mitigation philosophy, and probably won't stick around too long. In addition, Ghostcrawler talked a lot in this blog about long-term changes and ideas for mitigation models. This makes me strongly suspect that patch 4.3 won't be the patch in which we see the big switch-over to active mitigation described in the threat Dev Watercooler he wrote. In other words, expect the big patch to be 5.0, in which we see the other three tank classes adjusted to active tanking models, and death knights themselves tightened up, with many of the patch 4.3 fixes being rolled back or undone, replaced by newer, more dynamic methods of dealing with our shortcomings.
In patch 4.3, though, I do expect these changes to make death knights a less tedious, frantic class to play in relation to the other tank classes. I still think Blizzard needs to replace Runic Empowerment to really make these changes work, but for the most part, we'll see a lot of our quality of life issues mitigated, and with the death of rune tetris and a couple of less spiky methods of tanking damage, we should hopefully get to stop looking at rune addons, stop worrying so much about maximizing our Death Strikes per minute, and start looking at the actual big, wide World of Warcraft once again.
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.