What Makes a Healthy Metagame?

A Brief Disclaimer

While I am a moderator on the Gladiator discord, my opinions are my own, and nothing I say in this article should be taken as an ex-cathedra pronouncement regarding how the format is managed, or the guiding principles behind things like the Gladiator ban list. If you have any issues with my analysis, feel free to comment on this article and I will respond, but please don’t direct message format staff at 3 AM about it.

What makes a healthy metagame?

In reality, it’s easy to answer the central question posed by this article. What makes a healthy metagame? Just like any organization or society, the answer is one word: Diversity. In Magic, that means deck diversity. Magic: The Gathering is a sprawling game, in the last 27 years it has spawned over 20,000 unique cards, and those cards have translated into diverse strategies that allow players an array of options to win a match against one or more opponents. From the pro-tour to the kitchen table the game carries the promise that “you can win with the cards you’ve bought.” While that statement is a gross simplification of how tournament magic unfolds, I’m going to use it in my definition of what makes the game both engaging, and in particular, fun.

Deck diversity is also a principle that the games designer, Dr. Richard Garfield, baked into the core of the game play experience. In a 2014 interview with Vice, he said:

In the early days, Magic often shifted in many ways we didn’t understand or expect. It was something that really excited me. It felt like the game was so complicated that there would be no way to predict it unless you intentionally broke the game by making super-powerful cards that would dominate the others. But the whole idea is to make it so that there’s a wide variety of playable decks. There’s just no way you can test everything, and so sometimes the game would move in ways the designers expected and sometimes it wouldn’t. One of the things I really like about games is that many times, once the designer has designed them, people take the ideas beyond where the designer anticipated.

A healthy, diverse metagame is one that allows for players to access a range of strategies using powerful cards to produce game breaking effects. This is the key strength of the games design, and what has let it continue to grow, and thrive, for nearly three decades. On the strength of this design decision, Wizards of the Coast, which started as a small Role-Playing Game company, and has grown into a behemoth of an organization encompassing a large portion of the tabletop gaming market and posting $816 million in revenue in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Powerful cards and diverse strategies draw in new players and generate the excitement that fuels this growth. Showing off these powerful cards and deck strategies has fueled the growth of online content creation, from casual gameplay like the most recent Loading Ready Run Pre-PreRelease, to in-depth pro level strategy guides like Paulo Vito Dama De Rosa’s analysis of the classic, “Who’s the Beatdown” concept.

Now that we’ve established what makes a healthy metagame, we can move on to what makes a metagame unhealthy. Based on the definition we established, the simplest answer is “cards that reduce the overall deck diversity of a format.” These cards fall into two broad categories, ones that make whole broad swath’s of deck archetypes unplayable, and cards that are auto-includes in every deck. Both these issues drive down deck diversity. Whether it’s a card like Oko, Thief of Crowns, which warps game play around it while hosing aggressive strategies to the point where decks have to stretch their mana-bases to play it because it is too strong, to colorless auto-includes like Smuggler’s Copter that begin showing up in 80-100% of all tournament decks regardless of deck archetype, these cards devastate overall deck diversity. In a sixty-card constructed format like Standard or Historic, this can mean that decks and matches start converging towards a central point, where every game starts to feel homogenized and, using the above example, revolves around “who resolved their Oko first.” Cards like this mean that the entire metagame is defined by them, either as a reaction to them, i.e. “does this card destroy or otherwise overcome the advantage Oko gives my opponent” or as the adoption of them i.e. “it is incorrect to not be playing Oko in the current metagame”

At this point in the article, we need to take a step back and talk about Archetypes. In analyzing Magic: The Gathering decks it is an established short-hand to define a deck based on its color identity, and an overall deck archetype that defines what its strategy is to win the game. There are a few established archetypes that each encompass hundreds of individual decks. These are Aggro, Midrange, Control, and Combo. In a diverse metagame, players should have the confidence to sleeve up decks in these archetypes because they are all viable.

Each of the archetypes has different strengths and weaknesses against the other archetypes and so the “meta-decision” of which deck to bring to a particular tournament, whether it is the Pro-Tour, a Friday Night Magic tournament at an LGS, or a league on the Gladiator discord is actually a component of game play. You deck decision is actually the first game choice you make, and is a factor in your victory. For example, aggro decks tend to beat up on combo decks because they present constant pressure on your opponent’s life total. While you spend the first few turns trying to set up your combo win, your opponent is continually decreasing your life total, presenting you with a clock. Control decks can beat aggro by slowing down that clock, stopping it, and then having the clock start moving in the other direction. Midrange decks have a good game against control and aggro because of their ability to pivot between more controlling strategies, and more aggressive strategies. Continually manipulating the calculous of that “who’s the beatdown” question I mentioned above. Sub-categories of these macro-archetypes further refine this, whether it is seeking to strengthen their match-up vs control for an aggro deck, as in Modern decks that utilize Aether Vial (Merfolk, Humans, etc), or combo/control hybrids like Splinter Twin that seek to play the control game plan until they can commit to the game winning combo while their opponent can’t interact with it. This aspect of deck selection and construction is the “game” part of the phrase “metagame.”

In an unhealthy metagame your options for this decision are severely constrained. When one archetype dominates you have to make the decision “do I play the deck, or the deck that beats that deck” Binary deck selection is the major symptom of an unhealthy metagame.

What does this mean for the Gladiator metagame?

The number one selling point for 100 card singleton strategies is deck diversity. Due to the inherent variance in a singleton deck it is harder to consistently see a specific card in your deck. This in turn makes more cards playable, and keeps a single archetype or deck from dominating. It is much harder for a specific deck to be “too good” compared to the rest of the field, because the basic formula that different archetypes have better or worse match-ups against each other holds true. Aggro decks still beat up on slower combo decks, Jeskai Midrange can dunk on aggro decks, and over all your ability to pivot based on the anticipated meta in any given event means that any well-constructed deck that has a defined game plan should be able to compete, with the understanding that it will have good and bad match-ups. This is also a core game feature. Understanding the metagame, and knowing the match-ups and your path to victory against a specific archetype is a player skill that you can develop. Not running all your creatures into a Settle the Wreckage in your aggro vs control match-up is something you should always be thinking about. This is also a player skill that encompasses decisions you make before turn one, from card selection to mulligans. Tournament performance is not just about deck lists, it is about increasing your win percentage in bad match-ups and playing to your outs.

This also means it is time to discuss the elephant in the room, the MTG Arena economy. Numerous articles and Youtube videos have been authored discussing, at length, the issues surrounding the MTG Arena economy, so please follow the links for in depth discussion on them. To summarize, the gem economy means that having a deep collection on Arena, particularly of Rare’s and Mythic’s, is expensive. The existence of supplemental products like the Remastered sets, Jump-start, and the Historic Anthologies present even more pressure on an individual’s pool of wild-cards, and because of that, pivoting between colors and archetypes becomes an expensive proposition. The fact that there is no secondary card market or ability to lend/trade cards within Arena means that all players are stuck within this paradigm, and that the ability to rapidly switch between archetypes and color spreads is largely a function of economics. It dramatically favors enfranchised players who have disposable income. A player like myself, who has been playing Arena since launch, uses the Arena client to draft frequently, and has been building Gladiator decks since the format began, rarely has to spend more than a few wild cards to build a new deck, and so reacting to the metagame is a non-issue. However, for new players, younger players, or players that are on a limited income, this can be a significant, or even insurmountable, barrier to enjoying the format. There is a very reductive argument that is some times made that free-to-play players or players of limited economic resources can spend time to balance out their resource deficit, but that ignores the principle that time itself is a resource. Telling a young person working 60 hours a week to pay the rent that they also need to grind out games on Arena for the privilege of playing our format is something we, as a community, should avoid.

This very real economic issue is a function of business decisions made by Wizards of the Coast, not a reflection of whether or not the format has a healthy metagame. It is actually players ability to participate in the metagame that’s at issue. This is something we, as a community, should be conscious of in our discussion. I freely admit my own guilt when it comes to this. While gathering data for this article I was frequently confused because there was a lot of discussion about the power of combo decks, but also acknowledgement that they were weak to aggro. To which my immediate response was “sounds great, everything is fine, if you expect to see a lot of combo, play aggro.”

After mulling it over for a few days, and discussing it with some non-gladiator players during a game of Terraforming Mars, I came to realize that it is a pretty privileged position to have. Which is no surprise really. Collectable card games have this feature as a design principle, and there will always be economic barriers hindering participation. I couldn’t afford a $250 Black Lotus on my middle school allowance in the 90’s anymore than I can afford a $20,000 one today. “Playing the metagame” has always been facilitated by possessing the economic freedom to purchase cards, or at least the social network required to borrow them. The rising costs associated with navigating this landscape, which is itself a form of metagame, have been discussed at length by multiple authors and content creators.

So where does this leave us? Is the metagame healthy? That depends, is there deck diversity? I’d say that currently Gladiator appears to have a healthy metagame, but that is only based on the limited data we have. My primary reason for writing this is to hopefully begin thinking about reframing the way the metagame discussion unfolds. Players should anticipate that their deck, regardless of archetype will have bad match-ups, but recognize that the solution to a bad match-up is not to automatically call for card banning’s. We also need to recognize that there are archetypes that we do not find it fun to play against, and that since it’s inception the game has supported this. In the same Richard Garfield article quoted above he said:

We knew there were all these crazy things you could do with some of the cards and ways you could interpret their play, and ways you could put together decks that weren’t any fun to play against, but we wanted to leave maximum flexibility in there.”

When we discuss these topics, we also need to recognize that there is a diverse range of player experiences. If you are playing in the #looking-for-games channel and just lost 3 games in a row to tainted pact combo, being told to build a whole new deck might not be what you want to hear. If you were attracted to the format because you heard it was wide open, being told that your card decisions are bad doesn’t feel good. If you worked hard and spent your limited resources building a competitive deck and then have players tell you that you should feel bad for playing it, that feels bad. We should always endeavor to be mindful of our words and their impact because we might not realize who is listening. In short, we should attempt to have some empathy. Then we can have a healthy discussion when we try to answer the question “what makes a healthy metagame?”