For people who are just now finding this guide: Take the info below with a grain of salt. Some of it’s kind of outdated at this point. Yes, I’ll be doing an updated version at some point in the future.
As meme-ridden as the above image is, it pretty much sums up a common feeling I’ve heard about the Death Knight class: “it feels like I’m just mashing buttons!” Well, friends, you’ve come to the right place:
Welcome to the Stoppable Force’s lesson #1 in How To Death Knight!
Addendum: This is actually version 2 of the guide! Much thanks to my readers, who’ve given me a lot of great suggestions on different specs, especially Frost (admittedly my weak point). I’ve incorporated these below; they should help demonstrate exactly how flexible the Death Knight is.
I don’t think I’m some kind of expert on Death Knighting, but I manage to kill things fairly effectively and so I feel I have some advice I can impart to those of you who feel utterly clueless when faced with DK-brand death and destruction skills.
A few caveats, before I begin:
My goal here is to help you, the clueless nubcake, to get through Outlands and leave a trail of destruction in your wake. My goal is not to teach you the rotation you’ll be using in raids, or in PvP, or anywhere else. My goal is to get you from 55 to 80 without feeling like you’re just rolling your face on the keyboard (if you want to do that, roll a warlock).
I was a Blood-specced DK for a good period of time, and so I may periodically give advice pertaining to that. I currently am an Unholy-specced DK. And, yes, I started as Frost for several levels. I have tried all three trees at this point, and I feel personally that Blood offers a lot to the beginning DK - so much so, that I feel comfortable recommending it as a decent alternative to the unholy that you’ll see every other Death Knight sporting. More on that below, after we learn which buttons to mash.
Comments are welcome - I’m simply telling you what’s worked for me, and what basic skill rotation I’d recommend all â€˜round.
Now, if you’re comfortable operating under those conditions - let’s begin.
Table of Contents
You’re looking at it!
Which Buttons To Mash When You’re Totally Untalented
The following are your bread and butter, ladies and gentlemen, and I highly recommend you get used to looking at these buttons. You’ll be using them a lot. This is, first and foremost, probably your untalented death knight skill rotation (i.e. what you’ll be using at 55).
From left to right, that’s Icy Touch, Plague Strike, Blood Strike, Blood Strike, Obliterate. For the most part, until you pick up some talent points that give you other options, this is your skill rotation for effective solo play. These are the buttons you mash. This will put all of your runes on cooldown, so until they get back, you’ll be using runic power - more on that in a sec.
Why this order? Well, your Icy Touch and Plague Strike are responsible for putting up your two primary diseases, Frost Fever and Blood Plague respectively. Blood Strikes do more damage for each disease on the target, so we get those in next. After that? Obliterate. It eats the two diseases on your target, setting you up for the next rotation, and does even more damage based on the number of diseases. You may want to hold off on the Oblit until your diseases are about to expire naturally, so as to get the most out of them.
There is one instance in which you wouldn’t want to obliterate - and it is to use this:
That is Death Strike. Death Strike is how you kill elites, period. Death Strike is how you keep yourself alive, and will often make you say, “holy @#$@, how di d I just kill that and live?” It’s flat-out designed to give you back health, and does so rather effectively (especially if it crits). If you find yourself in need of a quick boost, toss it into your rotation in place of Obliterate, then - if you need more - keep working it in until you’re comfortable with your health.
Now, there are slight variations of these for each spec once you get far enough down in each tree, so let’s take a look at those.
Buttons to Mash: Blood Spec
You see what we did there? Heart Strike is just a straight-up replacement for Blood Strike - it costs exactly the same (1 Blood rune), and reads almost identically but with bigger numbers. Bigger numbers are good. Blood-spec DKs will be using Heart Strike instead of Blood Strike because there is no good reason to use Heart Strike anymore.
Another possibility, which looks pretty similar, is:
The difference here is assuming that you use early talent points to take the talent Glacier Rot from tier 1 of the Frost tree (and honestly, if you’re leveling and you have points in Frost, you probably do). 10% more damage from Icy Touch, while not earthshatteringly high, is 10% more. I know one of my readers told me about this, but I can’t find the comment, so whoever it was: thank you. I’d honestly forgotten about Glacier Rot the first time I wrote this.
In an early tier of the Blood tree, you’ll have the option to take Death Rune Mastery, and I highly recommend you do. It allows you to change your soloing rotation to this two-round rotation:
All I’m saying is, there’s a reason why the Elitist Jerks Blood-spec DPS forum is called “Help, my Heart Strike button is broken.”
Buttons to Mash: Unholy Spec
All we did was replace Obliterate with Scourge Strike. Scourge Strike is an ability Unholy DKs get further down in their tree. It costs the same amount of runes as an Obliterate, but has a few advantages over it: for one thing, it doesn’t consume the diseases, and for another, it’s Shadow Damage - Scourge Strike completely ignores armor. (Now, Shadow Resistance is a horse of another color; you’ll probably want to fall back on Obliterate for enemies with that.) Scourge Strike is delicious.
Plague Strike once again comes first, in this case because of Rage of Rivendare. Throwing Blood Plague onto your target gives you 10% more damage on your spells and abilities, definitely a sizable margin. This will also apply your Crypt Fever or Ebon Plague if you have them, which again increases the damage of the Icy Touch that follows (Icy Touch is considered a spell, one of the few that Death Knights have).
This one can also get altered, because Unholy has a talent to create Death Runes as well: Reaping. Now your attacks will look like this, a 2-round rotation:
Round 1 (2 Unholy, 2 Frost, 2 Blood):
Round 2 (2 Unholy, 2 Frost, 2 Death):
Alternate Version of Round 2 (2 Unholy, 2 Frost, 2 Death):
Anything still alive at this point is probably elite. Continue as usual, adding in Death Strikes where necessary to keep your health up. The double (or triple) Scourge Strike is great once you master the control to get it consistently.
Buttons to Mash: Frost Spec
That should look awfully familiar. There’s a reason for that! Obviously this assumes you have Glacier Rot. The Frost tree’s special strike, Frost Strike, actually operates off of runic power! This rotation, of course, assumes you have one of the best talents if you like to keep using Obliterate, namely 3 ranks in Annihilation. This allows your Obliterate to do damage without consuming diseases, basically making it a non-healing higher-damage Death Strike. Fancy! Of course, if you didn’t take it, and/or you’ve gone far enough down to get Howling Blast, you’ll probably want to slide HB into your lineup instead:
And from reader Grimm comes this 2-round rotation (which I’ve altered slightly to throw in a Howling Blast), which relies on you having Blood of the North and Killing Machine (two must-haves, I must agree) and looks to do quite a fair amount of damage by, once again, creating Death Runes:
Round 1 (2 Unholy, 2 Frost, 2 Blood):
Round 2 (2 Unholy, 2 Frost, 2 Death):
Unfortunately, you don’t have the same opportunity to spam Howling Blast as you do Scourge Strike or Heart Strike, mostly due to its 6-second cooldown. Instead, this relies on spamming Icy Touch, which is still a very effective talent. You may want to make sure you carry slightly more hit than the average Death Knight, due to it being a spell and not a physical attack, but I don’t think you’ll have any problems while leveling. (It also has the advantage of not being parryable on account of, again, not being physical.)
Button Mashing 201: What Do I Do With All This Runic Power?
Now, if you’ve been doing your rotations correctly, you should be building runic power at a fairly steady rate, maybe even maxing out your bar. Now, you’ve got a few choices at this point, and they’re all situational. I’ll cover the ol’ standbys first:
This is, if I recall correctly, the one runic power ability you start with: Death Coil. Death Coil is different from the warlock version; for one thing, it’s just straight damage. That’s all it does. 30 yard range, 40 runic power, shoots stuff real good.
If you’re a Blood-spec DK, this is going to be your bread and butter most of the time, because Sudden Doom procs will make this completely free and a guaranteed crit. Let me repeat myself: if you are a Blood-spec Death Knight with Sudden Doom, your Death Coils will be free, and a guaranteed crit, when it procs. And since you’re following my recommended spell rotation, you’re using 2 Heart Strikes a rotation, which means you have two chances per rotation (20% each chance) to get a free, guaranteed-to-crit Death Coil.
This is Mind Freeze (not to be confused with brain freeze… okay, it is). Use it on spellcasters. It’s only 20 runic power, but it’s got a cooldown, so you may take a shot or two. If it gets bad, you can use Strangulate in place of one of your Heart/Blood Strikes, as it’s our other silence. Mind Freeze silences and prevent spellcasting from a certain school for a couple seconds, but beware, because this caught me by surprise a few times: it’s melee range.
This is Rune Strike. It’s cheap and it’s powerful, it’s available starting at level 67, and it’s only usable after you dodge or parry an attack (thanks to Skoll for correcting me on that) - but it can’t be dodged or parried. Pretty sweet, no? And it’s only 20 runic power, so it’ll be available when you need it. 200 % weapon damage (soon to go down to 150%) plus a significant amount is nothing to sneeze at, and yes, it can crit. It’s also a “fire and forget” move - Rune Strike is on next melee, so you can hit the button and continue onwards with your spell rotation, and your Rune Strike will automatically fire off on your next auto-attack.
And this is Anti-Magic Shell. Yes, just like the one those annoying banshees in Stratholme use. It’d make a good alternative to Mind Freeze if Mind Freeze is on cooldown, if you feel like glowing green for a while, or you’ve got multiple casters on you and not enough silences for all of them. Hey, it could happen! In that case, Anti-Magic Shell can really save your bacon.
Now, let’s move on to class-specific runic power moves. We’ve already covered one of the Blood-spec standbys, Death Coil. What else does everyone else have to offer?
Runic Power: Blood Spec
Yep, Dancing Rune Weapon. This weapon emphasizes why Blood-spec is a great-single target killer. Please note, do not use this in a crowded area, as the Dancing Rune Weapon is pretty much permanently set on aggro and will warp to the nearest thing and start killing it. However, it’s pretty sweet - while it’s out, it’ll use anything you use. You fire a Death Coil, it fires a Death Coil. You cast Icy Touch, it casts Icy Touch. I haven’t seen it try to Death Grip yet, but I guess maybe if yours gets resisted it’ll try. Still, it’s fun for elites, because it’s basically a 2-man group - kill other stuff around you to get the full 100 runic power, summon your Dancing Rune Weapon, and go to town on the big bad nasty.
As a side note: I’ve heard a rumor that Dancing Rune Weapon will channel Army of the Dead if you cast it while the sword is out. That, frankly, sounds insanely fun. Even if its’ not effective, you gotta admit it’d be fun to watch.
Runic Power: Unholy Spec
This is one of the coolest powers in the Unholy tree: Summon Gargoyle. Yeah, 50 runic power seems pricy (half the bar?!), but trust me, it’s worth it. In fact, if you forgo your own 51-point talent (and Frost spec, you may want to…), you can put 21 points into Unholy and pick up this bad boy for yourself. The gargoyle is another of Unholy’s AOE abilities; he swoops in and starts zapping things with green lightning bolts - again like the ones in Stratholme, or anywhere else for that matter - and his spell power is increased by your attack power. Nifty, huh? Plus if you keep fighting as you should, your runic power will sustain this fella for up to a full minute. That’s pretty sweet.
Behold the power of bugs: Unholy Blight. Another AOE ability? Yeah, I think it’s pretty clear what Blizzard wants Unholy Death Knights to be: evil paladins. For 60 runic power (soon to be 40), you get a swarm of bugs around you that deals constant shadow damage to enemies in range of you. It’s a nice touch. Jury’s out on whether it’s effective enough to justify its cost, but considering you should be building runic power pretty quickly, and the fact that (like Scourge Strike) it’s shadow damage and therefore ignores armor, it seems pretty useful to me. I’d say keep it up whenever you can, if you’re talented into it.
Kaboom! Corpse Explosion! This one’s a new addition, because we only found out yesterday that it’s going on runic power instead of costing an Unholy rune. This makes it fit more viably into a rotation, as you can cast it whenever you’ve got the power to spare and there’s a dead body nearby. I highly recommend Glyph of Corpse Explosion - it turns Corpse Explosion into Chain Corpse Explosion if it kills things, so you will occasionally get 2 explosions for the price of 1, at the cost of only a minor glyph slot.
Runic Power: Frost Spec
This is Frost Strike. Get used to looking at it, Frost DKs, you’ll be using it quite a bit if you’re soloing and probably even more if you’re in a group. Frost Strike does 60% of your weapon damage, plus 52-150 more (depending on rank), and can’t be parried, dodged, or blocked. It’s sort of like a mini-Rune Strike you can use anytime you have 40 runic power (yes, it costs the same as a Death Coil). Ideally, you would probably want to pair it with Deathchill anytime it’s up. In fact, you could make a macro that looks like this, because Deathchill doesn’t activate the global cooldown:
showtooltip Frost Strike
/console Sound_EnableSFX 0
/script UIErrorsFrame:Clear(); UIErrorsFrame:Show()
/console Sound_EnableSFX 1
/cast Frost Strike
This will cast a Deathchill before your Frost Strike every time it’s up, giving you an unavoidable critical hit to use on your foes. Additionally, you won’t have to hear your death knight constantly complaining that “that ability isn’t ready yet.”
And yes, the capstone of the Frost tree is also a runic power ability - Hungering Cold. It’s a giant frost trap, plus it applies Frost Fever to anyone it freezes, plus it doesn’t break from damage from your diseases - or, apparently, from Death and Decay.
Andrea (of Altoholics Are Us) sends along this little gem for those of you with Hungering Cold - a high-damage, high-crit AOE spell rotation. Frost DKs may not be Unholy DKs, but you guys can dream. :D
It should be fairly obvious what’s going on here: Hungering Cold freezes everything around you and gives it Frost Fever, Deathchill guarantees you a crit on certain abilities, and Howling Blast is one of those abilities. Pretty smart. Andrea reports seeing crits of up to 5.1k as early as 61 using this rotation!
Summing up: The tl;dr edition
If you take nothing else away from this post, start with this if you’re Frost:
Start with this if you’re Blood:
Start with this if you’re unholy:
Then use runic power to blow stuff up, summon weapons and gargoyles, fire nasty green stuff, or just about anything - and watch as the mob dies. Lather, rinse, repeat â€˜til you’re in Northrend on your Death Knight, too.
You’ll thank me later, because now you won’t feel like you’re just mashing buttons.
Sidebar: Why I Think You Should Consider Blood Spec
Now, I won’t lie, Unholy has a lot of appeal to it. For one thing, Unholy is very AOE-heavy (Summon Gargoyle, for instance) and plays a lot like a pet class if you take Master of Ghouls. Frost has a few nice things to recommend it, but having tried it as well, I cannot recommend it for soloing (additionally, sinking a lot of talent points into the top of the tree gets you haste, which is… not that great for DKs, compared to other stats). Once you hit 70-ish and you can start tanking instances with worthwhile gear, fine, work some frost into your build.
However, while it’s not as OP as it once was, I fully recommend speccing Blood, especially if you’re new to the class, and double especially if you feel confused by the baseline set of Death Knight abilities. Here’s why.
Blood offers the fewest new buttons to mash. I know that sounds weird as an advantage, but it’s true. If you go as deep into Blood as I have - and I recommend you do (at least 50 points, if not all 51) - you’ll end up with the highly-situational Hysteria, Heart Strike, the even-more-situational Mark of Blood, and the utterly delightful Dancing Rune Weapon.
In contrast, however, Blood offers you a fantastic allotment of passive, on-hit, or on-using-some-other-ability boosts. This is where the true strength of the Blood spec shines. Just a short list (amazingly, not a complete list): Butchery, Bladed Armor, Dark Conviction, Veteran of the Third War, Bloody Strikes, Abomination’s Might, Might of Mograine, Bloodworms, and Blood Gorged. Holy crap!
Lastly, let’s face it - no one really wants to be kicking around Outland with their Death Knight for long. This spec is designed to leave you with little to no downtime, lots of healing, plenty of damage, adorable pet worms, and to get you on to new content as fast as possible.
Now, the downside. Yes, your ghoul sucks. Most of the time you won’t bother with him but if you think of him as half a player, you can generally take on 2-person quests by yourself if you remember to summon him before the big bad boss. 1.5 is nearly 2, after all.
Yes, your AOE is not as great as an Unholy DK. For a Blood-spec DK, it pretty much consists of Pestilence + Blood Boil, and Death and Decay. This is okay! You’ll be healing yourself fast enough most of the time that you can use the tried and true method of killing one thing, then turning to the next one. Still, the occasional Pestilence + Blood Boil won’t hurt.
Yes, Unholy is the new hotness - but really, think about giving Blood a try, won’t you? It’s not as overpowered as it was in beta, but it’ll still plow through Outland with you.