Aaaand, we’re back! and It’s Already Meta

So, I was going to start this post off by explaining all the new changes to the site, but I included an explanation of all the new stuff on my “What’s All This, Then?” page. If you need to know, then that’s got you covered. Today, I thought, since I just launched Trivial Writing, we’d talk a little bit about what Meta is. I know it’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, but some people are still confused about it. Basically, “Meta” means “after,” “beyond,” or “self,” but, since that isn’t all that helpful, I thought I’d break it down for you in a gaming sense.


Meta-game is the hot word of the year in competitive gaming circles, and with good cause. You see, the meta-game is the game that manifests once all the other rules of the game are very well understood. It’s the game above the game. Take poker, for instance, more specifically, Texas Hold’em, because it was so popular for a while. Statistically speaking, there are “best-bet” plays, but any good poker player will tell you that always betting with statistics isn’t the way to win. In fact, it makes you very easy to read. Being easy to read is what loses you the meta-game, because, at the point where you understand the game well enough to be able to figure out what you should do with a hand, your real challenge becomes figuring out your opponents. You’re playing with a finite resource, money, so you want to strike when you’re going to be able to make the most of it. However, you aren’t the one that controls how much money gets added to the pot besides your own, that’s all up to your opponents. So, you’re going to have to get them to put their money in when it matters most to you. That means that you’re going to have to let some hands go or let other people fight over lesser sums. Good players will be watching what you do to try to figure out what kind of player you are. Simply put, you’re no longer just playing against chance (even though it’s a factor) or with the cards (Don’t forget bluffing), you’re also playing against the experience of your opponents.

I’ve got a theory that beginner’s luck is, partially, at least, aided by an error in estimation by experienced opponents. Essentially, they’re reading new players wrong because new players haven’t developed the patterns that more experienced players read. It makes them a wild card, and, so, they will often violate an experienced player’s expectations.

I know that Poker is competitive gaming, but it’s not usually what people think of when they say it, so let’s cut right to League of Legends. Since its release, LoL has absolutely exploded in popularity. Let’s leave the speculations to why for another day and focus on what the meta-game means here. Again, part of it comes down to reading your opponents. If a good LoL player sees a particular team composition, they can usually tell what kind of strategy that team would use in the game. This assumption is usually based off of experience and the knowledge of what others in the community are doing. It’s almost like an agreed-upon language. You’ll often see up-dates to the meta-game during large tournaments, because this is when most players will see the best-of-the-best exhibiting new or effective strategies. That information gets disseminated through the LoL community and, suddenly, there’s a new strategy floating in the ether for people to pull from. Another time you see swings in the meta-game is during patches, because the basic mechanics of the game get up-dated and new heroes get added. This creates new imbalances and encourages the use of one item or champion over another. Some champions get kicked right out of the meta-game because they become redundant, ineffective, out-dated or buggy (I’m looking at you, Mort). I’m not going to give you an specific examples, because either it will become old news soon, or the names won’t mean anything to you, but that’s the basic idea.

I can’t stress enough that, to play with the meta-game, you have to have a thorough knowledge of the mechanics of the game, because the meta-game manifests from it. It’s all well and good to know which champions counters another, but, if you can’t play that champion, then it’s not going to matter. Basic mechanical knowledge is key. By that same token, once you have that knowledge, you need to feel free to play around with the meta-game. I know some players that like to stagnate in the current meta-game until someone else up-dates it, but that won’t bring you to the cutting edge of the game. That’ll just ensure that you’re always a good player, but never the best.

So, why is it that only some players end up making huge waves? Well, the meta-game is also tiered. The same way that there’s a meta-game above the basic mechanics, the meta-game has its own meta-game: a meta-meta-game. That’s probably as far as we should go, because you could end up saying meta for a while, and that’s just not helpful. Once you know the mechanics, and the current meta, there’s a game to be played in stretching the meta. Again, it’s usually the experienced players that end up doing this. Think of Chess. Chess is a game with an extremely extensive meta-game. There are hundreds of plays to learn and memorize, as well as counters and positions, plans and gambits, but that only makes you good. Once you become the best of the best, and you’ve got a thorough understanding of the game and it’s meta, then you start making up new plays. It’s been around for a long time, so it’s not a quick or easy process. Again, at the end of the day, though, you’ll be playing against your opponent. If you can convince your opponent that you’re doing one thing, and convince them to make the proper counter-move for it, then you can exploit it.

Sometimes, though, you’ll be playing against more than one opponent or team. The example I’m most familiar with here is Magic: The Gathering. If you’ve ever sat in on a serious multi-player game of Magic, then you know it’s not about mechanics, because everyone knows what’s going on. It’s not about decks or combos, because we’ve all seen them work a hundred times and can usually figure out what could happen with the colours that are being played. It’s a little bit about bluffing and playing with your opponent’s mind (one of the best examples of the advantages of unclear communication). However, fields of influence are the true deciders of these types of games. It’s all about what you can convince your opponent that you can do , so you can get them to do something that will convince another opponent of something else. Blue players (the counter-spell-heavy, tricky, rule-bending colour players) can control entire games with a hand of two cards, because opponents will often assume that those cards are counter-spells. However, heavily aggressive decks are often targets, because they have the ability to do a lot of damage early, especially to decks that take a while to spin-up. Combo decks often look unassuming, but can wreck your shit if they get their decks to work, so they usually try to convince people that they can’t do much in the early game. The game becomes less about the actual game and more about convincing opponents to make moves that work to your advantage and your other opponents’ disadvantage. This all comes from an understanding of the common moves and abilities of your deck and the ones you’re playing against. This all comes from a knowledge of the basic mechanics of the game. So, you can see how each level of the meta-games manifests from the ones being played underneath it.

It’s a teetering tower of knowledge. By extension, one small change to any aspect of the game can disrupt the entire established meta-game. In games like LoL and Magic, these changes come with new content releases and evolving combinations. In Poker, this comes from different players with different reputations (This, of course, applies to the other two, as well). In Chess, well, it takes a large portion of a life-time to get anywhere near knowing all of the meta of the game, and, by this point, it’s all just considered part of the game, so, to any single player, there’s always a new meta to learn. The thing is, we’ll keep adding games on top of games as we go on. This can even apply to Tic-Tac-Toe, a game which has been, essentially, “solved.” We know every possible move and how to counter it based on whether you go first or second. However, how do you decide who goes first? Well, you could play paper-rock-scissors. You could leave it at that, or, if you know your opponent very well, you can consider what they usually throw. Then, in this given context, you can ask yourself whether they’d want to mix it up or just throw the usual. Then, perhaps, whether they’ll be thinking the same thing. Of course, you could bring it all back to a coin-flip, but, then, whose coin?

I was being facetious with that last bit, but you can see how deep this rabbit hole goes, especially since you’re not always going to be working with complete information. Sure, I may know the people I play with on a regular basis very well at one point, but what happens when they start playing with new people? What about on-line players? Sure, there’s an established meta in the case of LoL, but that doesn’t mean that all the other players are going to stick to it. A lot of the time, a strange choice will mean an inexperienced player with poor mechanical skill, but, what if it isn’t? Throwing your opponent off their game can be extremely valuable.

I may have made it sound like the meta-game is all about gaining an advantage, and, in the case of competitive games, it is, but that’s just what meta means here. In a broader sense, meta just means manifesting from elements below a level. Meta-humour, for instance, is all about jokes about jokes. One of the oldest examples is the “man walks into a bar” jokes. There’s a set of jokes where a man walks into a bar, orders a drink, hilarious punch-line. Then, there’s a joke where a “man walks into a bar…” as in an actual bar of steel. You see, that last joke is only funny because of our understanding of the first set of jokes. It’s a meta-joke, but, as it becomes used as a joke itself, it loses its meta-flavour, much the way plays in chess stop being considered meta once they’re off the cutting edge. This leads some people to believe that “meta” just means new, but there’s a very good reason for this phenomenon, at least, in my opinion. Think of this way, a meta-joke sort of assumes that we all know the other jokes. If you get the meta-joke, then the others aren’t funny, because you’ve heard them all before. Technically, one still manifests from the other, but they aren’t funny, so it isn’t really a joke any more. A good counter in chess will obviate the effectiveness of the moves that it counters, so they aren’t used as much. Once you learn how to counter a strategy, it doesn’t matter as much any more, so it falls out of use. So, its meta-understanding applies much less. Now, it’s no longer a manifestation of an understanding of the mechanics, because the mechanics have changed; it’s just another aspect of the general game that’s floating in the ether. Meta is, in a way, kind of a state. It’s ephemeral. It kind of obviates itself.

This is what prevents the game from getting too far away from itself (There are few meta-meta-meta…games… you get the idea). By the same token, there will always be meta-games; their definitions will just change. In Magic, you will always have basic mechanics. Those basic mechanics will always have strategies. Those strategies will always be used by players. Those players will always have to make moves. The minute you excise one of those elements, then the meta-game will change, but, then again, you’d be playing an entirely different game. You might not even be playing a game. You might just be flicking cards at a hat.

But, whose hat?!

(Seriously, though, hat-size could make a difference depending on where you’re sitting.)

Any ways, that’s my basic introduction to meta. If you want a meta-introduction to meta, then, well, I think you have larger problems than I can solve here.


5 Responses to “Aaaand, we’re back! and It’s Already Meta”

  1. Any system which has a perceived win-loss system is capable of having a meta game. Even typical social situations, for example, office work, with groups of people chasing promotions, it’s not hard to see a meta game emerging as well as the actual tasks of working.

    E.g. Selecting people to do jobs which you know they are unsuited for, to damage their reputation, etc. etc.

    • Yup, meta-games are everywhere and, in all honesty, they can be viewed as just games. Meta is a relative stand-point: a perspective that provides additional insights into the under-pinnings of the system we’re looking at. Even systems of absolute advantage, where we’re not playing zero-sum or resource management, can manifest meta-games. Think about holding a door open for someone or crossing a street. There’s a meta to it that dictates distance, length of time and turn-order, even though, for instance, among my friends, it’s done without thought to advantage.

      • Only nerds can be bothered with analysis to the point of the meta-game of holding doors open. I simultaneously loath and love myself. ❤

      • Haha yeah, that’s the kinda analysis that we do here. Sometimes, a love-hate relationship can be a good thing

  2. […] of all, if you got a chance to read my break-down of meta, then you’ll know that almost everything is already meta. Meta is a just a perspective you […]

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