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    The Witch Doctor

    I was curious to try out the Witch Doctor this year since I can’t make up my mind about the class. I know I love playing mages and archers in the Diablo games, and I know I like playing warriors once they’re well-equipped and have high level skills. My enjoyment of the hybrids and summoners varies though, so I’m still not sure if I like the WD or not.  I still haven’t, but at least I now have more information to base my indecision upon.

    Cast back your mind, if you will, to Diablo II.

    I liked the idea of the Necromancer in D2, and I played him a fair amount in D2C and early D2X, but he was never able to do what I wanted him to do.

    Prior to v1.10, his skeleton summoning skills were very weak, and the class was mostly useful for tanking Golems, flocks of Revives, Iron Maiden + patience, or Amplify Damage + Corpse Explosion. The power of CE varied a lot between patches; there was an early D2C version when it scaled with monster hit points in big games and was the strongest spell in the entire game, capable of emptying whole screens in one or two pops. Later it was changed to not scale up with hit points and seemed useless for a bit, until new Necro players who hadn’t experienced it in the overpowered days started using it and found it quite capable, when paired with Amplify Damage.

    Other early Necromancer builds were less interesting to me; I never found any joy in using Thorns + Iron Maiden and watching monsters beat themselves to death against my minions. It was functional, but it bored me. I like to play where I’m attacking and dealing out the damage, not where I’m just watching pets do it for me. Therefore, my ideal Necromancer build was one that combined curses with minions and direct spell damage.

    I tried for that; I remember playing well-equipped Necros in early D2X that put the “No one uses more than seven hotkeys.” argument to lie. My usual style put more than a dozen hotkeys to regular use; 2 or 3 kinds of golem, Bone Spear/Spirit, 5 or 6 Curses, Revive, Bone Armor, Corpse Explosion, and Town Portal pretty well filled up the keyboard.

    Such a build was fine then since there weren’t skill synergies, and with +10 or so from equipment most of the Curses were very effective without putting more than a single point into them.  The main problem with that build was the lack of killing power from the Necromancer’s bone skills. Corpse Explosion was good, but its power came from getting a bunch of monsters into one place. That meant limited minions and a more focused game style. I did that sometimes, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do.  What did I want? Glad you asked.

    I wanted to use a variety of minions, Curse a lot, fire off a lot of spells, and have things die. Ideally my spells would do most of the killing and my minions could finish them off. It was fun to play that way; I remember enjoying the moment when I’d machine gunned a dozen Bone Spirits after a single enemy, and they all arrived in rapid succession. It was especially fun against mobile targets, like Leapers or the Demon Imps in Act Five. The Imps would wander around, plinging their annoying sperm-looking missiles at my minions, and if they teleported once or twice after I locked on and started shooting, I’d often have more than a dozen Bone Spirits homing in on the same target from multiple directions. It was fun to see them all hit almost simultaneously, as the Imp went down never knowing what had happened.

    (Not that any of the monsters ever know what hit them; they’re like Hef’s girlfriends; Diablo doesn’t exactly keep them around for the conversation.)

    But those moments of amusement or joy didn’t obscure the fact that I was playing a high level character with very good equipment, boosting my damage with appropriate curses, and still using a dozen casts of a mana-expensive Clvl 30 skill to kill a monster that a Barbarian could have done with a single WW or a Bowazon with a single Guided Arrow.

    There were (and are) effective Necromancer builds. That’s not the point. The point is that the class was not effective playing in the style I wanted to play. I like moving fast and shooting a lot of spells and keeping active; waiting and watching monsters Thorns + Iron Maiden themselves to death against my minions or Bone Wall, or cluster around an Iron Golem so I can CE them, bores me.  I’m not a big fan of super strong minions either. It seems silly that one revived or skeletonized monster is stronger than hundreds of brand new ones.

    Sadly, as birthdays and first dates teach us, want does not equal have.

    I never went on a crusade to get the Necromancer rebalanced, or got into modding to tweak the damage values on my own and make him work how I wanted to. I didn’t care that much; there were other characters I liked better, and even if the Necro’s spells had been more effective I’d still have gotten bored with the limited variety.  I liked Sorcs better back in the pre-synergy days, since three-tree builds were quite effective. Static + Frozen Orb + Hydra, for instance. Three spells that complimented each other and worked wonderfully together if you used them properly. Hence I wanted a Necro where I had to use multiple spells at once, combining them for maximum effect, and was vexed that no such build existed due to the Necro’s lacking attack spells.

    I never thought all that through back in 2000-2003, when I was playing a ton of Diablo II and regularly inciting the easily-riled Necro fans with “Curse Bitch” jokes in my columns and fan fiction. I knew I was dissatisfied with the Necro, but wasn’t exactly sure why. That I’ve now retconned my way to a subjective and probably inaccurate reason is due almost entirely to the Witch Doctor, who is, at least superficially, a fairly-good incarnation of the style of Necromancer play I wanted back before I knew I wanted it.

     

    The Witch Doctor’s Prescription

    I didn’t love the WD at first sight. I still don’t. The class design is interestingly indigenous, and I like a lot of the armor/mask looks, but the facial appearance of the male and female Witch Doctor is pretty tame. You can see bored suburban white kids any day at the mall food court with more weirdness going on in their personal fashion and facial piercings, and National Geographic style photos of actual tribal witch doctors from around the world make the D3 designs look bland. (It is ironic and perhaps unfortunate that the Barbarian got the animal-themed armors, since Witch Doctors have always worn amazing animal costumes.)

    This isn’t meant as an indictment of the class design; obviously Blizzard’s artists have access to Google Images, and the ability to look up medicine man, shaman, and witch doctor for artistic inspiration. They could have made the class wildly-exotic, throwing in cultural things from all over the world. Imagine a WD with extensive facial piercings, a lower lip stretched to his clavicle, metal rings to elongate his neck, etc.  The class doesn’t look like that since the developers felt it would be too weird or off-putting to players. And they were probably right.

    As I occasionally realize, it’s silly to expect every aspect of Diablo III’s look, feel, and play style to exactly match my personal preferences. Fortunately, most fans don’t let that inconvenient fact slow them down, which is what keeps the forums full of lively debate.

    Besides, I don’t really care what the character looks like. Especially not “naked,” since I’ll always have armor on them anyway.

    Digression #1: The Diablo 2 Necromancer’s face and hair looks stupid. There was a big fan outcry back in about 1998, when the game model of the character was revealed and it looked nothing like the concept art. Necromancer fans were not at all pleased by the bony face and half-mullet, proto-Lucius Malfoy hairstyle.

    Digression #2: An anime/manga version of Harry Potter would be very cool. The series is already all about dramatic moments and big pay offs, and it has a very strong sense of design and style, great costumes, and distinctive, iconic-looking characters. Those are all elements that Anime really plays up, plus there’s flight, magic, monsters, scheming bad guys and lots of high school drama and romance.  It’s a perfect fit. How was it not Anime in the first place?

    I intentionally did not check to see if a manga of Harry Potter has already been licensed or begun production, since I didn’t want to risk having facts interrupt my theorizing. Now that I have looked… apparently not. There’s a digital river of HP Anime-style fan art, and various April Fool’s jokes, but nothing more than that, as of yet. (BTW, you might not want to scroll too far down that Harry Potter Anime image search page, because Rule #34, and things that can not be unseen.)
    Back on topic… while I wasn’t drawn in on the WD right from the start, as more info about the class has been revealed, I’ve grown steadily more interested in playing one. And I’ve done so, at the last three Blizzcons. My verdict? Undecided, due to insufficient evidence.

    The WD has a variety of pets, but none of them are designed to last forever and tank the world. He’s got a bunch of different offensive spells, which do a wide variety of different things and seem like they’ll need to be combined to work at their most effective. And he’s got some miscellaneous support abilities that must be combined with his normal attacks to maximize the class’ potential.

    However, while his attack skills seem fairly self-evident, the same can’t be said for his pets and support skills. Only Mongrels have been available to test out so far, and he doesn’t (yet?) have enough support skills to say how important they’ll be. With the Necromancer you knew you’d be using skills from the minions, attack spells, and curses. With the WD that’s not yet clear, and besides, with only 7 skills possible to use at once, hard choices will have to be made.

     

    Witch Doctor Skills

    Like all of the characters in the Blizzcon 2010 PvM demo, the Witch Doctor started out at level 9, with 8 points invested in 3 skills. His main starting attack was DiabloWikiPoison Dart. He also had DiabloWikiSummon Zombie Dog for a pet/tank, and DiabloWikiZombie Charger as his second attack spell. At level 10 I spent a point in DiabloWikiFirebats, which, once runed, became by far my most effective attack.

    The most important thing I learned from playing the WDs 4 low level sklls? That DiabloWikiRunestones rule.
    DiabloWikiSummon Zombie Dog

    Tier One

    Description: The Witch Doctor summons a zombie dog to aid him. Can have up to X zombie dogs out at a time.

    The WD’s Mongrels have been seen in every gameplay movie, including the Arena footage from this year, so there’s not too much mystery about them. They do move oddly; they’re not very dog-like, except in the shape of their heads.  They’re actually more like bipeds walking on all fours; they seem to have four arms, rather than four legs, and they lurch and creep along, sort of spider-like, rather than bouncing up and down like a quadruped.  They move much more quickly than you expect also, in a sort of speed-walker way. They don’t look like they’re running, or trying very hard, but they get there quickly.

    Not that their appearance of gait is of any real game importance, but it gives them a weird, unnatural vibe, which is nice. They look skinned; like they’ve been turned inside out.

    I did not note the number of points in each of the WD’s 3 starting skills, but it’s possible that this one had 5, since there were three dogs available, just like there were for the WD in the Arena demo. And since the skill description lists the number of dogs as a variable based on skill points, and the Arena WD had 5 points in all of his skills… could be.  Poison Dart and Zombie Charger were both quite weak un-runed, so if either of those had five skill points in it, they weren’t doing anything real impressive.

    There’s no telling how the Mongrel stats have changed (or not) since last year. I can say that they were more effective, offensively. Last year they couldn’t kill anything, and I was regularly annoyed by their tendency to get locked into combat with some last, lone, unimportant enemy, like a Desert Wasp. “A” for effort and all, but I often found my WD without minions as he ran forward to the next battle, because all 3 of my dogs were back two screens, scratching uselessly at some monster I hadn’t cared enough about to go back to finish off.

    It was often faster to summon new ones than to run back to find the current batch. Bad dogs. Bad dogs! You are all very bad dogs!

    This year that never happened. The mongrels were more able to damage enemies, and their AI seemed to have been tweaked to prioritize proximity to the Witch Doctor over endlessly swiping at irrelevant monsters.  I saw them finish off the last zombie on screen a number of times, and I don’t recall ever having to summon new ones simply because the old ones had gotten stuck or lost around some corner of the dungeon. That speaks to their pathfinding as well, since the dungeons in this year’s Blizzcon PvM demo were made largely from narrow corridors and were quite windy and full of sharp corners and obstacles.

    As for their durability, they died pretty often. I had to summon up new dogs pretty often, and during an early boss battle I went through maybe 8 or 10 dogs.  That was partially my fault; I’d run forward as soon as the demo loaded, rather than taking the time to sort my inventory and try DiabloWikirunestones in my starting skills. Thus when I rounded the first corner and came to a small room that was in the starting layout of the Halls of Agony every time, but with different/random contents, and it turned out to hold a nest of Unburied, I was not prepared for a boss battle. So it was largely the dogs holding off the half dozen massive Unburied, while I spit my puny un-runed Poison Darts and tried to use the very short range Zombie Chargers.

    The runestone effects I had available on Mongrels weren’t real impressive. I could add to their damage or up their hit points with the runes in my possession. I went with the +damage, and it made a difference, but they weren’t exactly murderous; more like “slightly less reluctant to land the killing hit on enemies my spells had already slivered.”
    DiabloWikiZombie Charger

    Tier Two

    Description: A reckless, suicidal zombie deals X-X poison damage to all enemies in its way.

    This skill has a cool concept, but that’s largely window dressing. The skill could be described as “short range poison plume” and it would work exactly the same. You summon the Zombie, which runs straight forward 2 or 3 steps, dissolving as it moves and leaving a sort of AoE cloud of gas. Anything in its path gets bathed in poison, but it doesn’t go very far, the poison isn’t a gas that lingers to infect other monsters, and there’s nothing about the zombie delivery system that has any real game effect.

    It’s hard to use, since it has so little range; it’s hardly more than melee distance, and doesn’t work at the usual range a player assumes, a few paces behind the front line where the Mongrels are tanking.  You have to learn to stand closer, almost at melee range to get any real effect from the skill. It’s not like a poison bolt, where as long as it gets to the enemy the full damage is done. The zombie doesn’t actually hit anything; it’s not a projectile. It’s just passes through them, trailing poison. So enemies it passes over and through take a lot of damage.  Enemies it just barely gets to only receive a little splash of damage that hardly registers.

    I didn’t rune this one since I didn’t like it, and since my rune options weren’t very good. I did not have the rune that yielded the infamous DiabloWikiZombie Bears, though that one sounds like fun.

    I could imagine this skill becoming fairly useful with much increased range (it would basically be a slow-motion version of the Amazon’s Poison Javelin, minus the javelin and the lingering clouds of poison). Or if it had a homing property, or if the zombie itself had an attack, like it grabbed the targeted enemy and dealt huge poison damage. At the starting state, it was nearly useless, though. Easily the least helpful of the skills on any starting PvM character.
    DiabloWikiPoison Dart

    Tier Three

    Description: Fires a deadly poison dart that deals X-X poison damage and an additional X-X poison damage over X seconds.

    The main attack skill that the WD started with, this one was also disappointing while un-runed. It’s pretty much what you’d think; a tiny green projectile that deals impact damage and some DoT to the target. The dart moves quickly through the air so it’s got good accuracy, but the casting (blowing) animation is very slow. Lift the pipe, squat down into the shooting stance, fire, stand back up again, repeat. This results in a poor DPS, even though the actual dart isn’t terrible.

    This one was greatly improved by the runestone, as much as any skill I used at Blizzcon. I had two runes (don’t remember which ones). One would up the damage of the dart. I didn’t use that one. The other gave me multiple darts per blow, and I went with it and was greatly impressed. Just the level 2 rune gave me 4 shots, which were fired in rapid succession. It wasn’t like Strafe from D2; all 4 darts went at the same target, and they were fired one after the other, considerably extending the time my WD spent down in that crouching, blowing position *cough* But the darts were (apparently) the same damage, and since it had been taking me 2 or 3 shots each to kill monsters, with the runestone the skill was able to kill everything below a boss in a single “shot.”

    The DoT wasn’t much changed, but the actual dart hits were the majority of the damage, and with the rune they were quadrupled.  I soon learned to fire at monsters that had another monster behind them, if possible. The first 2 or 3 would almost always get me the kill, which meant that the 3rd and/or 4th shot would hit something behind the initial target.  This skill was awesome in narrow hallways against crowds or lines of monsters, and I much enjoyed mowing them down, machine gun style.

    This one could be really fun with a lvl 7 skill rune, assuming that granted 8+ darts right in a row. It would be kind of risky to use in some situations, because the Witch Doctor would be motionless for a second or two, like a Bowazon with high level Strafe back in the D2C twenty-shot days.  But the damage to the target would be awesome. This one looked like a quality boss-killer, and the full-screen range was another big selling point, since most of the WD’s spells have fairly short range.
    DiabloWikiFirebats

    Tier Four

    Description: A swarm of fiery bats burn enemies in front of you for X fire damage per second.

    At level 10 I surveyed the skills, and since I’d pretty well tested out DiabloWikiPoison Dart, I went for another attack skill.  In retrospect I wish I’d tried one I haven’t seen in action.

    • DiabloWikiHaunt is supposed to be all new graphically. 
    • DiabloWikiCorpse Spiders is improved with new rune effects (Bashiok said that one makes a giant spider that protects the baby spiders).
    • DiabloWikiSacrifice I’d only tried in the Arena, and was curious to see how well it worked against monsters.
    • DiabloWikiSoul Harvest was changed from a nova-like mana stealing spell to a buff that boosts damage based on the number of enemies in range, and I’d like to see how the visual for that works and how the spell improvement was conveyed to the player.
    • And most of all… what do the Fetish summoned by Hex look like? And can they really turn enemies into chickens?

    Sadly, I didn’t try any of those. Instead I put a point into Firebats, a spell that’s very easy to understand and that I’d used extensively in the last two demos. Fail.  (I blame the demo time limit. The 15 minute timer contributes to rash, thoughtless decisions since you know you’ve got so little time to experiment that you don’t want to waste any of that time reading hover descriptions.)

    Firebats was informative, at least. The spell’s range and damage were both much less than when I used it last. The bats hardly flew further than Zombie Charger could run, and the damage was not very good. Even when I moved close enough for the winged rats to reach the enemy, not a whole lot happened.  Happily, I had a rune left, it promised to add damage and range to the bats, and did it ever. To the point that I’ll put Firebats in with Poison Dart and DiabloWikiMagic Missile as the skills that were most improved by skill runes.

    There are limitations on that statement. I could only try 3 or 4 skills per character, there were no runes enabled for the DH or Monk, and I could only try the 2 or 3 runes I had/found on each character. But that said, Firebats was greatly improved by the rune. The range more than doubled, to a bit more than half the screen. The damage looked like it at least doubled also, though the much greater range was far more useful since it put multiple more enemies in range of the constant DoT damage.

    It even looked better with the rune; more bats flew our, giving it a fuller, thicker, more lustrous visual effect.  I could call it the Pantene rune, at least for Firebats.

    The other interesting thing about this skill was the firing mechanism. You couldn’t click it. If you did nothing would happen. Literally; sometimes one bat would squeak out, but usually not even that. The spell dealt very good DoT, but you had to hold down the mouse button to let the bats flow forth. It took a second or two for the full flow to get going, and once it did the damage was great, but you had to commit to using it.

    This made the skill not so good against single targets, since it was slow to start dealing damage, and when it did the damage was spread over a wide area. Sledgehammer for an ant.

    It was awesome against big groups, though. Easily the most powerful skill I used in the entire demo, in terms of total damage dealt. Once I had it with the rune effect the demo became almost pointless, it was so easy. I’d just follow my Mongrels, get into position once they found some monsters, and start hosing out the bats. The shape of the flock is like a slice of pie (mmm, tasty bat pie!) and anything in that area takes heavy DoT.

    The damage seemed to be evenly-spread over the whole area; I was able to kill 10 monsters as quickly as 2, and I was soon doing some herding; running past the Mongrels once they locked up with the first targets, to try to lure in a few more monsters. Once I took up my firing position behind the Mongrels it was all over in a few seconds, no matter how many monsters were in range.

    The bats didn’t chew through DiabloWikibosses quite as quickly, of course, but they didn’t take much longer. The WD was one of the characters that I finished the whole demo with, and with Firebats and Mongrels even the ending battle against The Warden was easy. I ran to the center of the dungeon to get him to spawn, and when I heard his voice and the quest icon went off, I ran back down one of the four paths, let my Mongrels cover the approach of the Ghouls, and just stood behind them, decimating the enemy horde as soon as they drew into range. Even The Warden didn’t last long, and I don’t think I even had to summon any more dogs, though one or two of my pack of three died before the fight ended.

     

    Witch Doctor Tactics and Gameplay

    Though I found the WD a very powerful and effective character in the Blizzcon 2010 PvM demo, I don’t feel like this gives me much insight into how he’ll be in the game. The early levels and monsters were too easy, and the variety of skills was too limited to project much long term info from. I don’t think a Witch Doctor will just be able to sit back and slaughter everything from safely behind his Mongrels, come the final game.

    At least I certainly hope not. That would be boring.

    That said… what else does he have? You can look over all of the Witch Doctor skills, and other than DiabloWikiHorrify, DiabloWikiGrasp of the Dead, and DiabloWikiMass Confusion, what else is there? He’s got a ton of cool attack skills, and various interesting pets about which we know nothing. But regarding all of those curse-like mind control spells we kept assuming he’d have… they ain’t there.

    There were 23 WD skills in the Blizzcon demo. Quick count: 11 attack spells and 7 minion skills (including some that are attacks, like DiabloWikiSacrifice and DiabloWikiWall of Zombies). That’s 18, which leaves just 5 to do other things. The aforementioned Horrify, GotD, and Mass Confusion, plus the movement/escape skill DiabloWikiSpirit Walk and the spell-damage buff DiabloWikiSoul Harvest. That’s it. There may be more skills added, and we know nothing about his higher level summoning skills, but from the current tally it seems safe to predict the Witch Doctor’s play style; mini-mage, with spells cast from behind minions.

    The variety of spells is huge, especially when you factor in skillrunes, but I guess I was expecting more curse-like modifier spells. Ones that would make the monsters more susceptible to various types of damage, or do more to change their behavior.  And maybe we’ll get some; the class isn’t final at this point, and more than 23 skills are expected. But we’ll have to wait and see.

     

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