Diablo II - Hardcore Star Team 2 - Hell

So once again I spent a couple evenings recalibrating all the equipment for hell difficulty. I didn't throw everything into a common pool like last time; this time I had a better sense for who needs what since there's less overlap without four faster-cast spellcasters, so I just partially rearranged things, and also it's easier to manage with six characters rather than seven.

My decision on the the runes came out that I did decide to upgrade the Butcher's Pupil with three Lems into a Pul. I decided not to upgrade any armors, since Goldskin seemed to be the better choice for both the werebear and barb, both need both the resists and defense. So I still have two Lems, and the barb and werebear will each keep one as part of a Passion rune package on hand, in case the right base comes along during hell act one.

Also I shopped vendors for an evening, picking up a bunch of good stuff like some Whale belts, +3 shadow skills claws, +3 martial and bow gloves. Gambled amulets for some marginal upgrades, one of which was astoundingly a Crescent Moon unique, although I have no idea what character build would want 15% mana leech and little else?

Paladin: He's taking the upgraded Butcher's Pupil. This weapon is so much better than anything else he can get. The requirements work out well too: with a Hel rune, its strength requirement goes to 92, exactly the same as the Shaftstop armor. 67 dex is also tolerable and worth about 30 added hard points plus his circlet. That dex also enables some blocking, along with a good crafted Safety amulet with 10% ICB along with prismatic and paladin combat skills, so I gave him a Rhyme shield, for both the high blocking and Cannot Be Frozen. The rest of his equipment is rounded out with the Sigon's gloves/belt/boots combo, for the 30% IAS and 10 strength on the gloves, and I couldn't resist using both the belt and boots to enable the 50% magic find on the latter. And on his rings he needs nothing but resistances, since Vengeance doesn't work well with life leech and Conviction doesn't need AR.

Barbarian: To get him some some weapons, I put all available resources into several Blood axe crafts. With Tomahawk base items, because that can be acquired semi-reliably from gambling, since the qlvl is fairly low. I ended up with two of around 150% enhanced damage, not spectacular but will do for a while. It's nice to have a matched pair of base items because the stat requirements match. 67 dex is somewhat higher than I really wanted to go... but the upside is that does account for a few hundred points of sorely needed attack rating. Armor is Goldskin, upgraded to exceptional but not elite. He's also keeping the Sigon's gloves + helm combo for the IAS, strength, life steal, and big AR/level on the helm. I don't really like being stuck with Sigon's helm instead of a barb pelt with skills, but the AR is critical and the rest of the package adds up to so much too. Sigon's helm also means not needing the belt or boot slots for the set, so he can load up those with resists and stats including Tearhaunch.

Assassin: I wanted to swap out her shield for a skills claw now, but then realized this build can't go dual claw. Problem is Normal Attack is the only finisher I want to use, but that always alternates between the two claws and I don't want to be attacking with the second one that doesn't have the ITD. There's actually no way to make an assassin do a finisher with just one claw consistently. Dragon Claw uses both and goes slower, and I don't want to use the kick finishers either for the knockback and they also go slower. So claw-shield is really the only way I can do this. Anyway, the shield is Rhyme for all its usual goodies, and the rest of her loadout is Lionheart, Lore, Kenshi's amulet and gloves, and resists and life everywhere else.

Bowazon: Not much change, except for this move, I socketed Kuko Shakaku with a resist-all jewel. Weird choice, but this is my reasoning: to lessen the differential when switching away from Witchwild String's 40% resist all. Meaning I can rely on Witchwild's resists more without having to overkill to still be within reasonable distance of max when on the Kuko switch. As for Witchwild itself, I socketed it with a Shael and an Eth; with the bowazon's subpar AR, the -25% target defense is the best thing I can do for Strafe's dps. Besides that, she has Lionheart, Lore, +3 bow skills gloves, and the usual assorted resists and life.

Necro: Even less change, only significant decision was to socket his Mojo (+2 summoning skills) head and got the lucky two sockets to fill with diamonds. Still using White, Vipermagi, Lore, Chance Guards, a pretty standard basic gear package.

Werebear: He got the Laying of Hands, since he's the one who doesn't need Sigon's 30% gloves to hit a speed breakpoint (paladin, barb) or skills in the glove slot instead (bowazon, assassin), and also needed the fire resist. He also didn't want a Sigon's set combo since he's still using the Hsaru's boots/belt combo for AR; I just can't find any way around that, his to-hit is terrible at like 50% otherwise. Angelic ring/amulet would also be an option, but the Hsaru's pair is a better use of two slots since they come with some resistances. For armor, he's on Goldskin for resists, although it would be nice to trade that in for a Smoke when a suitable elite base comes. And finally, this:

I shopped Charsi (in nightmare via the cow portal for quick refreshes) for a Shocking weapon as a physical-immune solution for the werebear, and got this beauty, with Amp Damage built in too! OK, I think that clinches it that I'm not going to bother with a fire skill build as backup. He might also have one more nonphysical option from the Berserk oskill on a Passion weapon. So I'm committing his skill build now to max Lycanthropy and Shockwave.

Act 1

Full-clearing act 1 hell took a lot longer than the previous acts, as I expected. The start of hell difficulty is the biggest proving ground that separates the real heroes from the pretenders.

And the big thing to deal with in hell difficulty is nasty bosses, of course. The big dangerous modifiers are Cursed, Extra Strong, Might, Fanaticism. Any one of those requires careful caution but is manageable. Any two of those stacked (either on the same boss or in overlapping packs) is a red-alert panic, wiping both the merc and me nearly instantly in like three hits. How can I handle bosses that the merc can't even stand up to for five seconds? The answer is stun skills: use something that can inflict a continuous lock of hit-recovery, in Smite, Bash, and even the lowly but run-saving Psychic Hammer, to pin down such a boss while the merc did the work. Why didn't I have to deal with this much on the first team? Because everyone there had a good ranged attack, except the barb who had 4000 life. But this team is so much more stuck in at melee range: the werebear, paladin, assassin, and less tanky barbarian all have to stand in the danger zone to kill anything. So carefully handling any of these double-dangerous bosses is quite challenging.

Werebear: Holy crap that was a slog. He took two hours... to complete up through Cold Plains. (Including Cave, Mausoleum, Crypt in the full clear.) The whole act took eight hours total for full clearing, some on p3, some on p5. Bonesnap is just too slow for hell difficulty. The physical-immune plan did work, between the Shocking sword and CTC Amp he was able to kill ghosts, not fast at all but got the job done. I made the right call on his skill build with Lycanthropy, really needed the life total of 2500 rather than 1500. Laying of Hands was tremendous too, I thought the damage-to-demons might be overkill, but not at all, it was huge in running to fallen shamans to kill them quickly before the fallen swarmed in. He did run into the same problem that Sullla described with his werebear from the online team long ago: Healing potions aren't enough. Potion amount varies by class, and is low for the druid since it's based on his low vitality-to-life value (before the wereform life multiplier); so it would take like four or more red potions to refill all the way, and it was faster to just pop up to the town healer instead of waiting for the slow potion refill.

But he got two huge improvements. He was waiting for a Passion weapon, for which I was looking all along for the 4-socket Feral Axe base. But first:

HOLY CRAP YES YES YES DURIEL'S SHELL CANNOT BE FROZEN!!!! That may be the best possible piece he could have found! That's absolutely perfect, he needs every one of those modifiers, and well worth spending both a Lem to upgrade to elite and a socket quest for a resist rune. Then:

HOLY CRAP AGAIN! For the second straight team, I lucked into an Um rune from the Countess! I'd even saved a 3-socket Feral Axe for just such a possibility...

... and so now he's the proud owner of a Crescent Moon, the first I've ever made.

Why the werebear? The barb and paladin would also love one of these... but it makes the most difference for the werebear. First, a werebear's offense comes 100% from his weapon, while it's 50% of the dual-wielding barb's, and roughly 60% for the paladin for when he isn't using Fist or Holy Bolt instead. Second, Ignore Target Defense matters most for him, which the other classes need less with Conviction and Battle Cry. Finally the werebear wants the CTC Static and Chain Lightning the most, since he has the least physical-immune solution.

However, I decided that even with Crescent Moon's ITD, he still had to keep the Hsaru's boots/belt combo for some AR against bosses, where ITD doesn't work. I stripped all his other sources of AR (rings, charms) away to other characters, and I don't even have any words to describe how galactially abysmal his AR is, barely over 200 for a 14% chance to hit! And that's after Maul's AR multiplier; the AR is 70 for normal attack.

Assassin: It feels like this character is somehow cheating. She takes so many hits at close range even with Cloak and Mind Blast (and so does the merc, who died like 20 times in the act) but somehow she always got away alive. Ignore Target Defense on her attack claw helps a lot, but does have two problems. One, the clvl vs mlvl part of the to-hit formula still takes effect, so in high-level (85) areas I was still missing noticeably. Second and more importantly, ITD doesn't work on uniques and champions, and without that her AR was absolutely terrible, the normal attack finisher was as low as 25% hit chance! I had to go shop a Fool's claw for AR and keep it in the cube to swap in against bosses. Even so, she still had to resort to the Psychic Hammer recoil-lock while the merc did the work, many times. Or, in addition to him, the shadow warrior! I did decide that after Phoenix and two synergies, her most needed skill was the sturdier minion, and she actually turned out to be able to deal somewhat helpful damage with Phoenix. Finally, I was really proud of her tactic against Andariel: I deliberately left alive one fire-immune fallen, and pounded him to launch the meteors to hit Andariel, to avoid the boss's defense and blocking! (I wonder if this can work against Diablo too, if you can kite in something fire-immune from River of Flame after everything dies to the last seal.) After the act I realized she was deficient in one area, hit recovery, so made sure to give her a belt and charm with that.

Barb: He was the slowest but steadiest, fairly weak offense with middling weapons (both Blood crafted tomahawks), but a big life pool to stand up against crowds and Howl to clear them when necessary. I had been trying to skip putting hard points up to Berserk to cover it with a Passion weapon instead, but then decided that was silly and way overthinking it, and I don't want to tie him to a Passion weapon for the rest of the game, so just took 1-point Berserk normally, which did its usual job against physical immunes. Unfortunately nobody ever found the weapon materials I wanted for him: a 5-socket Ettin Axe or War Spike for an Honor runeword. (I got two Ettin Axes in the act, but the socketing recipe failed to give 5 sockets both times.) I also decided against a Passion for him too, more below.

Bowazon: She performed more solidly than I expected without having upgraded Witchwild yet. Immolation is still her major attack, and easily kills everything not fire immune. It's a lot of micromanagement to constantly weapon-switch between Kuko for fire and Witchwild for physical, but it's worth it, each deals double the damage of the other for its attack, between Kuko's skills and piercing for Immolation and Witchwild's deadly strike and Amp for physical. Also her missing piece was Guided Arrow, which I finally started using more, hadn't before for lack of enough mana to really support it. GA turned out to be key for shooting down fallen shamans sitting behind and resurrecting the crowd. That changed my skill plan a bit: I had raised Penetrate for 5 points worth, but then decided AR wasn't so important because Guided and Immolation don't need it, so I changed skill tracks to Valkyrie instead, a sturdier summon seems to be more what she needs.

Necro: As I had guessed, he was the strongest offense overall. He feels like playing two character builds at the same time, either the poison or skeletons is enough to handle the game, but he can do both together. So I had him clear the act on players-8, to get one character to the highest level achievable at this time. I did find a wand with both +Lower Resist and +Decrepify, so socketed that into a new White for him, freeing up the shrunken head slot rather than tying it to one of those +skill providers.

Paladin: He did well, was actually the fastest through the act in real time (the necro might have been if on p5 rather than p8.) Butcher's Pupil upgraded is very good, although it feels like it's maybe fifteen percent below what the power level of an endgame weapon should be, although that's probably more attributable to not having Vengeance's skill synergies in this build. Fist of the Heavens was disappointing; the lightning wasn't useful to kill things at range; because there was no way to keep them at range since anything dangerous enough to resort to Fist was dangerous enough to just wipe the merc. But the holy bolt portion of Fist was great against big enough groups (basically any undead boss pack), and Holy Bolt itself is very nice too; about the same dps as Vengeance, but very convenient to pick off skeleton archers at range and a lower mana cost. (Mana consumption is this paladin's one weak spot, since Vengeance doesn't do physical damage to drive mana leech. He sucks a mana potion for like every third enemy. Afterwards I gave him more mana charms.)

So I put all that effort into full-clearing the act, but unlike the first team who made out bigtime here, the item drops were pretty dull. Besides the Duriel's Shell and the Um rune, there was little of any note. No other runes above one Lum, no skill charms, and no side goodies like Gheed's Fortune or anything either.

Still hurting for any good melee weapons other than the Butcher's Pupil. Here I got a Coldkill unique hatchet and Sureshrill Frost mace. Both might be borderline decent if upgraded, but neither of those is enough better than other options to warrant spending a Pul that I don't have anyway and if I did would go into Witchwild String first.

The one halfway notable drop was a Dwarf Star, the first unique ring other than Nagel/Manald for either team. The necromancer found it early in the act and put it on to wear, more interesting than the fire resist ring he was using, plus another 100% gold find on top of Chance Guards is cute. After the act I rearranged some resistance items to get Dwarf Star on the paladin; I think he's most in need of the extra fire resilience plus 40 life, and he doesn't need resists or AR or leech in the ring slot. The assassin would be the other candidate, the other fragile melee combatant, but she's got enough trouble getting her fire resistance to max in the first place.

Some marginally useful merc stuff: Griswold's Heart armor, think that's the first time I ever found that. Also a Toothrow armor. Face of Horror (monster-flee) to put on the bowazon's merc, she could use a little crowd dispersement. Two copies of Hone Sundan, decent for a merc weapon, though not spectacular if not upgraded. What I really want is 5-socket elite bases for Honor merc weapons. I got one (a Mancatcher) but need to keep finding more.

Minor upgrades: a Natalya's boot for the assassin (she really needs the max run speed to dart around between Phoenix hits), and a few various resist/speed boots and resist/life belts shopped at Fara after the act.

The one thing I did get was socketed elite armors, which is what the first team had trouble finding, even though this team doesn't have any immediate demand for them. Got a nice 3-socket 450-defense Dusk Shroud, although a Duress is probably too far down my priority list to happen, it's too cool to just toss. Same goes for a 4-socket Archon Plate that dropped; the only thing I'd put in that is Stone and there are more important uses for those runes, but it's too cool to toss. Finally, this:

I got a good ethereal Dusk Shroud, and went for the ethereal-bugging socket cube recipe on it to see what I might get. Was hoping for 2 sockets for a Smoke to give a mercenary, or even 4 sockets simply full of rubies and resist jewels might not be a bad idea... and got 3 making it excellent for a Treachery. This is going on the paladin's merc, he's the one that desperately needs the Fade for any sort of resilience he can possibly get. Finally, this is why I declined to make a Passion for the barb or paladin, since this consumes my last Lem at the moment. (I had 5 total, three of which cubed into Pul to upgrade Butcher's Pupil, one upgraded Duriel's Shell, and the last into this.)

So, since I didn't have any better weapons on tap for the barbarian, I took matters into my hands like this. There are the cube recipes for 3 chipped or normal gems to reroll a magic socketed weapon. The output item level is low, but with a base item of high enough qlvl, it still qualifies for higher level affixes like Cruel.

So that turned out these two axes for the barb, decent upgrades over what he had been using. The war spike base item can be shopped from Fara, and the berserker axe dropped in act 1 which I saved for this. (These weapons also sent me down a rabbit hole of buggy Frenzy speed mechanics and breakpoints, which I think resulted in the optimal socketing configuration seen here.)

To get the gems, I went back and did the normal-difficulty cow level with everyone, as a great source of both chipped and normal gems (seriously, you get one every few seconds.) This is an example of why I have to stick to the idea of not rerunning areas - otherwise I'd do this forever until getting a Cruel of Quickness for both base items. BTW, that cow level is also a great source of Amn runes, to fill up all those Hone Sundans with life leech.

Last order of business: Same plan as the first team, I had one character clear hell act one all through on players-8 (the necro, as the strongest to handle it), to reach level 82, for a good chance at gambling coronets with affix level 90 to get +2 skills. There was a lot of room for improvement here, I had four characters still using Lore in the helm slot. So I had the necromancer gamble everyone's money on coronets after the act. Came away with two modest improvements, one with +1 necro skills and more resists than Lore, and a nice +2 assassin circlet with both strength and dexterity.

Oh and pour one out for the long-departed sorceress.

Act 2

Long writeup from the long time spent full-clearing act 2 hell. (Except Halls of the Dead, that isn't worth the effort.)

Barb: Uneventful through the act, slow but steady, may as well skip straight to the item upgrades. He got a 2-socket Great Hauberk halfway through, made a Smoke to wear, similar to Goldskin but more resists and defense, and it is nice to trade out a heavy armor for a light one, and finally (and perhaps most importantly) the Goldskin passed over to his merc for resists there too. Smoke does feel a little underwhelming, the defense is middling and the resists are overkill; but I don't have any other option that he would want over it. Any of the armors I have like Goldskin would go too high on strength req if upgraded to elite; I don't have runes for Duress or Stone or Prudence; Lionheart doesn't have defense and he doesn't need the stats; Treachery also doesn't have defense and makes me wary since you can't count on Fade's resists always being active.

More importantly, the team effort finally came up with the materials he needed for weapons: two 5-socket Ettin Axes (which took about the expected six attempts to cube-socket) for Honor runewords. (War Spike would be better for speed, but it's a higher qlvl at 79 and a much rarer drop, I haven't seen any at all yet.) I talked about Passion a lot, but Honor is just better for anyone who's not dependent on weapon IAS, which Frenzy isn't. Honor and Passion are about the same damage, but Honor has a wide package of AR, life leech, skills, deadly strike, strength. I really like Honor, it's the most underrated runeword. Ladder-only Spirit and Insight get all the attention, and then there's the good stuff from Crescent Moon on up, but Honor is a rock solid baseline that should be enough for any weapon-based class to get through hell.

The two Honors led to recalibrating all the rest of his equipment after the act. First off, the 250 AR on each Honor was enough to finally ditch the Sigon's helm (with AR/level) for a real barb helm, which is the Immortal King's headpiece he got a while ago. It's not super great, but +2 to warcries is still 100 more Battle Orders life. And it's got two sockets, which can each take a 15 IAS jewel, which plus Sigon's gloves exactly equals two more Frenzy speed breakpoints. He went back to the Sigon's gloves/belt/boots package now - need one of them to enable the good stuff on the gloves (30% IAS and 10% life leech), and since both the boot and belt slots are open (doesn't need a strength belt with the +20 on the Honors), may as well go with both for the 50% magic find from 3 set pieces.

Speaking of Honor, I've been gradually building them for mercs as well. Every town guard now has one in either a Thresher or Mancatcher, after I kept pounding the cube-socket recipe on those too. All this Honoring costed a ton of Amn runes, both for the socketing recipe and for the runeword itself, but fortunately I got the last one I needed in the last tomb with the last character. I'm keeping the two Hone Sundans on hand for the characters that could most use the crushing blow against act bosses, which are the bowazon and necromancer.

Assassin: Phoenix Strike keeps revealing new depths. I'm glad I stuck with this skill. I complained before about the delay for the meteors -- but you can actually use that for some cool timing tricks. Cast Cloak of Shadows, start spamming meteors on one vulnerable target in the middle -- timed so that Cloak expires and the monsters rush in to you just as the meteors land! Or launch enough meteors to kill a small pack -- and then while they're in flight, quickly charge and release the ice too, to freeze and shatter the corpses. Also, Phoenix Strike lends itself to playing on a higher player count: the meteors take a while to 'rev up' and start landing, so increasing monster health increases kill time by less than linearly, so you may as well go higher and tack on another couple meteors. Besides that, I'm also still getting better at driving Phoenix in general; the hit recovery equipment does help some, but really the key is tactical positioning, always aim for a loose monster on the outskirts and let the elemental blasts do the work. It's very noticeable that Phoenix's lightning charge works a lot better outdoors than indoors, where there's enough space for the lightning blasts to swirl around and hit more stuff rather than running into the wall. Finally, she reached max on Shadow Warrior which was her next skill after the Phoenix package, and so can raise Fade after that with the last few points.

After the act, her major item addition was a new Shaftstop armor, found by the paladin while wearing the first one. She traded out her Lionheart for it, which was possible thanks to her circlet with strength and dex instead. She also socketed the Shaftstop with a freedom jewel, which conveniently brings its str requirement down to exactly the same as her greater talons claw. I was able to make up Lionheart's resists elsewhere, half by socketing a resist-all jewel in her circlet. Shaftstop is great on this character, same as the paladin, any fragile meleer wants the 30% physical damage reduction, and stacking that with Fade is even better than additive, 10% more damage reduction isn't 10% better - reducing damage taken from 70% to 60% is actually 17% better.

She also added a Dwarf Star after someone found a second copy of that too, also just like the paladin. I'm quite amused at how these characters are nearly twins: both are tri-elemental melee damage dealers, with ways to circumvent attack rating (Conviction and ITD), and now match half their equipment loadout too (also Rhyme shields besides Shaftstops and Dwarf Stars.)

Finally, I also got a Bartuc's claw during the act. Wish she could use it for the martial skills... but it's got nothing for attack rating. Phoenix Strike is quadratically sensitive to AR deficiency since you have to hit both the chargeup and the finisher, and 70-80% with Bartuc's just isn't good enough, she needs the ITD claw more than anything else.

Werebear: Crescent Moon is awesome indeed. He feels like a knife carving through monsters. Although not exactly a fast knife. More like, trying to use a serrated bread knife to cut vegetables instead, and it isn't very sharp so you have to kind of carve back and forth for a while, but it gets the job done as long as you keep pushing. Having CTC Amp on the merc (Vile Husk sword) plays well into that. Whenever it triggers, it feels like a bonus round in a pinball game or something - you get fifteen seconds of a big multiplier to scramble and hit as much as you can during that time. And Crescent Moon's CTC Static Field does perform great as advertised. By the time I kill the first monster or two of each pack, the Static has usually triggered at least once, and it's a great help to work down the rest of the pack with a chunk of health already gone.

What surprised me most was that Crescent Moon kept right on trucking against physical immunes! The CTC Static still works, and so does the Open Wounds which is actually enough damage to kill a ghost in only a few cycles. Or I could just keep Shockwaving as long as necessary to halt everything until the Amplify triggers from the merc. So I never bothered using that Shocking sword on switch I'd shopped earlier.

The werebear presently came to max on his skill build (Werebear, Maul, Lycan, and Shockwave which only needs 15 points rather than max.) Where to go with the last ten or so points left after that? Not Oak Sage, that's forbidden by the rule about not repeating skills from the first team, and also it really needs to be maxed to work, otherwise its own life is too low and it dies too often. Not any of the fire skills (elemental tree or Fire Claws), 10 points is nowhere near enough to get any of that to useful. Not Hunger, I wouldn't bother using that. Not Raven, Shockwave is more than enough crowd control, and also the blinding cancels out the merc's Amp. The first usable possibility I thought of was Heart of Wolverine, but then I looked at the numbers and saw it doesn't really add much (like 70%) compared to Maul plus strength (like 500%.) Another possibility could be to boost Summon Grizzly (actually points in Dire Wolf raise Grizzly's life total), but that doesn't seem necessary either, the bear can easily just be recast whenever. Finally I found a good choice: Carrion Vine! That turned out to actually be very useful, each corpse eaten gives back over 200 life (it's a percentage of your max), which kept my life ball full almost constantly, plus very helpfully gets rid of skeleton corpses. The vine does die a lot but it's not a problem, it's not a catastrophic peril for it to disappear as it is for Oak Sage, and you can just recast the vine whenever.

But that all said, there was one disaster: The werebear took a lethal hit. In the palace cellar upon entering a room with a ridiculous triple stack of archer boss packs, accounting for all of Cursed, Might, Extra Strong, Extra Fast between them. He took a lethal hit... but he survived! Thanks to the mechanic where you can't actually die in wereform - instead of dying, you shift back to human with 1 life. I popped a rejuve in the instant that happened and got away intact - but that's a reminder to always stay careful in hardcore.

Item improvements: He found a Tal Rasha's mask early on, much needed for his merc. Then a Fleshrender unique club, with some +druid and +shapeshifting skills, useful enough to keep on switch to pre-buff Werebear and Lycanthropy and Grizzly. Nothing else besides a minor charm or two and a life leech ring, but he's already pretty much set to go all the way to endgame.

Bowazon: She felt slow, but took about the same time as everyone else overall. Immolation fires slowly, but it's the heaviest hitter among everything on this whole team, particularly way up at skill level 31. I knew this earlier but neglected to ever mention it: Immolation's fire damage actually applies twice per shot, both with the projectile hit and again with the fire explosion. This point hit home when I was fighting some spear cats who have 75% fire resistance and only 15% physical... but Immolation was still taking them down faster than Strafe.

That said, she did run into one bad situation, first time this happened for either team: I got stuck unable to continue. In the claw viper temple, Fangskin's pack chased me back to the entrance. When I clicked to go back in, I got thrashed for a full column of rejuves in about 1.5 seconds before managing to click back on the exit again. This was unwinnable without losing the character, so my only choice was to exit and open a new game and try again. I did as little killing as possible to get back there, on players-1, and picked up nothing besides potions (there were only a few drops anyway and nothing of any meaning.)

Her biggest missing aspect has long been physical damage. Strafe has been barely enough to get it done against fire immunes. But now she finally got that solved, my first Pul rune finally dropped, for the paladin in Arcane Sanctuary, so she could finally get Witchwild String upgraded. Also:

Once again who says Duriel never drops anything good! Again he delivered for the bowazon, that's War Traveler boots, adds 15-25 physical damage, a very significant bump compared to the low damage of bows in general and particularly Witchwild which multiplies it with deadly strike and Amp.

I also got a second Laying of Hands during the act, and decided that had to go to to the bowazon as well. She needs that demon damage more than anyone else does - fire immunes tend to be demon types, particularly heading into acts 3 (the council) and 4. And with the IAS on LoH, then I changed out Witchwild's socketing to remove the Shael in favor of a jewel with damage and hit recovery, which she needs too.

Finally she also added a Credendum belt that someone else found, nice little piece, 15 resist all and 10 str and dex. It happens to be from the same set as Laying of Hands, which combo gives a minor but satisfying defense bonus.

Paladin: This guy is FUN. This is the most versatile character I've ever built and I'm loving it. He presently reached max on his core skill build (Vengeance, Conviction, Fist, Holy Bolt) with points now to start raising Holy Shock for Fist's lightning synergy. He has so many approaches on offense: Fist at a pile of undead, particularly the greater mummy in the back row while the holy bolts wipe the skeletons, or Holy Bolt to pick off specific undead faster, or Fist's lightning damage at long range, or Vengeance's omnicompetent melee, or even Smite to pin down something or deliver crushing blow. And the Shaftstop armor on him and Treachery on the merc make for surprising durability; neither is an impenetrable tank, but each can hold up against about five monsters at once which is more than enough.

He got no item improvements during the act... except that I realized I had made a mistake in checking his speed breakpoints, and he didn't need Sigon's 30% gloves, 20% is enough for the breakpoint he's currently at. So now he swapped out the Sigon's glove/belt/boots set for individual items with more resists, and max run speed on the boots. That led to enough resists that I could swap out his prismatic amulet for one with +3 combat skills instead.

Necromancer: FUCK. Sorry, necro fans.

Out of nowhere, in what should have been a perfectly routine fight. There were only three beetles near me, and I was outrunning them into the corner to get a second to cast Decrepify to slow them down. Somehow my run motion snagged on the edge of the map and I stopped outrunning them for a split second, which proved fatal. I didn't give enough notice to the Might aura which is what made them a threat. My other mistake was that I kept pounding on the same column of rejuve potions after they were already all gone - somehow I lost count in my head and expected one more to kick in before switching to another column of rejuves. They caught me just enough to land enough hits to kill me before I could react. Dammit. (Also I had previously had to save and exit the necro once earlier in the act, when I got similarly stuck against a wall by beetles in the Stony Tomb, should have taken that portent more seriously. Well, at least I guess that means I don't have to push him through the maggot lair and arcane sanctuary.)

I played the bowazon and necro then the paladin, and was struck by how the game felt several gears slower with the paladin. The necro and bowazon were running around like crazy but the paladin wasn't. Then I realized why: the Holy Freeze merc on the paladin, compared to Might on the other two. And that's a commonality for every death in this series: they wouldn't have happened with a Holy Freeze merc. Both necromancers died to a rush of monsters that Holy Freeze instead of Might would have slowed enough for me to react. The sorceress died back in normal difficulty before HF was available, but it's still true if it had been. I have to stop being greedy with Might mercs. What matters isn't the rate I deal damage, it's the rate relative to incoming damage and reaction time and life replenishment by leech and potion, and Holy Freeze basically always wins on that. So now going into act 3, I swapped out the bowazon's Might merc for Holy Freeze instead too.

Sorceress: Dear lord I wish she was here, oh well.

Ha, after all my concern over spending all my Lems earlier, the very first area of act 2 served up one. Haven't used it yet, keeping it on hand for the barbarian in case I decide to make him a Treachery.

Random but unhelpful drops: Spike Thorn elite blade barrier shield, Stormchaser shield, Martel of Pain maul, Mahim-Oak Curio amulet, two copies of Sazabi's set helm (decent for resists on a merc, but we've got enough better.)

And this monstrosity:

Holy freakin crap. That's an EXCEPTIONAL base item, not even elite. If upgraded to Thresher, this thing would have 943 max damage. Plus life leech built in. Thing is, I just wouldn't ever actually get around to upgrading it. That takes an Um rune, but if I got more of those I'd be making three more Crescent Moons and at least one Duress before I'd spend any on this for a merc. As-is, it's about the same damage and leech as an Honor thresher but a little less good without the AR and deadly strike, so doesn't quite make the cut to use.

Finally, this:

Hot damn a Rainbow Facet! From some completely ordinary urn or jug or something. I blinked at that for a few seconds of processing. My brain went "oh probably another useless Nagelring, wait that's not right, wait a unique jewel can't happen, has to be a level 85 area, wait yes it can the maggot lair is level 85!"

It's lightning... and there isn't any lightning character on this team to use it. Phoenix Strike and Vengeance both deal lightning, but aren't designated as lightning skills so the +skill damage doesn't apply, only the -resistance. Same goes for Crescent Moon's CTC Static. It does work with Fist, but that's a small part of the paladin's offense, and the -resistance can't go beyond the minimum of -100 which Conviction already often reaches. So none of these really seems worth a socketing slot for the marginal benefit, so I guess this will go unused.

Act 3

From here onward, I stop full-clearing the acts, there's not really any more treasure we need and not much future left to use it anyway. So we'll start with this:

FUCK again. This project is becoming a lot less successful than I'd planned.

My shadow had been at the center of that boss pack (Might + Cursed). I was correctly on the outskirts launching meteors on a minion so that they'd hit the boss too (because the ITD claw works on minions but not the boss.) Then the shadow died at the same instant Cloak of Shadows went down and the pack swarmed me in an instant. I even hit a rejuve in time but then they dealt another 1700 damage in a blink.

But the real root cause here: my merc had had the bug triggered where monsters start ignoring him, and that's why the pack swarmed me instead of him. That merc bug happens routinely (probably about a third of the time by the end of an act), and I'm generally happy to just let it, since I don't want to have to pack up everything in town and re-enter a game to fix it, and often it's even favorable to have the merc in that state, particularly in big fights like the Travincal council and act bosses. Well, it bit me back bigtime here.

In all honesty, I got fatigued of driving Phoenix Strike. It takes a lot of effort to alternate charge-release constantly and target the correct charge you want each time. The meteors are a grind too since they take so long to land and you have to hold your ground until they do or they'll miss when the monster moves. I wasn't at peak sharpness when this happened after four hours of driving Phoenix through the act, and paid the price.

Finally, this makes me talk about player count. I was still playing at players-3 in the Durance, which was also a mistake. I've actually done that with everyone on this team all through hell difficulty so far, always at least p3. I have weird feelings here, that playing on p3 is the real game. If a character has to stick at p1 then they're a wimp, but p3 is the benchmark that if a character can handle, they could probably also go all the way to p8 if they had to for some reason (and in fact has happened often when I went to p8 for a super chest and forgot to switch back.) Also p1 is just so scarce on item drops, but p3 gives much more (1.6x) and is the sweet spot for loot that I was still chasing, compared to p5 and up which are more marginal on added drops.

Anyway, I don't have much to say on any of the other characters, they're pretty well set. The paladin had a blast wiping packs of undead dolls in the sewers and Durance. The werebear and barb are reliably durable with high life totals and leech. The bowazon is the one I'm concerned about; similar to the late phoenixsin, she was also bad about having close calls in the Durance, with two separate cursed extra strong cold enchanted doll bosses, got hit to a sliver (about a third) of life like four times between them, while the chilling made trying to run away perilous, but I did hit a rejuve in time every time.

Arkaine's Valor! Awesome score from Mephisto there, and fills the one slot on the whole team where I most wanted improvement, the barb's armor slot, huge defense and life and skills. Worth giving up Smoke's resists to make up elsewhere, including that the +skills gives a bit back itself via Natural Resistance, plus he had a socket quest available to throw in a resist-all jewel. The strength requirement was almost a major headache - it needs 10 more than he had, and he only gained one level during the act, and I didn't have any extra strength charms on hand... but the saving grace was the Lam Esen quest for exactly the 5 more stat points he needed.

Here's a very cool piece! Hand of Blessed Light is super overlooked, with those properties of a weird hybrid of melee damage and spellcasting for little-used skills... which is exactly what this paladin is! Although, without upgrading, it's not really quite good enough for melee, barely over half the damage of Butcher's Pupil. But it's totally worth keeping on switch for Fist mode (which will happen bigtime in Chaos Sanctuary), since his switch slot isn't occupied by much anyway, only a Black flail for crushing blow on act bosses which can easily be kept in stash instead.

I would love to upgrade Hand of Blessed Light to use as his main weapon - it would be just about the same damage as Butcher's after factoring in the +skills to Vengeance, and the Butcher's could pass back over to the barb too. Thing is, I'm juuust short of the runes to do it. The upgrade needs a Pul, and what I've got is 2 Lem, 1 Fal, 4 Ko, 2 Lum (after the assassin died with one), 3 Io. Anything from Ko on up is enough to cube the whole stack up to a Pul, so I'm going to have the paladin take possession of all those going into act four and hope the hellforge delivers.

Nothing worth using besides those and a life leech ring or two. A few random drops: Sandstorm Trek boots, I understand this is popular but I don't really see why; decent stats, but no resists or magic find and only 20% run speed. Atma's Wail armor, same, doesn't really seem to do much of anything. Demon's Arch throwing spear, cool but not of any use here. Cubed a skill charm, with a life suffix even... necromancer summoning skills.

Act 4

Only four characters still going, so this went quickly in real time. I did keep playing on players-3, and full-cleared some areas when I liked the monster mix (particularly the paladin drawing an all-undead spawn in Plains of Despair again), and all of River of Flame and Chaos Sanctuary for everyone (you kinda have to do that anyway to get to the seal bosses.) That was a slog particularly for the bowazon, with two-thirds of Chaos immune to fire, which took almost an hour, but she got it done, and with no real danger moments always firing from long range. And the paladin had his greatest moment of glory, blasting through Chaos Sanctuary's undead with Fist of the Heavens, powered up with that Hand of Blessed Light scepter on switch.

The hellforge mostly busted again: Ist, Lem, Ko, Lum. The Ist is nice, but other than that, I actually got better runes from random drops, both two more Lem and two more Ko. (All three Lems came in the same game, for the bowazon. Randomness is clumpy.)

The resulting total is 5 Lem, 1 Fal, 7 Ko, 4 Lum after cubing one from Ios. That's actually enough to cube up to two Puls which could go all the way to one Um. I could make a Crescent Moon for either the paladin or barb, or a Duress for the barb. But nah, I really do want to upgrade Hand of Blessed Light. It's just so cool, a perfect fit of that weird niche weapon to this build, a matchup I'd never be doing again. It's massive how high the skills go on the spellcasting attacks - level 33 Holy Bolt gets up over 5000 damage. The melee damage of HOBL is about a quarter less than Butcher's, but it's a fast base so can get to one frame breakpoint faster (with Shael after the last socket quest), which plus the +skills for Vengeance comes to just about the same dps. And this move means the Butcher's can also pass back over to the barb to help him too.

The Ist will do exactly the same thing it did for my first team: make a Delirium for the amazon. She can dish out that crowd control Confuse like crazy, and doesn't get hit into the doll morph much, and can certainly upgrade from the Lore she's still using, including another +skill for Immolation. This is another reason not to cube everything up to the Um, since Delirium requires spending one of the Lems too. I have to go find a 3-socket base helm for it somewhere (can't be shopped); Halls of Pain in nightmare is a good place to look that I never cleared yet.

Not a lot of interesting drops in the act, but here goes. I finally got an elite melee weapon, as I'd wanted to manage among this team of several melee characters:

Nord's Tenderizer! Very nice damage, including cold and target-freeze, and IAS... and... it's... ethereal... goddammit. Still though, I'm keeping it for the paladin. My previous Vengeance paladin that made Guardian was twinked with exactly this weapon (non-ethereal), and so it's totally full-circle fitting for this guy to finish off Baal with one legitimately.

And this:

I had no idea this existed (Arreat's Face is more common and just better), but I'll take it, a worthwhile upgrade over his IK helm. This is also another reason to swap the Butcher's Pupil to the barb; giving up the IK helm socketed with two fervor jewels loses some speed, but the IAS on Butcher's makes it back up.


I rarely show rings, just talk about them, but that's a beautifully nice one for the barb. That ends this chapter, one more left to come.

Act 5

So not quite as triumphant as the first team, but still a worthy conclusion.

Like the first team, I went straight through act 5 strictly on players-1 with minimal clearing. Although this time I did do the Anya quest with most characters; all except the paladin had either skimped a bit on resists (without a shield), or just to trade out resist charms for life instead. The Frozen River was somewhat threatening for both the barb and druid, I had to work my way through several overlapping boss packs before I even gained any space from the entrance, but I managed it safely. Smooth sailing from there for both characters, the Ancients took just two or three tries to roll into harmless mods (spectral hit, extra fast, cold enchanted), and Baal was easy (lengthy without any crushing blow, but trivial with a 2800 life buffer), actually thanks to the appendages which provided continuous plenty of leech-back.

Barbarian: I have to say that Frenzy was pretty underwhelming in the end. I thought building a barb with two weapons would be more interesting, but it really wasn't, there are no interactions between them, really it just meant I had to get every weapon upgrade twice. Frenzy's dps just doesn't keep up, even with the skill speed, it's not fast enough. Whirlwind attacks with a 2-handed weapon at a 4-frame rate... that's just way superior than Frenzy attacking with a 1-hander at 6 frames. In fact Berserk at 1 point was beating Frenzy's dps against quite a few monster types, anything with physical resistance. Frenzy's run speed is also underwhelming, fun but not really necessary, all your fighting happens while standing still. Really the speed is most useful for pulling out of combat quickly (including the merc) and that's about it. It doesn't really work to jet from pack to pack keeping Frenzy's buff active; I always spend more than six seconds picking through each batch of item drops instead. The one fun part of Frenzy's speed was popping a town portal and cannonballing across town to the vendors.

Bowazon: She turned out about as good as I expected, though not quite in the way that I had. I hadn't envisioned the micromanagement of constantly swapping between two bows for fire damage or physical. But that was the right way to play her given the items that came my way. With Immolation Arrow, she actually felt like a Buriza zon of old times, firing slowly but heavily. Her key tactic was to alternate Immolation with constantly respamming recasts of Decoy during each Immolation cooldown timer, to absorb monster attention indefinitely. Her Strafe side never quite got up to the damage I'd hoped for; no bow short of Windforce or a crazy runeword really measures up; even upgraded Witchwild only got close when the Amplify triggered and when Laying of Hands applied against demons. But her real killer item was the Delirium, that thing is basically god mode, one trigger of Confuse disables each entire screen of monsters who won't hurt her again. Or the merc, who never died in the act until the Worldstone bosses. And I even played more carefully with Delirium on, since avoiding the doll morph is an extra incentive to not get hit, almost even more than actual death. Anyway, I'm finally satisfied at making Guardian with a real bowazon, hadn't previously without hybridizing. Her skill build actually ended up all over the place: besides max Strafe, Immolation, and Exploding for synergy, she put 5 points each in a bunch of skills everywhere: Multishot, Guided (mostly to alleviate the mana cost), Valkyrie, Penetrate, Pierce, Decoy.

Werebear: He had the team's MVP item for sure in his Crescent Moon axe, enabled by that awesomely lucky Um drop from the Countess, never got any others from the hellforge or anywhere else. The co-MVP was his Duriel's Shell, and with those together he was probably the closest on this team to a real meta build, his 3000 life was never really threatened aside from that one moment in the palace cellar. And Shockwave is the MVP skill for this whole team too, just can't ever be threatened by a screenful of monsters that are all stunned. I made the right move going with the full werebear build into Lycanthropy and Shockwave instead of the fire hybrid I'd originally planned.

Paladin: Have I said enough how fun this guy is? This might have been my favorite character of all time. Vengeance and Fist are such a beautiful hybrid that complement each other so perfectly. All the worst situations for melee are undead - unleechable skeletons with shield blocking, mana drain ghosts, archers that won't chase you, greater mummy packs, gloams, oblivion knights - and exactly what Fist obliterates smashingly. Plus Fist's direct use to pick off things at long range with the lightning, like maggot spawners or dangerous bosses. Or just to nail things that bounce around a lot - his new trick in act 5 was when I realized that Fist could kill the blinkery demon imp guys in one shot each - mega satisfying revenge for the millions of times I've chased them around with melee characters! Plus Holy Bolt for directed efficient targeting, or to heal the merc -- actually I did that against one Ancient, who was lightning enchanted, a bit too dangerous to attack together but the holy-bolt healing outraced the damage that the merc took alone. Cap it all off with the standard Smite to stunlock or crushing-blow something, and this is perhaps the most versatile offensive build in the whole game. But always vulnerable on defense (actually the team MVP might have been his Shaftstop armor; I don't know if the physical resist ever saved his life but it's quite possible), like all paladins; this build has a very high player skill ceiling which is what I love the most.

I didn't use the ethereal Nord's Tenderizer against Baal; it was more practical to start with Smite and finish him off at range with Fist. I did use Nord's against the Ancients, which may have made a significant difference in being able to get through their health before my potions ran out. (He did take about ten attempts to roll the Ancients into manageable modifiers.) And then I wasn't quite ready yet to drop the curtain on this character, so after Baal I went back and finished clearing most of act 5, including Halls of Anguish/Pain (but not Vaught), except for an unmanageable stairs trap in Drifter Cavern.

Item finds: Ginther's Rift, might have been cool if that came early enough to build the paladin around it and phase blades in general. Dwarf Star for the third time on this team, why can't that ever be Raven Frost instead, same odds and level but generally better. Djinn Slayer sword, up to 500 fire damage with fast speed and two sockets for Shaels - that might have been a pretty good physical immune solution for the werebear. Got both Shadow Killer and Firelizard's Talons unique assassin claws (in the same game for the paladin), hah okay maybe I should have made a claw assassin. Ravenlore druid elemental helm, the one score from the paladin's post-Baal joyride. No runes above Shael in the act but we didn't need any.

So four Guardians out of the seven might not be a spectacular result, but ultimately I'm satisfied with it. The phoenix striker went most of the way through and I experienced all I needed to with that character; I don't have a compulsion to push that build to Guardian, and definitely not to drive that hyperactive skill over again. The poisonmancer was more unfortunate, but in honesty sitting behind the skeletons was starting to get boring (and why I impatiently overextended into what became his death); I do want to do a pure poisonmancer, but it just doesn't really work without high end gear for minus poison resist to deal with immunes. The sorceress was also unfortunate, but ultimately not really anything I hadn't done before. So I'm not particularly crushed by the fallen heroes who didn't make it.

Once again I laid out a chart of everyone's equipment to visualize and compare that way.

And if you clicked on that, you noticed a sorceress listed there, even though she died early. Follow along here for an epilogue.

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