January 13, 2010

A death knight primer for tanking 5-man dungeons

So when the Dungeon Finder came out, it was pretty cool even for DPS. A 10 minute wait for a DPS slot for a 5-man dungeon is pretty insanely awesome. If nothing else, it was certainly faster than the old way of sitting in Dalaran for 2 hours picking your nose and watching the LFG channel.

Now that the dungeon finder has been around for a while though, things are getting a bit stickier for DPS. My server averages around 15-20 minutes for a level 80, and I've heard some battlegroups are up to 30-45 minutes, even at prime time. To make matters worse, tanks and healers can continue to boast instant or near-instant queues almost everywhere, leaving the poor DPS green with envy.

Now technically, this is how it's almost always worked. Tanks and Healers get groups pretty quick, DPS has to wait around. And all told, the dungeon finder system is still pretty cool, and you still get a group faster than the old way. That said, now that we've had a taste of true power, I'm sure we're all loathe to lose it. Luckily, death knights have an out: We can go tank.

Whether you're a DPS DK considering going tank for shorter queue times, or a 5-man DK tank newbie looking to up their game, this column's for you.

Talents and Specs

The death knight tanking spec in itself is a mysterious concept to many. There's those who hold on to the outmoded pre-Beta idea that Frost is the only viable tanking tree. There's those who assume that "DKs can tank in any tree" means they can tank in any spec. We know the truth. You can tank in any tree, but you really need a specific spec to tank.Luckily, dual speccing makes it much less painful for most of us to tank on a tanking spec (Sorry PvP and PvE DPS specced death knights, though, you need to make a choice).

The start to a good death knight tank spec is 5/5/5. That's Blade Barrier, Toughness, and Anticipation. These are three basic defense skills that will start you off on the right foot to survival. Sure, every once in a while someone will put forth some esoteric spec that skips one or more of them for some strange reason, but those builds almost never last more than a patch, if at all. Besides, we're just trying to get in shape to tank 5-man PUGs, not reinvent DK tanking, so let's stick with the basics and start with 5/5/5.

Once you got that in place, move up the tree of your choice, grabbing the defensive talents and cool downs. Don't forget a few DPS talents too, you'll need to be able to hold threat. Of course, while basic tank builds, from my way of thinking, are pretty intuitive, it doesn't hurt to spell it out too. Here's a look at 3 possible builds, one for each tree.

This Blood tank spec gives you most of the bells and whistles of Blood, while also delving into Frost and Unholy for some extra slowing power on Icy Touch and a cool down reduction for Death and Decay. With this build, you'll have solid single target threat, and Spell Deflection will let you laugh in the face of casters. You'll be slightly weaker at AoE threat than the other two trees, but your Blood Boil and Death and Decay will still be potent. You'll also have extra self-healing from using Death Strike as your main Frost/Unholy strike, which will help if you drew a lackluster healer. Of course, in return, you won't have as much purely reactive damage soaking ability as the other two trees. Even Vampiric Blood requires you to be healed to reap the full benefits.

This Unholy spec starts by delving into Blood for some extra threat help and Frost for the extra Icy Touch debuff. Building up the Unholy tree, we focus mostly on getting AE threat tools, grabbing the requisite defensive cool downs as well. I ignored Reaping just because you'll be using those Blood runes for Death and Decay, Pestilence, and Blood Boil. Some would argue that one should clear points out of Desecration and Wandering Plague and finish out Desolation instead. Admittedly, there's a lot to be said for this argument at the raid level. That said, I do like having the extra debuff of Desecration at a 5 man level to wrangle in runners, since you won't always be able to trust your DPS to take care of them, and you may have a hard time keeping Blood Strike in your AoE rotation to keep the Desolation buff up anyway.

Unholy has slightly less pure defensive power than the other groups at lower gear levels, although Bone Shield gets a lot more powerful the more avoidance you get. It also has some amazing AE threat, and Ebon Plaguebringer will make any smart caster DPS you pick up love you forever, especially since you can spread it to multiple targets so easily.

For 2-handed Frost Tanking, try this build. Frost is actually a pretty amazingly nice build for absorbing damage, between things like Frigid Dreadplate and Improved Frost Presence, you'll absorb a lot of extra damage without even trying. Hungering Cold is great emergency snap threat and crowd control, and Howling Blast adds another nice bit of AE threat gathering. The downside to this build is that you don't bring as much group utility as Blood and Unholy. But then again, most PUG groups are just going to be happy there's a tank around.

Now, I honestly would caution against trying to do dual wield tanking until you are very well geared, but if you insist, you can take points out of Morbidity, Two-Handed Weapon specialization, and Merciless Combat to grab Threat of Thassarian and Nerves of Cold Steel pretty easily.

As far glyphs go, I've added glyphs to all three links above, so you can get a general idea of what to chose from those links. I should note that while I gave every spec the Death and Decay glyph, a lot of death knights at higher gear levels will pass on that one, especially since it's less than useful on single-target fights. I've included it in these builds because we're talking PUG 5-man tanking, which presumes you'll be mostly AEing down all your trash. In that case, that extra 20% damage on your main AE threat ability is a very nice buffer when you're starting out as a tank.


Once you have your spec figured out, you'll need to get geared up. The first rule of tank gearing, at least until Cataclysm comes out, is pretty simple: Get 540 defense skill. This will get you immune to all critical strikes at level 80. Now admittedly, you only strictly need 535 Defense skill to get to uncrittable in heroic dungeons, but getting to 540 is good practice for raid tanking (If nothing else, you may want to move on to PUG Vault of Archavon raids somewhere down the line, right?), and the extra defense skill still provides dodge and parry.

Most of the gearing advice you need for starting out in heroic dungeon running you can find in back issues of Lichborne, so I'll go ahead and summarize what to look for in those articles here. You should be able to pick out gear from these articles that'll get you started on heroic tanking easily enough:

This article summarizes basic defense gear for the fresh level 80 Death Knight tank. It should be useful to find some quick and dirty upgrades as you start your tank career, although some of them will be a bit low powered for the harder heroics.

This article discussed pre-raid defense gearing back before Patch 3.2, but it's still a handy list for what to look out for in heroics.
Both of the above articles were written before Patch 3.2 and the Crusader's Coliseum, so you'll want to check out our Crusader's Coliseum death knight tank gearing guide, since that stuff will almost always be superior to the gear mentioned in the two articles above.

Don't forget to get enchantments and gems too. As a rule of thumb, use Thick gems to get to 540 defense, then Solid gems to buff up your health - it's a little bit simple, but it'll work for heroic 5-man tanking. The Austere Earthsiege Diamond should work fine for your metagem -- You can grab a Resolute or Stalwart gem to get the red gem requirement.

As far as what quality of gem to use, it depends on the gear. Once you're grabbing Emblem of Triumph and t9 tank gear, I'd strongly recommend investing in epic gems, but anything lower than that, you can get away with blue, maybe even green if you expect you'll upgrade it once or twice more before replacing it with t9 or a raid drop. Rotation Basics

As a PUG 5-man tank, you'll find that just about any group just wants to blast groups over as quickly as possible, willy nilly. Therefore, it's going to be to your best interest to establish AE threat as soon as possible.

First things first: lay down Death and Decay. Yes, even you, Unholy death knights. I know you want to get your Ebon Plaguedown first, but the fact is, your DPS is not going to hold back. They're going to start unloading on whatever target they please, and you'll want to have the threat to keep aggro right off the bat. Use the high threat move first, then spread your diseases. In other words, your first set of runes should be spent something like this:

Death and Decay->Icy Touch->Plague Strike->Pestilence.

You'll now be doing continuous damage to the entire group, enough that you should at least have locked down against incidental damage and light healing. With your next set of runes, you can bring it all home. If you can manage to do it without losing threat, tab over to a new target. Hit your Frost/Unholy Strike (Scourge Strike for Unholy, Death Strike for Blood, Howling Blast for Frost), hit a Blood Boil, then hit a pestilence to spread the diseases again. Since you tabbed to a new target, you'll have refreshed the diseases on your original target as well.

The basic rotation above will get through pretty much every AE battle. Then you just need to learn to weave in basic defensive cool downs and runic power dumps, and you're set. Your basic single target DPS rotation should work fine against bosses.

Other Tips

Of course, part of being a tank is staying aware and adapting to circumstances so you can keep your group members alive, so it's good keep on your toes. The first thing you should do upon zoning into a new dungeon as a tank is to make sure your Frost Presence is on. I know that seems sort of like newbie stuff there, but you'd be surprised how often you might forget, especially if you are switching between DPS and Tank specs a lot. Frost Presence makes up a good portion of your survivability and threat, and if you don't have it up, your group will suffer, if not outright wipe.

Beyond that, learn to adapt and use positioning to your advantage otherwise. If you're still running as a DPS, observe where other successful tanks are pulling and positioning stuff. Chances are, that spot might be a good spot to pull stuff when it's your turn to tank. When deciding on a pull, try to position your Death and Decay such that it hits as much of the group as possible to better establish initial aggro. If there's a caster in the group, LOS him or use Death Grip or Strangulate to pull him right onto the Death and Decay. Have Blood Tap handy in case you need an emergency Death Rune for your major tanking cool down.

Also, don't be afraid to lead. Even if you aren't technically assigned the leader slot, chances are you'll be the defacto leader, setting the pace of the pulls and whatnot. If you see a way to make things more efficient, put it into effect. If you're having trouble keeping aggro or staying alive because DPS is all scattered willy-nilly, start marking targets and setting kill orders.

Once you have all of this together, I also might encourage you to try a few test runs with patient guildies or even on a normal dungeon in dungeon finder. That way you can practice your new tanking skills in a friendlier environment, or at least one where it's easier to recover if you lose control for a second. It takes a little preparation, but if you can pull all this off, the emblems will roll in that much faster.

One last tip: Don't believe the hype. Death Knights are good, solid tanks right now. Yes, we take a little bit more damage in 5 mans because of lack of block, but it's far from unmanageable. Yes, there's bad Death Knight tanks out there, but no more or less than any other tanking class. I think my worse tank in a Dungeon Finder PUG thus far as has been a paladin, with the best being an Unholy death knight. Still, we're the new kids on the block, even if we are over a year old as a class. For that reason alone, you'll probably meet some people who are inclined to dislike death knight tanks. Look at it as an opportunity to prove them wrong.

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