How much defense should I be going for? What are the recommendations for choosing between Armor, Evasion, and Energy Shield? How much life do I need while leveling up?
I have been playing on and off since beta but I mostly did races and hardcore (where I died around Act 3) so I never really bothered going past Normal. I’ve been practicing in Domination to learn how to better survive so I can go back to hardcore. I can get up through most of Act 3 without dying but around Scepter of God I find that I just seem to be lacking in defenses even with 50-75% to all resists. I am playing mostly solo or with 1-2 friends.
Should most of my defenses be coming from items, passive tree, or an equal amount from both? What do I need to survive Act 3/Dominus?
Normal difficulty is extremely easy, and you shouldn’t have much trouble, at least not until Imperial Gardens and beyond. A lot of players have no trouble finishing Act 3 in races with no access to decent gear or cheap uniques, so it may be an issue with the build you’re using. Some builds are weaker at first and only become strong after level 70 or so, so try to find one which is equally good in all difficulties and easier or rather safer to level up. Any variant of a Spectral Throw build or max block melee builds like Blenders are extremely popular right now so it should give you a good start to finding a build, if necessary.
In Normal difficulty you probably won’t need resists over 50%, and if you fights against particular nastier bosses like Piety just equip any Topaz ring to get maxed (don’t forget flasks too!). If you can’t kill Dominus don’t sweat about it, he can cause trouble to certain builds: just find a group and play it safe, get one of your friends to help, or pay a fee to someone high level and have them kill him for you. Paying 1 Alchemy or Fusing or whatever is definitely better than dying.
When you start Cruel difficulty you definitely should try your best to keep elemental resistances over 50% minimum, or maxed if possible. Spend points in your skill tree if necessary and if you can, it will allow you to go for more health on your gear. Builds like mine for example have access to +60 to all elemental resistances with “only” 10 points spent, that enables you to almost completely ignore getting resistances on your equipment. As I mentioned, try to focus on getting decent health rolls on most of your items then, and with some skill points you should have more than plenty then.
As a sidenote, leveling with Energy Shield based builds is a lot more dangerous. Even if you intend to go ES in endgame, you should probably focus on life at first, and spec Chaos Inoculation very late (like level 50-70, depending on build and of course gear).
There’s no golden rule for Armor and Evasion, as it very much also depends on other defensive stats (resistances, block, Iron Reflexes, blind, Ondar’s Guile, Acrobatics, and of course health). If you have Iron Reflexes, 40% physical damage reduction is I’d say a minimum you should have and it’s very easy to accomplish anyway (use Grace for leveling, not offensive auras), but try to aim for over 50%. Without Iron Reflexes, 40% chance to evade is good, but try to have at least some armor as well: even a small amount of armor can easily give you 15-20% physical reduction which is important to have even if you’re evasion-based. Use Granite Flasks as well — things like Rhoa’s charge can be dangerous, but the damage can easily be further mitigated since it’s fairly predictable.
In Cruel, but especially in Merciless, side quests can be death traps so try to avoid them until you’re at the very least equal in levels. Overall you should try to be at least 2 levels ahead of the area, so if you’re going into The Fetid Pool, Tidal Island or Flooded Depths in Act 1 Merciless try to be level 60 or higher. If you feel unsafe, group up!
Overall, your build should focus mostly on defense while leveling. Get resistances and tons of health nodes. Most of your damage will come from having decent weapons and more importantly support gems, not from your skill tree. You can always respec a few points later on if your defenses are good and you want to pick up more damage.
For Dominus, group up or find a high level player to help you. In a recent 1 week Nemesis (hardcore) race, a vast majority of players (including myself) died on Dominus in Cruel. He can be tricky, so even if you can breeze easily through other content don’t underestimate him.