Editorial: On Metagames

This week, I have been both playing and watching a great deal of League of Legends, and the redone Twisted Treeline got me thinking about the LoL metagame and how it has developed almost entirely around the five-versus-five Summoner’s Rift map. What a metagame properly is is somewhat difficult to define, though. Perhaps the best definition of a metagame is the theory and structure behind the decisions made by game players; metagaming is usually seen in competitive-style games like fighting games and RTS titles. Metagames are as a general rule completely designed by the players; indeed a metagame can be seen simply as the way the players play the game. Strategies, team setups, and even mindgames all factor into what makes a metagame.

The League of Legends metagame has champions filling one of five distinct roles.

The primary reason that metagaming has been on my mind lately is the completely revamped Twisted Treeline map in League of Legends. While Summoner’s Rift, the primary map, has a well-established and often very strict metagame when it comes to champion roles, laning, and team compositions, the community as a whole has yet to adopt a solid set of metagame rules for the new version of Twisted Treeline. The end result is a less rigid and more chaotic gaming experience that can also be very frustrating as players try to learn what will and will not work on the new map. Team strategies are difficult to coordinate when one enters the matchmaking queue alone, since there is no consistent meta for team compositions and lane placement.

The concept of the metagame is certainly not a new one, nor is it even unique to video gaming; chess and Magic: the Gathering are two examples of games whose entire communities are shaped by the metagame. One advantage that collectable card games and especially video games have, though, are flexibility. Unlike chess, which has set defined rules that do not change, something like M:tG or LoL can change as the developers themselves come to learn and understand the metagame. Video game metas are especially prone to this, as patches to an online game can happen throughout its life cycle. Which champions in LoL are considered viable picks can and will change constantly, with buffs and nerfs happening every few weeks.

Whether or not metagames are a good thing is a matter of debate, but what is certain is their inevitability. Any competitive game is going to have people who will do whatever they can to win, and any game complex enough to have a large number of possible strategies can be analyzed and reviewed. The final stages of a metagame are usually driven by years of research and player experience. MMO metagaming, for example, is frequently backed-up by theoretical statistical research and hours upon hours of hands-on in-game testing; the optimal build or builds can be determined by analyzing parameters like DPS and damage tanking ability. Metagames can change as games change; the competitive Pokemon metagame has grown and evolved as new games introduce new moves, Pokemon, and mechanics.

''UU'' stands for Under-Used, which is more-or-less mid-tier.
Tier lists are another big part of metagames, especially in fighting games and Pokemon games.

Some friends and I have discovered a few team compositions that work extremely well on the new version of Twisted Treeline, but we reached these compositions entirely based on our speculation and in-game experiences. I feel that the primary reason we are successful is not because we have stumbled upon the ideal metagame but simply because we have found a metagame at all. While other teams experiment with more traditional compositions bound to the older meta, we have had great success by creating our version of the metagame. The fact that we have an organized strategy allows us to win more than we lose. I do not say this to be arrogant, but only to point out how things have gone for us. I have no doubts whatsoever that we will hit a plateau as other people begin to discover strategies and compositions for the new map.

While metagames often are criticized for their rigidity and people claim that they make a gaming experience stale, the fact remains that the meta is an important part of any long-running gaming experience, especially in competitive gaming. Even single-player games arguably have metagames; one could easily argue that speedrunning is a form of metagame. As long as there are people who want to be the best player of the game, metagames will exist. Whether this is good or not is frequently a matter of debate among gamers. On the one hand, a complex meta allows for high-level competitive play, on the other, adding a metagame on top of the main game can make the learning experience unpleasant for new players. Additionally, a strict metagame can lead to people so dedicated to the meta they hate on those who try to break the mold, like the “no items, Fox only, Final Destination” Super Smash Bros. crowd.

Do you have any experiences with metagames, Lusi-voters? If so, how have metagames shaped your perception of a particular game. Did you conform to the meta, or try to break out of it with something new? Let me know, Lusi-pundits!


  1. I play a lot of fighters so I see this often, usually in the form of tier lists. I just play the games and find whichever fighting style suits me (usually ju-jutsu or that particular games facsimile of it) and investigate later to see where in the tier list my character lay.

    while I see it often I’m not usually affected by it since, strangely, the majority of the characters I choose are mid-tier but I see it’s effects. one instance in particular that sticks out in my mind is the Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom tournament that no-name japanese player won. the man used nothing but “low-tier” characters and whipped everyone soundly since no one ever bothered to come up with anit-viewtiful joe/rocket raccoon strategies. the man kept getting hit, usually resulting in instant death at high level play, but his characters where so short his opponents kept dropping their combos. it was hilarious.

  2. The metagame is like fashion. At least in StarCraft. It keeps things fresh if anything. It’s also a bit of a necessity. As strategies become popular, people learn how to deal with them, therefore the strategies go out of fashion. But then those same strategies can be used later because they’ll be unexpected. I’m not familiar with metagames in LoL or other games, but I know it’s actually an extremely interesting aspect of StarCraft.

  3. “MMO metagaming, for example, is frequently backed-up by theoretical statistical research and hours upon hours of hands-on in-game testing; the optimal build or builds can be determined by analyzing parameters like DPS and damage tanking ability.”

    Fact. Any serious raider in an MMO like WoW *must* have a grasp of at least the outcome of theory work, if not an actual grasp of the wherefores which lie behind it. As SiliconNooB can attest, I have spent hours running simulations to work out how to get the most damage out of my character, and it has paid off. I am consistently No. 1 in the DPS charts, and like to remain there as long as my grasp of mathematics is solid (which it is, at least so far as these statistical models are concerned).

    Some people claim that such models are reductive (i.e., you only need to hit certain magic numbers and then you will be ‘good’), but that is hardly the case. I’ve seen plenty of people whose metagaming attributes are correct, but the players themselves lack anything approximating skill or competence.

    One thing you could point out is that mastery of a metagame is not in itself a guarantor of success–but, all else being equal, the player who is better at the metagame will be better at the game proper, as a *general* rule.

  4. …simulations…part of me wants to call you insane but then I think of the amount of time I’ve spent experimenting with different moves in combos to get max damage potential. we’re both mad.

  5. @breaka666: I usually have faith in my theoretical damage calculations, but once I come to conclusions I want to test them to verify the real-life function of my calculations. WoW has target dummies of various levels for exactly this purpose.

    Typically, a two-stage (A vs. B) simulation run will take a couple of hours for a reasonable set of data with a 5% margin of error, which is generally good enough. So far, my initial maths have always been verified, but it is always a good idea to check so one can provide parses to back it up if someone doesn’t believe the maths.

    Of course, the maths behind it often take as long or longer, especially when the rotation includes critable DoTs, which means measuring probabilities and building several different rotations to take advantage of any deployable self-buffs.

    In short, if you want to be number one on the DPS tables, you have to be willing to do some maths. I am, because I am.

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