This post was written during Cataclysm. Although not up-to-date, the general flow is still valid which is why this post might be of interest to some. Just be mindful of the actual abilities.
Yesterday I was arguing with Zel about how Death Knight is the most awesome class ever made and that deep down, she wanted to play one. She replied that she barely made it out of the starting zone, kept dying, and had no idea at all what was going on. It’s a comment I hear often about DKs, that feeling of being lost and of having no idea what you’re doing. Today, I want to remedy that and share my love of death knights with all of you.
This post is all about mechanics and basic how to play a DK. It’s not about gear, the different specs and what are the strengths and weaknesses of a DK. While these are all important topics, I don’t want to make a long post longer than necessary. Often, I hear that new Dks are simply lost in the sea of abilities and have no clue how to play a DK and this is what I want to remedy.
The core mechanics
I find that it helps me a lot when tackling something new to have a general, broad overview of the topic so I’ll start with that. In very broad terms, the DK play style is a priority system where you set yourself up to deliver your most powerful strike as often as you can. Every spec has a signature strike that you’ll want to be using as much as you can and the whole idea is to make it as powerful as you can and use it as often as you can.
A bit deeper down into details, the general battle plan for a DK is as follows.
1. Set-up diseases on target
2. Use appropriate cooldowns
3. Unload death and destruction
4. Use runic power abilities while you wait for your runes to reset.
Of course, there’s a lot of variation in there according to the particularities of a fight but in general that’s what you’ll be doing. The fun part is that when a Dk is well-played, you can actually skip some of the steps or make them shorter so you get to the death and destruction part quicker. This is what the core of playing a DK is. Sure you have a ton of abilities and it looks confusing at first but ultimately they all tie in the above battle plan, whether to help you get to the good part faster, make you hit harder or just give you options for when you need them.
Diseases + the big strike, the building blocks
This is what it’s all about. Do you have Frost fever and Blood plague up on your target? Can you maintain them? These two diseases make up the core of a DK dps or tanking and your ability to get those up fast and keep them on the target will make all the difference between a good performance and a bad one. At first you will have to use two abilities available to set this up, Icy touch and Plague Strike. Once those are up you can then use your big, signature strike, scourge strike or Obliterate for example, to deal maximum damage.
These strikes wich are the core of your dps do a lot less damage if your diseases are not setup. In fact, a lot of your abilities scale up when you target is diseased.
Rune management, the key to success
One thing you’ll notice quickly is that Icy touch and Plague strike use a frost and unholy rune and that your big strike uses the same pair of runes. That would mean that under normal circumstances, you would get one or two chances to do your special strike before being forced to reapply diseases. And that’s not counting needing frost or unholy runes for something else.
DKs have 4 types of runes. Unholy, frost and blood make up the basic runes and Death runes are a special type of rune that replace any of the other runes and that can be used as any of the other, a joker. You start out with 2 of each the basic runes. Generally speaking, frost and unholy runes will power your main abilities and blood runes are mostly used for support abilities.
So how do you manage all of it? Simply by going back to the main goal, applying diseases and doing as many of your signature strike as possible.
The whole idea of rune management is to free up as many of your runes as possible for the big strike. In most cases this will either generating Death runes and/or using blood runes to maintain diseases up so your other runes are free. Abilities like Pestilence, Festering strike, Contagion and Outbreak are all there so you can minimise, if not skip, the “applying disease” phase and go right back to dealing damage.
There’s a trick to all of this though. The above assume the normal situation but more often than not you’ll find your runes solicited by a number of factors. It could be rezzing your ghoul again, throwing up bone shield or simply fights mechanics forcing a reset of the diseases.
So when you’re faced with a curve ball you just have to remember the primary goals, get diseases up and unload the big strike. Your rune management should reflect that. If you know you’re going to need an unholy rune at a critical phase of the fight, plan for it, insert it in your rotation and go right back to the main plan. If it’s unplanned, the same apply. Deal with the emergency and hurry back up to dealing damage.
Runic power, even more options!
Runic power looks confusing at first but it’s pretty simple. Runic power is something you accumulate when you use your abilities. Some of your abilities uses runic power instead of runes so if you want to use them, you need runic power.
Runic power is used for two occasions.
The first is a runic power dump to use when your runes are on cooldowns. Under normal circumstances you want to use runes as soon as they are available to do even more big strikes so you need something to fill up the spaces when runes are recharging. Enter runic power dump strikes like Death Coil and Frost Strike wich are great to fill in during those moments and they even do considerable damage themselves.
The second use is for those “once-in-a-while” abilities like Mind Freeze an interrupt, your battle rez or a threat building ability like Rune strike if you’re tanking. These require a bit more forethought because you need to either hold back on using runic power or you want to use them in priority over your normal rotation. This is where planning and smart play pays off. If you know you have interrupt duty, making sure you have 10 runic power stored up becomes suddenly very important.
A note on runic power. Don’t stockpile it! Even if having a battle rez is cool, don’t hold back 50 runic power all fight long as it costs you too much in terms of dps. Having 10 or 20 for interrupts is fine when they are needed but runic power dump abilities are an important part of your dps and should be used.
I hope I conveyed through this post the spirit of Dk play wich is a priority system. I know I insisted a lot on diseases and getting back to doing big strikes and in the end it’s what truly matters. Knowing what’s your ultimate goal, I hope it will make the rest of the class easier to understand so you can bring death, pain and misery to your enemies!