This guide is up to date as of july 14, 2011, patch 4.2. Also, this post is very long but I felt it was necessary to keep all the information in the same place.
July 14th updates: changed the part on the mastery vs avoidance debate. Removed links to Sartorri’s guides since they are not up to date anymore.
Welcome brothers and sisters to the new world of death knight tanking in Cataclysm. First I want to say this guide is intended for to answer general questions about Dk tanks and is not intended for hardcore theorycrafters. This is aimed for those of us who are searching for information to more basic questions, for those who are considering tanking but have not yet made the jump and simply for those who are tanking as an offspec or alt to help out out their guilds. Finally, this guide is written with raiding in mind.
Why this guide? Because when I made the transistion from Wotlk to Cata tanking a lot of information was either missing, contradictory or just simply wrong. Even now, it’s hard to find a good source of information on DK from an actual tanking DK. Not saying it doesn’t exist because it does, just that it’s demands a lot of effort and I felt a guide like this that goes over basics could do some good.
Lastly, who am I? I’ve been playing a Death knight since the launch of Wotlk and have been tanking in raids most of time with a few dps patches here and there. I’ve seen Dks go through a lot of changes over the past two years and while there was changes, the basics remained the same. Cataclysm however, changed a lot of basic mechanics of Dk tanking and it took me a while to find my footing.
Sate of Dk tanking
First things first, how are Dk tanks in Cataclysm raids and more the the point, are we OP? We are doing weird at the moment and no, we are not OP. If you’re looking for the OP tanking class of Cataclysm you can stop reading right now.
Still with us? Good, you’re crazy enough to be a Dk tank. I’ll be blunt, DKs are in a weird spot right now when it comes to tanking. In fact, I was starting to wonder if they were viable at all for a little while. This was due to a number of factors, one being that theorycraft info was often contradictory and that it assumed gear levels that progression raiding simply does not yet have. Dk tanking is not easy, the main mechanic, Blood shield(mastery focus), takes quite a while to get used to and requires a certain amount of gear to work properly. Depending on where you stand in your progression, your healer team progression and a slew of other factors, avoidance focus might be the better option
Does it means we can’t do the job?? Not at all! But it means an extra level of work to get to similar results as other tanking classes. We still have our own unique strenghts in that we do a lot of damage for a tanking class, we generate a lot of threat and our mix of cooldown can make us survive damage that would annihilate another tank. We are good at range tanking too and we have a great interrupt with freezing mind. We’re probably the tanking class with the most diverse tool box available for tanking. Downside is that we are more susceptible to spike damage(less armor due to shield) wich combined with lower healthpool (avoidance/self-heal/absorb tank) means we’re on the squishy side of tanking. Then again, spikier damage has always been the hallmark of a death knight.
The mastery vs avoidance debate. Or how to sort through this mess
Since first writing this guide I’ve changed my opnion quite a bit on the whole issue. It’s not a matter of what’s the better choice but rather it’s a matter of when to choose wich style.
If you go on theorycraft sites chances are you’ll see a lot of contradicting information on Dks about whether or not to go avoidance, how the Blood shield works, what to do. This is due in large parts to the Blood shield mechanic wich is largely dependent on gear and the content you are attempting.
I now feel that I’ve experimented enough with the class and both specs to give you a few good guidelines on the issue.
-When starting out tanking, you will want to go avoidance. This is because your gear is not good enough yet to properly support Blood shield. For Blood Shield tanking to be effective you need to be able to generate shields big enough to soak large hits and they need to heal you for good amounts to make up for the loss in avoidance. Starter tank gear simply does not have enough mastery to support it.
-After a while, once you gather a few good raiding pieces of gear with interesting amounts of mastery, Blood shield tanking will become the superior method. It’s the way DKs are designed to tank and it shows. Large shields and big heals gives you control over critical high damage phases of the fight and you don’t require constant supervision from healers.
-If you ever get to hardcore endraid bosses, avoidance becomes the superior gearing option again. This is because bosses hit too hard in too small windows of time that your shield cannot compensate for all the incoming damage. In that case you will be better off with simply avoiding hits.
Gearing up, gemming, enchanting, reforging, spec and glyphs
As always tanks are very gear dependant and this is especially true in Cataclysm. The gear jump between ilevel 333, 346 and 359 gear is enormous. Don’t expect to be able to tank in 333 gear, it’s just not happening. You want to be at a gear level where most of your gear is 346 with a few epics from reputation/crafting. In fact, getting the repuation items and at least the chest piece crafted is close to mandatory. As tank you need both Wildhammer/ Dragonmaw and Hyjal rep as well as Therazane for shoulder enchants. You should be able to get that while doing heroics to complete your set. The chest piece a big investment but it’s more than worth it. Don’t be cheap.
Enchants are pretty straightforward. Each slot mostly has one good tank enchant associated with it.
Gems are a bit more complicated. You don’t want to stack straight stamina like we used to do back in Woltk. Use combination gems to get either avoidance or mastery depending on where you are in your gearing plan.
Reforging is mainly for avoidance/mastery too. What you want to do is maximize your privileged by swithing non needed stats.
There’s not a lot of choice when it comes to the actual spec and glyphs. There’s one exception though I feel is worth mentionning and it’s Glyph of Vampiric blood. With the Glyph vampiric blood makes healing on you 40% more efficient for 10 seconds, up from 25% and a small heal. Glyphing for 40% turns vampiric blood into a tool that allows you to choose when you want or need to be topped off. Using it right after a huge blow or when you know your healers are busy can help turn a small heal into a huge one and save the day. It’s a life saver for an avoidance tank when the big hits start raining.
Mastering the toolbox
I could and will write someday a detailed post about how DK actually plays in game. For the scope of this post though I want to hit on the general playstyle of the class. Dk tanking is all about planning and mastering when to use all your different abilities. There’s not a single situation where a DK doesn’t have a tool to cope with a particular phase.
-Interrupts? Freezing mind
-Ranged interrupt? Strangulate
-Lot of magic damage? Anti-magic shield
-Reduce physical damage? Dancing rune weapon
-Heavy damage phase? Icebound fortitude
-Aoe tanking? Death and decay + pestilence + blood boil
-Ranged tanking? Death coil + icy touch + 2 taunts
-Boost healing? Vampiric blood
Also, there’s the ghouls, ghoul army, bone shield, rune strike, etc.. etc… For every situation we have a tool. What makes a good Dk tank is his or her ability to use any of those tools at the right moment. And because all of these works on the same ressources or have cooldowns, planning becomes as important as fast reflexes. You need to be knowlegeable about what is going on around you, what a boss can do and what works and what doesn’t work.
Playing a Dk tank is very involved, some people like myself love it because it keeps us active and paying attention but some won’t like this style. Dk rewards smart play and punishes bad one.
I want to conclude this guide/overview by saying that although DK tanking is not the easiest tanking around, it’s in my opinion, one of the most rewarding. We don’t just stand there and take the hits, we are in control of the fight and what happens around it. There’s never a situation where I’m telling myself I can’t do this… just have to find the right combination of tools for the job.
On that note, good luck and have fun!