In World of Warcraft each class uses a mystical “resource” from which they draw the power to utilize their abilities from. Magic users use “mana” which is a magical battery to fuel their arcane, holy, demonic, etc. spells. Warriors have their own system known as “Rage” which starts at empty and fills up as they get “madder” or in game terms take or receive damage. Rogues use “Energy” which starts at 100 points and regenerates rather quickly. Death Knights on the other hand use two sources of “mystical power”. Runes which are embedded on their weapon (lore wise) and the runic power they gain from using Runes.

We’ve gone over briefly how mana, energy, and rage work. They are all numerical numbers that decrease as you use abilities and regenerate either slowly over time (mana), when damage is taken and received (rage), or very quickly (energy). Death Knights do not follow this formula. They have six Runes that are consumed as they use their abilities and each Rune regenerates every ten seconds after use. Understanding this is the key to success with Death Knights. Before we begin, if you haven't already, be sure to check out our Basics Guide for Death Knights. It'll go into details about what Death Knights are and what their class is about. Anyway, let's begin digging deep into just what Runes are!


Death Knights use Runes and Runic Power for all of their abilities. They have two sets of three different types of runes (Blood, Unholy, and Frost) equaling a total of six runes. These runes are located directly below the health and Runic Power bar. Each ability consumes a set number of runes which are then deactivated and cannot be used by another ability. After ten seconds they’ll be reactivated to be used again. You can tell a rune is out of play by looking to see if it’s grayed out.

Below is an image explaining where and how Runes & Runic Power comes into play inside of your interface. Notice that when used a rune will count down with a sweeping motion telling you how much time it has before it's ready again.

The configuration of the runes cannot be changed permanently. If it was possible to change how many of what type of rune you had then you’d see Frost Death Knights with six Frost Runes running about all crazy like throwing frosty waves of beer at everyone for impressive damage, err I mean frozen death. Well, I hear some of the Gnome brew has a similar effect… Anyway, some abilities can temporarily convert one rune into another to allow for a little bit of strategy. More on that down below.

Let’s look at some examples. Remember that spamming the same ability over and over is probably not a good idea and these are just examples to explain how Runes work:

Death Strike costs 1 Unholy and 1 Frost Rune. It’s an instant cast ability with no cooldown. This means that after the global cooldown is done you’ll be able to use it again. So you use it and then wait three seconds and use it again.  You would have four runes recharging and would not be able to use it or any ability that uses Frost or Unholy Runes until they were done recharging. After ten seconds passed you’d be able to use the ability again and then after another four seconds passed when the second set of runes recharged you could have another go again.

Let’s throw Icy Touch into the mix (which requires 1 Frost Rune). Let’s say that you use Death Strike once and then Icy Touch right afterwards. That would cost you 2 Unholy Runes and 1 Frost Rune. This means that you would be unable to do another Death Strike. You would have only 1 Frost Rune active but the spell requires 1 Frost Rune and 1 Unholy Rune to be active in order to use it. You would need to wait 10 seconds from the first Death Strike to be able to do another Death Strike. In the meantime though, you would still have 1 Frost and 2 Blood Runes to use.

Let’s throw Blood Boil (1 Blood Rune) into the cycle. The first Death Strike would cost 1 Unholy and 1 Frost Rune. Icy Touch would then cost 1 Frost Rune. Then Blood Boil which would cost 1 Blood Rune. That would total 1 Unholy, 2 Frost, and 1 Blood Rune meaning 1 Unholy and 1 Blood Rune would still be active.

Though, I wouldn’t suggest those combos. A lot of abilities work together with one another. For instance, Plague Strike will disease an enemy costing 1 Unholy Rune. Icy Touch (1 Frost Rune) would disease them again. Blood Strike (1 Blood Rune) would deal extra damage because a disease is on the enemy. Death Strike would heal you up a little and do a good bit of damage (1 Unholy and 1 Frost Rune). Then finish it all off with Blood Boil (1 Blood Rune) to explode the disease. By then you’d have enough Runic Power (see below) to use Death Coil to do even more damage. After all of this you’d have Runes coming off of recharge and could then launch into another combo. In total, if used all at once (ignoring the global cooldown) you would use 2 Unholy 2 Frost 2 Blood Runes which means that you wouldn’t have to worry about the Rune cooldown.

Again, that might not be the best chain, but is a great example of how to calculate Rune cost.

Understanding how different abilities use different Runes with different rune costs is key to utilizing the full power of the Death Knight. You could have an excellent combo of skills, but if you don’t order them properly you’ll find yourself out of Runes quickly. Like in the above example, you would only have 2 Blood and 1 Frost Rune active. You’d want to use abilities that would consume the Blood Runes as a followup to the first two abilities to have something going while you wait on your Runes to recharge.

So, in conclusion, Death Knights have six runes. There are three types of runes and Death Knights have two of each. When an ability is used it will consume a set number of runes of a certain type. The runes are then deactivated for ten seconds. After ten seconds have passed they can be used again.

It may seem like a lot, but once you get into the hang of things it’ll come to you naturally!

Runic Power

Not all abilities require Runes to be able to be used. Right below your health bar you’ll see another bar that is for Runic Power. Runic Power is gained as you use various abilities that consume Runes. It’ll decrease over time, but during fights you should usually have some after a few abilities. Many “finishing” moves require Runic Power along with some of the more powerful spells. For instance, Death Coil requires 40 Runic Power. You can use Death Coil when you’ve used enough abilities powered by Runes to gain 40 Runic Power.

The two work hand in hand. You’ll be using various abilities that consume Runes until you have enough Runic Power to use a (usually) powerful spell that is fueled by the energy you’ve gained from combat. It’s very similar to how combo points work for Rogues, except every Rune based ability contributes to Runic Power and not just certain ones.

Changing Runes – The Death Rune

There is actually a fourth Rune that can come into play. That’s the “Death Rune”. This rune isn’t usually up in your Rune Bar. Certain abilities can convert a Rune into a Death Rune which can be used as any of the three base Runes. So if something called for a Frost Rune and you had already used your two, but had a Blood Rune turn into a Death Rune, you would still be able to use your ability (as long as it didn’t require two Blood Runes).

There are currently three abilities which can do this:

  • Blood Tap: For 20 seconds (essentially two uses), a Blood Rune would be turned into a Death Rune. This is great if you do not use a lot of Blood Abilities or if you’re in an emergency situation and need to use something right away.
  • Death Rune Mastery: A tier 3 Blood talent that has a 30/60/100% chance to turn one Frost and one Unholy Rune into a Death Rune whenever you use Death Strike.
  • Blood of the North: A tier 8 ability (very costly) that gives you a 20/40/60/80/100% chance that the Blood Rune will become a Death Rune when you use Blood Strike.

The abilities are situational and the abilities that activate them will set your global cooldown. It’s useful to try and plan how you fight based on any Death Runes that may fall into your plan. Blood Tap is also good for emergencies when you may need a Frost or Unholy Rune yet they’re recharging.

Putting It All Together

There is a lot to learn, more than this one article could go into, on how to mix the above three concepts into a true winning combo. However, we can take what we’ve learned and begin working towards the goal. If we put everything together then this is how combat should work out:

As you use abilities they will consume Runes. Finding the right order to use your abilities is the key to optimizing DPS and damage mitigation. As the fight continues you’ll gain Runic Power from using your abilities charging up to use an ability that uses it instead of Runes. When you have enough you’ll be able to unleash that ability which is a great way to gap up the time it takes for Runes to recharge. If you’re in the need to convert one Rune into another then you can convert them (sometimes) to Death Runes which makes them into a 3-in-1 type Rune.

Again, it’s a lot to take in and is way more complicated than any other class. However, with experience and research into the order of abilities that you use along with knowing the cost of each ability you’ll be able to shine brightly on the battlefield.

If you’re looking for tactics, builds, or more on the Death Knight then you’re strongly encouraged to return to the main page of our Death Knight Guide.

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our World of Warcraft Game Page.

Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016

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Get in the bush with David "Xerin" Piner as he leverages his spectacular insanity to ask the serious questions such as is Master Yi and Illidan the same person? What's for dinner? What are ways to elevate your gaming experience? David's column, Respawn, is updated near daily with some of the coolest things you'll read online, while David tackles ways to improve the game experience across the board with various hype guides to cool games.


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