Starting Path of Exile in 2020

A beginner's guide and advice for maximizing your Path of Exile experience.

Last updated on February 26, 2020. Created on January 11, 2020.

I tried Path of Exile in 2013, back when it came out, and I was not impressed. What I wanted out of it was a modern replacement for Diablo II, but what I got was imitation crab: krab. Other people saw potential in PoE and stuck with it, whereas I ruined my life with other ARPGs such as Dark Souls. And, yes, I regret to admit Diablo III scratched the itch better than PoE.

But not in 2020.

So if you have a latent gambling addiction and the desire to forget everyone you know and love, then PoE is the game for you.

Why Play?

  • It's free, with a reasonably fair and ethical microtransaction shop to support continued development.
  • It's easily accessible on Steam (and compatible with Linux via Proton).
  • It feels like the spiritual successor to Diablo II more than anything else does.
  • You can play it entirely by yourself, or with friends.
  • The game is updated with new content every few months in the form of leagues, as in Metamorph where you harvest organs to construct your own abominable bosses.
  • There's a skill tree that enables almost any playstyle you can imagine.
  • There are ten acts in the game with randomized maps and monstrosities lurking around every corner.

Where to Begin?

Download and install the game, maybe with Steam if you want. And Linux users, be sure to activate Steam Play (Proton).

Screenshot of Steam Play window.

Go ahead. Join the Linux master race.

Simultaneously, download and install the latest Path of Building release. This is third-party software that helps you plan your character. It supports importing others' builds through Pastebin links. I will add that it runs well on Linux through Wine.

While the game downloads, look over the ascendancy classes. The starter classes may seem kind of dull, but the ascendancy classes better reflect the archetypes of play, long before "ascension." Which general archetype appeals to you? Do you prefer ranged or close-quarters combat? Are you more of a trickster, or an assassin? Are you okay with being squishy, or not?

Before you create your character, search for strong builds in the current league. Most, if not all of them, will have Pastebin links for importing into Path of Building, along with an accompanying guide. Familiarize yourself with these resources and follow them.

Now, you might be wondering, Why do I need to follow somebody else's build? That's awful restrictive. I thought this game emphasized choice.

The thing is, you're a beginner⁠—you'll know enough to make or adapt builds after you play the game a bit. But if you insist, just keep in mind that you can't just redo your build if you mess things up. You only get some "refund" points throughout the course of the game, so choose your skills wisely or else you'll have to recreate your character.

Configure

Now that the game is installed, you may want to go to Options and change some settings. Under the Graphics tab, I actually disable dynamic resolution, which is contrary to the official recommendation. While the idea of dynamic resolution is to adjust resolution depending on load, I find that it just makes lag feel worse.

Screenshot of the predictive networking setting.

Toggling predictive mode.

Likewise, under the UI tab, I change the network mode to predictive because I occasionally get ridiculous latency spikes. If you have issues with lag or latency, press F1 to view some real-time diagnostic graphs. They won't make you feel any better, but you can see them nonetheless.

Still under UI, I prefer enabling always highlight, which means to always highlight items. Starting off with this setting is probably a good idea so you don't have to press ALT every time you kill something to find your loot (alternatively, you may want to use the spacebar to see loot instead of ALT for comfort). I also opt to always show sockets as well. I'll discuss sockets and gems later.

Play

Select the current league. I warn against hardcore mode when you start out, since, if you die in that mode, then your character is transferred to standard mode, meaning that you're no longer in the league. And by the way, that's also what happens when a league ends: your characters in a given, ending league are transferred to standard. I like this much more than permadeath.

Devise a stupid character name, then try to play at least the first act by yourself. This will help you learn the game without other people slowing you down or leaving you behind. If, during the first act, you're finding the game too challenging, unintuitive, or weird, I implore you to try a different class before you give up. Once you find the right class, you'll be hooked.

Character creation screenshot.

Toss a coin to your witch.

If/when you ever want to play with other people, notice that the Social window is accessible by pressing S, or by clicking on a noticeboard in a town. One tab is for public parties. Many parties are noob-friendly, fortunately for you.

Be social—or not—who plays online games with other people, anyway?

Stash & Inventory Management

The game loop is basically slaying monsters and finding loot until one's inventory is full. Once that happens, you have to portal back to town and find a way to free up space. Inventory management is one of the most challenging aspects of PoE, so I'll demystify it: When you're intent on mindlessly dispatching beasts, just portal to town and throw like-sized items into respective stash tabs, conserving precious space.

A bunch of like-sized crap.

Then keep monster hunting until you need a break, which will entail eating chicken tendies while you sort through your stash. Of course, if you find something you can immediately use while out in the field, go ahead, but most items you find won't be directly applicable to your build.

In spite of all that inventory management, if, after the first three or four acts, you find don't have enough space, then go to the microtransaction shop (by pressing M) and consider buying the First Blood Pack. As of this writing, it's twenty bucks. It buys you an extra stash tab, a weapon skin, and 200 coins. Presently, with those 200 coins, you can afford six premium stash tabs, which you can name and color to your liking. Since premium tabs can be listed on your public profile, you can use them to sell items to other players.

Premium stash tabs, for the premium sort of person.

Looting

It will become apparent that lots of items drop on the ground. Should you pick up all of them?

I certainly don't.

For the first few levels, I pick up white items (since I literally have nothing). These are regular items. For the remainder of the first act, I only pick up blues (magic), yellows (rares), oranges (uniques), and golds (currency). Sometime into the second act and from that point forward, I only pick up yellows, oranges, and golds. The exception to this rule is if the item is a flask, or if it has the right sockets and connections between sockets. After all, regular items can be upgraded to be magic or rare, and even sockets and connections can be modified.

Sockets & Gems

Most gems are basically spells and abilities that you are granted upon socketing them into your equipment (accessible by the mouse buttons and QWERT keys). Other gems are passive in nature, being support gems. Support gems, well, support other gems; however, the only way a support gem will work is if there is a connection (line) between it and the gem it's intended to support.

All that said, with or without proper support gems, merely socketing any gems into your equipment will level them up. That's right: each individual gem as an item levels up independently of all others, even if it's not being used. That's why, if there's a support gem you can't really "use" now, it's still a good idea to socket it, assuming it will be useful at some point in the future.

Identifying & Selling Items

A hard problem related to inventory management is figuring out when to identify and sell items. After all, if you can't get rid of items, then they're still taking up space. Which items do you identify? Which ones should be sold? Should you identify items before selling them?

Generally speaking, if you have plenty of identification (wisdom) scrolls, then you should identify as many items as possible prior to selling them. If you must free up space without identifying them, then it's still okay to sell items that you obviously wouldn't use (if you're a caster, I doubt you'll use an axe).

Note that there are a couple cases where you don't need to identify items before selling them:

  1. The item has R-G-B connected sockets (in any order), which will sell for a Chromatic Orb.
  2. The item has six sockets, yielding seven Jeweller's Orbs.

Those "prices" don't change, even following identification.

Also, I often find I have plenty of portal scrolls, but not enough wisdom scrolls. At any vendor, be aware that you can trade portal scrolls for wisdom scrolls on a one-to-one basis. Pretty handy.

Conclusion

It's an exciting time to try Path of Exile. And remember, you don't have to buy anything. That which you can buy is either organizational (like stash tabs) or aesthetic (skins). The game's makers, Grinding Gear Games, are expanding to develop Path of Exile 2. (Confusingly, it's also called Path of Exile 4.0, since the current major version is 3.0.)

Path of Exile 2 will be layered on top of the existing game, so none of the previous content will go away. It introduces several new acts, graphical improvements including physically-based rendering, shapeshifting, ascendancy classes, a more intuitive (and far more beginner-friendly) gem socketing system, and more.

Watch the gameplay preview of Path of Exile 2 here. It will likely be released in 2021. In the meantime, remember that you have several builds to entertain, ten acts to journey through, a few leagues to enjoy, capture the flag, PvP, the infinite Azurite mines, abyss encounters, corrupted areas, etc.

© Reese Schultz

My code is released under the MIT license.