The following text has a lot of plot and game mechanic spoilers, so if you haven’t played through the game yet, you should bail out now.
PVP is truly the last bastion of the Dark Souls addict. Most players only interact with it as a consequence of trying to use the co-op system to summon help for bosses. As we all know, this opens you up to invasions by hostile players whose only goal is to kill you and steal your stuff.
For me, PVP was the last thing in the game that I hadn’t done and one more thing that seemed hopeless to even try to master. “But hey”, I said to myself, “I learned to dodge Manus, maybe I can get somewhere here too.” And anyway, what else is one going to do while one waits for Dark Souls 2? So I spent a couple of months fiddling with it.
The Big Picture
To win at Dark Souls PVP, follow the follwing simple steps:
Don’t get backstabbed.
Hit them more than they hit you.
Don’t get backstabbed.
Where and How
The PVP system in Dark Souls is based around the covenants. There are five covenants that can set up player vs. player duels:
Darkwraiths. These are the red douchebags who invade you when you are human and trying to kill the area boss. You join the Darkwraiths by killing the Four Kings before you place the Lord Vessel and talking to the other snake. You can then invade people who are human but who have not yet killed the boss in a given area. You can invade all over, but the two main places with regular action are the Undead Burg and the Township area in the DLC. Lots of people will just hang out there waiting for invaders.
Darkmoon. These guys are associated with Gwyndolin, my least favorite boss. You invade as a blue phantom under various conditions. The two areas above see some of this action as well as Anor Londo.
Gravelord. This is complicated. I don’t feel like explaining it, so read about it here: http://darksouls.wikidot.com/gravelord-servant.
Path of the Dragon. This is also complicated. Again you can refer to the wiki: http://darksouls.wikidot.com/path-of-the-dragon.
Finally, the Forest Hunters. These guys work for that cat. They invade anyone who is human in the forest while Sif is alive. Don’t go there. It’s the worst.
I have mostly concentrated on Darkwraith invasions. You get the red eye orb, try some fights, and you don’t lose too much if you lose (you just have to remember to grab the blood stain).
In PVE I always liked the magic builds (plus pyro) because most of the enemies were fairly weak against it. I had run both spell-based and miracle-based characters with reasonable success. However, when I got one of those characters into a PVP fight, three things would happen:
I get backstabbed. More on this later.
Everyone would dodge the spells and miracles.
The split damage of the non-physical weapons was only marginally useful. So I’d be hitting for half the damage as the other guy.
Then I would get backstabbed again. I also could not survive backstabs because I had not learned to carry enough hit points. If I didn’t get backstabbed, I would get stunlocked to death (more on this later) because I didn’t have enough stamina for heavier armor.
Builds matter more in PVP than in the normal game. The main issue is that you need to have a minimal level of stamina and vitality. Stamina lets you carry the gear you need. Vitality allows you to survive hits from the gear everyone else is carrying. The generally accepted minimal values here are 40 and 40, give or take a few points.
Next you need to pick the stat that will deal your damage. As in the PVE there are three main choices: damage based on magic (be it INT or FAITH), elemental damage (no scaling) or physical damage (STR and DEX).
After failing with FAI and INT builds I finally got the bright idea to try a “quality” build. This is a build based on both STR and DEX and uses weapons that having scaling on both stats. 28-32 STR and 40 DEX are the standards, and you can carry pyro to the game too for emergencies. This turned out to work well for three main reasons:
Pure physical damage is really effective with the right weapons.
The combination of high DEX and STR lets you try many different weapons to find the ones you like.
Finally, remembering to also carry 40 VIT and 45 END made sure that I could carry better armor and survive backstabs. You could do this with any build, but I had never emphasized it before because you can survive the PVE with relatively low VIT.
It turned out that my favorite PVP weapon is the Halberd, which works optimally in a quality build.
So, I like quality builds, but they are not the only way to go. Some others that you’ll see are:
Hybrid buff builds. Here you use DEX or STR weapons plus a buff with either the faith (Darkmoon blade, Sunlight blade) or the slightly weaker magic (Crystal Magic Weapon).
Pure VIT and Stamina builds. Google for “Giant dad” to get an idea what this is about.
High level combo pack builds. These guys will start you with Sunlight blade, then switch to magic (and also dark magic) and then when you are down they’ll spam you with Wrath of the Gods. Oh and they’ll be high VIT and also have tons of stamina as well.
Pure magic builds. These guys are better than me and beat me all the time with the builds that I always lost with. This is particularly true with builds that pump INT.
Pure DEX builds. These guys leap around and swing fast weapons at you until you are dead. I hate them. Especially the ones using spears.
By convention most PVP builds cap out at around level 120. This is the usually the lowest level at which you can get your all your stats up high enough. You don’t want to go too much higher because the matchmaking system does level matching, and you can’t invade people who are much lower in level than you.
You will find though that people who only host invasions tend to be much higher level than you. They know that you can still invade them (you can invade other players who are arbitrarily higher level than you) and they are not interested in playing as invaders. The flip side is that they are hard to kill.
Armor and Poise
Armor in Dark Souls is different than other games. In most action RPGs heavy armor lets you tank damage. That is, you can stand there and take hits and still dish out pain. In Dark Souls even the heaviest armor will only let you take five or six big hits before you are dead. The real utility of armor is stacking poise. Poise lets you take a hit without being staggered. So if someone hits you, you can hit them right back. If you hit harder than they do, you can just keep tanking the hit until they die.
But, depending on the weapon they are using each hit saps your poise. When your poise hits zero you get stunned and you can’t move for about a second. If they hit you again while you are stunned and your poise has not recovered, you are stunned again. If they keep hitting, you remain stunned until you are dead. This is called stunlocking and the tactic is so effective that even I can use it to win.
To not get routinely stunlocked you should have an armor set that has around 53 poise. This makes sure that you can tank one handed hits from most weapons. You’ll still have trouble with the really big things. But you should try to dodge those.
Note also that the Wolf Ring gives you 40 poise for no weight, and is nice thing to use.
As I’ve said before, Dark Souls has a lot of weapons. Pick the ones you like and try to learn how to use them well. The main weapon tradeoffs are between range, attack speed, and damage.
I like longer, slower weapons that let me get hits at range. My favorites are the Halberd and the Gargoyle Halberd. Also, nothing beats pancaking people with the Zweihander. I should also love the Claymore, but for some reason it just doesn’t work for me. I can’t hit anyone, and when I do get a hit I tend to die trying to chain together a combo. Might just need more practice.
I am comparatively awful with the tiny little fast weapons like the Falchion or the rapiers. I am also no good with shorter swords (Uchi, Long Sword, BSS). I have not mastered the art of closing in, taking a swipe and getting out again.
The Halberd lets me keep my distance and hit in safe windows. It also has great damage in a quality build and can easily stunlock people who have low poise. On the downside you tend to get backstabbed if you miss. Also, the slower speed of the weapon puts me at a disadvantage against the very weapons that I am the worst at using: the fast DEX weapons. Generally if I get in a fight against a DEX guy I’ll stupidly try to trade hits and die as my DPS is only about half of his.
Anyway, here’s a nice video on the Halberd. That guy has vidoes on many of the most interesting weapons. And he’s much better at PVP than me.
In general you should try and use as many different weapons as possible so you are less predictable and so you can find your favorites. On the other hand, whenever I try something different (bows, short weapons, dual wielding, no shield, etc) I’m much more likely to lose. So maybe not.
Don’t get Backstabbed
The best fights in PVP are the straight up one on one duels. Here’s what you try to do to win:
Don’t get backstabbed.
Try and hit him without getting hit.
Don’t get backstabbed.
The backstabbing mechanic is a bit of a strange thing, because you don’t need to be in back of the opponent to backstab him. You just need to be on the back part of his shoulder. The first 100 or 200 times you get backstabbed you will be completely bewildered as to where the stab came from. This will be especially true if you were trying to maneuver behind your opponent to try and get a backstab yourself. What will end up happening is that you will miss, she will pivot and be behind you, and then she will put her sword between your shoulder blades.
It really sucks.
So don’t fish for backstabs. This just gets people mad, and gets you backstabbed. The way to avoid them is to keep your opponent in front of you and always be moving backwards. Try and wait for them to take a swing at you before countering. This way you know they are not just waiting for you to swing so they can jump in back of you and kill you.
If you do take a non-counter swing, make sure you roll out of it and maintain your position so no one can get behind you for the stab. This takes a bit of practice, but will become second nature once you get paranoid enough. It will also increase the time that you survive in fights by about 500%. Then you can actually practice trying to hit with your weapon rather than just dying from another backstab.
When I finally started managing to avoid backstabs I found that I could win fights by stunlocking people with my trusty halberd. Cheap R1 spam is cheap of course, but if the player were good he’d just parry me and I’d be dead anyway. So I think it all evens out in the end.
By convention you aren’t supposed to heal in PVP fights. Of course the host can heal normally, while the invader can’t heal except by popping humanities. Occasionally you will lose a fight because the host heals over and over again until he chips you to death. If this annoys you you can always throw Lloyd’s Talismans at your opponent, which makes the estus unusable for a short period. I find that this makes the game too complicated so I just tend to lose and go to the next fight instead.
Gankers are people who host invasions while also summoning two of their friends to help. They will then camp the spawn point, and so as you show up all three guys in Giants or Havels armor will all be killing you at once. These days what will happen is:
One guy will freeze you with Tranquil Walk of Peace (TWOP).
The other two will cast high level magic on you, usually Dark Bead and WOG at the same time.
Then one or more of them will hit you with a Zwei and stunlock you to death. Or maybe one will be waiting behind you and backstab you with a giant axe as you spawn. That’s great too.
The forest is the main haven for ganking. Really good players can win against 2 or 3 opponents, but I’ve never managed to. Usually what I do is try to run away. Sometimes you can make it to safer ground and try to get the enemies in the level to take them out. I also like to try and Firestorm them to death. But it never works. Faith characters can always use Wrath of the Gods as well.
Anyway, it’s at least a quick way to die. Then you can get on to the next fight.
It’s best to expect to lose, especially early on. That way you can learn what you did wrong rather than dwelling on your inner rage. Just try and remember all the clever and cheap ways people killed you. It won’t work for you (it never does for me) but if you remember it you can avoid it next time.
I’ve gotten to the point where on good days I can lose about half the time. On average days it’s more than 70%. And on bad days I’ll lose nine out of ten. I’m bad at beating people with fast weapons or spears. Spears are especially bad for some reason. I get destroyed in most 2 or 3v1 situations so I usually don’t even try.
Winning is fun, but just having a good fight is really enough.
But, the best thing is stun locking some high level guy who is carrying both miracles and dark magic, but forgot to wear the right armor and can’t parry me. There are a remarkable number of level 300 or 400 people out there who fall for this. It’s sort of sad. You can tell what level your opponent was by how many souls you get when you kill him. As an invader you get 10% of the souls the other player would have needed to level up. So if the player falls and you suddenly get (say) 300,000 more souls that means she was around level 481. If you were the host, then you get 50% of the souls needed to level, so at 300K the invader would have been around level 260.
The very best thing is a long fight that ends with both of you dead at the very same time. There is something comical about watching the two on-screen characters fall over at the same time in that little animation that the game does. And of course, if you invaded, you still get all the souls.
Don’t get backstabbed.
Use enough poise, or know what to avoid if you are using a low poise build.
Don’t get parried either. Good players will predict your attack patterns and hit you with speculative parries, so try and remember to use different attacks with different speeds and from different angles. I get parried a lot because I R1 spam my Halberd trying to get a good stunlock all the time.
Dodge magic. You can’t block it, but you can usually roll through it. Even Wrath of the Gods.
Keep a surprise in your pocket. I tend to fight straight up melee but then I like to whip out Firestorm, a big area of attack fire spell once in a while. It hardly ever hits because it’s pretty easy to avoid, but once in while you’ll get someone who thinks they can backstab you and gets caught in the fire instead. That’s great. Esp. when it hits for 1007 points.
I don’t understand how parrying works. So I have no help for you there. I certainly don’t understand you can parry then switch a ring and a weapon in the equipment menu … and then riposte, like this guy does. I get a random backstab once in a while though.
Watch out for people who dead angle you while you try to block with you shield. Also watch out for people who use the Shotel on you if you are shield turtling. Also, learn to dead angle or use the Shotel when someone is turtling against you.
Don’t let the gankers get you down. Don’t worry about losing. Just roll to the next fight.