I wrote this to give you an overview about all the different thief skills. This includes steal, weapon skills, heals, utilities, and elites.
Warning: this is really, really long. But after reading this you should know everything there is to know about thief skills (apart from water skills, but these are a little limited). Knowing skills is how you understand the thief. Once you know what skills do, and what skills you like, then you build traits and gear around them. As you’ll see, many of the skills rely on traits to be most effective.
The thief’s class skill attached to the F1 key, steal is a 900 (medium) range teleport towards the target on a 30-45 second cooldown (depending on traits). When you reach the target, you ‘steal’ an environment weapon that you use by pressing F1 again.
The weapon steal is sometimes useful (if you get a stealth, immobilization, or condition attack), and sometimes horrible (the whirlwind move is rarely useful, and the blunderbuss catapults you backwards). Your best bet here is to memorize the icons for the best steals, so you know when you can safely apply them without something stupid happening.
Regardless, steal is very useful as a mobility move. To make steal truly good, however, you need to trait it. In particular, traits in the Deadly Arts and Trickery lines can buff steal up to be quite useful, with initiative regen, poison, weakness, and boons.
Thieves have seven weapon set combinations. These are all fairly versatile and let the thief play every role in the game.
Dagger dagger: An aggressive but balanced set. This set has a mix of direct damage, condition damage, stealth, and ranged damage. Useful as a general attack set, but no tanking ability. The variety in attack styles make this a good primary or backup weapon set for any build.
Pistol dagger: Hit and run combination of high direct damage and high condition damage against a single target. Useful for taking pot shots at ranged before quickly doing high melee damage to a single opponent, though not as much sustained damage as dagger dagger. Is also excellent for ranged kiting, though you need to be careful to not kite too much, as doing so will waste its excellent burst damage.
Pistol Pistol: A mix of single target damage, support, and tanking abilities that’s good for sustained damage at range. Has a mix of direct damage and conditions. Has no area damage.
Sword dagger: Has OK damage, some range, and a condition removal. Mostly a PvE set, as the main damage dealer of this set requires your target to stand absolutely still. Also lacks condition damage. Is kindof clunky to use, and Jon Peters from ArenaNet has said it is slated to be reviewed (probably due to the aforementioned moving target problem).
Dagger pistol: Has some of the direct damage from dagger-dagger, but has offhand pistol tanking abilities. Has a lot of blinds, a daze, and a fairly expensive stealth combo. Has no condition damage, making it good for power-critical builds, but poor for any build that focuses on condition damage. Also has no real ranged damage, despite the pistol offhand – dagger dagger does more ranged damage. Very similar to sword pistol. Compared to sword pistol, dagger pistol has higher ‘finishing’ damage against low health targets.
Sword pistol: Has a balanced combination of good melee damage and good tanking abilities. Is useful in both PvE and PvP as an upfront brawling set. However, like dagger pistol, it lacks good ranged attacks. Also lacks condition damage. Seems quite similar in how it plays to dagger pistol. Compared to dagger pistol, sword pistol has more steady brawling power.
Shortbow: Shortbow lets the thief play tank-support. With 15 points in the Deadly Arts trait line, a shortbow can spread around the weakness condition (-50% damage) to anything it attacks. Benefits from condition builds.
The five weapon skills thieves get are made up of two mainhand skills, a combo skill from the mainhand-offhand pairing, and two offhand skills. This is except for shortbow, which just gets five skills. Each of the first weapon skills of each weapon changes into a sneak attack when in stealth, that does different effects depending on weapon.
Dagger mainhand skills (dagger dagger and dagger pistol sets)
Double strike: A basic attack chain. When used in stealth, this turns into a backstab that does double damage from behind. This is very useful with skills or gear that buff the next attack, since you can activate these buffs in preparation for the backstab.
Heartseeker: a leap attack that does more damage the lower the enemy health is. This skill is most notable for being a leap finisher. Importantly, this sends you into a 5 second stealth if used through a smoke combo field. You can get a smoke combo field from the offhand pistol Black Powder, or the utility skill Smoke Screen.
Dagger mainhand combo skills (dagger dagger and dagger pistol sets)
Death Blossom (offhand dagger): A whirl attack that makes you invulnerable during the attack, and applies damage and bleed damage to enemies in your path. Good for rapidly applying condition damage. Acts as a whirl combo finisher.
Shadow shot (offhand pistol): Shoots your target with a shot that blinds them, then shadowsteps in (a teleport) and stabs them. This gives the set some decent forward mobility and blinding.
Dagger offhand skills (dagger dagger, pistol dagger, and sword dagger sets)
Dancing dagger: Surprisingly high damage (twice that of ranged auto attacks), low resource cost ranged attack that hits four targets and applies cripple. Ironically one of the thieves best ranged attacks in group events, as it is one of the most damaging area attacks the thief has.
Cloak and dagger: High resource cost, high damage ‘stab’ that takes a second to cast. Upon hitting, the target takes a large whack of damage, three stacks of the vulnerability condition, and you go into stealth. This makes the skill useful as an opener before using a stealth attack. It’s often best to combine this skill with a snare or immobilization beforehand so that the target can’t outrun either the cloak and dagger attack or the followup stealth attack.
Pistol mainhand skills (Pistol Pistol and Pistol Dagger sets)
Vital shot: A basic ranged attack that applies bleeding. Since the damage is divided 50/50 between direct damage and bleeding, this works well with a power-condition or precision-condition statistic pairing.
When used from stealth, this turns into a rapid fire attack that shoots five times and applies five stacks of bleeding. Importantly, this is much less positional than backstab – you can do it to someone’s face, or at range.
Vital Shot only has a 20% chance at being a projectile combo finisher. If you want to reliably activate cross-class combos, you’ll need to spend initiative on one of the other attacks.
Body shot: A single target attack that does more direct damage than the auto attack, but instead of a bleeding condition, applies three stacks of vulnerability. This is a group support ability, since you’re basically just spending initiative to apply vulnerability, which all group members then benefit from when attacking that target. Outside of a group there are better skills to use.
One extra benefit Body Shot provides over the basic Vital Shot is that Body Shot has a 100% projectile combo finisher chance. Again, this is most useful in a group.
Pistol mainhand combo skills (Pistol Pistol and Pistol Dagger sets)
Unload (pistol pistol): A channelled attack (and you can move during it) that does lots of little hits over a few seconds. The channel time helps with initiative regeneration (you’ll recover initiative during the channel), so this is a good sustained damage move for long fights.
Unload works well with ‘on critical hit’ gear and traits, since the barrage of pistol bullets give multiple chances to crit. Two examples are the Deadly Arts trait that applies vulnerability on crit (which makes Body Shot redundant), and the weapon sigils that apply bleeds or area damage on a critical hit.
Shadow strike (Pistol Dagger): A melee attack that stabs your opponent, before teleporting back 600 range and shooting them. Does a hefty whack of direct damage, and is best used in a hit and run sequence. Start off with dancing dagger, move into a cloak and dagger, blast them with a stealth attack, then retreat with shadow strike.
Pistol offhand skills (Pistol Pistol, Dagger Pistol and Sword Pistol sets)
Black Powder: An expensive area blinding cloud that blinds everyone around you (their attacks miss while standing in the cloud). Useful for personal tanking, as well as creating smoke combo fields. In a group that needs more help tanking than damage you can cast this at the feet of your ranged characters to create a constant barrage of blinding projectiles. This can also be combined with leap attacks for a long five second stealth, albeit a very expensive one (Black Powder with Heartseeker costs 9 initiative).
Headshot: A short, one second long daze that prevents the target from using skills. Useful to control a target, as you can just spam headshots at them to prevent the use of dangerous skills. Works well in both PvE and PvP.
Sword mainhand skills (sword dagger and sword pistol)
Slice: Basic sword attack that seems to do a bit more damage than dagger attacks. When used from stealth, this will either blind the target if in front of them, or daze them if behind. Does less damage than pistol or dagger stealth attacks.
Infiltrator’s strike: short ranged teleport to your enemy. You can activate it again to teleport back to your starting location and remove a condition. Kindof clunky, since you have no way to cancel the return teleport. This introduces a hidden cooldown to the skill if you don’t want to go flying backwards during a fight.
Sword mainhand combo skills (Sword dagger and sword pistol)
Flanking strike (sword dagger): Attack that sends you into an evasion (immune to all damage) and strikes a target twice for quite a lot of damage. Main drawback is your target can easily get away from you by moving, since this locks you in place a little. This drawback makes it horrible for any kind of mobile fight.
Pistol whip (sword pistol): Stuns your target for a quarter second and during that quarter second does a flurry of hits for a lot of damage. This is a very good skill for toe-to-toe dueling, especially with the haste utility.
Trick shot: A shot that does low-ish damage (half that of dancing dagger) but hits three targets and costs no initiative. The stealth skill for shortbow immobilizes the target. However, shortbow lacks easy ways to get into stealth, and needs to use utility skills instead to accomplish this. Trick shot should really always be used with Choking Gas (number 4 shortbow skill).
Cluster bomb: A powerful shot that does high direct and condition damage, and is a blast combo finisher, but is a bit fiddly to use at range due to its slow travel time.
The best use for this skill seems to be at point blank range, by just hitting the number 2 key as fast as possible, to constantly launch and detonate cluster bombs over your head. Especially combined with the haste utility, this will obliterate most things around you.
Can also be combined with the Smoke Screen utility for an area stealth.
Disabling shot: Basic single target ranged attack that also applies the cripple condition, and leaps you backwards. Effective for kiting.
Choking gas: Creates a gas cloud at point of impact that poisons opponents. The poison lasts for four seconds and reapplies a five second poison per second, for a total poison duration of 20 seconds.
One of the best uses of this skill is to fire it at yourself. This creates a poison combo field around you, and then you switch to firing trick shot into groups to carry the poison. This gets around the annoying problem of having to get enemies to stand still in your poison cloud. The only downside is that trick shot only has a 20% chance of activating the combo, so if you can get away with shooting the gas directly on target, you should.
Choking gas is best used with the 15 point Deadly Arts trait that applies weakness on poison. Weakness reduces 50% of enemy damage by 50% (except for critical hits), so a shortbow-armed thief can really help a group tank.
Infiltrator’s arrow: Fire an arrow and teleport to the location. This gives you a lot of mobility for when you need to cover ground quickly (like in WvW). However, at six initiative, it’s a bit expensive for use in combat when you’ll need initiative to actually deal damage.
The thief gets three heals:
Hide in Shadows: thirty second cooldown, one second cast, heals for a largish amount, removes bleeds, burning, and poison, and sends you into stealth for a few seconds.
Withdraw: 15 second cooldown, free dodge backwards, removes immobilizing conditions, and heals a small amount.
Signet of Malice: every hit gives a small amount of health returned. On use (20 second cooldown), heals for a larger amount.
Although it might not seem it, the thief heal is one of your strongest skills. Many traits buff the heal, so the heal you take will depend on the trait.
If you buff stealth through the Shadow Arts traits, then take Hide in Shadows for the extra stealth.
If you buff signets through Critical Strikes traits, then take Signet of Malice. For example, if you take Signet of Malice and three other signets, then combine with traits that give 5 might on signet use, 2 initiative on signet use, and 4 initiative on heal use, using all four signets at once will give you a huge bonus of +20 might and +12 initiative, in addition to other active signet effects. This is quite the amazing buff, if you want to forgoe flexibility for power, and combine all your utilities into one mega-utility.
If you buff heals generally, through the use of ‘on heal’ effects, then take Withdraw due to its low cooldown. For example, one trait in Trickery gives you four initiative every time you use a heal, and a trait in Acrobatics gives you double endurance regeneration for 10 seconds every time you heal. Additionally, some armour runes, like Adventurer or Centaur, will also give strong ‘on heal’ effects.
Deception Utility Skills
Deception utilities focus on stealth, blindness, and movement. They are primarily buffed by the Shadow Arts trait line, but can be useful for any build.
Smoke Screen: This creates a rectangle ‘wall’ of smoke that blocks incoming projectiles, and acts as a smoke field combo generator. While it can help greatly in a ranged fight, its best general use is as a free smoke combo field on a 30 second cooldown. This allows you, for example, to leap through the screen with Heartseeker (for only 3 initiative) and gain a 5 second stealth. A heartseeker followed by a backstab can easily catch an opponent on low health by surprise and kill them.
Can also use the shortbow Cluster Bomb to generate an area stealth with this skill.
Blinding powder: This is an area stealth that stealths nearby allies and blinds nearby enemies. As it has double the cooldown of smoke screen (60 seconds), you’ll only really get use out of this if you use it at the right moment. One of its best uses is likely with multiple thieves to help them all activate their stealth attacks.
Shadow refuge: This is a ‘pulsing’ stealth heal on a 1 minute cooldown. It lasts for four seconds, and every second it reapplies stealth and heals. This is useful as a defensive skill if you’ve buffed stealth up with Shadow Arts traits, as then it will heal for a significant amount, as well as possibly remove conditions.
Unfortunately, if you use any offensive skill inside the refuge, you get the ‘revealed’ debuff, which makes you unable to stealth for the next few seconds. So you can’t attack from stealth and drop back into stealth again with this anymore (which was pretty overpowered in the early betas). This makes it a pure defense skill for Shadow Arts thieves.
Shadowstep: This gives a long range teleport on a 50 second cooldown. One of the thief’s most useful kiting abilities, since after it is used, you can use it again to teleport back to your start location and remove three conditions. This can be really annoying for a pursuer, especially if they’ve blown an immobilization to try and lock you down.
Signet utility skills
Signets give both passive and active effects. Apart from the Signet of Malice heal, the passive skills from the signet utilities are pretty bad, so don’t take signets for their passives. Rather, take them for their active skills, especially if you’ve buffed signets with the Critical Strikes traits. As stated before, the effects of using three or four traited signets all at once can be large, and signet active skills all have low cooldowns.
Assassin signet: Gives 150% damage on your next attack. If focusing on signets, can get that +20 might/+12 initiative buff, combine it with a weapon swap that guarantees a crit, and destroy things in one almighty hit.
The assassin signet has the highest cooldown out of all the signets at 45 seconds to balance this combination. All other signet recharges are 30 seconds or less, so you slow your signet combo buff cooldown by 50% by taking this signet. This may make it not worth using, as it introduces a weird cooldown delay to the signet combo, where all your other signets are left on their weak passives while you wait for the assassin signet.
Infiltrator’s signet: 30 second cooldown, shadowsteps to your foe and breaks the stun condition. The best use of this is to close distance as you buff up from the signet combo.
Signet of agility: 30 second cooldown, refills your endurance, and removes one condition from allies. Fairly straightforward as a cheap condition removal and endurance gainer. Useful on its own for Acrobatic trait builds that rely heavily on endurance.
Signet of shadows: 30 second cooldown, blinds and immobilizes the target foe. A basic immobilization for when you shadowstep in with the infiltrator’s signet.
Trap utility skills
Traps have a short cast time, and then stay on the ground invisible to everyone else. When an enemy walks into them, the trap will be triggered. Traps are useful for setting up ambushes, as they’re on a short cooldown and can be stacked together. Traps can be buffed by either the Acrobatics traits (20% reduced cooldown) or Deadly Arts traits (all traps apply poison). Overall, best used when you know someone will walk into them (a narrow pass in PvP, or anywhere in PvE).
Needle trap: Has a longish 40-second cooldown, and when triggered, immobilizes for five seconds and applies a strong poison condition.
Shadow trap: Thirty second cooldown, and when the trap is triggered, you shadowstep back to it and go into stealth for five seconds. This trap is useful as a shadowstep and stealth rolled into one, as no one will detect that you’ve suddenly charged towards them. This is great for setting up backstabs, as the target won’t be aware that they need to protect their back.
Tripwire: Thirty second cooldown, knocks down the target for three seconds who walks into it. This is one of the thief’s strongest crowd controls, as knockdown can’t be fixed by condition removal. Ironically, this makes the trap’s strongest use to cast it in melee combat.
Ambush trap: Thirty five second cooldown, summons a supporting thief for 20 seconds. I’ve not yet tested this skill yet, so can’t really comment. It seems more a sustained damage trap to buff you up with a companion of sorts, since the companion will keep going around with you from one target to the next, unlike needle trap.
Trick utility skills
Tricks are utility skills that do a bunch of random stuff. They’re buffed by the Trickery trait line (20% reduced cooldown).
Haste: This doubles the speed of all actions for four seconds. Allows you to get off channelled attacks like Unload and revive much faster, or just attack faster. This is useful for burst damage, though has a very long cooldown for what it does (60 seconds). One of the more useful haste abilities is with the shortbow. If you find a big pack of enemies, you can haste spam cluster bomb detonations to kill groups at point blank range. Haste also combines well with the Sword-pistol pistol whip skill and the pistol-pistol unload skill.
Roll for initiative: Breaks cripple, immobilization, and chilled, and instantly replenishes 6 initative. This skill is most useful early game for quick initiative gain. Late game, the tier 3 trait Hastened Replenishment in the Trickery line supersedes it. Hastened Replenishment makes your heal skill replenish 4 initiative, and since the Withdraw heal only has a 15 second cooldown and removes all the conditions Roll for Initiative does, Roll for Initiative starts to look underpowered.
Scorpion Wire: Pulls your opponent to you. This skill is a little buggy, but great when it does work. Has interesting uses such as pulling an enemy off a team member, or pulling a defender off a wall in WvW. At this stage, probably the most useful trick due to its uniqueness – no other skill does what it does for the thief. The wall pull in particular is one of the most effective WvW assault tactics.
Caltrops: 30 second cooldown, throws an area on the ground which cripples and bleeds opponents. This skill is made obsolete by the ‘Hard to Catch’ trickery trait, which throws caltrops behind you whenever you dodge. Since you can increase your endurance to the point where you’re able to dodge every few seconds, if you really want to use caltrops, it’s best just to focus on dodging and free up a skill slot. Obviously, a 3 second cooldown is better than a 30 second cooldown.
Venom utility skills
Venoms are skills that get applied to your weapons and will apply a variety of conditions to an opponent. Venoms are powerful due to the many traits that improve venoms in the Deadly Arts and Shadow Arts trait lines. Like signets, if you want to use venoms, it’s easy enough to make a powerful build around them. The elite skill Basilisk Venom also counts as a venom for the purposes of these traits. All venoms have a 45 second cooldown.
If you take lots of venoms, you should always try to take the residual venoms trait, as adding another hit per venom has some powerful effects. As you’ll need to be a grandmaster in Deadly Arts to do this, you’ll also increase the condition duration applied by venoms by 30% on top.
Speaking of number of hits, each venom lasts for several hits, and all these hits should be directed at thee one target where possible. Stacking is usually more effective than dispersing venom amongst a group. The one exception to this is the shortbow. Because the shortbow is strictly area attacks, yet relies so much on the Deadly Arts (venom buffing) trait line, you probably won’t be able to avoid it.
Spider Venom: This venom applies a long, powerful poison for your next five attacks. With the second tier Deadly Arts minor trait, this skill will also apply weakness for 15 seconds. With residual venoms, this weakness is extended to 24 seconds.
Skale Venom: A deceptively useful venom. Does not apply damage, but this venom applies three stacks of vulnerability for 5 seconds, and weakness for 15 seconds to the target. This is most useful as a defensive skill, as while vulnerability for 5 seconds isn’t that much, 15 seconds of weakness can really stuff someone up, as it reduces their endurance regeneration and damage by approximately 25% for the duration.
If this is combined with the the weakness applied from Spider Venom and Steal when you enter tier 2 Deadly Arts trait lines, the duration is increased to 33 seconds. If this is further combined with the trait residual venoms, the weakness will last for 48 seconds.
This skill alone makes venom specialization one of the thief’s most powerful options. If someone doesn’t have condition removal, having 48 seconds of weakness on them makes them ineffectual in any fight.
Ice Drake venom: Chills foes for 2 seconds per attack for three attacks, for 6 seconds total. Chill slows them by 66% and makes skills recharge 66% slower. This is your longest lasting snare, which makes it somewhat useful to lock down targets you’re trying to kill. It’s long cooldown (45 seconds like all venoms) makes this a bit unsuitable for kiting.
With residual venoms the chill duration increases to 10.4 seconds, making it highly effective for running someone down, as they won’t be able to kite away from you without condition removal.
Devour venom: Immobilizes for 1.5 seconds by 2 attacks, for 3 seconds total. Residual venoms increase this to 5.85 seconds. Immobilization is alright, but Chill is probably better as it lasts longer. Since you can only take three utility venoms, this would be my choice of the venom to not take, since it also overlaps the elite basilisk venom skill.
Basilisk venom: Shortest cooldown of all elite skills, at 45 seconds like all other venoms. This skill will turn a foe to stone for one second. This skill is OK as a stun, but the real benefit is that it gets improved from all the venom traits a thief can take. Residual venoms will increase the petrification time to 1.5 seconds. This is generally enough time to get off a backstab if the skill is used on a cloak and dagger attack.
Dagger Storm: A whirlwind that shoots daggers out around you and reflects projectiles. This skill does a lot of damage, and will also heal you to full if used with the Signet of Malice passive heal. Its drawback is the long three minute cooldown.
Thieve’s Guild: Summons a couple of thieves as combat support for 30 seconds. This skill is good for putting sustained pressure on a single target. Like dagger storm, its drawback is the three minute cooldown.