With a 93% Pick+Ban rate at the Frankfurt Major, Tusk was the most contested hero of the patch and it would be a shame not to discuss him in more detail. This time around, rather than speculate over potential nerfs for the hero, we’ll look at his most used builds and what makes the hero so popular.
Some abilities do not simply disable, deal damage or heal by an amount, but introduce often unique concepts which, if utilized correctly, can provide almost infinite amount of utility.
Earthshaker even at level 1 can create a lot of utility with a well-placed Fissure, while Winter Wyvern and Dazzle both have potential to greatly prolong the lives of their teammates. Shadow Demon and [missing hero: outworld-devourer] also have similar abilities which can be used aggressively.
Now, looking at Tusk, it is unsurprising to see him being so popular among professional players and high level pubbers, and it is very unlikely that reasonable changes to numbers will dethrone him completely. Much like the aforementioned heroes, its the concept of the hero that makes him strong, not necessarily the numbers. That said, it's also the meta that favors him so incredibly well (5v5). The hero has Ice Shards which are situationally better than Fissure in creating an impassable terrain. And he also has Snowball which can help your team dodge almost any spell in the game or at the very least make the teammate untargetable for the duration of the negative effect, while adding to mobility.
A lot of spells, or combinations of spells, have unique, unquantifiable effects that are not necessarily overpowered in nature, but they can certainly look like it if utilized correctly. A full Omnislash into Cold Embrace can be considered a heal for 2k+ health for 75 mana. In the same sense, a well used Snowball can save your whole team from a strong AoE damage/post-effect. Similarly, blocking half of the enemy team with well placed Ice Shards, so that they have to take the long way around to get into the fight can be considered a long duration disable.
Why does this matter?? Well, for one, numbers, while meaningful, are not the cornerstone of Dota. By grasping the concepts of quantifiable vs. unquantifiable effects, people might discover something new for themselves and make better decisions in their games. Some spells, some concepts in Dota are so strong that they will always find their way to be relevant. Tusk is an embodiment of that.
Now let's get back to applied Dota - our detour into theoretical side was long enough.
The Pick Rate of the hero directly relates to the MMR bracket. From <2k to 5k+ it grows from an already respectable 14.19% to an absolutely stunning 37.10%. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the Win Rate of the hero - the growth from the lower brackets exists, but it is only around 2.5% and finishes at roughly 50.5%.
What is peculiar is the lane preference for hero in different MMR games-- more people play Tusk in the offlane in higher brackets. Only 13% of players in 5k+ play him as a safe lane support. In lower brackets this figure is closer to 45%.
Interestingly, the Game Impact statistics doesn't show significant discrepancy between skill brackets. In fact, KDA of the hero is at its lowest in 5k+ at 2.33, which is not different from the highest value of 2.45 in 2-3k.
The damage and healing stats are also quite unexpected. The hero deals the most damage in the lowest MMR bracket, but does the most healing in the highest. The values for healing, while small, are still quite significant, since we are talking about the average across a lot of games - do not let the value of 15 mislead you.
Finally, the amount of sentry and observer wards purchased directly relates to the MMR bracket, which is unsurprising.
There are two main roles/lane positions for the hero: safelane support and offlane semi-core. Regardless of the lane/role, however, Tusk is still expected to roam early on-- he is an extremely strong level 2 hero, since the utility aspects of his spells are already at their almost full potential.
The skill builds are identical in either case. There might be some variation pre-level 7, but most players agree that maxing Ice Shards first and Snowball second is the most efficient way. Though I have to say that an early level in Frozen Sigil can be an option if you are playing against hard, but slow-hitting enemies. It is also good for scouting and is especially beneficial when looking for spawn-blocking wards.
Throughout the game the main focus of the hero is not necessarily to deal damage, but to provide utility. His ultimate can disable through spell immunity, but the duration of the hard disable is pretty low - it is generally best used against strong channeling/long cast point spells (e.g.Fiend's Grip/Requiem of Souls) or as a way of dealing with enemy melee cores (e.g. Sven/ Tiny), since the slow after-effect pierces spell immunity.
At the same time, you should also look for ways for your team to get better trades through Snowball. In the heat of a fight, it is sometimes hard to adapt to a change in focus of the enemy team. For example, if your melee core is attacking a target which just got Cold Embrace, it is better to change the priority target and Snowball into an enemy far behind--this way you are not only ensuring that your core is actually dealing damage, but also disrupting enemy positioning. And, of course, disjointing enemy big cooldowns (Call Down/Winter's Curse/Ravage) will not only deserve you a lot of praise from teammates, but can also turn the tide of battle.
Finally, you should try to use Ice Shards to divide the fight into separate instances making it harder for the enemy team to use all of their potential effectively. Sometimes, dividing the fight into two smaller groups in chokepoints can create an opportunity for you and your teammates(s) to go over the shards in Snowball and take a fight with the weaker side first. Ice Shards is also a decent nuke at a rather low cooldown so it can be thrown somewhat freely just to deal damage - just make sure you are not tampering with plans of your allies.
We have already discussed how the skillbuild on the hero is almost non-negotiable, but we have also touched on how the hero is played differently in different skill brackets - <2k's prefer dealing damage and 5k's+ go for extra utility. The difference mainly comes from item choices and we will look at each way separately. Most professional players prefer Tusk to go for utility, but it doesn't mean the damage way is a lot less viable - as always, we suggest you adapt according to how the game goes and make educated decisions.
It is often accompanied with Drum of Endurance for the early game stats.
Later game additions include Silver Edge to deal with good passives, Black King Bar for fighting potential and sometimes even an Assault Cuirass. Monkey King Bar is also good, since it is one of the most cost effective raw damage items and synergises well with the crit from Tusk's ultimate.
Other good items with this build include Heaven's Halberd, since it makes you a lot more resilient to enemy physical attacks while giving a decent amount of damage, and Vladmir's Offering, if you want to go slightly towards a hybrid build while making your push significantly stronger.
All of the above does not turn the Tusk into an actual carry, though. He can be quite menacing if you are far ahead, yet pretty much any hero can be considered amazing with a significant Net Worth lead. Instead, he becomes a very strong ganker which attempts to kill/deal-heavy damage to a single target in the beginning of the fight and then turn into a Snowball and check whether there is a successful follow-up from his team. This way, he can remain relatively safe and not be the focus target in the fight - something the hero with 2.3 strength growth is not good at.
When playing this way, it is crucial not to lose tempo and effectively progress with the items - Shadow Blade+Desolator might be enough to solo-kill a level 10- support, but it does fall off rather fast with the added armor/hp on the enemy. At some point you are also going to face a Gem or Sentries, so be careful, try not to feed too much gold and consider getting a Blink Dagger.
As with many support items, you should be very specific about your choices.
Urn of Shadows is a cheap item which boosts your stats and provides mana regeneration--a very underrated perk for a roaming hero. The healing/damage effect is also very strong, especially on a hero which is based on ganking during the laning stage - the HP trades are imminent and you don't want your ganking work to go to waste with your farming core needing to go back to the fountain to heal.
An upgrade into Guardian Greaves is sometimes necessary, if the enemy team has strong silences, since Tusk needs his spells to be effective. It is also a better healing mechanism, since the aura it provides is extremely strong and, frankly, underrated.
Medallion of Courage into Solar Crest is good if you are facing "-armor" strategy and want to boost your Roshan potential. Its aggressive usage is also quite good, but generally only in conjunction with heavy-hitting teammates.
Glimmer Cape does not need an explanation. It is an overall great item which is exceptionally good in certain scenarios and at the very least decent in others.
Vladmir's Offering is a good choice for a +armor aura and some extra damage/lifesteal. It is mainly good early game for its armor part, so if someone on your team already has a Ring of Aquila, it might not be as necessary. Later in the game it is one of the most crucial support items, since it can conserve a slot for your core teammate.
Heaven's Halberd is similar to Solar Crest, but of the two the latter seems more versatile. The former, however, can be much better against solo ranged enemy core which does not necessarily go for BkB early on (e.g. Windranger).
Lotus Orb is quite underrated since as a utility item it works wonders against hexes/slows on your cores, while providing yourself with a nice armor boost. It can also be disassembled to make space for a Linken's Sphere later on.
Finally, Force Staff is almost never a bad pick up. It has an effect which cannot be quantified and can help the hero become even more of a nuisance to the enemy team.
Tusk is reliant on his spells through and through. Silences in teamfights can be the key in order to negate his impact. That said, almost no specific hero with an innate silencing ability can be considered to be a strong counter to him. Doom is of course a good counter to him, but given Tusk’s nature of being able to play a utility core or even a support, it’s always a question of whether you want to spend a Doom on him.
Similarly, being able to disable Tusk in fights or after his initiation is a good way to make sure he cannot unfold his full potential. Considering the fact, that Tusk has to put himself into harm’s way to initiate, it allows usually unreliable stuns to be more precise (e.g. Slardar’s Slithereen Crush, Lina’s Light Strike Array).
His low mana pool makes him susceptible to mana burning abilities.
Tusk is an incredibly interesting and versatile hero which can be played quite effectively regardless of the skill level. While some of the harder saving "tricks" require better understanding of the game and coordination, it is clearly not the only reason the hero is good. The continuous changes to how Tusk's spells work and what utility they provide have made him quite an "easy to learn, hard to master" type of hero and we honestly hope he will not be nerfed into oblivion.