Pharmercy and Dive: A Discussion of the Current Meta
Why Pharmercy is back; how it’s being played; and, why it won’t go away anytime soon
In the last two months, Pharah/Mercy compositions have resurfaced in the pro scene after nearly a year of sparse play. The comp dominated during early release, but was quickly shot down by buffs to McCree’s long-range effectiveness (sniper McCree, anyone?) and Zenyatta’s Discord Orb. Though both of these buffs were quickly reverted, they were followed by damage buffs to Soldier:76 and Bastion; the discovered viability of Ana; nerfs to Mercy’s healing utility; and, the rise of tri- and quad-tank metas, to name a few.
But for now, Overwatch appears more balanced than ever before. In the pro scene, despite complaints about Roadhog and D.Va, compositions are becoming more varied as most heroes are viable in one configuration or another. Freed of must-pick heroes and rigid metas for the time being, pro teams have returned to their Pharmercy roots.
Pharmercy is back in vogue largely due to a series of buffs and nerfs to Ana and Mercy. Pharah herself has received no significant changes as of late; her viability is determined by the relative strength of those around her.
In a late March patch, Ana’s Biotic Rifle damage was reduced from 80 to 60. As most know, Pharah is vulnerable to long-range hit-scan heroes, or heroes whose bullets have no travel time, like McCree, Soldier:76, and Widowmaker.
Ana is one such hero. Though she is a support class, her high damage output made her a threat to enemy Pharahs. Two quick, easy shots could obliterate Pharah’s health pool without substantially hindering Ana’s ability to heal her team. On the current patch, to pressure Pharah as Ana would require serious commitment, especially through Mercy heals, and ultimately hurt the Ana’s own team in healing output. Ana is, in short, no longer a significant threat.
In fact, Pharah’s primary counters are less prevalent in the current iteration of the game than they have been in the past. Widowmaker is now a rarity, save on the Ruins stage of Ilios. McCree is largely ineffectual against D.Va, who is favored in the pro scene for the time being, and lacks the utility of his long-range hit-scan counterpart, Soldier:76. Soldier is played and does pressure Pharah, but is also challenged by D.Va’s presence and requires sustained, nearly uninterrupted damage on a Mercy-supported Pharah to secure a kill.
Meanwhile, Mercy has received several buffs that make her more durable. Most notably, the healer now becomes momentarily invulnerable after she uses her ultimate ability.
A fundamental problem with Mercy has always been that she dies immediately after Resurrect more often than not. A Mercy diving into a fight with revive instantly becomes the focus of enemy attention and remains so even after her teammates are resurrected. Though a res could bring back five players to a team fight, a team without its primary support is at a significant disadvantage from the start. As a result, Mercy can often feel like a liability, especially compared to the high utility of Ana and Lucio.
Now, Mercy becomes invulnerable after res, if only for a second. In this time, her teammates regain control over their abilities, and those with well-coordinated teams have a better chance of surviving to get help — whether help is a shield from Zarya or a dash in the air to Pharah. In the early days of Overwatch, casting Sound Barrier immediately after or during Resurrect in order to secure the post-res fight was textbook, but this has been rare as of late, and requires the commitment of two support ultimates per fight.
Furthermore, as a part of other patches, heroes revived by Mercy now regain control of their abilities more quickly and Mercy now regenerates health after being out of combat for only one second, rather than three. Both of these changes, in conjunction with her brief invulnerability and high HPS output, have reduced the risk (i.e. glaring disappointment) of picking Mercy over Ana or Zenyatta.
Mercy’s viability encourages Pharah compositions. The duo works well together because Pharah is a flying, heal-intensive hero, and Mercy is a self-defenseless, high HPS support who requires access to difficult-to-reach high ground in order to evade enemy attention. One is not likely to be viable while the other is not.
Additionally, damage boosted direct hit rockets can delete heroes from the game. In fact, it is this burst damage potential that makes Pharmercy worth running in opposition to dive comps. One direct rocket hit, damage-boosted or not, can force Tracer to use Recall and Genji to use Deflect, which significantly diminishes their survivability and relative heal-independence. Tracer and Genji are obviously the bulk of dive comps’ damage, and their being able to play freely is key to any dive’s success.
With her primary counters being relatively weak and her personalized support being stronger than ever, Pharah is in an a great position.
Pharmercy Within Dive
Currently, Pharmercy is being played almost exclusively with dive compositions on control point, or KOTH, maps. After the tank-heavy, stationary meta comps of a few months ago, dive has reemerged and dominated the scene as their polar opposite: highly mobile and fast-paced with squishy damage heroes and relatively independent ultimate usage.
The fundamental strategy of a dive comp is to dive (get it?) one enemy, generally a support, with a team’s six. All six should be highly mobile, making it easy to engage and disengage as necessary. This strategy is particularly useful on KOTH because the mode is largely deathmatch and has equidistant spawn points (meaning that staggered deaths are less acutely punished than on payload maps). The typical dive comp struggles to achieve clean team wipes, and so whichever team is in control of the capture point can stagger and stall for minutes with their quick, evasive dps and beefy, mobile tanks.
Winston and Lucio are staples of dive comp, but after that, variations emerge. The most common, vanilla dive includes Tracer, Genji, Zarya, and Ana, but more recent dives have gone off script. Rogue’s signature dive, for example, swaps the Zarya for a Soldier:76 and runs Zenyatta as much as they do Ana. This is assuming they are not running their own Pharmercy duo, of course — in which case D.Va is likely present.
D.Va is run both as a counter and a complement to Pharah.
She can easily shield her team from the onslaught of damage boosted rockets that turn control points into minefields, as well as absorb Barrage and contest Pharah in the sky, albeit briefly. Cleverly aimed Self-Destructs are also a surprisingly reliable method for killing Pharah and Mercy* because though the skybox provides Pharah safety from most damage, it often lacks easily accessible coverage. Rogue’s primary D.Va player, NiCo, used to do this regularly, whether intentional or not.
D.Va enables Pharah for much of the same reasons she counters her. Her Defense Matrix and mobility allow her to easily pressure and shutdown the rocket queen’s more obvious counters, like Soldier and McCree. D.Vas will also coordinate with their Pharahs to shield them while they ult. This may seem minor, but Pharahs’ survival rate while ulting is notoriously low, as they are locked in place — being able to get a kill and survive, rather than trade kills, is significant.
D.Va’s high mobility allows her to fit in easily with other dive heroes, and her Defense Matrix being able to absorb almost every ability in the game — including anything and everything that comes out of Pharah — makes up for the otherwise limited damage block that Winston provides.
Winston, however, is the initiator of team fights and the staller of control points. For Pharmercy specifically, his presence prevents the opposition from choosing hard counters like Widowmaker. Widowmaker had been making a slight comeback, at least on Ilios: Ruins, but she will become virtually nonexistent again in the ever-presence of Winston, Genji, and Tracer, regardless of whether or not she is able to one-shot Pharah.
When dealing with enemy Pharmercy comps, Soldier and Zenyatta are the common alternative to running one’s own Pharmercy.
Soldier, being a long-range hit-scan, is an obvious counter, and the threat of Zenyatta’s Discord Orb’s damage multiplier pressures Pharah out of the sky and to play safe. Additionally, Zenyatta’s ultimate is just good to have — Transcendence negates Barrage, Dragonblade, and Tactical Visor, all of which are incredibly common in the current meta. When teams ditch Ana for Mercy or Zenyatta, Zenyatta becomes stronger because Biotic Grenade is no longer present to negate his ultimate.
This being said, Pharmercy remains prevalent despite Soldier’s popularity because, more often than not, Soldier has to contend with a protective D.Va, as well as survive unwanted attention from Pharah herself.
Succinctly, what Pharah does better than most heroes is demand a decisive, coordinated response. Even with counters present, Pharmercy can feel oppressive due to its high burst damage and HPS output; Barrage potential; and, extended Resurrect-facilitated fights. This is in large part why Pharmercy has made such a resurgence — it is a commonly held belief that the best counter to a good Pharmercy is a better Pharmercy. Once one team can run the comp successfully, well, everyone has to.
Pharah is the only hero able to consistently challenge Pharah in the sky, while Mercy’s presence forces other Mercys to play around the likelihood of a counter res and gives both teams the possibility of taking a team fight twice. Because teams must dedicate at least two heroes, including a support, to make a Pharmercy comp work, the relative skill and success of the duo makes or breaks its team.
Yet, teams with mediocre or inconsistent Pharah players will run her regardless. This is because Pharmercy has an appeal like that of Roadhog: teams might not have exemplary Roadhog players, but when he was meta, he was chosen anyway because the potential to remove a hero from a team fight with one ability was too good to pass up. Similarly, current teams whose Pharah players are not necessarily top tier will run Pharmercy compositions into dive because one or two well-placed rockets can swing a team fight in their favor.
Still, the contrast between teams with top tier Pharah players and those without is stark. This is illustrated best in Pharmercy duels or battles, wherein the Pharah with the best mid-air rockets can force an easy 4v6.
Generally speaking, a division exists in the style of Pharah play: there are those who prefer to initiate and engage fully in Pharah duels, and then there are those who prefer to spam rockets into the enemies below. Both approaches have their merits, but it will always be in the more skilled Pharah’s favor to focus her counterpart.
Doing so forces the opposing Pharah’s attention back to the sky and away from the squishier targets below. Ignoring, or not actively evading, an opposing Pharah’s rockets is a recipe for a quick death and lost team fight.
Often, these duels are relatively even — Overwatch’s pro scene is littered with long-time Shootmania and Quake champs who are comfortable with the playstyle — but some players stand out; Talespin, Mangachu, ShaDowBurn, and Seagull, to name just a few.
Having a skilled Mercy is similarly important, but what distinguishes good from bad is less obvious. Any Mercy who is surviving with her Pharah is passable, but those who also pull off valuable Resurrects are good. That does not mean 5-man Resurrects all day, every day — a valuable revive is one that evens a team fight or, more preferably, gives a team a numbers advantage, regardless of how many players are resurrected. Reviving into a decidedly lost fight or one in which ultimates are not available for the post-res fight only succeeds in feeding additional ultimate charge to the enemy team.
As such, reviving one or two dps early in a team fight (especially a lost Pharah) has become increasingly common. Larger Resurrects can be enormously valuable, but they are harder to execute in a meta of dive comps that tend to stagger kills. Ultimately, Mercy picks are not so often detrimental as they are non-factors.
In short, Pharah/Mercy is not an impossibly difficult composition to run, particularly with the current prevalence of D.Va and the absence of McCree, but the individual skill ceiling of each hero is high. Teams with the most individually competent Pharah players do and will continue to rise above the rest as the meta settles into a series of Pharah/Mercy/D.Va mirror matches.
The Future of Pharmercy
Once more, Pharmercy is played almost exclusively on KOTH for now, but the sky is the limit. The comp, when played well, is exceptionally oppressive and difficult to deal with, especially for less coordinated teams. Numerous top tier teams have experienced Pharah players who are not likely to shy away from the opportunity to play her again, whether in response to an opposing Pharmercy comp or not.
What will likely determine the prevalence and longevity of Pharmercy more than anything else is D.Va. The tank’s presence is the most significant change to Pharmercy from the first time it dominated the meta. She had not been discovered or buffed the last time around, but now she is key, both as a counter to and support for Pharah. Her viability in the face of Pharah’s counters, in conjunction with the fast-paced, overwhelming style of dive, will make it difficult to balance around and limit strong Pharah compositions should it become necessary to do so.
This is especially true going into the next patch. Roadhog, a D.Va counter, is set to receive serious nerfs and is predicted to disappear from pro Overwatch entirely. Zarya, who also does well against D.Va, has fallen out of favor as the second dive tank, and is played primarily by the few teams clinging to triple tank comps, of which Roadhog is a staple.
Additionally, Reaper is receiving a health regeneration buff that is expected to bring him back into the pro scene. Pharmercy, especially in conjunction with D.Va, may prove a safe haven from any Reaper-centric comps that emerge. Alternatively, Reaper comps such as Mei/Reaper/Zarya could take over payload maps, while Pharmercy dive continues to dominate KOTH.
Regardless, the next patch is more likely to see an increase of Pharmercy play than a decrease. With any luck (or not, depending on your opinion), Pharah and Mercy will remain in the front and center of pro Overwatch throughout the Overwatch Contenders series and the World Cup.
*That being said, Self-Destruct is used more often than not just as a way for D.Vas to get their mechs back without being forced to build up another one as baby D.Va.
**Obviously a Resurrect was better than nothing there because Kungarna was 99% capped and YIKES! was about to lose the map, but the principles of why it was a “bad” revive remain.