Part 1: Criticisms of the MoP DK, Opportunities in Warlords

If you’ve interacted with me in any way, shape or form over the past couple of months, you’ll know I’ve been quite irate (harsh, even) about some of the rhetoric coming out of the Death Knight community. This isn’t anything new, of course- hyperbole and exaggeration are part and parcel of the WoW forums in general. One might even argue that it adds to their overall charm (*cough*), and that I’m getting worked up over something that’s both inevitable and maybe even healthy for the game to an extent. Fair enough!

I could debate semantics about what constitutes decent feedback versus QQ for hours, but that probably isn’t why you’re reading this. We’re coming to the end of yet another expansion, and it’s an appropriate time to reflect on the various iterations of Death Knights in Mists of Pandaria – specifically where each iteration fell short, and which iterations should be part of Warlords of Draenor. Of course, this isn’t to detract from the myriad of good design decisions that have been made concerning the class throughout MoP- if anything, there’s already been fairly decent coverage and discourse concerning those areas in my earlier posts.

Before I begin, three points that I’d like everyone to note:

  1. I’ve tried to mostly stick to an analysis of what I dislike about Death Knights this expansion. This isn’t to say that I haven’t strayed into “This is the type of change that should happen” territory where appropriate- far from it! In general however, I would urge a stronger focus on what I see as problematic, rather than what I might list as a solution.
  2. Recall that I’m currently going off publicly released Warlords of Draenor information in 2013. This means that almost everything pertaining to WoD that I discuss in this article is subject to (and probably will) change- possibly within hours of this post going live. Don’t come and complain to me about how “X solution to Y problem didn’t work out because Blizzard did/didn’t do Z!”
  3. This blogpost ended up becoming so large that I decided to split it into two sections. This section will involve my analysis of general class and talent problems, while Part II will focus on spec-specific issues and glyphs.

Lets get to it.

Mists of Pandaria: Looking Back

General

Li Li & Chen

While some might argue that the MoP Death Knight saw less radical changes (talent systems aside) compared to the Cataclysm revamp, there was still a good degree of changes and discussion over the course of the MoP Beta. We had some major successes with the implementation of the one second GCD as baseline, along with Presences finally being cemented as the default choice for their various specs. That being said, there were still a number of shortcomings that manifested over the course of the expansion. Here are the major ones:

Soul Reaper

Despite the fact that Soul Reaper no longer costs a Death Rune as it was originally slated to do in the MoP Beta, I haven’t been a big fan of its general implementation. I’ll go into more detail about why it is particularly problematic for Frost in my next post, and focus more on what I dislike about its overall design here: The five second delay in detonation, coupled with the cooldown invoked after using the spell feels too penalising.

There’s literally nothing more irritating than seeing Soul Reaper miss, be dodged or parried by a mob in Execute range and then having it be on cooldown. Given the Death Knight class’s innate disposition to use resources as quickly as possible in order to generate more resources, something that jars our rotation in such a manner feels extremely unpleasant. This isn’t an issue that soft-capping Hit and Expertise always helped with either, since there were times that you were simply forced to attack bosses from the front as melee. Also, it was not worth it for tanks to pursue the Expertise hardcap, given that Death Strike and Rune Strike already have innate anti-parry mechanics. In Warlords of Draenor, attacks being dodged and missed won’t be as much of an issue. Bosses will retain a 3% Parry chance when attacking from the front, but most Tank specs will be equipped to overcome that. In MoP however, Soul Reaper misses and mob avoidance was a costly and unnecessary penalty.

The five second detonate delay of Soul Reaper is a more contentious issue, given that we can also use it to our advantage. For instance, the detonate effect means that we can pre-emptively use Soul Reaper on a mob that is about to hit 35% health and thus sneak in more executes. It also means that we can potentially finish off a low-health mob by timing ourselves properly, or even gaming the Haste proc if the target dies before Soul Reaper detonates. Unfortunately, therein lies the problem as well: In my opinion, the deonate effect adds an unnecessary level of “gaming” when it comes to properly utilising Soul Reaper. Remember that time you miscalculated how quickly a mob’s health was going down and then snarled in frustration as it hit 35.1% just as Soul Reaper’s duration ran out? How about those Primordius slimes where you thought you’d be clever and apply Soul Reaper at 70%, reasoning that the mob was sure to hit 35% within the next five seconds – only for some reason it didn’t happen and the detonate effect was wasted again. Heck, even gaining the Haste proc (i.e. having the target die before Soul Reaper can detonate) can be irritating when you’re fishing for more damage rather than buffing rune regeneration. In other words, it’s far too easy to misuse Soul Reaper for even the most fastidious of players.

So, what would I do to improve Soul Reaper’s functionality in Warlords of Draenor? First, I’d have the cooldown reset in the event of the strike portion ever being parried or missing/being dodged for whatever reason. Second, I’d also allow for the cooldown to be reset instantly if the Death Knight gains the Haste buff- this means that the mob died too quickly for Soul Reaper to proc, and thus is on cooldown before the Death Knight can use it again. I don’t foresee either of these changes making a big difference in PvP given how much time (especially in a PvP setting) a player has to get above 35% health in order to prevent the detonation effect going off on them.
While I dislike the idea of a class-wide Execute in the first place, I can see a space for Soul Reaper to become a much more enjoyable skill to use with these simple fixes.

Secondary Stat Interaction

No, this isn’t where I start lamenting how DKs don’t “scaaaaaale” good. Rather, it’s more about what I feel are a lack of interesting effects of secondary stats regardless of numbers.

Bear Fu

As an example to illustrate what I mean, consider what Critical Strike rating does for Brewmaster Monks:

  • It increases their damage. This is an obvious example, but given how important Tank DPS has been this expansion, the effects of stacking a stat that directly contributes to damage can’t be understated.
  • It directly ties into their mitigation by virtue of Elusive Brew.
  • It affects their healing by increasing the critical chance of their heals, such as Level 30 talents and Healing Orbs (both personal and raid-wide).
  • It contributes to their raid utility by virtue of Sanctuary of the Ox.

All that from a single stat!

To be clear, I’m not trying to say that each and every secondary stat should have such far reaching effects for Death Knights- some might even argue that Haste has a very comparable effect on us, given that it’s innately tied to Rune Regeneration and autoattacks (which in turn can mean procs). It’s also probably pointless to compare the full effects of a stat for a Tanking spec to DPS ones. In addition, we already have confirmation that Blood Death Knights will gain more mitigative value for stats like Crit than they currently do, as well as additional mitigative value from the new secondary stats that WoD will introduce.

Where does that leave DPS specs? Keeping in mind that we’ll soon be adding new stats to our existing arsenal, I’d like to see more of our mechanics directly tied in to their effects. This is nothing new: Remember how Wandering Plague used to function (i.e. based off melee crit chance)? What about passives that procced off autoattacks (and thus, Haste), such as Necrosis and Blood-Caked Blade? The point is: There’s room for some improvement when it comes to how our mechanics, procs, etc interact with secondaries, particularly in how various aspects of a spec are tied together. Here’s to hoping some of the new ones like Readiness and Multistrike help fulfill that goal as well!

Disease Applicators and Spreading

Icy Touch, Plague Strike and Pestilence all feel like unnecessary, vestigial abilities at this point. The presence of Outbreak, Howling Blast and Roiling Blood (the latter of which gets its own analysis down below) not only provide tempting examples of what could be, but also serve to remind us that DKs simply have too many ways to apply and spread the exact same DoTs! Moreover, literally anything that the initial list of abilities is capable of doing today is either already done better by another ability, or could be baked into an ability with a similar cost.

Outbreak, for instance, serves as a double disease applicator at range. Its current limitation is its one-minute cooldown, which quite frankly seems pointless: The ability does no damage upfront and already costs a GCD. It may have had value for Death Knights attempting to game strong diseases via snapshotting, but that became irrelevant in 5.2 for Unholy (i.e. the DoT spec) with the changes to Plague Strike. More importantly we now know that DoT/HoT snapshotting is going away in Warlords of Draenor, thus the ability to apply both diseases within the same GCD in order to roll strong versions is irrelevant. As such, I feel that Outbreak should simply have its cooldown removed and be our default “bread and butter” method of single target disease application.

“But Mag,” you say “What about the Icy Touch glyph? A single target dispel on enemy targets is incredibly powerful in both PvP and niche PvE situations- surely you wouldn’t want to get rid of that functionality?” That is correct: I wouldn’t and why I would also suggest tying that functionality into Chains of Ice, also ensuring that the dispel works even if the target is immune to slows (as most bosses are). Consider that Chains of Ice already has a glyph that gives it the same damage functionality of Icy Touch- bake in that damage baseline, shift the current Icy Touch glyph’s functionality over to Chains of Ice and we’re good to go!

That leaves us with Pestilence, currently an ability that only Blood and Unholy DKs really use. In order to avoid being repetitive, my reasoning for wanting it gone are better detailed later in this post.

Talents

No real need for an introduction here. Mists of Pandaria introduced a brand new talent system with much fewer but more significant choices for talents, that all specs had access to. Here are my list of talents that I see as problematic in one way or another:

Plague Leech

I’ve disliked Plague Leech from the get-go, both as a talent and as an ability in the Death Knight arsenal. Given how diseases have functioned as essential damage multipliers to various strikes for the past 3 expansions, any ability that removes them just seems unintuitive and contrary to the theme of the class. Now, while interpretations of theme are certainly subjective, an analysis of the relative ease of use of this talent is not.

Plague Leech is currently a mandatory talent for DW Frost (which, as luck would have it, is dominant this tier)- a spec that has now entirely forgone the use of Obliterate and Soul Reaper, and does nothing but spam Howling Blast and Frost strike, with intermittent uses of DnD and Plague Strike to apply Blood Plague. Plague Leech is a no brainer choice for DW: 2 Howling Blasts every 25 seconds at the cost of weak diseases, one of which will be almost immediately reapplied? You do the math! 2h Frost and Unholy, given their current dependence on diseases to do full damage with their strikes, cannot attain such strong gains from the talent. Blood has its own problems with not being able to take Plague Leech, but that’s an entirely separate issue which I’ll cover in the talent immediately following this.

There’s good news contained herein too though: At Blizzcon, we were able to confirm that diseases will no longer act as damage multipliers for strikes in Warlords of Draenor. I imagine that this means Scourge Strike will also get some type of rework, given that the shadow portion of the ability is currently reliant on diseases.

Does this mean I’m alright with Plague Leech going forward in 6.0, as is? No, not really- I still dislike that it contributes largely to the problem of us GCD capping so quickly (2 Death Runes every 25 seconds is huge, thus leading to Haste being devalued due to not needing the extra Rune Regen), and that it removes diseases to fuel strikes- trading one source of continuous damage for more upfront damage doesn’t really strike me as being either intuitive or fun for our class. While one might argue that disease relevance has been diminished due to the fact that they now scale dynamically, Celestalon recently implied that we shouldn’t be so quick to write off their relevance either. Regardless, even if that turns out not to be the case: Plague Leech remains a talent I’d like to see gone.

Roiling Blood

In contrast to Plague Leech, I’ve loved Roiling Blood. I consider it mandatory for both Blood and Unholy in any raid encounter involving even the slightest form of AoE or target switching.

Roiling Blood’s effect seems deceptively simple for the goals it accomplishes:

  • It frees up a keybind (Pestilence), rather than adding a new one compared to Plague Leech and Unholy Blight. In a world where most classes have reached, or are past, their “keybind saturation point” (i.e. the point at which is becomes unfeasible to add more abilities that requie keybinds without pruning older ones), it’s an absolute godsend.
  • It removes the strict melee-range requirement of Pestilence. So long as at least one target with diseases on it is hit by a Blood Boil cast by a DK talented into Roiling Blood, Pestilence will take its effect. Remember all those times you gnashed your teeth in frustration because the target you’d just applied diseases too moved out of Pestilence range? That doesn’t exist any longer.
  • It removes setup from Unholy’s AoE rotation (something I’ve ranted about at length) and synergizes brilliantly with Crimson Scourge and Scarlet Fever for Blood DKs.

So, why is Roiling Blood on my list of complaints about the MoP DK if it’s so amazing? Because it’s too darn good: Things aren’t the same once you’ve experience an AoE rotation with Roiling Blood for either Unholy or Blood DKs. There’s just one major flaw with the talent- can you guess what it is? Think back to Tier 15 for a moment, when Festerblight was king. Why would Roiling Blood be seen as problematic in such an era? If you guessed “Because it could potentially overwrite strong diseases!”, you were right- it made AoEing risky, since it could potentially cost us single-target DPS in the long term.

Warlords of Draenor: Looking to the Future (er…past, well, you know)

WerlerdsDoT snapshotting as a mechanic is gone- all DoTs including our diseases will scale dynamically to match our stats constantly, rather than at the moment they were cast. This means that the previous risk of overwriting strong diseases via Roiling Blood is now irrelevant, and thus frees up any lingering concerns I may have had about Roiling Blood.

What would I do? Frankly, at this point I see zero reason for Roiling Blood’s functionality to not go baseline. As a talent, I consider it too strong for the aforementioned two specs and downright useless for Frost, for obvious reasons. The fact that Frost has never taken it in MoP is also indication of design that can and should be improved: Talents that aren’t even worth considering to some degree for every spec don’t belong in the talent tree. Finally, as mentioned above, it permanently replaces Pestilence which already feels like pretty vestigial ability.

Anti-Magic Zone

Despite receiving a revamp in 5.4 to make it more appealing, Anti-Magic Zone’s main failure continues to be its place in the talent tree: Forcing a player into the “Personal Survivability vs. Raid Utility” paradigm simply isn’t a fun choice. Indeed for Blood DKs it isn’t considered a choice point blank, and I’m confident that an analysis of talent popularity among HM raiding Blood DKs will reveal that most continue to default to Purgatory. While one might make a case for Purgatory and Lichborne being talents in the same tier given that they affect personal survivability, the same cannot be said for AMZ.

Note that I’m not complaining about AMZ’s design as a talent; I consider the revamp to have been a large success and lament that it hasn’t seen more usage. It’s an incredible cooldown for any form of magic damage, and at this point can be used with the confidence that it will always absorb damage for a set duration (rather than breaking preemptively as it was prone to doing prior to 5.4).

Coincidentally, my ideal solution would not entail baking AMZ in baseline- that honor, I feel, should go to Purgatory to eliminate it ever having to be something DKs feel the need to choose from (not just Blood, because it’s an amazing perk for Unholy/Frost DKs too). Rather, I’d like to see AMZ pitted up against other forms of potential raid utility that make for an entire talent tier fully dedicated to the theme. Given that this is an unrealistic scenario however, I’d also happily settle for AMZ going baseline, assuming that the current situations with raid cooldowns isn’t drastically changed in WoD. AMZ’s place in the talent tier is then free to be host to something more tied to personal survivability.

Conversion

Conversion’s general lack of appeal as a talent is easily understood: It not only continuously consumes Runic Power, but also limits how much Runic Power can be further generated while it is in effect. The reasoning behind the limiting effect on RP generation is easy to understand- if things weren’t that way, one could theoretically have Conversion active for ridiculous amounts of time. Unfortunately, the fact that it requires an on/off switch makes it highly vexing to use in conjunction with attempting to DPS or even Tank. Runic Power usage is critical towards maintaining the resource generation feedback loop that I discussed earlier in this post: Spending Runes generates Runic Power, which in turn fuels specific abilities that trigger our Rune Regeneration mechanics, thus leading to us being able to spend Runes again.

Some might point to the real problem being that only specific abilities are able to proc rune regeneration mechanics (rather than any RP spent as a whole) – this is a fair argument, but one that detracts from an analysis of this specific talent: even without factoring in rune regeneration, Conversion comes out to the highest DPS loss over other talents in its tier.

Now, I want to be fair: Talent Trees do not get designed with solely raiding in mind. There’s definitely arguments to be made for Conversion’s use in PvP and solo play settings, where maximizing DPS isn’t as important as staying alive in the absence of a healer. With that said, I’d like to see Conversion have a wider appeal to raiding DKs, and feel its functionality in solo and PvP settings could also do with some improvements.

Both Death Pact and Death Siphon fill particular niches right now:

  • Death Pact is free and off the GCD, for a massive health boost every 2 minutes. Its limitation for Blood and Frost are that it is tied to the presence of an undead minion, but even that usually ends up working itself out most of the time due to the ghoul summoned by Raise Dead having an ideal uptime of roughly 50% in most combat situations.
  • Death Siphon provides a ranged attack that deals a moderate amount of damage and also heals the casting Death Knight. An additional ranged attack added to the arsenal of a melee DPS is never a bad thing, and the healing is dependent on the damage itself. While I personally prefer Death Pact due to its ability to instantly combat much larger spikes of damage, I can see the appeal of Death Siphon.

Going into WoD, one way to address the shortcomings of Conversion would be to turn it into a HoT that consumes a standard amount of Runic Power based on whatever values are appropriate. This would instantly consume a certain amount of Runic Power based on preset values and heal the Death Knight for a set duration. As an example: casting Conversion with 44 RP would consume 40 RP and generate a HoT that would last for four seconds. The duration of the HoT would, of course, have to be limited to the maximum amount of storable RP and unextendable so as to avoid abusing it with AMS soaking.

Death Pact

Why post about a talent whose virtues I just extolled? Because even if Conversion received the type of change that I feel it needs, I still consider Death Pact to be too appealing as a talent. Even with a 2-minute cooldown, being able to access such large amounts of healing off the GCD is amazing for raid situations, particularly when faced with large bursts of unpredictable damage – either as a boss mechanic or to compensate for bad player decisions. Paired with Purgatory, Death Pact dramatically increases the survivability of most PvE Death Knights, and I’d be loathe to give it up under normal circumstances.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to offer a solution to this particular dilemma. I can accept that the relative popularity of Death Siphon and Conversion are high enough to satisfy the game’s developers. I can also accept that making Death Pact baseline and giving us access to yet another healing talent might be too powerful. I also want to note that I’m absolutely not calling for a nerf or change to the way Death Pact works – in a vacuum, its design is perfect as is! Perhaps it’s best to simply hope for a rework to Conversion and call it a day.

Runic Empowerment

Uh oh, we’re here. “Here” being the rune regeneration tier of talents. This row in the tree has the dubious honor of receiving the most criticisms and negative feedback throughout the MoP Beta, despite which it went live without significant changes. Fast forward to the present (end of MoP): While my main complaint rests with one particular talent, I still maintain that this entire tier is problematic. Let’s take a closer look.

Both Runic Corruption and Runic Empowerment are based on a chance to proc. This means that while it’s possible to average out how much rune regeneration we’d gain from them over a period of time, they don’t provide the consistency of Blood Tap with it’s guaranteed proc. On the flipside, RC and RE are completely passive, whereas Blood Tap requires a separate keybind or to be macroed into an existing skill. In practical terms, this means that Runic Corruption is the most easily ignored out of all the talents because it simply speeds up passive rune regeneration when it procs. It is thus said to be the talent with the “smoothest” feel to it. Runic Empowerment and Blood Tap on the other hand, require a fully depleted rune to proc. Blood Tap’s strength here is that it can control when it procs (and thus generate up to 2 runes immediately). Blood Tap also restores Death Runes, thus giving the player greater flexibility in terms of what to use the rune on, as well as allowing for abilities that cost Death Runes to be used more frequently (Necrotic Strike being a significant, non-talented example).

Thus, the Level 75 talents are arrayed along a spectrum of being able to completely control and monitor our rune regeneration versus it being completely passive and require no monitoring, with Blood Tap and Runic Corruption on either end of spectrum respectively. Runic Empowerment attempts to offer a compromise between these two extremes by combining Runic Corruption’s RNG element with Blood Tap’s “single rune” and “fully depleted” elements. In my opinion this has resulted in the only talent in our tree, that can truly be called a failure: Runic Empowerment is always a “wrong” choice compared to its alternatives. Whatever Runic Empowerment is capable of for each spec, either Blood Tap or Runic Corruption can match or exceed.

On a spec by spec basis, we note that:

  • DW Frost uses Blood Tap as its default talent, and has done so since Tier 14. Rather than using Runic Empowerment and gaming Frost/Death Runes by leaving an Unholy Rune constantly up, it was soon discovered that using Unholy Runes as quickly as possible, with Blood Tap, was optimal due to the talent prioritising Unholy Runes for where it would first restore Death Runes (rather than a “random rune” as the tooltip would suggest). Even in Tier 16, where the use of abilities that utilise Unholy Runes has moved significantly down the priority list, Blood Tap continues to prove itself a gain over its alternatives.
  • 2h Frost initially started off using Runic Empowerment, but has switched to Blood Tap. Even with a slightly lower calculated, average regeneration efficiency then Runic Empowerment (45% vs. 40%), Blood Tap offers more consistency and thus much better control of runes generated via AMS soaking for 2h Frost. The fact that it grants Death Runes means that 2h Frost DKs don’t even have to attempt gaming Frost/Death runes during AoE.
  • Unholy uses either Blood Tap or Runic Corruption. Strong arguments can be made in favor of either talent, depending on playstyle. Unfortunately, Runic Empowerment cannot hope to compete due to orphan Blood/Frost Runes being useless on single target (the latter also being useless on AoE).
  • Blood uses either Blood Tap or Runic Corruption. Blood Tap offers the most control out of all the rune regen talents and can be used to bank up to 2 full Runes at a time, which fits in well with the need for Blood DKs to time their Death Strikes when tanking. Runic Corruption, meanwhile, offers the highest sustained DPS due to there not being any “wasted” procs from it. It’s also worth noting that while Runic Empowerment theoretically yields the most Death Strikes per minute when factoring in gaming Frost/Unholy Runes (i.e. always having one Blood Rune capped), the true metric of a good Blood DK is when they choose to Death Strike over how often.

The fact that Blood Tap is off the GCD also means that it can be macroed into another ability (usually a Runic Power dump like Frost Strike) to take on the same functionality as Runic Empowerment while being more consistent and generating Death Runes. In addition, as I noted above, Blood Tap is also the most efficient talent when it comes to AMS soaking due to being able to bank enough charges for up to 2.5 Runes.

Looking ahead to WoD, I think the biggest mistake that could be made with respect to Runic Empowerment would be to buff it in a similar way that Plague Leech was in 5.4. I don’t, for instance, want to see it proccing Death Runes or have its chance to proc increased by x%. Neither of these actions address the innate flaw of Runic Empowerment: That it attempts to find a happy medium between two extremes where none exists. My ideal solution would see Runic Empowerment completely scrapped while Blood Tap and Runic Corruption both become passive abilities that could be switched depending on player preference. I’ve avoided specifically calling for this “choice” to be in the form of a glyph that transformed one innately passive form of regen into another, given that this would likely cause upset among players that favored either playstyle. In the end though it’s more important to have both remain valid choices for players to take, while getting them off the talent tree.

To Be Continued and Special Thanks

There’s more to come yet! In my next blog post, I’ll present more in-depth analyses for Blood, Frost and Unholy Death Knights, along with a critique glyph choices in Mists of Pandaria. I’d also like to express my sincere gratitude to Hantevirus of US-Proudmoore, who took the time to read over this blogpost, catch any errors or vagueness on my part and generally ensure that my excessive wordiness wasn’t straying into full-on banality at any point. Cheers and punch to awesome host and partner in crime Heartless for hosting my rants on Son of a Lich as well!

That’s all for now folks- Part II coming soon!

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