I’ve been absent from my column for a few months due to the winding down of guild activity (and the absolute lack of anything remotely resembling conflict) at the end of the Cataclysm expansion. However, I haven’t left WoW and will be back to my regularly scheduled programming around here when Mists of Pandaria is imminent. In the meantime, Michael and I have been distracting ourselves in between raid nights (which are currently being used to catch up on all the heroic bosses and achievements of this expansion) with Diablo 3 (D3) – and not just any D3… hardcore, baby. For those of you interested in some serious challenge in a tactical action video game, hardcore D3 is for you. Or if you’re bored with D3 because softcore (ie non-hardcore) is boring but feel like more challenge would make the game fun again, hardcore is for you. And if you want to get started but aren’t sure how, this guide is for you.
(Disclaimer: this guide presumes you’ve played Diablo 3 at least a little)
First, the basics
Hardcore is just like regular (or softcore) Diablo, except, if you die, your character is deleted immediately and you’re done playing that character forever. The deletion includes every piece of gear you’re wearing and anything in your bag at the time of death. You have to accept an agreement each time you create a hardcore toon that says you understand there is no restoration possible for any reason. When you die, you lose that character completely, even if it is due to lag (server or otherwise), router hiccups, disconnects, a plane falling on your house, or an act of God. There are too many people that cry on the D3 forums because they lost a toon to server lag and expect Blizzard to replace it. Don’t be that person. You signed the agreement. You are hardcore. This is a state of mind. There is no place for tears.
You must have reached level 10 on regular mode to create a hardcore character, and if you haven’t killed Diablo at least once in D3, I’d advise running all the way through Normal difficulty on the regular game so that you’ll become familiar with the game, the bosses, and the general environment. Knowing what to expect is a major factor of success in hardcore.
Hardcore characters have a separate auction house from regular characters and they have their own stash and money pool separate from your softcore characters. In other words, you can’t farm on softcore to get your hardcore toon decked out. You start with your first hardcore toon at zero gold and zero gear and build up from there. That said, your hardcore stash and money pool are safe if/when a hardcore toon dies. You can – and should – save gear for future toons. Keep anything you would hate to lose (gems, crafting supplies, your Staff of Herding or Rakanishu’s blade) in your stash; don’t carry it around on your toon.
Choosing a class
I’ve read a lot of discussion on this and am not convinced there’s a “best” or “worst” class in hardcore. Having said that, monks and barbarians have a passive damage reduction that is ridiculously helpful in hardcore, particularly when combined with the sweet damage mitigation abilities that massively boosts their survival (Revenge, anyone?). I should be frank and say that I’ve come to feel that the game is currently too “imba” towards melee in hardcore. This is not to say that the ranged classes can’t do it, but there seem to be far fewer of them reporting success at the highest levels, and our own experiences are that barbarians can not only put out enough damage, they can stand there and tank it too. Geared very well going into Act 1 of Hell, my level 51 demon hunter was still just a glass cannon in the end, while Michael’s barbarian destroyed the entire pack that killed me. Of course, I should qualify by saying that we haven’t seen Inferno and aren’t sure he’ll be able to put out the damage needed for that highest level of difficulty. Regardless, the barbarian’s ability to both take and do damage, while demon hunter and wizard can only do damage and run like hell (or die) isn’t exactly balanced. Still, I will keep making demon hunters until I beat the damn game (or Mists comes out, heh). It’s the class I like and know the best.
So what do you choose? I think it’s most important to feel fully comfortable with the class you’re playing, so let that guide your choice. You need to understand your class really well. Your spec should balance survival with damage boosts appropriately. Use Elective Mode (it’s in your Options and allows you to use any of your abilities on any key) and pick and choose accordingly. Read the hardcore forums. Skip the regular forums – information from players who die frequently is utterly useless to you. This is not an ego thing. Your playstyle changes completely when you have no second chances. Find out what abilities and passives hardcore players are prioritizing and why. I ignored Smoke Screen for all of normal mode because 1.5 seconds of invulnerability didn’t seem worth it to me, but then I read not only that it breaks CC (absolutely essential by Act 4 of Nightmare), but also how to use it combined with specific passives and other abilities (properly runed Vault and Preparation) to survive when the $&#! goes down.
So, conclusion: pick a class you feel comfortable with. Then you can spend time learning the best spec to stay alive and still do enough damage to kill things before they kill you.
Gearing up, spending gold
There’s no point in being frugal. Zero point. Buy the best gear your money can buy for whatever your level. Why increase the risk of death at low levels just to save for high levels when you might not even get there because you have crappy gear? Search the auction house for gear that is very high in your main damage stat and vitality – and prioritize these at a more or less even level, at least until you move into Hell and then Inferno, when other stats (resistances, and life return/reflect) finally come into serious play. If you prioritize damage over health then you may die when you’re jailed/walled and swamped by mobs. If you prioritize health over damage you may not be able to kill things before they whittle your health down. Balance health and damage equally, but get the most you can of both.
Also… don’t vendor/AH the gear you replace. Save it for your next toon. You’ll be glad you did.
Spend money in this order: Gear > Stash > Blacksmith > Jewelcrafting. Gear is your absolute first – and constant – priority, but when you’ve got a pretty decent set at a given level, start investing in your stash. I don’t care much about JC early on because gems are cheap and abundant on the AH, and they recently nerfed the costs of leveling JC up through Radiant anyway. Same goes with blacksmith, which is far too random to be worth the gold you’ll sink into it…you’ll find much better bang for your buck on the AH. When you hit higher difficulties and money is more abundant, it’ll be time to sink it into crafting – and both will probably be useful in Inferno. Your stash, on the other hand, is important from the start. You may want to sell good pieces on the AH so the extra storage is nice, but mostly you’re going to keep gear for subsequent toons there. And gems. And pages/tomes. Invest in your stash!
The nitty gritty of staying alive
Number 1 rule of survival: Play CAREFULLY and ACTIVELY. This means don’t take anything for granted and always be aware and awake. Even in areas where you feel confident about the pulls, move forward cautiously and always be ready to unload the damage and/or stuns and/or CC breakers. Champion and rare elites have special abilities or attributes, and unfortunate combinations of these can destroy you even in seemingly benign areas. Read more about attributes in this guide. Knowing what to expect can save your life, so be sure to learn what the attributes do and how you need to react to them.
Stop playing when you get sleepy. Sleepy = sloppy = death for a stupid reason. Play a different toon if you don’t want to quit playing when you’re sleepy, but if you care about your main hardcore toon, put it away when you feel tired.
Become aware of where surprises might occur. We found a box in the center of a huge room in the Halls of Agony – no mobs in the room, just this pretty box. Yeah, right. I placed caltrops all the way around it, used preparation to restore my discipline, and then we clicked on it. It sank into the floor and 4 mob-spawning columns rose up in the corners under my caltrops – but since we were prepared for the trap, it was no big deal. Play actively. Expect the unexpected.
Clear areas carefully and completely, partially for the experience, but primarily to give yourself room to kite back into when needed. Believe me, there will come a time when you’ll be really glad you’ve got the safe space to flee into… like when fighting elites that charge, or anything with Arcane Enchanted as its attribute.
Use your environment, and, more importantly, run away to live another day. These are two of the biggest keys to survival in hardcore play, in my opinion. Well, after the gear thing I mentioned earlier. Remember that kiting is far better than standing in a mob shouting battle cries while you’re mashing buttons and praying you’ll live. You won’t. You’ll die. Play smart – kite. Even if it means you kite the entire length of a map and back again. You’ll kill the mobs eventually, but not if they kill you first. Remember, there’s no second chances and living is the only goal, so even if you have to run away and wayport home and leave game to reset the mobs, it’s worth it. DON’T GET DED. That’s it. Don’t be a hero, ever.
Stuns and snares are a big advantage. You can use line of sight, or even catch mobs in doorways or narrow passages – they may hit hard, but they’re dumb as a box of rocks and they get caught easily. Put down traps or freeze them in doorways or narrow hallways, and shoot them safely from just out of their range. You can attack through certain walls too – better for ranged than melee, since if you can hit them in melee, they can also hit you. Pay attention to your environment because it can really help you.
Never, ever AFK unless you’re in town. Never. Spend the 10 seconds to port and THEN rush to the bathroom or answer the door or rescue the mailman from the dog or whatever. Also, watch your health bubble if you’re changing abilities out in the field. Just because that page is up doesn’t mean the mobs won’t attack! You can pause your game, but changing abilities doesn’t pause it. Either way, I trust porting back to town more than I trust pausing.
Don’t chat with friends unless you’re in a safe spot – and the only safe spot is in town. It may seem like you’re in an area of mindless grinding and then SURPRISE! something new comes along and your reflexes are slow because you’re in the middle of an interesting conversation, and….buh-bye!
To sum up: Don’t be a hero. Run away to live another day. Use your environment. Play actively.
Death is inevitable
It just happens eventually. Hardcore is hard. You’re trying to beat death, but sometimes the game is faster or better than you, or your internet sucks at the moment, or the servers lag and kill you. Don’t freak out about it, just accept it – and don’t gripe to Blizzard about it on the forums. Sharing in one of the Graveyard threads is encouraged, however, and I totally support doing homage to your toon. The hardcore community is pretty cool and seems to like this kind of stuff (it shows us we’re not alone).
If your death wasn’t due to lag, analyze why you died and learn from it. My first death, at 38 and in Nightmare, hammered home the “don’t be a hero” and “don’t chat while playing” rules. I also started to take playing defensively far more seriously, even to the point of abandoning Michael if we’re facing something really dangerous (because he’s going to survive anyway, since he’s a barbarian). As a glass cannon, I have to kite, period. My second death illustrated that there is no such thing as outgearing or outleveling an area. Survival is the only objective. I need to spend more gold on gear, and I will probably push for level cap (60) before I move on to Hell with all future toons.
Start additional toons. When we feel we don’t have the edge for whatever our current level of progression is but we’re still in the mood for D3, Michael and I play different toons for something fresh or a little less challenging. It also gives us something to fall back upon if/when one of us (me) dies. Besides, there’s all that awesome gear stored in the stash to level with…
Give hardcore a try. It’s challenging, and challenge is exciting. To me, regular mode feels like playing on a PvE server in WoW: the content is still interesting, but the risk of random threat is completely absent. There’s an edge to your play on hardcore. Or maybe it’s just the adrenaline. The first time Michael and I got to Act 4 on hardcore we nearly died. We were on the last floor before Diablo himself and we had just zoned in and were bombarded by 15+ mobs, 3 champions and a rare – and just as they swamped us, Michael’s computer shut off. His toon, of course, was still in play and being attacked. He nearly died multiple times! I had to kill everything and hit health globes at the right time to keep us both alive, until his toon finally logged off for real. I nearly had a heart attack, heh. But those are the kinds of things that challenge you as a player, you know? That’s the exciting part.