A Beginner’s Guide to Guild Wars 2 Combat

I’ve been pondering a quick introduction to GW2’s combat ever since the beta weekends and now that so many players are deep down that rabbit hole, I’ve had plenty of time to analyze my own playstyle during various encounters and listen to others experiences. As many have pointed out, combat in GW2 is both similar and different to older MMOs which means depending on where you’re coming from, it will take more or less adjusting.

Naturally, the following beginner tips are all based on these personal experiences, having played several classes during beta and mostly an Elementalist since headstart. If you’re handling yourself just fine in GW2’s combat, then congratulations – this guide is not for you! If you however feel slightly frustrated with the new playstyle, things like damage taken or frequent deaths, maybe you can find something here. For myself, I know it takes time to evolve a playstyle that fits with an MMO this new and comparing notes is always the way to go for me before reaching final conclusions and judgements. I’m still learning how to properly move and work with my Elementalist and here and there I am carrying old MMO baggage in terms of combat mindset. GW2 has different, tactical elements from WoW or Rift for example and beasts of habit that we all are, I think it would be a lie to claim I am not affected, nevermind my general enthusiasm.

So, the following recommendations are sweet and simple my observations and tips for getting into GW2 combat for fellow rookies:

1) Move it, move it, move it!
Level-inappropriate mobs and bad pulls aside, the majority of all my deaths in GW2 so far can be attributed to not moving and dodging enough. I’m not just talking obvious red rings on the ground; many attacks and mob-specific specials can be anticipated and dodged with some experience. Circle- and side-strafing IS your friend to keep tougher mobs at a distance which can’t be kited as much as maybe in other MMOs (they reset quite soon). This is particularly important for all the more squishy, ranged classes out there: mobility and timing are key, which is easily forgotten while taking unnecessary hits. You can move while performing most attacks, so make use of that advantage and remember that most GW2 attacks/spells/projectiles aren’t homing missiles!

Some illustrations for the visually inclined (images expandable):

Take the hit? I don’t think so!
Use line of sight / Circle strafe while casting

If you find your fingers playing twister more than usual, consider using a keybind for lock-on-target that suits you. Obviously mouse key bindings are fantastic for various commands.

2) You have more than 5 attack abilities!
My partner commented that, having played a ranger just a short while and then reading up on it, he had completely missed much of that class’ full potential. Using a more “classic hunter approach”, he had stuck to one pet rather than swapping frequently, and within the same encounter. While at a first glance GW2’s 5 attack skills appear very straightforward, none of the classes actually only have 5 of them and they are also not “your spec”! I am not a fire elementalist; I switch elements all the time during longer fights, to cycle through AoE or kiting abilities as needed or to avoid spells on cooldown. At any given time, I have 20 attack skills to use within the same encounter. More when I switch weapons between fights.

For other classes weapons work the same way in combat, or pets, or turrets. This is your versatility – make use of it and don’t stare at cooldowns unless you want to! If you’re the type that gravitates towards a “rotation”, consider that your rotation can include a lot more than the attacks currently seen on the action bar. If you dislike the use of F-keys for switching, change some key bindings.

A note on auto-attack: At first, the auto-attack in GW2 takes some getting used to. The best way to think of it though is as your “bridge attack”; its not the strongest attack, but it let’s you cycle through different weapons, elements etc. looking for other, active attacks while not doing nothing. Considering that GW2 does encourage frequent switches within longer encounters, one auto-attack ability used as “time bridge” is incredibly well conceived an element. (You can actually re-assign your auto-attack by clicking ctrl+mouse2; I would advise keeping a no/low-cooldown ability though for obvious reasons.)

3) The show ain’t over at death!
Hunter wrote an interesting article pointing out that in GW2 parties don’t just wipe because one or two people are down. If you find yourself in a 5man dungeon for example, there’s the option to rez at a waypoint and run back to your (hopefully) still-fighting buddies as fast as your two feet will carry you. I’ve always liked this approach in other MMOs I’ve played – just because someone is down shouldn’t mean the entire group surrenders! Where’s the challenge in that? Players should be able to make up for each other and try outlast such situations. It can be an incredible rush and fun to make it despite all odds!

Obviously, having no focused roles in GW2 means it’s easier to outlast critical deaths. Roles are fluent and there are no more or less “important people” in a party, the often unforgiving way you’d have it with a holy trinity. This adds tactical and potentially chaotic elements and decreases the sort of downtime where some party members are constantly forced to kill themselves because of others. No, you can still do it – so, don’t give up yet after a death, keep fighting and/or running back!

4) Know your utilities and adapt
It’s easy to get used to the same buffs and abilities in your right skill bar, but many skills have situational value and are worth swapping frequently depending on encounters. If you notice survivability issues for example, maybe it’s worth choosing more oh-shit abilities and debuffs (blind, paralyze, slow etc.) for a while, or pets to get some mob focus off yourself. In some areas enemies use status ailments frequently – that’s when otherwise shunned dispel abilities come handy.

In general, quite a few utility skills you can buy in your character tab probably look a little “useless” at first; however, if you think of them as less permanent and more situational, things change.

5) A word on traits
It’s worth mentioning that your traits especially have significant impact on your overall powers and abilities. Unlike skills which you cannot reset (there are skill points available to buy what you need in abundance), you can reset your traits at your class trainer. Experimenting can make a great difference and it’s how your personal preferences and specific playstyle really come through and impact on overall combat. Is your gear low on a certain stat? Choosing traits accordingly will let you balance that.

…Of course, it only took me 24 levels to realize I actually had traits at first. Oh, blessed are our newbie days! All guides and good intentions aside, enjoy them is all I can tell you – they are wonderful and not here to stay!

P.S. I’ve written a similar overview for leveling and gaining experience points in GW2. It can be found here.


  1. It puzzles me how people are having any trouble in normal combat. I don’t dodge anything, don’t move out of the way of any circles around me, don’t strafe or run about (except for the fun of it). On top of that, I’m usually wearing gear between five and ten levels below my actual level.

    It’s easy, really, really easy to kill multiple even-cons or a little above and not at all difficult to kill ones and twos up to 5 levels higher. (After that they seem to become pretty much invulnerable). There is the factor of which mobs are weak to what to contend with, so the odd higher-level mob does need to be skipped. Veteran mobs are easy enough to solo at level, even with a couple of adds.

    Of course, that’s with a ranger. Haven’t played anything else above level 6 yet!

    1. Hehe…I was just gonna say. I think it varies greatly what you play – I certainly cannot kill packs with my character and I can’t afford to just ignore red circles, certainly not several times. when it comes to special attacks like that or higher level mobs, I can easily take 30-50% HP hits. that’s a big ouch!

      That said I don’t die often, due to moving and using utilities especially. other players commented that casters are ‘all glass, no cannon’ at the moment which I can also confirm for kill speed, compared to some of the melee guys I’ve watched kill stuff next to me.
      I still enjoy my Elem though 🙂 but I hear it’s quite typical for GW that casters shine later in the game.

  2. Thanks for this post! If my guild ever gets a forum I will be linking this there as a part of “Stuff you should read if you are completely new to Guild Wars 2”. I think it will help them far more than my usual advice of “Learn to dodge and move a lot as soon as possible.” 🙂

    As far as combat goes, my experience has been similar to yours in that I can’t ignore red circles and for the most part, move or die. Some fights seem to be getting easier in that I can ignore it though. I think it might be to traits. That or I am just remembering more on using all my skills! (weapon and utility ones)

    1. It’s probably a bit of everything 🙂 you get better routine in using all your skills as you level up and of course traits help a ton, too. I’m not advocating moving a lot for moving’s sake, but in my case it makes a big difference and let’s me focus on more pure damage output, rather than constantly having to CC and debuff mobs so I can stand still. if your overall damage is just average, using many such abilities all the time slows things down even more.

    2. True, true. I don’t keep advocating moving and dodging just because either. It is simply that I found a necessity with all the classes I played, including the warrior in Beta Weekend 1. And considering how some of them have been dying a lot I really don’t know what other advice I can give.

      Anyway, discussion of forums in our guild didn’t bear any fruit so far. So I might as well go and make a blog post with links to guides for newbies at GW2. That way I will know at least some of them will read it, give the info a try and hopefully spread the word among guildies.

  3. I might be completely mistaken since I’ve only played one profession (Guardian) in depth so far, but my suggestion to those finding themselves too squishy and dying in one or two hits is to stack on Vitality. It increases your hp reservoir, so in theory, that should mean you can get away with more.

    It may be a little traumatic a concept for those who’d love to go all damage, all Power, all Precision and glass cannon, but really, can you cannon if you’re downed all the time?

    Also, look into control options in your skills. If you can daze, weaken or whatever, that’s a more debuffed mob more easily killed and reduces the running around in a circle time.

    Then see if any traits can synergize with the skills you favor. My Guardian throws on blind as a matter of course, took a trait that applied vulnerability stacks when you blind something, can immobilize, and also has a trait to apply vulnerability while immobilizing.

    And my recent favorite synergy, when virtue of justice is activated, all allies apply burning in the next hit, any enemies I’m near is blinded (see above vulnerability synergy), and my new shiny trait is that virtue of justice refreshes as a mob dies.

    Instead of having to wait 30 seconds between activations, -everything- around me is now being set on fire (hooray for closet pyromania), and I’ve had to hotkey it to something much more accessible than F1 to press it constantly per mob.

    1. Hehe, that sounds like a nice trait indeed! 😉
      I think I prefer offensive gear paired with good movement; but I am balancing power and vitality via traits. I think there’s more benefit from that than getting loads of vitality on your gear – especially if you’re a class that has average output. my Elem has mostly power/precision gear and it’s still not like I kill mobs 2-3 lvls above me very fast.

      Control is definitely another good point – I don’t actually die often but if I did, I would make more use of slowing and blinding abilities even if that somewhat slows down combat. I find training my movement skills is important right now, also considering PvP later on where it matters greatly to be quick on your feet and avoid stuff.

  4. Ok, I think I need your help here. I play a Norn elementalist, and I die A LOT on story quests. I don’t know if the norn quests are especially hard, or if elementalists are especially weak, or if I’m just a noob and can’t manage dodging and moving out of incomming attacks, but it’s getting frustrating…

    I get better at GW2 combat though : while fighting a single mob I can dodge most range attacks, I can switch between elemental affinities depending about what spell I need or when everything is on cooldown. But it doesn’t get much better in story quests.

    Do you have any tips for playing an elementalist without dying each time you have to fight a stronger enemy ? What healing and other custom abilities do you use ?

    1. Hey there! haha…let me tell you, the personal story is just bad like that. 😀 I have been annoyed greatly by it myself, some of it is simply unbalanced at the moment. you’re not the only one who is dying, trust me – and the NPCs who are supposed to help us are next to worthless imo!

      From all I hear it’s not as bad for melee classes with the personal story, my partner plays a warrior now and had no issues. but Elem feel like ‘all glass, no cannon’ here and there.

      Anyway, I’ve played past the chapter with the large dredge assault on the bridge somewhere around lvl 30….and I only managed not to wipe because I frequently ran away. the NPC “army” was long dead and I was facing several waves of mobs by myself. no idea how you’re supposed to stay alive through this. luckily, for many of the story chapters the fights actually don’t reset; you can run out to heal up and if you died, you can run right back from rez point and the mobs are still not recovered. so in general, my advice on the story quests:

      – run out when you can
      – do them once you ‘outlevel’ content. it helps to be several levels above the indicated story level
      – ask someone to join you; I did this for the tournament chapters. a buddy can actually add damage or debuffs etc. that will aid you a ton!

      Other than this, I always use two elem pets (usually double fire or fire+earth) for more difficult fights; you can get lesser elemental and then choose the elite skill for it, too. I use the 3rd healing skill – other than this there’s only geysir and rain left if you need heals (on staff).
      I have balanced my traits between water/vitality and power/fire now around 50%-50% and that helps a little. Good luck! 🙂

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