When people start talking about Destiny’s PvP multiplayer, chances are they’ll eventually bring up the infamous, deadly gun Thorn. And if they’re talking about Thorn, they’ll almost surely mention the arduous process of obtaining one.

A few days ago, I underwent the trial-by-fire that is the Thorn exotic bounty. It was frequently difficult, occasionally maddening, unexpectedly exhilarating, and supremely gratifying to complete. What I thought would be a frustrating grind was instead one of the most interesting and useful Destiny challenges I’ve ever undertaken.

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Here is the story (saga?) of me and Destiny’s Thorn bounty. It’s basically a romantic comedy, only instead of a wedding, it ends with me getting way better at killing people in a video game.

Prologue: Destiny Double-Dog Dares Me

Last week, I wrote an article about how Thorn is both one of the best PvP weapons in Destiny and one of the most annoying and overused. Short version: Thorn is a pistol that has the unique ability to “sting” enemies and cause further damage over time. That ability makes it one of the most deadly and tactically advantageous guns in Destiny’s competitive crucible multiplayer. It’s extremely popular, and it dominates matches among high-level players.

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It sucks to go up against someone using Thorn, but that doesn’t make the gun any less great. Last week, I could sum up my feelings on it with two short sentences: Fuck this gun! I want one.

The very night after I published, Destiny randomly threw me the “exotic” bounty mission that, if completed, allows a player to unlock Thorn. It was as if the game itself had read my article and decided to throw down a dare. “You want to talk shit on Thorn, Hamilton? Put your money where your mouth is. Earn one.”

Most of the best guns in Destiny can only be obtained thanks to the luck of a dice roll. If you want a Fatebringer or a Black Hammer, you’ll have to beat a certain boss in a certain raid and hope that the game’s Random Number Generator is on your side. Sometimes you’ll finish a raid for the sixth time, only to watch the guy next to you get his third copy of the gun you want but still don’t have.

Thorn is different from most other guns, however, in that it never drops randomly. It’s one of six (recently expanded to nine) exotic-tier weapons that can only be earned by undertaking what’s known as an “exotic bounty,” wherein players must fulfill a series of increasingly difficult challenges in order to finally win each gun.

Exotic weapon bounties usually start by giving you a “broken” or “corrupted” version of the gun, after which you must do specific things to charge or repair the weapon and eventually make it usable. This could mean performing simple tasks like taking the gun to a certain vendor or shooting a certain number of aliens. It could also mean getting through more exorbitant requirements like completing 25 strikes or disassembling a bunch of rare-tier fusion rifles. Most exotic bounties also have some Crucible element (kill this many players, win this many matches), meaning that players who spend most of their time avoiding PvP matches have to get their hands a little dirty to get the guns they want.

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None of Destiny’s exotic bounties—with the exception of the Super Good Advice bounty—could really be considered easy. All the same, Thorn’s bounty stands apart. It is widely held to be the most difficult exotic bounty in Destiny. Because it is.

Act One: A Dubious Task

Here’s what the Thorn bounty, titled “A Light In The Dark,” requires at the outset:

  1. Start out by completing The Summoning Pits strike on the moon. (Easy! It’s level 12. A high-level player can blow through it with randoms in like 15 minutes.)
  2. Kill 500 points’ worth of Hive enemies on the moon. (Easy! Four words: “We’ve woken the hive!)
  3. Score 500 points in Crucible by killing other players with void weapons. One kill gets you five points, and one death costs you two. (Wait. What? Fuck. That… that sounds hard. Oh no.)

Let’s pause there. Each Exotic bounty has what I think of as “The Ridiculous Step,” and Thorn’s ridiculous step is step three. That step—500 points in Crucible with void guns—is why the Thorn bounty has a reputation as the worst bounty in the game. You have to get a lot of points to complete it, and it’s theoretically possible to play so badly that you lose all your progress and reset to zero.

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The 5:2 ratio for gaining/losing progress significantly tips things in your favor—in order to go negative, you’d have to have three deaths for every one kill. However, the the void damage thing is a complication. Destiny guns can do one of three different types of elemental damage—arc (electrical), solar (fire), or void (...purple). There are tons of great arc and solar weapons in the game, but precious few good void guns. So, not only must you score 500 points’ worth of kills, you have to do it with guns from the back corners of your collection, rather than your mainstays.

Look on any online hub of Destiny activity and you’ll see people sharing horror stories of this phase of the Thorn bounty. Players who got up to 300 before giving up and falling back to zero, other players who’ve kept the bounty in one of their precious bounty slots for months before finally deleting it. Players who don’t even want to try. (You will, of course, see just as many people urging those players to try again, and pointing out the many ways that the bounty isn’t that difficult.)

I’d gotten the opportunity to do the Thorn bounty several times over the past nine months, and each time had taken a pass. Even after I heard what a good gun it was, I simply didn’t think I had it in me to make it past that third step. I’m not very good at Destiny PvP, and the idea of losing progress every time I died—on top of the general frustration of getting killed in an online game—kept me away.

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After spending a few weekends competing in the new Trials of Osiris multiplayer event (and getting into Destiny Crucible in general), I’d had a chance to really see Thorn in action. This gun is good. I liked some of my primary guns—I can do okay PvP work with The Last Word, Red Death, and the Vex Mythoclast—but I wasn’t thrilled with any of them. I love hand cannons in general, and mid-range hand cannons most of all. I wanted a Thorn. When the bounty dropped, it felt like it was finally time.

Act Two: Getting The Job Done

I went into the Thorn bounty with a best-case loadout. I lucked into getting the bounty on my Warlock character, who has a powerful void subclass with grenades, melee attacks, and a world-shaking super bomb that all count as void kills. (Hunter-class characters, by way of comparison, currently have no void subclass, and would have a much harder time with the bounty.) Furthermore, after months of dedicated play, I have three solid void weapons—the pistol Word of Crota, the shotgun Swordbreaker, and the powerful exotic-tier rocket launcher Truth.

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With that setup, I followed the accepted best strategy for completing the Thorn bounty. I started playing Control matches, where players fight for dominance over three control points spread across a map. Rather than playing the “right” way, I became a relentless camper, equipping my shotgun and hanging out around doorways near the middle chokepoint, always grabbing ammo for my rocket launcher when it dropped. My focus in a given match narrowed to a single hallway or a single corridor, with a single directive: Kill, and do not be killed.

Almost immediately, my entire way of thinking about Crucible changed. I was fixated on the radar in the upper-left of my screen, watching as the telltale red markings of an enemy player got larger and larger, memorizing the various approach points to my chosen spot so that I could pop around the corner at the opportune moment with my shotgun ready. My teammates would run past me again and again, hurrying on their way to the front lines. I hung back and waited, waited, waited.

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At first, I felt like a jerk, or worse, like a coward. Surely my teammates were running past me, shaking their heads. “Look at this punk,” I imagined them thinking. “Bet he’s doing the Thorn bounty.”

Interlude: You’re Not A Dick, You’re Just Playing Well

Shortly after starting it, I joked to my clan-mates that the Thorn bounty is perfect because the most assholish gun in the game forces you to play like an asshole in order to earn it. After finishing the bounty, I’d say that was half-right—I was patient when other players were aggressive. I was cheap and bloodthirsty, and more concerned with my own kills than I was with trying to take control points. But I wasn’t actually hurting my team; I was helping us win.

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I wasn’t taking any control points, but I was still regularly in the middle or near the top of my team’s leaderboard. I soon realized that our victories weren’t in spite of my careful, ruthless play, they were aided by it. Kills in Control still count toward your team’s score, and deaths help the other team. By relentlessly killing the other team while avoiding death whenever possible, I was playing well.

Furthermore, by camping back near our spawn point, I was acting as overwatch, which is a crucial and often ignored role in Control. I’d frequently hang back around my team’s “safe” control point, the area where my teammates would spawn in after they got killed. Turns out, it’s actually a good idea to leave someone at your safe point in a Control match. When an enemy player would sneak around the side to try to come at us from behind, I was right there waiting with my shotgun. Nope, sorry buddy. Go back to your side.

A few hours in, I had already blown past 250 points on the bounty. Even if I was having an awful match, I’d only lose five or ten points, and a good round would net me anywhere from 50 to 70. I relaxed, confident in the bounty counter’s steady increase. I was going to do this.

Along the way, I also learned the ins and outs of every control map. As anyone who’s played a competitive online game knows, understanding the map is crucial to doing well. I learned that I actually like the A spawn on Rusted Lands more than the C spawn, but that the opposite is true of Blind Watch. I learned the best sniping lanes on The Shores of Time, and how to both avoid and flank them. I learned to go outside the central room in The Cauldron and flank the opposing team. I learned that I hate Asylum.

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Rather than running pell-mell toward the nearest contested point, I would spend entire matches in a single area. As a result, I memorized every possible approach to those areas, how to get to the heavy ammo from each position, and which spawn points were advantageous for which matches.

The very afternoon of the day I started the maligned third step of the Thorn bounty, I finished it. I scored a shotgun kill on Cauldron and passed 500. I was done.

Act Three: Victory Lap

Turns out, the Crucible portion of the Thorn bounty isn’t the end: There are a few more steps. First, you have to take the gun around to a few different story characters in the game’s social Tower hub. I’ve never given much of a shit about Destiny’s lore, but this phase was where some of Thorn’s “story” sank in. Turns out, it’s kinda cool to know that your gun has a story.

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Thorn is supposed to be this horrible, corrupted weapon. At the start of the bounty you recover it from the Summoning Pits and then “charge” it by killing enemies and other players. Those grim acts infuse it…. with an even darker power, mua-ha-ha. During these final few steps, the good guys in the Tower “cleanse” the gun and sever its ties to its previous, evil owner. They’re readying Thorn for a new master: you.

For the final step, you have to return to The Summoning Pits and do a much harder version of the strike you did at the beginning. Amid the fracas of the final boss fight, a unique enemy appears. Kill her, and you’re done.

After so many hours of tense, careful Crucible play, that final mission was a cathartic victory lap. I’ve soloed the nightfall version of The Summoning Pits strike, so the special Thorn version posed no particular challenge. My buddy Russ Frushtick (aka the guy who carried my team without even being in our game) hopped into my game and helped me get it done, then stuck around to watch me claim my reward.

After a day of hard work, I had a Thorn of my very own.

Final Act: A Prize Well-Earned

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best part of the Thorn bounty is the gun itself. It’s the rare Destiny reward that feels worth the struggle it took to get it—a uniquely cool weapon in a game that has too few of them, and a plainly visible badge of honor for all who own it. When I see someone playing with Thorn, I now know what they went through to get it. They didn’t just get a lucky drop—they earned the gun through hours of work.

It sucks to go up against a Thorn for all the reasons I already laid out, but after weeks of being killed by the damned thing, it sure is satisfying to have one and use it myself. I happily admit it: I am now part of the problem.

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Considering how random many of Destiny’s rewards can feel, it’s satisfying to work toward a clear goal, achieve it, and get exactly the prize you wanted. The new House of Wolves expansion adds several more clear-cut, achievable rewards to the game—the new Prison of Elders and Trials of Osiris modes both offer players weekly prizes they can work towards and unlock. It gives me the sense that Bungie is consciously moving toward more deliberate rewards for players. If that’s the case, it’s a welcome shift.

Epilogue: The Thorn Was Within You All Along

I’ve been using Thorn almost exclusively in PvP for the last couple of days, and I’ve noticed an across-the-board increase in my play. My kill/death ratio is significantly higher—where once I was regularly going negative, I’m now comfortably in the 1-3 zone when I play with randoms. I’m more confident, and I’m having a lot of fun. My neighbors must be starting to wonder about the maniacal laughter coming through the walls.

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Thing is, I don’t think my improved performance is entirely—or even mostly—due to the gun itself. Rather, it was the arduous process of earning it. By completing the Thorn bounty, I learned how to be a better player. As a reward, I was given a gun that lets me fully enjoy my newfound skill.

Destiny’s most infamous exotic bounty is actually one of its finest challenges. If you’re at all interested in Crucible, particularly if, like me, you’re a PvE player who has shied away from PvP in the past, I recommend that you at least give it a shot. I’m betting you’ll surprise yourself, and you’ll learn some vital lessons along the way.

Plus, you’ll get a gun that does this:

It shoots darts, you guys. Darts.

To contact the author of this post, write to kirk@kotaku.com.

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