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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Counter Point: What is "The Meta"?

With much assistance from Eric Riha

My good friend Mitch recently posted a controversial article entitled "Myth Busting: The Meta in Flames Of War". While I think he makes a lot of good points, I fully disagree with a lot of his premise, and I'll outline why and how I view a "meta" below. As a quick aside- man, hearing the word "meta" just makes me cringe, what about you? I think it DOES describe a phenomena in almost every game I've ever played, but it just sounds so dumb.

The fact is, many popular games we play right now evolve. Why? Because that is the business model. New models to sell and new rules to make them easier to sell. We're all okay with that right? We want new and shiny and we want our favorite game companies to succeed so they can keep churning out new stuff. It's a win/win really, and the "meta" is just the obvious by-product. I think Mitch and I agree with each other in a very broad sense in that the "meta" isn't exactly bad. It just is, and it's a thing to consider.

Mitch used the definition of "Metagaming" from Wikipedia (which I've repeated below), and goes on to de-bunk the myth based on the fact that the Wikipedia definition implies something rule or game-breaking.

Any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed rule set, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game. -Wikipedia

While I believe the definition is accurate, I think Mitch missed the mark on his interpretation. Notice in the definition, there is no mention of game balance, fairness, or a breaking of the rules inside the game itself. Metagaming describes the impact of "rules" outside of playing the game itself. Often, Metagaming impacts are things like Tournament Formats, Scoring Conditions, Scenario Mixes, etc. Even though these rules may be included in the rule book, they do not involve the mechanics of the game itself. These Metagaming impacts also have nothing to do with broken or unbalanced rules within a game (Old Tank Destroyer Rules, NGFS, etc.) - those are another problem entirely. For the purposes of our discussion, I will separate these two impacts into Metagaming and Mechanical effects.

For example, you say to yourself, "I'm going to buy 3 batteries of 105mm US Artillery because I think they are a very cost-effective way of killing/mitigating both infantry and armored targets." This is not a Metagaming decision. You are making a decision based solely on the Mechanics of the game (artillery rules, point costs, efficiencies, etc.).

Conversely, if you say to yourself, "I'm going to buy 3 batteries of 105mm US Artillery because I know the tournament organizer for the event is going to likes to have a lot of blocking terrain and I know a majority of the folks attending the event will be bringing infantry lists," this is a Metagaming decision. You are making your decision based solely on external factors outside of the Mechanics of the game.

It's rainin' shells

Now most decisions we make will actually be based on a combination of both Metagaming and Mechanical factors. "I can get to 9 platoons AND bring 3 batteries of 105s that will be good against a variety of targets, if I build my list like this." The impact of Mechanical effects will generally not change (only when new rules or erratas come into play), but the impact of Metagaming effects may vary wildly. What is the format of the event? Do I know if the Tournament Organizer likes to have heavy terrain? Light terrain? Do I know what other players are planning to run?

When many players begin to make similar decisions based on both internal AND external information, it begins to create a "theme" or "trend". This trend can otherwise be called "The Meta". While the term does include the Greek prefix "Meta-", it is not a direct match to the term Metagaming or even somehow breaking the rules or giving players an unfair advantage. In fact, colloquial use of the term "The Meta" describes this subtle blend of both Metagaming and Mechanical based decision-making.

Starbane- so hot in Conquest right now!
I think a more accurate description of what we may normally consider "The Meta" might be:

The current set of popular paradigms (lists/decks/etc) which are perceived as being superior than other paradigms, and are thus are more well represented in the (especially tournament playing) community.

We know these 'trends' in gaming are real - we see them throughout every game we play. However, their impact tends to be vastly over-stated. Without putting words in his mouth, I think this may have been where Mitch was headed, but the message may have gotten lost in translation.

I'd like to provide a few examples, along with some data to support my altered definition of "The Meta". As a data geek, how could I not? In the Star Wars Armada tournament scene of the current release (Wave 2) we initially saw the meta being heavily skewed to "Ackbar" and to a larger extent "Rhymer Balls".

The Rhymer Ball list concept involves a swarm of Imperial fighters who, through the use of the hero character "Major Rhymer" can fire at ships from much farther away than usual. In Wave 1, this list was largely a meta decision because so many players were opting not to even use squadrons, making their ships vulnerable to such en masse bomber attacks.

In Wave 2, the Meta was initially dominated by Ackbar. People were either playing Ackbar, or building their list based on how to beat Ackbar. However, a new "meta defining" list emerged that played on a few core mechanics of Armada. This list featured "multiple small units" (MSU), who had "activation advantage" and a large bid to go first- meaning they would have the last activation of turn A AND the first activation of Turn B. The list became quite popular, and it was particularly strong against Ackbar. In fact, the "Ackbar is broken" threads evaporated from the forum. Perhaps his time was over.

And was it? Shortly thereafter, the Armada Regionals season began and an enterprising lad by the name of Shmitty began a comprehensive data collection effort. Here are his conclusions:

Of particular note, the Rhymer Ball and "MSU" lists were each representing roughly 20% of all lists seen. So 40% of all players brought one of these 2 archetypes that were seen as being very powerful. Something else becomes evident: "Rhymer Ball" lists won almost 40% of all of the Regional tournaments, swinging well above their weight! In second place was the MSU list winning 20% of all of the Regionals.

Trailing in third was our beloved, "over-powered" Ackbar who represented 10% of all lists brought to the Regionals... and won less than 8% of them.

I use all of that esoteric nonsense to paint a picture: lists that were seen as successful were taken more often and won more often, but they were not necessarily the lists that were considered part of The Meta. I would wager many of these excellent players looked a ways to beat what was considered The Meta, and switched to "Counter-Meta" lists. The trend shifts from Ackbar to Anti-Ackbar, and now Rhymer & DeMSU lists are the New Meta. If I now want to ensure my list could deal with both the Rhymer Ball and the DeMSU list, and I am now being influenced by this Meta (and it is certainly in my best interest to alter my list to deal with whatever the current Meta is). Once players figure out ways to beat the Current Meta (or the Metagame/Mechanics change), a New Meta emerges to take its place.

Big cats. They were a thing.

I will attempt to bring this rambling mess to a close. While I think the Meta of a game is very real, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. I also don't think it has an overwhelming impact on the game. There will ALWAYS be stronger choices than others in any tournament game with a large design space. Games that are points or card based systems are never perfectly balanced, and those slight variations in efficiency will be picked up by the player base over time. As those 'most efficient' options are uncovered and combined with a 'standard' tournament format, a Meta will emerge. The burden is on the game designers to keep an eye on that Meta, and ensure nothing they've introduced is "broken". If any one paradigm becomes so dominant and so un-fun to play against, you will see the player-base reduced - so it is in their best interest to keep a watchful eye on the state of the game, and playtest any new rules or lists to the greatest extent possible.

The Meta is real. It's no myth. What we do with it is half the fun of playing tournaments! I mostly try to avoid Meta lists, but occasionally find myself caught up in the wave. Before planning for tournaments, I always consider the meta. Many players play lists outside of the Meta for a variety of reasons: the models look cool, it supports a particular play style, or they wish to challenge themselves. This variety is what makes playing games exciting! The Meta is real, and it's an influence on a game (particularly a tournament scene), but it is not the end all by any means.

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