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Playing a Death Knight can be a difficult challenge. They are very easy to “play” but very difficult to “master”. This means that you can pick one up and run across the land smiting down mobs with ease but to really get the most out of your Death Knight you have to put a lot of thought into how to play.

There is a lot to take in about Death Knights like rune rotations, presences, runeforging, and their unique abilities that have nothing similar spread about. There is a lot of planning and thought that needs to go into the talent build to meet your playstyle and the abilities that you want to use.

This guide assumes that you’re somewhat familiar with WoW (like most of the Death Knight guide). If you’re confused by some of the terms then please see our glossary.

Click an image below to skip to that section.



The foundation of any Death Knight is their Presences. Unlike auras or stances, Presences have a major impact on how the Death Knight performs. Switching a Presence can change a Death Knight from a DPS machine to a beefy tank or a PvP allstar. Understanding when and where to use each Presence is the first key step to becoming a better Death Knight.

Blood Presence

Increases damage by 15% and heals 2% of the damage done to an enemy.

There is no argument here on what this does. With this active you should be in full DPS mode. This mode will maximize your DPS.

Frost Presence

Increases health by 10%, armor from items by 60%, increased threat, and 5% spell damage reduction.

This is what you should be in when you’re tanking or when an encounter does not need you to attack (the increased threat) but instead take more damage. This will let you soak it up before returning to your DPS stance.

Unholy Presence

Increased attack speed by 15%, movement speed by 15%, and reduces the global cooldown by .5 seconds.

This one is for PvP because 15% damage > 15% haste. The movement speed is useful for chasing things down or walking around the world and the GCD decrease is a little helpful, but most of the time rune regeneration will be more of a limiter than the GCD.

The way to use Presences is to use them based on the situation. If you’re solo then use Unholy Presence to move around, Blood Presence to maximize your DPS, and Frost Presence if you’re fighting a tough enemy and need a little bit more protection. If you’re in a group then again, everything is situational. If you’re in an encounter where you’re not attacking and are dodging then you’ll want Frost Presence up to stay alive easier. If you’re attacking then you probably DO NOT want it up as it’ll be causing you to gain massive amounts of threat. You’ll instead want to use Blood Presence to maximize your DPS or Unholy Presence if you need cut back.

For PvP you’ll want to spend most of your time in Unholy Presence for the move speed buff. Chasing down people is generally the hardest thing to do in PvP and with all of the snares and movement speed buffs that Death Knights have it is a lot better to chase then do more damage or take more damage. If you’re sure you have someone then you can switch to Blood.


For many classes pulling is sort of an art. Those with guns have to maintain an ammo supply or get a ranged weapon that doesn’t use ammo. Those with spells have to pick and choose. Those without anything to pull with (like lower level Paladins) are left with the “Leroy Jenkins” tactic of running wildly at the enemy. Death Knights are lucky to have an ability called “Death Grip” that allows them to pull the enemy instantly to them.

It has a 35 second cooldown, taunts for 3 seconds, and pulls the enemy right in front of the Death Knight. This ability is the only one needed for pulling. Sure some of the ranged spells will work (if you have Runic Power) but why when you can taunt and pull right to you? Obviously you need to avoid using this on things you don’t want to taunt, but overall it’s perfect solo.

In instances you’d lead in with this. Even if the enemy is immune to the pull effect it will still work as a taunt (as long as they’re not taunt immune). It costs nothing so it’s important to use it as much as you need to. It should be bound to a key and be easily accessible. If you’re not tanking and are raiding make sure it’s a key that you won’t hit by accident.


The key element to any “good” Death Knight is their Rune Rotation. Rune Rotation is both simple and complicated. Runes have a 10 second cooldown (roughly, there is some speculation that it’s an 8 second cooldown if you use it immediately as soon as it is up). There are also Death Runes to take into the equation which can proc and allow you to do a lot more. Read our Rune Article for the skinny on how Runes work.

Coming up with a rune rotation will take a little bit of forethought. If you just spam your abilities you’ll half your runes up and no abilities to use. If you plan ahead you can have most if not all your runes down and be limited only by their recharge. You’ll need a sheet of paper or notepad for this and a list of abilities.

Go through and look at what you’re spec’d for, what can put disease on the target (this is important, diseases should always be up), what can snare enemies, what does the most damage, what can generate Death Runes, and then write down their costs and organize them in a way that will have you able to utilize your runes as much as possible. Now, obviously in some scenarios you’ll need to snare (like PvP) and will break your rotation but it’s best to stick near a same pattern. If you use abilities that benefit from diseases then put your diseases on first. Utilize your Runic Power when your runes are on cooldown.

Here are a few hints, always start with Plague Strike. Plague Strike will disease the enemy leading to a… Icy Touch. Use Icy Touch next and then Blood Strike. From there you’re going to have to go based on your spec, what runes are up, and if you can utilize Death Runes. There is no perfect rotation right now and if there was it’d be attached to a certain spec.


You’re going to want Magic Runes for sure. It’s one of the best Death Knight addons currently and offers the thing Death Knights need most which is… big visible queues of when runes are up and down!

Attack Power

You’ll gain two attack power for each point of strength (very similar to Warriors). Attack Power is very important because while Death Knights have “spells” they do not use Spell Damage but instead Attack Power for ALL of their abilities. Each ability has a different modifier for Attack Power, but they all use it to increase their damage/utility.

The good thing about Attack Power is that your gear and talents will stack it on like Burger King stacks on the mayonnaise.  You shouldn’t have to go out of your way to pump Attack Power but eventually it’ll be one of the few things that can actually increase your DPS as you cap out on others.

Hit Rating (PvE Focused)

Normally Expertise is the “main thing” but a lot of Death Knight attacks cannot be dodged so instead it’s good to put a emphasis on hit rating. We’ve talked a lot about Rune Rotation so you should know what that is and how important is not to miss attacks. So having a high Hit Rating will keep your rotation healthy keeping you from getting off tick. In total you’re going to want 9% hit rating to cap your special attacks with 1-handed and 28% for two handed. This can be mitigated with talents like Virulance.

Expertise Rating (PvE Focused)

Hit Rating affects misses while Expertise Rating affects dodge and parry. Death Knights get most of their DPS from their attacks which are undodge/parryable (Death Coil, Frost Strike, etc.) so it’s not as great but still a very important attribute to have. You’ll need less Expertise spec’d into Blood than Frost and Unholy.

It’s worth nothing that you’ll need less Expertise if you’re DPS then if you’re a tank. Enemies parry from the front and they require way more Expertise to get through parry than they do dodge (they parry more often than dodge). Each enemy requires a different Expertise rating as the ability to avoid 1% parry/dodge from Expertise will counter out 1% of the enemies parry/dodge.

Critical Strike Rating

You need 45.90 Critical Strike Rating for 1% chance to crit. There are not a whole lot of abilities that benefit from a critical strike (i.e. proc/fire/utilize) outside of the damage so stacking Critical Strike Rating is important but won’t blow your build if you’re not totally maxed out but still is something that you need a lot of. 62.6 Agility will give you 1% crit, making Agility less desirable then outright Critical Strike Rating.

Critical strikes do double damage for Death Knights. An important thing to remember to maximize DPS.

Haste Rating

Most of the Death Knight DPS will come from abilities and Haste Rating only affects auto-attacks. 1% haste will increase auto-attack DPS by 1%. Don’t go out of your way for it.

Spell Power

Nothing works off of Spell Power. Forget it. No need. Cloth wearing Death Knights will not work.



Solo PvE: In solo PvE the Death Knight is essentially a one man army. Utilize Death Grip to pull enemies towards you and keep your ghoul as much as possible (if you’re not spec’d for it then try to use corpses over Corpse Dust). Use your solo rotation to shred enemies apart. If they are not elites then you really don’t even need a rotation and can usually just spam attacks until it is dead.

Group PvE (DPS): For DPS you’re going to want to remain in Blood Presence and use your DPS rotation keeping disease up as much as possible. Keep a close eye out for misses on disease if other Death Knights are not in the group. If you begin gaining too much threat then scale your DPS down or pull back for a bit. Avoid Death Grip or any ability that causes threat. If it’s a magic fight and if you have anti-magic zone then use it with your group and keep communication tight. If things start going bad you can switch into Frost Presence to help off-tank or substitute tank and Army of the Dead can give you some breathing room on tauntable bosses. Keep your pet under control.

Group PvE (Tanking): Tanking is a fine art and Death Knights are the masters of magical tanking. Lead off with Death Grip and stay in Frost Presence. You do not have to be spec’d into Frost to be a tank, so keep that in mind. There is no way to sum up the tanking process, but essentially keep pumping as much threat as possible and keep the enemies attention.


Right now, the arena season has not started, but in general use every ability you can to snare the enemy and try to stay as close to them as possible throwing as many spells as you can. It’s important to be close since a lot of your damage is melee and to keep disease up on the target at all times. Keep these details in mind and you’ll win for sure.

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Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016

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