Necromancers are one of the hardest classes to play well, I see on forums lots of people claiming they are bad when they really aren't. I main Necro and I play mostly PvE but I certainly do not neglect WvW and tPvP. I am nowhere near being a "pro" player, but after about 600 hours played on a Necromancer, I think I have a good grasp of what is needed to play one without resorting to bleed spam. I also think that DS is incredibly strong and once someone figures out how to refill it fast, Necro risks becoming very strong. I wanted to share with you the tricks I know for making it better, this is definitely not aiming to be a comprehensive list, just a collection of things I like.
First, let's get this out of the way: bleed spam is the best damage Necro has. It is not that much better than power builds though! And it has a lot of disadvantages: you are useless if there are two or more condition characters in the group, you are useless against structures, you are useless whenever something can strip your conditions, you are harmful when something can return your conditions. And I personally find the bleed spam gameplay to be pretty boring. Power builds are generally much harder to play but I find that playstyle much more varied and rewarding. But on to the subject of DS. DS can be used to complement any Necromancer build, and in my opinion, it should, every time. DS fits naturally with power builds, but there are some tricks to make it work with condition builds too.
Let's start by looking at the ability: it has a 10s recharge, it gives you a life pool which is keyed off your Vitality and Life Pool, so two trait lines. It can be used even while stunned, and gives you four skills: 1) Life Blast: does very nice damage above 50%. At high power levels, it does about the same damage of Lich Form autoattack! 2) Dark Path: gap closer, 5s chill, 15s of bleeds. It can be hard to land. CD 15s. 3) Doom: fear 1s. Can be used while stunned. CD 20s. 4) Life Transfer: steal a bunch of health and recharge your DS bar. CD 40s.
First thing: f1-3-f1 can be done in a split second and it's an interrupt. Learn this, it's awesome. It works even if you neglect DS completely. Another very useful thing that works even if you neglect DS is F-key actions. Interacting, ressing, finishing can all be done while in DS. All you have to do is press f1 just before the F key, practice it.
IF you have a condition build and do not put any trait into DS, then DS is going to be bad. Duh. Even then, if you find yourself in melee: f1-2-f1, wait for dark path land and dodge back is a quick trick that can be used to put some damage on the enemy and get some distance thanks to the chill. If you have a straight power build without any traiting, then Life Blast is already your best ranged attack option, and Life Transfer is decent AoE. Use them. On this setup, you probably want to pop Life Transfer every 40s if there is an AoE situation, or switch to DS for ranged combat, that's pretty much it. But you're losing out!
It is useful to think about DS as a clock: every X seconds, it is optimal to use it. The basic usage is insta fear - just get in and out instantly (I call this "flashing") every 20s for a free interrupt.
Let's see what traits can be used to enhance our only class feature.
- Spiteful Spirit (Spite V): 3s retaliation on entering DS.
- Reaper's Might (Spite VI): might 15s on Life Blast, stacks.
- Furious Demise (Curses 15): fury 5s on entering DS.
- Weakening Shroud (Curses IV): cast Enfeebling Blood on entering DS. Enf Blood is AoE 10s weakness and 2x10s bleeding.
- Terror (Curses VI): fear does damage. It ticks as poison and burning do (1 per second), and deals about 2x burning damage at level 80.
- Dark Armor (Death Magic I): +400 toughness on channeling. Life Transfer is a channel.
- Shrouded Removal (Death Magic VI): lone one condition on entering DS.
- Transfusion (Blood Magic VI): Life Transfer heals allies. It heals 2628 regardless of healing. There is a trick here that I will cover later.
- Gluttony (Soul Reaping 5): +10% life gain from kills.
- Strength of Undead (Soul Reaping 25): +5% damage if the pool is > 50%.
- Vital Persistence (Soul Reaping II): pool drains 25% slower.
- Path of Midnight (Soul Reaping III): DS skills recharge 15% faster - recharges become 12.75, 17, 34 seconds.
- Speed of Shadows (Soul Reaping V): move 15% faster in DS.
- Unyielding Blast (Soul Reaping VI): Life Blast pierces (becomes a line attack) and causes 2 vulnerability for 10s.
- Master of Terror (Soul Reaping IX): fear lasts 50% longer (you'll see why I'm including this).
- Foot in the Grave (Soul Reaping XI): 3s stability on entering DS.
- Near to Death (Soul Reaping XII): DS has a 5s recharge now.
As you can see, no matter what build you choose, there is plenty of room for traiting DS. With traits, "flashing" becomes a lot better. Let's see what we can do with it. Trait Spiteful Spirit, 15 in Curses with Weakening Shroud, Shrouded Removal, Near to Death. Now you can flash every 5 seconds, and gain 3s retaliation, 5s fury, lose one condition, and cast a spell that is considered good on a 25s recharge. Basically 100% fury uptime, 60% retal uptime, condition removal every 5s, and permanent weakness and 4 bleeds on every enemy in melee. Just by passive traits and flashing f1-f1 on recharge, without even using skills. That's powerful. Or you can opt to have a 10s recharge on this in order to get the only stability the class offers. A very famous PvP tactic is "shroud stomping", as in quickly F1->F to finish someone while in shroud, and Foot in the Grave enhances it greatly.
I will now cover the "standard" build options and how DS can be traited and used to its best extent.
People think that DS has no conditions. This is not true. DS can deliver excellent conditions, and condition damage, with all four skills. Life Blast is probably the worst one - it can "only" place 14 stacks of vulnerability (some AoE too) with Unyielding Blast. It's +14% damage for your party, but it's probably a subpar choice as you're gimping yourself. However, if you have a mesmer in your team with Time Warp, trait Reaper's Might: on a target with already enough bleeds, quickness Life Blast will pump out enough might to make the damage output increase overall. It's not useless! Skill 2 can be used for some free bleeds on a relatively short casting time. Skill 3... you want to trait Terror and Master of Terror, and have some points into Spite for further condition duration, and possibly a giver's staff once they get fixed. With this setup, feat will often tick twice, dealing easily 1000+ damage per tick. That's 2k damage for 0 casting time! And Staff 5 will have the same effect too, AoE on top of that. Very nice if you ask me. On to Skill 4: if you are a condition build it's likely that you have very high Precision in order to exploit Barbed Precision, and you probably have Furious Demise. This means your Skill 4, which pulses 9 times, will apply on average 6 bleeds per target if it always crit - and you're under fury, so if you did your homework right it will crit a lot. That's not bad damage at all, do use it. When your skills are all on CD, flash DS for free fury and crits and bleeds.
Power necro usually uses axe or dagger. My favourite setup is dagger/warhorn for super fast LF generation. Very interesting traits here are of course the Curses and Spite ones, especially Weakening Shroud. My current build is an odd 20(V,VI)/20(IV,VI)/10(II)/0/20(VI,IX) to maximize dagger, staff and DS usefulness. With this build, DS provides: huge ranged damage thanks to the very strong Life Blast; excellent flashing potential, giving you nice retal+fury uptime and pretty much constant weakness on enemies; solid AoE as the high power+crits make Life Transfer hit fairly hard; a gap closer in DS 2. Life force refills extremely quickly with dagger/warhorn, staff does excellent damage with 4 and 5, Soul Reaping gives +20% crit damage that with such high crit chance is awesome. I'm currently working on finishing my jewelry and such, but on Fury I have 70% crit chance and 50% crit damage. Dagger hits for tons of damage. I also like this build because the trait spread allows me to fiddle with majors when I want to try new things: for example, the warhorn trait on Curses is very nice and gives you a loong daze to play with. And more life force thanks to a longer skill 5.
Vit tank Necro
This is a niche build. Not many people play it, I didn't play it extensively, but I know it works very well in dungeons. It should be obvious how DS increases survivability in a tank build. I would like to point out a couple things: Dark Armor is awesome. Dark Armor will work on dagger 2 and DS 4, and 400 toughness is a big deal. Then, Transfusion: it heals everyone else, but it can also heal you! How? Ever remember firing Life Transfer just before depleting the pool, and the skill kept going after you were out of DS? Yep, each pulse after you're out will heal you as well. You can time it for a nice self heal. I should note that with the Bloodthirst trait, which you should have, it's a good idea to run Signet of the Locust because that's another crazy good heal if you're in an AoE situation, and it's a very nice run boost otherwise. Necros can pump out a lot of healing with the right traits, sigils, and consumables.