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Tanking in 3.1 - A Buffet of Choices
Back in April the first major content patch since Wrath of the Lich King was released - Patch 3.1, containing, among other things, the Ulduar raid instance. In that patch Death Knights underwent some significant changes, and there was a lot of speculation about the 3.1 Death Knight changes and how they would effect both 3.1 tanking and 3.1 DPS. It's been several months since then, however. The kinks have been worked out, specs, rotations, and glyphing has been standardized and we're in a much better position to share the best ways to play your Death Knight tank post patch 3.1.
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Tanking Talent Specializations - Blood
The standard Blood Tanking build has several strengths and several weaknesses. First of all, this is not a spell-based talent tree. Unlike parts of Frost and most of Unholy, the vast majority of Blood's primary abilities are pure melee attack based, meaning that it relies, somewhat, on armor debuffs like Sunder Armor to be viable for threat. This usually isn't a problem in 25-man raids, but could prove problematic in 10-man groups that aren't balanced accordingly. As a Blood DK tank, you'll want to stack Armor Penetration wherever possible for threat reasons. Blood Tanking is also not very AoE based - it is much more like a Warrior style of tanking, with an ability, Heart Strike, that can hit two targets next to eachother and some light AoE via Death and Decay. Blood also doesn't have triggered damage mitigation effects, like Unholy's Bone Shield or Frost's Unbreakable Armor.
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Death Knight Blood Tanking Strengths
Despite those weaknesses, Blood brings some strengths to the table. One of these is a high amount of self-healing. Rune Tap is capable of a strong self-heal. Vampiric Blood increases healing received, and Mark of Blood places a debuff on the enemy causing its attacks to heal the Death Knight. Couple this with a greatly increased Death Strike and a Blood tanking Death Knight can do an awful lot of self-healing.
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Death Knight Blood Tanking Ability Rotation
The Blood Tanking rotation starts off by the Death Knight applying his diseases - Icy Touch and Plague Strike. From there, you'll want to use Death Strike, followed by two Heart Strikes (Heart Strike completely replaces Blood Strike). Finish off with two more Heart Strikes and some runic power dumping via Death Coil or Rune Strike - Then rinse and repeat!
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Tanking Talent Specializations - Frost
Frost is currently a very balanced tanking talent tree, with decent threat generation, AoE and single target rotations, and damage avoidance cooldowns. It has a couple of weaknesses that may not make it ideal for every raid group, but it is definitely a well rounded talent spec worth consideration.
Frost is the only one of the three "cookie cutter" tanking specs that doesn't take an raid-wide buff. Blood has Abominations Might, Unholy has Ebon Plaguebringer, but this Frost tanking build doesn't take Improved Icy Talons - the only raid-buff available in the tree. It's worth noting, though, that Abomination's Might doesn't stack with the Hunter's Trueshot Aura. Ebon Plaguebringer doesn't stack with a Warlock's Curse of Elements. Lastly, Improved Icy Talons doesn't stack with a Shaman's Windfury Totem. Unbreakable Armor is one of the damage avoidance abilities of the tree, but many tanks don't bother with it because they feel the effect isn't worth it - It only absorbs around 1300 damage on a well geared tank - over 25,000 Armor.
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Death Knight Frost Tanking Strengths
On the up-side, Frost has a very solid AoE in Howling Blast, which works with Killing Machine at times to result in several chained Howling Blasts dealing considerable amount of damage. It's Frost Strike ability replaces Death Coil as a "runic power dump", deals considerable damage, and cannot be dodged, blocked, or parried - this makes it extremely powerful, especially for tanks who have to contend with Parry and Parry Haste if they're not expertise capped.
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Death Knight Frost Build Ability Rotation
The primary rotation for this Frost build requires the player to use a Glyph of Howling Blast along with it. The opening attack is Howling Blast, which when glyphed puts Frost Fever on all targets hit. Instead of using Plague Strike for another disease we skip it, basing the entire build off of a single disease - Frost Fever. Since Howling Blast will be used to keep Frost Fever up, Icy Touch isn't "required" either. You may want to keep it handy for single-target threat, however, as it only uses one rune and the build has it "Improved" to deal 15% more damage.
After Howling Blast use two Blood Strikes to get Death Runes, then use Obliterate mixed with runic power dumping via Frost Strike and Rune Strike. Then, rinse and repeat!
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Tanking Talent Specializations - Unholy
Unholy is a powerful tanking tree that maximizes AoE threat, magic damage, and magic damage avoidance. This can be particularly useful because the vast majority of "tank killers" are magic based attacks. Unholy, though, is a little bit weak in other areas - like Single Target threat. In many cases, Unholy tanks cannot hold threat on single boss fights - though this greatly depends on the raid group composition.
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Death Knight Unholy Build AoE Tanking
This build includes all of the AoE goodies - Morbidity, Unholy Blight, and Wandering Plague. It is extremely easy for an Unholy tank to hold threat on many targets at once - in most cases they never even have to change targets. The AoE threat rotation opens with Death and Decay (Glyphed to be even stronger). Then, use Icy Touch, Plague Strike, and Pestilence. Trigger Unholy Blight, then Blood Boil Twice. From this point you will likely have enough threat to hold all of the mobs until they die. Or, you can drop Death and Decay again and keep using Pestilence and Blood Boil, just in case.
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Death Knight Unholy Build Single Target Tanking
For single-targets, you're going to want to use Scourge Strike - a lot. It is your hardest-hitting ability, and therefore will generate the most amount of threat. The single target rotation opens with Icy Touch and Plague Strike, Blood Strikes twice for Death Runes, then Scourge Strike as much as possible for threat with runic power usage prioritized as Rune Strike > Unholy Blight > Death Coil.
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Advantages of the Death Knight Unholy Build
The major advantages of this build are its usage of Rune Tap for a quick self-heal in emergencies, a 100% mitigation Anti-magic Shell which also reduces magic damage you take, and Anti-Magic Zone. If you want, you can take one point of of Rune Tap and two points out of Bladed Armor to instead get Improved Icy Touch in the Frost Tree, which slows the attack speed of enemy targets by an additional 6%.
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Tanking Talent Specializations - Unholy-Blood Hybrid
One of the less spoken of, and more creative of the 3.1 tanking talent specs is one that takes the best from Unholy and Blood and puts them together. Like all builds, it has its weaknesses, but it also has some incredible advantages, especially in its strength against magic damage.
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Magic Damage, Magic Damage Avoidance, and Disease Damage - The keys to the Unholy/Blood Death Knight Hybrid
The basis of this build is to get the most magic damage avoidance possible, along with high health. For this, we reach deep into the Blood tree, grabbing several damage-increasing talents along the way for threat reasons. It takes Spell Deflection for magic mitigation, and Veteran of the Third War for two reasons - The first is a 6% bonus to Stamina and the second is the 6 expertise bonus (1 more expertise than available by reaching deep into Frost and Unholy).
In the Unholy tree we focus on magic and disease damage, along with Anti-Magic Zone and Magic Suppression for increased magic mitigation and survivability cooldowns. This build also allows us access to Ebon Plaguebringer, the Unholy raid-wide debuff that increases the magic damage taken by the boss. Bone Shield is taken for added damage avoidance, and is incredibly powerful. This build is played identically to a full cookie cutter Unholy build, but has higher hit points and greater survivability versus magic. It is slightly less powerful for AoE because of the loss of Wandering Plague, but the impact isn't significant.
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Death Knight Ebon Plaguebringer Variation
There is also a powerful variation of this build that trades Ebon Plaguebringer for greater mitigation and some self-healing. By taking three points out of Ebon Plaguebringer you can put the fifth point in Toughness, and take Rune Tap and Mark of Blood. If your raid can afford the loss of the Ebon Plaguebringer debuff, this is an extremely powerful tanking build. The modified build looks like this - 25/5/41.
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Unholy/Blood Death Knight Hybrid - Ability Rotation Adjustments
Make sure that, with this build or any other Unholy build, that you take the Glyph of Plague Strike to improve the efficiency of the rotation. Glyph of Death and Decay greatly improves AoE threat, and Glyph of Bone Shield is extraordinarly powerful for surviving big hits.