One Step from Death: Shrouded in Black and White (Part 2)

A few days ago, I said that I was outlining all the problems with necromancer, then proposing solutions in followup posts. I unintentionally lied.

The Binary Choice

The core problem that hamstrings every aspect of the profession is its unique mechanic: Death Shroud (DS). This is because unlike other unique mechanics, there is very little room for variation in using DS. It’s either in use, or not. It’s either available, or on cooldown.

Regardless of the build utilized, necromancer gets the same skills, the same benefits (even if they aren’t really), the same survival mechanism. The only other profession to get close to this level of sameness is a warrior with its burst skill, and even then a warrior gets the choice of which weapon to burst on, and what level of adrenaline to burst with.

It’s On or Off

Death Shroud’s strength draws from the life force pool that a necromancer builds either from nearby death or from the use of skills. But that strength is latent until a necromancer hits F1 and drops into the form*.

Mori-2-Death-Shroud

*And if you want to pull your hair out, accidentally double-tap F1 and watch your epic moment of tanky doom vanish behind a cooldown you yourself caused.

And once she does, DS provides the kitchen sink. It’s extra damage, it’s a trait magnet*, it’s an extra health bar, it’s a way to be a never-dying tank. It’s everything, all at once. Thus, everything not DS has to be balanced around the strength and catch-all potential of the mechanic.

*18 major traits from every line, of 65 total choices (27.7%)

But when DS is down, or not being used, all of that potential is just not there. It’s not like a mesmer where a shatter is almost always available. It’s not like a guardian where specific virtues can be activated as the situation requires.

Its closest analogue is actually thief, with Steal having a cooldown and one specific purpose. But thief also has the advantage of initiative, its second unique mechanic. Necromancer…has nothing else.

Further, DS is both offense and defense. There is no choice to burn life force to mitigate a spike without also being forced into doing something while in DS. And to use it for offensive purpose runs the risk of running out of the main defensive option a necromancer has.

Compare again to guardian, who can choose an offensive option (activating Virtue of Justice), or a defensive (Virtue of Resolve), or even both (Virtue of Courage*). Or mesmer, whose shatters each do different things to offensive and defensive capability. Even a thief’s steal can be targeted to be either offense or defense, depending on the situation.

*Offensively covering a stomp, or defensively blocking a major attack.

Vanishing Counterplay

Part and parcel of the on-and-off nature of Death Shroud is how little enemy players (and mobs) can do about it. Life force builds on its own, in the background, and there is absolutely nothing that can make that pool go down unless the necromancer chooses to enter DS.

The first move always rests with the necromancer, forcing players to aim for raw CC lockdown and massive spike damage to hopefully catch a necromancer before they enter DS, or to burn through the entire pool as fast as possible when they do.

This makes even the counterplay binary. You either focus the necromancer until she burns DS, or watch as she cycles in and out of it, her underlying health pool never really changing and life force constantly being replenished.

Taking the other examples, a guardian can be forced to burn virtues as a desperate survival measure, or to support his allies. A mesmer’s clones can be blown up before they can be shattered, or dodged as they are. A thief’s steal is hard to stop, but forcing it to be used at a bad moment is easier*.

*For example, forcing a necro-stolen fear to be used to prevent a spike combo, rather than to set one up.

Consequently, balancing has to be done in terms of worst case scenarios and general fixes, since there are no “smaller pieces” that DS can be reduced to. With exception to a necromancer’s best case scenario, DS is always subpar.

Varying Usefulness

Because Death Shroud is the same skill bar at all times, it has to be potentially useful to any build a necromancer might run. Hence, the dichotomy between power-based skills (Life Blast, Life Transfer) and condition-based skills (Dark Path, Doom, Tainted Shackles).

Death-Shroud-Bar

While it’s true that most of the skills have utility beyond simply their damage source, at best only half the bar will be damage-effective (and because of condition duration, control-effective as well) depending on the build.

Further, all methods of generating life force are not created equal. A power-based build using axe or main hand dagger has low-cooldown, high-generation options. A condition-based build has high cooldowns (scepter) or exceptionally slow autoattacks (staff).

So in the case of condition builds, a necromancer inherently has less survivability compared to a power build, purely because of the skill choice. This isn’t because condition necromancers are deadlier (they have an easier time building damage if not focused, granted), or harder to handle (lock them down and nuke them, same as with a power build), merely what weapons a necromancer is best suited to use.

A Lack of Options

Compared to its Guild Wars counterpart, the Guild Wars 2 necromancer lacks virtually all of the versatility and adaptability that used to exist.

Pick an Attribute

The necromancer in Guild Wars was legendary for its sheer versatility. There were dozens of builds covering multiple different roles and plenty of unique ways to approach encounters. All it took was speccing into one attribute over another. Groups regularly took necromancers because with the right builds, they could be used anywhere.

The build that I used to murder spellcasters in Alliance Battles, and capture every elite skill in the game.
The build that I used to murder spellcasters in Alliance Battles, and capture every elite skill in the game. Ironically, based on purely Blood Magic.

Off the top of my head, a necromancer could run Spiteful Spirit-based Curses, Blood is Power-based Blood Magic, minion master Death Magic, or even swapping into a secondary profession to make use of Soul Reaping energy gain (N/Rt being a common hero healer build). And many of the builds worked in multiple places.

Pick a Damage Type

The same cannot be said of Guild Wars 2‘s necromancer. Because attribute focus (and the resulting shifts in overall skill effectiveness) doesn’t exist, the means of versatility also doesn’t exist. And despite the trait lines being named the exact same as their Guild Wars attribute counterparts*, Death Shroud’s sameness cripples the versatility they could possibly have.

*Excepting the addition of Spite for the power line.

Build-wise, necromancers have the option between speccing power, or speccing conditions. There is minimal variation, and most trait choices are informed by the attribute points*. Even minion master builds simply become “add Death Magic points, trait for minions, and dump in some more power.”

*Necromancer has above average matching between the attributes given and the traits that would be desired on a build utilizing those attributes best. Small blessings, I suppose.

This...
This…
...Or This
…Or This

And in the midst of this low variation is the never-changing, never-really-a-choice Death Shroud. All that changes with it is which damage type is putting the hurt on the enemy. The same DS that can only be used in one way, but is capable of so much that it must be balanced around.

Increasing the Options

Death Shroud cripples the necromancer in almost every way possible. It has very little variation in its use, has minimal counterplay, is at best half-effective regardless of build, and actively hampers build versatility because of its sheer power when employed. There need to be more ways to use it than the existing single form.

The Upcoming Elite Specialization

The fact that life force has only one use, consuming Death Shroud, appears to be acknowledged with the teaser line “there will be a new way to spend life force” in the new elite specialization. Instantly, this increases both options for the necromancer, as well as counterplay scenarios for enemies.

With more than one way to spend life force comes more than one way to force bad life force usage, and likely in ways more engaging than “dump lots of damage and CC at the necromancer so they burn DS.”

What exactly it is, there are few hints. But with a greatsword confirmed as the necromancer’s weapon, I’m seeing empowered attacks that spend life force either through utility stances* or the weapon skills themselves.

*To steal an example from another game, League of Legends‘ Aatrox has a toggle ability. One state heals on the third hit, the other deals extra damage while self-harming on the third hit. A utility stance could swap a skill from gain life force to spend life force for a secondary effect.

In this example, the counterplay is forcing a stance or weapon skill to be used at a bad moment, or blunting the more powerful attack with active defense or mitigation. Exactly the same sort of option for opponents that other professions currently create with their mechanics.

Core Ways to Spend

But as the first post stated, “solving” Death Shroud and life force with only the elite specialization is putting a bandage on a massive wound: not enough. By the same token, solving many of the necromancer’s balancing woes (and subsequent weaknesses in several areas) can be done by adding more ways to spend and gain life force.

So just like the elite specialization adds a new way to spend life force, the core specializations should also gain ways to spend it. The full-blown transform should be an option, rather than the only way to utilize it, even if a player doesn’t have Heart of Thorns.

I confess to not having any ideas occurring to me for specific ways to accomplish this, but to offer something here’s some guiding principles:

  • Death Shroud should gain skills based on the core specializations chosen. For instance, Spite and Curses would give the existing bar, while Spite and Death Magic would keep Life Blast and Transfer while tossing in some minion-based skills.
  • Life force gain should also be based on the core specializations chosen. Rather than condition-based builds being inherently worse at generating it due to limited skill options, they should gain based on other triggers like condition damage per second, or conditions inflicted over time.
  • There should be external triggers of life force loss that aren’t related to the necromancer hitting F1. For instance, if a massive critical hit strikes, the existing pool could absorb half the damage (or as much as it can) before the necromancer’s health is hit. With specific triggers, enemy players can manage the pool’s size with smart play.
  • Following on from the previous one, overall sources of life force gain should increase. If enemy players can affect it, needing to moderate its gain rate to the extreme extent currently around is much less necessary.
  • Far fewer traits should exclusively tie to “within Death Shroud” or “upon entering Death Shroud.” This severely limits necromancer versatility, as these traits are more limited than other professions’ similar mechanics.

Removing the Gimp

With the removal of Death Shroud as a limited, binary mechanic, as well as adding more ways to balance it in the process, the functional gimping on what a necromancer can do is also removed.

Rather than being forced to always consider “the worst case scenario,” the balance team can pull this or that lever to bring various aspects of DS back into line.

This also means that other parts of the profession that are woefully underpowered, or barely functional, can be changed to actually be meaningful. The necromancer is no longer shackled to what it can do within DS, but rather gains strengths and weaknesses both inside and outside.

I See Six Eyes…

06331Mallyx-Elite-Embrace-the-D

While Death Shroud is the core problem of the necromancer, it is not the only one. Coming up next is a look at its competitor in the attrition-based tank role, the revenant.

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