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!


  1. While I agree 100% with your 3 'must have' talents for any DK tank, (BB, toughness and anticipation) I believe that bladed armor (2nd tier blood) is just as important to have. With my current set-up it adds 715 attack power so I've had that talent maxed since day one purely for threat purposes.

    Perhaps you'll get into threat talents more in your follow up post but in my opinion, Bladed Armor is just as important as the 'holy trinity' for tanking.

  2. I definitely plan to spend some time talking about the threat-generating talents in a future post! I'm specced into it myself, as I remembered the Warrior version, Armored to the Teeth, from when I used to raid as a Prot warrior.

  3. Nice write-up Dariahn! Quick and to the point. Just something to consider for the budding DK tanks out there, Dancing Rune Weapon is not a great tanking talent. When Blood specced, I usually stop at 5/5 Blood Gorged. Also, Bloodworms isn't too good either as they will soak up AOE heals (aka: Circle of Healing). Vendetta also doesn't lend any usefulness as the ability only happens when you land the killing blow, which typically the tank does not do. The self healing of Blood, though, more than makes up for the lack of mitigation in single-target tanking.

  4. Very good points! I've been looking into making alts to play around with all the trees, though of course I don't have enough time to commit to getting them all raidable. I'm wary of posting anything too specific since things change so much, but I was already thinking of adding links to current cookie-cutter specs for each tree to this post so perhaps when I have a moment to dig those up I'll add them for illustration.