During last week’s Ready Up, all of the trait changes currently in testing were gone over, in what I dare to say is the most transparent ArenaNet has ever been about information in development. Kudos on it, but one positive action does not a trend make.
Part of those trait changes was a look at the rather disappointing results of the necromancer changes (livestream notes here, includes pictures of the traits). Where other professions had terrible traits replaced with intriguing ones, or popular builds retained or even strengthened, the necromancer had practically no change.
And no change is the last thing the necromancer needs as a profession. They’re just one step above pariah status in PvE (yay, Triple Trouble?) and one step below worth taking in high-level sPvP (and far tougher to play due to its mobility/stability weaknesses). The only place they “belong” is in WvW, where the strength of wells and marks isn’t as neatly sidestepped as in sPvP, and boonstripping and chill are ridiculously powerful compared to PvE’s lack of need for both.
As I started looking into the necromancer’s problems and potential fixes, I realized that the profession as a whole is in a serious pickle. It’s stuck between its unique mechanics, the overall intent of the profession, and how much it doesn’t have in common with the other seven (soon to be eight) professions in the game.
Further, solving the core problems depends on what assumptions I make. There’s a bunch of unknowns in the necromancer equation, and without filling in some assumed values there’s no way I can solve them.
So in a break from my normal approach of problem/analysis/solution, I am going to be writing a post series about necromancer. Today, I will go into its problems, the core issue summed up in a single phrase: attrition is the mission.
Disclaimer: I am a necromancer main. My intent is not to make the necromancer godly powerful in all contexts forever and for always, and I seek to use my experience with the profession to analyze deep down what the problems are. If I sound biased, call me on it. Also, for illustration purposes I’m hijacking both of my necromancers (Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2) over the course of this post series.
A War of Attrition
Necromancer is built around a core concept that fits perfectly with the theme of the profession: attrition. A necromancer will take her enemies’ punishment, but bear it far better than they take her own punishment. In the end, the necromancer prevails after a deadly tango of cooldowns, conditions, and critical hits.
As this plays in practice, necromancer has a much longer-term approach to any fight:
- Blowing all the cooldowns at the start of a fight suits a necromancer just fine, as her strength is in outlasting after all the cool, nifty abilities have been replaced by a black box.
- A necromancer’s health is the most deceptive thing in the game, constantly getting covered over by Death Shroud or receiving a massive spike as a condition stack is consumed. The niche popularity of “downed state necro” takes this to an even further extreme.
- Beating a necromancer, and beating others as a necromancer is a subtler game of patience. Necromancer epitomizes “death of a thousand cuts,” with each swipe of a dagger or stack of bleeding bringing you closer to the inevitable demise.
And as cool and unique as this approach to attrition is, both in concept and execution, it comes with its own strings attached.
This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
Because a necromancer is built on attrition, the vast majority of the skills, traits, and mechanics other professions enjoy are de facto off limits. Consider:
- A thief’s raw burst is his strength, tempered by his glass cannon nature.
- A guardian’s active defense is offset by her relative lack of health to outlast a large enough spike.
- An elementalist’s ability to dash everywhere and pick up small bits of healing and evasion from active skill usage is balanced against how helpless he is if he can’t spam spells across every attunement.
All of these nice things a necromancer cannot have, because they violate attrition. And with it, the overarching concept that makes necromancer unique among the professions.
But these design constraints have hit necromancer harder than originally expected, especially as the game’s meta has evolved to prioritize burst damage, debilitating focused control, and functionally infinite sustain (in sPvP, primarily).
A Single Necromancer against the World
Necromancers are selfish. They give no boons to others, provide no handy status buffs like Spotter, and certainly don’t bring to the table game-changing crowd control*. Even worse, necromancers at their most glassy are still walking tanks.
*The closest a necromancer gets would be a Flesh Golem charge. Or maybe an extremely well-placed Spectral “fear” Wall. Compare to Line of Warding, Earthshaker, and Deep Freeze.
These two actually cause each other. Because a necromancer is naturally tanky, even with full berserker’s gear, adding group support or extremely good crowd control would immediately make a necromancer overpowered. A tough-to-kill buffing machine that is just as able to dish out the damage would take over every meta in an instant.
And if you take away the damage aspect in favor of support, a necromancer is merely a death-centered guardian. If damage is replaced by control, she’s a limp-wristed hammer warrior. And she ultimately fails at being able to, by herself, wear the enemy down until they can’t take anymore.
Terms and Conditions
Necromancers have an amazing ability to supply conditions in excess, even in power-focused builds. It should be a strength of the profession.
But fear is hard to position*, vulnerability is spammed better by an engineer, blind is spammed better by a thief, and chill is worthless against boss mobs with crazy-low cooldowns. Weakness itself could be useful, except it’s often bundled with combo fields nobody wants (dark), trapped behind a trait no one takes due to its location on a trait line (Curses XII, the condition damage line), or stuck on brutal cooldowns.
*Screw up a perfect stack with a bad fear, and rage level goes from 0 to 9001 in no time flat.
And every other condition? Power-based damage is on another level of existence compared to condition-based damage, so the amazing capability of a necromancer to generate conditions pretty much everywhere, and on everything, is of debatable usefulness in most situations.
Stealing (Only a Little) Life
A core part of necromancer identity, both in Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2, is siphoning life. Guild Wars had skills named after the concept, and Blood Magic has always been about getting healthy at the expense of the enemy (or minions).
But lifesteal is under the exact same rules as any other form of healing: deliberately too little to keep up indefinitely. It fits into the Attrition Umbrella*, as well as forcing any fight to inevitably end as cooldowns run out and crappy healing values are beaten out by consistent damage.
*On sale now! Each one is more tattered than the last! Get yours before they’re literally gone!
Except…infinite sustain has been part of the sPvP meta for months now, a good zergball in WvW blasts the problem away, and PvE hasn’t needed actual sustain for a long time, only decent dodge skills*.
*Mandatory “high level fractals” note. Sustain is more important when fights last forever and total negation isn’t an option.
Yet the necromancer, the poster child of taking your life and making it hers, still hews to the original paradigm of a fight inevitably ending, with the less prepared player collapsing in a heap. The domain that a necromancer should own belongs to an elementalist zipping everywhere.
This is most clearly shown by the differences in approach. An elementalist gains health from water weapon skills, from low-cooldown healing skills (e.g., Aura of Restoration), and from traits (e.g., Evasive Arcana). So long as an elementalist keeps casting, they keep gaining health, overcoming the crappy ratios inherent in healing.
A necromancer is limited to exactly one weapon skill (Life Siphon, Part 2!), high-cooldown healing skills, and atrocious values through traits. All of the actual sustain is drawn from building life force and unleashing Death Shroud. Blood Magic (the trait line that holds most lifesteals) literally cannot be effective because it must be balanced against Death Shroud and its sustain. At best, it is a supplement to the core sustain aspect of the necromancer.
Corrupting, Controlling, but Not Capitalizing
One final knock-on from the design intent of attrition is how limited a necromancer is in taking advantage of a crippled enemy, even one she’s crippled herself. This is the polar opposite of the Guild Wars necromancer that thrived in hexes and gaining from an enemy’s hexes.
A simple example of this is the hex spell “Insidious Parasite”:
Done well, a necromancer could be unkillable by enemies while they were busily killing themselves. That particular skill was strong enough that despite its high energy cost, it could be a murderous pain against auto-attack-reliant players without hex removal handy.
That isn’t present in Guild Wars 2. While a necromancer takes on conditions to inflict effects on enemies, she gains no particular advantage by doing so. This is most clearly presented by Corrosive Poison Cloud:
Enemies are poisoned and weakened, at the exact same time that the necromancer takes weakness herself. She can’t capitalize on the conditions she’s caused, requiring others to do the job. This is much different than it being a negative effect that the necromancer can take particular advantage of.
Going Nowhere Fast
Part and parcel with being built around attrition is the idea that once a necromancer starts a fight, she isn’t leaving it until there’s at least one corpse on the ground (perhaps including her). As a result, necromancers have terrible mobility, making locking one down easier than most other professions that can jump around with relative ease.
The original design intent was to make necromancers unable to leave a fight, but be just as able to keep others in a fight. In practice, this is never seen. Players can simply walk away from a necromancer, or if absolutely necessary use a mobility skill to create distance that is easy to maintain.
So while a necromancer is by default unable to leave, anyone else can leave as soon as the tables are turned, and there is almost nothing a necromancer can do about it.
The Core of the Profession
So looking at all these problems, I see three core pieces that make the current necromancer a necromancer. Without these three in some form, what makes a necromancer unique is sure to slip away.
A necromancer must wear down enemies. Burst damage must be rare, but ways to take small bites out of others plentiful. Further, when a necromancer commits to a fight, she cannot simply leave it like a mesmer or thief might.
A Tank Tendency
Coupled with Death Shroud, life force generation, and high health, a necromancer will always be a tank in some form. Group support must be moderated against the natural tankiness.
Afflicted, but Not Crippled
This is a core aspect that’s lesser seen outside of the ludicrously powerful Consume Conditions. It was a hallmark of the Guild Wars necromancer that loading them up with pain wasn’t going to do as much to them as to other professions, and in some cases made them more powerful.
In practice, this should be abilities (skills, traits, etc.) that turn otherwise-disadvantages into advantages. The basis of this is present in the game (as further examples, Well of Power, Reaper’s Protection), but not as well-capitalized as it could be.
With these three aspects, I’m going to attempt to offer solutions that preserve the core of the profession while making it more desirable in the existing metas.
Why Not the Spec?
Before I wrap up this post, and get ready to delve into some potential solutions, I’d like to address this question.
Heart of Thorns is bringing a new form of life force usage, coupled with a greatsword as the new weapon. Images of a reaper float through my mind with those two facts, but it also brings the possibility of making necromancer more relevant to the all aspects of the game.
But the elite specialization is only one part of the profession, and while it is potentially a large change, if the other parts are weak or undesirable, a single elite spec is not going to fix it. This is especially true when compared against other professions that have extremely good core specs already, with their elite specs a mystery.
Further, it condemns those who don’t (or can’t) get the expansion to playing a profession nobody likes. For some, necromancer won’t have changed at all, its weaknesses still present and its few strengths better covered by others.
Finally, it cripples the profession in the long term if the elite spec is its lone salvation. Rather than fixing the core of the profession, elite specs would be serving as a series of bandages, covering over the festering wound of unsolved problems but never healing it.
Necromancer is in a bad spot. Because of its high-level focus on attrition, it has been left behind as the meta of Guild Wars 2 has evolved to be more direct and short-term. This is primarily shown by its lack of group support, reliable burst damage, mobility, and infinite sustain.
Addressing this won’t be possible by just using the elite specialization, because the overall core of the profession is “behind” the other seven (soon to be eight) professions that are focused on more active and impactful play.
Over the course of the next few posts (current number undecided), I’m going to make specific assumptions and offer solutions based on those assumptions. Ultimately, I believe that what makes necromancer unique can be preserved while bringing it more into line with the other professions.