Introduction – Another expansion with minimal changes
Unlike most other specializations having been featured so far, Shadowlands is looking to be an expansion with a very minimal level of polish to our spec. We’re losing relatively unimportant and unimpactful systems (our class-specific Azerite traits and essences were garbage), gaining a few abilities as part of the unpruning, and seeing changes to our gameplay in the form of covenants and soulbinds. Let’s go over the changes together, in terms of impact rather than just a description of them.
About the authors
This article was brought to you by Mandl (Mandl#0001 on Discord) and Panthea (RL of Catalyst on Tarren Mill). They are both tank multiclassers and Useful Minions for the Acherus Death Knight community, where they answer questions regarding death knights and discuss class and encounter strategies. Before its publication, it was also reviewed by the entire Acherus minion squad and Nnoggie.
What Has Changed?
We have been stuck with the dichotomous choice between Rune of the Fallen Crusader and Rune of the Stoneskin Gargoyle for quite a few expansions now, after all the runeforges present in WotLK were pruned. With shadowlands, we are getting a whole bunch of new runeforges:
- Rune of Hysteria – extra maximum RP and more RP from runes on a hasted 3 RPPM proc chance (on 0% haste, 37% uptime)
- Rune of Sanguination – a 1% damage increase to Death Strike for every 1% of the mob’s HP missing, along with a 48% heal when you fall below 35%, once every 5 minutes
- Rune of Spellwarding – 3% magical DR and a 10% max HP shield 3 times a minute. This proc is increased with haste.
- Rune of Unending Thirst – the most questionable rune in PvE. All effects – haste and healing – are a 10s proc on enemy death. This is, evidently, less than ideal in raids, and very questionable in M+
This is in addition to Rune of the Fallen Crusader and Rune of the Stoneskin Gargoyle. Number tuning needs to be done, but right now, for general use, you’ll be favoring Rune of Hysteria or Rune of the Fallen Crusader. Niche use cases can be made for Rune of Spellwarding if we ever get super heavy magic fights again (unlikely), and Rune of Sanguination for the long, deep execute fights like G’huun.
Assuming numbers do not get dumpstered overnight, we will have a combination of the following:
- Talent choices that depend on the fight profile (Voracious will be picked for pure survival and is actually good, now. Bloodworms will stay as the default due to it being the only talent on the row to provide DPS)
- Talent choices that depend on your level of haste (Rapid Decomposition provides a pretty decent buff to blood plague, now. At higher haste scenarios, or where you are capable of getting more stacks out of it, Hemostasis will remain the go-to pick)
- Talents that are no longer flat-out garbage. Mark of Blood might finally see some use outside of abusing it in ashran or helping your co-tank handle pa’ku!
This is great! This will be the first expansion in a long while where this is the case, as BfA was very much a cookie-cutter talent build outside of the last row (and first row, but it was a very minor choice). There are, as usual, some serious traps, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Other miscellaneous changes
The developers opted to make some small, quality-of-life changes to the spec, in the form of:
- 10% extra armor from Bone Shield, bringing us up to 50% and effectively counteracting the surprise nerf of 8.1
- As part of the unpruning, we recovered the following abilities: Lichborne, Anti-Magic Zone, Raise Dead (and Sacrificial Pact), and Chains of Ice so we no longer have to be in melee to snare stuff. In particular, Lichborne will likely allow you to immune and negate a variety of raid mechanics, making it much stronger than it initially looks
- We also recovered Rune Tap. More on that below, however.
- Blood Tap is back, providing an additional source of runes. Since it is off the GCD, however, it leads to a bit of APM bloat, something which could have been done baseline by bringing in an equivalent to Lucid Dreams.
- There is now a healing option for when you are not in melee range, as Death Coil allows you to heal undead targets. Hit Lichborne, then coil yourself. The amount of healing you get from Death Coil is significantly weaker than if you had spent the runic power on Death Strike
All this adds a lot of variety and additional utility, something we were lacking in BfA. And it’s all very welcome (particularly Raise Raise Dead + Sacrificial Pact, allowing you to have a living, walking DPS cooldown doubling up as a health pot on demand).
Lack of fundamental changes to the spec
Due to the very small amount of class changes, we’re still stuck with a number of issues that have been pain points since the Legion overhaul. A lot of those stem from our anemic rotation and lack of synergy between abilities.
In particular, we are the only tank requiring up-close-and-personal access to a mob to be able to get our active mitigation up. This was changed for protection paladins at the end of Legion, but somehow never happened for us. It led to some frustrating situations in the Eternal Palace, where you could get killed by a boss on pull through VB and an external, just because this boss happened to get to you before you got to it. This is why, back then, we were advising blood death knights to never, if at all possible, engage Orgozoa first.
The rest of our rotation is still lackluster: we’re still a very builder-spender kind of tank, in that we still have the requirement to stay above 5 bone shield stacks for death strikes, but not more. We still have no real procs or interactions, as crimson scourge is non-impactful. Basically, this feels like more of a band-aid than an expansion.
Rune Tap currently is an interesting button with a really problematic use case on alpha. They, fortunately, made one sensible change and took it off the GCD once more, so at least it is usable. However, it is currently the weakest it has ever been, reducing damage taken by 20% (30% on live – it has always oscillated between 30% and 40%) at the cost of a rune and a charge off its charge system. This rune cost may sound small, but it is a rune you’d have spent on heart strike. In raids, this means that each press of rune tap is a 5RP loss. In M+, this could be as much as 15RP due to heartbreaker that you cannot get back.
On top of this, due to the way death strike and blood shield calculations work, you’re looking at a small (but potentially noticeable) reduction in both death strike healing and blood shield size due to the damage intake reduction from it. While its choice is no longer problematic due to sharing a talent row with Will of the Necropolis, it is now a cast that you will likely only use in places where you would die without it, right now, and will not be at risk 5s later. Its negative effect on your RP economy is noticeable if used improperly, and problematic due to this.
One of the areas where it covers a gap in the toolkit is on pull. However, due to the relative nerf compared to live (20% DR vs. 30% DR), it is arguably largely unnoticeable, even when it is technically free (the first rune as you go in is a rune you typically would have capped otherwise).
Number tuning is still in the air, so it’s difficult to tell, but my biggest fear is that damage profile of encounters will assume near-constant usage of rune tap, which would be slightly problematic considering this penalty in usage.
Mandatory choices in talent rows
The textbook example of a talent that is borderline mandatory is Ossuary. On paper, it sounds pretty weak – a 5 RP reduction to death strike doesn’t sound like anything to write home about, at least immediately, until you realize just how much of a refund it is on a given encounter. Similarly, the second part of the effect (a 10RP maximum increase) is indubitably strong in quite a few situations, as it allows you to bank more death strikes and, in general, have a much more fine-tuned control over your survival.
Two bosses in M+ in Battle for Azeroth tested this exact situation: King Dazar, and HK8. Without taking Ossuary, these bosses proved to be much harder as you were only able to bank two death strikes for their combo abilities, leading to a much tougher time. With it, you could safely store a third, allowing you to DS 3 of the 5 (4 + the melee after) hits on Dazar, and each of the Wreck events should you prove to be unfortunate enough to not parry a single one of them.
In my opinion, Ossuary has no place on the talent tree, as it will quite literally always be picked no matter what row it is on. It is simply too impactful, too core to the spec, and too difficult to design worthy competitors to share a row. As such, it is probably another case where making it baseline would be more sensible.
Trap talent choices
On the other side of the scale, we have talents that will largely never see play, either because of the row they are on, or their effect.
One example of a talent that is too weak to compete on its row would be Tombstone. It forces you to spend more runes on marrowrend (4 runes per use) in order to gain an absorb shield and 30RP back. In the case where your choice would have been Blooddrinker, you are gaining 10 RP per cast of tombstone vs. having spent the 4 runes on heart strike. In the case of Heartbreaker, however, assuming pure ST, you are gaining 2 RP. The moment you managed to hit an extra mob once with heart strike, tombstone is RP-neutral, with the only gain being the absorb shield. As a result, unless you specifically need the absorb shield, you will likely just default to Heartbreaker every time.
In order to justify Tombstone, you would need to find a fight where you need this shield, but cannot do with a 20% damage reduction coming from either an external or Rune Tap. This set of situation is even more unlikely than it was in Battle for Azeroth.
A role reversal for Tombstone that would allow it to both fill a gap (our ability to pull safely) and turn it into a talent worth picking situationally would be to reverse its effect – make it grant 5 bone shield charges, but consume RP on use. This would allow you to both gain a buffer on pull, along with getting bone shield up on a pull without the need to sacrifice DRW for do it quickly, or having to be in melee to do so.
A flat-out trap talent example is Death Pact, both due to its behavior (a healing absorption is always clunky) and the fact that you are effectively only gaining a 20% max HP heal every 2min. To give you an idea of the scale, you will typically spawn a bloodworm 4 times a minute. When you drop below 50%, each one will pop healing you for 15% of your missing health. As such, assuming you drop below 50% once a minute, bloodworms is already 100% better than Death Pact.
This is where the problem with Shadowlands starts to rear its head. As it stands on alpha, we only have access to Covenant abilities – one generic, one class-specific.
For Blood DKs, we’re looking at a wildly different set of abilities, attempting to cater to different goals.
Specific: Shackle the Unworthy – lackluster and a heavy cost in GCDs; its main drawback is that the ability is pure single-target, whereas every other covenant affects multiple targets. Its AP coefficient needs a buff, or its usage needs to cleave.
Generic: Summon Steward – Can the bleeds the mobs apply in virtually every dungeon this expansion be removed? If yes, this will be dope. If not, then it’ll be largely useless. Shares a cooldown with your regular health pot.
Specific: Abomination Limb – single-target ursol vortex + some pretty chunky damage to everything near you for 12s every 2min. This will undoubtedly see use in certain fights and, most notably, in PvP.
Generic: Fleshcraft – the long cast time is problematic, particularly as, right now, you cannot parry during it. Assuming this gets changed, it will be a neat little additional cooldown to our arsenal.
Specific: Death’s Due – A replacement to Death and Decay, and probably the weirdest covenant ability. Has exactly the same AP coefficient as the spell it replaces, which feels like a bug as every other covenant deals damage. Grants you up to 15% strength and 15% damage reduction based on what was in the radius. This buff gets refreshed every tick, meaning that you can keep 100% uptime on this by simply casting Death’s Due on cooldown.
Generic: Soulshape. It feels good to have a bit of mobility once in a while. Need I say more?
Specific: Swarming Mist – Very decent damage, 10% dodge and 27-135RP per cast based on mob count every minute. Looking to be the strongest covenant by a landslide. It is currently bugged and the rune spent to cast it does not grant 10RP, but even with that, boy, is it strong on anything but pure ST.
Generic: Door of Shadows. Another mobility ability, one that has a short cast time but allows you to blink literally anywhere. It’ll be great for mobility, it’ll be great to cheese mechanics and move out of stuff between server ticks – what more can I say?
The situation as it is right now is the following: one covenant looks disgustingly strong overall, while another will likely allow you to negate mechanics in raids and dungeons. The other two are either sub-par (fae) or require a fundamental change to be good outside of niche scenarios (kyrian). We have been told that soulbinds will cover for these shortcomings; however, as it stands, these require a substantial push up to be considered.
My biggest worry on this one is an expansion-long dance of buffs and nerfs to a feature that is supposed to be near-permanent, or at the very least hard to change. In its current state, already, if you are doing two different types of content (PvP and M+, for example), you’ll have to accept that there was a better tool for one of them, that you could not pick because you picked the other. This is a very heavy choice with deep repercussions, and one that I particularly dislike.
By way of class improvements, torghast also gives us access to the following effects:
- Bryndaor’s Might provides a RP refund when Death Strike heals you for slightly more than its minimum. Simple enough, throughput fueling Death Strike is always good, especially considering how central this spell is to our arsenal, both defensively and offensively
- Crimson Rune Weapon likely has a missing multiplier in spellData and will very likely reduce by 3s, not 30s. The reduction is nice – the rune regen during DRW is a bait effect reminiscent of Lucid Dreams (the major), which will lead to resource overcapping during Dancing Rune Weapon and slightly degenerate play (you will have an incentive to go into DRW with nearly no RP). A strong feedback point on this would be to make it grant haste – nobody likes having extra runes without the GCDs to spend them
- Gorefiend’s Domination was a lot stronger in Legion than it will be in Shadowlands considering the number of multipliers we had on Vampiric Blood (Vampiric Fangs being the main driver). We’ll see how it is, but right now, Vampiric Blood is nothing to write home about, and as a result, I don’t expect this effect to be particularly desirable, especially considering the contenders.
- Vampiric Aura – Do you like M+? Do you like your party members requiring EHP for certain hits? You’ll likely be stuck with this one as a result. It is never fun as a tank to have to wear something for your group to be able to do stuff. This set bonus worked in Dragon Soul because it only really had value in the raid. With the advent of M+, and the fact that you are choosing this instead of other gains to your personal throughput and survival (Bryndaor’s Might) as opposed to just “getting it”, this item effect feels like it will be oppressive and choice-inhibiting
We also gain the potential use (subject to terms & conditions) of a few legendaries targeted at Frost and Unholy:
- Superstrain – the main point of this is that Frost Fever has a chance to grant 5 RP every time it deals damage, along with just being more damage. Likely strong, but not necessarily gamebreaking
- Death’s Certainty will likely see play in M+ due to Death and Decay cooldown reduction, assuming the dungeons are as oppressive as they were in BfA
Overall, there are a couple of effects that could be interesting as legendary effects. A variant of the tier 15 4-piece (Item – Death Knight T15 Blood 4P Bonus), with its value reduced to potentially 3-4 RP, would be an interesting effect to have, albeit a bit on the passive side. Similarly, the t16 4-piece (Item – Death Knight T16 Blood 4P Bonus, which we almost got as an azerite trait this expansion) would be another effect worth bringing back.
There aren’t that many fundamental differences between the alpha and live right now, to the point that you can hop from one to the other and not fundamentally change anything. Most of our strengths and weaknesses carry over to this new expansion, along with all the repercussions they have. Everything is just slightly stronger.
The biggest question mark right now is on the covenants and soulbinds system, which we hope will be available soon; I suspect nobody wants a re-do of what happened with Azerite during the Battle for Azeroth alpha, neither the developers, nor the players.
I still hope that we will at least see some changes to how bone shield is generated, to be a bit more in line with other tanks on that front (and not have to take an unmitigated melee from anything we start tanking). On the whole, this looks more like an incremental patch than an expansion in terms of class changes, which is both good and bad: good, because it will be a less jarring transition and a smoother pre-patch for most; bad, because it means all our changes will come from ephemeral systems.