(Metagame Archive) The Casual Player & The Metagame

By Ben Kalman

The metagame is a fickle creature, but not a one-trick pony. It does not revolve solely around the Pro Circuit or the competitive player. There exists a casual metagame, and it is just as important to a TCG as the competitive one. Don’t forget that a good game is designed and developed with both the casual and competitive player in mind. It will include cards that are geared for multiplayer and alternate formats, as well as cards designed for play in fun decks rather than top-tier Pro Circuit decks. Casual metagames exists in every region, city, store, and gaming group that features TCGs.

The popularity of certain decks inevitably leads to counter-strategies, which in turn create a tug-of-war between specific cards and deck types. This affects the metagame, as it creates a pattern of deck construction and card inclusion/exclusion. Sentinel decks, for example, might become less popular if everyone starts playing four copies of Flame Trap. Then, with the eventual fall of Sentinel decks, the need for Flame Trap diminishes. This allows people to revert to Sentinels again, which consequently causes a need for Flame Trap . . . again. The same can happen to individual cards. This is how the metagame ebbs and flows.

The casual metagame is the primary influence on deck construction in casual circles. While the PCQ deck flavor-of-the-month may well have an effect on some casual groups (as many casual players/groups will copy the Top 8 decklists of the week), many simply ignore them in favor of their own deck ideas. This is because casual players are more open to experimentation than competitive players. Casual players are not generally concerned with their ratings, their performance, or their ability to win. While there will always be incredibly competitive casual players who must win every game and who treat games between friends as though $40,000 and a PC trophy are on the line, they are the exception and not the rule.

Which is not to say that there are no casual players who have aspirations towards the Pro Circuit, or who like to play in the Hobby League or LGS tournaments. But when such players participate in casual groups, they’re playing for fun. In fact, those players are the bridge between casual and competitive play, often responsible for bringing ideas back and forth between the two groups and molding the overall metagame into a mix of concepts from each circle.

Another way that casual and competitive metagames interact is through the monetary cost of cards. The competitive metagame affects pricing, driving up the cost of key cards like Savage Beatdown and Have a Blast! This in turn creates a trickle-down effect, forcing casual players to seek out cheaper alternatives. While it’s true that there are plenty of casual players who have the money to spend a hundred bucks on a Savage Beatdown play set, or who buy ten boxes to ensure that they get the four they need, the majority of casual players have neither the cash nor the desire to spend so much on pieces of cardboard when they can just as easily use ten-cent alternatives.

These players have two choices; they can pool their resources with other players and create a massive card pool that everyone can build from, or (and this is one of the most important aspects of the casual metagame) they can find cool combos with unlikely cards. Casual players often find uses for “unpopular” cards, and also frequently build decks around combos and ideas that are nearly impossible to get off . . . but demolish opponents when they work. I’ve played against a local Unlikely Allies discard deck that runs four copies of Overpowered and centers on absolute board control. This deck is extraordinarily hard to get going, but when it does work, opponents can do nothing. Note how I pluralized “opponents”—this deck functions best in multiplayer situations. When an entire table of players loses 20 cards from their decks in a single turn and can’t play anything in response because of Doom’s board control, it can really get ugly.

The Candy Corn Sentinel deck, built and played at Origins by my man Rian Fike, is another example of the casual metagame explosion. It allows people to draw their entire deck—a feat that had seemed previously impossible, given that you barely draw a third of your deck in the average game (even if you cycle through your cards with Longshot, Cerebro, and so on). Rian’s deck spurred a local fanaticism here as players tried to find ways to draw cards, and with DC Origins just released, Wayne Manor/GCPD decks became the popular flavor. Players would gain endurance each turn until Batman, The Dark Knight hit the board, and then draw their entire deck to pump Batman to extraordinary levels. Alfred every turn ensured that you could Fizzle your way out of trouble and Bat Signal for Batman if you needed him. If this deck had been fast enough, strong enough, and consistent enough for competitive play, it would have changed the face of that metagame.

The influence of the casual metagame extends beyond gameplay all the way into game design. The casual player is slightly more important to this game than the Pro player is, as casual players make up the grassroots support system that finances the game through faithful and loyal purchasing habits and spontaneous mall shopping. Keeping the casual player happy with the product is a very important—albeit very tricky—endeavor. To achieve this, the gents from UDE troll the boards, listen to feedback, monitor casual deck designs and combo ideas, and examine casual tech. This allows them to design sets with casual play in mind and work around cards that get tricky or combo-heavy (*cough* Longshot *cough*).

The design team aspires to reach the middle ground between Sealed Pack and Constructed, between powerful cards and intelligent cards, between casual and competitive circles. In the end, the casual metagame—not to mention the non-competitive players who influence it—has as deep and influential an impact on the game as the Pros do.

So, for the casual player: release any inhibitions you may have. Examine the metagame of your area, of your gaming circle, and of the casual playing community. Discard everything you know about this game—ignoring Top 8 decklists and ancient tech—and rewire the game itself! Remember that there’s a depth to the Vs. System that goes far beyond competitive play, and that there are attainable decks and combos that can dictate the way this game is played . . . at least in casual terms. You just have to experiment with your “research” in mind.

And remember, the most important part of this game, especially for the casual player, is to have fun! Never forget that

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