Diablo II - Hardcore Star Team 4 - Nightmare

Act 1

Act 1 Nightmare always goes by quickly, when most characters are at the peak of their powers, with attack skills maxed and synergized. What doesn't peak now is weapon-based builds, but there are actually none such on this team: the barb and druid are caster hybrids, the amazon and paladin use elemental attacks, and the assassin uses boots.

Barb: It's always fun when an item turns up just when you need it. Here it was the barbarian finding my first Hel rune right out on the blood moor, to make a Myth armor runeword for himself. I rarely use Myth but it's a good fit here, War Cry runs on +skills and there's no other compelling use of the slot; he doesn't really need defense with War Cry stunning. Although a minor downside is that Myth has CTC Howl and Taunt which sometimes overwrite Battle Cry. Speaking of Battle Cry, he's raising it as synergy to War Cry and it's also an important part of his offense in itself; his AR is terrible with no boosts beyond 1-point Concentrate and weapon mastery, as low as 40% to-hit, so that defense penalty makes a big difference.

Amazon: She's diesel as hell. Freezing Arrow is the hardest hitter on this team now by a wide margin, over 1400 damage with max level and synergy. I've used Freezing Arrow before but not for a long time and I'd forgotten how strong it is. Particularly with quite a lot of +skills packed on this early, a total of +6 from the bow, gloves, Peace, and Lore.

Necro: Also diesel as hell with Poison Nova, which is nothing new, my last poisonmancer was the same at this time.

Druid: He's strong, but actually less fun than I'd envisioned - because he takes so much effort to drive. I have to refresh Armageddon every 12 seconds, Feral Rage every 20 (and not just by casting it, but by finding a monster to hit), Werewolf every two minutes (and then recharge Feral Rage again too), while also keeping attention on the health and positioning of the merc and grizzly. And despite having so many avenues of offense, he's really lacking on defense, no crowd control or defense rating or buffs at all (no Oak Sage, with Wolverine instead), and a mediocre life total with low Lycanthropy. He's already had a lot of close calls and I'm really not sure what to do to get him to be better for survivability.

Assassin: Dragon Tail seems weirdly weaker now, although I'm not sure why. Dragon Talon mostly overtook it for dps except against the biggest packs concentrated in Tail's explosion radius. I think it's the nature of the Act 1 monsters - skittish fallen and archers who stay out of the explosion radius, plus shield blocking on the fallen and skeletons and some rogues which foils Tail's explosion too. Also its AR is having some trouble, around 75% to-hit. What I'm actually finding is Dragon Tail is most useful defensively; it functions like a mini Shock Wave in momentarily stunning a pack with the knockback and hit recovery.

Paladin: I said this before, but what keeps surprising me is how good Holy Shock's pulse damage keeps turning out to be. For every fallen camp, I would run to and take out the shamans, and by the time I did that the pulse damage also wiped all the regular fallen. That said, the Holy Shock part of his build is finished now (max Shock, 5 synergy) and now his skill points are going to Holy Shield, since that's the first piece of the Smite build to raise since it helps out for defense as well.

Sorceress: Hydra is good. I thought Hydra might be boring like a trapsin, but it's not. It feels like a trapsin cranked up to about three times the speed. The play style is more engaging - you continuously cast more hydras rather than spam five traps and then sit around waiting. I also thought Hydra would be inefficient in spreading out its damage and not focusing on killing a target, but that's also not true, the three heads of one hydra and other hydras in close proximity are decently consistent about focusing on the same target. So I am enjoying this build. We'll see how it holds up against fire immunes later.

For items, again not a whole lot just yet, but a few interesting pieces.

The biggest was a Spirit Shroud armor, +1 skills and Cannot Be Frozen. This goes to the druid, he needs CBF bigtime, and the +skills for all three trees.

There's a shock: a Lem rune! This actually can't drop yet at all... except for the bug/oversight that the Smith erroneously drops from his hell-difficulty treasure class in nightmare (so does Griswold), which is how this happened. I considered a Treachery with the Lem, but I don't really want to commit that to a non-elite base. This assassin doesn't want Treachery; she's going to need a high-defense melee armor, and also wants to use her own max Fade and Venom rather than Treachery's level 15. Mercs always want Treachery, but I really don't want to spend a Lem on a non-elite and also non-ethereal base for that.

What to do with the Lem is keep it on hand to upgrade an armor, either Spirit Shroud (if the also-needed Ko rune comes soon) or something better like Vipermagi or Duriel's if those come. And with the likelihood of upgrading it fairly soon, I decided the Spirit Shroud was worth a socket quest, for my best resist jewel (12% all.)

Also for the druid came a Goreshovel axe, and with an exceptional upgrade that's a welcome weapon change; less damage than Chieftain, but a faster base and more IAS, and also importantly provides its own strength so he can give up his gemmed +strength armor for the Spirit Shroud. This also freed up his gloves slot to not need IAS there, so he could swap in a Blood craft with crushing blow and resists.

The amazon upgraded gear again from shops after the act, now +2 bow skills gloves (up from +1) and also a +2 amazon skills bow (up from +2 bow skills.) What this gave up was speed, no IAS on the gloves and a slower base bow... but she really doesn't care, her firing rate isn't her limiting factor for killing speed, it's mana supply, and also just how fast I can target monsters with the pointer. I wish Freezing Arrow could automatically target somehow, like Strafe or a melee character driving with right-click or holding shift.

More minor pieces, not worth screenshots, here's a quick list. Got a good Rhyme paladin shield base, 33 resist all and 2 sockets. Lore helms for the assassin and druid (finally cube-socketed his +Lycanthropy pelt from act 1 normal.) The poisonmancer shopped two new wands from Drognan, +2 necro skills with +2 Lower Resist for combat (decent enough to go with rather than waiting for +Poison Nova, since this is temporary anyway until he gets a good White), and also +2 necro skills with +2 golem mastery on switch for the clay golem. The assassin crafted Blood gloves with 20% IAS and magic find and crushing blow, although with required level 54 so she'll get it halfway through act 2.

What didn't get upgraded: the paladin's scepter (still using the Eth-gemmed with +Holy Shock; still didn't get any good base for Holy Thunder), and the barb's rare sword. He'll be looking for a base for a good exceptional Honor now, something out of a Zweihander, Twin Axe, Divine Scepter, Knout. Also no Io rune yet for a White for the necromancer, and also need a Ko and a +3 bow skills base for the amazon's Melody eventually.

Actually the most interesting thing I've been getting is some interesting charms, with a motley but helpful mix of affixes.

Act 2

The big thing that happens at the start of act 2 nightmare is opening up the best choices of town guard mercenaries. I'll talk about that here, although I actually didn't want all that many of them this time. It's about the comparison between Defiance and Holy Freeze mercs. What I've found is that each aura works about equally well for protecting the merc himself, but Defiance works better for protecting your character with high defense armor. Holy Freeze doesn't cut attacks by as much as you think; the slowing says it's around 50%, but after you factor in the 15-frame AI delay between every monster action, which is unchanged by Holy Freeze, the real reduction is only about 25% or so. Defiance can account for a much bigger proportion of attacks missing, up to 80% with good enough armor.

So I've come to prefer Defiance over Holy Freeze for most meleers. For this group, that's the druid, paladin, and assassin, who will stick with Defiance long term. The barbarian took a Might merc, he doesn't need crowd control or defense with War Cry stunning, and does need the damage bonus with only 1-point combat skills. Holy Freeze is still good for ranged characters, who get extra time to attack while the chilled monsters try to catch up with you, and so here the poisonmancer, amazon, and sorceress did take that.

I'll also make a few remarks to cover how I'm doing things procedurally. For acts 1 and 2 of nightmare difficulty, I played at players-5 most of the way through, with some p3 later in the act when getting far ahead of the area levels. I full-cleared Arcane Sanctuary, and partially cleared the false tombs at least as far as the sparkly chests, then a bit more for whatever was needed for everyone to reach the same level at 58. I'm always surprised at how much experience you get in the false tombs, more than two full levels even from only partially clearing, since they're so dense with boss packs.

Why clear Arcane Sanctuary: I like this area, it's good for hardcore, you really can't get rushed or surrounded. Also for the team format, the experience differential between exiting after one quadrant or four adds up to quite a bit, more than half a level, so full-clearing would keep that balanced. And those were the fake reasons; the real reason is that the specters can drop Ko runes which I was specifically hunting, to upgrade that Spirit Shroud and for the amazon's Melody bow. Didn't get any but did get some other runes, see below.

On to the character notes:

Assassin: I figured out why Dragon Tail felt lagging in effectiveness before. It's not really, it's that I was comparing it to Dragon Talon which got better instead with max skill level for more kicks and damage. But both skills are lagging a bit for dps presently - her boots haven't scaled up in damage like other characters' skills and weapons. I need to get her elite boots somehow, but there's really no good way to get an elite base item before they start dropping; the odds for gambling an elite are tiny, and I haven't got and wouldn't want to spend a Pul to upgrade a rare to elite.

Druid: I experienced some interesting detail about how Armageddon works, in the tight corridors of the maggot lair and arcane sanctuary. Armageddon drops fewer missiles in these areas. What it's really doing is calculating the same targeting area as usual, but any missile that would land out of bounds never spawns in the first place. This makes Armageddon actually feel more effective, because you can know every missile you see is probably going to hit a monster. (Its behavior is really unchanged, but it feels more effective.)

Sorceress: I said Hydra feels like a trapsin, and here's one more aspect of that. She clears comparatively faster than she kills, like a trapsin, because she can start picking through the drops while the minions are still shooting. But she kills fast too; like I said before, Hydra's dps outweighs that of Fireball, if all the shots hit... and in fact Hydra automatically aims itself better than your own aim for fireballs and meteors.

Barbarian: Actually a lot going on with him, so here's a lengthy writeup. First off, War Cry escalated noticeably in damage throughout the act as its synergy increased. It's up to around 500 damage per cast, enough to kill monsters in ten or so casts. Of course its problem is mana consumption - and really that mana potions can't even replenish fast enough! They only go fast enough to keep casting War Cry about once per second, not continuously. He'll get some help with mana charms found elsewhere this act, although that only helps the initial supply and not the potion problem. I may try some mana leech gear too, though I didn't find or save any good mana leech rings yet. As for his melee, his weapon (rare sword with 90% ED) is falling behind the curve now, although the Might merc helped shore it up enough to get through the act and Duriel.

His battle plan is always to cast War Cry first to stun, plus Battle Cry to reduce defense. He actually feels like the style of an assassin martial artist, in the warcries being the chargeups and then the regular melee attack feels like the finisher. Part of that feel is in alternating mouse buttons, because I have to leave Concentrate on left click, just because I ran out of hotkeys for right click (War Cry, Battle Cry, Berserk, Howl, Battle Command, Battle Orders, Shout, Taunt.)

Berserk is in that list, which he uses sometimes too, killing ghosts with high physical resistance was faster with that than with Concentrate. Also I noticed this now which I didn't in planning out the build: Berserk happen to share one of War Cry's synergies in Howl, so Berserk will get some free synergy along the way.

And finally, he had one perilously close call, where he got smacked from 2000 life to under 400 almost instantly. This happened because of a game bug I knew about, but got complacent after not seeing it through most of the act until near the end. It happens with a unique beetle that is fire or cold enchanted: when it goes into hit recovery to release the lightning sparks, it also invisibly emits the death explosion. And somehow War Cry seems to inflict hit recovery as part of its stunning repeatedly and very rapidly -- so such a bugged beetle releases several fire enchanted explosions almost at once! This was what killed my previous singer barb attempt long ago, so it's still real, a War Cry caster has to be very careful of boss beetles before you see its modifiers. Smite's knockback also causes this, but only once per hit instead of repeatedly and impossibly fast.


Biggest prize was a Rockstopper helm. It's going on the kicker assassin, who functions in the same role as the spearazon on my previous team, a fragile meleer who needs to pack on everything defensive she can get, and can afford to trade off +skills in the helm slot. I think she's quite likely to keep it to endgame as did the spearazon.

Got a Chance Guards, found early in the sewers by the amazon, and I let her wear it for the act. Gave up +2 bow skills on the gloves, but Freezing Arrow is plenty strong enough without that. After the act then it went to the necro, he didn't have any other need in the gloves slot.

Also a Goldwrap belt, that eluded some of the other teams. Not a major piece, but it's useful to have an extra tool for tweaking an extra 10% IAS when needed, and for the next act it went to the assassin.

Nightsmoke belt too, hey, let's see if 50% damage-to-mana might help the barb's mana supply problems at all.

Dark Clan Crusher club, +2 druid skills, a common find around this time. Very nice for this druid build in particular, to keep on switch to buff both his summons and shapeshifting. (Werewolf's speed and Lycanthropy's life lock in when you cast Werewolf.)

Woestave halberd, good enough to upgrade to put on a merc, the druid's. He doesn't really need the merc for damage, but could use the crowd control, blinding and slowing. Also an Iceblink armor, same deal, worth upgrading for merc use for crowd control, and actually I got two copies of it, for the druid's and paladin's mercs.

No Ko runes as I'd hoped, but Arcane Sanctuary did serve up two Ios, to make the poisonmancer's White wand (although I only have a +1 Poison Nova base so far, but White is easy enough to remake when I find better) and a Black flail for using with Smite. And also a Lum for a Smoke.

And listing this last, to convey my experience, because it came last in real time for me: from Duriel for the last character to play, a Skin of the Vipermagi! I decided to allocate the new armors like this: Smoke goes to the sorceress, because she can make use of the higher resists to open up the shield slot for a Visceratuant for +1 skills. Vipermagi goes to the poisonmancer; he uses fast-cast more than the sorceress (her attack skills are timered), not for Poison Nova but he'll need it for Bone Spear backup against poison-immune venom lords in act four.

After the act, I assembled the major weapon upgrade that the barbarian needed, Honor in a Knout flail. Quite a bit of damage upgrade over the assorted rare swords I'd been finding, plus AR that he needs, and even +skills to boost all the war cries as well. The knout did require some investment in dexterity; I usually avoid that for characters who won't use dex for blocking, but here I don't mind, he needs it for AR, and isn't really concerned about vitality with max BO and a stunning attack. Besides that, he also upgraded his off-hand weapon, from +2 warcries to +2 all barb skills. (I'm not sure if +2 all or +3 warcry skills would be better, but the former came up first at Charsi so I went with it.)

I also got a Coldsteel Eye cutlass from Duriel. After the act I was arranging items for quite a while, and then suddenly realized where to put this to use: it's the best weapon choice for the druid! It's a maximally fast (-30) base, also with 20% IAS, plus he could really use the blinding and slowing for a bit of crowd control. Druids rarely go one-handed, but I haven't got anything better two-handed (he was still on upgraded Goreshovel), and this lets him hold a shield too. The shield is Rhyme for all the usual reasons, which also lets me flip his Spirit Shroud over to the barbarian instead, who also wants Cannot Be Frozen but isn't using a shield. That left the druid's armor slot open and I didn't have anything particularly good for it. The best thing I could think of was a Safety craft armor with a cuirass bought at Fara, which rolled some moderate defense plus two sockets for emeralds to help with Coldsteel's dex requirement, good enough for now.

The paladin also got a weapon upgrade, Holy Thunder, when a 4-socket scepter base with +Holy Shock finally came.

The assassin also got a needed "weapon" upgrade: Asheara in nightmare is the first place you can buy Battle Boots, a higher end exceptional with better boot damage. I shopped those as input for several Blood boot crafts, and got a decent one with some run speed and lightning resist. The obstacle here is the 95 strength requirement; I don't want to push her too high on base strength (she needs vitality for life); she met that with an amethyst socketed into the Rockstopper plus some charms. The strength also lets her upgrade Goldwrap for the belt slots and also some defense rating.

And this:

Turned up three of the best boots money can buy. I wasn't even targeting these. I spent a day shopping vendors for various stuff (exceptional crafting inputs for belts and assassin boots, amazon bow skill gloves, off-hand weapons with +skills for the barb and assassin), and all three of these just came up at vendors by happenstance. My previous teams had deliberately shopped for quite a while for boots like these, and I hardly ever found any; now I suddenly got three pairs without even trying, hah.

The last scene of this chapter was to go gambling, for circlets. I saved all my gold from nightmare difficulty for this now, around 12 million total. This is the time, and the reason is that the +3 skill tab prefixes are now in play; at character level 58 plus the +3 magic level property on circlets, most gambles will qualify for a +3 tree skills affix at level 60. And that's a major thing to target with this group, several characters are built on going big on one skill tree.

Nailed quite a lot of good ones. +3 paladin combat skills was the one I most wanted, since Smite runs on that, for both Holy Shield and Smite itself, plus the extra hits for Zeal when he uses Holy Shock. And also a cool +2 offensive auras circlet as he keeps mainlining Holy Shock for now. Also got +3 sorceress fire skills, +3 for all three assassin trees (she'll still use Rockstopper over any, but can pre-summon the shadow with +3), and a good +2 necro poison/bone rare. And a modest +1 for the amazon, but with a run speed suffix tacked on, which lets her use a good rare boot that lacks speed but has good resists and MF.

I'm not sure what to do with the druid. +3 elemental with dex and +3 shapeshifting with leech are both tempting, but so is his existing Lore pelt with +Werewolf and +Lycanthropy. I thought about it a lot, and decided to go with the shapeshifting circlet, largely to keep Fury at 5 hits after trading out his Spirit Shroud and losing that +skill. And the leech on the circlet is the swing factor; that's particularly good for act 3 where few monsters are unleechable.

And finally a couple of all those circlet gambles also happened to turn up nice for merc use.

Lastly, I also got the Angelic amulet this act. This makes for a three-piece combo (sword, ring, amulet) for the big magic find on the rings (50% x 2), plus the AR. I decided this could fit on the barbarian: he can hold the sword off-hand, he wants the AR too, and the partial set even has bonuses of +10 dex to help support the Honor knout and also even an incredibly convenient +50 mana!

And that induced me to also arrange magic-find gear across the rest of the team as well, to keep it somewhat close to balanced rather than anyone serving as an MF carry. With my previous team, I did this for later in nightmare difficulty and liked it then, so let's do it again now and even start a bit earlier. So everyone has at least two pieces of magic-find gear for 50% or more total, with a couple around 100%.

That's all for now, we'll see what the magic-find yields in act 3.

Act 3

I fully cleared most of this act this time, which I didn't do with the previous teams, but now I wanted to chase loot, particularly Ko and Lem runes and skill-tree charms. I did all the outdoor areas except Travincal, and all the dungeons in the jungle areas, so excepting only the sewers, false temples, and Durance.

Druid: Last act I talked about being unsure which skills circlet to use, and settled on shapeshifting. I found the important upshot of that: not entirely Werewolf or Lycanthropy, but Feral Rage! Increasing its life steal with some extra skill levels made a noticeable difference to his survivability.

And with that, I found a change in play style that made this druid enormously more fun: Don't use Fury, instead just use Feral Rage full time for attacking. It was taking a great deal of mental effort to always track Feral Rage's timer and switch off Fury to refresh it, and the refreshing itself is annoying, you can miss, or misjudge the timing so that the merc or grizzly kills the target before you land a Feral Rage hit. So just using Feral Rage all the time is so much smoother and more enjoyable. There's hardly any downside here to not using Fury: its high damage multiplier isn't developed with this low-level shapeshifting build, and Feral Rage is essentially the same speed (omitting the technical detail; just know that Feral Rage is faster than a normal attack.)

His play style now is mostly using Feral Rage to stay leeched full of life while Armageddon and the merc/grizzly/Wolverine do most of the damage. And I'm liking that a lot, it's a refreshing change of pace. This build is the sum of its parts: he's about 50% effective with the one-point werewolf package as compared to a full build, 50% effective with Armageddon with low synergy, and 50% effective compared to a full summoner with dedicated skill equipment and dire wolves... and so all that adds up to 150%. In particular what I didn't anticipate is how early the grizzly peaks, mid nightmare and he's dealing 1200 per hit or 2000 after Wolverine's boost, way more than the merc or druid himself who won't get elite equipment for that until later in hell.

Paladin: The shortcomings of this partial Holy Shock build started to become apparent now. His AR is disastrously low without investing in Zeal (below 40% to hit and just in mid-nightmare!), and the damage of Holy Shock itself is starting to wane with low synergy. He'll pivot into primarily Smite eventually, and will have to use that against lightning immunes next act. Although I'll want an elite shield to get Smite's damage up, which doesn't come until hell difficulty, and likely not until after the first act.

Assassin: She got this claw after the last act, happened to shop it from a vendor while looking for something else. I didn't use it then, but did now, and wow, this might be her claw to end-game. Amplify is the best melee skill in the game and Dragon Talon attacks super fast to trigger it, and of course Fool's fixes everything with AR, so having those in the same slot is great. And Amp combos with Dragon Tail too, it factors in to multiplying the explosion damage.

Besides that, I improved her play style in remembering to take advantage of Dragon Flight tactically for teleporting. I've never used this on any other assassin, it's not worth four points of prereqs if you don't already have the kick skills. But now I'm getting in the groove of using it for positioning, notably in Kurast to teleport on top of the zakarum healers with the merc and shadow.

Barb: Here's a fun scene. Two riverbends out from town, he dropped the Angelic armor, completing the set! I had to go with that, the full Angelic set gives another 40% magic-find. And 25 resist-all, so he didn't need the fire-resist boots he was wearing. I was wondering about replacing those boots... and then one dungeon later, Waterwalk dropped! 15 dex on that let me clear out a pile of dexterity charms, but Waterwalk is slower run speed... and then furthermore even a charm of run-speed also dropped to fill that need and space too, hah.

Anyway, he was noticeably more effective this act, with Honor as a solid weapon, and his AR fixed with the Angelic rings. And Nightsmoke's damage-to-mana did seem to help quite a bit on mana supply. It was never really quite noticeable to see the mana given by any particular hit, but he was definitely sucking a lot less potions, hardly ever had to buy them throughout the act. In particular this was his favorite plan: for every boss pack, start war crying and stunning everything - except the boss wouldn't get stunned, so only that monster would continue attacking me, to supply mana to keep casting.


The biggest prizes were in the rune department, a Ko and a Fal, although both took their sweet time to show up, both came for my last character to play. The other prizes were a second Spirit Shroud and a Moser's shield, which figured into the puzzle of arranging these pieces.

The Ko will combine with the Lem from earlier to upgrade one of the Spirit Shrouds. It's going to the kicksin. I think she needs the defense rating the most, more than the druid who has more life and can operate outside melee range with Armageddon and the grizzly. The kicksin also wants cannot-be-frozen now; she went without it so far, but is going to need it in act four against abyss and oblivion knights, and definitely in act five. (She will delay actually doing and committing to this upgrade; she will play last for act four and wait to see if anything to change that plan comes up for anyone else. Also she's upgrading the new Spirit Shroud, not the first one, because the first is socketed with a resists jewel, but she doesn't need that with Fade and Rockstopper covering resists.)

The non-upgraded Spirit Shroud now goes back to the druid (from the barb who's now on the Angelic armor for the full set.) And with CBF in his armor slot, he can trade out Rhyme for Moser's shield, for the big resists (to free up charm space for life charms) plus some defense rating too. And one more tweak here: Chance Guards goes from the necromancer to the druid, since the necro has better magic-find elsewhere, with Rhyme still, plus I also decided to socket a topaz into his Vipermagi (will replace that with some resistance for hell difficulty.)

The Fal rune then makes a Lionheart for the sorceress (also got some Lums in the act.) She doesn't have a big need for the stats, but the life is worth it. And then her Smoke passes over to the paladin; he's not in great need of the resists with a Rhyme paladin shield, but it's the best defense rating armor on hand for him, plus some hit recovery which he needs too.

(Not participating in all those armor trades: the poisonmancer is set with Vipermagi, and the amazon is happy with Peace for skills, though she might want Lionheart come hell difficulty.)

What I didn't do with the Ko rune was a Melody bow for the amazon. That's lesser priority, both because I have no good base yet (been trying cube-socketing on amazon bows but haven't hit 3 sockets yet), and because her existing +2 skills bow is solid enough.

Not much else, but here's the few decent hits, in descending order of usefulness:

Tal Rasha's belt. Typically this is unremarkable, it's got a motley collection of weak modifiers, only useful as a set component. But... here it actually does everything the barbarian wants! Damage-to-mana worked well on Nightsmoke and this has it too, 20 dex is what he needs to support his Honor knout, and the 30 mana even helps too, plus more magic find on top. (And he can't keep using the Nightsmoke because it was ethereal and it broke.)

Waterwalk boot as described above, which now goes to the druid, for the life and the dex to support Coldsteel Eye's requirement.

Bladebuckle belt, also goes to the druid, also for dex and also hit recovery that he needs.

Fleshrender club, total of +3 to shapeshifting skills, better for the druid's weapon switch than Dark Clan Crusher.

Eye of Etlich again, a second copy with 1% better life steal, very minor upgrade for the druid.

Two Honor runewords for mercs, after cube-socketing Partizan bases finally hit on 5 sockets twice. (I missed about five or six attempts at this back in act two.) They go to the druid's and necro's mercs, as the most dependent on the mercs dealing damage and leeching to survive.

Kelpie Snare, great merc weapon of course. The druid doesn't need that for his merc, he has his own slows-target on Coldsteel Eye. The next most needy merc for crowd control is the paladin's, but he'll take the Woestave instead. Kelpie ended up on the sorc's merc, that's the one who wants slowing to buy time, for Hydra to work and while teleporting around. (To complete the roster of merc weapons: the barb's has a rare with CTC Amplify to work with War Cry, and the amazon's and assassin's have Strength runewords, they could use the crushing blow vs bosses and the leech for survivability, but don't need a great amount of physical damage from them.)

Impaler war spear, but nah, not quite good enough for a merc, and not worth spending runes to upgrade, so I discarded it.

Whitstan's shield, super high blocking but nothing else. Not going to use now but I'm keeping it on hand; I could maybe see building the druid's setup around blocking later on.

Sigon's helm, though I don't see anyone using it this time, everyone needs the helm slot for either skills or Rockstopper.

I got two skill-tab charms: sorceress lightning skills, and necromancer curses. Ok, better luck next time.

After the act it was gambling time again. This time for amulets, for the same reason as circlets last time, +3 skill tab prefixes are now available. I got a few plain ones (+3 poison/bone, druid elemental, barb masteries, assassin shadow), but none really worth using over rares and crafts with lesser skills but more other stuff.

Act 4 next, with as always the most exciting moment of the whole saga at the Hellforge.

Act 4

For act 4, I arranged more magic-find on the characters, like my previous team did too. This included 3-topaz helms for the sorceress and amazon. For this act, everyone had somewhere over 100% magic-find, except the assassin who topped out at 79 (gloves, boots, one ring), and the druid who had only Chance Guards plus one MF ring. So let's seek some goodies.

Paladin: He's the major report here. It was time for him to pivot into Smite for his primary attack rather than Holy Shock. At first because he kept drawing monsters that were bad for lightning (burning souls, stranglers, abyss knights, damned), but also because his Zeal attack rating is so terrible for trying to deliver Holy Shock. Smite's damage is mediocre with a crap shield and only mid-level Fanaticism and low Smite, but it's enough to work with, better than such an inaccurate Zeal. And I helped Smite with a Crushflange mace that I'd kept on hand for the crushing blow. (He has a Black flail too, but I forgot to arrange for the dexterity to support that, will fix that for next act.)

I've never done a serious smiter before, so now I saw some of the interactions involving it. One obvious bit is that Fanaticism is the better aura because it helps the merc too and Holy Shock doesn't. A fun bit was the freezing from the Iceblink armor on the merc - a frozen monster doesn't get knocked back! And a really cool bit was when the paladin happened to find a Rattlecage armor for himself. That's 25% more crushing blow, and it turns out the monster-flee actually doesn't happen -- because its duration is very short and Smite's stun is longer!

What I don't know what to do with him is what weapon to use with Smite. All the guides start and end with Grief, but I'm playing non-ladder and couldn't expect the runes anyway. I guess the Black flail is the default; crushing blow doesn't really do all that much against regular monsters, but maybe there isn't much of anything else for Smite's weapon slot that's any significantly better. Maybe a rare with CTC Amplify, though it would be a stretch to also get anything else useful on it like speed or paladin skills.

Necromancer: He's the one who I expected to pick up a new attack, but he didn't have to. He was supposed to use Bone Spear for the poison-immune venom lords -- but he handled them fine without it, so I changed tracks from my plan and put his skill points all into poison synergy instead. Their poison resist is only 100% so Lower Resist breaks it and deals some damage, but on top of that I just used Amplify and the merc and Corpse Explosion, and that killed them easily, even Infector's pack.

He did have one near-death moment, when I got stuck in a doorway in City of the Damned between a few monsters, and ran out of rejuves before Poison Nova ran their health out. He was never really in danger (it was several seconds between rejuves, plenty of time to react), but I had to save and exit, losing a pile of gems in town. No big deal, but a reminder to always stay alert.

Sorceress: She did have to use a new attack, although I miscalculated her build for it. I knew she would need to get Frozen Orb for act four here against fire immune doom knights, so she had paused on raising fire mastery back around act two. But what I forgot is that Frozen Orb takes six points worth of prerequisites. So she had to work through the doom knights with a mediocre level-10 Orb, but that was good enough with some patience.

Assassin: She's the twin sister of the spearazon on my previous team. With the upgraded Spirit Shroud for armor, she could now rely on defense rating (4000 with the Defiance merc) and live on leech. Pack on defensive measures (Rockstopper, Fade), play carefully and tactically, and let the offensive damage come with patience. Still need to find her elite boots somehow for more damage. But I started to really get good at her tactical execution in Chaos Sanctuary, where the boss packs forced me to do it correctly: Cloak the group, then pick an isolated target and Dragon Flight to zip my team there, and quickly kill it before Cloak wears off.

On to the items:

That was the big score this act, Trang-Oul's gloves, nice, right when I want that. +25% poison skill damage plus the other goodies is certainly a permanent fixture for the poisonmancer. Although it's not the most critical piece of the set, that's the cantor trophy (head) with -25% enemy poison resistance.

Also got Tal Rasha's mask. I don't think I have anyone who wants it over a skills helm or Rockstopper, but it's top tier merc gear as always, and here goes to the druid's as the most needy for merc survivability.

Wizendraw bow, interestingly found by the amazon for herself just before entering Chaos Sanctuary. The interesting property is -24% enemy cold resistance, and that actually proved very useful for her to use in Chaos against the oblivion knights with high (80) cold resist, better than her mid-level Immolation arrow. I'll keep this on her weapon switch to use for such situations, she doesn't have anything else important there.

Ume's Lament, old school cool, though completely superseded by White nowadays.

There was a sub-theme of items coming up for characters just as they needed them, to put to use right away rather than swapping around after the act. The paladin got Rattlecage, the amazon Wizendraw, the barb a good mana charm, and the assassin found this ring here right after I mentioned how she was a bit behind the others for magic-find.

Not much else, as is common for this short act.


... wait, did we forget something? What about the hellforge, the biggest payoff moment of all this?

Not this time. The Hellforge delivered complete and utter disaster save one: Sol, Sol, Sol, Shael, Shael, Shael, Um. Holy abysmal crap. The chance of three 1-in-11 Sols among the 7 trials is 8%. Then the chance of three 2-in-11 Shael-or-worse in the remaining 4 trials is also a fraction over 8%. Multiply those together and you get a 0.66% chance -- 1 in 150 -- of doing this crappily or worse. Holy crap. (Although I'll admit that wasn't quite as improbable as I thought, I would have guessed it was one-in-thousands terrible luck.)

Well, the one bright spot there is the Um. But what bailed me out here was something else that keeps happening across my teams:

I got better runes from random drops in the act than from the hellforge, this time two Lem and one Pul.

So I assembled this plan with the runes. The Um is targeted for a Crescent Moon for the druid, once I find an elite base for it in hell difficulty. And I spent the Pul now to upgrade Coldsteel Eye. This is targeted for the barb as his permanent endgame weapon, but for now the druid is using it, because the barb has a better alternative in Honor (which is bad for wereform because no on-weapon IAS.) The stat requirements on it go very high, so I socketed it with a Hel rune, done with the barb's first socket quest, because the druid already spent his on Spirit Shroud.

Following from that are these knock-on effects. The druid now takes Lionheart from the sorceress, for the stats to support upgraded Coldsteel. The sorceress takes his Spirit Shroud in exchange. And both now take a Rhyme shield, the druid for cannot-be-frozen, the sorc because she needs the resists absent Lionheart, and both for the magic-find of course. The druid's Moser's shield goes unused for now, but might come back into play for hell difficulty. The druid also took a second Tal Rasha's belt for the dex and magic find.

The Lem runes go unused for the moment. I want to upgrade more armors: the other Spirit Shroud, and possibly boots for the assassin (my only unique of Waterwalk isn't spectacular, but could be my most feasible option for elite boot damage), but that also takes a Ko rune that I lack at the moment. Should find at least one of those somewhere through seven full-clears of act 5.

Act 5

And so I completed nightmare difficulty with seven Conquerors crowned again. Nobody had any trouble with the Ancients or the minion waves, nightmare difficulty just isn't that hard.

Before this act, I put even more effort into arranging equipment to really max out magic find now. Although I haven't mentioned it, this team has had pretty decent luck on getting rares with magic-find and other useful affixes. It's just that no single piece is worth mentioning, but I have a lot of rare gloves and amulets and boots with MF, including two Blood crafted gloves with both IAS and MF, for the paladin and assassin. Nightmare act 5 is the best chance at finding good items from monsters of only medium threat level, so let's pack on the MF now, including five characters with 3-topaz helms. Everyone has at least 100% for this act, with four over 170%, let's see what scores we can get with that.

And procedurally: I pushed the player count a little higher than for the previous teams, going up from p5 to p7 for Worldstone Keep; the area level jumps up from 62 to 65 there so you can go higher before overshooting the experience curve. The purpose was to get everyone to level 73 on completing the act, unlike last time when I had to push the cow level to p7 to do that, so I could relax at p3 in the cows this time.

Assassin: I never would have anticipated this going in to this character, but wow what makes the kicker build really sing is Dragon Flight. I thought this skill was just a curiosity - why would you want a teleport skill that only works when there's a monster there, wouldn't you want to teleport away from monsters? Its only use is when you're lazy or impatient about walking, right? No, it's way more than that. It's invaluable tactically to be able to precision-snap your entire team onto a particular priority target, everything from oblivion knights to fallen shamans to demon imp spawner huts. It's even better than sorceress teleport, since the merc will reliably attack the exact monster you teleport onto. It's even useful at long range - when something is shooting at you from off-screen, cast Dragon Flight in that general direction and its search radius will usually find and snap onto that target. Dragon Flight is what makes her really feel like an assassin, bursting from the shadows to murder her target with lethal focus.

Barb: Similarly, Taunt is the important piece of his tactical package, drawing in ranged and skittish monsters to War Cry's stunning range.

Paladin: If Dragon Flight and Taunt are great tactically, Smite is the opposite. Tactical management with this skill is a pain thanks to the knockback. You really don't want to be knocking something back and repeatedly running to catch up to it again, particularly since the paladin seems to take an oddly long time to stop and start his run animation. You really want to avoid that and only attack things that are backstopped to not get knocked back... but that means you're forced into picking your targets out of positional convenience and not on actual battle priority like that nasty Fanaticism boss. At least Iceblink on the merc helps a fair bit, a frozen target also doesn't get knocked back.

Mageazon: Haven't reported on her in a while. She's steady and reliable. She felt a little underpowered this act, but that's because I traded out a lot of skills and IAS for magic-find, so I'll put that back together for hell difficulty. Also she finally gets her Melody bow now.

Necro: Oh yeah Trang's gloves are great. Not just the poison skill damage, but also the +2 to curses noticeably helps Lower Resist for radius. This poisonmancer is significantly stronger than my last one, both because of Trang's gloves and because this one has the poison skills fully synergized rather than hybridizing into summons. Fighting poison immunes was a little slow (there's quite a bit more of them in act 5 nightmare than I realized) but easy enough with the merc and Amplify. His plan for hell is to raise Bone Spear for a backup attack against poison immunes, we'll see if that develops to any amount of usefulness.

Druid: Coldsteel Eye upgraded was really good as a weapon. The blinding and slowing help break up crowds quite a bit for a character who has no other crowd control. Now I was reconsidering to keep this permanently as his weapon instead of a Crescent Moon, although keep reading for more options.

On to the items. I had to rewrite this section of the report, after I didn't get much good stuff during the act... but then the payoff came afterwards. After otherwise finishing the act, I went back to full-clear through Halls of Anguish and Pain plus the cow level. I usually skip the Halls and sometimes go back to them sometime in hell difficulty if I'm looking for something, but this time decided to go for it here. Which was a very good call, the extra areas turned up a significant amount of stuff after I was a little disappointed in the rest of the act.

These were the important finds: a Headstriker sword, Butcher's Pupil, and Buriza-Do Kyanon, the latter two found in Halls of Anguish. This makes for a lot of possible arrangements between the barb and the druid; I'll sort these out later.

This was also an important drop, a rare Sacred Targe for the paladin, also from Halls of Anguish. I was really worried about the paladin's shield for hell; Smite really wants an elite shield for damage, but they are scarce drops to find. I didn't think I was going to find any and was getting worried about having to get by in hell with some mediocre Rhyme, but then this blessedly showed up, the only Sacred Targe base I got at all. The modifiers aren't anything special (he's not built with dex for blocking), but 19 resist all is just enough to be usable.

And also important was this, finally got the assassin some elite boots for kick damage. This came by dumping a lot of gold into gambling boots, until I got an elite outcome (about 4% chance at this character level) for crafting input. Four attempts at that (about 4 million gold gambled) rolled this solid piece.

That also factored in to the rune department. Not much from the act, but I did get one Ko (from the cow level) and three Lum cubeable to another Ko, which is exactly what I needed. Those crafted boots meant I didn't need to upgrade Waterwalk for the assassin, so the two Ko can go into other uses.

Those were to upgrade the second Spirit Shroud, and to finally make the Melody bow for the patiently waiting mageazon. The base was only +2 bow skills, but I'm going with it; who knows how scarce a +3 with three sockets would be to come by, probably rarer than the Ko rune itself.

And this for the necromancer. +2 Poison Nova socketed into a Rhyme is the same as he already had... but this one came with +3 to Revive as well. I have to put that to use. I never like using revives in general, the timer means you're always feeling rushed to keep moving before they expire... but if some extra meat shields are available for completely free in his equipment loadout, I have to make use of it.

And here are some simple but solid magical items. That P&B skill charm was found right up front in the bloody foothills by the necro for himself and so he got to use it right away throughout the act. The armor is for a merc.

Some nice rare amulets too from gambling.

Also got some useful set pieces: Immortal King's helm and boots; this barb definitely wants the helm with +2 warcry skills, although I don't really want to go up to 125 strength for the boots. Also Laying of Hands showed up, nice and early, didn't know it could so soon. Also got Sigon's shield, two copies, for the druid and amazon to keep on switch for pre-buffing summons and shapeshifting.

Here's an ethereal Swordguard sword, that's some pretty chunky damage numbers. I'm not sure if this is a great idea or not, but I had to put this to use somehow, so I decided to hire a barbarian merc for the necromancer just to have a place to use this. He's the most reliant on his merc to deal physical damage, and can manage crowd control with Decrepify and Terror so I'm willing to give up Holy Freeze.

With that, I'm going to change the necro's play style for hell difficulty. I set my highest priority hotkey to Decrepify rather than Lower Resist, in order to cast that first on seeing every monster group, for the slowing in the absence of Holy Freeze. I think this is a safer and more reliable way to play, since Decrepify works on everything unlike the few but significant exceptions for Holy Freeze. The poison damage is blunted by not kicking in Lower Resist right away, but I can do that once I see that the battlefield is under control. This plan is also helped by Trang's gloves with the +2 to curses for Decrepify's duration.

Other merc gear included a Pierre Tombale Couant polearm and a second copy of Tal Rasha's mask; nothing else worth noting.

Besides all that, I also got a fairly long list of stuff that wasn't useful. I originally wrote this chapter with these as the focus, but then got a much better haul from clearing the additional areas that made for most of the above highlights.

Besides the Swordguard, I also found an ethereal Bonesnap and ethereal Steeldriver, wow. Amusing curiosities, with big chunky damage numbers, but there's really no way to put them to use since no mercenary class can use mauls.

Islestrike unique axe, I forgot this existed, +2 druid skills and good damage and crushing blow, almost useful but a slow base without on-weapon IAS just isn't usable for wereform, and the other options supersede it.

Deathbit throwing axe, also a curiosity with no use here.

Crainte Vomir sword, not better than Headstriker or Coldsteel Eye or Swordguard.

Endlesshail bow, no strafer here to use it (and it's pretty mediocre even for that.)

Aldur's and Natalya's set helms, plus Aldur's mace. These are all actually kinda irritating, none is good enough to use above other options, but I have to devote space to keeping them in case we get enough of the sets to be worth using.

Tiamat's Rebuke shield, but I don't think there's anyone here who wants to devote the shield slot to elemental damage (too bad Smite doesn't carry it, and I think the assassin more needs an off-hand claw for +skills and claw blocking.)

Stormspike stiletto, don't remember finding that before, but no use here.

Meat Scraper polearm, but we have enough better merc weapon options by now (the Pierre and several Honor Partizans.)

The last topic now regarding items is imbues. I spent most of these now, and this was the other reason to push everyone to the one additional character level of 73. (Nothing special about that level, just one more that was within reach of our experience accumulation.) I wanted to use them, to build around any good results now going in to hell difficulty. And with the leveling done for each character when they finished, this way I could grab the base items from anywhere in act 5 and spend the imbues right away, rather than having to hold them longer through the cow level. As usual I had each class do their class-specific items for imbues, since those are the hardest to get by other means.

The druid almost got a really good imbue, if only that was Armageddon instead of Volcano and Feral Rage instead of Fury. +2 skills is still the best he's got and will use, but this is in the awkward zone where it's not quite good enough to merit a socket quest but it feels underpowered to go without it.

The sorceress also got a solid orb, +2 skills with +2 more Frozen Orb, plus lightning resist thrown in.

The exception to class-specific imbues is always the amazon, since her class items don't get skill mods, and pretty much no rare will ever beat a unique or runeword weapon. Here I actually had the amazon imbue Wyrmhide Boots, on the theory that that's potentially useful to everyone but is also the one direct way to get an elite rare boot for the assassin, although the results didn't turn out as anything good enough to use. Also the paladin didn't use his imbues yet, waiting for Sacred Targe bases.

Finally, just a word to please the necromancer fans reading this: he was the MVP for clearing the extra areas through the Halls and the cow level; his trip there turned up all of the Butcher's Pupil, IK helm, and Ko rune.

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