Builds: 2 – Bowazon (uses bows and the bow/crossbow skill tree) and Javazon (uses javelins and the javelin skill tree)
Build strength:Long range, two benefits from dexterity
Build weakness: Low damage, no spells, too many skills to invest in
Elemental availability: Moderate
Synergies: Poor, top-level skills only gain moderate damage from one other skill, and there aren’t enough skill points to spare to take advantage of it
Overview: The bowazon is built on classical RPG checks and balances. Unfortunately, Diablo 2 is not the kind of game which relies on those things, and so the bowazon ends up a little underpowered relative to her peers.
The great, intrinsic advantages of the bowazon are her long range and the fact that she gains two benefits from dexterity. As we’ll see with several classes, ranged attacks in Diablo 2 are not all equal in effective distance. The paladin has to be at the center of his target area when casting the Blessed Hammer. The druid has to be at the center of his Hurricane. Even the javazon has to be fairly close to reliably hit with her lightning spells. The bowazon, like the Traps assassin and the sorceress, can sit back at quite a distance, and enjoy the safety that distance affords.
The bowazon even gets to add the extra protection of having the beefy Valkyrie minion to distract enemies. At high levels, the Valkyrie is hearty enough that it can even tank bosses for a reasonable amount of time, although it has trouble controlling boss aggro. (Technically, the javazon can also employ a Valkyrie, but the greater range of the bowazon makes the Valkyrie a little more useful for the latter build.) The bowazon’s other advantage is her ability to gain two benefits from dexterity. As we saw in the section on dexterity, the stat’s contribution to hit rating is considerable if the player chooses to stack a lot of it. Because the bowazon’s damage output is also tied to dexterity, she can spend most of her points on it. The problem that we’ll end up seeing is that this double advantage simply isn’t as strong as it needs to be in order to make up for other weaknesses.
The bowazon’s biggest weakness is that her skills and weapons aren’t powerful enough. The big three skills a late-game bowazon might use, Freezing Arrow, Immolation Arrow and Strafe simply don’t do that much damage.
I’ve visualized the damage of several high-level ranged skills, adding in the main synergies for them. The bowazon skills come out lower. The other skills visualized are spells. Unlike bowazon shots, spells never miss (as long as the animation connects with the enemy sprite). To be fair, because the amazon skills are attacks, they also gain weapon damage not visualized here. But physical resistance is the most common type of resistance, and bows are just not that strong. Below is a comparison of some bows and melee weapons.
Note that the melee weapons are one-handed weapons, and they still surpass bows. That means melee characters are doing more DPS with one hand than bowazons are with two, meaning they can equip a shield or another weapon. There are definitely bows in the game that make up some of the damage gap, especially through means of very high attack speed. But casters get elite weapons that offer +skill affixes and faster cast rate modifiers, too, so the gap remains.
The real problem is that bows are the victim of traditional balance mechanics that are out of place in a game like Diablo 2. Ranged weapons face a penalty for the safety they provide by firing at long range. In an orthodox tabletop RPG, they should incur a penalty; that balance is a basic tenet of good design. In the RPGs from which this tenet comes, however, bow-using characters aren’t responsible for killing hordes of demons by themselves. In those games, bow-users tend to pick the most dangerous targets and eliminate them tactically while the tanks and melee fighters kill everything else. That’s not a viable strategy against the demonic hordes of Diablo 2. As we’ve seen, both amazon bows and amazon abilities fall short of their peers. The most elite bows in the game do enough damage to make the bowazon comparable to other classes, but obtaining them involves killing hordes and hordes of enemies—which is hard to do with her relatively lower power!
There are two places in which the bowazon might catch up to the other classes: hit rating and in utility/defense skills. All of the bowazon’s damage skills are attacks, and are therefore subject to attack rating (except for Guided Arrow). But, for all their dexterity stacking, amazons don’t hit significantly more often than other classes. The biggest reason for this is that neither their weapons nor their skills add that much to attack rating. As we saw in the section on attack rating, the amazon has a lower effective level when striking, losing her about five percentage points of hit rating vs the melee classes. Her dexterity provides a nice boost, gaining her back about 14 percentage points. After that, it’s all up to weapons and skills.
Her skills do not provide her with a significant advantage versus other classes. Moreover, they provide a significantly lower damage multiplier than those other skills, especially when we remember that those melee classes are using better weapons. There are still passive skills to consider, however.
Penetrate keeps up with the other skills, but it doesn’t outpace them by an amount that would balance its big flaw. What’s not shown here is that barbarian Weapon Mastery, paladin Fanaticism, and assassin Claw Mastery all also provide the character with damage and/or attack speed in addition to hit rating. Penetrate only provides attack rating. Comparatively, the amazon bow passive is just too weak. The designers have simply overcompensated for the bowazon’s range in a way they don’t do for javazons, Traps assassins, necromancers and Elemental druids.
In theory, all of this could be avoided if the bowazon’s skills gave her more options than other classes have. It seems that this was the designers’ intent, but in practice it doesn’t compensate for her other shortcomings. The amazon has an entire skill tree of passive and magic skills which could complement her bow skills reasonably well. Skills like Slow Missiles, Critical Strike, Penetrate, Pierce, Evade and Dodge would be great if the bowazon could afford to invest in them heavily. She cannot. Bowazons need to invest 20 points into their main elemental arrow and another 20 into Strafe if they hope to deal any significant damage at all, and then another 20 into Valkyrie. Most players also like to invest in utility skills like Pierce or Guided Arrow. With the prerequisites for those skills, the build barely has any spare points to invest in defensive skills or Critical Strike, and that just isn’t enough. Perhaps this is where the bowazon’s class-specific items are supposed to come into play. Even as normal-quality drops, the amazon-only bows put points into all Bow and Crossbow skills. Is the player supposed to save points in bow skills and reallocate into passive skills? It wouldn’t work. The damage and attack rating bonuses in bow skills are too low, so the player must max them out. It appears to be yet another case of over-balancing the bowazon, forcing her to rely on the elite items that every class wants, but not every class needs. These problems are not fatal; the build is still playable. But for the most part, other builds avoided these kinds of systemic pitfalls.
Build strength:Medium range, two benefits from core stat, massive splash damage
Build weakness: Almost all damage comes from one elemental type
Elemental availability: Poor
Synergies: The lightning skills are all part of a big linear synergy that makes several of them very powerful
Overview:The javazon has serious limitations, but these limitations are appropriate to the Diablo 2 context. The javazon is ranged and relatively fragile, but also very powerful. Her big limitation is that almost all of her damage comes from lightning-elemental attacks, meaning that roughly 20% of enemies on hell difficulty are simply immune to the damage she does
By making one change, the javazon build corrects the shortcomings of the bowazon build. Several of the best javazon skills are spells, and therefore always hit. Thus, the javazon doesn’t have to worry about attack rating as much, nor the extremely widespread resistance to physical damage. The real drawback for the javazon is that she deals almost all of her damage as lightning, and therefore simply cannot kill enemies who are lightning immune without having rare, resistance-removing gear, or companions who can do that for her. This limitation is one that makes sense for Diablo 2, however. The javazon has a strength she can exploit, and a weakness she needs to avoid. The bowazon is somewhat mediocre across the board. For instance, one solution to the elemental availability problem is to simply avoid lightning immunes; there are plenty of areas in which this is possible. The other solution is to journey with a companion who can lower enemy resistances, like a necromancer or paladin. This is exactly the kind of limitation Diablo 2 ought to employ, since the game was explicitly designed to be a multiplayer affair. This doesn’t work for the bowazon, however. There’s no location in the game where having underpowered attacks isn’t a problem, and there is no party composition that can make a bowazon more valuable than some other class might be.
Lightning Fury shares lots of synergy bonuses with several other skills in the lightning tree, making the javazon build one which is hard to mess up.
You can see how those big synergies allow several skills to be useful against single targets, while Lightning Fury is useful against crowds. The big linear synergy also allows the javazon’s class-specific items to provide considerably more benefit. By adding points to every skill along that linear synergy, the javazon-specific weapons also trigger all the interlocking synergies. Why couldn’t this have been the case for the bowazon build? Even if the bowazon fires from longer range, her power isn’t reduced proportionally to the advantage that range gives.
Builds: 2 - Trapsassin, kicksassin
Build strength: Long range, spell damage
Build weakness: Traps can be hard to place in certain tight corridors; fire damage has an effectively shorter range than lightning damage
Elemental availability: Moderate, can deal great fire or lightning damage
Synergies: One of the game’s few multi-element linear synergies gives the trapsassin build some very high damage
Overview: The trapsassin fires at long range and has two big sources of elemental damage. Her ability to summon a minion also protects her much like the amazon’s Valkyrie protects that class. The trapsassin, however, uses spell damage. Like the sorceress, she can sit back and let her spells melt enemies she can’t even see.
The assassin who specializes in the Traps skill tree is like the necromancer or sorceress, who can easily hit enemies who aren't even on screen. Traps can be placed around corners and they cannot be targeted by the enemy. They can attack independently of the assassin's primary target, which is a blessing and a curse—sometimes they’ll fire on a target other than the one which is the most dangerous. Still, though, their impressive range means that the trapsassin can usually sit back comfortably while her spells destroy the enemy. This build also has easy access to two elements with enough damage to handle endgame content. This damage depends heavily on the large linear synergies in the traps skill tree.
The synergies for every skill are abundant, but of particular note is the skill Fire Blast, which can gain up to 700% damage increase from its synergies. That skill deals fire damage, and yet it benefits from a huge linear synergy made up of both lightning and fire skills. Thus, the trapsassin can deal two types of damage in amounts viable for the endgame.
Like staves, wands and maces, the claw class of weapons frequently comes with +skill modifiers, even on gear which can be purchased from low-level vendors. Unlike those weapons, however, these weapons usually come with category bonuses rather than specific skill bonuses.
Some magical staves, wands and Necromancer off-hand items have categorical bonuses, but it's a lot more common on claws to see +1 to a skill tree or all assassin skills on blue items. The prevalence of categorical bonuses is probably a product of the assassin’s huge, interlocking synergy tree, or the many combos that kicksassins have to use.
Build strength: Lots of types of damage, finishing moves with a variety of practical effects
Build weakness: Not as rugged as paladin or barbarian, defensive skills require more micromanagement than in other melee classes
Elemental availability: Very high—significant amounts of cold, fire, lightning, or physical damage, plus the attack rating bonuses to actually hit with them
Synergies: No big linear synergy chains, but skill synergies mixed with passive skill synergies power the kicksassin up considerably
Overview: The kicksassin is a melee fighter with a lot of different attacks to use, many of which have elemental components. Her finishing moves have practical effects, and the Shadow Discipline skills give her tons of utility on the battlefield, although it can be difficult to switch to those skills in the heat of battle
The assassin who specializes in the martial arts skill tree (typically called a "kicksassin") can fight in close quarters adeptly, although she uses slightly different means to do so than the paladin or barbarian. One of the greatest advantages of the assassin lies in her elemental availability. The top-level Martial Arts skill, Phoenix Strike, can deal significant amounts of fire, cold or lightning damage. Given that no enemy in the game can be immune to more than two elements at a time, this means that the kicksassin will always have an attack that can deal some extra damage.
The attack also benefits from some minor synergy bonuses, although the player has to divide skill points between various skills to give each element a synergy boost. The crucial drawback of the attack is that, unlike the skills in the Traps tree, Phoenix Strike is an attack rather than a spell. Thus, in order for Phoenix Strike to hit, the player has to land a physical attack successfully, which may require several attempts at close range. That said, we’ve already seen in the bowazon analysis that assassins get great attack bonuses from Claw Mastery, in addition to gaining damage and critical strike. Moreover, the attack rating bonuses from Phoenix strike are also great, and combine together to put out damage that is viable for any part of the game. Add to this the practical effects of finishing moves like area damage, teleportation and major lifesteal and the assassin can fight just as well as any other melee class.
The kicksassin's drawback is in its survivability. Although she can equip virtually any armor (as most classes can), her defensive passive abilities aren't enough to allow the assassin to simply deflect most blows, as a melee barbarian or shield-using paladin might do for much of the game. The assassin’s skills help, but she has to rely on some unusual, two-function abilities to do so. Skills like Cloak of Shadows, Burst of Speed, and Fade need to be renewed fairly often, whereas paladin and barbarian skills are either inherent or toggled.
Burst of Speed and Fade cannot be active at the same time, and so the player has to manage which one is necessary in any individual situation. Similarly, there are spells which help to control crowds, like Psychic Hammer and Mind Blast. The former applies knockback and is useful for keeping approaching crowds away. The latter mind-controls a group of common enemies and makes them fight their allies. Both of these are necessary for good crowd control, but as with the defensive abilities, it can be difficult to switch between them quickly. The Diablo UI isn’t made for diverse ability usage (this is a topic we’ll discuss in the next section) and so the assassin player has to do more work managing crowds than a paladin does, for example.
Builds: Not as distinct; barbarian skill trees don’t lock him into skills the way other classes do, except for his chosen Combat Skill. Other than the main Combat Skill, Barbarians can choose from a variety of movement, crowd control, and passive abilities
Class strength: Very durable, doesn’t need to max out many skills to get good use out of them
Class weakness: Tends to use more offensive skills than other classes do, requires good action mechanics, can run into stalemate situations with enemies who just won’t take damage from his physical attacks
Elemental availability: Poor. He mostly deals physical damage. There are two attacks that deal significant magic damage; one has defensive drawbacks while the other requires major cross-tree synergy investment
Synergies: The barbarian’s synergies often connect across skill trees, and linear synergies aren’t abundant
Overview: Regardless of which attack skill he wants to use, successful barbarians need to diversify their skill set a little more than other classes. Barbarians can rely on one skill for killing, but they need movement, crowd control and buffing skills as well
If the primary tactical dilemma of melee fighters in Diablo 2 is the choice between gear that emphasizes attack or survivability, the barbarian solves that dilemma by allowing the player to complement his choice of gear with abilities that eliminate the drawback. At first glance, this looks like a bit of bad game design. What's the point of creating a tactical decision if the player can just go around it? There are three reasons why the answer to this question is more complicated than traditional game design maxims might lead you to think.
- To a certain degree, this question is inappropriate for Diablo 2. There are plenty of gear combinations in Diablo 2 that can turn any character class into a nearly-invincible killing machine. As such, the barbarian does not violate any of Diablo 2's major design principles.
- In another sense, the question is still pertinent, because all of that ludicrously powerful gear is rare and only found at the end of the game. The barbarian already has some really powerful passive bonuses at level 30. So although the barbarian doesn’t break the game, he can make a dent in the designer’s time table.
- For all his great abilities, the barbarian never becomes the best at anything. He has the highest possible defense, but that doesn't mean he's the best at avoiding damage. He has great bonuses to hit and attack power and can deal tons of damage, but that doesn't necessarily allow him to chew through enemies as fast as the sorceress or hammerdin can. So really, his lack of obvious flaws is checked by a lack of powerful strengths.
In a vacuum, the barbarian violates many of the traditional RPG tactical balances. In the context of Diablo 2, the barbarian makes more sense.
The central tenet of barbarian design is that he has to use multiple active skills to survive and kill his enemies. All classes invest in multiple skills, of course, but many casters rely on one skill most of the time, while investing the rest in synergies. The Barbarian tends to use several skills more often. This is somewhat like the assassin, who has to refresh her defensive buffs and control crowds with her Shadow Disciplines skills, but in this case it’s primarily an offensive concern. Nearly all barbarians will use Battle Orders to double their health in the same way that assassins use Fade. Many of the barbarian’s crowd control skills are also useful killing skills, with way more damage built into them than the assassin’s similar abilities. Barbarians can knock enemies away with Bash on a one-by-one basis, or they can scatter enemies with the AoE (area of effect) Howl ability. Barbarians can even block off parts of the map by using the Grim Totem skill, which lasts for a set amount of time. On the other hand, the most barbarians can only deal significant damage up close, and so he needs to close in on his chosen target—even when something else is in the way. Thus, he has several options for getting closer to enemies. He can use Leap or Leap Attack to jump right on an enemy. He can use the Taunt ability to draw enemies to himself, especially in conjunction with Howl.
He can also use the passive skills Increased Stamina and Increased Speed to simply run to his targets faster than other enemies can intercept him. We’re going to cover this in a lot more depth in the section on action mechanics, but what should be clear is that the barbarian has a variety of ways to get around the battlefield—especially when moving towards an enemy.
The barbarian also has several different ways to do his killing. Regardless of the minutiae of builds, there are two primary choices that the designers set up for barbarian players. The first decision is: do players want to sacrifice defense to deal damage. The second choice is do the players want to use fast weapons or powerful ones? The choices are not binary; players can sacrifice some defense or all of it, and can choose weapons on a spectrum of speeds and powers.
There are a lot of subsequent decisions to make here. Magic damage, the barbarian’s one alternative to physical damage, exists on both ends of the spectrum. With a synergy from Battle Orders, Concentrate can gain magic damage equal to its physical damage while still providing significant bonuses to defense. Berserk, on the other end of the spectrum, provides a lot more magical damage, but it sets the barbarian’s defense rating to zero while active. Moreover, Berserk removes all effects like lifesteal (which does exactly what it sounds like) and so removes the best auxiliary defense mechanism a barbarian might have. Frenzy and Whirlwind, the other two melee attacks which are viable at high level, are in the middle. Frenzy does not directly impair defense, but it does require the barbarian to set down his shield. Whirlwind also does not affect defense, but the barbarian cannot use potions while in the middle of it, nor redirect his path.
The other dimension along which barbarian attacks can be measured is their need for attack speed, as increased by items. This is one part of this document that theorycrafters (ultra-hardcore players who use advanced mathematics to create perfect characters) will object to. Most serious Diablo 2 players insist on maximum attack speed in their melee builds, no matter how hard it is to obtain it. I agree that, if you were trying to build the perfect killing machine, you should have the maximum possible attack speed all the time. To accomplish this, most serious players will also perform thousands of repetitious runs, lasting literally hundreds of hours. The game was not designed to force all players into this behavior. Attack speed, as implemented by the Diablo 2 designers, has a diminishing returns curve built in.
These diminishing returns are in place to force the average player (who is not willing to do hundreds of hours of Lower Kurast runs, for example) to build around what he or she lacks. Because of the diminishing returns on attack speed, players who already have fairly high attack speed aren’t going to get as much return on more items or skills which add to it. The reverse is also true. If a barbarian has high damage, but little attack speed, his player will have an easier time acquiring a little bit of attack speed through his skills than acquiring marginally higher damage on his weapon. The Whirlwind skill breaks this dynamic a little bit, in that its gains from attack speed are greater than those of other skills. Whirlwind has its own hit-check table which is a little more favorable to attack speed, although it, too, suffers from diminishing returns. The last consideration for Whirlwind is that it costs the same amount of mana no matter how many hits it outputs, so higher attack speed gives the player more hits per mana, even at short distances—explaining its position on the diagram.
To summarize the essence of the barbarian, I want to point to a set of his most important passive skills: Masteries. Skills like Sword Mastery and Polearm Mastery show how building a barbarian is a much more reactive process than building other classes. There isn’t just one such mastery skill; each weapon type has its own skill. Although character construction is all about tactical choices, the split in weapon mastery skills seems unnecessarily punitive. If the player commits to one type of weapon, do they have to throw away all the other weapon types they get on their journey through the game? This way of thinking gets the barbarian build exactly backwards. The point of weapon masteries is not to proscribe weapon types, but to adapt to what the player encounters. By saving some skill points, the player can wait for a great weapon to drop and then invest in the appropriate mastery. This is what the barbarian is like, generally. The barbarian can choose what passives skills, movement skills, and attacking skills best complement the gear he actually has. For most other classes, players choose a build and then seek out the best items for it. Master-level players do the same for barbarian, but for most players, the barbarian allows for a little more flexibility and reactive play.
Builds: 2 – Bone/Poison and Summoner
Build strength: Ranged character with terrific crowd control abilities and great itemized skill bonuses
Build weakness: Direct damage build has to work a little harder for damage than his fellow casters
Elemental availability: Good, can reliably inflict poison and non-elemental magic. Skilled players can inflict fire damage, although it requires certain battlefield conditions. Can mitigate enemy resistances, in any case
Synergies: No huge, linear synergies in the manner of the sorceress, trapsassin or hammerdin, but all curses are synergistic with other spells, by design
Overview: A more technically advanced caster, the poison/bone necromancer is nevertheless a powerful class when played by an experienced player. Instead of dealing tons of damage directly, the necromancer uses curses to weaken his opponents before hitting them with sources of damage. Minor skills in the Poison & Bone tree also work as great crowd control effects with minimal investment. The necromancer’s peculiar itemization also works to enhance his power in orthogonal ways.
The most important thing to know about the necromancer’s spells is that they simply lack the top-end damage of the sorceress, hammerdin, trapsassin or hurricane druid. Factor in the Lower Resist curse, and suddenly the build makes a lot more sense for poison damage builds. (Lower Resist does not affect pure magic resistance for some reason, although the bone spells are still useful as supplemental damage.) The necromancer also has other advantages over his fellow casters, mostly in the form of utility skills. Regardless of character class, the average player is going to build their character around three primary skills, investing 20 points into each, plus about 5-10 points into all the prerequisites that unlock those skills. Most players aren’t going to use those prerequisites in high-level play, because they’re too weak. The necromancer is one class where that weakness is not a problem. Curses like Decrepify are still reasonably useful at low levels, and Bone Wall can easily be spammed to clutter the map and prevent enemies from advancing too quickly. The Poison necromancer will still probably focus on three spells (like Poison Nova, Bone Spirit and Lower Resist), but he’s got other options as well.
Necromancer itemization is a little unusual as well. The Necromancer’s class-specific item is normal in that it has class-specific +skill affixes. It’s unusual in that it occupies the shield slot, meaning that the necromancer can also equip a wand which has even more +skill bonuses. In the earlier parts of the game, this makes it easy for casual necromancers to build up skills above their character’s level. At the highest levels, the powerful unique items available to all casters neutralize this advantage. Another quirk of necromancer itemization is the unusual prevalence of faster cast rate (FCR) affixes on necromancer items. The FCR affix is equally useful for all casters, but necromancers have a much easier time accumulating a significant amount on relatively common gear. Thus, the relatively low damage of a spell like Bone Spirit can be augmented by a much faster cast rate.
Build strength:: Offloads the responsibility for fighting (and tanking) enemies on to the necromancer’s minions, allowing the necromancer to throw curses and spells from the back
Build weakness: Depends on the availability of enemy corpses. Consumes more skill points than the poison/bone build, reducing the necromancer’s utility. Summons sometimes have trouble standing up to boss monsters
Elemental availability: Poor. The summoner relies on his minions’ physical damage, and in some cases, moderate fire damage from a golem. The necromancer can mitigate this with curses, however
Synergies: The Summoning tree has numerous passive bonuses which grant increased health, power, and even resistance to summoned monsters, but these bonuses are more complicated than similar bonuses in other classes and builds. Curses operate synergistically with any build
Overview: The summoner build requires lots of management, but greatly reduces the danger to the necromancer by putting an army of minions between him and the enemy. At higher levels, these minions can easily handle enemy swarms, but they have trouble with bosses unless the player manages the necromancer minions very carefully. The biggest problem is that the player is not limited by mana, but rather the supply of enemy corpses.
The summoner necromancer is able to raise an army of skeletons or resurrected enemies, as well as one golem. The most important design dynamic for the summoner is that the strength of skeletons and golems is dependent only on the necromancer’s skill levels, whereas the strength of enemies raised by the Revive skill depends also on the strength of the enemy raised. The two sets of skills share some passive abilities (Skeleton Mastery and Summon Resist), but otherwise present a problem for players. How should necromancer skill points be invested? A sorceress’s early investments into low-level skills are usually synergistic with her top-level skills. Investments into Raise Skeleton do not help the late-game necromancer in the same way, but the summoner needs those points in Raise Skeleton in order to survive the early game. Patch 1.13 allows players to reallocate all their talent points later in the game, but for more than a decade, this wasn’t possible. This didn’t make the necromancer unplayable; he is and has been a fun and powerful character. This lack of early-skill-to-late-skill synergy is unusual among Diablo 2 characters, however, and it’s curious that the designers never addressed it in any of the numerous patches that came before 1.13.
Summoner mechanics are also unique, although there is much of difference between the use of skeletons, golems and revived monsters. The easy part of the summoner build is that the player can simply sit back and cast a few curses while his minions do most of the work. The hard part is keeping all those minions alive, especially against bosses. Skeletons, golems and revived monsters are always dying, and the necromancer has to replace them by reanimating another corpse. Most of the time, this is not a problem, since Diablo 2 sends the player through thousands of monsters. Bosses, however, present a problem. Unique enemies, with their enhanced power, can easily kill all of the player’s minions without yielding any new corpses to raise. This sends the player running around the map, trying to raise a new army while a unique monster chases them. The effect is even worse with the act bosses, who (with the exception of Diablo) all wait in a relatively small location with few enemies to raise. Expert players eventually figure out that certain revived monsters are better for bosses than others, but no other class has to go and track down a certain pack of enemies every time they want to farm the act bosses.
The problem of facing bosses as a summoner or “minion master” (as the class is more generally called) is one that is repeated in many different games. Both the original Guild Wars and Hellgate: London (another Brevik game) put their minion masters through similar difficulties when taking on bosses. Minions in those games are more than adequate for common trash mobs, but are often inadequate for dealing or surviving damage from bosses. Although he didn’t address this topic specifically, David Brevik commented to me that he thought there were certain unsolvable problems in RPG design—like perfectly balancing AoE spell damage. If many different game companies cannot balance the minion master even with the advantage of lots of hindsight, then we shouldn’t fault the designers of Diablo 2 for a relatively small imperfection. After all, the summoner build is still viable, even if players face an uneven challenge when playing it.
Builds: 2 – Fanatidin, Smiter, Hammerdin (the former two are both melee)
Build strength: High defense and damage output, can get attack speed from a skill instead of an item, can wear a shield and block at a high rate
Build weakness: Somewhat limited elemental availability in his highest-damage skills
Elemental availability: Theoretically high, as he has abundant physical and magical damage, and can add several other elements to his physical attack via Vengeance. That said, paladins rarely choose this last option as it is mutually exclusive with better attacks. So the effective elemental availability is much lower than it seems
Synergies: Unremarkable, moderately powerful synergies
Overview: The smiter and fanatidin are different in one key dynamic: the former is better against single targets and the latter against multiple. They are both melee fighters, however, and primarily deal physical damage.
The paladin class is naturally durable, thanks to good bonuses from vitality and the highest natural block rate in the game. Indeed, even a low-level use of Holy Shield can max out the block rate of an otherwise mediocre shield. These two melee classes are viable for just that reason. Many newer players prefer the fanatidin because of Fanaticism’s numerous, large bonuses. Indeed, Fanaticism is one of the few skills in the game that gives significant attack speed bonuses without compromising defense (as Frenzy incidentally does), or locking out other skills (as shapeshifting skills do). Its bonuses to damage and attack rating also scale well and can make even simple builds with low-level gear into effective killing machines. More experienced players often prefer the smiter build for its high top-end damage against single targets. These players tend to run (or teleport) right for bosses. Both builds rely on a similar setup and similar gear, however, and are mechanically very easy. By and large, the player clicks on a target until it dies. All of the effort in building one of these paladins is in preparation and gear.
Build strength: Huge ranged damage, can still wear great armor and have a high block rate
Build weakness: Very limited elemental availability
Elemental availability: Very poor, only does magic damage
Synergies: Benefits from one of the most infamous skill synergies in the game
Overview: The paladin is also a competent caster class, and can use magical combat skills to destroy his opponents at range. One would expect, based on the setup of his physical skills, that the paladin's magical options would be divided between single-target and multi-target spells, but it isn't so.
Both the Blessed Hammer and Fist of the Heavens spells are meant to hit multiple targets, and they both do a good job of it. The problem is that Blessed Hammer enjoys one of the only multiplicative synergies in the game. As we saw in the amazon section, the paladin's bonuses to hit rating and damage are comparable to any class's best passive skills. Blessed Aim, Might and Fanaticism, are a great help to a melee paladin and his melee friends. None of them can match what concentration does for Blessed Hammer, though. Blessed Hammer’s normal synergies are from Blessed Aim and Vigor. It gains 12% more damage per level; either skill at level 20 will multiply the power of Blessed Hammer by 2.4. Normally, the synergy from Concentration would simply add to the multiplier. A 240% bonus from Concentration would normally be added to the 240% bonus from Sacrifice to provide a 240% bonus. Instead, Concentration does this:
(Blessed hammer * 2.4) * 2.4
In later levels when the player has lots of +skill affixes on their gear, the returns on this equation erupt in tremendous fashion. Almost all of the power of the hammerdin comes down to this one equation and its deviation from the normal mechanics of Diablo 2. (It also explains why the hammerdin is ludicrously popular to people who know about the math.)
Builds: 2 – Elemental, Shapeshifter, Summoner (though this last build is rare)
Build strength: Powerful ranged caster, wide variety of elemental options in one talent tree
Build weakness: Without significant use of synergies, spells do less damage than other casters
Elemental availability: High, can use spells that deal cold, fire and physical damage
Synergies: There are abundant and powerful linear synergies, but these only bring the spells up to the level of other casters. In essence, the Druid has to spend more skill points than the sorceress to achieve the same damage
Overview: The Druid is a great example of traditional balance ideas implemented in the context of Diablo 2. Although the elemental druid can mix and match different elemental skills fairly easily, his abilities don't naturally put out as much damage as less flexible classes like the sorceress or hammerdin.
The elemental druid is one of the few builds that has three or more types of elemental damage available in one skill tree, and the only one that has that damage available as entirely spells rather than as attacks.
Accordingly, the druid can mix and match elements quite easily, thus avoiding the trap of elemental resistance on the hardest difficulty. The druid sacrifices damage to do this; most of his skills are only half to three-quarters as strong as their analogues in the sorceress skill trees. Moreover, the druid has no powerful passive or aura as the sorceress and paladin do. What the elemental druid does have is a set of powerful linear synergies. Particularly in the fire elemental sub-tree, the player can raise the damage of spells like Armageddon to levels roughly comparable with other casting classes. By spending that many points in synergies, though, the druid loses utility. This is exactly the kind of balance dynamic one would expect from an orthodox RPG. Diablo 2 isn't that kind of RPG, however. The point of the game is to become an unstoppable killing machine, so this balance dynamic seems a little out of place. It doesn't ruin the game; other classes can choose versatility over concentrated power as well. The druid just has a much easier and more obvious choice.
The place where the elemental druid really gets hurt by the extra skill points needed for top-end damage is in his ability to dabble in summoning skills. There is no truly viable summoner build for druids, but the summoned minions can be useful for soaking up damage or providing utility skills. A druid trying to put 80 skill points into elemental spells and synergies doesn't really have room to take advantage of that. Although extraneous or unusable character builds are a fixture of otherwise great titles in RPG history, Diablo 2 doesn't really contain any totally useless skill trees. The summoning tree isn't useless, but it's not always easy for elemental druids to take advantage of it.
Build strength: Although this is a melee build, it has access to several significant sources of elemental damage as well. This build also has relatively fine control over its balance of tankiness or deadliness
Build weakness: Although this build has a variety of passive abilities and attacks, druids who change into the bear or wolf form can only use one spell
Elemental availability: High for a melee class; they can output significant physical and fire damage, and have a passable poison option
Synergies: Two moderate synergies, discussed below
Overview: The Druid is a great example of traditional balance ideas implemented in the context of Diablo 2. Although the elemental druid can mix and match different elemental skills fairly easily, his abilities don't naturally put out as much damage as less flexible classes like the sorceress or hammerdin.
The shapeshifter druid transforms into a wolf or bear, gaining large bonuses to attack rating, moderate damage increases, and a variety of specific skills. One of the curious things about the shapeshifting skills tree is that although many of its skills are actually active skills which require continual refreshing, they operate like passive skills. Werebear and Werewolf, for example, only provide passive bonuses to stats, but they cannot be toggled. Rabies and Feral Rage both operate like passive skills as well, but must be cast. Fire Claws, Shock Wave, and Fury operate more like the combat skills of other classes, but all of them are enhanced versions of the basic attack. Sometimes the shapeshifter druid can feel a little monotonous for this reason, until he reaches higher levels and can diversify his skills a little bit. Nevertheless, shapeshifter druids can be powerful. Fury, for example, is a more powerful version of the paladin's Zeal skill, with the various passive and pseudo-passive skills standing in for Fanaticism.
One problem the shapeshifter druid has is that he cannot cast most of the spells in the Elemental Skill tree. The only spell he can cast is Armageddon, which is a decent source of fire damage, but it requires lots of investment in synergies to become really powerful, and eats up mana that this build doesn't always have. Most of his best attacks are physical, naturally, but he has another source of fire damage and a somewhat useful poison damage skill. Fire Claws is naturally weak (topping out around 400 damage per strike at level 20) and seems, at first glance, like it would only be useful during the mid-game. But Fire Claws also has one of the largest synergies in the game. It's not a linear synergy; all of the contributing skills are actually in the Elemental Skills tree. But there are five synergetic skills, and all of them offer a 22% bonus to Fire Claws per level, giving the shapeshifter druid the power to deal thousands of fire damage if he commits to the synergy. Unlike Armageddon, this skill doesn't consume much mana, and relies on attack speed rather than casting speed. It’s a big commitment in terms of skill points, but is a viable means of delivering elemental damage.
The druid also has a similar ability to deal significant poison damage by means of a large synergy. The Rabies skill has a neat perk: the poison spreads from enemy to enemy. Thus, in large crowds, the player can infect quite a few targets with a decent amount of poison damage. The problem is that it’s poison damage, which is generally difficult to use in Diablo 2. Diablo 2 is so fast-paced that poison damage, which takes place over several seconds, doesn’t always kill fast enough. Rabies damage scales nicely, but the time component also scales up.
The player can get around this with mob-tagging behaviors and lots of +skill affix items, but great gear will make any build work. Rabies is a cool skill, but it has a systemic handicap in that almost all poison skills (except for Poison Nova) are hurt by expanding time denominators.
Builds: 3 – Fire, Ice and Lightning. Technically, there are sub-builds of these three elements, but the mechanical differences and strategy are not different between those builds in the same way that the hammerdin is different from the fanatidin.
Class strength: Can easily put out tons of ranged damage, uses spells exclusively, has the best mobility skill in the game.
Build weakness: Most fragile character in the game
Elemental availability: High, can use fire, cold or lightning. Can use any two of those if the player is willing to trade away some top-end damage
Synergies: Has large, linear synergies for the highest-damage skills in every tree, plus strong, synergistic passive skills.
Overview: A relatively straightforward class with some obvious drawbacks, the sorceress is easy to build and play through the first two difficulty settings, but faces the same late-game problems as every other class.
From a mechanics standpoint, the sorceress is probably the simplest class in the game. The player choses a target and fires spells at it until it dies. There's not much else for the sorceress to do except run (or teleport) away from approaching enemies. The cold sorceress is the only version with significant crowd control abilities, and she trades damage (as all cold abilities do) for this effect. But the overall strategy of the cold sorceress doesn't differ that much from the fire or lightning sorceresses; the player still keeps enemies at a distance. Likewise, cold sorceresses can use spells to increase their armor, and lightning sorceresses can increase their effective health (through Energy Shield), but the player should still be fighting at range. There are other small differences between the types of Sorceresses. Lightning and fire sorceresses benefit a little more from faster cast rate affixes than cold sorceresses do, but all the classes benefit most from +skill affixes and mana. Moreover, no affix or skill radically changes the way that the sorceress class is played.
Although I’ll address it again later, I want to mention Teleport, the sorceress's mobility skill. The interesting thing about teleport, from the perspective of character classes, is that it embodies the sorceress's design philosophy so well. Teleport is a terrific mobility skill, but unlike the similar skills of other classes, it doesn't have a landing effect. Thus, Teleport is much better at getting the sorceress out of battle than into it. This is exactly what we would expect from a class that is always supposed to be firing from range and avoiding contact at all costs.
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