Diablo II - Hardcore Star Team Gamma - Hell

As before, this is always the biggest inflection point for these teams, rebuilding everyone's equipment for hell difficulty. I spent quite a while doing that, and this is worth covering to set the stage. Off comes most of the magic-find frivolity, and on with the resists and life. This team has a very sharp line between items that are already assigned (the set combos and almost every unique) and those that are interchangeable (basically all rares and charms other than +skills), so I put all of the latter into a common pool to reallocate and optimize from there.

Paladin: He's pretty happy: Razor's Edge, Herald of Zakarum, Guillaume's Face (after Tal's helm went to the sorceress), Sigon's gloves+belt (for speed and leech), Aldur's boots, Iceblink armor. That last happened after I'd forgotten I had it on one of the mercs; Iceblink works great with Zeal and will suffice for armor until he can assemble a Duress. What's missing is life leech rings; the spearazon got my only good rare and I kept only one Cathan's, so in his other slot he'll actually use a Nagelring for now. Finally, I socketed the Razor's (with a Hel to save on strength), and also the Herald of Zakarum with a diamond. (BTW, the strength requirements have me nicely satisfied on matching so well: Razor's Edge with Hel is 100, Guillaume's with Hel 98, upgraded Iceblink 97, Aldur's boots 95, HoZ 89.)

Assassin: Two rare claws (Fool's and damage for attacking, skills in off-hand), Lionheart, hit power crafted knockback gloves, Sigon's helm+belt+boots. That last is for the AR/level on the helm, which I want even on top of the Fool's claw. This could be the Hsaru's belt/boots combo instead for similar AR and to leave the helm slot open, but I decided to go with Sigon's, to throw in the life steal on the set and 50% magic-find on the boots; she doesn't have anything else compelling in the helm slot (it would just be Lore.) I did socket Sigon's helm with a resist rune. She's completely reliant on Fade for resists (20% without, 70% with), so it's important to never let that drop; I'm more willing to allow this risk on a ranged character than a meleer.

Barbarian: Rare cruel tomahawk, Lionheart, Rhyme, Immortal King's helm+gloves+boots, Bladebuckle belt (for stats and hit recovery.) The tomahawk will do as a weapon for now, though he's looking to assemble Crescent Moon or maybe an elite Honor if a base for that comes first. And I'm sticking with Lionheart for now (over a potential Treachery), for the stats to wield the tomahawk instead of investing hard points towards requirements that might change with a different weapon.

Druid: Dark Clan Crusher for skills, Lionheart, The Ward shield (socket quested with a diamond, better than a 3-diamond shield), rare gloves/belt/boots, +3 elemental skills amulet. Good setup, but the one thing he's missing is the pelt I had hoped to find, one with both +Dire Wolf and +Grizzly, so that he can have both Grizzly and the passive life bonus from Dire Wolf without spending any prerequisite points to go up the summon tree. He's currently still using the same +Grizzly pelt simply socketed with three rubies for life. (I haven't even found a Lore-socketable +Grizzly pelt.) But his other boon is that he's got resistances covered so well and doesn't need fast-cast, so his ring slots are completely open, and so he's wearing double Nagelrings for magic-find.

Sorceress: Tal Rasha's orb+helm+belt, Que-Hegan's armor, Moser's shield, rare gloves/boots. She does have to give up the big +skills staff now, hell demands resists in the shield slot instead. Moser's and The Ward shields could go either way between the druid and sorc; I went this way since the druid had a socket quest available for Ward while the sorc's went to Que-Hegan's armor and Tal's helm, and also the sorc gets some dex from Tal's belt for a little blocking. (I'm also satisfied at her strength requirements matching: Tal's helm and Que-Hegan's armor are both 55 and Moser's is 53.)

Necromancer: White runeword wand, Rhyme head, Grim's Burning Dead scythe on switch for melee damage, Lionheart, Lore, rare gloves with stats and IAS, Waterwalk boots (dex to wield Grim's.) I can't believe I didn't think of this sooner: I went and shopped a +3 Corpse Explosion wand to load White into, the +3 bone skills works for CE too, it's not just for Bone Spear. I also can't believe I'd been carrying +golem stuff on switch this whole time, that's silly, keep that in stash, you only need that to pre-summon him. So overall I think his best setup is a caster wand plus Rhyme for general use and Grim's scythe for melee damage on switch. Grim's beats the Spineripper dagger when neither is upgraded; Grim's deals real damage as an upper-end exceptional, while Spineripper is low-end and really needs the upgrade to get anywhere, though I may do that if another Pul rune comes. What's not in the mix is Trang-Oul's head. It's not so great for this build: the +2 bone skills is only for CE and nothing besides that, and the Rhyme head has the same +2 CE and better other properties. Where Trang-Oul's would fit is along with Spineripper if that gets upgraded, for the stats to wield it. Oh, and I figured out where to keep Trang-Oul's armor so that it doesn't take up stash space: let his merc wear it! The necro can just borrow it to pre-summon Iron Golem. It's actually pretty good for the merc, with good defense, and the 40% run speed on the armor helps the merc to keep up with the speedy iron golem. Finally, that iron golem is now the second Bonesnap; we'll see how well that survives in hell difficulty.

A footnote here: To socket the Herald of Zakarum for the paladin, I spent one of the necro's socket quests, because the paladin had already used both of his (Razor's Edge and Guillaume's helm.) I don't usually like using rewards from one character to support another, but here's my logic: the necro has no use for his socket quests (White, Lionheart, Rhyme, Lore are all already socketed), and actually Guillaume's was used by the necro's merc first and hasn't even been on the paladin yet, so that socket quest could/should have been the necro's in the first place, and also it may transfer back there eventually if the paladin does get some better helm.

Spearazon: Rockstopper, Lionheart (until she gets a Duress or Stone; I do want to get some defense rating on her), String of Ears, Raven Frost, rare IAS gloves, also Aldur's boots. That last is important, I really want to keep +40% run speed on her, she's the fragile one who most often has to bail out of melee in a hell of a hurry. Besides that, of course her big news was the Pul rune to upgrade her spear, exactly as I'd hoped for... but the result of that requires some explanation.

I spent a while test-driving the spearazon in hell difficulty. I kept a backup of the character file, and tried her out against monsters with a number of different configurations: different weapons, Fend or Jab, and with or without Dodge/Avoid. Until now, I'd only been using the lightning skills and 1-point Jab, but now I have to settle on a full plan for hell difficulty. I observed what everyone says: yes, Fend is critically bugged with Dodge/Avoid interrupting it, most particularly that the following Fend cycle whiffs (or really never happens at all server-side.) I also observed that she can't live on life leech like the paladin; she doesn't have defense and blocking to cut down incoming damage. The most important piece of her play style is Decoy; the right way to handle every monster pack is to always have a Decoy up between you and them, and nibble around the edges with your spear with its long melee reach. So my final conclusion is to go with max Fend, no Dodge/Avoid, and skill points into Decoy throughout hell difficulty.

(Full disclosure: this testing and experimentation involved a lot of swapping around character files and backups. And she died twice during my tests, when I was deliberately playing without the merc and plowed too deep into monsters to see how far she could be pushed. I consider this legit; I clearly set aside the backup file and designated this as experimentation; it's equivalent to nothing happening with this character at all if I'd manually hero-edited a different amazon file instead.)

The last piece here is that I picked Impaler over Hone Sundan as her weapon to upgrade. As excited as I was about Hone Sundan... I think Impaler is better. They are the same speed: Impaler is a faster base with 20% IAS built in and reaches exactly the same speed breakpoints as Sundan socketed with two Shaels. They are just about equal for physical damage: Sundan deals about a quarter more, but misses a quarter of the time without ITD. Given that equality, I would prefer the more predictable outcome with less variance, which is the ITD spear. And the other big swing is Power Strike, which is still about half of her offense; it's better dps than Fend against anything with high physical resistance, and of course works best with ITD. The crushing blow on Hone Sundan is what everyone gets excited about, but it really doesn't make much difference except against act bosses; the crushing is modified by player count and physical resistance, and really doesn't come out to all that much; in fact the Open Wounds on Impaler deals more damage in general. The stat requirements on Impaler are also a bit easier to manage: slightly lower total, and more of it is strength which matches better with Lionheart, and also it's worth a socket quest for a Hel rune (55 stat points saved = 165 life!) And finally, the un-upgraded Hone Sundan can still go to good use on a merc (the necro's) for the crushing and life leech (Amns socketed), while an un-upgraded Impaler is too little damage to be good for anything.

I did keep some moderate amount of magic-find on each character, ranging from 30% (one Nagelring on the paladin) up to around 90% (sorc and barb with Tal's and IK sets, druid with two Nagelrings plus some elsewhere.) This is OK and not too skewed between the characters. I don't want any to be serving as a carry for others who can't magic-find for themselves, but this is a reasonably close distribution that everyone should be pulling their own weight.

Act 1

Hell difficulty is the proving ground where a build really gets put to the test, and these did indeed perform.

First off, I decided on keeping the player count standardized all the way through the act, on players-5. As I said before, I want the characters level with each other, none carrying or being carried for item drops. P5 is a little high in general, but everyone managed it. (I did tweak it near the end to equalize the experience: the paladin overshot by a third of a level after he got six or seven experience shrines; the druid also overshot and dialed it down late; the necro got none and came in under so he went to p7 for catacombs 3-4.)

I'm leading off with this to give the same impact it did for me, because it came first in real time, just ten minutes into the blood moor:

Holy crap another Um rune, wow, this team's fourth, and now all three teams found one of those in the first act of hell. I'll talk more about the uses later.

Assassin: Blade Fury turned out to be less effective than I'd hoped. In hell difficulty, it's taking about twice as long to kill each monster as in late nightmare. That's not unusual for many characters and skills. And as a ranged attacker, she doesn't really incur any more danger by taking longer. It does take some effort to keep the merc alive longer, but that's mostly doable with Cloak and Mind Blast. But the problem is that taking twice as long screws up the logistics of the timing. In the time before the target dies, something tends to happen to interrupt me firing at it - either the shadow will mind blast it, or my knockback will push it behind some other monster, or the shadow doing Dragon Tail will knock something else into the way, or I have to refresh Cloak and I lose name-lock on it. And getting interrupted on a target means it starts regenerating and I lose my progress if I can't get a clear line of sight to lock it again. So it's taking quite a bit more player effort to kill things than I'd anticipated. But driving all this is still interesting, still a lot of player skill involved in prioritizing and directing the battlefield.

Where it becomes a problem is physical immune monsters. It turns out that Venom isn't a great solution to them. For one, ghosts have high poison resistance. Second, the problem is being unable to stop regeneration, because Venom overrides any other poison duration. I had to get true Prevent Monster Heal somehow. The best way was to make a Malice claw, which also includes Open Wounds and also a target defense penalty, and swap that in to use against ghosts. I learned with the werebear last team that Open Wounds alone is enough to kill ghosts (slowly), and that did work here.

This assassin has half her stash crammed full of extra claws: Malice for immunes, Strength for crushing blow on act bosses, a rare with CTC Amp, a rare with +Death Sentry, and a socketed elite base with +3 Blade Fury for the chance of making a Chaos or Fury. But she's got something even more exciting coming when we get to the items report here.

Paladin: He's diesel as hell on offense, the fastest clearer here, yeah I totally underrated the zealot build, and Razor's Edge with the deadly strike is the real deal too. He can't quite invulnerably live on leech all the time, but I just have to be careful enough not to get him buried in more than about five monsters at once. Actually the best thing going on with him is his merc's Kelpie Snare (hit slows target 75%, which even stacks with his holy freeze), that makes a big difference to break up packs while running away, and to nerf the nastiest might/fanaticism/extra strong bosses. The one thing that underperformed my expectations with the paladin is the Iceblink armor, which is OK but not great; it can freeze 2-4 monsters with Zeal, but that's when you don't need it; it doesn't help the worst cases of a dozen targets at once.

Sorceress: Also plenty diesel on offense. Glacial Spike is a little mediocre on the damage, but it actually doesn't matter how much it does, any target that gets frozen will stay that way until it dies. And Fire Wall is her heavy hitter. Besides the diagonal-aiming idea I mentioned before, there's also another tactic that I can't believe I didn't figure out sooner, although it hadn't really been necessary until now. To kill something with Fire Wall that you can't keep still, either if freezing doesn't work or if the merc can't stand up to it, this is the play: cast Fire Wall on it and then quickly teleport to the end of the wall, so that the monster runs down it lengthwise.

I'm really liking this build, might be my favorite sorceress I've played. The overall power level is maybe a 6 out of 10, but it's tactical execution with Fire Wall that makes the difference between 3/10 and 6/10, which makes it interesting and skill-rewarding to play. What's cool is that the two elemental trees interact with each other, which doesn't really happen for any other sorceress build, they tend to be just two attack skills of different colors. It's also cool that a fire/cold build gets access to an extra third element, in 1-point Static Field, which I found worth using against most fire-immunes bigger than fallen and of course any dual immune bosses to help out the merc.

Druid: I thought he was underpowered... and then realized that I'd gone to players-8 for one of the super chests and forgot to switch it back, oops. Turns out that the physical half of Boulder and Volcano do indeed get the job done against fire immunes adequately on reasonable player counts. Although the fun part is that I keep being indecisive between Boulder and Volcano. Every time I'm using Boulder, it feels like Volcano instead was faster, and vice versa. But ultimately they're about the same, except of course against large enemies where Boulder crashes instead of piercing through. Act 1 doesn't have many of those anyway, only the brute and tainted and spider types, and the first two of those aren't fire immune so Fissure works instead anyway. I think he will get a bit harder to progress in the later acts with more large monster types that Boulder doesn't pierce, we'll see.

Spearazon: Or should I call her the Decoyzon. The skill she's built on isn't Fend or the lightning skills, it's Decoy. Every monster pack I handle with Decoy to occupy them while I nibble around the edges. Against a big pack or an extra strong boss, I have to recast Decoy constantly, after every single Fend cycle is not too often. I've had to get really good at precision targeting for recasting it, most often trying to aim at the existing decoy's feet before it dies to put the new one in exactly the same place occupying the same monsters. This takes a lot of effort to drive; like the phoenixsin, constantly one slip away from disaster, but I'm enjoying it. She probably incurred the biggest challenge playing on p5, since her limiting factor is usually whether Decoy's health can outlast the monster that I'm attacking.

For offense, Fend is serviceable, and perfectly smooth and not-bugged without Dodge/Avoid. The lightning skills are still stronger so I mostly use those (she was fast through the act because Lightning Strike fries fallen camps like hell), but lightning immunes are common and Fend gets good workouts too. Fend also comes into use against bosses even if they're not lightning immune, because of AR; the spear's ITD doesn't work and Power Strike's AR is bugged and never does, so Fend's AR matters. Besides that, I feel I could use Fend more and dive more deeply into packs if I could pack more life steal on her, currently at only 11% from String of Ears and one ring. Or if she really had a top-end weapon, but there aren't really much of any attainable choices, most of the mid-high runewords like Crescent Moon don't work in spears. The nice thing about her currently is the Open Wounds and PMH on Impaler - it's a great feeling that time works in my favor for once rather than against me with monsters regenerating!

Her other major problem is money. The merc dies often, which isn't unusual for a character with no life buffs or crowd control skills. But the other problem is the weapon repair cost, it's enormous, 30k at a time thanks to the skill modifiers on upgraded Impaler. And that led to this embarrassing moment: I ran out of money to resurrect the merc, which happens on occasion... but then I also ran out of money to repair her weapon, and had to resort to buying a cheap spear and killing a few things with the lightning skills! Fortunately, then an Ort rune dropped, which repairs a weapon when used in the cube.

Necro: He's worth a lengthy report. Hell difficulty is where a build proves itself and he has.

This build is coming together very well. What he's doing just doesn't power down in hell difficulty like other classes do. Corpse Explosion scales with monster health of course, and Amplify cuts past the physical resistance and lets the merc kill things very fast, even on players-5 and with only a middling weapon (un-upgraded Hone Sundan.) I expected this build to be ponderously slow, but he's right around or even a bit better than average for clearing speed among this team.

This build is what I expected and hoped for: a very high player skill ceiling, I can handle almost everything, as long as I'm attentive and accurate at commanding and handling the situation. Dim Vision constantly at the edges of the screen (its radius extends almost another screen-radius beyond), Amplify precision-targeted at whatever the merc is currently engaging, Decrepify when the merc gets in a little too deep and I need to buy him some time (particularly against champion groups that can't be Dimmed), and I hadn't even planned this in the build, but the last key component is Terror to clear even bigger crowds off the merc, particularly minions of a nasty boss. I love how this necro build makes room for all the utility curses to shine, unlike a bone/poison-mancer who is always focused on offense, or a summoner where the skeletons are all spread out and working on their own regardless of what you do yourself. So I can gain mastery of almost any situation with the proper application of these curses, and then comes the exclamation point, Corpse Explosion to bring the house down.

His melee capability helps some, maybe 10% of his total offense. It doesn't really win or accomplish anything I couldn't otherwise, but melee does help clean up the logistics, usually when a monster is at a sliver of life after some corpse exploding but the merc is busy elsewhere. It's also good to apply poison damage to stop regeneration against a single target, particularly ghosts which we have to kill by way of Amplify to break the immunity. What's really nice is the super long melee reach on Grim's scythe, it extends like almost a quarter of the screen, so I can reliably attack a monster while still positioned behind the merc and golem.

The iron golem is worth a mini-report of his own too. First off, he's got a pre-game ritual more elaborate than the New England Patriots: to summon Iron Golem, swap in a wand and head and amulet with summoning skills, plus Trang-Oul's armor, which itself needs a strength belt and ring to wear. Which I had to do over again a few times throughout the act.

7000 life on the golem is worth the effort, though. That thorns is even almost adding up to be useful too.

The Bonesnap golem that I was so proud of met his end early, in the Stony Field. But I actually don't know how, if he died or just poofed from being too far away. I was running myself and the merc out of combat. When I saw that the merc had followed me safely, my attention went to something else (identifying some drop or restocking belt potions) and by the time I looked up at the golem again, he was gone. The monsters were a Might-enchanted pack, but it was just foul crows and fallen, not big damage dealers. So I really don't know if he got killed by that or not.

I cobbled together a series of replacements: first the best weapon Charsi happened to have (a cruel pike), which I then switched to a rare Martel with decent (125%) damage that had dropped (and when I had a skill shrine on to prebuff the golem more.) That also died, in the forgotten tower to a thick pack of ghosts when I was too slow in portaling out. I switched to the fire golem instead for a while, which did a little better damage against ghosts, so kept him through the rest of the tower and the jail.

So it turns out that even 7000 life isn't enough to keep a golem alive all the time. Sufficiently nasty boss packs can wipe even that much in four to six seconds, and unlike a merc you can't instantly rescue a golem with a rejuve potion. The ticket to instant rescue would be a source of Teleport, which I don't have (no room for a teleport staff on switch with a melee weapon there instead.) So I had to come up with a decent way of finding replacements. One way is gambling: gamble the biggest base items (great sword, pike, great maul) and hope for an exceptional upgrade (happens quite frequently at character level 80+) with a decent damage prefix, and that's good enough to go with, and way faster than shopping a vendor hundreds of times to turn up some cruel elite.

Barbarian: Yawn. Berserk kills things. One at a time. End of report.

So on to the loot. The story this act was loads of marginal stuff, some small upgrades and a barge of stuff that's interesting but falls short of being useful to use. I'll start with the few of some use and work down from there.

Naj's Light Plate armor was the most notable find, +1 skills, 25% resists, 65 life. Perfect fit for the druid, who greatly wants +skills for both elemental offense and his summons, and doesn't need fast cast or Lionheart's stats.

... and oh wow, I gambled that just as he needed some more strength to wear the Naj's.

Saracen's Chance amulet, an uncommon find, 12 all attributes and 16 resist all, similar to Mahim-Oak Curio but just a bit better. I gave this to the spearazon, it fits her needs well, she needs stats and resists more than skills.

Peasant Crown, +1 skills and some minor properties, one of the slightest upgrades imaginable over Lore, and actually it costed a socket quest for it to have a resistance (Ral), but I did so, for the necromancer, since he needed fire resist more and Lore only includes lightning.

Skill charms: necromancer bone and druid summoning, both self-found by themselves, always cool when that happens.

The druid got this nice piece from Charsi as his last imbue. And so I finally committed to what I'd been avoiding with him, I took hard points up to Summon Grizzly rather than always getting it from a pelt. The tradeoff is the 4 prerequisite points not going into Oak Sage (who still really needs it to raise its own life), but +2 to all skills and 2 more on Fissure is too good to pass up, plus the fire resist. Finally, I even hotkeyed the Solar Creeper to put to use; it's all the way up to level 9 with all his +skills and there's no reason not to use it, even just for disposing of skeleton corpses in act two.

And a footnote to that: I had the spearazon spend her imbues on coronets, since a class-specific item for her wouldn't beat her existing weapon, and we're now at high enough level for an imbued coronet to qualify for +2 skills (78 + 4 for the imbue + 8 for the coronet's "magic level" property.) So of course right after getting the above pelt, the +2 affix I got was druid skills.

Merc gear:

Here's an interesting one, check out this rare merc weapon, Cruel and CTC Amplify. This goes to best use on the blade assassin's merc, the one most in need of both the CTC Amp and some damage help from the merc. Although it adds even yet another task to her commanding the battlefield, trying not to overwrite the Amp with Cloak of Shadows.

Silks of the Victor armor, first time any of the teams found that, but +1 skills and basically nothing else in the armor slot isn't good enough for anything. Actually, strike that, it is good enough to upgrade to exceptional and put on a merc, it does reach 900+ defense which is better than my currently lowest merc armor.

Second copy of Hone Sundan, good for a merc of course too.

Griswold's set armor, worth socketing with a resist-all jewel and two rubies for life to throw on a merc (the bladesin's, because it has +20 strength to support that rare ogre axe.)

And that's about all that was actually useful. Now begins the river of almost-but-not-quite useful items:

Second copy of Que-Hegan's armor. I was going to put it on the druid, but then found the Naj's which easily supersedes it, he doesn't need the fast cast. I don't think it fits anyone else either; the sorceress already has the first copy, and everyone else prefers Lionheart or a defense armor.

Whitstan's Guard, but I don't think anyone here wants a shield for just high blocking and nothing else. Actually I really can't think of any build at all that would want this over a readily available Rhyme.

Valkyrie Wing helm! Actually two copies of it. +2 amazon skills... but no, I'm sticking with the Rockstopper, she's got enough offense but always craves more defense. I'm after the margins that will make the difference between a Guardian and a corpse. Rockstopper does that; +skills isn't going to on this build.

Two more copies of Tal Rasha's orb. One has +1/+2 cold/fire mastery instead of the +2/+1 on my first one. So it would be correct to weapon-swap between them for the fire and cold elements... but god no I'm not doing that for that tiny difference, there's a limit to how much even I will micromanage.

Zakarum's Hand scepter, interesting with ITD, doesn't beat Razor's Edge for the paladin, conceivably usable for the necro or maybe barb but I think they've got better.

Heart Carver dagger. Actually a bit better than Spineripper with more damage and ITD and deadly strike, but I think Grim's is still better for the necro's melee.

Infernostride boots, don't think anyone wants max fire resist that badly, the spearazon is the one that might consider it, but I really want to keep 40% run speed on her rather than 20%.

Trang-Oul's gloves. Of course this came up on the team without a poisonmancer. Now I have the 3-piece package a poisonmancer needs, for +25% poison skill damage and -25% enemy resistance, which makes it possible to deal with immunes broken by Lower Resist. But it doesn't do enough here to use on this necro. Actually what I would need is the helm or belt, and then the assassin could use a three-piece combo for Venom.

Buriza-Do Kyanon, the first time any of the teams found that, but no use for it here. (Anyone else ever disappointed that there's not much use for bows in general in this game? They're only for one tree build of only one class. Maybe the druid could have had some sort of hunter subclass. It won't work for my necromancer here because it would never hit, there's nothing for attack rating on either the weapon or any of his skills.)

Second copy of Immortal King's gloves. Actually a little annoying to keep because it doesn't do enough by itself without more pieces, but I'd be kicking myself if I got rid of it and then did find more.

Natalya's boots, same deal, I think everyone has a better rare or set piece, but I have to keep this in case more set components show up.

And I got this splendid base for a Rhyme... which of course came up for the team that already found a Herald of Zakarum. I could still see keeping a Rhyme on switch for situational cannot-be-frozen use... but the problem is I can't replace the +20 strength on HoZ towards other item requirements.

So that's the long list of marginal stuff. But the real prizes that came this act were in the rune department. Besides the Um up top:

A GUL rune! Never dropped that before outside the hellforge. What can I do with it? Not all that much, actually. I don't want a Principle paladin armor; a hammerdin might but a zealot wants defense rating. I actually could make a Kingslayer sword, Mal - Um - Gul - Fal... but nah, it's good but not better enough than Crescent Moon to be worthy of blowing two extra Ums into the Mal.

But several days later...

Gul rune times two! That can be a Vex!

Now I was excited about the possibilities here. I actually could make the king of old-school runewords, a Silence weapon which the spearazon might be pretty happy with, if I cubed all four Ums into the needed Ist, but no, that's silly. (Death is off the table, that's ladder only.)

The big option for a Vex is Heart of the Oak... but I decided against that too, and thus didn't use the Guls/potential Vex at all, at least not yet. HOTO is awesome of course, best in slot for almost any caster... but it's only a small upgrade from many other options like Tal's orb. The constraint here is that HOTO also requires a Pul rune, and I did get one in the act, but I have a higher priority for it:

A Stone armor. For the spearazon. I'd been thinking about Duress, but I like this even better. I still want to get some defense rating on her, and Stone is pretty much as high as that can possibly go, another 100% above Duress, and this rolled a near-max 285%. And Stone adds strength and vitality over Duress too, and more FHR, and finally the Clay Golem charges make the perfect replacement for this amazon's missing Valkyrie. I'm looking for the stuff that's going to make the difference between a Guardian and a corpse, and that's this much more than a HOTO or Duress. And the base I got is quite nice, a 456 defense dusk shroud.

The paladin did get a Duress. For all its usual goodies (even the cold damage), and he can handle having the lesser defense compared to Stone thanks to having shield blocking, plus also high defense in his shield/helm/belt (partial Sigon's set) slots. Although this base wasn't exciting, a mediocre 404 defense wire fleece, which was the only 3-socket elite armor that came this act, but I went with that now rather than waiting another act for something better. And it rolled a bottom end 151% defense, oh well. The wire fleece requires a bit more strength (111) than he had (100)... so then actually I went a bit further, to 125 total (80 hard points), to allow swapping out the Hel runes in his weapon and helm (Guillaume's) for other stuff, a perfect 40% ED jewel in the weapon (I rarely get to use these; almost every weapon setup wants a Shael instead, but here he's already at max speed) and actually a topaz in the helm, so he would still have one source of magic-find to let me swap out his Nagelring for a good life-leech rare instead.

I also thought about a Smoke after I got a nice 2-socket Wyrmhide armor base, but I don't think there's any use for that on this team. It's not quite good enough for either resists or defense. If someone wants resists, Lionheart and its huge package of stats are better. For defense (which is only the paladin and maybe spearazon on this team), Smoke's 75% isn't all that much, and Duress or Stone or Prudence are better.

The barbarian got his Crescent Moon sword. What merits a bit of explaining is the base, the Legend Sword. I would have used a phase blade, but I never got a 3-socketable one in the act, but this 3-socket Legend Sword did come up. The big downside to this base is those gargantuan stat requirements. But the big upside (besides being available right now) is that it's fast and the speed works out perfectly, exactly coming to the fastest breakpoint (-15 WSM, 20% from the Shael, 25% IK gloves, 30% two IAS jewels in the IK helm.) I also like having it in a 2H sword in case I do want to go back to two-handed attacking, which I'd consider if he can find another source of Cannot Be Frozen besides Rhyme. So the stat requirements are the only downside here, but I decided he could go up to 125 hard points in strength, plus Lionheart and the IK gloves and still a Bladebuckle belt. This locks in Lionheart for at least one more act and quite possibly permanently, but that's OK, Lionheart is perfectly fine and he's not itching for anything else in the armor slot since Berserk cancels defense anyway. And this means he can finally commit to Sword Mastery, which will still work in case he does manage a Kingslayer later on, and in that case he'd hire a barbarian mercenary to pass down this Crescent Moon.

And I've got one more customer for another Crescent Moon with the last Um: the assassin! Dear god she wishes Crescent Moon worked in a claw, but an assassin is allowed to use other weapons. Yeah, I wish the base was ethereal, but this is what came up now and I'm going with it. Small Crescent is the best practical base for this, the highest 1-hand damage except for a Legendary Hammer which is much scarcer and a higher strength requirement. Blade Fury ignores the slow speed of course.

The downside of this is giving up Claw Mastery, its multiplication won't apply not only to the weapon, but also not to the Blade Fury skill damage that is the biggest portion of her output. But it turns out that's not actually a dealbreaker. Claw Mastery's percentage is only additive with str/dex and the Might merc. I ran all the numbers and the Crescent Moon comes out to about the same damage as her Fool's Grinding claw, except for the crit chance on Claw Mastery, but the ITD on Crescent swings it way ahead. AR is a gigantic problem for Blade Fury, which has no multipliers for AR at all because Claw Mastery's doesn't work for BF, so even the Fool's claw plus Sigon's partial set for AR was still coming to less than 60% hit rate. So with the AR problem fixed, then of course Crescent's static field and even open wounds are tremendous.

She does still have to keep the Sigon's pieces for AR against uniques and champions, and did have to put 25 more hard points in strength (75 total.) The last downside is that she has to give up dual-wielding a +skills claw in the off hand. But that does allow swapping in a Rhyme shield for all its usual goodies, which in turn lets me swap out her resists amulet for one with dex instead to support the weapon. Finally, if she does later come by an ITD claw to beat Crescent Moon, then it would pass over to the necromancer for melee instead.

So that pile of runewords was a good payoff, even if I still haven't used the two Guls or potential Vex. I think the biggest thing I want to see is an Ist to make Silence, I'll be looking out for a base for that. HOTO is possible but unlikely; the Pul is the limiting factor there, and I think I would still use my next two of those on upgrading Hone Sundans for mercs.

The last footnote in the runeword department was assembling two elite Honors for mercs, a thresher and a mancatcher, the two 5-max-socket bases. So to give a rundown on the merc equipment so you can see how I arrange such things:

Necromancer gets the Honor Thresher, obviously by far the most dependent on his merc. Sorceress gets the Honor Mancatcher, the next most need for physical damage, actually the only character here who can't deliver physical themselves. Assassin gets the CTC Amplify rare to help Blade Fury, plus Griswold's armor for the strength to support it, plus a Wormskull helm for leech because the rare doesn't. Spearazon and druid both get Hone Sundan, both of them need leech (2 Amns socketed) on the merc to stay alive, and can use the crushing blow, but don't need big physical damage from the merc. Paladin gets Kelpie Snare, great for nerfing crowds, plus Wormskull and Boneflesh for life leech because the weapon doesn't. Barbarian is the least dependent on his merc and gets the last leftover exceptional Partizan Honor.

And then the necromancer also took the two leftover Honor Partizans for Iron Golems, one to make now and one to keep as a backup.

Finally, I'm going to take some advice from a poster named infanta, on the Amazon Basin forum for spearazons. I'm going to try out a Defiance mercenary to go with the defense of the Stone armor. 7200 defense for a 28% get-hit rating might just work. Also helps that I also got a whopping 1500 defense ethereal armor for her mercenary too. I'm very aware of the dangers of going without Holy Freeze, but the final reason I'm willing to try is the Clay Golem from the charges on Stone, which does provide an alternative source of slowing monsters. We'll see how this goes, and it's possible I could just switch back to Holy Freeze anyway.

And so this is my most successful team so far, first time all seven finished act one hell. I'm establishing parameters for act 2 that are a little different from the previous teams. I'm standardizing on a player count of 3 all the way through; there's less need to chase experience and items now. I'm relaxing a bit on the full-clearing, specifically going to clear minimally through the palace cellar levels and claw viper temple, those areas can be dangerous with dense boss packs. And I'll do the false tombs only up to the sparkly chests but not to full clear. I will still full-clear the outdoor areas which tend to be pretty safe (despite the last necromancer's beetle experience), and also Maggot Lair and Arcane Sanctuary for the same reason; they're tedious but actually very safe in hardcore, it's nearly impossible to get rushed or surrounded by a dangerous boss pack. And then I plan to make up in act 3 for less clearing in act 2, by full-clearing the jungles and maybe outdoor Kurast.

But that's for next time.

Act 2

Steady progress. Here's the reports in the order I played them, to give more of a feel; sometimes I rearrange them to build up a narrative, but this was the raw sequence.

Assassin: Blade Fury with Crescent Moon is freakin sweet. The ITD matters a lot, even the Fool's claw plus Sigon's partial set for AR was still hitting less than 60%. And it's so awesome to see every target already at half health from the Static after the first couple monsters of each pack. And I hadn't realized (even after using Crescent on the werebear last team) how the Static interacts with the -35% lightning resistance - that does go below 0% resistance to increase Static's damage beyond the stated 25%, and so it can actually drive monsters quite a bit below half health. There is one downside to keep in mind: the CTC Static occurs centered from my location, not where the blade hit, so I'm tempted to fight closer to the monsters to be in Static range of more of them, and I have to be careful of that.

Spearazon: This character is a wild ride. She feels like she's always on the edge of disaster, even more than the phoenix assassin, this one without any panic-button escape hatch like Mind Blast or Teleport or Howl. But, that said, her defensive setup worked. Infanta was absolutely right that a defense armor in Stone plus Defiance (and minus Dodge/Avoid) are the way to go with a spearazon, and thanks Deceptus of Realms Beyond for helping point me in that direction. It's true that it's hard to tell in a thick fight how much is due to the defense rating and Defiance doing their the job, or how much the monsters are occupied with the clay golem and decoy instead of me, and how much the clay golem's slowing is making up for the lack of Holy Freeze. Some of all of that, I'm sure. Defiance even interacts with Decoy very well too: if I'm reading the AB wiki right, Decoy has a monster level that is close to the character's, and gets the standard ~1500 defense of a level ~80 monster, so Defiance multiplies that to nearly 5000 on the decoy.

So, to my surprise, she could Fend off plenty of lightning-immune beetles or spear cats at once, at least five or six beetles attacking and even sparking. The defense doesn't make her or anyone invulnerable (particularly against any nasty boss pack), but what it does is cut the rate of incoming damage enough so that leech and potions can keep up. There's a better-than-linear effect here - if you're taking a third more damage than you can leech back, and then increase your defensiveness by a third, your survivability horizon doesn't just go up by a third, it goes to infinite, as your net damage taken goes to zero. So she even handled Fangskin's pack on players-3 fine without ever having to retreat, perfectly positioned to stab from behind the offensive line of merc-golem-decoy. She actually had a lot of fun in the maggot lair, with Fend against the beetles and Lightning Strike frying huge groups of itchies and maggot young. Lightning Strike is the hidden gem about this class; it's just always overshadowed by the spectacle of Lightning Fury and the heavy hitter of Charged Strike, but it's actually really fun and effective on its own too. I also had a smart moment with her vs Duriel: swapped the merc's Hone Sundan to myself in order to apply the crushing blow faster with my own Jab.

Well, one thing got worse with this character: her money situation. You thought I was complaining about 30k repairs on Impaler being bad? Try an elite Stone armor with Clay Golem charges, frequently taking hits in melee... it's over a HUNDRED thousand. She's certainly set one record, the most expensive character I've ever run. (I've used Stone before, but never on a meleer taking such frequent hits and golem deaths to recast.)

And what else I'm not used to is the CTC Iron Maiden on the Saracen's Chance amulet. It startles me every time. I spent years conditioned to recoil and flee instantly whenever I heard that schwrrrng sound effect, before it was removed from oblivion knights in a patch... and it's weird as all hell to have that working in my favor now. (Like all damage reflection effects, it doesn't really do anything in hell, reflecting 100 melee damage against 10,000 health does jack.)

Necro: First I fixed one thing I can't believe I didn't think of about seven acts ago, made him a Black flail for crushing blow on act bosses.

The iron golem lasted through Duriel without ever dying. I did have to portal out to refresh his health against a few of the worst bosses, notably a Fanaticism Extra Strong ghost in the arcane sanctuary, and Duriel himself of course. The iron golem did poof twice from being too far away, in the maggot lair, and in a false tomb after Duriel. Both times I switched to the fire golem for the rest of that area, who helped noticeably with fire damage against ghosts and itchies. The iron golem replacements were the backup Honor polearm first, then a rare elite spear with okayish (100%) damage that happened to drop, then after the act another leftover merc Honor polearm.

In Arcane Sanctuary, the necromancer's melee capability proved key. The only way to kill the wraiths was Amplify and just grind through the high remaining physical resistance. The merc could barely outrace the monster regeneration, so the necro's own melee was important to stop that by applying poison damage, plus his own damage (mostly the fire damage on Grim's) too. Arcane still took over an hour to full-clear, but I've had worse.

Barb: Crescent Moon is tremendous for him too like the assassin, more than doubled his dps overall. ITD makes such a difference, even with Berserk's decent AR at a hit rate of around 75%, the difference between that and 95% is still very noticeable. Also this sword has a longer melee reach than what he was using previously, and that helps too. One problem can be block-lock; I actually took off his shield for a while in the maggot lair to avoid that from crowds of maggot young. And again in Arcane Sanctuary, where he could really power up to full strength for a while, when I decided I could go with the Rhyme off to get the big two-handed damage, since there's little threat or chilling from those types of monsters and it's easy to always position behind the merc.

Speaking of the merc, he also did great. The hey here is Shout, which this is the first time I've ever maxed; it's a nasty tease that it's Berserk's damage synergy but Berserk zeroes your defense; but Shout does wonders for the merc's tankability. Particularly after a godly wire fleece happened to drop, getting him over 13,000 defense; the merc would routinely kill a Cursed boss faster than it ever hit him to deliver the curse! He could stand up against an entire boss pack of ghosts in Arcane without me even needing to Howl them away.

Sorc: This was her amusing moment. On entering the Claw Viper temple, there was a nasty stairs trap. I was madly teleporting around to find a sliver of space to cast some fire walls... and accidentally solved the entire dungeon by inadvertently teleporting past the wall right into the exit.

She also had trouble on level 2, couldn't handle Fangskin's extra fast cold immune pack... unti I teleported into the center where the vipers can't fit up the stairs to get there. I grabbed the viper amulet and portaled to town (the merc had died), but then decided to return and finish the job, and got a cool reward of Nord's Tenderizer from Fangskin.

Druid: He handled act 2 easier than I had expected. The obstacle was the fire-immune Invader types that occur everywhere, but I had misremembered, it turns out they aren't large and don't crash Molten Boulder, so it rolls through them dealing plenty of physical damage. Blunderbore types do crash the boulders, but they're only in the palace cellar (the type in the tombs isn't fire immune so Fissure works there.) And he had a comical experience in Arcane Sanctuary: half of it was hugely entertaining with Boulder blowing down the alleyways, but half terrible whenever dealing with stairs because Boulder won't fit along them. And the really annoying part was that he had no way at all of hitting wraiths that flew out of bounds (all the druid fire skills are limited to walkable land except Volcano's piddly rocks), so I spent way too much time running to herd them over the platforms.

Paladin: Still diesel as hell. Duress fixed his defense problem (amusingly at exactly 10,000 with Duress and HoZ multiplied by Holy Shield), and he could slam through just about any pack of monsters, just about never had to retreat and regroup, so he was the fastest clearer by a wide margin. His one memorably challenging fight came in Arcane Sanctuary, against a champion pack of ghosts. I couldn't separate them, and couldn't hold up against the attacks long enough (champions get an AR multiplier) to kill them with 1-point Vengeance. What I had to do was stand still spamming Smite in all directions, to knock back a ghost each time it came near me and the merc; for each of them to recover from that knockback took a long time (several seconds) thanks to the slowing on the merc's Kelpie Snare; all while Open Wounds was doing the actual work of killing them over a time span of about a minute.

And I'm trying something else for him for the next act: a Defiance merc. The paladin's weak point is actually the merc's tankability, he would die to more than about four monsters at once. After seeing how the Defiance merc helped the spearazon and her merc immensely, and Shout also did very well for the barb's, I think a Defiance merc would be very good for the paladin and his merc here too. The final piece is Kelpie Snare on the merc for slowing monsters, so Holy Freeze is less important, like for the spearazon as well with the clay golem from Stone as a source of slowing.


I said before how this team keeps finding its payoffs in set items. And, jackpot!

NATALYA'S CLAW! Thank you maggot lair! These teams don't get to spend much time in level-85 areas, clearing them just once, and so can't get much of the high TC87 base items... but I got one here! And yes, the assassin will give up her Crescent Moon to use it. It does come to quite a bit more physical damage by Claw Mastery kicking back in (remember that CM multiplies Blade Fury's skill damage which is greater than the claw itself.) And the static field is less important in act 3 which is about ninety-four percent lightning immune. This is a great find, top-end claws are hard to get; there's no runewords until Chaos, and not a lot of uniques, which all have nothing for AR, and so the ITD is tremendous here like on Crescent. Natalya's claw isn't a perfect fit for Blade Fury; it can't be ethereal and wastes the 40% IAS, but it's still great enough with the damage and ITD. And don't overlook the +200% damage to both demons and undead, that comes to quite a bit -- note that applies to Blade Fury's skill damage as well. It's also worth a socket quest for a Hel rune to bring down the stat requirements.

And there's another improvement I can make to her game plan with this claw. ITD doesn't work on bosses, so Blade Fury has terrible AR problems there... but what I can do is use a melee attack so that Claw Mastery's AR can kick in, plus the 40% IAS. So I put one point in Tiger Strike. Finally, switching her primary weapon back to a claw means she can dual-wield an off-hand +skills claw again, and also I now upgraded that to an exceptional greater talon, because it's faster for the combined WSM.

Also in the claw department, I also got a Firelizard's Talon claw. Cool find, but the lack of anything for AR makes it a dud for Blade Fury. I considered dual-wielding this claw with Natalya's and using Dragon Claw instead for her melee, but decided against that; I don't want to give up a +skills claw for general use (Firelizard's doesn't really do anything off-hand) and no I don't want to carry and constantly swap in Firelizard's vs bosses.

Here's the other best find, Gore Rider boots, and in two copies, hah, randomness is clumpy.

And Verdungo's Hearty Cord belt, interesting find, haven't had that before.

I considered putting both of these on the spearazon, but decided against it. Verdungo's is similar to String of Ears, but I decided I wanted to keep String's life leech on her instead, particularly in act 3 with a ton of lightning-immunes so she'll be Fending and hungry for leech. And Gore Rider doesn't go to best use on her: the deadly strike is partially obviated by her own critical strike skill, her spear already has big Open Wounds, and she can get crushing blow by borrowing the merc's Hone Sundan. And finally she really can't make up the fire resist on Aldur's boots anywhere else.

One Gore Rider went to the assassin, which is a fine fit, all that stuff works with Blade Fury. Too bad this isn't a kicker build (actually I did think about one point in Dragon Talon, but the strength requirement after upgrading the boots would be the problem), but the assassin is still the best place to use it anyway. This led to overhauling almost her entire loadout, every slot changed out except only Lionheart and her knockback crafted gloves. Out went the Sigon's helm+belt+boots combo, she doesn't need the partial-set AR bonus with ITD on the claw and a melee skill for AR. In those slots instead go the Peasant Crown which she took from the necro (we'll see why later), a nice blood crafted belt with resists and life, and Gore Rider. I also happened to craft a really nice blood ring with two great resists and 14 dex to support Natalya's claw, and that in turn let her swap out her +dex amulet for one with better (19 all) resists.

And the other Gore Rider and Verdungo's went to the paladin. He could handle giving up the fire resist on Aldur's boots. And I really wanted to get Verdungo's on him; the damage reduction and vitality on that are what would swing a life-or-death difference in hardcore at this point. This meant giving up his long-faithful Sigon's gloves+belt combo (10% leech, 10 str, 30% IAS.) But he could handle that with another avalanche of equipment swapping. He's got two good life leech rings, unlike the spearazon who needs Raven Frost and resists. He replaced the socket in Guillaume's helm with an IAS jewel (that also happened to have a +defense prefix, on exactly the character to make use of that.) Then he replaced Sigon's 10 strength and the rest of the IAS by taking the necromancer's rare gloves. And that also has +dex to allow swapping out his +dex amulet for one with a better resist (the fire resist that replaced Aldur's boots) and some magic find.

And the last bit of this chain reaction was that the assassin's discarded Crescent Moon could still go to use: with the necromancer! It definitely beats Grim's scythe with the ITD and Static. The problem is the stat requirements, but I solved that with these:

I happened to gamble that whopping +2 necro skills circlet with huge strength. And then I had the idea of making that shield, with two Ko runes just for the dexterity, and a single diamond which makes the shield's resistances about the same as the Rhyme on his front side switch. It seems silly and underpowered, but he really doesn't need anything else (any skills or blocking or any more resists) in the shield slot when using a melee weapon. These stat adders were what let him give those rare gloves to the paladin, and so I was really satisfied at solving all the pieces of this puzzle.

By contrast, the spearazon and barb changed no equipment slots at all from the last act, and the sorceress got only a minor amulet upgrade. The druid also got a minor upgrade, a second Waterwalk boot, he doesn't need anything else in the boot slot (resists covered elsewhere) so may as well take the life (and he's below the strength requirement for Aldur's); and he swapped out his Nagelring since now I care less about magic find.

A footnote: I used a socket quest from the barbarian to socket that circlet for the necro. This is because the necro was actually short both of his (he had socketed Guillaume's for his merc but then that went to the paladin, and Peasant Crown which the assassin now took), and the barb hadn't used any of his (every slot is already a runeword or pre-socketed.)

Trang-Oul's helm! That makes four pieces of the set and missing only the belt. But I'm still not using any of it; the helm does almost nothing and doesn't enable any more significant partial-set bonuses; and each other slot is superseded by something more important. I also got an extra Trang-Oul's Wing, actually 2% fire resistance better than the first, yay.

More stuff that didn't help:

The Atlantean ancient sword, solid with damage and +2 paladin skills, might have been good for the Fist hybrid paladin, but doesn't beat Razor's Edge here (or Crescent Moon for the barb or necro.)

Nord's Tenderizer, a similar evaluation goes for that. It's very good but everyone just has better; I think this would be the second-best option for every single one of the paladin, barb, necro, and assassin, hah.

Demon's Arch elite throwing javelin, cool but not of any use here.

Wizardspike, another fun niche item but doesn't help anything here.

Immortal King's maul. Cool, but between the strength requirement and the weapon mastery, I can't really rebuild the barb around that now. And no the paladin is not giving up a Herald of Zakarum shield for a two-hander. Actually it's kind of hilarious to think about the necro using it for melee, but he's nowhere near a 225 strength requirement.

One thing that didn't happen was making more elite Honors for mercs. I only got one. The cube-socketing recipe failed to hit 5 sockets on about seven or eight other threshers and mancatchers, oh well. At least that lack of Honors saved me the Sol rune that went into crafting the assassin's beautiful blood ring.

And for runes, I got zilch all, highest was two Ko which I put into the necro's shield. So I still have the two Guls unused, we'll see if I ever put those together into anything useful, would still need a Pul to make Heart of the Oak or Ist for Silence.

I did a little bit of rearranging everything after the act, mostly put all the life charms in a common pool, and reassigned them in order of the characters neediest for life getting the best ones (spearazon > paladin > necro > sorceress > assassin > druid > barbarian), with a little wiggle room based on any prefixes, like defense to the spearazon and AR to the blade sin.

In act 2, I did my plan of mostly full-clearing, except for the palace cellar levels, claw viper temple, and the false tombs beyond the sparkly chests. So in act 3 I'll make up for that a bit, by full-clearing the jungle areas which I like, and maybe outdoor Kurast (actually more interested in all the chests and other poppables there.) I did all of act 2 on players-3 and will do the same for act 3 except for the Durance. I downplayed the magic-find on the characters a bit more now; each still has at least one source for 20% or so; only the sorc and barb with the Tal's and IK sets have much more than that.

Act 3

Not a whole lot to say on the characters right now, but I will keep talking about the necro at least.

This necromancer build is still way more powerful than I ever would have guessed or anticipated, it's turning out to be the second or third fastest clearer on this team, after the zealot and maybe sorceress. The merc is plenty reliable to get enough kills to start the Corpse Explosion chain every time, and not slowly. I had no idea that simply following the merc around and casting Amplify is like three-fourths of a strong necro build right there. Any necromancer can do this, but I just never took notice with bonemancers and poisonmancers that were occupied doing other things instead. I didn't even need the curse crowd control for the first half of this act; I didn't use Dim Vision at all until Stormtree's pack, and only a few times after that (although very notably did for a gigantic stairs trap in Ruined Temple where I was Dimming about three dozen monsters.) And I did sometimes have fun with Crescent Moon for his melee, although the CTC Static hardly mattered, by the time it ever triggered the merc had already killed two corpses to blow the CE fuse on everything. In fact Corpse Explosion was almost a liability in the Durance, against dolls; it was a very real danger to blow enough at once to get instakilled from all the explosions, and so I even had to lay off CE a few times and let the merc do the work a bit more slowly.

BTW, one difference with act 3 that is subtle but very noticeable when you think about it is shield blocking on the monsters. Acts 1 and 2 have that all over the place, on the skeletons and rogues and spear cats and greater mummies. Act 3 has almost no monsters with any shield blocking, and that was very noticeable in how much more smoothly the merc would kill things.

The Iron Golem is a small part of this build, maybe 10% of the overall offense, but it is nice to have him killing a few things at a sliver of life after some exploding, or helping start the CE chain against the toughest monsters. Once again he never died in the act; he almost did to Bremm and of course Mephisto, but I portaled out fast enough to get him healed each time. He poofed once in the great marsh (really irritatingly; he wasn't even far away, barely off the screen), and I replaced him with another Honor in a 5-socket Executioner Sword base that dropped earlier and I kept on hand for that.

Spearazon: She had the same problem with dolls, very liable to kill enough in the same Fend cycle to be very dangerous, in fact she got blasted once to a sliver of life (under 150) that I'm pretty sure would have been Deeds if not for the damage reduction on Rockstopper and String of Ears. But she made it through, as did the whole team.

Sorceress: She had some problems with killing speed with any cold-immune type that runs away, like the zakarum zealots, and bats in the sewers. Quite a pain to keep flinging fire walls and hope they hit. Although that wasn't dangerous, just annoying.

Druid: He was ponderously slow in the Spider Cavern of all places, took like 45 minutes to clear all the fire-immune spiders in there. The problem is they regenerate faster than other types of monsters; particularly minions could barely be outraced by Boulder and Volcano. I really need to get a source of Open Wounds on his merc.

Assassin: Blade Fury with Natalya's claw is nice, ITD is always sweet and it deals very good damage. But stay tuned for something exciting for her.

On to the items. I did full clear the jungle areas as planned. And I talked about clearing outdoor Kurast for the poppables, and called that one perfectly, jackpot! :

Duriel's Shell popped from an ordinary basket! There's what the barbarian wanted, Cannot Be Frozen. Now he can take off the Rhyme shield and really power up to full strength. I feel I don't need the blocking any more; I did back when he started using the shield, but now he's much higher level, with a thousand more life, more damage to kill threats faster or more Howl to clear them, and enough resists elsewhere to cover Rhyme's absence and no need for its magic-find now. And I really want him to live up the promise of Berserk using a two-hander with its biggest melee damage multiplier. Switching the barb's setup from Lionheart to Duriel's did mean having to handle the difference in stats and resistances (including losing Rhyme), but I could manage it, mostly thanks to neglecting having spent any stat points since the start of act 2, hah. Also the barb has a socket quest available for Duriel's, for a fervor jewel to get to maximum two-handed attack speed.

I was also thinking about putting Duriel's Shell on the paladin instead, since he doesn't have CBF (with HoZ instead of Rhyme.) But then this happened:

Ha, looks like the paladin gets a toy with Cannot Be Frozen anyway! And it's nearly perfect, the sockets are variable from 3-5 and the damage up to 270%, wow, nice find here. I was determined to use this over Razor's Edge; remember my goal here is Guardianship, and Cannot Be Frozen is more likely to make the difference against a threat to that than any small difference in damage between weapons. I made a spreadsheet comparing lots of combinations for socketing options, and to my surprise this came out the best:

Four Eth runes to get to -100% target defense. This sounds crazy, but this definitively fixes his attack rating problem, which was actually pretty drastic with a hit rate below 60%. It turned out that solving the AR adds more dps than any combination with damage jewels. It's obvious when you think about it: each Eth rune increases my hit rate by something like one-sixth, and no ED% jewel can add one-sixth on top of the existing 366% damage. Plus more crushing blow from hitting more often. Also note that -100% defense is different and quite a bit better than Ignore Target Defense. ITD doesn't work on uniques and champions but -% defense does; it's nerfed only vs superuniques and bosses, and still gets half effectiveness even then.

But this is what I hadn't realized: each successive Eth rune gets better, more minus-target-defense has an increasing-returns effect, not diminishing! I didn't realize this until seeing it in my spreadsheet, but then the visualization hit me instantly, and it looks like this:

That shows the effect. Each chunk of enemy defense removed means the next chunk has greater impact, because the same value is a greater proportion of a smaller total.

What about the speed? Ettin Axe is a slow base, and one Shael is nowhere near enough to get that to max speed. I solved that with the king of speed solutions: made him a Treachery armor! I never want to use a low-defense armor on a character using defense multipliers, but it works out here. He's still got over 10k defense, with a fine Treachery base (a 486 defense great hauberk), Herald of Zakarum (447), Guillaume's helm (220), and Verdungo's belt (106), multiplied by both Holy Shield and the Defiance merc. I won't rely on Treachery's Fade for resists (make sure fire and lightning are still near max even without), but it's still welcome whenever it triggers (the physical resist stacks nicely with Verdungo's), plus even the Venom too.

Also the speed situation is that he doesn't need the 15% IAS jewel in Guillaume's helm, so can replace that with something else, actually an amethyst to help with Rune Master's strength requirement. And finally the Duress that got swapped out from his armor slot can still go to great use on the necro's merc, also incidentally repaying him for the socket quest he spent on the paladin's Herald of Zakarum.

(Damn, all that was a long writeup for one weapon, but it shows how I approach and think about all this. And Rune Master is probably the weapon that makes for the most analysis, with all the possible combinations.)

And then the Lower Kurast poppables struck again: Bartuc's claw came out of another ordinary stash. Nice find here; this claw isn't for Blade Fury (nothing for AR), but it's great to use off-hand, with skills and stats and hit recovery. As for the Blade Fury claw, though, then the following happened.

I imbued a new claw, an ethereal War Fist. That base item dropped, and that was too good a chance to pass up trying; it's the best claw for Blade Fury, the highest damage and BF doesn't care about the slow speed. The assassin had used all her imbues already, so I had the paladin spend one of his, since the assassin had traded him a favor by socketing a Sigon's helm that he had used for a bit, and he didn't need his imbues for himself since he wasn't going to top his weapon or shield with a rare. What resulted was HOLY GALACTIC CRAP LOOK AT THIS THING

Holy. Freaking. Shit, that thing is gargantuan. Of course its problem is AR, but damn I'll do anything I need to in that department for that gobsmacking damage. First I gave her all the AR charms and rings I could manage, but that's just a few hundred and you need a few thousand. An Eth rune socketed would help, but I have no socket quests available from anyone right now, so that will have to wait until act 5. I didn't keep any Angelic or Hsaru's set combo for AR, after discarding them thinking that nobody was going to use it. I do still have a Sigon's set combo for AR, but then I nailed this beauty on a gamble:

That's the Visionary modifier for the AR multiplier, which just happened to also come with assassin skills, and even dual leech, pretty sweet! That will have to be good enough, multiplying her AR from about 1100 to about 2000, enough for a 60% or so hit rate against most of hell. (I had to manually figure that; you can't see it in-game correctly; Blade Fury shows no attack rating, and the AR shown for normal attack includes Claw Mastery which doesn't apply to BF.)

Although, one minor problem: There's a really irritating interaction with the new claw and Bartuc's. Because the stats on Bartuc's are needed to support the rare, every time I weapon switch (to +shadow claws for pre-buffing), Bartuc's becomes the primary weapon active for Blade Fury, before its stats kick in to check for supporting the rare claw. This happens even if Bartuc's is in the off-hand slot (the boot side.) To make this work, every time I weapon-switch, I have to temporarily put on enough str/dex equipment to support the rare without Bartuc's, then lift Bartuc's to make the rare the primary, then replace Bartuc's and swap back the other equipment.

In other news, I got a Titan's Revenge, cool. Although now I'm going to formally state as a variant rule that this spearazon is disallowed from using 1-hand spears, so that I'm not tempted into making her a gimped melee javazon. So this will go unused... but as I said before, I've got a perfect record that every amazon I ever had who owned a Titan's went on to make Guardian, so let's continue that here.

Also got a second Immortal King maul, from yet another Kurast poppable. I had lost the first one somehow (some mishap in the ATMA program), but then realized the obvious thing to do with it: the next Iron Golem, of course. With jewels for fire and prismatic resistances in the sockets. Also got an extra Bonesnap and a Swordguard executioner sword, to take into the next act as more backups.

More random set items: Mavina's bow and Telling of Beads amulet, but neither is any use here. And a second Tal Rasha's mask, always great for a merc, here it goes to the bladesin's, that merc needs the life leech the most because his weapon doesn't have it (a rare with CTC Amp.)

Crow Caw armor, helps for the sorc's merc for the Open Wounds, she sometimes has trouble with monster regeneration.

Cool charm here. It went to the necromancer as the most in need of that combination. (The spearazon always needs resists, but she's got plenty of hit recovery from Stone and Rockstopper.) I got one skill charm too, a second necromancer bone skills, though not sure if fitting it in is worth giving up about 50 life of other charms.

But the good stuff happened in the rune department.

First, yet again an Um dropped for this team.

Then, holy crap again! At the very last moment for the last character to play, Mephisto dropped an Ist rune!

And then I also got a Mal! This came from the Halls of Pain in nightmare difficulty, that I went back to clear after act 3 hell.

I didn't spend those runes right away. What I did was first play through act 4 with five of the characters, all but the spearazon and barb. There was a significant inflection point here, so giving this section as an interim report gives the same feel as I had playing through it.

The first five hellforge results were Fal, Hel, Hel, Lum, Ist. Also random drops of a Lem and a Pul.

I had some possibilities in mind depending on what came from the hellforge, but none of those changed my primary plan, so here it is. With the two Guls from act 1, and the Ist from Mephisto:

Dol Eld Hel Ist Tir Vex. SILENCE. There's a fulfillment twenty years in the making, I finally get to make the king of old-school-cool runewords.

I know Silence isn't all that big by modern standards. But the class that does want it is a spearazon, since all the comparable stuff like Crescent Moon or Oath or Grief doesn't work in spears. And it fits very well for the spearazon class in general. The biggest factor is Hit Blinds Target +33, huge crowd control for a class with no native ability for it. 75 resist all is also gigantic for anyone without a shield, frees up a huge amount of charm and jewelry space. And +5 spear skills boosts Power/Lightning Strike nicely, and also Fend for both AR and damage. Plus hit recovery, IAS, mana steal, and even magic find (on the Ist) thrown in. I'll put up with the monster-flee to get all that.

Her speed situation with it required a bit of reconfiguring. To get Silence to the 5-frame Fend breakpoint (it's a 0 WSM base, slower than -10 Impaler), I need 30% IAS in the gloves slot, which means Sigon's plus a second piece which has to be the boots. But of course I don't at all mind adding in the 10% life leech from that combo as well. It will lag in the AR department compared to Impaler's ITD, but she's at about 75% hit rating from Raven Frost plus Fend's AR multiplier, which will have to be good enough.

I had been planning for this since the Guls dropped in act 1, hoping for the Ist from the hellforge, but then that came sooner than expected when Mephisto dropped it, so I could do this going into act 4 instead of after.

And I can now talk about the plans that didn't happen. My dream was to get two Guls from the hellforge quests and cube all four up to an Ohm, which would have made all the pieces for a Call To Arms spear instead. Nobody remembers this, but CTA has great fighting mods too, it's not just for pre-buffing Battle Orders. That would have been wonderful, but that particular stroke of luck didn't come to be. I also had in mind a Kingslayer sword for the barbarian, which would have taken yet another Gul (or enough to cube up to one), unlikely but within the realm of possibility.

I had to commit now to the Silence with two characters yet to go (also the barb, not just the spearazon herself), because of getting the base socketed. I could only do that with a socket quest and the barb was the only character with one unused. I'd gotten that Matriarchal Spear base with +3 skills, and that's rare enough that I hadn't seen any others with even +2, and never mind enough for attempts to expect a successful 1-in-6 cube socketing roll. A socket quest was the only practical way, and the only one I had available was the barbarian's. I'll cry if both the barb and spearazon get Guls, which would mean I missed my chance at CTA, although at least I'd still have Kingslayer for consolation.

Besides the Silence, two minor plans with the runes also happened. The random drop of a Pul freed up all my Lems that I might have cubed into a Pul instead. So with two of the Lems, I upgraded two pieces of armor: the Crow Caw armor for the druid's mercenary, and the Rockstopper helm.

The Rockstopper is pretty sweet, it went from 199 to 407 defense, and with the Defiance merc that's actually a pretty decent defense gain for the spearazon. So now she went ahead to play through act 4.

Act 4

The Hellforge loot was mostly lousy: Hel, Hel, Lum, Lum, Fal, Ist... but then the barbarian playing last nailed a Gul, very nice, read on for the results after the character notes.

Necro: I gave his merc the Duress that was leftover from the paladin, but then halfway through the first area realized the problem with that: Duress has cold damage that shatters the corpse ammo he needs. That wasn't workable, he really needs to count on every corpse being available to explode. So I mostly switched the merc back to Trang-Oul's armor, though did swap back to Duress for major fights, notably Hephasto and some stone skin bosses where he needed the open wounds.

The IK maul Iron Golem did well, dealing noticeable amounts of damage... until he died to Lord De Seis's pack. Not really a surprise, but how fast it happened was - the golem ran directly into the middle of the Fanaticism pack and died from full health (7400 damage!) in under two seconds before I could react. Taking out that pack took a little while (needed lots of Terror to spread them out), and I switched to the fire golem since Infector's pack would be up next. Then somehow Diablo's firestorm still killed the fire golem, so I switched to clay for the slowing. Diablo himself wasn't much of a problem - on hell difficulty, it's easy for my whole team to stay inside the "lightning bolt ground zero" range, and so his only dangerous attack was the firestorm, which did kill the merc every time it targeted him (I could never get Diablo to target the necromancer instead), but we brought Diablo down in just a few minutes thanks to crushing blow attacks from both the necromancer (a Black flail) and the merc (Duress).

Paladin: Rune Master did well as his weapon. About the same dps as Razor's Edge, but a noticeably smoother experience with a perfect hit rate plus Cannot Be Frozen. I also liked Treachery on him, although I did find out that a high-defense character doesn't get hit enough for the Fade to be on all the time. He did have two downsides, both more comical than bad. One, the new weapon is the same dps, less per hit but 40% more hits instead of missing... which means the durability runs out 40% faster, sometimes as fast as under two minutes of attacking! Second... I facepalmed when I realized Treachery's Fade costs you 80% of the duration of an experience shrine, hah.

Assassin: She was the opposite of the paladin, changing away from an ITD weapon (Natalya's) to one with AR problems, so not nearly as smooth. In fact it was also about the same dps against normal monsters, but did gain significantly against uniques/champions where ITD doesn't work. It will get somewhat better again with an Eth rune socketed from the quest in act 5.

Also I decided to fix her equipping problem (that weapon-switching makes Bartuc's off-hand claw the primary before its stats can support the main claw), by giving her enough dex for her main claw without Bartuc's. This involved a dexterity ring, trading out an AR ring... but 15 dex on a ring gives almost as much as an AR ring anyway. So Bartuc's stats aren't helping to support the main claw or any other equipment... but it's still not wasted, that 20 dex is another 100 base AR, plus a little damage multiplier.

Then late in the act the AR solution hit me like a brick wall. I should be using one of the most overlooked resources in the game: hire a Blessed Aim merc! After the act I ran the numbers, and sure enough, trading out Might for Blessed Aim actually gains a small increase in dps with this setup, including more frequent hits of Venom. As a bonus, Blessed Aim also enables the merc himself to hit more often to apply his CTC Amp weapon, and also even the shadow too to hit more with the elemental claw skills that she uses often.

Druid: I finally figured out Molten Boulder, and goddamnit I'm kicking myself that it took this long to realize it. Its damage always seemed so inconsistent and I just figured out why. It's exactly the same principle as Fire Wall. You want to bowl in a screen-diagonal / grid-orthogonal direction, so that the boulder crosses through 3 subtiles of the X-shaped monster footprint. Once I realized that, it was very obvious what was happening. When aimed the right way like that, Boulder significantly and consistently outdamages Volcano against fire immunes, and so now I did that all the time. (Volcano could be faster when the merc was helping, to avoid Boulder knocking the target away from him.) Finally, Firestorm also experiences the same orthogonal principle too, although less pronounced since its firing lines are less straight.

Spearazon: Silence sure makes for a different game style for her. I never would have expected this from a spearazon, but she's strong enough to be able to plow into pretty much any leechable monster pack, short of the nastiest ones like Fanaticism or Might enchanted. Decoy's distraction plus Silence's monster-flee and blinding can disperse enough of almost any pack pretty quickly that she can survive on defense rating and live on leech from there.

The downside is chasing down the fleeing monsters, of course. Although I found one cool trick, cast Decoy right in a fleeing monster's path to block and interrupt it! But really, the better plan was to, whenever the coast was clear enough, flip back to Impaler on weapon switch and kill easy things without worrying about the monster-flee. Impaler was important enough for this that I'm keeping it on her weapon switch rather than pass it to a merc. I did have to be very careful when on that weapon switch without Silence's resists active.

Actually the best thing about Silence might be the +5 skills to Lightning Strike, which was her best skill against larger packs -- in fact I would often deliberately attack only a boss in a pack because it wouldn't flee! Finally, she also had one more strategic avenue, in trading weapons with the merc on occasion; I would give him the Impaler to bring down a dual physical/lightning immune boss by way of the open wounds (I could do it myself, but that would cost mana potions and durability, and him doing it wouldn't!), or also I could take his Hone Sundan's crushing blow for myself against a singular big target (Izual, Hephasto, Diablo.)

That all said, she did have some hot moments, particularly against Infector's pack, she had to portal out from the corner and come back from the waypoint, as quite a few characters do. I think she had at least two moments where her life dropped low enough that she would have died without the physical resist on Rockstopper and String of Ears, although of course without them I wouldn't have been pushing her as hard.

Barb: Nothing new with him, except that he finished his skill build (Berserk, Howl, Shout, Sword Mastery) and the last few points could raise Natural Resist and Battle Orders a bit.


The big payoff was the Gul rune from the barbarian's hellforge. As I said when I talked about the spearazon's Silence, I wanted another Gul to do a Kingslayer for the barb, and now I could. In fact I made it right there in the middle of the act, since he had taken possession of the other pieces ahead of time, including the base sword for this potentiality. It's not really much better than the Crescent Moon, but does hit a bit harder plus the crushing blow. And the +Vengeance is actually a little bit useful, better than 1-point Concentrate vs magic immunes. This runeword perfectly matched the team's inventory of mid-high runes, so I'll go with it to put all of them to some use. Particularly since I could still have access to Crescent Moon's CTC Static Field anyway: my barb hired a barbarian merc to wield the old Crescent Moon sword!

There was also an Ist in there, which I put to use in the same thing Ist always does, a Delirium helm, this time for the blade assassin. As always, that's amazing for any ranged-weapon character to dish out the CTC Confuse, and who doesn't get hit into the doll morph much. And she can give up the Visionary circlet in the helm slot thanks to the Blessed Aim merc.

There was one Pul rune left over after all that (from a random drop.) The Kingslayer took the last Um, which meant the Pul wouldn't be going into a Stone armor for a merc. I considered an Enlightenment sorceress armor for the Pul, but didn't have a good 3-socket base, and Que-Hegan's armor is good enough for her anyway. So I put that Pul into upgrading Hone Sundan for the druid's merc, worthwhile to help his physical damage. (Not the spearazon's merc who is also using a Hone, she needs it less because she does better physical damage herself, and also she sometimes swaps the merc's Hone to herself, so I didn't want to raise its stat requirements.)

Laying of Hands finally showed up for this team, and actually two copies, and actually both in the same game for the same character, randomness is clumpy. One goes to the paladin for all the usual best-in-slot reasons. But the second can't go to the other melee fighters, the barb or spearazon; they're designed around higher speed requirements in the glove slot (IK and Sigon's.) Where it can go is the assassin; she ignores the IAS but does make tremendous use of the demon damage with that gargantuan ethereal claw, particularly now with Blessed Aim to make it hit and to substitute the demon damage for the lack of a Might merc. Laying of Hands does mean giving up her knockback gloves, but that's less important now, with Blade Fury now killing much faster, particularly with going to players-1 now for the final act.

Hexfire shamshir, +3 to Fire Skills, dropped by the druid for himself from Diablo. That's worth using as an upgrade over +2 skills Dark Clan Crusher, which can stay on switch (along with a Sigon's shield) to pre-buff his summons. He can handle the 58 dex requirement with Waterwalk boots, plus the rare gloves you saw earlier with +11 str and dex, plus one ring.

Shaftstop armor also finally came, definitely worth an upgrade to use on a merc, the spearazon's. (Consumed my last three Fal runes to make a Lem, but that's fine.)

Second copy of Rockstopper, found by the spearazon appropriately enough, and also put on her merc.

Warshrike throwing knife, cool but not any use here.

Cranebeak unique war spike, never had that before, but again not of use, doesn't beat Rune Master for the paladin or Crescent Moon for the melee necromancer.

And lastly, this jackpot:

At the last moment once again, Diablo for the last character to play dropped something major, The Oculus! Finally rolled a unique after three set-quality (Tal Rasha's) swirling crystals.

This is the first time I've ever had an Oculus. I know full well about the dangers of that CTC Teleport for hardcore... but that sounds like challenge-accepted to me, I'm not passing up this chance to use this major endgame item. I had kinda been looking for an excuse to swap the sorceress off Tal Rasha's set anyway, so she could use a +2 sorceress skills circlet I had gambled. Oculus's resists can replace Tal's helm, which of course still goes to use on a merc. Oculus's better fast-cast lets me swap out one fast-cast ring and fit in a Bahamut's ring for mana. Finally I also have another customer for Tal's belt: the barbarian, for the 20 dexterity, replacing a Bladebuckle belt and some charms.

(Also in that drop is the fourth Nord's Tenderizer for this team. Randomness is clumpy.)

Oh, and a couple pretty sweet AR charms for the assassin, both found by herself.

Act 5

And now the finale. As before, I stayed strictly on players-1 with minimal clearing for the last acts, and didn't do the Anya quest (and god hell no Nihlathak.) Time to just finish it up for the prize.

Starspike, the spearazon: She did very noticeably better by downshifting to players-1, and I knew the reason: now her physical damage was enough to inflict hit recovery on monsters most of the time. That was also another solution to the monster-flee problem, if I could catch a monster and hit it once, the hit recovery would interrupt its fleeing. This didn't work on the biggest monsters (like thorned hulks) with enough health to avoid it, but what I could often do for a big monster fleeing was completely box it in with my team, trapping it so it couldn't move at all between myself, the merc, clay golem, and decoy. But I more often used her other favorite trick, attack with Lightning Strike on a single monster that either wouldn't (boss/champion) or couldn't (packed in tightly enough) flee, and let the lightning wipe everything else on the screen.

But the star of the spearazon's show was her merc. With the Shaftstop and Rockstopper, he never died once the entire act! And I'm gaining a new appreciation for Defiance mercs in general. Both this one and the paladin's were very noticeably more tanky than any of the holy freeze mercs. Both Defiance mercs even completely outright tanked Lister's pack, never had to retreat at all or even feed potions, but held up for the entire minute or so that it took for Lightning Strike and Zeal to bring them down.

The Ancients were the usual show of rerolling about ten times into manageable modifers and then isolating them one by one. Decoy helped a lot for this, it would occupy one or two of them at the center of the arena while one chased me. Baal as the finale was a pushover, thanks to the clay golem's slowing; same as for a necromancer, any source of monster-slowing disrupts his animations somehow and he never does anything.

This was the least powerful build of this team, but it was still satisfying to push across the finish line. As I keep finding with these characters, piling on as much defensiveness as possible almost always seems like the right way to go. Rockstopper and Stone and String of Ears made her way more tankier than I ever expected, almost as good as the zealot. And Infanta was absolutely right that this is the way to build a spearazon: skip Dodge/Avoid to avoid the Fend bug and then it's as smooth as Zeal, spam Decoy to make up for the lack of the valkyrie, and rely on defense rating and a Defiance merc for defense.

Starblade, the assassin: The Blessed Aim merc was the right call, completely fixed her AR problems, and really unleashed that damage-to-demons on Laying of Hands to tear through monsters. Seriously, witches and demon imp types were going down in two blade hits, faster than I could even target them with the pointer. This character turned out way more powerful than I expected, probably more than twice the kill rate that I ever would have expected, thanks to that gargantuan ethereal claw.

And Delirium was a beautiful exclamation point, dishing out the CFC Confuse like crazy. Tons of fights looked like this one here, with a giant swath of monsters all attacking each other and ignoring my team. Delirium's Confuse wasn't redundant with Cloak of Shadows at all - it was very convenient to have crowd control triggering automatically, rather than having to stop firing for like five blades worth of time to cast Cloak. One small downside was it overwriting the CTC Amplify from the merc, but that's not something to complain about.

She rolled the Ancients easily, got them on the first try (none of the worst modifiers spawned), and even took on two at once rather than isolating them. Actually her hardest fight was Bartuc's pack, since he spawned Conviction enchanted and the merc lasted about a tenth of a second against the hydras, so I had to do that one without him and the Blessed Aim. Lister's pack slammed the merc around and I did have to feed him rejuves, but killing them wasn't a problem, about six seconds worth of blades each. This assassin might have been one of the most fun characters to build that I've done; she really felt struggling and underpowered at the start of hell difficulty, but each claw and other damage upgrade through the acts made for an increasingly diesel payoff.

Starlava, the druid: Despite what I just said about figuring out Boulder, I actually switched back to using Volcano more against fire immunes. That was also a result of downshifting to players-1. Boulder is still more dps than Volcano when done properly (set up to bowl orthogonally along the game grid, at a target backstopped to not get knocked back)... but all that setup and positioning takes time and effort, and now it was largely easier to just fling volcanoes at wherever the monsters were and it would still deal enough physical damage to kill in about three casts. As I've said a few times, the fire skills turned out quite a bit more interesting than I expected, all four have differing tactical usage and execution.

He handled the Ancients well enough, once I rerolled them into tame modifiers, they just didn't do enough damage to really hurt my Oak Sage boosted team, and it was straightforward to kill the fire-immune one with Volcano and the other two with Firestorm. Lister's pack was similar, had to string out and isolate them, but then Volcano plus the merc killed them well enough. Baal was actually his biggest pain, the fire skills aren't well suited for dealing big single-target damage; Firestorm is the best of the options but the problem was I couldn't keep myself next to Baal to fire it!, between the tentacles and the knockback cold wedge. His other plan against bosses was always crushing blow from the merc, but it's also nearly impossible to keep a merc's attention on Baal instead of getting knocked around or distracted by the tentacles. So killing Baal took about fifteen minutes of long-range Volcano casting, but got it done, with no real danger under Oak Sage's life boost.

Starsmash, the barbarian: He was almost the fastest killer through this act, just behind the paladin. He definitely hit the peak of his power now, finally using his sword two-handed, and Kingslayer is a bit heavier than Crescent Moon, and now up to maximum attack speed after socketing an IAS jewel in his Duriel's Shell with the last socket quest. Also the later acts highlight the side benefit of Berserk, that monster magic resistance stays low compared to physical that ramps up through the acts. He did take a lot of punishment - he spent like a third of his time just running out of combat waiting for healing potions to refill - but a BO-boosted 2700 life ball is always so much of a buffer that it's hard to go wrong. This guy achieved the big hitter style what I wanted, really dishing out serious dps like the Frenzy barb never quite did.

Starsteel, the paladin: Not much to say here, he was the fastest killer, expectedly so given that he's the one real standard power build on this team. Rune Master with four Eth runes was quite a solid weapon, very noticeably hitting all the time including against bosses.

Starshatter, the sorceress: Her big deal was the Oculus, first time I ever tried playing with that and its CTC Teleport. It triggered often, but actually didn't feel dangerous. At any given instant, only a small portion of the screen is actually ever full of monsters. There's actually almost always a lot more visible open space than occupied, and so Oculus actually seemed quite a bit more likely to blink me out of danger than into it. Or, it also seemed that I could react to each random teleport faster than the monsters could, and re-teleport myself to a better spot before they would converge and attack. I know this is riding on the edge of hardcore, but I was actually having quite a bit of fun with the boinging around. Probably wouldn't want to do it for any long term, but once through an act was fine.

Her story of fighting was the Ancients, as shown here:

Goddammit. I was getting too cocky about finishing off this team with a perfect record. This happened because I went in to close range to use Static Field, because Talic was fire and cold immune, to get him down partway for the merc to handle. But he caught me with the full brunt of a whirlwind and I was an instant too late on the rejuve. Dammit. (This had nothing to do with Oculus, it didn't trigger, actually it would have saved me if it had!) I got complacent; I got too used to being able to take some damage from the Ancients, with every other character having a bigger life ball and damage reduction equipment or curses (Decrepify.) Talic didn't have any of the worst modifiers (I think it was spectral hit and cold enchanted), which lulled me into neglectfulness. This was completely my own fault, and of course I'm mad at myself, but that's hardcore, what makes the wins have meaning is that the losses also do.

One footnote: I'd used her last socket quest on her circlet (+2 skills), but only got one socket from Larzuk instead of two (on a magic item.) I put in one perfect ruby for life, and would have done a second if I'd gotten that second socket; it's possible that Larzuk's coin flip made the difference in dying here. And that second ruby would have meant break-even for life compared to removing Tal Rasha's set; I didn't really pay attention to how much life that gave up, 60 each on both the orb and helm. Plus Tal's helm has some defense that might have avoided a melee hit, and also the dex on the belt that might have blocked one. I'll never know.

And finally, the climactic moment for the necromancer fans here, for this ramshackle golemancer build:

Finally won with one of the necromancers, now Guardian Starblast. For the final blow against Baal, I decided to do it in style, put on the four-piece Trang-Oul's set to use the Fire Wall oskill. No other reason than style points and just for the heck of it, in fact doing that gave up Rhyme's magic find. And got rewarded by a Stone Crusher hammer there, that could have been a pretty hefty zealot weapon.

The Iron Golem (the Swordguard sword) survived all the way through the act this time. Including the Ancients fight, which of course was the major obstacle compared to Baal, who never does anything while decrepified. For the Ancients, I had to reroll them about 15 times to get manageable boss modifiers, and then run around like crazy (risking the iron golem poofing, but he never did) until managing to isolate one for the merc to take down, but I got all that done. Finally, I was also even able to kill some of Lister's pack with the necromancer's own melee attacks, putting a nice exclamation point on that too.

And I also liked this build quite a bit more than I'd expected going in. He was indeed a versatile offensive build, as I really like. Corpse Explosion was exactly as much of his show as I wanted it to be, dominating but not quite solving everything, and there were always just enough challenging situations to keep him interesting. Really that versatility with the golem and his own melee really revolved around Amplify Damage, which I'm coming to realize is secretly the best melee skill in the game.

Items: The one big prize was a Boneflame necromancer head dropped from Baal, that certainly would have been the necro's choice if the team were to continue from here, and worth his last socket quest.

Nothing else that would matter; I got Heavenly Garb and Wall of the Eyeless that hadn't shown up before, but no use for them, the sorceress has enough fast cast and wouldn't want to trade out Moser's resistances. Got a Naj's Puzzler staff, also cool but we don't need it for anything. Also an extra Grim's Burning Dead scythe, which might have been the next iron golem if I needed another. And one more Pul rune, found by the barbarian but who didn't need it for anything, not upgrading his merc's weapon which was already an elite Honor. If we were continuing, I'd upgrade the paladin's merc's Kelpie Snare with it.

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

So that's all here. No postscript this time, I'm not redoing that failed sorceress inches from the end. Thanks again for reading along!

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