What’s in a Theme?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been having discussions with members of #Acherus about the future of Death Knights in Legion (particularly Unholy for obvious reasons). One of the big points that came up was that they felt like their hands were being held, forcing them into a specific playstyle, and I felt that was worth some clarification.

It’s not to say that the Unholy spec has gotten “simpler” – as someone who has focused on Unholy since Wrath (in the days when the rotation could literally be macroed), the base rotation will be the most ham-fistedly complex it’s ever been come Legion.
If anything, that’s the aspect I’ve complained about the most with the spec; the significance of our debuff management has drastically shifted from proactively maintaining and maximizing DoTs (with very little reactivity), to timing ability casts to line up with effects whose application is completely randomized

… But I digress. No, the real complaint is somewhat vague behind that word, “force”, but translated simply: There’s no room for personal creativity anymore.

Every expansion has had its own “fringe” playstyles that evolved from a spec’s customization options. The implementation of this was best exemplified in Wrath, when talent trees were arguably at their most complex state. While most talent configurations were cookie cutters, variations were created based not on your main specialization, but on your “sub-spec”: how you invested the remaining 20 points after you reached your 51-point Talent (Dancing Rune Weapon for Blood, Howling Blast for Frost, and Unholy Blight or, later, Summon Gargoyle for Unholy).
For Unholy, in most tiers this meant investing extra points into Blood to skew your output towards weapon damage; however, in some tiers a “Shadowfrost” variant was preferred to maximize elemental damage, especially for fights where Wandering Plague was our main output, or once weapons like Bryntroll or Shadowmourne were released (a personal favorite variant, as it opened more utilitarian options for any remaining points). For many patches, Reaping (then our Death Rune conversion talent) was entirely optional, as we had to use Blood Strike as part of our core rotation with (hrech) Desolation. Throughout most of 3.2, it was even preferable for Unholy DKs to put enough points into Frost to have Obliterate take the place of Scourge Strike. With glyphs for our diseases, our rotation changed rather significantly from patch to patch.
For tanking in particular, it was entirely viable to spend your points across all three trees, never getting the deeper active talents but receiving all of the strong passives.

As expansions continued, these variations became less subtle. In Cataclysm, “Masterfrost” players swore off Obliterate for some time in favor of simply spamming Howling Blast, and Unholy players took advantage of Sudden Doom by dual-wielding. In Mists, Unholy players at their peak took advantage of the Fabled Feather of Ji-Kun with the “Festerblight” playstyle. In Warlords, Blood players used their low cost on Breath of Sindragosa to develop the “Chains of Sindragosa” playstyle.

In Legion, however, room for this is essentially gone, for all specs. Most of the talents are either completely or essentially passive, creating minor variances in how the core playstyle is executed; the most difference comes from altering the timing of abilities you were going to cast either way, or briefly substituting one spell for another in niche circumstances while still retaining the same skeleton.
In the grand scheme, talents have been made meaningless. Each spec’s playstyle is dependent on three core abilities, each feeding into the next, with talents creating background noise and fluff to fill the gaps between casts.

This comes, of course, as a result of the “simplification” of our resources: as every ability costs the same resource, the only way to prevent the player from using their strongest (or most cost-effective) ability over and over is to make it less effective without the use of others. The only reason Unholy isn’t simply spamming Scourge Strike is because Festering Strike’s Wounds make it stronger; the only reason Frost can’t simply spam Howling Blast is because it needs a Rime bump from Obliterate first.
And of course, with the greater focus on spec identity, the devs were obviously afraid of potential subspeccing getting out of control.

That’s really the part that surprises me, however. Legion is the expansion that went out of its way to make every spec as distinct as possible as a baseline. To call them “specializations” anymore is a misnomer: each of the DK “specs” is essentially a separate class, held together by the same resource system (which is as much as you can say for Rogues and Feral Druids, or any healer). To specialize in any field means there is a more general knowledge surrounding it, which simply isn’t the case with DKs anymore. Rather than the days when one spec would be slightly better with one ability versus another spec, each has instead been pruned to the point where the only effects they have in common are utilities that are used the exact same way. The only combat spells shared by all three specs are the obligatory requirements for a melee class: gap-closers, interrupts, and a single self-healing effect (which is all but worthless to the two specs who don’t “specialize” in it).
Blood’s only Frost-based spells are Mind Freeze and Path of Frost. Frost lacks any combative Shadow spells. Unholy is the only spec who can even call themselves “Death Knights”, as they’re not only the “best” at necromancy, they’re the only ones who can cast any. We don’t even have the same diseases anymore, and everyone can throw DoTs.
Where’s the connection? Where’s the overlap? I get that Unholy is different from Frost, but is Path of Frost what’s supposed to make us both “Death Knights”? Raise Ally perhaps? Death Grip?

It’s not a single ability or group of abilities that makes a class, nor is it a single resource system (although both help) – it’s an underlying thematic baseline. Druids don’t all have to turn into the same thing or use the same rotation for me to know that a bear and a cat are both Druids; as long as they’re both shapeshifting, I can see them both sharing the same space. The guy over there summoning demons? A Warlock; whether they’re Demonology or not doesn’t matter. That guy with no spells, beating people to death with just his skull? Obvious Warrior.
A Frost Death Knight, however, will only raise the dead in some quests come Legion; if I was coming into the game and just saw one for the first time, I would probably assume they were supposed to be Battlemages (Why not? The Kirin Tor has them…).

Don’t get me wrong: I relish that Unholy has the ability to talent into new summoning spells and has the option of a (almost) fully ranged rotation, and that we don’t have to share bland one-size-fits-all talents with a tanking spec to do it – but it’s taken “specializing” too far to get here. Filling in the gaps from cutting out every trace of any other spec has created a talent pool that is flashy, with no spark.

Death Knights don’t have a shared portfolio anymore. In a sense, the expansion that was supposed to focus on “class identity” completely destroyed it in favor of “spec identity”; that’s what has turned many veterans off of the class.

This entry was posted in Blood, Death Knight, Frost, Talents, Unholy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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