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WoW > WoW ArchivistFeb 19, 2015 4:00 pm CT

WoW Archivist: The rise and fall of Wrath’s death knight

Of all 11 classes in WoW, death knights have had the most dramatic evolution. From their beginnings as a supremely flexible “hero class” — with three hybrid tank/DPS trees — to their current incarnation, DKs have ridden their pale horses a very long way.

The decision to write my first WoW Archivist for Blizzard Watch about the history of death knights has nothing to do with recent events. You may see some parallels between the advent of this site and a group of fallen heroes freeing themselves from the clutches of a powerful overlord and forming their own society as a force for good, but I assure you that these are purely coincidental.


Let’s death grip some history!

What makes a hero class?

Originally Posted by Ghostcrawler
Death knights are the only current hero class, which means they are supposed to be the best class in the game.

Ghostcrawler was kidding of course, but when Blizzard first announced that death knights would be a new type of class known as a “hero class,” that’s exactly the impression many players took away from it. The original concept, announced at BlizzCon 2007, was that players could undertake a quest line at level 80 to unlock the death knight class. Blizzard compared it to the warlock mount quest.

That was way off the mark compared to what we got, but most of the other details were spot on: the DK would be a plate-wearing class using a combination of magic and weaponry, would begin around level 60 or 70, would have hybrid talent trees with tanking and melee options throughout each, and it would not use shields. From the beginning, Blizzard said that the class would be available to all races. (This changed in Mists with the addition of pandaren, who cannot be death knights.)

The rune system was also announced, but runes were originally planned to be customizable. In other words, if you wanted three blood runes and three frost runes, you could do that. Runic power was not a thing until the following year, designed to break up the monotony of a rune-only rotation. Customizable runes never surfaced in a playable build outside Blizzard HQ.

Because the class had to be unlocked, players assumed that it would be more powerful than other classes. Blizzard had to go into PR overdrive to quash this idea, but the high power level of DKs for most of Wrath did them no favors.

After the announcement of the second class added to WoW, the monk, players asked if it too would be a hero class. Ghostcrawler replied to shed additional light on Blizzard’s working definition of a hero class:

Originally Posted by Ghostcrawler
“Hero class” meant that the DK started at higher level (and also with a lot of blue gear and so on). We thought it made sense for the DK story because you’re treated as a high-level character and veteran of past events. We didn’t think that made as much sense for the monk, especially when there were so many low-level pandaren running around, and the (perhaps flimsy) justification for non-pandaren monks learning how to be monks from the pandaren. We might very well use hero classes again if it makes sense for a future class though.

Looking back, that seems like the right call for the monk. We’ve come a long way from Blizzard’s original plan for hero classes. According to Wowpedia, Nethaera posted on the official forums that Blizzard planned to add one hero class per expansion. (This was in the wake of the death knight announcement.) Now with level 90 boosts available, it’s a bit pointless for a class to start at a high level. I wouldn’t be surprised if no more hero classes ever emerged.

death knight starting zoneSlave to the Lich King

By the time Wrath‘s beta opened in July 2008, Blizzard had nixed the idea of unlocking the class through a quest line. Instead, death knights became the first class to have their own unique starting zone. Blizzard made use of its brand new phasing technology to show areas evolving as you completed quests — usually for the worse, since your new DK began as a servant of the Lich King. Along the way you interacted with lore figures (and Naxxramas bosses) such as Instructor Razuvious, Gothik the Harvester, Noth the Plaguebringer, and Patchwerk. As you did so, you earned equipment, abilities, talent points, and a mount. It all led to an incredible showdown featuring Arthas, Tirion Fordring, and Darion Mograine, wielding the Corrupted Ashbringer.

Most players in the beta enjoyed the zone and its quest line, but the brutality of some quests took people by surprise. The Lich King is evil, plain and simple, and so are the things you are ordered to do for him. The quest line includes killing innocent civilians, torturing Scarlet Crusaders for information, and murdering your character’s former friend in cold blood.

Zarhym took to the forums to defend the quest line — and straight up tell people not to play a death knight if they had a problem with the “morality of the class”:

Originally Posted by Zarhym
The idea is not to roll a Death Knight and immediately have the ability to choose what kind of work you do in the world. When first entering the world you quickly find you are a slave to the will of the Lich King. You do his bidding because the good in you has been nullified by his powers. […]

If one has initial qualms with the morality of the class and how the playable races of the Horde and Alliance are vulnerable to the bidding of the Lich King, one should perhaps not play a Death Knight. Their introduction ultimately does set the tone though for the dark power of the Scourge in the next expansion.

Players argued that the lack of choice was odd for an MMO and some boycotted the class, as Zarhym suggested. But the quest line stood, and remains the same today.

One of my favorite all-time WoW memes came out of this quest line. The most confusing quest in the entire experience was Grand Theft Palomino. To complete it, you had to steal a horse from the locals and ride it back to the quest giver. But no yellow question mark appeared once you did so. It seemed like a bug. What actually happened was that mounting the horse brought up a vehicle UI. This was the first vehicle UI that most players had encountered, and it was also hard to see, since it only had one button. In the beta and beyond, so many players asked in general chat how to turn in the quest that the answer became a meme: “Press 1 for horse.”

DK talent treesThree hybrid trees

One of Blizzard’s design goals for DKs was to avoid the typical setup of a tanking tree, DPS tree, and PvP tree like warriors had. Instead, they wanted all three specs to have viable builds for both tanking and DPS. All three would be like the druid’s feral tree (before feral was split into separate cat and bear specs). Thus, the blood tree, for example, had both Vampiric Blood to buff healing and Hysteria to buff damage. Dancing Rune Weapon, the 51-point talent in the blood tree, had both survival and DPS components. Frost’s Unbreakable Armor and Unholy’s Bone Shield also had both survival and DPS increases baked in.

The first months of Wrath were an amazing time for DKs. They were powerful and had unprecedented flexibility in their builds compared to any other class. All three trees offered viable tanking and DPS builds, with different strengths and weaknesses. Blood focused on self-healing and life-stealing and was all-around solid for single target DPS. Frost was the most popular tanking tree with strong cooldowns and great crowd control. Unholy was best for AOE and magical mitigation. Players who enjoyed experimenting with builds loved the early version of death knights.

Having access to both strong survival cooldowns and strong DPS cooldowns in the same tree made DKs great in raids and an absolute nightmare for opponents in PvP. Players called for nerfs, but instead Blizzard buffed them in Wrath‘s first post-launch patch.

Other problems arose. Not enough talents differentiated the two roles within each tree, so players could swap roles during a fight without respec’ing, giving raids with DKs a huge advantage. In fact, many tank DKs did competitive DPS in a time when most tank specs did very little damage. This, plus their variety of powerful cooldowns, made DKs the tank of choice for raiding. In PvP, DKs combined utility, instant self-healing from Death Strike and the Rune Tap talent, unmitigated magic damage, and strong defense against both physical and magic damage. Some players even theorized that battleground wins simply came down to whichever team had the most DKs.

During Wrath, many players viewed DKs as a “faceroll” flavor of the month class. One blogger even went so far as to thank Blizzard for DKs because the “huntard” stigma had shifted from hunters to death knights.

The Lich King with his valkyrA failed experiment

Blizzard had set an impossible task for themselves. The original version of the death knight was a grand experiment, but one that ultimately failed.

Patch by patch, Blizzard tried to balance DKs with other classes. The talent trees saw huge changes in every major patch. Nerfs followed on the heels of nerfs. Fun abilities such as Shadow of Death were removed.

In a July 2009 interview, Tom Chilton talked about DK changes:

Originally Posted by Tom Chilton
More than anything else we’re just trying to make sure that we balance Death Knights relatively to everybody else. Of course we want Death Knights to feel like an awesome powerful class, just like any other class. […] We’ve found that there were areas of the game that we felt like they were just too strong, so we’re trying to balance them just like we would any other character class.

In September 2009, Ghostcrawler explained why the death knight ended up so overpowered during Wrath:

Originally Posted by Ghostcrawler
As we started to work on the DK, we talked to PvP and PvE players who were comfortable with the BC status quo. What I mean is that raid leaders told us they didn’t have room for DKs and Arena teams told us they didn’t see the need to replace anyone on their team (especially a melee class without MS). Partially to counter this attitude, we gave the DKs a lot of different tools to handle different situations. They became a little too versatile. […] We gave the early DK an answer to almost everything.

Blizzard admitted defeat in Cataclysm and changed the trees to have the specific roles they do today: blood became the tanking tree, and frost and unholy became exclusively DPS. In an April 2010 class preview, Zarhym provided Blizzard’s reasoning:

Originally Posted by Zarhym
One of the biggest changes we’re making is converting Blood into a dedicated tanking tree. While we feel that having three tanking trees was successful overall, it’s less necessary in a world with dual-specialization. In addition, the current breakdown isn’t as compatible with the Mastery-based passive talent-tree bonuses we want to add (see below). We’d rather spend time tweaking and balancing one good tanking tree rather than having a tank always wondering if they picked the “correct” tree out of three possibilities.

Thus ended the era of the game’s most ambitious class design. Is there any hope for a return to some version of Wrath‘s death knight?

Now that we’ve seen warriors receive a DPS option for their tanking tree in the form of Gladiator Stance, maybe something similar could be done for DKs to bring back the three lost specs of Wrath: blood DPS, frost tanking, and unholy tanking. DKs from that era would be very pleased if Blizzard could find a way to reintroduce those specs. I would dust off my DK in a heartbeat if I could go back to blood DPS. Our hope, like death, advances.

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