Diablo II - Hardcore Star Team Gamma

This is my writeup of playing through Diablo II with a particular group of characters. This is my third time doing this; see the menu at the bottom for the first two. 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. This time I'm not enforcing any rules about not reusing skills between the teams. But the builds are designed so that no offensive skill is repeated anyway, except for one partial case. 1-point skills and max passives/masteries/buffs/synergies can be reused, although none of those really define any of the builds.

What's cool about this team is that it's finally a good balance of melee and ranged and casters, after the first team was overloaded on casters and the second on melee (particularly after that sorc died early, and also including that necro's early poison dagger stabbing.)  The meleers are themselves diverse too, with different weapon types.  There's no hard rules against reusing skills from the first two teams, although I designed these to not repeat any offensive skills anyway; the one partial exception is Corpse Explosion which the bonemancer on the first team used but died early and never finished.


Normal Act 3

Again I'll skip past the early acts; normal act 3 is about the first time things get interesting to write about.

Paladin: I had forgotten how early a zealot ramps up.  I always talk about zealots being overrated; newbies make them because they look simple and easy, then they get to hell difficulty and have no idea how to survive with a fragile meleer or kill anything with their inevitably underpowered weapon.  But I'd forgotten how strong he is through the beginnings of normal difficulty.  Sacrifice starts from level 1 and ramps up more damage as Zeal's synergy than anything until level 30 in the barb or druid's melee skill trees.  Those classes catch up later in overall strength, but it's the paladin that ramps up really early, between that plus 1-point Might or Conc until you get to Fanaticism.  And I know how to work the system to get strong weapons.  Mostly by gambling better base items much earlier than they come available from vendors... but also this:

The Savage Polearm cube recipe.  It just never occurred to me before to use this.  I think I probably thought it needs a perfect gem or some other ingredient that's limited or doesn't show up until later, at least a regular diamond... but it's actually really easy, every chipped diamond works and everything else is cheaply buyable, all of which you can do as soon as you get the cube, since item and character level don't matter either.  The key is that the output item can be one of several exceptional polearm types,meaning access to those base items long before they should show up otherwise.  So I got this whopper for the paladin, that's an enormous amount of damage for act 2 normal.  It's slow to swing and precludes a shield, but it basically one-hit everything but greater mummies up to Duriel and the Travincal council.

It works great for the mercs too, of course.  The one downside is that the higher base types come with level (25) and strength (up to 113) requirements, so the best ones wouldn't be in play for a while.  But I made dozens of these with every chipped diamond until I had as many as I wanted for each base type depending on the requirements.  And you know who can use those polearms with no concern about requirements at all? :

Iron Golem!  That was very cool for the necromancer, doing as much damage as a second mercenary.  Between both of them, they way overshadowed anything the necro could do with any weapons of his own, killing things almost faster than I could even tag Amp curses on them.  Also I took advantage of this trick: when I gained a couple levels or got more +golem equipment, I exited and reopened the game at the next waypoint to resummon the golem with those higher skills.

Barbarian: The Savage Polearm recipe also worked for him, but he isn't otherwise worth writing about yet, barbs are always dull until they get their main combat skill.  Concentrate has gotten the job done so far.  I'm also not committing to any weapon mastery until he gets a weapon choice that can go to end-game.  For now, I'm keeping and switching in barb helms with different 1-3 point mastery skills, it's easy to find plenty of those early on.

Assassin: She got an early surprise too, in Blade Sentinel.  I'd never used that before, but did here on the way to leveling up to Blade Fury.  It's actually pretty cool for clobbering groups, since it pierces unlike Blade Fury; I'm wondering if it's even worth maxing Blade Sentinel as well as Fury to keep using later on.  Anyway, Blade Fury itself is fun.  It's a little weird in how the timing works; it fires blades continuously, but takes a while to wind up again after you stop, but sometimes you can release and click again fast enough not to interrupt it.  I'm trying to narrow down and understand the details of that.

Druid: I love how simple his skill build is: only the four fire skills, zero prerequisites and only Oak Sage as a single point in any other tree (aiming to get Grizzly via pelt and save the prereq points.)  But the order does need some determining.  The synergies for the fire tree are all over the place, it's pretty arbitrary what synergizes what, many of the synergies exist in one direction but not the reverse, so there's not any single most obvious ordering or grouping to start with.  I decided to go Firestorm - Boulder - Volcano - Fissure.  Fissure is last because that's the one skill here I did use before.  Outside of Fissure, then Firestorm and Boulder are the pair that do synergize each other in both directions, so do those first.  Volcano comes after that, through nightmare difficulty, when it will need to reach max for its physical damage right as the first fire immunes come in act 4 nightmare.  What's not in play is Armageddon, that's a waste of five wind prereq points and really doesn't fit with other fire skills because of the casting timer.  So Firestorm was his first skill to max from the start, and that's been very effective so far, although it does require being in at close range, and I've been using Boulder sometimes when longer range is necessary (dolls).

Sorceress: Nothing to say about her, every sorc destroys normal difficulty once they get their main skill.

Spearazon: She has the longest story here.  She actually died.  In act 3 to a group of flayer shaman champions, because she'd neglected her fire resistance, and also had no rejuve potions after using them all against Duriel.

I restarted the whole team after that happened.  Restarting just the spearazon wouldn't quite have been fair; even if I discarded items to cancel out the extra runs through the acts, I could design her new build with already-acquired gear in mind (particularly Sigon's gloves), gaining an advantage that way.  So I restarted the whole team fresh.  I was okay with this since I had a few other things to fix as well.  The barb had put 1 point into several weapon masteries, but then I realized that could be done by swapping primal helms instead.  The paladin had overshot on strength and wanted to adjust that too.  I also tweaked the order of the necro's skills, and also switched the druid's skill order to do Boulder before Firestorm just for variety.  Finally, on reaching act 3 again, I put a lot more effort into acquiring resistance gear (spent an hour shopping gloves and belts from Asheara) to make sure everybody had fire and lightning up to around 50%, and that made a big noticeable difference against shamans and gloams.

I'll follow up more on the spearazon later.  I wasn't really happy with how her Jab build was playing out originally, but right now I really don't know how I want to build her (1h or 2h, Jab or Fend, Dodge/Avoid or not.)  For the moment I raised Power Strike instead, since that's definitely part of her skill build and is also more effective than any physical attack for now.  (Who knew that the completely overlooked skill of Power Strike scales up to 700 lightning damage in act 2 normal?)

Interesting items so far:

The Countess runes included Tir-Ral for a Leaf staff... not for the cold sorceress, but for the fire druid!  It works for him too, that +3 is the "fire skills" modifier like Magefist, not the sorceress-only tree.  He still has that staff going into act 4; it's a long time until a druid can find any other +skills in the weapon slot.  The Countess runes also accounted for three Stealth armors, for all three casters.  I also made Steel weapons in Claymore bases for the paladin and necromancer, before they got the savage polearms.

What's most interesting to talk about is the weapons presently, going into act 4.

For act 3, I decided to have the necro use a bow instead of the Steel sword (actually a heavy crossbow, shopped from Asheara.)  Because melee wasn't working for him: the merc and golem would kill everything before the necromancer could get to the monster and swing!  Ranged combat has been working decently well to pick off small groups, when it's just a bit more than the merc and golem will immediately handle, but not dense enough for Corpse Explosion.

The paladin got a Cleglaw's sword and shield set combo.  That's good enough to use over the savage polearm, the sword gets a good max-damage-per-level bonus with two set items, plus 50% deadly strike, and also the shield gets 15 resist all as a partial set bonus.  He also got my first 20% IAS gloves (Sander's), which neatly gets to the 5-frame Zeal breakpoint when he gets Fanaticism.

The barb is still on a savage polearm, that's fine for him.

The assassin made a Strength claw (the only claw runeword until Chaos); she had several other options of just about the same damage, may as well use Strength's crushing blow and life steal, since Blade Fury's skill accounts for most of the damage anyway.

The spearazon is boring, she only has a Brandistock (fastest spear) with IAS; speed is all she needs since Power Strike is doing all her damage for now.

And the necromancer got an upgrade from someone's Mephisto drop: a rare throwing short spear with decent ED%.  Same damage as his crossbow, but a faster weapon type, and one-handed to allow a shield (a head with skills and diamonds socketed.)  So now he's a javamancer for a while.

A common thread among all these is managing the stat requirements.  As always, I don't want to overcommit now with strength or dex that might not be required in the endgame.  For the paladin in particular, I'm trying to keep his strength low; I really want to target him for a phase blade as his endgame weapon (Crescent Moon ideal, Honor acceptable, maybe imbue them for rares), since the dex goes a long way for him with both AR and shield blocking.  The necro doesn't even know what category of weapon he'll be using later, so it's really impossible to target any stats for him.  So I'm keeping quite a lot of strength and dex charms and shuffling them around a lot; plus the barb has a gemmed armor with amethysts and emeralds; hopefully we can start finding strength rings and belts soon, and eventually runes for Lionheart armors.


Act 4

Act 4 went quickly, with all the builds having pretty decent power levels going.  Which I now realized is because none are waiting for level 30 -- there aren't any slow developers here that only begin with a top tier skill.  The paladin, barb, and sorceress gained their top-tier skills of Fanaticism, Berserk, Cold Mastery, but those didn't really change anything, all that is still the same game plan as they've been doing, just faster with more damage.

I'll start with the items first this time, since that's a short list, and those factor in to what the characters are going to be doing.

That was the big jackpot, the spearazon dropped herself an Impaler spear from Diablo!  That's chunky enough to last through most of nightmare.  And if upgraded, reasonably worthy of endgame, although the stat requirements go very high.  Ironically enough, despite the name, it would actually be best for Fend - hit everything with ITD to dish out the PMH and OW.

There's also an Immortal King's helm in that same drop - I had no idea that could come this early, and what's even weirder is that it requires level 47 so the barb can't use it for a while yet.  He will then, although that will mean losing the primal helms that have been supplying 1-point weapon masteries, so he'll have to commit at least one point to some mastery.

This is cute, got an ethereal self-repair sword from Diablo, worth an upgrade to exceptional and good enough for the barb to use for now.  I also got a primal helm with +3 Battle Orders and 3 open sockets.  I decided to use that, filled with amethysts and emeralds for the stats to use the upgraded sword; and so did commit the one point to Sword Mastery now.

The other weapon upgrade was a tiny gain on the assassin's part, upgraded from a Strength runeword claw to an ethereal Strength runeword claw, heh.

The other items of note were set combos, Hsaru's belt+boots and Sigon's helm+gloves, both with huge AR/level and other good properties.  Sigon's pair is particularly great and I was very pleased to find it this soon: 30% IAS, 10% life leech, 10 strength.  This went to the paladin, because the spearazon's speed situation is such that the 30% doesn't get to a breakpoint, and also she doesn't need the AR thanks to the ITD on the new spear nor the strength thanks to its low requirements.  Hsaru's belt/boots went to the barb, he's the next one who needs the AR/level.  So does the assassin for Blade Fury, but for now she's doing alright enough with two 100 AR rings.

The paladin has a plan that he will implement partway through act 5.  Sigon's 30% IAS for him doesn't directly reach a Zeal speed breakpoint, but does allow the same 5-frame speed with a slower weapon.  This is a Bloodrise unique mace, which dropped earlier.  He will upgrade this to exceptional and start using it once Fanaticism reaches slvl 7, which will reach the 5-frame Zeal breakpoint.

So here's notes on the characters worth reporting:

Necromancer: He developed the most significantly around this time.  His game plan hit its stride now.  His skill order before this had been a bit haphazard but necessary: start with 10 points in Corpse Explosion for offense in the first acts, then 5 in Dim Vision for radius and duration, then 5 in Golem Mastery as the life multiplier to keep Iron Golem alive.  After those he could go back to Corpse Explosion, and through act 4 including the Izual skill points and also +2 on a necro head, CE finally started to get near its full power max.  But the real MVP is Dim Vision.  I haven't used this skill in forever and I forgot how godly it is, it shuts down just about any monster pack (even stops flesh and maggot spawners) to buy as much time as the merc and golem need.  Then once they get the first couple corpses, Amp and go to town blasting, just as I drew up the plan.

What worried me for the necromancer was Diablo, of course.  But it turned out pretty doable.  First slow him with the usual Decrepify and Clay Golem (the Iron had actually died on Infector's pack.)  Make sure my own fire and lightning resistances were maxed... and tank Diablo myself to keep the lightning hose on me and away from the merc dealing the damage.  I also picked up a Knell Striker scepter to chip in some crushing blows.  Diablo's lightning hose and fire eruption did hurt, but better I get hurt than the merc get killed, and the attacks weren't quite lethal from a full life ball so I was confident in being able to hit rejuves.  I used about five that way throughout the fight, which only took about four minutes (on players-3) and I triumphed.

Assassin: I'll talk about an important detail of Blade Fury now, which was only discovered after many years and even now remains not widely known.  The damage added by the skill functions as base damage that gets multiplied by damage multipliers, despite the lying character screen getting that wrong.  This means the skill damage gets multiplied by Claw Mastery, along with the standard str and dex multipliers for a claw-class weapon, plus things like Laying of Hands.  Blade Fury adding +100 damage (at slvl 20) is functionally the same as if your weapon had 100 more base damage.  (I tested this personally with a test character beforehand to make sure.)  This makes Blade Fury actually the most physical-damaging ranged skill, quite a bit ahead of the damage from bows.

Druid: Molten Boulder has some behavior that's odder than I ever realized.  It crashes and explodes on some monster types, but rolls through others.  Of course the latter is much more effective.  "Large" monsters stop Boulder, which is somewhat of an arbitrary list; it's not dependent on actual physical (number of subtiles) size.   It includes some things you would expect like maggots and corpse spitters and urdars, but not some things that are equally large like claw vipers and spiders.  But the really weirdest one is in Chaos Sanctuary - storm casters are "large", venom lords are not!  The boulders pierce the gigantic megademons, but crash on the insubstantial-looking finger mages.  No, the mechanics of this game never made sense.  For these "large" monsters, Firestorm works better, both because Boulder won't pierce into the pack and because the large monsters get hit by more of Firestorm's missiles.

Spearazon: Here's the longer writeup on her.

I can't figure out how I want to build this character now.  That first try (before she died and was rebuilt) had been with Jab going to max... but Jab is more clunky to use than I'd remembered.  If the first hit of the three kills the target, the full animation still plays out and whiffs, which drives me crazy.  And the bug with Dodge/Avoid invisibly interrupting was also more noticeable and significant than I'd remembered; Fend gets all the attention for this, but it happens for Jab too and I'm sensitive enough to notice it even on the faster attack.  Finally, what I hadn't known is that the right-click-drag method of driving melee works suboptimally with spears.  It doesn't take advantage of the range - when doing this, the character attacks only when she bumps right up against a monster, not at the edge of her melee reach where you'd want to be.

For her rebuild, I left off Dodge/Avoid for now, and started with Power Strike going to max instead through normal difficulty, which is smoother than Jab and does a lot more damage for now.  It's working so far... but I'm not sure where to go from here.  There are multiple big questions: whether to use 1H or 2H weapons, whether to max Jab or Fend or both or neither, and whether to use Dodge/Avoid or skip them.

1H vs 2H: I hate this choice, neither path feels good to me.  I feel like the right way to try to survive the whole game is 1-handed spears - it's faster, particularly for Power/Lightning Strike, and of course you get shield blocking.  But 1-handed just feels like playing the spearazon class wrong; it feels like a lame half-mix of a gimped javazon and gimped zealadin.  And 1-handed javelins for damage are a lot harder to come by than 2h spears.  2-handed is more damage and feels like the class should, but it's slower, and you get nothing on defense at all - no shield blocking, no crowd control skills, no worthwhile defense rating, no life multiplier - everything hits her at melee range.

Dodge/Avoid: These are the only defensive measures that a 2-hand spearazon can have... but of course the problem is they clunkily interrupt Jab and Fend.  You can decline to invest in those skills, but the gigantic problem is they're prerequisites for Valkyrie.

Jab vs Fend: They both have problems.  Jab does piddly damage, and whiffs for the rest of its sequence after it kills a monster, but it can be tolerable to use with Dodge/Avoid.  Fend does real damage, but is fatally bugged with Dodge/Avoid, and has the problem I hate about Zeal: attacking every target once doesn't kill anything, just unhelpfully spreads out the damage.  Fend also doesn't do much when you're only attacking one or two monsters, which is about half the time... but then again those are the situations that don't matter for Guardianship, only the threats matter.

What I want to do is 2-hand, Fend, without Dodge/Avoid, since that's the most dedicated spearazon approach, the heavy hitter which can take advantage of the weapon range and attacks smoothly without the dodge skills interrupting.  But that's so vulnerable on defense.  She can try to live on leech, as a whirlwind barb does... but 1500 life instead of 3500 is catastrophically more fragile, as my phoenix assassin learned too.  The one saving grace about skipping Dodge/Avoid/Valkyrie is that you still get Decoy, and there's skill points available to raise it quite a bit... could I manage to hold off everything with a beefy Decoy all the way through hell difficulty?

I think I can get as far as the nightmare hellforge before committing; before then I'll raise Power and Lightning and Critical Strike, all of which work whatever the endgame configuration will be.  (Critical Strike is actually the secret advantage of a spearazon; did you know the crit chance is more than twice that of barb weapon masteries?  I didn't.)


Act 5

Necromancer: Discovered a minor problem for him I hadn't anticipated: monsters that leave no corpse to explode! Like the frozen creeper types. The merc and iron golem could still handle all of them well enough, though I do have to wonder if that can last forever. I was a little worried about the Ancients, but they each took only about ten hits from the merc and golem. The iron golem then died on Ventar's pack (now that's three acts in a row where he died just before the act boss!), but Clay Golem's slowing stacked with Decrepify neutered Baal as always. Corpse Explosion just reached max, and the next thing to do is more points in Dim Vision to counteract the halved duration in nightmare.

Druid: Molten Boulder still behaves annoyingly, with how it explodes on only certain monster types. This was really irritating in the Bloody Foothills: the boulders pass through Death Reaver types but crash on Enslaved types - who look almost identical. At least that will be little problem for the start of nightmare, since the first two acts have few large monsters. Anyway, he now maxed both Boulder and Firestorm and can start raising Volcano, so we'll see how that turns out too. It's really hard to get a sense of the fire skills' DPS just from the skill descriptions, since they all depend on so many highly variable missile and collision mechanics; need to use them in practice.

Spearazon: Still doing great with Power Strike (took about six hits per Ancient), and now also has Lightning Strike up to 13, enough to start using against fallen camps in act one nightmare. Still haven't committed to Dodge/Avoid, and currently thinking that I will stay off those permanently; gotta get good at aiming Decoy without a valkyrie.

Sorceress: Her skill build is now 20 Glacial Spike, 10 Ice Blast for synergy (and to use in the early acts), 10 Cold Mastery. I'm not thrilled with its damage output, but I think now is when I have to leave off the cold skills for a while, and start raising Fire Wall, so that it reaches max in act 4 nightmare to be used when the first cold immunes start to show up.

Barb: He's the least powerful of everyone currently, the slowest in delivering dps. Also I'm now seeing how the zero defense from Berserk plays out. Where that's a real problem is against monsters that stun, like the fluffy-pillow yeti types. I had to rely on Howl to disperse packs of those several times. Also the barb had the one moment of any actual danger in the act, when he got surrounded by a champion pack of moon lords -- that required a couple rejuves before he got away (and then I realized his merc had tripped the untargetable bug, so had to exit and reopen the game to reset that.) I may have to go with a shield eventually to cover the lack of defense; I don't really want to sacrifice two-handed damage, but it might be more practical, and a shield-wearing barb is something new I've never done.

Assassin: Proceeding uneventfully, Blade Fury is monotonous but effective. She maxed it and is now raising Venom which is adding good damage.

Paladin: Also proceeding uneventfully, now raising Fanaticism. His big strength now is life leech, with 20% he almost refills his entire life ball every Zeal cycle. (though that now gets halved in nightmare.)

Items from act 5:

That's the whopper, a 190% damage crossbow dropped from Baal! I would love to upgrade this to exceptional to give the necromancer one hell of a ranged punch... except that a Ballista's stat requirements go way high at 110 str / 80 dex. I could almost make this by piling all my emeralds and amethysts into sockets, but not quite. It's not worth a socket quest for a Hel rune (which I don't have yet anyway either.) Might figure out a way to use this after another act or two. For now it doesn't quite seem worth using without upgrading, in particular after I thought of another option.

Also got a General Tan's flail, and upgraded that to exceptional for the paladin to use. It slightly beats Bloodrise for dps, because this is fast enough to reach max speed 4-frame Zeal. And that means I can hand Bloodrise over to the necromancer as his weapon for now, since it does pretty decent damage at a quite manageable stat requirement (74 str, no dex.) So now he switches back from a javamancer (which didn't really work all that well, the throwing stack isn't big enough) to a meleemancer. I'll probably do this a lot, trying out different kinds of weapons to see what I like with him.

Gravenspine unique wand, +2 necro skills, nothing special, you can shop better, but not yet and now I don't have to. This necro isn't using a +skills wand for general use, but it is good to have on switch at game start for summoning Iron Golem, including mastery and resist.

Hellplague long sword, with +2 to fire skills. That's kind of a weird modifier on a melee sword, I guess it's meant to boost paladin Holy Fire... but it will work for the fire druid here too. I opted to go with this over the Leaf staff, so he can use a shield (3-diamond) for resists going into nightmare. The 39 dex requirement needed some handling, which is a Sander's boots and Bladebuckle belt for 10 dex each and a couple other decent modifiers (40% FRW, 30% FHR.)

The assassin got a Cleglaw's gloves+shield combo, for the AR/level on the gloves, she needs that, to free up the ring slots from AR to get resists instead for nightmare. I use these low-level set combos for AR a lot (currently Hsaru's on the barb and Sigon's on the paladin); Cleglaw's is the least common one since the gloves have knockback that drives melee characters crazy, but for Blade Fury at range that's perfectly fine.

After the act, I gambled all my money on boots specifically. At this time with the previous teams, I did this with circlets and amulets, but now realized how good an option boots are. All the highest desirable affixes (resists, FRW, magic find) are available now, so anything good enough now can go all the way to endgame. And boots are the slot where rares are best and least tend to get superseded by uniques or runewords (like Lore over circlets.) And it's a good idea to gamble these while they're still quite cheap at lower character levels (12k now at level 42, compared to 63k for amulets and 40k for circlets.) So I got quite a few good ones; nothing godly, but six or so decent rares with some medium amounts of resistances and run speed.

What I don't have now is Lore helms. Just didn't get Sol runes in act five; the two I did get went into upgrading the General Tan flail and a Battlebranch polearm for a merc. More Sols will come in time of course, and several characters are already saving two-socket helms for it.

So to start nightmare difficulty next, I put quite a bit of effort into optimizing equipment. I rebuilt about half of everyone's items from the ground up - put most rings/belts/boots and all charms into a common pool, and reallocated everything to balance out resists, meet stat requirements, and shore up +life charms wherever possible after that.

Oh, and the paladin is currently the ugliest I've ever seen, with his helm and armor and weapon and shield all clashing terribly in color.

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