Huskar – A Hero Without a Mission
With DotA we have the obvious example of a gimmick hero, the one everyone uses, Bloodseeker. His ultimate ability, Rupture, is particularly easy to slap the gimmick label on, with it being a powerful direct damage attack against players who don’t know how it works or don’t know how to respond to it correctly, but merely a semi-disable with mediocre damage against players who can see it coming and come prepared. The most common reaction to Bloodseeker trouble is to simply use a teleportation scroll to leave the area while the Bloodseeker looks on impotently. While the same can be done against most heroes of his type, the important distinction here is that Bloodseeker has no inherent (or even practical) way of preventing an escape and lacks any sort of burst followup damage to kill heroes before they get away.
(Not that this has really hurt him, as he is a simple hero with a quite powerful gimmick for unorganized play. According to dotabuffs he remains top 15 all-time most played heroes in DotA 2, with a respectable win rate of ~48%. It seems odd to call a negative win rate respectable, but I was more surprised to see that only 6 of the top 20 most played heroes even have a positive win percentage, and only about a 3rd of the ~100 heroes in the game have a positive win percentage overall. It is what it is.)
The same trend follows for many of the classic pubstomping heroes, like Ursa, Huskar, or Spiritbreaker. What they have in common with Bloodseeker, aside from their single-target nature, is an extremely narrow range of effectiveness in which they can flourish, and then a decline so steep that they hit terminal velocity almost immediately. Their nature as gimmick heroes allows them to dominate pub games, generating disproportionate amounts of bitching while also being scarcer in competitive play than male characters over the age of 17 in a doujin fighting game.
It may be tempting to lump a hero like Skeleton King in there with them, but there are key differences between gimmicks and things that are just mediocre. Although there was a time when Skeleton King did receive a boost from his own gimmick, that being Force Staff builds that allowed him to effectively move around in fights and initiate ganks without having to sacrifice key DPS items. Of course, Force Staff was remade, taking away all of its DPS boosts, which resulted in Skeleton King tumbling back into the gutter. His problem is that he’s just not that great in almost any situation, and in a game against unskilled players he’s no better than most other heroes, while he delivers in a workmanlike fashion in higher level pub games, never really standing out from the crowd, but always able to step up if the opportunity presents itself. Compared to a hero like Bloodseeker, who can only be relied on in low skilled games and falls dramatically as players become familiar with how to deal with him. The difference between them is that Bloodseeker is really, really good against bad players and really, really bad against good players, while Skeleton King isn’t particularly good or bad against either group. The very definition of mid-tier.
However, when I think back through all my time playing and watching DotA, there is no other hero quite as maligned as Huskar. As far as I can remember he’s the only hero who I have never seen as a competitive pick, and I don’t mean the occasional surprise ass-pull that every hero gets now and then. He is legitimately bad in ways that the other traditionally awful heroes can’t match. In DotA a hero and their abilities are judged on two main criteria: how well they do what they’re supposed to do, and how well they can deliver on secondary and tertiary roles, aka their utility. The reason for this is that many heroes can do things like damage quite well if given the opportunity, but most heroes are more prized for their ability to create or disrupt those opportunities. For example, Dark Seer, a hero who has been a stable competitive pick for years now, simply for his versatility and the utility his skills offer. He can hold down many different lanes in many different situations, though he doesn’t excel at any of them and is rarely expected to do much more than survive and get some levels and gold. His damage isn’t very impressive and doesn’t scale that well, and he’s also a mana hungry melee hero. But every single one of his skills has multiple uses, making him valuable in almost any game situation possible. There is almost never a time when his team wishes they didn’t have a Dark Seer, and there is never a situation where he can’t at least help.
This sort of versatility is prized in most every competitive game. The reason Dragoons were a backbone unit in Brood War was not because they were only the 3rd stupidest unit in the game, but because there were relatively solid units that could fight most other units in the game. Same with the rocket launcher in Quake, which was almost always at least the 2nd best weapon to be using in any situation and had the added benefit of being being a spammable deterrent when being chased, or when trying to stop an opponent from getting a key item, and that’s on top of being used for rocket jumps. On the flip side there are options that fall closer to the level of gimmicks, since they are only useful in very, very specific situations. Every game has those as well. In Quake 3 the plasma gun is actually the highest DPS weapon in the game, competing with even the BFG. The problem is that, for a variety of reasons, it is nearly impossible to hit someone with enough plasma shots to make it even a good DPS option, let alone the best option: at almost any range, and in almost any situation, where the plasma gun would be an option the lighting gun delivers more reliable and consistent DPS and is therefore always considered the better weapon. A player basically needs to be caught completely flatfooted and be killed before they react for the plasma gun to reach its full potential, and in even moderately skilled games that doesn’t happen.
Huskar falls into that same category of gimmick. Under ideal circumstances Huskar is one of the strongest heroes possible, but in a competitive game those circumstances can be avoided so consistently that Huskar will never have a chance to live up to his potential. As is often the case with pure gimmick characters, Huskar’s overall design has more synergy than any other hero in the game. Everything he does feeds back into everything else he does. The problem is that this synergy comes at the expense of all utility. There is nothing Huskar can ever do except for what he is specifically designed to do. That is both his blessing and his curse, because his intrinsic synergy makes him attractive on an intuitive level, but awful in practice. I suspect that’s one of the reasons that he’s never been significantly remade, because the removal of any of his skills has the chance to completely disrupt what makes him a unique hero to begin with. That already happens, to a lesser extent, when the harsh realities of actually having to play DotA against other heroes have made some of his more popular builds in the past do things like neglecting some of his core skills (usually burning spears) in favour of getting more stats, and then not using burning spears anyway because he needs life steal on his attacks in order to survive in fights.
Huskar has always been the only hero who has virtually no reliance on the mana resource, having only 1 spell that uses mana, and that spell is a heal that has a long enough cooldown that it will probably only be used at the beginning of a fight, and then maybe again at the end if Huskar survives and still has mana. His skills all centre around using his HP pool as both a resource and a buff, like the idea of a berserker trait that is often used in RPGs. The basic idea is that with Berserker’s Blood he gets stronger attacking power as his HP pool decreases, and both his ultimate ability and his Burning Spears attack give him convenient ways to lower his HP. Most people who have at least played an RPG that had a berserker trait as a skill option have already spotted the flaw with this design: having increased damage when hurt is rarely worth it when fighting dumb AIs, so it certainly isn’t the ideal when going up against thinking human beings, especially when there are plenty of damage sources that don’t involve deliberately crippling oneself, and are always active. A hero who only becomes really dangerous when he is most vulnerable is just not optimal. The reason Huskar succeeds–when he does succeed–is because against poorly organized players he has no problem hanging around a dangerous level of HP. In fact, it’s practically an invitation for his opponents to wander in one at a time and be slaughtered. But players who can plan ahead have no issue with waiting for Huskar to give them the perfect opening to dump all of their burst damage into, and by the end of the game a hero with real DPS skills can easily match or beat Huskar while also being able to fight at full HP.
Huskar represents the clash between pure design and reality. He is the ultimate theorycrafted hero, and in his niche he can’t be contended with. Unfortunately, all he has is theory, and outside of his niche he has nothing to offer. It may be the price he pays for being unique, but he’s also the kind of hero that would probably be perfectly viable if he were in a different game, a game where all of his opponents weren’t consistently bringing effective burst damage and disables to every match. (And obviously this world also exists within pub games, where players choose heroes based on whims or the roll of the dice.)
On top of that, when compared to Bloodseeker, Ursa, and Spiritbreaker, Huskar has very few advantageous hero combinations to work with, and is countered by many effective heroes and items while also failing to be a counter to other heroes. At least Bloodseeker has a powerful silence, Spiritbreaker has multiple disables that allow for passable initiation and bursting down key targets during skirmishes, and Ursa has the potential damage to both quickly steal Roshan kills and stand up against other single-target DPS heroes. Huskar offers nothing that can’t be done better by other heroes, and with less finger crossings involved.
Which brings me to my first conclusion about gimmicks: they are often the unfortunate byproduct of unique ideas and mechanics that, for whatever reason, end up failing. This doesn’t mean that they have no worth and should be changed. Huskar (as well as Spiritbreaker, Bloodseeker, and Ursa) is, and has pretty much always been, one of the most popular heroes in pub DotA, and there may be compelling arguments for not always having high level competitive play in mind when designing a hero, because for Huskar to make a real break into competitive play he would either have to become something that he is not, or the entire game would have to shift around him (or he would have to get so many secondary numbers buffs on his skills that even their impractical nature couldn’t hold them back). When utility and baseline effectiveness always take precedence over unique ideas and mechanics then games run into an even more crippling problem: the stagnation of conformity.