Lost in the Shuffle: Games Within Games
Long ago, in the time before time, there was The Duelist, a monthly magazine about Magic and gaming that was the predecessor to this very site. And in The Duelist, Richard Garfield, creator of Magic, wrote a near-monthly column called Lost in the Shuffle, which we've already archived some of here. Dr. Garfield did (and does!) a great deal of thinking on the subject of games, and Lost in the Shuffle let him share those thoughts with the public in small, digestible snippets.
Early in the column's run, Lost in the Shuffle was longer and more involved than it later became—something I can certainly sympathize with as a former weekly column author. And while I think the shorter format ended up working better for what Lost in the Shuffle was, the earlier, longer columns let the good doctor tackle bigger questions ... such as, in this column from The Duelist #5, the metagame.
Now, when Dr. Garfield says "metagame," he's talking about something a little broader than the tournament-focused meaning the term has taken on since he wrote this. He's talking about all the things that go into the "game beyond the game," from formats and house rules to card availability and social contracts. And using that broader definition of "metagame," Richard gives a great deal of insight into what he believed Magic could be.
The usual caveats about old articles apply. This article was written in 1995—before Ice Age came out, for you old-timers—and in a few spots it talks about Magic sets (and some other card games) that are thoroughly antiquated at this point. But it illuminates just how little Richard took for granted about what his game would become, and along the way it offers some insights about trust, social expectations, and everything that goes into the game within the game.
Daily MTG Editor
When you play a number of games, not as ends unto themselves but as parts of a larger game, you are participating in a metagame. Take chess as an example. When you think of chess, you usually think of a single game or match against a single opponent. To a chess player in a competition, however, each game is a small part of a bigger game.
In this case, the chess tournament is a metagame of chess. Ideally, the strategy to playing this metagame should be a boring one: you attempt to win each game of chess you play. In fact, however, there are occasions where you may play for a draw or even to lose, perhaps to conserve strength in a long tournament. If you are attempting to earn a high rating by playing a series of chess tournaments, you are participating in another level of metagame: the metagame of chess tournaments. This second metagame is more interesting than the first in some ways because you get to make some important choices, like which tournaments to attend, and how much effort to invest in preparing for each tournament.
Many games contain metagames as part of their basic structure. For example, most card games are played in hands, with each hand yielding a score. The hand is the basic game unit, but the object of the competition is actually to win the metagame: to achieve a certain total score. Thus, part of the strategy of many card games is to learn when to lose by as little as possible rather than take the infinitesimal chance of winning the hand and risk losing in a big way if you fail.
In some card games, like poker, the metagame is even more important than the base game. A hand of poker can earn you some money, but more importantly, it can give you information about the other players, or give them false information about you. You can take a loss in a session of poker and still turn that to your advantage in the next few sessions.
There is something magical, even infectious, that happens in the metagame. Recently I claimed that I could make any game popular if I could build a good ladder around it. A ladder is any system that ranks the participants in a game; the object of the ladder metagame is to "climb" as high as you can get. You climb the ladder by defeating higher-ranked players.
When I was a graduate student at University of Pennsylvania, a variation on Hearts (called Turbo Hearts) was popular for several years—something I attribute entirely to the ladder we maintained in the lounge. As an undergraduate, I got my entire household playing chess by creating a chess ladder for the group. I suspect that it's the underlying ladder-like structure of The Great Dalmuti, my latest card game, that helps make it so addictive. I fully intend to make a rock-paper-scissors ladder here at Wizards of the Coast to prove the point!
The Magic of the Metagame
What is it about the metagame that breathes life into the experience of game-playing? Through the metagame, players are inducted into a larger game community. Often, the metagame is an event in which many, many people are playing—more than can possibly compete in the smaller base game. The event can become so large that no individual can know all parts of the game; while no single participant has the complete picture, each person has insight into some small piece of the game. The contributions of each participant become integral to the game event.
Each player also has many different chances for success. When a player moves up even one rung from the bottom of a ladder, he has achieved a kind of victory. It is not necessary for the player to get to the top of the ladder to have a sense of accomplishment.
In fact, with a rich metagame, you often don't really know the other players' objectives. Take my Diplomacy strategy, for example. I discovered that a reputation as a reliable and trustworthy ally was going to win me more games than if I discarded my allies when they were no longer useful. I reasoned that while this might cost me games from time to time, I would at least come in second or third. (For a while I tried to play it on the fence, keeping the letter of my word while intentionally stretching the spirit of it. I later learned that the easiest way to seem like a person worthy of trust is to be a person worthy of trust—a lesson I brought from games into life.) Thus, in any particular Diplomacy game you can't assume I am playing to win, because I believe that my word is more important than any one victory. Overall, I believe I get a lot more firsts than if I were to treat each game as a separate entity not linked by a metagame.
Metagames tend to have application or meaning beyond the game itself; often, they seep into real life. Doing well in metagames may require money or stamina; it may even be influenced by things like how you dress or where you live. Some say this detracts from the game, but in my opinion it is neither good nor bad; it is simply a part of the metagame that the base game does not have. Endurance is not essential to winning a rubber of bridge, but it is essential to winning a tournament. In a game of Killer, the fact that you have an 8 A.M. class may play a significant role in your strategy. And if you are in a ping-pong ladder, it may be frustrating that the only person you can challenge is hard to pin down, but that's part of the game, too.
A great example of the way a metagame can become a real-life experience is the MIT Mystery Hunt, which Skaff Elias and I participated in this winter. The object of the hunt was to locate a coin hidden on the MIT campus. Clues to the location of the coin were found by solving a barrage of puzzles. The puzzles could be anything, really, from gut-crunching logic puzzles to scavenger hunts. On some, there were no instructions to solve them; on others, the instructions themselves were the solution to another puzzle. Our challenges included arranging video scenes in proper order, identifying breakfast cereals, naming countries and states from silhouettes, and figuring out the message encoded in musical selections. Ironically, one of the puzzles was a crypto-list of Magic cards. This wasn't as easy to crack as you might think (thanks to words like Cuombajj), but once we got it, we cranked it out.
The hunt began at noon on Friday, and ran through the weekend—a grueling contest of mental and physical endurance. Our group of eleven worked on puzzles as long as we could before napping to reclaim our strength, only to rise again to duty a few hours later. One of our major breakthroughs in the hunt was a puzzle Skaff and another teammate cracked early on, in which the solutions to other puzzles appeared as clues. This allowed us to work backwards and find many solutions without solving the corresponding puzzles—occasionally even before we had seen the puzzle.
Even with this advantage, it took us the entire weekend to solve about forty of the fifty or so puzzles. We won by a margin of about thirty seconds at 4 A.M. Monday. Our prize is to construct the hunt for next year—then they'll suffer! It was one of the best game experiences I have had.
How does a treasure hunt count as a metagame experience? Is there more to it than just puzzle-solving? Yes. Just a race to solve a puzzle is somewhat of a game, but the metagame of solving all the puzzles to find the coin was very much a game. In this game, your team has to figure out the best way to exert its energies and resources. Who is strongest at what sort of problem solving? Should you stay up all night trying to crack a puzzle, or will a few hours of sleep be more profitable than speed? You also have to react to other teams, changing your tactics based on how far ahead or behind you think you are. What will it cost the team to commit three people to solving a puzzle whose solution has already been found by back-solving, in the chance that a clue may appear in the method of solution itself? Can you afford to have team members not working on any particular puzzle but focusing on the overall solution instead? Can you afford not to? Everything merged into a larger game experience: for three days everything we did was a move in that game, from how we ate to when we slept.
The Metagame of Magic
Trading card games inherently have a strong metagame component. This is because the flow of cards is itself part of the metagame. There is always a bigger picture to the games than the hand currently being played. Players think not only "how can I win this game?" but "how should my deck change for the next game?" When people trade cards or buy cards, they are making moves in the metagame, giving themselves more or different options for building their decks.
When cards change hands in a trading card game community, the overall game situation changes, too. If your game group didn't get any Fallen Empires, or got just enough to put in plastic sleeves, and then you acquire a bunch of Combat Medics for your white deck, the whole nature of your games with the group may change. You have made a move in a metagame.
When I first developed the concept of trading card games, I envisioned that learning about the game would be a part of the game itself. I felt that people should not be handed a list of cards as a reference, or a book in which to look up everything. Veterans of Magic may remember those information-scarce days. In this way players would be forced into discussions about the game; stories and information would be exchanged and eventually players would learn what was in this world of Magic. These days, people figure out what's in a card set much more quickly; information about a release is available almost immediately on the Internet. But maybe in some small way, being stingy with information then has helped form the community of Magic players that exists now; players have been brought together through the metagame of exploring the world of the cards.
In fact, it is not obvious what the base game of a trading card game is. Sure, in Magic the basic game is the duel, but is it a duel using a stripped starter deck? Using Duelists' Convocation deck construction rules? Using only common cards? Using only cards that you found in your sister's shoebox? Each of these deck-construction restrictions is a different metarule in a metagame. They all demand different skills and yield very different game experiences.
On top of this natural tendency toward the metagame, we often add new levels by playing in tournaments or leagues. Through the sanctioning and support of different events, the Duelists' Convocation helps create the metagame of Magic tournaments, from the regional level to international competition.
And with all the trading card games out there now we have a real mess of a metagame. Have you ever traded Star Trek cards for Magic cards? Illuminati cards for Wyvern cards? On the Edge for Blood Wars? Do you know how these games work? There is a metagame out there so big that no one can even come close to mastering it.
After the MIT Mystery Hunt, Skaff and I began talking about how to do an event like that for Magic. We came up with a weekend-long team event, with more competitions than your team of four could possibly attend. Each event would have different point values and give different prizes. Your team would begin with about three hundred random cards which it would divide up. During the course of the weekend, you would remake your decks again and again as each teammate attempted to bring points to the team.
As with the Mystery Hunt, there is a rich game event here, one in which decisions have impact on many levels. Should you focus on one good deck and send it to the big-point tournaments, or spread the cards out and hit the slum tournaments? Is a tournament where the top five places get their choice of six basic lands better than a tournament where the top five places get boosters of The Dark? Is it better to attend a particular tournament or catch a two-hour nap instead? The event would require a spectrum of talents, not the least of which would be endurance.
At the end of the weekend, the team with the most points would win, or maybe there would be a big playoff with the decks you have accumulated. Then we could apply the point total toward your score in an even bigger game which spans months, and take the scores from those games and apply them to an even bigger game.
The metagame is a topic which fascinates me. If we spent half the time paying attention to the metagames that we do to individual games, we would be better game players and we would have much better game events. I actually believe that we would be better people, but that is a thesis I will need a bit more time and space to develop.