Diablo II - Hardcore Star Team 5 - Hell

So here we go on arranging equipment for hell difficulty. This is way too much writing, but I keep loving doing it, so here we go.

The biggest thing I'm lacking is any of the good mid-level armors, besides the one Shaftstop. I never got any of the common middling options like Spirit Shroud, Vipermagi, Duriel's, Haemosu's set, not even an Iceblink or Goldskin. So I had to do a lot of patchwork here with mid-level runewords, Lionhearts and Smoke and Treachery.

The big question for arranging equipment was what to do with the Delirium helm and Shaftstop armor. I really wanted to put both on the no-vitality bowazon... but the problem is that would occupy both of the huge resists-and-life slots, Lionheart and her Chromatic of Squid ruby-socketed circlet. If I traded out both of those, she would have to use every other possible slot for resists, trading out more life adders (Whale belt and amulet, Aldur's boots), so that Shaftstop's 30% would be operating on a tiny base of under 400 life total. No, to have any life total at all, she really had to keep either that circlet or Lionheart.

After way too much thinking, I decided that the better combination was to keep the circlet and trade out Lionheart for Shaftstop. The circlet is just so good, accounting for a quarter of her entire life total and a big chunk of resists, and it really just isn't possible to make up those anywhere else with none on Delirium. And this build doesn't really get much out of Delirium's +skills. By comparison, Lionheart is less important for its slot than the circlet is; she doesn't use Lionheart to its fullest since the all-dex build won't put the saved stat points into life. And Shaftstop has 60 life of its own too, plus can take a socket quest for a resist-all jewel.

So this is the all-dexterity glass-cannon bowazon's loadout for hell difficulty: Buriza-Do Kyanon, Shaftstop armor, Chromatic of Squid circlet, Hit Power crafted gloves (knockback), Garnet of Whale belt, Aldur's boots, Sapphire of Whale amulet, rare rings. Her life total with the equipment is 720, let's hope it's enough.

I also have to decide on her skill build now. Upon finishing nightmare, her allocation was max Magic Arrow, 10 each in Valkyrie and Decoy, 5 each in Strafe and Guided Arrow, with 20 left to spend. The big swing is to balance offense vs defense; I decided to shore up the latter by maxing Decoy, but could leave Valkyrie at 10 points; she's got enough life (3500) with max synergy from Decoy, and she can be pre-cast in town with enough +skills equipment to get from 10 up to 17 for her best item upgrades (war pike and sacred armor.)

That left 10 points to spend on offensive skills. I had been waiting to commit to that in order to pick her endgame weapon first, since that matters: a bow with deadly strike would obviate the Critical Strike skill, one with ignore-target-defense would supersede Penetrate and Guided Arrow, one with piercing (Buriza) obviates Pierce. I did some math and worked out that the best allocation for dps was to bring Critical Strike to level 6 (the last level that gains 4%) with the remainder in Penetrate (also 5 more hard points for 6 total.) The one thing Buriza lacks is anything for attack rating, but the all-dexterity build actually makes this work, that 300 dex makes for a base AR of 1800 which is pretty decent for Penetrate to multiply, like having a Fool's prefix built in to the character.

Paladin: Black flail, Delirium helm, Sanctuary shield, godly mage plate armor, Blood crafted gloves with IAS and crushing blow, String of Ears belt, rare boots/rings/amulet with resists, and in stash he has Rose Branded (+3 combat skills) scepter+shield+circlet+amulet for prebuffing Holy Shield.

He gets the Delirium. Every paladin build craves crowd control and that CTC Confuse is about the biggest there is, and Smite works great to deliver the casting trigger. I am not sure how problematic the doll morph will be. If there's any meleer who can risk it, it's a paladin built for defense, with dual multipliers from Holy Shield and the merc's Defiance, plus shield blocking.

But first, I'll talk about the real linchpin of his gear, his shield. I decided to make the Mal rune into a Sanctuary shield right now, rather than waiting forever for something better. This was the best base I found so far, a protector shield with 33 resist all and 3 sockets. This shield is a fraction below optimal in every area - smite damage, blocking, resists, and defense - but it's still pretty-good in all of them, and that's what's important, no deficiencies. And this right now, at the most important moment of equipment-building, going into hell difficulty, is better than some mythical perfection that may never come. This fixes the mistake I made with my previous smiter who died, which was to overcommit to Smite damage, using the first sacred targe I found, but neglected the huge resists that can come in the shield slot.

With the shield covering such huge resistances (the runeword rolled 62 on top of the 33 base), that opens up every other slot to accommodate Delirium and everything else for defensive capabilities to avoid hits into its doll morph. I had nothing with any decent defense for his armor slot, so the best I could do was shop a godly mage plate from Anya, which will have to do until he can find something elite. His belt slot is also open, for the other String of Ears for another 100 defense plus the physical damage reduction. Delirium and Sanctuary also have big defense in their slots too. The one thing he's missing is cannot-be-frozen after trading out Rhyme, but I'm hoping that will be acceptable with Delirium breaking up cold-attacking packs, particularly archers.

And the other way to avoid hits is shield blocking. I now spent a pile of saved stat points into dex for that, and there's also 20 on Sanctuary itself, and he has a rare amulet with 15, ring with 14, and boots with 7. That plus all his available stat points got him to 73% blocking, just short of max. I had been thinking like this shield would be unusably bad for blocking because it's not a sacred targe, but it's actually a small difference; 50 base + 20 on Sanctuary + 35 from Holy Shield is 105%, less than a tenth below what a sacred targe would be at 115%, and so the difference in dex for max block is only about 12 points. Just hoping the tradeoff of about 120 life for the dex won't be fatal.

As a result of that setup, I had some of the characters barter some favors among each other. The paladin couldn't use more than one socket quest (weapon/helm/shield all already runewords), so he gave one to the bowazon so she could socket the Buriza in addition to her own circlet and Shaftstop. The bowazon in turn couldn't make use of her imbues (no rare weapon will beat Buriza, almost no rare circlet will beat her current one), so she gave them to the assassin by trying claw imbues for her. And the assassin completed (or started) the triangle - she had found the Ist rune and gave it to the paladin to make the Delirium.

Sorceress: Hexfire, Stone armor, Tal Rasha's helm, Rhyme shield, Laying of Hands, Cobalt of Squid belt, rare amulet/rings/boots with resists/dex/life, Kuko Shakaku on switch, Enchant pre-buff equipment in stash (Leaf staff, +2 circlet, +3 amulet, +1 skill charm.)

She also got multiple major build-around items now. I put the Um and Pul runes into a Stone armor. The big part here was that I actually got a base for it already! That Wyrmhide dropped from Ventar's pack - I didn't even know it could in nightmare difficulty. (Holy crap, Atma says the odds were 1 in 50,000 at players-5, wow. Well, that's for one single monster. The overall total odds for the whole team were more like 1 in 140, if there were 50 minions total among Worldstone 3 and the throne room, times seven characters, and besides that a dusk shroud would also have been an equivalent possibility.) Anyway, the cube recipe hit 4 sockets. (3 for a Duress or 2 for a Smoke were also possible good outcomes.)

So this was too good a deal not to put to use right now. I've used Stone on sorceresses several times before, and also my spearazon two teams ago, and always to great results. Huge defense, some resists and stats (including redirecting hard points of strength into vitality), Clay Golem charges that are very usable (hey he can even be Enchanted!), and, quite possibly most importantly for a melee sorceress, 60% faster hit recovery.

I'm satisfied with this use of both Um and Pul, compared to other possible options. Pul's other use is to upgrade a unique weapon, but that's not a great need right now; Buriza for the bowazon and Pierre Tombale for the barb are good enough without upgrading, and what I'd most love to upgrade but haven't found would be a Bartuc's claw for the assassin. Um could be a Duress for the paladin or assassin, but a 3-socket elite base for that can take forever to show up. Um's other use is Crescent Moon, which the barb might like, but the Stone here is more important.

Besides that, the enchantress also gets a build-around piece in Laying of Hands. Remember that this is a pure Enchant build, with no other damage type as backup, just whatever physical weapon she can manage. So let's use that +350% damage to demons here! That is the biggest multiplier the sorceress class can get for any physical damage, and demon-type monsters tend to correlate with fire immunity. I think this will work at least to take care of all the fallen-types coming up in the first act of hell.

This means she's going to be using a weapon with physical damage, upgrading from her Diggler dirk, and the right one is Hexfire. ITD on this makes it better than any other option (which would be Butcher's Pupil); her AR is still problematic; Enchant's AR boost really doesn't make for all that much since she's got no base AR to multiply. Hexfire also throws in +3 fire skills (only matters for Fire Mastery at melee time, but that still helps a bit) and some fire resistance. So this is worth socket-questing, with a Shael. Finally, Hexfire does have a dex requirement (58), but it's worth meeting that (got a rare amulet with 20 dex and 20 prismatic resists) so she can also keep the Kuko Shakaku bow (49 dex) on switch for its Fires Explosive Arrows property as a ranged Enchant option.

Also she took the second Tal Rasha's helm. 15 resist all and 60 life is fine in the helm slot, and she can get a little bit from the life leech.

Her skill build is the Enchant package, then Ice Blast unsynergized for damage and solely for the freezing to help make melee more manageable.

Druid: Hexfire, Lionheart, gemmed pelt with rubies and +Summon Grizzly, Rhyme shield, Trang-Oul's gloves, Communal (+3 shapeshifting) of Squid amulet, rare rings/belt/boots, Fleshrender club and Sigon's shield for skills on switch.

Same as the sorceress, he's also keeping a Hexfire sword as his main weapon for hell difficulty, for the same reason of ITD in that an elemental meleer just needs the weapon to hit. I think no combination exists of ITD and +druid skills on the same weapon, so ITD and +3 fire skills for Fire Claws is just about as good as he can get. Hexfire also throws in 25% fire resist, and 100-ish physical damage, as a weak but workable third damage option against poison/fire dual-immune bosses. The only downside is the 58 dexterity requirement, but with a max Oak Sage life pool, I'm willing to trade off 30 points of vitality into dex for this. And so he also socketed his Hexfire with a Shael for speed (for Fire Claws; it doesn't matter how fast Rabies attacks.) That reaches a speed breakpoint such that IAS gloves don't help, so he can continue using Trang-Oul's gloves for poison damage.

For armor, he took a Lionheart, since he uses the stats well, towards the dex requirement on Hexfire. I'd like him to have a defensive armor for fighting in melee range, but there's no good options on hand at all; the best I could do now would be to shop a Godly Mage Plate from Anya, which still isn't much on a class with no defense multiplier. And he needs resists.

Assassin: 2x Cruel Greater Talons (one of Evisceration), Lionheart, Tal Rasha's helm, String of Ears, Bloodfist, rare rings/amulet/boots, two +3 shadow claws on switch.

The biggest deficiency on the whole team is her claws. I knew going in that this would be a problem for this character, and now I have to deal with it. There just don't exist any attainable options for claw damage; no mid-level runewords work in claws, and the only exceptional unique is Bartuc's unlike other weapon categories where many exist so you're certain to find at least one. Just have to wait for Bartuc's or one of the elite claws to drop to get anything good. For now, she shopped two Cruel Greater Talons from Anya, which are barely adequate but will have to do since nothing better is possible. She played act 1 hell after most of the other characters, to see if they found any good claws, and when they didn't, first shopped Anya in nightmare for a better Cruel (upgrading from 235% to 297%.)

For armor she took a Lionheart, same as the druid; she uses it maximally, where both the strength and dex for claw requirements mean redirecting hard points into vitality, and for defense she's got Cloak and Mind Blast rather than relying on a defense armor. Her other best piece is Tal Rasha's helm for all its usual melee goodies. She's got a whopping 30% life leech between that, String of Ears, and two rings. Her one unusual choice is a Bloodfist glove, compromising a bit on IAS (only 10%), for the 30% hit recovery as a key stat that she doesn't have anywhere else.

Necromancer: White wand, Smoke armor, rare circlet with skills/resist/run speed, Rhyme in a +1 Poison Nova head, Trang-Oul's claws, Garnet of Whale belt, rare rings/amulet/boots, summoning skills wand/head on switch for the clay golem.

He's quietly been the most reliable and least needy for equipment. He got his +3 Poison Nova White wand long ago. He took a Smoke armor now; he could use more resistance than Lionheart (and also hit recovery) and doesn't maximally use Lionheart's stats.

I'm making sure to take care of peripheral defensive stats on him, remembering my two dead poisonmancers. So this necromancer has 64% run speed between boots/circlet/charms, and 42% faster hit recovery. If there's anything I can do to avoid the fatal moments that befell the others, this would be it.

Barbarian: Pierre Tombale Couant, Treachery, Immortal King's helm, Sigon's gloves and belt (the 30% IAS exactly reaches a speed breakpoint with Treachery), rare rings/amulet/boots, two Echoing weapons on switch.

The big question is his weapon; he's going to use a real two-hander now for hell instead of holding the Angelic sabre off-hand. I haven't found any particularly standout options (no Ribcracker). The best on hand are Pierre Tombale Couant and upgraded (exceptional) Bonesnap. They deal about the same damage factoring in Pierre's deadly strike, so Pierre wins with its included package of +3 barb skills, some AR, mana steal, and hit recovery. Like the assassin, he played act 1 hell after most of the other characters, to see if any good weapon upgrades came. When they didn't, he committed a point to Polearm Mastery.

For his armor, I made a Treachery. He uses all of it: the IAS with a slow weapon, he can take hits for the Fade to be on consistently, he can handle going a little short of max resists and count on Fade to top them up, and he can dish out the Venom too. Yeah it seems like a waste for a barb with max Concentrate and Shout to not have a high-defense armor, but I just haven't got any.

Mercenaries: Everyone has been using a Defiance merc so far, except the barbarian with Might. But now I changed two of them. The druid switched to Holy Freeze. He doesn't need Defiance; he doesn't have a defensive armor himself, and his merc is tanky enough with Oak Sage. And he spends a lot of time running away from monsters while waiting for Rabies to work, so I think Holy Freeze works better with that, including also in reducing attacks against Oak Sage itself.

And the barbarian is taking a barb merc, entirely to wield a Vile Husk sword for the CTC Amplify. I think both Defiance and Might are marginal on top of his own Shout and damage, so the CTC Amp is actually the best thing he can add from a merc. Battle Cry's defense penalty will help it trigger more often. And barb mercs work great with Battle Orders; they regenerate much faster than other merc types, which works as a percentage of the merc's max health, boosted by BO.

Merc equipment: all seven have a Godly Ornate Plate shopped from Anya, and various circlets with resists and/or life steal, except for a rare with a Visionary prefix (AR multiplier) for the necro's merc. Merc weapons include Kelpie Snare (paladin and bowazon, who need crowd slowing but not physical damage), Pierre Tombale Couant (sorc's merc, who needs physical damage the most), and a bunch of exceptional Honor polearms, to be replaced with elite versions when I can.

One more interlude: I played the paladin last for this act, to see if the other six characters got anything that might change my plans before committing to his big runewords, either a better paladin shield or a better use for one of the runes. They didn't, but here's the one might-have-been. I got an ethereal Loricated Mail elite armor, for which the eth-bugging cube recipe gave 2 sockets. This would be a great base for a Prudence armor runeword with the Mal rune. I really wanted to make that for the assassin... but a strength requirement of 139 is just a bit beyond what she could realistically reach. I reluctantly declined that option and went ahead with the Mal for the Sanctuary shield instead. Finally, the base also makes a fantastic merc Smoke, which would be its fate instead.

Act 1

Bowazon: So I was lamenting that she couldn't feasibly fit in Delirium for crowd control. But I came up with a crazy plan to enact some crowd control anyway:

I socketed a DOL rune into the Buriza! It didn't need the usual candidates for socketing, Shael for speed or Nef for knockback, because she has hit power crafted gloves with both. So the socket is available for this. Dol is usually the most hated rune for the annoying monster-flee, but for a ranged attacker who needs to avoid every hit she possibly can, it's perfect for deflecting crowds. The fleeing is exactly the right amount of disruptive. They don't flee far. The duration is very short, under a second in hell difficulty. A monster can keep going beyond that until its next AI check, but what tends to happen is then another hit of the knockback or freezing interrupts it, or I can also block its path with a Decoy. So they go a short distance, maybe half a screen radius, just enough to relieve pressure on the merc/valk/decoy so that they always hold up and nothing gets near the bowazon.

Between her package of offensive effects - knockback, freezing, fleeing, and piercing - it really felt like she was BLASTING monsters, far more than any other character I've ever played. Each of those effects isn't reliable on its own, but out of all of them, something will trigger on almost every hit. Kelpie Snare on the merc works great with this setup; as the monsters get knocked around and flee, he picks a lot of different targets to tag with the slowing.

For her skills, I observed that Strafe is definitely better than Multishot here. With 100% piercing, Strafe will continuously hit everything in the cone of fire, just about up to the NextDelay speed limit. Also, her Magic Arrow is a serious sanity saver, to mop up all the routine monsters without spending mana or arrows. And it did work to kill ghosts, by way of its 20% magic damage conversion, although quite slowly. But, as I said before, she can continue combat situations for an unlimited length of time, consuming no mana or ammo and taking no damage, as long as the merc and valk are taking less damage than their own regeneration.

Of course, her life total is still precariously low, by design. A single shot from a boss archer with any of Cursed/Extra Strong/Might/Fanaticism could hit for half her life, and two such modifiers would threaten a one-hit kill. She got hit to below one-third life this way three or four times in the act, at least once low enough that she would have died without Shaftstop's 30% damage resist. If she makes it all the way, that's going to be the MVP item for the team.

Druid: As with many characters, the story of act 1 hell is his backup attack. Fire Claws finally reached max, but that's still only about 600 damage even at skill level 28; it needs synergy points at +22% each. It was barely enough to kill poison-immune skeletons, although for fire-resistant burning dead types, he had to wait for the merc to do the work.

His big question is whether to take hard points up to Summon Grizzly, or just always get it from a pelt. Every druid I do tries to skip Grizzly this way, but ends up taking it eventually when they find a pelt with +2 all skills, since that's better than 4 hard points in one skill. But this druid is the exception - the four points become synergy points to Fire Claws, which can't be made up by other equipment. The best +Grizzly pelt I've got is a simple plain one with 3 sockets and also +2 Fire Claws, which I think is just barely good enough to keep using permanently; the sockets account for three rubies worth of life, even more than a Whale suffix.

Sorceress: What I invented with this build, of Enchant and no backup attack besides Ice Blast freezing, is actually a wannabe assassin. Against fire immunes, her play pattern is to alternate hits of Ice Blast and a physical melee swing, just like a Phoenix Strike charge/release pattern. And she always teleports to isolated targets like with Dragon Flight. And she will use her unsynergized Ice Blast for damage dealing to slowly kill a dual-immune boss, in the same way that a phoenix striker uses the unsynergized ice charge. And like Phoenix, she can deliver a third element too, with Static Field. That's short range with only one point, but thanks to Stone's defense she can be reasonably confident of standing in close against small groups of monsters. This is the kind of character build I love: versatile offensive approaches, high player skill cap, constant execution of tactics.

But the other star of her show was Kuko Shakaku on switch. This bow with Fires Explosive Arrows transfers the Enchant fire damage to its blast radius, and this was extremely effective. I could routinely kill boss packs with this before they dented the merc's health. It's roughly one-third the damage of melee (Fire Mastery multiplies ranged Enchant only once instead of twice for melee), but doing it from range means I can just shoot three times in the time it would take to approach a target for a melee swing. And of course clustered monsters in an overlapping blast radius makes it even that much more effective. I knew this was considered a fringe-viable character build, but I didn't know it actually does work pretty well. I could almost switch over to use Kuko as her standard primary weapon full time, although the limiting factor at the moment was that she wasn't set up for max resistances without the Rhyme shield.

Assassin: She was slooooow to clear this act, somewhere over twelve hours in total. (I lost count over more than a week of real time.) Her damage output is just so lousy with mediocre claws and a build that has mediocre multipliers. And I think she suffers a version of the Fend/Dodge bug, where Dragon Claw gets invisibly interrupted by Weapon Block and you end up whiffing. She would get either that or visible block-lock whenever up against any more than about two monsters at once. I had to meticulously separate out single monsters constantly to kill one at a time. My previous kicker assassin had these same problems too, though not as extreme, with Dragon Talon attacking faster, a claw applying big AR and Amplify, and the knockback naturally separating monsters.

I've mentioned the three-second melee test before; a melee character is generally successful if they can kill one separated monster in the three seconds before a crowd catches up to you again. This assassin not only failed that, she couldn't even kill a single monster within the ten-second duration of Cloak or Mind Blast. And for ghosts, she had to go get a Malice claw for prevent-monster-heal, and kill them even more slowly with Venom and Open Wounds. Still, the assassin class is built to go as slow as you need; just keep casting Cloak and MB for however long it takes, and precision-target Mind Blast to occupy the right monsters. So it all worked, and she had no real danger moments, between the damage reduction on String of Ears and max Fade.

Also, curiously, she fell behind the others on experience, by more than half a level, even despite about six experience shrines, and so had to go to players-7 for all of the catacombs to catch up. I thought I was avoiding the bug where traps count as bosses and prevent more boss packs from spawning; I never used any traps, and intentionally used the Shadow Warrior instead of the Master so the minion wouldn't either. But it still seemed there were fewer boss packs than there should be; on one level of the catacombs, I counted only two, plus two champion packs in rooms that predefine them. I can only guess that casting the shadow warrior itself also somehow counts as a boss minion and invokes the bug?

Paladin: Holy crap Delirium is amazing fun, throwing every screenful of monsters into chaos with CTC Confuse. Although one thing I didn't realize was that Confuse won't refresh itself; the same monster can't be confused again until after it expires, leaving a window of vulnerability until it triggers again. But that was easy enough to do; his play pattern was to stand behind the merc, holding shift-click to spam Smite at anything that walked within range to knock it back out, until the Confuse triggered. And the really fun part of Delirium is when a Cursed boss applies the curse to a whole bunch of confused monsters! Although that would quickly get overwritten again by the Confuse triggering again anyway.

And the other complication from Confuse was that it wakes up a ton of monsters all the time - when you confuse a monster at the edge of the screen, every monster within range of that wakes up. This led to some crazy chain-reaction fights - wake up a resurrecting fallen shaman two screens away, so I have to find and run to kill him, and then another trigger of Confuse wakes up another shaman another two screens away... until half the entire Cold Plains is chasing me around in a crazed ball of confusion. This was no danger with everything confused, just somewhat mentally taxing to keep track of where everything and their dropped loot was.

As for the Delirium doll morph: it triggered a few times... but wasn't a problem at all. In fact he could just keep right on attacking! - the CTC Confuse and crushing blow still work even as the doll! The base damage was only that of a normal attack from the Black flail, not Smite, but that and the crushing blow and the merc were enough to actually just keep killing things with a decent pace and no danger.

And the Sanctuary shield and his overall defense performed fine, 11k defense for about a 20% get-hit rate, plus near-max blocking. Although one thing he was missing from his loadout is Cannot Be Frozen, without Rhyme... but that actually might have been an advantage! The biggest danger to kill a smiter is the invisible bugged explosions from cold/fire/lightning enchanted bosses - and several times what happened was that getting chilled by a cold-enchanted boss actually slowed me down enough to not get deeply into danger before I could realize it and recover.

And I discovered a better plan for physical-immune ghosts than my intention of low-synergy Blessed Hammer: he could use Holy Bolt instead! His +combat skills equipment intended for Holy Shield could also be used to get Holy Bolt up to level 10, and it has a synergy maxed in Blessed Hammer, and so it was doing 1000 damage to undead (and ignoring ghosts' 50% magic resistance), quite a bit better than BH itself and from long range.

Necromancer: Still alive unlike my previous two poisonmancers, so that's a plus. Yeah, Dim Vision was the missing ticket to make this build work, that's how a necromancer can handle running into the middle of a monster group to cast the poison novas. And the merc supported by Amplify can still handle all the poison immunes.

Barb: Concentrate kills things. One at a time. Yawn. End of report.


Holy crap! Right up front, for the first character out on the blood moor, I got my #1 most wanted item for the whole team! Bartuc's Cut-Throat!

... and ... it's ... ETHEREAL ... holy ... shitfreakingdammit.

Anyway, the theme this act was that I got a bunch of the midrange armors that had been missing. Here we go:

Griswold's set armor is the upgrade the barbarian wanted. Treachery was OK, but I really wanted defense on him, he was wasting the multipliers from max Concentrate and Shout and really couldn't tank much of a crowd. Griswold's armor here has solid defense, and the sockets can take either resist runes or Jewels of Fervor for speed. (I'll build my own Treachery, with defense and hookers!) And the Treachery will pass down to a merc.

And Que-Hegan's armor fits the paladin perfectly. Fast-cast and skills and even 15 energy will help Blessed Hammer/Holy Bolt mode, and it includes decent defense rating unlike a Vipermagi would.

The Shaftstop goes to the necromancer (the bowazon already has one.) All three of my dead necromancers on these teams died from a quick flurry of physical hits. If there's any item that's going to make the difference for this one, this is it. (I considered giving it to the assassin, but then realized she can't use the damage reduction; with Fade and String of Ears she's already over 40% physical resist and near the 50% cap.)

Toothrow doesn't fit any of the characters, but goes to good use on the druid's merc, he needs the Open Wounds against poison immunes to stop regeneration.

I also finally got a Spirit Shroud armor, which doesn't really fit anyone presently, though I might use it somewhere if a Lem rune comes to upgrade it. Also a Twitchthroe armor, actually briefly considered it for the paladin with IAS and blocking and hit recovery and stats, but nah, and then Que-Hegan's came anyway.

Besides those, I got another String of Ears, my third total, and a second Hone Sundan for merc use.

Some random notes for stuff that wasn't useful:

I also got a second Buriza-Do Kyanon, and it was better than the first (183% to 162% damage)... but I can't switch after committing a socket quest to the first one.

Deathbit battle dart, but that doesn't help anything.

Headstriker sword, briefly considered this as a physical damage option for the sorceress.

Tiamat's Rebuke shield, but elemental damage in the shield slot doesn't quite fit for anyone here. Maybe the druid, but he needs Rhyme's cannot-be-frozen more.

Carrion Wind ring, that's uncommon, but mostly a curiosity, 9% life leech but really not anything else that means anything.

Runes: I mostly used up all my luck for them in the previous act. I only got one above Ko in all of hell act 1:

Vex! Well... I really don't have anything to do with it. This came before I committed the Ist to the paladin's Delirium, so together they could have made a Silence, but I don't have any base for it, and I'd rather get the Delirium going at the start of hell. The other thing Vex can make without some other higher rune is Heart of the Oak... but there's no caster on this team who wants it as a main weapon (the paladin would take it on switch for Blessed Hammer mode, but that's a low priority), and it also requires a Pul, which I don't have and if I did I'd rather spend on upgrading weapons.

Oh, and this team keeps finding sweet charms. (No druid elementalist to use it, but that's still sweet anyway.)

Besides those new armors, the other big change with them was that I moved the Stone armor from the sorceress to the assassin. Here's the rundown of several equipment rebuilds:

Sorceress: She will now use the Kuko Shakaku bow as her primary weapon for dealing Enchant's fire damage, along with arranging resists to go without the Rhyme shield. Then I realized, if she's set up to not need a shield, then her physical weapon on switch should also be a two-hander! Like my melee necromancer two teams ago. And the best option for her is the Pierre Tombale Couant that the barb had been using, with good damage and deadly strike at manageable stat requirements (now socketed with Hel), plus even hit recovery. She will need this physical damage now; in act 1, most fire immunes are demon types for the multiplier of Laying of Hands to apply, but act 2 has more non-demon fire immunes.

And this involved changing her armor slot. Using a two-handed ranged weapon means a greater need for resists (no shield) but less for defense. So she changed from the Stone armor to a newly made Smoke, in a good two-socket scarab husk base that came this act. Pierre Tombale also has hit recovery to replace that on Stone.

Assassin: She takes the Stone, and that huge defense should help with her block-lock problems. Stone's hit recovery also allows trading out her Bloodfist glove for something with 20% IAS instead. Finally... I didn't really want to do this, but I decided she had to take the Goblin Toe boot I found earlier. She's just so short of offensive power with her underwhelming claws (still two Cruel Greater Talons), and crushing blow is the only feasible way I can add any, and I'll just have to hope the lack of run speed isn't fatal, relying as always on Cloak and Mind Blast. I did have 25% worth of run speed charms to give her, should be enough.

Necromancer: He got Shaftstop, which meant trading out Smoke and its resistances. I rarely do this, but now he's not going to use a necro head, instead taking a Moser's shield with two diamonds for 63% resist all. I never found any good necro head for him, all he had was a Rhyme with +1 Poison Nova, so it's worth trading that out for the big resists instead in order to fit in Shaftstop. He also needed to replace Smoke's hit recovery, with a belt with that and strength (to support Shaftstop) and resists. Just hope trading out a Whale belt won't be fatal, but Shaftstop's virtual life should be a gain.

Barbarian: He had a change of plans, thanks to some foreknowledge. I was going to rebuild his equipment around a Mancatcher Honor runeword, that I'd made for a merc in act 1 and would be his best weapon going into act 2. But then someone else playing act 2 before him found a better weapon, such that I didn't want to commit to the dex (134) for the mancatcher or the point to Spear Mastery. Instead, he took a slight downgrade to my other copy of Pierre Tombale Couant for act 2, with something better on the way beyond that.

The bowazon, paladin, and werewolf didn't change anything significant, just minor tweaks to rings/charms/boots for resistances.

Socket quests: The necromancer did his Shaftstop with a jewel of fire resist and strength. The assassin socketed Tal Rasha's helm with a Jewel of Fervor. And the barbarian socketed the Pierre Tombale (with a Hel) before passing it to the sorceress (he has no use for the socket quests himself since all his slots are already socketed anyway.)

Act 2

Procedurally: In a change from my previous teams, this time I decided to truly full-clear this act. Mostly on players-3, but I did drop to p1 for the indoor areas that can be risky with dense boss packs (Halls of the Dead, Claw Viper temple, palace cellar, tombs.) I didn't think about this the correct way for previous teams, about skipping areas versus reducing the player count; I should always drop more areas from p3 to p1 before any go from p1 to not-cleared, since that's the same differential in monster toughness (200% to 100% vs 100% to 0%), but the former is less of a reduction in item drops because they diminish for each higher marginal player count.

Paladin: He had a hell of a fight getting into Arcane Sanctuary, of all places. Right by the waypoint, the first monsters he confused with Delirium attracted three overlapping boss packs from different directions, including both Fanaticism and Might enchanted. Usually Delirium's Confuse is god-mode in diverting monster attention endlessly, but that didn't work here - the insubstantial ghosts could all stack up on me or the merc and attack us even when confused. And just shift-spamming Smite also didn't work as in most other cases, since it wouldn't kill the physical immune ghosts; it took Holy Bolt to kill them, which doesn't recast the Confuse. This took a hectic ten-plus minutes of sprinting around, killing a couple isolated monsters, and then portaling out to return from the waypoint (or out by the waypoint and back by the portal), until I got the situation under control.

Besides that one encounter, his build is rounding out well now. Blessed Aim now reached about 8 synergy points for Blessed Hammer, which was enough to clear out crowds of skeletons or maggot young, and the fast-cast gear (Que-Hegan's and one ring) helped that and Holy Bolt significantly.

Bowazon: She cruised pretty smoothly through the act, I think only once got hit low enough to need Shaftstop's damage reduction to save her. She was always far away from dangerously bugged beetles or any other problematic boss packs. I tweaked some of the player-count settings for her: I knew she would have trouble in Arcane Sanctuary with the ghosts (Magic Arrow can kill them, but the monster-flee Dol rune would fling them all over the empty space), so did that on players-1 for her and compensated with p3 for the palace cellar levels instead.

Druid: His play style is to suck enormous amounts of potions, constantly. He doesn't deal physical damage to leech, and he stands in at melee range, without high defense (Lionheart armor, although he did switch back to a Defiance merc), so he always takes a pounding. He can withstand it with 3800 life from max Oak Sage, but the druid class's low potion value can't keep up with replenishing it... so mostly what he did was just let the monsters gradually knock him to about one-third life and then pop a portal up to Atma for healing. Even poison damage was a problem, from greater mummies and maggots, with low (-20) poison resist. Anyway, his offensive side was fine: Rabies is enough, Fire Claws got up from 800 damage to around 1200 after finally adding a few synergy points, and that plus physical from the merc can handle everything.

Assassin: She still has those weak claws, but at least her other offensive upgrades (two speed breakpoints, crushing blow) improved her progress rate from plodding to merely slow. She could at least kill a single monster during the duration of a Cloak of Shadows now. And the Stone armor let her stand in against small groups of monsters, although block-lock was still a problem against more than about three at a time. Finally, I also speeded her up a little by mixing in Burst of Speed instead of Fade in routine situations where I knew there was no danger. I actually found myself wishing I'd built her around BoS instead of Fade from the beginning - the extra speed makes a significant difference on the fairly slow animation of Dragon Claw.

Barbarian: He's got a condition common to many barbarian builds: Berserk Syndrome, where 1-point Berserk ends up outdoing whatever his main attack skill is supposed to be. Particularly here where it happens to get synergy from Shout. It's about the same damage as Concentrate, so beats it against anything with significant physical resistance, particularly maggots and beetles, also blunderbore types and ghoul lords. I found myself using Berserk any time he was isolated against one monster and could get away without his defense.

Sorceress: Hot damn this is a strong build, using Kuko Shakaku's explosive arrows to deliver Enchant. I knew this was a fringe power build, but damn it's right up there for power level with the best of any other fire sorceress. She blew through anything not fire immune in seconds, and through the act at least twice as fast as everyone else. It's just way more effective to shoot with splash damage at range than to try to maneuver into melee range for a single target. Heck, she was even so effective this way that my bowazon instincts kept trying to cast Decoy with her, hah.

And I had been excited about her physical damage side for fire immunes, with the Pierre Tombale polearm... and that turned out to barely matter at all. The merc just took care of everything. By the time I got myself in position for melee, switched weapons, and lined up Static Field to cut its health... the merc had already killed it. His weapon isn't even anything special, just an Honor in a Mancatcher. Enchant's AR and Treachery's IAS really both help a merc that much. And Teleport is so precise for precision-targeting with the merc, that there really wasn't much of anything for the sorceress to do herself in melee. I'm actually a little disappointed that this is working so well; I wanted to try different ways to get physical damage from a sorceress.

Necromancer: I played him fairly early (second character I think), and by the time I finished the act with everyone to write this, I honestly don't remember anything from his playthrough. Well, uneventful is good. Dim Vision gives him the reliability that my dead poisonmancers lacked, and Shaftstop gives a nice extra margin of safety, all while the merc and Corpse Explosion are more than plenty good enough to handle poison immunes.


The big score was Immortal King's maul dropped from Duriel. That neatly takes care of the barbarian's weapon slot for good. And this came early before the barb played act 2, so I could alter his plan for starting act 2 to account for this waiting for him: he could spend all his saved stat points into strength ahead of time, and I worked out his speed breakpoint to allocate the right amount of Jewels of Fervor. The maul's final configuration is shown here, including the partial-set bonuses (he also picked up IK's boots this act), and the two Eth runes socketed (he neatly reaches a speed breakpoint with Sigon's gloves and 3 Jewels of Fervor in Griswold's armor, so the sockets are open for this.) And so he can now finally commit to a weapon mastery as well.

The next big score was a Homunculus necro head, for the first time among all of my teams here. That's an easy call to occupy the necro's head slot permanently, and worth socket-questing with a diamond.

And the third big score was Jalal's Mane. Best in slot for a druid's helm, pretty much always... although this one does have the complication that he was relying on a pelt with +Summon Grizzly. And this came after the druid played act 2, so I didn't save any skill points to get up to Grizzly. Well... I decided he would just have to go without the bear; it's really not important compared to an Oak Sage-boosted mercenary.

Hellrack colossus crossbow. It's not quite competitive with the Buriza overall, particularly given that the strength requirement is a problem so the sockets need Hels instead of Shaels. But the interesting part there is the elemental damage. That might work better than Magic Arrow for physical immunes, particularly since it can be delivered faster via Strafe. So the bowazon will keep this on switch for that purpose.

And Atma's Scarab amulet. Finally the assassin can get a big boost to physical damage, with CTC Amplify, same as for my kicker last time. The Amplify does conflict with Cloak of Shadows, but that's manageable.

The other major payoffs came in the rune department:

There's this team's second Ist rune! And, with the Vex that dropped in act one:

Dol Eld Hel Ist Tir Vex. Silence for the bowazon. She had been happy enough with the Buriza, but I wanted this more. Of course the big factor is the 75% resist all. This is like having better than 225 life in the weapon slot; it's generally possible to trade out resistance points for life points at better than 1:1, like a small charm slot could be a 10% resistance or 15-20 life. Like all bowazons, this one was always scrambling to cram in resists, and now this king of resists allows me to trade out lots of other equipment (rings, charms, her circlet sockets) away from resists for more life instead. The blinding and monster-flee are also solid crowd control, almost as good as Delirium. And the faster bow-category weapon rather than crossbow makes for shorter Strafe-lock. Plus it throws in hit recovery which also saves some charm slots for life instead. Overall this enabled increasing her life total from 720 to just over 1000, quite a significant improvement. Buriza was fun, but I think Silence really stresses survivability more, and that's what's more likely to make the difference for Guardianship.

Finding the base for it took a minor stroke of luck. I hadn't realized the scarcity of 6-socket bows; there are only three elite types (and no amazon bows), and a Hydra Bow is from very rare TC87 and a Colossus Crossbow is too high on strength requirement. The singular workable option is a Crusader Bow, but one fortunately happened to drop almost right after I had this in mind. I did have to spend a Larzuk quest to get the six sockets, but that was worthwhile.

Finally, the Buriza doesn't get retired. The sorceress will keep it, with the socket swapped out for a Hel, in case she needs a ranged physical option against fire immunes; in particular against the Ancients, and perhaps also Chaos Sanctuary's doom knights or the Travincal council.

And Silence wasn't the only new runeword:

Here's a Passion runeword as a new physical melee weapon for the sorceress. I've always been fascinated by this item, granting Zeal and Berserk as cross-class skills, and I've always wanted to try that. But for what use, what character or build would ever want a low level of those over a maxed class-native attack skill instead? The answer is a class that doesn't have any native attack skill, meaning a necromancer or sorceress. I actually had Passion in mind for this sorceress from her very beginning. She can even easily handle the monster-flee, with her Ice Blast freezing to stop monsters fleeing. And so when a Lem rune showed up this act, I went for it.

The base was a change from my original plan. I'd envisioned a one-hand weapon for applying Enchant quickly with the Zeal, and I'd saved a four-socket cryptic sword for that possibility. But since she's configured for a two-handed bow for Enchant, now the right fit is a two-hand melee base on switch for physical damage. And the best way is absolutely a staff-class weapon, which has much lower stat requirements compared to anything else and goes fast for the sorceress class. Fortunately, a suitable Elder Staff came during act 2, and I wisely spent a Larzuk quest to get the four sockets rather than risking a coin flip with the cube recipe.

And the sorceress also took a Sazabi's set helm that I had saved on a merc, specifically for the plus to all skills on it. That modifier is the only way to increase the level of an off-class skill like Zeal - neither +paladin nor +sorc skills works, only all skills. (A Lore runeword also does the same thing, but Sazabi's has similar resists, plus more defense, and can take a socket quest too.) I also have on hand an Eye of Etlich amulet, for the same purpose, but the sorceress can't quite fit that presently, she needs resists in the amulet slot. I also toyed with the idea for her to take the Delirium for the +2 all skills, but nah, she needs resists in the helm slot and the paladin uses the Confuse so smashingly well.

Some minor finds:

The barb also picked up Immortal King's boots to go with his maul and helm. (What he really wants now is the gloves.)

Got String of Ears yet again, fourth time for this team, randomness is clumpy. Thought about giving it to the druid, but I think I prefer a Whale belt on him, the life gets multiplied by Oak Sage.

Earthshaker hammer, but this team has no elemental druid to use the skills, and no one-hand meleer who would want it as a weapon.

For the second time across my teams here, the maggot lair served up a TC87 set item. M'avina's diadem, which doesn't do all that much but does have defense and 30% IAS, may as well throw it on a merc.

Crescent Moon amulet, but nobody really wants to commit the amulet slot to dual leech and nothing else.

Got a paladin combat skills grand charm, actually quite good to buff all of Holy Shield, Smite, Blessed Hammer, Holy Bolt.

And actually, once again the best thing this team keeps finding is sweet charms.

Also I gambled rings after the act, since that was the area where I could most use some improvements, and got a few pretty good ones here.

After the act, I embarked on a side project. I went back through the early difficulties to full-clear everything I hadn't done before. (Full list: normal difficulty Cave, Crypt, Mausoleum, Hole, Pit, Stony Tomb, Ancient Tunnels, Arachnid Lair, Swampy Pit, Icy Cellar, Drifter Cavern, the three hell-portal dungeons in act 5, and the cow level. Nightmare difficulty, the same list for the first two acts, plus Forgotten Tower and Halls of the Dead.) This took a while, about two weeks in real time at one or two evenings per character.

The reason was to try to get better claws for the assassin. The method was the cube recipes for 3 chipped, normal, or flawless gems to reroll a socketed magic item. The ilvl is low (25 or 30), but for a base item of high enough qlvl (75+, so a Feral Claws or Runic Talons works), the affix level is high enough (51+) to get a Cruel prefix. So I did this with all those gems from the early difficulty areas. Sadly, this didn't pan out. The odds of Cruel are 1 in 124, and I got about that many gem rerolls in total, but never hit on it. I did get Ferocious (one step below Cruel) twice, but a low damage percent and no other relevant modifier.

There's one other method to get a Cruel elite claw now: the act 3 vendors can sell them. (The act 1 and 2 vendors can't, for technical reasons, the base items they sell can't be vended as elite.) But it takes forever to run across town to Halbu and Asheara every time. I worked out that the expected probability would be about 1 in 1500 visits, and so the expected time would be roughly ten hours... and no, I'm not doing that for a character who won't even have ten hours of playtime left anyway.

So then I tried one last attempt, using my last two imbues for the team on claws (the paladin's, who hadn't used his, since he had his Sanctuary before I found any elite paladin shield bases.) And holy crap!

There we go, there's a nicely chunky damage claw. It is slower than a greater talons, but almost twice the damage of her next best option, so well worth using.

And then she used her available socket quest on her first claw. I looked up and tested the speed mechanics for the Dragon Claw skill, and it turns out that it uses on-weapon IAS only in the primary weapon slot and ignores it in the secondary. So only one claw needs IAS, and so it's a better proposition to socket the magical claw in hopes of getting two, rather than just one on the rare. Fortunately, Larzuk's coin flip did hit the two sockets, for two Shaels as shown here. Finally, the last piece was that she now wanted the Sigon's gloves + belt combo for the 30% IAS to gain another breakpoint, which means swapping out String of Ears, but the Sigon's pair does add fire resist and life and strength too.

(Although both of these claws cost twelve and a half fortunes to repair!)

Act 3

Once again, my procedure was to full-clear the act, except for the false temples, sewers, and Durance. Almost all on players-3, dropping to p1 for the sewers and Durance. Each character reached level 85, which is about half a level ahead of my previous teams, since this one had been pushing the player count and full-clearing slightly more.

Druid: I don't usually show just gameplay shots, but this one was hilarious, a giant line of zombies all bottlenecked while they lose all their health from Rabies (that red aura is Rabies, not Fanaticism.) Anyway, for the druid himself, the +4 skills on Jalal's Mane added noticeably to Fire Claws damage, up from around 1200 to 1600 now, and so that's getting to be just about as fast for damage as Rabies. This is a nicely rounded offensive build and I like it.

Paladin: I'm now absolutely convinced that lacking cannot-be-frozen is an advantage for a smiter. You want him chilled against cold-enchanted bosses, so he doesn't go too fast and trigger the bugged invisible repeated extra explosions before you can react. He got saved this way by being chilled several times in the act.

Poisonmancer: Still continuing uneventfully, of course act 3's flayer crowds are great to clear with Poison Nova. I don't think he had any close calls where Shaftstop was needed to save him.

For the following characters, the story of this act was the new weapons that each of them had gotten from act 2. These really made this team feel mature and hell-capable, significant improvements over what they had before.

Bowazon: Her Silence bow performed about as I expected. It's about half the damage of the Buriza, but a third faster as a bow rather than crossbow, so her overall damage rate was about two-thirds. That was a worthwhile tradeoff to get the extra safety of 300 more life and the monster blinding, plus the conveniences of mana steal (to easily continuously fire Strafe or Guided), hit recovery, and magic find. It does give up Buriza's piercing, so I started putting her last few skill points into Pierce. And her Hellrack bow with its elemental damage worked decently well for physical immunes too. (At least once she found a Hel rune to fix its strength requirement; I had run out of those before starting this act.)

Barb: Immortal King's maul certainly fixed his offense bigtime, no problems here. Although he's still not quite the tank that I want a Concentrate barb to be, with Griswold's armor that has only middling defense. He's got about 10000 defense with Concentrate and Shout, for a get-hit rate of about 20%, but that still means he's always taking hits when fighting more than about five or so monsters. He still has to use Howl and Taunt to manage crowds frequently.

Assassin: She got the biggest offensive upgrade, with that rare claw, speed runes in her first claw, and Atma's Scarab for CTC Amplify. Now she finally felt like the payoff I had planned and expected for this build. No assassin ever delivers amazing dps, but this one was now solid enough, just about in line with my previous kicker and blade fury 'sins. Actually where these upgrades made the most difference was in life leeching - she has 27% total between Sigon's gloves and Tal Rasha's helm and one ring, enough to replenish her life consistently, and almost instantly any time Amplify triggered.

But actually her big change was that I figured out how to play her better this act. The big swing is to rely more on Mind Blast to control crowds rather than Cloak of Shadows. The big advantage of Mind Blast is that the duration can overlap on different monsters, rather than how Cloak always expires all at once, which is how my previous phoenix striker died. And Cloak doesn't do anything against monsters that have already clustered into melee range, while Mind Blast's conversion does, and even the stun is surprisingly useful even for a low level skill at two seconds duration. Cloak was still useful to blanket ranged monsters, particularly the zakarum zealot healers, but mostly not necessary in melee. (And relying on Cloak less also means avoiding the bug where it crashes the program.)

Sorceress: And she was the other one who got a new weapon, her Passion melee staff, with the Zeal oskill. What I didn't realize is that Zeal doesn't go anywhere near as fast for a sorceress as for a paladin optimized with Fanaticism. It could only reach a breakpoint of 8 or 9 frames per attack, so it wasn't quite as zippy and fun as I'd imagined, but it was still decently effective enough to kill fire immunes when needed. Her own merc was still faster (particularly with Treachery), but she could chip in a decently useful amount of physical damage herself now against small groups.

But then...

Fuck. Here's how it happened. I was running to explore northwards, saw a couple undead dolls, and teleported backwards. I took aim at the closest doll that was chasing me... and in the time it took the sorceress to fire the exploding arrow, the doll reached me, so the arrow exploded in my own face. What I hadn't realized was that somehow there were more dolls off to the left that had already taken some damage and scattered off... but they converged back on me just as that arrow burst, so they all blew up at the same time clustered right around me. Deeds. Dammit.

The funny part is how I had diligently taken every measure for hardcore survivability... which all backfired here! I was so proud of her play style to deal her Enchant from range with splash damage... and then the splash damage turned out to be the end of her. I had socketed her Sazabi's helm with a ruby for life instead of a Fervor jewel for speed... but perhaps that speed would have fired that fatal arrow fast enough before all the dolls converged into explosion range. I had dropped to players-1 for the indoor sewers area... but those dolls at p3 wouldn't have died and exploded so quickly. Her merc had Treachery for the Fade... and its IAS meant that he also popped a doll too fast right at that same worst instant. Hoist by my own petard.

Although, ultimately, the fatal problem may have been that she was using two-handed weapons instead of a shield for resists, which meant her belt and charm slots were given over to resists instead of life. Those might have added up to something close to 200, which may well have saved her. I just have a terrible record with sorceresses in hardcore, you really need to pack on every bit of life you can possibly get.

Anyway, on to the item finds.

The most significant was Sigon's boots that finally showed up. That made for a minor equipment rebuild for the assassin. With her improved weapon offense, I decided she didn't need Goblin Toe for crushing blow now. So she could use Sigon's boots instead of the belt to enable the good two-piece combo with the gloves (30% IAS and 10% life leech), and that in turn allowed changing her belt slot back to String of Ears. And I rebalanced her rings and charms around those changes to resistances. (And the Goblin Toe goes back to the bowazon for crushing blow on act bosses; the assassin doesn't need it with a Strength claw in stash for that.)

Gheed's Fortune finally showed up! I found this three times with my first team here, and then never again since. Despite what I just said about life charms, I can't resist using it of course. It's going to the assassin, since she's the one who doesn't already have magic-find built in elsewhere in her loadout (others have IK helm, Silence bow, Rhyme, Delirium), and she has virtual life multipliers in damage reduction from Fade and String of Ears.

The other most significant find was Dwarf Star ring, actually two copies of it. The relevant modifiers are fire absorb and 40 life. These go to the bowazon and paladin - they are the ones who most want life in a ring slot, and the most at risk from a fire enchanted death explosion.

Also for unique jewelry was a Seraph's Hymn amulet. I don't know what build uses that, +2 skills and nothing else relevant in the amulet slot. I might have tried to get that on the sorceress, for the +all skills modifier to boost the Zeal from Passion.

I also got this sweet ring from a craft, beautiful for the bowazon's other ring slot.

Minor finds:

This had no gameplay relevance, but it made me smile anyway. A minor side thread for me had been that every amazon I've ever had who owned a Titan's Revenge went on to make Guardian, including my very first Guardian ever. I keep them even for non-javelin amazons as a good-luck talisman. I was starting to get a little bit worried that this team hadn't found one for this amazon... but then she went and dropped herself this Thunderstroke! And it was even from the Arachnid Lair, the same place that my very first Guardian ever found her Titan's. Okay, we'll see if this is good enough as a substitute.

Also no relevance for this team, but wow. That's about as good as a rare weapon can get, Cruel damage, Fool's, big IAS, and even more max damage too.

Sazabi's Cobalt Redeemer set sword, but there's no one-hand meleer on this team to use it and it's not exactly spectacular anyway.

Second copy of Griswold's set armor, good for a merc.

Ethereal Warlord's Trust axe, interesting because it has self-repair, so it's usable as ethereal and could deal quite a bit of damage if upgraded. The barb is well set enough with Immortal King's maul, though.

Gavel of Pain maul, but again Immortal King's is better.

Ethereal Meat Scraper polearm, also a monster if upgraded, for a merc. I don't have a Pul for that, but I'll say it's worth keeping for the moment, pending the possibility of that from the upcoming hellforge.

Second and third copies of Immortal King's boots, although nobody besides the barb wants it. Only the bowazon would have the strength, but Aldur's boot is better with fire resist.

Runes: I got two Ko and two Fal, but nothing higher. And one of the Fals was lost by the sorceress when she died. That mattered; that would have allowed cubing up to a Lem, with which I would have upgraded a Spirit Shroud armor that I've kept on hand.

The one thing I might do with runes here is to make a new Lionheart, in a really nice 3-socket 520-defense Archon Plate base that came this act, for the druid to upgrade from his lower-defense Lionheart. He will play last for act 4, to see what comes from the hellforge for everyone else before committing to that (any Um would make a Duress or Stone instead.)

Act 4

Poisonmancer: He gets top billing in this report, after glossing over him for most of hell difficulty. Here's an action shot of him neutralizing a whole screenful of gloams with Dim Vision. He was by far the fastest clearer now; he's got the best area-effect attack with the splash-damage sorceress now gone. The other factor is that there isn't much poison immunity in act four, only the corpse spitter types, and blood maggots on the river but he didn't get that monster spawn. His other news was that he finally reached max on all his main skills (necromancers always take longer because they need one point in all the curses and the golem skills), so could put a few leftover points including Izual's into something else. I picked Clay Golem for this; a bit of extra life there is the only thing I could see that might make any difference on surviving the game, particularly against the Ancients.

Druid: What was interesting about him was how much slower he was than the necromancer, despite them both having poison attacks with similar damage rates and area effects. The reason is that act four has little poison immunity, but high poison resistance in the venom lord and doom knight types. Lower Resist cuts through that for the necromancer, but the druid had to do a lot of running around while waiting for Rabies to work.

Bowazon: The Silence bow with the monster-flee was considerably harder to use in the outdoor areas of act 4, even more than the jungle of act 3. I always had to maneuver so the cone of fire was aimed towards an edge of the map to keep the fleeing monsters contained, as shown here. But... the fleeing and blinding still meant that nothing dangerous got near the bowazon, ever... and that's how to survive hardcore. It also helped that I upgraded her merc to an Honor weapon for damage instead of Kelpie Snare; the slowing from that isn't needed with the fleeing and blinding from Silence.

Assassin: I did come to miss the Goblin Toe on her; the crushing blow would have been useful against the higher monster life totals in act four, and she was noticeably a bit slower to progress than in act three. But I really can't fit it back in on her; in particular I don't want her to be short on run speed for the Ancients fight. And she does have a Strength claw in stash for crushing blow against Baal.

First the minor item finds, then the major stuff from the hellforge.

Gheed's Fortune again, ha. I know I shouldn't bother magic-finding for the last act with no future after that, but I can't resist, particularly since it can go to the druid who has 4500 Oak-Saged life so doesn't mind losing a couple life charms.

Got a really nice sacred targe with 40 resist all and 2 sockets. Could be a nearly perfect Rhyme for the paladin. But I ran the numbers, and it turned out his Sanctuary actually performs better for blocking, even at 70% shield block vs 80% on the Rhyme, thanks to the +20 dex on Sanctuary from the two Ko runes.

Eschuta's Temper orb, no use without a sorceress, but if we still had her then I'd have to do a lot of math to see if she might get more Enchant damage out of that and a shield.

M'avina's Diadem again, found by the barb and actually useful to put on his merc right there, for the IAS to trigger his sword's CTC Amplify faster.

Dwarf Star again, a third copy, why can't this ever be Raven Frost instead? Anyway, the paladin took it to double up on Dwarf Star in both of his ring slots, after some other stuff covered his resistances elsewhere.

The big scores were in the rune department. First, the hellforge, which came out very bipolar: Gul, Mal, Ko, Io, Io, Hel. But then on top of that, I got the most wildly improbable thing with items that I've seen so far!

I was speechless for a minute so I'll let that sink in.




Yes, I got two Um runes dropped within two minutes of each other in the same wing of Chaos Sanctuary! It took me several seconds to process that the second one appeared - wait, did I miss picking up that Um or did I drop it somehow? No, that's two of them - I had to look at them side by side in my inventory before I really realized it.

Anyway... There were a ton of options, but I had the picture right away for how to make use of all these. There's the armor upgrades at long last that I've been wanting all along. Duress is the armor that really belongs on both the smiter and the claw assassin, for defense and all of its usual melee properties. The assassin got the archon plate version, since she has higher strength for an elite claw, and the paladin needs defense less with Holy Shield's multiplier.

I also finally got to make the Prudence armor I talked about before. This ethereal-bugged base had been a Smoke on a merc, and now I unsocketed it to make Prudence in it instead. It goes to the barbarian since he's the only one with this strength requirement. This required a bunch of other reworking - to replace the Jewels of Fervor in his Griswold's armor, he had to unsocket the IK helm and maul to install fervor jewels and Shaels instead, but that all was doable.

And the Gul went into a Principle paladin armor. Not to use in combat, but entirely for the +2 skills to pre-buff Holy Shield from stash! Yeah, in any other format that would be open-ended, I wouldn't spend a Gul on this, but here I have only one act to go and so I'm completely free to put this to whatever small use it can give.

Processing the hand-me-downs: The Stone armor from earlier now passes from the assassin to the druid, so he can finally have some good melee defense, and also the clay golem charges work well with Oak Sage multiplying its life and in lieu of his missing grizzly. And the barb's Griswold's armor with the IAS jewels passed to a merc.

(Things I didn't do: The whole package of runes could have made a Kingslayer, but the barb is on Mace Mastery and Kingslayer doesn't work in that. The druid doesn't need one either. The smiter would be tempted by either Kingslayer or Crescent Moon, but neither beats his Black enough to spend the runes. The two Um runes could have made a Bone armor for the necromancer, but no way is that worth more than two Duresses, particularly since he'd give up Shaftstop. A Sanctuary shield or Rain armor for the druid were also both possibilities with the Mal, but the Prudence was a higher priority.)

Finally, I also found one more Fal for enough lower runes to cube up to a Lem to upgrade a piece of armor to elite. I did this with a Toothrow armor that was going to the bowazon's merc, since she can really use the Open Wounds from him, and he needs defense (he gave up that ethereal Smoke that got resocketed into the barb's Prudence) since the amazon class has no merc-buffing skills.

The paladin did end up giving up all his fast-cast equipment (Que-Hegan's armor and one ring), but I think that's okay. He can now kill physical immunes directly with the Open Wounds on Duress rather than having to use Blessed Hammer mode, and there aren't any crowds of maggot young or flesh spawners in act five to need the area effect.

Finally, I had one socket quest remaining that was never used, the druid's. He could have socketed his Jalal's Mane, but actually instead I decided to use this on the circlet that the necromancer has been using forever (+1 skills, one resist, and run speed, never quite good enough to commit to but he just never got anything better.) The thing socketed in either of those would be just a ruby for life, and it's more likely that will make a difference for the necro than for the max-Oak-Saged druid. (And he'll socket the Jalal's anyway with his own third socket quest coming up in act 5 hell.)

Act 5

And once again, here's the finale. Now I stick to players-1 all the way, no full-clearing or side quests (not even Anya), just get across the finish line for the prize.

The Ancients of course are the fight that always worries me. But I've gotten used to the procedure, always refresh and reroll them until they have no dangerous modifiers for damage (cursed, extra strong, Might or Fanaticism or fire enchanted), and run around until you separate at least two of them. If you stick to that, they really aren't dangerous; the only source of damage big and fast enough to kill you will come from Talic if he catches you with a full whirlwind, so don't let that happen. And so every one of these characters was able to take the Ancients pretty much head on; none of the mercs ever died and most didn't even need any potions.

Baal likewise is also no threat with no dangerous damage multipliers, just has a ton of health to grind through, but I smartly planned that everyone would have some source of crushing blow on either themselves or the merc.

The challenging fights can be Bartuc, Ventar, and Lister, since it's tough to separate their packs and you can't reroll their mods without exiting the game, plus most crowd control doesn't work on Lister's minions. But I've learned how to handle these too. For the council members, position to tank the hydras yourself so they don't fry the merc. For Ventar and Lister, if they don't have any dangerous damage modifiers, the Defiance mercenary is usually capable of tanking them with just a few potions. Be patient, let him do that, and nibble around the edges with your own offense, and keep a portal open and jump into it to regroup whenever you need.

Starbrawn, the Concentrate barbarian: He finally achieved the tankiness I wanted with that Prudence armor, hardly even consumed any potions throughout the act. Overall throughout the acts and difficulties he was pretty boring, although effective enough. The one piece that he never really got going was life leech; the advantage of Concentrate over Berserk should be that the physical damage can leech, but he never really had good equipment for that, since the assassin kept taking all the best life-leech rings instead, and he always needed resists more in his ring slots anyway.

Starlupus, the elemental werewolf: He also got much better with tankiness with finally a decent armor, in the Stone that passed over from the assassin. Rabies held out as a solid enough offensive force all the way through hell difficulty. It gets completely ignored in the mainstream since nobody has the patience to wait for twelve seconds of poison to kill monsters, but it does work. So does medium-level Fire Claws (max plus half a skill's worth of synergy), but I knew that one. And of course his MVP was Oak Sage; nothing ever dies with that in effect; somehow this skill gets completely overlooked compared to Battle Orders even though it gives an even bigger life multiplier. (His one annoying bit was that the Clay Golem charges on Stone can't be cast while in wereform, have to unshift to do that.)

Starslash, the claw assassin: She was the most satisfying character to develop throughout hell difficulty, where she started with really weak claws and offense but gradually built up noticeably with more equipment from each act. My Blade Fury assassin previously had gone the same way. She was effective enough in the end, but still I wish I'd gotten to see what the Dragon Claw build can do with claws that are really top of the line rather than makeshift rares, something like dual Chaos or Fury runewords, or at least dual upgraded Bartuc's, but such things come within reach in this one-pass roguelike format only very sparingly. She did get one last small item boost this act, when she used her third socket quest on her rare claw, to install a 39% damage jewel.

Her tough fight in this act was Lister, since Cloak and Mind Blast's conversion don't work against the minions. But Mind Blast's stun does, so she mostly had to continuously spam that for as much of the short-duration stunning as she could get, while the merc did most of the attacking. For Baal, she had kept a Kelpie Snare for slows-target for her merc, and a Strength claw in stash for crushing blow, so that was easy.

Stargloom, the poisonmancer: Finally, at long long last, I got a poisonmancer all the way to the title of Guardian. Of course I've been saying all along the keys for him - Dim Vision to shut down every monster group, and his Shaftstop armor to give a safety margin against anything where I do slip up. Not much else to say here after my third time running a poisonmancer. He easily handled the Ancients, by way of the slowing with Decrepify and the clay golem, which easily cut the incoming damage enough for the merc to need just a couple potions.

Starcannon, the bowazon: And here's the crowning moment of my own vision, a Guardian who never placed any stat points in vitality. (850 life is temporarily low here - she swapped off several items for magic-find gear to kill Baal - her real life total for fighting was 1050.) The item in that drop is a Demon Limb club, which would actually be useful for her - it has charges of level-23 Enchant, worthwhile to add 200% AR.

She smartly kept items to deal with the big bosses: a Kelpie Snare for the merc for slows-target against the Ancients and Baal, and crushing blow items in Rattlecage and Goblin Toe for herself against Baal. (Not for the Ancients, where she didn't want to take off Shaftstop's damage reduction or Aldur's boots' run speed.) And for regular fights, the Toothrow armor on her merc was surprisingly helpful for the Open Wounds - particularly vs gloams, 90% physical resistant but low health - and also worked well with the knockback and fleeing from the bowazon, since that made the merc pick many different targets to tag with the open wounds. Also she could spend her third socket quest for her merc's Tal Rasha's helm with a fervor jewel.

I'm proud of how I managed her equipment loadout throughout the game. Her Shaftstop armor was likely the MVP item for the whole team, plus the resists from Silence, but also her 140-life circlet and Whale amulet and belt may each have been needed to save her at least once. Also Aldur's boots - this gets totally overlooked because everybody is obsessed with magic-find in the slot, but it's quietly one of the best items in the entire game, with max run speed plus 49% resistance and 50 life. I did come to miss the heavier damage of the Buriza-Do Kyanon compared to Silence. But the blinding and virtual life by trading out other resists really seemed like the better way to go to survive hardcore. Of course I'll never know what danger spots she would have gotten into without those.

Starsledge, the smiter paladin: I played him last, so as not to get used to Smite's speed and perfect hit rate and try to push someone else too hard who couldn't do that. And he had the easiest time of all against the Ancients, winning in a walkover, since Smite's stunning works on them - I didn't expect that at all, and somehow didn't remember or notice that fact in the earlier difficulties. Actually his only tough fight was in the worldstone keep against a huge pack of physical-immune witches; his Blessed Hammer mode worked to kill them, but that can't proc Delirium's Confuse, so he and the merc constantly took a pounding from the blood star missiles (what type of damage are they anyway?) and had to pop out for healing every three seconds.

No, Star Head, you don't get to be part of the star team, hah.

A few items from these last runs:

Got a necro head with +3 summoning skills and also +2 Summon Resist, that would be cool in the necro's switch slot for the clay golem.

Atma's Wail armor, don't think any of my teams found that before. Would be a good find in nightmare difficulty, but not as good as elite Duress and similar.

Dark Adherent set dusk shroud, similar, slightly useful if found early enough but not now.

Flamebellow unique balrog blade, cute but it wouldn't help anything here.

Nothing else notable; no runes above one Ko, and an assortment of the usual normal-tier uniques but nothing that would matter for anything. Oh and my sixth String of Ears for this team, hah.

And here is the chart of everyone's equipment to summarize everything.

And so once again I'll sign off here. Still haven't managed a perfect team of seven Guardians, thanks to losing the sorceress here; the low life totals on the sorc and necromancer classes just never work out, at least one of them dies on every team that I do this with. I had a total of nine character deaths across five teams here, and seven of those were either sorceress or necromancer. Life total is everything for hardcore, as I'm constantly reminded. Thanks once again for reading!

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