Death Knight Tanks in Legion: The Post-Mortem for the Undead

For this week, I wanted to talk about a topic of video games that has been particularly noteworthy to me personally: the current playstyle and effectiveness of Blood Death Knights. I’ve mainly played a Blood DK for about eight years now, primarily in the role of main tank/raid leader, so I feel that I have a good grasp on the spec as a whole. As such, I’m going to be going into some pretty deep detail on this so buckle up, it’s gonna be a long post.

As an introduction for those unfamiliar with DK tanks, here are some of the more basic, yet important aspects to playing the spec in its current iteration:

  • Resources: Many DK abilities consume Runes as a resource, which generates another resource: Runic Power. Runic Power is currently used exclusively to cast Death Strike.
  • Cooldowns: Blood DKs have four main CDs: Anti-Magic Shell gives brief magic damage reduction. Vampiric Blood gives bonus health and healing taken. Dancing Rune Weapon gives 40% parry and duplicates your attacks while active. Icebound Fortitude gives a flat 30% damage reduction (Wowhead’s tooltip appears to be inaccurate).
  • Global Cooldowns: While a more subtle and overlooked aspect, proper usage of GCDs is crucial at a higher level of play.
  • Damage Mitigation + Self Healing: commonly labeled together as survivability, it’s important to view them as separate aspects, particularly when comparing them to tanks from other classes.
  • Ability to establish and maintain threat in both single target and AoE: This seems obvious, but is still worth mentioning, as if a tank can’t hold threat, enemies will hit their allies anyway, making the tank obsolete.
  • Mobility: While seemingly irrelevant to tanking, there are still many mechanics in the game that require the player to be able to move quickly fairly often. One example of this is Mythic Chronomatic Anomaly’s enormous arena.

What’s New

  • Runes are no longer separated into blood/unholy/frost and are all the same “type” now.
  • Death Strike now costs 45 Runic Power instead of runes (40 RP with a talent and 5+ Bone Shield Stacks).
  • Blood DKs only have one disease that gives a very small drain effect.
  • Death’s Advance replaced by Wraith Walk as a baseline.
  • Vampiric Blood has several effects to buff uptime or lower CD so it’s more frequently used.
  • Gorefiend’s Grasp is baseline only to Blood DKs.
  • New ability: Marrowrend deals damage and gives the DK stacks of Bone Shield, reducing damage taken while at least one stack is active.
  • New artifact ability: Consumption.

With artifact weapons in Legion, the artifact traits for Death Knight tanks are mostly passive, but have a few notable ones:

With all these changes altering the class, I’m going to break down my analysis into 3 sections:

The Good:

Death Strike: With Death Strike costing RP instead of Runes now, it makes it so the ability is no longer just a “spam this button” move, and it benefits more from deliberate timing. This adds to the spec’s room for mastery and really makes skilled Death Knights shine.

Standardization of Runes: This has made Death Knights more approachable for newer players. Being locked into using certain abilities based on what types of Runes were available tended to discourage people that were trying out the DK playstyle.

The Bad:

Mobility: Wraith Walk requiring a channel feels awful. Considering it’s Death Knights’ only mobility spell, having to sacrifice attacking at all just to move faster is terrible.

AoE Threat: With Blood Boil being based off its own charges and not runes, maintaining persistent AoE threat (i.e. Skorpyron adds) with just Blood Boil, DnD, and occasional Consumption feels suffocating. One could argue that Heart Strike works there as well, which is true but extremely circumstantial. Should a fight have many adds and high movement (again, like Skorpyron), the adds would very likely get pulled out of DnD often, negating Heart Strike’s viability as an AoE tool.

Mitigation Playstyle: Bone Shield and Blood Shield being the ONLY non-cooldown forms of damage mitigation makes for an extremely boring playstyle. In a single target fight, a DK could just mash Marrowrend, Death Strike, and sometimes Blood Boil with occasional CDs thrown in and be just fine. Heart Strike and Death’s Caress feel almost unnecessary.

Artifact Ability: Compared to most other tank artifact abilities, especially druids’, Consumption feels like such a non-impactful ability. When fighting a boss and taking a large amount of damage, no Death Knight is thinking “Aha! A perfect time for my artifact ability to shine!” as the healing it does is very lackluster, particularly against a single target.

Death’s Caress: Death’s Caress is useless. Despite being a Blood DK’s only baseline ranged ability (apart from DnD), it gives pitifully little threat and damage. Frankly, spending a rune on this spells feels like a wasted rune.

Disease: The current state of Blood Plague feels negligible. For reference, my DK tank is geared for heroic Nighthold, which is slightly above average. My Blood Plague effectively heals me for 10,000 health per second per target afflicted with my maximum health being roughly 5.6 million. This means that each target afflicted by my disease heals me for less than 0.2% of my maximum health every 2 seconds which, needless to say, is practically unnoticeable.

The Neutral:

(Sorry, not the ugly).

Bone Shield: With Bone Shield being core to the kit instead of an occasional minor CD, DK tanks are more “streamlined” with other tanks, having a pattern of general damage reduction with occasional self-healing/shielding. I like the approach as it allows for more accurate balancing. However, as I’ve mentioned, the current state of DK mitigation makes for an extremely boring rotation.

What Changes Could Be Made?

With so many flaws to Death Knight tanks currently, it begs the question: How can it be improved in a healthy manner? Here are some changes that I feel would bring Death Knight tanks more in-line with their competition without becoming too strong:

  • Make Blood Boil cost runes instead of having a separate charge system. This gives the player the ability to decide to temporarily focus their rune expenditure on AoE instead of survivability. It also allows a DK to have more consistent AoE threat so they don’t feel so helpless in AoE situations.
  • Make Wraith Walk a non-channeled buff: The old ability Death’s Advance was fine for mobility. Replacing it with Wraith Walk’s channel did nothing to promote the class fantasy or gameplay health, but instead only caused frustration for many Death Knights of all specs.
  • Make Bone Shield a more involved mechanic instead of “Mash Marrowrend”. There could even be another ability like “Gore Bulwark”, having no rune cost, but consuming 5 Bone Shield stacks to give bonus damage reduction for a short time. The numbers would need to be balanced such that Gore Bulwark would reduce enough damage to make it worth using.

Personal Notes

With the formal analysis done, I thought I’d include a section that was more opinion-based, as I do have some other thoughts on current Death Knights, but wouldn’t necessarily call them unbiased:

  • Death Pact was a great CD for DKs in a pinch, although it could be fairly argued that it was too strong.
  • The homogenization of runes makes for more freedom in rotation, but also removes some of the mastery level behind the class.
  • Anti-Magic Shell gives much less RP nowadays which kind of takes away from skilled DKs using it strategically.

The Soulgorge talent feels like a placeholder. It sounds like a really cool idea that took a wrong turn and nobody remembered to fix it. In single target Rapid Decomposition gives very similar levels of RP generation. In AoE, having to spend 3+ runes and GCDs to spread disease cuts heavily into survivability — your diseases aren’t healing you if they’re consumed. It could possibly be viable if:

  • It gave more RP generation (maybe around 30% boost)
  • It allowed Blood Boil to spread the disease (similar to the old Pestilence).
  • The Death Knight is instantly healed for a low-moderate amount per disease consumed, as that’d be a nice burst heal in AoE situations.

While it’s good for classes to have unique strengths and weaknesses, making Blood Death Knights weak in many aspects, while average-to-strong in so few is unhealthy:

  • Mobility is weak.
  • Raid utility is non-existent.
  • Range damage/threat is extremely weak.
  • AoE threat is weak-average at best.
  • Survivability is average.
  • Damage dealt is average-strong.
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