On "Rotations", Part 1: Tanking

I often get asked what my rotation is, and the idea of "rotations" as something to strictly follow is a pretty strong one in the WoW theorycrafting community, but personally I don't feel they're as valid for Death Knights as a spell priority. There is a particular sequence I always use for starting combat, but once that has been established it's largely a matter of using the best abilities for the resources I have available. Death Knights have a complicated resource system, and it lends itself to a much more reactive playstyle than, say, a mage. As always, my advice is heavily biased toward Frost, but can be adjusted for your spec of choice.

I should start by saying that I can't lavish enough praise on Glyph of Disease. It's vastly preferable to spend one Blood Rune that'll flip into a Death Rune to refresh your diseases on all targets than it is to spend a Frost/Unholy pair that could be spent on an Obliterate or a Howling Blast. I'm also fond of Epidemic from the Unholy tree for letting you refresh them less often. Disease management is important, but anything you can do to keep it from taking too many resources from other things is worth doing.

A good Death Knight will remember that their starting rotation is highly situational. If you're tanking multiple mobs, you want to start with Death and Decay, then Icy Touch > Plague Strike > Pestilence. From there it's just a matter of hitting Howling Blast whenever possible, especially if Killing Machine or Freezing Fog proc, Rune Strike when it becomes available, Frost Strike when you have the spare Runic Power, Obliterate if you have the runes for it but Howling Blast is still on cooldown, Pestilence whenever your diseases need to be refreshed if you glyphed for it, Icy Touch > Plague Strike >Pestilence if you didn't, and Blood Strike whenever you need to flip an extra Blood Rune.

When tanking a single target I personally skip over D&D and go straight to Icy Touch > Plague Strike > Obliterate, then Blood Strike/Blood Tap to churn out some Death Runes, Rune Strike/Frost Strike because I have some RP now, and then I move to a minor variation on the priority above. A good single-target priority is pretty much the same as the AoE priority with Obliterate replacing Howling Blast. If Freezing Fog procs, use it. Try to fit it in when your runes are on cooldown and you don't have enough Runic Power for a Frost Strike, since it's not as important to get maximum AoE out on a single target, but don't let it go to waste because even on a single target it's a nice chunk of damage and damage, of course = threat. If you have Glyph of Disease it's best to just hit Pestilence to refresh your diseases when needed, since even on a single target it's cheaper than Icy Touch > Plague Strike again and you get a Death Rune.

I'll note that I don't bother with Blood Boil much because Death and Decay generally provides all the AoE aggro I need until Howling Blast is available, and since it doesn't refresh into a Death Rune it's not as good a use of a Blood Rune as an ability that does.

There's also the matter of your mitigation cooldowns. Those are too situational to hammer into an iron-clad rotation, and on top of that hitting them takes away resources that would throw your rotation off if you stuck to a set one, so the fact that you need them pushes DKs further into a "priority" playstyle rather than a "rotation" one. I'm personally fond of tanking trinkets with a Use effect, as that gives me a mitigation cooldown to add to the rest that doesn't use any resources. I wouldn't turn down a significant upgrade in favor of one, but I would probably hem and haw over it for a bit first.

Tomorrow I'll be back with a look at optimal Frost DPS priorities. Spoiler alert! They're very similar to the tanking ones. :)


  1. You are putting out misinformation in regards to DK tanking. You are ignoring the fact that in order to proc Blade Barrier you need to spend those Blood runes. Also, DK tanks are not using Plague strike, pestilence, and icy touch. It is pretty much all HB, BB, DnD with OB and Frost Strike when available. Also, you need to create macros for all your attack keys that bind rune strike to every attack.

  2. Canyon: If you don't use your diseases then you are missing out on a lot of aoe threat. And when almost all tanking is done aoe style, that threat is very important. Admittedly, I'm a little more greedy toward aoe threat because blood tanking has very little and thats how I tank, but its still important.

  3. There's a rotation some people use which involves using Glyph of Howling Blast and forgetting Blood Plague entirely. I personally wasn't a big fan when I tried it, but I am familiar with the concept. The Elitist Jerks forums still favor using a rotation that starts with Icy Touch > Plague Strike, so I stand behind it.

    Though after saying that I feel I should note that I don't just blindly follow everything EJ says. But they're a great source of tried and tested information, and if I look to them and see what I'm already doing, I'm pretty confident I'm Doing It Right.

  4. Kmach: Are you forgetting that HB procs frost fever?

    Dariahn: You spent talent points in blade barrier and dont advocate using it???

    By the time you add an icy touch, then hit plague strike, and then finally hit pestilence, I have already blasted two BBs and a HB. My threat is instantly generated, whereas you prefer to slowly build up threat. In heroics, your threat will peak long after the mobs are already dead.

  5. In my rotation, Blade Barrier is still up pretty much 100% of the time after the initial Blood Rune turnover. Death Runes proc Blade Barrier just like Blood ones. But thank you for giving me the impetus to test that to verify I was right before replying.

    If people feel so strongly about the HB/BB rotation they are welcome to write their own blogs on the subject. I'm sure it works wonderfully for some people, but I still consider it an unproven rotation and will until someone like EJ recognizes it.