The Three Faces of Death Knight Tanks

Surazc – Death Knight Tank

One of the things that I enjoy the most about playing my Death Knight is that I’m not pigeonholed into doing things one specific way. Do I want to tank as a frost mage in plate? Okay, I can do that. How about a warlock with the long sought after ability to DoT multiple targets at once while granting bonus damage? Yep. Unholy’s got that covered solidly. Ever played a rogue? If not, there’s Blood.

Each talent tree in the Death Knight class is a solid mix-up of tanking utility and damage generation. Each tree has its own flavor, and with that flavor, a focus.

Blood seems to be the solitary OT spec of choice. It has a great deal of utility depending on how far down you go and if need be, can survive on its own for a solid amount of time by sacrificing raw damage obliterates for death strikes.

Frost gets down and dirty with an area-wide CC ability for its 51 point talent. Everything about frost revolves around stacking things up just right. Frost focuses more on controlling a situation versus its distant cousin in the Blood tree who seeks to turn every situation into Rambo v. Country X.

Unholy is, without contest, the Area Tank spec of choice. It also, without trying, is the support spec of choice. A Support Tank is what I’ve always wanted in my raids, and with Unholy DKs my wish has come true.


The thing that really makes DKs shine though is not the resource system of the class, but the design of the talent trees. In every tree you see a pattern:

  • 1st Tier: A tanking talent and 2 DPS talents.
  • 2nd Tier: Self-buff talents (minus Death Grip)
  • 3rd Tier: 1st utility, tree defining damage buff ability
  • 4th Tier: More self-buffs (Blood’s buff is survival)
  • 5th Tier: Damage talents (Frost is the exception here)
  • 6th Tier: Raid-Wide support and a personal buff
  • 7th Tier: Novelty Talent, Aura, and Support Talent.
  • 8th Tier: Utility + Damage Buff
  • 9th Tier: Tree defining strike, talents which make your frequent skills much better, and a survival talent
  • Tier 10: Expertise and Damage bonus
  • Tier 11: Giant RP dump which follows the tree ideal.

There are very few deviations from this talent structure throughout the entire class, and it is this fact, not their abilities, that make DKs so good.

We pay for structure though with the inability to use a shield. Not having a shield removes an entire (working or not) mitigation stat from the lineup and CAN make spec’ing a little bit difficult.

Having tanked in all three trees I have to say that while I die less often in Frost, tanking is more fun in Blood. Something about going toe-to-toe with a raid boss and having nothing to back you up except a giant 2 handed weapon piques something waaaay deep in the male machismo.

Unholy will forever be the support/DPS spec as it is difficult seeing a Warloc– I mean Death Knight, do much anything else with that lineup of talents.

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6 Responses to The Three Faces of Death Knight Tanks

  1. omenscourge says:

    I have to completely disagree with your last assement of Unholy being nothing more than support and DPS.

    I personally find main tanking as Unholy highly effective both in threat and mitigation and with the proposed changes in 3.1 I believe that will become even more apparent as I will be able to move away from my hybrid tank/dps build to 2 dedicated builds for tanking and DPS, both of which will be Unholy.

  2. omenscourge says:

    Since I don’t have an edit button….

    I agree Unholy makes fantastic Add tanks with our AOE ability, same goes for trash. Just don’t discount our ability to MT 🙂

    PS. Welcome aboard.

  3. TGAPGeorge says:

    Heh, sorry bout that, Scourge.

    Haven’t figured out how to add an edit button yet.

  4. Omenscourge says:

    It’s ok. I don’t have an edit button either.

  5. masterpsyker says:

    After reading over the comments I was trying to figure out what you meant, then I figured it out.

    The way it really breaks down is that Blood is tanking through raw damage in the physical realm. Great for bosses that are magic resistant or immune.

    Frost is good at getting around bosses that focus more on physical punishment or have high armor mitigation / dodge / parry / block.

    Unholy is a solid mix of the two and really shines at tanking while making the raid do more damage.

    I rank the specs in the order of Unholy > Frost > Blood just because of how they work with raid synergy.

    An Unholy DK tank will always have Death and Decay up, and SHOULD have his diseases up over all targets at once because of Ebon Plague, this is a tremendous raid DPS damage boost for your caster DPS.

    Unholy doesn’t have spike agro though. Frost does on demand with Deathchill and Howling Blast. Frost also has more long-term mitigation that doesn’t eat into your rune-rotation against melee with Frigid Dreadplate and magic reduction via Acclimation (I know about the magic shell talent, but that’s just 5 seconds).

    Blood comes in strong with a boost to your Physical DPS… but this is not a 100% boon. Melee DPS only needs to reach 110% of the tank’s threat to pull agro and if your tank is Blood, there’s a good chance that he will loose initial agro to a bad crit from a fury warrior or a rogue. Once he hits his first 4X HS rotation, he’ll be set.

    Just some more thoughts on that for a comment.

  6. As someone who abandoned Unholy Tanking after 3.0.8 to switch back to my Paladin/Shaman tank/healer combo, I agree with your comments here. I still play my DK but less often and usually in PVP (despite the fact that for duels my prot pala has never lost to a DK thanks to Seal of Justice!!).

    Unholy is definitely more of the off tank role compared to the other specs as opposed to the MT. I am not saying unholy’s are better off-tanks than frost/blood, I agree they are not.

    I’ve found unholy is better served in a Melee DPS utility role, and this is fun to play in itself! My Orc has remained Unholy despite my disappointment with the changes in 3.0.8, and in PVE I play my DK as an emergency add grabber/dpser.

    However I am still not convinced that Blizzard have placed DK tanking alongside 1. Paladin, 2.Druid, and 3. Warrior. My 25 man heroic Naxx Raiding Shaman healer would rank tanks that way for 5 man and Raids based on how much healing they need for anything other than a caster boss. For Casters the ranking is reversed. 1. DK, 2. Warrior, 3/4. Druid/Paladin.

    Before any warriors reading this get upset at ranking third in normal bosses, I also have a warrior and my insta threat generation is not as high as my Paladins (or even my DK’s). Warriors are no longer the kings of hard hitting bosses they once were, this role appears to have been taken by Druids!! If anything I know less about Druids, but they seem easier to heal than warriors.

    In my first list 1 to 3 are really close, closer than the gap from 3 to 4, meaning DK’s are still a little way off. Perhaps this may be due to the length of time people have been playing them, but I think it is still a design issue that blizz need a little more work to resolve.

    I’d like to see a new mechanic, similar to block, like a ‘glancing blow’ to help reduce the spikes in between cooldowns I see when healing/playing DK’s.

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