(Metagame Archive) Design Vs. Development: I Never Metagame I Didn’t Like

By Danny Mandel

Who’s the best X-Men 1-drop?
Is Onslaught too slow?
Are the Skrulls playable?
What beats the The New Brotherhood deck?

These are the kinds of topic headings you’ll see if you cruise down the forums at the various fan sites. I love questions like these because they make for great debates.

The best X-Men 1-drop? Longshot‘s the most aggressive, but Moira keeps your team healthy. Forge fetches The Blackbird, but Dazzler can tie up your opponent. And man, Shadowcat‘s really pretty. I guess it all depends on what you want for your deck.

Onslaught too slow? Not in the Doom mirror match.

The Skrulls playable? Depends on what deck you’re playing against. I’m pretty sure they dominate the 60 Sentinel Mk I matchup.

And what beats The New Brotherhood? Shhh, that’s a secret.

The reason these questions make for great debates is that they’re all contingent on the Vs. metagame. Yeah, the metagame. You know, as in “metagame.com”? There’s a lot of talk about the metagame these days—which decks beat which, what are the staple cards, which characters are overrated or underrated—these are all metagame questions. But what exactly is the metagame?

In very loose terms one could define the metagame as “the game outside the game.” Metagaming could be defined as “using information external to the game to make a decision within or about the game.”

Roleplaying gamers consider it metagaming if a player uses knowledge of the RPG’s game engine to influence his or her character’s actions, even if it means acting out of character. Predictably, this practice is often frowned upon, but there are different types of metagaming. In a TCG like Marvel, metagaming is not only par for the course, it’s an invaluable tool. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The metagame is an integral part of the Vs. System experience. The next few articles in this column will take a look at what makes a metagame, how design and development affect a metagame, and, more importantly, how a metagame affects design and development. Today’s article is mainly an introduction to the metagame (which may or may not have a little contest at the end).

Save the Environment

In the Vs. System, the “environment” is the set of available cards from which a player can build decks as well as the potential decks that can be built therein. Right now, the Vs. environment consists exclusively of Marvel Origins‘s 220 cards. When DC Origins comes out, the Vs. environment will grow to 385 cards. However, some players may just want to play pure DC. For them, the DC environment will just contain its Origins set. Some players may want to play pure Marvel, which means just the current card pool on its own. (That is, until the Spider-Man set hits the shelves.) Some players might want to mix Marvel and DC, but only play with or against team-pure decks. What if some players only want to play with or against decks made up of mutants? Or only Army characters? Or only cards that start with the letter “N”? The point is that there are many possible environments, some official and some home-brewed, and each and every one of them has its own metagame. (Next week, I’ll discuss how design and development shape an environment. For simplicity’s sake, for the remainder of this article when I refer to the metagame, I’m referencing the standard Vs. Constructed environment.)


TCGs differ from more standard games in that players don’t start off a match on equal footing. In a game of chess or checkers, one player is probably more skilled than the other, but both players start with the exact same pieces. It’s a rare thing when two Vs. decks facing off are a perfectly even match. But that’s the real charm, isn’t it? Unlike chess, you don’t start with the same pieces. Whether you’re a mad scientist putting together weird and wacky combinations of cards or you’re a cutthroat tourney hound whipping up the most efficient killing machine you can, you get to bring your own deck. For better or worse, your deck is your own. Which brings me to the next point.

Decks are not good or bad in a vacuum.

A deck is only good or bad when compared to another deck. And even then it might just be good or bad in that particular matchup. Maybe the X-Men stall deck crushes Sentinel rush, but gets destroyed by Doom control, which in turn can’t hold back the Fantastic Four beatdown deck. Maybe X-Men weenie versus FF equipment is an even contest that comes down to pure play skill. It’s matchup comparisons like these that comprise the metagame.

Sort of.

In reality, there is no universal metagame. The metagame isn’t which deck beats which, or what cards belong in a particular archetype. The metagame is more relative than that. It is simply which decks are getting played a lot in the environment. It doesn’t matter what the “best” deck is if no one’s playing it. Let’s say there’s this amazing 30 Skrull deck that can win any matchup like clockwork on turn 4. (Don’t worry, there isn’t one. At least, I don’t think there is.) If no one’s playing the Skrull deck, then it’s not part of the metagame. It doesn’t matter how good it might be, if no one gives it a try.

Conversely, the most popular deck in the environment might actually be horrible against almost any other deck, but if enough people are running it, then it will dominate the metagame. The silly stuff is when the “bad deck” starts winning tournaments based solely on the sheer volume of participants playing it. Hey, even the worst deck imaginable wins the mirror match 50 percent of the time. And if the deck starts winning tournaments, it will get even more press, which will lead to still more players trying it out. Then, of course, savvy players will start tuning their decks to perform better against this (horrible) tournament-winning deck. This is called metagaming.

Survey Says . . .

In a lot of ways, metagaming is like playing Family Feud. On that game show, it doesn’t matter what you think the answer is. All that matters is what you think other people think the answer is. For example, you might know in your heart of hearts that Sentinel rush is the best deck in the format, but if all the players at your local store are running X-Men weenie decks, perhaps you should run a deck that has a full complement of Flame Traps. (Grumble grumble Stupid Matt Hyra grumble grumble . . .)

There are a couple of basic ways to metagame. First, you can choose the deck in the metagame that performs the best against the other decks in the metagame. Think of it as an extended game of rock-paper-scissors, except that rock only beats scissors 80 percent of the time, but only loses to paper 60 percent of the time. Pick the deck you believe has the best win percentage and run it.

Another, more creative way to go is to come up with a new design that’s not yet in the metagame, but happens to perform well against the popular decks. Maybe each of the three decks getting all the press has a significant weakness. Perhaps you can build a deck specifically designed to exploit those weaknesses. The deck might be terrible against everything else, but against the three big decks, it’s a monster. Of course, if your deck does well, it will become a known quantity, and you can expect other people to be playing it at the next tourney.

A Word from the Fun Police

Let me take a moment to be clear on something. In general, metagaming is a useful tool you can use to improve your chances to win whether you’re playing in a Constructed tournament or five-way grand melee. But you do not have to metagame. I said before that a deck is not good or bad in a vacuum, that it’s only good or bad when compared to another deck. But this does not mean you can’t build your deck in a vacuum. If there’s something awesome you want to put together, who cares how well it performs in a given matchup? The whole point is to have fun—just shuffle up and play.


Local metagames can be vastly different from each other. Maybe players in your area prefer the Fantastic Four, while the players near me favor the X-Men. (Actually, the guys at UDE seem to be on more of a Batman kick these days.) The fun really starts when you show up at a convention tournament or attend one of the stops on the Pro Circuit. It’s at the big events that huge changes happen in the metagame. For example, right now The New Brotherhood decks seem very popular, with Sabretooths and Savage Beatdowns going for a lot of money.

There’s a good chance the first big money tournaments will have lots of Savage Lands and The New Brotherhoods, but I’ll bet that many clever players will have counted on that, and consequently will have built and tuned their decks accordingly. Then, after a few archetypes or builds show up that perform well against the ‘Hood, the metagame will shift.

The information gathered at major events or from tournament reports through a qualifying season (and proliferated by the Internet) creates an overarching or macro-metagame. Suddenly, everyone knows what beats what. But remember, the macro-metagame is only relevant in so much as it affects your local metagame. Who cares if the Internet community thinks the OnslaughtFrankie Raye deck is horrible? As long as your local games average ten turns, you’ll do just fine with it.


Part of the fun of metagaming is that deck preferences and deck content are constantly shifting. You might find that a certain deck can turn an unwinnable matchup into a favorable one by swapping out a few cards. My X-Men discard deck pretty much got run over by the faster Brotherhood decks every time until I added four Gambits to the mix. Now it only gets run over almost every time.

Sometimes micro-metagames spring up centered on a few specific card interactions. For a stall deck, Burn Rubber makes an excellent weapon against the hard-hitting rush decks. But if all the stall decks start playing Burn Rubber, the rush decks will probably start running Blind Sided. But if the rush decks are all running Blind Sided, the stall decks might stop running Burn Rubber. But if the stall decks stop running Burn Rubbers, the rush decks can stop running Blind Sided, and so on and so forth.

A Metagame Game

Okay, that’s all for today. But before I go, here’s a little contest. Send me your best Marvel stories that involve metagaming, and I’ll post some of them next week. And of course, the winners get no-prizes.

Send your stories, questions, and comments to dmandel@metagame.com, and come back next week for a closer look at how environments get created and one or two UDE secrets.


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