Return to Azeroth

It’s been a bit over a year since my last post. As far as this blog is concerned, we skipped right from the middle of the Warlords beta to the end of the expansion and the announcement of the next. So naturally, I have some catching up to do; thankfully I don’t need to look far for resources to compare (first thing on the blog until I finish this post), and review of current content can temper expectations of new content.

I’d like to preface this post with acknowledgement of one of my prior… let’s call them “tics”.

In past posts, I’ve made repeated comparisons between Death Knights and other classes – noting things like how spell formulae can be adapted to revive Wandering Plague, or how other hybrid classes swap talents based on the current spec. Looking back, I can see how this might easily be misconstrued as trying to make our class like another; the concern there being, if all classes can do the same thing, the only true differences are aesthetics and rhythm.
A class’ identity is just as important to its design as any numbers or mechanics. Defining a mage as standing in the back row casting powerful spells puts a limit on their capabilities when designing future spells – no melee, limit their survivability, etc.

The intention to these comparisons was to call attention to the exotic manner of interaction in other class’ kits, daring to put ours in the same ballpark. Particularly where Unholy is concerned, Death Knights have taken massive shifts in their power since their introduction – our sense of identity is somewhat vague, because what defines a playstyle in one expansion (say, stacking diseases for a strike bonus and Wandering Plague) can be completely replaced in the next (for things like Dark Transformation, Festerblight and Soul Reaper).

In fact, of the key abilities in our kit right now, the only one that wasn’t late to the party is Death Coil; even Scourge Strike used to be Degeneration, and only reached its present cost in Cataclysm.

The only consistent truth in any definition of Unholy is our myriad of different sources of output, pulling our focus towards multiple extremes at once; with minimal synergy and tangential connection between our pets, magic damage, diseases and strikes, we sometimes end up feeling like the entire Warlock class thoughtlessly compressed into one spec and bolted into heavy armor. With that many things to do at once, the main focus can sometimes be watered down even when the others are pushed into the background.

With that out of the way…

Ability Pruning (Revisited)

As I noted above, identity is key to designing a class. The Scourge Death Knight had a precedent in Warcraft 3, but the originally limited kit space didn’t give the developers many options when inflating it into a full class for Wrath. To that end, the majority of our kit ended up being pulled from multiple abilities across the entire Scourge faction: Frost magic from Liches and Frost Wyrms, Blood magic from the various forms of cannibalism and the Dreadlords’ vampirism, plagues inspired by carrion insects, and anti-magic from Banshees. It wasn’t simply enough to state that Death Knights were (and still are) the closest we’re going to get to Necromancers (as the “keep raising and zerg rush” playstyle for Unholy didn’t make it through alpha testing); Death Knights, as greater undead units ourselves, can simulate all the powers of anything we can potentially raise using our runeblades (themselves imbued with frost, blood and the unholy).

With that in mind, this leads me to the two major faults with the ability pruning between Mists and Warlords:

First, we nearly lost the “death” in Death Knight this expansion. Raise Dead was pried from the cold, undead hands of Frost and Blood (“too many cooldowns”), and Army was very nearly cut in its entirety if not for community outrage (and still nerfed to be a lesser contributor). Keeping in mind, Animate Dead is one of the only abilities we inherited from Warcraft 3; it has more right to be in our kit than Death Grip, Chains of Ice, Blood Boil or virtually any skill available to us short of Death Coil – which itself was also taken away from Frost. It’s somewhat jarring to hear people calling Frost the “Lich King wannabe” spec, when Arthas never cast a single ability in their arsenal (and Howling Blast is used by Lil’ K.T. and his cat).
I get that the extra Runic Power dump was unnecessary and the intent was to clear every spell that isn’t in your rotation off our bars, but Death Coil was also a horse of a different color for Frost, given its range.

Second, through some unfathomable stroke of diabolus ex machina, we still have Dark Simulacrum.
Now, I understand the developers are particularly attached to this ability, due to the sheer potential of its uses. Elder Nadox has been slain thousands of times by stolen Shadow Blasts, and giving Sinestra a taste of her own Wrack was once met with shock and awe. The trouble is, newer encounters have not been designed for Dark Simulacrum – in fact, I dare say they’ve forgotten it.
The first raid of the expansion was Highmaul, the city of the Ogre elite. As you rise through the city, at least half of every trash pack is some kind of Arcane caster; even the final boss is one. So why is it that the only spell I managed to successfully steal using Dark Simulacrum – after repeated runs throughout that entire raid  –  was a poison attack from Oro, an earth elemental who employs zero mana?
When Dark Simulacrum was teased, we were told we could copy basically any mana-based spell that could be Spell Reflected. Since then, it has never produced consistent results; copying a Shadow Bolt Volley from three different mobs can return either a single Shadow Bolt, rarely a Volley, and more often nothing at all, because some spells simply get skipped for no discernable reason. The number of mobs with alternative resources who arbitrarily can or cannot provide spells to copy just makes it impossible to find any pattern (at a guess, because there isn’t one anymore).
Even armed with a library of known uses, most of the spells that are worthwhile to copy (like Felfire Volley) are expected to be interrupted (or for their casters to be finished off quickly, as the case may be) as they can be a serious detriment to the raid otherwise; sure, it’s intended to create an element of “risk versus reward”, but it’s more often a risk for your entire party at a personal reward. It creates a behavior of throwing on the Dark Simulacrum at the start of the target’s cast, sitting back with a smug grin as you withhold your interrupt… only for someone else to cast their interrupt and waste your cooldown. It’s not always worth it to try and micromanage the entire raid to avoid those scenarios because everyone involved will point out that your strategy just makes you a selfish prick.

The niche effectiveness of this ability makes it a prime candidate to remove (compared to more reliable utilities like Unholy Frenzy or Blood Parasites), and it’s still here. Combined with the above, it creates the impression that the Death Knight is being pushed away from his or her necromantic roots towards a higher focus on the anti-mage niche we have minimal precedent for.

Demon Hunters, Actual Hunters, and Atonement

The first Heroic I queued for after dinging 100 was Skyreach. The first boss is Ranjit, whose strategy primarily consists of aimlessly dashing across the battlefield (overshooting any possible target) and throwing down walls of wind that will tear into you if they catch you; essentially, it’s a new take on the classic mobility fight.
The results of my first encounter were pretty consistent: Ranjit performs a Piercing Rush, the tank Charges after him, Ranjit casts Four Winds between us going the opposite direction leaving only my DoTs and my ghoul to harm him while I run for my life. Rinse and repeat 3-4 times. That’d just be one encounter that plays to the Death Knight’s weakness… if the same type of dashing technique wasn’t employed by what seemed to be a boss in every instance, double that for raids, as the replacement for the “focus on a ranged unit and get kited” mechanics of old.

With Legion comes the long-awaited announcement of Demon Hunters as a followup Hero Class. The main website boasts that they have “unrivaled mobility”, where the devs state they have less crowd control than Rogues (who have a baseline sprint and a tier of various mobility talents) and less hybridization than Monks (who have a talent tier modifying their Roll and the spec potential for Flying Serpent Kick).
The fact that they need to clarify these kinds of differences shows that the Demon Hunters are less “unrivaled” so much as a result of serial escalation in the literal race to the bottom.

So what’s the issue? As I’ve stated in previous posts, the reason why Death Knights don’t have more mobility than a single talent is because of our intended focus on range and crowd control… a function that becomes gradually less exciting once it sinks in that that’s entirely accomplished through one extra charge on Icy Touch.
But of course, we can’t forget Death Grip  –  our all-in-one gap-closer (which we can’t use in PVE), emergency add positioning tool (that only works half the time), ranged interrupt (which rarely does any better at this than Strangulate) and hybrid taunt (with three times the cooldown of the next guy’s)!
By comparison, Rogues can cycle all of their resources at range (through talents, of course, but only those that compete with crowd control and not mobility), and Enhancement and Feral get the best of hybridization, especially with cooldowns or talents that don’t even make it cost them anything.

And the funny thing is, it’s still not enough.

From what we know of next expansion, 11/24 DPS specs will be ranged. In encounters like Ranjit, they only need to stay out of/can fire right through kill zones; in encounters like Kilrogg, they’re essential to whittling down the health of adds before they reach the boss. A number of mechanics are specifically designed to put melee attackers at risk, but rarely ever affect ranged classes, save for needing to move for 5 seconds out of every minute. Raid needs to stack on boss? They can keep fighting, as minimum range mechanics have long been extinct. Need to get out of the raid? They can keep fighting – especially noteworthy when a boss has a tiny hitbox, since you’ll almost always meet that one melee ignoring mechanics and crowding other melee out so they can pad meters. Ranged attacks are innately so versatile that nobody wants melee, whose niche is supposed to be…
Oh, right. Mobile combat. Something that by design, Death Knights lack.

Alright. So why not follow through on that?

Fistweaver Monks and Atonement Priests are already being rebalanced for next expansion; a single spec hybrid of two different roles, accomplishing one by means of the other. Why not go along the inverse with Death Knights – a hybrid of one role, accomplished by means of two?
Again: We’re already intended to focus on range over mobility. All we’re missing is the ability to cycle more than Frost Runes (and in Frost’s case, Runic Power) beyond point-blank, and the ability to swap to a ranged target on a dime (mainly slowed by disease buildup). I’m not saying we need to turn either Frost or Unholy into a ranged spec simply so the other can reap the benefits of this shocking change, rather that casting Icy Touch ahead of us if the target is too far away (and/or needs to stay that way) should actually become worthwhile to match other classes’ sprinting. So long as we have more output by staying near the target, we’ll still be melee by preference. This type of hybridization would actually be closer to the Death Knight’s pre-WoW roots.

As I was saying, we have enough mobile melee. What raids will appreciate is more rangeworthy specs, and as “the slow melee”, we’re the perfect candidate.

PVP Talents

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that our third tier of talents – Death’s Advance, Chilblains and Asphyxiate – relies on a dichotomy of mobility versus crowd control that only exists in PVP content. For 90% of fights you’re going to stick to Death’s Advance, excepting the rare encounter like Gorefiend or maybe Kilrogg where slows are not only useful, but mandatory; these two I expect to always be available to raiders, but Asphyxiate really has no excuse. As much as a halved cooldown on a ranged interrupt sounds useful, it’s niche compared to the benefits you’ll reap with the other two and just using Mind Freeze.
To top that off, Desecrated Ground is a blatant PVP trinket, while Lichborne is fundamentally a fear-break (albeit one that provides some base survivability).

Well… now there’s a receptacle for them.

While by nature the PVP talent tree won’t have any direct impact on PVE, being able to go about some spring cleaning in our baseline talent tree provides a wonderful opportunity to implement new tools, or even tweak those remaining for a more versatile PVE focus. For instance, Remorseless Winter; while newer raids thankfully have more mobs who are vulnerable to stuns and slows, you’ll just as often find encounters where targets are immune to one or the other (immunity to slows means it can never stack to a stun; immunity to stuns will wipe the stacks).

As I was getting to above, a better way to balance personal utilities in PVE is mobility versus range (and whatever spectrum exists between, made up primarily by Death Grip), and crowd control versus other crowd control. Three whole talents worth removing means an entire tier of space for new talents and reorganization of older ones for exactly that; Chilblains could be weighted against Remorseless Winter (there’s no rule that says each talent in a tier needs a different theme per spec) while Death’s Advance could be against additional ways to cycle our runes at range. The PVP tree could then pick up whatever slack is missing on that end.

Hell, you could put Dark Simulacrum in the PVP tree and replace it with another ranged attack baseline. Two birds.

Artifacts

Legion brings with it different artifact weapons per spec that will provide you with newbonuses (all passive that we’ve seen so far) as you level them up, similar to the pre-Pandaria talent trees, but with less hybridization. Personally I’m a little skeptical, simply because the devs have already scrapped dozens of passives for each spec simply in the removal of the aforementioned talent trees.

Plus, it sounds a bit too much like Path of the Titans Redux, and I fully expect sweeping changes to the system as announced before Beta.

However, it does leave me with some questions as to how this will be handled. Will we see any baseline functionality removed from the class to be imported onto the weapons, as we did with the Empowered Pillar of Frost “perk”? Will each spec within a class share certain bonuses, such as Frost’s “Arise and Serve” clone of Reincarnation? Will we lose these bonuses when these artifacts aren’t equipped, and what’s the plan for these bonuses after the expansion ends? Will we ever see Wandering Plague after Reaper’s Harvest, because I will sacrifice Varian Wrynn’s shaggy-haired firstborn to get it back?

Information is a little light on this subject right now – Unholy is one of the many specs that doesn’t even know what artifact it’ll receive. As with all of the above, only time will tell.

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