Theory: Drawbacks of Rotating Metagames

A rotating metagame—the situation where every pre-game choice a player might make can be countered by another pre-game choice, so that none of the choices become dominant—is a commonly-cited tool for balancing games with lots of moving parts. However, it is not a panacea. Implementing a rotating metagame creates some new problems, and puts certain pressures on the game’s overall design.

“Rotating metagame” is a term of art, and like all terms of art it might sound opaque. However, it’s simple enough in practice. Think of Magic: the Gathering, with its many cards and decks. Each card has a counter, something that destroys it or negates its effectiveness, and through these individual counters whole decks can be countered. If one card or deck starts to become prominent in the competitive scene, people will play the relevant counters and that card or deck will be taken down a few notches. Then as the counter becomes strong people will start to counter it, and so on and so forth. Through this process tournament play begins to look like a wheel: cards and decks move to the top and then get pushed to the bottom, at which point their counters lose popularity and they start to rise again. Hence, the strategic situation rotates.

A rotating metagame creates game balance in the sense that there is no dominant, unbeatable strategy. However, it is not necessarily desirable for every game, or even for many games. The technique has serious limitations.

First, a rotating metagame offers a good environment, not good individual games. In a rotating metagame one accepts that blowouts can occur when someone is caught on the wrong side of the rotation. When viewed as a whole and over time the tournament scene will look healthy, but the zoomed-in experience of the individual player might be very poor.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that bad games will be concentrated among new and casual players. Players with little experience or who are less informed about the game are the most likely to be rolled over by rotation’s wheel, because they often will not realize that they need to learn about the current state of the metagame. Deeply committed competitive players, by contrast, will know exactly what they should be playing.

Unfortunately, this distribution puts unfun games in exactly the wrong place. Casual players might quit after an unfun game or two, and new players are especially likely to pass on a game after a single bad experience. These are the groups who should be getting protection from blowouts, but a rotating metagame instead makes them grist for the mill.

A further challenge for rotating metagames is that everything hinges on the ability to rotate. Rotating metagames work when they are in a state of dynamic imbalance; something is always on top, but that something changes frequently. If the changes stop, all that’s left is a game with a dominant strategy.

Ensuring that the wheel of the metagame keeps rotating, then, becomes extremely important—and that imposes several design requirements. First, the resources for rotation must always be available. No strategy can be without its counter, and those counters must appear in a reasonable percentage of players’ toolboxes so that they can do their work.

An interesting example of what happens when this isn’t the case can be found in the NBA. Without getting into the minutiae of basketball’s rules for defensive play, it used to be the case that defenders had to set themselves up against specific offensive players and follow them around the court, rather than staying in “zones” and defending against anyone who came near. As a result, the game began to trend toward a dominant offensive strategy of passing the ball to a single unstoppable player—the gigantic Shaquille O’Neal, the too-quick Allen Iverson, or someone else with an enormous physical advantage—and then having all the other offensive players just get out of the way. Defenders were required to follow the irrelevant players to irrelevant places, and then the hard-to-stop player would beat the lone defender permitted to be anywhere near him and score. Since the resources required to stop the unstoppable player weren’t available—there just aren’t many people Shaquille O’Neal’s size—the game could not rotate away from this lone wolf approach, and basketball strategy began to stagnate. Ultimately the league had to change the rules to allow zone defenses in order to break the deadlock.

Additionally, rotating metagames only work when the barriers to change are relatively low. Shifts in Magic’s metagame are painless because those who are keeping up with tournament play probably have all the cards they need for the change and emotional investment in any given deck is relatively low. By contrast, a game where changing strategies means a massive new investment (e.g., miniatures games where starting a new army involves a great deal of money and time spent at the modeling table) can’t rely on players keeping up with a changing strategic environment. Similarly, games where players have reasons to stick a single deck/army/team through thick and thin will find that the metagame doesn’t rotate. Fans of the Philadelphia Eagles who want to see the Dallas Cowboys defeated can’t transfer their loyalty to another team with a better chance of taking the Cowboys down.

Thus, implementing a rotating metagame means designing and marketing in ways that keep those barriers low. Important counter-cards can’t be at too high a rarity in Magic, even if limited play would benefit thereby, because they have to be broadly available. Team loyalty can’t be too big a part of how the game is sold, lest it stop players from shifting gears when they necessary. Every aspect of the game has to be looked at with an eye toward, not just how it impacts strategy, but whether it could have an ossifying effect on players looking to change strategies.

Finally, rotating metagames are a major design challenge. It isn’t easy to maintain a web of counters and counters-to-counters, all good enough to dethrone a dominant strategy but not so good as to make the countered strategy unplayable. Fine judgment about how strong each strategy is going to be and how effective to make the related counters is vital. Attaining that judgment requires enormous amounts of quality playtest data, which is not always easy to come by.

Given all of these weaknesses, when is a rotating metagame appropriate? The short answer is “when there are too many things happening to balance all of them at once.” Magic has a functionally infinite number of possible decks giving rise to a tremendous wealth of strategies; it’s impossible to arrange for each to have an even game against all of the others, so the rotating metagame serves as a safety valve that gives as many of them as possible a chance to shine. The many benefits Magic gains from its diversity of options outweigh the drawbacks of the rotating metagame they necessitate.

In the end, a rotating metagame is a tool. Like all tools, it places certain demands on its user and can be harmful if employed thoughtlessly or in the wrong situation. Don’t just assume that it’s right for other games because it’s been used successfully in the past; instead, think critically about what it will accomplish, what it will cost, and whether the former is worth the latter.

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