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Death knight dual spec - which tree to tank heroics?



So I have a DK about to hit 80 in the next few days.

I've been leveling as Unholy - mainly DPS - but I'm thinking of buying a second spec for tanking. I'm not really planning to raid on this character, so I'd be tanking heroics at most. I like Unholy and want to keep using it for DPS, but I've heard it's the weakest of the three trees for tanking. With that in mind, would Blood or Frost be a better general purpose (single target and AoE) heroic-level tanking tree?

6 Answer(s)

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Edit: Updated for Cataclsym: This guide will obviously become invalid when the Cata patch 4.n.n patch launches and changes all the talent trees. For anyone who doesn't know yet, neither Frost nor UH will be able to tank in Cata, only Blood.

Edit: Updated for 3.3.3. Endless Winter now a required talent, example builds updated.

Blood and Frost are both tight, and at some point in your DK career it will behoove you to familiarize yourself with tanking in all three trees. DK's are the only tank class that can tank with more than one tree, and sometimes one is stronger than others depending on certain content and Blizzards nerf/buff whims.

But right now Frost is strongest for 5mans. Its easy AoE & AoE disease-application, strong single and multi-target threat, built-in passive mitigation and avoidance enable the fastest, most aggressive DK tanking style possible for 5mans, necessary when LFG farming w/ trigger-happy aoe-spamming dps.

(Blood is better for raid boss tanking right now, due mainly to higher EH, but scales better at higher gear and stamina levels than someone just starting the 5man grind.)

Start with this standard 15/51/5 build (or 13/53/5 for DW Frost, moving pts b/t Killing Machine and Scent of Blood to suit your taste), then experiment as you get used to it.

Required Talents:

  1. 5/5 Blade Barrier, 5/5 Toughness, 5/5 Anticipation (avoidance & mitigation)
  2. 5/5 Bladed Armor (significant AP buff in Frost Presence, point-for-point one of DK tank's best threat talents)
  3. 3/3 Improved Icy Touch (reduces rate of incoming physical dmg, helps healers keep up)
  4. 5/5 Black Ice (threat)
  5. 3/3 Annihilation (threat, and Frost's main nuke Oblit doesn't clear diseases)
  6. 5/5 Killing Machine (another amazing threat talent, both AoE and single target)
  7. 2/2 Chill of the Grave (Frost is RP-starved, need it for Rune Strike, Frost Strike, IBF, and AMS)
  8. 3/3 Glacier Rot (threat)
  9. 2/2 Endless Winter (threat)
  10. 3/3 Frigid Dreadplate (avoidance)
  11. 2/2 Improved Frost Presence (mitigation)
  12. 3/3 Blood of the North (threat & death runes)
  13. 1/1 Unbreakable Armor (good tank cd post 3.2.2, esp glyphed)
  14. 1/1 Frost Strike (RP dump, death coil sux in Frost)
  15. 3/3 Guile of Gorefiend (threat, and increased IBF duration)
  16. 5/5 Tundra Stalker (threat, expertise)
  17. 1/1 Howling Blast (primary AoE)

The objective with several of the required talents is to max Howling Blast AoE damage and threat. Namely, Bladed Armor + Black Ice + Glacier Rot + Tundra Stalker + Killing Machine + Endless Winter + Guile of Gorefiend + Rime. The synergy among those talents also buffs DnD and Blood Boil AoE as well.

Optional talents:

  1. 3/3 Scent of Blood (I personally consider this mandatory, I like max RP regen for FS spam. Others don't. Very low internal cd, especially good w/ faster hitting DW spec.)
  2. 2/2 2H Weapon Specialization (Most consider this mandatory for 2H tanking, as do I, a few don't)
  3. Lichborne (useful on a few fights, like Paletress, King Dred; fills the gap b/t AMS cd's; 2m cd.)
  4. Deathchill (nice way to start AoE pulls, with a guaranteed HB crit. 2m cd, useful roughly every third or fourth pull)
  5. Hungering Cold (spell interupt, applies FF, but 40RP requirement means good chance it won't be up when needed, so requires the glyph. Quick 1m cd. Useful way to start pulls so your subsequent HB benefits from FF on all mobs, decent oh-shit snare as long as no AoE on the ground breaks it)
  6. Merciless Combat (increased threat during burn/enrage phase; filler to open rest of Frost tree)
  7. Chilblains (More of a pvp talent, some may find it situationally useful)
  8. Acclimation (useful on fights w/ constant spell dmg (Sapphiron, Garfrost), not worth it in an all-purpose build)
  9. Improved Icy Talons (nice group buff, but haste is DK tank's least useful stat, and opportunity cost maybe too high. An example build. Ideally you want a Shamman w/ Windfury Totem, or a Frost DPS DK to provide that buff.)
  10. Virulence (if your hit rating is too low relative to mob level, your taunts will miss. Virulence can help with that till you get enough hit from gear/gems, then move those points to something better. Also consider Glyph of Dark Command for raid fights w/ lots of taunting (Gormok, and like half the ICC bosses). And nothing in PvE dispels, the dispel resistance is for PvP only.)
  11. Unholy Command (has 2 effects, grip and temporary taunt that forces mobs to attack you for 3s. Many mobs are immune to the grip effect, but not the taunt effect. Useful in a pinch if Dark Command is down or gets resisted)
  12. Morbidity (I personally consider this redundant and unneccesary, since Frost already has such strong AoE, and you should be using Frost Strike as the RP dump not DC. But others like the reduced DnD cd, so you'll have to experiment w/ it and see for yourself)

Unnecessary, redundant talents:

  1. Epidemic (base disease duration 15s, Frost Fever refreshed every 8s w/ Glyphed HB, faster w/ Rime procs)
  2. Subversion (useful crit buff on Oblit, but there are better places for those points)
  3. Runic Power Mastery (you should be spamming FS and RS so much you never hit the 100RP cap, much less 130RP cap)
  4. Icy Reach (all mobs should be on you, not out of range. Tuskar's Vitality on the boots as tanks w/out Charge or increased mobility should, plus Dark Command taunt, Strangulate, and Death Grip for ranged mob control)

Required Glyphs

  1. Howling Blast (easy AoE and disease application)

Optional Glyphs

  1. Obliterate for more single-target threat (this one is so strong it should almost be under Required Glyphs. Unless you're really having trouble w/ AoE threat, this should be your second Glyph after HB).
  2. Frost Strike for more single-target threat
  3. Rune Strike for more single-target threat (though this is better for MT'ing a raid boss for several minutes straight than the quick pulls and short fights in 5mans; I prefer 1 or 2 for single-target threat in 5mans)
  4. Icy Touch for more AoE threat
  5. Unbreakable Armor for more mitigation (and threat from both the +Strength and Bladed Armor)
  6. Hungering Cold essentially necessary if you spec Hungering Cold
  7. Death and Decay if you are really having trouble w/ AoE threat

Whether you need more single-target threat, aoe threat, or mitigation will depend on your gear relative to both the instance and the dps in your group. You'll have to experiment w/ which combination of glyphs works best for you in that respect. Keep in mind you can carry stacks of all these glyphs in your bags, and change them out inside the instance or raid as the situation dictates.

AoE rotation:

  • initial: DnD + HB + BB + FS dump
  • subsequent: HB/OB + HB/OB + BB + BB + FS dump (spam HB and BB as much as possible, use OB when HB on cd to get Rime procs (Freezing Fog)

You can skip plague strike and blood plague on AoE fights. Oblit and BS lose a little extra dmg from the lack of Blood Plague, but Glacier Rot and Tundra Stalker more than compensate and only require FF, not BP. Use PS/BP on Single-target fights though.

Single target rotation:

  • initial: IT + PS + Oblit + BS + BS + FS dump
  • subsequent: Oblit + Oblit + BS + BS + FS dump (HB when Rime procs Freezing Fog)

Oblit, HB, and IT+PS each use same runes, so interchange as needed. Same w/ BS and BB.

Additionally, keep in mind your initial stat goals for tanking:

  • 535 Defense (uncrittable by lvl 82 boss). 540 for raids (unrittable by lvl 83 boss).

  • 26 Expertise (elminates lvl 83 boss parries and dodges of your special strikes, reduces parries and dodges of your autoattacks. 26 exp per hand if DW'ing.)

  • 264 hit rating / 8% hit chance (eliminate special strike misses vs. lvl 83 boss, and reduce taunt misses).

The Hit and Expertise are needed for threat gen (missed, dodged, parried strikes = no threat), and Expertise provides some extra avoidance and dmg reduction (less parry-hasted boss attacks).

Hit also reduces the chance your Taunt will miss, though 17% spell hit (calculated from hit rating differently than melee hit) is required to completely eliminate Taunt misses. However, at high enough gear levels you can trade the hit cap for additional stamina without losing much threat (since a large portion of our threat comes from unmissable Rune Strike), but on fights that require constant taunting (Gormok, Toravon, and about half the ICC bosses) you may need Glyph of Dark Command compensate for the increased chance to miss taunts.

After getting those stats, stack stamina, dodge, and/or defense. Check out Tankspot's Guides for more on gearing, gemming, and enchanting.

Finally, the frost build I linked is a good, self-sufficient, starter build for learning the style and pugging 5mans. However there are some talents that other classes can provide. For example, if you find yourself running a lot with a Resto druid with Revitalize, you can switch out Scent of Blood and/or Chill of the Grave for something else, like Acclimation or the Improved Icy Talons melee haste raid buff.

Other classes provide other such buffs. Just one thing to keep in mind as you get more experience with it, join a guild, and start raiding with the same people regularly. At that point you'll want to take a look at all the classes you raid with and see what synergies are available, and get everyone to consider respec'ing accordingly.

Edit: A few useful links for DK tanking.


That's hugely helpful, thanks! I've done some Unholy tanking and a bit of research already and know about the hit cap, defense requirements, etc. As you said, DKs have a lot of options when it comes to tanking and I really don't want to be fumbling around with a suboptimal spec for my needs while I'm also trying to get mro4e comfortable with tanking. I do intend to try tanking and DPS in each tree eventually, but we all have to start somewhere. Thanks again for the solid start. – ticktock (Oct 27 2009 11:33 PM)


That's hugely helpful, thanks! I've done some Unholy tanking and a bit of research already and know about the hit cap, defense requirements, etc. As you said, DKs have a lot of options when it comes to tanking and I really don't want to be fumbling around with a suboptimal spec for my needs while I'm also trying to get more comfortable with tanking. I do intend to try tanking and DPS in each tree eventually, but we all have to start somewhere. Thanks again for the solid start. – ticktock (Oct 27 2009 11:34 PM)


I finally shelled out the 1000g for dual-spec, and went with the 15/51/5 build and all the suggested glyphs (total cost, 1300g). Anyway, the rotation is a little hard to get into. Any macro suggestions to make this a little easier? – InternetH3ro (Oct 28 2009 8:38 AM)


For tanking your priorities should stay reasonably the same as DPSing. You shouldn't need a macro to tank effectively. – Nehi (Oct 28 2009 9:25 AM)


Thanks, Nehi. I guess it's just a matter of getting used to a new rotation. My fingers are too used to the current combination of 2,3,4,9,9,9 (IT,PS,Pest,HS,HS,HS). Now I've got DC to concern myself with and new talents with the Frost build. – InternetH3ro (Oct 28 2009 10:41 AM)


Yeah it's definitely a change for Blood and UH tanks to no longer use PS and Pest in their rotations. But once you get used to it, you'll find it's a much faster way of snap-aggro'ing mobs to you, and keeping them stuck to you for the duration of the fight. – Nightfreeze (Oct 29 2009 8:43 PM)


I also tank Blood, and my initial rotation on AoE pulls is DnD - IT - PS - Pest. The difference is that the AoE threat in that rotation is all HoTs (DnD and diseases) which takes time to build up. Hence there's more of a risk of a trigger-happy dps pulling a mob off me at the beginning of the fight. But that never happens with this Frost snap-aggro build and rotation. – Nightfreeze (Oct 29 2009 8:44 PM)


Keep in mind, you never want to use Death Coil as Frost, except in those rare situations where the mob is up in the air out of Frost Strike range, like Svala Sorrowgrave in UP. Frost Strike does much more threat and dmg. As for your old rotation, did you use DnD in there anywhere? – Nightfreeze (Oct 29 2009 8:46 PM)


Correction: "The difference is that the AoE threat in that rotation is all *DoTs*..." – Nightfreeze (Oct 30 2009 7:50 PM)



Hi, first of all you can tank in all three specs. Seeing as you have been unholy most of the time I would recommend becoming an unholy tank initially and then trying out the other trees. Here are suggested tanking specs (glyphs included) for every tree.

If you analyze the 3 specs you will see common patterns regarding necessary talents such as Blade Barrier, Toughness and Anticipation, these are all found in the first tier of talents. Once you know the necessary talents then you can build yourself a hybrid spec. Down in every tree there are more tanking talents to be taken depending on the tree you choose.

I would also recommend checking out www.skeletonjack.com seeing as it is the best site I know regarding Deathknights in general and where I got most of this info. They have info on specs, rotations, gear, etc... It is really good. Seeing as you're particularly interested in tanking here is the direct link to his tanking section: Tanking section


Thanks. I have considered an Unholy tank spec, but I think I know enough about Unholy to knock something decent together on my own there. I'm far less familiar with the other two trees, though. I guess part of the reason I want to dual-spec is to see how Blood and Frost work in play. – ticktock (Oct 28 2009 1:22 AM)



blood for single target tanking unholy for aoe off tank frost....pretty much dual wield tree now, talents used from that tree in combi with blood and unholy. you could try dual wield tanking, but you'll need to get expertise capped and hit capped to about 27% for dual wield to avoid smack back.

also depends where you are tanking and what against, as above skeleton jack used to be good but unfortunately has gone off the boil lately, otherwise look at tankspot who do have excellent tanking guides


This answer doesn't actually provide any specific info - it's all run-on sentences, lack of punctuation and vague generalities. I know what the different trees *do*; I'm looking for info on which is quantitatively best in this particular niche. "You could try" and "also depends" aren't very helpful without specifics. – ticktock (Nov 5 2009 5:53 AM)


-1 ouch. Find someone to proofread next time. – Nehi (Jan 19 2010 5:11 PM)



These have been some good answers, so I'll try to give a terse answer.

Any spec can tank heroics without trouble, and I find it enjoyable to tank as different specs, simply for a change of pace. But Unholy is certainly the easiest tank spec for heroics. As long as your tank gear is decent and your healer has a moderate amount of skill, the most difficult thing about current heroics is holding aggro with all the AoE being used.

Unholy with a Death and Decay glyph provides massive AoE threat--certainly more than other DK tank specs. That said, Frost with Howling Blast comes close, and even Blood AoE is enough to hold multiple targets, but Unholy has it much easier in that regard.

Note that this line of thinking doesn't carry over to 10 or 25-man raiding, especially the Death and Decay glyph (which is usually very poor in raid tank settings).



Frost is easier than Blood to tank 5-man heroics. It has snap-agro with howling blast, blood doesn't.

A skilled Blood tank can do heroics fine, however, but it takes more finesse; also I recommend having corpse explosion in the blood tank build if you're largely going to be doing 5-mans (but you don't need corpex for raiding since nothing blows up in Ulduar and no trash in ToC).

I have a launch page on pwnwear which includes specs for all trees, stat weightings for threat and other tanking information you'd find useful.

(As new user, I can't do more than one http link)



Heroics shouldn't prove to be any more difficult for Blood than they would be for Unholy at least and shouldn't be much behind Frost. I would be surprised if a Blood tank had difficulty holding threat against aoe dps in any heroic 5man. If Death and Decay is down and diseases are up on all targets then Blood Boil will more then do the job.

Frost has a clear edge when it comes to heroics because of how good Howling Blast is for exceptionally quick aoe threat but Unholy and Blood still handle packs of baddies very well too. Its a difference of good (Blood and Unholy) vs. great (Frost), not bad vs. good.

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