Behind the Mask: The first order of business

Sometimes we make mistakes. Last week, I talked about Champions Online's new archetypes, and while most of the criticisms are valid, I made several statements about incorrect stat selections that were untrue due to passives now scaling to superstats. This is actually a pretty big change to the way the game works, enough that I could almost write a whole article on that subject alone. It makes a whole mess of builds viable in vastly different ways, which is exciting. Although it does raise some concerns (polarization of builds towards CON, INT, and END), those issues really outweigh the dramatic increase in viability for some passives, particularly PFF and Seraphim.

This week though, I'm going to talk about the first tier of powers. T1 is the first layer of powers that players come across after their energy builders and weak T0 attacks. There's a huge disparity in balance between various T1 powers; some are basically worthless once T2 has unlocked, while others compete with the best T3 has to offer.

I'm here to mostly talk about the latter, and about how you can squeeze every bit of potential by making those required picks in T1 count.

A quick note on powers that aren't mentioned

Some powers are pretty good but weren't listed for some reason or another. Sonic Device, for instance, is pretty good, but I feel that its use is more limited than, say, an energy form; the same can be said of Imbue, which is one of my favorite powers. Concussor Beam is excellent but is mainly good when coupled with other Power Armor powers. Some, like Shuriken Throw, are decent, but I think they're overshadowed by other, better powers. Some powers are decent but have annoying elements, such as Shotgun Blast's random knockback. And lastly, some powers are just awful, like Submachinegun Burst.

Passives, of course

The most obvious powers a hero can select at T1 are passives. A good passive should be selected as soon as possible, and many are available as soon as your hero finishes the tutorial. As always, I suggest defensive passives for less experienced players.

Breath weapons

The three breath powers are among the best AoE damage dealers in T1 and compare favorably with T3 AoE attacks in PvE. Fire, Frost, and Venomous Breath all deal great damage with a wide cone of fire. It takes a bit of skill to aim them, but once you've gotten the hang of it, these powers will serve you well all the way to the end of the game. Frost Breath is also great for stacking the Chill debuff for ice-based heroes.

Energy forms

Although they're not very good in the early game, energy forms provide a quick burst of damage, useful secondary effects, and an emergency release from holds. Not all are T1, but many are, including the powerful Immolate. These powers are mainly useful for PvP, but in PvP their usefulness is unsurpassed.

The holy trinity of blocking

Not all blocking powers are created equally. Three -- Ebon Void, Force Shield, and Energy Shield -- are a cut above the rest, due entirely to their optional advantages. Energy Shield bears the infamous Laser Knight advantage, which raises a melee hero's resistance to extreme levels (I've heard it's getting nerfed, but that even in its nerfed state, it's overpowered). Force Shield's advantage grants a solo hero or tank nearly infinite energy, and it can also provide a tank/healer hybrid with energy by exploiting healer aggro. Ebon Void isn't quite as obvious; the Voracious Darkness advantage can give a character tremendous resistance to damage, but it must be built slowly over time, and one missed block loses all of the resistance gained. Still, the resistance it grants is unparalleled, even compared to Laser Knight.

The melee lunges

All three of the melee lunges (Thunderbolt Lunge, Mighty Leap, and Pounce) are excellent for closing distance, denying travel powers, and applying other cool effects. Although one wouldn't think so, the travel denial is even good in PvE, forcing flying enemies to the ground. All melee-focused characters should select one of these, especially if they PvP. The same can be said of Hurl, which is technically a ranged power but otherwise carries many of the same effects as the lunge powers.

Secondary energy unlocks

From Killer Instinct to Thermal Reverberation, a secondary energy unlock is a great pick if your build can use it. Some don't work quite as advertised; for instance, Spirit Reverberation doesn't actually require Darkness powers (just feared enemies nearby) and Telepathic Reverberation needs Telepathy attacks (although you'll get a little energy just from being near a held enemy). Make sure your stats mesh well with your innate passives; to the best of my knowledge, they will not scale to superstats when F2P launches (although Cryptic might change this, just to be consistent).

Martial arts forms

The four martial arts forms are indispensable for martial artists, as they return energy and grant the damage-increasing Focus buff. However, other characters can benefit from them as well; with the exception of the Claws form (which specifically requires melee attacks), each of the forms can be used by any character. While the Focus buff only impacts melee attacks, the energy return from the forms scales to Dexterity and can be used by anyone. This is particularly handy for Munitions characters, who can produce lots of critical hits to feed Form of the Unleashed Tempest. Any character who uses Lightning Reflexes can benefit from Form of the Unfettered Master, especially its advantage that reduces the cooldown of heals.

Heat Wave

Heat Wave combines great single-target damage with a hold component that isn't broken by itself or your other attacks. PvP novices generally consider it to be imbalanced, but it's simply a good, solid control power. In PvE, Heat Wave is still useful, since it will take a master villain out of the battle for a very long time once it holds him.

Ice Cage

This power is mostly overpowered due to an exploit that is likely to get fixed. The advantage, Sub-Zero Cellblock, allows Ice Cage to interrupt even Cosmic boss attacks, making most boss fights laughably trivial. I would be highly surprised if this were not fixed soon, though.

Evasive Maneuvers

Using the Sleight of Mind advantage, this wacky utility has a 50% chance of putting the user in perfect stealth for 3 seconds every time it's used. In PvE, this is invaluable for healers and anyone who doesn't want aggro. In PvP, this power is ridiculously annoying to deal with and absolutely mandatory to have.

Bionic Shielding

This power is probably the most popular self heal in the game among people who don't use Presence. It heals a tremendous amount, with the minor stipulation that enemies must attack you after you've used it. Activating BS and then blocking afterwards is a great way to get back into a fight with 30-50% of your health restored. The 30-second base cooldown is much shorter than the comparable Resurgence, which is an active defense with a base cooldown of 1:30. In this case, boosting the healing with Rank 3 is much better than the special advantage, which grants some arcing lightning that does moderate damage.

Illumination and Celestial Conduit

This double-team of powers is an incredible Tier 1 combo. Celestial Conduit is a powerful heal, but when paired with Illuminate, it can provide double, triple, or even more healing by taking advantage of Illumination's heal chaining. It is considered by many to be the best overall combo in the game for restoring allies' lost health, second only to the T3 power Mindful Reinforcement in terms of ally-grantable defense.


Conviction

Like Bionic Shielding, Conviction is a powerful self heal. It costs a lot of energy to use and the healing isn't incredible, but it is fairly decent and the cooldown is very short. If your hero has Presence as a superstat, this power's self-healing abilities are off the hook.

Shadow Embrace

In many ways, Shadow Embrace is similar to the breath weapons, but it does less damage. However, it can be maintained while on the move, allowing you to make fine adjustments to your cone while letting the maintain ramp up. Its advantage, Fatal Allure, is also quite good, knocking enemies up and toward you (rather than away). It's very useful for herding foes, but it can be a bit unpredictable.

Sigils of the Primal Storm

These frail pets were not buffed with the pet pass, but it hardly matters. The stationary sigils created by this power periodically blast lightning at anything nearby, and the total damage dealt is nothing short of magnificent. If you've got a way to keep foes from destroying them, these sigils are worth their weight in gold in any battle. One thing melee heroes learn quickly fighting against these in PvP: If you stand in them, you're dead.

An honorable mention for melee

Other than the lunges, melee does not have many good options in T1. The best are Ego Blade Frenzy and Gauntlet Chainsaw, both of which do pretty respectable damage to a melee cone. Scything Blade is also decent, but most of the good attacks for melee are in T2 and T3. If you're a melee hero, I advise respeccing once you've reached T2. Pick T1 utility powers (passives, heals, martial arts forms, lunges, etc.) instead of attacks, and get powerful T2 attacks such as Dragon Kick or Dragon's Wrath.

Is that really everything?

Those are really the gems out of the first tier. That's not a whole lot of powers, and it excludes a few decent powers, such as Vengeance, Imbue, Sonic Device, and so on. Even though there are not a ton of powers there, this provides a good list of things that you can use to fill those weak spots after you've unlocked the strongest powers. After all, there's no reason to keep using Blade Tempest when you have Sword Cyclone -- by getting solid T1 powers, you can solidify your build in the endgame.

Also, some of these powers (like Shadow Embrace, the breath attacks, etc.) can be used as effective attacks all the way to level 40. It's a nice feeling to be able to wipe spawns and feel strong right from the first few hours of playing, and grabbing one of the stronger low level attacks can help ease the climb to the mid levels.

When he's not touring the streets of Millennium City or rolling mooks in Vibora Bay, Patrick Mackey goes Behind the Mask to bring you the nitty-gritty of the superhero world every Thursday. Whether it's expert analysis of Champions Online's game mechanics or his chronicled hatred of roleplaying vampires, Patrick holds nothing back.

This article was originally published on Massively.