Diablo II - Hardcore Star Team Beta

This is my writeup of playing through Diablo II with a particular group of characters. This is my second time doing this, after the first team here. This was also originally related in this thread on the Realms Beyond forum. This site is a cleaned-up and streamlined adaptation from there.

Here are the rules again for reference. There is one additional rule to ensure diversity between the teams: This team may not raise any skill above 1 point that the first team did. I had this in mind partway through the first team and this affected some choices there: that trapsin didn't raise Shadow Warrior so that the new one could, that barbarian didn't mind skipping Berserk, this idea was the clincher for not diverting the hammerdin into Holy Bolt so that the new paladin could use it, and finally intending on this yet to come was why I didn't rebuild a replacement necromancer then.

And following are the list of character builds I selected for this team. The first team was mostly standard cookie-cutter builds, but that success inspires me to explore some riskier but more interesting options now. And all are distinct from any previous Guardian I ever did. Here we go:

One aspect of this team compared to the previous is that these characters depend on weapons quite a bit more, all except the necro and sorc. I'm cool with that. I avoided weapon-based designs for the first team, but I underestimated how this format of seven playthroughs actually does add up to enough to find a pretty good selection of weapons. I want to work through that, particularly with a shot at using some of the mid-level runewords like Crescent Moon or Passion that were left out by the first team. And at least this team doesn't have four spellcasters all competing for FCR equipment.


Normal Difficulty

I'll skip ahead to the end of act three; there's not really much interesting to talk about through the first half of normal difficulty.

Unlike the first team, which proceeded somewhat haphazardly through the first three acts and skipped some quests, this time I systematically did everything and traded among everyone after each act. In particular I made sure everyone killed the Countess for early runes (and on players-1.) The sorceress actually got a perfect drop of Tal-Eth together from that, so had her Stealth runeword armor up and running right away, plus also a Ral for a Leaf fireball staff after act one. With combined Countess loot I also made two more Stealths for others, plus more later.

First a note on weapons, which this team depends on a lot, as I said. The best way to access decent early weapons is gambling. New base item types can appear in the gamble window much earlier than from vendors or drops, as much as two full acts sooner. And just a few gambles will usually turn up something with a modest damage affix, good enough for normal difficulty and better than a starter runeword in a lesser base item. Finally, a gambled rare can be upgraded to exceptional later on once the other cube input pieces come.

Bowazon: She was the impetus for the team, but not a whole lot to report, bowazons are always safe and steady, killing from a distance if not super fast. She gambled better bows frequently through two acts. At the start of act 3 came her interesting prize, when I assembled a Ral-Ral-Ral gemmed bow for her. That's actually quite a lot of elemental damage this early, more than she could get with a physical damage bow and skills... and because it's fire damage, it transfers to Exploding Arrow's blast radius! That was fun in the crowds of flayers, and held up well all the way through act 3, though did get slow against the council and Mephisto.

Poisonmancer: I'd read about this for nineteen years and finally played it out myself, the idea that Poison Dagger kills everything in one stab while you run away. It's true and held up here, the one stab was enough to kill everything even on players-7, all the way until the council in act three. (Although really the merc was doing half the work.) I was worried about having to kill Andariel (80% poison resistance), Duriel, and Mephisto with that, but it turned out to be doable enough, each took about 30 poison dagger hits over a total of about four minutes, while recasting Clay Golem a lot. Stabbing a jungle full of flayers wasn't exactly a cakewalk, but I got some help from a head with +Corpse Explosion. For a weapon, the only thing he cared about was IAS on a dagger.

Paladin: He also got to do two new things for me. One, use the elemental auras early, Holy Fire through act 1 and Holy Freeze through acts 2 and 3. (A hammerdin never takes those auras, since they aren't prerequisites for Concentration. My old Vengeance guardian skipped ahead past the early stuff with the -act5 command line parameter.) Two, put early skill points into Holy Bolt and use it against undead! That will be part of the endgame skill package to synergize Fist, so I could raise and use it now, particularly cool and convenient for picking off greater mummies in the tombs and the undead in Arcane and even gloams. And it made for an awesome plan against Duriel: just spam Holy Bolt constantly healing Gulzar while he did all the work! Besides all that, he did use Vengeance for ordinary combat, effective although not super fast. For weapons, for the first two acts he gambled two-handers (poleaxe then maul), but for act three I decided he really needed a shield for resistances against flayer shamans and gloams and the council, and the best 1h weapon to give him was a Steel runeword flail (and the +6 dexterity on Stealth was key to wield it.)

Barb: I didn't realize how much fun he would be, I never saw before how fast Double Swing goes. And I could just raise the skill and keep using it, since it's Frenzy's synergy for later. Frenzy itself was actually slightly disappointing when it kicked in - it's only 7% IAS at skill level 1 and slower than Double Swing, so it will still be a little while until that really gets up to speed. He gambled Military Pick then War Axe weapons.

Assassin: She also gets that cool benefit of an early skill being synergy for her top-tier skill, in Fists of Fire, so she could raise and use that like other characters did Holy Bolt and Poison Dagger and Double Swing. That was loads of fun in the jungle full of flayers. I'd forgotten that there's a weird speed penalty for the elemental charge-up skills (not Phoenix itself), but she worked around that well enough with Burst of Speed and a fast claw. For a weapon, this build doesn't need physical damage, just any fast claw, which she got by gambling a Blade Talons base item at the earliest opportunity, at level 17 even still in act one, and even came with 10% IAS. (Too bad Steel for 25% IAS doesn't work in claws.) But she's been the most fragile character with the most close calls going down to low life; largely because she needed to invest in both strength and dex early for claw requirements, and will take some time to catch up on vitality. And those melee chargeups make her so tempted to run into the middle of a pack to blow them all at once, but that's going to be the end of her one day...

Werebear: Effective but dull, Werebear and Maul skills peak early for damage, but go really slowly before you can get a weapon with decent speed. Which was actually the Horadric Staff for the second half of act two. Then for act 3 he gambled a decent rare maul with some chunky damage and much-needed IAS, then late in act 3 someone found the right 2-socket Giant Axe base (fastest 2H axe) for a Steel runeword for act 4.

Sorceress: Also dull but hugely effective. Of course Fireball wipes everything in normal difficulty in seconds. This character was just on a completely other dimension of offense compared to everyone else, it felt like she's operating an entire difficulty level ahead. I had to play her last in each act to not get addicted to that power level. Which is going to jump up again with Fire Mastery at level 30.

Item drops: Hand of Broc gloves, dual leech, found by the werebear and he got to keep it; of the characters who deal physical melee damage (so not the vengeadin or assassin), the werebear uses mana more than the barb with Double Swing costing zero. Also Bloodfist gloves, that one went to the poisonmancer, he's most in need of all of the IAS, FHR, and 40 life. Sander's gloves too, found and kept by the paladin also for the life and IAS. Nokozan Relic amulet (something the first team never found), found and kept by the poisonmancer for the fire resist and FHR. Coif of Glory helm, also went to the poisonmancer, to have some fun with the Hit Blinds Target on each poison dagger stab. Gorefoot boots, with the +2 to Leap that the barb can actually use, he doesn't need any hard points in that skill. +3 Lycanthropy pelt for the druid, nice to save two hard points of prerequisites into that skill, will cube-socket into a Lore later.

And for act 3 I put together something cool, for the hell of it: three pieces of the Angelic set, sabre/armor/ring. Mostly for the 50% magic find, but also just for entertainment value. The barbarian was the guy to do this package, since dual-wielding gives him a weapon slot to hold that weak weapon without really losing much offense. (I also considered the sorc, she could particularly use the +50 mana set bonus, but couldn't bring her to give up the Leaf fireball staff.)

And the big secret: Really, the mercenaries were doing at least half the work for everyone but the sorceress. Gambling works for them too: a Pike in particular does twice as much damage as any other normal-tier base item, and comes available from gambling at clvl 20, early in act two and far sooner than from drops or vendors. I acquired those pikes early and systematically, unlike the first team, and with them each mercenary was killing faster than the character themselves through acts two and three.


Act 4

Well, shit, that's not a good start.

I managed to screw up and get the sorceress killed. My own damn fault, I went in to close range to cast Static Field at Infector's pack since they have high fire resistance, but I had neglected my own fire resistance (too cocky with the Leaf staff, precluding any shield) and they all blasted me from full health to dead in a split second.

I considered and actually started to play a rebuild for her, but then changed my mind. If I'm just going to retry whenever someone dies, then I'm guaranteed to succeed eventually and there's really no story here. And I shouldn't get extra trips through the acts for more items. And finally, as I said, the sorceress is my least favorite class anyway. So ultimately I just went on without her.

Well, here's the good news:

BONESNAP dropped from Diablo! Great weapon for the werebear druid. Massively chunky damage already, and I even already have a Sol rune (unexpectedly dropped from the Travincal council, didn't know that could come so soon) to upgrade it to exceptional (though he'll need a few more levels for the strength.) Of course it's slow, but I'm willing to spend the werebear's first socket quest to Shael it. Not sure if this weapon will go all the way to endgame, but it should last at least all the way through nightmare difficulty, and just speeding up that by so much is worth the socket. Finally, this means the werebear should play last for act 5, just in case some better weapon (like say Ribcracker) does come up instead.

Besides that, just some quick character notes, worth reporting are the ones that got a significant skill upgrade at level 30.

The poisonmancer was the most significant of those, finally getting Poison Nova. With synergy already in place from max Poison Dagger, Nova was immediately more effective. I'd never used this skill before. What I didn't realize was how dense the ring of poison missiles is - it reliably hits everything in range, unlike many missile skills like Multishot or Charged Bolt or Shockwave. Now I see why people like this character build. Poison Nova is a lot of fun - actually it feels like what Corpse and Poison Explosion want to be if they weren't clunkily limited by the availability of corpses. That said, the necro's fight against Diablo was a comical mess, ten minutes of running circles around his fire and lightning while trying to get off novas every two seconds.

The paladin also got a good upgrade with the Conviction aura finally kicking in. Not Fist of the Heavens yet - going to max Vengeance and Conviction first. Fist can wait for the moment, there's not a lot of undead for a while yet to come in act 5. And Holy Bolt at slvl 10 is still pretty good for now, very effective in Plains of Despair (he drew an all-undead monster mix there) and Chaos Sanctuary.

And the assassin is the other one with a significant level-30 skill. Although I was actually kind of underwhelmed by Phoenix Strike. I thought it would be awesome in raining a barrage of meteors, faster than a sorceress's casting delay... but Phoenix is actually a lot more clunky to play out than I realized, trying to get exactly one charge and quickly alternate to normal attack to release, and then there's the delay until the meteor lands. I actually went back to using Fists of Fire, for being much easier to control; not sure how well I'll get used to Phoenix.

But one change here: I'm giving the assassin the three-piece Angelic set. Phoenix Strike works with any weapon, unlike Fists of Fire that requires a claw. All Phoenix needs is speed, which the Angelic sabre is, very fast between its base type and 30% IAS as a partial set bonus. And the other thing this solves is AR, since the Angelic ring has that huge partial-set bonus for it, which well outweighs the loss of Claw Mastery. Actually, she even has two copies of the Angelic ring, which each give the hundreds of AR and 50% magic find, which is pretty cool. So I'll see how this goes for act 5. And I only need the amulet to complete the set, which would be pretty cool.

Even if her pose wielding a sabre looks goofy as hell.

And weapon notes, besides that and Bonesnap: The paladin has a rare war hammer with decent (70%) ED, cube-upgraded to exceptional, just being a high-end exceptional base item accounts for more damage than any affix on anything else available. The barb tried a Blood crafted recipe with a war axe, and nailed a big chunky one (112% ED and PMH) on his very first try. The bowazon still has the Ral-Ral-Ral gemmed bow for the moment; I think that's good enough for act 5 where fire resistance is low, though I'll probably need to get going with a real bow for nightmare.


Act 5

The one character worth reporting on presently is the assassin. Phoenix Strike is a lot different to play than I expected. I still can't decide if I like it. Accurately targeting exactly one charge every time is considerably more difficult than I realized. You can't really use the easy method of driving a melee character, right-click-drag around to auto-run and attack. Well, you can, but the swings go so fast that you really can't react and accurately change hotkeys between the chargeup and finisher. I wish there was a way to have the assassin automatically release after one charge. The better way to drive her is to alternate mouse buttons (judging the timing based on sound), though that still feels clunky, since for every interruption by way of missing or blocking or hit recovery or the monster running out of range, getting back on track costs at least two more swings (or even more, if you ended up with extra charges beyond the first, you have to release that before you can charge back up once and then release again.) And Phoenix also doesn't work all that well with Cloak of Shadows, since you want the monsters to bunch up within the meteor blast radius, but Cloak makes them wander around.

But that all said... when you do hit the right groove, Phoenix is spectacular, raining multiple meteors per second and ranking right up there for kill speed. One big aspect is attack rating. That seems to be critical for Phoenix, a deficiency basically has double (or quadratic) impact, since you need to hit both the chargeup and the releaser. This was troublesome at first, but continued to improve throughout act 5, with skill levels in Phoenix plus the double Angelic rings with the big AR/level bonus. I think her endgame weapon will be required to have ITD or the Fool's prefix (easy to shop at Anya, although hard to get on a rare or with any other useful affixes)... although she might just keep the Angelic package for quite a while.

If I stick with Phoenix, that is. I'm still not sure if I want to continue this playstyle all the way through the harder difficulties. There's still room in the skill build to pivot into a physical clawer or kicker instead, with the FoF+Phoenix package serving as the backup for physical immunes. I can wait a little while longer until I commit for sure. (Amusingly, her drop from Baal was an extra Angelic Sickle, maybe that's a hint.) Finally, Phoenix does work well with Shadow Warrior; unlike with traps or kicks, she can use Phoenix pretty well and deliver decent damage, just make sure she uses Fists of Fire once to turn on her synergy.

Everyone else was just trucking along with their main skills, Strafe and Vengeance and Frenzy and Poison Nova and Werebear/Maul.

Attack rating was a widespread problem, with the assassin, barb, and druid all struggling severely. (The paladin doesn't thanks to Conviction's defense penalty. The bowazon's AR isn't great but she doesn't really care if she has to strafe a few extra times.) So going into the next act, I fixed this with some partial set combos that each have a big AR/level bonus. The assassin has the three-piece Angelic set, as mentioned. The werebear got a combo of Hsaru's boots and belt. And the barbarian took a Cleglaw's gloves and sword combo. Cleglaw's sword also gets a good damage bonus with two pieces of the set, plus 50% deadly strike, making it usable enough in his off-hand for now. (I actually have the full set for both Hsaru's and Cleglaw's, but neither the barb or druid can use a shield. The assassin could but Angelic is better and nobody else can use that weak weapon.)

Other item drops from act 5 were a bunch of minor pieces. Tearhaunch boots, and I was surprised I somehow never noticed the +2 to Vigor (Paladin Only) on it before, so that helpfully goes to him, he doesn't have Vigor naturally (not worth 4 prereq points when it's not for BH synergy) so that's a nice convenience. Tarnhelm, guess that goes to best use on the assassin for the moment, to shore up her shadow tree. Immortal King's set helm dropped from Baal, that was a surprise to get so soon, not super amazing but guess it's pretty cool to use on the barb for a while. Tannr Gorerod, good merc weapon for quite a while after exceptional upgrading. The werebear socketed his +3 Lycanthropy helm into a Lore.

And I went gambling. I'd saved up most of my money throughout the game for this plan, the right time to start targeting circlets, with the affixes for +1 class skills, +2 tree skills, and 20% prismatic all available at level 40+. And I got a couple good ones including this beaut.

Weapons: The werebear upgraded his Bonesnap, and it performed as planned, getting up over 2000 damage (in normal difficulty!) and one-hitting most monsters even on players-7. He didn't find a Shael during the act to speed it up, but someone else did to give him afterwards. The barb gambled a rare war axe with decent damage and 40% IAS, great to cube-upgrade to exceptional. The bowazon found an Ichorsting crossbow halfway through act 5 and also upgraded it; I hate using slow crossbows (which are worst with Strafe's buggy speed behavior) but had to use this which hits much harder than anything else she could get her hands on.

But here's the major jackpot. At the very last moment of normal difficulty, for the last character to play (the werebear), Baal dropped:

Kuko Shakaku! Perfect package of solid physical damage, piercing, and some nice fire skill adders for exactly what the bowazon is already doing. I'd forgotten this weapon existed but it's perfect here. With runes for an elite upgrade, it might be enough to go all the way to endgame.

So that's it for normal difficulty, so far so good except the sorceress, click below to continue.

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