Before starting, I’ll preface this with the obligatory “lmfao caring about warcraft lore in 2020 look at this nerd”
Do also be warned it’s going to be a rather long post.
TL;DR: Death Knights are just as strong and mortal as any other class. They rely on runeblades to cast their magic and are powerless without them. Saronite only offers protection against holy magic, nature magic, and physical damage, not all magic. The Ebon Blade are not heroes.
Now that it is out of the way, I figured that since Shadowlands is close on the horizon many people would reasonably find themselves endeared by one class in particular: the Death Knight.
Indeed, the Death Knight is a very cool concept, both to read about and to RP.
As always however, when it comes to the RP there’s more than a few hitches. I’d argue that there is no other class that is subject to the amount of headcanons that Death Knights are.
From being archgods of doom, to unkillable edgelords and unstoppable killing machines, you’re bound to meet a good few of them with the last glance of their TRPs reading “Warning, OP: approach for instant death” (Screw you, Timmy, stop godemoting me.)
But! I’m here to reassure your oh, so tormented souls, and shed some clarity on this beloved class.
The Power Level
First things first. How powerful is a Death Knight really? (Pic unrelated)
The answer is: as strong as any other class!
(Above quote should be considered in regards to the “hero class = superior class” argument)
Yes, really! Shocking, I know, but like any other class they have their limits, they have their highs and their lows, folk at the top and folk at the bottom. Not every one of them is the mighty Deathlord of Acherus as in fact, a good number of them get easily beaten on quite a few occasions which will be listed in this thread.
Sure, it’s important to take note of the possible use of saronite and rune magic, their anti-magic shells and wraith walks…just as you would take note of a mage’s meteor shower or blizzard or mirror image, or a warlock’s infernal or doomguard bursting out of you with a Doom spell.
This is to clarify: they are not weak. They are not mere footsoldiers, a Death Knight would most likely dominate a lot of RP scenes where most are in fact only guardsmen, or mage apprentices in a town or village. They are powerful, they are terrifying. Just as a shaman with an earthquake, or a druid with a hurricane could be.
However they do not reach godhood, they do not require a team of twenty-five players to be dealt with, sometimes as the lore goes, even a lucky shot could be enough to bring them down.
In a battle setting, for example, where they would be paired and faced with similarly battle-hardened individuals of their respective classes, they would not be dominating. A single Death Knight would not be a game changer and would meet its match more than once.
In many ways, a good example of the Death Knight class would be Thassarian.
The Jousting Horse & Mortality
Nowhere is the above-mentioned ‘mortality’ of Death Knights made more manifest than the quest “Battle Before the Citadel” where you quite fragrantly demolish the defences at the feet of Icecrown Citadel led by Boneguard Commanders (High ranked Death Knights) with nothing but yourself, a big lance and a jousting horse.
These supposed “raid boss levels of powerful” characters are utterly powerless to stop you, or your worthy steed. On a daily basis you will be asked to repeat this onslaught and on a daily basis these Death Knights will end up plainly dismantled.
No divine intervention needed, no great artefact or anti-Death Knight ritual, just one big hecking lance through their face.
Similar events are also certainly not limited to the “Battle Before the Citadel”. Other instances of Death Knights being dispatched with comparative ease through questing and lore without any extraordinary intervetion include:
Stable Master Kitrik – Kitrik, a stable master armed with a spear, claims to have torn several Death Knights to pieces, and he will absolutely tear apart the player Death Knight if he gets too close, it’s important to note that these are Death Knights who have yet to claim their Deathchargers, therefore they are initiates and adepts, still I feel it should be taken into consideration nonetheless.
– Grunn’Holde oneshots Lady Blaumeaux, one of the Four Horsemen, with a single axe throw to her head.
The entirety of the in-lore fight in Naxxramas takes place in an even-numbered 4 vs 4, where four Death Knights face against a paladin, a mage and two warriors (Darion, Castillian, Grunn’Holde and Brannigan). This should also be considered, as despite popular claims of Death Knights being anti-mage, anti-melee, anti-everything and superior to everyone else, these Four Horsemen lose the even-numbered fight, with only one (Sir Zeliek) surviving by the end, whereas both Darion and Castillian make it out alive.
The Runeblade Argument
"The single most important piece of equipment to a death knight is the runeblade. It is through the runeblade that a death knight commands the powers of frost, blood and the unholy."
"The runeblade is an extension of your being. A death knight cannot battle without a runeblade." (Source: The Emblazoned Runeblade)
"Allow me to begin your instruction on what is perhaps the most guarded treasure in a death knight’s possession; the runeblade. Without your hand to guide it, your runeblade is but a hollow shell. Separate, you are both broken entities; weak and powerless." (Source: This is my Runeblade…)
Both a great boon and a massive potential weakness, the Death Knight’s runeblade is the fulcrum of every power wielded by the Death Knight, contrary to the popular misconception that Death Knights are powerful shadowcasters, similar to Paladins with casting holy magic.
That is wrong, I reiterate, Death Knights rely on enchanted weapons to cast spells.
It is their ‘loose scale in the dragon mail’, the vulnerable core that, if destroyed (and it can be destroyed by something as simple as a shield bash from an enchanted dwarf shield), could render a Death Knight practically harmless in most fights. Granted, a Death Knight would still be an experienced soldier and a sturdy undead unit, with or without a sword, but without his magic he is a significatly diminished menace.
First Generation Death Knights would likely be the one exception to this, being warlocks in human bodies, who were well versed in sorcery before becoming Death Knights.
Sure, other individual Death Knights might have known magic in their past lives too, I’d imagine at least a handful of the Elven defenders risen during the Fall of Quel’Thalas may have known a few spells (like Lor’themar does), but generally speaking, a Death Knight will be entirely reliant on their runeblade and the dark magic they cast is sourced within it, not within themselves.
The main counterargument levied time and time again against these sources, has been these guys in game:
“See? They have no runeblade and they cast frost spells!”
While it is true they have no runeblade during the lecture in Acherus, they will equip a runeblade when they are asked to cast their magic:
Further reinforcing what Blizzard already repeatedly stated:
No runeblade = No powers.
This also translates to power levels, the rune system is a thing. There is a limited number of runes a Death Knight can possess on any given set of weapons, once used a rune is spent and they take time to recharge.
If you only have blood runes, you won’t be able to cast unholy spells and viceversa. The more runes you invest in one school, the less power you will have in the others.
"Death knights must remain mindful of the power they call forth from runes, and pace their attacks appropriately." (Source: Death Knight)
Another incredibly popular characteristic of the Death Knight is the suit of saronite armour, you know them, I know them, it’s highly unlikely to meet one without saronite.
But here comes one more overestimation. I don’t know from where this originated, but there is this belief that saronite renders one immune and highly resistant to all magic. This is false, it has never been observed in the lore.
Saronite was seen to be impervious to physical damage and completely resistant to nature magic, it was also shown to reflect light magic.
However, saronite is not shown to hold any particular resistance to the other sources of magic; arcane, fel, shadow, and it might be as vulnerable as any other metal to these powers.
The Ebon Blade & Renegade Misconceptions
^ Local Ebon Blade Death Knight entering your public neutral tavern phase before eating your wife and kidnapping your harvest.
The Ebon Blade is not liked, the Ebon Blade is not beloved, nor particularly trusted. Nobody rolls the red carpet when they stroll in town, and they’re certainly not exalted heroes.
Following on the trail of questionable acts, there is also widespread grave robbing:
(Source: We Ride Forth)
In other words, the Ebon Blade is NOT friendly, nor do they attempt to be.
That is the thing, they do not concern themselves with the opinions of others, nor the laws of their lands. The one thing that matters to them is doing their duty, any morals in their way they are resolved to disregard if it means achieving the greater purpose.
At the very best, they should be kept under close watch wherever they go. At worst chased away.
"The world will cry out in anger against us, but the air that fills their lungs will have been bought with the price of our souls." (Quote: Thassarian)
So, that leads to the renegades.
It is not an official term used in the lore, neither is it really a stance taken by any official Death Knight character against the Ebon Blade, but at the same time nothing in the lore is really stopping you from betraying the Ebon Blade, whichever term you use to define yourself afterwards, traitor, renegade, quitter , conscientious objector, whatever, is fine.
Being a renegade of the Ebon Blade hardly means that you are an outlaw in every single faction on Azeroth. The Ebon Blade itself repeatedly commits illicit activities. The misconception that you should be hanged and quartered on the spot by everyone because you’re not wearing an Ebon Blade tabard is just that, a misconception.
Obviously, you’re not going to look any better without an Ebon Blade tabard on you, in most encounters. You’re still a horrifying, murderous undead. People tend not to enjoy that too much.
Blizzard is probably going to retcon all of this in the nearby future by simply misremembering their own lore as they usually do, so here dies in vain another one of my brain cells.
Thank you for joining my TED talk.