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Plaguebearer: A retrospective look at Death Knight level 100 talents

As is the case with the final tier of every expansion, we find ourselves in the midst of a lull. Although this is sure to be alleviated with the release of further Legion information, it also presents an opportune time for class communities to reflect on their course this expansion. Today’s column, therefore, aims to take stock of the performance and use of level 100 talents by Death Knights since their initial debut over a year ago during Alpha. Due to word constraints, I will restrict my analysis solely to a PVE perspective for today’s exercise.

The first glimpse of the level 100 talents by players occurred during BlizzCon 2013. Although largely consigned to screenshots, they generated a great deal of excitement within the community: Two of the proposed abilities (Defile and Necrotic Plague) were directly copied from the iconic arsenal of spells wielded by the Lich King during the final battle atop Icecrown Citadel. Breath of Sindragosa, while newer, drew upon two concepts that had players very excited: An AOE Runic Power dump and a reference to another iconic boss. Even after undergoing the usual iteration that follows testing, all three abilities survived relatively unscathed in both name and nature. In the following sections, we’ll examine each talent’s journey from the first few Alpha builds till now.

For an ability named after one of the most terrifying (and memorable) mechanics of the Lich King encounter, Defile was greeted with puzzled disappointment by players when testing began. It didn’t appear to be anything more than a slightly stronger version of Death and Decay (which it replaced), and still utilized the hideous graphic that the Lich King version does — one that did not mesh well with any type of terrain that wasn’t flat!

Over the course of the testing process, Blizzard adjusted numbers to where Defile became nearly three times as powerful as Death and Decay and also replaced the graphic with a toned down version. This resulted in the ability becoming a fairly straightforward choice for most players — it was worth using on single-target off cooldown, presented a large AOE gain and was also easily fit into most rotations. Indeed, Defile’s near-supremacy among both tank and DPS DKs was apparent during all of Highmaul. Although its competitors became more popular from Blackrock Foundry onwards, Defile continues to be a favorite talent for newer players, and holds its own for all three Death Knight specs at various levels of play.

So why do I regard Defile as the most boring of the level 100 talents? For the very same reasons that it’s so successful! Outside of being a stronger version of an existing spell, Defile does not offer an exciting choice. Its rate of increased growth is rarely appreciable in most PVE situations (since positioning it to clip the edge of a hitbox usually means that a player was doing something wrong), and even its defensive benefit for Blood — a flat 10% damage reduction against enemies damaged by the ability — is fairly boring. What made Defile as a mechanic so terrifying during Lich King was that it demanded a quick reaction: Not moving out of it quickly meant a guaranteed wipe. While a player ability would never reasonably have that level element of danger, it’s also sad that the particularly memorable part of what excited players doesn’t seem to have translated well.

It’s true, what they say: It hurts to be right sometimes! Over a year ago, I made the prediction that Necrotic Plague would only offer truly compelling PVE gameplay for one Death Knight spec: Unholy. To date, I consider this statement to have been proven true by its track record. First however, let’s go over the talent’s functionality.

Necrotic Plague was originally slated to replace one Death Knight disease (Blood Plague), and was also not supposed to be spreadable by any conventional means such as Blood Boil. This quickly turned out to be unviable within the existing context of rotations and the rune system, which caused it to be changed again to its current incarnation: Necrotic Plague currently replaces both Blood Plague and Frost Fever, and is also spreadable via Blood Boil. This latter functionality actually differs according to role: For DPS DKs Blood Boil will cause the longest duration Necrotic Plague to spread to new targets (regardless of stack count), whereas for Blood DKs it will spread Necrotic Plague to undiseased targets at one stack with a full 30 second duration. Compounding this complexity is the fact that Necrotic Plague cannot overwrite itself once applied to a target, and is also capable of its own jump mechanism independent of being spread by Blood Boil.

But why would I say that Necrotic Plague has only proven itself to be an interesting mechanic for Unholy DKs? To begin with, its damage has simply never worthwhile for it to compete seriously for Blood DKs, even after the buffs it received during patch 6.1. Its defensive benefit comes in the form of Runic Power that the Blood DK gains each time an infected enemy attacks them — but this is laughably weak due to the fact that Blood is already quite GCD locked with its existing Multistrike attunement, and that even if the Runic Power were usable it would not amount to any meaningful mitigative gain via rune gain or Shadow of Death stacking. The icing on the cake is the fact that reapplying Necrotic Plague on single-target fights outside of would necessitate sacrificing future Death Strikes or wasting runes generated via Blood Tap — a general fail all around.

Frost DKs may find my assertion more puzzling. After all, many players have commented on how much more enjoyable their rotation feels without having to use Plague Strike to apply Blood Plague or use Blood Boil to spread it. A comment I hear frequently is “I love being able to Plague Leech with just one disease that I can instantly reapply at range!” All of this is absolutely true — and, unfortunately, has nothing to do with Necrotic Plague itself: What players actually enjoy is the lack of Blood Plague and Plague Strike, which have long felt like vestigial, outdated parts of the Frost DK toolkit. The overwhelmingly positive reaction brought on by Necrotic Plague is largely the result of it removing a nuisance from the existing Frost rotation, rather than by virtue of its own potency. From this standpoint, I consider it to have failed to do what a talent in its situation should have done.

There’s not much need to go into detail about Unholy DKs: As the only spec capable of extending and maintaining a maximum-stack of Necrotic Plague indefinitely, Unholy has been able to utilize the talent successfully as a powerful AOE and cleave tool. This potency was only truly realised during Blackrock Foundry, but has remained a strong fixture since. It fits in well with Unholy’s theme of being a disease-centric spec, and is a welcome addition to its arsenal.

I’ve saved the best for last! Even with Breath of Sindragosa’s turbulent history during Beta and also on Live, it remains my absolute favorite addition to the our toolkit in Warlords. Originally, the ability was only on a one-minute cooldown and acted as an AOE Runic Power dump that was just over double Death Coil’s damage per Runic Power cost. Midway through testing, in an effort to get it to feel truly “different” from a semi-rotational ability like Defile, its cooldown was doubled and its damage increased significantly. This was amazing — too amazing, in fact: It turned out that Breath of Sindragosa could amount to a near 600% increase in damage during any significant AOE phase, as Paragon member Verestrasz showed us!

Although this was quickly remedied by causing Breath to deal lower damage to secondary targets based on their number, it has still proven to be an extremely challenging and rewarding talent for Unholy DKs looking to maximize their single-target damage. Like Necrotic Plague, this was only truly recognized with Blackrock Foundry gear and continues to grow stronger every week in Hellfire Citadel thanks to the talent synergizing so well with the legendary ring. For Blood DKs, it caused the emergence of an entirely new playstyle: Chains of Sindragosa, which you can read about in detail in my linked article.

For Frost DKs, Breath of Sindragosa proved to be a worthwhile choice for two-handed Frost during Highmaul — unfortunately the spec itself fell to the wayside shortly thereafter, and hasn’t seen a return since. Dual-Wield Frost, unfortunately, avoids the talent due to it sharing the same resource cost as Frost Strike. Put simply: The fact that Breath does not interact with Killing Machine and barely breaks even with the damage of Dual-Wield’s average Frost Strike hit means that it is a non-option for Frost DKs today (as two-hand Frost has not returned to raiding prominence).

Limited discussion space aside, today’s column should hopefully provide a concise look at how the newest additions to our arsenal in Warlords has fared thus far. While it’s regrettable that the more interesting choices are also constrained by spec, I am hopeful that some of the more interesting gameplay they’ve encouraged will be preserved in Legion.


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