Nothing big has changed with Bristleback in the recent patches, but rather a series of incremental buffs has now put him back in a territory of irritating heroes to deal with. In pubs, his win rate has increased by 3 points from patch 7.03 to 7.06, and in competitive play, Evil Geniuses sealed their victory against Newbee with Arteezy playing a position 1 Bristleback, dealing more damage than SuMa1L’s Ember Spirit.
The last time Bristleback got a considerable direct nerf was back in patch 6.84c, over two years ago, and it was “Increased Base Attack Time from 1.7 to 1.8.” He has been buffed ever since. Over a series of patches since then, the net results of his buffs have caused Quill Spray’s damage cap from 400 to 550, Quill Spray’s radius from 625 to 700—greater than Lina’s auto attack range—and the release threshold of his passive Quill Spray from 250 to 210 (that’s a good thing). Then there have been numerous buffs towards the strength attribute, with a higher regeneration or HP gained per strength. Even though in today’s game there’s a surfeit of counters for Bristleback, it’s not always as easy as it seems.
I guess that’s one way to counter Bristleback. credit: /u/karamiro
Outside of farming Aghanim’s Scepter, Ethereal Blade, Veil, Aether Lens, and Refresher on a support Shadow Demon, players can just cast any other spell as normal. Soul Catcher can offset the damage reduction from Bristleback’s passive, Disruption offers a brief respite to deal with Bristleback’s teammates, and Demonic Purge can effectively shutter him out of the fight. One reminder is that the Aghanim’s version of Demonic Purge applies Break, which disables Bristleback’s damage reduction passive. There’s no way to counter it. Shadow Demon is a solid counter for Bristleback from the support position. Only if he were effective in nearly every other situation.
Keeper of the Light
KOTL holds a 4.3% win rate edge against Bristleback, and all of it can be attributed to Mana Leak. He doesn’t need to cast any other spells to neutralize Bristleback, who depends on movement and mana. The spell is irritating enough to force Bristleback players to build BKB early, an item that they tend to delay for as long as possible. That’s not to mention Blinding Light, which also completely counters War Path’s benefits.
After KOTL, Legion Commander holds the 3rd largest win rate edge against Bristleback (Necrophos sits at 2nd place). Using LC as a counter can be counter intuitive to other methods. Whereas one method is to reduce Bristleback’s potency and deal with his teammates first, a team with Legion Commander can pickoff Bristleback early in the fight. Duel forces Bristleback to face his opponents, as opposed to showing his back to them. The better use case for LC is to gank Bristleback and pressure him in the early and mid game, when he depends on his passive more than tanky items to survive.
Phoenix is one of the better hero choices because its a hero thats relevant in the meta. It’s less situational than KOTL, giving its team more options if picked in an earlier phase. Phoenix benefits from Sun Ray dealing damage as a percentage of max health, while Fire Spirits limits Bristleback’s underrated auto attack damage output.
[missing hero: outworld-devourer]
OD is a common counter pick to Bristleback and was picked a few times during the Manila Masters, with little success. But in pubs, OD has a 2% win rate advantage against Bristleback. Arcane Orb ignores armor and magic resistance (but not Bristleback’s passive) and Sanity’s Eclipse has a tendency to just detonate Strength heroes. Astral Imprisonment works similar to Shadow Demon’s disruptions as it buys time to kite Bristleback around or deal with his teammates first.
The One Item That’s Not As Great As It Seems
Silver Edge should be the bane of Bristleback. The debuff Breaks Bristleback’s passive, and it’s undispellable. But in the same period of time that Bristleback has been buffed, Silver Edge has been nerfed. From 6.87c to 7.06 its build cost has increased from 4800 to 5550, and its Shadow Walk damage reduced from 225 to 175. Meanwhile, most heroes who can build Silver Edge as a situational item are no longer at the top of the meta. Troll Warlord would have been a decent pick, if he wasn’t just nerfed in both 7.06b and c.
The debuff doesn’t last forever, and it doesn’t disable the evasion from Solar Crest and Halberd. By the time your team has a Silver Edge, Bristleback will have tanky items that make him difficult to kill even without the benefit of his passive. Silver Edge can still help, but it’s just one of the puzzle pieces to solve the Bristleback problem. Other pieces include typical support items, that help put some distance between supports and Bristleback.