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Flavour and Consistency in Tanking 5: Death Knights

July 6, 2010

And now the one, you’ve all been waiting for: Death Knights. These are, of course, my favourite tank as anyone who has read more than a post or two of mine will know. I don’t know which way this will skew the scores (although I imagine it will do so somehow) as I both love the strengths of the class and know, far too well, the weaknesses.

Flavour-wise, I suspect Death Knights win (BIAS ACCEPTED AND IGNORED). The Death Knight is a hero class and while this means nothing by end-game in terms of actual game mechanics and power, it means an awful lot in terms of flavour. The starting area is, indeed, epic and sets a tone for the class that no other gets. In fact the only one with some similarity to my mind is the Blood Knight paladin quest chains. Those set up a tone for the class for me that few others do. The Death Knight class quests on the other hand are just “more”.

Of course, this has been the Death Knight expansion and who knows how they will deal with the death of their old master anyway. Wrath was about Death Knights and Paladins and in many ways, although it was Paladin’s who were the charismatic leaders of the fight against Arthas, it was Death Knights that actually achieved things. Over and over, in Northrend, it was the Knights of the Ebon Blade who won the battles. Their understanding of the Scourge and their willingness to make hard decisions was absolutely key to the victory of the living over the dead. Of course, the former is now useless and we have no idea what the Knights will do now. Still, I hope they are a presence in Cataclysm. The important thing to this discussion however is that Death Knight lore is very strong and it is almost impossible to have reached level 80 without an understanding of precisely what and who you are.

The Death Knight also has some of the best spell animations of any class. I will regret to the end of WoW the old insect swarm animation (and mechanic for that matter) but even without that, it has gargoyle and dancing rune weapon as well as some of the very subtle ones like Icebound Fortitude. Partly this is helped by the fact that they, like paladins, can have obviously magical abilities in a way that warriors and bears cannot. Partly it is helped by how new a class it is. Either way, as some one who is unashamedly biased towards pretty spell animations (I will cast chain lightning to the end of time, whether it is good damage/mana or not, damnit!) I like this side of my class.

Please note that I am using a Blood tank at this point for three reasons 1) it is the one I know, 2) it is arguably the strongest tank spec at the moment, and 3) it is the only one that will be left in Cataclysm.

1) single target survivability: 8/10
– High hit points (only tank with higher is a Bear) and good talents for basic survivability. Talents like Blade Barrier are fun ways to ensure you have to actively press buttons to take less damage.

– very strong cooldowns in Vampiric Touch and Icebound Fortitude. They also have several other ones that are useful if weaker such as Death Pact, Rune Tap, Anti-magic Shell and Mark of Blood. Army of the Dead is situational and on a very long cooldown but very powerful (unfortunately it is hugely nerfed in ICC from a 50% damage reduction for 6 seconds to a 30% one). When I really start pushing my cooldowns to their limits, I can survive an awful lot.

– Will of the Necropolis is a very powerful talent that grants damage reduction when it is really needed (i.e. when I am about to die).

– The vast amounts of self-healing (if I use Vampiric Blood, Rune Tap and two Death Strikes on a diseased target I can heal about 60% of my entire health bar in 4 GCDs can allow me to survive a long time without a healer if necessary. This has on occasion turned a wipe into victory as a I kept myself alive long enough for DoTs to slay the dragon.

– The weakness of the class is also its strength, it is very cooldown dependent even now and thus dependent on not making mistakes. If you get everything right, then the Death Knight is a vastly powerful main tank. Once you get tired or if you don’t know the fight well, you can feel like a soggy tissue in the path of a broad sword.

2) aoe survivability: 6/10
– All the advantages and disadvantages mentioned above still hold true.
– The only real difference is that we don’t have a shield at all. This makes me a very squishy tank indeed. On the other hand, I don’t think we’re quite as badly off as bears in this arena. This is because we have parry as well as dodge and frankly I think parry is more potent than Savage Defense. Still I envy warriors and paladins their block.

3) single target threat: 9/10
– Superb; between Icy Slam for instant threat and the ability to decide between a high threat (heart strike heavy) and high survivability (death strike heavy) rotation, blood death knights are some of the highest single-target tanks around. I suspect a good bear could equal but probably not beat.

– In terms of threat cooldowns, for those who spec into it, Dancing Rune Weapon can be an excellent threat boost. So is Empower Rune Weapon although mostly this should be kept for survival on any dangerous fight.

– It is worth noting that DK’s have the best ranged threat of any tank without a doubt. At 20 yards, we have Icy Touch (which is currently doing 15-20k of instant threat for me), Death Coil and Death and Decay all able to hit a ranged mob. Mimiron’s head, Rotface’s slimes and Prince Keleseth’s shadow orbs? Give them to a Death Knight.

4) aoe threat: 5/10
– It is only since outgearing most dps, getting two T10 and by using the glyph of death and decay that I have become fairly comfortable with aoe threat. The basic routine of death and decay, apply diseases and pestilence means that it is 4 GCDs before I have anything like decent threat on >2 targets.

– Blood Boil is fairly useless for threat currently. While it is somewhat spammable with care, you need to manage runes very carefully and any emergency uses will mess this up.

– Empower Rune Weapon can again serve as a threat cooldown but again nearly always needs to be saved., either for a survival cooldown or for a boss fight.

– The one truly strong thing about DK aoe tanking is the positional element of Death and Decay which can create some beautiful situations (use it in Violet Hold for those pulls where the group splits up for example).

5) utility: 7/10
– Death Knights have some utility but not a vast amount.
– All DK’s have Horn of Winter which is ok but not as good as an enhancement shaman. Each tree has its own individual buff as well – Abominations’ Might (+ Attack Power), Improved Icy Talons (+Haste) or Ebon Plaguebringer (+13% spell damage + 20% disease damage). Frankly, of these blood is the weakest although the easiest to get. Many Frost Tanks don’t have the points for their buff and while Ebon Plaguebringer would be a 10/10 all by itself in my book there are so few Unholy Tanks at progression levels that it seems worthless to count it (to my eternal displeasure). Overall, DK buffs feel slightly lacklustre to me.

– DK other utility is also mixed. Mind Freeze and Strangulate are superb spellbreakers (Strangulate being ranged makes it even better) and Chains of Ice is a great snare. Raise Ally is one of those abilities which should have been marvellous but unfortunately is not due to the weakness of the ghoul and the fact that the vast majority of the player base does not get raised often enough to use it properly anyway.

– DK’s are the only tank without one of the core tanking debuffs (no attack power debuff) which is a basic flaw to my mind that means running with two DK’s is the worst possible tanking corps. Luckily this is due to be changed.

Overall, the DK is a strong class with a couple of glaring weaknesses. It could certainty be argued that this was inevitable as this is the newest class with the most edges to polish. Blizzard did a very good job with the death knight concept but it has had a roller-coaster ride over this expansion and the developers have understandably spent more time with basic balancing than some of the more exotic concepts of utility and aoe. The 2pt T10 was a welcome band aid but they do need to fix aoe and really I think they need to boost utility a bit. A choice of Horn (shared cooldown and overwrites each other) would be welcome and some form of crowd control may be really needed if what Blizzard promises us is the case.

Average Death Knight score is 7/10.

Personally this feels wrong to me as I love the DK but it is true that some of the reasons I love the class are, on an objective level, weaknesses compared to the others. A lot of thought and concentration is needed to get a DK working perfectly and a small mistake can easily be fatal. For me, this is not a problem but I suspect that starting out on a bear or paladin gives just that little bit of necessary slack while you are learning the ropes.

As an aside from the Death Knight bigot in me. This is, I suspect, the reason for so many bad Death Knight tanks. Tanking is a complex part of the game, DK’s are a complex part of the game. The fact that you only get 25 levels to learn your skills does not help but the core is that people with no tanking experience are most likely to try it first on a death knight and this is a mistake. A plea therefore for people to learn basic tanking skills on a lesser (er, other) class before you come and mess around with diseases.

Either way, Death Knights are not the strongest tanks but they are fairly well balanced with some distinct strengths in the most important areas.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2010 13:36

    Hmm, I have to agree about tanking as a DK. There are many shockingly bad DK tanks, and I think you have hit the nail on the head with why that is.

    Speaking as a healer though, every tank class must know what they are doing to make a half decent MT. Bad bears failing to use barkskin, SI and frenzied regen, and popping enrage mid fight. Bad paladins who lock themselves out of bubblewall with Wings, don’t use sacred shield or God help us, bubble mid fight (the OT did this in Ruby Sanctum, to my horror). Bad warriors who forget shieldwall, last stand and worse, who don’t use shield block appropriately. All of these melt like snowflakes in front of a Boss. Bad DKs are spikier than anything else, true, but only terminally squishier in AOE, rather than on bosses.

    Of course, I’m talking as a paladin here, and we are pretty good at healing spiky tanks… my druid cares more, but she’s specced and geared for 25 man raid healing, not for keeping tanks alive.

  2. July 7, 2010 13:38

    I still don’t really get death knights. They have a lovely starting area and a couple of fantastic toys, and in theory an involved and multifaceted resource system.

    In practice, I find them really awkward and bizarrely bland once the “Wheee Deathgrip!” stage has worn off. Just not for me I guess, which makes this article from the PoV of a devoted DK all the more interesting!

    From a healer perspective, even just pugging heroics I’ve felt the bizarre rise and fall of DK tanks. At some points the swings in apparent survivability were breathtaking, and I’m glad that we seem to have settled down finally.

  3. July 7, 2010 14:38

    My little DK has become a tank by default – at L62 nothing but another DK can apparently hold aggro off me, and few of those. Even specced into the blood threat reduction talent and not using D&D. But I’m Unholy still, cos, well, yay, diseases.

    It’s definitely different, but I swing between ‘fun, more’ and ‘hmmm’ about every other time I play her.

    I used to make a bit of a hobby of healing new DKs who were nervous, since much excess of healing papers over many cracks. And more tanks is a Good Thing for all. And yes, it’s been interesting seeing the ups and downs…

  4. July 7, 2010 14:53

    Also, Oh Ursine One, I can’t find Paladins. Am I just blind?

    • Arcturis permalink*
      July 7, 2010 16:04

      Oddly, the paladin article seems to have got lost. I’ll get it up tomorrow

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