Skulla Part One: Normal

Act I Normal is little short of a cakewalk for an experienced player, so I'll try to concentrate on the highlights and skip the mundane details. Skulla began his journey in much the same way as any other necromancer, killing fallens and zombies out in the Blood Moor with his wand. When he reached lvl 2, Skulla put a point into Raise Skeleton and put his melee attack away, never to be used again. I was surprised at just how fast the skeletal warrior proved to be; it was zipping around all over the place, much fastern than Skulla himself could run with no speed modifiers. I definitely recall those things as being pretty slow-moving in D2 Classic, so that's got to have been a change somewhere along the road.

Even a single skeleton warrior at slvl 1 was more than capable of killing the feeble creatures in the Blood Moor and Den of Evil. Skulla put his second skill point at lvl 3 into Amplify Damage, which would be the curse of choice throughout Act I. Level 4 saw an investment into Skeletal Mastery, and then the next two points (from the Den and lvl 5) went into Raise Skeleton, taking it to slvl 3. Here you see the first fight against a boss, my two skeletons taking on Corpsefire, with Amp support:

I planned to leave Raise Skeleton at slvl 3 permanently, and make due with +skill items there for additional warriors. This is one of the biggest changes in D2X from D2 Classic: in the original game, each additional skill point in Raise Skeleton and Raise Mage gave you an additional minion. +3 to Skeletal Mage on an item meant 3 more mages, for example. However, in one of the later patches for D2X, Blizzard changed the system so that you only get an additional warrior/mage for every THREE skill points invested, after the initial three. In other words, you get 3 warriors/mages for the first 3 skill points, then a fourth at slvl 6, fifth at slvl 9, and so on. Therefore, the first three points are by FAR the best value, and you may as well invest in them right away to get the proper benefit. No more gigantic skeleton armies, sadly, unless you have a character that's abusing incredibly good twinked gear. Of course, each warrior/mage is stronger to compensate, but it's not nearly as much fun as the old system, IMO.

Skulla had little need to invest more than those first three points into Raise Skeleton, however. The warriors may be kicking butt here in Act I Normal, but they will be hopelessly feeble by the time I reach Nightmare, let alone Hell. Their only purpose is to serve as blocking dummies, to hold off the enemies and prevent the mages from being targeted. Skulla should be able to reach slvl 6 with +skill items later on, for four warriors, and that should be plenty. It made the most sense to invest in Raise Skeleton now rather than later, get it out of the way fast, so that's what Skulla did.

The worst fight in all of Act I came very early on, in the Caves against Coldcrow. Skulla was only lvl 5, no Golem and no curses other than Amp, and the engagement nearly got him killed. Coldcrow shot down all three warriors, then targeted Skulla and took a HUGE bite out of his life. Ouch! That was nearly the shortest-lived Hardcore character ever! Skulla managed to run out of firing range, drink a couple of reds, raise three more warriors from other bodies on the floor, and go back to finish the job. What a tough fight though. Shortly thereafter, Skulla leveled up and was able to put points in Clay Golem and Dim Vision, which eased things tremendously.

Actually, it occurs to me that many people reading this might not be familiar with the curses in D2. Here's a quick primer on the skills Skulla will be using, and what they do.

Amplify Damage: Lowers physical resistance by 100%. In most cases this simply doubles damage, but Amp can also break physical immunities as well. (Particularly useful with an Iron Golem's thorns, since you can't run Amp and Iron Maiden curses at the same time!) The problem with Amp is that it merely magnifies the damage from your own minions - and the warriors are much too feeble to cut it for long. Thus, this curse doesn't really help out all that much after the early stages of the game.

Terror: Causes enemies to run away in... well, terror! There are few skills that can do more with just a single skill point than Terror - the sorcie's Teleport and the barb's Leap are other good examples. Terror is the necro's way to avoid swarming by enemy mobs. Curse them and watch the enemies run. The downside is a tiny area of effect, and it doesn't work on bosses or champs.

Iron Maiden: Reflects physical damage back on the attacker. The more damage the attacker does, the more damage they reflect back onto themselves. A fabulous curse against all sorts of hard-hitting melee foes: the enemies smash the skeletal warriors, and then in killing them provide more bodies to raise additional warriors. Useless against ranged characters, however.

Dim Vision: Blinds target, so that they are unable to "see" anything more than a couple of feet away. Dim Vision is just an awesome curse, no two ways about it, your one-stop answer to ranged threats of all sorts. Dim those archers, dim those hierophants, dim those witches - end of threat. Dim Vision also stops shamans/unravelers from reviving dead minions too! The biggest drawbacks are a low initial area of effect, short duration, and high mana cost. This curse also doesn't work against bosses or champs.

Decrepify: Reduces attack, movement speed, and physical resistance by 50%. This would be an amazing curse, except for its incredibly short duration and area of effect. As such, Decrep is best used against bosses/champs, or anything Extra Fast that needs to be cut down to a more manageable speed.

Lower Resist: Well it, uh, lowers resistance! Another great curse, especially so in Hell where it can break immunities with relative ease. It's very mana-hungry though, and generally works best against bosses, much like Decrep... the main reason being that you can't run Lower Resist and Dim Vision/Iron Maiden at the same time!

So the general pattern is Iron Maider (IM) against melee foes, Dim Vision (DV) against ranged foes, Decrep/Lower Resist (LR) against appropriate bosses, and Terror to avoid hairball situations. At the moment, however, Skulla was simply making due with Amp and watching his skeletons handle the work on their own.

Most of Act I was even easier than usual. Blood Raven died faster than I've ever seen before to three skeletal warriors and Skulla's Clay Golem, like 5 seconds total. I kept the free Rogue merc around for the rest of the act, just to see how long she would live. It's not like she was doing much damage; each skeletal mage was more powerful!

Above is a typical battle, clearing a devilkin camp in one of the underground areas. The warriors and Golly hold the line, while the mages fire away in the background. All Skulla had to do was keep refreshing Amp and occasionally raise an additional warrior when one of them bit the dust, which frankly wasn't very often. The warriors, backed by Amp, were doing most of the killing at this point. Heh. That definitely wasn't going to hold up for long!

All of the fights were thus routine, and I did the whole Act in two sittings (up to the Black Marsh first, then Tamoe Highland to the end). Aside from Coldcrow, the only other dangerous battle was the final one, against Andariel:

She mopped the floor with Skulla's army, and dealt the death blow to poor Elly as well. (By far the longest a rogue mercenary ever lasted with any of my characters!) Skulla retreated back into the room with the blood pool and slew Andy there (using Iron Maiden), but it was a tense, difficult fight. I only remembered after she was dead that there were plenty of bodies on the floor to summon more mages (d'oh!) This was a pretty poor effort on my part, with the one excuse that this was the first time that Skulla's army had ever been wiped out, and I was not accustomed to dealing with the situation. I resolved to do better when returning next time in Nightmare.

Skill Tree through Act I
lvl 2 Raise Skeleton @1
lvl 3 Amplify @1
lvl 4 Mastery @1
Den Raise Skeleton @2
lvl 5 Raise Skeleton @3
lvl 6 Clay Golem @1
lvl 7 Dim Vision @1
lvl 8 Weaken @1
lvl 9 Mastery @2
lvl 10 Mastery @3
lvl 11 Mastery @4
lvl 12 Raise Mage @1
lvl 13 Terror @1
lvl 14 Iron Maiden @1
lvl 15 Golem Mastery @1
lvl 16 Raise Mage @2

All of Skulla's gear at this point was rubbish, so I made no effort to jot it down. The best item he had turned up was a totem with +2 to Mastery on it. (Skeletal Mastery increases the damage done by both skeletal warriors and mages, so it's very important for this character.) Skulla was using a wand with something like +1 to Mastery and +2 to Raise Mages. He also followed my standard pattern now for D2X characters early in Normal: two ruby chips in a helm for Act I (+20 life), two flawed rubies in a helm for Act II (+34 life).

Act II was predictably a lot harder. Skulla made the permanent shift from Amp to IM as the curse of choice against melee foes early in the act. Even though Amp probably would be been stronger initially, I wanted to get some practice using IM before it was really necessary - like it would be against Duriel. As has become my habit for characters in Normal, Skulla began by clearing the Rocky Waste and Dry Hills en route to the Halls of the Dead, in order to turn up the Cube as soon as possible. The battles down there turned into full-fledged engagements:

Iron Maiden at work there, trimming the ranks of the enemy opponents. Even with Unravelers present, there were more than enough bodies to summon replacements as needed. A single casting of Dim Vision on the shamans was enough to shut them up and stop any reviving from taking place. (Didn't I tell you I love that skill?) Note also the four mages in the above shot - Skulla had picked up a wand with +3 to Raise Mage on it from Drognan, taking him to slvl 3+3 and enough points for a fourth mage. Too bad three of the four are poison shooters though - argh! (Poison won't stack in Diablo, so more than one poison mage is usually a waste. Think of it this way: you can't poison an opponent more than once!)

The first actual difficult foes that Skulla encountered were the beetles that populated the desert wastes. Every beetle is effectively Lightning Enchanted (LEB), and the warriors never last long against the sparks that pop out. This was actually a blessing though for Skulla, giving him practice in working with less than a full army while the threat level remained low. Don't bother reviving the warriors, as they'll only die again in seconds. Instead, keep the beetles locked up with Golly at melee range (casting him over and over again as he dies - poor Golly takes quite a pounding!) while the mages remain safe at a distance. Skulla HAD to start learning these moves now, while the enemies were slow as dirt and there was plenty of room to maneuver. I knew that he would one day be sorely tested under more adverse conditions.

Skulla did of course return to clear the Sewers after gaining his Cube, as well as all the other alternate dungeons that most players skip, like the Stony Tomb and Ancient Tunnels. The next fight that posed some danger was the fight against Dark Elder in the Lost City, if you can believe it. He spawned right near the entrance of the City, along with a group of poison-tossing cats. Skulla was using IM against Dark Elder, and that gave the cats free run to chuck their green stuff all over my poor mages, who didn't last long. Skulla eventually slew the boss with just Golly + IM, dodging poison all the while. This fight was a tactical failure on my part; I should have had Skulla go with Dim Vision on all the enemies, even the melee ones, which would have kept the mages safe. Still, I was learning what to do and what not to do, and continuing to get a better feel for Skulla's fighting style.

Dim Vision owned the Palace. Shut the archers and mages up, keep your own mages safe. The melee critters down there could be handled with IM if no ranged threats were around, DV if there were. (With DV, they killed Skulla's warriors pretty fast, then sat around stupidly while waiting to be downed by mage fire.) The battles in the Arcane Sanctuary attracted a lot of enemies, but there were always plenty of bodies to spare. DV the vampires, IM everything else. It was difficult to get Skulla's army into range of the Summoner; next time, I'm following Sirian's example and opening a town portal on his platform, then porting in a whole army all at once.

Nothing noteworthy in the Canyon or False Tombs. Normal difficulty just doesn't spawn that many bosses, and the ones that do aren't very tough with only the one affix. Even this guy wasn't bad:

Skulla was chewing through another mob, and I didn't even realize Kaa was part of it until all my warriors dropped dead. Heh. There were plenty of bodies on the floor, so Skulla indulged and kept summoning more warriors, even though they didn't do much. Kaa never so much as touched the mages. The biggest problem overall in the Tombs was the small area of effect of DV at slvl 1, requiring Skulla to cast and recast against large mobs. It was also difficult to target Unravelers at the extreme edge of the screen, sometimes forcing Skulla to get closer to the action than he really wanted.

For the Duriel fight, I swapped out Skulla's default wand (which was now +2 Skeletal Mage, +2 Clay Golem) for one with +3 Iron Maiden on it. The thinking was to get a higher rate of damage reflection from IM against Duriel. Well, that probably wasn't the best move, as it also dropped poor Golly's life from ~200 to ~140 or so. Duriel quickly downed the warriors (I wasn't fast enough in spamming Golly in his face), then crushed the mages and that poor merc sap that Skulla hired, and made a beeline for Skulla himself! Uh oh. It was a very tense ten seconds of sprinting before I managed to get him fixated on Golly once again, after which Skulla kept spamming the golems and refreshing IM until he croaked.

Even though Duriel never hit Skulla a single time, this was another tactical failure. When facing him the next time in Nightmare, I will have to do a better job of giving Duriel golems to snack on, and not letting him break free of containment. On the plus side, Skulla will have a fire golem with MUCH more life by then, and higher level IM to reflect more damage.

Skill Tree through Act II
lvl 17 Raise Mage @3
lvl 18 Blood Golem @1
Radament Raise Mage @4
lvl 19 Life Tap @1
lvl 20 Confuse @1
lvl 21 Mastery @5
lvl 22 Mastery @6
lvl 23 Mastery @7

Act III involved more practice in mastering curse skills and summoning techniques. The jungles were quite routine, the monsters pretty much never breaking the front lines. By now Skulla had reached the point where ordinary monsters posed little threat, only the bosses strong enough to break through the front lines and force some real work. Here's an opponent that always has to be respected:

The good news is that Sszark is prime bait for IM. He does so much damage that he inevitably kills himself with reflected blows. In this shot, Sszark hasn't even downed any of the warriors yet, and he's already close to death. Let me tell you, it was nice to stand back there in complete safety rather than having to get up close!

The jungles were heavily populated with flayers/fetishes/soul killers and their ilk. This led to some nasty casualties among the warriors at times... but with so many enemies, there were always more bodies to summon replacements. Skulla enjoyed watching the pitched battles that developed:

IM here against the melee flayers, DV against the shamans to shut down their Inferno and resurrection. Skulla stayed nice and safe behind his bony tanks.

As a boss, Endugu could not be Dimmed, which meant brutal casualties among the warriors and quite a beating for Golly. Skulla longed for Lower Resist curse, or even Decrep just to slow him down, but neither would be available for some time yet. So instead, he spammed golems at melee range to distract Endugu, while the maces slowly whittled him down at range. Being Magic Resistant definitely dragged things out a bit. Most of the fights had become so routine that it was nice to get a challenge for a change.

The other noteworthy battle came against Stormtree, at the gates of Kurast. Stormtree's LEBness quickly wiped all the warriors, and Golly was dying so fast that I had trouble keeping the mages alive. All of them were smashed at one point, but Stormtree's minions were taking damage too, and I was able to raise more mages from their corpses. Skulla eventually finished the battle with a single mage remaining; he was nearly forced to go back to another area to recruit more minions. What a tough fight. I learned two things of importance here: first, I probably should have gone with DV instead of IM against Stormtree's minions, if only to stop them from moving around, and second, Skulla needed to secure a Prevent Monster Heal throwing weapon of some kind to eliminate regeneration on difficult bosses. Part of the reason Stormtree proved to be so tough was the fact that he was regenerating life almost as fast as Skulla's single mage could damage him. Skulla would eventually gamble a PMH javelin, but not until later on, after many failed attempts.

Kurast was generally a non-issue. The worst opponents outdoors are always the hierophant/zealot combos and the vampires - and you can see above how easily DV was able to shut them up. It was great fun to stand mere feet away from all sorts of nasty critters in complete safety thanks to the miracle of Dim Vision.

Even the six temples proved relatively straightforward. Only one of them had a stairs trap, and Terror pulled its weight there, scaring away a half-dozen monsters to clear out enough room for fighting. (Skulla always enters the underground areas with his Terror hotkey selected and ready to go.) The Sarina fight was full of carnage on both sides, but Skulla kept raising more and more warriors to replace the ones that got smashed. She never made it through the front lines.

Travincal was more DV, DV, DV. There are definitely fewer enemies there in Normal difficulty, the city seemed practically deserted compared to the druid variant team's recent journey through there in Hell. Despite all of Skulla's care, a few of the lake monsters managed to stay submerged and wake up to cause trouble during the Council fight. Argh! One of the mages has broken off the fight against Ismail and is stupidly poisoning a creature that's highly resistant to poison. I swear, that's the one weakness of the summoning necro: your minions aren't nearly as smart as you would like. They also have a habit of rushing off to engage new enemies and venturing into places where Skulla really doesn't want to go just yet. It's kind of like parenting, in some ways.

The melee attacks from the Council weren't bad; IM could have handled that easily. The problem was their hydras, which quickly zeroed in on the mages and shot them down. Skulla was forced to pull divide and conquer tactics with the Council and their minions, separating them with footwork once his initial army had been slain, then returning with a new army later to pick them off one at a time. One thing that's great about D2X is being able to return to Act I for easy replacement minions. The Cold Plains and Stony Field made nice recruitment zones.

The first two levels of the Durance were uneventful. It's so nice to play Durance 2 at a reasonable size too... Durance 3 brought more tough boss fights against the second half of the Council. Bremm brought two other minions out with him, and along with his LEB attribute, he smashed Skulla's feeble army in something like ten seconds. Skulla killed the two minions with Golly + IM, then brought a new army back to finish off Bremm himself. Maffer's room was packed with at least eight vampires, who summoned meteors and smashed another army flat. Skulla lured Maffer out of the room, portaled out to raise yet another army, and then humiliated him on the return trip. (Like, PAINFULLY humiliated him. Maffer reflected himself to death with IM in just seconds.) Skulla then cleaned up the vampires, with a lot of DV use. Wyand simply isn't very hard anymore now that Teleportation doesn't restore life, and went down quickly too.

The fight with Mephisto went... shockingly well! I expected that he would wipe all the warriors and mages in no time, leaving me with just Golly, but that was not the case. The warriors of course died (they are just so fragile, any remotely dangerous boss eliminates them in seconds) but several of the mages found sweet spots and kept plugging away at him. Skulla kept casting Golly away from the mages, on the other side of Mephisto, and he largely ignored them while beating on himself with IM. The poison mage on the right side of the screen actually survived the fight intact! Amazing stuff. I never would have thought a low-level skeletal mage could live through an act-end boss battle.

Skill Tree through Act III
lvl 24 Summon Resist @1
lvl 25 Decrepify @1
lvl 26 Iron Golem @1

The open areas at the start of Act IV were relatively straightforward. Skulla used a lot of DV, to stop the Infernos from the balrogs and the mana drain attack from the finger mages. Both of them would stand around stupidly waiting for the mages to shoot them down. The warriors were decimated constantly, but Skulla's mages were rarely threatened and the clear pace remained fast. This boss at the entrance to the Plains of Despair was one of the most interesting ones Skulla had yet seen:

Skulla had to use Dim Vision to prevent the mothers from spawning more pups, even though Iron Maiden would have been great against these foes. He had no choice! Of course DV doesn't work against bosses, so Moon Bite kept breeding out more pups all the time, and Skulla had to keep refreshing DV at slvl 1+1 over and over again to keep the minions locked up. The saving grace was that all those pups provided a steady supply of more warriors. While Skulla would probably have been OK even if the lines had been broken, it was good to get more practice in for more dangerous situations later on.

For once, Izual provided a good fight:

Of course, it wasn't really Izzy himself that made for a real battle. The mages initially spotted him, and raced into battle on the right side of the screen. Meanwhile, more and more foes kept wandering into the picture on the left side: venom lords, corpse spitters, and stranglers. Skulla had to Dim the new arrivals over and over again, keeping them frozen as two mages slowly worked them over, while at the same time refreshing IM on Izzy and recasting Golly as he was inevitably killed over and over again. Skulla never took a single point of damage, but you try juggling five different hotkeys while spamming the curses! Not the easiest thing in the world. In Nightmare, Skulla would probably have to retreat and restart from a new position if flanked like this. In Hell, he would definitely have to do so.

Nothing noteworthy appeared on the River of Flame. Hephasto is an easy fight for an IM necro, just like Sszark - he smashed all the warriors to bits, but Skulla kept feeding him golems and he never broke through the line. Then into the Chaos Sanctuary, where Oblivion Knights posed a true test of skill. Both sides hurling curses back and forth, spells flying all over the place - I loved it. One Oblivion was relatively easy, as Skulla could cast Golly in his face to draw the fire of bone spirits and elemental blasts. Two or more meant a lot of retreating and maneuvering to keep as much of the army alive as possible. Oblivions are one foe against which IM and DV are both useless, so the curse of choice here was Decrep by necessity.

Skeletons are so eager to engage the monsters, sometimes they wake up more foes than you want. Like... a LOT more:

One of the lessons Skulla is still trying to learn is when to abandon the army and clear out to save life and limb. While DV can salvage a considerable number of situations (you'd be surprised at what Skulla can make it through without retreating), it's not infallible by any means. Here, Skulla's army is already in the process of dying horribly, and it's past time to get the Hell out of there! It doesn't exactly help either that the funky-colored Strangler above is a boss, with Cursed ability.

So Skulla ran, back past the lava pool, dividing the mob through retreat footwork. About a third of the enemies followed, including the boss, and were dispatched with a new army raised from the Stony Field's carver camp (heh). Then Skulla moved around the lava pool to the left, where another third of the mob was waiting, and finally returned to the original scene for the last third. Whew! That was by far the worst situation that the Chaos Sanctuary spawned, although many other fights with Oblivion Knights remained lively.

I expected the fight with De Seis to be the hardest, so did that one first with a full army. Well, my logic was totally wrong there; Skulla's army crushed the Abyss Knight minions and then rolled right over De Seis himself. I kinda miss the old days, when his minions were all Oblivions too. It certainly was harder that way! In contrast, I thought the battle with the Vizier would be easy, so stupidly decided to pop the seal and run out of the wing without using a town portal. Instead, the Vizier's mob appeared ON TOP of Skulla, who had to gulp a rejuv and run out of there. What unbelievable stupidity! ALWAYS portal out when opening the seals, especially with a Hardcore character!!! The fact that the Vizier indeed went down easily afterwards in no way forgives my foolishness.

The Infector is now probably the hardest of the seal bosses, due to all those minions he has. Skulla tried to make a stand with DV and a whole lot of sacrificial golems, but it wasn't enough and eventually the Infector broke through, smashing all the mages. Skulla retreated, separated the mob with his footwork, and brought back another army to finish the job. There was one tense moment though where Skulla turned the corner around one of the lava pools and the Infector shot out, getting in a clean hit on him. I gulped a rejuv instantly (which, frankly, wasn't needed since this was Normal) and then the skeleton warriors were on him, protecting Skulla. I think in Nightmare the simplest thing to do will be to lure the whole mob back to the River Maze for easy disposal. No need to take any unnecessary chances.

So then it was time for Diablo:

He wiped the warriors instantly, but surprisingly the mages held out through the first fire nova. They managed to do as much as 1/5 of the total damage before getting killed off. Not too shabby. After that, it was a whole lot of Golly + IM until Diablo gave up the ghost. A tense fight, no doubt, yet a heck of a lot easier when you can keep your distance from him. Poor Golly though. He got bitchslapped a LOT. Hopefully Skulla's fire golem will do a bit better if he should make it back here again in Nightmare.

Skill Tree through Act IV
lvl 27 Raise Mage @5
Izual Raise Mage @6,7
lvl 28 Raise Mage @8

All of Skulla's skill points from Act IV had gone into Raise Skeletal Mage. The first one had been necessary because he was swapping from a wand with +2 Raise Mage to a Summoner's wand with +1 to all skills, and that meant to stay with 4 mages he needed slvl 5+1 instead of slvl 4+2. With the bonus points from Izzy and one more level up, Skulla could climb to the next plateau for an additional fifth mage, so I did that as well. The difference was immediately noticeable:

An extra mage meant 20% more damage immediately, and a more varied mix of mage types in general. That's what you want: since different monsters resist different elements, it's best to have a mix of all different types. This wasn't a big deal with the old summoning tree, when each skill point = another mage, but it means a lot more now. Having 3 of your 4 mages come up poison is a really undesirable outcome! The more overall mages, the less Skulla had to sweat the composition of the force.

In the above shot, Eldritch and his cronies were getting absolutely pasted by Skulla's army. They couldn't break the lines, and the three fire mages were really tearing it up. (The fire and lightning mages do the most overall damage, with fire being pretty steady in terms of damage and lightning varying over a wider min/max range. Cold and poison do less damage, with other side effects to compensate. Fewer monsters resist cold/poison too. Generally speaking though, I prefer having fire mages for the best raw damage output.) That's how most of the outside areas went, with few foes managing to break through the line of warriors. Skulla fought a lot of imps, who were easily corralled with DV. Shut them up, they stand still and stop teleporting, mage fire cleans their clock. Managing the army through the lines of fortresses could get a little tedious at times though, Skulla having to portal out and reappear in order to collect his forces. They also absolutely MUST smash every door, barricade, and tower. Rather than fight his army, Skulla just sighed and let his babies have their fun.

Level 30 meant the addition of fire golem and lower resist skills, both of which were appreciated. It made a big difference going from a golem with ~180 life to one with ~450 life! The one downside to fire golem is its heavy mana cost; clay golem cost 18 mana, while fire golem was a hefty 60! Skulla still figured it was worth it to make the switch - the longer Golly can hold the line, the safer it is for Skulla.

Above you see fire golly in action for one of the first times, cast across the lava into a sea of foes. IM them all and sit back to watch the carnage. Even with golly's new life, he was still smashed at a scary rate, forcing Skulla to drink several mana potions. Skulla was very glad he wasn't the one over there. The frenzytaurs do a lot of damage, even in Normal. A Might-enchanted frenzytaur boss here in Abbadon was killing the golems so fast, Skulla had trouble spamming enough to keep him occupied. (Too dangerous to take pictures, sorry!)

The Crystalline Passage and Frozen River saw more DV use. Skulla found himself using it against a wide variety of opponents to put a stop to their AI behavior; DV stopped frozen terrors from using their Arctic Blast, walking dead from charging, and witches from firing off their blood stars. The walking dead were painful for another reason, their refusal to stay good and killed. After about the third time that one of them reappeared behind Skulla's lines, he began raising every one of their corpses as skeletal warriors. Took a lot of mana, but it was the only safe way to go.

Nihlathak's Temple is one of my least favorite areas of the game. It's not even that tough, just tedious and uneventful. And the constant gray and brown textures are extremely unappealing from an aesthetic sense (as I've said before, this is a feature throughout Act V, and a major reason why it's my least-favorite act). Skulla fought lots and lots of walking dead here, having to "waste" all their corpses to make sure they stayed dead. The other opponents (death maulers and frenzytaurs) were pretty routine.

In contrast, the Nihlathak fight is actually pretty entertaining nowadays, since it's been fixed to no longer be an instant death via Corpse Explosion. Once Nihlathak's minions had been taken out, Skulla was able to cast Golly right up in his face while the mages did their work at range. Nihlathak didn't seem to like this, and rather than summon more minions, he just kept teleporting away again and again. That was useless, since the mages tracked him automatically even when Skulla himself couldn't see Nihlathak. With LR speeding the kill, it was over pretty quickly, and with a minimum of danger. I do wish the quest reward did something useful for all that work; Skulla didn't really care about personalizing an item.

Since Skulla is full-clearing all areas, that meant venturing down into the Drifter Cavern and Icy Cellar, now by far the two worst deathtraps in Act V. The first of these wasn't too bad, but the Icy Cellar had all sorts of nasty foes. The battle at the chest had a particularly tough hairball:

There are four different types of foes there, all of whom must be kept Dimmed with constant refreshing of the curse, while continuing to recast Golly each time he was killed. Snapchip Shatter of course could not be Dimmed, as a boss, so poor Golly had to keep him occupied while the mages slowly did their work. This worked successfully, with Skulla never taking any damage, but it does strain the nerves to stand a few feet away from a huge mobs with nothing more than curses and Golly for protection! The chest at the end of the Cellar had gold and potions in it. Honestly, makes you wonder why anyone would bother to full-clear with a Hardcore character... Too much pride for my own good, probably.

I had greatly dreaded the battle against the Ancients, since it was the one fight in which portaling out to round up additional minions would be impossible. The other problem is that Skulla only has one golem; he can only cover one foe at a time. No big deal for Mephisto, Diablo, or Baal - but there's three Ancients. Not good. I expected that Skulla would have to do a lot of running for his own protection.

Instead, the Ancients were surprisingly ineffective against Skulla's shambling army. Madawc stayed at range and kept throwing axes at Golly - useless. Korlic got locked up with Golly and was similarly ineffective. That just left Talic, who kept whirlwinding back and forth on the left side of the screen, as seen above. He was really drawing a lot of fire from the mages, so I kept Lower Resist running on Talic while the other two stayed with IM. Shockingly, the mages managed to live through a whirlwind - guess this really is Normal difficulty! Talic's health was dropping at an alarming rate, and he soon kicked the bucket, then the remaining mages laid into Madawc and Korlic. If you can believe it, two mages and a WARRIOR lived through the fight! I kid you not. That's damned embarassing for the Ancients, these "legendary" barbarians failing even to kill a bunch of skeletal warriors! Ha!

Needless to say, I expect things won't be quite so easy in Nightmare.

Worldstone Keep was highly non-eventful. Without the inclusion of guest monsters from the other acts, Act V is pretty boring. As far as the Throne of Destruction bosses, Colenzo and Achmel were easy prey for a necro who could revive their minions as skeletal warriors. Bartuc and his minions raised a million hydras, rapidly erasing another of Skulla's armies. He lured the boss away from Baal, strung out the minions, then returned with another army to pick them off one by one. Ventar was fought right where he appeared with DV:

All the warriors were dead within seconds. I expected that Skulla would have to retreat and pull the same maneuver as against Bartuc, but instead Ventar got caught up on Golly, and DV was able to take the rest of the foes out of the fight. The mages slowly slew every opponent here without need to give ground. Another impressive victory! Skulla continues to get better and better at walking the narrow line between success and disaster.

Lister and his minions were immune to DV. Interesting - didn't know that. Their attacks were SO powerful, however, that they quickly fell prey to IM. Golly took an unbelievable pounding, and Skulla had to drink about six mana potions to keep recasting him, but there was no need to flee the Throne of Destruction for another army. All told, Skulla had things considerably easier here than Meatbag, with much less retreating and footwork required.

I made sure to bring a complete army for the fight against Baal, knowing full well that they would all be killed within seconds. Indeed, Baal used his cold wedge-thingie attack and they all died instantly. Heh. But the good thing about Baal is that he doesn't have an aggressive AI. Unlike Diablo (who will chase you down and go after you), Baal is essentially a coward at heart and prefers to keep his distance. That's just fine with Skulla, who has no desire for close combat either. Cast Golly in his face, refresh IM on occasion, and let Baal reflect damage to himself in relative safety. Having a fire golem with almost triple the life of the former clay golem definitely made a difference too; the new Golly could actually take a hit without instantly dying. Baal has a surprisingly strong melee attack, more than you'd expect, so he KOed himself in short order. WAY easier than Meatbag's fight in Normal.

And that, as they say, was that.

Skill Tree through Act V
lvl 29 (saved)
lvl 30 Lower Resist/Fire Golem @1
lvl 31 Summon Resist @2
lvl 32 Mastery @8
lvl 33 Mastery @9
lvl 34 Mastery @10
lvl 35 (saved)
lvl 36 (saved)

The summoning necro has been a total blast to play so far. I'm already looking forward to Nightmare difficulty. Skulla has saved two skill points to add to his curse tree upon entering the next difficulty level. As long as I can avoid doing anything too egregiously stupid, hopefully I can keep him around for quite some time yet to come. I guess we'll see.

Skulla full-cleared all areas on one pass through Normal, no monsters parked, no Save and Exits. I hate the D2X titles, so we'll refer to him as "Count Skulla" instead. My first Hardcore character to clear Normal! Stay tuned, the best times are yet to come.

So much for practice. Now the real game begins.