Three Lane Highway: why Culling Blade is Dota 2's most entertaining skill
Three Lane Highway is Chris' column about Dota 2.
Ultimate abilities are a good place to start whenever you're tasked with explaining why Dota is cool. They're silly, diverse, exciting to watch. If you're staring at an unconvinced game designer, show them how Chain Frost interacts with Chronosphere. Show them how Wraith King's Reincarnation power is both a safetynet and a mobile psychological deterrent. Show them almost any great Echoslam, but probably this one, because it's a tragedy and a comedy at the same time.
These abilities and the anecdotes they create are the soul of the game. They're why many people play. Faceless Void is popular because of the chance—however unlikely—that this time it'll be you that lands that perfect, game-turning Chronosphere. That glittering stasis bubble is symbolic of a pub metagame largely defined by players wanting to be lone-wolf superstars, a protected space where nobody can get between you and your rampage. I love the little double fist-pump Void does as the Chronosphere goes down—it makes me think of that moment at the end of The Breakfast Club. Don't you forget about Void.
I've been thinking a lot about what makes certain ultimates work as part of the life of the game. This has nothing to do with how powerful or viable they are—it's about the effect they have on the tone of a given match. As fun as Chronosphere is for the solo player, it's also an example of a spell that drains fun from the game for everybody else. Nobody other than Void wants to be inside that bubble. The same is true for Song of the Siren—in fact, the only reason Chronosphere isn't the most frustrating ult to screw up is because a bad Song of the Siren is capable of ruining Naga Siren's plans along with everybody else's.
The best skills make the game more exciting for everybody, and that's why I submit to you, strangers from the internet, that Axe's Culling Blade is secretly the best ability in the game. This stems from the argument that Axe is secretly the best hero in the game, which I earnestly believe but will save for another time because I'd rather not have that argument.
For the unaware, Culling Blade allows Axe to insta-kill any enemy hero who drops below a certain health threshold. If you use it above that threshold, it goes on cooldown and merely does damage. Do it below the threshold and—thanks to one of the best ability tweaks of all time—it has no cooldown and can immediately be used to cull somebody else. The animation is this great leaping slam-dunk, accompanied by a sound like somebody smacking the world's most self-satisfied watermelon with the ringing hatchet of justice.
The last time I wrote about Culling Blade it was in the context of a tongue-in-cheek article about Dota's most meaningless numbers. I learned that day that many people do not want your tongue anywhere near their cheek, and they'll rush to call you an asshole if you ever suggest—seriously or not—that your right to Culling Blade somebody is more important than someone else's right to get kills or farm or whatever. Of course it isn't. A good Axe player knows—among other things—that there's a time when your team really does need you to dunk (a Shallow-Graving Dazzle, Abaddon just after Borrowed Time triggers) and a time when yes, maybe Ember Spirit can do more with those kills.
That's all well and good. The reason it's so heartbreaking to have your dunks denied is because the ability is so well designed. It feels incredible, and every successful dunk promises another. Like the dream of getting a rampage inside a Chronosphere, it's a selfish urge—but where Void's glory-or-not occurs inside of a couple of seconds, an Axe rampage is this delirious, free-roaming thing. You get a movement speed boost whenever you cull somebody, as if the game is saying go, go! Go get the next one. Once you chop, you can't stop.
And here's the kicker: it's actually kind of fun for everybody else, too. Culling Blade is the only spell I can think of that regularly gets a cheer from allies. Yes, you probably stole their kill. But you did it with style, and Axe seems really happy about it, and who can blame him? He's from a mission from god to welcome whole teams to the space jam. I'd rather be dunked by Axe than picked off with pedantic precision by Sniper, because everything about Culling Blade communicates manic glee. It's a direct injection of energy and silliness into a battle in a game where most ultimates have the opposite effect—Global Silence, Chronosphere, Primal Split and Doom are all good examples of stop signs. Culling Blade isn't a stop sign. It's that moment at the beginning of a motor race when the lights turn green. It is systematically impossible for it to be an anti-climax.
Has there ever been a better first blood, or a more entertaining gank turnaround, or a better start to a tournament than Pajkatt's double dunk at the beginning of ESL One Frankfurt? I don't think there has—and I don't think there's another ability in the game that could get that reaction of a football stadium full of people. Because Culling Blade is secretly the best ability in the game.
To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.