What happens when a meta goes on too long? When teams squeeze every ounce of skill and strategy out of their rosters within the confines of a seemingly unchanging system, only to find there’s ceiling they just can’t reach? What happens when the Outlaws and the Valiant’s seasons are on the brink?

They get desperate.

They experiment.

They turn to strategies, lineups, and heroes that almost seem taboo.

Some of Houston’s haters thought they had given up. Some of their fans thought they should have been doing this all along. But when the Outlaws beat the Shock running pretty much anything but triple-tank, triple-support, they unwittingly ignited an arms race. Their win proved definitively that the top 3-3 teams could be defeated, that gods could bleed—but you had to beat them with your own style. How poetic is that?

Fast-forward to this week: upsets abound. The Outlaws themselves were broken out of their rhythm by the Florida Mayhem, then the Valiant went toe-to-toe with Shanghai’s Widowmaker-Pharah lineups, where two transcendent Sleep Darts from Young-Seo “Kariv” Park’s Ana sealed the match. However, that was only a taste of what was to come, as the Valiant rolled their newfound style over into their matchup against the Titans. They knocked the raid bosses out of their comfort zone, never letting them regain their composure, and snapped their unprecedented 19-match win streak in dazzling fashion—once again starring Kariv and his now-signature Ana.

With that upset, the Valiant confirmed the hypothesis put forth by the Outlaws: we’ve entered a new meta.

Weekly Overwatch League hero usage for the 2019 season
Weekly Overwatch League hero usage for the 2019 season

Examining hero usage helps tell the story of meta shifts over time. Changes in usage across a season paint a broad picture, and each individual week becomes its own unique stroke. When 2019 began, there was little doubt in the meta, as 3-3 had been circulating the Contenders scene for months. A couple of teams—notably the Dallas Fuel, Outlaws, and Mayhem—tried to zig while others zagged by running Sombra 3-2-1, and some teams—like Chengdu—rejected the meta entirely. However, minus one spike in Sombra usage at the end of Stage 1, a clear story unfolded. The entire league accepted that 3-3, specifically the Reinhardt variant, was the strongest comp in the game. This came to a head in the Stage 1 Playoffs, which was largely a battle to see who had the strongest take on the lineup.

Then came Stage 2, and along with it several changes intended to rebalance the core elements of 3-3 and usher in a new meta. The teams were paying attention, and the first week of Stage 2 looked like the end of days for 3-3 from a hero usage perspective. What actually happened, however, was that the NYXL, San Francisco Shock, and Titans racked up a combined map score of 19-0-1, effectively ending all hope that 3-3, even in its slightly weakened state, could be defeated. In the following week, 3-3 rebounded and continued to climb, and the Stage 2 Playoffs were once again a battle for 3-3 supremacy.

So what makes Stage 3 different?

Usage of non-3-3 heroes increased early on, just like in Stage 2, but instead of tapering off, it accelerated. First, there was a much longer break between Stage 2 and Stage 3. This gave teams more time to recharge mentally (Outlaws) and or put in extra practice with new strategies and personnel (Valiant). It also helped that Korean team Element Mystic, wielding a dual threat of Sombra and Doomfist, won the Overwatch Contenders Pacific Showdown during the break, demonstrating the power of these heroes in real competition.

Secondly, teams were more desperate. Having both gone 0-7, Stage 3 represented the last chance for the Valiant and the Outlaws to save their season. For them, as well as other lower-ranked teams, Stage 1 taught them that Sombra 3-2-1 could not defeat the best 3-3 teams, while Stage 2 taught them that they could not match the top teams in the league with 3-3. Their options were running out; they had nothing to lose.

Then, the Outlaws beat the Shock.

The Outlaws got it done primarily with Sombra 3-2-1—with Ana rather than Zenyatta (more on that to come)—and found a decent amount of success with their take on the Element Mystic comp, swapping D.Va for Pharah. But what was more important than the individual hero compositions was the arms race that Houston uncorked after shaking a champagne bottle full of hero experimentation. By defeating the Shock, they gave every other team in the league hope that there was a light at the end of the meta tunnel.

By the time the Valiant upset the Titans, it was clear that this wasn’t a one-week experimentation, this was a full-on meta shift. The 3-3 meta was one that ran on combinations of ultimates, the most consistent of which was Graviton Surge and Self-Destruct. This deep into 3-3, teams can literally feel when ultimates are about to come online; in fact, I’ve listened to team comms tracking enemy ultimates and most of the time they’re within 3% of being accurate. As a result, teams have resorted to various gimmicks to charge an Earthshatter two seconds faster, bait out a Transcendence early, or even use Self-Destructs defensively to reduce the effectiveness of an enemy combo.

The idea behind Sombra is that she massively disrupts this equilibrium of ult economy. When paired with Zarya, Sombra gives a lineup a double dose of ultimates that can result in a team wipe, which forces the enemy Zenyatta to choose between countering EMP or Graviton Surge with Transcendence. It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation: saving your team in one teamfight won’t prevent its demise in the following one.

Up until now, the top teams have dealt with Sombra 3-2-1 by eating the teamfight losses caused by EMP and winning the majority of non-EMP teamfights instead. However, clearly something has changed this stage. Perhaps teams have simply gotten better at Sombra lineups by devoting their time to mastering them. They’ve begun using more of their resources to support their Sombra players, giving them Harmony Orbs or Zarya bubbles to help them better harass the backline and reach EMP faster and more often. Perhaps, too, the top teams have lost a bit of their edge.

We’ve entered a Sombra-naissance, that much is clear, but there’s another hero who I believe is the key to where the meta is ultimately heading: Ana.

Kariv’s performance on the hero is a one-man example of how much impact Ana can have in the right hands, and a Sombra-centric meta is perfect for her. Ana has always been one of the stronger supports in a vacuum because of the sheer utility she brings to the table; a well-placed Biotic Grenade can win a teamfight just as easily as a pixel-perfect Sleep Dart. However, Ana—like many other heroes—is hard-countered by the existence of D.Va and her projectile-eating Defense Matrix. No Sleep Darts, no Biotic Grenades, no fun is allowed while a D.Va is on the field.

For better or worse, D.Va is the hero that is most often swapped out for Sombra in this brave new meta. This means that Ana can do all the highlight-reel things she’s capable of on paper, but it also means that the delicate balance of ultimate economy is disrupted even further. By swapping Zenyatta out for Ana, teams sacrifice Transcendence—an ultimate whose effectiveness is demonstrably weaker in a Sombra meta—for Nano Boost, an ultimate which has only a modicum of defensive utility but can supercharge a player’s path to an early ultimate while helping them stay alive.

Suddenly, all the muscle memory and internal clocks that teams built up during the 3-3 meta have been thrown off. Rather than a structured dance of “you use Rally, we use Rally, you use Graviton Surge, we counter with Transcendence,” and so on, teams face EMPs that could happen at any time, and Gravs and Earthshatters that could potentially charge in 30 seconds under the influence of Nano Boost—all while Sleep Darts and Biotic Grenades fly.

It’s a war zone out there, but don’t take my word for it. The data so far this stage demonstrates that Ana 3-2-1 is the superior Sombra comp:

All Sombra compositions that have been used in Stage 3
All Sombra compositions that have been used in Stage 3 (>1% of total teamfights featuring Sombra), plus their win rates.

Traditional Sombra 3-2-1, the Zenyatta version, has been used enough this stage that mirror matches have driven its teamfight win rate nearly to equilibrium at 50.3%. Ana 3-2-1, however, still hasn’t been mirrored enough to drive its win rate to equilibrium. When a composition has high usage within its own archetype but has nearly a 55% win rate, that screams inefficiency in the meta to me. Are we going to see more Ana 3-2-1 as the meta evolves? Kariv certainly thinks so:

As long as we get to keep witnessing crazy Ana plays, I’m all for it. Bring on the SombrAna meta!

Stage 3 continues on Thursday, June 27, at 4 p.m. PDT, when the Spark (12-7) take on the Valiant (7-12). Watch all 2019 season matches live and on demand on overwatchleague.com, the Overwatch League app, our Twitch channel, MLG.com, and the MLG app.