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The Meta-Game December 30, 2008

Posted by James in : all, random, theory, reviews, design , trackback

One of the most important issue in Magic the Gathering is what decks are the most powerful. In particular, whether or not one deck is the “best deck.” Some people categorize the “best decks” as “the metagame.” Most people talk about “metagame” when they are interested in netdecking. The design team at Wizards of the Coast works hard day and night to prevent the game from only having one “best deck.” (When there is only one best deck, netdecking becomes too easy!)

Side note: I hate the word “metagame.” Meta is the Greek word for “after.” Game is the English word for “game.” Literally, this means “after game.” That is not what people think the word means. Sometimes we use the word “meta” to mean something like “study.” Then metagame would mean, “study of the game.” This is a little closer to what people think the word means.

That said, there are some ideals that the designers will shoot for when it comes to decks people play competatively. I find that the metagame has gone through ups and downs. Sometimes constructed environments are not worth playing competitively because the “best decks” simply aren’t interesting. (Or worse, there might only be one best deck.) This is a failure of the design team of Wizards of the Coast. I will analyze what I believe Wizards of the Coast idealizes as a good metagame environment, and I will find that there is something greatly disillusioning about it. This disillusionment feeds into my current distaste for competitive constructive play. Once you understand my disillusionment, you might understand why I much prefer limited formats (draft and sealed.) You might also want to note that almost all collectible card games are created purely for constructed play. This fact can also reveal why collectible card games tend not to keep us interested and seem to lose interest in time. Finally, I will explain alternate design strategies that could improve the meta-game.

The Current Ideal Metagame

We can understand the worst possible metagame: One deck is the best deck and nothing can beat it. I’ve never seen this happen, but what seems to almost always happen is pretty close: There is a best deck, but some decks can beat the best deck. Call these decks the “anti-decks.” Then there are fairly casual decks that can beat the anti-decks. Soon after I started playing Magic competatively “Necropotence” was the best deck. Right now Faeries is the best deck. Any deck that loses to Faeries isn’t competitive. Anything that beats Faeries is an anti-deck.
An ideal metagame will have to avoid this problem by avoiding a “best deck.” What is the ideal metagame, according to Wizards of the Coast? It is basically a rock-paper-scissors game. Deck A beats Deck B. Deck B beats Deck C. Deck C beats Deck A. (There could also be more than 3 best decks. If six decks are all equally good, then Deck A beats Deck B, but Deck C doesn’t necessarily beat Deck A.)

This rock-paper-scissors ideal has been called the “megagame clock” and it was discussed by Will Rieffer and Mike Mason. (Go here to see their article.) Strangely enough these authors seem to think this is how Magic actually is. It might be that these generalizations are true to a small extent, but there are more exceptions to the rule than you can imagine. (According to Rieffer and Mason, Beatdown should beat Control, but his isn’t true right now.)

Wait a minute. Isn’t a bad metagame the same as the ideal one? After all, the best deck beats casual decks. Casual decks beat the anti-decks. And the anti-decks beat the best decks. No, this isn’t a simple game of rock-paper-scissors. The difference is subtle: In the bad metagame the best deck can only be beaten by specific anti-decks, but it can beat everything else. The anti-decks tend not to be very good, so they lose against almost everything else. In other words the best deck will beat almost everyone, and people playing anti-decks can pretty much only beat the best deck. This means that the “best deck” has a severe advantage.

One more time: The ideal metagame, according to Wizards of the Coast, is to have three or more equally good decks that each lose to one deck and beat one deck.

Why it’s Disillusioning

The problem we face is that the ideal metagame and even the bad metagame are equally netdeck-based. Either way you probably won’t be able to think of a good deck on your own. There are only so many “best decks,” so other people will probably think of them before you do. And if you do think of it first, eventually other people will as well (or will just copy your deck.) The metagame is against the spirit of the collectible card game: To be creative and make a unique deck.

Although the metagame is at fault, many people have certainly figured out that constructed has become a cesspool of “netdecking.” People just look up what the best decks are instead of thinking of their own. This is one reason that most Magic players I know prefer to play Draft tournaments. Draft tournaments require some creativity and knowledge of card power that no other tournament type would require. (Also, it isn’t as based on luck as much as Sealed tournaments are.)

New Metagame Ideals

I don’t have a perfect solution right now, but there are other ideal metagames that are quite different from the ideal used by Wizards of the Coast. For example:

  1. There is no synergy or combos. All cards are equally powerful, so it doesn’t matter what you put into your deck. This is a good solution artistically, but it is strategically a disaster… because there would be basically no strategy.
  2. Instead of a rock-paper-scissors ideal, we could have “best decks” that are equally good. This might sound impossible, but it might be possible for any of the “best decks” to randomly win fast enough to stay competitive. Overrun was a card that served this purpose. If a deck got four or more creatures in play and the opponent doesn’t play mass removal, then Overrun becomes “Game Overrun.”
  3. There are so many possible “best decks” that people will keep thinking of new ones.

Of these ideals, the third possibility seems the best because it promotes the goal of being creative. Unfortunately it is also the most difficult ideal to achieve. There are a limited number of cards available for constructed play and some “combos” always seem better than others. There can be tons of various interlocking combos. I suggested before that the design team could try to have a “combo chain.” This might be a good way to have more good decks.

There is one danger with having more “combos”: The game might become too complecated. It isn’t fun watching someone take an hour to take one turn at Magic, so our combos would have to avoid this sort of complexity.

My next article will be posted on Friday 1-2-2009.


1. michael - December 30, 2008

One minor point is that the term “metagame” has different meanings for WotC and players. For WotC, it means everything outside the game (i.e. the player demographics, environment, “funness”, etc). For players, it is what you describe.

Part of the problem is that with the internet, people get lazy and stop thinking how to make a new good deck. Faeries is a good deck, so people just jump on the bandwagon (in worlds this year 5 of the top 8 were Faeries). It is much easier to copy a good deck than to make your own. The only real innovation is when a block rotates and people have to rethink the new best deck. There are slight innovations during a season where people will discover that Card X is good against the Best Deck mirror match, so that card goes up in demand.

2. James - December 30, 2008

Yes, people are lazy and will copy “winning decks,” but magic players tend to “discover” what decks work after a couple major tournaments. I don’t think it’s merely a Faerie deck bandwagon. It really is the best deck in standard right now.

We have good reason to be lazy when it is so difficult creating a good deck that hasn’t already been thought of. It is even more difficult to discover THE “best deck” possible. (And, yes, there tends to be a “the best deck” rather than “equally good decks.”

3. JP - January 1, 2009

At the moment I can think of 5 competitive decks.

5cc: loses to faeries, beats aggro
RDW: good matchup vs faeries, bad vs decks playing kitchen finks. Blightning aggro has better matchup vs fae i believe.
RW Lark: pretty even vs faeries, loses to ?
Kithkin: good vs ?, loses to 5cc, not very good vs faeries
And Faeries of course: good vs 5cc, ok vs RDW, ok vs RW Lark, good vs kithkin. Good vs anything if it gets good draws.

There are many more competitive decks that don’t see alot of play like BW tokens, doran, elves.

4. James - January 1, 2009

JP, Those decks might be “slightly competitive” but anything that can’t beat Faeries, isn’t really that serious. You are using the term “competitive” in a different way than I do. I suppose it is possible to win with some of the decks listed, but the odds are pretty low. (Yes, you might beat Faeries with 5cc if you get lucky, but probably not. So, it probably won’t win a tournament.) I think Kithkin, Elves, Doran, and other creature-based decks are doing poorly now that control decks can beat them. Control decks are also doing poorly because they tend to lose against faeries. What’s left? Faeries.

5. michael - January 2, 2009

One of the reasons that faeries rules standard with an iron fist is not only is it “the best deck”, it also has the most people playing it. If 50% of a tournament is playing Faeries decks and the remainder is split between the other Competetive decks that JP mentioned, you will get results skewed to Faeries. Even the decks that are supposed to beat/have a good matchup with Faeries cannot always beat the faerie nut draw. And that will happen when a significant portion of the field is playing that one deck.

6. James - January 2, 2009

If enough players play Faeries, then it is true that more people will have a chance to win with it. However, when I go to tournaments 50% of people are not playing faeries, and they still win too often. (Side note: I would do a lot better if more people would play it because it was one of the decks I could beat.)

Also, Faeries is actually viable in extended, and almost no other decks are from standard. Red deck wins is quite a different deck in extended.

7. Alex - January 10, 2009

I think the “ideal” metagame you are looking for, in which players are rewarded for being creative, was acheived last year and the year before, when players had access to huge amounts of cards from Time Spiral, Coldsnap, Lorwyn, and Shadowmoor, more than ever before… the plethora of possibilities made for new top decks in pretty much every tournament. With time spiral and coldsnap out of the picture, deck possibilites have dwindled considerably… due to the overall weaksauce of alara, we’re pretty much left with shadowmoor and lorwyn blocks to deal with, which is a mere 4 sets worth of cards. Hence a very stale metagame. Hopefully, by the block after alara, Wizards will realize that more cards > fewer cards, and good cards > bad cards, and will alter their production accordingly.

8. James - January 10, 2009

Time Spiral was one of the most random stuff sets that Wizards likes to think of as “modular” (nonlinear). However, the “endless possibilities” (e.g. saprolings, madness) proved very difficult or impossible to pull off. But it was a great set for casual decks and I made a few based on Timespiral. Lorwyn clearly dominated the scene after it took over the world. Shadowmoor almost made control worth playing, but didn’t add many new deck possibilities that would be taken seriously.

Now that you mentioned this it makes me realize something. Yes, Timespiral is probably the best set in and of itself to “not tell us what to play” and so forth. However, it was also a bit weaker than the other blocks. Timespiral decks had a hard time being serious competition. I guess the blink deck was quite good, but that was about it. In other words, the closest thing to “getting it right” was a side note. A transitional set that could be easily overlooked. A set Wizards made a little bit weaker than usual to make sure that it wouldn’t “really count.”

I don’t know that more cards and good cards is what is most important. The metagame situation is a pretty complected balance. Some reasons that Shards of Alara might not be the big money maker: (a) it has no interesting combos, (b) it doesn’t have any dominant decks for constructed, and (c) it is terrible for limited. If it isn’t for limited or constructed, then what is it for? Casual, I suppose. But without fun combos, I don’t plan on making any casual decks with it. The only possibility left is that it is a “Timmy” casual set.

9. Hallsie - August 26, 2009

I agree in large part to the thoughts behind what you are saying however you are missing a good part of WHY this happened.
If you look back at the beginning of Magic there was synergy because each of the colors was different, each had it’s own personality. More recently things have become blurred and there is only one or two different things you can really do.
Play Duels of the Planeswalkers and you will see what I am referring to. Each of the colors can beat the other simply because they design cards specifically to do that.
I also feel that Wizards needs to get away from the, what I like to call, “Super special lands”. I like the idea of having multiple color lands but get rid of the Winbrisk Heights type lands. If you could take it back to what it used to be to where you were almost penalized if you tried to play more than 2 colors then you’ll have a more creative game again. If you can play all 5 colors with no punishment then you can play EVERY card out there.

10. James - August 26, 2009

In the beginning of Magic you had to have the best cards, and blue was clearly the best color. The best anti-blue card would destroy all Islands, but Blue had the best anti-everything (Counterspell).

I can’t play Duel of the Planeswalkers because I don’t have an X Box 360, but it sounds like it is pretty balanced.

The idea of making a game balanced by using anti-cards isn’t too impressive overall. It leads to rock-paper-scissors. That’s a good thing, but it’s not my ideal, and it’s not particularly creative.

Wizards of the Coast knows about the problem with allowing 5 color decks, but I think the 10 original dual lands allowed the same problem, especially considering a lack of nonbasic land hate.

11. Recoculous.com: Magic the Gathering Articles » Wizards of the Coast and Profit - September 13, 2009

[…] Wizards of the Coast needs to keep the game fresh and exciting in order to keep profits up. This can be done by doing a better job at designing sets in general, but it can also be done with simple tricks: For example, Making powerful cards or inventing a gimmick. We already know why we want powerful cards, so there’s no need to talk about it. Gimmicks are new elements of the game, such as hybrid mana or flip cards. Powerful cards and gimmicks can be fun, so there’s nothing really objectionable about them either. […]