Hardcore Star Team - Hell

At the start of hell difficulty, I went for a project I'd been avoiding before but now was the right time to do it: completely reallocated everyone's equipment from the ground up. I put everything that wasn't tied to a specific character into a common pool, then reassigned it all from there (particularly FCR rings and belts, then charms) to balance all the resistances. I resisted the urge to do that at previous act breakpoints but now is the most important time, upon entering the hell difficulty resistance penalty. All that analysis took way longer than I was expecting; it was worthwhile once but I'm not putting four hours into that again. The biggest payoff was balancing all the FCR equipment (including the Caster crafted belts and amulets where FCR varies in single-digit increments) precisely, getting the sorc and bonemancer and wind druid each to one better breakpoint.

And a note on the order that I played the characters, which actually mattered this time. It was to go in the order of specificity of their item needs. The paladin went first, since he needed three Sacred Targe shields for imbues, so then I would know how many of those the other characters would need to look for and save. Then the barb and sorceress, looking for elite armor for their Duress and Lionheart. Then the javazon, looking for amazon javelins for both imbue and Safety crafting (though then that became moot, read on.) Then the trapsin, looking specifically for a Greater Talon to imbue. Last the bonemancer and wind druid, with no particular need, just any pelt and head for their last imbues.

This act again took a lot of real time because I continued to full-clear most of it with each character as well. Particularly the level-85 areas, Mausoleum and Pit, for an early shot at high-level uniques. (Didn't get anything. I'd hoped Rainbow Facets in particular might be within reasonable possibility, but no luck. I do know that good stuff comes from doing 700 Pit runs, not 7.) I was surprised that the characters kept gaining substantial levels, from 73-74 at the start of the act to 80 by the end; I had remembered leveling to be slower in hell difficulty. It did help that everyone could still handle a player count of 5 or 7 through most of the act, dropping to 3 in areas problematic with immunities.

First item to report, woo-hoo-hooo-hoo-hooooo!

Funny thing was that then Andariel dropped a rare Ceremonial Javelin in the same game. No way of telling if that could have been another Titan's that failed for already having spawned.

Anyway, this needs some rework to the javazon's equipment, she wasn't built with the dexterity for it, she has only 50 base plus 15 from Razortail. The best solution is to give her a Lionheart, swapping out the Peace. And she can use Lionheart's resists too, with the gloves and belt slots given to offense (skills/pierce) instead. Also the strength from Lionheart means she can take and use a second Aldur's set boot that dropped, for fire res and 50 more life. Which in turn covers even more resistances to free up a ring slot for mana (she always needs tons) with a Bahamut's Ring of Sorcery.

Loading up dexterity to use Titan's also means more shield blocking. I haven't talked about that so I will now. I generally don't ever raise dexterity for the purpose of only blocking. Most character guides demand dex for max blocking, but I don't agree, particularly in hardcore. You can never rely on blocking. If you are ever in a situation where shield blocking saves you... you made a mistake by being in that situation in the first place to stake your life on a dice roll. More vitality instead always works in all situations, and that's what you need to survive everything and win hardcore. So everyone in this group has been running with minimal blocking all along. Only the javazon has more than single digit, around 25% originally from the dex needed to use basic javelins and now 37% with 110 to use Titan's.

And here's the other character-defining item from the act:

I'd never heard of this helm, but check it out. I keep going on about the hammerdin's lack of crowd control, and about Cloak of Shadows being the best crowd control in the game... so let's give him 30 charges of it! CTC Dim Vision should help too particularly against archers. Darksight Helm also comes with a package of fire resist and good physical defense, plus I socketed it for lightning resist too as you see here. This was a great find, I'm really hoping this can serve as the defensive capability that my previous hardcore hammerdins always sorely lacked.

More notes on the hammerdin's loadout. His Rockstopper helm now passes down to one of the mercs. For strength to support the Guardian Angel, I went to shop a belt of Atlas... and then I realized it's actually better to shop a Whale belt (100 life) instead of 30 strength (90 life worth of vitality), so he just spent regular points on strength. Finally, I also found a Waterwalk unique boot for him too, more life than the Aldur's boot plus 15 dex for a little blocking too. (He'll need the Aldur's boot back for the fire resist if I ever do change out the 4-diamond shield.) He's keeping the 4-diamond shield for now, haven't found anything better. A Rhyme would be nice, but I actually kinda forgot about that until this point, hope I didn't pass up any good 2-socket base for it somewhere along the way.

Um rune from the Countess! Remember I'm not rerunning areas, each character only takes one shot at it. I took the sorceress here hoping for a Thul rune for the armor-socket cube recipe, and got that instead! Um is the king of mid-level runes, though I don't have any urgent priority for it, nobody besides the barb needs a Duress armor, and no one needs a Crescent Moon weapon. I would do a Stone armor for someone (probably the sorcie) if I also had a Pul but I spent that.

From there, the story of the act items was armors.

Got a Duriel's Shell armor. This is very similar to Lionheart for resists/life/stats... but it also has big defense too that Lionheart lacks. Who wants the Lionheart package but also has a defense multiplier skill? That would be the sorceress. I upgraded Duriel's to elite for 1300 defense, and between that and Lidless Wall and a low-level Shiver Armor skill, the sorcie actually gets to 3000 defense for a get-hit chance of around 50%. Not impenetrable by any means, but definitely useful against small groups of monsters. Like the paladin's Guardian Angel, I handled the strength requirement by socketing Duriel's with a jewel of Freedom plus a resist prefix. Finally, the Lionheart that was made for the sorceress still went to use with the javazon inheriting it instead.

And here's an oddity, an ethereal Que-Hegan's Wisdom armor. I decided to upgrade that to elite and put it on a merc (the hammerdin's, since he needs the merc to tank but not for physical damage.) Not particularly spectacular as a merc armor, but it was the highest defense armor I had any access to, so go with it.

The one thing that went wrong with armors in the act was that I never got any 3-socket elite base armor for the barbarian's Duress. About eight attempts at the cube recipe all failed to give 3 sockets. I know of the trick to fix a low-quality item with the El + chipped gem cube recipe, which sets a low ilvl to limit it to 3 sockets max. I only got one low-quality dusk shroud in the act, but then it got lost somehow, I think I left it in town and then either it timed out or the program crashed. The barb just has to hope he can find a good Duress base for himself soon.

However, the cube recipe did hit on 3 sockets once, on an ethereal base:

And that's what to do with the Um, make an ethereal merc Duress. I wasn't entirely sure that was worth it, but there wasn't any other compelling use of the Um, and having a beautiful 3-socket cube-eth-bugged (applies the 50% for ethereality a second time) base clinched that decision. Check out that defense number. It goes on the sorceress's merc because she needs the physical CB/OW against elemental immunes, unlike the hammerdin who has his own Smite.

Also found a Black Hades armor, socket with rubies for life and it's good enough for the javazon's merc. Unfortunately upgrading that isn't feasible because the strength requirement goes to an insane 232. Also I already burned all my runes (Lem + Ko) on the other armor upgrades.

The legend of the sparkly chest is true! And check out that Face of Horror. I found one earlier but didn't think much of it - but I didn't think of a rogue merc before. The trapsin put it on her rogue here just for laughs (and the 10 resist all)... and found myself loving it. Monster-flee is usually super annoying, but for this trapsin-rogue pair it's amazing. She'll take anything to help disperse crowds, and the monster fleeing isn't a problem as the traps and the rogue herself just keep shooting it down.

Runes: the Um as shown, also an extra Fal (don't need any more Lionhearts so it's unused for the moment), finally one Ko dropped plus one cubed that went into the armor upgrades.

Skill charms: now finding a steady stream. Got that awesome piece there, also paladin offensive auras, druid elemental, and a second barb warcries. Also speaking of grand charms:

Got a Gheed's Fortune from Andariel! Coolest part is it can be used for the gamble discount for everyone's gold after each act. I had to decide who to carry it for adventuring, and got stuck on that decision for a little bit... but then realized there's an obvious answer: the barb, because of Find Item. (Which I also belatedly realized gets boosted by his Echoing weapons on switch.)

And here's another interesting plan I carried out, helped with that Gheed's: Gamble for +2 skill affixes on coronets. I got one character (the barb, because I was confident he could handle it) as high as I could (level 82) by full-clearing everything on players-8. +2 skills come at affix level 90. There is a special property that coronets have of +8 to affix level, bingo. (Circlets have it at +3, which can work later, but only coronets at the moment.) So upon finishing act 1, everyone gave their gold to the barbarian to gamble it all on coronets, with Gheed's discount. This turned up +2 skill coronets for the assassin and amazon, plus also a really nice rare for the druid although it's just slightly not better than the Lore pelt he has.

The paladin found Sacred Targe shields to imbue, and got this neat little piece... although after much thought, I decided it wasn't quite good enough to use over his existing 4-diamond shield. A difference of 80 resist all was just too much to make up elsewhere in his equipment. It might be just barely good enough if socket-quested for a diamond, but I decided to use that on the Darksight Helm instead for a resistance rune there. He did keep this on switch to Smite the upcoming greater mummies in the tombs, although of course I'd have to be careful whenever his resist shield was swapped out.


But finally now the sad news. The bonemancer died.

In the Pit, which he went back to run after having finished the act boss. (Thank god he at least traded away the Titan's first.) This was a stair trap, with an Extra Fast and Might-enchanted boss pack just offscreen from the entrance that swarmed me a few steps in. I got bone walls down in front of the pack, but that attracted a second extra fast boss pack from the opposite direction. I started running in the small gap between, around a corner, and tried to pop out a portal, but just before I could click on it or hit save+exit, all the monsters landed enough hits to kill me from full health in an instant. He died with the Chance Guards and Vipermagi, and lost a Fal rune in stash and a druid elemental grand charm that had just dropped. Regrettable but no really significant losses.

I decided that I don't want to replace him. The team will carry on with six instead of seven. I don't want to spend two weeks catching back up, and I don't really want to play a summonmancer, and I don't want to mess with the symmetry of the seven by adding an eighth character, which really serves as a backdoor way to get extra runs and areas to clear, particularly act-boss quest drops. He was actually getting to be my least favorite character of the group and quite monotonous to play, particularly considering bonemancer is a build I've played many times before, and that diversion into Corpse Explosion really didn't help, it was more clunky than fun. I can live without the bonemancer, so may his Deeds rest in peace.

It really hit me when playing the next character after that, when I realized I now have no reason to pick up and look at necro heads or wands. Anyway, his loss was a valuable lesson: the druid also ran into a similar stair trap in the Forgotten Tower, but that time I was smart enough to nope out to a new game instead of doing anything recklessly stupid.

Even sadder, he died before he got to take and use that hardcore-as-hell amulet that someone found. Oh well, that's hardcore, you gotta move on to the next challenges.


Act 2

I'll lead off the act 2 hell report with the hammerdin. I don't use this word lightly, or ever, but Cloak of Shadows charges for him is fucking amazeballs. In fact I think Cloak works even better for the paladin than for a trapsin. With the crowd blinded, he can focus on and pick off the nasty boss -- that's something traps don't do. The 2k recharge cost per Cloak way more than pays for itself in saved merc resurrections. Also this act was the hammerdin's first time up against magic-immune mummies. Turns out that Smite and the merc are indeed enough to kill them, not fast and have to take it easy on the player count, but does get the job done, with Cloak still helping immensely.

The saga of the act was trying to find a 3-socket elite armor for the barb's Duress. At least the barb himself found a Naj's Light Plate to use as yet another stopgap beforehand, a nice package of skill/life/resists there. But I kept pounding the cube-socket recipe on every elite armor that dropped without hitting on 3 sockets. I even got one low-quality dusk shroud, which the El+chipped recipe fixes to a low ilvl and max of 3 sockets, but then the socket recipe missed its 4-in-6 chance at that. Then the javazon found a naturally 3-socketed dusk shroud... with only 370 defense, almost at the bottom end possible. Then I got a beautiful naturally 3-socketed superior Boneweave with a splendid 576 defense... but a strength requirement of 158 which is just high enough to be problematic. I spent every last Thul rune on that socketing cube recipe with no payoff...

until finally, the wind druid playing last cubed three Orts into a Thul in desperation and the cube finally hit on the jackpot of 3 sockets in a nice 460 defense dusk shroud, so here we go. (Lousy roll on the enhanced defense though, oh well.)

The character that kept surprising me with her performance was the trapper assassin. I remembered my old trapsin as slowing down a lot in hell difficulty, effective but plodding or constrained to low player counts... but not this one. She's a different build, 20 points in more trap synergy instead of Shadow Warrior, and that makes a substantial difference. Also a higher level thanks to more full-clearing and on higher player counts, 84 in mid hell rather than ~78. She pushed through most areas of act two on p5 and some on p7, including tearing through a full-clear of Arcane Sanctuary (no lightning immunes) as fast as anyone ever has. And good thing she did, because this struck from the void:

ARREAT'S FACE! The best-in-slot helm for barbarians. I'll miss the 10% dual leech of Tal's mask (and the socket quest spent on it), but Arreat's whole package is unbeatable, makes for nearly a quarter more damage overall between the skills and attack rating. And the resists here free up the amulet slot from needing resists in favor of one with skills and mana steal, and the Tal's mask will still go to good use on a merc. (This makes three of the iconic class-specific uniques for this team, along with Titan's and [an unused] Bartuc's claw. But I won't dare to ask for a Jalal's or Zak shield next, since then instead I'd get a Homunculus for the late bonemancer. Actually I did get a Trang-Oul's set head that he would have used too.)

If the trapsin impresses me the most, the character who least does is the sorceress. She's OK, but struggles to stand up to any more than about four monsters at once. I'm constantly teleporting away every two seconds, feels like I'm dancing with the devil risking death with any momentary slip. Really her problem is that she's underpowered on skill equipment, only +4 in all, one each from orb/helm/amulet/shield. High skills are essential for sorceress attacks because they all scale quadratically thanks to the mastery, or even cubically for Charged Bolt where number of bolts is a third multiplier. So let's fix that:

After the act, I went gambling for skill coronets again, and turned up that beauty of skills, resists, strength, and even those Attract charges could be significantly useful. And that rare orb dropped, which really rockets up Lightning's damage, went from 4500 to 6000! And finally she also took the Naj's Light Plate: yet again similar to Lionheart and Duriel's Shell with resists and life, but this also has +1 skills. (And her Duriel's Shell now passes down to a merc where it should be.) All this boosted the sorceress from level 24 lightning skills to level 28, should help a lot. She did drop down one breakpoint without FCR on the new orb, but it'll be worthwhile.

In other news, the javazon will need a new shield, her ethereal Moser's will run out, it dropped to 13 durability remaining. Fortunately, I found both a Whitstan's Guard and Sigon's Guard (surprising it took this long) this act. I'm not sure yet which to use once the Moser's dies, but either way it will be socketed with a diamond, which makes its resistances almost the same as a Rhyme. (The javazon has socket quests to spare, she hasn't used any and can't even use all three, because javs can't get socketed and her armor is already a runeword.)

Merc weapons: got 5-socket thresher and mancatcher bases, and made an Honor in each for two of the mercs. Also found a Viperfork elite unique spear, which I'd never heard of; good damage and really fast, but not really the best choice to use without life steal. And a Grim's Burning Dead which is cool but not really good enough to use.

Runes: I've never been so happy to not find the exit from Arcane Sanctuary: superchest dropped an Ist! (Of course I had to read it like six times before it sank in as Ist and not Ith.) Although then I realized Ist doesn't really do much by itself, it's mostly a component of higher runewords. The only thing it does without something higher is Delirium, which might be fun for whoever lacks a +2 skills circlet, but that also takes a Lem and I spent all of those at the moment.

No skiller grand charms from the whole act, oh well.

I was still full-clearing most areas of act 2 (even the maggot lair and palace cellar levels with most characters, plus Arcane Sanctuary, though skipped Halls of the Dead), but this is the last time I'll do that. Everyone should have sufficient gear by now to make it to endgame with no glaring deficiencies, and sufficient experience since leveling starts to fall off a lot past 85. From here onwards, it's mostly going to be straight through with minimal fighting and clearing, eyes on the prize of Guardianship now.


Act 3

Act 3 sped up again now in real time, now that I mostly wasn't full-clearing and just progressing as streamlinedly as possible. It took only about three hours per character through act 3. Even though it seems about a hundred and forty percent of the jungle is immune to lightning, which is half the team (javazon, sorc, trapsin.) But they're all well-designed with strong secondary attacks and made it through with little trouble, although the sorceress did have to save & exit once out of a gloam boss pack in the great marsh. That was the first time I saved & exited anyone during mainline questing; I did a few other times in side areas, notably the nightmare cow level and the Pit in act one.

Ha, the first unique of act 3 was another Moser's shield to replace the dying ethereal one for the javazon. The wind druid had put the Sigon's Guard on his switch to buff his summons and hold in reserve for the javazon, so now he can keep it. Anyway, this reminds me that I think I've hardly said anything about the javazon at all. She's quietly been the most reliable character all along: never needy for equipment, solid skill build with three types of damage including one-point Jab, stays out of trouble thanks to attacking from long range behind two summonables (don't forget Decoy.) Actually the one interesting thing about her lately was learning to use the Titan's, the FRW on it actually throws off my instincts for driving her, I kept overshooting my positioning trying to line up for Lightning Fury pierce lines and Charged Strike hits.

It was the druid that found the new Moser's for the javazon, and then the javazon returned the favor for him:

I didn't ask for it, but I got it, Jalal's Mane! I'd forgotten its +2 to skill tree was shapeshifting, not elemental. It's best-in-slot for a wereformer, but it's questionable whether it beats my Lore here. Compared to that, Jalal's would give up +1 Tornado and +2 Grizzly to gain +1 Oak Sage and Hurricane. But the resists on Jalal's means I can trade out his diamond shield for Sigon's Guard instead and come out even or ahead on all the skills. Finally the clincher is the FHR on Jalal's, which the wind druid lacks anywhere else, and he could really use since he does take hits at close tornado range.

Merc gear: got an ethereal superior thresher that I decided was worth a socket quest for an Honor. (A socket quest of the javazon, since she can't even use more than one on her own equipment: javs can't have sockets, and her runeword armor and Moser's shield already do.) Also a second Tal's mask and a Stealskull helm for life steal, and a Widowmaker bow for the trapsin's rogue merc.

Misc: got an Immortal King's maul and also gloves, although I don't see that beating Ribcracker and Laying of Hands for the barb. Also got a second Natalya's boots although I don't think anyone wants it over Aldur's or Infernostride.

Also a sweet elemental charm for the druid, makes up for the bonemancer dying with one. But speaking of charms:

I got TWO more Gheed's Fortunes. The last one requires some full disclosure. It dropped for the barbarian while he was already holding the first Gheed's, and you can't pick up more than one. What I did was beat Mephisto, then while the game was still running tab out to load the Atma editor and the character file, to move the original Gheed's off him that way, to be able to pick up the new one. This follows my original rule for trading items: the barb finished the act and was eligible to trade his item away, even while still in a running game. I've actually done this often all along - finish an act boss, tab over to hot-swap off some items, then continue playing more areas in the same game; this was the first time it ever mattered logistically.

Oh, and the newest Gheed's is excellent on its stats (perfect is 15%, 40%, 160%.) The barb kept that one, and the other two went to the javazon and trapsin, since they're the ones without any skill charms, so they have space. (By the way, regarding charms, I usually limit them as half the inventory, 5 columns worth. Then two more columns are the cube and TP/ID tomes. That leaves 3 columns open, which is enough to pick up one large item plus some wiggle room for potions and gems and such.)

And steps away on that same floor in the same game, Mephisto's center chest delivered an Um! I know exactly what I'm doing with this: along with a Pul from before (and another also dropped this act), make a Stone armor for the sorceress. Stone is great, my other favorite runeword after Lionheart and Chaos, I've used it on a sorceress before to great effect.

Clay Golem charges are just what a sorceress needs to deflect and slow monsters just long enough to kill them. As with the hammerdin's Cloak charges, the recharge cost pays for itself in saved merc resurrections. Plus Stone has enormous defense which with Shiver Armor actually adds up quite a bit to be useful, plus rounds out the package with decent resists and stats as well, and finally 60% FHR which is also a tremendous lifesaver for a sorceress.

Only catch was I didn't have an elite base armor on hand, wasn't expecting to need one. So I had the barb and sorceress go back through the junky uncleared dungeons (Kurast temples, Swampy Pit, Arachnid Lair, then the act 2 false tombs) to find one. The best that came was this wire fleece with a nice 460 base defense; the strength requirement at 111 is a bit high, but the 16 on the Stone itself makes that manageable; I shopped gloves with +strength (and fire resist) and also gave her a Tearhaunch boots for 5 more temporarily until her next level-up.

And finally: holy amazing fuck! Times two! In the same game!

Highest runes I've ever had. What the hell do I do with either of them? Every runeword with Sur or Jah also needs other high runes (mostly Ber), and most are realms-only anyway. Couldn't these have been something lower for Call to Arms or Heart of the Oak or Exile?

I actually want to just put the Jah in a weapon for the barb for the ignore-target-defense, since his chance-to-hit is still terrible at like 60%, but Ribcracker and the IK maul both need Shaels instead for max speed. The one realistic possibility for Jah is Fury, which requires a Gul that might come from the hell hellforge... but Fury isn't all that amazing, and it would have to go in a sword base for max whirlwind speed, but all elite swords have str/dex requirements beyond what the barb is built for with the Ribcracker. I guess all I can do with either rune is see if chance strikes once more with a Sur or Ber to make Enigma.

After act 3, I went gambling again, spending everyone's gold with the best Gheed's discount. This time I went for amulets, since most everyone is well set in the head/circlet slot, but my amulets could stand improving, most are just +1 skills with small amounts of resists/life/mana/FCR. The gambling was done by the barb at level 86, which is the first time +2 skill amulets can be gambled, although only 1/10 of gambles get the random +4 to ilvl necessary to qualify at 90. And of course the only +2 skiller that came up from all that was necromancer. Anyway I did get that beautiful barb amulet there.

One thing that has fallen by the wayside lately is crafting items. I had been putting every available consumable ingredient into dozens of crafts the whole way along... but what I didn't realize was that the limiting factor would turn out to be runes. Once I started doing the cube-socket recipes (for the barb's and merc's Duress, paladin shields, and some merc weapons), that ended up consuming most low-level runes with few left for crafting. Of course you can get any amount of them from the Countess, but I still don't want this project to involve rerunning and farming. So now I'm living with only the occasional craft, which is fine since by now it's actually pretty hard for a craft to improve any slot over what I've got. Surplus perfect gems lately have gone into rerolling grand charms, which did give one of the skillers a while back.

Next up comes the one last big quest payoff in the hell Hellforge runes.


Act 4

First some notes on playing, then we'll get to the Hellforge runes.

The surprise story of fighting in this act was an item I added after last act: the Widowmaker bow on the trapsin's rogue merc. What's so special about that? Ignore Target's Defense. Holy crap is that amazing with the Face of Horror on her. Previously, the Face's monster-flee would trigger every now and then, useful to soften up crowds a little. With Widowmaker's ITD, it triggers constantly all the time, dispersing dense swarms in seconds. I had no idea attack rating was holding that back so much. That much monster-flee would definitely be super irritating if I was trying to farm and magic-find, but here I will take any capability that answers threats to Guardianship. Worked awesomely particularly in the River of Flame and Chaos Sanctuary with boundaries to hold in the fleeing monsters. I also figured out an answer to the monster-flee by way of the least-used skill in the game: Psychic Hammer! That can stunlock a fleeing monster to get shot down by traps, but without Mind Blast's annoying conversion.

Also the Clay Golem charges on the sorceress's Stone armor performed as well as I'd hoped. Had to recast him every now and then, and pay to recharge the armor once, but if he saved even one merc resurrection then that was worth it. Although the clay golem's weakness seems to be poison of all things - blood maggots on the river of flame kept sucking down his health, I guess he totally relies on regeneration. Anyway, it was against Infector's boss pack that the clay golem really turned out amazing, just enough of a speed bump that the merc wouldn't get swarmed instantly each time I teleported away, and so the sorceress handled that fight with little trouble.

Everything else proceeded as before: Cloak of Shadows charges kept the hammerdin invincible, huge life pools did the same for the barb and druid, and the javazon did her long-range thing nicely too.

So here's the wacky Hellforge results: Mal, Mal, Mal, Um, Ko, Ko.

Calculating the probability same as before gives a chance of doing that well or higher of 28.7%, again somewhat lucky but within reasonable expectation. Although it's another example where rarity doesn't mean utility, particularly given that multiples of the same thing will be progressively less useful.

The triple Mal felt highly improbable, but here's the numbers. You have to consider the multiple endpoints, Mal isn't special, we would notice any three-way collision the same way. The probability of any particular three all colliding is 1/121, and there are 20 different groupings of three among six items, so on average the number of triples among six hellforge runes is 20/121, again unusual but not wildly improbable. (20/121 is the average, but slightly overstates the chance of at least one triple, because some triples are part of quads or more, or two different triples can occur in one set of six.)

I can certainly take a hint on what to do with some of it, Ko + Ko + Mal is a Sanctuary shield, more on that below. But not sure what else. I really don't have any target to use the Um; another merc Duress would be fine, but I don't have any 3-socket elite armor on hand, much less an ethereal-bugged one as I'd want. The remaining Ist (from earlier) + Mal + Mal all cubed together could make a Gul, which with the Jah could make Fury, but that doesn't really seem any noticeably better than Ribcracker and also I don't have a base for it. Or Gul could be a Principle paladin armor, but I really like the Guardian Angel on him. Mal can make a Prudence armor, but that needs ethereality to be good enough to matter (it has self-repair) and I don't have any such base for that either. Mal can also make a druid Rain armor, but I have a better idea than that too, more below.

I also got a Lem from a random drop, so the Ist from earlier can be a Delirium. Thing is, almost everyone is well set in the helm slot: Arreat's, Jalal's, Darksight (hammerdin isn't giving up that Cloak of Shadows), +2 sorceress circlet with strength and resists that she needs, +3 trap skills socketed with a resist rune. The only character for whom Delirium would improve anything is the javazon, who had only a +2 skills circlet. She doesn't have a great need for the crowd chaos stuff, but what the hell, I've never had a Delirium so let's have some fun with it, and it does have vitality and magic find above the skills. I went to try it out back in nightmare, and it works awesomely with Lightning Fury pierce lines, the CTC Confuse can trigger over and over.

Back to the Sanctuary runeword: at long last, the paladin finally has a worthy endgame shield, finally upgrading from the 4-diamond that he's been using for about forty acts. The base wasn't perfect, starting with only 24% resist all for the automod and below-average base defense, but I wasn't wasting this opportunity. Sacred Targe is pretty scarce for a base item, showing up once per act or less, and this one dropped (a couple acts ago) with the right number of sockets and a decent automod, so who knows how long it would take to find something better, I'm taking this now with only the one act to go. And it hit the jackpot on a perfect +70% roll for the resistances!

Also notice the +20 dexterity on it as well (comes from just the two Ko runes.) Now the hammerdin has almost the highest blocking possible in the game: highest base item, plus 20%, plus 20% more on Guardian Angel, plus max Holy Shield. I think the only possible ways to go higher are Whitstan's Guard and a crafted safety amulet. I spoke against raising dexterity solely for blocking before, but this is the absolute best case for it, every point of dexterity is nearly 1% blocking. I decided this was too much of a waste to go unused, and so finally invested some stat points in dexterity. It took only 25 hard points and 60 from equipment/charms to get to max block. (I put those saved points in dex at the start of the act, even though he didn't get the Sanctuary until afterwards. Someone else got the Mal first and he already had the two Ko's, so the hammerdin knew the Sanctuary was coming and could spend the dex ahead of time.)

What I didn't expect was enough runes to make two Sanctuaries! In an open-ended environment, I'd hold on to the second Ko-Ko-Mal set for a top-notch sacred targe base. But here I don't care about anything beyond this last act. The javazon could also use Sanctuary, as a very slight upgrade over Moser's shield (mostly for the 20 dex), but I'll take it. (To find a tower shield base, I went back to Halls of Anguish/Pain/Vaught in nightmare, since nobody cleared that at all.)

Druid news: The better idea than a Rain armor is to give him the Naj's Light Plate that was left over after the sorceress got Stone. (25 resist all, 65 life, +1 skills.) He previously needed Lionheart's strength to support the Earthshaker hammer, but now the 20 on Jalal's covers most of that. Lionheart is less good than it seems for the druid, because of a quasi-bug: life from +vitality on items does not get multiplied by Oak Sage. Lionheart adds 140 life after Sage's effect, and Naj's adds 130, a very small tradeoff worth it to get the +1 skills on Naj's. Plus it can take a resist rune with his last socket quest.

Also for the druid, I'm changing his merc to a barbarian for the final act. Reason is I got a Vile Husk drop, with a spare Pul on hand to upgrade it to elite. The druid loves CTC Amp on his merc, Tornado just melts everything once that triggers. That merc had been using a rare lance with CTC Amp all the way through hell, but with lousy (+50%) damage, so this is a great upgrade. This means giving up Holy Freeze, but I think I'm okay with that here. Holy Freeze doesn't work against the greatest threat in act 5, which is the physical immune frenzytaurs. And the one big upside of a barb merc is his fast health regeneration, which works well with the wind druid, as a percentage of Oak Sage's multiplied life, outweighing his need for life steal.

Miscellaneous items from the act: got a Shadow Killer claw; between that and Bartuc's or Fury, might have had a pretty decent claw assassin. Also a Cliffkiller bow, would be more damage for the trapsin's rogue merc, but Widowmaker's ITD is just too sweet. And a Nosferatu's Coil belt (5% life steal, hit slows target 10%) which is tempting for the barb, but I really don't want to give up the 80 life on his existing belt, a Blood craft.

And a miscellaneous note: I've been surprised at everyone's use of the glove slot, almost all just for utility. Only the barb has anything special there, Laying of Hands. I never got any Magefist or Frostburn for the spellcasters. So everyone has gone shopping at Anya for gloves quite a few times throughout the acts, many multiple times as their needs changed. I shopped so many combinations of gloves with a resist prefix and a suffix of strength or dex or IAS, and then ended up trading it out for another when they got strength from somewhere else or needed a different resistance. The hammerdin in particular just shopped gloves of 20 lit res and 20 dex - seems mundane but it really is the best use of the slot for what he needs.

So just one more act to go to crown six Guardians, next up will be the thrilling conclusion.


Act 5

And on this day, six Guardians of Sanctuary were crowned.

(This was the first time you saw the names. I intentionally didn't use them in the writing, to focus on the mechanics rather than the aesthetics, and also a couple aren't quite intuitive, like Spark could be the javazon, and Storm sounds like the wind druid. And I was saving to break them out for that final reveal there.)

This last act actually felt like the last sector of playing FTL. Just get to the flagship and beat it, nothing else matters. I staunchly never went above players-1 and through as little fighting as possible. No barbarian rescuing quest, god hell no Nihlathak, and actually not even the Anya quest, which takes quite a while to get through and can be risky against gloams and witches. Just straight to the Ancients then Baal with everyone.

Although Diablo is unlike FTL, in that it's hard to convey the feel of a game in text. FTL works that way, being about the play-by-play flow and ebb of attrition and resource management, while Diablo never is, threats come and go in instants.

Like this, I took a screenshot of the one time I had to save & exit, when I teleported near that Might-enchanted archer pack with the sorceress. (I never teleport blind or aggressively in hardcore; I thought I was passing back through clear territory, but had missed that very tightly bunched pack.) I burned through a column of rejuves in about 0.8 seconds and then smacked Escape barely in time. (I've always considered save & exit to be valid tactically and not cheap; you have to react fast enough to do it, and it does have a real tradeoff, whatever's left in town is lost (for me, always a pile of gems and runes) and you have to make your way back from the last waypoint.)

Starhammer: He bulldozed the Ancients in seconds, before I even saw most of the boss modifiers. I was worried about him handling the second Baal minion wave, the magic-immune greater mummies. But they were hardly any threat to kill me, so it just took about ten minutes. First I had to cast hammers while running Redemption aura constantly, to get rid of the minion skeleton corpses. After that, I switched to Smite, although actually the mercenary did most of the damage. Lister's pack after that was actually easier, took about 15 fairly quick hammer hits each.

Starshade, the trapsin: She had a lot more trouble with the Ancients. I had to portal out and reroll them several times until getting a workable combination of boss modifiers (mostly no Cursed or Fanaticism, Conviction, Might.) And had to isolate them one at a time and recast the shadow constantly, but got it done eventually. Lister's pack wasn't too hard and dropped fast once Death Sentry got going; even though Lister himself was both fire and lightning immune, he was easy to kill by the rogue merc while pinned down with Mind Blast (does inflict knockback/hit recovery on him, unlike on the Ancients.)

Starspark, the lightning sorceress: Handled the Ancients carefully but fine, again isolating them one by one. Even though the third one turned out to be immune to both lightning and cold, but the merc was able to kill him all on his own, thanks to the clay golem tanking and slowing. Actually my worry was if the 16 Clay Golem charges would hold out but they did. All the Baal minion waves were easy (no lightning immunes) and so was Baal as always.

Starstorm, the javazon: Damn, Delirium is awesome on this character. I had been saying she didn't greatly need the crowd control stuff, but wow does it rip apart any potential threats. I totally didn't anticipate how the CTC Confuse would trigger constantly with Lightning Fury pierce lines through dense packs. The Delirium morph did happen a few times (I'm not sure I'd want this on a melee character), but it's easy to reset by just waypointing to another act and back.

Anyway, she beat the Ancients easily in one try, and killed the first one fast enough to not have to isolate them. Madawc was lightning immune, but Plague Jav and Jab and the merc killed him reliably enough. The big difficulty for the javazon happened in the Throne of Destruction, and it wasn't the minion waves which went down easily, but this:

Lightning and poison immune gloams, also 90% physical resistant. Ouch. I probably should have rerolled a new game, but doggedly pushed through it anyway; with max lightning resistance and frequent trips to town they weren't really a threat, just took quite a while for the merc and me to jab down. My reward for pushing through that was a pretty good drop payoff!

I actually put that on for Baal, when the Delirium wackiness wouldn't matter but Cannot Be Frozen would.

Starwind, the druid: His story was mostly the barbarian mercenary. He never died once the entire act, that health regeneration is the real deal, even held up against Bartuc's pack's hydras and Lister's pack. His only weakness just like the clay golem was poison, his health only ever dropped in one area full of poison skeleton mages. His CTC Amplify sword was cool but not critical against the physical-immune frenzytaurs and witches, since Hurricane was able to kill them well enough. But that CTC Amp was critical on the Ancients when two of them spawned Stone Skin! They were little threat, but tornadoes couldn't dent them much... until the Amplify triggered and then each went down in seconds. Lister was also stone skin but also went down under Amp. After all that, then the druid actually had the most trouble out of everyone with Baal himself, mostly because Oak Sage couldn't stay alive. And I ran out of rejuves, so had to be very careful about portaling back to town every time anything's health dropped, but we got it done.

Starbrute, the barbarian: I played him last, as the most robust and reliable character to serve as a victory lap, and also so I wouldn't bother taking the time to hork everything after everyone else had already finished. Although there was one thing he didn't do optimally: socket his Arreat's Face. I decided to just put something in it for life since he didn't need anything else, and the biggest option actually would have been the Jah rune (+5% max life), but I couldn't bring myself to do that and just went with a ruby instead. Anyway, he clobbered through the Ancients in seconds also, helped by a combat shrine that I remembered was near a waypoint and went back to grab; I killed two Ancients by whirlwinding with that before ever seeing their modifiers, then looked at the last one and saw stone skin so switched to Berserk. Baal's minion packs and Baal himself also went down easy to complete my roster of six Guardians.

Item finds, not that it matters: that Kira's Guardian, Warshrike throwing knife, a second Whitstan's Guard, Spire of Lazarus staff (actually a cool package of lightning skills, fittingly dropped for the sorceress from Baal), Sazabi's set armor, a third Haemosu's set armor. No rune above Hel and no skill charms, but doesn't matter now that we're done.

I laid out a chart of everyone's equipment to visualize and compare that way, if you're curious.

I could go take a victory lap in the cow level, but ultimately I resisted that urge. There's nothing to gain, and only heartbreak if someone were to die there. Both my first-ever guardian and my previous bonemancer went on to die in the cow level, so let's leave that alone and call this the conclusion here. Thanks for reading!, and we'll see what other adventures may come in the future.

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