Death Knight's DPS FAQ (WoW)  

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World of Warcraft

This FAQ is going to assume you know basic game mechanics, stuff like hit caps, expertise caps, etc. Just a warning for later on when I start talking about melee hit caps and spell hit caps so your monitor doesn't get gooey from your brain exploding. If you don't know what I'm talking about, read here.

Runes, Runic Power, and General DK mechanics

Runes are essential to a Death Knight. They're what we're constantly watching as we DPS (or tank), and they're what provide us with the ability to use such a wide variety of skills. We have 6 rune slots, and we start with two of each type of rune. These runes are correlated to each of our three talent trees: Blood, Frost, and Unholy. Runes have a 10 second cooldown after they're used.

Runic Power is generated by using our rune abilities. It fills up a bar that's much like a Warrior's rage bar, which we can then spend on abilities to do damage, interrupt spell casting, or other useful abilities.

Using a 1 rune ability will generate 10 runic power (RP). Using a 2 rune ability will generate 15 RP. Using a 3 rune ability will generate 15 RP.

Abilities generally fall into 4 categories for DKs.

  • Blood Abilities: These cost 1 blood rune. They're generally the bread-and-butter DK attacks, modified by how many diseases you have on your target. When we get to the Frost and Unholy build sections, we'll talk more about how these are useful.
  • "FU" Abilities: They're called that because they use both a Frost and an Unholy rune. Obliterate and Death Strike are the two most commonly used, though there are others.
  • Disease Abilities: These two abilities are unique because they're used in every single DK build, bar none. Icy Touch (Frost) and Plague Strike (Unholy) each apply a disease to your target, though they don't do much damage.
  • RP Dump Abilities: Goofy name, I know. But that's what you mainly use these abilities for; getting rid of your RP to make room for more RP and do damage at the same time.

So as a new DK, you may be wondering why the "Disease Abilities" get their own category. That's pretty easy to explain, so let me elucidate.

Abilities like Blood Strike do additional damage (most often quite a bit more) the more diseases that are on your target. You can hopefully now see why they're so important. You do substantially more damage with Icy Touch and Plague Strike up on your target.

DK Abbreviations

I'm mainly going to use the abbreviations I've gotten used to seeing on ElitistJerks, so if this seems like copypaste, it kinda is. I'm not going to reinvent the wheel when it already works well.

Short Form Full Name Short Form Full Name
IT Icy Touch SD Sudden Doom
BS Blood Strike MoM Might of Mograine
PS Plague Strike BG Blood Gorged
HS Heart Strike HB Howling Blast
FS Frost Strike BotN Blood of the North
SS Scourge Strike GoG Guile of Gorefiend
DS Death Strike GoG Tundra Stalker
HC Hungering Cold DRW Dancing Rune Weapon
SG Summon Gargoyle OaPH On a Pale Horse
CE Corpse Explosion MoB Mark of Blood
IBF Icebound Fortitude CF Crypt Fever
BT Blood Tap EP Ebon Plaguebringer
AMS Anti-Magic Shell RoR Rage of Rivendare
AMZ Anti-Magic Zone OB Obliterate
ERW Empower Rune Weapon DC Death Coil
BB Blood Boil FF Frost Fever
BCB Blood-Caked Blade BP Blood Plague
AoD Army of the Dead UB Unholy Blight
DG Death Grip DnD/D&D Death and Decay
MoG Master of Ghouls

The builds/itemization section will take me most of an entire post, so I'll be reserving the next two posts (just in case) and editing them as I get the builds up and then fleshing them out with info.

DPS Basics

Alright, now that we know what abilities do, it's time to talk about skills that you'll need to work on with said abilities. These are skills that will boost your DPS in a raid environment which will also make switching targets easier.

  • Presence
Blood, always. Unholy is for PvP. Frost is for tanking. Keep your damn Blood Presence on when you're DPSing.

  • Pestilence
Using Pestilence to your advantage on trash packs is a very good use of a Blood Rune, even if you don't have Epidemic. You're essentially multiplying your disease damage by however many mobs there are, and also setting up your next target so you can immediately move into your main rune attacks (HS, OB, SS).

  • Trash "rotations"
There are no real rotations on trash mobs; when people talk about rotations, they mean on bosses, where you're generally sticking on one target and need to maximize every single bit of DPS you can get. This applies to what I was just talking about with Pestilence; you're not always just going to be blasting away with PS/IT/SS/OB/HS/BS. You're going to need to use other abilities.
  • Blood Tap
Lots of Blood DKs don't think this ability is useful for them; au contrare, mon frère. This ability takes a Blood Rune and turns it into an active Death Rune, regardless of whether that Blood Rune is on cooldown. You can see already that this is worth it slight bit of HP that it'll cost you to use it, I hope.

  • Death and Decay
I know it makes a really cool noise, it's an AoE, and it looks really trippy, but it's terrible rune use and terrible for DPS, on top of causing a metric crapton of threat. Don't ever, ever use it when you're DPSing.

  • Raise Dead
Yes, there will be times when you should be using this. Most bosses will allow you to use ghouls. The thing to make sure of (which I'm not) is if there are player-activated things like Flame Wreath on Aran, will the ghoul activate them? If so, I'd only use your ghoul briefly and Death Pact him as your first "pot" to gain 20% of your HP. Keep in mind as Blood and Frost, you cannot make your ghoul follow you; as Unholy, you can, but you lose a lot of DPS if you DP it.

  • Hysteria
Goes on your highest DPSer. End of story. I don't care if you want it for yourself, it goes on the highest DPSer in your group for that boss. We're min/maxing here, folks.

  • DRW/Garg
DRW/Garg are only used at 100 RP. Once you use DRW, you can then go back to your normal rotation. With Garg, you cannot dump RP until the effect is over. Dumping RP on DCs will not allow the Garg to stay for the full minute possible duration.

  • DW versus 2h
2h. Always. Including tanking. 90% of our attacks are directly related to weapon damage, so what would you rather use; something that hits for 1000, or 500? Glad you see it my way.

  • Icebound Fortitude/Anti-Magic Shell/Lichborne
These aren't just PvP abilities (admittedly, Lichborne is more PvP-oriented). IBF reduces all damage by 50% in the duration and has a 1 min cooldown. On bosses with an AoE, use this to soak some of the damage if you can't avoid it. AMS reduces all spell damage taken by 75%, and can possibly generate RP for you (though if you're generating RP from this ability, odds are you're doing something wrong). For Lichborne, other DKs can heal you, and for bosses that have fear mechanics, they often have a cast time. Pop Lichborne before you get feared, and voilá.

  • APC - Attack Power Coefficient
This is the system the game us to turn our Attack Power into 'spell power' for the purpose of determining the damage of our spell ability, such as Death Coil or Icy Touch.

You can calculate how much damage your spells will be doing with a very simple equation:
B + (C x AP) = D
With B being the base damage of the spell, C the attack power coefficient of the spell and AP being your attack power. D is the damage you will be doing.

Ability Coefficient
Blood Boil 0.04
Blood Plague/Frost Fever 0.055
Blood Worm 0.006
Corpse Explosion 0.0475
Death & Decay 0.0475
Death Coil 0.0475
Howling Blast 0.1
Summon Gargoyle 0.4
Icy Touch 0.1
Pestilence 0.4
Strangulate 0.6
Unholy Blight 0.013
Death Coil damage with 2000 AP:
443 + (2000x0.15) = 743


Keeping in mind that this is a PvE and end-game oriented FAQ, let's leave leveling and PvP discussion to other articles. This should be about min/maxing DPS.

Blood (50/00/21 or 51/13/07)

Blood is the current highest DPS spec. It's much more stable than Frost or Unholy, and provides one of the best melee raid buffs in the game (Abomination's Might, 10% increased AP). The rotations are more stable, and the single-target damage is very, very high.

A special mention must be given to Abomination's Might and Blood Aura, which are too superb raid buff that are well worth bringing a Blood Death Knight for. Sadly, Abomination's Might does not stack with Unleashed Rage. The difference between the two builds is two-fold: 50/00/21 has Gargolye and no Annihilation, where 51/13/7 has Dancing Rune Weapon (DRW) and includes Annihilation. Annihilation is a wonderful talent. Obliterate (OB) normally removes the diseases on your target. Annihilation (3/3) gives you a 100% chance for Obliterate to do damage without removing the diseases, and also provides a crit buff to specials.

The main issue is that Garg does much more damage at lower gear levels; it doesn't scale as well as DRW does with gear (especially weapons, since DRW replicates your weapon). There's also the fact that DRW is basically fire-and-forget. Get 100 RP, hit DRW, and forget about it. With Garg, you have to constantly monitor your RP, as you won't get the full minute uptime without constantly watching your RP. You need to generate 450 RP over the course of a minute to keep the Garg up for the full time.

What does that mean? Well, you can't dump any RP into Death Coils while it's up. Maybe I should show the general rotation for Blood before we go more in-depth:


PS -> IT -> HS -> HS -> OB -> DC*
PS -> IT -> HS -> HS -> HS -> HS -> DC*


PS -> IT -> HS -> HS -> OB -> DC
OB -> HS -> HS -> HS -> HS -> DC

The DC at the end of each line indicates a RP dump before continuing on. Sudden Doom procs should be used at this time as well as dumping all of your available RP until you have less than 40.

Frost (17/54/00)

Frost is probably the most different spec of all three trees. You essentially replace your RP dump with a new ability, Frost Strike. While it's more powerful than DC, there are less DPS talents in the Frost tree, which evens the playing field. Since this build is the only build other than 51/13/07 that has Annihilation and it has no Heart Strike, this build's main attack is Obliterate. The only other rune attack that you'll be using outside of PS/IT/OB is Blood Strike, and that will be to take advantage of the Blood of the North talent, which changes Blood Runes to Death Runes after using a Blood Strike. Your rotation will orient around getting your two diseases up, BSing, and then blowing the rest of your runes on OBs and then dumping RP with FS.

Frost allows for Improved Icy Talon and Frost Aura. Frost Aura is the most lackluster of the 3 Death Knight Aura, giving only 5 more Resist then an improved mark of the wild and thus often being totally skipped in DK build (as it is in the one discussed here). Improved Icy Talon however, is a really powerful buff and while it doesn't stack with Windfury Totem, it free up the Shaman's Air totem - he can then use Grace of Air and Flametongue Totem, ending in a net dps increase for the raid.

One thing that's nice about this build is the talent Rime, which gives you a chance on IT to make Howling Blast (HB) free of runes. When Rime procs, use HB immediately.

This build has two procs that you need to look out for, unlike Blood's one proc (Sudden Doom). Freezing Fog is the name of the Rime proc. Killing Machine is the other. Killing Machine has a 50% chance to proc off of one of your auto-attack crits, and gives you a 100% crit chance on your next IT, HB, or FS. Obviously, we want to use this on HB or FT. Unless Rime procs, you want to save KM for FS.


PS -> IT -> BS -> BS -> OB -> FS
PS -> IT -> OB -> OB -> FS

The FS (Frost Strike) at the end of each line indicates a RP dump before continuing on.

Unholy (17/00/54)

Unholy plays a bit like a combination of Blood and Frost. Your rotation is very similar to Blood in that you only apply diseases once per rotation, but you're using an FU rune attack with BS to pick up Death Runes. At lower gear level, Unholy is extremely competitive with Blood, even at time surpassing it, mostly because Scourge Strike is a magic attack, hence it ignore armor and doesn't require you to have as much armor penetration as Blood does. Unholy relies on Gargoyle has its big dps ability, it's very important to know that Gargoyle take a snap shot of your character when it is cast and then does dps according to the atk power you had at that moment. The best way to use Gargoyle is to wait until your fully buffed with as many proc as possible up, and then use any attack power increasing trinket you have before summoning it.

Unholy's raid buff come from Unholy Aura and Ebon Plaguebringer. Unholy Aura is a rather unique buff that will increase raid dps and survability on any fight where mobility is important - and that is a lot of them. Ebon Plaguebringer boost magic dps and diseases (helping out other Death Knight at the same time) damage, however it doesn't stack with a Moonkin's similar debuff.

It's also a very AoE-friendly build, thus very good for trash and AoE grinding. Unholy also pills up the damage via the Wandering Plague talent, giving a chance to every disease to hit twice per tick.

You also get permaghoul (i.e. a ghoul that's much like a warlock's pet) with this spec.

A really important thing to know, is that while Crypt Fever/Ebon Plaguebringer count as Disease for the purpose of calculating Blood Strike and Scourge Strike damage, it only count for the first Unholy DK that applies it. This mean that having more then one Unholy DK in a raid/party is counter productive, as one of the two will inevitably lose one of his 3 disease and this will greatly hurt his dps.


PS -> IT -> BS -> BS -> SS -> UB
SS -> SS -> SS -> DC

The UB (Unholy Blight) at the end of the first line indicates a RP dump before continuing on to the second line. You then dump RP into DC, and switch back to UB at the top of the rotation.

Death Runes

They need their own section. Each tree will have their own Death Runes, which are runes that switch from their normal form to a "Death Rune" which can be used as any type of rune. Death Rune Mastery (DRM) in the Blood tree converts an Unholy and a Frost rune to a Death rune each time an FU ability (DS/OB) is used, allowing for more HS in the second section of the rotation. The other trees have much the same in the talents "Reaping" (Unholy) and "Blood of the North" (Frost).


The first thing to know about gear, is what stats you need and what they do for you, so you can answer for yourself what gear you actually need. Here's the return on gear based on Naxx 25 man DPS gear.

Base stats+Talents +Raid buffs

Stat (rating) Unholy Blood Frost
1 AP 1.0000 1.0000 1.0000
1STR 2.4847 2.5570 2.3650
1HIT 2.4748 2.6609 2.4046
1APR 0.5447 1.0456 0.7628
1EXP 1.3914 1.7023 1.2453
1CRT 1.1240 1.1453 1.1894
1HASTE 0.6214 0.5640 0.4978
1DPS (wpn) 7.5670 8.9665 10.3610
Spec 17/0/54 51/13/7 17/54/0
DPS TOTAL 3114.42 3278.62 3152.79
Keep in mind this is vulnerable to change as we are still building up the theorycraft around gearing a Death Knight. Use this as a guideline, rather than all-to-be-guide.

Remember that the value for Hit represent the dps value before you are Melee Attack capped (9%), the value of Hit as a dps stats drops considerably once you reach that point and drops down to 0 once you are magic attack capped (17%). The same goes for Expertise, this is the value for Expertise before you are 'dodge capped' (5.25%) - also remember that most spec have talent that grant you a certain amount of expertise.

Gear List

Coming Soon

Gems, Enchants and Glyphs

Coming Soon

Parts of this page were originally written by theophany.
Wrath of the Lich King

This page last modified 2010-09-16 09:49:03.