Diablo II - Hardcore Star Team 4

This is my writeup of playing through Diablo II with a particular group of characters. This is my fourth time doing this; see the menu at the bottom for the other reports. This was also originally related in this thread on the Realms Beyond forum. This site is a cleaned-up and streamlined adaptation from there.

Here are the rules again for reference. I liked this format so much that I'm still doing it for a fourth time, this time with this list of character builds. It started with the first three listed here, which I planned out even before the previous team, and I was going to do just those as a mini-group. But then I started thinking about ways to get more items involved (like rerunning act bosses), and then I started thinking of adding another class or two... and then I thought it all the way through and found one more build of each class I want to run. In the order that drew me to playing them:

As a technical side note, for this team I changed my video setup. I have the Glide wrapper doing the upscaling from 800x600 to my desktop resolution of 1600x1200, but now with bilinear filtering turned off. What I get now is exact 2x integer pixel scaling, with no blurring or smoothing at all. (My monitor isn't 16:9 1080p, it's 16:10 with 1200 vertical resolution, which makes for that perfect integer scaling from 600.) I can actually see the pixel graininess on my screen... and I love it that way, I can feel myself visually processing the battlefield faster by looking at the pixels rather than at any layer of smoothing. The upshot of this is now the text comes out smooth and readable on the screenshots; previously what happened was an extra layer of upscaling (by Glide) and downscaling (by D2's screenshot capture), which corrupted the text and make it look all crappy.

Normal Act 3

As before, the first report comes after act 3 normal, as the first time new character builds are worth talking about, so here we go. What's different about this team is the long grind up to 30; every build here except the kicksin is built around a level-30 skill, rather than getting started earlier as the previous team did. So it's at least somewhat interesting to cover the progression up that.

Paladin: For normal difficulty he's relying on Holy Shock first, which ramps up a lot faster than Smite which needs to raise both Holy Shield and Fanaticism. I'm going with 5 points of synergy for Holy Shock at the moment, and will decide later if I want more or to put everything towards Smite instead.

Necromancer: For act 1, I had a better plan than Poison Dagger-stabbing my way through as the previous poisonmancer did. Instead I learned from the melee necro: I grabbed (gambled) a crossbow and used that and Amplify and Corpse Explosion which were more than enough. And then I had another better plan: Bone Spear. That at level 1 was enough to kill Andariel, then I decided I could also put in 5 hard points now to use from act 2 up to level 30. Like the paladin's Holy Shock, Bone Spear is meant to be his endgame backup skill, but a few points now will make for a much less ghastly grind up to 30, and will delay the main attack's synergy only slightly.

Druid: Raise Wolverine first, because that's his only skill that starts before level 30, the only thing he can do alongside the 1-point werewolf skills. Wolverine can fit 10 points up to level 29. (This build is hellishly greedy on prerequisite points: 10 in elemental, 5 in shapeshifting, 6 in summoning.) Then max Armageddon (without synergy just yet, but it does get 3 points from its own prerequisites), then max Grizzly (in late nightmare when fire immunes start), then finish Wolverine, and everything beyond that goes into synergy for Armageddon.

However, for act 3 of normal difficulty, he went in a different direction. Someone found a pelt with +3 Fissure, so I loaded up with that and the synergy from the 1-point prerequisites to Armageddon... and amazingly even that low level of Fissure ripped through the flayers and other trash way faster than any melee approach would have. My other fire druid didn't get to do that in normal difficulty - he intentionally delayed Fissure to use the other skills first - so that was fun here. For act 4 this druid will go back to the werewolf plan against fire resistant monsters.

Sorceress: Her first skill to max was actually Fire Bolt. That's Hydra's synergy for later, so I could just start doing that right from the beginning to use early for the long grind up to 30. I could have used Fire Ball for this instead (same synergy to Hydra), but I intentionally wanted to go with Bolt specifically, for a chance to use that famously low-powered skill, and actually also to deliberately avoid Fire Ball for later, so that I'm not tempted to use it and overshadow Hydra.

Bowazon: She also has a use-now synergy-later skill in Cold Arrow, but it turns out it's really weak, it's like 50 damage and the AR doesn't work. So she did have to rely on a physical bow. And I let her put 1 point in Strafe to clean up trash like maggots and flayers faster, even though she won't really use Strafe later; she's not tight on prerequisite skill points as most of the other builds here are.

Barb: Of course his grind up to 30 for War Cry is laborious, but by now I'm used to doing that with 1-point Bash/Stun/Concentrate. For skills, he's maxing Battle Orders before any synergy to War Cry. He gets three things out of that: the life, the mana multiplier (not very relevant for most barbs but tremendously so for War Cry), and the damage synergy to his 1-point Concentrate attack. That totals enough value that I'm willing to do all that first as a higher priority.

Assassin: She has the most to go over here. I didn't describe the details of how I want to do this kicker build, so here it is. I intend to max both Dragon Talon and Dragon Tail, but not Tiger Strike.

Dragon Tail traditionally combos with Tiger Strike, but I don't want to do that for several reasons. I did do that build partway once before. There's not enough skill points for all of that without cutting into the other stuff a Talon kicker wants (Fade, Venom, shadow.) They conflict some in the weapon setup: Tiger attacks with the claw, Talon and Tail only want speed and skills. And finally I'm still sick of the charge-release martial style from the phoenix striker.

I want to play a Talon kicker with Tail also available as an option, so that's what I'm doing. They mesh well, using the same equipment (all damage comes from the boots) but changing pace from each other with neither dominating. Tail alone without Tiger seems decently workable by the numbers, not monstrous multiplicative damage, but a decent amount of splash on Tail's own. Really what I'm doing is taking the standard kicker/"flashdancer" build and substituting Death Sentry's splash damage with Dragon Tail instead. I want to play a dedicated kicker, not a gimped trapsin with extra steps, which is what anything involving Death Sentry would be.

However, that all said, I actually used 1-point Dragon Claw through acts 1 and 2. What I didn't realize was the mana cost of the kick skills, 6 for Dragon Talon and 10 for Tail, which was rather impractical on the low mana supply early on, compared to Dragon Claw costing only 2. And also claws ramp up better for damage early on than do boots. In act 3 I started using Dragon Tail more, once I could buy Greaves for kick damage and Dragon Tail's damage multiplier was ramping up.

Finally, besides all that for all the characters, the real truth is that as always, the mercenaries were doing at least half the work for everyone. Mercs just ramp up better than player characters as long as they have a decent weapon, which is easy with the savage polearms, particularly the higher bases of Bill and Partizan.

Notable items so far:

I didn't get a single Tal rune from all seven Countess kills, so no Stealth armors until later. I did get three Ith runes, and a Ral:

That's the bowazon's bow, 27 to maximum damage is quite a lot for the early acts, equivalent to +225% ED on this composite bow. And the Leaf comes to a total of +9 Fire Bolt (! - who knew Leaf also includes +3 Fire Bolt on top of the +3 fire skills?) for the sorceress.

Weapons for the melee characters: The paladin got a Steel flail to start act two (Tir-El also from Countess drops), then shopped a +Holy Shock scepter in act three. The druid gambled an early two-handed axe, then a maul, then used the Savage Polearm cube recipe. The barb also gambled an early sword, then a maul, which actually came with ED% good enough to be better than any of the savage polearms.

The bulk of useful items so far came from shopping Asheara at the start of act 3. I've learned that's an important step, for fire resistance against shamans and lightning against gloams. (Particularly with almost nobody on this team using a shield for resists, only the paladin, everyone else has a two-handed weapon or two claws or a necro head.) I loaded up on resistance belts and boots for everyone, and gloves with either IAS for the weapon-based characters or more resists for the others. In particular I got a sweet Fletcher's gloves of 10% IAS, best in slot for the bowazon at this point.

And that was the one interesting unique find, an Eye of Etlich amulet, that never came up for any of the other teams. I gave it to the druid, he's the one who most needs the +all skills (he's spread across all three trees the most), plus the life leech and cold damage. I also got a couple good starter skill amulets, +1 fire skills for the sorc and +combat skills for the paladin.

Finally: I got an Amn rune from the council, and a perfect sapphire by way of a gem shrine. That's the cube formula to upgrade a normal-tier rare weapon to exceptional, which is a great sneaky way to get access to a higher-end exceptional base item long before they can be had from drops or vendors or gambles.

So I gambled a rare maul in order to upgrade it, and got this nicely chunky beatstick for the barb, better than the savage polearms, even the -20% requirements helps too. (Although I overlooked that the upgrade formula increases the required level by 5, to 30, so he can't use it quite yet, currently level 28, but should hit 30 before Chaos Sanctuary.)

That's the first chapter of this tale.

Normal Act 4

Act 4 normal went quick as usual, but exciting. This was the big inflection point for everyone turning the corner at level 30 for the top-tier skills that they're built around. (Except the paladin, he's still doing Holy Shock for now and will divert into the Smite/Fanaticism build later.)

Druid: I was looking forward to him the most, he gets the biggest set of skills to kick in at level 30. He gets to run four damage engines at the same time, in Armageddon, Fury for his own melee, Grizzly, and the merc, with Wolverine multiplying all of them except 'Geddon. It was a ton of fun tearing through Chaos Sanctuary with all that.

Sorceress: Hydra also started right at level 30, outdoing Fire Bolt for damage rate right away, boosted by the Leaf staff and an amulet. Curious by this, I ran the numbers for Hydra at higher levels, and it turns out that with one synergy, Hydra actually deals a fair bit more dps than even Fireball, if all the bolts hit. I'm looking forward to seeing that play out. Although for the moment, the merc still had to do most of the work against fire resistant doom knights and venom lords in Chaos Sanctuary. This sorceress does get to use 1-point Enchant to help him with AR, at least. (I also Enchant myself, just so I can tell when it expires, by when her weapon is red or not.)

Bowazon: Also kicked in her big hitter of Freezing Arrow right away; at level 1 it deals more than Cold Arrow at level 20. This was particularly satisfying, since she was working through a terrible River of Flame with the worst possible monster spawn of maggots, flesh spawners, and urdars, taking forever to kill everything with Strafe and Cold Arrow's piddly damage... until she suddenly learned both Freezing Arrow and Pierce which tore through the spawner packs in seconds.

Necro: He didn't have that dramatic turning point just yet. Bone Spear had enough power to still outdo his fledgling Poison Nova through act four, helped by a +3 Bone Spear necro head along with the wand. Poison Nova should take the lead after a few more skill points, including that Act 5 is the first time you can shop a +Poison Nova wand.

Barb: Same as the necro, his top tier skill of War Cry isn't enough damage yet to outdo his lower-level attack. But it was good to clear maggot young and stun oblivion knights.

Assassin: She's the one character who didn't change anything at level 30. But I will talk a bit more about Dragon Tail. This skill ramps up more effectively than any other melee attack. Because of how the numbers work: Dragon Tail's damage modifier is multiplicative with other modifiers like strength rather than just adding the percentages. Level 10 Tail was very noticeably better than level 1; for once +100% damage actually means double. Also I hadn't realized how big the explosion radius is, 4 yards is noticeably wider than any other blast splash like Fireball or Fists of Fire or Immolation Arrow, it's as big as Meteor. So Dragon Tail has been very effective so far, and should continue to be through nightmare.

For items, first I'll mention a few that I missed covering after act 3. The paladin got an Ancients' Pledge shield, after I realized I had three extra Rals to cube into the Ort. Sander's boots for the druid, the stats help and 100 AR is significant too. And there was a Coif of Glory helm (hit blinds target), nice crowd control for the bowazon. Finally, the bowazon also upgraded bows slightly, to a stag bow socketed with +max damage jewels, slightly better than the 3x Ith bow.

As for items, nothing major enough to be worth a screenshot, but a few decent improvements.

The biggest was a Chieftain axe from Diablo, great for an upgrade (with my first Sol rune) for the werewolf to use, he needs the on-weapon IAS. The barb also got a weapon upgrade from Diablo, a rare maul with more (90) ED%, also worth an upgrade to exceptional and a pile of strength charms to use it. And a cool claw for the assassin, ethereal rare with self-repair and CTC Amplify which can be triggered by the kick skills.

Also got one more Sol rune for my first Lore helm, for the sorceress, as usual she gets the most benefit out of +skills because her damage is quadratic with the mastery. (The barb and druid don't yet have class-specific helms with skills worthy of socketing into a Lore.) The other notable helm was a Duskdeep, good for resistances for a merc.

Sander's gloves, good for IAS for the assassin. (Surprisingly, no Sigon's pieces yet.)

For armors, everyone is now using either Stealth or a gemmed armor to support weapon str/dex requirements.

Normal Act 5

Act 5 of normal difficulty is where the game hits its stride, where characters ramp up on their top-tier attacks, and item finds start to be interesting. This is the only act in the sequence that I play on players-7 all the way through; it's the only time that monster levels escalate fast enough that players-7 doesn't overshoot into an experience penalty. The characters all went from level 31 to 43 during this act; I've come to like intentionally balancing the experience closely, and so each character deliberately topped out right at 43 by clearing a little extra around Ancients Way and Worldstone Keep if needed be.

Assassin: She maxed Dragon Tail and went back to raising Dragon Talon. And now with decent levels in both skills, this build's play style comes together. And I like it a lot. I've never used Dragon Tail as a continuous attack without the Tiger Strike chargeups -- pretty much nobody ever does a kicker build this way. But I'm now enjoying how Dragon Tail has good tactical applications. It can hit a concentrated pack, or break up one that's a bit too threatening (and then lay Cloak on them while they're separated), or also to knock a monster into a pack to get more targets in the next blast radius. Talon is also fine as always. I really like the combination of using both skills in the tactical flow of a fight. This feels like what a martial assassin should be, versatile tactical approaches, rewarding sharp and skillful play... and it's so much smoother than a charge-release martial build, in being able to fully focus on the monsters rather than having half your attention diverted to constantly counting and tracking the number of chargeups.

Barbarian: He felt like three different characters through this act as his build developed. At first with War Cry starting at low level, it didn't do much of anything and he would only use melee. Partway through the act, the stun length started to come up enough to make it worthwhile to stun small packs between melee swings, particularly the demon imps who run away, and so he felt like a hybrid build. Then late in the act, War Cry gained enough damage to become his primary offense against big enough packs, when there were 6-8 monsters within range. And Battle Orders is almost maxed now, after which skill points can go into synergy for War Cry.

Necro: Bone Spear got one more workout as his primary attack, for just the Bloody Foothills, until he gained the one more level necessary to be able to buy a +Poison Nova wand, and also to finish the Shenk quest to get rid of the double vendor price penalty to buy it from Malah (cost 360k.) Then it was Poison Nova all the way, and stronger than my last poisonmancer, who was always using a wand with +Lower Resist instead to save the hard points. (This build is simply taking all the 1-point curses, with more points to spare for it, because his backup attack of Bone Spear is taking only 20 points instead of the skeleton summoner hybrid for 40.)

Sorceress: Like almost every build of the class, she hits the peak of her powers now, as the mastery makes skill damage scale quadratically. Hydra blew away everything in seconds, including the Ancients.

Druid: Also at the peak of killing speed now, even with only Armageddon and partially Wolverine ramped up so far. He's very effective, in how everything he does works all at once - by the time he kills the first couple targets of a pack with melee, Armageddon and the grizzly and merc have already worked everything else down halfway or more. I always thought Wolverine wasn't that good just looking at the numbers, but it's pretty noticeable on all of the werewolf himself and the merc and the grizzly. The AR multiplier is quite significant too, he has pretty big AR trouble (barely over 50%) without it.

Mageazon: Oh man, Freezing Arrow was deliriously satisfying once it came up to enough damage to one-hit the blinky demon imp guys, the ones that every melee attacker spends hours chasing down while wishing they could rip limb from limb. Besides that, Freezing Arrow was fine against everything else too, although slow against the cold-resistant frozen chiller types in the caves; she'll need to get some levels in Immolation before meeting them in nightmare.

Paladin: Holy Shock took a while to ramp up its damage. But once it did, here was his fun and even more satisfying part: the pulse damage became enough to wipe a screen of the blinky demon imps in a few hits! His less satisfying part was attack rating. With only low level Zeal and no Fanaticism, compared to a physical zealot his hit rate is much worse, dipping under 50% until I found a ring of 120 AR. AR is a primary reason to focus on Smite rather than other melee skills later, and I'm looking forward to that.

Nobody had any trouble with the Ancients at all; on normal difficulty they only have 1k health and no big resists, most dropped in less than ten hits from most skills.

Not a whole lot in the way of interesting items, but here's a whole raft of modest upgrades, piecing these together is still fun.

This nice piece dropped for the necromancer. My last poisonmancer took forever to find that, a head with +Poison Nova, but here I got one almost as early as possible (needs to be item level 37+) in the Frozen River, and even pre-socketed to load Rhyme into. This may well be his head all the way to end game. (+3 Poison Nova would be better, but that occurs on 1 out of 225 heads, and even less in combination with a useful skills prefix or socketability.)

This was a surprise, Lenymo sash. And I'm saving it for possible use (after upgrading), on the barbarian. He's going to try to pump his mana supply as much as possible for War Crying, maybe even enough that mana regeneration can help significantly. His mana total isn't high enough yet, but he's going to be looking for a few hundred mana worth of rings and charms.

Hot damn, that's a fabulous paladin amulet, dropped from Baal. That's enough to go all the way to endgame for a Holy Shock build.

Anya's quest reward hit dead on for the sorceress, a +2 fire skills orb. I decided that was worth trading down from her Leaf staff, to pack on a 3-diamond shield as well for nightmare.

Here's a new weapon for the paladin. I got that +2 Holy Shock base and cube-socketed it, hoping for 4 sockets for Holy Thunder, but bricked it on 3 instead. But... loading that full of Eth runes might actually be a better idea anyway, to fix his AR problem, same as my last paladin did with Rune Master.

And I'm reworking the barb's weapons. I got that rare sword, decent damage with -20% requirements, and upgraded it to exceptional. He's going to use that as his attack weapon and a +warcries sword in his off-hand, shopped at Charsi in nightmare. I want to split his weapons between damage and +warcries like that; I really don't want to deal with having singer weapons and an attack weapon on alternate switches, I'd go nuts switching between them for every single monster pack. Also the fast base for the +warcries sword factors in to the weapon speed modifier even for one-handed attacking with the rare sword.

Assassin: Equipping a kicker is weird. Exceptional boots do a lot more kick damage than any normal-tier boots, so of course you want such a base item. But it's weird that there's nothing else to get on it, no boot affix does anything for kick attacks, the only thing to look for are the usual properties of run speed and resistances. Anyway, the earliest way to get access to exceptional base items is to upgrade a rare, so I gambled for something decent (30% run speed and fire resist) and upgraded it.

Equipping a kicker's claw slot is also weird. Damage doesn't matter, but almost everything else does: skills, AR, ITD, PMH, speed, leech, CTC Amplify all transfer to kicks. I went gambling in hopes of a rare with some of those properties, and what I got was a magic Magekiller's of Alacrity, which seems like a good-enough combination for now (and more for speeding up Dragon Tail, since Talon reaches max speed pretty easily.)

I'm not sure what to do with her off-hand slot either. Unlike most martial 'sins who either definitely want a second claw (Dragon Claw) or definitely don't (Phoenix), a pure kicker can go either claw/claw or claw/shield. I don't have anything great for a shield slot right now (Fade covers resistances, and no unused Shael runes for Rhyme), so I'll go claw/claw at least for now. The biggest gain from that is probably Weapon Block, which could be critical for a melee attacker, maybe that could have saved my late phoenix striker. The second claw is a simple +1 skills blade talon, doesn't do a whole lot (all the shadow buffs get cast with +skills claws on switch) but there isn't much else to be had in the slot.

Merc gear: I thought of this and took some time to do it, shop Artisan's helms from Larzuk to load with Ral-Ort-Thul for resistances. These might be worth using all the way through hell difficulty. I did this for five mercs, excepting two that already had similar (a Duskdeep for 15% prismatic, and a rare with both fire and lit resist.)

Other minor pieces: Peace armor for the amazon (+2 skills), which she may keep all the way to end game. She also shopped a +2 bow skills bow at Gheed in nightmare. Lore helms for the paladin, necromancer, and amazon. Sander's gloves (20% IAS sooner than it can occur on rares) for the barb and assassin (the druid and paladin only need 10% IAS not 20% for a breakpoint right now.) Coldkill hatchet, not enough damage right now, but could conceivably upgrade that for the barb to use. Soul Harvest scythe for a merc, that didn't come early for any of the other teams, found by the barbarian well timed for his merc to use for Lister's pack to apply Open Wounds, and I'll upgrade it with the next Sol rune to keep using for a while.

Nightmare difficulty next. To prepare for that, I went through and overhauled everyone's equipment, basically putting all rings and boots and charms into a common pool, to reallocate to everyone to balance resistances. I did this for hell difficulty on the other teams, but it felt right to take the time to do here now, because few of the characters have easy resistance solutions (only the paladin and sorceress with diamond shields, and Fade on the assassin.)

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