I do not consider Axe a big threat because he works only against certain lineups. Let’s analyze the best heroes to counter him and the items you must prioritize.
Axe is usually played as an offlaner. If you counter him in the lane, he won’t have the chance to get consistent extra gold from the adjacent neutral camps. The situation was different before the consecutive nerfs that affected the jungle: many offlaners could just abandon the lane and still earn almost as much gold and experience.
7.14 slightly increased his movement speed by 5 (which was nerfed in 7.13b) and rescaled the mana cost of Battle Hunger. The latter is almost negligible because the ability is awful - you can’t maximize it in the early game and rely on a DoT (damage over time) that can be removed by a single last hit.
Axe requires huge changes to get back into the meta as now there are many stronger heroes who can be played in the offlane and cover his role. In April, he was one of the least played heroes in competitive with only 6 matches.
The situation is totally different in pubs where his win rate ranges from 53% to 55%, and he remains a popular pick at most ranks: he is played in 16% of the games up to Crusader, 9% at Legend, and 5% at Divine.
Low ranked players rarely know how to behave against Axe, thus he can be deployed in most games and still succeed, while at higher ranks he performs well only versus certain heroes.
Eul’s Scepter of Divinity
The best item for a support. If you use Cyclone on Axe after he taunted your team, it will prevent any damage from Counter Helix and the Blade Mail - note that the heroes caught will still be affected by the disable.
Axe can counter this move with the Black King Bar, but he won’t have one ready in the mid game. Always buy the Eul!
It works the best if used after Berserker’s Call because your allies won’t be able to hit Axe. It is a very situational item, but a good choice on a hero that can use it.
The active disables any passive ability of the target, thus Axe won’t proc Counter Helix for 4 seconds.
In the late game, a carry can freely auto-attack Axe and ignore the damage return thanks to the huge 200% lifesteal from Unholy Rage.
Mekansm and Guardian Greaves
If used at the right time, you can avoid a last hit via Culling Blade because the target will suddenly have more health points.
The best carries
One of the most known counters. He doesn’t fear Axe at all, and can freely attack him thanks to the lifesteal provided by Feast and Open Wounds. Lifestealer can survive and win even against the Blade Mail once he obtains enough attack speed or the Echo Sabre for extra hits.
After the mid game, she can completely ignore the damage from Counter Helix due to her tankiness. The AoE attacks produced by Split Shot let her shoot at the entire enemy team even when taunted.
While under the effect of Enrage, Ursa enjoys a 80% incoming damage reduction, so can attack Axe without endangering his life even when the Blade Mail is active. Fury Swipes deals an enormous quantity of physical damage that stacks quickly - it works great against a high HP and low armor hero like Axe.
Astral Imprisonment is a reliable ability to counter Axe's initiation. OD's combination of pure and magic damage is great against him, and Sanity’s Eclipse destroys Axe due to his low intelligence (1.6 per level and practically nothing via items)
Slow and DoT abilities prevent Axe's initiations
Venomancer and Viper
Generally, all heroes with slow and DoT effects are good picks because will hinder Axe's mobility and put the Blink Dagger on cooldown - without it, he can’t taunt properly. The slow via their poison is also ample to kite Axe permanently.
In particular, Viper is a hard counter because Nethertoxin disables all passives of the enemies affected, breaking Counter Helix.
Disruption works exactly as the Eul’s Scepter of Divinity. Banishing Axe from the battlefield, it prevents any damage from Counter Helix or the Blade Mail.
Moreover, the illusions generated by the spell also proc Axe’s passive: only inexperienced opponents will attack them, so in most cases they aren’t very useful, but you can exploit them in some situations - for example, when invading the high ground.
Demonic Purge slows down Axe, disables the Blink Dagger, and even breaks Counter Helix when upgraded with the Aghanim’s Scepter.
Sticky Napalm and Firefly are amazing tools to avoid any initiation thanks to the constant slow and the AoE damage on the battlefield. Flamebreak and Flaming Lasso can save allies, pushing Axe away from their attack range - therefore it is possible to counteract also a successful initiation.
Vision counters initiators
Axe completely relies on the Blink Dagger to engage, so any hero who can spot him in advance might disrupt his plans.
Night Stalker and Keeper of the Light are the most obvious ones, especially after purchasing the Aghanim’s Scepter. The latter can also use Blinding Light to push Axe away from his allies.
There are many more heroes with scouting abilities. Clockwerk can check the surroundings with Rocket Flare - which gives vision on an area for 10 seconds - and even disable the Blink Dagger with a lucky shot. Power Cogs are helpful to manipulate the battlefield, separating Axe from the battle.
Save your taunted allies
There are many heroes with abilities to heal the team or prevent Counter Helix’s damage (we already talked about Shadow Demon’s Disruption). Here are more valid examples:
Oracle can disarm a taunted ally with Fate’s Edict, and False Promise might save a low HP one from Culling Blade.
Vengeful Spirit can switch position with Axe or an ally using Nether Swap.
Undying heals his teammates with Soul Rip, disables the Blink Dagger using the Tombstone’ zombies, and is also useful in the lane phase as Decay is exceptional versus strength heroes.
Pugna possesses an inherent Ethereal Blade with Decrepify, which can be cast on Axe after a successful taunt to prevent any proc of Counter Helix and Blade Mail. Life Drain’s massive healing will also save countless lives from Culling Blade.
Necrophos can quickly regen the teammates caught by Berserker’s Call spamming Death Pulse. This ability works well also versus Culling Blade, especially in combo with the Mekansm. Heartstopper Aura is efficient against high HP heroes like Axe, and likewise Reaper’s Scythe hard counters him. Ghost Shroud might save yourself if timed correctly before being affected by Berserker’s Call.
Header image: Harbinger of War loading screen for Axe - Valve