The Common Core
Although build-arounds are a good unifying factor for a build, they're only one part. There are a number of major decisions that need to be made for every build that affect major parts of its gearing and Passive Tree choices. Any build should be able to answer any of the questions below immediately, and you should have all of these answers in mind before you even begin to think about the details of your build.
What's Your "Health"?
The #1 mistake made by new players creating their own build is not getting enough Life on their Passive Tree and gear. Late-game enemies in PoE hit hard enough that with an improper build, you will simply die in one hit with no chance to retaliate. In short: a pure glass cannon build does not work in PoE. Every build must make significant investment in its Life pool (or in some alternative that functions similarly).
There are four typical options for a Health pool in Path of Exile. In rough order of recommendability to a new player, they are:
- Pure Life. Life is straightforward to build, and you get a lot of it as a baseline while you level. It doesn't place any major restrictions on your gearing. Although it doesn't scale to quite as high a potential health total in the endgame as the alternatives, it works well even without good equipment. % Increased Maximum Life nodes can be found throughout the Passive Tree; Strength-based builds get a particular boost because Strength gives additional flat +Life. Recommended for most Attack builds, or as a generic core.
- Life/Mana Hybrid (with Mind Over Matter). Mind Over Matter is a Keystone Passive located at the top left of the tree that makes a percentage of damage that would normally reduce your Life reduce your Mana instead. Note that you can still die if you run out of Life even if you have some mana left, so Mind Over Matter builds still need significant amounts of Life - as a rough rule of thumb, you want your Life to be approximately double your Mana. Also note that Mind Over Matter only works on damage that would be dealt to Life (not to Energy Shield), meaning that it doesn't play particularly well with Energy Shield in most cases. MoM builds can achieve higher health totals with similar gear flexibility, but at the (significant) cost of needing to sustain Mana and not wanting to Reserve large chunks of your Mana pool for Auras or other buffs. Recommended for Intelligence heavy builds near the top of the tree.
- Pure Energy Shield (with Chaos Inoculation). Chaos Inoculation removes all but 1 of your Life, but makes you immune to Chaos damage (which would otherwise pierce through your Energy Shield and kill you). It's used on pure Energy Shield builds. Although it's capable of very high potential Energy Shield totals in the late-game, you have no base Energy Shield, making your health pool entirely dependent on your equipment. Moreover, since you want to get as much Energy Shield as possible from said equipment, it is often hard to fit in Unique items you may otherwise want to use. Energy Shield nodes are found only on the top half of the tree, so it's essentially impossible to do a bottom-half Energy Shield build.
- Energy Shield (without Chaos Inoculation). This is the hardest one in the list to make work. You either need one of a few very specific items (usually the unique chest Shavronne's Wrappings) that stop Chaos Damage from bypassing Energy Shield and hitting your smaller Life pool, or in rarer cases a reasonably sized Life pool with a huge amount of Chaos Resistance. Most of the time these builds are aiming to block off most of their Life pool, leaving them below 35% of their base maximum Life, and these variants absolutely require Chaos Damage bypass prevention. The reason they do this is to take advantage of powerful "On Low Life" effects, most notably the large % More Spell Damage modifier from the Pain Attunement Keystone on the tree.
Again, for a first character, I strongly suggest one of the first two options.
How Do You Scale Damage?
Depending on your main skill, you may have lots of options for scaling damage or very few. For example, a build attacking with a Wand might scale Physical damage and use a wand with high Physical damage, scale Elemental damage and use a wand with high Elemental damage, scale both with bonuses to Projectile damage, scale Critical Strike Chance and Multiplier for big Critical Hits, and so on.
Once you've chosen a skill, look it up and read a little bit about it. Make sure you are clear on your core skill's mechanics. You should be able to rattle off its Damage Source, Type, and Tags without breaking a sweat.
A few specific questions to consider:
- Are you going with a Critical Strike-based or non-Critical-Strike-based build? Most abilities can crit (with the notable exception of Damage Over Time effects), so both are usually options. Crit tends to have a higher late-game damage ceiling but can be harder to get rolling in poor gear; non-crit is usually the budget option.
- Are you scaling only one part of your skill or all of it? Some skills have different components that scale in different ways. For example, Molten Strike's initial impact deals Melee damage, but produces fireballs that deal Projectile damage. You can scale both effects or only one, depending on your build.
- Do modifiers appropriate to your skill occur only in one part of the tree? For example, a Bow-based Attacker dealing Physical damage will find themselves in a desert at the top left of the tree with almost no applicable nodes available. Similarly, a Spell-based character won't find much in the bottom-center. This makes a difference to your class selection.
What Ascendancy Are You Going For?
As mentioned, Ascendancies are subclasses of the main classes that get access to powerful bonuses. Path of Building displays all of these trees for your exploration, but in brief, here are some options that get bonuses specific to particular emphases:
- Elemental Damage: Elementalist (Witch), Inquisitor (Templar), Chieftain (Marauder - Fire Only)
- Minions: Necromancer (Witch- for Zombies, Spectres, or Skeletons), Guardian (Templar - for Dominating Blow/Herald of Purity minions)
- Chaos or Cold Damage Over Time: Occultist (Witch), Trickster (Shadow)
- Projectile Attacks: Deadeye (Ranger)
- Traps or Mines: Saboteur (Shadow)
- Totems: Hierophant (Templar), Chieftain (Marauder)
- Movement Speed: Pathfinder (Ranger), Raider (Ranger), Juggernaut (Marauder), Berserker (Marauder), Gladiator (Duelist)
- Attacks: All three Marauder and Duelist options, Raider (Ranger), Pathfinder (Ranger)
- Spells: Hierophant (Templar)
- Defenses: Juggernaut (Marauder), Trickster (Shadow)
- Support: Guardian (Templar), Champion (Duelist), to a lesser extent Necromancer (Witch)
Remember, you don't get access to Ascendancies until partway through the main story; when you initially create your character you'll need to create the class in parentheses in order to access the listed Ascendancy later.
How Do You Sustain Your Health?
Having health in the form of Life, Energy Shield, Mind Over Matter, or some hybrid of the three is not enough by itself - you also need some way to recover it in combat. This is particularly important for newer players homebrewing a build, since your damage is likely to be lower than more optimized setups (and therefore you'll spend more time in combat).
Attack-based builds will usually sustain through Life Leech. Life Leech causes you to gain a percentage of damage done as Life over a period of time, up to a certain maximum rate. Most sources of Life Leech are limited to Physical damage; the main exceptions on the Passive tree are some Dagger- and Claw-specific nodes at the top right and the Vitality Void/Spirit Void cluster at the bottom of the tree. Physical builds can pick up one of the three Physical Attack Damage leech clusters at the bottom left of the tree (Lust for Carnage, Martial Experience, or Gladiator's Perseverance).
Spell builds will have a harder time accessing Life Leech. The main way for a spell build to get Leech is to get it through some damage-type-specific means (like X% of Fire Damage Leeched as Life). A few items give damage type leech, the Chieftain Ascendancy (Marauder) gives Fire damage leech, the Hierophant (Templar) gives general Spell damage leech, and the Elementalist (Witch) gives Elemental damage leech.
The advantage to Leech is that it won't run out midfight and works even when you're actively being hit. But there are other methods, as well. Energy Shield builds can rely on Energy Shield's innate Recharge mechanic, which requires you to avoid being hit. Life and Mana-based builds can use Flasks to recover. Straight up Regeneration effects work well, although they're usually slower recovery than Leech and require more investment. Many items and Ascendancies also grant various forms of Life, Mana, or Energy Shield recovery - for example, the Trickster Ascendancy can recover Energy Shield in chunks when hit.
Will You Mitigate Incoming Damage?
First and foremost: Life, or Mind Over Matter/Energy Shield in some builds, is always your primary defense. (I'm using 'defense' informally here; not as PoE's internal language uses it.) You cannot only stack other forms of defense and hope to survive - Armour, Evasion, Block, Dodge, and so on are never enough by themselves.
That said, reducing incoming damage still matters. Not all deaths are one-shots, and reducing the overall amount of incoming damage can still be helpful.
The main four options are those listed above: Armour, Evasion, Block, and Dodge.
- Armour reduces incoming damage from Physical Hits by a percentage that varies with the size of the Hit. For most purposes, you can think of Armour as a flat modifier on the size of incoming hits of about 8-9% of your Armour value, provided your Armour value is roughly comparable to the size of incoming hits. For very small hits much smaller than your Armour value, it will only mitigate a percentage of the incoming damage, meaning that Armour won't ever make you totally immune to physical Hits. Although it can be mentally modeled as a flat reduction, Armour's effect is mechanically-speaking a percentage, and it's additive with other sources of % Reduced Physical Damage Taken. Such Physical Damage Taken modifiers (including Endurance Charges) are very powerful with Armour. Armour works well as a secondary defense against hard-hitting Physical attackers, like Izaro in the Labyrinth, and for melee attackers that expect to take volleys of small hits.
- Evasion causes you to Avoid damage from incoming Attacks some percentage of the time. Evasion has bad-luck protection, meaning that if you have 30% Evasion you will in fact avoid 30% of Attacks even in the short run. Evasion does nothing against Spells, which can make Evasion builds have somewhat spiky damage intake depending on the enemy. Evasion works particularly well with Dodge (see below), since Acrobatics (a Keystone that gives lots of Dodge) has no Evasion penalty. Note that Dodge and Evasion are entirely separate stats that do not directly interact in any way. Evasion is a good general-purpose way to mitigate incoming damage and works best for builds on the right side of the tree.
- Dodge is similar to Evasion, but is a separate mechanic. Unlike Evasion, Dodge does not have bad-luck protection, making it a spikier way to avoid damage. Also unlike Evasion, there's a separate Spell Dodge stat that lets you avoid damage from Spells. Dodge builds will almost always pick up Acrobatics, a keystone on the right hand side of the tree. Since Acrobatics applies a large penalty to Armour, Energy Shield, and Block, Dodge builds usually focus on Evasion as well.
- Block prevents the damage from an incoming hit, but doesn't Avoid the hit (so on-hit effects can still apply). You get some Block chance by Dual Wielding or using a Shield or certain Staves; this chance can be improved through nodes on the Passive Tree and through a few items. Blocking can trigger useful effects, like the counterattack Reckoning or gaining Frenzy or Endurance Charges. In general, builds with high Block chance tend to be Attack builds, since most nodes that boost Block Chance also boost Attack Damage. Staff block is the exception.
There are other secondary defenses, too.
In general, you usually do not want to directly invest only in boosting these defenses. Instead, you get them along with other bonuses, like % Life nodes that have some other effect or part of an Ascendancy effect.
Finally, these secondary defenses are not really necessary - they just help. Life is enough, if you have a lot of it; these just act to make the health you have go further than it would otherwise.