Snowbelle Part One: Subzero Experimentation

Snowbelle began her journey on the outskirts of New Tristram like so many other Wizards before her. I checked and found that it was in fact possible to avoid attacking monsters with the default Magic Missile skill; although this was mapped to the left mouse button by default, I could force Snowbelle to use a non-Magic Missile attack with her starting wand by right-clicking on enemies. This did less damage and there really was no reason for a non-variant character ever to attack this way, but it suited my purposes here. Snowbelle could avoid ever using the Arcane damage type on the default Magic Missile skill and remain purely Cold-based for her whole career. She gained enough experience from Expert difficulty level to hit level 2 while still fighting the scripted zombies outside the town:

Reaching level 2 unlocked the Ray of Frost skill, which was automatically mapped to the right mouse button. Snowbelle was already using it before the notification of the new skill had faded from the screen, and she would end up getting a ton of mileage out of this skill over the rest of Act One. Ray of Frost is essentially Diablo 3's version of the Inferno spell from prior games in the series (along with the Disintegrate skill that Snowbelle couldn't use since it lacked any Cold-based damage on its runes). The Wizard stands in place and shoots out an icy beam of light that damages anything it touches, plus a very small area of effect radius around that target. Unfortunately the splash damage is quite small at only five yards radius. Ray of Frost has two additional helpful properties: a significant slow effect at 60% movement reduction along with a scaling damage increase that goes up the longer the spell is channeled. The spell starts out at 430% weapon damage, which is fairly average for skills in Diablo 3, then goes up by 405% after each second of continuous use up to a maximum of 1240% weapon damage after three total seconds. The 1240% number is fantastic damage and it highlights how Ray of Frost can output some serious punishment against a single target when focused over a long period of time.

With that said, there are two serious drawbacks to Ray of Frost which prevent this skill from seeing much use among endgame characters. The first and most obvious of these is the fact that it's a channeled skill, forcing the Wizard to stand in place without moving while the skill is in use. Locking a squishy spellcaster in one spot is unsurprisingly less than ideal against many of the fast-moving enemies in this game. And while the damage is great if Ray of Frost can be channeled for the full three seconds, that's not much use in a lot of situations where the Wizard needs to be employing hit-and-run attacks. Any movement resets the channeled duration on Ray of Frost and drops the damage back down to the base 430% rate. Secondarily and less obviously, Ray of Frost also has the major drawback of not piercing through enemies. In the picture of the quill rats above, note how the beam of ice hits only the critter in the front and does not continue onwards to hit the quill rat in the back. (This image also nicely captures the small five yard radius splash effect.) Against large mobs of enemies, Ray of Frost's inability to pierce through the first target hit makes it a slow killer indeed. There's actually some gear that changes Ray of Frost so that it does becoming piercing, but none of that was an option for Snowbelle here in the early stages of Act One.

Fortunately the beginning stages of the game are pretty easy for essentially any character setup. If Spyderman could make it through here with nothing but the Corpse Spiders skill, Snowbelle had much less difficulty using an actual resource-consuming skill in the form of Ray of Frost. Undead enemies like zombies and skeletons were slow-moving and made perfect targets for that beam of cold energy. At level 4, Snowbelle was able to pick up her first defensive skill in Frost Nova, which would freeze anything in her immediate radius for two seconds. The damage on Frost Nova was almost nonexistent, and it was clearly intended as a safety tool instead of an offensive weapon. With a longish cooldown but fortunately no Arcane Power cost, Snowbelle kept this in reserve for situations where she was being swarmed with monsters. She had no Teleport yet and had to play things a bit carefully.

A mob of skeletons spawned by a Cursed Chest helped to illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses of Ray of Frost. On the positive side, once the beam was charged up anything that it touched melted almost instantly. If you look closely at the image above, the Ray of Frost had just dealt 75 damage to one of the dying monsters and they were spawning with only 80-100 HP apiece, with the beam therefore nearly strong enough to one-shot the enemies. On the other hand, Ray of Frost could only hit targets along that narrow line of energy and it failed to pierce through whatever was being hit at the moment. Snowbelle found herself standing in the middle of the raised floor design rotating the beam in a circle, only to find that she still wasn't killing the skeletons nearly fast enough to meet the 30 second time limit. Ray of Frost just wasn't that good of a skill in this particular situation. Later on in the Cathedral, Snowbelle came across a Waller elite pack and found out another unpleasant little tidbit: the Ray of Frost did not penetrate through the walls that the boss created. That was pretty annoying. At least the elites dropped Snowbelle's first legendary item upon defeat, another appearance of Leoric's Crown, which had enough Vitality on it to nearly double her current life pool.

Character level 9 unlocked the first primary skill that Snowbelle could actually use, in the form of the Explosive Bolts rune for the Shock Pulse skill. This primary skill shoots out three bolts of energy that deal 194% weapon damage; the default damage type is Lightning but the Explosive Bolts rune changed that damage type over to Cold. Explosive Bolts also caused any enemies killed by the skill to detonate in a relatively small 10 yard radius for another 184% weapon damage. This skill is effectively a form of Charged Bolt from the previous Diablo games, and I didn't find it to be a very useful skill. The range on Shock Pulse was short enough that it could only hit foes right in front of Snowbelle, and the detonation effect wasn't very useful because it only triggered on monsters killed by Shock Pulse itself. Primary skills aren't intended to be used as a main damage source which made the whole thing rather counterproductive. If a monster was on top of Snowbelle, I wanted to use something that did a lot more than 194% weapon damage! Furthermore, the death explosion wasn't very impressive either at only 184% weapon damage. Given that Ray of Frost could be outputting 1240% weapon damage instead, I didn't find myself using Shock Pulse for anything more than a novelty effect.

Far more useful was the Cold Blood rune for the Ray of Frost skill. This cut the Arcane Power cost from 16 per second down to 11 per second and allowed Snowbelle to use the skill almost indefinitely. I mean sure, eventually she would run herself out of Arcane Power, but it would take something like 20+ seconds and by that point anything but the toughest of foes would have already fallen. This rune also changed the visible appearance of Frozen Ray to look much better, adding a dark blue electricity effect that appeared far more impressive. I'm struggling to resist the opportunity to say that Ray of Frost now looked a lot... "cooler".

Snowbelle had no issues completing the Cathedral up through Leoric's Passage and then heading out into the wilderness beyond New Tristram. Her clear pace was fast and her leveling was even faster. She was already level 13 by the time that she reached the Crypts and that allowed her to unlock the Glacial Spike rune for Magic Missile. This was a far more useful primary skill than Shock Pulse, shooting off a single bolt of ice that dealt 175% weapon damage and exploded on impact to freeze the target for one second. Now as a primary skill the damage for Glacial Spike was predictably terrible at that weak 175% weapon damage mark, however the crowd control that it brought from the freezing property was profoundly useful. Snowbelle could launch a single auto attack via Glacial Spike and freeze an elite opponent like the Brigands above, then follow it up with an immediate use of Ray of Frost while the target was trapped in place. Simple, yet effective. I looked at the other two primary skills for the Wizard class (Spectral Blade and Electrocute) and found that Electrocute didn't even have any Cold damage options, while Spectral Blade wouldn't unlock its Ice Blades rune until level 57. It looked like Snowbelle was going to be using the Glacial Spike version of Magic Missile for the forseeable future.

Snowbelle was still exploring her way through the Crypts when she reached level 16 and opened up the Slow Time skill. This was not a skill that I had used with my previous non-variant Wizard back on the release version in 2012, and I wanted to get some practice in using it long before it would become a necessity via the Delsere's Magnum Opus item set later on. Slow Time turned out to be a pretty fun skill to use in practice, dropping a large bubble onto the battlefield that slowed all monsters inside by 60% in terms of both movement speed and attack speed. The field of slowed time was therefore a pretty powerful debuff for anything caught inside, and since it stuck around for a full 15 seconds, Snowbelle often found herself fighting a series of tactical skirmishes based around the location of the Slow Time placement. In underground areas with more narrow passageways, it was often possible to block off entire corridors with a well-chosen Slow Time field. This skill was also infamously used in the demo trailers before Diablo 3 was released, with a particular focus on the way that it slows enemy projectiles by 90%. This is pretty useful in practice as ranged attackers become largely useless with their arrows and fireballs and such stuck hovering in midair moving at tortoise speeds. I just had to be careful about the cooldown for the spell running out and then fifteen projectiles all suddenly moving at regular speed again!

By the way, Snowbelle also unlocked Ice Armor but I didn't find it useful enough to assign it to a skill slot. Ice Armor reduces damage from melee attacks by 12% and chills the attackers in the process, which felt significantly inferior to the damage absorption provided by Diamond Skin. Maybe Ice Armor would be worth running with the Crystallize rune (which increases total armor by 20% each time struck and stacks up to three times) but that wouldn't become an option until level 31. Besides, the name of the game in Diablo 3 is generally maximizing offensive output rather than trying to stack defenses. Although Ice Armor would have been nice to have from a flavor standpoint, it didn't synergize with the glass cannon ranged DPS setup that I was going for with Snowbelle.

I haven't discussed itemization much with Snowbelle yet because this early in the game all of her stuff was junk that would be quickly replaced as her character level went up. I had been monitoring when wands would become available for crafting though, and when the most basic Journeyman Wand unlocked at level 17, I went ahead and asked the Blacksmith to make one for Snowbelle. The result with the ridiculous "Sortilege Eater" name represented a massive increase over Snowbelle's previous weapon, with 62% higher Damage and higher Toughness and Recovery to boot. The total Damage rating on Snowbelle's character screen went up from 87 to 142 purely as a result of equipping this weapon, and then she found a rare Source offhand item that further increased her Damage by another 5% and her Toughness by another 20% almost immediately thereafter. This was necessary to keep pace with the scaling monster health, which continued to increase alongside Snowbelle each time that she leveled up. (By the way, I had earlier taken a screenshot of Snowbelle's gold and crafting material totals when she first started her quest. She could not spend below 62,531,776 gold or drop below 5444 Replaceable Parts, 5553 Arcane Dusts, or 3292 Veiled Crystals. She had roughly 7k gold on hand here and about a dozen of the Veiled Crystals available, with more of the common white and blue crafting materials.)

Another skill unlocked at level 19 in the form of Energy Twister, and this was a skill that deserved more attention because it had a potential synergy with the Delsere's Magnum Opus item set. Energy Twister creates a magical tornado that deals 1525% weapon damage over the course of 6 seconds to anything in its path. The Mistral Breeze rune that Snowbelle was using here changed the damage type from the default Arcane over to Cold and lowered the casting cost from 35 to 25 Arcane Power; this is the only one of the runes to change the damage type to Cold and therefore the only way for Snowbelle to use this skill. However, there are two major problems with Energy Twister as a skill that make it largely ineffective for general use. The first is that the damage is applied over those six seconds rather than up front in a burst; while 1525% weapon damage might sound great in the abstract, it works out to only 254% weapon damage per second and that's barely more than a signature skill. Even worse is the second problem whereby the Energy Twisters travel in an uncontrollable path. They might move in a straight line or they could equally wander off in some random direction without hitting anything. This makes Energy Twister nearly impossible to use in practice, and harder to justify when there are so many other better options to pick as skills. There are some legendary items that boost the abilities of Energy Twister, including causing the tornadoes to move in a straight line, and perhaps I'd revisit the skill later on if I managed to score some of them. For now though, Ray of Frost was significantly more useful for progressing through the game.

Snowbelle continued to race through each section of Act One while leveling at a frantic pace. Pictured above was the aftermath of a successful encounter with a Treasure Goblin which left a series of crafting materials and rare items scattered around the floor. Snowbelle also hit level 20 in the process, which was a surprise to me - I hadn't even known that Treasure Goblins provide experience when they die! At the moment, I had the Glacial Spike version of Magic Missile on the left mouse button along with Ray of Frost in the featured position on the right mouse button. Frost Nova, Slow Time, and Diamond Skin were all present as utility skills, and that left the final skill slot open for something else. I decided to give up the seldom-used Ice Armor in favor of Magic Weapon at this point, an ability that added +10% to total damage. Don't be fooled by the "Arcane" label on the skill, as Magic Weapon did no direct damage when used without an accompanying rune. (Some of the runes do provide direct damage which has the Arcane property and they were not allowed for Snowbelle.) Although this was nothing particularly special, it was more useful than additional armor for all of the times that Snowbelle wasn't getting hit.

This brought Snowbelle to the first major boss of the game, the Skeleton King form of Leoric. I was well familiar with this guy from having him come up as a repeated bounty for Spyderman to hunt, and Leoric is not particularly dangerous as an opponent. If you can deal with the random monsters on your character's current difficulty level, you can assuredly defeat Leoric as well. Although it was a little bit weird to see Leoric pop up with only 106,000 HP instead of the billions of health he has on the higher Torment difficulties, the basic contours of the fight were still the same. Snowbelle discovered that Ray of Frost was serviceable as a boss-killing skill, but no more than serviceable if that makes sense. Yes, the damage was excellent when Leoric stood in place for a few seconds laughing at her. However, Leoric teleported around enough that it was hard to get the full channel duration in place for very long, and the skill wasn't terribly effective at destroying the skeleton minions that the boss summoned. There was no threat to Snowbelle herself though and it only took a little over a minute for this battle to reach its conclusion.

Leoric shockingly dropped two different legendary items upon defeat. One of them was a helmet, and I was a bit miffed to find that Snowbelle had found a second copy of Leoric's Crown. She was already wearing that exact item! At least the new version was generated at a higher character level and therefore had better stats on it. The other item was a legendary two-handed mace named Crushbane, and wow, what a nice damage boost it held over the current equipped wand. Snowbelle's offensive output more than doubled and therefore she gave up her one-handed setup for the moment. It looked patently ridiculous for her to be walking around with a gigantic blood-drenched mace, but whatever, the stats are the one truly important thing as far as items go. Snowbelle had been dominating thoroughly enough that I also bumped up the difficulty level from Expert to Master, the highest that I was willing to go before completing the starting campaign. She could move on to the Torment difficulties once she defeated Diablo.

With the difficulty dialed up another notch, Snowbelle only leveled that much faster. She hit level 25 in the Decaying Crypt, and had nearly reached level 30 by the time that she cleared out the Khazra Den:

Snowbelle had picked up several more useful skills as she sprinted through these character levels. Most significant was the Blizzard skill, another returning spell from Diablo 2 that originally debuted back in Warcraft when it was a real time strategy game and not an online MMO. Blizzard deals 1075% weapon damage over 6 seconds to enemies in a 12 yard radius, and the skill description quite clearly states that the damage does not stack with multiple casts. On the one hand, that damage as applied over six seconds wasn't all that great at only 180% weapon damage per second. The default version of Blizzard is fairly expensive to cast at 40 Arcane Power, and any overlap in multiple castings naturally wastes out on damage since the spell does not stack. I was also somewhat frustrated at the graphical effects of the spell, as it was not visually clear what area was being affected by the falling ice shards. Perhaps I've been spoiled in this regard by League of Legends, which has very distinct visual indicators on the ground as far as area attacks are concerned. (Or it least it does now; 2010-era Gragas barrels were infamously vague from a graphics perspective.) It wasn't always easy for me to tell when an enemy was getting hit by a Blizzard and when it wasn't.

On the other hand, area of effect damage is pretty good in general, and it was especially needed for Snowbelle would could only hit one target at a time with her Ray of Frost. Dropping a Blizzard on top of a crowd of monsters was a significant help from a damage perspective. The same icy hail that was inefficient from a 1 vs 1 perspective was fantastic when crushing a dozen monsters at a time. I also found that Blizzard had a natural synergy with the Slow Time skill, dropping the time bubble onto a group of opponents to slow them and then landing a Blizzard right on top of the unfortunate individuals. Blizzard would also slow whatever it hit quite aside from the Slow Time skill itself, making it even harder for enemies to close the gap and get on top of Snowbelle. As a result, Blizzard came into regular use as a skill and I gave up Magic Weapon for the moment. Slow Time into Blizzard into Ray of Frost became the default combination for Snowbelle in the second half of Act One.

She also picked up Teleport at level 22 and this spell would stay on the skillbar for the rest of Snowbelle's journey. Every character needs some kind of disengage tool and Teleport is what the Wizard class has. I ended up using the Safe Passage rune (25% reduced damage for 5 seconds after casting Teleport) since most of the other offensive options included an Arcane type of damage which was not allowed by variant rule.

Level 30 also unlocked the third passive skill slot, and as a result here are the passive skills that Snowbelle was running. Cold Blooded was the most obvious choice: 10% additional damage against Chilled or Frozen opponents. I felt as though Snowbelle had to choose that one for variant purposes if nothing else. I was also using Glass Cannon (15% additional damage at the cost of 10% lower armor and resistances) and Astral Presence (increase maximum Arcane Power by 20 and regeneration by 2.5 per second). When Snowbelle unlocked Unstably Anomaly much later at level 60, I would drop Glass Cannon in favor of its protection against death, then pick up Audacity's damage bonus in the fourth passive slot at level 70. There were enough useful passive skills in the Wizard setup that Snowbelle had good odds to get something useful from a later Hellfire Amulet when she had a chance to craft one.

I hadn't been entirely sure what effect increasing the difficulty level up to Master would have on Snowbelle's progress, but it turned out that I needn't have worried. Although the monsters had about 60% more health and did about 50% more damage as compared to Expert, Snowbelle's clear pace remained brisk and she rarely faced much in the way of danger. Ordinary run of the mill enemies died quickly to a Blizzard spell or two followed by the surgical application of Ray of Frost. Against elite opponents, Snowbelle spent more time kiting them in circles around her Slow Time field while keeping Blizzard ice crystals raining down on them throughout the process. Ray of Frost remained the main killer though, and it was still holding up quite well despite the greater and greater monster health. Elites began to show up with a second monster affix but without this general trend changing, and progress remained blisteringly fast in comparison to Spyderman.

There was one major new variable that Snowbelle had to contend with as compared to her predecessor: running out of her class resource. Skills like Ray of Frost and Blizzard required Arcane Power to use, and when it ran out she was reduced to auto attacking with her Glacial Spike missiles. Those projectiles were useful for their freezing property, not their damage, and therefore I always wanted to regenerate enough Arcane Power to resume the use of Snowbelle's heavier hitting skills. At least Blizzard would continue dealing damage for six seconds after the initial casting, but if Snowbelle had no energy to channel Ray of Frost, the latter skill did absolutely nothing. Where we my mana potions from Diablo 2, heh. Sometimes the clashes with monsters out in the field could get pretty intense, like the double elite pack pictured above. I don't recall what the monster affixes were for the Khazra Shamans in the back, but one of them had to be Fire Chains in addition to the melee goat elite who had Electrified and Frozen Pulse. The graphical effects could look pretty impressive from having multiple elites on the screen at the same time along with Snowbelle's own flashy abilities, reinforcing yet again the beautiful visuals sprinkled throughout Diablo 3's gameplay.

Part of the reason why Snowbelle seemed to be cruising was due to her constant item upgrades. She had used the Crushbane mace that Leoric had dropped for a while, then was able to go back to a wand + offhand setup again. This "Feather Carnage" wand represented another gigantic leap upwards in terms of damage, aided by the fact that I was able to reroll one of its useless affixes into Intelligence for even more damage. I wasn't using the Enchantress too much with Snowbelle since she was changing items quickly, but it was worth the effort to do so when it came to her weapons. This new item boosted her Damage output on the character screen above 2000 for the first time and resulted in the first five-digit damage printouts appearing on a regular basis.

By the time that Snowbelle entered the Halls of Agony in the ending stages of Act One, I had made another modest shift in her skills setup. I found that she was rarely getting much use out of the Frost Nova skill, especially since the same Frozen effect could be applied via a Glacial Spike auto attack, and I opted to switch Blizzard over to the "Q" key to reflect its heavy usage. This opened up the "R" key for Magic Weapon to reappear, this time with the Force Weapon rune that increased the total damage from +10% up to +20%. Snowbelle had also unlocked the Time Warp rune for her Slow Time skill at level 40, which caused enemies caught in the field of warped time to take 15% additional damage. With these stacking bonuses added together with Snowbelle's own growing damage output, she was having no trouble cutting through the opposing monsters.

Snowbelle also turned up another useful legendary item in the helmet slot. The Dark Mage's Shade brought much higher base stats along with a genuinely helpful unique property: automatically casts Diamond Skin when your character falls below 35% life. This would help to ensure Snowbelle's safety in a moment of genuine danger, although I'm honestly struggling to remember if the Diamond Skin function ever kicked in even one time. Snowbelle was largely able to stay at a safe range from her enemies and blast them to smithereens. The Dark Mage's Shade furthermore brought some serious fashion style to Snowbelle's getup, and I loved the way that the traditional pointy witch hat looked on her. She had earned enough gold by now that I could afford to dye her equipment at the Enchantress, and I outfitted Snowbelle in white coloring along with a few dark blue accents. This was intended to reflect her "cold" theme as an Ice Wizard, and Snowbelle cut a sharp figure out there on the fields of battle.

This brought Snowbelle up to the Butcher, the boss at the end of Act One. He can be a fairly dangerous opponent on the Torment difficulties due to his Enrage timer triggering, after which point in time the whole arena permanently fills with fire and makes it impossible to survive. That wasn't an issue here, and it was a good thing that it wasn't because Snowbelle needed almost four minutes of real-world time to defeat her opponent. I'm not sure if the Butcher has additional Cold resistance or if he simply had a ton of health, but he took a long time to drop dead. It wasn't that Ray of Frost or Blizzard were ineffective skills, with the Butcher easy to peg with both of them. He just lasted a long time for whatever reason. Fortunately, the Butcher's own attacks were not strong enough to get through Snowbelle's defensive setup; when he landed a successful charge, I think that it took out a little less than half of her life orb. That simply wasn't enough when combined together with Snowbelle's life regeneration, making it impossible to lose the battle outside of complete stupidity on my part. Eventually Snowbelle managed to defeat her opponent:

She even leveled in the process. All the way up to level 44, sheesh; my original non-expansion Wizard defeated Normal difficulty at a lower level than that! My how times have changed. It's still bizarre to have the skills and their associated runes unlocking so quickly, an artifact of the pre-expansion skills system mixing together with the expansion's notion of the whole campaign being a tutorial mode that should be finished as soon as possible. Hopefully future Diablo games will be able to find some kind of happier middle ground between these two extremes. Snowbelle's guaranteed legendary drop was the String of Ears, a belt with the unique property of reducing damage from melee attacks by 25%. It had higher stats on it than Snowbelle's current belt making it an easy swap. The journey would continue onwards into Act Two next, with Snowbelle still unlocking more skills as she drew closer towards the level cap of 70.