Death Knight's Basic Gameplay  

Parts of this page were originally written by skribs.
I'm just providing a thorough overview of the Death Knight resource system, and the mechanics behind DK spells. This guide is intended to help people master the basics, so that they can then go on to learn other stuff and or do their own theory-crafting.

First off, just a general note, when you look at an ability, take notice as to whether it is magic damage or physical damage. If it is magic damage, it is not mitigated by armor. So even though magic-based attacks might seem weaker than the physical counterpart, they may or may not be once armor is factored in. Magic attacks also need more hit rating to be hit-capped (at least in PvE, not exactly true in PvP) and will not benefit from Armor Penetration.

Strength also gives additional parry chance to the DK. 25% of the Death Knight's strength goes to parry rating, making strength a very powerful stat for a DK. (So if you have 500 strength, that would add 125 parry rating).

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Diseases are an important aspect of the Death Knight. The base diseases deal damage on their own, in addition to an additional effect (such as slowing attack speeds or removing HoTs), while also buffing the damage of your strikes. Some talents make your abilities do more damage on diseased targets. A blood or frost DK will have 2 diseases, while an unholy DK will have up to 3. Abilities which benefit from diseases will only benefit from your diseases (unless the disease buffs the ability, such as Crypt Fever).


One of the chief principles behind the DK is that they are a melee spell-caster. In order to prevent DK's from becoming like enhancement shamans or retribution paladins, who need spell power from gear or talents, Blizzard gave DK spells an APC, or Attack Power Coefficient. If a DK ability is based on weapon damage (any of the strikes, obliterate, dancing rune weapon) it won't have an APC, but the rest of them (diseases, icy touch, howling blast, gargoyle, unholy blight, corpse explosion, etc.) will have one.

How the APC works is simple. If you have 1000 AP, and an ability has an APC of 0.2, then it will deal 200 damage. The talent Impurity increases the APC of spells (by 25% at max rank), but rather than additively like most other talents which increase spell power coefficients, it increases the APC multiplicatively. So that APC of 0.2 would go up to 0.25, instead of 0.45.

Also keep in mind that agility will not buff your spell crit chance, but other than that most of your stats should benefit both classes. For information on APC tables (or other formulas) I would recommend the following link.



The Death Knight has 6 runes, 2 of each type – Blood, Frost, and Unholy. In general, blood runes power blood spells, frost runes power frost spells, and unholy runes power unholy spells. Some abilities require both a frost and an unholy rune, and one ability (Death and Decay) requires one of each. No other ability which requires 1 blood rune will require any other runes, and no abilities require 2 of the same rune. When a rune is used, it is then given a 10 second cooldown. It cannot be used again until the cooldown is up. So if you use blood strike twice in a row (each strike consumes 1 blood rune) it will be 8.5 seconds before you can use a blood rune again. If an ability misses, the rune gains a 1 second cooldown. Thus, misses shouldn't screw rotations up too much.

Death Runes

Death Runes complicate the rune system a bit. A death rune is a rune that will function as any of the three runes (but only one at a time) determined upon use. There are 4 ways to get a death rune:

  • The ability Blood Tap will convert a Blood Rune to a Death Rune. This death rune will be active immediately (you do not have to wait the 10 seconds for the rune cooldown), and is the only way to get a death rune immediately.

  • Death Rune Mastery will convert the frost and unholy runes used by obliterate and death strike into Death Runes. This is a blood talent, and is generally used to allow the use of more blood abilities on the next rotation.

  • Blood of the North and Reaping from the frost/unholy trees (respectively) cause Blood Strike and Pestilence/Obliterate to convert the blood runes to death runes. This will allow more frost or unholy abilities on the next rotation. These runes suffer the 10 second cooldown before becoming active.

Death runes take the place of regular runes, they do not add to your runes. Also, to my knowledge, if the ability mentioned is used again, the death rune is converted into another death rune.Death runes are prioritized after regular runes (so if you have a blood rune and a death rune both active, and use a blood ability, it will consume the blood rune first), and prioritize from left to right if you have multiple death runes.


This isn't intended to give specific Death Knight rotations, but rather the syntax. For the example, we will use the Unholy Rotations. DK rotations usually come in 20 second rotations, with two 10-second cycles each. These are based on the cooldowns of runes, as well as the use of regular vs. death runes. Some specs rely on having 2 rotations, either a setup phase and a continuing phase, or alternating phases. This usually has to do with what death runes are available at the end of a rotation.

The example I'm using is an unholy DPS spec. The abilities mentioned are IT (Icy Touch), PS (Plague Strike), BS (Blood Strike), SS (Scourge Strike). The first 2 apply diseases, BS converts blood runes into death runes, and SS is the main form of DPS.

The first rotation is probably going to be:

  • SS SS SS

This means that you start off by applying diseases and setting up death runes, and then you use SS which is your power-house. The second rotation in the cycle you do 3x SS to get the most out of your runes (diseases will usually still be up). The second rotation is then:


This requires death runes for the first rotation, which obviously cannot be done first. As you can see, while the rotations end up being very complex, the syntax is actually very easy to use and understand. However, the class itself requires a lot of thought, because you figure you're using 6 runes (usually 4-6 abilities) every 10 seconds, and that's not including runic power.

Runic Power

Runic Power is the second major resource a Death Knight has. As you can see, managing runes, diseases, and RP is going to be a complex system of management, especially when you factor in that many DK abilities (not usually those in rotations) have cooldowns as well. Of course, most of those don't cost runes, so it makes rotations easier.

RP is generated almost every time you use runes. The exception is presences, which I'll get to later. An ability which uses 1 rune will generate 10 RP, 2 runes will generate 15 RP, and 3 runes will generate 20 RP. The talents Butchery and Scent of Blood (both in the blood tree), Chill of the Grave (frost) and Dirge (unholy) all increase your RP generation, in various (self-explanatory) ways.

Most abilities will use a set amount of Runic Power, much like most warrior abilities use a set amount of rage or rogue abilities use energy. There are a few exceptions, however. Dancing Rune Weapon consumes all runic power at once (like execute or ferocious bite), and Summon Gargoyle uses the initial RP cost at the start, and then drains your RP to continue the duration.

The Death Knight can have a maximum of 100 Runic Power (or 130 with Runic Power Mastery).


This is the only part of the guide where I will pass judgement. The presences will buff you for whatever you need to do. They are Blood Presence, Frost Presence, and Unholy Presence.

Frost is primarily for tanking, although it can help you survive if you need it. Blood and unholy will both give you the same auto-attack damage, but will buff your abilities differently. In a stand-still fight, you do not need to lower your GCD, so blood wins out as your abilities do 15% more damage. When movement is involved, unholy wins out because you can get a few extra attacks in when you have to.

The auras from the respective talent trees (Blood Aura, Frost Aura, and Unholy Aura) do not have stacking buffs. Frost Aura is nice, because it's buff is dissimilar from that of Frost Presence, but the other two do not. Frost Aura will not stack with buffs from other classes, however.

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This page last modified 2008-11-07 16:38:17.