The Evolution of Death Knights Through WoW's History
16/08/2022 à 13:58
With the upcoming release of
Wrath of the Lich King Classic Pre-Patch on August 30th
, we thought it would be fun to ask
, a long time Death Knight player and community member, to prepare an article looking at all the changes Death Knights have undergone over the years.
If you are interested in playing a Death Knight in Wrath of the Lich King Classic, check out our PvE Class Specialization Overview Guides below --
Blood Death Knight Frost Death Knight Unholy Death Knight
About the Author
Magdalena was an avid WoW player and Death Knight theorycrafter for many years. Although they no longer play the retail game, Magdalena is still an Admin and Co-Owner of the
#Acherus Discord for Death Knights
. Magdalena is excited to dip their toes into Wrath of the Lich King Classic!
The Evolution of Death Knights Through WoW's History
The addition of any new class to World of Warcraft is a significant and involved process. Classes and their specialisations represent the literal interfaces through which players interact with the entire virtual world that the game is built around. In the context of a game built around roleplaying and fantasy, it becomes even more necessary to ensure that a new class’s thematic design and identity are contextually appropriate when it is introduced, as well as determining the manner in which its toolkit will shake up the existing status quo relative to the class pool. While Dragonflight is poised to debut the game’s 13th class in the form of the Evoker, it also seems appropriate to cast a retrospective gaze back to the very first time that a new class was added to the game, following the debut of the original cadre of 9 from Vanilla – a time that many Classic WoW players are set to relive, in a manner of speaking. Cheeky puns about time-travel and the Infinite Dragonflight aside I am, of course, talking about
Chevalier de la mort
Introduced in 2008 with Wrath of the Lich King and set to make a reappearance in their original form (sort of, more on that later) with Wrath of the Lich King Classic coming to us in September, it is not an exaggeration to say that, to date, DKs remain unique in the unprecedented level of impact that they had upon the game as a whole. This was not solely due to the considerably overpowered state the class debuted with, but also because of what its addition meant for the development of the game at large. In many ways, DKs represented the prototype for a number of mechanics and experiences that would later go on to define the way in which both future classes were added to the game, as well as serve as the basis for inspiration when bringing changes to existing classes.
In this article, we’ll be taking a look at how the class has evolved and changed over the course of its existence in WoW. Given the constraints of space, I’ve elected to break down this coverage into three distinct eras that have come to define DK identity in their own, unique ways.
Era 1: Wrath of the Lich King
Canonically, Death Knights had existed in the Warcraft universe ever since the Warcraft II RTS game, rising to further prominence as one of the Hero Units available to players in Warcraft III. They were also present in World of Warcraft as NPCs and iconic enemies from the very onset of the game, and remained a tantalising reminder of the epic conclusion of Warcraft III, which had seen the triumphant ascension of the Lich King in its final moments.
As a highly anticipated archetype that drew upon the fantasy of “playing Arthas” (paraphrasing a developer interview at the time), the community had fairly steep expectations of what playing a DK would be like… And Blizzard truly delivered here in spades. Given that World of Warcraft is, at its heart, a game about the balance of cosmic powers, players were finally able to express their own agency in a class that embodied the force of Death.
Thematically, DKs managed the admirable feat of combining both “evil spellcaster” and “dark warrior” archetypes that had been expressed in equal measure during earlier games in the Warcraft series. They called upon vampiric powers to sustain themselves in the face of enemy onslaught. They tapped into necromantic energy to summon fiendish undead minions to do their bidding. They brought forth pestilence and rotting decay upon their enemies while pummelling them relentlessly with icy strikes.
Being the first ever “hero class” meant that DKs began at a much higher level than other classes, due to the emphasis upon them being battle-hardened soldiers rather than fresh recruits who would eventually work their way up the ranks. The unique starting zone experience that saw DKs break free of the Lich King’s influence and reclaim their independence was also the first of its kind, and has generally served as the basis behind how future hero classes were introduced down the line.
If that weren’t enough, DKs also received perks such as a free, fast ground mount and access to powerful runeforges that replaced traditionally expensive weapon enchants. Once ready to join the main world for questing and levelling, they emerged from the starter zone with a set of gear that was powerful enough to bypass almost all upgrades from most Burning Crusade levelling content, and even rivalled items from most Level 70 raids.
While it may seem easy to take such notions for granted in the modern game’s landscape, it’s hard to overstate how much of a departure this was from the traditional “build your character up from the ground” paradigm that had come to characterise levelling in World of Warcraft up till that point.
DKs were also the first class to launch with a true dual-resource system that combined elements of both Energy (i.e. Blood, Frost, Unholy, and Death Runes) and Rage-based (i.e. Runic Power, which was generated by spending Runes) models, thus demanding that mastery of the class lay in paying attention to how players would spend both resources without overcapping either. The relative success of this system would later inspire classes like Warlocks and Paladins also receiving secondary resources besides mana in the form of Soul Shards and Holy Power, respectively.
Then there were the specialisations themselves: Blood, Frost, and Unholy.
The fact that all three trees were built to allow for both Tanking and DPS meant that the class essentially maintained six specialisations instead of three. They were also intended to be fully PvP-capable and brought powerful types of group/raid utility which, in some cases, even surpassed that of other classes. They were also able to utilise either two-handed weapons or dual-wield one-handed weapons, which would go on to play a large role in how a variety of subspecs evolved.
Most importantly: There was the
of talents in each tree which the class went Live with. Former Lead WoW developer Greg Street (a.k.a Ghostcrawler), who played a key role in helping design the original DK, has both
about how unintentionally overpowered the class came to be, thanks to a combination of overambitious design goals and heeding communal worries about not being able to find space for DKs in their raid slots.
Whatever the reason, the end result meant that clever players were able to piece together absurd, unintended builds that outshadowed any other class in competition at the time. A few honourable mentions from those early days go to:
Blood DKs spamming Obliterate and Heart Strike while completely forgoing diseases – a build that was able to top the charts in Naxxramas!
The first incarnation of Shadowfrost builds, which involved a near-even split between the Frost and Unholy trees, using Icy Touch as its hardest hitting attack.
Unholy DKs being one of the only specialisations initially able to successfully Tank Sartharion with three drakes alive, thanks to a combination of absurdly powerful cooldowns in the form of uncapped Anti-Magic Shell, Bone Shield granting 40% damage reduction, and Icebound Fortitude granting 50% damage reduction on a one-minute cooldown.
DKs absolutely dominating the first Arena Season of Wrath in all brackets thanks to extraordinarily powerful crowd-control abilities and anti-caster tools that made them the bane of every healer.
Dancing Rune Weapon copying every DK spell, including Army of the Dead and Death and Decay, and annihilating entire clumps of enemy players in Wintergrasp with Pestilence.
The Shadow of Death talent in the Unholy tree, which allowed DKs to self-resurrect as ghouls and keep fighting.
It did not take long for Blizzard to realise how out of control things had become. Thus began the great rollercoaster of nerfs and talent redesigns over the entire course of the expansion, which in turn would often lead to even more absurd or unintended builds (Unholy DKs utilising Obliterate, anyone?).
To date, no class has ever come close to approaching the degree of rapid change experienced by DKs over the course of a single expansion. Indeed, up until the release of Icecrown Citadel, every new content patch also adjusted the class to such a degree that all DKs received a full refund of all their previously spent talent points!
Era 2: Cataclysm to Warlords of Draenor
After a tumultuous first expansion that only really saw DKs come fully in-line with other classes by the final tier, it became clear that the development team had grown weary of having to reinvent the proverbial wheel every time new content was added.
Cataclysm thus introduced three important changes to the class, with the general aim of establishing more permanent foundations that the class could rely on without needing near-constant overhaul:
Blood was redesigned into a dedicated Tanking tree, while Unholy and Frost were consigned to DPS roles. This meant that each spec could now solely focus on its singular role, without concern that adjusting it in one area would unintentionally cause imbalance in another.
In response to complaints about the Wrath-era resource system simultaneously feeling too unfriendly to players with high latency as well as too metronomic and predictable, the way in which Runes worked was changed. Whereas previously Runes had refreshed concurrently independent of one another, they now refreshed sequentially in pairs, meaning that one Rune had to be completely recharged before its corresponding partner was able to begin its own recharge time.
To fill in the lengthy GCDs that the change to Rune recharge times would have otherwise incurred, another mechanic introduced to the class was a dedicated feedback loop between Runes and Runic Power – spending one resource would now directly contribute towards the generation of the other, thanks to new passives such as Runic Empowerment and Runic Corruption, rather than the one-way process from Wrath.
Although this model was lamented by some due to the removal of a great deal of the uniqueness that the class had shipped with in Wrath, it was also considered more stable and received more careful, measured iteration over the course of each expansion.
Ironically, despite developer intentions, this era is also prominent in that it also saw each spec develop at least one unintended playstyle once per expansion! In many ways, this spoke to how far player ingenuity and communal collaboration were able to push the limits of what class developers had intended.
Frost DKs began utilising Howling Blast as a single-target attack even outside of Rime procs during early Cataclysm. Although the initial “
” playstyle that emerged from Two-Handed Frost users was nerfed within days of first emerging, players were not deterred. The subsequent “
” rotation that became popularised for Dual Wield Frost during Dragon Soul was slightly more balanced, and very well received by players – to the point where Blizzard’s class development team decided to allow it to become the default playstyle for Dual Wield Frost in subsequent expansions.
DPS vs Hagara the Stormbinder on
Unholy DKs received their spot in the limelight during Mists of Pandaria’s Throne of Thunder raid. Thanks to the power of the Fabled Feather of Ji-kun trinket and some inspiration from Affliction Warlocks, the “Festerblight” playstyle was born. This saw Unholy DKs utilise the power of snapshotting to ensure that their fully buffed diseases were maintained on targets for as long as possible through extra Festering Strikes, which amounted to a considerable damage gain. Although snapshotting was removed after Mists of Pandaria, this disease-centric playstyle directly inspired the development of the Necrotic Plague talent (never forget!) as a partial replacement..
Rounding things off in Warlords of Draenor, Blood DKs took advantage of the massive amounts of Runic Power generated by the spec’s unique attunement to the Multistrike attribute, (as well as a certain Chains of Ice glyph, ahem) to come up with a “
Chains of Sindragosa
” playstyle, which allowed them to maintain near-permanent uptime on Breath of Sindragosa and thus rival most DPS specs in the game with their damage output. Although removed by the time the expansion’s final content patch was deployed, it remains fondly remembered!
“Chains of Sindragosa” playstyle
Duality vs Mythic Blackhand (Blood DK PoV) on
Era 3: Legion to present
As an expansion that brought a new series of developer goals and game design paradigms to WoW, Legion also marked a period of great change to almost every class and specialisation in the game. For Death Knights, this meant a reexamination of the class’s resource system and how easy it was to intuit for newer players.
Ultimately, the decision was made to simplify Runes by consolidating the different types of Runes into one resource. Put simply: Blood, Frost, and Unholy Runes ceased to exist, replaced by a singular, homogenous type which could fit any ability cost. Given that DK specialisations and rotational abilities had thus far been designed with differing Rune costs in mind, this change necessitated new solutions to fit with this paradigm.
For Blood DKs, this meant the conversion of Bone Shield from being a cooldown to becoming part of the spec’s baseline mitigation system. The addition of Marrowrend, an ability that generated charges of Bone Shield, thus served as a core component of this new rotation, which also saw Death Strike shift to costing Runic Power instead of Runes. From Legion till Shadowlands, Heart Strike occupied a niche that saw it inject additional Runic Power into the Blood rotation, though this functionality appears to be gone with Dragonflight. Since Legion, Blood has also occupied a group utility niche for itself as the only DK specialisation to retain AoE Grip (Gorefiend’s Grasp) and also bring consistent slows via rotational abilities.
The change to runes saw Unholy DKs receive a combo points-type mechanic in the form of Festering Wounds, which would be applied by Festering Strike and then consumed by Scourge Strike to provide additional damage thus garnering the nickname of “pimple popping” from many in the community. The specialisation also received an increased focus on its undead pets and minions playing a greater role in its damage profile and gameplay, with new cooldowns such as Apocalypse summoning Army of the Dead ghouls and Dark Transformation gaining additional functionality in how it empowered the permanent ghoul pet.
Comparatively speaking, Frost DKs received fewer changes to their rotations from earlier expansions, and instead focused on diversifying their Area of Effect toolkit (which had previously been restricted to Howling Blast spam) via abilities such as Remorseless Winter and Frostscythe. Ironically, after eschewing Breath of Sindragosa for all of Warlords of Draenor, this era also saw the ability become exclusive to Frost and began featuring prominently in most of the spec’s optimal PvE builds. While Legion and Battle for Azeroth saw Two-Handed Frost removed as an option for the specialisation, Shadowlands saw it return due to popular demand and Dragonflight seems set to continue honouring this reversal.
Due to the borrowed power systems that have accompanied Legion, Battle for Azeroth, and Shadowlands determining the bulk of class and spec-specific customisation available to players, less time has been spent on making changes to the baseline toolkits of classes. While DKs have received some iteration over time (with the return of Anti-Magic Zone as a raid-wide cooldown being a prominent addition to the class’s raid utility toolkit in Shadowlands), the core, underlying design that was pioneered in Legion has largely remained intact. Although borrowed power as a paradigm seems to be a thing of the past in Dragonflight, the bulk of talents previewed for all classes during testing seem to have been derived from a mix of abilities and passives from these preceding expansions. Thus, it is likely that Dragonflight DK will feel quite familiar to anyone who has tinkered with the class over the past few years.
Some final thoughts
As with any class, Death Knights have seen considerable iteration upon their design over the course of their existence in the game. With both Wrath of the Lich King Classic and Dragonflight coming, players will have the opportunity to explore two very different iterations of the class depending on which version of the game they pick.
Although Patch 3.3.5a DK (i.e. the version that will be used for Classic Wrath) was considerably less overpowered and much more in-line with other classes than its earlier Wrath iterations, it is still sure to be considered a strong class able to justify its spot in raids or in ranked PvP. Whether you’re a Wrath veteran looking to indulge your nostalgia or a curious newcomer eager to see what all the hype was about back then, I highly recommend giving the class a whirl.
For those with an eye to the future, Dragonflight does seem to be taking the positive step of incorporating some favoured toys from previous expansions and adding them as options to the new talent trees. This will mean a generous infusion of new DK-themed abilities and passives to the class, such as Abomination’s Limb as a general talent, Festermight for Unholy DKs, Frostwhelp’s Aid for Frost DKs, and Everlasting Bond for Blood DKs. Coupled with some interesting new talent options for the class as a whole, it’s likely that any DK players from the past couple of years will find the class familiar enough to return to comfortably while still enjoying the novelty of its new options and talent possibilities. Those seeking more information about the intricacies of playing a DK can also feel free to join us on the
In the end, regardless as to whether you intend to adventure in Northrend or join the expedition to the Dragon Isles, I leave you with the signature phrase that’s come to embody what it means to play a Death Knight: Suffer well, brethren!
S'abonner à Wowhead
[Enjoy an ad-free experience, unlock premium features, & support the site!]
Afficher les 0 commentaires
Masquer les 0 commentaires
Connectez-vous pour laisser un commentaire
Commentaire Anglais (12)
Poster un commentaire
Vous n'êtes pas connecté(e). Veuillez vous
pour ajouter votre commentaire.