When You Wish (Upon Apocalypse)…

After Mists, one of the things that always disappointed me about the 3-by-6 talent tree was the lack of variety.

Death Knights are a “hybrid” class, with a tanking spec and two very different DPS specs. For some reason, however, the devs saw fit for the longest time to have all three specializations share one pool of talents; as I’ve stated in previous posts, this led to the awkward implementation of Tier 100 talents that attempted to fit a one-size-fits-all dynamic. This was more painful in that even Mages – a class with three damage specs – had tiers of talents that completely shifted between specs.

One of the reasons why I’ve always focused on Unholy is because it is a specialization with a very broad spectrum of potential. Blood’s domain is vampirism, Frost’s is harsh weather, and Unholy has all of the various powers of necromancy presented throughout the Warcraft mythos. Undead minions, diseases and infections, shadow magic – for all intents and purposes, it is the entire Warlock class rolled into one spec and crammed into a skeleton-adorned suit of armor. After Wrath ended, this has often felt to varying degrees as a detriment; with so many masteries to convey in one specialization, our kit only contained the top highlights.

After the latest Legion build, that’s all over. (At least, assuming they don’t suddenly decide to revert everything.)

You want to be a Scourgelord? You can do that. You want to be a Blightcaller instead? You can do that. You want to harvest the souls of your enemies to fuel your unholy rituals and cast the world itself into eternal darkness? … might be overselling that a bit, but you can do Shadow magic too. If you so wish, you can even mix-and-match to do something in-between; our talent tree actually contains your Death Knight’s specific talents, their own twist on the things everyone around them is doing, rather than simply skills that will be situationally beneficial.

Bloodbolt & Clawing Shadows

Looks like my question from the Prelim has been answered after all – Death’s Caress wasn’t called Bloodbolt because Bloodbolt was still coming! Now the big question is “why”.
For all intents and purposes, Bloodbolt is just an AoE version of Death’s Caress. It provides no benefit beyond splash damage and DoT spread, which are already covered by Heart Strike in the same tree, Blood Strike when standing in Death and Decay and Blood Boil when not. I suppose that I can’t pass judgment too harshly on it before a damage pass (maybe it’ll end up being a slight bump over Caress in single-target?), but when it’s sitting right next to another cleave talent, you have to wonder what makes the devs expect that it will be taken. Maybe some niche scenario where a group of caster adds are huddled together on a small cliff-edge when GG is on its long cooldown?

Now what’s really interesting, is Clawing Shadows.

I’ve already spoken in the last few posts about this general topic; Death Knights are notoriously slow, there’s always a need for casters, why not have the two hook up? Blood has Death’s Caress (and now Bloodbolt), Frost has Howling Blast, but Unholy doesn’t have a way to generate the runic power from a distance for Death Coil now that Icy Touch is removed. Initially I just expected it would be a simple matter of giving Unholy a relatively weak, situational spell dealing Shadow damage that wasn’t limited by a cooldown, something on par with the combination of Shuriken Toss and Deadly Throw – but I never expected this.
The advantage of bottoming out your expectations is, you’re perfectly set to be genuinely surprised.

Clawing Shadows replaces Scourge Strike. This means quite a bit; while a damage pass hasn’t been dealt yet, it sets Clawing Shadows in a relative ballpark of Scourge Strike on Patchwerk-style fights, and because taking it replaces two other clearly beneficial talents, likely means it could even be a boost in such matters. Either way, you can expect something a little stronger than Icy Touch – and one you can use all of your runes on, for that matter.
Keep in mind, it deals raw Shadow damage; without Multistrike to penalize it for being one solid hit, it will likely win out over Scourge Strike at high Mastery levels, if not long beforehand due to its ability to ignore armor. (Granting, we thought the same of Death Siphon during the Mists pre-patch…)
Replacing Scourge Strike also means that it will benefit from Death and Decay’s cleaving effect – although it would make more sense if it cleaved when hitting a target in Death and Decay rather than when you are, but I suppose that’s a grey area.

Clawing Shadows rests on a delicate niche in our kit. The devs don’t want DKs to be on the back-line flinging spells with the Mages and non-Survival Hunters, and we won’t be; given Sudden Doom’s limitation to auto-attacks, Apocalypse’s passive encouraging more swings, Festering Strike’s extra wounds and the instant-cast nature of most of our spells giving us free hits anyway, most of our damage is going to come from being on the front line. So why bother with having ranged effects in our kit if we won’t be at ranged for long?
And the answer is: versatility.

No, not the stat. Give me some credit.

Let’s limit our perspective to Hellfire Citadel for a moment (though all examples are easily applicable to far older fights and mechanics, and those to come as well):
Infernals on Mannoroth make it dangerous to be in melee range of them; it’s the casters’ job to take them out, which can lead to serious penalties if an infernal lands in melee range of the boss. Zakuun and Iskar both have mechanics that force you out of melee range of the boss for extended periods. These are situations where a gap-closer just doesn’t cut it; you either can’t be or don’t want to be close enough to melee the target. Clawing Shadows puts DKs in a prime position to sustain their damage during these phases – still at a penalty, but lower than other melee classes.
Socrethar and Gorefiend each have adds that will spawn at the edges of the room; again, it’s the casters’ job to tear them up, but the melee are expected to contribute by the time the adds are within range. With the low cooldown on Outbreak, the bonus range on Clawing Shadows makes it far easier to swap between faraway targets and burst them down – and more frequently than a Warrior can Charge, for that matter. It’s not about being a ranged class; it’s about supplementing those your raid already has.

And honestly, outside of a raid, it will just be really convenient for quickly tagging and moving through mobs in questing areas.

A legitimate concern with this kind of ability is that, due to our drop in mobility (DA no longer has a sprint attached and we’re losing 10% speed regardless), it will be the go-to talent in its tier, explicitly due to Blizzard’s “no theme tiers” policy for next expansion; historically, this has led to the poor adjustment of numbers to compensate for mechanics. I would say it would be a potent idea to consider putting Clawing Shadows up against a pair of mobility talents instead… but due to it not being a 1:1 reflection of Scourge Strike at 30 yards with its differing stat intakes, I can understand that being even more difficult to balance.

In the meantime, the only disappointment I have in this ability at this juncture is the oddly generic name; most spells tend to be self-explanatory. You would think after a whole expansion dedicated to necromancy, we’d have a database of death-themed Shadow spells conspicuously similar to Shadowbolt.
Oh look Pain and Suffering does black lightning maybe you should try that out Blizz.

Pathetic Magic

For the reasons described above, I find it curious that Frost didn’t get a talent that returns Howling Blast to its former glory at the cost of its Rime multiplier, but I suppose the devs really don’t want to push the Masterfrost envelope again (although in that case, they could have pushed out more Obliterate-centric talents). Chill of the Grave probably helps in the absence of a strong ranged attack.
It does make some sense, however, for them to have another form of hybridization: bonus mitigation.

Each spec gets its own take on Anti-Magic Shell improvement. Historically, Anti-Magic Shell is our most-used mitigation skill, in no small part because optimal use of it contributes to our output. In Frost’s case, Implacable and Permafrost each present methods of causing the DK’s output to improve his or her survivability… but Pathetic Magic is the only one that causes the mitigation to contribute to raw damage. Topped with its upfront mitigation benefits, Pathetic Magic may very well be the go-to option in Frost’s tree in any encounter where peripheral damage is magical in nature, even if the damage doesn’t scale with Mastery.

Despite Frost not necessarily being my area, I mention it because I have mixed feelings about this. For starters, while it clearly was made to adopt Sindragosa’s most infamous mechanic (her scream), maximizing the use of Anti-Magic Shell has always seemed to be more Unholy’s area (down to the appropriate talents falling in Unholy’s tree before Mists). Granting that a lot of mechanics between the two specs seem to be swapping (for instance, Unholy’s Runic Tattoos echoing Frost’s old Runic Power Mastery), this also puts a new level on the balance of DK DPS around AMS soaking.

Soul Reaper & Defile

And now that I’ve done all of my thinking about Frost that I can tolerate for one day, back to Unholy.

In an effort to cut down on the number of execute-style mechanics that aren’t named Execute, Soul Reaper has been changed to no longer have a burst effect on low-health targets. After having had Soul Reaper for two expansions, I’m not necessarily sad to see it go – it was always a rather finicky execute, only really providing a benefit in the event that you could time it perfectly to land the first cast at just under 45%. Our output was balanced either to average out during the shortest phase of a fight, or around tagging adds with SR just before they died so you could contribute the haste buff to dealing with the boss itself.
Now, Soul Reaper simply bursts Festering Wounds. Short version is, meh.

Consider: Scourge Strike/Clawing Shadows will compete with Defile/Dark Arbiter/Soul Reaper to burst Festering Wounds. What makes this less annoying than other forms of competing resource management is that we don’t care how the wounds burst so long as they burst; without Boiling Rot, no particular ability actively benefits from doing the dirty deed itself. Our playstyle is being built to cast a number of Scourge Strikes in response to the number of Festering Wounds our target has active; if Soul Reaper just consumes several stacks at once, it means more Festering Strikes, not more Scourge Strikes – especially since we have no way to provide a consistent number of wounds and Soul Reaper’s only benefit (as it’s weaker than Scourge Strike, though this can change before live – early alpha, no damage pass yet, remember) comes if it can consistently consume 3 when it pops.

At best, Soul Reaper is a way to gain snap Runic Power.

Speaking of Boiling Rot, I’m beginning to be concerned with the lack of changes to Defile. For the past expansion, it has been the boring option of the tree, and now that the devs have the chance to change that, they’re squandering it.
I know I just implied the lack of Boiling Rot was a good thing, but it did compel interesting gameplay changes while Defile and its lesser counterpart are active. At the very least, given that our ability to AoE remains primarily reliant on cooldowns, we could stand to have an increased uptime. Boiling Rot isn’t necessarily bad, just competition over Wound consumption is; if it’s for the sake of AoE rather than single-target uptime, competition could actively encourage players not to use D&D or Defile outside of cleave, which is an annoyance we’ve had to consider at some point or other every expansion since its cost was reduced.

I want to like Defile, but as long as it’s blatantly just D&D with bigger numbers, what’s there to like?

Scattered Thoughts

  • Mitigation or not, Frost still needs a gap-closer if its ranged damage isn’t going to be compensated. Perhaps the ability to mount their deathcharger like in WC3, or an ice slick they can slide across?
  • I sincerely hope they take a pass at how each ability is acquired via leveling. Outbreak isn’t available until level 81, and several of the new early talents affect passives that aren’t acquired until rather late (eg Killing Machine at 64).
  • I really want Hungering Rune Weapon to put a gentle, spiraling snowfall effect over the Death Knight like Evocation, to invoke the opening Wrath cinematic where snow is drawn into Frostmourne.
  • Feels like a missed opportunity that Death Pact (the one that drains from the ghoul, not the one that debuffs the user) didn’t make it into Unholy’s tree now that we can assume the person with access will have at least a ghoul. Likewise, a missed opportunity to implement Desecration (our original snare) in place of Monstrous Rampage.
  • Wondering why Blood can’t summon a Bone Spike at this point. Maybe as a future PVP talent?
  • High hopes for Profane Pathogens as an AoE tool, low expectations with that CD.
  • Will using Dark Transformation on an Abomination turn it into a Flesh Beast?
  • Didn’t we drain Sindragosa’s soul into a gem to lay her to rest? Why are Frost DKs able to summon a Frostwyrm that explicitly identifies as her?
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