The Thorn in Crucible’s Side

Published on: Jun 6, 2015 @ 15:18

What makes a weapon overpowered? More importantly, if a gun rightfully earns this power, at what point does it become a problem? These are questions that begin to nip at our heels with increasing urgency with the introduction of Trials of Osiris.

Although there has been variety in strategy, class composition, play and counter-play, the Primary tools by which we’ve lived and died are strikingly similar across the board – and indeed, could likely be counted on one hand.

Within this small collection of weapons, one weapon has become so ubiquitous that it’s beginning to border on silliness. I’m talking, of course, about Thorn.

Too Powerful?

The Hand Cannon to end all Hand Cannons; the Crucible’s best reward; the proof that your PvP mettle has been tested and found worthy – the lethal Hive Primary has embraced all of these affectionate descriptors, staring down nerfs until they grudgingly become re-buffs until it has earned its place at the top of the pack.

Thanks to the available perks, it has eclipsed other Hand Cannons and remains more or less the terrifying weapon it was originally advertised to be. It has earned contempt though due to its performance in the Crucible. It is not uncommon to match up against teams in the Trials of Osiris (or any mode) in most players are using a Thorn, and the Iron Banner has been jokingly referred to as the “Iron Rose” or “Game of Thorns.”

thorn overpowered

Clearly, it can’t just be a matter of personal preference. This weapon is strong enough to be top priority for every Crucible player attempting to reach the upper echelons of the scoreboard.

“So, it’s overpowered”, you conclude. Yes, it is. But what makes it overpowered? Why is it so perilously unbalanced, and is it really that big of a deal?  This article will attempt to outline just what it is about Thorn that polarizes the playerbase so expertly, and shed light on why it hasn’t been the subject of a hastynerf.

What Determines OP?

First off, we have to define “overpowered.” In this writer’s opinion, something is overpowered when almost any player can succeed with it in most encounters, has very few downsides, and excels in the categories outlined below. This may seem a little vague, but let’s apply it to the Crucible and see if the definition sticks.

The key to succeeding in the Crucible with a Primary is to score quick, precise kills at a reasonable range, that don’t risk your own safety to an extent that would be deemed unacceptable. This means spending minimal time out of cover to deal massive amounts of damage. There are two weapon variants right now that currently fit this bill, and they are Pulse Rifles and Hand Cannons.

The former are burst-fire killers that can potentially drop a Guardian with two pulls of the trigger, but are most likely going to suffer from reticle climb and the difficulty of stringing together multiple headshots within a single burst.

The second weapon class that is tailored for the Crucible is Hand Cannons. They’ve always had a very respectable base range and can drop opponents in a few well-placed shots. HCs are ideal for minimizing TTK and can be used with precision when strafing.

The Hand Cannon class is very strong in Destiny’s current state, as they don’t hamstring any key statistics and are accurate and powerful with extremely flexible range – even following a minor nerf. Even with major kick, most of them can almost fully reset in between shots.

As for Scout Rifles, they’re rather average. Their design suits them to long range engagements, making aiming in close quarters a chore, especially when hunting for headshots. TTK is reasonable on certain variants, but their mobility is low, and putting shots on your target can become very difficult when you’re taking damage in a one-on-one firefight.

Why is Thorn OP?

With the metagame loosely defined above, now we can begin to piece together why Thorn is so good. The first reason is its Range: It possess two ways to boost this key stat in Field Choke and Send It. Either starts to push Thorn’s efficacy at range into Scout/Sniper territory, letting you poke away at anyone you can see with a noncommittal body shot, while only fearing immediate, lethal reprisal if they’re scoped in on you with a Sniper.

Hand Cannons were designed to be ideal in close to medium fights, but lose out to Scout Rifles and Snipers when you try to force them to fight beyond their natural limits. Damage drop-off and the inability to land a precision headshot would normally be a deterrent, but Thorn doesn’t care about either, thanks to the static burn effect from its signature perk. It’ll do a ticking 7 no matter at what distance another Guardian is, so Thorn is already aggressively overcoming a general Hand Cannon shortcoming. Any Hand Cannon that doesn’t have the right perks to increase its Range is simply inferior to it, and we’ve only considered one statistic.

The second reason is Rate of Fire: It shares the same Impact/Rate of Fire model as the Word of Crota, the Devil You Don’t, and a few other Legendary Hand Cannons. While these Hand Cannons all have respectable TTK due to their fast fire, those suffer from reduced overall damage on a single shot, and usually have a lower base Range. Thorn applies a DoT, tops the charts for Hand Cannon base Range, and thus seizes another advantage in Rate of Fire that Hand Cannons appreciate while completely negating its usual accompanying negative.

At this point, you would think that the lower base Stability, when accompanied with the high Rate of Fire, would prove to rein in Thorn’s ability to consecutively land hits when firing at its maximum possible RPM.

In fact, this is empirically not so. Anyone who has used Thorn can attest to the reality that, even without Perfect Balance, the Hand Cannon can still handle the stress. It simply takes the right amount of downward pressure on the thumbstick, and the natural accuracy and base Range of Thorn does the rest. With Perfect Balance, it’s downright criminal how little kick you get.

Finally, you have the unifying perk that takes Thorn from a nuisance to a menace: Mark of the Devourer. Each round from Thorn applies a DoT effect that helps to cross a plethora of pivotal damage thresholds. If two headshots can be landed consecutively – and we know how easy that is – the afflicted Guardian will die to the burn damage. Three quick body shots will do the exact same. In simple terms, Thorn is a 2-to-3 shot kill in every situation.

So, Thorn has arguably the most versatile range of any Primary Weapon in the Crucible, a best-in-class Rate of Fire, no real Stability penalty, and a DoT effect that ups the damage to top-tier.

Take a look at the other favorites such as Red Death, Hawkmoon, & The Last Word. Each of these are considered to be among the best choices for a Crucible Primary, and they all share the ability to potentially kill someone in two shots.

Destiny’s PvP thus far has been an effective counter-offer to the relentless, punishing, twitch-style gameplay of the Call of Duty franchise. Time to Kill is increased across the board for most of Destiny’s weapons compared to other shooters, and Guardians are often able to just turn tail and flee if they take damage, knowing their pursuer mostly won’t be able to do anything about it.

Every one of the Exotic weapons listed above is an exception to this rule. If you force an encounter with someone with Hawkmoon, Red Death, or The Last Word, you’re going to have to beat them outright, because there’s rarely a chance to back out. Despite their undeniable power, however, they all have one unique thing that can limit their chances to dominate.

Hawkmoon technically relies on luck for its two-shot kills, with a 3/13 chance of doing extra damage with one shot, or a 6/13 (nearly 50%) chance of pulling it off in two. It’s still lights out in three with just a single headshot, but if you luck out in not taking bonus damage, you have a much better chance of beating it.

Red Death can technically kill in two bursts, but it relies on landing each individual bullet as a headshot. With its low base Range and Stability, this is really only possible on stationary targets or those who don’t move laterally when in a firefight.

The Last Word has the fastest TTK of any Primary in Destiny, even when it doesn’t snag its bonus damage, but it ostensibly is kept in check by its dismal base Range. Of course, anyone who has been dropped from a distance can say this limiting factor doesn’t go far enough, but the fact remains that The Last Word is mostly for close-to-mid range situations.

What about Thorn? Is there any exception to the two headshot kill, like Hawkmoon? No. If you land both headshots before recovery sets in, they’re dead, every time.

Okay, but is it hard to get those headshots, like Red Death? No, it’s as simple as having the reticle on their head at the moment you pull the trigger. Hit-scan is immediate, and you don’t have to worry about bullet travel time.

Well fine, but it’s at least only deadly up close, like The Last Word, right? Nope, Thorn can do this at distances that would make your other Hand Cannons blush. The only thing that could be considered a “negative” is the waiting time for the burn damage to finish off your opponent. In situations in which you’re exposed, landing two headshots guarantees you a kill, but doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be finished off. Most Thorn users will fire a third insurance shot just to be sure.

Why It’s a Problem

The House of Wolves has introduced a fundamentally new reality to Destiny: content that is gated based on PvP performance. Until this expansion, every single piece of endgame gear could be attained through cooperative play with other Guardians. You were in it together, and beating the Raid meant teamwork. If a gun was overpowered – cough, Gjallarhorn – and a friend of yours had it, sure, there was a certain amount of jealousy, but not when he had it trained in on Crota and was dropping the big guy as soon as he got to his feet.

Trials of Osiris is a paradigm shift. Your success guarantees another’s failure. Every match you win is a black mark on another’s record that prevents them from reaching The Lighthouse on Mercury. This location is effectively sealed off, and always will be, to a majority of the Destiny population that isn’t deadly enough in PvP.

House of Wolves was packaged as a two-pronged champion of replayability. On the PvE front, you have the Prison of Elders, which brings variety and unpredictability on a week-to-week basis with its challenge modes. On the PvP end, Trials of Osiris, which slakes the thirst of those who have been clamoring for competitive PvP with a real sense of reward and loss, while introducing others to the harsh realities of just not being up to snuff.

And if you’re not up to snuff? Your DLC experience is cut short. You won’t see Mercury, you won’t get to try out the new Trials weapons, and the Gold and even Silver packages might forever remain out of your reach. This is upsetting to those who paid full price for the House of Wolves, and it is understandable. The Trials of Osiris is as hard as the opponents you face, and much of the fun comes from being evenly matched with a team that pushes yours to its very limits. Elimination is a well-crafted game mode and, despite a few flaws, has been implemented with very little backlash on the whole.

trials osiris thorn power

Unfortunately, when the stakes become real, the playing field is culled drastically. The first weekend saw curious Guardians making a foray into competitive PvP, hoping to maybe get lucky and finish with six, seven, eight, or even nine wins. A lot of them were predictably crushed, and some Guardians had the “I want it all” mentality: “LF2M for ToO who have already gone flawless. MUST HAVE EMBLEM FOR PROOF” from those who were already victorious.

Forums were inundated with thoughts on the Trials reward system and how fair or unfair it was. PvP elitism is here and it’s here to stay. The Trials of Osiris is the brave new world we were asking for. Destiny has clearly shaken things up, but how does Thorn factor in to this?

Well, when you need to be the best, you use the best – and Thorn is among the best. Bungie may have fooled themselves into thinking PvP balance was in a good spot when it came to weapon selection, but when nothing is on the line, then players don’t feel pressured into only using OP weapons. Clash, Control, Rumble, Skirmish, and Salvage have plenty of Thorns, but there’s no real penalty other than K/D and a hit to your pride by doing less well with a weapon you simply enjoy.

Trials of Osiris is a different game. If you don’t have a 365 Thorn, Final Round Efrideet’s Spear, and a Grenades and Horseshoes Rocket Launcher, you are simply going to be at a disadvantage.

There’s no judgment in that evaluation; a skilled player can overcome disadvantages by virtue of talent alone, but that same player would do even better if he or she used the aforementioned weapons. Arguably, Red Death, Hawkmoon, and The Last Word, or even a few Legendaries are better suited to certain maps, but Thorn is so easy to pick up and do well with, that it’s no surprise that the majority of players are flocking to it.

No one will want to play Iron Banner or Trials of Osiris if all they have to look forward to is the ping-ping of Thorn after Thorn. PvP needs variety to stay fresh, and Destiny needs fresh PvP to stay fun. For the sake of the game, something has to change.

Radio Silence

So why hasn’t it been re-balanced recently? Bungie hit the Vex Mythoclast with extreme prejudice after it was revealed to be a wrecking ball in the early months of Destiny’s release. This was back when wins only netted you 3 Crucible Marks and end-of-match rewards were few and far between. There was practically zero incentive for playing Crucible competitively, other than the satisfaction of doing well, but the hammer fell swiftly on the Vex, Suros Regime, and other offending weapons just the same.

Thorn has been steadily dominating as more and more players collect it from its Exotic bounty, and almost no one would disagree that it’s too good. Iron Banner has been lousy with them, and now the Trials of Osiris is one good pun away from being written off as a Thornfest. Auto Rifles were “re-balanced” into irrelevance from usage statistics, and I can only imagine what Thorn looks like from the same perspective.

Perhaps Bungie has grown a little nerf shy. Nerfing is certainly a zero-sum game. At best you’re going to momentarily sate indignant players while pissing off anyone who lived and died by the subject of your nerf; at worst, you fixed a problem that wasn’t asking for it while creating another entirely (again, see Auto Rifles).

auto rifle destiny balance buff

Bungie has also been a little more lenient with their Exotics, offering exclusive tune-ups with a couple of patches that have made some relevant again, and others better than they once were.

Arguably, the current state of Exotics is now as closely correlated to the relative strengths of the weapon class to which they belong as its ever been. Suros Regime and Hard Light are bad, but only insofar as Auto Rifles are. Invective and The Fourth Horseman are now devastating, but would they be nearly as strong if it weren’t for the 100% PvE damage Shotgun buff? If we extend this to Hand Cannons, whose accuracy at range is second-to-none, are we really surprised when just the slightest of damage buffs wrecks the entire balance?

Bungie is more aware of the fine line they walk than we give them credit for. When we were informed of the increase to damage Pulse Rifles were getting, many said “That’s it?” In PvE, those naysayers have mostly been proved right – but just look at what happened in PvP. Even with the just over 10% boost to damage, Red Death was facing its own accusations of OP-ness in the first week following the buff.

If Bungie hastily nerf’d Thorn, Hawkmoon and Red Death would rise up to take its place.  So long as the competitive metagame exists, players are going to find out what weapon is best suited for it and “abuse” it to no end.

If game designers craft weapons that are the best for certain situations without being universally amazing, you’ll have people switching it up frequently, and figuring out what works best for them. Bungie’s rhetoric has suggested that this is what they’ve been trying to do. They’ve done huge range changes on Shotguns, Fusion Rifles, and Auto Rifles in an attempt to more rigidly define the roles for Primaries and Secondaries. Unfortunately, all this has done in PvP is make Shot Package essential, Fusion Rifles scarce, and Thorn the King of All Primaries.

Unless Hand Cannons like Thorn receive similar treatment, PvP is going to remain completely unbalanced. Of course, everything Bungie does to a weapon for PvP’s sake has ramifications in the PvE world. We’ve talked about the inherent problems to not having the two separate, and it’s clearly causing some gridlock. Still, you can bet Bungie is keeping a close eye on how Trials of Osiris has been playing out.

When they’re done dealing with the cheaters and cheesers of Osiris, a weapon balancing is on the horizon. First for the chopping block? Who knows… but we’d definitely love to know which weapons you all would like to see addressed!

Conclusion

The “overpowered” word gets thrown around a lot, and one player’s definition isn’t necessarily the same as the guy next to him. Thorn fits the bill because it is the best at what the Crucible demands, with almost no demanding skill curve or drawbacks. We’ve placed it side-by-side with PvP’s other standby weapons and it’s clear that Thorn is in a class of its own.

It is a drain on the longevity of PvP by discouraging weapon variety, while still being simply too good not to use. As Destiny’s House of Wolves chapter continues, we’ll expect to see the infamous Hand Cannon getting the attention it deserves. In the meantime, we’ll accept the grim reality that Thorn is here – and there, and everywhere – to stay.

There’s no doubt that there won’t ever be true balance, and Destiny is probably better because of it, but hopefully Bungie can make the appropriate changes to allow some of the other weapons to shine too.

Joel
I'm aWrySharK, your resident Exotic guru and lover of all things min/max. At PlanetDestiny, my perfectionism is no longer simply a matter of form over function.

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