Diablo II - Hardcore Star Team Gamma - Nightmare

Act 1

Spearazon: She got to start using Lightning Strike, and that's a serious upgrade and potentially savior for this character. This skill never gets talked about, compared to Lightning Fury which is just better. But it's pretty effective. There is the desync, as with every chain-lightning effect (even in single player, the client and server can sometimes disagree on monster location by a pixel or two, invoking a different target, and chaos theory takes over from there) - but it doesn't really matter if what you see isn't what's happening, as long as enough stuff dies it's perfectly okay. And so Lightning Strike did clear out fallen camps in act 1 very effectively. The other part that I hadn't thought about so much is that it can essentially operate as a ranged skill. I had quite a few occasions where a boss pack came up, and the best approach was to hit the nearest straggler monster with LS and let the lightning continue over to the pack. That may be the trick to keep her out of danger enough to reach the finish line. Although Andariel was a problem, and act bosses will continue to be; with zero defensive measures, all I could do was get in about 5 to 8 pokes at a time then pop to town for healing; got the job done but it took almost ten minutes, and the act bosses only get harder from here (Duriel is a big yikes.)

I know this character is heading for the same situation as the bowazon: the elemental skills just overshadow the physical damage in an environment of limited item acquisition. I guess she'll always do more lightning than spear work, but at least that means I can keep kicking the can on the decisions about Dodge/Avoid/Fend/Valkyrie for a while. (BTW, I tried a Peace armor for the CTC Valkyrie. It really doesn't work, the valk always poofs within a few seconds, as with any summon when you don't actually possess the skill. I'd heard that of course but wanted to try it directly.)

Druid: He's raising Volcano, but it's not high enough yet (13) to outperform the other skills. It's actually helping Boulder just as much, since that's now the one fire skill that is receiving multiple synergies. Boulder is really good as long as it's attacking monster types that it rolls through and hits repeatedly. Large monsters who stop the boulders (Tainted demon types and Andariel) are better hit with Firestorm.

Necromancer: He's working pretty well. It occurs to me now that this isn't as crazy as I first thought; it's really not far off from the standard summoner build, just using a golem and Dim Vision instead of skeletons for just about the same purpose. Presently he raised Dim Vision to 10 points to deal with the halved duration in nightmare. Then he went back to raising Golem Mastery, and again through this act I exited and reopened the game at some waypoints to resummon the iron golem at a higher level. The golem reached 3000 life, and now for the first time he made it all the way through the act intact. Including even Andariel herself. The golem couldn't quite outright tank her indefinitely, but it took about 20 seconds of Andariel attacking to deplete his health, plenty of time to pop to town for healing. This bodes pretty well for Duriel, though we'll see how it goes for the wilder act bosses after that. And also now for act 2 this necromancer gets his biggest offensive upgrade of all, a Might merc.

Barb: He really needs a better weapon, his merely exceptional sword with ED% of effectively 104% is barely getting the job done. I tried crafting a few Blood axes but didn't get anything of any good. Also one problem that's more severe than I anticipated is when he gets chilled. I haven't had to worry about chilling on barbs much before; Whirlwind ignores it, and Frenzy has so much speed that subtracting some doesn't hurt much. But this guy without much speed gets very slow when chilled. Could be another argument for a shield eventually, in Rhyme for cannot-be-frozen.

Sorceress, paladin, bladesin are continuing uneventfully.

Items, let's start with the jackpot, from Andariel:

Holy crap what a monster! Even has two sockets, for resist jewels to cover up missing a shield. The sorceress will be using this whopper for a good long while, probably all of nightmare.

Nothing remarkable besides that. Most notable otherwise was Waterwalk boots from Andariel, good package of stats, went to the fire druid for the dex to support Hellplague plus the life on a fragile caster, and because he doesn't need resists in the boot slot thanks to a 3-diamond shield.

For the third straight act, the paladin got a new unique weapon upgraded to exceptional. This time it's an Ironstone war hammer, found by the spearazon. Slower than the previous choices, but loads more damage (2.5x of General Tan's) and a significant bump in dps.

Got a second Hsaru's belt/boots combo, and this is wild, but I decided to stack up both that and the Cleglaw's two-piece combo on the bladesin for AR. She had nothing else pressing for the slots, and Blade Fury always needs AR, so why not.

Other than those, kept filling in standard equipment, like Lore helms, various +1 skill amulets, diamond shields, the druid got a Summon Grizzly pelt with 3 sockets that I filled with rubies for life.

Act 2

As always, act 2 nightmare means getting to pick the best mercenaries. Two characters took a Might merc, the necromancer and bladesin, since they both have a big need for a damage multiplier and already have a big crowd-disabling skill. Everyone else took a Holy Freeze merc as usual.

This is when the rewards in mid-level uniques and runes start to ramp up, so I started to do some optional areas rather than just taking the fastest way through. Not full clearing, but in particular I did the optional areas to the sparkly chests (Stony Tomb, Ancient Tunnels, false tombs.) Worth it for the chance of uniques from them; there's a lot of good exceptionals that are available, like the Butcher's Pupil last game came from a sparkly chest in the Great Marsh. I did hit the 2% unique chance once this act, although all I got was two triple-durability rares instead, a paladin shield and some claw. Also I played on players-5 rather than 7, since 5 is already enough to overshoot the experience curve (more than 5 levels above the monsters), and the necro in particular with CE goes smoother on a lower count.

Just a few short notes on the characters, who are all cresting near max on their offensive skills and won't really be challenged until hell difficulty.

Druid: He maxed Volcano, and that's useful against large packs compared to Boulder. Boulder is still best against a small number of monsters at a time that will be knocked back and repeatedly hit. And Firestorm is best against large monsters where Boulder crashes (maggots were about the only ones in act 2; everything else isn't large, like invader types and beetles and claw vipers and greater mummies.)

Paladin: He's living on leech and wow is it working, even with the nightmare penalty he's still leeching 150 life per 1000-damage hit, and his entire life ball per Zeal cycle. Yeah, I was underrating zealots back when talking about Vengeance instead. The Ironstone hammer is really good, because the Battle Hammer upgraded base does a ton of damage for an exceptional, actually more than most elites; it's slow but Fanaticism can mostly make up for that.

Assassin: The Might merc made a huge difference for Blade Fury. But besides that, a boon that I didn't anticipate is how well knockback works with it too. Really what knockback does is complement Cloak of Shadows well - the knockback breaks up packs that already got into melee range where Cloak doesn't disable them. Also, this assassin gets to use Mind Blast more than the previous ones. I didn't like using MB often with the traps or phoenix attacks - it's annoying to have the area attacks bypass the converted monsters and have to clean them up separately afterward. But since Blade Fury hits one target at a time anyway, it's fine if some are mind blasted until I get to them. I'm liking this character a lot: high player skill ceiling, very tactical, good single-target damage but I have to constantly survey and evaluate the battlefield and pick out the most immediate threats.

Necro: He's still doing well; what I'm not sure to do with him is when to upgrade the iron golem. He's still the same savage polearm from several acts ago. I guess if he's working well enough, no need to change at the moment, and if he dies and I need a quick backup, can just shop a good exceptional weapon by now.

Spearazon: Lightning Strike, now maxed, is really good. She was the fastest through this act in real time, with Lightning Strike shredding every big pack of skeletons or maggot young or whatever. Duriel was easier than Andariel, since the decoy would last long enough for me to get in several hits, and I had to pop out for healing only about every thirty seconds.

Sorceress: She kills things. Fast. Although Glacial Spike sucks tons of mana, almost as much as famed hog Nova.

Items were pretty dry this act. I did get a couple exceptional unique weapons, but they were the unexciting Pompeii's Wrath axe and Plague Bearer sword. Feels like this team is lagging compared to the others that had Ribcracker and Bonesnap and Kuko Shakaku and Aldur's mace by now, plus also we haven't been getting low-level staples like Tarnhelm or Goldwrap or Tearhaunch. There's nothing wrong systematically, RNG gonna RNG, but I feel like I'm having to improvise a bit more this time.

The other thing missing so far is crafted items. The reason is that most of the gems and Tal through Shael runes keep going instead into cube-socket and upgrade formulas, basic runewords, or just socketing for stat points. I expect more crafts once I start full-clearing starting in act 4, since I'll get more of the consumable inputs but not more need for those uses.

What we did get was a couple marginal upgrades: Hwanin's set armor, useful for the paladin; Iceblink armor, upgraded for the spearazon's merc. A few more basic runewords for mercs in Malice and Strength in exceptional polearms. (Malice for characters who can't stop monster regen so want the open-wounds, which are the druid and sorc. Strength for those who need the crushing blow vs single targets, which are the necro and spearazon.)

And that's about it, besides the following, the major news was that the barbarian got almost a full equipment overhaul.

He finally got the weapon upgrade he needed, an Honor runeword in a Zweihander base. With the other teams, I kind of forgot to think about Honor before hell, before you can get elite bases and 5-socket drops. But you can make a 5-socket item via the cube recipe, and here I remembered to do that with an upper-exceptional base, and the result is a considerable upgrade over anything else available. Although I'm actually going to have him use it one-handed. Zweihander (despite the name, hah) actually has the smallest differential between the 1h and 2h damage numbers (only 35% less), which narrows further with Honor's +9 min/max applying equally to both, and so between that and the faster speed of 1H attacking, it's only a small drop in dps (about one-sixth) while allowing a shield.

So yeah, I think it's time that he goes with a shield. With Berserk causing zero defense and no leech, this barb feels very vulnerable. His survivability is entirely Howl and sucking potions, and it constantly feels like relying on that is recklessly cheating my way through, that it might fail any second at any moment. I want to see how much of a difference shield blocking makes, and the blocking value will be decent with the 94 dex that he needs to support the sword. I'm still trying not to overspend on stat points before finding his endgame weaponry, particularly on a character that won't be wearing heavy armor (because zero defense); but I'm less averse to spending some on a barb; with Battle Orders he's still over 1800 life even with only 200 vit. The shield is Rhyme for all its usual goodies, particularly cannot-be-frozen; I also considered Sigon's, but the +skill isn't that important since he can have +warcry weapons on switch for BO/BC/Shout.

And those stat points now get a big helper: I got Lum and Fal runes, to make him a Lionheart. This is unusual, I don't think I've ever used Lionheart on a barb before, they always want high defense instead, but not a berserker. Other characters here would also want Lionheart (the bladesin also for stat points, the spearazon for resists, maybe the paladin until he finds a worthwhile defense armor), but the barb has the most immediate need for the stats and so he gets it.

I also got a Mahim-Oak Curio amulet, usually a curiosity, but actually very useful here with exactly what the barb needs in +10 all attributes. Finally, I also got a Jewel of Fervor, which I socketed into the Immortal King helm and now the barb is wearing that too. (Leaving the second socket open for now; a second jewel of fervor won't reach the next speed breakpoint now; but will if combined with Sigon's gloves or a Goldwrap belt, if those happen to show up.)

The remaining note from the barb is that I don't know what to do with his ring slots. Not leech, because Berserk doesn't. He doesn't need resists between Lionheart and Rhyme and Mahim-Oak and Natural Resist. So I may as well plug in dual Nagelrings, take the magic-find plus the AR.

Besides the barb, the paladin also got an Honor runeword, in an also-cube-socketed Knout, the best 5-socket exceptional base (pity that Battle Hammer only goes to 4.) It's about the same dps as Ironstone up front, but as always Honor's great package beats other comparables. And I figured out I could get the knout to the fastest Zeal breakpoint: it requires one Jewel of Fervor on top of Fanaticism and Sigon's gloves, and the place I could socket that is a shield; so I made him a new shield with that and 3 perfect diamonds; you don't need 4 diamonds in nightmare.

And also the Ironstone can pass over to the necromancer for him to use for a melee weapon too. (Who foresaw this, a melee necro getting hand-me-downs from a paladin!) I do like the necro having melee capability; it's mostly useful to pick off straggler monsters who took some damage from CE and then wandered out of range and away from the merc/golem. Particularly want that for blowdart flayers in act 3, and the zakarum healers as well. I'd also be happy with ranged combat for the necro, but I haven't found anything really workable in dealing enough damage while having manageable stat requirements.

And hah, I knew he was ready to go when his attack rating came to exactly 666.

Act 3

Short notes here, most characters continued along uneventfully.

Barbarian: My first time playing a barb with a shield, and the block-lock is noticeable but tolerable. I may actually prefer his block rate near 50% rather than max; blocking isn't for tankability, it's just to give me enough time to react with potions or retreating. The Honor sword is quite good as a weapon and I think it can suffice through act 1 hell, when I should find an elite base for a better one, if nothing else better by then. Although what I find weird about this setup is the one-handed sword swinging animation. It looks off-balance somehow, I keep feeling like the barb looks like he's about to fall over.

Paladin: Also liking his Honor a lot, particularly cranked up to max Zeal speed. He's the most powerful for dps out of this group, except when Corpse Explosion or Lightning Strike are hitting a whole screenful at once.

Sorceress: She came up to her full power level now, with Fire Wall reaching max this act, and now she can use both that and Glacial Spike, the classic "freezer-burn" combo. It's effective; not really any noticeably more dps than Glacial alone, but Fire Wall is useful in costing less mana by killing in one or two casts instead of six or so.

Necro: The Iron Golem survived his third straight act all the way.

Assassin: Longest report here. I've now got the hang of how to most effectively drive Blade Fury, and it goes like this. Hold on one target monster. When it's going to die - when you expect the two or three blades currently in flight to kill it - start clicking rapidly, which keeps the assassin in the blade-firing animation without stopping, until you get a lock on a suitable next target to kill that you can then hold on. And repeat from there. I prefer this method over what the guides say, which is to click-hold on a distant monster and let the blades kill closer intervening ones first... but the downside of that is you can't see the target's health bar, and you lose focus on a partway damaged one if it moves out of the line of fire.

This assassin's weakness has been the weak shadow summon. She needs that to tank longer while BF gradually does the killing. It's now time to raise the shadow, after maxing Blade Fury and Venom. (I'm pausing Claw Mastery at 10 points; that damage increase is small at only 4% per point, the AR doesn't apply to BF, and the diminishing-returns crit chance has plateaued.) I tried out Shadow Master through this act, and now decided to go with that, instead of Warrior as the previous two assassins did. I've always preferred Warrior, because you can easily induce her to cast Fade for survivability, and because you can control her not to cast traps when you don't want her overwriting your own, or to use Phoenix along with you to help out with damage. But the shadow can't use Blade Fury, so SW doesn't have much to do while the assassin is firing, but SM can get in there and mix it up more with her own skills. She chips in a lot of Mind Blast, which is quite helpful as a complement to Blade Fury, since the single-target attack can keep simply shooting at whatever didn't get mind blasted.

On to the items. The story of this act was this collection:

Basically all the good mid-level melee helms all showed up now. Randomness is clumpy.

So, how do we allocate them? First, Rockstopper is going on the spearazon. I want the most defensive piece on the most fragile of the meleers. She's the one who wants the resists including physical, plus vitality for life, and even strong defense as I was thinking about for her; might even be worth upgrading eventually for the defense.

Guillaume's Face then goes on the paladin. He uses the deadly strike unlike the spearazon's lightning skills, and can dish out the crushing blow faster. This does mean giving up the AR on Sigon's helm, but I guess he can tolerate that with the 250 on Honor. Guillaume's strength requirement is a bit of a problem; I actually decided to socket it with a Hel to help with that. It's worth a socket quest long term, it'll always be in use at least on a merc, and can be swapped out for a resist rune or jewel later.

Tal Rasha's mask goes... nowhere for now, what's with that level 66 requirement, we won't make that until halfway through act 5. I may put this on the paladin for more leech and resists in hell difficulty, will decide later.

Not much else notable, a couple minor pieces. Fleshrender unique club, which the necromancer will take as his weapon - less damage than Ironstone, but a great package of prevent-heal, open wounds, crushing blow, deadly strike, and a much lower requirement that doesn't require half an inventory of strength charms. Also got a Kuko Shakaku bow, that I'm going to try out on the necromancer for ranged combat, also because of its low requirements, though I don't expect anything spectacular out of it.

And I got my first skill charm. Not exactly the greatest, but can't pass up a life suffix.

Besides that, I made two more Honors by cube-socketing 5-socket weapons. One is a Partizan polearm, for merc use, goes to the necro's as the most dependent on his merc. The other is a Tabar two-handed axe... to become a new Iron Golem! This might be a waste of resources, particularly risky as to whether he can hold up against Diablo in act 4, but it'll be fun to give it a shot, I want to try out better golems to see how good they ever get.

Lastly, the rune department. I got two more Fals, which means two more Lionhearts (actually the Fals outpaced the Lums that the runeword also needs and I was missing one of those, but got it by cubing from Ios.) One goes to the spearazon; she doesn't greatly need the stats yet (the Impaler spear's requirements are low), but will certainly take the resists and life.

The other Lionheart goes to the character who does need stats for a weapon upgrade, which is the assassin. And now it's her turn for an equipment overhaul. Lionheart means she can support a claw with higher requirements now. So I gambled all her money on claws to improve Blade Fury, looking for something good in rare quality to cube-upgrade to exceptional, with some combination of damage and/or the Fool's prefix for AR and/or ITD. I got this:

The curious part there is the 76 max damage per level - that means this claw has not only Fool's, but it's stacked with the other max damage per level prefix (Grinding)! That works out roughly equivalent to a decent ED% multiplier (roughly 100%), so I went with it.

With the Fool's claw, now she could live without the Cleglaw's gloves/shield set combo for AR (still also has Hsaru's belt/boots pair for that.) And in the gambling, I'd gotten a +2 assassin skills claw, so put that on her off hand. This assassin build can easily go either way of claw/claw or claw/shield, and the former is generally better with Weapon Block better than shield blocking, as long as your resists are covered which they are from Lionheart and Fade, so she can take the skills on the off-claw. Taking off Cleglaw's gloves means losing the knockback property on them... so I replaced that with a hit power crafted glove, which also has knockback, and rolled good lightning resist plus a few other small mods.

Besides the assassin's claw, the rest of my gambling money went to amulets. I'd done circlets around this time previously, but this team already has plenty of good helms; there's only two (bladesin and sorceress) that would want a generic circlet with +skills, and Lore is decent enough in that place. Amulets are a good choice now, with +3 to skill trees now available at level 60 (we're 61.) Didn't get anything spectacular, but a few rares with good combinations of +1 class skills and resists.

Act 4

As always, nightmare act 4 has the big payoff in the Hellforge runes. We'll start with that, since this was wild.

First came the most beautiful moment I'd imagined. The paladin popped an Um rune from his own hellforge! And thus I know his endgame weapon will be exactly what I wanted, Crescent Moon, soon as I find the right elite base.

Then the hellforge delivered utter trash: Io, Hel, Dol, Dol, Shael. But then:

For the barbarian, playing last, again it delivered an Um!

So okay, I have to run some statistics on that. The chance of at least two Ums in 7 tries is 12.8%. But here's a bunch of math just for fun:

What were the chances that everything else was as low as that in the 5 trials besides the two Ums? It goes like this:

At least one Shael or worse in the remaining 5 trials: 1 - (9/11)5 = 63.3%
At least one Dol or worse in the remaining 4 trials: 1 - (8/11)4 = 72.0%
At least one Dol or worse in the remaining 3 trials: 1 - (8/11)3 = 61.5%
At least one Hel or worse in the remaining 2 trials: 1 - (7/11)2 = 59.5%
At least one Io or worse in the remaining 1 trial: 1 - (6/11)1 = 45.4%

Multiplying all of those comes to a 7.6% chance of doing that low or worse. And multiplied with the 12.8% chance of two Ums, that comes to a 0.97% chance of the runes having come out that extreme. Or more precisely stated, 0.97% that exactly 2 runes came out that outlyingly high and exactly 5 came out that outlyingly low or worse.

The multiple endpoints fallacy does apply here. I'm pointing out how unlikely a particular case is after that case already happened, ignoring all the other just as unlikely cases that didn't.

To correct for that, we can look at the runes not as high or low, but for skewedness. Quantify it by the distance from the median.

At least one that is in the most extreme 2/11 steps (Um or Sol) in 7 trials: 1 - (9/11)7 = 75.5%
At least one that is in the most extreme 2/11 steps (Um or Sol) in the remaining 6 trials: 1 - (9/11)6 = 70.0%
At least one that is in the most extreme 4/11 steps (Pul+ or Shael-) in the remaining 5 trials: 1 - (7/11)5 = 89.6%
At least one that is in the most extreme 6/11 steps (Lem+ or Dol-) in the remaining 4 trials: 1 - (5/11)4 = 95.7%
At least one that is in the most extreme 6/11 steps (Lem+ or Dol-) in the remaining 3 trials: 1 - (5/11)3 = 90.6%
At least one that is in the most extreme 8/11 steps (Fal+ or Hel-) in the remaining 2 trials: 1 - (3/11)2 = 92.6%
At least one that is in the most extreme 10/11 steps (Ko+ or Io-) in the remaining 1 trial: 1 - (1/11)1 = 90.9%

Multiply all those and you get a 34.5% chance of the total results being at least this extreme from the median. Not quite as low as I thought, but still demonstrably improbable.

Anyway, short character reports from the ones with something interesting to say.

Druid: He ran into the obstacle I knew was coming, the first fire immune monsters... which he ignored and kept right on trucking. Turns out that Molten Boulder and Volcano's physical synergy with each other is plenty enough to kill them. Boulder rolls right through doom knights and venom lords, hitting them repeatedly and kills them in about three casts even on players-5. Volcano works too and at longer range. So, like, what's up with all the standard advice that fire druids can't do hell? Did the people saying that ever actually try it? Did they max only Fissure and never try anything else? Do they just have no patience?

Spearazon: And she ran into her first lightning immunes, the Damned in the city of them. (Surprisingly, burning souls aren't.) Impaler's physical damage with 1-point Jab was barely enough to take care of them... slowly, and really the merc was doing more of the damage. Impaler has gone about as far as could be expected, and now she needs a weapon upgrade, but I just don't have any available.

Necromancer: Diablo is the scariest fight of the whole game for him, but like in normal difficulty, he handled it without too much trouble. The key was the same as before, to tank D myself to keep his attacks off the merc and golem. I kept a Nokozan Relic amulet (10% max fire resist) specifically for this purpose, which worked. Diablo's firestorm could do significant damage to the iron golem - it looked like enough to kill him if he took the full brunt - so I never let that happen: I always kept a portal open, and ran for it whenever D went into the firestorm casting animation (very slow under Decrepify so I could see it and react), about five times throughout the fight. And so the iron golem survived, hooray. Finally, the other key was Guillaume's Face on the merc for the crushing blow, which took down Diablo in only a couple minutes of attacking.

Barbarian: Yeah, I like the shield style and will probably go with it that way permanently, unless some crazy good (Ribcracker) 2h weapon comes. The cannot-be-frozen on Rhyme alone accounts for more dps than one-handedness loses, whenever the barb is chilled, which in hell difficulty is pretty much every other boss pack.

So on to the items.

First off, here's a new angle that I implemented for this act. I decided to get greedy for a bit. I loaded up a fair bit of magic-find on each of the characters, most around 100% to 150%. This is the time to do it, late nightmare difficulty, when monster threat levels are medium but the rewards in exceptional uniques can be good. This is possible because I have resists covered pretty well all the way around, with a bunch of Lionhearts and good shields and boots and belts, although I compromised some on +skills and life. Some of the specifics: four characters (bladesin, necro, druid, paladin) are devoting the helm slot to 3-topaz helms (this contradicts what I said about the paladin getting Guillaume's helm, which went temporarily on the necro's merc), and also I stuck a topaz in the barb's second Immortal King helm socket. Plus some usual MF stuff in Nagelrings, various amulets, Rhyme shields.

This worked... in an RNG gonna RNG kind of way. I definitely got a good number of uniques for the short act... in another drastically clumpy distribution: the paladin got eight different uniques before Diablo, the barbarian got five; the necro and spearazon got zero.

Here's the important ones. First off, if the theme from the last act was helms, this time it was shields:

Moser's shield is always a fine piece. Although really I don't have anyone to take full advantage of it, everyone who has dex for blocking either wants Rhyme more (barb, paladin) or a dual assassin claw instead. The druid may as well use this as a small resists upgrade over his 3-diamond; the barb would take it for hell difficulty if he can get CBF somewhere besides Rhyme.

Trang-Oul's Wing is also cool, here popped by the necromancer for himself off Diablo. It's particularly suited for a melee necro. The skills and fire resist are stuff you can get on a random head, but the strength and dex stats can help quite a bit towards supporting a decent weapon. Actually the dex can even make for some halfway decent blocking with the ICB here too.

And Visceratuant shield, +1 to sorceress skills. She'll keep it, but not use it for now, she's still using that big +5 Glacial staff and will for all of nightmare difficulty. For hell, she'll probably need a shield with resists; not sure if a diamond in Visc would be enough (and Lidless Wall does the same thing better, if that comes up.)

Next, these uniques, the first of which I had in mind as one in particular to hope for:

Spineripper dagger and Grim's Burning Dead scythe - the two best melee necro weapons! They're specifically designed for this purpose, to cover a necromancer's deficiencies. One is attack rating, since the necro has no AR skills or multiplier at all (his to-hit rating has sunk below 40%), so Spineripper has ITD and Grim's has -50% target defense. The other is stat requirements: a dagger-class weapon's are naturally low (even if upgraded to elite), and Grim's has -50%. Plus necro skills on both, IAS and PMH on the dagger, and Grim's throws in some fire resist. So these are some really cool options for him. I'll keep both and see how one- or two-handed combat goes with each of them. (I found these with the other teams too, they're not rare, just weren't worth noting then.)

Two more good pieces that came for the first time for any of the teams. Finally got a Raven Frost ring! The barb popped it from a completely ordinary skull pile in Plains of Despair. And a String of Ears.

Both of these have to go on the spearazon. Raven Frost is the only place she can easily get cannot-be-frozen, plus the AR and dex are always great for melee. And the damage reduction and leech and even defense on String of Ears have to go to her too. Man, the spearazon is totally the problem child of this family, always getting the bribes to get her to behave...

And a few other complementary pieces, not worth individual screenshots. Dark Clan Crusher, great for +2 druid skills, now he can ditch Hellplague and the need for dex for it. Blade of Ali Baba, magic find, and actually I'm giving this to the necromancer for act 5 nightmare because he can hold it in his weapon slot without losing any significant offense. (And even fill the sockets, with a Hel for requirements and an Io thrown in for vitality.) Rattlecage armor, worth an upgrade to put on the necro's merc, which is a great fit, he wants the crushing blow and can override the monster-flee with Dim Vision.

A few that didn't make the cut to be useful: Bonesnap, possible endgame weaponry for a barb, although I don't think I'm going to try to use it, it takes way too much strength if upgraded to elite, and also this one was low on the damage roll (224% out of 200-300.) Coldkill hatchet, might have been useful earlier, but now not better than Honor for the barb or paladin; if upgraded it would beat an exceptional Honor, but not by enough to justify spending an upgrade rune, and wouldn't beat an elite Honor. The Ward shield, better than a 3-diamond shield if socket-quested for a diamond; will keep that on someone's switch (the druid has nothing else there) and see if anyone ever wants it.

Minor news: I made three more cube-socketed Partizan bases into Honors for mercs. That's really good for them at this point, better than anything else we've gotten. And they'll be in use for a long time, until we get seven better weapons (probably elite Honors), remember each new merc weapon replaces the worst of whatever seven are on hand. This all does consume a ton of Amn and Sol runes, but hey, that's alleviating the space crunch.

And some random rune drops made up a little for what the hellforge missed: yet another Lum and Fal pair, so now I have yet a fourth Lionheart. This one goes on the druid, since he's the caster that least uses Stealth's fast-cast.

But what I didn't get, still, was any armors. I've just got nothing for those at all. I'm now running four Lionhearts, still two Stealths on the necro and sorc, and Hwanin's set armor on the paladin. Not to mention the mercs that are still using vendor shopped junk, of blessed ancient armor or some such. Even a Goldskin or Spirit Shroud would be an upgrade here, come on already.

I'm not 100% sure what to do with the second Um rune. Probably should be a Crescent Moon for the barb too, particularly given that he got the rune for himself. But I hesitate because that weapon makes less difference for him, less likely to make the difference between Guardian or failing; he doesn't live on leech and speed like the paladin does; Battle Orders and Howl can slog through just about anything regardless of what the weapon is. I'm tempted for the Um to go for a Duress or Stone for the spearazon, since that might be her only good way to get some good amount of defense. At any rate, this decision won't happen now, and likely not until after act 1 hell when the bases for either the barb's weapon or the armor can occur.

The biggest missing piece is a weapon for the spearazon. (Crescent Moon infuriatingly doesn't work in spears.) Upgrading Impaler would be the most direct way, but the hellforge didn't cough up any Pul runes for it. (And the requirements go way high, would probably spend a socket quest on a Hel rune for it.) Honor would be good like the paladin and barb are currently using, but it's problematic to build in a spear: there's only one 5-socket-max exceptional spear (War Fork), and it's pretty low base damage for an exceptional. I don't have an endless rune supply to try to punch a 5-socket Lance or amazon spear at 1/6 odds. If nothing better happens (where are you Hone Sundan), the baseline plan is Honor in a Mancatcher elite base, though getting to one in hell difficulty may be a task.

And as a short interlude here, I rearranged a bunch of equipment for act 5. Mostly to optimize around the magic-find gear, to see what we can get in act 5, particularly hoping for armors, the Guardian Angel came from there before. Most characters are continuing with a topaz helm, including the paladin; which means he still isn't wearing Guillaume's or Tal Rasha's mask, so that the necro's merc can, which is targeted to be important specifically for his Ancients fight. (Don't let me do this for hell difficulty though. For hell, everyone has to go with their real equipment; at most I might bend to squeeze in a magic-find amulet or boots.)

For this one act, the necro will use Ali Baba and Rhyme rather than Spineripper / Trang-oul's / Grim's.

The assassin took off Hsaru's belt/boots; she can live without the AR for now, with the Fool's claw. This allows more MF, on a boot, and also the belt slot with Tal Rasha's. Which also has dex, so she could swap out her amulet with dex for MF there too. (Her base dex is 50, supporting a claw of 73 requirement via Lionheart and one other item which is now Tal's belt. I'm not sure how high her base dex will go; maybe not any higher; she's a good candidate to use Lionheart to endgame.)

The spearazon is the only one not using a magic-find helm (five others have a 3-topaz, and the barb has Immortal King's), because Rockstopper is just too good and I'd never forgive myself if she died without it, and also I socketed Rockstopper with an IAS jewel to gain an attack breakpoint. So I optimized the rest of her MF around that: she got the best of my three Nagelrings, and also my best MF amulet (Rainbow of Luck), and a good rare glove with IAS and MF and a resist.

I switched the Waterwalk boot from the druid to the spearazon; she has resists covered from Rockstopper and Lionheart, so she'll take the life in this slot, also the good defense and 5% max fire resist. She's actually well set up for actual defense rating, she's got surprisingly good defense in all of the helm (Rockstopper) and belt (String of Ears) and boot (Waterwalk) slots. Still need some kind of defense armor other than Lionheart though.

The druid, assassin, and barb also all have resists covered from Lionheart plus either Fade or Rhyme or Nat Resistance, so don't need that in the boot slot, so can take MF there. But the remaining MF boots I've got have no run speed. The barb can just go without it with Increased Speed. The assassin can go without it too, she hardly moves while fighting, and has Burst of Speed for town and longer distances. The druid needs FRW less than he used to (I used to run around a lot to aim for Boulder rolling lanes, but now he tends to stay still casting Volcano more, plus Fissure is also ramping up), but still wants some, so took a M'avina's set belt which has 20% FRW. The druid also took a Rhyme shield, because that and Lionheart cover resists well enough that he doesn't need Moser's.

And I realized this tweak for the paladin: his armor slot (Hwanin's) is weak enough that it's actually better to trade it out for a topaz MF armor, and swap out the topaz MF helm for Tal Rasha's instead. (In other words, Tal's helm is better than anything he's got for armor.)


Holy freakin crap I gambled Aldur's boots! I'm not going to use it right now; the only character anywhere near 95 strength is the barbarian, and he's fine with MF in the slot instead. This will probably go on the spearazon for hell difficulty, depending on her strength target for weapon requirements, but every elite spear is way over 95.

And also just a couple procedural notes that I want to fill in. One is that I'm not using Find Item on the barb. Partly because it's really boring and dull to hork everything, and also because it requires sinking two skill points or constantly swapping in a helm with the skill. But also from a sense of keeping the characters balanced. Each character has access to 7 characters' worth of item drops, which is what I'm trying to do... but I don't want the identity of those characters to matter, that there's more loot available because one of the teammates happens to be a barb.

Another is that I've been controlling the player count precisely. It's been p5 for all of nightmare difficulty, except for p3 for act bosses from Duriel onwards. Higher than that just means overshooting the monster levels into the experience penalty, and p5 is enough in the way of item drops (p7 is only about 15% more.) With the other teams, I tweaked the player count a lot more often depending on what each character felt like they could handle... but I want to do it differently this time. I want to stick to the idea that anything any character gets is something that any of them could have done, none of them relying on a more powerful teammate to find more items or clear more areas. This is particularly because of the necromancer, who is highly sensitive to player count because Corpse Explosion always is; I don't want the situation to feel like he was carried at all. This is also why I'm trying to keep the magic-find numbers fairly close to balanced as well.

I've even been keeping the experience numbers precisely balanced, by tweaking the player count towards the end of each act (false tombs, Durance, Chaos, and Worldstone to come) when someone is a little lower or higher. Right now all are within 0.5% of each other except the druid who's a little behind (he routed through the Durance quickly before I thought about doing this systematically; I'll fix this in act 5.) This isn't any kind of variant or requirement, just something I feel like doing. I'm also curious to see how closely the experience numbers track without any intervention as I full-clear all of the next two acts, which should in theory yield the same experience for everyone, though of course there's random variation.

Act 5

And once again I crowned seven Conquerors.

First off, a little bit of temporal causality violation. The paladin, playing first, found another Bonesnap. Now that I knew that was on hand after the act, I could have the necromancer start the act with the first Bonesnap made into his Iron Golem! Taking advantage of future knowledge is either a minor loophole in or clever use of the rules. I'm going to go with it, I can't stop myself from knowing what each character already found before the next one goes.

One difficulty there was I had no Sol runes for upgrading the Bonesnap (after spending them all on merc Honors last act)... so I took a few characters through the nightmare Countess and normal cow level to find one, which I'd intentionally left undone for just such a need like this. (The cow level also happened to supply a couple other goodies: a perfect MF Nagelring, and a Sigon's boots that had been a missing piece so far.)

Anyway, Bonesnap makes a great Iron Golem. It's better than the Honor that it replaced: Honor's package of skills/AR/leech does much less for a golem than a player, and Bonesnap's cold and fire resist are great, gets the golem to over 90% resistance on top of a few levels of Summon Resist. Solid damage too, can usually kill a monster in about five hits on p5 to get a corpse chain started without help from the merc, when he's occupied elsewhere. And that's before I put any points in Fire Golem as the damage synergy. I was hesitating on that because 6% per point doesn't seem like much, but to start hell difficulty I'll probably go ahead and invest in Fire Golem, there really isn't anything else to add to this necro build.

The Bonesnap golem died late in the act, here's how. The merc tripped the untargetable bug during the Ancients fight while I was running to separate them, though I didn't realize it yet. Then the first monster pack in Worldstone Keep (Cursed + Extra Strong) all ignored the merc and swarmed the golem and killed him in about five seconds. I almost reacted fast enough to portal out to save him, but missed it. Anyway, I made a replacement by shopping a weapon from Larzuk (a cruel zweihander), which lasted for a while but then also died to a boss pack in the Throne. I finished up from there with the clay golem instead. Lister's pack was surprisingly easy (only about ten hits each from the merc on p3), and Baal was a complete non-event, for whatever reason as always he just never does anything while clay-golem-slowed and Decrepified, and my damage came from the 60% crushing blow on the merc.

That crushing blow came from Rattlecage on the merc, which was an interesting experience with the monster-flee. I didn't really mind if monsters ran away... but the problem was, every time it happened, the merc would immediately sprint off chasing whatever he scared! That I can't live with long-term, so will have to swap out the Rattlecage for hell difficulty.

Druid: His last skill of Fissure came near max, and I started using it... and yeah, it is the strongest piece in the fire druid arsenal, as much as I was trying to use Volcano and Boulder more. Fissure and Volcano deal similar damage per cast, but Fissure hits a wider area with a shorter casting timer. Fissure also has the odd behavior (which I've known all along) of the LastCollide property, the effect of which is that if two monsters are standing on the same fissure missile, it alternates hitting both of them very rapidly and deals enormous dps. But that said, all four fire skills do have tactical applications and I enjoy driving this character quite a bit. Fissure is the mainstay most often. Volcano is best against single large targets or of course fire-immune packs. Boulder is best against single or small groups of small targets, as it rolls through and repeatedly hits them, or in tight corridors where Fissure and Volcano won't work. And Firestorm is best at cleaning up the smallest targets (the blinky demon imps), just because it has the shortest casting timer until you can aim your next shot.

Spearazon: I think I'm sold now on skipping Dodge/Avoid permanently. I realized another way you gain from that: casting Decoy! It always seems that amazons have trouble casting that in a thick fight; I always just chalked it up to the slow casting animation... but what's really happening is Dodge/Avoid interrupting it! This amazon gets off her Decoys faster and more reliably than any I've played before. So I'm hoping that can be enough to get through hell difficulty without Valkyrie. It's even going to be worth looking for a fast-cast ring or two to improve this.

Sorceress: This act I learned how to drive Fire Wall better with her. This image illustrates how and why:

You want to cast Fire Wall diagonal to the screen edges, which is orthogonal to the game grid. Medium-size monsters occupy an X shape that extends 3 tiles in those grid-orthogonal directions, so get hit by 3 tiles worth of firewall missiles, as opposed to just 1 tile of collision for a firewall cast in the grid-diagonal (screen-cardinal) orientation. The difference in damage is very noticeable.

The paladin, barb, and bladesin are proceeding steadily with nothing new at the moment.

So on to the loot, of which we did turn up a pretty nice haul from full-clearing the act. (except Halls of Pain, screw that noise, and some bits of the outdoor areas with all the barricades.)

My first guest needs no introduction:

Well, that settles that.

Same here:

Hone Sundan, exactly what the spearazon wanted! Although we still need a Pul rune to upgrade it.

Whoa. Looks like the paladin's weapon won't be Crescent Moon after all: he dropped himself a Razor's Edge tomahawk from Baal! It's very comparable to Crescent Moon, with similar damage and speed and defense piercing and even open wounds... but also that big 50% deadly strike, which makes it outdamage (and outleech) Crescent Moon in any base by that 50%. And it can get socketed with something, unlike a runeword. 125 strength is a little high but manageable. And he's got this right now to start hell, instead of needing to find and socket an elite base that might take all of an act in hell to show up. So, yeah, he has to use this. It's arguable that Crescent Moon might even still be slightly better, with the CTC Static... but it's not better enough to be worth the cost of an Um, which could be a Duress for someone instead.

And speaking of Um runes:

Holy crap! First time I ever dropped an Um from a random monster (previously got them from the hellforge, countess, and super chests.) And also the first time, crazy as this sounds, that I'd rather have wished for a lesser rune instead. (Pul to upgrade Hone Sundan.) Anyway, now I've got three Ums, so after a Crescent Moon for the barb, the others probably will go to two Duresses, for the spearazon and paladin. (Although I am actually tempted to cube two into a Mal, for a Prudence armor. I might actually do that if I get a 2-socket eth-bugged elite armor before a 3-socket for the Duresses.) (Sorry, necro fans, I'm not spending Sol-Um-Um on a Bone runeword for him.)

I also got yet another Fal rune, my fifth. (1 Ko, 5 Fal, 0 Lem, 0 Pul, 3 Um. Randomness is clumpy.) Well, I can still use a fifth Lionheart, this time for the necromancer. (And again I was short a Lum and had to cube one from Ios.)

I then finally did get a Lem rune after that. I'm considering this to make a Treachery armor for the barbarian, but I'm not sure yet, Lionheart for the stat points is also solid. I'm going to do the nightmare cow level first and see if anything relevant comes up there. There's also this:

A rare tomahawk with Cruel level damage. A cruel elite does beat the barbarian's exceptional Honor by a fair margin, and he'll probably use this to start hell difficulty. Berserk does waste the dual leech, so I considered giving this to the paladin instead for that reason... but the more important consideration is that the deadly strike on the Razor's Edge feeds into the paladin leeching and he gains more from that. There's also this factoring in to the barbarian's gear:

Scored both the Immortal King gloves and boots this act, to go with the helm that dropped before. Nice package for the barbarian here. I was actually a little annoyed at first when the boots dropped - it's not all that useful by itself but means I have to hold on to it taking up space in case we get more pieces - but then we did! Anyway, he should be able to use all this for hell difficulty; the downside is no resists on these pieces, but he should be set enough for resists elsewhere between Lionheart or Treachery (Fade) plus Rhyme plus Natural Resistance. The +20 stats on the gloves goes a long way towards supporting a big weapon, such as that rare tomahawk for now.

Next, finally got some exceptional armors this act...

... well, like, all of the less useful ones. Que-Hegan's Wisdom is no Vipermagi, but I guess it's good enough to fill the sorceress's armor slot (still just Stealth), and worth socketing with a resist rune. I'm not sure what to do with the Iron Pelt; the damage reduction is cool, but it doesn't do much else and the defense isn't enough to be worth upgrading, guess I'll throw it on a merc. Trang-Oul's armor doesn't do much for general use eithrer, but I have to keep it to presummon Iron Golem, even though it makes the necromancer's stash space crunch even worse yet again. Finally, Haemosu's Adamant is OK defense for the paladin to use temporarily until he can assemble his Duress.

And here's a fun run:

I got five consecutive mediocre skill charms with mediocre suffixes. (Half of all skill charms have a suffix, and I got five straight.) I'm not even sure the traps ones are worth using; it's only Blade Fury and only a small gain in damage, though I might go with the cold-damage one; but I did also later get (not pictured) a shadow disciplines charm as well, which is actually the better one for her by quite a bit. For that last one pictured here, of course the nice sorceress lightning charm turned up on the one team where the sorceress isn't using lightning.

Minor finds: a Steelclash shield, OK for paladin skills, though completely superseded by the Herald of Zakarum. Bloodletter sword, will keep that on hand for the barb, could conceivably be worth using as his weapon if I get a Pul to upgrade it and decide to spend all the Ums elsewhere besides a Crescent Moon. A second Blade of Ali Baba, which someone can take for the nightmare cow level at least, which will be the druid because he can wield any weapon type and can spare the weapon slot for it, and has a Lionheart for the stats to wield it (unlike the sorceress.) Wall of the Eyeless, but I can't really justify a non-resistances non-skills shield in hell difficulty. Kelpie Snare, useful for a merc, I think the paladin's who needs the help against crowds the most. Finally, the barb got a new Rhyme in a Heater shield base, trading out his tower shield version; 2% less blocking but lightweight for no run speed penalty instead of heavy.

Cow Level

Finally, I did the nightmare cow level, which is worth a short report on its own. That plus setting up for hell difficulty felt almost like an extra act in the sequence.

This was more of an adventure than usual. It started with deciding to do the cows on players-7 for everyone, for the experience to gain one more level, to 73. (73 isn't anything special, just wanted to get one more level for stats and crafts and imbues before starting hell difficulty.)

I had the paladin go first, because I was excited to use the Razor's Edge axe, and also because he was currently holding all my partial gems for cubing (whoever is going first always takes those, so everyone else as they finish can combine gems with that.) He thrashed the cows very solidly - he could actually tank an unlimited amount of them between his defense and leeching.

The barbarian and bladesin... rather didn't. No, playing the cow level on players-7 was not the greatest idea in the world for single-target fighters with considerably less dps and without life leech. Neither were ever in danger - always a snap of a Howl or Mind Blast away from safety - but each took over an hour to grind through four hundred p7 cows. Definitely not the peak of fun I've ever had playing this game. Well, at least they did get that hard-earned level. And the barb's merc could tank an almost unlimited amount of cows, again between leech and defense (with Shout from the barb.)

However, this experience made me think of a new angle for the bladesin. She has an off-hand claw slot available for pretty much anything... so I got her a claw with +Death Sentry. This is an interesting area to think about. I originally decided not to hybridize her character build into DS, so as not to feel like a trapsin rehash. But just slotting in an item isn't a build, so I decided this was in play enough to try out. Did it work? I'd say it helped mildly, but was far from dominating. The death sentries at a low skill level and small blast radius actually aren't good at finding a target that has a corpse within range. And DS's damage is significantly less than necromancer CE, less than half per corpse after accounting for Amplify too. And so DS never resulted in the big chain-reaction domino effect. But it did sometimes helpfully get part of a pack down on health partway. I'm undecided whether to keep trying to use DS as a tool in her toolbox; might use it more on lower player counts towards the end of hell difficulty.

Anyway, the other characters with actual area damage blew through the cows fine as I expected, the sorc and fire druid and corpse explodey necro, where Dim Vision buys as much time as needed for the merc to start each corpse chain. The spearazon did fine too, just had to hack for a while to get enough hits of Lightning Strike's mediocre damage. For the necro, I didn't want to bother trying to keep an iron golem alive, so just used the clay one, and also tried out Fire Golem a bit but he didn't really make any difference.

Got two major pieces of loot:

Finally scored the Pul rune I need to upgrade the spearazon's weapon. Came just barely in time, for the last character to play, and on about the third-to-last pack of cows. And here's the other:

Tal Rasha's orb. Nice, so now I've got the three common pieces (orb, helm, belt; I'm under no delusions about finding the incredibly rare amulet or armor.) Is this worth using? I thought about it a lot. Each piece is moderately underwhelming: the orb has only the mastery skills, the dual leech on the helm is wasted by a sorc, and the belt does little if you don't need dex. But putting the partial set bonuses together adds up to just about enough: a real +1 skill on the orb and minus enemy fire resist, 10% more fast cast on the belt, and 65% magic find for any three items of the set. Overall, I decided that using a cool set combo was too much of an opportunity to pass up and I had to go with it here. The clincher is the big life and mana on the orb and helm, which wouldn't be likely to come on other options in those slots.

There is a knock-on effect from that: the paladin gave up Tal's helm so he now takes Guillaume's Face instead, and so the necro's merc can't have that so he has to take something mundane (a Wormskull for leeching.)

The cow level also turned up an extra Aldur's boot. And now I realize what I got from pushing magic-find on these characters: it paid off not so much in uniques, but in set items. The diminishing-returns formula applies only half as harshly for set-quality as for unique. And most set items are readily available early as soon as the base item can occur - like Tal's orb is available here where Oculus is too high a qlvl, even though they're the same base item. So that's been the real payoff of the magic find, collecting some nice set groupings in Immortal King's and Tal Rasha's, plus lots of Sigon's as usual.

Yeah, set items were dropping that often.

Here's one other ramification of getting all these sets and some uniques: What do I imbue now? I usually do class-specific items for imbues, since they're scarcer to get by other means. But this time, so many of those slots are filled already. Herald of Zakarum beats all possible rares, and I'm not likely to supersede Tal's orb, IK's helm, or Trang-Oul's head either, or Hone Sundan with an amazon spear. The druid can still try his pelts, and the assassin wants to do ethereal claws for Blade Fury, but besides those there isn't much to do here. The standard backup plan for imbues is circlets, since those can come out in many useful ways... but even a lot of the helm slots are filled already too. So actually, the door is open to try one particular plan, between the lack of other needs and the supply of Um runes on hand: the barb and paladin can imbue ethereal crystal/dimensional swords, and if any hits it big enough, upgrade it to an indestructible ethereal phase blade.

Finally, just a bit for the item connoisseurs, here's a few of my best rares accumulated over time. Doom Touch ring is beautiful for the bladesin, Blade Fury needs just a tiny bit of mana leech, plus it has AR and lit res and magic find. The gloves are on the necromancer, using the stats to wield Grim's scythe, and 10% IAS is okay enough for him, Grim's is a fast base type and he doesn't need to go crazy chasing breakpoints like more intensive melee classes. The boots belong to the sorceress, a whopping pile of modifiers (including the hit recovery) and of course Teleport can deal with low run speed. Viper Circle is the spearazon's, with the FCR to help Decoy, plus life leech and AR and a resist. Finally, Shadow Gorget amulet is also the spearazon's, and a very good fit; she can work without +skills, but really needs the resists and strength, plus there's magic find thrown in.

Hell difficulty next, read onward.

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