Role dynamics in Competitive Overwatch: Pharah's fall
With the latest patch, Pharah has been phasing out of the competitive metagame. While this isn’t her first slump, Pharah has been a staple damage source since the very inception of the scene. The closest thing to an early metagame for Overwatch was built around Reinhardt/Lúcio/Mercy/Pharah with a secondary damage threat and a flex hero, and barring the flanking centric metagames she has stayed a priority pick. Map and side reliant at times, but never falling from grace.
The thing that kept her playable for so long is that Pharah is naturally evasive. For all the jokes about how easy it is to shut down Rocket Barrage, Pharah’s standard movement patterns are really erratic: she has an extra plane of movement that other characters don’t have, and it is extremely hard for heroes whose optimal damage range is “melee” to have kill pressure on her. It also has a lot to do with the vast majority of Overwatch heroes having projectile weapons.
High mobility heroes are naturally good against projectiles with long travel times, but Pharah goes above and beyond (no pun intended) since her optimal damage range isn’t melee, unlike the flankers. Tracer, Genji with and without dragonblade, have predictable specific movement patterns when they go in for a kill: if they are not in X place they will not get the kill. Pharah however only needs line of sight and “not being too far away so that the enemy can’t dodge rockets”, plus dodging doesn’t put her out of her damage range, she’s naturally evasive while DPSing.
Mind you she isn’t “immune to projectiles”, she is just likely to survive, and Overwatch has so much healing in every team that surviving is enough most of the time. Non-lethal poke in this game has little impact other than charging DPS ult% on one team and healer ult% on the other.
So Pharah’s place in the metagame usually boiled down to one question: Are there enough viable hitscan heroes to counter her? The DPS heroes without travel times on their main damage patterns were Widowmaker, McCree, and 76. So, at any point of the metagame, the question was always the same and it got a different answer at each step. In beta Phase 1, 76 was terrible at mid-long range and Widow players still weren’t confident enough on her, so McCree was the standard response. He and Widow got nerfed, Pharah stayed on top.
When Phase 2 rolled around Soldier 76 got a substantial buff that again, put Pharah in check. This was also when the pure no hero limit flanking metagame exploded and every pro team was running Genji/Tracer/Zenyatta, but even then Pharah kept seeing play in some maps. Her lack of use here was most about teams going all in on the mirror matchup and trying to outplay the enemy flankers/assassinate the supports than her being “bad”. So when every tool in the flanking comp was nerfed, suddenly Pharah was standard on every map again.
Then McCree and Widow got nerfed, and this led to the vacuum we had on release. Pharah was pretty much unaffected by the ebb and flow of the patch rythm, she hasn’t been tweaked directly. But again, her usage rates and power are gated by the state of the hitscan heroes: buffing them is nerfing Pharah, nerfing them… well, nerfing their mid-long range, is buffing Pharah. Pharah’s design makes her one of the more clear-cut Rock-Paper-Scissors heroes in Overwatch, where she dominates every metagame unless her very sparse counters are playable.
For a month, the only reliable Pharah check remaining on the metagame has been Soldier 76. Widowmaker’s 120 damage bodyshots were getting outhealed by the pocket Mercy or the Lúcio on the ground, and McCree was outdamaged by 76 at medium range so he was still worse as a check. Pharah could dominate a roster ill equipped to deal with her strengths, and the metagame revolved around her like never before. This also contributed to Envyus’s dominance of the North American scene, since Talespin was one of the few competitive Pharahs that could consistently airshot the opposing one, it gave the team an enormous advantage on every non-koth map.
And we finally got here, the Ana patch. Again, Pharah herself hasn’t been touched; and again, her viability swung like crazy. The first point is McCree’s falloff damage tweak, which makes him more effective than Soldier 76 at mid-range (incidentally, this also hit 76 really hard). The thing to keep in mind here is that literally every high level pro team in competitive Overwatch has one (or several) dedicated McCree players. The hero has been the reliable ground DPS standard through patches and patches of nerfs. So he is a massive comfort pick for half the DPS players, and any buff on him is magnified because he will be played at his near ceiling the moment the patch hits. McCrees were consistently hitting Pharah before the patch, they just didn’t have enough damage to get through the heals; now they do.
The second point, probably even more significant, is Zenyatta. Zenyatta had his spotlight in the flanking metagames, when the orbs didn’t expire even when he lost line of sight so he just Harmonied Genji, Discorded the enemy Genji, and stayed in the back trying not to die. What we took from that metagame is that Orb of Discord is good against every hero, but excellent against high mobility ones. As mentioned above, as long as a mobile hero survives the initial burst to make it back to his team he will be back up to full health in a matter of seconds, non-lethal damage is ineffectual most of the time.
Discord greatly amplifies the kill range for every hero, meaning that they will not survive burst they otherwise would. It enables a lot of heroes without kill pressure on flankers to fight them on equal grounds, and shuts down Pharah if Zenyatta’s team has even one hitscan hero to back him up. Suddenly Pharah is dying to 2-3 bodyshots, or to stray projectiles (Zenyatta’s own have fairly fast travel times). This is also why she didn’t see that much success in the flanking metagame, even is she was kinda safe from the optimal range of the ground heroes, a Zenyatta on each team meant she melted the second she appeared on the sky.
The interesting thing here is that Discord itself didn’t get that much of a buff. But Discord was already in a great place, it was always (with Lúcio’s Speed Boost and Reinhardt’s shield) one of those skills that shaped every metagame the hero was played in. But Zenyatta got his survivability buffs, and he always was on the weird limbo between “useless” and “overpowered” where all the reliable power kits hang out. The patch also revived D-Va, so we are in a crossroads metagame where every single tank and high-health hero is viable, and Discord’s damage amplification has always been a natural tankbusting tool. All of this means Mercy is pushed out of the metagame in favour of Zen, and since she has a synergistic kit with Pharah’s it hurts her even more.
All in all, Pharah is in a really hard spot, design wise. Any buff to her threatens on spiraling out of control when/if the hitscan heroes are tweaked further, so barring a kit remake her viability will stay tied to the state of her counters until more tools to deal with her are introduced. But as it stands, she will not see widespread play anytime soon.
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