Time takes its toll on us all, but especially on fictional heroes who exist in constantly updating video games. Theirs is the greatest plight of all, as exemplified by Overwatch’s master of the skies, Pharah. Pharah is just fine—some might even say perfect, if they are me—but she’s about to be hit with a rocket barrage of changes. Many fans aren’t entirely sure if the reasoning behind them adds up.
The re-tooled version of Pharah is currently on Overwatch’s PC public test server, and she’ll be added to the live game in an upcoming patch. The exact ways she’s being changed are pretty granular, but the short version is that her rockets now do less splash damage, but more damage when you nail somebody with a direct hit. Her rockets can also be fired more quickly now. Lastly, her concussive blast—which can be used to swat away enemy heroes, but which players often use to propel themselves in and out of the fray at crucial moments—is having its cooldown reduced, so you’ll be able to use it more often.
It’s not necessarily a nerf, but it means the go-to Pharah strategy for most players—lob rockets while scraping the invisible ceiling at the top of the sky and rely on splash damage to do the bulk of your dirty work—is significantly less viable. As it stands now, Pharah players will have to aim better. That sounds simple enough, but pulling off direct hits with relatively slow-moving rockets while also doing constant battle against the forces of gravity requires some complicated on-the-fly calculus. It takes a deceptive amount of skill to hit speedy targets like Genji with splash damage, let alone to give them the rocket to the face they so richly deserve. You’re always predicting, calculating, and tuning and re-tuning your trajectories. Even pros don’t land direct shots all that often.
For many players, the new Pharah play style will likely involve launching themselves into closer range of enemies more often to increase the likelihood of landing direct hits, leaving themselves exposed to more damage. It’s a play style some already employ, but for most it’s risky and very different from what they’re used to doing. It also stands to be less effective than relying on splash damage, due to the difficulty of lining up direct hits with Pharah’s rockets. This all comes in addition to recent nerfs to Mercy that make the formerly sun-eclipsing Pharah/Mercy combo less effective, as well as planned buffs to Pharah counters Soldier 76 and McCree. Suddenly, Pharah’s skies are looking cloudy.
“I think it’s a significant nerf,” said former Overwatch League pro turned full-time streamer Brandon “Seagull” Larned during a recent stream. “Most of my rockets are still not direct, which means in a lot of situations, it’s gonna take one or two more rockets to kill people—which is super obnoxious.”
In a recent video, top-ranked Pharah player Valkia broke down the changes one by one, saying that even the supposed buffs among these changes aren’t all that useful to him. Increased usage of concussive blast doesn’t change the fact that he still ends up in harm’s way, and the increased rate of rocket fire is only useful if you’re holding down your mouse button to spam rockets at their maximum output. That’s something Pharah players don’t do most of the time, because they have to predict where enemies are going to be and can’t afford to bleed their clip dry on indiscriminate shots.
“There is a mental process for this, which means we’re already starting to lose the advantage of the rate of fire,” Valkia said. “If I was just to constantly shoot holding left click, I wouldn’t be very accurate, and I’d be wasting rockets. At my level, this is something I can’t afford to do.”
It all adds up to a contradiction at the heart of these changes, Valkia explained. “Pharah players now have to get more direct hits, which takes way more time to plan and aim,” he said. “But the rate of fire has increased, which you won’t really take advantage of. It’s almost as though they cancel each other out.”
In a developer update last month, Jeff Kaplan explained that the Overwatch team—which he is from, never forget—partially decided to re-tool Pharah because she was too dominant among lower-level players on consoles. Splash damage meant that Pharah players could get kills relatively easily, while her counters—aim-intensive hitscan characters like Soldier 76 and Widowmaker—required more skill to bring her down.
There’s been debate, however, as to whether or not this issue is as serious as Blizzard’s implying it is. Using admittedly unofficial stats derived from non-private player profiles, one player recently pointed out that Pharah isn’t even in the top ten in terms of win rates from bronze to diamond skill levels on PS4. Blizzard-focused publication Blizzard Watch noted a more obvious point of friction: If the biggest issue with Pharah is on consoles, why change her across all platforms? Why not make console-specific tweaks, as the team has previously done with Torbjorn and Symmetra? It seems like, more than anything, Blizzard wants to encourage a certain play style across the board, but due to the way Pharah’s kit functions right now, it’s a play style that stands to take away some of her effectiveness and versatility.
If you’re a player who thinks Pharah was just fine before, this is all pretty disheartening. She’s one of the few heroes who hasn’t received significant tweaks since the game launched, so it was only a matter of time, but players continue to debate whether or not these particular changes are warranted. If nothing else, there’s still time for players to acclimate, or for Blizzard to reconsider before the changes hit live servers. For now, though, it seems like Overwatch’s queen of the skies is about to have her wings clipped.