As 2011 draws to a close, we have come to an end in some places. Patch 4.3 has been confirmed as the last major raid patch for the Cataclysm expansion. Certainly, Blizzard could always change tracks and create another raid or two if it can't get Pandaria up and running fast enough, but we can probably assume that most new class balancing will be put off.
With that in mind, it's a good time to look back on the year that was 2011 and see what death knights have been up to, what's happened with our class, and maybe make a few guesses about what we can expect going forward. 2011 was strange for us. We were never, perhaps, horribly underpowered, but we had some weird quirks, some strange deficiencies, and a lot of mechanical stuff to worry about. If I had to give it a title, perhaps I'd call it the year of contradictions.
Blood reacts to rune tetris
Blood death knights were in a very strange situation. As Blizzard claimed our tanking model was very close to its chosen ideal, we found that it left us uniquely disadvantaged. Our reactive tanking model, combined with low armor, left us susceptible to spike damage and two-hit kills at a level that patch 4.0 was supposed to remove from the equation.
That said, we also started off the year in a very exciting situation. Simply put, we were genuinely unsure as to what was the best tanking stat for death knights. Mastery and avoidance competed with strong advocates in each corner, and even math didn't seem to have an answer. Unfortunately, that debate has devolved somewhat into bitterness, as many point out that avoidance and mastery actually work against each other -- you can't heal yourself if you don't actually take hits, and our Blood Shield technically gets better the more hits we take.
Other general tweaks also affected us in 2011. Agility's granting of dodge rating was removed, making every death knight tank who spent Tol Barad commendations on a Spear of Trailing Shadows perhaps a bit peeved. The Dungeon Finder Call To Arms probably made more than a few DPS death knights consider a tanking off spec. The Dungeon Finder Call to Arms probably also helped contribute to an eventual decision by trivializing threat, something that arguably made our job easier by allowing us to Death Strike spam without worrying as much about threat. Of course, the idea that Death Strike spam and gaming Runic Empowerment procs was the best way to play our class didn't sit well with many people.
By patch 4.2, however, the issues with Death Strike spam, rune tetris, and the lower survivability were coming to a head, to the point that Ghostcrawler made a Dev Watercooler post that specifically address blood tank issues. We saw some of the promised changes in patch 4.3. While we have somewhat fixed the worst of the rune tetris issues, the Death Strike spam issue is still around in many ways.
It's a little weird figuring out where Blizzard wants to go, as it still seems dedicated to the idea of active tanking despite its very problematic and mixed reception in death knights. So far, patch 5.0 hasn't revealed any major changes, so we're essentially on the edge of our seats. We're more or less kind of sort of surviving through patch 4.3, but right now we just want to know what the developers have under their belts for patch 5.0 so we can properly prepare.
Unholy seems to have spent 2011 as the awkward stepchild of the death knight trees. Coming into 2011, it already saw the strange combination of Festering Strike and Scourge Strike setting it as diametrically opposed to the other trees, but patch 4.0.6 bought another blow, with massive nerfs to the ghoul and general damage scaling that would leave it reeling until arguably as late as patch 4.3. The devs said unholy's single-target damage was too high, which bought on the nerfs.
Unfortunately, this helped bring on a rather long period of drought for unholy, as we found that our ghoul's damage, which already took a long time to build up, was also rather anemic, and that the drop in our disease damage was not bumped up by the slight increase in Scourge Strike damage. Blizzard would try over the next few patches to fix this by slowing adding more and more bonus strength to Unholy Might, but that couldn't fix weapon scaling, the lack of decent AoE, and the need for extreme ramp-up time on things such as ghoul damage.
The turning point for unholy arguably came at BlizzCon 2011 and in the aftermath thereof, when death knights such as Heartless and Magdalena asked some tough questions about the unholy tree -- questions that had, perhaps, already been asked but were now addressed. Unholy still has issues with things such as ramp-up time, but we've finally gotten a fix to long-standing issues with our ghoul and gargoyle, which speaks well to our position going into 2011.
In a lot of ways, frost was sort of the drama-free tree this time around. Nothing major changed about it. Rime and Killing Machine continued to work their magic. Probably the biggest see-saw was the fight between two-handed and dual-wield frost for damage king, most centered around Might of the Frozen Wastes and Killing Machine. Patch 4.0.6 added a damage bonus to Might of the Frozen Wastes, putting two-handed frost solidly in line with dual wielding -- in and of itself an amazing feat of engineering. This was also accomplished by the fact that Killing Machine applied only to swings from the main-hand weapon, taking away a huge advantage from dual wielding.
Patch 4.1 bought us another huge change in that our blood runes became permanent death runes. This perhaps not quite revolutionized our rotation, but it did remove the need for Blood Strike from the entire class almost completely and gave us a little more leeway in massaging Runic Empowerment procs. Howling Blast also received a nerf to AoE damage that kept the single-target damage high.
Patch 4.1 also made Mind Freeze impossible to miss, as part of a bid to make interrupting easier to use in the new, harder Cataclysm dungeons. In addition, our Raise Ally, instead of raising a group member as a ghoul, became a battle rez, giving us a new bit of group utility. Of course, I was still pulling for a single-target crowd control, but that's looking more and more like a pipe dream. Even patch 5.0 isn't promising to deliver that.
Patch 4.2 bought us a round of nerfs as Blizzard apparently decided to address unholy's flagging potential by bringing frost down to its level. An Obliterate hotfix nerf made a lot of death knights experiment with Howling Blast spam as a DPS method, something that eventually petered out but still sees some use for AoE situations. While this speed bump lasted only a bit and didn't affect us as drastically as we feared, it still fed into the frustration of many death knights over the constant changes that death knights experienced every patch, often resulting in drastic changes to rotations, gearing choices, and top specs. This was perhaps best summed by a post by Magdalena over on the Son of a Lich blog lamenting the issue of death knight flavor.
Hungering Cold also received the spotlight for a while, as Blizzard added a cast time to the spell due to PvP complaints. This bought up an interesting period for death knights. Many PvE death knights had complained in the past that it was annoying that Hungering Cold was required for Howling Blast, but as the nerf went down, it bought complaints that the PvP nerf would also affect PvE, depriving us of one the few decent utility tools we bought to a 5-man group. Either way, the complaints fell on deaf ears, and the cast time remains to this day. Interestingly enough, paladins are getting a Hungering Cold equivalent in patch 5.0 that remains instant-cast, but they'll have to wait until level 90 to get it.
The last bit of drama for Frost this year came from a Killing Machine buff combined with a Might of the Frozen Wastes nerf. Killing Machine began proccing from off-hand strikes again, giving dual wielders more procs and allowing for greater damage potential. This in itself might have been tolerable, but it came attached to yet another Might of the Frozen Wastes nerf that left two-handed frost in the dust, where it's remained for the rest of the year, the domain primarily of a few die-hards.
Where Frost goes in patch 5.0 is still up in the air. Two-handed frost still desperately needs a buff, for sure, but beyond that, it's unclear. Some argue that Howling Blast needs to or be extensively redesigned in order to prevent the constant rollercoaster of damage nerfs to prevent the Howling Blast Spam or shadowfrost style of gameplay. Some argue that Killing Machine is too streaky and needs a redesign to keep frost a bit more consistent in damage. Of course, some would argue that both abilities are iconic of the frost death knight tree and that if you don't like it, you should respec. How all this will play out in patch 5.0 remains to be seen.
Where we are and where we're headed
Death knights are as they have always been, really: a solid class with a decent middle of the road class that is plagued with some weird mechanics issues that sometimes lead to more changes mid-expansion that we'd like. It's true this expansion. Will it be true next expansion? That remains to be seen, but Blizzard is making some pretty drastic changes. We're set up to weather them well enough, if we're lucky, but patch 5.0 is definitely a key time to fix some key issues with the class, and we'll be watching to see if Blizzard's up to the challenge.
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.