Friday, 9 December 2016

"A Powerful Ally" - Understanding The Metagame

In this blog I'm going to finally get around to addressing a topic that's been buzzing about in the back of my head for a few months and force it down into black & white - I want to talk about 'The Metagame'. 

The concept of a metagame is something that is very familiar to some of us but utterly bewildering to others, especially those who come to a competitive scene like X-Wing from something like boardgames or video games that don't usually have the same element of player customisation.

Edit: I've been correctly called out on this already - some video games DEFINITELY have metagaming, especially a lot of them with online competitive platforms, like MOBA/RTS games.

In this blog I'm going to try and define quite what a metagame is, how it can develop over time and, ultimately, whether you should actually care or not.

Metagame 101

In the past I've seen some people be quite confused about quite what the phrase 'metagame' means, in particular thinking that it's something similar to a Ten Commandments of X-Wing:

  • Thou Shalt Not Play E-Wings Other Than Corran Horn

  • Thou Shalt Not Use Bombs For They Are Rubbish

  • Thou Shalt Use Autothrusters Whenever Possible

Many players will rail against these rules and prescriptions that are being handed down to them.  If they want to play with bombs and are winning with bombs then who exactly is in charge of these metagame rules saying that they aren't allowed to use bombs?  

Well the answer is that nobody is in charge of the 'metagame rules' because that's really not what the metagame means.

'Metagaming' refers to using any information from outside the rules of the game to help you make decisions in the game.  

To illustrate this I'm going to use the example of a game where the rules are very simple so that the effects of metagaming are more obvious.  Let's talk about Rock-Paper-Scissors.

Paper wraps Rock, Rock blunts Scissors, Scissors cut Paper.  It's hopefully a game you're familiar with and also one where, in theory, the result is entirely balanced with no choice being better than any other.  According to the rules of the game whether you pick Rock, Paper or Scissors you've got a 1/3rd chance of winning, a 1/3rd chance of losing, and a 1/3rd chance that your opponent picked the same thing and you've got a draw, so it doesn't make a difference which you picked.  

Let's introduce some metagame information, though, and see how that might change how you pay Rock-Paper-Scissors.

Psychological studies have revealed that players are NOT completely random in how they choose what to play in Rock-Paper-Scissors and there are a complex web of factors involved.  Rather than each choice being selected 33.3% of the time, as it should be, in fact Scissors were only chosen 29.6% of the time with the other two choices about even at approximately 35% each.  This tells us that our best chance of winning will be to choose Paper.  If 35% of people are taking Rock then we'll win 2% more often than we 'should' by wrapping their Rock in our Paper, and with less than 30% choosing Scissors we also lose almost 4% less often.

Paper FTW!

What makes this 'metagaming' is that the information for improving our chances of winning is not within the game rules.  Note that we've not changed anything to make Paper in any way better than it already was, so that we start winning more often is because we are using metagame information.

That's a very simple example and the metagame information for Rock-Paper-Scissors can be more detailed than this.  The psychological study went on to reveal more information we can use to metagame Rock-Paper-Scissors and improve our chances even further:
Rock: Very aggressive, symbolized by the fist. Players subconsciously think of rock as a weapon and will rely on it when other strategies are not working.  Rock is a typical opening move for rookies, especially for men, since rock is associated with strength and fortitude.
Scissors: Some aggression, as they are sharp and dangerous, but also useful craft tools. Represent controlled aggression used as a clever throw—often when someone is confident or winning.
Paper: The most subtle move. An open hand is passive, peaceful, and friendly. Some players won’t use this when falling behind because it may symbolize weakness. Other players identify paper with writing and as such, the power of print is a subtle attack. In those cases, paper may be used to signify superiority.
As in a chess match, you must think ahead.  Against a more seasoned opponent they will purposefully not begin with rock, which is too obvious. They may consider you to be a novice, expect rock and will therefore open with paper. Against a veteran, you should lead with scissors: at worst, you’ll tie.
No one likes to be predictable. If someone has already thrown a the same thing twice in a row (typically because they won the first time with it), they are very unlikely to use it for a third time. If they used scissor twice, their next move will either be rock or paper. Paper is your best move to either win or tie. If they do two rocks, you follow with scissors. Two papers, you answer with rock.
The researchers also discovered what they called "Win-Stick" or "Lose-Switch" behaviour.  When players of Rock-Paper-Scissors were playing Best-of-Three or Best-of-Five they found that players who won the last hand were more likely to stick with the same result, while those who lost were more likely to change and even that they were more likely to move forwards in the sequence (eg, from Paper to Rock) than backwards.

So there you have it.  The rules of Rock-Paper-Scissors are entirely balanced for the three possible choices, and yet metagame information can help players who know the game outside the game win more than the 33% of games that they 'should' be winning.

Returning to players who see the metagame as being 'Ten Commandments of X-Wing', then, we can see now that they're not really commandments at all.  They're more like the outcome of the combined learning of everyone else who is playing X-Wing, with the experiences of what works and doesn't work in all their games feeding up into a body of knowledge and advice.  This isn't advice based on the rules of the game it's advice based on what you can learn about what your opponents are likely to be doing, and how you should respond to them.

The Metagame and X-Wing

Now that we're clear on what a metagame is, how does it apply to X-Wing?  

Well when you hear people talking about 'the metagame' of X-Wing they are almost always going to be talking about listbuilding -  they're trying to maximise their own chances of success with their squad by paying attention to what other people are playing.  This could be something as subtle as choosing a particular pilot or upgrade over another, or which rocks or debris they like to bring to a tournament, right up to completely changing their list or faction entirely in response to the metagame.

There are dozens of examples I could call on to illustrate how this might work but let's look at recent history...

In very broad terms this shows how the metagame has cycled for key squad archetypes during 2016.  

During Store Championships at the start of the year the dominant theme was intense 'pilot skill wars' between Imperial Aces and Rebel Regen trying to trump each other with ever-higher pilot skill.  That so many pilots were repositioning at high PS made it almost impossible to joust with lower pilot skill ships as they could just move out of your firing arc, so player were often falling back on Twin Laser Turrets to wear down the elite pilots through sheer weight of fire.

The release of Wave 8 changed all that, though, and the alpha-striking threat of Triple Jumpmasters was too much for the Rebel Regen and TLT Y-wing lists to stave off so they rapidly disappeared.  What thrived in their absence, though, was the TIE Swarm and that proved one of the best answers to the Triple Jumpmasters.  While all this was happening many of the Rebel Regen players switched allegiance to Imperial Aces, who were closest to their old high-PS playstyle, and 'Palp Aces' probably became the dominant threat during Regionals.

By the time Nationals and rolled around, though, that had changed again.  The innovative 'Dengaroo' list was punishing the Imperial reliance on green dice and the new /x7 TIE Defenders from Imperial Veteran simply proved too good at jousting for the TIE Swarms.  Lists like those, and the new 'Party Bus', almost entirely removed both TIE Swarms and Palp Aces from the top tables during later National Championships.  Contracted Scouts remained a powerful threat, though, and as their natural enemies were driven away they were just on the point of a resurgence when FFG acted to errata Deadeye, just in time for World Championships.

Rebel Regen had originally been driven out of the metagame by Triple Jumpmasters and TIE Swarms but now Deadeye errata had all but killed the Jumpmasters, and Dengaroo and Defenders had killed the swarms.  What was that riding back to the rescue at the World Championships?  It was Rebel Regen, this time in the guise of Miranda & Corran Horn!  The metagame had killed Rebel Regen and TLT Y-Wings earlier in the year but now it was bringing them back.  

The metagame wheel turns endlessly, therefore.  At some point almost every list will find the metagame right to their liking, only to later find it almost impossible to deal with.   Change is the only constant.

 As well as looking at the popularity of whole squads you can also drill the impact of the metagame down to the popularity of individual upgrades or pilots...

Biggs Darklighter is a Rebel pilot who has long been a favoured wingman of Rebel players.  You'd frequently see him played with R2-D2 with the intention that he was draw some of the fire away from your more important pilots and then use R2-D2 to regenerate some of the damage he took.  Recently, though, Biggs became simultaneously more popular among players and also switched out his trusty R2-D2 for the budget R4-D6.  Both of these changes were largely a response to the same piece of metagame information: Triple Jumpmaster lists with torpedoes arrived in Wave 8.  Where previously Biggs would be likely taking one or two damage per shot from another fighter it was now more likely that he would be taking three or four damage per shot from a Plasma Torpedo, and this meant...
  1. Biggs gets better - the short-term threat of Torpedoes may wreck some of your best plans but if Biggs can soak up a lot of those shots from the rest of your team then it may be worthwhile, even if Biggs doesn't survive for very long!
  2. R2-D2 gets worse - you're taking so much damage from Torpedoes that you may never survive long enough to regenerate a single shield with Artoo!
  3. R4-D6 gets better - you're taking damage in larger chunks so R4-D6 may prevent more damage than you would ever regenerate with R2-D2, where previously you might never have been able to trigger R4-D6 against weaker attacks.

But note that none of those changes occurred within the rules of the game.  R2-D2 and R4-D6 weren't given errata to be better or worse than they already were but the metagame changed around them and affected their relative value.

In his deadly TIE Phantom Whisper is a pilot who lives (and especially dies) by his Pilot Skill because his defenses are tied to him being able to shoot and recloak with Advanced Cloaking Device before anybody can shoot at him.  In a metagame with relatively few pilots at PS9+ then Whisper can be pretty confident he will be get to fire first and be cloaked by the time any incoming fire needs to be dealt with.  But in a metagame where there are likely to be a lot of higher Pilot Skill pilots, especially with turrets, then he becomes a very risky choice.  

Metagame impacts mean that the popularity of Whisper has waxed and waned over the time that TIE Phantoms have been in the game.  It was players realising that Han Solo with an initiative bid could be a strong counter to Whisper that originally drove the TIE Phantoms out of dominating the metagame and ever since then Whisper has sat on the fringes waiting for players to stop playing their PS10+ Corran Horns, Poe Damerons, Darth Vaders etc.  

Over the last few months we've seen a relatively large number of successful Whisper & Echo lists and it's no coincidence - they're being played by players who've seen the swing away from high PS lists towards playing the PS8 Omega Leader and Inquisitor, Ryad & Vessery in the TIE Defenders, or lower PS Black Squadron TIEs, Contracted Scouts, Lothal Rebels etc.  Whisper players should always being watching the metagame to judge the best opportunities for bringing the TIE Phantom to the table.

One of the most important elements of understanding how the metagame is developing is to learn how differentiate between metagame trends and individual results.  When squads/ships/upgrades begin to repeat their success in multiple tournaments, in multiple different configurations against a range of opponents... that's a trend, that's something that is likely to be part of the metagame.  One result for a squad here or there, well usually that's just random distribution doing its thing.  

From afar it's impossible to know whether any single result was down to pure luck, pure skill or a mixture of the two, but when you see the same squad or idea succeed at the hands of multiple people in multiple places then it's likely to be an important factor, and it's time to sit up and take notice of either a new threat in the metagame, or perhaps a new solution to a problem you've been facing

Does 'The Metagame' Actually Exist?

If you're browsing around X-Wing forums and blogs then you're going to read about 'The Metagame' a lot, in fact I've used that term myself a few times within this very blog.  I literally just showed you a picture of what 'The Metagame' had been during 2016 and how it had changed through the year.

The trouble is: 'The Metagame' doesn't really exist.

I would liken talking about 'The Metagame' to be akin to talking about 'The Weather'.  

Is the weather the same here in the UK as it is in the USA?  No, of course not.  And you wouldn't expect people to get into arguments about the weather in the way they often do about the metagame because everyone understands that just because the guy in Arkansas can say "man, it's too hot today" and the guy in London can reply "what are you talking about, it's cold and raining!" it doesn't mean that either guy is wrong or lying to the other. 

Just as the weather may be different in one part of the world to the other so the X-Wing metagame may be different.  In X-Wing exactly that argument about the metagame is happening on forums all the time, though, with players debating what 'the metagame' is without taking into account that what they're seeing locally isn't necessarily what other people are seeing.

'The Metagame' doesn't exist but 'My/Your/Their Metagame' does.  

There are big overarching events in X-Wing that affect 'The Metagame' for everyone across the world, such as the release of a new wave of ships & upgrades, but the amount that it affects everyone and the exact impacts will likely be different. Returning to the weather analogy that's akin to, say, Summer turning to Winter.  

The fact that it's now summer means that everywhere can expect to be warmer than during winter, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to be warmer everywhere, or warmer all the time.

 Experiences will vary.

And that's exactly how it is in X-Wing as well: the metagame varies.  The release of Imperial Veterans may give TIE Defenders a big boost everywhere in the world but just how much those ships start to appear against you personally in games at your local store... that's going to vary by where you play and who you play with, at least to some extent.  
  • It's going to be affected by whether your local playgroup has a lot of Imperial players or everyone is staying loyal to another faction.
  • It's going to be affected by how seriously people are trying to win and chase the newest thing or whether they're happy to keep it casual.
  • It's going to be affected by whether you tend to be playing at the top end of tournaments against other players who are plugged into the global metagame, or are usually scrapping it out in the middle of the field against players just running lists of their own creation.
  • It's going to be affected by how much they're reading online about what is happening in other local metagames.
  • It's going to be affected by how much time they've had to practice with the new ships or if they want to stick to what they know.

And beyond what you're actually seeing on the table the relative power level of a particular type of ship, like TIE Bombers and Defenders, may be affected by whether the better players in your local area have adopted them or not.  Do TIE Defenders beat Super Dash?  Maybe when the better play used the Defenders they do win, but maybe not if a good Dash player is flying the YT-2400.  Your view on that discussion might well be warped by how good the players are with their squads, unless you happen to be in a metagame where both players are equal in skill and you can play the matchup enough times to really get to a firm conclusion.

When you hear people talk about 'The Metagame' (including me), then, what they/we really mean is either:
a) what they have seen being played at recent tournaments they've been to.
b) what they have seen online has been played in tournaments around the world
c) a bit of a) and a bit of b)
It's highly likely that none of these three options is going to look exactly like what your local metagame is going to look like.  This means that 'The Metagame' that people like to talk about  - what the popular squads are, what beats what, what upgrades/pilots you need to play - well in truth it varies from place to place and it varies from week to week.  The internet is a rich source of information for the X-Wing player trying to keep on top of the latest trends and we can draw all the information we like about what is happening elsewhere in the world but unless we filter it through the lens of our own understanding of what players local to us are likely to be doing then it could mislead us just as readily as it could help us to prepare.

The X-Wing Metagame And You

So far in this blog I've explained what the metagame means, demonstrated how it affects X-Wing, then told you that it doesn't exist.  Confused yet?

Well it's going to get worse, because I can't provide you with the answer for how much attention you should pay to all the drama and turmoil of discussions about 'The Metagame' because I'm not you.  I don't live where you live, I don't play where you play, and I don't play against the people you play against.

In some game systems, particularly those with comprehensive organised play structures and online platforms, those local metagames will tend to be more cohesive because the geographic separation of players is not much of an issue.  The online gameplay, or regular high level tournaments, serves to bring local metagames into frequent contact with one another and through that contact they will quickly discover which local groups have developed the stronger strategies.

Magic: The Gathering, for instance, has a very well established online version that sees players crunch thousands upon thousands of games every single day, and huge pro-level organised play that brings players together across continents every few weeks for Pro Tours and Grand Prix.  This means that the strongest Magic strategies will become obvious through their success, then they have well established channels to mean they become rapidly copied and spread around the world.  Most local Magic scenes will have somebody (often many people) plugged into that global metagame, and moreover those players are likely to be actively trying to progress through the regional and national tournament scenes that bring all those likeminded players together.  This all means that the global metagame for Magic can duplicate down, at least to the regional level of Magic, almost instantly and that it's actually highly likely that it WILL duplicate down because Magic players are always desperately searching for a competitive edge.

In X-Wing, though, with the likes of Vassal or Tabletop Simulator played far less rigorously and World Championships the only globe-spanning event, most players live within a relatively remote island metagame.  Their metagame is something local to their city, their store, maybe even local just to their kitchen table!  In X-Wing what is happening on a global scale is much less important than what is happening locally, at least relative to games like Magic: The Gathering.  The designs and ideas from those big tournaments will trickle down into local metagames but they'll do so unpredictably, affecting one area more than another or in different ways.

Unlike the Magic: The Gathering metagame, which is relatively cohesive, the X-Wing metagame is a lot more like scattered islands that are all evolving in unique and unusual ways to deal with the problems they are facing locally.  Try and work out just how much that is going to apply to your own local area and local metagame.  If you've been playing against the same things that players have adapted to beat in 'The Metagame' then you probably care about what they've come up with, but if nobody close to you in playing Dengaroo then do you really care that somebody else has found the perfect way to beat it?  To revisit the weather analogy - it's worth knowing that summer has become so hot that people are having to wear sunblock when they go out, but if a peek out of the window shows it's raining near you then you'd look pretty silly if you went out covered in SPF 50.

Whether you local metagame closely mirrors what is happening in 'The Metagame' or not you have to accept it as the reality you're playing in.  The next thing you need to is decide: are you going to treat your local metagame as an enemy, or an ally?

Making the metagame your ally doesn't necessarily mean getting in line with what everyone else is playing and doing the same thing, it could just mean turning the information that the metagame is giving you to your own advantage.  If you know your local metagame, and how changes in the wider metagame will affect it, then you have a pretty good idea about the ships and squads you're going to play against.  When a major change in your metagame is afoot and you're struggling with it, as many people are with the recent rise of TIE Defenders using the /x7 title, then you've really got three options to how you respond:
  • Adopt - if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  Follow the trail to glory.
  • Innovate - use metagame info of what you have to beat to exploit a critical weakness
  • Protest - carry on losing to them, but kick up a fuss about how unhappy you are about it
If you choose to protest then you're making an enemy of your local metagame, while either of the other two responses are making the metagame your ally - whichever you choose you're using metagame information to try and win more games.  In a game like X-Wing which is constantly evolving with new releases the metagame is going to be constantly changing.  You need to be responsive to those changes (it's no point stubbornly refusing to wear sunblock in a heatwave), or at the very least be patient throughout the times when the metagame isn't in the right place for the ships you like to fly (if you don't have any sunblock maybe it's time to give up on those long walks you love).  

If you choose to see the metagame as an obstacle to be broken down rather than a tool to be used, though, you are likely to find yourself with a bruised head from continually running into it.  The metagame is not one person making rules, it's the combined wisdom of everyone at that level - in the world, in your country, in your region, in your store.  You can rail against your local metagame if you like, but if it could be turned to your advantage then the metagame would become a powerful ally.  

A powerful ally indeed.


  1. A very well written analysis of the X-Wing metagame (and metagames in general)!

  2. Adopt, Innovate or Protest. Very well broken down. I love seeing concepts broken down in a way that cannot be reduced or added to without being redundant. Thinking about it, i would add one more to the list : "Ignore". Sometimes focusing on what everyone else is doing can make it impossible to think clearly and discover new and innovative designs.

    1. You cannot "ignore" if you want to be a part if competitive scene :)

  3. Tell that to 'Worlds #4' Jack Mooney!

    1. We got proverb in Poland "Sometimes exception proves the rule" ;) That's the case: skilled, seasoned player flying his beloved squad got a golden gift form FFG 2 weeks before worlds (FAQ that killed Jumpmasters). In that case he hasn't adopted to the Meta, but Meta has adopted rapidly to him :)