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World of Warcraft: Legion: Unholy Death Knight guide (7.1)

Everything you need to know about levelling your Unholy Death Knight in Legion.

The Unholy Death Knight is currently one of the best-in-class melee specialisations in World of Warcraft. While its damage output can be a little inconsistent at times, the spec performs admirably in most combat encounters. In our Unholy Death Knight guide we’ll show you the ropes and put you on the path towards truling mastering the spec.

The Unholy Death Knight playstyle focuses around building up diseases on your target, progressively ramping up the damage the Death Knight inflicts until the target drops dead. This leads to a more tactical play style when compared to the lightning-fast, super-reactive melee whirlwind that is the Frost Death Knight.

In this guide, we’re going to make specific recommendations on which talents you should choose to make levelling as smooth a process as possible, and that will also prove useful when playing a damage-dealing role in groups once you hit the level cap. With that said, we'll go through some tweaks you can make at maximum level to optimize your end game performance. We will also introduce you to the optimal rotations and use of abilities for this playstyle.

You will also find a section dedicated to helping you understand the best path for upgrading your Artifact Weapon - the greatsword Apocalypse - and we'll take you through each trait in the order you should activate them. As we go, we'll explain why and how they should influence your playstyle.

We have already outlined how you should go about choosing Relics to equip on your Artifact Weapon, and in a future update, we’ll detail what your stat priorities should be when choosing the best gear to equip.

Editor’s note: Update #1 - Patch 7.1 - Return to Karazhan brings very little new to the Unholy Death Knight. Death Coil’s damage was increased by 50%, and this was merely to better balance Unholy as a damage dealer with the boosts given to underperforming specialisations such as Frost. It remains a filler spell, and as such, there is no need to switch your talents or rotations.

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Unholy Death Knight talents

Before we go into details about the picks we recommend for levelling, here's a runthrough of all the talents that you can choose as an Unholy Death Knight.

LevelOption 1Option 2Option 3
56All Will Serve - Removes Raise Dead's cooldown and causes it to summon an extra minion with a ranged attack.Bursting Sores - Increases the damage of bursting a Festering Wound by 50%, and deals Shadow damage to all nearby enemies.Ebon Fever - Taking this talent will halve the duration of Virulent Plague while keeping its damage intact, so you can cast it twice as often.
57Epidemic - Grants you a spell with 3 charges and a 10-second recharge time. Activating it will cause all instances of your Virulent Plague to deal Shadow damage to the affected target and to all hostiles around them.Pestilent Pustules - Causes you to gain 1 Rune for every 6th Festering Wound you burst.Blighted Rune Weapon - Grants you a spell that causes your next 4 auto attacks to infect the target with 2 stacks of Festering Wound each, on a 1 minute cooldown.
58Unholy Frenzy - Doubles your attack speed for 2 seconds whenever a Festering Wound bursts.Castigator - Empowers your basic rotation abilities, causing each Festering Strike critical strike to apply 2 additional Festering Wound, and each Scourge Strike critical strike to burst an additional Festering Wound.Clawing Shadows - This replaces Scourge Strike with a ranged attack that still bursts Festering Wound.
60Sludge Belcher - Makes Raise Dead summon an abomination instead of a ghoul. This is a more powerful minion that is further empowered by Dark Transformation.Asphyxiate - Adds a single-target, 5-second stun with a 45-second cooldown to your arsenal.Debilitating Infestation - Causes Outbreak to halve the movement speed of its targets for 3 seconds.
75Spell Eater - Increases the absorption effect of Anti-Magic Shell by 20%, and extends its duration by 5 seconds.Corpse Shield - Upon activation, will redirect 90% of all damage you take to your ghoul, preventing you from summoning it again for 30 seconds after its death.Lingering Apparition - Improves Wraith Walk, allowing it to grant you 100% increased movement speed every 30 seconds.
90Shadow Infusion - Makes every Death Coil cast reduce the cooldown of Dark Transformation by 5 seconds, as long as its effect is not active.Necrosis - Dealing damage with Death Coil causes your next Scourge Strike to deal 35% increased damage.Infected Claws - Your ghoul's Claw attack has a 35% chance to cause a Festering Wound on the target.
100Dark Arbiter - This replaces Summon Gargoyle, and summons a Val'kyr to fight that attacks your target for 15 seconds. For every 1 Runic Power you spend, the Val'kyr will gain 1% increased damage.Defile - This is a replacement for Death and Decay. Similar to its predecessor, it deals area of effect damage, but it also increases in area as it deals damage to enemies, and empowers you, gradually increasing your Mastery stat. It also makes your Scourge Strike (or Clawing Shadows) strike multiple targets as long as you are standing in the defiled ground.Soul Reaper - grants you a new attack that deals Shadow damage to the target. For each Festering Wound you burst during the following 5 seconds, you’ll gain 7% Haste for 15 seconds, an effect which can stack up to 3 times.

Unholy Death Knight talent build

If you want to make the levelling process as painless as possible, we recommend choosing the following talents. We've also given our reasoning for making each choice.

LevelTalentReason
56All Will Serve - This removes Raise Dead's cooldown and causes it to summon an extra minion with a ranged attack.As targets tend to die rather quickly while leveling, the extra minion is something that you can use from fight to fight with a very hands-off approach.
57Pestilent Pustules - Causes you to gain 1 Rune for every 6th Festering Wound you burst.The extra rune regeneration requires little to no input from you and will reduce downtime.
58Castigator - Empowers your basic rotation abilities, causing each Festering Strike critical strike to apply 2 additional Festering Wound, and each Scourge Strike critical strike to burst an additional Festering Wound.While Clawing Shadows is nice as a ranged attack, Blizzard’s new shared kill system minimizes the importance of being the first to attack a mob. Castigator, in the meantime, helps you kill tougher mobs faster, and so is our choice.
60Sludge Belcher - Makes Raise Dead summon an abomination instead of a ghoul. This is a more powerful minion that is further empowered by Dark Transformation.A simple upgrade to your Raise Dead that, once again, requires no alterations to your playstyle.
75Lingering Apparition - Improves Wraith Walk, allowing it to grant you 100% increased movement speed every 30 seconds.This is a simple quality-of-life improvement that allows you to jump faster between groups of targets. If you feel you are lacking resilience, pick Corpse Shield instead.
90Shadow Infusion - Makes every Death Coil cast reduce the cooldown of Dark Transformation by 5 seconds, as long as its effect is not active.This continues the theme of empowering your pet for a flat overall damage increase. You should use Dark Transformation as often as possible and this will allow you to do so much more often.
100Dark Arbiter - This replaces Summon Gargoyle, and summons a Val'kyr to fight that attacks your target for 15 seconds. For every 1 Runic Power you spend, the Val'kyr will gain 1% increased damage.While none of the talents at this level are great for leveling, this is the easiest to use, as it drains no runes and the change it requires to your rotation is very straightforward.

Unholy Death Knight rotation

The Unholy Death Knight specialisation focuses around juggling two interrelated resources - Runes and Runic Power - while keeping tabs on a very specific debuff thatyour attacks apply to the target: Festering Wound.

Your Runes regenerate automatically (3 at a time, at most), and you gain Runic Power whenever you use them to fuel abilities, up to a cap of 100 Runic Power. So the most optimal way to manage them is to spend 3 to 5 Runes, and then switch to using Runic Power abilities while those regenerate.

The only circumstances where you’ll want to spend Runic power while all your Runes are up is if you’re nearing your Runic Power cap (in which case generating any more would be a waste), or if you’ve just activated your Dark Arbiter ability. This benefits from you spending all your Runic Power as quickly as possible.

That said, these resources are currently not that hard to manage, and while levelling, wasting some Runic Power won’t affect your performance significantly. It is more important to balance the number of Festering Wounds you apply on your target using Festering Strike. You can have a maximum of 8 on a target, and your Festering Strike - depending on talents - will add anywhere from 2 to 6, so you should focus on “bursting” the target’s Festering Wounds once their count reaches 3 to 4.

Don’t worry if this sounds a bit confusing: by following the sequence outlined below, you’ll see it working in practice and it will soon become second nature.

Unholy Death Knight - Single target rotation

Focus on the following rotation when it comes to dealing with one target at a time.

ActionConditions / Further Instructions
1.OutbreakIf Virulent Plague is not on the target, or is about to expire and the target will live for at least 10 seconds.
2.Dark Transformation
3.Dark ArbiterIf you have at least 80 Runic Power and the fight will last for at least 10 seconds.
4.Death CoilIf you have at least 80 Runic Power (cast continuously if Dark Arbiter is active).
5.Festering StrikeUntil your target has 3 stacks of Festering Wounds OR 7-8 stacks of Festering Wounds if Apocalypse is available.
6.Apocalypse (Obtained at Lvl 100 with the Artifact Weapon)Only when your target has 7-8 stacks of Festering Wounds.
7.Death and DecayIf there are two targets.
8.Scourge StrikeIf the target has at least 3 stacks of Festering Wounds.
9.Death CoilIf you have at least 80 Runic Power or all your runes are on cooldown.
10.Repeat from Step 1

Unholy Death Knight - Multiple target rotation

You will find this rotation uses mostly the same abilities as the previous one, albeit with the notable exception of discarding the use of Dark Arbiter. The variance is mostly in the optimal order of the abilities. Use this only for three targets or more.

ActionConditions / Further Instructions
1.OutbreakIf Virulent Plague is not on the target, or is about to expire and the target will live for at least 10 seconds.
2.Dark Transformation
3.Death and DecayIf there are two targets.
4.Death CoilIf you have at least 80 Runic Power or all your runes are on cooldown or Sudden Doom is activated.
5.Festering StrikeUntil your target has 3 stacks of Festering Wounds or 7-8 stacks of Festering Wounds if Apocalypse is available.
6.Apocalypse (Obtained at Lvl 100 with the Artifact Weapon)Only when your target has 7-8 stacks of Festering Wounds.
7.Scourge StrikeIf the target has at least 3 stacks of Festering Wounds.
8.Death CoilIf you have at least 80 Runic Power or all your runes are on cooldown or Sudden Doom is activated.
9.Repeat from Step 1

More WOW class guides:

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Blood Death Knight guideHavoc Demon Hunter guideBalance Druid guide
Frost Death Knight guideVengeance Demon Hunter guideFeral Druid guide
Unholy Death Knight guide-Guardian Druid guide
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Beast Mastery Hunter guideArcane Mage guideBrewmaster Monk guide
Marksmanship Hunter guideFire Mage guideMistweaver Monk guide
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Holy Paladin guideHoly Priest guideAssassination Rogue guide
Protection Paladin guideDiscipline Priest guideOutlaw Rogue guide
Retribution Paladin guideShadow Priest guideSubtlety Rogue guide
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Elemental Shaman guideAffliction Warlock guideArms Warrior guide
Enhancement Shaman guideDemonology Warlock guideFury Warrior guide
Restoration Shaman guideDestruction Warlock guideProtection Warrior guide

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Unholy Death Knight Artifact and Relics

Apocalypse is the name of the Unholy Death Knight Artifact Weapon. It also provides you with an extra ability with the same name, which will become a core part of your rotation.

Apocalypse has a complex trait tree, but the majority of traits are high-quality ones that will have a positive impact on your play, whichever endgame you choose to pursue. There's a lot of flexibility in the choices you may take, so we went the way that maximizes the damage-per-second of our chosen rotation and character talents. Feel free to deviate to suit your specific play style - there really aren't a lot of mistakes to be made here.

Once you reach level 110 you will have the chance to reset your Artifact Power and start over, but you should avoid doing so, as the cost increases with the amount of Artifact Power you have already invested. Again, it's worth stressing that most of the Death Knight traits are pretty good anyway, regardless of the order you take them in.

Once you get the 7th or 8th trait in our recommended order, it's worth considering whether you plan on playing Blood as an offspec or not. If you are, you should invest your future Artifact points in the Blood Artifact Weapon, up to the first or perhaps even second major trait, as by now each new trait in Apocalypse will be extremely costly and investing in it will have diminishing returns.

Unless you absolutely must min/max your Unholy spec as quickly as possible (if, say, you plan on joining a Mythic raiding guild), then it’s more efficient to upgrade your offspec Artifact instead. Don't bother upgrading your Frost Artifact until way later on in the expansion, as there is no situation where Frost is better than Unholy at the moment.

As far as Relics go, you should only truly care for increasing your Artifact’s item level. If two relics have the same item level, you’ll want to prioritise the one whose trait offers a greater ability damage increase, in this order:

  • The Darkest Crusade
  • Eternal Agony
  • Rotten Touch
  • Plaguebearer
  • Scourge the Unbeliever
Recommended Order Trait Reason
1 Eternal Agony We'll start with a healthy increase to the duration of one of your damage cooldowns.
2 The Darkest Crusade This is a decent passive increase to your overall damage and also leads you down the path towards more valuable traits.
3 Portal to the Underworld We're picking this before the first major trait because it gives a good damage boost to Apocalypse, which has higher priority in your rotation than Scourge Strike.
4 Scourge of Worlds Your first major trait is a good, passive damage increase that has no effect on your rotation.
5 Scourge the Unbeliever While the effect here might seem small, its activation rate quickly goes up when fighting large groups of enemies, and as such is a good damage increase in dungeons.
6 Unholy Endurance As far as defensive traits go, this one is pretty good, offering a very palpable damage reduction.
7 The Shambler Another good passive increase to your damage output, and it looks pretty cool too!
8 Armies of the Damned A significant boost to your Artifact ability: Apocalypse.
9 Rotten Touch A flat damage increase to one of your rotation staples. You'll notice that we're diverging from the path of your final major trait here, and this is very much intended. While that one is good, Rotten Touch and the next minor are a better overall damage upgrade.
10 Plaguebearer Since you always want to have Virulent Plague up on your targets, a flat damage increase to it can only be a good thing, and it puts us once more on the path to the last major trait.
11 Deadly Durability A nice-to-have upgrade for your defensive cooldowns.
12 Double Doom Your third major trait fits passively into your rotation, granting you more free Death Coils and making them easier to manage.
13 Deadliest Coil A good, flat damage increase.
14 Runic Tattoos A decent upgrade to your resource generation.
15 Gravitational Pull This trait has very niche utility, and there is no reason to take it before any other.

And so the second version of our Death Knight guide draws to a close. We’re going to keep updating it over time, so be sure to keep checking in. In the next update, we’re going to add some more talent specialisations, along with their respective rotations.

What else would you add to our Death Knight guide? Let us know in the comments and we’ll do our best to update it based on your feedback!

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