The new Death Knight class is coming to Hearthstone in the March of the Lich King expansion on December 6. With 68 new cards, Death Knight will be the biggest single addition to the game since its launch.
However, you cannot use all Death Knight cards in all of your Death Knight decks. The class comes with a new deck-building system called runes. There are three types of Death Knight runes: Blood, Frost, and Unholy. You can use three runes in a deck, and they can be any combination of the three types, from using one of each to using three runes of the same type. Generally, the stronger cards are locked behind multiple runes of the same type, so you have to pick and choose what to focus on. You can use any Death Knight cards that match your rune selection in your deck: if you use two Unholy runes, for example, you can add all cards that require one or two Unholy runes into your deck.
In this article, I will venture into Unholy Death Knight. Unholy is the main token archetype, and tokens and token synergies are pretty much everything Unholy has to offer. It is particularly notable that many Unholy cards are from the Core set, and this makes Unholy the cheapest Death Knight deck to build on a budget. I will also explore building an Unholy Death Knight deck completely for free from Core set cards alone!
Unholy Death Knight in World of Warcraft
In World of Warcraft, Unholy is one of the damage-dealing Death Knight specs. It focuses on making the most out of your ghoul companion, regularly using Dark Transformation to make it more lethal. Unholy Death Knight can also summon armies of undead to aid them with Army of the Dead. It is no surprise that this approach has translated into a token-based Hearthstone class.
On the other hand, the focus on tokens also means that Unholy Death Knight has the fewest cards that actually tie into Death Knight’s abilities in World of Warcraft. In Hearthstone, the spec has many summoning spells, and it does not summon quite that many minions in World of Warcraft, so many of these spells have been made up. We even have cards like Lord Marrowgar, a boss from Icecrown Citadel, turned into a token synergy card even though the original boss fight does not include any adds.
Unholy Death Knight in Hearthstone captures much of the feel of Unholy in World of Warcraft, even though it uses only a few of its actual abilities.
Triple Unholy Token Death Knight
Building decks for Unholy sometimes feels like building the same deck over and over again. All the best Unholy tools focus on a token strategy, there is no support for anything else. You have your Army of the Dead, Tomb Guardians, and Stitched Giants at two Unholy runes, and Grave Strength, Plagued Grain, and Lord Marrowgar at three Unholy runes. It’s all about those tokens, all the way.
There can still be some differences in the approach. If you go all-in on Unholy runes, you will end up with something like this:
Triple Unholy has access to Grave Strength, so any time you can make a board stick, you threaten to just end the game. Plagued Grain helps with corpse generation, which means that Battlefield Necromancer will not run out of juice. It also makes Lord Marrowgar all the more threatening.
Another synergy I like is Arms Dealer with all the spells that summon Undead minions, such as Army of the Dead. School Teacher should probably be ubiquitous in Death Knight as it can give you more spells like Graveyard Shift for many additional corpses or cheap removal spells to swing back the board.
Finally, any Unholy Death Knight should be very interested in Sire Denathrius as a finisher. There is so much potential to infuse the Sire.
Double Unholy, Single Frost Token Death Knight
In return, you gain access to card draw. Frost is the premium source of card draw for Death Knight, alongside the runeless Chillfallen Baron. Defrost benefits from the corpse generation of Unholy, and Acolyte of Death can potentially draw a lot of cards with all the tokens Unholy is able to generate.
Double Unholy, Single Blood Token Death Knight
If you opt to cut an Unholy rune to add in a Blood rune, you gain access to some potent late-game tools. Again, you lose the big win condition in Grave Strength.
Single Blood rune opens up Noxious Cadaver for the early game, Patchwerk for some major disruption, and Boneguard Commander for another board fill that synergizes well with all the corpse generation from Unholy.
What About Prince Renathal?
In the Death Knight showmatch, every single deck included Prince Renathal and Sire Denathrius. I have pondered whether Prince Renathal should be played in all these Unholy token decks. It seems unintuitive because you are trying to push for victory, and consistency should trump ten additional Health when you are the one who is being aggressive.
All scenarios have played out on the ladder before: we have seen decks adopt Prince Renathal as it has proven to be the superior approach, we have seen decks ditch Prince Renathal as consistency has proven to be more important than additional Health, and we have even seen archetypes where both options are viable: there are Renathal variants and non-Renathal variants of essentially the same deck. Time will tell how things will work out for Unholy Death Knight.
I did build one Renathal deck for Unholy. In my attempts to break the token spell, I ventured into a control direction with the addition of a single Blood rune:
Unholy can feed any corpse spenders and infuse cards with its near-endless token generation. What’s more, the tokens from Army of the Dead can also be used defensively. This enables us to pack the deck with removal and disruption in the form of Patchwerk, Theotar, the Mad Duke, Mutanus the Devourer, Sylvanas, the Accused, and Insatiable Devourer.
In the end, there is always the one, the only, Sire Denathrius. I am beginning to see a pattern here.
Budget and Completely Free Unholy Death Knight Decks
Unholy Death Knight is in a unique position in that many of its most powerful cards are currently part of the Core set. These cards will be available to all players for free, and Unholy Death Knight looks like one of the most potent budget decks in March of the Lich King.
It may even be possible to build a functional free Unholy Death Knight deck from Core set cards. While the Core set can help players fill some gaps in their decks for free, it generally does not have the cards to build complete decks. The last time it was possible to build a somewhat competitive deck from Core set cards was with Demon Hunter before United in Stormwind.
Yes, there are many compromises that need to be made if you only use Core set cards. Nonetheless, most of the real power cards are here! Plagued Grain, Battlefield Necromancer, Grave Strength, Army of the Dead, Lord Marrowgar, and Stitched Giant are all available for free.
With some minor changes, you can work towards a deck like this:
Tomb Guardians is the biggest addition here alongside Sire Denathrius, which is still available from the Castle Nathria Rewards Track until the launch of the new expansion. Grab it while you still can! You will need to complete an achievement to unlock Sire after the expansion launch, and that achievement currently requires you to use Sire to get Sire. Blizzard has promised a fix to that, eventually, but there is no schedule for when the fix may arrive and no information on what kind of achievement you will need to complete after it is in.
Unholy Death Knight lives and dies by its tokens. Token synergies are the only thing the rune offers at both triple runes and double runes, so Unholy Death Knight decks tend to repeat the same pattern. Double Unholy with a single Blood Rune offers the best chance to do something a little different thanks to single Blood providing so many strong cards.
The triple-rune Death Knight cards are split between the three card sources: Unholy is from the Core set, Frost from Path of Arthas, and Blood from March of the Lich King. This makes Unholy the cheapest spec to build as you get almost all of its power cards for free. You can even build an Unholy Death Knight deck from free Core set cards alone! I expect Unholy Death Knight to be a popular choice when March of the Lich King arrives.