“Which frame should I play?”
It’s a common question asked by players new to Warframe. Immediately after completing the tutorial, you’re confronted with the choice of three starter frames: well-rounded generalist Excalibur, magnetism-themed telekinetic Mag, or stealthy trickster Loki. While choosing your starting frame isn’t a straitjacket, most players won’t earn or buy any more frames for quite some time, so it’s important to choose one that suits your tastes. You’re going to use it to slaughter enemies in procedurally-generated dungeons for a while.
Digital Extremes offers their own guide to the various frames, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. You aren’t told what roles each frame can fill, its strengths and weaknesses relative to the alternatives, or what frames you might want to try if you like (or dislike!) a particular frame. That’s what we’re here for!
Excalibur was the first warframe, both in the lore and in early alpha versions of Warframe. He’s durable, mobile, and has a mix of crowd control and AOE damage in his ability kit. This versaility is also his weakness, as he is largely overshadowed by more-specialized frames. While you can do almost anything with Excalibur, you can do it better with something else.
By the numbers, Excalibur is fairly average. He’s durable but not exceptionally so, and is perfectly average in every other area. There are no weaknesses to compensate for, nor any strengths to accentuate. He’s the baseline: other warframes are evaluated by whether their particular statistics are higher or lower than Excalibur’s.
His activated abilities are similarly balanced, without excelling in any particular area. Slash Dash is an AOE damage attack that doubles as a mid-air dash. Radial Blind stuns and blinds enemies with a flash of light, incapacitating enemies and leaving them vulnerable to melee attacks. Super Jump is a, uh, jump. Radial Javelin, the ultimate, impales nearby enemies with highly-damaging javelins.
Unlike most warframes, none of these powers are particularly character-defining. Slash Dash is a well-rounded power early on when fighting relatively easy enemies, but trying to keep the damage relevant as you progress involves too many sacrifices in other areas to be worth it. Radial Javelin is flashy but thoroughly underwhelming: you can’t focus all of the damage on one target, and it doesn’t have reliable AOE coverage for large groups of enemies. If Excalibur has a specialty, it’s highly mobile crowd control: few warframes can match the mobility of Super Jump and Slash Dash combined, once you get past the learning curve involved in mastering them, and Radial Blind is serviceable. Even in this area, however, he is overshadowed.
Of the three starting warframes, Excalibur is the most forgiving. He’s durable. All of his powers are useful, and all of them have straightforward applications. All of his powers are excellent for escaping bad situations. His lack of specialization makes him unattractive to experienced players who already have a stable of warframes, however; he’s overshadowed even in his specialties of mobility and crowd control. He offers little that can’t be done better by warframes like Zephyr, Rhino, or Nyx.
Despite his name and some of his power animations, Excalibur isn’t focused on melee. Most of his power animations involve his melee weapons, but it’s purely visual. Slash Dash’s and Radial Javelin’s damage aren’t based on your melee weapon, and Radial Blind works just fine even if you have no melee weapon equipped at all. Radial Blind leaves enemies unaware of your location and thus more vulnerable to melee attacks, but stealth-focused warframes, like Loki and Ash, do it better.
When it comes to obtaining Excalibur, he is, again, right in the middle of the pack. Excalibur is the hardest easy warframe to obtain. The blueprints for his component parts drop from Ambulas, the final boss of Pluto. Getting to Pluto is a lengthy grind for solo players, as they will need to fight through most of the planets to get there, but that can be bypassed by getting “taxied” to the mission by joining a player who already has it unlocked. Once the mission is unlocked, Ambulas is not difficult, and building Excalibur doesn’t require any special crafting materials or other hassle. Alternately, you can skip all that and buy him; like all three of the original starter warframes, he only costs 75 Platinum. If you bought a founder’s pre-order package, then you have Excalibur Prime, who is essentially the same but for cosmetic differences and some extra polarities; it’s no longer available.
Excalibur does a little bit of everything, and once you’ve gotten him to level 30, you probably have a good idea of what he does that you like. If you like Excalibur, you can try:
- Volt. Volt is as well-rounded as Excalibur, but his powers are flashier and more-group-focused. If you like speeding through levels with a powerset that can handle almost any situation, Volt is a good follow-up to Excalibur. He’s easy to get: all you need to do is buy his component blueprints with credits, if you’re in a clan that has done the research to unlock him.
- Valkyr. Valkyr is a tanky, melee-focused warframe. She is just as mobile as Excalibur, but her stats and abilities are focused on in-your-face rushdown melee assaults. If you’re using Excalibur’s mobility toolset to get into the thick of fights, you’ll probably enjoy Valkyr. She’s easy to build: her component blueprints drop from the boss encounter of Jupiter, which players farm regularly for Neural Sensor drops.
- Zephyr. Zephyr can fly, and has a range of other wind-themed powers. In many ways, she’s Excalibur Plus: she’s more mobile, more durable, has similar crowd control, and a much better room-clearing ultimate power. However, she’s a huge pain to build. Like Volt, her blueprints are from clan research, but building them requires a lengthy grind for Oxium, a rarely-dropped crafting material.
If you don’t like Excalibur, try Oberon. Oberon is another jack-of-all-trades and master of none, but his powerset is instead focused on support powers. He’s a good gateway into “caster”-style warframes, that focus more on using their powers to deal with enemies. Obtaining Oberon can take some time, but doesn’t require you to farm for his parts: they’re random drops from “Exius” elite enemies. You’ll get all of Oberon’s parts by playing the game, especially if you spend any time in Survival or Defense missions.
Mag is the newest starting warframe. Her specialty is sending enemies flying and wrecking Corpus, one of the four enemy factions. She’s the “caster” option of the four starting warframes, and has a number of flashy powers to fling, crush, and manipulate enemies. Mag is a good introduction to the frames that don’t solve problems with guns or swords, but rather with energy-powered abilities.
Mag is the tankiest of the three starting warframes, but also oddly fragile. Her defenses are heavily slanted towards shields. Because of this, she gets extra benefit out of shield-boosting mods like Redirection, but also folds very quickly to bleed or poison effects, which bypass shields. She also has a mediocre energy pool, which is at odds with her caster focus and can cause her to run dry at inopportune times. Otherwise, she’s unremarkable statistically.
Unlike most caster frames, Mag’s standout power is her first. Pull quickly yanks enemies towards her, doing a moderate amount of damage and sending them ragdolling helplessly through the air. It doesn’t pull them into melee range with her, as the description implies, but rather stuns and scatters them. Pull’s damage is merely middling, but it’s just enough to kill annoying, hard-to-hit flying enemies with a cast or two. It’s an effective, cheap way to disable enemies and isolate dangerous targets to focus-fire them down, and it’s so fast that you can do it while sliding or mid-air without even slowing down.
The rest of her power kit is situational at best. Shield Polarize is mainly useful to refill your party’s shields, although the cast time makes it dangerous to use while still exposed to enemy fire. It also works on shielded enemies, but in reverse: shielded enemies explode, dealing damage to themselves and everyone around them. This is devastating against tight packs of Corpus faction enemies, but other factions have few or no shielded units and are unaffected. Bullet Attractor is a mostly-useless oddball. It places a debuff on an enemy causing any nearby shots to redirect to that enemy. Theoretically, this is useful to turn an enemy into cover or focus inaccurate attacks all on one target. In practice, enemies die too fast to use as cover, and inaccurate weapons aren’t worth bothering with in the first place. It’s not useful for a debuff, either: most of the enemies you’d want to kill faster have glowing weakspots you have to shoot, and Attractor won’t focus your fire on the weakspot. It’s only useful for trolling pick-up groups that are trying to kill Sargas Ruk. Crushis a typical mediocre ultimate power: Mag lifts and crushes all of the enemies around her. Doing so takes almost three seconds, during which enemies who weren’t in range can simply shoot her or rush into the cast area unimpeded to attack her. It also does less damage than using the same amount of energy to spam Pull.
While Excalibur is the most forgiving of the three starters, Mag is the most straightforward. Apply Pull directly to the enemy, repeat as needed. Even if you have a large stable of warframes, she’s one of the best warframes in the entire game any time you’re fighting Corpus, and a straightforward, effective crowd controller against everyone else. The only time she doesn’t shine is against bosses, most of whom who are immune to ragdoll physics effects.
If you don’t start with Mag, she’s one of the easiest warframes to build. Her component blueprints drop from Sgt. Nef Anyo on Mars, the third boss most players will encounter and one of the easiest bosses in the entire game (This may change soon, however; Nef Anyo is slated for a redesign as part of the upcoming Update 14 patch). You can also build Mag Prime, who has different mod polarities and a gilded appearance, by farming for her various component blueprints in the Orokin Void Tower missions, or simply trading for those blueprints from other players. Buying Mag directly is less attractive. Since she was added later than the other starting warframes, she costs 175 Platinum to buy directly from the store.
Unlike Excalibur, nobody outshines Mag in her specialty of spammable crowd control. If you enjoy her, there are a number of similar offense-oriented caster warframes. You can try:
- Ember. Ember kills everything with fiery explosions. In addition to her various explosive powers, she has a spammable AOE stun. While it isn’t quite as effective as Pull, it does make enemies more vulnerable to fire damage. If the idea of waltzing through levels while everyone explodes and burns to death is appealing to you, Ember is the way to go. Ember is another easy frame to build: her component blueprints drop from Saturn’s boss encounter, which players farm for Orokin Cells.
- Nova. Nova is an antimatter-themed caster, and also makes everything explode. Her ultimate power is similar to Shield Polarize, in that it causes enemies to explode and blow each other up in cascading waves of explosions. Unlike Polarize, it works on every sort of enemy, not just Corpus. Nova is relatively easy to build, as her components drop from an easy boss on Europa, a middling-level planet.
- Vauban. Vauban is an engineer-themed caster, with a variety of defense-oriented traps. He can launch allies and enemies into the air, trap enemies in a stasis prison, and create black holes that suck in and crush enemies. He’s popular and powerful, but he’s very difficult to build. His component blueprints only appear as rewards from randomly-generated hourly “alert” missions, so it can take weeks of waiting to build him. Alternately, you can just buy him directly for Platinum and skip all of the waiting.
If you want a caster but Mag isn’t to your taste, try Trinity. Trinity is entirely focused on support powers, and can heal and refresh the energy pools of your teammates. She’s focused more on the team, rather than on controlling enemies. Her component blueprints aren’t too difficult to farm, as they drop from the dual boss on a mid-level planet, Phobos.
Loki is a frail, stealthy support warframe. His powers are focused on debuffing and redirecting enemies and sneaking around. Many of his powers come into their own in combination with other powers, either his own or other warframes’. You’ll have to make the most of those combinations and situational uses, though, because he’s one of the few warframes with no “hard” crowd control that disables enemies, nor damaging abilities other than his weapons. If you want a tricky warframe that sneaks away if those tricks don’t quite work out, Loki is a good choice.
Loki is heavily skewed toward mobility and casting, statistically. He has the worst defenses of any warframe, but has the fastest movespeed and is tied for the second-largest energy pool. (Loki Prime has the largest.) His flimsy hitpoint tank means that you’re forced to rely on his energy-spending abilities to stay alive in any tough situation. The runspeed isn’t as important as you’d expect, as even slow warframes can keep up with him because of “zorencoptering”, or launching yourself with dashing spin attacks.
Loki has two key powers: Invisibility, his second power, and Radial Disarm, his ultimate power. Invisibility turns Loki invisible, making it impossible for enemies to target him (although he can still be caught in crossfire or AOE attacks). Melee attacks do more damage to unaware enemies, so Loki can cut a swathe through enemy packs in melee while invisible. Invisibility has a modest energy cost and a long duration, so many Loki players enhance both of these with mods and spend almost all of their time in combat invisible. Radial Disarm permanently disarms enemies with ranged attacks, forcing them to close and use melee attacks (It has little or no effect on most melee attackers, so it’s not very useful against the Infested enemy faction). If you increase the range on this power with mods, it’s very useful to funnel enemies into chokepoints or traps. A Loki specialized in Radial Disarm combined with Vauban’s Vortex can trivialize farming Defense missions.
His other two powers are much more situational. Decoy, his first power, creates a glowing target dummy that distracts nearby enemies. Using it is a challenge: you have to place it close enough to enemies that they target the dummy instead of you or your teammates, but the dummy dies after a small amount of damage. It’s moderately useful for luring enemies into AOE effects or in combination with Switch Teleport. Switch Teleport is his third power, and switches his position with a targeted enemy or ally (including a Decoy). It’s somewhat useful for bypassing packs of enemies or yanking a downed ally out of the middle of a pack of enemies, but it’s usually not worth the bother to use. There are very few situations that Switch Teleport can deal with that Invisibility can’t.
Loki is an attractive specialist for experienced players, but the same qualities that make him attractive to experienced players make him very one-dimensional in low-level play. He has to kill everything with his weapons, and has no way to prevent enemies from counterattacking except for Invisibility, so accomplishing anything with him when you’re out of energy can be a struggle. He’s effective in any mission that involves rushing quickly to objectives or working with allies who can synergize with his various tricks and compensate for his weaknesses. Killing packs of enemies, especially solo, can be a slog.
If you don’t start with Loki, building him is about as hard as building Excalibur. His component blueprints drop from the Hyena Pack, the final boss encounter of Neptune. Neptune is lower level than Pluto and thus involves a less grind to unlock, but the Hyena Pack is much harder than Ambulas. Once you’ve cleared Hyena Pack enough times to earn all of the blueprints, he is easy to build. Alternately, you can just buy Loki directly from the store for 75pt. You can also build Loki Prime, who has a larger energy pool, different mod polarities, and an ornate appearance, by earning all of his component blueprints in the Orokin Void Tower endgame dungeons, but half of the blueprints needed only drop in the hardest Void missions: Tower 4 Survival and Tower 4 Defense. You can also buy Loki Prime directly through the Prime Access package, although not forever.
There is no warframe quite like Loki. His powers are potent, but in an unconventional, highly specific way. He isn’t the only tricky or stealthy warframe, however. Those include:
- Ash. Ash is stealthy and can teleport, and uses those powers to rush down enemies in melee. He has the durability to survive a few hits, invisibility to boost his damage, and a hard-hitting ultimate that benefits from building up the combo meter with melee attacks. The component blueprints for Ash drop from the final boss of Uranus, a mid-to-late-game planet.
- Nekros. Nekros is a necromancer warframe, with various fear- and death-themed powers. Nekros is a popular and powerful group member, because his Desecrate power spawns health orbs and extra loot from enemies’ corpses. However, Desecrate is so useful and his other powers are so weak that most Nekros players are pressured to use nothing but Desecrate. If you do want Nekros, his component blueprints drop from Lephantis. The only way to fight Lephantis is to build Orokin Derelict Assassination keys from components found in the other Orokin Derelict missions, which are themselves unlocked with (cheaply and easily-made) keys. Alternately, like all non-Prime warframes, you can skip all that and buy him directly for Platinum.
- Nyx. Nyx is a psychic warframe, with various mind control and telekinetic powers. She has an invulnerable bubble that reflects damage back at enemies, and can confuse enemies in an AOE around her. These are powerful in a straightforward way, but, like, Loki’s abilities, have a number of subtle uses, especially in combination with other frames’ powers. Nyx’s component blueprints drop from Phorid, a special Infested boss who only appears when another boss’s stage is affected by a random but common Infested invasion event.
If you dislike Loki, try Rhino. Rhino is an unstoppable juggernaut who shrugs off enemy fire with Iron Skin and crushes and stuns nearby enemies with Stomp. There’s nothing at all subtle or tricky about Rhino, and his straightforward but versatile moveset is useful in almost any situation. Building Rhino is easy: his component blueprints drop from the final boss of Venus, the second boss most players will encounter and the first boss to drop warframe component blueprints.
Your starting warframe will be with you for at least the first two planets, so choose wisely. All three starting warframes are suitable until you can start unlocking other warframes, but which one you choose will dictate how you tackle the first dozen or so hours of Warframe. Whichever you choose, it’s only a starting point. All of the warframes, including the other two starters, can be built by earning their component blueprints through enemy drops. Your first warframe is just the beginning.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written by Cease to Hope, and originally appeared on TheMittani.com under his byline.)