Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dismal Science: Part I, Building a Necromancer

I'll be frank about this,  I don't really like MMO PvP. I never really got into it in WoW, it was the reason I left War, so on and so forth. The primary factors behind whether or not an encounter were won or lost typically had almost nothing to do with "skill" or "tactics," regardless of what those 2200 RMP teams will tell you. It was decided by your class, your spec, and the gear that you got as a result of that class and spec. At the beginning of an expansion, any class that had a basic mechanical advantage would quickly dominate PvP, leading to that class out-gearing everyone else. Predictably, it would then go on to steamroll its way through the rest of the expansion. And that has no appeal, whatsoever, to me.

In my mind, PvP should be an exercise about strategy and cunning, mixed with ingenuity and a well-built and played character. And that is what I honestly feel like I've encountered in Guild Wars 2, for the first time in any online game.

That said, I spent the past BWE and stress test doing one thing and one thing only, learning to play a necromancer like I was born with 30 points in Soul Reaping. Necromancers have been described with things like "obtuse", "difficult", and "why on earth do all of my skills hit for 50 damage when that elementalist over there is dropping 2k between shots of cough syrup." After digging into it, I think I've found an a good answer for that.

After washing out of my first few matches, completely ineffective, I had to rethink my strategy. My damage was low compared to just about everyone else out there, my health pool couldn't do a thing to protect me from the warriors who spent the day feasting on the tears of anyone who couldn't kite, and minions were, simply put, pathetic in group combat (I had miserable luck, but later I ran into a necro named "Hugh the Human" who could pretty consistently stomp anyone he managed to get into a corner). In essence, my thought process went something like this, "Screw it."

If I was going to play a necromancer, you can be sure I would start acting like one. I started my build from scratch, redid all my armor and weapons, and tried a completely different plan of attack. You can see my final build Here.

A shot of my traits, skills, health, and whatnot. All of the people that I killed, this is the lens from which your demise was plotted.
In essence, I built myself around the idea of inevitability. My goal was to put pressure, and lots of it, on a single person at a time, with the capability of putting some damage on a group if need be, while still maintaining a serious degree of defensive utility. I wanted to be able to force you into a difficult position and to dictate the terms of the fight; you either try to put me down immediately, or attempt to defend against an endless onslaught. Few things can change a fight like pressure; when you put someone in a situation where it is "Make the right decision or die," the odds of them making the right decision become dramatically smaller. And this is where my build prospered.

For pressure, no weapon really compares to the scepter, the first skill can stack bleeds at range incredibly quickly, which fell perfectly in line with what I wanted out of this build. Grasping dead ended up being cast on cooldown fairly often, especially when any kind of group was present for me to abuse with it. After much turmoil, I settled on the war-horn for my off-hand. The daze is a marvelous interrupt and locust swarm has fabulous utility, namely the cripple and swiftness, that was sorely lacking elsewhere. I've been having success using a staff as my secondary, although I'm being severely temped as I write this to try both dagger and axe as my secondary.

I went 30 points into curses and picked up the following Major Traits:
  • Hemophilia. 20% increased duration on my bleeds. Fairly self-explanatory.
  • Lingering Curse. Conditions from scepter skills last longer. Considering that I built myself around using a scepter as my main weapon, this one was a no-brainer.
  • Reaper's Precision. Gain life force when you do a critical hit. This is where my build began to tie together. On one hand, serious damage from bleeds that could stack up faster than most people could count them being stacked. On the other, the ability to essentially cheat death, over and over again, through death shroud. This tied the two together, boosting my LF generation in hand with how much damage I was doing.
After that, I went 30 points into Soul Reaping to perfect my survival mechanism:
  • Foot in the Grave. Gain stability while in Death Shroud. This made my necro, anytime he was in death shroud, into a cold, merciless, CC-immune beast.
  • Soul Marks. Marks generate life force when triggered. After realizing that my scepter use left me with a few glaring weaknesses, I decided that a staff was the best fit for my second weapon. This dramatically reduced the opportunity cost of switching to my staff in combat, by allowing all of my marks to keep a steady flow of death into my life force bar.
  • Vital Persistence. Life force drains slower while in death shroud. Because more life force to use while in death shroud definitely was worth the slot.
Finishing it off, I grabbed the first major in Spite:
  • Reaper's Blast. Life blast does more damage. Death Shroud became more than a defensive cooldown, it was also a ranged dps cooldown as well. Life blast was hitting so hard I almost felt like an elementalist.
I went to the armor/weapon merchants and put the earth enchant (bleed on crit) on all my weapons (although, for the life of me, I can't remember what I put on my war horn). I dropped all of the standard runes that came on my armor for a full Nightmare set, which boosted condition damage and duration quite significantly.

All of that being set, I needed to decide on my skills. For healing, I chose Consume Conditions. It would feel decidedly anti-climactic if someone used my own build on me (which actually happened more than once) and I found myself unable to deal with my own strategy. This heal works kind of like a magic trick, I would occasionally go out of my way to pick up a condition or two, knowing that it would result in a significantly larger heal when the time came. For the rest of my skills:
  • Blood is Power. This had two primary dynamics; first, it put two bleeds on my target, which is exactly in line with my strategy with this build. Second, it was relatively low on the CD, which made it that much more useful. Third, because it applied two small bleeds to me as well, it could be used to fuel my healing skill, which was invaluable.
  • Spectral Armor. After getting blown up by a warrior or two, I added this skill to my bar to give a mitigation cooldown. Death shroud is an easily accessed second health bar, but it never actually reduces the damage you're taking. This cut down on my incoming damage, while turning the remaining damage into pure fuel for my death shroud.
  • Signet of Undeath. I didn't get nearly as much usage from the signet's active ability as I expected, I think part of that has to do with my developing situational awareness more than the practicality of the ability. However, the constant flow into my LF pool was definitely noticeable. If I had to switch out a skill first, it would most likely be this one. I'm considering swapping this out for the flesh worm minion; the extra mobility could really be a bonus. I'm not really sure how the two stack up against each other yet though.
  • Elite: Lich Form. For all of my focus on defense and conditions, I realized that I didn't have any ways to put serious damage on an enemy or a group of them, bunched up. Although the form had some drawbacks (which I will discuss below), it was a dangerous offensive CD that gave me the "umph" that I felt like the build was really lacking. That being said, I feel confident in saying that this build is dangerous, deathly so, even without its elite skill. I didn't pick Plague, even though that would have been more in "tune" with the build idea, because it simply would have been overkill. I had plenty of conditions, but not enough ability to curb stomp those stupid warriors. WHEN I WANT YOU TO DIE, YOU NEED TO DIE. NOW. That is what this button was for. It's like the dominoes pizza of death.
With this build, I found that I could outlast just about anything else, while being able to simply whittle their health away. You have no idea how many times I saw some silly Elementalist run up to me and expect to just blow me up, only to glance down at this health and see around 15 bleeds, ticking away, then panic and try to run. Don't try to run, it won't save you. The occasional anti-condition guardian non-withstanding, keeping my bleeds stacked as high as I could and using death shroud often and offensively was enough to even overwhelm pairs of players. I felt confident going into almost any 1v1 situation, and was able to hold my own in 2v2 long enough to either score a kill, or for reinforcements to arrive.

This is how nearly all of the scoreboards from the stress test looked for me. 20 minutes into playing this build, I fell in love.

My strategy with this build was fairly simple.
  1. How many bleeds do you have on that target? Well, that's not enough. MOAR BLEEDS. I've seen more than a few people saying that you could get to 20 stacks in 3 or 4 seconds, my professional opinion is that they're exaggerating, significantly. Typically, I expected to get to around 10 stacks or so within 5 seconds, or thereabouts. That alone is enough to take a serious percentage of their health down. Couple this with the damage from my other skills and they're going to be in serious trouble unless they have a way to cleanse those bleeds off. 
  2. Be aggressive. With all of your bleeds ticking, death shroud hitting like a truck, and fears flying left and right, you can be a very intimidating foe in single combat. Take advantage of that; press your advantage and watch your foes trip over themselves trying to regain their momentum.
  3. Focus on the scepter. That's where your bleeds and conditions are going to come from, that's where your damage is at. That being said, the staff is incredibly handy at setting a fight to run in your favor. If I see a warrior running up a ramp at me, I'm going to start dropping marks in between us. A typical drop order would look something like this: Mark of blood in front of him, triggered when he runs through it -> Reaper's Mark in front of him, triggered when he runs through it and sending him running the opposite way -> Chilblains, triggered as he tries to run back to me. After that, I'll switch back to my scepter and continue to stack bleeds on him. The staff doesn't really have the damage of the scepter, but lordy-mercy, that thing can make a fight unpleasant for the other guy.
  4. Use death shroud wisely. It's both a second health bar, that constantly refills, and a damage/utility cooldown. This alone is what makes this build so fearsome, I can use death shroud to buy time between my healing cooldowns, as well as lay heavy damage on you in the midst of that. 
  5. Use blood is power immediately before you want to heal. It's going to put damage out on your target, as well as go a long way towards making your heal that much more potent.
  6. Save spectral armor for warriors, greatsword guardians, and greatsword rangers. When you're up against those builds, play defense or die.
  7. Lich form is a mixed bag. Yes, you do get to hit like an elementalist for a little while, you get immense CC, and your AoE actually becomes usable. However, you're giving up most of your utility, as well as death shroud, to do that. Also, everyone is going to see this giant, glowing specter-thing and think, in unison, "I should kill that." You will immediately become the least popular thing on that map. And after coming out of lich form, if you don't have death shroud ready, you will most likely die because everyone and their mother is still targeting you. That being said, if you use it at the right time, lich form can easily put down whole groups of players at a time. It's best to use it offensively, as soon as you get the smallest advantage, pop lich form and make them regret giving you an inch.
How do you make small talk when you're taking a node with some random human mesmer? "Well, that's a nice...human...thing...you've got there."
That being said, tune in later this week, for part II and a discussion of the strategies that I tried for dealing with specific classes and builds, as well as thoughts and observations about the group dynamics of sPvP in the beta. Comments and thoughts are always welcome below.

'Til next time,
Au revoir.


  1. Welcome to the NBI! Have fun and let us know if you have any questions!

    1. Thanks Syp, we definitely will!

    2. I seriously stopped for a moment and thought, "What on earth is the NBI?"

      Top five google hits for NBI:
      -"Continuing Legal Education : National Business Institute"
      -"National Bureau of Investigation"
      -"New Business Institute"
      -"National Bridge Inventory"
      -"Nile Basin Initiative Website"

      Lo and behold, I find this "Newbie Blogger Initiative" on your website. Makes a lot more sense, if I do say so myself. Thanks for the feature, as well as the offer, we'll be sure to take advantage of it.

  2. Extremely well written - informative and entertaining, and clearly demonstrating excellent understanding of both the profession and PvP in general.

    I enjoyed this so much I instantly added this blog to my regular reading circuit.

    1. Thank you for the praise. We're definitely shooting to make the "Dismal Science" column the go-to-place for the best necromancy on the blog circuit.

      I am of the supreme persuasion that a well played necromancer > all. After the next BWE, I'll have videos and whatnot up of this build in action, so you'll be able to judge for yourself exactly the merits and failings of my play style. (And not one of those immensely edited videos showing me "blowing up" a few unskilled players. It will be an entire match, beginning to end, victories and losses inclusive.)

    2. If you are interested in more necromancer-goodness, there are several videos by Team Paradigm by Salokin. He/she does an amazing job of editing that really shows off his skills and the power of a well played necromancer. At one point he takes on more than 3 people and downs all of them. Kaenes might be on to something with rating Necromancers higher than other professions, but I think its way too early to tell. Watching those videos definitely struck fear in this thief's heart.