The Wandering Plague Revival

Apologies for the month-long hiatus, though there hasn’t been much change on the PTR front since my last post, save for a few changes to Strangulate and Asphyxiate. So, time for a post that has absolutely nothing to do with those!

Readers who are more familiar with my articles probably have realized by now that I have a penchant for referring back to Unholy’s AoE situation. I’ve already previously suggested a complete alteration to the rotation as a whole in my AoE Review, involving the revival of an old ability called Wandering Plague and a higher emphasis on disease control in general. No, the purposes of said revival aren’t to give us some boost in DPS; rather, I’m using this as an opportunity to call to attention the necessity for Unholy’s AoE rotation to be altered.

But why?

What’s Wrong With 5.2 Unholy’s AoE?

For the purposes of this article, let’s forget that Unholy is drowning in buttons necessary to deal a meaningful amount of damage during an AoE phase. Blizzard has clearly taken notice of this and given it some care in 5.2, even though it’s really only removed the use of Festering Strike.
Let’s also forget that the only meaningful “cleave” damage currently in our single-target rotation comes in the form of Dark Transformation, which in itself needs a good 20 seconds of preparation time.
When it comes to Death Knight AoE rotations, Blizzard has actually done a pretty decent job of keeping them separated while still maintaining a number of themes between them. Through the use of Death runes, each spec averages out to having about 4 runes per rotation which they can use to AoE in a pinch, plus Death and Decay: Frost has 4 runes it can spend to Howling Blast at all times, Blood has 2-6 runes it can spend on Blood Boil each rotation, and Unholy can have up to 4 runes with a little bit of prep time.
Unholy is at a glaring disadvantage in this field.

If you want to compare average runes allotted to AoE per rotation, then Unholy is a bit behind numerically (starting with two runes to AoE and never having more than four for that purpose) – but with a technically minute difference, depending on the length of the AoE period. No, the disadvantage here comes in the need to generate runes to catch up to the rest of the raid’s ability to AoE on a dime, as death knights are one of the few classes that needs to exchange their resource types to alter their forms of damage. Put simply, Blood is always converting its runes, but never uses them as Death runes; Frost never converts its runes, but never needs to; Unholy converts runes for everything and spends them on everything- except AoE, where it is forced to save them, and the whole strategy of which clashes with the use of some Tier 75 talents. While Frost and Blood can fire their cleaves right off the bat with basic forms of runes, Unholy DKs need punishingly exact timing relative to the encounter itself. If not, the Unholy DK must prepare their runes via Reaping- but by the time they regenerate, the AoE scenario will probably be almost over.

In my Rune Management article, I highlighted one major flaw in the Reaping passive as it pertains to AoE: When casting Blood Boil using a Frost-turned-Death rune, Reaping will attempt to turn any unaltered or reverted Blood runes before it will change any Frost runes. If the AoE period comes too quickly, a bit of poor timing between swapping from Scourge Strike to Blood Boil can lead to a reversion of a Frost rune and force the casting of more single-target abilities to make up for it. Blizzard band-aided this problem by altering Reaping in 5.2, but we’re once again reverting to using Icy Touch to complement the use of Blood Boil in AoE; while primarily a slight, it’s still very much a single-target ability, magical but unaffected by our Mastery, which forces us to reapply Frost Fever. This, in turn, makes the change to Plague Strike somewhat redundant for Unholy DKs.

Unholy’s AoE also has a major disadvantage in its limited range. While Unholy’s often called the “caster spec” of the class (as exemplified by our use of Death Coil, pets and heightened diseases) we’re still bound to the melee range of our Pestilence and Blood Boil abilities. Death and Decay gives us another 30 yards, but only every 30 seconds, by which point we could have cycled through our runes three or four times (and two or three waves of adds could spawn). While I’ll grant this is a dilemma many melee classes face, DKs also lack a sufficient gap closer mechanic, which Ghostcrawler himself has repeatedly said should be made up for by… our range. Thus, while the warrior can just Charge in and Whirlwind, the DK wastes time catching up. Frost, of course, does not have this problem with Howling Blast, while Blood doesn’t really care given its tank status.

Most importantly though (and this may touch on numbers, for which I apologize), Unholy sacrifices the ability to effectively “burst” AoE for “sustained” AoE – the very concept of which is flawed. From Cata till even now, most AoE scenarios don’t last very long- around 15-20 seconds, few more than a minute at a time, and always getting shorter as gear picks up, eventually eliminating the niche. The closest we’ve had to a “sustained AoE” scenario in Mists has been Wind Lord Mel’jarak in Heart of Fear, and Frost still tends to edge us out in that department regardless.

My proposed solution to the issues above is quite simple: mimic our single-target rotation in our AoE rune-spending. Unholy needs a 1 Unholy rune AoE button to fire, and to phase out Blood Boil and Icy Touch.
Being able to swap directly from single-target to multi-target and back simply by switching buttons rather than preparing your runes over an extended period means we can finally take an active part in AoE-heavy scenarios. We’re effectively swimming in Unholy runes, but don’t really have much to spend them on anyway.

Why Wandering Plague?

Since about the time of the removal of Glyph of Disease, diseases spread by Pestilence have taken snapshots of the user’s stats at the time of casting Pestilence, rather than just spreading diseases with their values on the source target. This is quite unfortunate, as the change to Plague Strike in 5.2 means that it’s become beneficial for Unholy DKs to “game” diseases in single-target by refreshing them when trinket procs are active, extending them as long as physically possible with Festering Strike.
This is the most we’ve been able to do with our diseases this expansion.

In my History of Unholy, I pointed out that upon release, Unholy had access to 4 different diseases (including one disease aura) and Wandering Plague to draw the maximum amount of damage we could out of these diseases (as our own form of cleave damage), and could instantly refresh them with Glyph of Disease.
For most of Cataclysm, we were the only spec that could spread diseases at their full strength via Pestilence, because (according to Ghostcrawler in the Cataclysm beta) disease damage was always supposed to be a major part of our AoE.
Today, we have only the Ebon Plaguebringer passive to boost their damage over Frost and Blood (along with Mastery to increase Blood Plague’s), Festering Strike to increase their durations, and a handful of abilities that spread them or deal increased damage to diseased targets (the last of which aren’t unique to us, either). The potential disease damage is there, but almost entirely in a passive form- you can fire the diseases off, and just forget they exist.

Are we still a DoT-focused spec?

To answer that, let’s take a look at a few other well-executed DoT specs, just to compare notes:

  • Fire Mages: Apply and maintain up to 4 DoT effects in single-target, depending on their choice of talents. Every Fireball and Pyroblast (and Scorch) increases the damage of their Ignite DoT by a portion of damage dealt (affected by Mastery), while the Pyromaniac passive increases damage dealt with these abilities. Inferno Blast can also spread their DoT effects to nearby targets as a form of cleave damage (with a glyph to increase this effect in regards to their cleaving Tier 5 talents), while their Flamestrike can also afflict targets with an additional DoT during full-on AoE.
  • Affliction Warlocks: Apply and maintain 3 DoT effects in single-target, channeling Malefic Grasp to hasten their ticks and using Haunt to increase their damage. Corruption ticks have a chance to regenerate resources (Soul Shards). Their “cleave” consists of using Soulburn and Soul Swap to spread DoTs, while their AoE comes from the Seed of Corruption’s detonation (which can also spread Corruption to all damaged targets). As a caster, their DoT ticks are also affected by Haste and Mastery. Fel Flame is also an option to increase Corruption’s duration, in a pinch, though the Pandemic passive makes this unnecessary.
  • Feral Druids: Devotes their entire single-target rotation around maintaining and strengthening their main 2 bleed effects, Rip and Rake. Mastery and Savage Roar increase their damage, while Shred, Ravage, Mangle and Ferocious Bite increase the duration of their Rip effect. Most of their attacks deal additional damage to bleeding targets, while a large portion of their AoE damage comes from the Thrash bleed. Even if this doesn’t seem like much, their DoT effects can’t be overwritten by weaker applications.
  • Balance Druids: Applies Moonfire and Sunfire to their target and maintains them through Wrath, Starfire and Starsurge. Critical DoT ticks give them more Starsurges. Re-applying their DoTs during their respective Eclipse states increases the overall DoT damage dealt.
  • Assassination Rogues: Their Improved Poisons passive and Envenom finisher both increase their chance of applying poisons, while they also Rupture their target to apply another DoT. Their Mastery increases the damage of poisons, while the Venomous Wounds passive generates resources from and increases their damage dealt towards fully DoT’d targets. Fan of Knives also has a chance to apply poisons to targets hit by the AoE, while Crimson Tempest deals additional DoT damage to all targets hit as well (though these effects are shared with the class as a whole).
  • Shadow Priests: Apply and maintain 3 DoTs. Vampiric Touch restores Mana to the Priest over time. Critical Shadow Word: Pain ticks summon Shadowy Apparitions to damage the target. The rest of the Shadow Priest’s rotation builds up to the casting of the powerful Devouring Plague, which provides some healing to the Priest as well. While not “DoTs” per se, their channeled Mind Sear AoE and Mind Flay are both affected by the same Haste and Mastery bonuses given to their DoT effects to increase their number of ticks per cast.
  • Survival Hunters: Attempt to apply and maintain 3 DoTs. Serpent Sting’s duration is increased by the focus-generating Cobra Shot, spread by Multi-Shot, and regenerates resources every time it ticks via Viper Venom. Black Arrow has a chance to remove the cooldown of Explosive Shot each time it does damage, and can be swapped out for Explosive Trap in multi-target scenarios. All abilities mentioned above are affected by Mastery.
  • Enhancement Shamans: While not really a DoT spec, they cast Flame Shock in tandem with Unleash Elements to increase its damage and maintain uptime, while also spreading it with Lava Lash as their “cleave” and detonating it with Fire Nova in AoE, all boosted by Mastery- a very impressive display of potential for a spec with only one DoT to work with.

I could probably bring in some HoT-related specializations as well, but this sample pool should suffice.
The example specs have a lot of interaction with both the maintenance and either the damage or windfall effects of their DoTs, while Unholy’s is very incidental by comparison, having lost its charm over time.
Unholy’s cooldowns focus on increasing the damage of its pets. Unholy’s single-target rotation emphasizes Shadow damage. It’s only fitting that the application of diseases goes more towards multi-target scenarios, especially given Unholy’s history.
On top of being a ridiculously popular passive for Unholy death knights, Wandering Plague was a wonderful method of converting disease damage into burst AoE damage, using our Crit rating to detonate the diseases on enemies and damage all nearby targets in a manner not unlike the usage of Fire Nova for Enhancement Shamans. It was, of course, scrapped because it was considered too much “passive” AoE damage; while that’s a bit of a moot point given the arguments of cleave usage in single-target priority (including the ongoing Whirlwind vs Howling Blast debate), I’m not going to argue that point. Instead, I say we use this opportunity to kill two birds with one stone- reviving it as a button.

Just a Thought…

Now I’ll reiterate what I suggested in my AoE Review: Make the suggested 1U AoE button Wandering Plague and focus our AoE around making the most of our diseases, scaling with the strength of diseases rather than just dealing more damage to diseased targets.
Basically, imagine a cross between Fire Nova and an instant Malefic Grasp: a spell that forces a disease tick (even for a percentage of normal disease damage) on all targets within, just as an example, 100 yards, and deals equivalent damage to nearby targets. Casting Outbreak (or in a pinch, Icy Touch) on a faraway enemy would also allow the Unholy DK to take advantage of its new range, catching up to Frost and other classes.

A revamp to our AoE also opens the potential to tie together Unholy’s other foci- Shadow damage and/or pets- with its diseases. It’s probably far easier to tie together Wandering Plague to Shadow damage (perhaps by translating the disease damage into an instant burst of Shadow damage on the excess targets), though there might be some method of causing the spread of diseases to reduce the rampup and/or increase the uptime of Dark Transformation and the subsequent number of Raking Claws our ghoul performs- for example, perhaps a passive that allows disease ticks or each successful casting of Wandering Plague on three or more enemies to extend the duration of Dark Transformation by X seconds?

With a 1U AoE in place, a 1B1F ability such as Festering Strike should be sufficient in holding the rotation together. A method of spreading diseases would also be necessary to the use of Wandering Plague as an AoE- preferably one that doesn’t cause orphaned Frost runes, as using Icy Touch is one of many things this setup is trying to phase out.
An idea occurs, that perhaps a new Glyph of Pestilence with the ability to return to the functions of the ability back when Glyph of Disease was removed- not refreshing diseases on the main target, but the spread of diseases with AP values derived from their source rather than the time of casting, as mentioned above- and the ability to proc Pestilence off of Festering Strike (via Roiling Blood passive or otherwise) would tie in quite nicely with the disease gaming that the new form of Plague Strike provides, while also allowing Festering Strike to maintain the uptime of all diseases in AoE without repeatedly overwriting their values like spamming the current form of Pestilence does.
The only fault in this method is that using Festering Strike in a strictly single-target rotation can cause complications, as of late Unholy lacks other methods to convert both Frost and Blood runes simultaneously (individually yes, but that takes GCDs that we often won’t have with higher Haste levels). As suggested in my previous post, converting Death Strike to a 1B1F for Unholy death knights would solve both the issue of having a non-cleave, increase Unholy’s general survival, and give starting Unholy death knights a method of converting runes before they pick up Festering Strike. Perhaps using Death Strike as part of our rotation may feel odd or even weakening, but the same could probably be said of Frost death knights forced to use Icy Touch in lieu of Howling Blast on a Rime proc in the exact same scenarios.

The only part I can’t really place is Death and Decay. The last time I iterated changes similar to those above, I asked for its removal from Unholy, so as not to clutter up the pool of buttons with a fire-and-forget cooldown; then again, having a button to shake up our AoE rotation may not necessarily be a bad thing. After all, it sometimes has a place in our single-target rotation, alongside Soul Reaper and Dark Transformation which exist for that very purpose, and can be glyphed to provide another form of crowd control, which the PVPers who lost Desecration are probably happier for. Who knows, perhaps Scourge Strike and Wandering Plague could even sim out to simply be stronger than Death and Decay, phasing it out naturally over time but not removing its potential utility. I’ll simply leave the fate of Death and Decay up to the developers- as with the rest of this suggestion, naturally.

The final product is… well, almost exactly what I wrote in my AoE Review, minus a Runic Power-based AoE (which isn’t necessary and probably was asking too much).
Apply diseases via Plague Strike, using 5.2’s alterations to reapply diseases at higher AP values as necessary; Festering Strike to spread and maintain diseases with 100% uptime on multiple targets, synergizing perfectly with the previous; Wandering Plague to deal instant disease damage, and once Dark Transformation is active, Wandering Plague to increase Dark Transformation uptime, providing additional cleaves for as long as we would need them. Depending on Wandering Plague’s effect and radius, we may even be provided with another option of dealing some damage at range as well, an area in which currently only Frost can compete. Overall, Unholy stays true to both its mechanical and aesthetic themes, and gains a more synergistic AoE rotation and relationship with its diseases.

Our current toolkit in the AoE field isn’t “broken” by any stretch of the imagination; it’s certainly functional, but plays out in a manner that feels sloppy, held together by band-aids like the addition of Icy Touch to Reaping. There’s been a large amount of outcry in the hopes of a potential revamp, though we probably won’t see one until at least 6.0. I’m simply hoping that we’ll see one at all.
I can’t tell the devs what to do, but I can ask that they please, please give the thought of reviving Wandering Plague- regardless of form- consideration, for the thousands of players who remember, cherish, miss and long for it.

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