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In Diablo 2 there were a number of ways to make life much more difficult on yourself if you made the wrong choices on the skill tree. The skill tree is gone and it seems that changing between "builds" will be very easy to accomplish.

Are there any choices that can be made early on that will make the game particularly difficult?

Conversely are there any builds that seem to be particularly strong for getting up to the Skeleton King?

For example if using a ranged demon hunter does the lack of a shield strongly handicap you? Are there creatures that could close too quickly to avoid taking a lot of damage?

If playing a melee demon hunter, does the available skill options work against you even though you have higher defence?

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The beauty about Diablo 3 is there really is no wrong way to build. Because of the open talent system you will be able to switch around and find a build that suits you. I am yet to see a skill on the Demon Hunter that is noticably useless it is just how you play. Becasue everyones play style differs it is very difficult to suggest a build that might suit you. I suggest you get in there and try out the skills, you never know what you might come up with and what is very effective for you. You don't want to not use skills and miss out on some cool things. I have played countless games that I picked up and never realized certain things exsisted because I was going with an "Optimal build".

As far as reaching and killing the Skeleton King I found kiting him and using Caltrops and Rapid Fire worked the best for me. You should also carry Vault so you can roll away from him when he jumps at you. It is much easier with a friend, but in no way impossible alone.

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If you're anything like me, you'll be roughly level 10 when you meet the Skeleton King.

Prior to level 10, you are going to have very few options. You'll have maybe 2 choices for each ability type. As such, the range of "builds" is very limited.

Also, since you're playing a single-player game, there's not really a stick by which you can measure whether you are "poor" or "strong". As long as you aren't dying excessively, you're doing fine.

Pick the abilities that are fun for you to use!

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"Pick the abilities that are fun for you to use"??? What kind of absurd advice is that in a Blizzard title???? :-) –  Tharius May 15 '12 at 13:03
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I don't know about bad builds, but I killed him at level 8(?) with hungering arrows (cinder), impale (impact) and caltrops - without any trouble.

Just give it a try and if it doesn't work, try another build

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I took out the skeleton king the first time with, caltrops, rapid fire and hungering arrow. Later in a multiplayer (2 lvls later) I took in rapid fire, bolas, and caltrops and wrecked him.. Bolas may be the best with their AOE.

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