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Season 23 of Diablo III has been in full swing since April; those of us who stubbornly refuse to leave Sanctuary have had our hands full optimizing the newly improved companions and documenting the changes made to Firebird’s Finery. And as I watch ‘mom’ Whirlwind her way towards avenging her fallen foremother and recently departed sister (it’s been a rough season), I can’t help but feel the need to tell the tale of a particular grudge I once held for far too long. This has nothing to do with the departure of Blizzard North or the infamous Auction House, but rather a specific character class: the Witch Doctor. What I once viewed as an unwarranted, unnecessary addition to the series has quietly become one of my favorite parts about it.
Such resentment was rooted in Blizzard’s controversial decision to remove Necromancer from Diablo III’s initial launch roster. Why it would take out the one class whose powers perfectly represent the essence of the series was beyond my grasp. After 2017’s Rise of the Necromancer DLC and two releases of The Eternal Collection, I began to see the millions of reasons why the Necromancer was held back. Those familiar with Capcom’s Vergil and his appearances in subsequent iterations of Devil May Cry 3, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, DmC: Vergil’s Downfall, Devil May Cry 4, and Devil May Cry 5 might understand the monetary politics at play here, whether they want to or not.
Unfortunately, it took me even longer to look past my own preconceived notions about the Necromancer’s supposed successor, and it was more difficult to do than one might think. Not only does the Witch Doctor’s deliberate attempt to be recast in the “creepy dark summoner” role come off as more than a little forced, aesthetically the class mixes with the established lore like oil and water. When I think about Diablo, throwing frogs or jars of spiders isn’t what comes to mind (nor do piranha, but we’ll get to that later). The idea that the nephalem, sacred fulcrum in the eternal conflict between the High Heavens and Burning Hells, would dress like Aku-Aku from Crash Bandicoot while contemplating the advantages of weaponized flatulence is difficult to accept. But in a cynical universe where the continued existence of man was determined by a single celestial vote, it starts to feel more and more justified in a strange way.
From a gameplay perspective, comparisons to the Necromancer are both frequent and unavoidable. Zombie Dogs are a surprisingly effective replacement for Raise Skeleton, and can emulate the effects of Corpse Explosion when paired with Sacrifice. Gargantuan is a lovable lug in the vein of Diablo II‘s golems that gains its most useful ability early on and remains viable through Adventure Mode. Wall of Death runes ‘Ring of Poison’ and ‘Surrounded by Death’ mimic Poison Nova and Bone Prison respectively, paying homage to the undead fraternity. Pygmy fetishes, along with their shaman leaders, subtly make their presence felt through a variety of skills and legendary equipment, overwhelming the battlefield with dozens of diminutive denizens.
Horrify lacks the variety the ‘Curses’ tab once held, replacing all pretences with straightforward incapacitation. The Witch Doctor can’t quite beat the Necromancer at its own game, but ultimately it’s not trying to. What it’s doing is taking the best elements of that playstyle and successfully blending it together with other flavors to make a dish of its own.
A curious dose of Sorcerer/ess DNA from the early days of Diablo can also be called upon, becoming a powerful supplement for a fledgling Witch Doctor’s summoning abilities. Plague of Toads is essentially an amphibian-themed Charged Bolt, still reliable in its erratic uncertainty. Acid Rain is reminiscent of Blizzard’s debilitating area of effect, while Firebats invoke Inferno to great effect. Zombie Runner’s proud lineage dates back to Diablo‘s Elemental; add Wall of Death’s ‘Fire Wall’ rune alongside ‘Dire Bats’ (a winged Fireball), and players can quickly end up with a build that would feel right at home stalking battle.net.
It takes time for a Witch Doctor to grow into the skills that define the character, and weaning off of the familiar trappings of other classes is a daunting yet rewarding experience. Soul Harvest is a personal buff that grows stronger as enemies are caught in its radius. A 15% intelligence boost might not be much at Level 9, but at Paragon Level 548 it starts to become more significant. Haunt is a visually unimpressive spell that belies its true nature as a devastating, cancerous force that undermines the enemy from within. Locust Swarm functions similarly as a replacement or partner in crime, creating a miasma that spreads with such efficiency that bodies will litter the ground from screens away with no hint of having contained a vessel. Spirit Walk is a traversal tool that allows players to walk through foes, a technique whose usefulness eventually becomes apparent in time. The fire-and-forget nature of Spirit Barrage is quick to become a favorite, effortlessly fitting in with a variety of skills.
Hex transforms unsuspecting enemies into chickens; properly attuned, a Witch Doctor can bestow this ability upon itself. One might question the viability of this tactic, but all I ask for is indulgence before crying fowl. ‘Piranhado’ is somehow self-explanatory, despite lacking a proper definition. The last thing I would expect from Diablo is a reference to the Sharknado movie cycle, but once it made its way into my rotation, I had a hard time throwing it back.
Due to their various playstyles and general malleability, Witch Doctors are an excellent choice to use in Hardcore Mode. It’s when the chips are on the table that the similarities to other classes fall to the wayside and allow a Witch Doctor’s uniqueness to shine through. A pet-heavy summoning style of play can still work if so desired, but using it as a compliment instead of the focus opens the door to new possibilities. Renouncing stalwarts like Zombie Dogs and Fetish Sycophants can be a tough mental block to overcome, but similar effects can be gained from the Visage of Giyua and Belt of Transcendence. These items and their ilk still allow for the potential to field plenty of minions, freeing up precious skill slots to ensure maximum mayhem.
A Witch Doctor’s greatest strength lies in establishing full-spectrum dominance over the environment, but doing so requires a discipline that other classes lack. It also highlights the key difference that separates them from their macabre contemporaries. Whereas a Necromancer’s main goal is to stay as far away from the frontlines as possible, acting as an overseer or distant conductor, a Witch Doctor must do the opposite and charge head first into the fray for their skills to have optimal effect.
This is where Spirit Walk and turning into a chicken come into play, as Horrify, Soul Harvest, and Locust Swarm are best cast at the epicenter of a monster mob. The importance of engaging up close can’t be understated, to the point where the Illusory Boots’ usually benign ability to walk through enemies can take on a significant role. Unfortunately, it’s also in this instance where the class’ weaknesses are on full display and it’s crucial they be recognized.
The requirement of being in melee range but lacking the defensive tools to remain there creates the paradox that defines the Witch Doctor. Regardless of ultimate build or loadout, a hit-and-run style will eventually have to be adopted. Clouding the issue further is the fact that the majority of a Witch Doctor’s output comes from damage over time (DoT). From pets or pestilence-type effects, it’s going to take slightly longer to destroy the legions of Hell than it will for some of the other classes. A Witch Doctor’s damage can be as impressive as a Barbarian or Crusader, but they simply can’t apply it as directly or as quickly – there’s also the survivability factor to consider. Heed these words wisely, lest you end up in the Hall of the Fallen.
Diablo III may not have hit the ground running like its predecessors but, warts and all, it’s been a positive experience reinforced by a decade’s worth of continued support. No other class is as emblematic of the game’s trials and tribulations as the Witch Doctor. With its pet-friendly playstyle, crude elemental spells, and transformational abilities, what initially comes off as a poor man’s Necromancer gradually blossoms into the successor of the Druid. Chickens and zombie bears won’t necessarily appeal to everyone, but like the flamboyant visuals value can be found if you look hard enough beyond them. If you happen to be one of the chosen few still doing bounties for Tyrael while waiting for Diablo II: Resurrected, Diablo Immortal, or Diablo IV to release, consider taking the Witch Doctor out on a pilgrimage before season’s end.
The voices of the Unformed Land speak to all of us, but can only be heard by those willing to listen.