Monday, April 6, 2009

Death Knights in 3.1: Frost Tanking Guide

Death Knights are simultaneously simple and complicated.

Though these new kids in town have been subject to more changes in the past few months than probably all other classes combined, the experience the dev team brought to class design really showed in this first foray into creating a totally new class since WoW launched all those years ago.

Though sometimes frustrating or broken, the rune and disease system is clever for forcing the player to use a wide variety of abilities instead of simply spamming the strongest one, and for allowing flexibility in resource use without handing the player unlimited resources of every type. The class also does a lot of other things right, despite it's flaws.

But this isn't an essay on the design triumphs of the Death Knight, at least not today. Today, it's about passing on all the factiods I've gleaned from poring over EJ and other websites and doing hands-on research about two specific DK specs, how they work, and how they will change in 3.1.

Unholy DPS:

I fell in love with the Unholy tree in beta, and played it almost exlusively up until a few weeks ago. It remains my favorite dps tree. I will delve into it's intricacies in an upcoming post. I had intended to write it up here, but the Frost tanking discussion ran on waaaaay too long and I needed to get back to my real job.

Frost Tanking:

But when trying to tank in today's aoe-now-ask-questions-later, fights-longer-than-10-seconds-are-for-losers environment, my love affair with Unholy became strained. With so much of my dps relegated to the ghoul and gargoyle, I found my TPS (threat per second) severely lacking as I tried to keep up with the dpsers I was raiding with. I loved Unholy Blight, but its slow and steady nature meant it took too long to build the aggro I needed (or to be more exact, the aggro my mage's tender, easily-bruised faces needed me to have). Sure, through perfect play I could keep up . . . unless there was another Unholy DK in the raid. Then, a bug would cause all but one of us to lose our third disease, thus severely reducing our damage (or in my case, threat). It was the last straw when I raided with 2 Unholy dps DKs, so I decided to try another tree (note: this bug is fixed in 3.1, though Unholy threat can still be a bit hampered in other ways).

I'm not a big fan of Blood as a tanking tree. I know and salute some who love that tree for tanking, but I grew up as a warrior tank in the TBC mold, where heals were coming steadily and your job was to still be alive when those heals landed. Avoidance was less important (since the heal was coming whether you dodged or not, so why waste their mana) and instead the focus was on HP (so you didn't die between heals) and armor (so the healers could slow down their steady stream of heals a bit). This is no longer so strictly true, with avoidance working very well for DKs (especially in tandem with Bone Shield and Rune Strike, our primary threat ability), and spammed heals no longer quite as necessary. I can see how Blood could work for some people. But for me, I would always rather focus on reducing my incoming damage and letting healers worry about filling my green bar. Whenever I think about switching to Blood, I start thinking about using Blood Tap at the wrong time and overwriting a healer's heal, wasting her mana. It's just not in me to use a tanking spec based on self-healing; increasing my own survivability is more my style.

So I settled on Frost. I found out later that it is actually the highest threat tanking spec, and will continue to be so (though by a smaller margin) in 3.1. All of your damage comes from you, with no perma-ghoul, gargoyle, or phantom sword. Talents will cause you to crit a lot more, and Howling Blast is exactly the snap-aggro aoe move you need for today's ridiculous aoe pulls. I tried it and finally managed to hold aggro and even keep up with the other tanks on single-targets. Plus, I was seeing a lot of big honkin' crits! The Frost tree gives a lot of crit from talents, which is nice because my base crit is somewhere around 6% in my tanking gear. I was sold.

Here's my spec pre-3.1: 11/50/10

Using Glyphs of Rune Strike, Icy Touch, and Obliterate. Some DKs prefer Glyph of Frost Strike in place of one of these, but I have tons of avoidance and found that I was using almost all of my Runic Power on Rune Strikes anyway. After 3.1, glyph choices will change a lot.

In the current Live environment, you can pretty safely skip Plague Strike and Blood Plague altogether. Most single-target pulls will start with Blood Tap to convert a Blood Rune to a Death Rune (though some prefer to save this for using Unbreakable Armor without disrupting your rotation). Then open with:

IT>Ob>Ob>BS -rune dump
Ob>Ob>Ob -rune dump

Then I fall into a rhythm of refreshing IT whenever Frost Fever drops, using Blood Runes for BS, and otherwise Obliterating. Every once in a while this will leave me with an extra rune. If it's a Death Rune, I'll use it for an extra IT. If an Unholy Rune, I'll usually just wait a few seconds til I can use it on an Oblit, eventually shaking an extra Death Rune free for an IT.

Depending on your gear level and buffs, HB on every cooldown might be better than Ob. Generally, a very high-end weapon and high Expertise will tend to favor Ob (since it's a melee strike), while weaker weapons and more hit rating will favor HB (since it's a spell that doesn't scale with weapon damage).

Generally on aoe pulls I'll drop Death & Decay, then IT>Pest, then wait for my runes to cooldown and HB as soon as I can


The talent trees will also get quite a re-arranging for the upcoming patch. Here is my post-3.1 Frost tanking spec, with glyphs, and an analysis that only applies to post-3.1:

Spec: 11/51/9


No self-respecting DK tank should miss the first 5 points in each tree: Blade Barrier, Toughness, and Anticipation. Blade Barrier is being nerfed in 3.1, but is still a powerful and mandatory tanking talent. I'd also highly recommend 3 more points in Frost for Improved Icy Touch. Many DKs only read the "added damage" part and don't think this is a tanking talent, but it also reduces the target's attack speed by another 6% (that's 6% more physical mitigation for 3 points! What a bargain!). The only reason to ever skip this is if you are an expert and KNOW, FOR SURE, that another expert in every one of your raids will be applying the same debuff to your targets (for instance, via a warrior's Thunderclap). If not, you want that mitigation. Otherwise, take it, no matter how much you want other talents.

From there, you have two choices in the Frost tree: either go down the "Improved Icy Talons" line if you know your raid will be relying on your for the Windfury buff, or pick up Killing Machine and one more talent point instead. Deathchill vs. Hungering Cold for that one free point is highly debated. I tend to go for HC because it applies the Frost Fever disease instantly to an enemy group, helping the damage of a Howling Blast alpha strike for quick threat.

For survivability, you want Frigid Dreadplate, Unbreakable Armor, and Improved Frost Presence (which is greatly changed in 3.1). 3.1 removes the avoidance bonus to Lichborne, so skip it. Guile of Gorefiend also lends some survivability by extending Icebound Fortitude, so pick that up. Acclimation may look tempting, but it's very nearly useless on most bosses considering how infrequently they tend to use magic attacks. The points are better spent elsewhere. After that, the choice is obvious about taking the other talents for threat and skipping the PvP and Dual Wield talents. You should be burning RP on Rune Strikes too fast for RP Mastery to be beneficial. I wish I could fit in the range increase on Icy Touch, but it's just too situational to give up the other threat talents. Annihilation (Oblit no longer removes diseases) and Blood of the North (death runes) are key to a strong rotation, while all the other talents I chose pumped the maximum threat.

Where to put your "floater" points in Blood and Unholy is again up to debate. Bladed Armor is the strongest threat choice in Blood for a Frost build, so you can't go wrong with 5 points there. If you have any remaining points to put in Blood, avoid the temptation of Dark Conviction and instead go for 2-Handed Mastery. Again, I chose Virulence in Unholy for the +hit. I wanted to put some points in Morbidity to make Death and Decay more viable, but with Howling Blast being more usable at the beginning of fights, D&D may fall out of favor with Frost, so it may be wiser to put those points in Two-handed Mastery and Bladed Armor once you try out 3.1. One point in epidemic allows for a smoother rotation that I prefer, but there are totally viable rotations that don't use it. I find that with a 20-second disease cycle I can fit in one more Obliterate before needing to Icy Touch again, in most cases.

Speaking of rotation, the new Frost is less reliant on Frost Fever and the value of Plague Strike and Blood Plague has been improved thanks to the change to strike scaling with diseases (strikes now go up by a percentage of your damage rather than a flat value per disease) and the addition of shadow damage to Black Ice. Now your rotation on single-targets should start off like:

PS>IT>Ob>BS>BS -runic dump (Frost Strikes if you have the RP)

Then repeat those moves in a priority order. If your diseases are up, hit Oblit if you can. Use Blood Strikes when you have diseases up and nothing but Blood Runes available. If your diseases have faded, re-apply PS and IT (PS first because IT does more damage to diseased targets). You should end up relying quite a bit on Oblit, which should give you a number of Rime procs you can use on free Howling Blasts whenever you have a free global cooldown.

Remember to either macro Rune Strike into all of your moves, or hit it whenever it lights up. Only Frost Strike if you are over 60 Runic Power. Othwerwise save it for RS.

There are also some viable rotations that apply diseases using the new glyphed Pestilence (glyph causes it to refresh diseases on your target) or glyphed HB (causes it to apply Frost Fever). I don't personally like them and don't think they will shake out to be as good as my more "traditional" rotation, so I don't recommend them.

On aoe pulls, your standard is going to be:
PS>IT>Pest>HB>BB (Blood Boil, buffed in 3.1)

If you need LOTS of aoe threat RIGHT NOW on a new pull, hit Hungering Cold then Howling Blast.


So that's what how to play a Frost Tanking spec, both now and post-3.1. My DK is on my mind lately, so expect more DK posts in the near-future. I'd like to discuss Unholy DPS, DK design, and general DK tanking tips.


Stabs said...

Good summary

I've gone into some depth regarding survivability talents on my blog which may be of interest to you.

The tldr version is Blood may be equal or better survivability than Frost in 5 and 10 man content but Frost scales better as the bosses hit harder.

Hatch said...

Thanks, I'll check it out!

Blue said...

Sorry for commenting on such an old topic, but I've got a lvl 75 Frost DK and I'm trying to make this a decent toon to play as well as a decent tank. I'm not expecting people to fall all over themselves to get me to join their PuG; I just don't devote that much time to playing. So I've done a lot of reading about various opinions on how DKs should be played out. I'm glad I discovered your blog and have bookmarked it for future reference.

One stupid question I have, though, is what is a rune dump? Does it involve using Death Coil a few times?

Hatch said...

Pretty much. "Rune dump" (I actually should have said "runic power dump") just refers to using up your runic power while you wait for runes to refresh.

If you are blood tanking, this means Death Coil once or twice. If you are Unholy, this means make sure Unholy Blight is up, or Death Coil. If you are frost tanking, it means hit Frost Strike once or twice.

The rule of thumb is that using your runes as soon as they cool down is the priority, but you also don't want to overfill on runic power. Sometimes you might want to delay an Obliterate so you can burn off some RP on a Frost Strike if you are getting near your max RP.