The original hero class, Death Knights have had a solid expansion in Battle for Azeroth. Having mained my own Death Knight for large swathes of patch 8.2 and 8.3, Unholy and Blood in Mythic+ and raids has proven so enjoyable that I’m now faced with the prospect of not switching my main at all when Shadowlands is released.
Why? Because Death Knights are looking baller.
What’s a Death Knight?
Death Knights – previously under the sway of the Lich King – are once-proud warriors and fighters who have been given incredible necromantic powers in exchange for their service in the afterlife. Chiefly melee but with the benefit of deadly shadow and ice magic in their arsenal, Death Knights use runes to deal damage and generate runic power, which in turn allow the use of various other abilities. Death Knights are a very thematic class with excellent damage and resilience to boot, and they come in three distinct flavours – Unholy, Frost, and Blood.
Unholy is a two-handed melee specialisation which focuses on decay, rot, and disease to kill their opponents, as well as having various undead pets to call upon. Frost is the second damage dealing spec, this time utilizing two one-handed weapons, to carve their foes to shreds with quick, succinct blows. Finally, Blood is the tank with a focus on self-sustain through Death Strikes, spending their runic power to claw back health and protect themselves from further damage. All three specs have a ranged interrupt and a certain resilience to magic.
What Looks Good?
- The Gargoyle has returned as a baseline spell after being left in the dust post Legion. This talent is on a 3 minute cooldown lasting 30 seconds, with every 2 runic power spent by the Death Knight increasing its damage by 1%. With your Death Coil being your runic power dump and costing 40, that’s 20% increased damage for this guy every time you Death Coil. It was an absolute beast in Legion, so I hope it continues to destroy in Shadowlands.
- Apocalypse now has its 45 second cooldown reduced by your runic power spenders – Death Coil and Epidemic – and also comes with an additional Magus of the Dead. Battle for Azeroth players will know of this fella from the azerite trait of the same name. The magus will also feature in your Army of the Dead casts if you have chosen the Army of the Damned talent on the final row.
- Unholy Blight returns! I adored this as the pinnacle of the talent tree back in Wrath of the Lich King, and am glad to see it back – and, so far, ignoring the area-of-effect cap. A vile swarm of insects emanates from the Death Knight for 6 seconds, stinging enemies and infecting them with a disease for 14 seconds which can stack up to 4 times. The pièce de résistance is that minions of the Death Knight will also deal an additional 5% damage to anything infected with the blight.
- The Unholy Death Knight mastery has been improved, with the shadow damage increase percentage also increasing the damage of your minions. This ties in with some of the changes mentioned above to make your Unholy Death Knight feel like a true necromancer, bombarding enemies with magic and thrall alike.
- Sudden Doom procs, which gave you a free cast of Death Coil, can now also be spent on your other runic power spender Epidemic. This allows for even more area-of-effect mayhem.
- On the support end of things, Anti-Magic Zone is no longer a player versus player talent and is baseline for all three specs. Sitting on a 2 minute cooldown, this places a bubble on the ground for 10 seconds which, when players stand within, reduces their spell damage taken by a whopping 60%.
- New runeforges give players a bit more choice than simply having Rune of the Fallen Crusader for the strength proc. New kids on the block include Rune of the Apocalypse which gives your pets’ attacks a chance to apply various debuffs, Rune of Hysteria which gives more runic power and the chance to increase the amount of runic power you generate, and the all-purpose Rune of Unending Thirst, giving you 10% haste and movement speed, healing you for 5% of your health on a kill (if they yield experience or honor), and even handing you an extra 10% movement speed if you’re dead. Perfect for questing.
What Looks Alright?
- Helchains has been reintroduced, crossing the floor from an azerite trait and becoming a talent on the final row. It is now called Unholy Pact, and increases your strength by 8% in addition to its previous effect of creating a shadow chain between you and your pet, damaging anything it touches. Not bad, but a lukewarm challenge to the other two prospects on the final talent row.
- Defile has received a little buff, increasing its damage alongside the size increase if enemies are standing in it. Will still struggle to beat Epidemic as a choice on the sixth talent row, though.
- Chains of Ice is now available for all three specs. Hooray!
What Looks Concerning?
- The only possible negative I could find is that the Unholy Death Knight’s disease, Outbreak, is having its chance to erupt and deal damage to others removed, as well as removing the period of time after initial infection which allows it to infect others. Instead, it will now infect your target and any surrounding enemies on the initial cast, and has had a damage buff to compensate. A sideways move, if anything.
What’s the Verdict?
Unholy looks brilliant. The gameplay of building up and popping wounds is still at the heart of the spec, and will continue to define its gameplay in Shadowlands as it has done in Battle for Azeroth and Legion. Nonetheless, there are meaningful synergies and interactions which are being introduced to the rotation, as well as a change to the mastery which solidifies Unholy’s identity as a necromantic summoner in both theme and application.
Really excited to see how Unholy scales through the expansion, and how having hordes of undead minions can save my bacon as I plow through Torghast. Five outta five.
What Looks Good?
- The big one – Frost Death Knights can once again use two-handed weapons as well as one-handed weapons to deal damage. Though it appears a small change, it opens up more weapon viability for Frost, makes multi-spec play easier when swapping to Unholy and Blood, and reinstates that “slow moving death” feel for the spec when wielding a big, hefty two-hander. Thematics are as important as mechanics!
- Frostwyrm’s Fury is now a baseline spell for Frost, causing a giant Frostwyrm to swoop down and deal catastrophic amounts of frost damage in a line in front of the Death Knight. An example of a fantastic and fun ability being removed from the talent tree and put in its rightful baseline position – always a good move, Blizzard.
- A new talent replaces Frostwyrm’s Fury in the talent tree called Hypothermic Presence, reducing the runic power cost of abilities by 35% for 8 seconds on a 45 second cooldown. This will make it a bit easier for Death Knights to keep their very deadly and runic power-hungry Sindragosa’s Breath going. It’s also notably mentioned as being off of the global cooldown, which is always nice.
- As before, the reintroduction of Anti-Magic Zone into the toolkit for Frost is a winner for group utility.
- New runeforges at the forge pave the way for more diversity in your builds. Rune of the Apocalypse gives your pets’ attacks a chance to apply various debuffs, Rune of Hysteria gives more runic power and the chance to increase the amount of runic power you generate, and the all-purpose Rune of Unending Thirst is perfect for questing with haste buffs, self healing, and movement speed bonuses.
What Looks Alright?
- Killing Machine now also causes your next Obliterate to deal frost damage, which utilizes your mastery and increases its damage.
- Icecap has been buffed a bit further after changes in Battle for Azeroth, with Frostscythe, Frost Strike and Obliterate critical strikes reducing the cooldown of Pillar of Frost by 4 seconds, up from 3. With Sindragosa’s Breath remaining just as powerful as in previous tiers, as well the introduction of Hypothermic Presence, it’s hard to imagine that Icecap will be able to usurp the go-to choice on the final talent row.
What Looks Concerning?
- Much like Unholy, it’s tough to conjure a negative here. However, using a two-handed weapon means you will only have one weapon runeforge from the forge at Acherus, rather than two. With some new runeforges being introduced in Shadowlands, this might mean that optimizing dictates that you still roll with 2 one-handed weapons, which would be a shame.
What’s the Verdict?
Many players who either play Frost now or yearn for the good ol’ days will be happy enough to see the return of wielding two-handers. On its own, however, it’s not an incredibly game-changing boon. Beyond the baselining of abilities and the new runeforges, it seems that the spec will still see Sindragosa’s Breath be the dominant playstyle even after almost 4 years. I was hoping to see that change a little bit.
A lack of diversity is hardly a problem which belongs solely to Frost Death Knights though, and it seems like the class has got enough stuff going on for it to experiment with. Though the changes are not as revolutionary as they are for Unholy, Frost still looks a solid pick heading into Shadowlands. Four out of five for Frost.
What Looks Good?
- Blood Tap is back in the house, generating a rune and incurring a 1 minute cooldown. This can be reduced each time one of your bone charges is removed. This should serve to lessen some of the downtime experienced while going through the motions as you tank.
- Rune Tap is back too, granting 20% damage reduction for 4 seconds, with 2 charges on a 25 second cooldown each. It’s not a big reduction or a long duration, but has two charges and is a good situational ability for when you know you are about to take one or two consecutive hits.
- The talent Voracious has received a buff, now granting your Death Strike a 20% healing bonus and increasing your leech by 15% for 8 seconds, up from 6. This could certainly let it challenge Bloodworms for the spot in your build with these changes, and give players a bit more agency with their healing.
- Red Thirst on the final talent row now reduces the cooldown of Vampiric Blood by 1.5 seconds, up from 1 second, for every 10 runic power spent. Not a huge buff, but that’s a few extra seconds with every Death Strike used that certainly makes a dent in its uptime.
- As before, the reintroduction of Anti-Magic Zone into the toolkit is a boon for the party or raid, and it’s likely that the tank is going to have the best idea of when to use it in most situations.
- New runeforges at the forge let Blood Death Knights prepare a bit depending on what kind of dungeon they are going to tank, and what kind of gear they are rocking. Skipping the runeforges I have already mentioned, Rune of Spellwarding deflects 3% of all spell damage taken and has a chance to create a shield which absorbs magic equal to 10% of your maximum health – enemies who damage the shield have their cast times increased by 10% for 6 seconds. Rune of Sanguination also looks tasty, increasing your Death Strike damage the lower the target’s health is, and initiating a heal for 48% of your health over 8 seconds whenever you fall to 35% of your health.
What Looks Alright?
- Rapid Decomposition now has your Blood Plague leech 50% more health in addition to ticking 15% faster. Blood Plague doesn’t really contribute much to your healing done anyway, so this will do little to dissuade players from picking the much better Hemostasis talent on the same row, but the numbers might be adjusted a bit before live to make this competitive.
- The new Relish in Blood talent has the Death Knight heal when they use their Death and Decay under the influence of Crimson Scourge, with that healing increased by each bone charge they have active. They also gain 10 runic power on use too. The heal could be decent with lots of bone charges, and it might make people think twice before picking Ossuary on the same row. Maybe extending the heal to party members too could make it more competitive?
What Looks Concerning?
- Nothing really, the spec is looking rather solid.
What’s the Verdict?
Blood looks to be in a great place on the alpha testing servers at the minute. Self-healing will never go out of fashion, and Blizzard have given Blood even more of it than it had before. Some challengers have emerged for cookie-cutter talents, and might be the stepping stone for some adaptations to the talent tree which allow for greater choice – always a win whenever it happens.
There aren’t any seismic shifts in gameplay or rotation for Blood, but that’s mainly because it doesn’t need one. With the Blood azerite traits being almost ineffectual in Battle for Azeroth, I feel like this will be one spec which feels as if it isn’t losing a damn thing as we cross into Shadowlands, meaning the only way is up. Four out of five stars.
Kyrian – Shackle the Unworthy
- Instant cast with a 30 yard range on 1 minute cooldown, this spell deals arcane damage over 14 seconds and reduces the damage done to you by the target by 5% for that duration. When you use a rune-spending attack on the target affected by Shackle the Unworthy, the cooldown is reduced by 4 seconds.
- This seems like the weakest of the choices. It lacks originality and fails to synergise with anything in the Death Knight’s toolkit. Even if the damage is good or you can keep the uptime high with the reduced cooldown, it still feels uninspired.
Necrolords – Abomination Limb
- Instant cast with a 90 second cooldown, this spell causes you to sprout an additional limb for 12 seconds dealing shadow damage every 2 seconds to nearby enemies. If an enemy is further than 8 yards away, they get pulled back towards you.
- This seems more like it. Having a giant arm spring out of your chest and start swiping at enemies sounds hilarious, but the addition of the pseudo-Death Grip offers a nice bit of control to keep things under control when Gorefiend’s Grasp is on cooldown. Moreover, with the tight-knit nature of their area-of-effect spells across all three specs, this would be beneficial to just about any Death Knight in any situation.
Night Fae – Death’s Due
- Instant cast with a 30 yard range and a 45 second cooldown, this spell replaces your Death and Decay and makes it decidedly better. The damage becomes nature rather than shadow, and reduces the targets’ damage done by 10% for the 10 second duration, as well as granting the player a set amount of strength.
- While not as “meh” as the Kyrian ability, this lacks a bit of pizzazz as well. The base cooldown is a bit shorter than the other abilities, but is also replacing Death and Decay, leaving Blood Death Knights to scramble to collect stray enemies without access to their go-to ranged AoE. The reduction in enemy damage done could certainly help on dangerous trash packs – a prominent part of Mythic+ difficulty in some dungeons on some weeks – but not enough to justify taking it.
- The strength could potentially scale for each enemy hit, however, allowing for some mini-strength cooldown usage that could scale up nice and high. Death’s Due could also be useful for Frost more than the other two specs as they don’t use Death and Decay in their rotation, meaning it would just exist as a big fat strength cooldown every 45 seconds – pair that with Pillar of Frost and your Frostwyrm and you’re looking at some big damage. Have I talked myself into it? Maybe.
Venthyr – Swarming Mist
- Instant cast and on a 1 minute cooldown, this spell surrounds you with a heavy mist which increases your dodge chance by 10%, and deals shadow damage to enemies within 10 yards every second for 8 seconds.
- Being the only covenant ability to interact with runic power, this looks like it could be a winner. The dodge chance is nice, but pales in comparison to the runic power generation even when considering defense over offense.
- For Unholy it contributes to their already potent area of effect with shadow damage (which I assume is increased by their mastery), as well as runic power for heavy Epidemic spam.
- For Blood, the runic power generation will keep them unleashing Death Strike without delay as well as holding the pack steady with the area of effect damage and threat. As mentioned, the dodge chance is the icing on an already delicious cake.
- For Frost, the runic power serves as power for the Sindragosa’s Breath engine, delivering what could potentially be devastating amounts of area-of-effect damage – two passive forms of AoE damage at once, while also unleashing Frostscythe and Howling Blast? Madness.
Death Knights are on the way to looking like the MVP of the expansion. You would expect these death-focused characters to be well prepared to cross the threshold into the shadowlands, and you would be right – Blizzard developers seem to have had a good heap of inspiration on how they can make the class and the three different specialisations fun and interesting, and have implemented those ideas pretty well.
Two of the four covenant abilities looking good means that two of them look like they need a second look, and I can’t say for certain if that’s a common theme among the other classes without diving a little deeper into the classes themselves. Nonetheless, the two “thematically appropriate” covenants offer good abilities for the Death Knight, but I hope to see the Night Fae and Kyrian abilities brought up to snuff – I would hate to see people pigeon-holed into the obvious covenant choices for this kind of class without having the freedom to try something out of the ordinary because their covenant ability is rubbish.
Either way, if you enjoyed Death Knights in Battle for Azeroth or even expansions past, it looks like now could be the best time to hop back in and enter Shadowlands with the true class of death as your guide.