“RIP Mercy,” Overwatch players mumbled after the game’s main healer suffered a big nerf on Tuesday. It was a long-coming but controversial change that made the game’s essential hero no longer so. It also sent a firm message to Overwatch’s players—one that the recently-launched Overwatch League is hammering in with each pro match: No hero is indispensable anymore. You’re free!
After Tuesday’s fat nerf, Mercy’s wings have been trimmed. She can no longer resurrect players using her ultimate ability with the same invulnerability. In fact, as of today, her pick rate is about the same as other healers’, after months of nearly three times’ the popularity, Overbuff stats report. Neptuno, who has been playing Mercy for Philadelphia’s Overwatch team, told me that, “If Mercy is not [in the] meta, then I will play Lucio, which has been my main for years.”
Mercy has always been the game’s most powerful and dedicated healer. And with her ultimate ability, she could always resurrect dead teammates, shifting the power balance of a game. Prior to September, when publisher Blizzard overhauled Mercy, any combination of healers could keep a team alive while also adding some level of support for damage-dealing teammates. Pros loved the hero Lucio, whose aura can heal or speed boost teammates, and Ana, who can put enemies to sleep.
If you’ve ever heard serious Overwatch players discuss team-building, then you’ve heard a lot of “We need a—.” Sure, every team needs balance, and they mostly achieve that with lineups of two damage-dealers, two tanks, two healers. If a team has six damage-dealers and no healers, somebody ought to switch to a healer. What makes less sense for a game with 26 heroes is the idea that every team needs one particular hero.
After September’s big changes, Mercy simply became too powerful to overlook in high levels of play. Her ultimate ability let her resurrect two teammates while she’d fly around the map and heal everyone else—all with relative invulnerability. Mercy’s pick rate skyrocketed, and other healers’ plummeted. Teams with Mercy on them won more games than they lost, stats from Overbuff report. After Overwatch launched its huge and beautiful Overwatch League, the Mercy requirement became apparent through pro teams’ compositions, where she was rarely, if ever, absent. Compete reported in January that some pros resented how strong and essential Mercy had become.
Overwatch pros have brought attention to another area where “necessary” picks bind teams’ compositions: Tank heroes. Lots of players in the game’s middle tiers looked at the hero Reinhardt as the best and most essential shield-bearing hero. Teams stand behind him, poking at enemies until they killed enough to rush onto a point. It didn’t hurt that he does lots of damage. Back in March, 2017, Overwatch introduced an alternative: the robot tank Orisa, who could drop her shield in front of teammates and fire at enemies with a fusion driver gun. Lots of players didn’t think she was very good and stuck with the big, shield-bearing hero they knew. “We need a Reinhardt” shifted into the less firm “We need a Reinhardt, but I guess you can use Orisa, too.”
For the most part, pros have completely forgone Reinhardt for his four-legged cousin Orisa throughout the Overwatch League’s matches. It came as a shock to lots of players who had never experienced her untapped potential and, in the days following her pro debut, Orisa’s pick rate has skyrocketed while Reinhardt’s has steadily declined. Tank meta has liberated itself from its heaviest shield tank.
What died along with Mercy and the rise of the OWL was the idea of the “necessary” Overwatch pick. Blizzard is forcing players to be more intentional and situational with their hero compositions. Who works best on what map? Do we want Zenyatta’s extra damage alongside Ana’s long-ranged healing? These aren’t easy questions to answer, and thank god, as Overwatch continues to stay fresh and complex rather than a contest of who can use blunt force most efficiently.