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I'd like to know the exact difference between "burning" and "ignite" and what effect it has on player builds.

How I currently think it works:
"ignite" is a hit (caused by a fire "attack" or "spell").
"burning" is the "damage over time" (DoT) "effect" caused by the "ignite" hit.

Yes I did read the update notes and the wiki page. But every time I talk to someone about it I hear a different explanation.
For context: I currently play with a character using Flame Totem and Scorching Ray.

  • In the upcoming 3.0 update there are a lot of changes to DoT. If it isn't out yet, it's considered off-topic for this site. – Timmy Jim May 11 '17 at 13:49
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    Okay, thanks for reminding. Information about 3.0 is considered a bonus then. ;) The question still stands. No need to Close Vote, an edit is enough :) – miva2 May 11 '17 at 13:52
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Barring the damage over time changes that will be implemented in the upcoming 3.0 update...

Ignite refers to the elemental status ailment, which causes burning. Per the Path of Exile wiki:

Ignite is an elemental status ailment associated with fire that causes the affected target to take burning damage (fire damage over time).

Burning is more simple - it is the fire damage taken over time:

Burning refers to any fire damage over time effect.

So based on these 2 definitions, it seems that Ignite is one method which can cause burning. This is further supported by the Mechanics section on the Burning page of the wiki, which lists Ignite as the first source of burning damage:

There are several sources of burning, for example:

  • Ignite
  • Burning ground (Fire Trap, Flame Dash, etc.)
  • Righteous Fire
  • Searing Bond
  • Scorching Ray

So your take on the difference is pretty close: burning is definitely the fire-related damage over time. However I would characterize Ignite as a Status Ailment rather than a hit. So functionally, you would use an attack that has a chance to Ignite - this, if successful, would give the enemy the status ailment of Ignite, causing them to take burning damage.

You can read in greater detail about the mechanics of Ignite, how it relates to burning, and how other factors (like resistance, critical strikes, etc) affect Ignite here.

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Burning damage seems to be the broad category of fire-based DoT effects and includes both ignite and burning ground damages. This is why an increased burning damage support gem will affect both. From development manifesto - part 1 emphasis my own.

As an example, Ignite can be modified by modifiers to Burning Damage, Fire Damage, Damage Over Time, general damage modifiers, and resistances.

Ignite is a more specific type which is an ailment DoT applied to an enemy or player. Other sources of burning damage comes from things like the burning ground from map mods and fire traps, and herald of ash which will have it's own unique burning effect. From DoT changes: more info - part 1.

Burning Ground is not Ignite. ... Since Burning Ground applies Burning Damage to things within an area, it will always be considered Area Damage, and affected by relevant modifiers.

and

Herald of Ash has been reworked. Rather than applying Ignite to enemies, it applies its own unique burning effect. ... Since this is a new kind of burning effect, it will stack with existing forms of burning, including Ignite.

  • Note that while this info is from the posts on the 3.0 updates it applies to the current game as well. They are just cleaning up the system for the 3.0 update mostly involving double dipping and getting modifiers from sources they shouldn't. This classification will not be changed after the 3.0 release apart from herald of ash having a unique effect. – VanBuzzKill May 11 '17 at 16:51

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