Death Knight 101: What Makes a Tanking Spec?

I mentioned in my last post that there are tanking options in every talent tree, but that you wouldn't want to use exactly the same spec for tanking that you do for DPS. So what sets a tanking spec apart from a DPS spec when they're both in the same tree?

The Big Three
Each tree has a first-tier talent that's a must-have for tanking: Blade Barrier in Blood, Toughness in Frost, and Anticipation in Unholy. Once you've filled out your chosen tree to the 51-point talent, these should be your next priority if you plan to tank while leveling. No level 80 tanking spec should ever be lacking these talents! You can use these as a cheat sheet in PuGs to see if your DK tank is actually a tank and not just a DPSer who wanted a faster queue. These talents, in addition to a set of proper tanking armor and a tanking-appropriate weapon rune, are part of what keeps you from going squish like a clothie.

The A La Carte Talents
Each tree also has at least a couple damage-mitigating talents far enough into the tree to make them prohibitive to pick up unless you're committing to that tree. Frost has several: Frigid Dreadplate, Unbreakable Armor, Improved Frost Presence, and Acclimation. Lichborne used to have a damage-mitigating component, but it's since been nerfed into something more suitable for PvP than tanking.

Blood's tanking talents are less directly mitigation-based. Scent of Blood doesn't mitigate on its own but procs when you mitigate. Veteran of the Third War gives a Stamina boost. Rune Tap, Improved Rune Tap, Vendetta, Mark of Blood, Bloodworms, Improved Death Strike, and Vampiric Blood are all self-healing talents. Spell Deflection and Will of the Necropolis are the only real mitigation talents in the tree. Improved Blood Presence should be skipped in a Blood tanking spec as you will still tank in Frost Presence (which I'll be writing about later.)

Unholy has the fewest talents with tanking utility, but Magic Suppression and Bone Shield do provide some mitigation. Again, Improved Unholy Presence should be skipped in a tanking spec because you won't be tanking in Unholy Presence.

Keep in mind that you may not need to use every tanking talent in your chosen tree, as depending where they're at in the buff/nerf cycle some may not be worth taking at the moment. And Death Knights can still do acceptable DPS out of Frost Presence with a tanking spec - not competitive with a proper DPS spec in raids, but good enough for soloing. When leveling or even in PvP you might want to put some points into these tanking talents for survivability.

Next I'll be explaining the Presences and why the best Presence may not match the tree you're specced into!

Death Knight 101: The Talent Trees

Because we start at level 55 and unlock our talent points over the course of only three levels' worth of quests, the question of which tree to put your talent points in comes up much sooner for Death Knights than any other class. We are also unusual for having talent trees that are less clearly-defined than most classes, as you can find a spec in any tree for either tanking or DPS (though you shouldn't rely on the same one for both if you want to do either well). There are more nuances than just, "This tree is for tanking," and as a result your choice of spec is based more on your own personal preference than anything else. So which one do you pick?

Before I really get into the meat of it I'd like to note that this post isn't going to be about min-maxing except for the occasional "As of this posting..." comment. We didn't see nearly as many adjustments to our class in the most recent patch as we have in prior ones, but Blizzard is still working out the kinks. The flavor of this month may not be the flavor of next, and I would like this post to still be a useful resource next month. Therefore, I'm just covering the concepts of the different talent trees rather than what's currently best. As always, I recommend Elitist Jerks for up-to-the-minute theorycrafting.

I'll start with Frost because, as you may have noticed, it's my specialty. Early in development, Blizzard declared Frost to be the tanking spec for Death Knights. They later changed their minds and gave all specs viable tanking options, but it's kept that reputation. More recently it's become the dual-wield spec because it is the only tree with talents that apply specifically to one-handed weapons. Both of these are misconceptions to a certain degree: It has excellent, solid tanking options but is not the only tree for the task, and while your DPS will be gimped if you try to dual wield as any other spec there are perfectly good two-hander-based Frost specs.

Personally, I see Frost as the AoE spec, whether you're DPSing or tanking, no matter what weapon you're carrying. The tree's 51-point talent, Howling Blast, is an AoE powerhouse for both damage and threat, doing damage on par with Obliterate on each mob it hits. Frost tanking is comparable to Paladin tanking for AoE threat generation, and it's excellent in any situation with trash pulls, especially if you're dealing with a rowdy PuG. For leveling, it's best for burning down large groups of mobs. If you're going to dual wield, the talents Nerves of Cold Steel and Threat of Thassarian are absolutely required for reasons that are self-evident in their descriptions. No other tree has talents that are specifically geared to bringing DW damage in line with two-handers.

The downside to Frost for most people is that, compared to the other trees, it's frankly kind of boring. There's no real gimmick to it. Even from a lore perspective, you have the necromancy tree, the vampirism tree, and the...hypothermia tree. The 9k+ AoE crits keep it interesting enough for me, though. The emphasis on proc-based talents like Killing Machine and Rime make it more reactive, which doesn't appeal to everyone.

TL;DR: Spec Frost if you want to dual wield or if you want to have strong AoE capabilities.

The whole point of Blood is survivability, both through raw stamina and self-healing. Early on it was primarily considered a leveling tree, since the self-heals meant you could keep going with very little downtime. More recently it's become a popular raid-tanking spec, trading Frost's AoE threat for talents that just plain keep you alive longer. Where Frost's threat generation is like a Paladin's, Blood's is like a Warrior's, with more emphasis on single targets. DPS is likewise more single-target based, with Strength-buffing talents that improve your overall damage but no AoEs except the basic class ones. This is fine for leveling, since you likely won't have more than a couple mobs to deal with and you can survive long enough to take them all down one at a time. It's also very good for boss fights. As a whole, Blood is the least magic-focused of the talent trees.

The downside to Blood is that when tanking, much like Warriors, you need time to ramp up threat on multiple mobs, which requires your DPS to actually show some restraint and maybe follow a *gasp* kill order. For DPS, your numbers won't look quite as good on those big trash pulls as more AoE-based classes.

TL;DR: Spec Blood if you want self-healing and extra survivability.

The poor Unholy tree has been nerfed and buffed and tweaked all over the place since Wrath went live, but the basic concept has stayed the same: This is essentially the pet spec. All Death Knights can summon a ghoul for a short period, but with Master of Ghouls you get a permanent buddy. It even gets a new name randomly generated from some ghoulish words every time you raise one, some of which are unintentionally hilarious: I have a friend who once summoned a Gravelstealer, inspiring us to express concern about the safety of our driveways, and I once saw a Bonegobbler which made me giggle because I have a dirty, dirty mind. The perma-ghoul is a great little DPS boost for groups or soloing as well as an irritant for PvP. It's also useful for distracting any mobs that might attack when you're mining or herbing. I went Unholy DPS for a bit before 3.2 made Frost dual wielding viable, and I missed my ghoul when I changed. Unholy also has an AoE in the form of Corpse Explosion, but it requires you to have finished killing something to use it, so it doesn't have quite as much utility as Howling Blast.

The downside to Unholy is that, while you certainly could tank in an Unholy spec, there's nothing to recommend it like Frost's AoE threat or Blood's survivability. There's also the added responsibility that comes with using a pet, such as keeping it from randomly attacking the wrong things.

TL;DR: Spec Unholy if you want to play as a pet class, or if you think making corpses explode is the best thing ever.

Hopefully now you have a better idea of which talent tree is right for you and your up-and-coming Death Knight. In an upcoming post I'll get more in depth on the nuances that can make the same tree good for both tanking and DPS roles!

Changing Gears

Things have been a bit busy for me of late and I haven't had much time to mull over post ideas, but I promise I'll have something with some meat on it soon, likely in more of a beginner's vein than most of my posts to date. There are a lot of basics that I still see people on assorted communities ask about, and while they're laid out elsewhere I know I'm the sort of person who prefers to know why something is over being told that it simply is. I'm sure that kind of approach to a tutorial would be helpful for others just starting out with the class.

I'm currently in the process of getting out of the RP guild-running business and moving to an RP-friendly friends-and-family raiding guild, and the distraction of that decision has been part of the reason for the dry spell. There are different flavors of casual, and I'm the sort who doesn't like to commit her whole week but who is serious when it comes time to get things done. This new guild seems to fit that mentality well. Hopefully it will give me even more material and ideas for posts here. Stay tuned! I'll be back to posting with an excessively verbose vengeance soon enough.

AddOns for Death Knights

Before I start, I recommend that any WoW player who is unfamiliar with addons read up on the idea itself. Addons can do add any number of things to your game, from making your user interface (or UI) more customizable to measuring your DPS to giving you a heads-up when your pizza is ready. Installation requires you to be able to navigate your computer's file directories, and they take varying levels of fiddling to configure, but if you don't already use them they can change your gameplay completely.

Anyone who regularly plays in a group situation will want to have a few particular addons installed. Omen Threat Meter, Recount, and Deadly Boss Mods or variations on them are all very basic, and they're all covered extensively elsewhere so I'm not going to go into detail on them here. They're also just as useful no matter what class you play (except possibly the first two for healers), so there's nothing very Death Knight-specific to discuss. Just remember that tanks want to be at the top of Omen, and DPSers want to be at the top of Recount! Though sometimes DPSers can get confused and think they want to be at the top of both.

For those already very familiar with addons, there are some I've found especially useful for Death Knights. Even a beginning DK can get a great deal of use from Runes/ Diseases from the community. This is technically two addons, but they come packaged together and both are extremely useful. DKi Runes is a bar that you can move to anywhere on your screen that gives a graphical representation of your rune cooldowns as well as two other configurable bars that can be set to your HP or Runic Power. This lets you move your rune bar to somewhere more obvious than your character frame, and it looks really awesome to boot. For beginning DKs it's perfect for forming an awareness of your cooldowns, and even experienced DKs can benefit from tracking them more easily.

DKi Diseases fills a tracking function as well, in this case tracking your diseases. This addon creates movable, configurable bars to show how much longer your diseases will be up on your main target, with another underlay (or overlay) showing a timer for diseases spread to other targets by Pestilence. I can't stress enough how important it is for Death Knights to keep their diseases up! I've personally set mine to display right under the target frame below the other DoTs so I can glance up and see when I need to refresh them.

While it's not specific to our class, as a Frost DK I've found Power Auras Classic exceptional for making sure I get the most of my procs. It's an extremely fiddly little addon, and it may take a bit of tweaking to get it to do exactly what you want, but fortunately there's an entire wiki devoted to it. I use it to give me a heads-up when Killing Machine or Rime/Freezing Fog have procced as well as when my RP is getting too high. I have also tied the latter to a sound file of the Corrupted Ashbringer saying "Kill them all," because as we all know, runeblades are evil bastards. It's also good for letting you know if you're in the wrong presence, letting you know when Horn of Winter is no longer up, and any other warning you can think of. I've poked at it a little on some of my other characters, but my Death Knight is the one for whom I've found the most use for it.

I know there are other DK-specific addons out there I haven't tried, so feel free to comment with a testimonial on your favorite!