Going Deep – Metagaming

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Hello Friends! How’s everyone doing today? For today’s article I wanted to talk about topic of metagaming. What does this mean and how do you do it effectively? This is an important tool, which has been important in the ladder success I have had, and if you are not thinking hard about the metagame, you will fall behind those that do. In this article I will be talking about the “tricks” of leveling up your metagaming skills, but before we get into that…

What’s a Meta and How Do I Game It?

As I was writing this article, Ben Brode (Game Director for Hearthstone) made a post about balance in Hearthstone which I encourage you all to read. I feel it’s a great introduction to how game designers see balance and metagame health as a whole. No knowledge of Hearthstone is required to understand the post, and you will see some threads from that post that extend to Eternal (or other games). What I noticed was a couple of great quotes that apply to this article, the first is his definition of “the metagame”.

The Meta is short for the ‘metagame’. The game is what happens once you tap ‘Play’ and see the spinner. The metagame is what happens outside of the game. It’s what deck you choose to play. It’s what decks your opponents choose to play. Some people define ‘metagame’ as literally everything game-related, including chatting with friends about it, reading information about it online, or anticipating upcoming content. The Hearthstone community uses it more frequently as “all decks that everyone is using” and often more specifically as the “the top X decks”. If there are 7 decks that all see enough play that you see them again and again while you play, you might say those decks are ‘the meta’. If you’re playing a deck that people don’t see often, you are playing ‘off meta’. If you build a deck specifically to beat the most popular deck then you are playing to counter the meta. It doesn’t matter if a deck is good or bad, what affects the meta most is how frequently any one deck appears. It’s important to note that bad decks can be part of ‘the meta’, and good decks might not be widely spread enough yet to have become part of ‘the meta’. – Ben Brode


So when I refer to “metagaming”, I am referring to the out-of-game decisions you make related to deck selection and construction. Anything you do that takes your knowledge of the metagame and applies it to try and get ahead inside the game is part of the metagaming. My card game background is mostly Magic: The Gathering and many people discuss metagaming there, but I think it take on a much different flavor in something like Eternal. In Magic you lock in your deck at the beginning of a tournament, and you are either right or wrong in your choice all day long. You can’t take the knowledge from the first few rounds of a tournament and then change out 5-10 cards in or deck or reconfigure your sideboard based on what you see. Since Eternal allows you to change your entire deck between games this allows you to adjust to the metagame on the fly, and adjust to what you are seeing in real time.

Metagaming isn’t a Substitute for Technical Play

I see a lot of people chasing the hot new technology, or always looking for the next “it” deck. People sometimes think that being the first to find a good deck is all that matters, and that this will be the major reason for their success on ladder. Technical gameplay is way more important than any edge gained by metagaming. I say this because I have encountered people who say deck X is bad because they cannot do well with it, even though other players have had lots of success with that deck. There are others that will say things like: “your collection size is all that matters for doing well on ladder and if you don’t have access to all the best legends you will fall behind”. I don’t feel either sentiment is true. A strong player could dial up a generic version of a budget Rakano deck and hit Master in a week. This article will be focusing on the edge that you get from selecting better decks and improving your tuning ability. It is fairly easy to take this to mean metagaming and collection building all that matters, but if you are playing poorly the best deck in the game will not save you. I will likely cover deeper concepts regarding technical play in a future article.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about tips for metagaming!

1. Read Articles/Tier List

The first step in metagaming is understanding the big picture of the meta environment. On the large scale, it is important to follow the content that is being put out that helps shape the metagame. If you are reading this you have probably looked at RNG Eternal’s Tier List. Full disclosure: I help make the Tier List here on RNG Eternal, which biases me to think it is good. That being said, I truly do think it’s one of the most important resources in understanding the composition of the meta – even if I think that I may read the tier list differently than others.

Firstly, the tier list is not really a guide to “what to play” exactly. It is simply a snapshot of the decks that are most common and most powerful. One thing this implies is that the list is looking at the past. It could easily be outdated as quickly as a week after its release. There is no rule to say you need to play a tier 1 or 2 deck. Sometimes the tier 3 (or lower) decks are well positioned given the metagame. Occasionally an unexplored archetype comes out of nowhere and quickly rises to the top of the standings. Balance changes also have a massive impact on the positioning of various decks, but it takes time for those to be manifested in the Tier List. It is also useful to note that people looking at the tier list as a cheat sheet for cracking the metagame will often be disappointed. It is very rare that a busted deck coming from total obscurity is able to take over. If that were the case it would need to already be popular to make it on the List. Also, if it is at the top of the Tier List, you can bet that the meta is already adjusting to answer this new deck.

I tend to use the Tier List as a guide to what other people are going to be playing. Obviously Rakano is always going to be a popular deck, but whether I should expect more Stonescar, Shimmerpack or Combrei is totally unknown. The Tier List gives me some hints as to what will be popular. If I am unsure which deck to play I will err towards whatever has the best match ups versus the top decks.

This is also closely tied to following articles and posts in Discord. If a deck is suddenly gaining a lot of interest, particularly if it is an outlandish brew, it is important to know the contents of that deck. You need to know what you’re up against if you start running into some weirdo void synergy or fringe Argenport midrange deck. Keeping up with articles allows you to know what makes up these decks so you can effectively play against them.

2. Open Metagames Reward Being Proactive

Every card game should have a mix of strategies that are able to be successful, but there are some realities of deck building that are specifically punishing to control when a format is first known. Right now we are expecting a new content release some time in the near future. This will drop some number of new cards in the meta, which will probably shake up the environment, boost some existing strategies as well as enable entirely new decks. The chaos that happens at such a time is very exciting, especially for deck builders. Some people like to use this time to mess around with new cards and try to figure out how strong they are, but you want to be proactive if you are looking to win in the short term. Being proactive usually implies being aggressive, but there are some minor differences. Aggressive decks are certainly proactive, but certain midrange decks qualify as well. A good example of this is Shimmerpack. It is certainly not aggressive, but it has a clear gameplan it is looking to execute. If you are allowed to “do your thing” you will kill your opponent pretty quickly. Being proactive in a fresh format rewards you in two ways. First, the decks others are playing are less tuned than usual. They may have a bad power base or a clunky curve, and you get to punish them for that. The other advantage is that control decks will be largely ineffective. Control decks rely on being able to hone their removal suite to answer the needs of the metagame. If they need to answer every variety of wacky deck people can think of, they will be in a tough spot. You can take advantage of all of this by beating face and waiting for the meta to develop before exploring reactive strategies.

3. Deck Rotation

Metagames get established, but they are never really set in stone. In high-level master I feel like there is a constant ebb and flow to the decks that are most popular. This means you need to be able to react to these changes to stay ahead of the curve! Some people have been successful sticking with one deck that they tune to meet the needs of the decks they are facing at a given time, but from what I have seen this approach is less and less successful. Personally, I rotate between about half a dozen decks until I find something that works well for climbing. My go-to decks right now are Felnscar Control, Rakano, and Armory, but I will often mix in some Stonescar or Combrei variants if that is what the meta calls for at that given moment. If I am struggling to climb with one deck I switch to another and will continue this until I find something that works. This process isn’t random of course: I look at the decks that I am playing against a lot and I try to find a deck that beats up on those. Obviously this concept isn’t rocket science, but I think many players stick to one deck longer than they should. It is not uncommon for me to cycle between 3-4 different decks in a session, and I will try out even more if I am struggling to find something I can be successful with. You can also notice “micro shifts” in the meta, where you happen to be playing repeatedly against several people on a given deck at a given moment. Eventually one of them logs off and another switches, so now the meta you are experiencing is totally different! I notice changes in the Master meta almost every hour. The process of switching decks isn’t always a product of pure logic though. Sometimes you just need to jam random decklists until you find something you like. My least rewarding sessions of laddering are those where I find myself trying to force a specific deck and am not able to have success. Although I can justify to myself that my deck choice is “supposed” to be good, I can often find a better deck if I put some effort into it.

4. Deck Tuning

An important skill to aid in metagaming is the ability to tune your decks. This means changing a few slots of your deck to tech against a given match up. I have nothing against net-decking, but if you don’t understand how to tune your deck to meet the meta you are going to fall behind. Almost every deck has at least 4-6 slots that can be changed with other cards to better address the metagame. If you correctly identify which “tech cards” to use in those slots you will be rewarded by shoring up a bad match up or solidifying a good one. There is too much going on here to drop a simple “sound bite” of how to tune your decks, but there are a few principles I can mention. The first is selecting cards that have applications in a range of match ups. If you are adding a card that is hyper focused on answering a specific type of threat, you might find yourself staring at a dead card in the match ups where the card is bad. One example I have discussed in other places before is Decay. Although I can (barely) buy the use of this card in a dedicated control deck, it is a dead card way too often for my taste. It is true that people sometimes cast it against me and win the game because of it, but I expect the number of games where it rots in my opponent’s hand without an adequate target is much higher. You should also try and remember that there is more than one way to answer a given problem. For example, if you are struggling against a deck like Rakano attachment removal is one answer, but you can also look at increasing the number of silence effects, bounce/removal effects, deadly units or health gain. You also need to try and focus on what about the deck is actually causing the most issues. Does your deck just lack ways to effectively handle units once they get past a certain size? Do you find that you fall too far behind by turn 3-4 that you can never catch up? Are you able to begin to establish control of a game, but have a tough time finishing it out? Is there a specific card you feel like you can never beat? All these situations require slightly different responses, and you need to figure out which it is before tuning your deck.

Once you carefully think about how to craft your deck for the particulars of the metagame, it is important to focus on how your tech cards actually function. I’ll give you an example: recently I have been working on an Armory list, and I felt like my late game didn’t have quite the punch that I wanted. I either felt that I some decks like Combrei overpowered me even into the late game, or that my late game did not come online soon enough against Rakano. I decided to switch my copy of Sword of the Sky King for a third copy of Smuggler’s Stash, and every game I drew a Stash I would ask myself: would I rather have a Sword of the Sky King here? Obviously this isn’t a totally fair question since I run three Stash and would only run one Sword of the Sky King, but it is an interesting question to ask. I found that I almost never wanted to draw Sword of the Sky King and that an early Stash would often still be enough to overpower an opponent. When performing this kind of exercise one needs to be careful not to be overly ambitious in applying this logic as different cards apply to different situations. If you are not careful you will only remember the situations where a given card was either really good or really bad. You need to be honest with yourself and pay attention!

I have also noticed that some people default to playing reactive cards as tech choices when they could be playing other things. For example, if you are playing a Feln-based control deck and find you are struggling against Flame Blast decks, you may be tempted to add Backlash as your tech choice. That may be correct, but what about adding more threats to your deck? By adding something like Champion of Cunning, you give your opponent less time to draw the Flame Blasts or Obliterates needed to finish the game once you have taken control. Sometimes the best answer is to just kill your opponent!

It should also be noted that you need to understand the difference between cards that are central to a deck versus the cards that can be cut. Many decks have a core that is obvious, but some of the filler that may seem optional is actually important to get the deck to function smoothly. When playing a deck like Combrei midrange you may not really notice much impact from cards like Temple Scribe, but if you cut them you will realize they may have been an important support card for the deck.

5. Abandoning a Match-Up

It is important to know what you are beat, and sometimes you are beat before a game even starts. I am talking about really bad match-ups – some match-ups in the game are truly heinous. The one that always comes to mind for me is a Feln-based control deck versus Armory. If the Feln deck is not running Azindel’s Gift the match up is basically unwinnable if Armory has a functional draw. Why don’t Feln players tech in some Sabotages or splash Fire for Ruin or Furnace Mage? Simply put: it’s just not worth it. If you wanted to build a Feln deck that had a reasonable match-up against Armory, 3 or 4 tech cards would not be good enough. Huge deck building sacrifices would need to be made, and even then the match-up might still not be very good. By this point you are sacrificing your match-ups against all sorts of other decks. This is a fairly common pitfall of novice deck builders. They will get frustrated by losing against Deck A so they totally reconfigure their deck only to find they are still weak to Deck A but are now also weak to Deck B! I think the logical fallacy people use to justify this might be that their deck is “supposed” to beat Deck B, and have just accepted this as a law of the universe. They forget that when they substitute cards to fix the match up against Deck A, the win rate versus B suffers.

When faced with this conflict you have basically two options. The first is to abandon that match up. In my personal version of Felnscar I expect to lose over 75% of my games versus Armory. This match up is not quite popular enough for this to be a deal breaker, but rather than trying to find some miracle to fix the match up I have chosen to hope to get lucky and avoid the deck. Obviously I couldn’t do this for something like Rakano or Champion of Chaos decks, as these are too popular. If there is one deck at Tier 2 or below that you cannot beat, you can justify it. That being said, your second option is to abandon the deck you are playing. Lets say I was working on a deck where it was relatively strong versus the field with the exception of Rakano. In that case, I don’t think it is accept abandoning the Rakano match up, as it is such a popular deck. It is best to play a deck that has inherent strengths against the expected meta and lean into those strengths, while hoping to get lucky and avoid bad match ups rather than playing a deck that is diluted to the point of being good against nothing.

6. Pay Attention

We have all gotten into a mode where we climb the ladder on autopilot. Play my 2-drop; torch your dude. Am I dead? Ok, next game. This is fairly natural but is not conducive to good play or good decisions. Obviously your technical play is compromised, but your metagaming ability is compromised too. Seven of your last ten opponents have been Rakano – maybe you should switch to an anti-Rakano deck? You have stalled on 3 power in over half your games, maybe you need to add some power to the deck? If you are not taking mental inventory of these things you can end up basically wasting your time by playing a sub-optimal deck. The best way to correct for this is to keep statistics. This will help you be more mindful about the match ups that you are playing, as well as processing how good or bad your match-ups actually are. I should probably spend some time explaining why keeping good stats is important as a tool for improvement, but just know that many of the most consistent ladder players keep detailed statistics. I encourage you to do the same.

7. Play a Lot

The final piece of advice I would pass along is to say you should just play a lot. Most of the people who are most consistently successful on ladder play a ton. It is obviously possible to do well without grinding constantly, but there is no substitute for actually playing the game. There are multiple reasons for this: obviously this helps your technical play to stay sharp, but it is also important for keeping on top of the meta. Have you played all of the major decks? How many match-ups do your really know from one or both sides? How many variants of Combrei, Rakano or Stonescar have you actually played? By putting in a lot of time on ladder you are able to have the depth of knowledge and experience to be successful! It isn’t exactly sexy to say hard work is what matters, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

OK EVERYONE! That is it for today! Anything I missed? Something you want to add? Something you disagreed with? Have any questions? Be sure to share your thoughts either in the comments or on Reddit! I do my best to address everything as I love being part of these discussions. Be sure to share your favorite tips for keeping one step ahead of the competition!

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