If you had to pick one Death Knight specialization as being the most thematic of the class, the honest answer would probably be Unholy. Shadow magic is the source of signature spells such as Death Grip and Anti-Magic Shell. It’s the source of the necromancy that gives the class its name. We leave our mark through the diseases festering inside our foes, and through the desecration of the world surrounding us.
So where does Unholy actually stand in the grand scheme of things?
Let’s start by providing some perspective, an odyssey through antiquity to show how far Unholy’s come. Ignore the Bronze Dragon heads over the mantle, I assure you those are purely coincidental.
Wrath of the Lich King beta: a time that probably still brings fear to the hearts of developers. Ghostcrawler has all but called this time his greatest failure as far as the introduction of classes. Players jumped on the opportunity to actively take part in the creation of a class, providing great tides of feedback based on their ideals. Unholy, as the most thematic specialization of the class, received a great many powerful additions:
- Our ghouls were able to perform such feats as applying Fears, Interrupts, Stuns, and an Infection to our enemies, and even explode at will.
- Shadow of Death, a mechanic not unlike the Spirit of Redemption for Priests, allowed us to resurrect as a ghoul immediately after death and essentially turn ourselves into suicide bombers.
- We brought utilities such as Unholy Aura for movement speed, and could even raise fallen allies as ghouls to improve raid DPS. We had the Desecration effect, which not only slowed enemies unfortunate enough to pass through it, but also increased our damage dealt to those enemies.
- We used Blood Presence to DPS, which in the time before Cataclysm both improved damage and refunded us health based on damage dealt.
- Did I mention we were still able to tank back then? We took pride in being anti-magic tanks, and even had the original Bone Armor/Shield. Even when we weren’t tanking, we still took Bone Shield for the damage increase (a little passive mitigation didn’t hurt either!), and used Anti-Magic Shell to generate additional runic power.
- We had such abilities as Unholy Blight (as an aura much like today, dealing shadow damage and applying its own disease), Ebon Plague (as an extra disease that increased disease damage), Blood-caked Blade (which initially started off as a disease that procced off melee attacks) and Degeneration (as both a disease and a means of dispelling HoTs from that pesky Resto druid) along with the ghoul’s Infect to improve our disease count, as well as talents like Virulence, Epidemic and especially Wandering Plague to truly make the most use of them.
- Our rotation? You could swap a pure-shadow damage Scourge Strike for a Death Strike (which healed for each disease on the target), since they shared the same rune combination.
- While we’re on pure-shadow damage, our auto-attacks also dealt 20% extra Shadow damage through Necrosis, and had a chance to activate powerful Blood-Caked Strikes.
- We also had exclusive access to some of the most powerful weapon enchantments in the game through our Runeforging skill.
Needless to say, we came out versatile at best and horrendously overpowered at worst.
Blood-caked Blade was altered into another damage bonus against diseased targets, Degeneration was fused with Blood Plague to reduce our disease count, the ghoul’s utility was dampened, and yet a large portion of this still made it onto the live servers.
Just as we’d gotten the brunt of the insane buffs, so too did we receive the business end of the nerf hammer. Wrath of the Lich King then became a time that Unholy players feared.
- Unholy Blight ceased to be a disease, and eventually stopped being an aura altogether- just a weak DoT effect at the end of a Death Coil (literally 1% of a Death Coil’s damage every tick).
- Unholy Aura was replaced with Improved Unholy Presence, which we didn’t care for seeing as all DPS preferred Blood Presence anyway.
- Scourge Strike was repeatedly and viciously nerfed- enough that it became favorable for Unholy to subspec into Frost to use Obliterates. Blizzard’s solution was for SS to cease to be pure Shadow damage, though at the time this just meant we had more reason to stack Armor Penetration.
- Shadow of Death was removed, and replaced with an ability called Ghoul Frenzy which we hardly had reason to take, much less cast.
- Perhaps worst of all, Desecration was split up- the slow effect stayed with it, but the damage effect was displaced as “Desolation”, a buff that activated off our Blood Strikes. It was barely strong enough to be worth taking, and weak enough that it felt like a punishment to use. If there was one reason to never return to Wrath of the Lich King for Death Knights, it was Desolation.
For a while, it seemed to be that Unholy lacked any single major source of damage output, but rather had to scramble to keep a dozen small DoTs and buffs active at all times.
That said, while the repeated nerfs to Scourge Strike destroyed our single-target damage output, we did fill one niche that only Affliction Warlocks could compete with: We were unmatched AoEing fiends. No, it wasn’t due to our ghouls constantly kamikaze-ing into packs of enemies, a gimmick that damaged our DPS more than it helped. This was even without the aura form of Unholy Blight! Alas, this was entirely through the passive talent Wandering Plague, which remained as sort of Blizzard’s apology for us lacking the cleave attacks that Blood and Frost reveled in.
And then it was gone.
Cataclysm provided a complete facelift for DKs, and Unholy in particular.
- Our rune regeneration changed from each rune regenerating independently of each other and Haste, to become three distinct Energy-like resources. This theoretically allowed us a little breathing room so that we wouldn’t have to use every rune as soon as it came off cooldown.
- We were introduced to the Frost talent Runic Empowerment, which was made baseline and replaced (for Unholy) with Runic Corruption. This completely changed our perspective on resource generation, as it created what is presently called the “feedback loop”, a two-way synergy between our resources. (It also sort of defeated the purpose of the above, however.)
- A new talent and glyph system was introduced, consisting of a series of automatically-received passive talents and three tiers of glyphs: Prime, Major and Minor. It was also cheaper than the previous system, since you only needed to learn a glyph once rather than buying a new one like an enchantment every time you changed specialization. This system also locked you into a spec to accommodate being dedicated to one role- no more tri-specialization DK tanks.
- Blood became the dedicated Tanking spec, so we inherited much of their original DPS playstyle: We traded our Bone Shield for Blood’s “Hysteria” spell in the form of “Unholy Frenzy”, which stacked with our Gargoyle and Army of the Dead, as well as (an active form of) Blood’s old Sudden Doom proc. Scourge Strike and Death and Decay became single-Unholy rune abilities, and we were introduced to Festering Strike, the class’ first (and only) Blood-Frost attack which gave Unholy some additional Death Runes.
- Ghoul Frenzy (despite suddenly looking a little more attractive through Scourge Strike’s new cost) was scrapped and replaced with Dark Transformation (a still more attractive option), returning a sense of synergy between the Death Knight’s spells and his ghoul.
- As the Ghoul was worth more and more of our DPS and the new resource system put more value on Haste, we returned to our namesake Unholy Presence. Unholy Presence’s 1-second GCD was made more potent as we received more buttons to push.
- We lost Armor Penetration but gained access to the “Mastery” stat, which increased our disease damage. As proof that Blizzard actually listens (or perhaps just proof that it takes complete ignorance through about 8 tries to return to the drawing board…), this terrible idea was scrapped and replaced with our familiar Shadow damage boost. Until our pets were given the ability to retain Critical Strike rating, this Shadow damage Mastery was a very potent stat (though still second to Haste).
- Our level 83 ability, Necrotic Strike, gave back to Unholy PVP what the removal of Degeneration took- a means of taking down healers. While initially just pseudo-damage, Blizzard wisely incentivized its use by allowing it to slow the caster down while active, giving us more time to strengthen its effects or just obliterate the caster.
- Complaints about our lack of mobility in PVP (with the removal of Unholy Aura) were addressed with the addition of Death’s Advance, a talent that reduced our vulnerability to slow effects. It was by no means a solution, but a start.
- Many boring passives and problematic talents were removed, such as Desolation.
Alright, so that’s the pro-side of the board. What about the cons?
- Our AoE was actually hit VERY hard by the Cataclysm, making us completely swap positions with Frost DKs in this niche (who had just gained a single-rune, zero-cooldown Howling Blast). Wandering Plague provided passive damage to us (despite being insanely powerful, popular, and a vital part of our AoE damage output), so it was seen by Blizzard as just another boring talent worth removing. The reduction in Death and Decay’s cost now made it apparent that we had nothing to do during AoE encounters other than hit (the very weak) Blood Boil when our Blood/Death runes came up, and spam Scourge Strike and Icy Touch with whatever we had left. Many people focus on the term “orphan Frost Runes”, but often forget that while Dark Transformation and Death and Decay are unavailable (which is all too often), our Unholy runes (ironically enough for the Unholy spec) also go unspent towards AoE.
- On the flip-side, between our new Mastery and its reduced cost, we were given more reason to put Death and Decay into our single-target rotation. This would be the start of a trend that bordered on having too many buttons. While this is more of a quality-of-life issue, it also tended to be annoying having to drag and drop an AoE under the boss every 30 seconds.
- As powerful as Dark Transformation was, it took more away from arguments that Unholy was focused on “sustained damage” and sparked heated discussions highlighting Unholy’s growing ramp-up times.
- Our level 81 ability, Outbreak, was intended to make target-swapping easier on DKs. However, with the changes to Unholy’s rune-pairings, it was relegated to an essential part of our opener against an enemy if we wanted to stay competitive. This meant we still lacked a means to swap targets rapidly. In fact, despite being labeled as the disease-heavy spec, Blood and Frost had more means of rapidly target-swapping than we did- a reduced Outbreak cooldown for Blood, and Howling Blast for Frost.
- While we’re on the changes to Unholy’s rune-pairings, Festering Strike wasn’t simply our only solution to orphaned Frost runes, but our only Blood-Frost spell period. The revamp to Reaping created a complete de-synchronization for Unholy that made standard Unholy-Frost abilities such as Death Strike virtually inaccessible to the spec- while Frost could swap out an Obliterate and it was part of Blood’s rotation, any attempt to heal ourselves risked completely destroying our rune regeneration cycle without Empower Rune Weapon to correct it, a waste of a perfectly good damage cooldown.
- While Blizzard intended to introduce Mastery as an easy tuning knob for DPS specs, we haven’t seen much change in its values as much as our new passive, Unholy Might.
- Despite being given a Mastery that affected Shadow damage, we were now faced with being given a deep Unholy talent that didn’t scale with Mastery, Summon Gargoyle.
- Blizzard intended to return to the old ways of building a spec based on personal preference, but still only created a brief illusion of choice- our talent specialization, Prime and Major glyphs were still based on cookie cutter builds. Our minor glyphs were a choice, only because they were equally worthless. (Except for Glyph of Path of Frost. Any and all fall damage-reduction can stay.)
Cataclysm was otherwise a very quiet expansion for Death Knights beyond release, not really receiving many memorable/lasting buffs or nerfs. Reforging made our shifting stat-weights easier to keep track of, and we used our newfound abilities to… return to Northrend… and collect transmogrification gear… yeah.
Our crash-landing on Pandaria proved that this would just be the calm before a storm.