Although I really enjoyed leveling my Death Knight as a Frost Tank, I haven’t found much joy overall in playing him as a tank once he got to level 80. Instead I generally run around in an Unholy DPS spec either solo questing or running random heroics.
Introduction to Unholy
When I wrote the Play Styles: DK’s for Spellcasters article a lot of people wanted to know why in the world I didn’t write about Unholy instead of Frost. Several people simply dismissed it the second they saw that I was writing about Frost. The reason for their questions/disagreement with that is because of all three trees Unholy deals the most magic-based damage. The reason why I didn’t write that article from an Unholy perspective is that while Unholy deals the most magic damage the majority of their attacks are actually physical attacks that simply add magical damage.
Unholy is a melee spec which deals excellent AoE damage by establishing multiple diseases, spreading them around, and then having each damaging tick of their diseases potentially act like a miniature version of the Shaman’s Fire Nova thanks to the Wandering Plague talent which we’ll discuss in a bit more detail down below. After our diseases are spread we go into full melee mode using spells and abilities that generally deal more damage or have stronger effects based on the number of diseases on the target, and Unholy is the only spec that gets a third disease.
Unholy also gets the benefit of a permanent Ghoul pet which we can control the actions of and our talents significantly increase the ghoul’s effectiveness in combat. And while Army of the Dead is often frowned upon by tanks and DPS who aren’t used to dealing with a group of constantly-taunting mobs, Unholy brings a reduced cooldown to it which allows more frequent use of it. I don’t often suggest using it in PUGs or randoms, but my guild personally uses it on every boss fight in ICC-10 with no threat issues after the Army’s duration is up.
Playing an Unholy Death Knight
Playing a DPS Death Knight is much the same as playing any other melee DPS class in the game, with a few exceptions. When in combat you’ll always want to be behind the mobs, you want to make sure your Ghoul’s not on aggressive and pulling mobs instead of the tank, and you want to remember the tool set that you have and what you’re capable of bringing to the group.
You have tools to silence/interrupt, you have taunts, you have ranged spells that can either slow or kill fleeing mobs, you have Death Grip to peel mobs off of your healer if the tank’s not capable of doing it himself, you have spells such as Path of Frost and Horn of Winter to buff and assist your party members, and so on.
You also need to remember that while you wear plate armor and every talent tree in the current patch is “capable” of tanking, that you’re not a tank. You can fill that role for a short time, but that’s not what you are or what you’re there to do, and most likely not what you’re geared for either. Focus on the tank’s target so that you’re not stealing agro, unless you’re peeling a mob off of the healer. Unless you’re asked to be an off tank for some reason your goal is to assist the tank in killing his targets.
In many ways you’re like a DPS Warior with all the melee that you’ll be doing. In some ways you’re still similar to an Affliction Warlock, focusing on keeping your DoTs up at all times and using your Ghoul to assist in combat. You’re a hybrid in that your class isn’t tied to a specific type of combat and in how much you can bring to the group if you’re willing to embrace the diversity that’s offered to you.
Another thing worthy of being mentioned is that Death Knights have their own form of weapon enchanting. It’s sort of similar to the Shaman’s weapon enhancements in that you have several options to choose from and that they help with different aspects of the class, but they’re completely different in that they are actual enchants you put on your weapons rather than 30 minute buffs. Runeforging takes the place of normal Enchantments, so you’ll be enchanting your own blade (no material requirements) rather than relying on the Enchanting profession. More on Runeforging below.
Talent Spec and Glyphs
|Levels 55-58||Levels 59-68||Levels 69-80|
[Update: It's been mentioned several times now, in comments, on twitter, in other posts and forums, etc - that On A Pale Horse (20% faster Mounted Speed, doesn't stack) is the "greatest leveling talent ever" and there is much shock in me not suggesting that you take it. There has also been mention of Improved Unholy Presence () and why I didn't take it either. So I'm going to put the reasons up here in the main post, right below the talents, so that you see why I didn't bother suggesting either of them:
On A Pale Horse:
It's an excellent talent, don't get me wrong. It helps you quest faster and it helps you gather faster, the only drawback is that it has no impact at all on your DPS, and it doesn't stack with any other movement increasing effects. You'll also see that while I don't tell you to spend points in the talent, I never tell you not to either, and in fact I do suggest it at the end of this section as an alternative talent.
When I leveled my DK I did so specifically to find the best way to not suck at playing the class in groups so that I could tell people how to get away from the "Death Knoob" label since so many people that play this class suck at it. The best way to do that was to do the majority of my leveling via LFG, and when you're in dungeons your mounted speed means nothing. OaPH has no impact on your performance, but it can save you a some time.
OaPH is an unnecessary talent. It's nice to have when you're able to make use of it, but it's not required and during the times that you can't use it it's worthless. Technically it's still got some potential when you can't mount because it also reduces stun/fear effects by 20%, but they're rarely used so I don't much care.
If you want to take it, by all means go right ahead. I generally take it myself. However, it's not crucial, it's simply helpful. Do I support you taking it? Absolutely. Do I suggest it? Not really, no. Since you can switch to Unholy Presence at any time once you've got it, you're missing out on a whole 5% speed. If it stacked, I'd take it every single time, but since it doesn't I'm not too worried to be quite honest.
Improved Unholy Presence: You get to keep your +15% movement speed regardless of which presence you're in. It's really cool to be able to move faster on your feet all the time. The problem is that once again it's not necessary. If you need the speed boost then you can just switch to Unholy Presence and you're golden. Movement in combat isn't very important while you're leveling, it really only matters in raids.
Of the two, I definitely consider this one to be the least important. Not to say that it isn't helpful, because it certainly can be, but again it's not required.
There you have the individual breakdowns of the spec for each of the level brackets that I broke it down into. As for when/where to put the points, here’s a textual break down for you.
Starting Area (55-58)
In the starting area you’re going to get a boat load of talent points as your quests reward them to you to make up for the 54 levels you get to skip for rolling a DK in the first place. Rather than having a horrendously long list of descriptions and everything I’m just going to list off how I suggest you spend your points, and in what order, and then I’ll highlight the ones of particular note. The setup here will be Talent_Name (Pts). If there’s a (+Pts) then it means that we’ve already put points into that talent and we’re now adding more points to it.
Vicious Strikes (2), Virulence (3), Ravenous Dead (3), Morbidity (2), Outbreak (3), Necrosis (2), Blood-Caked Blade (3), Night of the Dead (2), Unholy Blight (1), Impurity (4), Master of Ghouls (1), Dirge (2), Impurity (+1), Necrosis (+1), Desolation (5), Crypt Fever (3), Bone Shield (1), Necrosis (+1), Ebon Plaguebringer (3), Scourge Strike (1), Wandering Plague (3), Rage of Rivendare (2).
Ok, so that’s a lot to take in at one time, but making up for 45 levels worth of skipped talent points in 3 levels is the way Death Knights work. In your starting area only 3 of those talent points come from actually leveling, the rest all come as part of your quest rewards.
As for which ones are really key to what we’re doing, we’ll actually take a close look at those right now.
The “signature” attack of the Unholy tree is Scourge Strike, dealing a decent combination of both Physical and Magical (Shadow) damage. We improve that strike with Vicious Strikes for an extra 6% chance to crit and 30% extra crit damage (applies to our Plague Strike as well), and Outbreak which increases the raw damage by 20% (and 30% for Plague Strike).
Another signature talent point from the Unholy tree is Bone Shield, providing 20% damage reduction as well increasing the damage we deal by 2%. It makes me feel like a Diablo II Necromancer all over again, I tell you.
If you’ve ever seen an Unholy DK in a raid, you’ll notice that they often do some serious damage in AoE situations. A large part of that is thanks to Ebon Plaguebringer and Crypt Fever which gives us a third disease and also increases the damage dealt to the mobs, but we also have Wandering Plague which has a chance to proc any time our diseases deal damage to deal double damage and also deal that same amount of damage to all other mobs within 8 yards.
And finally my personal favorite, Master of Ghouls, which turns your Ghoul into a permanent pet and reduces the cooldown of your Raise Dead spell from 3 minutes down to 2, so if it dies you don’t have to wait as long to summon a new one. Along with that we have Ravenous Dead which increases our own Strength by 3% and also increases the amount of Strength and Stamina 60% (the default contribution is 50%, and 60% of 50% is 30%, so 50% + 30% = 80% of our total), and also Night of the Dead which reduces our summon cooldown by from the 2 minutes down to only 30 seconds, and also reduces the damage our Ghoul takes from AoE by 90%.
Now that we’re dealing with only 10 talent points we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled leveling guide and go back to descriptions:
Rage of Revendare +3 (5/5): Your spells and abilities deal 10% more damage to targets infected with Blood Plague. Also increases your expertise by 5.
Summon Gargoyle 1/1: A Gargoyle flies into the area and bombards the target with nature damage modified by the Death Knight’s attack power. Persists for 30 seconds.
Morbidity +1 (3/3): Increases the damage and healing of Death Coil by 15% and reduces the cooldown on Death and Decay by 15 seconds.
Necrosis +1 (5/5): Your auto attacks deal an additional 20% Shadow damage.
Butchery 2/2: Whenever you kill an enemy that grants experience or honor, you generate up to 20 runic power. In addition, you generate 2 runic power per 5 seconds while in combat.
Subversion 2/3: Increases the critical strike chance of Blood Strike, Scourge Strike, Heart Strike and Obliterate by 6%, and reduces threat generated while in Blood or Unholy Presence by 16%.
Finishing off RoR gives us more damage and more expertise while also helping to open up Summon Gargoyle. The Gargoyle used to be really close friends back in the day when he was a lot further up the tree, now he’s not quite as shiny being on the tip of the tree. But, he’s a good boost to your DPS especially during boss fights, just make sure you use your trickets and such to boost your Attack Power before you summon it so that he’s more powerful.
We also finish off Morbidity to pump up our DC damage since it’s our main runic power dump and to reduce the cooldown of D&D for when we’re running with a group, and we finish Necrosis to boost our auto attack damage as well.
We then slide over to the Blood tree for Butchery so that we keep a hefty supply of RP for casting Death Coil and Corpse Explosion (if you get it), as well as Subversion to further increase our damage as well as reducing our threat.
Subversion +1 (3/3): Increases the critical strike chance of Blood Strike, Scourge Strike, Heart Strike and Obliterate by 9%, and reduces threat generated while in Blood or Unholy Presence by 25%.
Two-Handed Weapon Specialization: Increases the damage you deal with two-handed melee weapons by 4%.
Bladed Armor 3/5: Increases your attack power by 3 for every 180 armor value you have.
Dark Conviction 5/5: Increases your chance to critically hit with weapons, spells and abilities by 5%.
Corpse Explosion 1/1: Causes a corpse to explode dealing Shadow damage to all enemies within 10 yards. Will use a nearby corpse if the target is not a corpse. Does not affect mechanical or elemental corpses.
We’re going to finish off Subversion for increased crit on BS and SS, and most importantly to reduce our threat while in Blood Presence (which you should be) or Unholy Presence. As an Unholy DPS spec you’re going to use a two-handed weapon rather than duel wielding so we’re picking up 2H Weapon Spec for additional damage as well as Bladed Armor so that our armor contributes to our attack power as well. And you can never have enough crits when you’re playing DPS, so Dark Conviction adds a little more frosting to our DoKnut (don’t ask me where that came from, I just thought it up).
The final point at level 80 I have placed in Corpse Explosion because we all know how much I love AoE. If you don’t like it, don’t take it. That last point can go anywhere you want it to. You may want another point in Bladed Armor, you may want to pick up Rune Tap or Vendetta for more survivability, you may want to ride faster with On a Pale Horse, or any number of other things.
Unholy DPS Glyphs
Glyph of the Ghoul: Your Ghoul receives an additional 40% of your Strength and Stamina.
Glyph of Disease: Your Pestilence ability now refreshes disease durations and secondary effects of diseases on your primary target back to their maximum duration.
Glyph of Death and Decay: Damage of your Death and Decay spell increased by 20%.
Glyph of Dark Death: Increases the damage or healing done by Death Coil by 15%.
Glyph of Icy Touch: Your Frost Fever disease deals 20% additional damage.
Glyph of Plague Strike: Your Plague Strike does 20% additional damage.
My first choice for a major glyph is Ghoul as it gives another 40% (of the base 50%, which is 20%) of your Strength and Stamina to your Ghoul, which when combined with our talent points means our Ghoul gets 100% of our Strength and Stamina, so now he’s Super Ghoul! *cape blowing in the wind* and he’s pretty freaking mean.
Since Unholy will actually use Death and Decay in AoE rotations, a flat 20% increase in damage done is good. I didn’t bother with D&D much while questing, but I did use it in dungeons. If you’re going to do runs then you probably want to consider this one, but if you’re flying solo while you level then there are better options for you (such as Dark Death or Plague Strike). I happen to like dungeon runs, so I use this one myself.
Another solid choice is Disease which is going to help us make sure that all of our diseases stay up all the time as long as we use Pestilence before they wear off. It’s not a critical glyph to have, but it’s definitely useful.
If you’re more into solo play then you’ll want to take a look at the damage increasing glyphs such as Dark Death, Icy Touch or Plague Strike.
Dark Death buffs the damage of our primary Runic Power dump, Death Coil, which can also be used to heal your Ghoul (or yourself if you pick up Licheborne from the Frost tree). I personally use Death Coil a lot so I support the use of this glyph.
Glyph of Raise Dead: Your Raise Dead spell no longer requires a reagent.
Glyph of Pestilence: Increases the radius of your Pestilence effect by 5 yards.
Blood Tap: Your Blood Tap no longer causes damage to you.
Corpse Explosion: Increases the radius of effect on Corpse Explosion by 5 yards.
My top choice for minor glyphs is Raise Dead because our pet has a lot of DPS to offer and we want to be sure it’s around whenever we need it and not just when there’s a useful corpse nearby. Sometimes it’s going to die, sometimes it will be unsummoned for whatever stupid reason, and sometimes you might have to sacrifice him for an emergency 40% heal. For times like that you don’t want to have to worry about whether or not you’re packing enough Corpse Dust, so remove the reagent and never worry about it again.
Next up is Pestilence to increase the radius range of Pestilence so that our diseases can spread farther. It’s not quite as important in solo play unless you’re using it to help you pull more mobs, but in dungeons it’s great.
Blood Tap normally costs 6% of your base health when you use it, but using this glyph makes it free. Don’t make your healers angry by taking avoidable damage. It might not be a whole lot of damage, but it’s damage you don’t have to take.
The Corpse Explosion glyph is for those of you who have taken the spell and like to make use of it. It widens the AoE area of CE which is a big deal when using the spell because it’s centered wherever the corpse it targets happens to be, which is not always optimal for you. If you use CE then this is a solid choice for you, otherwise forget it exists.
The Rune you want to start with when you first get your character set up is the Rune of Cinderglacier, giving your weapon a chance to increase your damage by 20% for your next two attacks that deal Frost or Shadow damage, which is a very nice burst DPS rune when it procs. Some people prefer Rune of Razorice for a small but consistent DPS increase as it deals 2% extra weapon damage as Frost and increases vulnerability to Frost attacks. I like Razorice for Frost Tanking, but I’m not such a fan otherwise, so I suggest you go with Cinderglacier.
Somewhere in your late 60s or early 70s (I can’t find the reference online for some stupid reason) you’ll be able to train Rune of the Fallen Crusader which will proc on weapon swings to heal you for 3% of your total health and increase your total Strength by 15% for 15 seconds. This will be your DPS Runeforge from that point on. Actual enchants such as Berzerking can beat it’s overall DPS boost until you get about 650 Strength, but since Runeforging requires no mats and you may be upgrading your weapon frequently, I suggest you stick with runes.
Enough with the details, let’s talk about leveling.
Leveling in the DK Starting Area (55-58)
Rotation 1: Icy Touch, Plague Strike, Blood Strike, Blood Strike, Death Coil (Corpse Explosion), Icy Touch, Plague Strike, Death Coil (Corpse Explosion)
Rotation 2: Icy Touch, Plague Strike, Pestilence, Blood Strike, Icy Touch, Plague Strike
Our starting area is simple, and for the most part fairly easy as well (which is why our rotation is to faceroll). Some of the quests are a bit harder than others, such as the vehicle combat quests (if you’re not familiar with vehicle combat) and the dreaded Bloody Breakout quest which is easily the hardest quest in the starting area as you face an elite spellcaster after growing used to fighting mobs that either don’t fight back or are so weak that even if they do fight back you wouldn’t care.
There’s also an often annoying quest called How To Win Friends And Influence Enemies which has you equip a pair of one handed swords and go beat on Scarlet losers until they tell you their secrets. How quickly you get this quest done is completely and totally random. I’ve had it done on the very first mob I attacked, and I’ve gone through 2 hours of constant grinding before it happened. My suggestion for this quest is that as soon as you get those two swords head back to Ebon Hold and use your Runeforging on them. If you’re going to have to grind for potentially two hours, you might as well make it go as quickly as you can. Also remember that it’s the melee attacks that apply the debuff that makes this quest happen, so don’t use Icy Touch or Death Coil during this quest, stick to melee attacks. I suggest you use Blood Strike x2 > Death Strike x2 > Auto-Attack, and if you already have your Ghoul then put him on passive so he’s not killing the mobs you’re trying to get to talk.
Leveling In Outlands (58-68)
First Runeset: Icy Touch (F), Plague Strike (U), Blood Strike/Pest (B), Blood Strike (B), Scourge Strike (FU), Death Coil/Corpse Explosion (40)
Second Runeset: Scourge Strike (FU), Blood Strike (B), Blood Strike (B), Scourge Strike (FU), Death Coil/Corpse Explosion (40)
Unholy is all about establishing your diseases and then exploiting them by using attacks that have additional benefits from your diseases. Icy Touch and Plague Strike establish their own diseases as well as the third disease from our talent tree. With three diseases we gain an additional 37.5% Physical damage to Blood Strike and an additional 36% Shadow damage to Scourge Strike, which is why they are so prevalent in our rotations.
You also have the option of switching out any of your Scourge Strikes with Death Strike instead which will heal you for 5% of your maximum health per disease on the target, which should optimally be 15% if you have all three diseases up at all times. If you’re not at full health and the mob is about to die, finish it off with a Death Strike instead of Scourge Strike even if you’ve only taken 1% damage. You’ve got nothing to lose and only more uptime to gain by doing it.
Most mobs will not survive the first rune set, so the second probably won’t be used very much. In order to minimize your downtime you may want to use your Death Coil ability to pull another mob when your current target gets low on their health so that you can use Pestilence to spread your diseases from the current target to the new one without having to recast IT/PS. You can chain pulls like this for quite a while in the right areas, though sometimes you may not be able to do it more than once or twice.
There are also a few buffs that you want to be sure you keep up as much as possible. First off you want to be in Blood Presence when you’re filling a DPS role, even while solo questing. Second, you want to be sure that your Bone Shield is always up because in addition to being a great defensive tool it also increases your damage by 2%. The damage buff might not be huge, but it will add up. You also want to keep Horn of Winter active at all times and you may want to include it into your rotation just for that. When solo questing I don’t always keep HoW as part of my rotation so much, but I make sure it never falls when I’m in a dungeon.
You might notice that I’ve added Corpse Explosion to the rotation even though I don’t tell you in the spec to pick the spell up until level 80. The reason for that is that I don’t wait until level 80 personally. I love to AoE things to death, so I grab it as soon as I can. It’s not the best spell in the world, so most players prefer not to take it. If you took it early, add it in. If you didn’t, ignore it.
Leveling In Northrend (68-80)
– First Runeset: Icy Touch (F), Plague Strike (U), Blood Strike (B), Blood Strike (B), Scourge Strike (FU), Death Coil (40)
– Second Runeset: Scourge Strike (FU), Blood Strike (B), Blood Strike (B), Scourge Strike (FU), Death Coil (40), Horn of Winter (n/a)
– First Runeset: Icy Touch (F), Plague Strike (U), Pestilence (B), Scourge Strike (FU), Blood Strike (B), Death Coil/Corpse Explosion (40)
– Second Runeset: Scourge Strike (FU), Blood Boil (B), Scourge Strike (FU), Blood Strike (B), Death Coil/Corpse Explosion (40), Horn of Winter (n/a)
So here we have the Runesets that you’ll use in Northrend. Look familiar? They should considering we didn’t change anything at all other than adding Horn of Winter to the end of it.
Gearing Up Your Death Knight
Your stats are basically the same as any other melee DPS character:
Hit (until capped) > Strength > ArPen > Haste >= Crit > Expertise > Agility (via @VariantAvatar)
Once you have the hit cap under control your priority is building up your Strength (1 Str = 2 AP) to get your attack power up. I see a lot of Death Knights these days stacking ArPen like crazy,
but I think that’s more for Blood and Frost DPS since Unholy’s damage is largely magic based instead of physical. I’m not one to stack ArPen regardless, so whether or not you go and hunt some of that down is your call. and thanks to Variant Avatar’s comments I now know that there’s a very important reason for that.
3. For gearing with the blood subspec you do not want to focus on Attack Power, let that come from your strength stat, as 1 str = 2 AP. You want to follow the below order:
Hit(until capped) > Strength > ArP > Haste >= Crit > Expertise > Agility
4. Unholy is partially magic based, but your magic is all based on how well and how big your attacks hit for since the last patch, which is why you see folks going to armor penetration and stacking str, to make your hits hit harder and penetrate the enemies defenses to land for bigger damage which effects your shadow damage component.
When looking for gear check with your local Blacksmiths first, then take a look at instances that are your level. You may also want to give the PvP vendors a look if you’ve bothered doing much PvP while leveling.