To Flank or Not to Flank?

Hiding behind pixelated bushes and trees, I lie waiting like a fisherman hoping for a bite. Towering knights wielding mauls and axes lumber towards the sounds of clashing steel in the distance. Charging vanguards stream past them, greatswords held high, predatory gazes turning towards foes already engaged in combat.

I wait for a dozen enemies to walk past before turning my attention to a lone archer setting up camp at the top of the hill. Crouching and creeping through the bushes, I reach a tree behind him and draw my shortsword. I glance at my surroundings once again, noting a steep path leading away from the battle toward a cave below. As the archer pulls back the bowstring and takes aim, I lunge out from behind the bush and take him down in a flurry of swings aimed at the head.

Even as I drag my final swing through his body, I turn towards the cave and sprint down the path. A nearby knight, recently coming off a death at the hands of my allies, runs after me shouting, “Foooooor the Ooooooooorder!”

I dash into the cave and scramble over the rocks and boulders inside. Climbing up above eye level, I crouch above the entrance, ready to pounce on him as he walks inside. I sit still, waiting for him to approach. A pair of stomping boots and grunts announces his arrival and I stand ready to leap down, sword swinging. But I hesitate. Another, softer pair of boots crunches through the dead leaves and undergrowth beside him.

Outnumbered, I sink back into the darkness and wait for them to enter the cave proper. I take out my firepot (a throwable weapon that spreads fire across the ground like a modern incendiary grenade), leap down onto the ground behind them, sprint through the exit, toss my firepot over my shoulder, and cackle as they shout in surprise, barricaded in the cave by a carpet of flame. Cackling all the way home, I run back through the trees toward the safety of my allies, glad to complete another successful flank in Chivalry: Medieval Warfare.

Flanking is fun. You get to sneak around like a ninja, annoying your enemies and distracting them for the benefit of your allies. But, it’s also a big risk. If you succeed, you can make yourself worth 2 or 3 enemies (or even more), but if you screw up and die immediately, you won’t accomplish anything.

Learning how, when, and why to flank will make you a more skilled player in almost every modern multiplayer game you can think of. Shooting games, fighting games, MOBAs, MMOs, and almost every other competitive multiplayer team-based game popular today encourages flanking. So, how do you properly accomplish a flanking maneuver? To answer this question, you should first answer the “why” and “when”.

As mentioned above, flanking can help achieve victory by creating a numbers advantage. A successful flanker can distract or outright eliminate more than one enemy player, thereby allowing their allies to capitalize on the opportunity. Depending on the type of game and the numbers of players on each side, the following factors may play a substantial role in the act of flanking. The first and most important factor – timing – is universal to all flanking endeavors.

Whether you’re a Man-at-Arms in Chivalry ganking archers, a Tracer player in Overwatch hoping to pick off the enemy Mercy and turn the fight into a 6v5, or a guild commander in Guild Wars 2 leading two armies of 20 against an army of 50, flanking requires precise timing and coordination between teammates.

In the example above, I waited patiently for enemy respawns to trickle in before attacking the archer. Likewise, in a game like Overwatch, a skilled Tracer or Genji might go for the enemy Mercy while both teams are busy poking at each other from afar or looking at the point/payload. A pair of commanders working together against a larger force in Guild Wars 2 might pull off a sneaky flank with Mesmer portals, quickly repositioning twenty melee players behind the enemy team’s squishies before rushing in for a pincer maneuver that cuts off the enemy’s escape routes.

Because flanking maximizes the value that the flankers provide to the team while simultaneously making the fight more chaotic (to the advantage of the attackers), flanking attempts should not be taken lightly without considering these goals. For the sake of simplicity, let’s use Overwatch examples for the remainder of this article.

While a Tracer can easily pick off an unaware Ana or Mercy with her back turned, skilled healers will usually be ready for flanks and will thwart simple assassinations with superior positioning, reflexes, or both. A Mercy with strong map awareness will position herself close enough to her teammates to get away with Guardian Angel while constantly looking for flankers even as she maintains her healing/boosting beams. An Ana player standing somewhat close to her tanks will often turn around for a quick flick of Sleep Dart or toss her grenade at her feet to try to catch both you and herself in the blast. How does a smart flanker counter these methods of self preservation?

Prediction and as previously mentioned, timing. Just as Reinhardt players try to play mindgames with one another and bait out the other player’s Earthshatter, Tracer players should try to use prediction to anticipate how an enemy squishy will react when getting jumped on. If you see an Ana next to a Zarya and you know the Zarya still has her Projected Barrier available, try to bait it out or wait for it to go on cooldown before you commit. Try dashing in, poking a bit, then immediately dashing out when the Zarya’s barrier appears, after the Ana uses her nade or, more importantly, before the Ana can hit you with Sleep Dart.

Alternatively, wait for your team to initiate the fight and then dive on their healers. Waste their time, harass the most valuable targets (generally healers), cause confusion, and otherwise make yourself a nuisance that can’t be stopped by a single player – especially a healer.

However, be careful not to get settled into a routine. If you find yourself constantly Blinking out from the same spot, shooting a full clip, and Blinking/Recalling back into safety, you’ll become predictable. A healer who doesn’t anticipate a flank will have a much slower reaction time (even up to a second) than a player who is on edge and ready to turn on a dime as soon as you fire your first shot (closer to a half-second or quarter-second). Since one of your primary goals is to create confusion and make the enemy worry, falling into a rut will make them feel safer and more confident that they can handle you.

That said, teaching your enemies to expect specific patterns from you can also be useful. If you’ve charged up a Pulse Bomb and you’ve lulled your opponents into a false sense of security with repeated, ineffectual assaults, you could score a quick kill with a Pulse Bomb out of nowhere.

Lastly, try to plan an escape route. For Tracer, maybe this is as simple as Blinking/Recalling back into cover, but for Genji, perhaps it requires a bit more calculation. If you know you can get a kill with your dash, you can use the dash reset to get out of danger immediately after securing the kill. If for some reason the dash fails to kill the target, consider your surroundings carefully and take note of nearby walls that you can climb to reach safety.

Getting used to this playstyle requires keen gamesense and prediction skills. Counting enemy ability cooldowns, knowing which abilities can get you killed or prevent you from getting kills, and tracking ultimates are all important qualities of skilled flankers and Overwatch players in general. It’s a risky playstyle, but if you don’t mind gambling and you enjoy the fast pace of play offered by characters such as Tracer and Genji, flanking can be an excellent strategy to add to your arsenal.

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