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I think we’ve all accepted by now that Stage 4 is unlike anything else we’ve experienced this season. The meta is drastically different, of course, and there has been a hearty reshuffling of the hierarchy among teams as a result. 

To me, it also has to do with time. For some teams that are already out of playoff contention, knowing the endpoint is near has set them free—in a way. The release of pressure feels like the final wind at the end of a marathon, spurring them on to try and set a personal best. Other teams don’t have the luxury of clarity; they’re still trying to fight their way out of a thick fog, where the result of every match, every map, every teamfight is a moonlit pebble leading them either down the wide-open path toward playoffs, or into a dead end. For these teams, time is the thing they are hoping to get more of.

After Week 3, seven teams are in: Vancouver, New York, San Francisco, London, LA Gladiators, Hangzhou, and Seoul. For everyone else, the clock is ticking.

1. I didn’t think we could match the five tiebreaker maps we had in Week 2. Instead, we did one better. Do you remember last Thursday? It feels like five years ago, or maybe that’s just how much I aged after three of the four matches went the distance (and two of them were reverse sweeps). Friday, we got two more, including another reverse sweep, and the sixth happened just yesterday. I don’t know if any of us have recovered from the excitement yet, but it’s never too early to relive it, right?

Week 3 tiebreakers, ranked:

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  1. Charge 3-2 Dynasty. This match had playoff intensity from the start, with the two teams going tit for tat on Ilios. Guangzhou came alive in the second half, outlasting Seoul in an extremely close King’s Row battle, and on Lijiang, Yiliang “Eileen” Ou lived up to his super sub status on his signature Doomfist and Sombra picks.
  2. Justice 3-2 Outlaws. It might seem odd to place this so high, as neither team had anything to play for at this point, but maybe that’s why it ended up being kind of great. Without any real external pressures, both teams still looked motivated, and they gave us an unpredictable match full of momentum swings and standout individual play.
  3. Titans 3-2 Spitfire. This was a weird match—London won the opening control map but dropped assault, for starters—that could’ve been a preview of a potential playoff banger, but neither team was quite at their best. Vancouver had more of their magic working, though, and support Ju-Seok “Twilight” Lee continued to solidify his MVP cred, especially on Ana.
  4. Eternal 3-2 Fusion. A bit of a bittersweet result for Paris, who have been waiting all season for a performance like this to prove themselves to the world. Georgii “Shadowburn” Gushcha hasn’t enjoyed the most consistent season, but his heroics on Pharah—against his former team, no less—had to feel good.
  5. Gladiators 3-2 Fuel. As far as reverse sweeps go, this was a classic case of “favored team doesn’t play up to own standards in the first half, resets after halftime.” Mei enthusiasts will love the VOD, at least, as it was almost all mirror comps.
  6. NYXL 3-2 Spark. A stepping stone for Hangzhou, a brief flicker of fire from New York. Both teams were still in that awkward spot of not really knowing what to do in the meta, but Hollywood and Junkertown were fairly entertaining.

2. I was curious, coming into Stage 4, whether Vancouver and San Francisco would be able to keep up the breakneck pace they set during the first three stage, but aside from one stumble from the Titans, the two Pacific Division kaiju look hungrier than ever. We’re even seeing them step out of the box, as well, and mostly finding success with their more creative strategies.

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Vancouver did encounter some issues adjusting to the meta at first, but with Chung-Hee “Stitch” Lee back in the starting lineup, their Mei-Reaper combo looks solid, and they’re able to execute Sombra comps as well (as seen on Hanamura defense). On Sunday they even brought back Min-Soo “Seominsoo” Seo to play his signature Zarya on Busan.

As insider Danny Lim reported, the team felt that Zarya provided extra damage and sustainability, and despite a 2-1 win on the map, it didn’t go as smoothly as they anticipated after just one day of practice with the comp. But hey, the Titans now have a bye week with which to explore their possibilities a bit more.

At 24-2, the Titans officially secured the top seed overall heading into the playoffs. It’s the latest accomplishment in a season-long journey for validation, as flex tank Hyun-Woo “Jjanu” Choi explained in his postmatch interview.

“We were one of the eight expansion teams coming into the season, so as a new team, becoming the Pacific Division’s top seed is really meaningful,” he said. “It’s also a chance for us to show that aside from 3-3, we can use different comps and that we’re a really great team in general.”

3. The Shock entered Stage 4 fully prepared for the meta change, which isn’t something you can say about many teams in the league. The adjustments may have seemed surprising, with the team’s two MVP candidates suddenly no longer on the starting roster, but thus far head coach Da-Hee “Crusty” Park’s design has borne out with a 4-0 record. 

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The Shock may not have needed revenge against the Shanghai Dragons for their Stage 3 Finals defeat, but they wanted it anyway, and took it on Friday in a fairly comfortable 3-1 win. The reason it was comfortable was the introduction of some surprising damage comps that completely smothered the Dragons’ game plan, and a lot of it revolved around Dong-Jun “Rascal” Kim’s mastery of Mei and Pharah—two heroes he was famous for early in his career.

After the win, he told me he felt good about getting to pull out his old tricks. “Because I haven’t played damage heroes for a long time, I felt like I lost touch with a lot of them,” he said. “But now that I’m able to practice them a lot more, and especially after today’s win, I’ve gained a lot more confidence.”

Rascal has quietly become one of the Shock’s most important players this season due to his ultra-flexible hero pool, and he’s now part of a formidable duo alongside Min-Ho “Architect” Park, who’s trying to cram a whole season’s worth of highlights into one stage now that the meta suits him.

Rascal says that his team’s successful transition to Stage 4 is due to having the right personnel for every possible strategy. “Each player on our team is really strong at the heroes that are being played in the meta right now,” he told me. “It was just a matter of working on the coordination.”

4. The Shock seem happy to run Jay “Sinatraa” Won and Matthew “Super” DeLisi—the aforementioned MVP candidates—in spot situations, which has led to an interesting quirk. There are now five Korean speakers in the main lineup, with Grant “Moth” Espe the only exception.

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Rascal laughed when I asked him how that affected the shotcalling.

“Overall, macro things, we’ll do in English, but in the heat of the moment, with little details and micro stuff, we’ll talk in Korean a lot,” he said. “Moth has picked up some Korean, so sometimes he’s able to understand us.”

Rascal also complimented Moth’s Baptiste play, and denied offering his teammate any tips on the hero that he mastered last stage. “He was able to study the hero well on his own, and now he has a lot of info that I didn’t know, so I’m actually able to learn a lot from Moth!”

5. It’s amazing what time can do for a team, and Guangzhou has grown by leaps and bounds since Stage 1, looking nothing like the untested, unseasoned group they debuted as. This was the week the Charge really settled into their newly conferred status as an elite team, maintaining composure in their reverse-sweep of Seoul before showing their killer instinct in a 4-0 win over the NYXL. 

Now at 5-1 in Stage 4 and 14-13 on the season, the Charge are in good position to make play-ins, where they’ll undoubtedly be one of the favorites to advance. They have one final match next week against the Fuel, who are on a dire nine-match losing streak. For a roster that once threatened the league’s consecutive map-loss record, Guangzhou’s future is one big bright spot right now, and they only have themselves to thank.

6. How do you know a team is firmly entrenched in a relaxed, content, “here to have fun” mindset? If you’re the Justice, you pull out the Symmetra on Lijiang Tower Night Market. It’s not only a creative comp, but also effective—against Boston, Corey “Corey” Nigra used her Sentry Turrets to set up a car wash at the opening of the point, while Ethan “Stratus” Yankel trapped immobile opposing heroes under the laser with Mei’s walls. 

The duo also combined for a clever Photon Barrier play to retake the point from the Uprising earlier in the round:

After Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Outlaws, Corey shrugged in his good-natured way and said, “If we go 7-0, we go 7-0.” Another sign he’s here to have fun? He wasn’t wearing his shoes during the postmatch interview.

7. On the other end of the stress spectrum, we have the LA Valiant. The looks on the players faces at the end of their narrow 2-1 victory against the Florida Mayhem on Saturday was a gallery of relief, lingering nerves, and incredulity; you could see some players shake out their hands and limbs as if they were unclenching for the first time all week. 

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And for good reason—the Valiant had to fight tooth and nail to stave off a surging Mayhem team that, like Washington, is here to end their season with a bit of dazzle. First, it was rookie Beom-Jun “Gargoyle” Lee putting up an insane 93% hook accuracy on Roadhog to help the Mayhem full-hold the Valiant on Hollywood, tying the score 1-1 and sending the match to a roaring climax.

Junkertown was epic. It was the Valiant’s heroic push to finish the map in overtime and ensure a second try. It was Jeong-Woo “Sayaplayer” Ha putting up numbers that shouldn’t be possible:

And it was the Valiant nearly succumbing to the Mayhem’s Pirate Ship setup before Seo-Young “Kariv” Park hit a clutch Sleep Dart on Sayaplayer to finally shut down Florida’s most dangerous weapon, giving LA the win they so desperately needed.

After the match, Scott “Custa” Kennedy put that desperation into words in an interview with insider Mica Burton. “All of these other mid-table teams are showing really good performances in this stage, and we’re going to need 14 wins to make it [to play-ins],” he said. “We have to win [our remaining matches]; there’s no ifs or anything about it. We have to win.”

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8. The NYXL are in a very, very strange place right now. In a lot of ways, it’s wholly familiar to where they were in 2018: having secured the Atlantic Division’s top seed with weeks to go, the team has breathing room. They have time to experiment, to start looking way ahead and plan for the playoffs. This game plan backfired on them in the worst way last season, as they looked rusty and unprepared for the playoff meta in their semifinal exit to the Fusion. 

This season, though, they’re (perhaps unfairly) being held to even higher standards, weighed down by their own history of falling short and overshadowed by two Pacific Division behemoths. Things are different in 2019: the NYXL are no longer the most dominant team in the league, and they didn’t make a single stage finals.

I asked Hae-Seong “Libero” Kim about the team’s mentality after their 3-2 win over Hangzhou on Friday. He told me, “Everyone is more focused, and the goal is more clear—we have a board on our meeting room that has a D-Day of playoffs—so there’s a different mentality. We’re not too complacent.”

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Nevertheless, a 2-3 start to Stage 4 has fans feeling understandably skittish—especially when two of the three losses were sweeps at the hands of Chengdu and Guangzhou, teams still on the playoff bubble. The official word from the NYXL is that they’re using this time to experiment, which Libero explained a bit further.

“Coming into Stage 4, we knew that even though we might struggle at the beginning, we have a clear long-term goal,” he said. “In the first two weeks, there was a lot of trial and error, so that’s why we lacked one really good comp—we were practicing a lot of different things. We’re still a little bit lost, but we did find something that works for us, and we’re honing it right now. We’re going to perfect that one thing we’re working on, and then I think we can be one of the top teams.”

He wouldn’t confirm or deny whether they’ve tried their secret weapon in-game yet—although nothing in their strategies thus far suggests they have.

9. In this league, question marks come in different forms. The NYXL are one shape, but there are others we’re still turning over in our hands and trying to puzzle out after three weeks. Some teams can’t run Mei (Chengdu and Shanghai), while others can’t run Hanzo. Some are still experimenting, and many lack consistency (yeah, you know who you are). In such a volatile environment, it’s no wonder the last few weeks have been some of the most unpredictable in Overwatch League history. What a shame—we only get two more weeks of it before the playoffs arrive. I hope everyone finds the answer they’re looking for.

Week 4 of Stage 4 kicks off on Thursday, August 15, when the Uprising (8-16) take on the Mayhem (4-22) at 4 p.m. PDT. 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.