Winnie Part One: Go Raven!

Winnie started out by clubbing fallens and zombies to death in the Blood Moor. When he reached lvl 2, I put the pre-requisite skill point into Raven. Since he had the skill, I figured I might as well use it:

Now Raven is what we would call uber-variant material. Like Holy Fire or Teeth, there is no way to base a character around this skill and have him last much past Act I Normal. Winnie's Raven did 2-4 damage, and disappeared after attacking 12 times. Ah, but how sweet it was to watch fallens and quill rats run screaming in terror from the beak and talons of the great black bird! In the words of the Nature's Cabal team, "GO RAVEN!" Raven was an exceedingly slow killer, but Winnie didn't mind. He had plenty of time to do whatever it is that Druids do in their spare time while watching the raven peck the feeble enemies in this area to death.

In the back corner of the Blood Moor was a skill shrine. OMG, THREE RAVENS!!! The slaughter was unprecedented. I was sad to see the extra birds disappear when it wore off.

Level 3 brought a second skill point, invested in Poison Creeper, another pre-requisite. Although the Creeper did extremely minor poison damage, it was still a more impressive output compared to the raven. Winnie was content to let them do the bulk of the fighting, despite the leisurely pace. This was a summoning variant, not a melee one. Winnie doesn't like to get his hands dirty. It was unavoidable against the Fallen shamans in the Den of Evil, however, otherwise I would have been there all day. Raven and creeper just too weak to overcome the revival rate.

Nothing much happened for the next couple of levels. Winnie saved skill points, and his pathetic slvl 1 minions were enough to defeat the weaklings in the Cold Plains. Down in the Cave was where Winnie met his first real test. A Stone Skin archer boss and her minions tore Winnie apart at range, forcing the drinking of many red potions. I could not wait for them to be killed by Raven, Winnie had to move up close and take them down personally, forcing even more red usage. Whew, finally, glad that was finished. Have to find a better way of doing that, as suicide charges won't work beyond early Normal. But now Winnie reached clvl 6, opening up two of his key skills: Spirit Wolf and Oak Sage.

At slvl 1, Spirit Wolf was... unimpressive. The wolf only did 2-6 damage, which was barely better than Raven had done! Furthermore, the Spirit Wolf always seemed to be limping behind Winnie, rather than going on ahead to post up the baddies. Completely different from the Skeleton Warrior minions; they can't wait to fight anything, regardless of how suicidal it might turn out to be. Skulla always had to keep them on a short leash. This Spirit Wolf though... he didn't seem to give a crap about fighting much of the time, just hanging around in the background. Sometimes he would even turn around from a monster right next to him and walk the other way, as if to say, "Nah, I don't feel like fighting this guy." Sheesh! I started referring to the Spirit Wolf in my head as a Weenie Wolf instead, based on his cowardly behavior.

Weenie Wolf got the living daylights beaten out of him by Coldcrow. The one good thing he did was provide a target for her archer minions, who pincushioned the poor thing with their arrows. Weenie Wolf didn't do much fighting, but he did make a lot of whimpering and crying noises while getting hit. Meanwhile, Winnie had to kill each of the archer wenches on his own, which occasioned drinking more red potions. This final battle (pictured above) was just sad; Raven, Creeper, and Weenie Wolf together couldn't finish off Coldcrow, doing less damage than her life regeneration. Winnie had to get the kill.

I certainly hope that these skills work better with more points invested! Already I could tell that ranged foes were going to be the real danger for Winnie, having no Dim Vision curse to pull their teeth.

To the Spirit Wolves' credit, having a second one along for the ride DID make a big difference. Winnie put points into Oak Sage and Spirit Wolf at level 6, and then again at levels 7 and 8, using up his three saved skill points in the process. The two wolves actually did a great job against Blood Raven, quickly destroying the zombies and then hounding the ugly girl until she croaked. As more points were placed into Spirit Wolf, the skill rapidly increased in power and usefulness. By the time that Winnie was clvl 10, he had the full complement of five wolves, and that made a huge difference. While each individual wolf still had the same AI scripting that I had seen before, the odds were that one of the five would be in good position to deal with the next group of monsters. Best of all, Winnie could summon additional Spirit Wolves in key locations to take out bosses or shamans:

In this shot, two Spirit Wolves have been cast on top of the carver shaman, while the other three mop up the mob of milling shrimps. I had intended for the Summoning Druid to play out this way when I created the build, and it was a relief to see it starting to work out in practice! The five Spirit Wolves pretty much annihilated all comers throughout the rest of Act I; with Oak Sage running, they each had over 100 hit points, and spread across five targets, that made them almost invincible. Winnie now had an answer for ranged foes, by casting Spirit Wolves right up in their faces to distract them. I came across a Cursed archer boss in the Underground Passage that was defeated in textbook fasion, the five wolves draining Winnie's mana orb to empty but surrounding the archer mob and soaking up all the arrow hits perfectly.

I was glad that Winnie was riding on easy street again, because if that's not the case in Act I Normal, something is seriously wrong!

Most of the rest of the act, Winnie continued to add points to Spirit Wolves. These points are not "wasted", as all three of the primary Druid Summoning skills have synergies with one another; maxing out your Dire Wolves or Grizzly Bear means taking all three of the skills to 20. Spirit Wolves add to minion AR and Defense, Dire Wolves add to max life, and Grizzly increases minion damage. Thus there was no real reason to save up points for adding to the later skills, as I would want some points in all three categories. I figured I would pump Spirit Wolves until obtaining Dire Wolves at clvl 18, then pump that until getting Summon Grizzly, and then add points to the last skill for a while. This would also ease my path through Normal difficulty, having minions that were strong at all points in time.

The only notable skill change was swapping from Poison Creeper to Carrion Vine after hitting clvl 12. Poison Creeper deals direct poison damage, but the output is so low it's practically ubervariant material. Carrion Vine works differently; it "eats" corpses on the ground, and uses them to restore life to the caster. More skill points increase the amount of damage healed. This was great - not that Winnie needed the life boosts, just the fact that his new Vine could destroy corpses and prevent monsters from being revived. While playing, I noticed one flaw with the skill, however: it didn't operate when Winnie had full life! And since Winnie has full life almost all of the time, not engaging in much direct combat, there were large stretches of time where the Vine was doing squat. I decided as a result that I would bank on using Solar Creeper instead, which does the exact same thing only with mana instead of life. Winnie uses a fair amount of mana, so Solar Creeper would always be in operation, plus I could save on investing stat points in Energy. On the occasions where Carrion Vine did work, the results were pretty impressive. I hoped to straighten that out more clearly in the next Act.

With Spirit Wolves steadily getting more skill points, they totally dominated the feeble creates of Act I Normal. No encounters worth mentioning, and it was rare for Winnie to take any damage at all. (I think kicking open barrels caused the most harm!) Soon enough Winnie reached the conclusion:

Andariel's poison decimated the poor Spirit Wolves, but Winnie kept casting and recasting them constantly. Drank two mana potions, never let up with summoning more wolves, and the boss never got free. To my surprise, Amplisa the Rogue mercenary survived the battle. First time any of the Blood Raven reward mercs have ever lived through all of Act I for me. (I never give them any armor or weapons, just wait to see how long until they expire.) Constant running of Oak Sage likely had a lot to do with it!

Skill Tree through Act I
lvl 2 Raven @1
lvl 3 Poison Creeper @1
Den (saved)
lvl 4 (saved)
lvl 5 (saved)
lvl 6 Spirit Wolf @1, Oak Sage @1
lvl 7 Spirit Wolf @2, Oak Sage @2
lvl 8 Spirit Wolf @3, Oak Sage @3
lvl 9 Spirit Wolf @4
lvl 10 Spirit Wolf @5
lvl 11 Oak Sage @4
lvl 12 Oak Sage @5
lvl 13 Carrion Vine @1
lvl 14 Spirit Wolf @6
lvl 15 Spirit Wolf @7
lvl 16 Spirit Wolf @8

Act II continued much the same way as Act I. Winnie kept on employing his Spirit Wolves as usual, which were still more than strong enough to run over pretty much everything in his path. I went straight to the Halls of the Dead first, as I normally do with characters in Normal difficulty, to get access to the Horadric Cube and upgrade all the chipped gems into either flawed/normal gems or minor rejuvs. Winnie had no problems along the way, and I ended up with 8 full rejuvs after all the cubing. (I keep a healthy stack of full rejuvs for Hardcore characters, complete set on belt plus another dozen or so in stash for emergencies.) That out of the way, Winnie went back and cleared out the Stony Tomb, then finally went through the Sewer. The extra skill point was dumped into Oak Sage, where it seemed like it would do the most good long-term.

Winnie reached clvl 18 about this time, investing skill points in both Dire Wolves and Spirit of Wolverine. I didn't plan on pumping Spirit of Wolverine at all, intending to focus on Oak Sage and Spirit of Barbs as the most useful spirit skills. As for Dire Wolves, there was no reason to switch over to the new skill just yet. One dire wolf at slvl 1 was far inferior to 5 spirit wolves. In fact, Winnie had found a druid pelt with +2 to Spirit Wolf, taking it to slvl 8+2 overall - definitely no need to change animal companions yet! Things went on much as before in the Far Oasis, Lost City, and Ancient Tunnels.

The small spaces in the Maggot Lair were a real pain. Winnie had trouble getting more than one or two of his Spirit Wolves into the battle, making for slow going. I anticipate that this will be a great spot to use the Grizzly should Winnie make it back here in Nightmare. For the first time in a while, Winnie had to get aggressive with the Spirit Wolf placement, casting them around corners and behind enemy lines, just to get more total wolves into the fight. Coldworm was one of the easiest fights, because all the wolves could get into battle at once.

The vipers were still too feeble to present any real challenge, and the wolves absolutely tore them up in their temple. Winnie would send them into a room with two dozen snakes, and within fifteen seconds all the vipers would be dead. Nice work, doggies! I wasn't worried about the second floor, and I had no reason to be:

The Spirit Wolves tanked perfectly, and even Fangskin couldn't get through their lines. To his credit, he did kill one of them (you can see the flash of light as the wolf disappears), but Winnie could simply cast another one. Not too tough. The Viper Amulet was way better than anything Winnie had turned up, and he gladly wore it for the rest of Act II.

Cellars were also pretty routine, large firing squads of archers notwithstanding. If nothing else, the wolves made great decoys; cast a Spirit Wolf into the center of an archer volley, and they would all turn to plug the wolf with arrows, leaving Winnie untouched. Perfect.

By the end of the Palace, the Dire Wolves skill was up to lvl 5, and their damage had slightly exceeded that of the Spirit Wolves. Considering the narrow spaces of the Arcane Sancutary, and the fact that Winnie wanted to swap out his druid pelt helmet for a circlet with resist all prefix, it was a natural time to go over to the next skill. So bid farewell to the Spirit Wolf Fab Five, and say hello to the Dire Wolf trio:

I named them Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail after the children's book characters, in keeping with the naming theme of this variant. The three performed magnificently in the Arcane Sanctuary, as Winnie cast and re-cast them again around the terrain obstacles. This was the first area where I began to feel like I was really getting a sense of how Winnie's gameplay would function. The key advantage of the summoning druid is the ability to place minions anywhere on the battlefield at any point in time. So long as you have enough mana, you can summon an infinite number of beastly minions to your beck and call. Compare that to the necromancer, who needs bodies to work with, and it's a whole different equation! The summoning druid is probably most similar to a necro Golem specialist, although I don't think hardly anyone has tried that.

I started to get some practice on how best to employ the unique tactics of this variant build in the Arcane Sanctuary. Obviously Winnie would drop Flopsy or Mopsy across gaps in space, as seen above, but there's a lot more to it than that. The wolves trail behind Winnie normally - unlike skeletal warriors, they will not usually run ahead to engage targets - so the movement of the druid himself is critical to proper placement and setting up the overall battlefield. A rudimentary tactic, for example, involves summoning two wolves to meet the enemy charge, then dropping the third wolf behind the rear of the enemy to prevent them from retreating (e.g. vampires). And it only gets more complicated from there! When Winnie gets access to the Grizzly Bear and Spirit of Barbs for a second "curse" option is when things will really get fun.

The Summoner nearly killed Amplisa, because I accidently got stuck casting Oak Sage at him instead of Dire Wolves. Whoops! Fixed that pretty quickly, and the wolves then immediately finished him off. Winnie himself was never in any danger, but Amplisa was redlined; she WOULD have died without Oak Sage running in the background.

I did the Canyon and the False Tombs all in one lengthy session. Nothing in there too terribly dangerous, at least not in Normal. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail were easily strong enough to tank at doorways and hold off all comers. On the rare occasions where one of them would die, I simply re-cast an additional wolf, easy stuff! I could also summon wolves right up in the faces of unravellers, like Kaa, which changed their AI to melee action and put an end to reviving the skeletons. Carrion Vine was a huge relief in terms of cleaning corpses, circled in action above. I did have to run Winnie into mobs and deliberately take a hit to get it to work sometimes - not at all ideal for a Hardcore character! Winnie is looking forward to swapping over to Solar Creeper.

Found some good stuff while clearing the Tombs:

Bloodfist! An old friend made a reappearance in one of the monster drops. This isn't the perfect fit for Winnie, with the melee damage mods, but the 30% faster hit recovery and enormous +40 life (on gloves!) were extremely welcome. I plan to keep Bloodfist as at least an alternate glove setup for the rest of the game. Winnie also finally hit on a Prevent Monster Heal (PMH) javelin gamble, after dozens and dozens of tries. This is one of the most important items in the game for a variant character to have. The "Vileness" suffix can be found very early on too, so it make sense to start gambling for this right away. Now Winnie could actually begin upgrading his belt, boots, and club - which were all quite sad.

Thanks to Oak Sage and relentless pumping of Vitality, Winnie had an astronomical life total for this early in the game:

WELL over 400 life, in Act II Normal! That alone would save me from all but the most catastrophic of blunders, and I intended to stay away from them. As for Duriel, I loaded up on blue mana potions and all my full rejuvs, just in case the worst would threaten.

In reality, the Duriel fight just about put me to sleep. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail were slowed to a crawl by his Unholy Freeze aura, and their damage output of something like 15-20 was laughable in the face of Duriel's thousands of hit points. But Duriel was totally locked up by them; so long as Winnie was diligent about recasting the wolfy three, he couldn't move one bit. I drank and drank and drank some more of the mana potions, eventually even having to go back to town to buy more (no, not willing to drink full rejuvs just to restore mana here!) Eventually the big bug croaked, in anticlimatic fashion. Nothing fancy, just standing around and recasting more dire wolves endlessly.

The Rogue merc Amplisa survived a second act end boss, and in fact her paltry 8-10 damage ended up doing the most to wear down Duriel, simply because she was out of the freeze aura's effects. Well, that settles it. Not only is this the longest quest reward merc I've ever had, Amplisa has more than proved herself in battle. Welcome to the team, girl. It's going to be a long ride. I'll hold her in the current state (no weapons or armor) throughout Normal and Nightmare. If Winnie would reach Hell, then I'll give Amplisa some gear, most likely an Exceptional or Elite bow with a bunch of sockets and some perfect gems stuck in for elemental damage. That's the one weakness of this build, no way to deal with Physical Immune monsters. Maybe Amplisa can be the solution to that; we'll see.

Skill Tree through Act II
lvl 17 (saved)
lvl 18 Summon Dire Wolf @1, Spirit of Wolverine @1
Radament Oak Sage @6
lvl 19 Summon Dire Wolf @2
lvl 20 Summon Dire Wolf @3
lvl 21 Summon Dire Wolf @4
lvl 22 Summon Dire Wolf @5
lvl 23 Summon Dire Wolf @6

Next up: the second half of Normal, and access to Summon Grizzly skill.