SPUF enjoys arguing about TF2’s balance. A lot. One of the most common issues to sprout up involves TF2 melee weapons. It’s no secret the vast majority of stock melees are underpowered, except those with utility like knife and wrench. If their only job is to deal damage, then they’re gonna suck because every class has a plethora of primary or secondary weapons that deal more damage at longer ranges more effectively.
So when most competetive TF2 players agree that the bottle is the best Demoman melee weapon, this may seem unusual. How can it really be the best choice for its slot when it has no gimmicks beside emergency damage?
In my opinion, it has to do with the way Valve has handled the unlocks in that slot. Using demoman as an example, here is what I think the golden rules should be for designing melee unlocks.
1) They should have passive downsides. The thing about melee as a weapon is, you probably aren’t going to use it in most cases. It’s an emergency fallback, that’s why you’ve probably made a mistake or have been forced into an unfavorable position if you are whipping it out. So from a design perspective, if a melee unlock’s only downsides make it less capable of serving as a weapon, it’ll be a better choice than stock. Example downsides include reduced damage, reduced swing speed, or removal of random crits. If you never fight with your melee, you’re basically just gaining the upside of the unlock without penalty.
So, in order for that upside to come with an appropriate cost, it should bring a passive downside. Let’s look at all the demoman melee unlocks, besides a few that will be covered in the next point:
Eyelander: -25 base health
Pain Train: 10% bullet damage vulnerability
Scotsman’s Skullcutter: 15% slower movespeed
Claidheamh Mòr: -15 base health
Persian Persuader: you cannot replenish your primary/secondary ammo supply
If you want the upside of these unlocks, you must accept a downside that will actually affect your gameplay even if you never use the weapon in question. If you don’t like the look of any of those downsides, use the stock weapon.
But what if you really want an unlock without passive downsides? Well…
2. If the unlock doesn’t have a passive downside, there must a large penalty when wielding/attacking with it. And the upside must have something to do with using the melee weapon.
There are two Demoman melee unlocks not covered in the last point. The Ullapool Caber doesn’t have passive downsides, but when you connect with it you lose 2/3rds of your health and get flung through the air. The Half-Zatoichi restricts you to melee unless you kill somebody with it, which is damning if anything goes wrong with your melee attack. That’s why the bottle is still balanced with these two, because it lets you deal melee damage without worrying about negative side effects.
Those are the only two points. If all the melee weapons in TF2 adhered to one of these standards, stock melee would not be useless and instead fill a necessary niche in the options available to the player.