Unholy tank in 3.3

What is the best Death Knight Unholy tank spec in 3.3? I set out to simulate the various talent choices to find the highest threat unholy DK tank build. Below is a comprehensive analysis. Updated Jan 11, 2010.

In patch 3.33, there are no changes which significantly effect Unholy, so the below remains correct.

Changes in 3.3

Firstly, some background on the 3.3 changes. The writer Consider of EJ has a very well structured OP on Unholy DPS, with notes on 3.3.

Scourge strike will change to a 50/50 physical and magical attack, from its current 100% shadow damage in 3.22. This means unholy scales with physical raid buffs in the same way as warriors and the other DK tank trees; the net effect is it scales much better in 3.3 than 3.22. Hits about 60% harder.

Update: Reaping (to create death runes) is great for flexibility but, at an i245 gear level, is a slight loss of threat because those 3 points could be spent elsewhere. You gain about 1.8% threat by using no-reaping.

Differences between DPS and Tank

One thing I found is the tank spec has different weightings on the talents, to a greater degree than usual. Most notably, in the 3.3 DPS spec you skip Necrosis, but for tanks it is still the best choice for that talent tier. We use different glyphs too.

Changes from 3.22

Epidemic is definitely back; for tanks basically we’re going to the traditional deep unholy spec. Reaping is optional.

The 3.3 Unholy tank spec

The best yet balanced threat spec I found, after pretty extensive testing is 12/8/50, with one point free.

Alternatively, with no reaping, you spec like this 13/8/50. It’s about 1.8% more threat. I put the last point into SoB.

This linked spec already has one point in wandering plague for AOE, which for ST threat isn’t as good as one in Necrosis; move it if you’re solely emphasising ST threat.

Necrosis, for ST threat is better than Desolation, for a tank, but since Desolation also helps you in AOE too, I weight it more highly.

You can put that final point into a few spots:

  • rune tap (self-healing),
  • corpse explosion (AOE and entertainment),
  • wandering plague (AOE and 0.7% more ST threat)
  • scent of blood (ST threat, about 1% but not sure)
  • necrosis (ST threat with 1.1% per talent point).

I tested the spec in two gear levels, and it won in both, and talents scaled about linear in both too. My Kahorie download page has those character xml files; one’s Coliseum level (Bluedragon), the other Ulduar 10/25 (Gravity).

Threat values of other talents

In Coliseum gear:

  • bladed armour is worth about 2.36% TPS per point. It’s top dog. Don’t think of dropping it for other talents.
  • Impurity is 1.65% per point.
  • Blood-caked blade 1.36%
  • two-handed spec is 1.2% per point
  • Unholy Blight is 0.75%


Glyphs are different to a DPSer, because tanks glyph for rune strike and not ghouls, and bone shield rather than dark death. We both use the new IT glyph (it’s great, slightly less single-target threat than the 3.22 version, but better on AOE, plus better than dark death for a tank).

Glyph of disease is not as good as IT or RS.

AOE-only spec: If you were building an AOE-only Unholy spec, you could drop RS glyph for Disease and IT for DnD glyph, but you’d also spec slightly differently (more wandering plague, less necrosis).

What about AMS/AMZ?

If you wanted to move around four points to get the anti-magic talents, you’d have to pick from the lower-threat talents of desolation and wandering plague. You’d end up like 12/8/51. You lose 3.5% TPS compared to the spec linked earlier.

Not a bad trade-off really.

Rotation / priority used

The Unholy priority is:

  1. blood plague (from plague strike)
  2. frost fever (from icy touch)
  3. scourge strike
  4. blood strike
  5. death coil (saving 20 RP for rune strikes and IBF).

If you still think in terms of a rotation:

  1. IT — PS  – BS — BS — SS — DC
  2. SS — SS — SS — DC  (has some waiting for runes)

Remember to use Horn of Winter if you have a spare GCD with nothing to do (gives you RP).

The tank rotation has less DC than the DPS’ because we consume RP with RS.

Stat weightings for threat

Using the EP calculation, at the Coliseum gear level, these are the stat weightings for threat in an Unholy3.3 tank:

Strength | 2.21
ExpertiseRating | 1.79
BeforeMeleeHitCap<8% | 1.72
CritRating | 1.45
ArmorPenetrationRating | 1.45
Agility | 1.03
AttackPower | 1 (0.29 DPS/per AP)
HasteRating | 0.9
ExpertiseRating After Dodge Cap | 0.9
SpellHitRating | 0.27

How’s it compare to blood or frost?

Jan 7th 2010: I updated my test comparisons in Bluedragon’s gear:

  • 2H Frost did ~3.7% more threat than the Unholy spec,
  • Blood did between 1.6% and 3.4% depending on the spec,
  • and dual-wield Frost gave between 2.8% more with a 2.6 MH and 2.0 OH (Quel’serrar) and 6.2% more with two nice slow 2.6 speed weapons. Getting that from Frost though does require skilful management of Rime and KM procs.

I did not test the glyphed-DnD-based single-target tanking spec of Unholy because I don’t think it’s viable, because it only works if the boss is staying in your DnD area. That said, it might be worth looking into now we know the weird set bonus on the tier armour is here to stay.

See here for more on this threat analysis of Unholy.

For the 3.3 Frost tank spec and more, check my DK tank spec start page.

Why tank as unholy?

It’s pretty simple, in order:

  1. Bone shield
  2. ebon plaguebringer for the raid
  3. AOE power.

Bone shield is the best DK tanking cooldown in my opinion. I love it. Others rate vampiric blood as the best, and it’s pretty hard to argue either way. They’re both superb. Personally, bone shield is my favourite and a lot of tanks agree; they’re just frustrated the rest of unholy’s tree isn’t equivalently awesome. You can put up bone shield pre-emptively and its long duration lets you run into a fight with it up for the ugly initial element of a fight. It scales with avoidance. Its damage reduction is impressive for a one-minute cooldown. It looks cool too.

Ebon Plaguebringer is unique insofar that a DK can spread it to multiple targets easily. You might find there is no Unholy DPSer in your raid, so it’s valuable if the tank can bring it. Crypt fever+30% to diseases is a notable boost to shadow priest and DK dps.

Should you tank Icecrown raids in unholy? (Feb 9 2010 update)

No, I wouldn’t. Here’s my longer answer, including the discovery of BS having a two-second ICD, which makes it very lame against fast bosses. Also, if you are just passionate about it but not a very hardcore tank, here’s my contrary view.

Caveats and limitations of the sim

For most of the testing I was using a priority system for Unholy (so I could test glyph of disease). Plus, the version I used does not retain 20 RP for Rune Strikes, so RS is probably underweight in the results, and in turn SoB is not simulated accurately. It included a non-permanent ghoul in all results. At the end, I ran a few sims with a fixed rotation (to conserve RP) and found the results for SoB that way; it was coming up as about 1%, similar to necrosis.

Ideally I’d have switched to a rotation earlier.

I used a fast boss of 1.8, guessing what the Icecrown new boss speed will be, and knowing it’ll be faster but for less damage, as stated by GC. This speed would have only made SoB more valuable, which is strange, because it still came out at 1% (I’d have expected higher).

I don’t think these factors will have distorted the results by any order of magnitude, given the winning talents all also enhance Rune Strike, and they’d just be better with SoB working and with more free RP from a fixed rotation.

You can download all my results here in Excel to review, or look at individual damage by each ability. All the Kahorie outputs are included.

My thanks to the developers of Kahorie’s tool, for tweaking it for tanks and listening to my suggestions.

To comment

this post’s discussion is now in the forums.

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44 comments to Unholy tank in 3.3

  • tiny dk

    Is unholy a viable aoe spec for raids and heroics or is it still better to go frost for that? And if so is it better to keep some dual weild dps weapons with defence runeforge for frost aoe tanking?

  • Instructions
    Twitter: awfullyquiet

    Unholy is a viable spec for everything except the highest level of ICC content. I’ve healed an unholy pugs on one of my alts that do pretty well through the first 6 bosses (1-4 + VDW + Festergut) who did a fine job. I’m not saying it’s the BEST choice, but it CAN be done. It’s definitely more than potent for heroics and most 10m content.

    Insofar as frost… I’d go check out the frost thread (as am i! because i have to go make a post in there)

  • Gravity
    Twitter: gravitydk

    In my OP above, re-read the section starting with “Should you tank Icecrown raids in unholy?”.

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