Unholy is a Death Knight specialization that focuses on dealing wide area damage via diseases and undead minions. It is most recognizably a cross between a dot class and a pet class.
We have a permanent pet in the Ghoul or Abomination, and several temporary pets, including a platoon of Ghouls and a Gargoyle we can summon to our command, and potentially, a mighty Val’kyr Battlemaiden in place of our Gargoyle.
Our disease repertoire includes a potent plague, in Virulent Plague, as well as the ability to apply festering lesions to our targets that explode violently for damage.
Compared to most other classes, our mobility is limited or non-existent, so please be aware of this before you decide to play Death Knight; you will need to be very aware of your positioning and ensure that you have plenty of time to avoid mechanics that require you to move quickly.
This guide will assume you already have a basic understanding of how Unholy’s basic abilities already work, and will be skipping much of that preamble, in order to maintain a focus on the intermediate and advanced mechanics of playing Unholy as a DPS spec in endgame dungeons and raids. For a more basic breakdown that covers the absolute basics of Unholy, please visit the guide on Wowhead.
With these things in mind, let’s get into how you actually play an Unholy Death Knight.
7/3/2017 – Removed mention of Path of Frost usage for T20 4pc bonus.
7/6/2017 – Updated Dark Arbiter spec Haste Breakpoint information.
There are several usable talent builds for Unholy, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. Here we’ll take a look at each, as well as the top 3 recommended legendaries for each spec (In addition to the keystone legendary, if there is a specific legendary necessary for the spec to function properly).
Of note, I will be including a discussion of talents that aren’t touched on in any given build, along with a short explanation of why they are not taken.
Dark Arbiter (DA, Darby, Arbiter)
Overview: This talent setup focuses on maximizing single target damage through the use of Dark Arbiter as a cooldown. Her power increases per point of Runic Power spent during her duration, so the key to maximizing her strength is to pool and spend the most possible Runic Power during the 20 seconds she is active. Many guides will recommend the usage of Convergence of Fates in tandem with Dark Arbiter, but the spec is perfectly playable, and still very strong even without the use of this trinket.
Stat Priority: Strength > Mastery > Haste => Critical Strike => Versatility
There are two different types of Breakpoints associated with Dark Arbiter, now, based on a recent (seemingly stealth) change that has standardized her entrance animation somewhat. She now enters, and begins casting within approximately 2 seconds, with a slight (.5) second delay at times after the 2 second entrance.
At 15, 20, 28, 32, and 37% Haste, you gain extra GCDs during the duration of Arbiter, allowing you more chances to empower her attacks.
At 14, 23, 34, 48, 56, 67, 77, and 89% Haste, your Arbiter will gain an additional cast of Val’kyr Strike (up from her base 9) per breakpoint, during her duration. (Meaning you will have 13 attacks if you can maintain 48% Haste during her duration. Higher values can be reached with Bloodlust/Heroism/Drums). This value of Haste must remain active for at least the 18 seconds of her active casting duration to be effective. (Sorry, Nightmare Eggshell)
Strengths: Dark Arbiter and all of the talents in this build focus primarily on single target damage, and thus deals the greatest single target damage of all available builds. The Val’kyr Battlemaiden herself will comprise a hefty amount of your total damage dealt, and only deals damage to single targets. Arbiter’s ability to burst priority targets over short periods is also extremely strong.
Weaknesses: Because so much of her power lies in single target damage output, the Dark Arbiter build suffers from weaker cleave and multi-target than other available talent setups. This can range from being a non-factor, to being extremely important. Ensure that you know what content you are engaging in before you take Dark Arbiter. In addition, Arbiter suffers from being out of melee range of enemies, so on fights where you cannot reach the boss or an add you can actually attack, for extended periods of time, the damage of an Arbiter build will suffer. Failing to maximize Arbiter’s damage will also result in much lower output.
Tak’theritrix’s Shoulderpads (Keystone): These Shoulders add a considerable amount of power to your Arbiter, and are applied to the calculation of Arbiter’s base damage. When combined with the additive damage bonuses from spending Runic Power, this bonus increases their value by the 40% mentioned, allowing you to surpass your Runic Power limitations. (The short version: Using the Shoulders makes Arbiter behave as if each point of Runic Power spent is worth 1.4% damage, instead of 1%)
Cold Heart: Greatly improves single target damage, which is already one of the Arbiter Spec’s greatest strengths.
Soul of the Deathlord: Helps to shore up one of the Arbiter spec’s AOE/Cleave weakness
Instructor’s Fourth Lesson: A solidly strong single target damage based legendary, this is another legend that helps Arbiter improve at its specialty.
Standard Soul Reaper (SR, Standard SR, Reaper)
Overview: This talent setup is strong and versatile, offering balanced single target sustained damage, and relatively strong AOE DPS in all situations. It offers less single target burst than the Dark Arbiter spec, but greater AOE. It has a relatively smooth rotation, and its cooldowns line up well without outside aid, (Most cooldowns divide into divisors of 3 minutes, the cooldown of Summon Gargoyle)
Stat Priority: Strength => Mastery > Haste (until ~20%) => Critical Strike > Versatility
Strengths: As a balanced build, Soul Reaper gives a very respectable amount of damage in all situations from single target to cleave, and AOE. It is flexible in its reach, via the use of Clawing Shadows, it can continue to perform actionable damage on bosses and adds from range and relative safety. Further, because it does not specialize in any particular effect, it does not require any particular legendaries to function adequately.
Weaknesses: Typical of a jack of all trades, Soul Reaper cannot compete with builds specialized in either AoE or Single target damage. though it offers balanced damage and generally smooth output, failing to properly prepare for and utilize Soul Reaper will reduce your output as well. In addition, not having any defined strengths means that Soul Reaper also has no strengths to capitalize on, making legendary choice relatively ambiguous.
Instructor’s Fourth Lesson: Improves on heavily wound-based Gameplay
Cold Heart: Bolsters SR build’s single target damage
Soul of the Deathlord: Shifts focus into cleave and AOE
Kil’Jaeden’s Burning Wish: A generally strong damage increase, but the active effect is very strong in AOE situations.
Uvanimor, the Unbeautiful: Helps to smooth out the sometimes stuttery rune regeneration Soul Reaper occasionally suffers from
Castigator (Cast, Casti)
Overview: Castigator is a bit of a departure from the typical for Unholy. It can actually be used with a number of the later talents, including Shadow Infusion and Defile, as well as Bursting Sores in place of Ebon Fever. It is a versatile spec, but depending on the talents used in conjunction, it can be oriented towards single target or AOE DPS. It focuses primarily on spiky, high-paced wound rotation gameplay to the exclusion of almost all else.
Stat Priority: Strength > Critical Strike (up to 30%) => Mastery > Haste (to 15%) > Versatility.
Strengths: This build, like Soul Reaper, can be very strong and versatile. It offers slightly less ability in either at any given time than Soul Reaper, but can be pushed to orient itself to be better at one or the other. Depending on your chosen talents, it can be stronger than Soul Reaper at single target, but not as strong as Arbiter, or stronger than SR at AOE, but not as strong as Defile, at the expense of its single target output, but it will not be as simultaneously versatile at both aspects as Soul Reaper is.
Weaknesses: Castigator’s strengths partly double as its weaknesses, but beyond that, Castigator suffers from lower Mastery and spikier damage than its counterpart specs. It has the widest damage variance and is not totally reliable at anything in particular.
Soul of the Deathlord: Great cleave increase.
Cold Heart: Great single target damage increase.
Uvanimor, the Unbeautiful: Helps to smooth out the rotation allowing you to cycle wounds more smoothly.
Kil’jaeden’s Burning Wish: Strong stat stick that bolsters AOE
Draugr, Girdle of the Everlasting King: Now this might be a surprise to some, considering Draugr’s pervasive “trash” reputation, but as you’ll be popping more wounds on average, you will also be casting more Festering Strikes, which opens up the path for this to be a relatively good legendary compared to most. If you want to use Instructor’s Fourth Lesson, I STRONGLY recommend using this in conjunction with it for single targets (Cold Heart will still be better, but if you do not have it, I would recommend this over most other legends listed here, bar perhaps Uvanimor.
Instructor’s Fourth Lesson: A lot of you might wonder why this is in honorable mentions, instead of in the straight recommendations. The reason is not that it isn’t strong with this spec, but that it massively complicates your rotation, by sometimes completely clearing out your wound stack, leaving you no way to replenish it and creating hangs in your rotation.
Death March: Lots of crit, good for AOE damage, all in all not a bad legendary for Castigator, especially in conjunction with Defile.
Overview: Defile is an extremely AOE oriented spec. It focuses on spreading large amounts of damage over the area occupied by your growing Defile, as well as utilizing Defile’s massive Mastery boost to empower all of that damage. The talents circled in red can work just as well with Defile as others, and as a spec, it is extremely flexible in what talents can be used alongside it effectively.
Stat Priority: Strength > Mastery > Haste = Critical Strike > Versatility. (Changes depending on the build you use)
Strengths: Massive AOe output, tempered by somewhat weak singletarget normally. This can be bolstered in a variety of ways that do not compromise its AOE output, but it does not currently come anywhere close to Dark Arbiter at single target. in addition, this build and its various permutations scale the best with Tier 20’s set bonuses of all the available spec variations. It is insanely flexible as to what talents can be used above it, especially when it comes to the level 90 and 58 talent tiers, able to effectively use ANY of the talents in those tiers in any combination.
Weaknesses: This build comes with a lot of requirements, including a keystone legendary, Tier 20 4pc bonus, and whatever stat setup requirements that go along with the permutation you choose (Using Castigator with this requires high Critical Strike, Unholy Frenzy wants more Haste, Clawing Shadows demands more Mastery, etc.) Without the necessary pieces, Defile suffers in single target as well. Even further, Defile is difficult to sim, as no APLs exist that focus on optimizing its rotation, therefore it’s rather difficult to really know the power level of your chosen Defile spec or variation going in, it is very literally a feely-craft spec at the moment.
Death March (Keystone): This build simply does not function without Death March. It increases the damage of Death Coil, and massively reduces the cooldown of Defile for using it.
Soul of the Deathlord: Doubling down on AOE power here.
Cold Heart: Solid way to shore up single target output.
Instructor’s Fourth Lesson: Also improves single target output and plays well with Defile’s Mastery buff.
Uvanimor, the Unbeautiful: Works well with Shadow Infusion, and bolsters Defile’s already great AOE.
Kil’jaeden’s Burning Wish: Great stat stick that plays well with Defile’s AOE power.
Prydaz, Xavaric’s Magnum Opus: Great stat stick, offering all the stats that you want for the varying Defile types.
Lana’thel’s Lament: A rather extreme honorable mention. If you’re coming from Blood and happen to have this… it can work well, offering you a flat 5% increase in damage while within your Defile.
Final Notes on Talents:
All Will Serve, and Epidemic are both very weak talents. All Will Serve does not scale with Mastery, and Epidemic is much weaker per rune spent than even Scourge Strike, reducing its viability unless you have a tremendous number of targets for a considerable amount of time.
Tier Bonuses. (What do they do? What Do They Mean?!)
The damage increase from this bonus is always a static 15%. However, the duration is additive per Ghoul summoned by both Army of the Dead and Apocalypse. What this means is that when you cast Apocalypse, you gain this buff for 18 seconds, assuming you had 6 Festering Wounds on the target (and I really hope you did!)
This buff is extremely straightforward, and results in approximately a 2:30s cooldown of Army of the Dead, down from 10 minutes! This is actually pretty amazing, and really bolsters the uptime of the previous bonus.
Important Notes on Tier 20:
The damage bonuses granted by the Tier 20 2piece bonus, as well as the damage bonus granted by the Death debuff applied Ghouls via the Armies of the Damned trait, do not affect ANY of your pets or guardian minions. This includes Dark Arbiter, Army of the Dead/Apocalypse Ghouls, Gargoyle, your Ghoul or Abomination permanent pet, and the Risen Skulker summoned when talented into All Will Serve.
These effects will only affect damage dealt by you, your passive effects, and your on-use items, with the strange exception of Specter of Betrayal.
Recommended Tier Set pieces for Tier 20:
Because many spec variations want to use Cold Heart to bolster their single target damage, the recommendations here are not based on its use. Typically if you want to play a spec variation that requires the use of a slot that covers a Tier piece, any other piece can be substituted in its place.
The typical best pieces are below: