The Maddening Jump
Posted by Raxistaicho | August 14 2020
3H Meta Contest August 2020 Winner
The difficulty jump between hard and maddening in Fire Emblem Three Houses is both notorious and daunting. If you're here you've probably already heard the rumors, of non-existent exp, super-powered enemies, and a Death Knight that moves. As a day-one buyer, I was there the day the difficulty setting was patched into the game, and like what I presume to be most at the time, I didn't buy into the hype for the challenge. Then I got to the Great Tree Moon Mock Battle and found even my strongest units like Byleth and Edelgard getting overwhelmed. After several unsuccessful tries, I was forced to adjust my strategy.
It's a simple fact that normal and hard difficulties teach the player bad habits that will seriously inhibit success in maddening until they're identified and adjusted. As somebody who had to do that before there was any known meta for the difficulty, I'm here to help you with that step.
Understand enemy power creep.
The first and most crucial thing to know is that enemies are strong on maddening. It's hard to get a proper grasp for how large a difference there is until you experience it for yourself. In the Great Tree Moon mock battle, the rival students are level 2 on normal, 3 on hard, and 7 on maddening. In the Red Canyon fight in chapter 2, the bandits are level 2 on normal, 4 on hard, and 9 on maddening. Meanwhile, you'll be lucky to have Byleth or your house leader at level 5, and about half your students will still be level 1!
Forget doubling enemies, more often than not you'll be getting doubled, even faster units like Petra. Meanwhile, individual enemies are matching even Byleth, Edelgard, and Dimitri blow-for-blow, and one-rounding your frailer units like your mages and archers. Normal and hard teach you to charge out and take enemies head on, but you'll quickly find yourself getting destroyed if you try that on maddening. Although the stat deficit does reduce the further you get, don't expect your units to be taking enemies in fair fights for the first few chapters.
Enemies are also given additional skills on maddening, almost always determined by their class. Most notably, archers and snipers will have poison strike, dealing percent health damage with each landed attack, while thieves and assassins will have pass, letting them walk through your units and reach your vulnerable back line.
And as if to add insult to injury, you'll be finding yourself leveling up more slowly than on lower difficulties. Experience gains are pretty mercilessly throttled on maddening difficulty. If you're even within three levels of the enemies you're facing, you won't be earning much from killing them, so don't expect to win through by just heavily grinding your powerhouses.
You must learn to fight smart, and only fight enemies on your terms - at least when you can.
Manage enemy aggression.
The earliest chapters of maddening are an exercise in turtling and managing enemy spacing.
Don't charge into the middle of enemy danger ranges, wait at their edges and let them come to you. Use your strongest, fastest units (usually this will be Byleth, but Dedue, Felix, Leonie, and Petra are also good at this) to draw enemies out, and then gang up on them when it's your turn. Make sure they die before they get a chance to move again, especially if it's thieves or archers we're talking about.
Using lighter weapons is crucial for drawing enemies out with minimum risk. With the exception of Dedue, it's always better to avoid getting doubled than to deal a few more points of damage. Iron Gauntlets, Training Swords, and Mini Bows are excellent weapons to reduce your odds of getting doubled. Remember, it takes 5 points of strength to mitigate 1 point of weapon weight. Lighter weapons are king on enemy phase. Let your units with heavier weapons - your steel weapons, lances, and axes - do the fighting on player phase, when you can kill enemies without them getting a swing in on you (more on that in the next section).
Once enemies switch off to steel weapons, they'll start dealing pretty crushing damage, but they'll generally stop doubling. Even the speedy thieves are hindered pretty badly by a steel sword. Once they further upgrade to silver weapons, though, enemy damage starts getting pretty scary. At that point, you want to either use heavily defense-stacked units (Fortress Knights with defensive battalions and the thickest shields you've got CAN be viable in certain situations!) or build up units with high evade (so-called dodge tanks, often flying units with Alert Stance or the upgraded Alert Stance + and as many other evasion-boosting accessories, skills, and battalions as you've got) to lure in enemies.
In maddening, you'll be doing most of your fighting on player phase, while enemy phase is almost entirely dedicated to bringing enemies safely into your range. Don't expect to emulate glorious past exploits of sending your units in with hand axes and javelins and watching them kill everything around them with impunity.
Lastly, there'll come times when enemies are simply too numerous in a small area to defeat them all on your turn. That's where gambits come in. On normal and hard, gambits are just a nice boost, often to dish out area of effect damage. On maddening, they're crucial to survival.
Any enemy struck by a gambit, unless they have the General or Commander ability (bosses and sub-bosses), are rattled, nerfing their stats and preventing them from moving on their next turn (they can still attack if you leave units in their range!). A dead enemy is preferable, but rattling an enemy you can't kill will buy you time to either retreat to a more favorable position, or kill them next turn. Blaze and assault troops are the best early gambits to see on a battalion, so look out for those in particular.
When you do take damage, don't expect you can always bring in your faith mage to save the day. Remember that mages are limited to halved casting limits of each spell until they escape Noble/Commoner, and in maddening they'll likely be staying there until chapter 4 or so. Don't be stingy with vulneraries, you get a pretty good supply of them early on and the game dumps a fresh batch of them on you in chapter 5. Black Eagle players can also abuse Dorothea's personal ability Songstress to heal injuries while crossing maps.
Avoid enemy counters.
So now I've gone over how to turn enemy phase to your advantage, but what about player phase? After all, it doesn't help much that you've safely lured a thief into your squad if he's smacking Ferdinand (von Aegir) twice for each jab of a lance he takes. Enter ranged combat and combat arts.
Three Houses offers pretty easy access to 1 to 3 ranged attacks even from the start of the game, courtesy of melee weapons, bows, magic, and longer-ranged attacks like the bow combat art Curved Shot and spells such as Thoron, Mire, and Death. If you use your tools wisely, you always have the means to hit enemies without presenting a target - at least until enemies with even longer range or the distant counter ability show up.
Use regular ranged attacks against melee enemies, use Curved Shot or long-ranged magic against mages, and use melee strikes against archers (remember, generic archer enemies, and you'll be seeing them for most of the game, have 2-3 range with their bows, making them hard to outrange). Safely bring enemies down to manageable health ranges so you can finish them off before they get a chance to hit back.
An enemy who's brought to the point that he dies in one more hit, can't hit back.
Now, "combat arts", you might wonder? Why, those are those things that cut your damage since they can't double! What good are they? In maddening, they're the key to early success. Since your units aren't doubling anyways for the first few chapters, they're a pure increase to damage at the cost of a few extra points of durability.
While durability costs DO add up over several rounds of combat, combat arts will go a long way to increasing your damage output. In particular, get used to seeing your lancers and axe users not doing much beyond spamming Tempest Lance and Smash. Also remember that combat arts increase the accuracy of your attacks, which is important since you'll usually be seeing displayed hit chances in the mid-seventies to mid-eighties, and with accurate weapons like swords to boot. Sometimes it's worth it to use Curved Shot just to guarantee a hit against a particularly evasive target.
Remember, jealously unused points of durability on a weapon aren't doing you any good, especially in a game like Three Houses where you can repair even broken gear. Later on, static damage-increasing combat arts will begin to fall by the wayside, but arts that allow for doubling (Swift Strikes and Point-Blank Volley to name two), arts that increase your critical strike odds, or arts with utility effects (such as Encloser) will still remain useful.
Do your research.
There's two aspects to this particular step. First, understand the route you intend to play on. Second, understand what tools you have. I would strongly suggest NEVER going completely blind on maddening, lest you be caught off guard by things such as Hunting By Daybreak (chapter 13), which is a chapter known to softlock runs.
Most of the individual routes other than Crimson Flower are very samey, so in general if you can beat Verdant Wind, you can beat Azure Moon or Silver Snow. It still might be worth it to do some basic research on the final maps of those two routes, as they each present their own unique challenges (in particular, having plenty of units good with bows is handy for Silver Snow, while having a countermeasure against siege magic spam will save you some trouble in Azure Moon).
While playing through a route on hard, take time on each chapter to examine enemies, and try to think how they might be more troublesome on maddening. For example, Rhea in Crimson Flower chapter 12 is a fairly standard boss on hard. On maddening, she's an ungodly dodge tank with vantage who's hard to hit and drains the hp of your units before they get a chance to hit her. Planning ahead and bringing somebody with swordbreaker can do a lot to ease the sting of that encounter.
Also, reinforcements in maddening difficulty are almost always of the ambush variety, meaning they take action on the turn they appear. Knowing when and where reinforcements appear on hard will go a long way to helping you avoid surprise ally deaths on maddening.
As for the second, do some basic research on the different units, abilities, and combat arts.
I'm not saying make a table of every unit's average stats at given levels, but get a good idea for any notable spells, skills, or combat arts they might learn. Brave combat arts, such as Point-Blank Volley or Swift Strikes, are particularly notable grabs for any unit since they allow a unit to double the enemy no matter how much slower they might be.
Also, you wanna have an understanding of what the different arts, spells, and abilities do, and how they might work together. Wrath is very good in this game on units with vantage, or on dodge tanks. Anybody who has a chance to kill their aggressor without taking damage back.
Some units have obvious uses (like Felix), while others require a deeper understanding of the game's mechanics (like Bernadetta). Make sure you have a chance to know what those mechanics are before you try to jump into the hardest difficulty.
Make the most of the monastery.
Each chapter you get a month to prepare for the story battle, so make sure you use it. Double check the skill benchmarks of your units, take note of their motivation, and make sure you aren't wasting your free days. Since experience and levels aren't generally going to win the day for you on maddening, I would suggest not partaking in auxiliary battles unless you have a good reason to do it, such as for quests or paralogues. I would also suggest saving auxiliary battles for the last week of the month when you can.
Exploring the monastery at the end of each week will often give you greater rewards, if you know how to make the most of an explore day. Do a little research on the greenhouse and try to grow stat boosting vegetables, eat with your students to keep their motivation capped out or recruit new ones, grind Byleth's skills, and always make sure to cook meals when you can (the stat benefits of cooking stack up until the end of the month).
Remember, the faster you grind up your professor levels, the sooner you can eat more meals, do more faculty training, and plant more seeds.
Also, remember to work on weapon forges and managing the saint statues. Both options unlock in chapter 5, and both are massive boons to you. In particular, you should always upgrade the statue of Saint Cethleann until you've unlocked the boosted class skill exp straight way. Intermediate classes offer a great assortment of valuable skills to unlock when you master them, such as Death Blow, Darting Blow, Fiendish Blow, and Hit +20.
Lastly, is fishing! Pay attention to your calendar and keep an eye out for "Fistfulls of Fish" days. That's when you want to use the bait you accumulate. It's a good way to get a boost to both your war chest (from selling silver, gold, and platinum fishes) and your professor experience.
Plan and equip your core team properly.
So by now we know that experience points are throttled in maddening, and enemies will be hard to beat in the numbers game. What this means is you need to plan how to properly distribute what crucial resources you have, such as weapons, experience, stat boosts, and battalions.
In maddening, you're better off focusing the lion's share of combat experience into the central core of your team. I would suggest your main core never include more than six people. For most of White Clouds, your team will be limited to 10 combatants at a time, while most of the post-skip chapters bumps this up to 11, with the endgame chapter increasing it further to 12. Trying to equip twelve units for direct combat will often see your resources stretched too thin, so plan for your team to have a healthy number of units that don't require as much - or any - experience and stats to succeed.
Archers and mages need only enough strength and magic to hit enemies hard - and ground-based battalions can help considerably here. Meanwhile, healers and your dancer don't need any combat experience at all. As a side note, it's never a bad idea to train mages, even the most reasoniest reasoners who ever did reason such as Hubert, up to D faith, so they can learn the basic heal spell. This is a very efficient source of exp that can help your mages keep up with the curve without taking experience from other units.
Also, don't be too quick to scoff at bringing in units who'll simply rally for another unit each turn - Annette or Ignatz can give healthy stat buffs to your main units, allow them to contribute to the team without taking any of the precious exp for themselves. It's even worth having units on hand who are present solely to carry powerful supportive gambits, such as an extra stride, or retribution, or dance of the goddess. If you have Bernadetta or Claude on your team, they can be built for the sole purpose of using Encloser each turn, which prevents the damaged enemy from moving on the next enemy phase. These tasks aren't glamorous and they won't look amazing, but they're highly efficient ways to make use of units without taking experience from others.
As for your main combat units, make sure they can hit hard, take a hit or two back, and if they don't have any brave combat arts, focus your speed-boosting items on them first. Don't just default to take a small squadron of Wyvern Lords into each battle - this works in hard, and it can work in maddening with effort, but you're only making things more difficult for yourself. You'll find your battalions spread thin, leaving several units going into battle with C or even D rank battalions, and several units will have insufficient speed to double even medium-speed enemies, and no combat arts to help them overcome this detriment.
Paladin, Sniper, Grappler and War Master are all perfectly viable endgame classes, and have the benefit of access to a wider assortment of strong battalions. That isn't to say have no fliers - units with Swift Strikes or Point Blank Volley, or female units with Darting blow, can certainly see success in the air.
The game will sparingly drop steel weapons on you throughout the early stages of White Clouds, always be sure to give these to the units who'll do the most damage with them - enough to kill enemies before the crippling weight penalty bites the wielder back. For instance, give the steel sword to Byleth or Felix, the steel lance to Dimitri or Bernadetta, the steel bow to Felix or Bernadetta, and the steel axe to Dedue or Edelgard.
Later on, distribute your brave weapons to units without brave combat arts (such as Byleth or Edelgard), upgrade your main units to silver weapons when you can - but don't be in too quick a rush to toss out your old reliable (and more important, light) iron weapons. Also don't feel compelled to leave relics - be they weapons or equipment - with their initial wielder. Felix or Byleth can get just as much mileage out of Thunderbrand as Catherine can. In fact, don't be too averse to giving relics to people who don't have crests at all! Hubert might appreciate casting a 5-range Mire with Thyrsus - just be sure to keep an eye on his HP.
Keep multiple save files.
Until you've done a few runs of maddening, you won't quite know what to expect. Keeping backup saves can be helpful if you find yourself stuck and wishing you had set up your team differently earlier in the month.
And, always keep a backup save on chapter twelve if you aren't playing the Crimson Flower route. Hunting By Daybreak is excellent at softlocking the unprepared.
And have fun!
Maddening is a great way to put your ability to plan a team to the test. Once you start getting the hang of thing and even maddening begins to feel boring (it'll happen with enough practice :p) try finding new ways to limit yourself.
I hope this guide helped a little to take some of the edge out on your big jump into the hardest difficult in Fire Emblem Three Houses :)
If you ever have other questions, feel free to give me a shout at Raxis#6286 on Discord. I'll try to answer any questions if I'm not otherwise occupied.