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In my opinion, the prestige class Duelist (from the SRD) seems a bit weak, although the concept is interesting, as some of the abilities.

For a few reasons (I don't own most supplements, and our GM doesn't allow to most non-SRD stuff), I usually play only using the SRD and a few homebrew additions.

The question is: without changing the class mechanic, what's the best possible build for a Duelist (or at least a playable build, to avoid a character that will be a burden to the group), using only the SRD rules?

I thought of using a Rogue or Rogue/Fighter as the basis (since Rogues can profit from having a high Intelligence and don't use heavier armors or shields).

Since the Duelist is a melee specialist; this is the role he would take amongst the team. Any specific melee sub-role (tank, damage dealer, and so on) is acceptable. Besides that, being a bit useful outside combat (with some Rogue-like skills) is a plus.

I also want my character to have the Duelist as an important component of his build, so he should have more than one or two levels in the class. If a specific number is needed, he need to have at least 5 levels of Duelist. The the goal is to have the best possible result in the 20th character level. It's not important to be a classical "swashbuckling hero" in mechanical aspects.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I know this question is about making use of the (acknowledged to be weak) Duelist 3.5 PrC...but I have to mention (as a lover of the swashbuckling flavor and hater of the Duelist mechanics) how very happy I am with Pathfinder's new Swashbuckler class. Even if you don't play Pathfinder, I think it's a great example of how to make a strong, flavorful "duelist" (who doesn't need to turn into a tiger to be awesome) d20pfsrd.com/classes/hybrid-classes/swashbuckler \$\endgroup\$ – Jeff Fry Mar 3 '16 at 22:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JeffFry, that is interesting, I'll give it a look, but, since I don't have much experience with Pathfinder, I prefer at first to use only-SRD solutions. But we can use an adaptation of this Swashbuckler as a homebrew rule \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Hellekin Mar 5 '16 at 1:54
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SRD-only, primary melee, at least 5 levels of Duelist, effective 1-20. Let's do it!

Duelist, huh, what is it good for?

In the spirit of the challenge, I will try to not only make a build with 5 levels of duelist, but a build that actually relies on the abilities granted by Duelist to do its thing. I will be the first to admit that this is not the most effective approach. The most effective approach would be to swallow the duelist pill and then build a Horizon Tripper around the other 15 levels.

So what does a duelist actually have to offer?

  • Proficiencies: All simple and martial weapons? Nice. We can take advantage of this when entering with a class that doesn't get all this stuff for free, like rogue or wizard.
  • Canny Defense: This is garbage. I can't overstate how useless this ability is. You know what's better than this ability? A +5 chain shirt, which you can buy for peanuts. Unless you literally cannot wear armor, just pretend you don't have this.
  • Improved Reaction: A small initiative bonus is nice for rogues, but it won't do as the foundation of a build.
  • Enhanced Mobility: Oh boy, Mobility again. Except you can't wear armor to use this. Yawn, pass.
  • Grace: Lightning Reflexes is a bad feat. Changing the name doesn't make it better.
  • Precise Strike: +3.5 damage (+7 by the time you get to ECL16) is supposed to offset the einhander fighting style you've presumably been using for the past 11 levels. You'll forget that you have this ability most of the time.
  • Acrobatic Charge: After 6 levels of crap, we found a useful ability! A duelist built around charging is not stymied by difficult terrain. At level 12. When everyone can fly.
  • Elaborate Parry: Fighting defensively isn't a great move. Usually this sort of ability has "or using Combat Expertise" attached to it. Sadly this one doesn't. Maybe we can still salvage it.
  • Deflect Arrows: Wielding a one-handed weapon and nothing in the off-hand is still a dumb idea.

Turtling like a maniac

One thing duelists have going for them is their high potential AC. If you do something passively (such as a bard's song or aura-type abilities) then this is fine - stand in everyone's way and shout at the top of your lungs. For everyone else, turtling is pointless since enemies will just attack your useful allies.

Since fighting without armour is stupid, we have one ability to optimize here, which is the +7 (because there's no reason to take Duelist past 7) bonus to AC when fighting defensively. The base bonus is 2, 5 ranks in Tumble is another +1. You can pick up a Monk fighting style to get another +1, or some DR, or some grapple and disarm bonuses, but it takes 6 levels and isn't worth it. The Cautious trait gives you +1 more, for a total of +11. Nice, except you take -4 to hit. Look into touch attacks, such as throwing flasks.

Charge

Charging is a great way to do a lot of damage...with Shock Trooper, which you don't have access to. Charging on horseback is good in the SRD, but this ability does not apply to your mount. And charging means you can only make one attack per round. Or does it?

Lions and tigers and bears oh my

Who doesn't need armour to be hard to hit? Who gets Pounce, making charge attacks worth it? Who hits hard despite using one-handed piercing weapons and not wielding weapons in the off-hand?

Animals. Specifically, lycanthropes. Lycanthropes who can invest in INT because their physical scores are pointless as soon as they turn into animals.

When you're hitting with claw/claw/bite, you're not holding weapons in your off-hand! When you've got a natural armor bonus, you don't need to wear armor! All the stupid drawbacks of the Duelist are removed, and we take advantage of its few benefits.

Your best choices in core are leopard, lion, tiger, or dire lion, in order of more HD. If you are playing in the early levels, were-leopard might be the best you can do, but for this build we'll use weretiger.

Steve Stripes, Fire Elf Weretiger Duelist

Unearthed Arcana rules used: Level Adjustment Buy-off, traits.

Build: Fighter 2/Animal HD 6/Duelist 10/Fighter 2

Ability scores in elf form (32 PB, +5 from levels, +5 CON tome): STR 6 DEX 16 CON 22 INT 20 WIS 16 CHA 8

Ability scores in tiger form: STR 23 DEX 15 CON 17 (HP unchanged)

Steve will also spend his money on +6 items for all the stats he needs. He will make sure that this gear can be worn in his animal form.

Steve gets 10 feats (1, 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 3 fighter bonus feats). Steve's feats can be used for whatever you want after you qualify for Duelist. Because he gets 4 claw attacks (2 standard, 2 rakes), Weapon Focus and Weapon Specialization (claws) are not bad uses for your fighter bonus feats. Multiattack and Improved Multiattack are nice too, as is Improved Natural Attack (Claw) and Improved Natural Attack (bite). If you take all these, you have one feat left over. Improved Initiative isn't a bad choice, since winning initiative means you can shift into tiger form earlier, or charge if you're walking around already tiger shaped.

Steve's thing is to pounce into battle and bite faces off. Because Fighting Defensively says:

You can choose to fight defensively when taking a full attack action.

and Pounce says:

If a tiger charges a foe, it can make a full attack

you can charge and fight defensively at the same time. Neat, huh? The +2 bonus from charging helps offset the -4 penalty from defensive fighting.

So when charging defensively, our guy's stats look like this while naked:

AC 29 (10 base, -1 size, +3 natural, +5 Canny Defense, +14 dodge, -2 charging) - this should be augmented by an amulet of natural AC, ring of deflection, and bracers of armor if your enemies are typically more accurate than this than this. +5 from each item gives AC 44, which is nothing to scoff at, but also not cheap. Feel free to juggle more points into INT to increase this.

To-hit +22/+22/+21/+22/+22 (18 BAB -1 size +2 charge +6 STR -4 fighting defensively +1 weapon focus) - buy an Amulet of Mighty Fists to make those numbers better by up to +5, pulling you up to +27 on each claw and +26 on your bite. You should also have a Belt of Giant Strength +6, pulling up to a +30 to-hit, which hits Balors on a 5. Not bad!

Damage:

  • 2 claws: average 20.5 each (25.5 with +5 amulet of mighty fists) 1d10 +6 STR +2 Weapon Spec +2d6 Precise Strike
  • 1 bite: average 20.5 (25.5 with amulet) 3d6 +3 half-STR +2d6 Precise Strike
  • 2 rakes: average 17.5 each (22.5 with +5 amulet of mighty fists) 1d10 +3 half-STR +2 Weapon Spec +2d6 Precise Strike

Again, the +6 belt would add +3 to the first two claws and +1 to the other attacks.

Shopping

I haven't done the math on how much of the items I've mentioned you can afford. But you'll need some of the following:

  • AC: Bracers of Armor, Ring of Protection, and Amulet of Natural Armor.
  • Attack and damage: Amulet of Mighty Fists (competes for the neck slot with the natural AC amulet so watch out)
  • Manual of Bodily Health +5: Take a Manual of Gainful Exercise instead if your DM rules inherent bonuses carry over to your alternate form. It's not entirely clear whether or not they do. If you feel like you have enough hit points, skip this.
  • Belt of Giant Strength +6: This is obvious - you need STR to hurt things, it gives STR, it can be worn in tiger form so it doesn't fall off.
  • Cloak of Resistance +5: Your AC is really good, but your saves aren't anything special, only 15/19/9 against typical DCs in the high 20s or low 30s by this level. You need to roll an 18 or better to save against a balor's dominate person, for instance. The cloak helps, as does the feat Iron Will.

Other than that, you're pretty much on your own for spending your cash. You don't need armor or weapons, you don't really have the body shape for gloves and shirts and boots. A Monk's belt would give you more attacks - your 4 iterative unarmed attacks, and then 5 of your natural attacks as secondary attacks.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I feel that this probably does warrant a caveat on the limitations of AC as defense. Certainly impressive AC, but AC doesn’t always matter. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Mar 2 '16 at 20:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ I know it might seem unlikely, but I'd started in on my answer before your was posted. Really, it's remarkable how much becoming a tiger makes someone a better duelist. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 2 '16 at 20:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Very interesting and unorthodox approach, I never thought of using a lycanthrope. Roleplay a monstrous tiger seems to be cool too! \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Hellekin Mar 2 '16 at 22:47
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This answer uses only rules from the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide

Better things can be done if the entirety of the SRD is available, but this answer assumes the most restrictive stance.

This build doesn't do what you want because doing what you want to do is, I think, impossible. A duelist can't deal that much damage because he's not a frontliner but a harasser, and that's a fifth wheel kind-of character that shouldn't be replacing a one-hit-kill warrior. A duelist can tank, but only at high levels, and it's weird tanking that requires lighting on fire two vital-for-defense magic item slots. A duelist can't fill the rogue role, either, as the skills the rogue needs (specifically, Disable Device, Hide, Move Silently, and Search) aren't duelist class skills, and the duelist doesn't get enough skill points anyway. So I did what I could. Initially, your animal companion does the fighting while your spells do the sneaking. Later, as you outfight your animal combatant while wild shaped into a tiger, you do the fighting and the animal companion does the sneaking.

Human Druid 9/Monk 1/Duelist 10

At character level 1 watch your DM worry as you start as a druid with Str 10, Dex 13, Con 12, Int 15, Wis 14, Cha 8, and the feats Dodge and Improved Initiative. Reassure your friends that they don't need a fighter because your animal companion is a better fighter than a fighter anyway. Then advance as a druid for character levels 2 through 9, taking at level 3 the feat Weapon Finesse, at level 6 the feat Natural Spell, and at level 9 the feat Mobility. At levels 4 and 8, your ability score bonuses go into Intelligence and Wisdom, respectively.

Everybody laughs at you at character level 10 when you take that level of monk, but you don't care. That level of monk gives an Intelligence 16 human exactly enough skill points to gain the 3 ranks in the skill Perform (wind instruments)1 and 5 ranks in the skill Tumble, both requirements for the prestige class duelist. (Yes, the monk has Perform as a class skill. I know, right?) You pick the bonus feat Stunning Fist because you're spending most of your time now in the shape of a tiger, which gets you the extraordinary special attack improved grab anyway (hence not needing the monk bonus feat Improved Grapple). The monk level (in addition to later helping your AC) means in tiger shape you can during a full attack also punch monsters in addition to clawing and biting them.

The remainder of the campaign everybody quietly mourns as, at character levels 11 through 20, you take successive levels of the prestige class duelist, eventually ending up with all ten. At level 12 you even take the feat Combat Expertise and put the ability score bonus into Intelligence. At levels 15 and 18 you take whatever feats you want; core-only feats largely suck anyway, so it probably won't matter—Spring Attack because you meet its prerequisite or an item creation feat the cleric or wizard can't afford like Craft Magic Arms and Armor so you can pretend you're still contributing. At levels 16 and 20 your ability score bonuses go into Intelligence as you hope for inherent bonuses to Intelligence from magic books and wishes.

The party will wonder where their druid went as, during these ten levels, you discard your armor, remain 24 hours a day in the shape of a tiger, and spend like 30 min. each session arguing with the DM whether or not your natural weapons deal the extra damage from precise strike.2

Your AC is core-rules awesome.3 Your movement is good. You can charge over terrain other folks can't. Your attacks are core-rules-only acceptable, as you're capable of pouncing and using your base attack bonus to make 4 unarmed strikes (one more if you flurry) and 3 secondary natural attacks that may or may not benefit from precise strike. Plus you cast up to 5th-level druid spells.

You incur no multiclass XP penalty. You're able to sit down at any table and play this character, with only precise strike with natural weapons being an issue. And you're totally a duelist.


1 You're playing core only, so the skill Perform (wind instruments) is used to employ more magic items than the skill Perform (string instruments).
2 It's complicated, and it really could go either way.
3 At level 20 naked and without spells in the shape of a tiger the character has AC 39 (−1 penalty from Large size +2 bonus from the tiger's Dex 15 +3 natural from the shape of the tiger +4 bonus from an Intelligence 18 and canny defense +2 bonus from a Wisdom 15 and the monk's AC bonus +14 dodge bonus from fighting defensively, 5 ranks in the skill Tumble, elaborate parry, and the feat Dodge +5 dodge bonus from the feat Combat Expertise). A CR 20 old red dragon's attack bonus is only +36, so just barkskin, cat's grace, and owl's wisdom reduce Smaug to 50/50.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Improved Grapple still gives a big +4 bonus; seems better than 1/day, awful-DC Stunning Fist. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Mar 2 '16 at 21:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan Stunning fist attempts are a few more than that, actually. (That is, 3/day when gained all the way up to 5/day at character level 17! Yay.) But, you're right, the freedom of movement versus grapples probably isn't as big of a deal in core despite the ring being almost mandatory for PCs. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 2 '16 at 21:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ It seems that my Duelist is fated to be a tiger! That's an interesting approach too, I like these mixes of magic and "sword" (or claws in this case) \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Hellekin Mar 2 '16 at 23:00
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In my opinion, the prestige class Duelist (from the SRD) seems a bit weak, although the concept is interesting, as some of the abilities.

Agreed on all points, with the exception of “bit” – the duelist is one of the weakest options in core.

The problem for the duelist is this: the einhander style it is based around is awful. There are basically three approaches to core melee:

  • Damage multipliers from two-handing. Using both hands results in 1½×Str to damage, and 2:1 returns on Power Attack. Cannot be done einhander.

  • Damage bonuses and large numbers of attacks. Sneak Attack and others apply a damage bonus on each attack, so they work best when you hhave lots of attacks: that basically means Two-Weapon Fighitng (or Rapid Shot). Cannot be done einhander.

  • Reach, attacks of opportunity, and tripping. Tripping is moderately effective battlefield control, and reach allows you to apply it to a reasonably large chunk of the battlefield. Cannot be done einhander (the only one-handed reach weapon is the whip, which does not threaten).

In short, the einhander fighting style is a massive drawback, and nothing the duelist gains comes even remotely close to justifying it. The best way to play a duelist is to ignore Precise Strike entirely, and just go ahead and use a two-hander with Power Attack. At least Acrobatic Charge is marginally useful.

Or you can try the trick of using natural weapons, arguing that they aren’t a “weapon in her other hand” as Precise Strike words the limitation. Certainly druid and lycanthrope are fairly effective.

But neither approach really screams duelist to me. That problem has even come up here before: we have a question seeking duelist replacements that may interest you (even though the question itself did not really define well what it was looking for and probably should have been closed and narrowed down).

All that said, a challenge is a challenge! Core does not offer a lot for the duelist, and I cannot promise that this will be particularly effective, some some thoughts on a duelist who actually fights with a single one-handed or light weapon.

Concept: Extra Attacks without TWF

We want to get more attacks to apply Precise Strike, pitiful as it is, more often.

Whirling Frenzy Barbarian 2

This is your first source of an extra attack. Whirling frenzy replaces rage and gives you an extra attack, along with some other stuff. Barbarian is also a big, strong class, with a nice big HD.

The second level gets you uncanny dodge, which is nice-ish? Mostly, it’s more HP and more BAB, which you need. Using the Wolf Totem variant can get you Improved Trip instead of uncanny dodge, which may be the better deal.

Cobra Strike Monk 2

Monk gives you flurry of blows, which is another extra attack. Down to a −4 penalty now, which is bad, but you need the attacks. The Cobra Strike fighting style gives Dodge and Mobility as bonus feats, which you need way more than anything else monk could give you. Evasion is tacked on so yay.

You also get Wisdom to AC when unarmored. Since you already had to be unarmored for canny defense, that’s fairly nice, but you really shouldn’t have especially high Int or Wis. But at higher levels a +2 or +4 enhancement bonus to each is much cheaper than a +4 to one and actually attainable, unlike +8 to one, so that’s something.

Alignment is awkward here: you’d really rather start as a barbarian to maximize the d12 HD over the monk’s d8, but you can’t be Lawful while retaining rage (and thus whirling frenzy). You can stop being Lawful and keep flurry of blows, however.

This is ultimately not actually that hard to justify: a barbarian savage for whatever reason (probably cuz he got beat in combat) joins a monastery, tries to be Lawful and learn their ways. Sticks with it long enough to learn some things, but ultimately can’t keep to that lifestyle and leaves or is kicked out. Result: Barbarian 1/Ex-monk 2 who is Neutral with respect to Law and Chaos.

You can now attack three times with a single (monk) weapon during a whirling frenzy. You only get one of those per day; unfortunately, getting one more use per day for every four levels of barbarian is really slow going.

Psychic Warrior 4+

Psychic warrior gets you bonus feats, which are useful, and also gets you psionic powers, which are more useful. Your BAB suffers, which is quite painful, but getting expansion and psionic lion’s charge is a really big win for you.

Especially psionic lion’s charge. Like other answers, pounce is really important here. You will have painfully few power points, but a few times per day you’ll be able to slam into someone across the room and tear into them pretty well.

Note that bite of the wolf and claws of the beast could be used similarly to the tiger-shaping of other answers. If you’re going that route, though, the other answers are much better at it. The inertial armor and vigor powers may be more appropriate, offering some defensive ability. Unfortunately, all of these things are competing for your extremely limited power points.

After completing duelist, psychic warrior is where you want the rest of your levels. You could go for slayer or war mind, to get full-BAB manifesting, but the missed level or restarting your progression doesn’t seem worth it.


A side-note about the RAW of psionic lion’s charge: it is worded very poorly. RAW, its Instantaneous duration means that its effect is to change reality in some real way, and then the power ends. The effect, in the case of psionic lion’s charge, is “You gain the powerful charging ability of a lion. When you charge, you can make a full attack in the same round.” RAW, that would be permanent. Normally, that’s overpowered, but here, well, the duelist needs all the help it can get; I’d allow it, anyway. The Augmentation is also problematic: it says “For every additional power point you spend, each of your attacks after a charge in the current round gains a circumstance bonus on damage equal to the number of additional points spent.” The problem here is that it says that each point gives a bonus equal to the number of points, so that the total bonus is equal to the number of points squared. Spending 8 power points on this power is prohibitively expensive for you, but a +25 bonus to attack and damage is still ridiculous. That one I probably would not allow.


Conclusion

This produces a weird einhander charger. It doesn’t work very well; it certainly keeps up with neither a real charger nor the shapeshifting builds of other answers. I don’t really recommend it. But it does seem like it is just about the best way to do the einhander thing.

For items, your weapon has to be a siangham; it’s the only monk weapon that works with duelist. You’re hitting a lot with it and your damage bonuses leave something to be desired, so pile those onto it.

Though you need to have Weapon Finesse, you get bonuses to Strength from whirling frenzy, and you still use Strength for damage. I think you should consider leaving Dexterity at marginal values (e.g. don’t dump it, but don’t pump it either), and focus on Strength for attack and damage.

You want gloves of dexterity, headband of intelligence, and periapt of wisdom. Getting +2 to each one costs 12,000 gp, less than +4 to any one of them would cost. An amulet of health may win out over the periapt of wisdom though. A belt of giant strength is, as mentioned above, probably even more valuable to you, though.

And of course, the most valuable cloak of resistance you can reasonably afford. Two levels of monk certainly help your saves a lot, but you should never neglect the cloak of resistance.

Outside-the-SRD Notes

For other readers who go beyond the SRD, there are a few things that warrant mention:

  • Complete Adventurer, Swashbuckler—Weapon Finesse as a bonus feat at 1st, Int-to-damage at 3rd. Not worth any more levels than that, but it hits two high points for you. Build probably becomes Barbarian 1/Monk 1/Swashbuckler 3 as a psionic race so you take war mind, for Barbarian 1/Monk 1/Swashbuckler 3/War Mind 5/Duelist 10 in the end.

  • Complete Champion, Lion Spiritual Totem—Trade your fast movement for pounce. Obvious choice, makes psionics much more “nice to have” rather than “absolutely critical.”

  • Dragon Compendium, Kung Fu Genius—Use Intelligence instead of Wisdom for monk abilities. With canny defense, Int-to-AC twice.

  • Dungeonscape, Factotum—Int-to-nearly-everything. Just a good class in general. The build can look much like the swashbuckler build, but with factotum instead of swashbuckler.

  • Tome of Battle, sublime maneuvers—Great improvement over regular attacks, can greatly mitigate the deficiencies of an einhander style. The warblade class also puts Intelligence to moderate use, which is nice. If the DM rules that the swordsage class’s Wisdom-to-AC bonus is similar enough to the monk’s to work with Kung Fu Genius, that may be even better.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Does a legalistic reading allow benefiting from precise strike while using a one-handed weapon two-handed? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 2 '16 at 21:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan I considered but rejected that. Ultimately, I feel that probably still counts as “attacking with a weapon in her other hand,” even though its the same attack and same weapon as the initial attack. If we allow that, we’d probably drop monk since flurry is no longer worth the restriction of using a light weapon (no one-handed piercing monk weapons in core), and two-hand a trident or (hah!) spiked shield. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Mar 2 '16 at 21:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ Nice answer, it still allow the Duelist to fight with his natural einhander (a word I learned reading this) style. And again with animal powers! I liked that you thought a bit about the roleplay aspect (the Barbarian x Monk issue) \$\endgroup\$ – Brian Hellekin Mar 2 '16 at 23:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BrianHellekin Indeed, but I really do have to warn you: the other options presented here are much better. This build focuses on getting more attacks, but precise strike is only 2d6 damage, which is really quite small. The linked answer presents several homebrew duelists which might work better for you; they don’t require much in the way of extra-SRD material. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Mar 3 '16 at 0:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ As long as you're using Barbarian 2, why not Wolf Totem? Free Improved Trip is nice, especially since you always have a hand free so you can always try for the unarmed touch attack trip. \$\endgroup\$ – SPavel Mar 3 '16 at 1:48

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