mydeathknight’s Guide to Unholy Tanking

December 8, 2008

Well I’m only a month into playing my death knight, and this is my first attempt at a tanking guide.

  I’m not at 80 yet, and on my second Death Knight (re-rolled Orc from Human for awesome unholy racials!!).   So this is a work ‘in process’.


I will discuss my view on talents, a few tactics, and what I have on my castbar. I’ve left out what gear to aim for from this guide because are a lot of better resources available out there already.


A simple rule of thumb I’ve picked up, based on reading many of these guides is:


Def > Dodge > Parry > STAM > Strength.


If you have just hit 70, get or make the Cobalt Tanking set!! Shame making a healer isn’t as easy!!!


On this point, a big /cheer out to anyone supporting the community with Unholy DK articles. This post is a synthesis of many of them, with a few of my own ideas thrown in for good measure. Feel free to use this guide, or points from it anywhere you like 😉 Death to chargeable guides!!!!!!!!


My first tip is obvious really, use Frost Presence every time you intend to take aggro. It ticks three boxes, Increased Armor/Health/Threat. If you are off tanking you may switch blood/unholy without the same penalties Warriors have with loss of rage, but for tanking you’ll always use Frost Presence.


Turning to talents, an Unholy tank will likely be spending at least 51 points in Unholy, but I’m going to start by looking at the other two trees from an Unholy perspective!!!


Blizzard have spread some key tanking abilities throughout all of the trees. The more important tanking abilities are low enough down the talent trees to be available for all flavour of tanks. One of the most invaluable talents is in Blood:


Blade Barrier: Whenever your Blood Runes are on cooldown, your Parry chance increases by 10% for the next 10 sec


This is a 5 pointer straight away and one of my favourite damage mitigation talents!! You can get your blood runes on cooldown really quickly, and you can pretty much keep this up throughout the fight, it’ll refresh before the 10 seconds are up. 10% parry addition is a nice start. I’ve read a few guides out there that recommend you spend 18 points in Blood, but I would only spend 5 for Blade Barrier.


I’ve preferred to spend some points in Frost because there are some nice things there for an unholy tank at 80. I’ve spent 11 on:


5 in Toughness: Increases your armor value from items by 15% and reduces the duration of all movement slowing effects by 30%


5 in Black Ice: Increases your Frost damage by 30%.


1 in Lichborne: Draw upon unholy energy to become undead for 15 sec. While undead, you are immune to Charm, Fear and Sleep effects, and your horrifying visage causes melee attacks to have an additional 25% chance to miss you.


Instant, 3 min cooldown.


More armor/frost damage and a great utility spell. Despite its 3 minute cooldown, Lichborne is a must have for this Unholy Tank, mainly because I am playing as an Orc, and I don’t have the ‘Will of the Forsaken’ or ‘Every man for himself’ racials for fear protection. On top of this, Lichborne has damage mitigation in the form of increased melee chance to miss you, you do not need to only use it for eating a fear, it can be used every three minutes as extra damage mitigation as well. I think any easy to reach mitigation is a must have!!


Next we get into the Unholy Talent goodness!! I am only including ones I like, but I’d recommend you get Unholy Blight, Bone shield and Scourge strike. Also consider improving/increasing your diseases, that is the mainstay of Unholy AOE!!


Get Glyph of Bone shield, as one additional charge of 40% damage reduction is more than worth the outlay!! Despite Unholy Blight’s 60 runic power points cost, having a mobile AOE makes this talent really worth going deep into Unholy. I’ll mention a tip I have for getting to 60 runic power quickly (or not using any till you get there!) involving your ghoul, and you have 20 seconds to build up more Runic Power before needing to re-cast it. You’ll always want more Runic power, and you need to manage how you use it!!


Scourge Strike is nice to have for maintaining single target aggro alongside Rune Strike, the latter is your main tanking strike, but uses Runic Power.


Here are a selection of Unholy talents in my build:


Anticipation: Increases your Dodge chance by 5%.


Vicious Strikes: Increases the critical strike chance by 6% and critical strike damage bonus by 30% of your Plague Strike, Death Strike and Scourge Strike.


Epidemic: Increases the duration of Blood Plague and Frost Fever by 6 sec


Necrosis: Your auto attacks deal an additional 10% Shadow damage.


Outbreak: Increases the damage of Plague Strike, Pestilence and Blood Boil by 30%.


Impurity: Your spells receive an additional 25% benefit from your attack power.


Reaping: Whenever you hit with Blood Strike or Blood Boil there is a 100% chance that the Blood Rune becomes a Death Rune when it activates.


Bone Shield: The Death Knight is surrounded by 4 whirling bones. While at least 1 bone remains, he or she takes 40% less damage from all sources and deals 2% more damage with all attacks, spells and abilities. Each damaging attack that lands consumes 1 bone. Lasts 5 min.

1 Unholy, Instant, 1 min cooldown


Scourge Strike: An unholy strike that deals 60% of weapon damage as Shadow damage plus 190.5, and an additional 95.25 bonus damage per disease.

1 Unholy 1 Frost, 5 yd range, Instant


Wandering Plague: When your diseases damage an enemy, there is a chance equal to your melee critical strike chance that they will cause 100% additional damage to the target and all enemies within 8 yards. Ignores any target under the effect of a spell that is cancelled by taking damage.


Rage of Rivendare: Your spells and abilities deal 10% more damage to targets infected with Blood Plague. Also increases your expertise by 5.


Unholy Blight: A vile swarm of unholy insects surrounds the Death Knight for a 10 yard radius. Enemies caught in the area take 48 Shadow damage per sec. Lasts 20 sec.

60 Runic Power, Instant




This does not complete the 53 points you have left, but I think these ones are all worthy of a mention. I’ve pondered having desecration for extra damage and control, and the only reason I’ve ditched it is because it causes graphic lag on my machine and I’ve a fairly nice graphics card!! I have Blood Caked Strikes instead, which is almost like a auto attack ‘windfury like’ proc for 25% weapon damage + 13% per disease, this has a 30% chance and a long fight will see a few Blood Caked Strikes.

This is my Build:



As well as lots of AOE goodness and Scourge Strike, Unholy tanks can bring a utility pet to the group, the Ghoul. The next part assumes you know how to manually control your ghoul, because my tip for perma ghoul tanking is to turn off the autocast option for all of your Ghoul’s abilities. Leap can be incredibly annoying when pulling, and claw will dump your pets focus really quickly. You need the pet to be passive, so you can control who it is targeting. Be aware that your Ghoul will fry in any AOE, so set him using ‘stay’  anywhere you know this will happen, and don’t forget to pick him up when you move on!! 50 Silver for Corpse Dust……pah!!!!!


Your Ghoul is needed for Gnaw, its 3 second stun, and this is not an autocast option. This really useful ability can be cast every 20 seconds, and is affectively 15% damage mitigation against a single target over 20 seconds (unless they are resistant to stun), as well as a rune/runic power free cast interrupt. This is useful at the start of a pull when you are needing to build up runic power for Unholy Blight, and/or reduce your initial damage while building aggro.


If you are not already using Gnaw manually like this, try Death Gripping a few caster mobs and using Gnaw as an interrupt. I’ve hot keyed it onto my mouse (I also have Mind Freeze and Strangulation on my mouse!), but you can click it, or use the petbar shortcuts if you prefer. Fortunately the petbar global cooldown is not the same as the cooldown on your death knight combat bar. Once you have got your confidence up, you’ll also be able to throw in a few claws as well, making sure you always have enough pet focus for your stuns.


On good rule for Ghoul management is NEVER miss the opportunity of combat rezzing someone because of it.  Well if they are a total nublet then maybe….. 


ALWAYS CAST BONE SHIELD AFTER A FIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Important enough to shout. You don’t want a unholy rune on cooldown because of something you can cast out of combat and bone shield is a 1 minute cooldown, it’s nice to be able to recast it during a fight!!!


Take two 2 hand weapons with you to an instance, with:

Rune of Spellshattering: Affixes your two-handed rune weapon with a rune that deflects 4% of all spell damage and reduces the duration of Silence effects by 50%.  

Rune of  Swordshattering:  Affixes your two-handed rune weapon with a rune that increases Parry chance by 4% and reduces the duration of Disarm effects by 50%.


For my last part, I thought I’d share what I have on my toolbars. I use Blizzard’s toolbar, not a mod, and use Shift & mouse wheel to shift bars as and when I need them. I also have my bars mapped on my G15 G keys.


I use two tool bars, one for single target bar with the following:


1. Death Grip. Brings in your disease target (best used on a caster…gotcha!!).


2. Plague Strike Macro. I have bound plague strike and Blood rage with the following macro:


#showtooltip Plague Strike

/cast Plague Strike

/Cast Blood Rage


This gives a nice boost to AP for the start of the pull for us Orcs, which boosts disease damage as well “Impurity” and is a good opener with “Rage of Rivendare” giving an extra 10% to all your abilities when a target has Blood Plague.


You could bind an AP trinket as well if you don’t mind losing a defence trinket here, if you are not an orc, or add one if you are an Orc but like even more AP!!!


3. Icy Touch. Damage boosted by Black Ice Frost talent.


4. Blood Strike macro:


#showtooltip Blood Strike

/cast Blood Strike

/cast Charm of Alacrity


If you hit Blood strike twice with my talent suggestion you’ll proc Blade barrier, and the charm will give you avoidance, a nice dodge boost!! Any dodge/parry trinket will do here, but Charm of Alacrity is really easy to get!!!


5. Icebound Fortitude. When you hit this you will hopefully still have bone shield active, for 40% damage mitigation, the 50% you get for Icebound Fortitude, and blade shield/avoidance will help to deal with the last 10%. This will make your healers life a lot easier at the most dangerous stage of a pull, the first few seconds!!! You won’t take much damage for 15-20 seconds.


6. Scourge Strike/Rune Strike Macro: This is the DPS portion


#showtooltip Scourge Strike

/cast Rune Strike

/cast Scourge strike


7. Death Strike


8. Chains of Ice, in case you lose the target


9. Blood tap for a free death rune every minute.


0. Death Coil


-. Bone Shield


+. Dark Command


For my second tool bar I have a multi target set up. I’ve tried to put pretty much the same spells in the same place, swapping


4. Blood strike for 4. Pestilence, using a similar macro:


#showtooltip Pestilence

/cast Pestilence

/cast Charm of Alacrity


This will usually be cast just as the other mobs reach you after your first death Gripped target, meaning you’ll be at a high level of damage mitigation for the group pull for the scary few seconds after a pull (the time it can all go wrong!!).


I swap:


5. Scourge Strike/Rune Strike for 5. Blood Boil


for grabbing the group interest and proccing Blade barrier.


I also swap my runic power ability


0. Death Coil, with 0. Unholy Blight


And finally


-. Bone Shield for -. Death and Decay.


For multi targets I try to pull the caster first with Death Grip onto a Death and Decay area, and get my ghoul on the first target I’ve marked to kill, using stun as an interrupt or stunning anyway if they are not a caster for damage mitigation. When the diseases are up (after I cast Blood Boil), I switch to my single target bar so 18 second disease are useful with DnD. I prefer leaving the first target when they are 75% down switching back to my multi target bar and starting my disease cycle again on a mob with the highest health and letting the group/ghoul finish them off. Rinse and repeat!!!


I have a utility bar too, it’ll have Empower Rune Blade/Army of the Dead/My mount pots etc…


Anyway I hope I have given you some food for thought. I am playing Unholy because I have a holy paladin, and I like the idea of Ying and Yang!!! So I not comparing Unholy with any other tanking tree. So far I’ve found Unholy to deal lots of damage as well as mitigate damage as well as any tanking class I’ve played, and the Ghoul pet makes it a much more fun class to play. Try my tips and you’ll see why!!!




One comment

  1. Thanks,

    again. Lot of stuff to try out.
    Keep writing.


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