Oxygen

Hindsight 101: Belated Varian BlizzCon Hands-on & Discussion

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Oxygen talks about his Varian experience at BlizzCon - a month late! Did the first Multiclass Hero live up to his (non) expectations?

 

If you're familiar with my BlizzCon-related work, you might know that I generally produce a few article about my hands-on experience with the announced and upcoming heroes for Heroes of the Storm. And you may have noted that I hadn't published anything about Varian. Why? Blizzard played a naughty joke on me by announcing that Varian would also be available for all to play on the PTR - a mere two days after BlizzCon - making my so-called experience rather moot. I refuse to see my work go to waste. Given that I made some rather bold assumptions in this article, I'd like to play a game of hindsight 20/20 or, "was Oxy wrong, and how wrong was he?", if you will.

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Intro and Design

Varian is one of the two Heroes announced at BlizzCon 2016. He represents the World of Warcraft Warrior class in Heroes of the Storm, just as the Hunter is represented by Rexxar, the Mage by Jaina and Kael'thas, the Warlock by Gul'dan, and so on. Accordingly, he is labeled as a Warrior. However, he also happens to be the first true ''hybrid'' Hero to be brought into the game, being able to be played as tank, bruiser, or Assassin. This is defined by his Heroic ability choices, which offer significant passive boosts to his health, attack damage, or attack speed, respectively, at the cost of other stats.

In fact, this ability to specialise as such is the Hero's main defining point. Although his learning curve is not particularly steep due to the simplicity of his kit, Varian's true depth comes from his talents. Each tier has you make decisions that broadly impact the way you will play the Hero following these decisions. Varian puts your ability to assess game flow, proper counter-picking, and team needs to the test.

Right off, I'm not sure why I said Varian was labeled as a Warrior when he's rather clearly labeled as Multiclass. Regardless of this minor mistake, I seem to have overestimated just how much "depth" Varian's talents actually have. Most players nowadays have a pretty clear idea of what they'll be doing the second they pick Varian, and hotslogs confirms that there isn't all that much variety in his builds. 

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Lion's Fang (Q) is a simple projectile that travels in a line, piercing enemies and dealing some damage on top of reducing the movement speed of struck foes. Lion's Fang is a pretty (disappointingly) literal copy-paste of Rexxar's Birdy toss. The related quest significantly improves its damage and doubles the slowing effect and adding a bit of duration to it, making it quite a bit more zingy. You can't really go wrong with slowing stuff in a line, but beyond this, the ability is not particularly interesting. It is pretty important to land it after Charge so that the slow may improve your basic attack uptime. Although the ability can be used to help you with waveclearing, its damage is so low that I would probably not leave Varian in any lane for an extended period of time.

Although there isn't much to add to this factual bit, I think it is pretty important to mention that Varian indeed turned out to be one of the worst early game (and laning) hero to date. I'll touch on this a bit futher down.

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Parry (W) reduces the damage of all incoming basic attacks by 100% for 0.75 seconds, and has two charges. This ability is very (very!) reminescent of Illidan's Evasion. At level 4, you can choose to make Parry reduce ALL damage taken by 100%, making it infinitely better. Since its duration is so short, you need some pretty good reflexes to make proper use of that one. As an interesting sidenote, it works against buildings and Mercenaries, notably, the Boss.

It should be noted that Parry was actually buffed significantly between BlizzCon and the PTR version of Varian. Although I was trying to give the ability some credit, using its 0.75 seconds duration to its fullest was rather... lacklustre at best.

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Charge (E) sends you running at the enemy target of your choice, dealing a bit of damage and applying a potent but short snare. More or less like Kharazim's Dash, sans the ability to target allies, and with a much shorter range. A level 4 choice turns the snare into a 0.75 seconds stun and halves its otherwise pretty long cooldown, making it an excessively reliable interruption, soft engaging, and chasing tool. But not much else.

It is interesting to note that Charge was also changed between BlizzCon and the PTR, with a 33% increase to the snaring and stunning (assuming Warbringer) effects.

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Heroic Strike (Trait) makes your first attack every 18 second deal a signficant amount of bonus damage. Following basic attacks reduce the cooldown of Heroic Strike by some 2 seconds. The animation is pretty cool, and the damage is definitely welcome. Heroic Strike allows Varian to deal a reasonable amount of burst damage following Charge, but is especially useful while clearing out Mercenary Camps. There's not much to that one; just make sure you don't waste your attack against irrelevant targets before actually engaging.

Taunt (R1) forces the targeted Hero to attack you for 1.25 seconds. Its range being essentially melee, I'd often follow a charge up with this so as to totally disable my target for 2 seconds. This talent also increases your life pool by a measly 50%, at the cost of reducing your attack speed by 25%. If you hadn't guessed, this is what you go to become a tank - or try to, anyway.

Colossus Smash (R2) causes you to dash to the target, slamming them for a decent amount of damage and a 3-second Vulnerability (25% damage taken increase from all sources) effect. It also passively increases your attack damage by 75%, at the cost of losing 10% of your health. This one lets Varian deal a scary amount of burst damage, as the increased basic attack damage is strongly reflected in Heroic Strike's own damage. All of which is then multiplied by the Vulnerability effect provided by Colossus Smash. Just make sure you have an exit strategy for this one, because you will be as frail as Varian gets.

Twin Blades of Fury (R3) does not have an activated ability attached to it, making it the first entirely passive Heroic ability. Instead, it provides a hefty 100% extra attack speed, at the cost of 25% attack damage. This is offset by the fact that the talent also increases your movement speed by 30% whenever you hit something, and causes your basic attacks to reduce the cooldown of Heroic Strike by 9 (!) seconds per hit. In other words, you'll be critically hitting your target every 3rd attack, not unlike Samuro. Combined with Second Wind, Twin Blades grants you some supreme self-sustainability. You just need to be able to attack your intended target a lot, which can be difficult. This talent also scales extremely well with the High king's Quest due to the interaction of flat damage and high attack speed.

Not much to say here, although I would like to underline some of my cynical bit regarding Taunt. A lot of players were excited about the prospect of completely disabling a chosen target for 2 (now 2.25) seconds. I was skeptical, as it meant giving up so much of everything else. Time would prove me right; Taunt Varian peaked at some 39% global win rate, and was extremely underwhelming (read: it lost) in the few competitive matches we did briefly see Varian come off the bench.

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Gameplay and Impressions

Is simple complexity not an oxymoron? Varian's kit is dreadfully simple - I'd almost say cripplingly. I simply can't help but feel that it'll be very difficult for Varian players to stand out through the use of his abilities. There's only so much you can do with a targeted charge and line damage. This is also problematic from an animation standpoint; there isn't really anything ''big'' or impressive to build upon. The contrast between Varian and Ragnaros, from this standpoint, is staggering.

I think we can all agree on this point; Varian is definitely one of the more accessible heroes currently available, and his (updated) Taunt build is currently pretty effective for how simple it is to run. Don't get me wrong - simple characters are great for new players, but I personally felt - and still feel - that Varian is about as low as it is reasonable to be in terms of skill floor and ceiling.

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Another big issue: Mana. Why does he have it? Warriors are the epitome of the not-mana archetype. It would feel good, too, to stack up Fury or rage or what-have-you in a Sonya-esque fashion, allowing you to unleash a barrage of Lion's Fangs, Parry a significant number of attacks, or repeatedly Charge at an intended kill target. During my several play sessions, I would often find myself running out of the stuff; this is definitely due to the level 7 talents providing large amounts of self-sustain. I'd always be full on health, and without a blue bar. That's annoying, and completely out of character.

After writing the article, I did have the chance to discuss (over dinner!) with an unnamed Blizzard hero design dev. He basically agreed with me, though underlined that taking mana away from so many characters might lead the game in a direction they weren't necessarily anticipating, or at least, crafting around. I boldly suggested taking Varian's mana to Samuro, because Blademasters were certainly known for building specifically so as to reduce mana usage. The whole discussion was rather interesting, to say the least.

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My favourite thing about the character is without a doubt how significant every talent tiers feel. Varian probably has the best-designed talent tree in the game, and although I understand it is part of his design intent, I feel he should be used as a template for future releases. We all know that feeling when you get to pick up that build-defining talent, right? Varian gives you that feeling at every tier. The individual talent design is pretty clever, too - and it had to be. All of the talents work for all of the 3 ''specs'' you can go into.

I'm going to have to disagree with myself here; Ragnaros has an awesome talent tree because it allows you to aggressively adapt to your opponents. With Varian, I often feel like I'm struggling to see what I can get away with doing. And unfortunately, since the recent changes to the hero, that often ends up being "Just go Taunt". Yes, we do get to make big choices at level 4 and 16, but are they really interesting choices? I don't personally feel so. They're simply natural responses to what your opponents are playing, not depthful playstyle or game changers.

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Role-wise, I feel like he fits the bruiser niche generally filled by The Butcher, Sonya, and Illidan. The issue, however, is that his Mercenary Camp clearing speed is abysmal in the early stages of the game due to your main damage source being gated behind Heroic abilities, and to sustain only coming online at level 7. His waveclear is even worse. He just feels terrible in the early stages of the game, but his design essentially makes it impossible to give him significant damage anywhere before 10, because any such boost would end up multiplying with the Heroic Assassin specs. It's a bit messy, to say the least, and would probably mean that he can never be a truly competitive pick. And even later on, when he can actually start doing things, he feels on the undertuned side. You'd wish he'd take some power away from Ragnaros to balance out the two somehow. In the end, however, I just don't feel like he's fun to play. Something is missing somewhere, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

A Meta Reject

In the last paragraph, I drew a comparion between The Butcher, Sonya, Illidan, and Varian in terms of in-game role. I cannot currently foresee Varian outperforming any of these Heroes. Undertuning might be a factor, but his early game deficiencies are simply too significant when he can't be roaming. The other Heroes mentioned here already see limited play in this meta despite being deemed balanced or even strong. I know what you're thinking, however: Oxy, does the ability to adapt not have any intrinsic value? To which I'll respond: Yes, it does. But you also sacrifice something for this. The most obvious problem is the early game (can I overstate this?), before you get to actually specialise, but once you do specialise, what then? Whether he's a tank or a damage dealer, Varian still does the same stuff: Charge in, most likely as a follow-up or to lock someone that's out of position, deal a bit of damage, either Taunt or Colossus Smash a value target, get a kill (or not)... but then, you're gated by really long cooldowns. His basic attacks are decent, thanks to Heroic Strike, but nothing to write home about. His survivability is mediocre, even in tank mode; having a tonne of health, as we've learned from Diablo, generally isn't even enough to be actually considered tanky. And if his numbers do see an increase, I feel he might just be frustrating to play against given how little counterplay room there is against him. Something fundamental might need to change about him if he is to see any serious viability. I guess that explains why he ends up... Legion spoiler alert...

 

dying.

Interestingly enough, Varian's Twin Blades of Fury build ended up being the build to beat by a large margin. In other words, I was wrong; it does happen to the best of us. Despite an abysmal early game (and regarding this, I was right!), Warbringer (which was shortly nerfed) and a ridiculous level of self-sustain (which was shortly nerfed) were enough to make up for said abysmal early game performance. I still stand behind my comments regarding the hero's lack of depth, which, I feel, will bore many players and unfortunately make one of the Warcraft franchise's most iconic characters rather unpopular should he ever become undertuned. It is worth noting that Varian, after this latest balance patch, is currently is in a pretty good state, with at least one of his build (Taunt) hovering around 53% win rate. His two other builds stand at a respectable 6-7% behind, generally overshadowed by other bruisers and melee assassins.

In the end, I certainly respect the design decisions made for Varian. His overly simple base ability kit, however, seem to have made it very difficult to create meaningful talents for him. Case in point: the majority of his talents don't even affect his basic abilities. Those that touch Parry are generally ignored due to their defensive or outright underwhelming nature, overshadowed by those that affect Charge, as those tend to synergise so well together. Lion's Maw (level 1 talent for Lion's Fang) sees a good amount of play however, if not just for the fact that it turns a meek Lion Fang into a reasonable ability, and is the only talent that actually affects it. Again, I'd like to underline the attempts at straying a bit away from the typical talent design, but Heroes has too much design space to see a hero that has 3 extremely simple abilities that more or less already exist on other heroes.

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