[NOTE: This post is meant to cover you only up to level 60.]
[NOTE 2: I have updated the spec details and link for level 60 to help you in tanking Outlands instances. Removed Acclimation 1/3 with Lichborne 1/1. Details below.]
As I write this article, my Frost DK is currently sitting at level 65. The image below will update itself as the Armory information is updated though,
so you may see him at a higher level in that picture when you read this. The picture updates, but the Psynister I leveled for this series of posts made it to level 80 and then got deleted and replaced with a new one, which isn’t being leveled as Frost.
About a week or so ago I posted about A Death Knight Tank, one named Khanus in particular, and how how that DK inspired me to want to finally make a DK of my own and actually focus on leveling him as a tank to see for myself just how hard it would be to successfully fill that role with a DK.
I planned on leveling a DK sometime within the next couple of months or so, but circumstances changed a bit here and there and I decided to roll him early rather than waiting. I’m pretty well known for my patience outside of the game, but for some reason when I’m in a virtual world that aspect of my personality disappears and when I want something I want it now. I didn’t have a character named Psynister on this server just yet, so that’s how this fellow came to be.
I didn’t want to be just another Death Knoob out there, so when I got started with this guy I did my research first and smashed faces later. I did a lot of reading on different blogs and forums to get everyone’s general views of how to tank with a DK and I found a lot of really good information out there. I found a lot of bad/old information as well, but we don’t need to waste our time with that.
General Tanking Information
The first thing that I want to throw at you here, besides the unnecessarily long introduction up above, is that all three of a DK’s talent trees are capable of tanking. You can find that little tidbit of information just about anywhere you look for tanking info.
That being said, only Frost and Blood are really considered to be high end tanking specs at this time. Recent nerfs to Unholy have reduced their effectiveness. That doesn’t mean they can’t still do it, especially if an experienced player is behind the keyboard, but if you’re new to DK tanking then stick with Frost or Blood.
Tanking with a DK is different than tanking with other classes. You don’t really have a set rotation you’re going to go through (sorry, no 96969 business over here), and while you do have two taunts, one of them has a long cooldown and both of them are only single target. So you can’t slip into a single style of play and assume that it’s going to work for you all the time. You need to be flexible, and you need to be able to react to the situation as it changes.
Death Knights have a very unique system of resources as well, having to manage both a Runic Power pool and a Runic system as well. Managing those can be tricky at first, and using abilities without being aware of their Rune costs can completely kill your ability to act as a tank. Focusing too much on your Runes though makes you waste your Runic Power, which means you’re throwing away additional DPS which in turn is throwing away threat. It sounds pretty complicated, and when you’re new to it it certainly seems that way, but the longer you play with it the more natural it will become.
Frost Tanking Basics
I was misinformed from previous playing experience and discussions prior to the two or three most recent patches, that Unholy was the main spec for AoE tanking. However, the real king of AoE threat generation comes from the Frost tree.
Frost tanks have two primary styles of play: single disease, and dual disease. You also have the option of using either a two-handed weapon for big hits, or dual wielding weapons for additional stats and smaller, but faster attacks. My personal style of playing works better with dual diseases right now, and up to this point I have only tried two-handed tanking and so cannot comment on the dual wielding yet. [Dual Wielding is covered in the follow up post, however.]
Frost Tanking Spec
Alright, it’s time to get a little more specific about how to tank with the Frost DK, and the first order up on that list is what sort of spec you should be running. As I mentioned, I did a lot of research before I actually rolled this character, and the spec I am using is what I felt was the best route for me to take after that research.
Alternate (Recommended) Spec for Level 60
This is a revised spec for level 60. After spending five days doing almost nothing but running random dungeons and leveling my professions I needed to make a change.
The change isn’t huge but it is significant, especially for the mid-to-upper sixties. I removed the single point in Acclimation and replaced it with Lichborne, which makes you immune to Charm, Fear, and Sleep effects for 10 seconds. When you run randoms in your 60s you are going to run into a lot of Fear effects. Enough so that my human racial and my PvP trinket were not enough to take off all of the fear at times.
The magic-based damage reduction from Acclimation isn’t bad, it just didn’t provide enough benefit (especially with only one of the three possible points spent in it) for me to take it over Lichborne given how often I had to deal with fear and how seldom I had to deal with spell casters.
Improved Icy Touch 3/3: Your Icy Touch does an additional 15% damage and your Frost Fever reduces melee and ranged attack speed by an additional 6%.
Toughness 5/5: Increases your armor value from items by 10% and reduces the duration of all movement slowing effects by 30%.
Black Ice 5/5: Increases your Frost and Shadow damage by 10%.
Annihilation 3/3: Increases the critical strike chance of your melee special abilities by 3%. In addition, there is a 100% chance that your Obliterate will do its damage without consuming diseases.
Killing Machine 5/5: Your melee attacks have a chance to make your next Icy Touch, Howling Blast or Frost Strike a critical strike. Effect occurs more often than Killing Machine (Rank 4).
Chill of the Grave 2/2: Your Chains of Ice, Howling Blast, Icy Touch and Obliterate generate 5 additional runic power.
Frigid Dreadplate 3/3: Reduces the chance melee attacks will hit you by 3%.
Glacier Rot 3/3: Diseased enemies take 20% more damage from your Icy Touch, Howling Blast and Frost Strike.
Deathchill 1/1: When activated, makes your next Icy Touch, Howling Blast, Frost Strike or Obliterate a critical hit if used within 30 sec.
Rime 3/3: Increases the critical strike chance of your Icy Touch and Obliterate by 15% and casting Obliterate has a 15% chance to reset the cooldown on Howling Blast and cause your next Howling Blast to consume no runes.
Hungering Cold 1/1: Purges the earth around the Death Knight of all heat. Enemies within 10 yards are trapped in ice, preventing them from performing any action for 10 sec and infecting them with Frost Fever. Enemies are considered Frozen, but any damage other than diseases will break the ice.
Improved Frost Presence 2/2: While in Blood Presence or Unholy Presence, you retain 6% stamina from Frost Presence, and damage done to you is decreased by an additional 2% in Frost Presence.
Blood of the North 3/3: Increases Blood Strike and Frost Strike damage by 10%. In addition, whenever you hit with Blood Strike or Pestilence there is a 100% chance that the Blood Rune will become a Death Rune when it activates. Death Runes count as a Blood, Frost or Unholy Rune.
Acclimation 1/3: When you are hit by a spell, you have a 10% chance to boost your resistance to that type of magic for 18 sec. Stacks up to 3 times. [Revision: Replaced by Lichborne]
Lichborne 1/1: Draw upon unholy energy to become undead for 10 sec. While undead, you are immune to Charm, Fear and Sleep effects. [Revision: Replaces Acclimation]
Frost Strike 1/1: Instantly strike the enemy, causing 55% weapon damage plus 137.5 as Frost damage.
Guile of Gorefiend 3/3: Increases the critical strike damage bonus of your Blood Strike, Frost Strike, Howling Blast and Obliterate abilities by 45%, and increases the duration of your Icebound Fortitude by 6 secs.
Tundra Stalker 5/5: Your spells and abilities deal 15% more damage to targets infected with Frost Fever. Also increases your expertise by 5.
Howling Blast 1/1: Blast the target with a frigid wind dealing 518 to 562 Frost damage to all enemies within 10 yards.
Glyph of Howling Blast: [Major] Your Howling Blast ability now infects your targets with Frost Fever.
Glyph of Frost Strike: [Major] Reduces the cost of your Frost Strike by 8 Runic Power.
Glyph of Disease: [Major] Your Pestilence ability now refreshes disease durations on your primary target back to their maximum duration.
I am currently using Disease over Howling Blast because I really enjoy AoE grinding while I quest, but as far as tanking goes Howling Blast is probably going to be better for you overall if you plan on sticking primarily to dungeons or questing with groups rather than solo questing and grinding. I am also using the Death Strike glyph in place of Frost Strike to test it, but I’m going to replace it tonight because I completely misread what it did and get very little benefit from it where reducing the runic cost of Frost Strike will grant me more threat generation during boss fights.
As for the minor glyphs, you want those two glyphs and you want them before any others. Pestilence is higher priority than Raise Dead, so if you are only able to get one of them for some reason, go for Pestilence.
Tanking Trash (Up to level 60)
Trash tanking is where all of your AoE spells really shine. The other members of your group dictate where your AoE spells get cast in your “rotation”, whether you need to front load the AoE threat or if you’ll have to time to start and spread your diseases first.
The research I did frequently pointed out that being able to react to your situation is the key to being a good DK tank, and I have found that to be entirely true. As such, I have developed my own rotation here for what works well for me, based solely on how I like to play. There may very well be a better rotation to use out there, but this is what works for me.
I prefer using the disease rotation because it gives me the most control over threat during the fight and it gives me the chance to use my AoE spells on other groups of mobs that might get pulled in unintentionally for whatever reason. A lot of people like to power level through vanilla content and then start grouping in Outlands having no idea how to participate in a group.
I would like to say that most of my pulls go off smoothly without having to worry about patrolling mobs or accidental agro, but that’s not the case. I’ve found in my experiences in Outlands so far that it’s better for me to stick with the Disease Rotation up above so that I can hit the AoE spells for instant threat on bad pulls rather than blowing them all at the front of the fight with my intentional pull and then having to run around generating crazy threat on multiple mobs that are chasing my healer.
In the Heavy AoE Rotation I put Icy Touch in parenthesis because if you have the Glyph of Howling Blast then that spell will apply the disease for you which is the main reason I suggest casting it. If you don’t have the glyph then cast Icy Touch first to both establish a disease that can be spread immediately after the AoE as well as to build a solid level of threat on at least one of the mobs in case things don’t work as planned.
Howling Blast is going to deal AoE damage in a radius centered on the target you cast it on while Blood Boil is going to deal AoE damage centered on you. So when you cast Blood Boil, make sure you’re near the mobs that you need to generate the threat on or else you’re wasting the cast.
I most often use the AoE rotation when additional mobs get pulled that I was not intending to have to deal with, which is primarily a patrol in a dungeon I’m not especially familiar with and as such did not see. When a group of mobs comes in that I wasn’t expecting I move in the direction that the mobs are moving, and use my AoE spells on them.
I start off with the double-Blood Boil because when these pulls happen the mobs are almost always already mixed into the group and heading for the healer or whoever may have pulled them, and that usually means that the mobs are right next to me. If the mobs get pulled and are not already next to you then you can either use Howling Blast instead, you can run towards them and use Blood Boil, or you can wait for them to get closer to you and Blood Boil from where you are (if they have to get through you to get to whoever their target is). By default I will run towards the mobs to hit them with the AoE threat because that puts me right in the middle of them and better able to react to the situation in case my Blood Boil misses, it gets me closer to other mobs that might have been outside the range when I used the AoE, and if my AoE burst isn’t enough to put me at the top of the threat list then I’m close enough to throw another one at them immediately.
Tanking bosses is a whole different ballgame all together. Since our strongest method of generating threat on trash mobs is AoE we have to completely switch our rotation to build and maintain maximum threat on a single target. This is where your other spells are going to come into play and where you’re going to refresh your diseases by casting the basic spells that apply them (Icy Touch and Plague Strike) rather than refreshing them by using the Glyph of Disease or using Howling Blast to reapply your Frost Fever.
I like to load a lot of DPS onto a boss at the beginning of the fight and then settle into a rotation.
When you are about to pull a boss, you want to be sure to use your Deathchill buff which gives you a guaranteed crit with your next Icy Touch, and starting with a crit is great for building your initial threat. Deathchill’s crit boost also works for Howling Blast (if the boss has adds so you pull with AoE), Frost Strike (if you have runic power built up to use it right away), and Obliterate (level 61) spells if you decide to pull with those instead. I would personally use either Icy Touch of Howling Blast for the initial pull, and since IT requires only a single Frost Rune it gets my vote for being the spell of choice unless the boss has adds that will also be hit with Howling Blast.
Plague Strike is the second attack and requires you to be within melee range, but deals Shadow damage to the boss and applies your second disease, Blood Plague.
Blood Strike is a great way to boost your threat, and since we have both of our diseases applied it’s a perfect time to use it. Blood Strike deals an extra 12.5% damage for each disease you have on the target, so using it after IT and PS grants an extra 25% to the Blood Strike’s damage.
Because of the cooldown situation of our runes, the next spell on the list is going to be Death Strike which will damage as well as healing you for 5% of your maximum health for each disease on the target; Since we have two diseases applied, that means we’re healing ourselves for 10%. You may need the heal, you may not, but the attack is dealing damage regardless which will build threat and the heal is just an added bonus. If you started the fight off with some runic power already built up then you can skip this attack and move on to Frost Strike instead.
Frost Strike comes up next to make use of our Runic Power (RP). Assuming you hit with the previous spells you should have enough RP built up to use this when starting the fight with no RP at all, even if you are not using the glyph. This is a nice, hard hitting attack to use up your RP. Your only other option for using RP at this level is Death Coil, which is a decent attack that can be used at range, but I prefer sticking with Frost Strike unless something causes me to be distanced from the boss.
At level 60 you don’t have access to Obliterate just yet, so for now you are going to rotate between the spells already mentioned. When your diseases are getting ready to fall off, go ahead and reapply them with Icy Touch and Plague Strike (even if you have the Glyph of Disease), make use of Blood Strike whenever your blood runes are available, keep your RP down around 20-40 by making use of Frost Strike, and when you feel like you need a boost to your health go ahead and take advantage of Death Strike for the 10% heal.
If you are facing a boss that has an attack such as Fear, knock back, stun, or something that otherwise has a chance of putting distance between yourself and the boss, then you may want to make use of the time to get back to melee range of the boss by casting Death Coil. Your two ranged attacks right now are Icy Touch, Death Coil, and Howling Blast so if you get separated from the boss go ahead and make use of one of them while you move back in so that you continue to generate what threat you can while closing back in. I recommend Death Coil first, Icy Touch second, and Howling Blast third for the sake of making the best use of your resources.
If anyone manages to pull threat off of you then your only option for this level range to taunt them with is Death Grip. Since this is the only “taunt” we have right now I never use Death Grip for pulling a boss unless it’s absolutely necessary. If one of the dps pulls the boss off of me by jumping the gun then I will use it at that time, but using it to start the fight off seems like a bit of a waste to me, so I save it until it’s needed. For trash pulls, Death Grip is fine to use whenever needed, especially to get a caster within melee range, but for bosses I like to save it. There’s nothing wrong with casting Death Grip to start off a boss fight, but from my experience it’s unnecessary and better saved for a time when it’s actually needed.
Watch Your Buffs
I want to point out that the spec that I suggest above gives you a couple of buffs that you need to keep an eye out for.
Killing Machine: This talent gives your auto-attacks a chance to make your next Frost attack (Icy Touch, Howling Blast, Frost Strike) an auto-crit.
Rime: This talent gives you the Freezing Fog buff which makes your next Howling Blast cost no runes to cast.
You don’t want to miss out on free critical hits, and you don’t want to miss out on free AoE damage. Better yet, you don’t want to miss out on free AoE damage that will automatically crit if you happen to have both of them proc at the same time.
Killing Machine is a PPM (Procs Per Minute) buff, meaning that it can only happen so many times each minute. Because of this you are going to have a higher chance of getting this buff by using a slow, two-handed weapon than you will from dual wielding and/or using fast weapons. Killing Machine isn’t taken quite so often by dual wielding Frost tanks, so if you are not using a big two-hander then you may want to consider spending those five talent points in Icy Talons instead to reduce your target’s attack speed while also increasing your own, and you may swap the one point in Acclimation to Improved Icy Talons to provide a melee haste buff to your party as well as a constant haste buff to yourself.
Because of the Death Knight’s unique resource system(s), you need to be able to manage both resources without digging yourself into a hole of inactivity where all of your runes are on cooldown and you have no runic power to use. Using your Runes too fast on low damage or low threat spells is not going to pay off for you in Runic Power. Similarly, though somewhat opposite, not using your Runic Power means that you’re wasting the resources generated by your Rune abilities. Use your Rune powers to deal the damage you need to supply your Runic Power, and then burn through your Runic Power while your Runes are cooling down. Keeping that cycle up is how you manage a constant stream of threat on your targets.