Death Knight tanks work very differently from other tanking classes, because their dedicated tanking talent tree, Blood, is a tree that allows for consistent and reliable self-healing, instead of the typical damage reduction and avoidance seen in other tanking classes' talents.

How others see you as a Tank

In PuGs, especially LFD groups, Death Knights often have the stigma of being poor and inexperienced tanks. In general, this stigma dissipates at higher levels and is mainly prominent in early Outland dungeons, because this is where people who play Death Knights to get faster queues as tanks, but where those with no idea how to tank, are concentrated. Once they get to higher levels, such people are usually told off by frustrated party members, so if you actually are a good Death Knight tank, you will not suffer this prejudice in Northrend.

For Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm end-game content, however, Death Knights are considered one of the stronger tank classes. Many high end raiding guilds have DKs as Main tanks and Off tanks, because of their flexibility and high effective health. This means that opportunities abound for those who are willing to invest the time in their character.

Tanking Basics

Main article: Tank

Tanks have 3 roles in an effective raid or group. Firstly, to hold Aggro by maintaining the highest Threat on all enemies. Second is Survivability, which is the tank's ability to mitigate and avoid incoming damage, and to increase the total damage they can receive. Third is Raid awareness and functionality, and what is meant by this is boss placement (both location and direction).

  • Threat, in detail:

A tank must generate enough Threat to hold Aggro off of the DPS and Healers in the raid or group. Threat is a number based system in which each individual Mob or Raid boss keeps track of the damage and high threat attacks caused to them, and focus their attention at the highest threat player or NPC in the vicinity. Threat comes in two types, Area of Effect based threat (usually associated with Trash (mob)s) and Single target threat (usually on Raid Bosses and Strong Trash (mob)s).

  • Survivability, in detail:

In general, survivability is a tanks ability to stay alive through mitigation and avoidance of incoming damage. Mitigation is the lessening of damage per hit, and is generally seen as the most effective tank method of increasing survivability. Mitigation mostly involves the rotation of tank-based Cooldowns, as well as static Armor. Avoidance, which is seen to be finicky and unreliable survivability stats, involve Miss Dodge, Parry and Block (DKs do not use shields, and cannot block). Finally, total Stamina is extremely important, as it increases total health pool and gives the healers more reaction time to heal you, as well as helps absorb chained non-avoided attacks. In current end-game content, it is generally agreed upon that "Effective Health" is the most important stat for a tank. Effective health is the total health pool of a tank, multiplied by the static physical damage mitigation from armor. In other words, Tanks' most effective method of increasing their survivability is to increase the total damage they can take before dying by increasing armor, static damage reductions and Health.

  • Raid Functionality and Awareness, in detail:

Certainly, every raid member should be aware of their surroundings and know their role in it, and tanks have a very key and central role in almost every fight in end-game content. You may be seen as the leader-by-default, so it is imperative that you speak up if you're new to a certain dungeon or boss. Trash mobs should usually be pointed away from the rest of the group, to minimize their chance of blocking the DPS's attacks and to direct "cone" effects, such as fire breathing, away from the rest of the group. Make sure also that you are within the healers' Line of Sight; if they can't see you, they can't heal you, and Elite trash mobs will kill you within seconds without constant healing.

Boss fights frequently require more planning and strategy. From the tank's perspective, this typically means that the boss has to be placed in a certain location and faced in a certain direction to minimize damage to the group. An example of this is Onyxia, a Dragon who cannot by faced towards the raid (because of Flame Breath) and cannot be faced directly away from the raid (Tail Swipes); she also must be tanked with the tank's back against a wall, or he will constantly be knocked back by wing buffets. Some fights require a boss to be kited, or moved, from one location to another. An example of this would be Professor Putricide, who must be kited back and forth through the room at every add spawn, kited out of goo, ooze and Choking gas bombs. Many fights also have Adds that spawn; these must be picked up by an Off-Tank, and similarly placed in a certain location, or at least picked up before they attack the healer. An example of this would be Anub'arak, who spawns Nerubian adds who must be picked up and placed on patches of ice, or else they will burrow.

Remember: Every boss encounter is different, and everyone will expect you to know exactly what you're doing. Research the fight before attempting to tank it. If possible, run the dungeon a few times as a DPS so you can observe the fight and learn the boss's attacks. A good raiding guild can help develop promising talent, so you make a sensible transition from DPS to occasionally tanking to off-tanking to main tanking.

Generating Threat and Holding Aggro

Main article: Threat

Death Knights are unique in their methods of threat generation. Unlike Druids, Warriors and Paladins, Death Knights use much the same rotation as a Wrath-era DPS Death Knight would, with a few small variations. Death Knights have a 3x Threat Multiplier while in [Blood Presence], which adds 200% bonus threat to all damage caused. Other moves have multipliers as well, in order to generate threat and give structure to DK Tank rotation:

  • [Rune Strike]: Consumes Runic Power and 1 Global Cooldown. Produces extra threat.
  • [Death and Decay]: Consumes 1 Global Cooldown and 1 Unholy Rune, places an AoE move on the ground, Produces extra threat with each tick.
  • [Death Strike]: Consume 1 Frost Rune, 1 Unholy Rune and 1 Global Cooldown. Heals the Death Knight for an amount proportional to recent damage taken and activates the Blood mastery, shielding the Death Knight against future physical damage.


  • On multiple targets, Death and Decay should be used whenever possible, because it deals significant bonus threat.
  • [Blood Presence] should always be used while tanking. The Presence increases armor contribution from items by 30% and total stamina by 8%. The key dynamic is the increased threat generation. Blood Presence grants a 200% bonus to threat generated (multiplied by the bonus threat from Rune Strike and Death and Decay).
  • Death Strike should be the primary(if only) ability on which you expend Frost and Unholy runes.

The dynamic allows a DK to tank without a shield (similar to a Druid’s Bear form). Because a DK achieves additional armor comparable to that of a shield through Blood Presence DKs can equip two-handed weapons (and are balanced around using them).

When opening combat on a group of multiple enemies, the easiest way is to walk in close and, just as they start to attack you, lay down Death and Decay at your feet. Diseases may be spread via Outbreak->Pestilence, but manual reapplication of diseases should be avoided as it costs you short-term survivability (runes compete with Death Strike). All Unholy, Frost and Death runes should be spent on Death Strikes, while Blood runes should be spent on [Heart Strike]. If facing a very large number of enemies, or to grab a small amount of snap aggro, Blood Boil may be substituted for Heart Strike. Even on pulls larger than three mobs, tabbing and using Heart Strike and Death Strike will produce much more overall threat and damage than using Blood Boil.

Alternatively, you can lay down a Death and Decay at your feet, and then use [Death Grip] to pull an enemy to you - if the rest of the mobs are melee, they will run into your waiting AoE. When using this method, obviously pick out the caster(s) in the group for Death Grip. Then continue the rotation as above.

Death and Decay, if you watch your runes, can be extremely helpful if you have a problem with sustained AoE threat (or new adds) - 2/2 [Morbidity] is a great talent to help this. However, your AoE are likely to hold threat without extra uses of D&D in something such as a heroic.

For opening attacks on a single target, you should use [Outbreak] from a distance. You should not use Death and Decay. Once in melee range, make sure to use [Death Strike] to gain a blood shield and try to keep your Blood runes down to maintain Blade Barrier (death knight talent).

For either single-target or AoE, you'll want to save your runic power for [Rune Strike]. Rune Strike should be used whenever both Frost or both Unholy runes are on cooldown. Avoid using RS when both Blood runes are down, as this can proc a free Blood rune and cause you to lose Blade Barrier (death knight talent).

Like all other tanks, Death Knight tanks should specialize in Mastery. After Mastery, DK tanks should focus on stamina and avoidance(dodge and parry). Expertise and Hit are also useful for additional threat, but not as essential, as Parry Hasting has been all but removed from the game. Taunts and off-GCD interrupts are no longer able to miss.

There are a few other abilities important to tanks:

  • [Dark Command] is a standard taunt. It commands the target to attack you, but has no effect if the target is already attacking you. It may be used once every 8 seconds.
  • [Death Grip] draws the target toward the DK and taunts the enemy, focusing its attacks on the caster for 3 seconds, and interrupts spellcasting. While it may be tempting to use this ability whenever possible, Dark Command is the more effective taunt because it has a much shorter cooldown. Use Death Grip only if Dark Command is on cooldown or if you need to pull a caster mob into melee range. Most bosses are immune to the 'grip' effect, but the 3-second taunt is still applied.
  • [Strangulate] is a ranged silence. It will make a spellcasting mob run into melee range with you.
  • [Mind Freeze] is a standard interrupt. While DPS classes should be interrupting spells, too often they will forget, and the job will fall to you.
  • [Army of the Dead] summons ten ghouls to fight by your side for one minute or until killed. In 5-man instances, many Death Knights use this on bosses, but this is ineffective and somewhat dangerous: the ghouls will repeatedly taunt the boss, spinning it around and potentially exposing other party members to cleave or AoE attacks. There are two situations in which the ability is actually useful: very tough multiple-target packs, and to prevent a wipe. In both cases, the ghouls will distract the enemies for 20–30 seconds, allowing your healers time to top everyone off and you to build up enough threat. As of Patch 3.3.3, AotD also causes a Tanking Cool Down of static reduced damage equal to your Dodge % + your Parry % while channeling the spell.
    Level ?? are immune to the taunt effect, but any adds they may spawn will not be.

[Horn of Winter] is a typical part of most Death Knight DPS rotations, and has a place in tanking rotations as well. The buff to agility and strength amount to significant dodge and parry increases as well as providing free runic power. This ability should be used whenever you have a free global cooldown(not that often).


A DK needs to survive in order to do his/her job of holding aggro. Not dying is always a plus, and since a tank earns his/her pay by getting beat up, let’s take a look at how a DK can best mitigate damage.

All DKs (regardless of spec) have some abilities that help survival:

  • [Icy Touch] chills the target for X Frost damage and infects them with [Frost Fever], a disease that reduces ranged, melee attack, and casting speed by 20% for 21 seconds. A good talent to accompany this is [Epidemic], which increases the duration of both Frost Fever and [Blood Plague] by 12 seconds when fully talented, reducing the need to reapply diseases.
  • [Mind Freeze] is a spell interrupt. Useful on mobs that have a powerful attack with a long cast time. The Runic Power cost can be reduced or eliminated by putting 1 or 2 points respectively in [Endless Winter].
  • [Death Strike] deals 150% weapon damage plus X and heals the Death Knight for 20% of damage taken in the preceeding 5 seconds, always healing a minimum of 7% of the Death Knight's maximum health. This is an essential tanking ability, which is made much more potent with [Improved Death Strike].
  • [Strangulate] silences an enemy for 5 seconds. This is an instant cast with a 30 yard range and a two minute cooldown. Very useful for drawing casters close.
  • [Death Pact] sacrifices an undead minion, healing the Death Knight for 25% of his/her maximum health. The ghoul is summoned with Raise Dead, so both of these skills should be saved for when additional healing is required on top of Death Strike.
  • [Icebound Fortitude] freezes the Death Knight's blood, breaking any Stun effects instantly, and grants immunity to them while reducing all damage by 20% for 12 seconds. Talented with [Sanguine Fortitude], the damage reduction is improved to 50% and the runic power cost is removed. A 3 minute cooldown ensures that this cannot be used repeatedly in a short period of time however.
  • [Anti-Magic Shell] surrounds the DK with a shell that absorbs 75% of the damage dealt by harmful spells, up to a maximum of 50% of the DK's maximum health. Damage absorbed by shell energizes the DK with additional runic power. Lasts 5 sec. Useful for mobs that use a long-cast-time PBAoE spell, obviating the need to run away from the attack. Also useful for bosses with strong magical attacks, such as Sindragosa's Frost Breath.
  • [Chains of Ice] Shackles the target with frozen chains, reducing its movement speed by 60% for 8 seconds. Useful for kiting mobs that hit so hard that they cannot be tanked for very long.

Each of these abilities helps the DK to survive in one way or another, either to reduce the damage that he/she sustains, or to replenish some of the health that the DK has lost. DK’s combine the mitigation/avoidance with health replenishment in their survivability mechanisms.

Tanking Talents

Blood Tree Talents

The Blood tree is the dedicated tanking tree for tanking death knights. Passive bonuses and a new ability are granted when the Blood tree is selected, all of which are geared towards tanking.

  • [Heart Strike] is the core ability granted by the Blood tree. It is a type of cleave, striking a primary target for 175% of weapon damage plus X, and also hitting up to a further 2 targets, with each additional target taking 25% less damage than the last. This is infinitely more useful than [Blood Boil] for generating aggro on a small group of mobs once initial aggro is established, and should be used with most every blood rune available.
  • [Veteran of the Third War] is a passive bonus that increases Stamina by 9% and expertise (not expertise rating) by 6.
  • Vengeance is a passive ability granted to all tanks, and increases attack power by 5% of all damage taken, stacking up to 10% of maximum health.
  • [Blood Rites] is another passive skill, which converts any Frost and Unholy Runes used by Death Strike and [Obliterate] into Death Runes once they activate. Death Runes count as Blood, Frost and Unholy runes, so provide more flexibility in a pinch.

There are several talents in Blood that can be ignored. Generally, it is recommended that you take the following:

  • [Blade Barrier] (3/3, Whenever your Blood Runes are on cooldown, you gain 6% damage reduction for 10 seconds. Using Heart Strike ensures that the 6% damage reduction is constantly in effect.)
  • [Bladed Armor] (3/3, the high amount of armor you have will mean a healthy increase to attack power and thus increase threat generated.)
  • [Improved Blood Tap] (2/2, reduces the cooldown of Blood Tap by 30 seconds.)
  • [Scent of Blood] (2/3, you have a 15% chance when dodging, parrying or taking direct damage for your next 2 melee hits to generate 10 runic power. 3/3 is not recommended as the one additional talent point it costs could be put to better use elsewhere.)
  • [Scarlet Fever] (2/2, increases survivability by reducing melee damage dealt by mobs inflicted with [Blood Plague].)
  • [Bone Shield] (1/1, core ability, reducing damage taken and increasing damage dealt as long as at least one charge remains.)
  • [Toughness] (3/3, a no-brainer. 10% increase to armor value from items.)
  • [Abomination's Might] (2/2, a raid-wide attack power buff, plus a self buff of 2% increased strength, resulting in a higher parry chance.)
  • [Improved Blood Presence] (2/2, absolutely mandatory to ensure you are uncrittable by raid bosses.)
  • [Blood Parasite] (2/2, additional damage from the Blood Worm, plus healing to all within range when it bursts.)
  • [Sanguine Fortitude] (2/2, a major buff to an already useful cooldown.)
  • [Rune Tap] (1/1, for additional self-healing.)
  • [Will of the Necropolis] (3/3, turns Rune Tap into an incredibly useful panic button, even if it does suffer from a 45 second cooldown.)
  • [Vampiric Blood] (1/1, increases all healing received by 25% for 10 seconds and instantly grants the DK 15% of his/her maximum health. The 15% instant heal is lost after the 10 seconds is up, but the 25% additional healing (from all self-heals as well as healer-cast spells) is simply godly.)
  • [Improved Death Strike] (3/3, completely essential considering the number of times you will be using Death Strike.)
  • [Dancing Rune Weapon] (1/1, Generates additional threat and increases parry chance by 20%. With an effective uptime of 13.33% (12 seconds of the effect every 90 seconds) the benefits this provides are excellent.)

Taking the above talents from Blood as a baseline leaves you with 8 points to spend elsewhere. Let's take a look at where those talent points will come in most useful.

Frost Tree Talents

[On a Pale Horse] and [Lichborne] are the only talents that are marginally useful for tanking death knights. [Runic Power Mastery] is a talent that might appeal.

Unholy Tree Talents

[Unholy Command], [Epidemic], [Virulence], [Desecration] and [Morbidity] are all talents that might appeal to a tank. However as a level 85 death knight only has 10 additional talent points (provided that 31 talent points in Blood), the choices are limited.


Depending on your spec and gear as a tank, the best glyph choices for you will vary. The 2 piece Tier 10 set bonus for Death Knight tanks provides the same effect as  [Glyph of Death and Decay], so if you have 2 pieces of Tier 10 already, this glyph is generally unnecessary. It is also unnecessary if you are not having trouble with AoE threat without the glyph. However, it should be noted that it does stack, and if combined with a Howling Blast or an Unholy Spec, the AoE is very high, and if Blood specced, it can provide the AoE threat that that tree somewhat lacks.

Other worthwhile tanking glyph choices include  [Glyph of Rune Strike],  [Glyph of Death Strike], and  [Glyph of Obliterate]. Note that  [Glyph of Icebound Fortitude] is a bad glyph for tanks because at the defense cap, the damage reduction provided by it is already greater than 40%.


In general, Stamina is the most attractive stat for all tanking classes. Other tanking stats, like Dodge, Parry or Armor are useful for tanks, but none compare to Stamina, because Armor cannot reduce magic damage (and cannot be gemmed for), and avoidance is never reliable. In fact, high avoidance may even harm your survivability by confusing your healer; it was this reason that the [Chill of the Throne] was introduced. For this reason, DK tanks should gem  [Solid Majestic Zircon] in every non-meta socket except one which will contain the meta requirement for the optimal tanking meta gem,  [Austere Earthsiege Diamond]. Preferably, the one gem slot excluded will be the one that would offer the best socket bonus, in the cast of T10, the Helm.

There are two good choices for this one gem:  [Shifting Dreadstone] (+10 agility = +20 armor, minor dodge chance, and minor critical strike chance, minor armor), or  [Guardian's Dreadstone] (+1 or +2 expertise depending on current rating). The former is the optimal choice if you have enough expertise already (26 is good, higher than that never hurts for tanks), and the latter is the optimal choice if you could use some expertise. Remember that Rune Strike cannot be dodged or parried anyway, so being a bit low on expertise would not usually hurt your threat.


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