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Cataclysm Final Grades: The State of the Death Knight

February 18, 2012

Today’s post is from guest writer Lyshra who first suggested this topic.  Lyshra is a guildmate and friend who has an amazing breadth of knowledge on just about all things Warcraft.  She organizes our 10 man group and is our guild go-to for questions of strategy and DPS maximization, among many other topics.


Hello! I’m Lyshra, and this topic is my fault.

I’m also primarily a DPSing Death Knight, though I’ve also been a Shaman during Cataclysm. The Death Knight, as it was a new class in Wrath, spent most of that expansion being rebuilt from the ground up every time a major content patch came along. We ended Wrath in decent shape, with the designers finally having settled on distinctions for the three talent trees they were happy with, rather than trying to struggle with allowing every tree to perform every role. I’ll warn you now, this is going to be more mechanics-intensive than your regularly scheduled Tree Heals Go Woosh.

The Rune System

Firstly and most importantly, our primary resource – runes – was completely overhauled, and tweaked at least twice during patches in Cataclysm. Previously in Wrath, all six of our runes had an individual ten second cooldown, triggered when they were activated. For Cataclysm, this was changed to a paired system, where only one of each type of rune (Blood, Frost and Unholy) cools down at a time. This had several effects, primarily freeing up a large number of GCDs. It allowed them to make Haste rating and effects increase the rate of rune recharge, and also allowed them to add abilities that mess around with rune cooldowns. For the most part this is a very positive change, and was part of a change made for nearly all DPS classes in Cataclysm – giving them abilities and talents that move them firmly away from rigid ability rotations and in to action priority systems, which are, by and large, more fun to play.

I mentioned abilities that mess around with rune cooldowns. We have two of these – Runic Empowerment, used by Blood and Frost DKs, and Runic Corruption, used by Unholy DKs. Runic Corruption has a 45% chance to increase your rune regeneration rate by 100% for 3 seconds when you cast Death Coil. Since an early Cataclysm patch, this buff stacks. Initially there was a quality of life issue with it – recasting Death Coil while Runic Corruption was active could cause a re-proc and a loss of DPS. Since this was changed, the ability is just about perfect. It provides the much-needed symbiosis between runes and runic power that was largely missing in Wrath. I would never want to go back to playing Unholy without Runic Corruption.

Runic Empowerment… is different. When you cast Death Coil, Frost Strike or Rune Strike, you have a 45% chance to activate a fully depleted rune. This means a rune that is not actively cooling down – which means both runes of that type must have been used. One is actively cooling down, and the other is a valid target to be activated by Runic Empowerment procs. This has a huge issue with back-to-back procs – there is a limit of three runes that can be fully deleted at any one time, and that’s a rare situation in itself unless you have very low Haste. Also, there is no way to choose which rune is activated from those available. This issue was lessened by a change to one of Frost’s passive abilities, Blood of the North. Throughout Wrath and early Cataclysm, it made your Blood Strikes transform the Blood rune used to cast it in to a Death rune. After the change, it permanently transforms your Blood runes in to Death runes – so there’s less likelihood of a “bad” proc from Runic Empowerment. This is still something of an issue, however, with Unholy runes – a lone Unholy rune is no good to Frost DKs whatsoever. In recent months a whole priority system for Frost has emerged which revolves around preventing Unholy rune pops from Runic Empowerment. Overall I would say this ability has failed, especially when compared to the wonderfully elegant solution that is Runic Corruption.

In conclusion, I would say that the changes to the rune system have been broadly positive. The initial overhaul to paired rune cooldowns is an excellent change, especially coupled with the ability to reduce their cooldown time through Haste. While Runic Empowerment is something of a disappointment, Runic Corruption is a truly inspired mechanic that makes the dual resource system sing in ways it never used to.


Mastery is, of course, the new stat we get instead of Armour Penetration.

Blood Shield: I’m not fully qualified to comment on this but, as with most of the Cataclysm tanking masteries, Blood Shield is very strong. It’s also really very irritating in PvP. And makes soloing old raids quite straightforward. I am a fan of Blood Shield.

Frozen Heart: Flat percentage Frost damage increase? Sounds boring. In actual fact, is more interesting than it looks, due to it’s potential to change how you play during procs – with enough Mastery, Frost Strike and Howling Blast both do a lot of damage, with Howling Blast actually overtaking Obliterate per-rune. This opens up a different playstyle, focusing on Frost damage. Overall, this is a good mastery.

Dreadblade: Initially this was Blightcaller, which increased your disease damage by a flat percentage. Blightcaller was 1, very boring and 2, extremely weak, so was changed to Dreadblade, which increases all of your Shadow damage by a flat percentage. This ends up affecting an awful lot of your damage, especially with the rise of Gurthalak in Dragon Soul. Again, a good stat.

Is Mastery better than Armour Penetration? Debatable. From a DK’s point of view we probably could’ve kept ArP and not really noticed or complained. I’d say it’s a good change, simply because it helps reinforce the different flavour of the two DPS trees. This is particularly noticeable in the difference in the size of Frost Fever and Blood Plague ticks as a Frost or Unholy DK.

New and Changed Abilities

With the nuts and bolts overhaul out of the way, let’s examine the shiny stuff – new buttons, and old buttons that don’t do what they used to. Though the latter is rarely “shiny”. There’ll be some missing here, usually because the change wasn’t big or interesting enough to mention.

Howling Blast: Let’s get this one out of the way – it’s been a bumpy ol’ journey for Howling Blast. Formerly a powerful Frost damage AoE on a six second cooldown that also cost a Frost rune – effectively giving it two cooldowns, a fact that caused more than a few UI errors – at the start of Cataclysm several changes were made to it. Firstly, they removed the cooldown. Great! Secondly, they added a Prime Glyph which allows it to apply Frost Fever. Great! Thirdly, they didn’t reduce it’s damage. Great! It’s now fantastically overpowered. Anyone who raided when tier 11 was current content will know that, until it was nerfed, Howling Blast was the only show in town for high output burst AoE. Naturally, it couldn’t last, and it’s damage was reduced heavily for secondary targets. The glyph was retained though, and Icy Touch was consigned to the mists of time for Frost.

Dark Transformation: Oh boy. My ghoul can do /what/ now? I’m sure you’re all familiar with the transformed ghoul – you’ve probably had one eat your face in PvP. The fact it requires Death Coil casts to stack the buff it requires, and the fact it costs an Unholy rune to cast, helps reinforce the fantastic runes/runic power synergy Unholy has. This is a tremendous ability, and probably my favourite of the new buttons in Cataclysm.

Outbreak: A 1 minute cooldown, no cost ability that applies both of your diseases. The only real question here is why this wasn’t part of the Death Knight’s arsenal from day one. Excellent ability.

Festering Strike: Coupled with Outbreak, this ensures Unholy rarely has to cast Icy Touch and Plague Strike. Coupled with the Blood of the North change, it also ensures no Death Knight except a CC-conscious tank ever casts Blood Strike. RIP, Blood Strike.

Necrotic Strike: A very odd ability, only really useful in PvP, due to the lack of Faction Champions-esque raid encounters in Cataclysm. I don’t think any other class has this mechanic – a healing-preventing shield you place on your opponent – and it is tremendously good in PvP. People without red names may (and do) choose to use the word “overpowered”.

Dark Simulacrum: Ah. Yes. This one. Has an ability ever promised so much, and so drastically failed to deliver? I’m certain if PvP was my primary love I would have more respect for it – I’ve certainly had fun copying Paladin bubbles and the like, but … in PvE? Apart from Hagara (where you can copy her 100k Shattered Ice nuke) and a brief bug on Sinestra (Wrack!), it has more or less no uses in PvE content. Intensely disappointing.

A moment’s silence here for Wandering Plague, which I miss dearly despite the knowledge that, with diseases critting properly in Cataclysm, it would’ve been extremely silly to retain it. In fact it was extremely silly in tier 9 when we had critting diseases from the set bonus. Still – goodnight, sweet prince.

Summary and Other Stuff

For me, the Death Knight is a much better class now than it was in Wrath. It’s been much more stable, and the sweeping changes they did make have been on the whole very successful. My only major disappointments with the mechanics now are the continuing uselessness of Dark Simulacrum – one raid encounter in an entire expansion where it’s worth casting isn’t worth retaining the ability for – and the clunkyness of Runic Empowerment. Handily, the Mists of Pandaria talent trees look like they’ll allow you to pick Runic Corruption instead, regardless of spec, and I’ll certainly be doing that for the rest of time. The changes made over the Cataclysm patch cycle have also brought positive changes. I would go so far as to say that Death Knights are currently in the best place they’ve been since they were introduced. We may not be the highest theoretical DPS, but I no longer feel like my entire class is going to be ripped up every 6 months, and the core mechanics feel like they’re now in place, compared to the half-finished feel DKs had during Wrath. Because of that, I’m cautiously optimistic looking forward to the next expansion.

I was going to write a short note about DK lore in Cataclysm but, well, there is none. But as the entirety of Wrath was about the Scourge, the undead and, by extension, the renegade Death Knights that joined the Alliance and the Horde, I don’t feel in a position to complain about that. Maybe there’ll be something in Mists. Scourged Pandaren, anyone?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2012 9:56 am

    Great post!

    I would like to point out one use of Dark Simulacrum deviously discovered by Rades — Using it to copy Ragnaros’ Hand of Ragnaros ability and freak out your raid :> (Okay, not a totally useful use, but fun just the same!)

    • February 18, 2012 7:20 pm

      Fantastic! I must have missed that post when Rades originally posted it. Thanks for the link.

  2. Luann DeLuca permalink
    February 18, 2012 9:10 pm

    As a former Death Knight, who only made it to Level 60 then DELETE, I enjoyed this article immensely, because it explained in detail their abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. I was totally in the dark trying to learn to play my character and became very frustrated, thus I gave up. As I saw DK’s around me leveling, and then grouping with them in dungeons and raids I was envious of their skills. We have an outstanding DK in our guild, and I just love it when she joins us for instances. What I had once thought was a confusing class to play, I now have the greatest respect for those, who mastered their DK. Whenever I see one in our group, I know we’re going to do well! Thank you, Lyshra, for taking the time to put this blog together. Also, thanks to Heal over Time for giving her a place to share it. This article is definitely going on our WOW Chicks Have Stamina website.


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