Important update: this article was written in the earliest days of the TF2 beta, before The Pyro was patched to become more effective, and is subjective account of how it felt to play him then, not a review of the class. Please bear this in mind before you shout at me that I'm wrong and stupid.
I’m so lonely. No-one hangs around with the Pyro. Is it the gasmask, the fact they can’t see my face or understand what I’m saying creeping them out just a little? Really, that mask isn’t even necessary, making it a vaguely perverted affectation. Or is it the rodent-like hunched pose and thin-legged scurry, making me too ridiculous a sight to be taken seriously? All the other classes have a certain superheroic nobility to them; the Pyro’s just a little laughable to look at.
Click to continue, or you shall surely burn. Burrrrnnn!
Or is it that my main gun is so short-range and imprecise that they can’t envisage any benefit of teaming with me? I suspect it’s all of the above, plus the history of the gaming flamethrower as a weapon for showing off first, efficiently killing second. What it all adds up to is that the Pyro isn’t entirely a part of the team. He may be out on his own, breaking into the enemy base to cause nuisance, or he might be alongside the main team pack, but even then they almost certainly won’t be thinking about what he’s up to. No-one ever says “We need a Pyro”, as they would a Medic or Engineer or Heavy or Sniper or Scout. The Pyro just is, whether anyone wants him to be or not.
Initially, I thought the Pyro was almost a superfluous class. He still is, in a way – like the Demoman, he’s much more about sideline support than actual achievement. I’m now pretty certain of his purpose, though. Firstly, he’s a distraction. Yes, that Flamethrower can kill at a close enough range, but it’s usually very tough to get intimate enough, with the exception of dancing firey circles around a lumbering Heavy. More importantly, from a more offset position it’ll still soften a target up so that the more conventional combat classes can take him down before he causes significant damage to them.
It also causes panic. As yet, no-one’s precisely calculated the flamethrower’s damage over time maths, so if a group of foes is doused with fire, they’ll be flustered, their aim will be off, and they may even scatter, desperately seeking out Medics or water. They’re still in the game, but they’re significantly easier prey for the Pyro’s team-mates. Or they’ll react by turning on the Pyro, desperate to stop the burning, which can provide enough time for one of his team to pick them off or nip past with their briefcase. No-one ever thanks the Pyro, though. He’s just the weird kid who’s always hanging around.
Medics aren’t the martyrs of TF2. In a very literal sense, Pyros are. They seed mass confusion and usually perish in the process, but create a window of opportunity for their more favoured peers, the distracting flames continuing even after their death. A Pyro can’t avoid regular mortality. He’s an Offence class with a very short range, and therefore has to be right out there at the front. Even if it means certain doom. Did Pyro do good? Tell Pyro that Pyro did good. But no-one does. Pyro is so lonely.
His other purpose, at least as I’ve found it to be, is as the closest the Team has to a Spyhunter. A quick 360 arc of fire is the best way both to reveal a lurking enemy Spy hidden or disguised as an ally, and also to make him a blatant, flaming target that’s easy for everyone else to spot, with the burning also preventing him from slipping back into the safety of invisibility. Also, spraying everyone on your side with fire somehow seems a bit less obnoxious than shooting them in the face to prove their identity. It’s more like being disinfected than attacked.
With this in mind, I’ve found one of the more effective Pyro pairings is with an Engineer. The turret gives Engie long-range protection, the Pyro short-range; an attentive flameboy can often spot the tell-tale haze of a cloaked Spy and , with a quick spurt, prevent him from slapping an electrosap onto vital constructions. When it works, a Pyro –Medic combo can be a bucket o’ultra-kill fun, but the flamethrower’s harrowingly short range means the Doc’s that much closer to the line of fire. Save the healing for the Heavy.
Still, I worry that poor Pyro's a class that will become increasingly unpopular, as he so rarely crops up in the scoreboard's higher echelons. I can only guess at the insane degree of balance testing that's gone into TF2, but for my money just a little extra range on him, or at least more damage at his current furthest range, would mean we'd see much more of him. He's just a little different than every other class, and is hugely entertaining with it. He doesn't deserve the additional loneliness that increased neglect would cause him.
The Heavy is my first choice, time and again, and so far I always sit pretty near the top of the table when I play him (THANK YOU DOKTORR). I play Pyro, though, when I don’t particularly feel like winning or helping or achieving. I play Pyro when I want to feed the sociopath in me. When I just want to cause a little no-strings trouble. It helps, it really does. That's what the mask is for.