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Galavanting with Guardians

With last Thursday’s elite specialization reveal being the guardian, it’s somewhat fitting that the final New Player Experience profession in our study be the guardian as well. At first glance this profession feels like a smiting monk from Guild Wars 1 with a need for heavy armor.  Both San and Star were pretty familiar with this profession before the NPE became part of the game last September since Star regularly rolled a guardian for her key farming and also had an under-40 guardian-in-progress, while San had finished max leveling her second guardian just weeks before the September Feature Pack landed.

Before NPE, guardian was a class whose strengths shone quite early on, allowing them to solo level 10 Personal Story steps with care as early as level 5 (possibly earlier if you were quite skilled), making them a popular choice for Black Lion Chest key farming.  Post-NPE, however, guardians are just as susceptible to the infamous stat slump giving players creative space for leveling strategies during those periods.

Guardian of the North

Guardian of the North

As with other rarely or never played professions, the NPE does provide a slow pace and gently sloping learning curve.  Veterans who do not know much about a specific class may find it helpful as we have in the past, to take advantage of NPE in order to learn a new profession.  Guardians still start with a mace but now have Shelter as the initial heal skill instead of Healing Breeze.  This is an interesting switch considering that Shelter is currently the meta heal skill for dungeons, PvP and WvW.  As with other classes, the first profession skill, Virtue of Justice, unlocks at level 5.  Given the faster xp gain in the starter maps now, reaching level 5 is fairly painless and goes quickly.  After the first handful of levels, Star felt familiar enough with the class that she wanted to break away from the slow digestion of skills and abilities, and jump into playing with every aspect of the profession.  Feeling stuck and desiring to unlock every aspect of the character as quickly as possible, she turned to mapping cities and starter zones in order to boost her levels, running further afield as her levels allowed.

San similarly leveled quickly, getting to level 9 after clearing the bottom of Caledon Forest, unfortunately just as her guardian needed to be wise and selective in the middle of the map thanks to the stat slump that began kicking in at level 8.  At this point, San’s guardian went up against level 7 enemies and saw her health going down to less than a quarter after one or two hits despite swapping out Shelter for Signet of Resolve for the better initial heal amount a couple levels prior.  Once again, situational awareness and prior knowledge of the class and game came in handy.  San chose to play ranged with a staff at this point, stacking might from the number 4 staff skill, Empower, which unlocked at level 7, in order to aid damage output and survivability.  Instead of mapping cities, though, San chose to remain in combat, switching to other starter maps if need be for a time, in order to gain xp more quickly through combat.

Swamp Fight!

Swamp Fight!

As each stat slump occurred, the guardian, who is normally a powerhouse, became glassy.  Because of this, Star held off starting new story steps or changing map areas until her stats had caught up to her corresponding level.  Although neither of us crafted gear, strategic crafting could alleviate the inconvenience of the stat slump, as we’ve noted before, allowing players to balance out their stats to suit their play style better since most dropped gear this early tends to be power rich with occasional drops to boost vitality, condition damage, toughness, or precision.

Certain story steps can also provide an interesting opportunity to expand beyond the NPE’s imposed boundaries.  In the level 10 charr story Operation: Bulwark, for example, the utility slots are replaced for the duration of the mission.  By switching out these skills before leaving the instance, Star was able to retain use of the third utility slot, which usually unlocks at level 19, for the remainder of the study, even when changing maps, logging out and logging back in, and changing slotted utility skills.

Given the guardian’s heavy armor and protective abilities, as mentioned earlier, prior to NPE it was easy enough to power through story steps several levels higher than the guardian.  Playing with fellow guild members, Star’s pre-NPE guardian had reached the third story arc before attaining level 20.  When NPE instituted its locked story steps she was forced to grind levels to catch up to where she had unlocked.  The gated story steps felt painfully unnecessary even with the test character.

With a Guardian in the mix, victory is assured!

With a Guardian in the mix, victory is assured!

As Star often played solo, the opening heal skill, Shelter, worked well.  If levelling in a group, Healing Breeze may provide early support and can be opened with a skill point (provided you are able to collect them.)  Condition removal at these early levels might also be unnecessary for guardians and players should consider swapping out the first open skill slot for a different utility skill if possible.

We both felt that the guardian did not suffer unduly from the lack of profession skills – Virtues in this case – and had learned from previous tests to swap weapons between combat by running with our inventory windows open or by placing alternate weapons at the top of the inventory for quick opening and swapping as the situation called for.  The NPE guardian was just as fun to play as the pre-NPE guardian, coming progressively into its own as utility slots and the professions skills unlocked.  As in previous tests, only the locked progression detracted from our experience.

Conclusions

Overall, Star enjoyed the guardian enough while in combat that leveling this profession felt less grindy than some other professions have felt.  For her, the opening of Virtues felt as if she had gained an auxiliary bonus skill upon achieving a specific level.  This contrasted sharply with the feeling of a burden being lifted once other professions – ranger or mesmer, for example – gained profession skills through level progression.

The last several months have provided an interesting experience for Star, allowing her to play every character profession and explore a variety of the personal stories.  As an altholic, she has collected several new characters in the process as various versions of her key farmer, Peat Repeat, proved too interesting to delete.  Initially, Star felt that this study would convince her to never level a character without boosters, tomes, and scrolls, but to the contrary, it has provided her with a number of strategies for negotiating the NPE as a veteran player and allowed her to enjoy aspects of the game that she previously paid little attention to.

What more could you ask for?

What more could you ask for?

For San, the guardian test reminded her, again, why this class has always been one of her favorites.  Yet, as with the other tests, she felt the hand-holding the NPE provides is excessive and something that should unlock on an account once at least one max level character is on it, similar to how skill points are unlocked.  Given that the change to stat gains lasts throughout the entire leveling experience, she recognizes that such a modification would be difficult; the forthcoming changes to traits and stats in specializations, however, should make the NPE and leveling experience interesting.  San still finds leveling characters fun, but the experience has definitely changed, requiring some finesse at times.  This has actually helped her learn more of the subtleties of some classes and of the game itself which she’s then been able to take to some of her max level characters.

As we look forward to our final thoughts on this study, we will be thinking about the impact of this system overall, how it may be changing with the introduction of specializations, and how players planning on leveling more characters – especially revenants in Heart of Thorns  – might prepare for and plan their experience.  You can look for this upcoming contribution over at GuildMag.

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Master of Illusions

Today, we explore the early leveling experience of the mesmer.  Both San and Star have some experience with this class, running both modified shatter builds and mantras on max level characters.  This test gave Star an opportunity to further explore a class she had only recently started playing while San, who has a love affair with this class, got a chance to put the class to the test and see what adjustments veteran players might have to make in the new leveling environment.

New mesmers begin with a sword instead of a scepter as they did previously, giving them a straightforward, basic attack, and also one of the most popular and powerful melee weapons of the class.  The initial heal skill has also been changed from Ether Feast to Mirror which offers the shortest cooldown of all the heals and foreshadows some of the later power of the class, reflecting projectiles and healing the caster.  However, Star and San both found Ether Feast to be more practical at the earliest levels because of its higher heal value, and think Mirror might be more useful in later levels for certain play styles.

Phantasmal Duelist, the pistol unloading illusion.

Phantasmal Duelist, the pistol unloading illusion.

One of the features of mesmers are the illusions they create from weapon and utility skills to distract, damage, and inflict conditions on enemies.  If a player new to the class isn’t aware of this feature, their sudden appearance before level 5, when the first profession skill opens, may be confusing, as Star’s newbie friend, who’d initially played Guild Wars 2 after the September Feature Pack brought this New Player Experience, found during her recent experience with mesmer.  Given that illusions aren’t explained beyond the tooltips on skills, their mechanics can take a bit of getting used to. Because of this, Star felt that illusions were little more than a novelty early on, serving only as distractions during encounters.  Once the profession skills begin to open, however, their usefulness becomes clear to players new to the mesmer.

Star felt that the methodical pace of NPE would serve players well the first time they tackled this profession as the variety of weapons and the creation of illusions leads to a slow unfolding of new skills and tactics.  However, veteran players may be likely to find the lack of utility skills and off-hand weapons in early levels limiting, perhaps to the point of boredom.  San, for example, found the NPE’s hand-holding excessive and took to swapping weapons out of her inventory as the situations called for in order to assist her mesmer’s survivability.  Once again, armor and weapon drops focused on +power stats making her low-level mesmer glassy and prone to taking more damage than during the old leveling environment.  To help her mesmer’s success, then, San often opted for the sword/torch combination before weapon swapping opened at level 15 primarily for the stealth ability that The Prestige affords.

Managing illusions.

Managing illusions.

Another key mesmer mechanic is the use of shatters, the profession skills that open at levels 5, 13, 17, and 19 respectively.  These introduce additional direct damage (F1, Mind Wrack), condition damage (F2 and F3, Cry of Frustration and Diversion), and a mesmer unique boon (F4, Distortion).  While it’s understandable why there’s an eight-level gap between when the first and second profession skills open, given that the NPE tries to gate you away from condition damage, San felt this gap locks new players out of practicing when to use a second shatter which might be problematic.  Moreover, since three of the four profession skills open over six levels, San felt that the pacing here felt unbalanced when compared with other caster classes, like elementalist whose second profession skill opens at level 5. An earlier second profession skill would help smooth this pacing and not later overwhelm a new mesmer by opening three quite close to one another.

Managing illusions can also be important in how they benefit the mesmer’s health since two of the four possible heal skills depend on the number of active illusions a mesmer has summoned. Because San swapped to Ether Feast as her heal skill, after level 13 she began to focus on a combination of utility skills that created illusions as well as offered direct damage, particularly Mantra of Pain, using a hybrid style of her max level mesmers (one a shatter mesmer and the other a mantra mesmer).  The ability to have illusions out in the world allowed Ether Feast to have a greater heal value when needed, and also afforded San the option to use the shatter skills selectively to help her mesmer succeed.  This selectivity itself was very different from her normal use of shatters on max level mesmers, and was different even than how she used shatters in the old leveling environment. Previously, those mesmers could shatter illusions without worrying about whether their destruction would put the mesmer in danger.  Now, San felt leveling mesmers need to time their shatters for effectiveness and to make sure a new illusion can be summoned soon after for consistent and maintained pressure.  This may, however, be another by-product of relying on armor and weapon drops rather than on crafted gear since San’s mesmer was often kitted out in dropped gear that was several levels lower than her mesmer, up to ten levels lower in some cases making her mesmer feel glassy and often underpowered.

The journey to 80 is worth it.

The journey to 80 is worth it.

Beginning story steps at level ten, Star became acutely aware of how glassy the mesmer can be and detoured from the story in order to purchase additional weapons and armor from vendors.  It is likely that this would not be necessary if players were crafting armor as a way of leveling but for this experiment we did not craft.  With the opening story arc completed, Star retreated to mapping cities as a safe route toward reaching higher levels in order to open utility skills and improve her mesmer.  However, as utility slots began to open, she returned to the open world, working through early level maps in order to collect skill points.  Armed with the extra points, Star found the break between story steps offered her an opportunity to further explore the mesmer’s unique abilities, and she experimented with mantras, glamour and signets, along with the various clones and phantasms that can be summoned.  Despite the possibility that these doldrum levels can be used to improve a new player’s understanding of a class, Star felt the extra time would not be needed for a veteran player, especially someone who is familiar with the profession.  However, to take true advantage of these levels and spend time learning the skills that become available, a player must consciously choose to hunt skill points through the early maps, a strategy that might not be apparent to a new player.  Of further note, due to the level-gating of stat points, a glassy character may be better off waiting until level 22 before beginning the level 20 story steps, in order to take advantage of the “+40 to base” stat reward that hits at that level.  Otherwise, it is quite possible the level 20 steps will prove frustratingly difficult.

Conclusion
As the mesmer grows into its full potential, the versatility of the profession shines.  Armed with illusions and their shatter skills, they are deadly opponents in any situation.  Their ability to pass boons and conditions to party members and foes respectively, and their wide array of area-of-effect barriers and reflections also make them invaluable support in group situations. It may be a challenge if you’re new to the class or not as familiar with how they play to keep them alive if you’re not used to using the shatter skills.  Still, players in map chat continue to recommend mesmer to others, noting that mesmer can be challenging at lower levels but are still a lot of fun.  Like thief, mesmer has multiple stealth skills available to it as well as condition damage, crowd control, and illusions to distract and confuse enemies.  Given the stat slump periods, the NPE will require veteran players to adapt and change tactics while leveling a mesmer, but the class is still very fun and rewarding to play which only grows more rewarding once all profession skills and utility slots are open.

Next time, we gallivant with guardians!

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Necrotic Persuasion

In exploring the necromancer class, Star and San had a wealth of experience to draw upon as both run necromancers on a regular basis. Star chose to avoid her normal builds and weapon sets, using the NPE study to explore unfamiliar aspects of the class. San hoped to gain some insights about how to fix her main 80 necro who’d been broken by previous profession balance passes and nerfs to necros.

Necromancers begin with an axe and are soon rewarded a slightly better one. Given the half-range of the axe, the scepter or staff may be a better weapon for early levels, especially when the lack of Death Shroud and life force skills are factored in. An added bonus to switching to scepter is the ability to stack condition damage on higher-level enemies, damaging them even when direct attacks are only glancing, as we saw in our warrior study. By switching to the long-ranged staff, enemies may be kept at a safe distance while additional weapon skills, followed by the profession skills that unlock at level five, become available. In addition,the healing skill was changed with the introduction of the NPE, swapping the blood fiend minion for Well of Blood. This allows new necromancers to begin exploring wells and staff marks which will later allow the necromancer to control enemies and apply conditions (wells), and also gain sustainability if they so choose (marks).

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Dagger for the kill!

San did not switch to scepter during this test, choosing to stay with axe/dagger and then dual daggers when weapon swapping unlocked and she could swap to staff. This allowed her to experiment with skill rotations that helped power her test necromancer through stat slumps and take the profession to the edge of survivability on several occasions. At nearly level 3, San took her necro to Mepi’s moa ranch in Queensdale. Against level 5 bandits, any direct damage resulted in glancing blows which did practically no damage. Testing positioning in three attempts at these bandits, the necromancer died each time, something that rarely happened to necromancers against enemies 2-3 levels higher before the introduction of the NPE. Taking one shot regularly halved his health in this instance despite having Well of Blood active. Level 4 increases primary attribute numbers and the difference is palpable. San’s necro didn’t suffer or take nearly as much damage from level 3 enemies (elementals at Western Divinity Dam). That he took any damage, though, was rather shocking. Leveling necromancers definitely need coddling now which San finds utterly disappointing for a class that’s supposed to be the master of death.

One solution, however, comes in adjusting skill rotation and knowing how to effectively incorporate Death Shroud, which unlocks at level 5, into one’s rotation. Once offhand weapon skills open at levels 4 and 7, combining these with Death Shroud helps make the necromancer feel incredibly powerful. Axe skill 3 (Unholy Feast) activates retaliation while skill 1 (Rending Claws) inflicts vulnerability. When used in an effective sequence, then, changing the skill rotation allows the necromancer to have better survivability. The rotation of axe 3, then dagger 4 (inflicts blindness), then axe 1 to stack at least 10 vulnerability, then axe 2 for damage or into Death Shroud for skill 4 (Life Transfer) for life steal and 2 (Dark Path) for bleeding and freezing enemies, then skill 1 (Life Blast) at mid to melee range = necro bad ass. This rotation is not quite as impressive as previous necromancer iterations (San sometimes had to pop Well of Blood typically at half health), but the rotation was effective against enemies of the same or maybe one level higher. Stat bursts brought her necromancer back to impressiveness and the rotation kept him a threat with lots of kiting, making him more menacing.

Death Shroud, then, allows the necromancer to access the spectral skills that help define the class. After several changes to the necromancer build, most players will find that they must learn to incorporate these skills into their play if they are to survive. Players new to the class, or returning players who were used to the old necros, may find incorporating Death Shroud into their rotation tricky. Star has slowly started to do this after infrequent use in the past. As with weapon skills, the life force skills are level-gated. Be aware that skills 4 and 5 are not available when Death Shroud first opens. This does give a new or new-to-necro player a chance to understand how Death Shroud can work in their skill rotation.

Once utility skills open at level 13, Well of Power is awarded for condition removal. Opening the heal skill Consume Conditions is another option for condition removal, as are dagger skill 4 or staff skill 4 by transferring conditions to your enemy. Because of this, using gained skill points to unlock different utility slot skills is much more viable for necromancers than for some other classes. Skills like Signet of Power for passive additional power and active condition damage, and Spectral Armor for protection and life force gain while taking damage are useful choices among the variety of wells and corruption skills also available. Finding the combination that works best for you, while also rotating between weapon and Death Shroud, can ensure necromancer victory, even when mobbed.

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Steal life to kill and live!

Star felt the leveling experience went quickest while completing maps – filling hearts, participating in events, and collecting waypoints and points of interest. While exploring, she noted that karma merchants who are available after a heart is filled, may provide a player with another source of armor. However, depending upon what level a player is when they complete the heart, and whether or not they have opened up armorsmith, the karma armor may be only of limited use. Regardless, players should keep in mind the Fashion Forward achievement category while exploring and use these resources to improve their standing in it. Star felt that armor continued to be an important aspect of play as extra survivability and offensive skills were limited by the locked utility skills and inevitable stat slumps.

An interesting thing to note about leveling rewards for necromancers is that, when awarded staves, early necromancers get a choice of +power, +vitality, or +toughness and no sigil, whereas when other professions are awarded staves, the stat boost was always the same (+power), only the sigil changed. This is an interesting way to try to help balance a class now so vulnerable to taking damage.

Conclusions

Overall, necro needs care and expertise to play well. They take damage that brings their health down pretty quickly but if you can learn how to rotate your weapon skills with Death Shroud and effective sustaining and damage slot skills, this class is still a lot of fun. This test taught San where her max level necromancer broke and what she needed to do to fix her and bring back that bit of her awesomeness which got lost in the nerfs. For Star, beginning a new necromancer provided her with the opportunity to improve her understanding of the life force skills and their importance to the class, something she had less understanding of previously. Both of us ran this study without minions proving our persistent belief that curse and condition builds are still viable ways to play necromancer without relying on minions to tank and steal health for you.

Next time, we meander with mesmers!