Damaging opponents from range without committing to a team fight is known as “poke,” or “poking” the other team. Poking is useful before a brawl to make enemies easier to kill in the fight, to waste their abilities in the lead-up, and to force them to make decisions. Eventually they must engage, retreat, or die.
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Poke damage is maximized in choke points—tight doorways or corridors that funnel damage into one angle—and is usually more useful on defense. Attackers must cross the defenders’ sightlines to get into position, and in this vulnerable window they can easily take large amounts of damage.
Poke also offers a way of suppressing the enemy team, forcing them to hide from damage or use their abilities to counteract it. If players choose to hide or retreat from the damage, that buys time for the poking team to build ultimates or tick down the clock (if playing on defense). Crucially, it offers a way of forcing the enemy team to be the aggressor, as poke damage is a major threat that will only get worse over time.
The most popular poke composition uses Soldier: 76 and Zenyatta to do long-range damage. The backline of this composition (Soldier: 76, Zenyatta, and another support) positions itself in defensible locations and pumps out damage from distance, usually onto the enemy tank line, forcing them to dive. The poking backline can stay alive even when dived by peeling for each other and killing the aggressive enemy heroes, who should already be weak from the poke.
The frontline (Winston, D.Va, and Tracer) aims to either follow up on the poke damage by aggressively flanking weak targets, or playing passively and collapsing onto the enemy team once they are forced to engage due to the poke threat. The ability to play patiently and defensively or take your frontline aggressive gives this composition a lot of adaptability, depending on the situation.
Playing against a poke composition can be hard. When trying to push or peek, tanks may take a ton of damage and feel they are too weak to engage. At lower levels, teams also often sit inside choke points, taking the same concentrated damage, rather than decisively pushing through to safety on the other side. Timing is crucial, as is taking alternate routes and spreading out.
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Winston in particular must avoid taking poke. As the spearhead of a push, he must remain healthy and save his Barrier and Jump Pack abilities to initiate team fights.
At a high level, Winston players may hide and ask their teammates for intel in many situations, relying on D.Va with her Defense Matrix, or Genji and Tracer with their speed and agility, to scout and relay key information.
Outside of the dive meta, poke can also be used as a very effective counter to Reinhardt compositions. By spreading out and pouring damage into Reinhardt’s team, it forces them to play behind the shield; this makes their positioning and movements predictable, as they must all huddle around a slow-moving tank, and it concentrates the damage onto Reinhardt’s 2000 HP shield. Once his abilities are expended to keep the shield up, and it begins to crack, the poking team can engage from many angles and swarm the opposition.