The state of Frost Death Knights in Nighthold

Today I thought I’d take a look at the current state of Frost Death Knights as we progress through Mythic Nighthold. There’s no doubt that if you look at logs and ranking from a top level, Frost Death Knights are toward the top of the heap where melee DPS are concerned. However, one argument I’ve heard lately is that Frost is over powered, and given the opportunity raid groups could look at stacking them similar to how guilds stacked Arcane Mages in Hellfire Citadel.

With that context, I thought I’d look at the state of Frost, and do my best to address some of the points I’ve seen lately.

Are Frost Death Knights over powered?

No. Well not really. When it comes to melee DPS there’s no doubting that Frost can push out significant numbers, but to get a real understanding of this, you need an understanding of where the numbers are coming from and there are two factors at play.

Frost DPS is largely driven by Breath of Sindragosa (BoS).

A Frost Death Knight parse lives or dies based on this ability. BoS ticks ever second dealing damage and using up 15 runic power per second. If you’ve got a full runic power bar when you trigger BoS, it will last 6-7 seconds before it drops off if you take no further action. Where possible, you’d want to avoid over capping – and wasting – runic power, which means you’ll aim to hover around the 70-80 runic power mark most of the time. Remember, for a Frost Death Knight to generate runic power, they need to be in range of a target to melee.

When you think about the way a majority boss encounters are designed, they all generally begin with 5-10 seconds where there are no/few mechanics to deal with. It gives the raid group time to settle in to position and prepare themselves for what’s to come. Under normal circumstances, on the pull, with the benefit of Heroism/Bloodlust, BoS can be kept rolling for 45+ secs (longer with resource generating legendary items) with out much issue so long as there are no interruptions. In heroic and farm content that you outgear, extending BoS can be quite easy, and relatively low risk. Let’s face it, you can get away with a lot more to the point where mechanics can often be totally ignored in favor of tunnelling damage in to a target. In Mythic progression raiding, it can be an entirely different beast.

Lets look at a fight like Chronomatic Anomaly in Nighthold, and specifically the Time Bomb ability. Time Bomb is a debuff that’s applied to random players, when the time runs out, it explodes, damaging all other players within a 100 yard radius, the closer you are to other people when your bomb goes off, the more damage you’ll do to them. Now that we outgear heroic mode, it’s fair to say that the damage dealt by the explosion can be easily healed through, to the point where, if I get the debuff and I can confidently carry on with my business without worrying about moving off the target. In this case, there is no impact on my BoS uptime. Now, looking at the Mythic version of the fight, and it’s a completely different story. Even though we have the Mythic encounter on farm, the amount of damage certain abilities deal in Mythic are almost certain raid wipers. Time Bomb is a prime example. You get the Time Bomb debuff in Mythic and you GTFO or risk wiping the raid. What does this mean in practice?

Looking over my own logs as well as logs of players far better than me, the first minute of any fight is where the bulk of a Frost Death Knights damage is dealt. It makes sense, everything lines up nicely, cooldowns, trinkets, potions plus hero/lust. In that first 45-60 seconds you want to be pushing out as much damage as you can. So back to Mythic Chronomatic Anomaly. Last week I had a solid attempt, in the first minute of the fight, I had nothing to deal with other than avoiding stuff on the ground. For that first minute I did just less than 1.25m DPS. Fast forward to a week later. We pull the boss, I hit BoS, and a second later I see the dreaded Time Bomb debuff. At around the 15 second mark I need to stop what I’m doing and start running to put as much space between myself and the raid as possible. Bye bye BoS, RIP DPS. At the end of the 1 minute mark I’d done just under 700k DPS.

What am I getting at? Frost relies on a solid BoS uptime in order to do well. Anything that stops you generating resources to fuel BoS will blunt your output. Combine this with Death Knights renowned lack of mobility and depending on your luck, you can be in for a bad time. All classes and specializations are impacted by movement and mechanics to some degree, however I’d argue that very few are as heavily impacted as a BoS build Frost Death Knight.

It’s not just mechanics that can cause you to drop BoS. BoS uptime can also be impacted by your tanks. Erratic or fast boss movement can also put you out of melee range, delaying resource generation by a second or two. While it’s not an issue on static boss fights (see Krosus), on other encounters such as Botanist and the Grand Magistrix, your target can be moving frequently, and faster than you’re capable of moving. If the movement happens at a bad time or you’re not prepared for it, it can spell the end of your BoS channel.

The legendary effect

Randomized Legendary item drops are perhaps the greatest mistake Blizzard have made in Legion, made even worse by the fact that you can be lucky and score an item that will directly boost your output, or unlucky and score an item that will sit in your bag and bring nothing but shame upon you and your family. When I think about the Legion legendary items, I think about them on a scale. The scale ranges from ‘meme’ to ‘game changing’. There are some classes that have a mix of meme to good legendaries, while there are a couple of specializations that have a legendary that I’d consider fall in to the ‘game changing’ category. Frost Death Knights are one of them. The legendary helm, Perseverance of the Ebon Martyr, is currently the strongest legendary item available to Death Knights. Equipping it causes Howling Blast to deal 40% increased damage to enemies recently damaged by your Remorseless Winter. This on its own is huge. Combine it with talents, specific relics and tier 19 set bonuses, and I suspect that from a developer point of view, it became unexpectedly strong.

The ‘standard’ BoS build currently takes talents Murderous Efficiency, Freezing Fog and Gathering Storm. These talents all feed off one another, during Remorseless Winter you want to aim to spend as many runes as possible to boost its damage, consuming killing machine via Howling Blast gives you a 65% chance to generate a run, while Freezing Fog further boosts the damage done by Howling Blast. All of this leads you to generating runic power, in turn feeding BoS. Throw in the tier 19 bonus that grants runic power from Howling Blast as well as a couple of relics that further boost the damage that Howling Blast does and you’re quickly pumping out some significant damage. Now throw in the legendary helm and suddenly your Howling Blast can hit like a truck.

At the time of preparing this, Mythic Krosus was still a fairly challenging encounter and the ‘DPS check’ boss for going further in to Mythic Nighthold. Based upon the 1,610 ranked Frost Death Knight logs from Mythic Krosus. Averaged across the sample, players with the helm were average just over 710k DPS, while those without the helm were averaging around 660k DPS. Furthermore, breaking down the top 500 logs, 66% of the top 500 logs were from players with the helm, versus 34% of the top 500 that did not have the helm.

Looking at a fight that many Mythic guilds tackle shortly after Krosus, Spellblade Aluriel, we see a similar pattern. At the time of writing this there were 931 Frost Death Knights ranked for Mythic Spellblade. Of those 931, 465 of them had the legendary helm equipped, compared to 466 players that did not have the helm. This 50-50 ratio surprised me at first but when you look at the data and really think about it, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise at all. Looking at the average DPS, players with the helm averaged 875k DPS versus players without the helm averaging 838k DPS. Overall equating to roughly 5% difference. Again, probably not a surprise, but looking at the high end of the sample, of the top 100 ranking Frost Death Knights, 69 of them had the helm, versus 31 without.

Looking at Mythic bosses further in to the raid, and the sample sizes gets far smaller. At the time of writing this there were just over 30 Frost Death Knights ranked for Mythic Grand Magistrix Elisande, of these 15 of the top 20 Frost Death Knights had the Legendary Helm equipped.

It’s worth remembering that in the above I’ve only looked at the impact of the single legendary, the helm. I’m quite confident that if you were to go even deeper in to the data you’d see that there not only a gap between those with and without the helm, there’d also be a decent gap between those players that have the helm combined to three Howling Blast relics, versus those players with the helm and lesser relics. For what it’s worth, scoring high ilvl Howling Blast relics involves a healthy does of luck in itself, as the two sources are Mythic Ilg’ynoth and running high level Mythic Plus Black Rook Hold.

What am I saying?

Frost Death Knights, on their own aren’t as insanely over powered as some would have you believe. Taking legendary items out of the equation, with talents and tier, they can be quite strong in the right circumstances. In a sense the BoS build is a ‘high risk, high reward’ sort of deal. If you can effectively plant yourself for the entirety of your BoS window you’ll pump out significant damage. Uninterrupted time on target is key. If you have to cut short your window for any reason, your damage output will take a significant hit. To a large extent this is out of a players control (eg. you get a debuff that needs to be dropped out of the group, a sloppy tank swap causes the boss to go for a run etc etc). That said, removing legendary items from the equation and Frost is in no way a DPS outlier. Looking at Mythic examples, the average DPS of Frost Death Knights without Perseverance of the Ebon Martyr was on par with ‘mid-tier’ classes.

When it comes to Frost, I’d also caution people on taking what they see in sims and comparing across classes. Sims can be a great tool for determining stat weightings etc, however they are not all that great at comparing real world performance across classes. Most sims won’t account for movement, movement speed, or mechanics, all things that can put a significant dampener on you BoS fun times. As someone with a Demon Hunter alt, that’s of the equivalent ilvl to my Death Knight, I can say this with a degree of confidence. My Demon Hunter currently sims 2% lower on a standard Patchwerk fight. In practice though, the movement speed and ability to zip around during an encounter more than makes up for that 2%.

Coming back to the question, are Frost Death Knights over powered?

No. Currently logs and ranks for Frost Death Knights are being inflated by a specific legendary item, Perseverance of the Ebon Martyr, and it’s synergy with the tier set and specific relics. It should be no surprise then that Blizzard announced the the legendary helm is on their radar for upcoming nerfs. Would I recommend stacking Death Knights? Nope, the reality is, unless the Death Knights are all packing the legendary helm as well as one of the other top tier frost legendary items (eg. belt, ring, bracers), then there is really nothing to be gained. Death Knights continue to have garbage mobility and bring zero utility to a raid group, outside perhaps of death grip. Why stack helm-less Death Knights when you can choose from Rogues, Warriors or Demon Hunters that can all provide greater output, plus – in the case of Warriors and Death Knights – additional raid utility?

Gear and the random chance associated with obtaining gear has always been part of the game. Legion however, has taken that randomness to a new level, effectively creating a balance nightmare for the developers. I’d guess that any frustration felt by the development team in trying to balance out legendary items and classes is only a fraction of the frustration felt by players that continue to feel as though they are falling behind due to nothing more than luck.

One comment

  1. Very nice article. I’ve come back to the game after a 1 year break and finding your blog is great.
    I’ve mained a frost DK since Wrath. I look forward to more from you. /salute

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