Unholy Death Knight PvP Guide in Battle for Azeroth (BfA 8.1)
This guide will walk you through everything you need to know to play in a PvP environment. The guide will cover everything from talent choices, PvP talents, gameplay and rotation, and useful racial bonuses. It is most applicable to Arena content, but most talents and racial bonuses will work in Rated Battlegrounds and skirmishes.
1. Spec Overview / Place in the Current Meta for Unholy Death Knights
Unholy Death Knights are the most unique melee specialization in the game. Most of their damage comes from their pet. Not only that, but they have to keep track of two resources: Runic Power and Runes. Unlike other melee classes that have strong single- target damage, Unholy Death Knights have the ability to AoE down entire teams. To add to this, you also have to maintain buffs, diseases, your pet and Runic Power. Unholy Death Knights are one of the hardest melee classes to master, but are certainly worth learning.
1.1. Strengths of Unholy Death Knights
- Strong burst damage
- Great consistent damage
- Multiple defensive cooldowns
1.2. Weaknesses of Unholy Death Knights
- Limited crowd control
- Predictable burst damage
- Little to no mobility
2. Stat Priority for Unholy Death Knights in PvP
The stat priority for Unholy Death Knights in PvP is as follows:
- Critical Strike;
Strength is the best stat in all situations. Haste is the strongest secondary stat at all times due to it reducing the Global Cooldown on abilities and increasing your attack speed.
3. Azerite Traits for Unholy Death Knights
Azerite traits are unlocked in you helm, shoulders and chest. With each Azerite level in your neck, you get closer to unlocking the center trait in your gear. These traits vary from increasing damage or healing of certain abilities to helping increase your survivability. Depending on what traits you use, it can completely alter your playstyle and what talents you should be using.
3.1. Outer Ring
Below are the best Outer Ring traits.
Unholy Death Knights do not depend on one single trait to increase their damage. Instead, they want a mix of the above traits. Festermight and Archive of the Titans both increase your primary stat, Strength. This is an increase to your overall damage. Harrowing Decay and Cankerous Wounds both increase your sustained damage. These traits will help you keep pressure on multiple targets.
3.2. Middle Ring
Below are the best Middle Ring traits.
The Middle and Inner rings are important for additional damage. Elemental Whirl, Overwhelming Power, and Earthlink give an increase to your stats. These are minor stat boosts, but still increase your damage. Gutripper will help increase both your single target and spread pressure.
3.3. Inner Ring
Below are the best Inner Ring traits.
All of these traits give you additional ways of surviving. These are all passive, but are crucial to have.
4. Gear Recommendations
4.1. General Guidelines
In general, Unholy Death Knights will want gear that has their primary stat, Strength, and both of their best secondary stats, Haste and Versatility.
4.2. Recommended Items
Dread Gladiator's Medallion is good because of the on-use Versatility effect. This increases your overall damage and lines up well with your burst cooldowns.
Dread Gladiator's Insignia is another great PvP trinket. This trinket increases your primary stat, Strength. This is a passive and you will not be able to control the proc, but you will notice a damage increase over the course of an Arena match.
Darkmoon Deck: Fathoms is not an item you get from PvP. Instead, you will have to look at the auction house or find an someone with the Inscription profession. This trinket also gives a passive effect. You cannot control the proc, but the damage this trinket can do is substantial. You will quickly notice a large increase to your overall damage.
4.3. Weapon Enchant
Rune of the Fallen Crusader is the best weapon enchant for Unholy Death Knights. This gives you a proc that will increase your total Strength by 15%. This significantly increases your overall damage. You will normally wait to get the proc, Unholy Strength, and then use your burst cooldowns.
5. Regular Talents for Unholy Death Knights
|56||✘ Infected Claws||✔ All Will Serve||✘ Clawing Shadows|
|57||✔ Bursting Sores||✔ Ebon Fever||✘ Unholy Blight|
|58||✘ Grip of the Dead||✘ Death's Reach||✔ Asphyxiate|
|60||✘ Pestilent Pustules||✘ Harbinger of Doom||✔ Soul Reaper|
|75||✔ Spell Eater||✘ Wraith Walk||✔ Death Pact|
|90||✔ Pestilence||✘ Defile||✘ Epidemic|
|100||✘ Army of the Damned||✔ Unholy Frenzy||✘ Summon Gargoyle|
While the above table provides a generally accurate overview of the viability of talents, some finer points are discussed in the sections that follow, and we recommend you read those for a deeper understanding.
5.1. Tier 1 (Level 15) Talents
All Will Serve is the best choice in this tier. This increases your single target damage.
5.2. Tier 2 (Level 30) Talents
If the goal for your team is to have strong spread pressure, Ebon Fever is the best choice in this tier. This will increase your overall spread pressure greatly. However, if the goal for your team is single target pressure, Bursting Sores is the best choice in this tier.
5.3. Tier 3 (Level 45) Talents
Asphyxiate is the best choice in this tier. Unholy Death Knights do not have any crowd control. This talent gives you a ranged stun that is useful for setting up crowd control on enemies.
5.4. Tier 4 (Level 60) Talents
Soul Reaper is the best choice in this tier. This ability is crucial for Unholy Death Knights. This deals a good amount of damage over 8 seconds and generates 2 Runes.
5.5. Tier 5 (Level 75) Talents
If you are playing against a team with a melee DPS on it, Death Pact is the best choice in this tier. This heals you for a large amount of health, but it does have a downside. It will absorb incoming healing so you do not want to be aggressive while Death Pact is active.
If you are playing against a team with two caster DPS on it, Spell Eater is the best choice in this tier. This makes your Anti-Magic Shell even more powerful. This talent is crucial for surviving against casters.
5.6. Tier 6 (Level 90) Talents
Pestilence is the best choice in this tier. Even though the proc chance is low, Death and Decay is still useful. You should use Death and Decay on enemies that are trying to line of sight your damage behind a pillar so you can maintain your Festering Wounds.
5.7. Tier 7 (Level 100) Talents
Unholy Frenzy is the best choice in this tier. This gives you a solid on-demand burst cooldown. This helps your burst damage by increasing your Haste and your auto attacks have a chance to put a Festering Wound on your target.
6. PvP Talents for Unholy Death Knights
The first PvP talent tier will give you a choice between Gladiator's Medallion, Relentless, and Adaptation. Gladiator's Medallion is the best choice in this tier. It is great for removing crowd control on you that your healer cannot dispel.
Necrotic Strike is a vicious strike that deals Plague damage, and converts 1 Festering Wound into a Necrotic Wound, absorbing healing received by the target. This is a mandatory talent. Necrotic Strike is an ability that will help you apply a lot of pressure to the enemy team.
Necrotic Aura causes all enemies within 12 yards to take 8% increased magical damage. Because most of your damage is magical, this is a flat 8% increase to your overall damage. This is great for consistent and spread pressure.
Unholy Mutation makes Virulent Plague now erupt for 400% of normal eruption damage when dispelled or it expires. Targets struck by this eruption have their movement speed reduced by 50% for 6 seconds. This is a great talent when playing with a class like Warlock that has DoTs that will be dispelled by the enemy healer. This increases your spread pressure against teams with two melee on it.
Anti-Magic Zone places an Anti-Magic Zone for 10 seconds that reduce spell damage taken by part or raid members by 60%. It is recommended to take this talent when you are playing against a team with two DPS that have magical damage. You can replace Unholy Mutation with this PvP talent.
Dark Simulacrum places a dark ward on the enemy player that persists for 12 sec, triggering when the enemy next spends Mana on a spell, and allowing the Death knight to unleash an exact duplicate of that spell. You want to use this when playing against classes that have castable crowd control, like Polymorph or Cyclone. You can replace Unholy Mutation with this PvP talent.
7. Racial Bonuses for Unholy Death Knights
Racial bonuses can provide interesting PvP benefits. Here are the best races to choose for each faction.
Orc is the best race for Unholy Death Knights, thanks to the passive Orcs have ( Hardiness), reducing all stuns greatly improves survivability.
Alternatively, Blood Elf is also a good race. The passive you gain ( Arcane Torrent) is a great ability to help you against healers that do not have many buffs. This can purge important HoTs, like Enveloping Mist, or cooldowns, like Blessing of Protection.
The Human bonus ( Every Man for Himself) is a great way to escape stuns. This helps increase your survivability against teams with multiple stuns.
If you do not want to play Human, the Iron Dwarf racial ( Fireblood) is a great defensive that can also help increase your burst damage.
8. Playstyle for Unholy Death Knights
The Unholy Death Knight has one role when in an Arena: do unrelenting sustained damage. Unholy Death Knights lack crowd control with a very small amount of utility for teammates. Players should focus on maximizing their sustained damage as much as they can. Death Knights lack mobility, which is why when you get to the enemy you should deal as much damage as you can to them. With relatively short cooldowns, Unholy Death Knights have the ability to use their burst rotation and force cooldowns as soon as the Arena begins. They have great sustained damage and very short burst cooldowns.
8.1. Using your Ghoul's Abilities
Your normal ghoul has the following abilities:
- Claw — deals physical damage. Your ghoul should always be attacking your main target.
- Gnaw — a 1-second stun. This is great to use on a healer or caster as an interrupt or to setup crowd control.
- Leap — leap behind an enemy target. This makes it faster for your pet to swap targets if you are switching your main target.
- Huddle — reduces all damage taken by 50%, but prevents all other actions for 10 seconds. This should be used when the enemy team is focusing your pet.
These are your ghoul's normal abilities. However, Unholy Death Knights have an ability called Dark Transformation that is normally used during their burst rotation. This empowers your ghoul's damage and abilities dramatically.
Here is what Dark Transformation does to your ghoul's abilities.
- Claw — Deals Shadow damage to all enemies nearby the monstrosity. This gives you cleave damage if the enemy team is stacked.
- Gnaw — a 2-second stun. This is much more beneficial when it is 2 seconds. This gives your teammates time to cast or place their crowd control if you are setting it up on the enemy healer. You can also use it on your main target to stop them from moving.
- Leap — Interrupts and roots your target for 2 seconds. This will primarily be used on the enemy healer if they are in range. You should also use it to interrupt crowd control like Polymorph or Cyclone.
- Huddle — reduces all damage taken to your ghoul by 50% for 10 seconds. This just makes it so you can use other abilities while Putrid Bulwark is active. Putrid Bulwark is the buff that is placed on your ghoul.
8.2. Before Gates Open
Have a plan for who you will be mainly using your crowd control on. Although Unholy Death Knights lack crowd control, they still have Asphyxiate.
8.2.1. The Opener
The opener refers to your team's opening crowd control chain and damage done as soon as you get out of the gates. The main goal in the opener is to force your enemies to use their cooldowns.
If the enemy healer uses their trinket in the opener, they are in trouble. In the opener, Unholy Death Knights should focus on sticking to an enemy and dealing large amounts of damage to the target.
This is the rotation you should use on your target at the beginning of the game.
- If you are playing against a mobile target, use Chains of Ice.
- Use Outbreak on the enemy team to apply and spread Virulent Plague.
- Use Death and Decay to have a chance at applying a Festering Wound on the enemy.
- Use Festering Strike to put 2-3 Festering Wounds on your main target.
- Use Death Coil if you have a high amount of Runic Power or if you get a Sudden Doom proc.
- If you do not have many stacks of Festering Wound on your target, you can use Unholy Frenzy to help you generate them.
- Get crowd control on the enemy healer (you can use Asphyxiate or have a teammate do this).
- Use your burst rotation.
It is important to note that there can only be 6 stacks of Festering Wounds on a target at one time. This means that before you start using your burst rotation, you should have 4-5 stacks of Festering Wound on your target.
8.2.2. Burst Damage
When you have the enemy healer in crowd control and you are trying to kill an enemy, you use your burst damage.
Before you use your burst, you want to make sure you have at least three stacks of Festering Wounds and some Runes available. The goal of your burst rotation is to get your main target low while the enemy healer is in crowd control. Once the crowd control is over, you want to start using Necrotic Strike to prevent incoming healing. You will use Festering Strike to generate stacks of Festering Wound. With the help of Unholy Frenzy, this should not be hard to do. You will use Apocalypse and Necrotic Strike to burst these Festering Wounds. You can almost think of Festering Wound as a third resource.
- Use Dark Transformation.
- Use Apocalypse if you have 4 or more Festering Wounds on your main target. It is important to note that Apocalypse can only burst 4 stacks of Festering Wound.
- Use Death Coil if you have a high amount of Runic Power or if you get a Sudden Doom proc.
- Use Festering Strike if your target does not have many Festering Wounds.
- Use Necrotic Strike if and when you get a few stacks of Festering Wound on your main target.
- Use Soul Reaper to generate 2 more Runes.
- Use Festering Strike.
- Use Necrotic Strike.
8.2.3. Sustained damage
Sustained damage is damage you do when your burst cooldowns are not available.
- Maintain Chains of Ice if your target is mobile.
- Use Outbreak to maintain Virulent Plague.
- Use Death and Decay if the enemy team is trying to kite your damage or to try to generate Festering Wounds.
- Use Death Coil if you have a high amount of Runic Power or if you get a Sudden Doom proc.
- Use Festering Strike to generate and refresh Festering Wound.
- Use Necrotic Strike once your main target has 4-5 stacks of Festering Wound.
- Scourge Strike to burst Festering Wounds if it is not a good time to use Necrotic Strike. A good time to use Necrotic Strike is when your main target is low.
- Use Soul Reaper to generate 2 Runes and to deal a good amount of damage over 8 seconds.
- Use Death Strike if you are about to cap on Runic Power and you are being attacked.
8.3. Defensive Techniques
Anti-Magic Shell is your primary defensive. This is very strong against caster classes. With a relatively short cooldown, use this if you are being focused and need to negate incoming spell damage.
Icebound Fortitude is another strong defensive. This will give you immunity to all stuns and reduce all damage on you. Use this when you are in a stun and being focused.
Death Pact provides you with a way to instantly heal 50% of your health. The downside is that it also absorbs healing done to you equal to 30% of your maximum health. This means that it is not a good idea to use this and stay aggressive against an enemy team if your healer is in crowd control. You will have to play defensive and avoid as much incoming damage as you can.
Death Strike is an ability that uses Runic Power and heals you for 35% of all damage taken in the last 5 seconds, minimum 10% of your maximum health. This means that if you need to be healed and you healer is in crowd control, you can spend Runic Power on Death Strike instead of Death Coil.
Death's Advance, although not exactly a defensive ability, should be used when you need to get to an enemy or to avoid incoming crowd control.
9. Best Team Compositions for Unholy Death Knights
Now that you have the correct talents and understand your damage rotation, it is time to step into the arena with your team. Unholy Death Knights have strong burst damage and multiple interrupts. It is because of this that they excel against teams with casters or weak healers.
9.1. 2v2 Arena
In 2v2 Arena, you will be focusing on spread damage.It is important to put your pet on the enemy healer so you can use your pet's interrupt on them. You will want to use Death Grip to grip the healer close to the enemy DPS you are focusing and use your burst rotation. This will maximize your cleave damage during your burst damage. It is important to note that although Death Knights lack mobility, you should focus on hitting a target that you can touch. Use Outbreak to refresh Virulent Plague when it is about to expire. When you finally connect to your target, use Asphyxiate and start stacking Necrotic Strikes. If your primary target is too far away it is okay to switch targets until your Death Grip or Death's Advance is available.
Here is a list of the best team compositions for 2v2:
- Unholy Death Knight + Holy Paladin
- Unholy Death Knight + Restoration Druid
- Unholy Death Knight + Mistweaver Monk
- Unholy Death Knight + Discipline Priest
9.2. 3v3 Arena
Your role in 3v3 is similar to 2v2 Arena. You will want to focus on maximizing your spread target damage by maintaining your DoTs on everyone, but also single target damage with Necrotic Strikes. When your team has damage, use Death Grip on the enemy healer and have one of your partners stun them. If a stun is not available, use Asphyxiate on the healer. Once the enemy team is stunned you should use your burst rotation. If they are in range, use Mind Freeze on the enemy healer. Make sure you keep your pet on the enemy healer to maximize your spread damage or just in case you want to make a hard swap to the enemy healer.
Here is a list of the best team compositions for 3v3:
- Walking Dead (Unholy Death Knight + Windwalker Monk + Holy Paladin/ Restoration Druid)
- Shadowcleave (Unholy Death Knight + Demonology Warlock + Restoration Shaman)
- TSG (Unholy Death Knight + Arms Warrior + Holy Paladin/Restoration Druid
- Hero Cleave (Unholy Death Knight + Havoc Demon Hunter + Holy Paladin/Restoration Druid)
10. Useful Macros for Unholy Death Knights
Macros are crucial to be successful in PvP. They allow players to use abilities on enemies without having to target them. This helps increase overall damage/healing and general awareness in the arena. Here are a few macros that all Unholy Death Knights can benefit from.
10.1. Death Grip 123 Macro
- #showtooltip Death Grip
- /cast [target=arena1] Death Grip
Using this macro will use Death Grip on arena enemy 1. This makes it easier to crowd control an enemy while staying focused on your target. If you want macros for the second and third enemies, simply change the arena1 to arena2 or arena3.
10.2. Death Grip Focus Macro
- #showtooltip Death Grip
- /cast [target=focus] Death Grip
If you find that you do not have much room on your action bars, you can use a focus macro. This is much simpler to use than the arena123 macro. Put an enemy on focus and this macro will use Death Grip on that player while you are still focused on your target.
10.3. Mind Freeze Focus Macro
- #showtooltip Mind Freeze
- /cast [target=focus] Mind Freeze
10.4. Asphyxiate Focus Macro
- #showtooltip Asphyxiate
- /cast Asphyxiate
This makes it so when you use Asphyxiate on your focus target.
10.5. Pet Stun
- #showtooltip Gnaw
- /cast Gnaw
This makes it so your pet uses Gnaw on your target.
- 03 Jan. 2019: Updated Racial Bonuses section.
- 04 Oct. 2018: Added Azerite Traits section.
- Added Recommended Gear section.
- Added Talent Table.
- 02 Oct. 2018: Removed PvP Gear and War Mode sections.
- 02 Sep. 2018: Updated guide for Patch 8.0.1.
- Updated Introduction and spec overview.
- Added Stat priority.
- Updated all regular talents sections.
- Added PvP (War Mode) talents and gear sections for the new BfA system.
- Updated Racial Bonuses section.
- Added section for your pet.
- Updated Burst Damage and Sustained Damage sections.
- Updated Defensive section.
- Updated Macros section.
- Removed Gear section.
- Removed Artifact Traits and Relics sections.
- 16 May 2018: Added an Arena Compositions section.
- 30 Mar. 2018: Made several updates to the guide and its structure.
- Added sections for Macros, Strengths, and Weaknesses.
- Moved Gear, Artifact Traits, and Relics sections to the end, since they are not that important.
- 02 Feb. 2018: No major changes needed for Patch 7.3.5.
- 24 Dec. 2017: No major changes needed for Patch 7.3.2.
- 20 Sep. 2017: Performed several changes for Patch 7.3
- Removed Artifact Trait descriptions.
- Changed recommended tier 3 regular talents.
- Changed recommended tier 5 honor talents.
- Updated burst and sustained damage rotations.
- 19 Jul. 2017: Changed recommended tier 1 and 3 regular and tier 4 honor talents. Also updated burst and sustained damage rotation.
- 22 May 2017: Guide added.
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