Define This: Metagame and Tiers
In the current set of chapters on Define This, we are going into more specific notions of the vocabulary. While some words are easy to define, some have a sturdy theoretical background, or are simply not easy to describe as such. After going through CA, Tempo and tiebreakers, let's work on a lighter notion: the Metagame.
Some of you might remember that in my last article, I mentioned that Metagame was a tough notion to cover because it is actually really easy to define. If a mere definition is what you seek, then you can probably stop around the first half of this piece, but I will try to develop a bit of metagaming theory after that. Stay tuned if you're interested!
Metagame and Tiers
You might have heard this word come up a lot around you. Metagame, aka Meta or The Meta, actually has a very simple definition that goes well beyond Magic: The Gathering. It is taken from game theory, a branch of mathematics about decision making. A metagame can be defined as followed:
For a given game (in our case, an MTG format, such as Standard or Commander), the metagame is the whole of the existing strategies for this game.
It's about as simple as that, but if you're interested in the details, a strategy is a series of legal actions available to a player within a game up until the game ends.
So, the real question becomes: what is a strategy in Magic? The stricto sensu answer is tricky, but let's focus on our MTG metagame. The MTG metagame is the list of the possible decks that are legal in a given format.
And yes, in case you are wondering, this does include "60 Islands" in any 60-cards format. Clearly this card is busted and should be banned in more than a few formats. Seriously though, the metagame technically defines all the legal combinations of legal cards within a format, so it is not very useful as such. Which brings me to Tiers.
When trying to take into account every possible combination of cards to make a deck in a given format, you might feel your head spinning. After all, for many formats, there is no maximum number of cards you can have in a deck, making it simply amount to an infinite number. What this means is quite simple: don't bother.
What you might be interested in knowing, however, is which strategies are the most popular. This is what most people actually mean when speaking of metagame: given that it is pointless to stick to the literal definition of the metagame, everyone directly focuses on the field of popular strategies. This is what "metagame" actually means, and this is where "Tiers" become relevant.
A deck's tier is classified by the deck's competitiveness and presence at a given time. Tier 1 includes the most important decks at any given moment, and then the competitiveness/popularity decreases as you move down in tiers. You might hear "Tier 1.5," which is made up of decks that are borderline between tier 1 and 2, and sometimes, you might hear funny things like tier 4 or tier 1000, which is used to describe non-competitive decks played in a competitive environment.
The border between Tiers, much like Tempo, has never been treated in a serious or objective way. In my early years of playing the game, I defined tier 1 as the archetypes that, added up, comprised of 50% of the total played decks. Tier 2 decks were the following decks in terms of representation and were usually the niche decks that could thrive if paired against specific top tier decks they could beat but could just as well fail to deliver if paired against other archetypes of the format. Tier 3 meant that the deck was currently irrelevant, even though that might change some day.
I now consider tier 1 to be the most popular archetypes up until I can spot an important shift in representation. For instance, if an archetype represents 8% of all the decks that are being played and the following archetype in terms of popularity represents a mere 5%, I would consider this an important shift and I would consider the second archetype the start of Tier 2.
For instance, in Modern, according to this data, I believe that there is currently only one Tier 1 deck, and that is Izzet Phoenix. The following decks all seem to be competitive enough to be classified as Tier 2.
Please note that this is a very personal way of evaluating tiers, and by no means am I expecting any of you to divide tiers the same way I do.
Side Note: You might have heard of Tiers while playing on MTG Arena, as you are climbing Tiers when climbing the ranked ladder.
Of course, knowing all that doesn't say much about what use people make of it. So, let's dig into the why people are so interested in the metagame.
It is a given that some strategies are more competitive than others. Your 60 Islands deck might look cool but you're probably not going to win anything with it (please don't try this at home). But strategies can match-up weirdly with one another. But before we jump in the very messy situation that is MTG, let's consider a simpler game: the famous Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock game described in the following picture:
Quite understandably, this game's metagame is comprised of five strategies: Rock, Papers, Scissors, Lizard and Spock. I am sure you all get the gist : Lizard beats Spock, Spock beats Scissors, Scissors beat Paper, etc…
Now imagine yourself participating in a 2000 players competition of this game (which I shall therefore brand RPSLS on the grounds that I want to). You chose one strategy for the entire tournament, and then are paired with other competitors one round at a time. On the first round, you might just go at it randomly, but you would increase your odds of winning if you knew what you opponent was going to play. Even if you cannot know that for sure, you would like to know what your opponent is more likely to play. If all five strategies are equally played among the 2000 participants, then you don't really have any better option than going at it randomly.
If, however, you know that during the last event, some strategies were more played than others, you might want to think about what to play yourself. Let's imagine that, for some reason, Spock was played by 30% of the players on the last tournament (Star Trek fans I assume). If the same thing was to occur on this event, then you would want to beat Spock with your strategy, as focusing on beating Spock would be better than choosing a random strategy. It is just a simple calculation: if you beat Spock, you can expect a 30% win rate at least (Spock being 30% of the metagame), whereas choosing a random strategy will give you a 20% win rate (according to some easy calculations).
You would then be encouraged to play Lizard or Paper rather than a random strategy, at the very least for this event. But it is not that simple, because in a room filled with 2000 people, you might not be the only one to have thought about playing Lizard or Paper. Spock will become less popular and Lizard and Paper will become more popular. So perhaps you should focus on beating those two strategies rather than beating Spock, aka play Scissors maybe? But what if people also have thought about that and start playing Rock to counter the Scissors players?
I am sure you realize that this reasoning can go infinite, and at some point you will have to make a decision. What is important to notice is that the knowledge of the metagame will give you tools to improve your strategy choice. This is exactly why people tend to examine the MTG metagames in preparation for events.
Magic is, (un)fortunately, far more complex of a game than RPSLS. Things are not as simple as "deck A beats deck B". Several factors also come into play: player skill, knowledge of the opponent's deck, variance, etc. Some match-ups are indeed unbalanced and can (should) affect your deck decision, but it's not going to suffice if you're looking to win a MagicFest event. People tend to overstate the importance of metagaming (aka the action of choosing your deck according to popularity data), and while it is an interesting edge to have, do not neglect the other aspects of the game.
So that's that. I really hope that this article has been of some help to you and that you now understand better how formats evolve.
As usual, I can only offer encouragement that you suggest vocabulary questions to explore next. No question is sillier than not asking it and then later saying something stupid. So please, ask away, comment, ask on Twitter, and feel free to let me know where (if) I was wrong! I still have not quite settled on what I'll go through next time, but we'll figure it out. You also can help me out by asking for new notions to dig into
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