Defining the Meta: What is a Meta?

I was all set to talk about metas — or “metagames” — before realizing that people really don’t have a consistent definition for them!

So let’s start by analyzing where the name comes from: metagaming. Metagaming is the practice of making an in-game choice based on out-of-game information. Let’s take three examples:

1) You’re a Defensive Coordinator making a call. It’s 3rd¬† and 1. The team you’re playing against always runs on 3rd and 1. They even set up in a formation which typically indicates a run. But you happen to have heard their coach say ‘we have some surprises for the other team on 3rd and 1’ before the game. So you make a call for a nickel, to better defend against the pass. You are metagaming.

2) You’re playing Starcraft 2 in PvZ, early in Season 1. You would normally open with a 13-gate. But you’ve seen this Zerg’s last 3 games, and he 6-pooled in each one. You drop a 10 forge after your Pylon, just in case. You are metagaming.

3) You’re playing D&D, and you enter a room full of treasure chests. You check for traps and… find nothing. Suspicious. Your GM is a sadistic bastard, and he wouldn’t give you free treasure, so there must be a trap you didn’t detect. You throw some rocks into the room to be safe. Nothing happens. You summon a magical hand, and open the chests from afar. Lo and behold, poisonous gas pours forth from the first treasure chest, and the second turns out to be a Mimic!

In this case, because you know something about your opponent, you make a choice that might be suboptimal otherwise.

But wait, metagaming doesn’t have to end there. Let’s go back to the Starcraft example. That Zerg knows that you respond to 6-pools with a 10-forge, so he doesn’t 6-pool, and instead fast double expands! But you know that’s how he responds to people after 6-pooling, so you 13-gate into a 2-gate and all-in. If that is altogether too much jargon for you, consider Rock Paper Scissors, a game that is 100% luck and metagaming. You know your friend always leads with Scissors, so you Rock, but he knows that you’re going to see that coming, so he Papers, which of course means that you should Scissors.

All of that is the metagame. Let’s go with a LoL example:

In Season 2, it was all about late game champions freezing lanes. Teams would run Irelia top, Karthus mid, Kog’Maw bot, and just freeze and farm for the late game. You had to choose: let them farm (and lose late-game) or push in on them (and open yourself up to ganks). Gambit exploited this metagame, and — so-to-speak — broke the meta. They ran a ton of manaless champions and did nothing but invade. The particular game I remember seeing had a Shyvana top, Lee Sin jungle, and Mordekaiser mid, with Janna and Miss Fortune bot. Shyvana and Morde shoved Irelia and Karthus to tower. Most people were baffled; wasn’t this exactly what Irelia and Karthus wanted? Shyvana and Mordekaiser then followed Lee Sin into the enemy jungle, forcing the enemy jungler out. Irelia and Karthus had to sacrifice something: their lane farm or their jungler.

According to many people, this was not a new metagame. After all, they were still running an AP Carry mid, an ADC and support bot, and bruisers top and in the jungle! These comments fail to understand what a metagame is. Breaking the metagame does not mean running a champion that people think is weak. It doesn’t mean doing something suboptimal. It means exploiting the current assumptions about how the game is meant to be played by playing a strategy that counters the current dominant strategy, despite not necessarily being strong against other strategies. Discovering a new strong champion isn’t breaking the metagame. Nor is playing a weak champion because you’re bored of the strong champions.

Ultimately, metas don’t stay broken for long. They expand. In this case, the metagame now had two dominant strategies (obviously, I’m simplifying):

  • push and invade in the early-game, then teamfight before mid-game
  • Freeze and farm in the early-game, then stall until the late game for teamfights.

So what is a metagame? It is a series of interactive strategies that make up the widespread behavior of players.

So let’s take a simple game. What is the metagame of Rock, Paper, Scissors? Let’s start by defining end states. You have three strategies: Rock, Paper, and Scissors. Let us assume that you know your opponent’s moves already. If he plays Rock, you want Paper, if he plays Paper, you want Scissors, and if he plays Scissors, you want Rock. Essentially, the metagame of RPS consists of three rules:

  1. If you think your opponent will play Rock -> Paper
  2. If you think your opponent will play Paper -> Scissors
  3. If you think your opponent will play Scissors -> Rock

There are a lot of other game-theoretic choices you can make, such as convince your opponent you will play Scissors, then playing Paper, but this is not really part of the metagame: this is simple one execution of strategy #1.

So what does that mean for LoL?

The metagame is basically a set of strategies that exist as responses to each other. In general, we can categorize metagame strategies in League of Legends by two qualities:

  1. Champion Select
    • Popular champion archetypes by role
    • Laning decisions
  2. Gameplay – typically objective priorities
    • Season 2: last-hit until a good opportunity, then push
    • Season 3: 2v1 lanes for early towers

Over the next series of posts, I will be covering the current League of Legends meta, with some reference to past, defining metas. The topics will include the meta for each role (top/mid/jungle/Marksman/Support), what exactly breaking the meta means, what champions are strong in the current meta, and what champions could be strong as a response to the current meta!


Mattias “Gentleman Gustaf” Lehman is a big time nerd-gamer who has been involved in both SC2 and LoL. He has ranked as high as Diamond 1 in solo queue and Diamond 3 in arranged 5s.

You can see his other work here:

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