Meta the Meta
I enjoy competitive gaming. Perhaps to an odd degree. I’ve certainly listened to my fair share of “How can you enjoy watching people play games?” as though it’s a foreign concept in a time when FIFA, NBA, NHL and a whole slew of other acronyms are raking in billions of dollars from people watching others “just play a game.” I mean, there’s over $25 billion in revenue for 2014 just between the NFL, MLB and NBA alone. That’s silly. Sillier than me watching some people play Dota or Netrunner. Also, Dota and Netrunner have the benefit of not being dead boring to watch (for me, obviously).
Anyway, long and the short of it, I enjoy watching people play these games that I enjoy playing myself. They’re a nice replacement for when I can’t play–whether I’m doing work, I’m not in the mood or I can’t get an opponent to play against. It also has the added bonus of improving my own play through observing those better than me and analyzing what makes their behaviour more successful than mine.
It’s one way that the Internet and technology are changing our lives in subtle ways. Way back when I was but a wee little lad and I was playing something like Magic: The Gathering, there wasn’t really an online community dedicated to creating the best decks and quibbling over the finer points of the game’s minutia in order to determine which cards are the best or which strategy is the most prominent. Or, maybe there was and the simple fact that modem Internet chewed up the phone line and was necessarily limited in use prevented me from knowing of these communities.
There’s a bit of nostalgia in how hopelessly naive my friends and I were in that time. We didn’t really have any idea of what we were doing when we created our decks. I know I just put my favourite cards together and hoped for the best. I remember my mind being blown when one of my friends explained basic concepts like land distribution and the ratios that one should have when creating their deck. Now, I see Jeremy’s nephews and they have these combo decks in their hot little hands that would have never occurred to me back in that day.
And I’m not buying that they didn’t have some help in creating them whether that was online research or purchasing pre-built decks from the distributors. That said, my friends and I didn’t need really strong decks. Our opponents were each other. Losing a game carried no stakes and if we wanted another round, we’d just annoy our partner to play again.
When you add a competitive environment like a tournament to the mix, it’s only natural to expect things to change. I’m not really a tournament player–I don’t have the time or inclination to practice for such things–but watching them can be fun, as I’ve mentioned. One of the more interesting elements of tournament play is the discussion that rises around them. People debate why their favourites lost or why certain players are doing better than others. Often times this focuses on elements of the game: for deck builders it’s a discussion over the colour or faction they chose and for Dota it’s the heroes which were picked and banned. This naturally drifts the focus of the discussion away from individual decision making and plays and more on the elements of the game itself. Did Secret lose because they picked underpowered heroes? Why don’t we see more Criminal IDs being played in tournaments?
Everyone, of course, has an opinion. Whether these are good or accurate opinions are another matter. Perhaps one of my guilty pleasures is reading people desperately try and explain the current Dota 2 draft environment. It’s really fascinating to find all these individuals who are 100% certain the reasons for why teams generally drift to a consistent pool of about 20 or so heroes. Invariably, these reasons always break down into “This hero is overpowered and this one is underpowered.” Then, of course, the pool will change over the next two months and even if there wasn’t a balance patch people are right in there explaining away why the previous top picks aren’t good anymore and clearly the new top picks have been so strong all along.
There’s a game about the game, essentially. It’s a metagame. And, while entertaining, it’s kind of useless.
Alright, that’s not accurate. It’s a potential pitfall that can lead to groupthink and dominating philosophies based on spurious foundations. With games as complex as Dota 2 or Netrunner, you’re going to have imbalances in design. It’s inevitable. However, I find that people tend to over-exaggerate these differences. Something that is slightly more effective quickly becomes “OMG Valve, nerf this filthy shit!” Something that isn’t performing as well as it did before turns into “What the hell Fantasy Flight? How can you just kick Criminals to the curb?!” And while balance is an important goal to strive for, I’m always of the opinion that we need far more data than we usually have before we can categorically claim something is “too weak” or “too powerful.” Most of the time, they’re not.
The other pitfall of metagame discussion is wholly ignoring the effect of trends. I’m more familiar with this in Dota 2, having seen the same cycle repeat over the last four years. As I’m learning Netrunner and following it’s tournament scene closer, I’m noticing the same things coming up again and again. Certain archetypes have arisen to the top of the pile and you see them played over and over again at tournaments. These decks are basically “known successes” and when you’re playing for stakes you’re more apt to adopt something that you know has worked before than utilize something that hasn’t been tried.
Which is fine and logical. We can fairly safely say that these decks are “good.” What we can’t say is that the other decks, the decks that aren’t being played, are “bad.” There’s a massive fallacy here, especially amongst people who aren’t even in tournaments, to assume that because a professional isn’t playing it must mean that it’s bad. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The only way this would be accurate would be if the professionals had tested all these unplayed archetypes in competitive environments and found they underperformed. If anyone thinks this is actually what happens, then they’re sorely mistaken.
Professional do experiment, of course. In Dota 2 it’s quite common to see teams pick up a new hero in less important tournaments, whether they are ones with weaker opponents or lower prize pools where there is less on the line. If something works, you can watch it slowly spread from one team into the next until it becomes dominant. If it doesn’t, then it’s hand waved away as being “obviously bad.” But there’s a problem with this system. If it’s a new hero or strategy and it fails it might not be due to the strategy being bad. It could be that the players are simply unfamiliar or unexperienced with the strategy and not playing it to its fullest. The most obvious example of this is the disproportionate use of Io amongst western teams compared to eastern teams. Three years ago, Io was considered a trash hero by the eastern teams that only punished poor players who made mistakes. It was completely ignored by eastern drafters believing that they were playing in a style that could not capitalize on these perceived “mistakes.” Western teams, on the other hand, treated Io as a first pick/first ban hero that had to be addressed in either game because it had such a huge impact on how the game unfolded. And, lo and behold, when the International rolled around and east met west, the eastern teams were wrecked by this hero that they so quickly dismissed.
Furthermore, professional players have a very obvious and very consistent behaviour of jumping on trends. When they see a team being successful with a strategy, they’re often very quick to try and adopt that strategy themselves. This is coming to light more and more as professional players share their experiences at these tournaments with their fans. After this year’s International, some players were explaining that, no matter what they practice leading up to the tournament, drafting invariably changes as one team may arrive with a strategy that no one else anticipates and wipes the floor with it leaving every other team trying to desperately copy it. This is because it’s a lot easier to sit and analyze a strategy and how it works than to try and counter it especially if you don’t have the time to run these counter strategies in a practice environment. CDEC led the way this year in setting a very strict set of heroes that everyone had to play because if they got those heroes, they just rolled over their opponents who were so unused to the very early and consistent pressure that they applied. In prior years we saw a similar trend with Vici Gaming and Newbee’s fast push strategy or Alliances incredibly disruptive split pushing strategy.
So where is the innovation?
Generally, it comes from the new faces. It’s the teams with the lowest expectations and the lowest fanfare that have such dominant impacts on the metagame. I can only assume that they, free from the expectations of performing well and slipping beneath the radar of their opponents leading up to the competition can pull out strange and unexpected tactics. Really, they have the least to lose since they’re not expected to beat the top teams who have been following the current meta strategies for so long.
So, really, us casuals can brush off our Criminal IDs. We can continue drafting the Jakiros and Ogre Magis. We’re the ones that can play goofy ideas. You never know, you might stumble across something that everyone else has been ignoring as they chase the latest trend. We don’t need to win tournaments and even if we were to show up to them, we’d be so unlikely to win that we have nothing to lose by throwing down The Professor and having our opponent start confused. There’s a comfort in playing something that’s known to succeed but there’s also a comfort in playing against it. So don’t think that just because it’s good, it’s the best. Because there’s always something better.