Part One: Beginnings
The January 26th patch triggered a bunch of theorycrafting all across the Guild Wars 2 community, and one trend of note was increased discussion about condition damage Mesmer builds. Two small buffs to traits, and a change to the scepter auto-attack chain gave many people reason to reconsider the Mesmer’s potential to fill a pure condition damage DPS role in high-end PvE. Spreadsheet maths, and claims of DPS in the range of 15k - 25k got me, and many other Mesmer fans excited about a possible alternative to the perma quickness/alacrity-support/tank meta. Just over a month later, most of the condition damage Mesmer fans and theorycrafters seem to be creeping back into the recesses of the internet, comforted at least by the knowledge that the meta Chronomancer build has not gone the way of the Burnzerker, and occasionally popping up out of the ground again to check the current meta’s reception of their propositions.
I have spent a considerable amount of time over the last month going through the Mesmer’s design in detail to try and work out for myself what parts of it make a condition damage build tick, and what might be holding it back from being viable in high-end PvE. This blog post is the first part of three, which I will be releasing over the course of the week.
Phantasm vs Shatter
The primary decision you are invited to make at the start of almost every Mesmer build is whether you are going to focus on maintaining or shattering your illusions. The general principle of a phantasm build is to summon phantasms as quickly as possible, and then maintain them for the rest of the fight - avoiding the use of your shatter skills at all cost. A shatter build tries to generate clones and phantasms as quickly as possible in order to then shatter them using the F1-F4 skills.
Immediately this splits your build path and rules out a number of options that may otherwise be available to you because they are designed for either one or the other playstyle. This differs from most other classes as a Mesmer’s traits should therefore be able to offer two viable paths for a particular build. In PvE at least, it is widely agreed that phantasm builds far outshine shatter builds in DPS potential, which is a shame because they forgo the Mesmer’s F1-F4 skills.
Signet of Ether is the heal of choice for phantasm builds as it will help you start a fight with all three phantasms and the passive tick while you have three illusions up is very nice. If you’re going for a shatter build then you’ll pick whatever your personally preferred heal is.
Signet of Domination should always be on your bar for the extra 180 condition damage, and if your group needs a tiny little bit extra CC to get through a break bar it comes with a stun too. Signet of Midnight will give you 20% increased condition duration, so you’re also never going to want to leave this behind - or use the active (except for a clutch stun break perhaps). This leaves you with one last slot to fill, and no obvious choices for more conditions. But here are some options:
- Mimic - cast this when you need CC and you can either use Signet of Domination without losing the passive effect, or cast it twice
- Mirror Images - could be useful in shatter builds, especially if you use it during Continuum Split for a nice shatter burst
- Signet of Inspiration - it won’t help you but it’s a staple for support mesmers at the moment, so why not double everyone else’s current boons? New 5 signet mesmer meta incoming >_> <_<
- Situationally, things like Feedback and Null Field are going to fill the final slot if you’re in need of reflects or heavy condition and boon removal
I shouldn’t really need to tell you that you’re going to be using Time Warp for your elite.
Primary weapon selection - Melee vs Ranged
Sword is the only melee weapon available to Mesmers, which (unless you specialise into Dueling for “Sharper Images”) doesn’t offer any damaging conditions at all. This leaves you with three options for your primary weapon set - all of which are ranged. Of course, a ranged weapon can also be used in melee, but you would expect that ranged weapons are designed to account for the ranged advantage that they have over the target (less risk therefore less reward). Perhaps the next elite specialisation can address this by unlocking a condition damage-based melee weapon, but for now, let’s look at what is available.
Note: Potential stack numbers listed below were based off testing in Heart of the Mists with 100% condition duration.
This provides no damaging conditions unless you trait for it. If you pick the Dueling specialisation for the “Sharper Images” trait you can get 20+ stacks of bleeding from three auto-attacking clones. The same can be achieved with three Phantasmal Berserkers, so at a glance greatsword would be most useful for a shatter-based build due to the low cooldown on #2 Mirror Blade. But at its core, the greatsword is intended to be the ranged direct damage weapon.
On paper, staff is designed specifically with conditions in mind. The auto-attack applies either bleeding, burning, or vulnerability. #5 Chaos Storm can give you access to poison, but this is RNG based and will alternatively apply daze, weakness or chill, none of which do damage by themselves. The only other condition staff can provide is confusion through #4 Chaos Armour - but again it’s RNG based and although you can maintain chaos armour on yourself for a significant amount of time, mobs don’t tend to attack fast enough to see a significant effect. It looks as though at its core the staff is intended to be a support weapon.
Pretty much since launch, scepter has been the most obvious weapon choice for condition damage builds, and the recent patch has only cemented it’s position. Simply auto-attacking without generating clones can apply up to 15 stacks of torment if you have perma-quickness and the newly buffed “Malicious Sorcery”. #3 Confusing Images can maintain 6-12 confusion stacks if used on cooldown, and “back-of-an-envelope” math says that #2 Illusionary Counter could give you up to 13 stacks of torment if you block on cooldown. The obvious flaw is that unlike the recently changed scepter auto-attack chain, #2 Illusionary Counter will always spawn a new clone, potentially overwriting one of your phantasms.
I’d venture that the theoretical maximum output from the scepter skills alone (no clones or phantasms) is around 24 stacks of torment, and an average of 9 stacks of confusion - assuming you can proc Illusionary Counter on cooldown. Realistically, this figure is probably more like an average of 15 stacks of torment.
Offhand weapon selection
Choosing an offhand weapon is generally defined by which phantasm you want to have access to, so it becomes less important for shatter builds.
#5 Phantasmal Mage is the only phantasm that applies conditions by default, so this would appear to be a good place to start when coming up with a condition damage build. Three Phantasmal Mages can maintain 6 stacks of burning on a target, whilst also applying fury to nearby allies, or yourself if you are running solo. #4 The Prestige also applies burning, though only one stack, and even with alacrity and “The Pledge” trait reducing its cooldown, it’ll only provide around 25% upkeep on that single stack of burning. Can I get a “wet bus ticket”?
All three of these options are, by default, power based weapons providing one phantasm and one CC-based utility skill. They are dependent on traits (“Duelist’s Discipline” & “Sharper Images”) to be useful in a condition damage build, but this doesn’t rule them out entirely, as we’ll discover down the line.
Shield (Chronomancer only)
Only take this if you are going to be sacrificing personal DPS for group support - in which case you’re probably better off with the meta power-based build.
Part One - Summary
After scepter, the next two most obvious choices for a condition damage build should be staff and torch. The reason they are not as effective as they could be is due to their attacks bouncing between enemies and allies. After hitting the target the first time, the projectile will then seek out the next nearest ally, buffing them. For its final bounce it once again prioritises allies (which includes pets, summons, phantasms, clones etc.) rather than returning to the original target, or another nearby enemy. This functionality seems to be the best of a bad lot, and there isn’t really a great way to fix this without entirely reworking the way these skills work.
Staff also falls flat on RNG, making it really difficult to build up any significant amount of damaging conditions. The low-cooldown on #2 Phase Retreat could be attractive to a shatter build, but scepter still outclasses it in terms of clone production; generating one every 3 seconds - which is faster than necessary to keep F1-F3 on cooldown.
Scepter/Pistol is the best combination for a phantasm build, and I’ll explain the reasons for this in later posts. Shatter builds only “need” a scepter to function, which is good because it leaves you flexible with regards to your offhand utility options, but sad because there are no offhand options that are specifically amazing.