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Play Styles: Death Knights for Spellcasters

Psynister here with another potential, could-become-a series. Today we’re going to talk about the play style of the DK class. My guest post over at For the Lore prompted some discussion on Twitter about people brushing off their old Death Knights, or perhaps giving them another shot for those that had given up on DK’s as I had not too long ago.

One person in particular, Anexxia of Bible of Dreams, mentioned that they could barely manage to get a DK out of the starting area because she just doesn’t work well with melee classes. Me and Miss Nexxi go way back in blogging/twitter terms as she was one of the first to show interest in my blog, so I made a special effort to let her know I’d gladly help her not fail as a DK and that you don’t have to be entirely melee focused to succeed as a Death Knight.

The Situation
At that point another one of our twitter/blogging friends, Furiey of Troll Bouquet, stepped in and said that DK’s are melee, and don’t fit the bill for spellcasters. A discussion followed between the two of us, with a fair amount of misunderstanding in what I was trying to express (that you can be a DK and not be overwhelmed by melee combat) and what Furiey thought I was saying (that DK’s could be likened unto Warlocks, Mages, EleShamans, Priests, etc.).

What it came down to was a level 76 Frost Tank (me) and a level 80 Frost Tank (Furiey) both expressing different view points on how you can play the exact same class, and both of us getting the impression that the other thought we had no idea what we were talking about. That’s probably the one major drawback to using Twitter (140 character limit on messages); misunderstandings or misinterpretations due to not being able to express your full thought.

So let me state right off the bat here that in no way did I mean to offend Furiey, and this post is nothing more than expanding on the playstyle that I spoke of and how to use it effectively without feeling entirely like you’re playing a melee class all the time.

TL;DR
If you’re playing the class to maximize your DPS then you have to embrace the melee aspect of the class, that’s all there is to it. But if you’re not comfortable with melee and need to stay more caster-like in the method of playing the class, then this is the setup you want to go with. It’s not about maximizing your DPS potential, it’s about maximizing your own potential with your given skill set.

Death Knights ARE Melee
It’s a simple statement, and largely true. It’s hard to consider a class that wields a two handed weapon, wears plate armor, is known for its powerful melee properties, and only has only two spells that aren’t instant cast in their entire arsenal as a caster. I don’t argue those points in the least. That’s right, Death Knights are a melee class, and a dang good one at that.

But what else defines a class as being melee rather than something else? To me, being a melee class means being able to deal your damage while you’re on the move chasing mobs, it’s about moving into position so that you’re behind the mobs as much as possible, it’s having the best weapons you can find to continue dealing the most damage possible, and it’s having the majority (not necessarily all) of your attacks resulting in melee swings rather than other forms of attack.

Death Knights can certainly match all of those definitions, but there’s one of them that it doesn’t have to match, and that’s the last point of the majority of your attacks being melee swings. And within that exception there is only one spec that can actually fill that role and still be successful: Frost.

Death Knights ARE NOT Spellcasters
Yet another simple statement of (mostly) truth. Spellcasters are known for being “squishy” (except for Holy Paladins), they’re known for stacking stats such as Spell Power, Intellect, Spirit, or MP5. They’re known for their crowd control, for their high DPS numbers, for their single target DPS and often their AoE DPS as well, and for spamming spells over and over to burn down their targets.

Death Knights definitely do not fit most of those definitions. We aren’t squishy little cloth wearers, we couldn’t care less about Spell Power (if you do, I will break your freaking legs), or other “caster stats” as we prefer stacking things like Strength, Agility, and Crit. We have very little crowd control, and our spec strongly determines our AoE capabilities. On top of all of that, our unique resource system of Runes and Runic Power prevent us from spamming much of anything.

Spec Details: Psynister, Make Some Sense Already!
Alright, so let’s break this down and get to the point – using a caster-like play style to be a successful Death Knight. To do this, the first thing we need to talk about is our spec. Hands down, no questions asked, there is only one primary tree that you can do this in, and that is Frost. It can be further enhanced by the Unholy tree if you like, but that will be closer to level 80 and we’ll talk about that further down the post anyway. Unholy actually does the most Magic Damage of the three trees, but most of that damage is dealt via melee.

As I said, the spec is the key to being able to use this playstyle, so here are the specifics on the spec for levels 60, 70, and 80. The minimum is level 60 because until then you do not have the talents you need to make this happen, particularly Howling Blast, the level 60 talent at the bottom of the Frost tree.

CASTER-LIKE FROST KNIGHTS
Level 60 Level 70 Level 80
Especially Notable Talents
Level 60 Level 70 Level 80
Lichborne
Killing Machine
Deathchill
Rime
Hungering Cold
Howling Blast
Virulence
Epidemic
Morbidity
Corpse Explosion

Normally I go into detail about all of the talents you take, what they do, and so on, but this time I’m going to skip most of that since you can just follow the links if you really need to know. I am going to cover the ones that are key to this style of play though.

I will break it down into each of the spec levels that I laid out up there so that you have some guidance in each level bracket rather than a simple, general overview of the whole thing. Information in the lower brackets also applies in the higher brackets unless otherwise specified.

Level 60 Spec
This spec looks pretty similar to your generic Frost Tank spec at level 60, except that we’re missing some of the more notable tanking talents and instead we’re going for things such as Runic Power Mastery to increase our maximum Runic Power supply, and Merciless Combat which increases our damage to targets with low health.

If you would rather have some of those tanking talents to increase your survivability, then by all means do so. The talents I listed in the table above are the ones that are the most important ones in the bunch, as they’ll be the ones allowing you to fulfill your Caster-like role.

The talents that we just cannot do without for this spec and style of play are Howling Blast which is our big AoE spell, Deathchill which makes our hardest hitting spells instant-crits, Killing Machine which can proc for the same effect as Deathchill, and Rime which gives us the chance during the few melee attacks that we are forced to take to remove the cooldown on Howling Blast.

Two other talents are listed up in the table, but they are for survivability and utility more so than they are crucial to the build. Those two talents I strongly recommend, but you are not required to take them: Lichborne which will allow you to dump your extra Runic Power into healing yourself since we are missing some of those tanking talents, and Hungering Cold which serves as a backup to instantly apply Frost Fever to all targets within range, while also giving you the time to either bandage yourself if needed, allow your Runes to cooldown to rush back into a big AoE assault, or to refresh your diseases on all targets.

Minimum Level 70 Spec
On the path to level 70 I suggest you branch off into the Unholy tree to get some utility talents and build towards our Runic Power AoE, Corpse Explosion. Since we’re doing DPS here Virulence gives us some extra Hit, Epidemic increases the duration of our diseases so that it’s easier to keep them up at all times, and Morbidity increases our RP Nuke, Death Coil, which can also be used to heal ourselves when used in conjunction with Lichborne, and it also reduces the cooldown of Death and Decay which we will not use often but the option is open to us.

Required Level 80 Spec
Ramping up to 80 the biggest addition actually comes at level 71 with Corpse Explosion, providing us with an AoE spell that requires Runic Power rather than Runes. From there we say goodbye to Unholy and jump over to the Blood tree for just a second to grab Butchery to keep our RP supply full for use of either Corpse Explosion for AoE purposes, or Death Coil which can be used either for DPS or for healing if you have Lichborne activated.

Butchery is not necessarily required, it’s just a great way to keep yourself topped off on RP so that you can use your abilities more often. In addition to that, it also helps you to have a large supply of RP moving into a new fight so that you can get straight to blasting away rather than having to wait to build your RP. If you want to replace it with something else, feel free. My suggestion for a replacement would be Blade Barrier, also in the Blood tree, and using the three points in Nerves of Cold Steel there as well.

Caster Knight Glyphs

Major Glyphs
Glyph of Icy Touch: Your Frost Fever disease deals 20% additional damage.
Glyph of Disease: Your Pestilence ability now refreshes disease durations on your primary target back to their maximum duration.
Glyph of Howling Blast: Your Howling Blast ability now infects your targets with Frost Fever.

Alternate Majors
Glyph of Death and Decay: Damage of your Death and Decay spell increased by 20%.
Glyph of Hungering Cold: Reduces the cost of Hungering Cold by 40 Runic Power.

Your most important disease, the one that should never fall off of your targets, is Frost Fever. The Glyph of Icy Touch increases the damage of that disease by 20%, which is a solid increase in your DPS.

While you have, or will have, four different methods of applying Frost Fever to targets around you, your Blood Plague disease will only be applied via your Plague Strike melee attack. The Glyph of Disease causes your Pestilence spell to refresh the duration of all of your diseases as well as spreading them around, so by using it you are able to keep both diseases active for longer periods of time, without having to resort to melee attacks. Finally the Glyph of Howling Blast is recommended as an easy way to apply Frost Fever, and keep it applied to all targets without putting special effort into keeping it up. As long as you’re using your strong AoE spell, you’re keeping at least that one disease up at all times.

Minor Glyphs
Glyph of Pestilence: Increases the radius of your Pestilence effect by 5 yards.
Glyph of Raise Dead: Your Raise Dead spell no longer requires a reagent.
Glyph of Corpse Explosion: Increases the radius of effect on Corpse Explosion by 5 yards.

The Glyph of Pestilence is going to give you the most initial benefit by allowing you to spread your diseases around in a larger area. Next up is the Glyph of Raise Dead which allows us to summon our Ghoul without a reagent and without the required type of corpse lying around. You can use your Ghoul to increase your DPS, draw some aggro off of you, or to sacrifice to your Death Pact ability you get at level 66 to instantly heal 40% of your maximum health. Last on the list is the Glyph of Corpse Explosion for a larger radius of burst damage. You don’t need to bother with this glyph until your last slot opens up at level 70 since you won’t even get this spell until level 71.

For this build I wouldn’t suggest any of the other minor glyphs that exist right now.

How To: Caster-Style Death Knight
So we have our spec and we have a general idea of what we’re doing; now we just need to bring all of that together and make it happen. The first thing to point out is something I already touched on just a bit up above: Death Knights do not have cast times. So our caster style is made up entirely of instant-casts. We do have some occasional melee attacks thrown into the mix as well, but we’ll talk about those as they come up.

So which caster can you think of that doesn’t bother with cast times (for the most part) and still manages to slaughter everything around them?

That’s right, your caster role model is the Affliction Warlock with their instant-cast DoT spells. Rather than spamming the same spells with their cast times over and over like a Mage, Priest, Druid, or Shaman, you’re going to throw your DoTs onto your targets, spreading your diseases as you go, and then bring them all down with your AoE spells. Also like a Warlock, you have spells that can heal you or restore your resources. Where the Warlock regains mana by damaging themselves, Death Knights regain their “mana” (Runic Power) by dealing damage to others with your class abilities. If you’re familiar with Affliction Warlocks then you’ll see the similarities. If you’re not then…well, just trust me on this one, alright?

A Warlock is going to have to cast their DoTs on one target, then another, then another, and on down the line for each mob that they’re fighting. That’s not the case for the Death Knight. Instead you’re going to group the mobs up, DoT one of them, and then use Pestilence to spread the DoTs to every other mob within 10 yards (15 yards if you use the Glyph).

From there it’s just a matter of hitting your AoE attacks to burn them all down, using melee attacks only when you have to to reset your diseases or because other abilities are on cooldown and you don’t like sitting there doing nothing for four seconds.

Caster-like Nuke Spells
If you want to be a caster, then you need to be able to nuke things. And so, here is a list of our nukes:

Single Target Nukes

1. Icy Touch: Cost: 1 Frost Rune. Deals Frost damage to a target within 30 yards, infects them with the Frost Fever disease, and slows their melee and ranged attack speeds by 15% for 15 seconds.
2. Death Coil: Cost: 40 Runic Power. Deals Shadow damage to an enemy or healing damage from a friendly Undead target within 30 yards. Refunds 20 Runic Power when used to heal.

Now, that’s not a very big list for something we’re going to be playing like a caster, but realize that we’ll be casting a lot of AoE spells with this build rather than burning down single targets. Single targets will die faster by taking the melee route, though that doesn’t mean that you can’t still bring them down with AoE spells as well.

Icy Touch is the spell you will usually end up pulling with, both dealing damage and establishing one of your diseases. When you get into your rotation you will not cast it quite as often as most of your Frost Runes will be used to power either Howling Blast, Obliterate, or Death Strike. While it is acceptable to use your Killing Machine and Deathchill procs on Icy Touch, you’re better off saving them for a Howling Blast if you can.



Death Coil is how you’ll burn through your Runic Power most often. When Corpse Explosion is either on cooldown or you do not have any corpses to power it with, Death Coil is your replacement. You can also use this to heal your Ghoul if you feel so inclined, or to heal yourself if you first use Lichborne to become Undead for 20 seconds.



Area of Effect (AoE) Nukes

1. Howling Blast: Cost: 1 Frost and Unholy Rune. Deals Frost damage to the target and all enemies within 10 yards.
2. Blood Boil: Cost: 1 Blood Rune. Boils the blood of all enemies within 10 yards. Deals additional damage to targets infected with Blood Plague or Frost Fever.
3. Corpse Explosion: Cost: 40 Runic Power. Explodes a nearby corpse dealing Shadow damage to all enemies within 10 yards.
4. Death and Decay: Cost: 1 Blood, Frost, and Unholy Rune. Corrupts the ground, dealing Shadow damage every second to targets that remain in the area.

Howling Blast is the big dawg of our AoE, and the reason why we’re focused on the Frost tree. It’s a ranged AoE which makes it great for pulling groups, but it works just as well when cast on a mob standing right next to you. It’s also able to be buffed by our Deathchill talent which will cause our next Icy Touch, Howling Blast, Frost Strike, or Obliterate to be a critical hit. We will also try to time all of our Killing Machine procs to be consumed with Howling Blast as well, which works the same as Deathchill except that it is not consumed by Obliterate. Most of our Frost and Unholy Runes will be spent on Howling Blasts, except for when it is on cooldown and we use Obliterate instead.



Blood Boil is our next largest AoE spell, costing only a single Blood Rune. The damage is increased when targets are diseased, so we want to be sure that we have applied at least one of our two diseases on a target and then used Pestilence to spread it around so that we get the most damage out of it that we can.



Corpse Explosion provides our Runic Power AoE to fill in the slow points where our Runes are on cooldown and corpses are available to be exploded. This build is designed to allow for a lot of Runic Power to be built and stored, so you should be able to make frequent use of the spell so long as there are corpses to target.



Death and Decay is the signature AoE spell of the Death Knights, but it’s getting the last slot for actually AoE nuke spells because of how it works. The damage on D&D is fairly low, but the threat rate on it is high. If you are using this build in a group setting then you are already going to generate excessive amounts of threat from using so many AoE spells all the time, so using D&D is often a bad idea in group settings. Also, this is the highest Rune-cost spell that we have, costing one of every type of rune to cast it. By using D&D we remove the ability to use other spells that may be more beneficial to use in the long run.



Melee Attacks You Do Need
There are three melee attacks that we’ll mention in particular here, because they’re the only ones that really matter for this build and playstyle.

1. Plague Strike: This is your second disease, and the only one applied from a melee attack outside of an Unholy build. You will generally use this at the start of a fight to establish a disease, and then rely on your Glyphs to keep it refreshed. If it ever falls off of your targets, go ahead and use it again.

2. Obliterate: This is your key to faster AoE kills, but not necessarily required. It’s also the reason why we’re going to Dual Wield with this build instead of using a two-handed weapon. Each time you attack and hit with it, you have a chance to reset the cooldown on Howling Blast and also make it a Rune-free cast. When dual wielding each time you hit with Obliterate you have two 15% chances to proc Rime which is what makes HB free and resets its cooldown.

3. Death Strike: This is your easiest, most reliable method of healing yourself during combat. When you hit with it you heal yourself for 5% of your maximum health for each of your diseases on the target. With this build and its intended play style you should have two diseases up at all times, so each attack with DS will heal you for 10% of your maximum health.

Other than those the melee attacks you have available are not necessary. If you’re fighting single targets then you may prefer to use Blood Strike instead of Blood Boil since it will do more damage for a single target, but it is a melee attack rather than a spell.

Similarly, it’s better when fighting single targets to use Obliterate instead of Howling Blast from a pure DPS perspective, but again it’s a melee attack rather than a spell, so the choice is yours for which to use and which not.

If you want to maximize your DPS as a Death Knight then you do need to embrace your melee side, but this post isn’t about maximizing your DPS, it’s about playing a melee class from a caster’s perspective and trying to use the play style you’re used to for a class that you’re not.

Putting It Into Action
Time for some Rotations and a sampling of how this actually works.

First Example: Ranged Pull

First Rune Set: Icy Touch (F), Plague Strike (U), Pestilence (B), Howling Blast (FU), Blood Boil (B), Runic Powers
Second Rune Set: Howling Blast* (FU), Blood Boil (B), Howling Blast* (FU), Pestilence (B), Runic Powers

With this rotation we’re going to start off with a ranged Icy Touch to pull our target and establish our first disease. We follow that up with a Plague Strike to establish the second disease, and then Pestilence to spread them around. We finish the first Rune Set with a pair of AoE spells; Howling Blast and Blood Boil. Your first Runic Power dump is probably going to be a Death Coil as you’ll likely not have a corpse to use for an Explosion, if you do have a corpse handy go ahead and Explode it instead.

In the second set we try to use as much AoE as we can muster while also keeping our runes up. Depending on your timing and how often you hit/miss with your attacks, you might need to swap the Pestilence and Blood Boil in the second set, or you may need to replace the second Howling Blast with Icy Touch/Plague Strike instead to reestablish your diseases.

* = If at any point you see “Howling Blast” but your HB is on cooldown, simply replace it with either an Obliterate (FU) or an Icy Touch (F) and Plague Strike (U) combo. If your diseases are about to wear off and Pestilence is not available to get them refreshed, go ahead and replace HB with Icy Touch and Plague Strike instead so that your diseases are up and running at all times.

Second Example: Melee Pull

First Rune Set: Howling Blast* (FU), Blood Boil (B), Blood Boil (B), Blood Tap (N/A), Blood Boil (B), Runic Powers
Second Rune Set: Howling Blast* (FU), Runic Power (rp), Blood Boil (B), Blood Boil (B), Howling Blast* (FU), Runic Powers

This rotation is meant to burn the mobs down quickly with burst damage from your AoE spells. I suggest you use this one only after you have the Glyph of Howling Blast so that it applies Frost Fever for you or else you rob yourself of some damage during the Blood Boils.

Since we use Blood Tap in the first set to reset a Blood Rune cooldown and proc it as a Death Rune instead, we’re not going to have a Blood Rune available right away in the second set. To make up for that we’ll make use of a Runic Power ability there (Corpse Explosion if we can, Death Coil if not), and then make use of our Blood Runes as they come back up.

* = If at any point you see “Howling Blast” but your HB is on cooldown, simply replace it with either an Obliterate (FU) or an Icy Touch (F) and Plague Strike (U) combo. If your diseases are about to wear off and Pestilence is not available to get them refreshed, go ahead and replace HB with Icy Touch and Plague Strike instead so that your diseases are up and running at all times.

 
 
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