Unholy Death Knight DPS Rotation, Cooldowns, and Abilities (WoW MoP 5.4)

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Unholy Death Knight Art Image
General Information

On this page, we list your Unholy Death Knight core abilities and how they should be used together (rotation) in World of Warcraft MoP 5.4. We also explain when to use your various cooldowns. Then, we go deeper and present all the subtleties that you will need to know if you want to excel at playing an Unholy Death Knight.

The other pages of our Unholy Death Knight guide can be accessed from the table of contents on the right.

About Our Reviewer

This guide has been reviewed and approved by Mendenbarr, a prominent theorycrafter who maintains Death Knight guides on Elitist Jerks. He also works on Destiny Softworks, a blog for DPS Death Knights.

1. Single Target Rotation↑top

The single target Unholy Death Knight rotation follows a priority system that can best be summarised like this:

  1. Keep your diseases (Frost Fever Icon Frost Fever and Blood Plague Icon Blood Plague) up at all times (apply with Outbreak Icon Outbreak and extend their duration through Festering Strike Icon Festering Strike).
  2. Cast Soul Reaper Icon Soul Reaper
    • Only when the target is below 35% health.
  3. Cast Dark Transformation Icon Dark Transformation.
  4. Cast Death Coil Icon Death Coil if Dark Transformation Icon Dark Transformation is not up.
  5. Cast Scourge Strike Icon Scourge Strike if you have less than 90 runic power.
  6. Cast Festering Strike Icon Festering Strike if you have less than 90 runic power.
  7. Cast Death Coil Icon Death Coil if
    • You are at or about to be at maximum runic power (90 or more) OR
    • You have a Sudden Doom Icon Sudden Doom proc.
  8. Cast Scourge Strike Icon Scourge Strike.
  9. Cast Festering Strike Icon Festering Strike.
  10. Cast Horn of Winter Icon Horn of Winter.
  11. Cast Death Coil Icon Death Coil.

This rotation assumes that you have taken the Blood Tap Icon Blood Tap talent, which we believe is currently the best choice. This means that you need to perform an additional action, which is managing your Blood Charge Icon Blood Charges. Currently, we propose simplifying the issue by including Blood Tap in a macro with Death Coil, which makes good use of the ability and allows you to focus on other things.

  • #showtooltip Death Coil
  • /cast Death Coil
  • /cast Blood Tap

1.1. Presence

You should always be in Unholy Presence Icon Unholy Presence.

2. Multiple Target Rotation↑top

The basic multiple target (AoE) rotation depends on whether you want to do AoE DPS for a short or a more sustained period of time.

2.1. Short Duration AoE

  1. Apply (and maintain) your diseases, and use Pestilence Icon Pestilence to spread them to all enemies.
  2. Cast Dark Transformation Icon Dark Transformation.
  3. Cast Death and Decay Icon Death and Decay.
  4. Cast Blood Boil Icon Blood Boil.
  5. Cast Scourge Strike Icon Scourge Strike.
  6. Cast Death Coil Icon Death Coil if you have a Sudden Doom Icon Sudden Doom proc or you are about to reach maximum runic power.
  7. Cast Icy Touch Icon Icy Touch.

2.2. Sustained AoE

  1. Apply (and maintain) your diseases, and use Pestilence Icon Pestilence to spread them to all enemies. If you have the Roiling Blood Icon Roiling Blood talent, your diseases will automatically be spread when you cast Blood Boil Icon Blood Boil, so there is no need for Pestilence.
  2. Cast Death and Decay Icon Death and Decay.
  3. Cast Festering Strike Icon Festering Strike to turn all your Blood and Frost runes into Death runes.
  4. Spam Blood Boil Icon Blood Boil until you run out of runes.
  5. Use Scourge Strike Icon Scourge Strike for any left-over Unholy runes.

2.3. Presence

You should always be in Unholy Presence Icon Unholy Presence.

3. Cooldown Usage↑top

As an Unholy Death Knight, you have a total of 4 DPS cooldowns. Below, we explain how they are best used.

3.1. Unholy Frenzy

Unholy Frenzy Icon Unholy Frenzy increases the target's melee and ranged haste by 20% for 30 seconds, at the expense of 20% of their maximum health, over its entire duration.

The following three things should be taken into account when using Unholy Frenzy.

  • It does not matter very much if you stack it with Heroism Icon Heroism/Bloodlust Icon Bloodlust/Time Warp Icon Time Warp, since it is a very minor DPS gain to do so.
  • It should be used on cooldown (although it can be delayed slightly to time it with phases when the boss takes increased damage or when particular burst is required).
  • There is no benefit from stacking it with with Summon Gargoyle Icon Summon Gargoyle.

Theoretically, Unholy Frenzy can be cast on any friendly party or raid member, but we recommend casting it on yourself.

3.2. Summon Gargoyle

Summon Gargoyle Icon Summon Gargoyle is a very powerful cooldown that is free of cost. You generally want to use it whenever it is available, but you can save it for a period when you need to do extra damage. The gargoyle scales with spell haste, and using it together with Heroism Icon Heroism/Bloodlust Icon Bloodlust/Time Warp Icon Time Warp allows the gargoyle to get a few extra casts off, increasing its damage slightly.

3.3. Empower Rune Weapon

Empower Rune Weapon Icon Empower Rune Weapon refreshes all of your runes and grants you 25 runic power. It has a 5-minute cooldown and, as such, it can realistically be used only twice per fight.

Empower Rune Weapon should be used when all of your runes are on cooldown and you have low runic power. It is useful in providing a large burst of DPS, so keep that in mind when deciding when to use it.

3.4. Army of the Dead

Army of the Dead Icon Army of the Dead summons a number of ghouls to fight at your side for a short while. As it has a 10-minute cooldown, it can only be used once per fight.

It is best to cast this shortly before combat or during phases when you cannot attack the boss, since it has a cast time during which you cannot attack.

4. Optional Read: Mastering Your Unholy Death Knight↑top

The above-mentioned priorities (and the resulting rotation) may appear complex and confusing. To alleviate this, we will explain, among other things, the rotation in a bit more detail.

4.1. Dark Simulacrum

Dark Simulacrum Icon Dark Simulacrum is a very special ability. It places a debuff on the target, which causes you to mimic their next spell cast that costs mana to use. This grants you the ability (it will replace Dark Simulacrum on your bars) for a short amount of time. Using this mimicked ability can be very beneficial (even exploitative) on some encounters.

Note that Dark Simulacrum does not work, most times, in PvE.

4.2. Diseases and Festerblight

In addition to the damage that your two diseases do, the damage done by Scourge Strike Icon Scourge Strike is increased by 18% for each disease present on the target (this extra damage is dealt as Shadow damage). For this reason, it is imperative to have a high up-time on your diseases.

Thanks to Festering Strike Icon Festering Strike prolonging the duration of your diseases, they should never drop off. At the start of the fight, as well as any other time that they may drop off, you should simply re-apply them with Outbreak Icon Outbreak. In case Outbreak is also unavailable, Plague Strike Icon Plague Strike will apply both diseases.

If you have chosen Plague Leech Icon Plague Leech as your tier 1 talent, then you should use this ability to consume your diseases every time that Outbreak Icon Outbreak is available. As soon as you have consumed the diseases (and gained the Death rune), you should use Outbreak to re-apply them.

4.2.1. Festerblight and Disease Gaming

The damage that your diseases do is influenced by your attack power (as well as by your Mastery and Critical Strike chance, but to a much lesser degree) at the time when the diseases were applied. Even if your attack power increases or decreases while the disease is active and ticking, it will continue to deal damage based on the attack power you had when you applied it.

As a result of this, it is preferable to apply diseases when you have high attack power (due to trinket procs, potions, etc.). We recommend an addon to help you with this. There is a playstyle referred to as Festerblight which seeks to take advantage of this mechanic.

In the Festerblight playstyle, you make sure to apply your diseases at the start of the fight with as many stacked procs as possible (Rune of the Fallen Crusader Icon Rune of the Fallen Crusader, Potion of Mogu Power Icon Potion of Mogu Power, Synapse Springs Icon Synapse Springs, Blood Fury Icon Blood Fury, any trinkets, etc.) and then you maintain these diseases on the target for the entire duration of the fight, by extending their duration through Festering Strike Icon Festering Strike.

In order to do this properly, you must make much more frequent use of Festering Strike, so your normal rotation is altered so that you now use your Death runes on Festering Strike instead of on Scourge Strike Icon Scourge Strike.

If you are doing this well, then your diseases will end up with a very long duration. Ideally, you should time your disease duration so that you do not have much left on them when the fight ends. So, if you find yourself with 2 minutes left on your diseases and roughly 2 minutes until the end of the fight, you can safely start using Scourge Strike again. Also, if there is a period of time during which your raid must do burst damage, then you can use Scourge Strike during this time, assuming that your diseases will not run out.

The Festerblight playstyle will result in a 6% DPS increase over the normal playstyle, on fights where you do not need to change targets or where you are forced to reapply diseases on the only target.

4.3. Dark Transformation and Death Coil

Each time you cast Death Coil Icon Death Coil, you stack a buff on your ghoul. When the buff reaches 5 stacks, you can cast Dark Transformation Icon Dark Transformation, which consumes the stacks and significantly buffs your ghoul for 30 seconds.

To put it simply, you should use Dark Transformation on cooldown. Maximising the amount of time that your ghoul is transformed is an important part of your DPS.

Note that your ghoul cannot gain any stacks of the buff while he is transformed, meaning that you should attempt to save your runic power and use a series of Death Coils as soon as his transformation ends. This does not apply if you have the 4-Part Tier 16 Set Bonus, which causes your Death Coils to increase the duration of Dark Transformation by 2 seconds.

Sometimes, you will get free Death Coils proccing from Sudden Doom Icon Sudden Doom. In this case, you should use the free Death Coil regardless of the state of your ghoul's transformation, since it may otherwise be wasted by a new proc.

4.4. Soul Reaper

Soul Reaper Icon Soul Reaper can be cast at any time during the fight (provided that you have the necessary rune), and it works much like a DoT that has a single tick. Specifically, Soul Reaper instantly applies a debuff to the target, that lasts for 5 seconds, and at the end of this duration, it will tick once.

Soul Reaper will only tick if the target is at or below 35% health at the moment when the tick takes place. If the target has more than 35% health, the tick will do no damage, and the entire Soul Reaper will essentially have no effect whatsoever, other than using up the respective rune.

So, even though in our priority we mention including Soul Reaper in your rotation when the target is at or below 35% health, in reality, you can start using Soul Reaper slightly sooner than that, provided that the target will be at 35% health or less at the time that the 5-second debuff expires.

4.5. Horn of Winter

The mention of Horn of Winter Icon Horn of Winter in the DPS priority list may seem odd, so we would like to quickly clarify it. As a Unholy Death Knight, there are certain moments in your rotation when there is literally no damaging spell you can cast. Occasionally, you can fill this dead-time with casts of Horn of Winter, which will serve not only to refresh the buff for your raid, but also to grant you 10 runic power.

4.6. Anti-Magic Shell Usage

Anti-Magic Shell Icon Anti-Magic Shell absorbs a large amount of magic damage, and grants you runic power based on the amount of damage that it absorbs.

While this ability has amazing survivability benefits, allowing you to often taken practically no damage from various raid-damaging mechanics, it also has great benefits for your DPS.

Indeed, the amount of runic power you gain if you absorb a lot of magic damage is far from negligible.

Therefore, you should always try to make use of Anti-Magic Shell to boost your runic power generation throughout the fight. The best way to do it is to know when a raid-damaging attack is coming, and to have Anti Magic Shell up for that time. Then, simply enjoy the extra runic power (and don't forget to spend it).

That said, make sure that your Anti-Magic Shell is not needed for something much more important to your own survival, before using it just to get more runic power.

Finally, while you can use Anti-Magic Shell to purposefully stand in void zones, you should be very careful when doing this.

5. Changelog↑top

  • 10 Sep. 2013: Patch 5.4 update.
    • Improved the multiple target rotation section.
    • Added a mention of how the 4-Part Tier 16 Set Bonus interacts with Death Coil Icon Death Coil/Dark Transformation Icon Dark Transformation.
  • 20 May 2013: Patch 5.3 update: updated the damage boost provided by Festerblight to 6% (down from 10%).
  • 03 Apr. 2013: Made several updates.
    • Updated the ideal ways of using your cooldowns (notably that there is no penalty to stacking Unholy Frenzy Icon Unholy Frenzy with Heroism Icon Heroism/Bloodlust Icon Bloodlust/Time Warp Icon Time Warp, and that there is no benefit in stacking Summon Gargoyle Icon Summon Gargoyle with Unholy Frenzy).
    • Reworded several aspects of the rotation priority to make it more accurate and clear.
    • Added a section for disease gaming and for the Festerblight playstyle.