Engineering Evolution

What Self-Determination Theory can tell us about Magic: The Gathering’s Metagame


Pierson Browne is a PhD student based out of the University of Waterloo’s Department of Sociology and Legal Studies. His research focuses on metagaming, community formation, information diffusion, game theory, and social network analysis. He is hopelessly addicted to card games, in case the following article wasn’t a dead giveaway.

In the world of collectable card games, something curious is happening. Over the course of the last two-and-a-half years, three of the largest and best-respected card game developers—Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight Games, and Blizzard Entertainment—have been scrambling to adjust the release cycles for each of their wildly popular (and staggeringly lucrative) card games. In the case of the latter two companies, these adjustments might be dismissed as the developers ironing out wrinkles in the new, untested systems that undergird their products’ popularity; doing so cannot, however, account for the fact that Wizards of the Coast’s previous model was employed to great success for over two decades, and that both Fantasy Flight Games and Blizzard Entertainment based their business models on adaptations of Wizards’ original system. So, then, why the change? Why now?

One clue to deciphering the impetus behind this upheaval may be found in each company’s use of the term ‘Metagame’ to justify the changes and as a pre-emptive form of damage control. Metagaming—in the playful sense of the word—remains under-studied and under-theorized in scholastic circles; this neglect precludes the task of parsing recent shifts in release cycles in an academically rigorous way. In what follows, I will use Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (2000) to conceptualize the forces which prompted these development giants to accept the considerable risks of changing their release model. In so doing, I will also contend that self-determination theory is a fruitful lens—not only for approaching the largely neglected topic of metagaming, but also for providing scholars of media, psychology, and society with a framework for uncovering commonalities and connections in their respective approaches to the study of games and play.

Cardboard Crack

a pile of magic: the gathering booster packs

Caption: A small assortment of Magic: The Gathering booster packs for sale.
Source: Red Bull

‘Collectable card game’ is a blanket moniker used to describe games which use decks of specialized, proprietary cards as their ludic focal point. Most such contemporary games can trace their origins back to the first collectable card game (CCG): Richard Garfield’s Magic: The Gathering (1993). Typically, Magic is played between two players who use pre-assembled decks of 60+ specialized cards in an attempt to reduce their opponent’s life total to zero before their opponent can do the same to them. The cards that players include in their decks have a dramatic impact on the outcome of any given match; consequently, in the struggle to improve one’s deck, competitive Magic players often seek cards that will make their decks more powerful or efficient. This is not a straightforward task, as Magic’s specialized cards are sold in randomized ‘booster packs,’ with the general rule that more powerful cards appear dramatically less often than weaker cards (Williams, 2006, pg. 79). Every four months, Wizards of the Coast releases a new ‘set’ of Magic cards, compelling players to buy boosters of the new sets to keep their decks current. With no guarantee of receiving a given card in a certain number of booster packs, competitive players regularly invest hundreds of dollars in booster packs, or in significantly marked-up individual cards purchased directly from a retailer (Williams, 2006, p. 78-9).

Caption: Jaina Proudmoore casts a magic missile on her opponent and his minions in Hearthstone. Source: Blizzard Entertainment

Caption: Jaina Proudmoore casts a magic missile on her opponent and his minions in Hearthstone. Source: Blizzard Entertainment

At the time of its release, Garfield’s design choices were nothing short of revolutionary, and the Magic paradigm has been imitated and iterated upon by many other developers. Blizzard Entertainment’s Hearthstone is comparable to Magic, but is built for online digital play exclusively—it employs similar design features such as the collection of cards, the construction of decks, and the simplicity of individual elements that combine to make significantly more complex and nuanced systems. Hearthstone, being a digital-only game, is available freely online; players could conceivably acquire an extensive collection of rare cards in Hearthstone without spending any money, but many players purchase booster packs (similar to Magic’s packs) to flesh out their collections. Unlike Magic, excess cards can be ‘disenchanted’ to provide an in-game currency that can then be used to ‘craft’ other cards of the player’s choosing. Similarly, the Living Card Game (LCG) genre is best thought of as a response to Magic’s release model; developed by Fantasy Flight Games, LCGs eschew the randomness of the ‘booster pack’ model by releasing fixed sets of non-randomized cards on a monthly basis. LCGs sacrifice the dynamism involved in collecting a CCG-style game—which many players enjoy as a pursuit in its own right (Williams, 2006, pg. 79)—in favour of ensuring that all players have access to the same pool of cards at the cost of ~$15 per month.

Two players play the card game Android: Netrunner

Caption: A still-frame from the live stream of the 2016 Android: Netrunner LCG World Championships. Source: Youtube

In the context of collectible card game communities, ‘the metagame’ (often shortened to ‘meta’) refers to knowledge about how other people are playing the game; this can include anything from a statistical aggregation of how many cards of what type were brought to which tournaments worldwide, all the way down to anecdotal knowledge about the kinds of cards the person sitting across the table from you likes to put in their decks (see: Kow, Young, and Tekinbas, 2014; Donaldson, 2016). In any of the games mentioned above, the breadth of possible card combinations is staggering; even titles with smaller pools of cards allow for billions of different deck possibilities (Williams, 2006, pg. 80). Invariably, there are a small subset of particular card combinations that are far more efficacious than all others. Competitive play environments are often rapidly defined and developed based on shared knowledge of particularly useful deck configurations; knowing what combinations others view as powerful opens the possibility for an individual to develop an innovative idea explicitly designed to defeat said powerful combination.

Reading About This Theory Fills You With Determination

Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan (2000) articulated Self-Determination Theory (SDT) as a way of describing psychological factors whose presence or absence in a given context closely correlates with an individual’s vitality, interest, and engagement—or lack thereof—in said context. The psychological factors are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Broadly, ‘autonomy’ refers to the sense that one’s behaviours and choices originate within the self, and are not externally coerced or stem from rote mimicry. ‘Competence,’ in the context of SDT, involves the feeling of being effective, useful, or skilled in a given situation. Lastly, ‘relatedness’ concerns an awareness that one’s actions are recognizably meaningful to others (Silva, Marques, and Teixeira, 2014). Where these three factors are present, positive human potential can usually be found in abundance; where these three factors are absent or actively undermined, apathy, ennui, and inertia abound (Ryan and Deci, 2000).

Self-determination theory is useful as a common terrain upon which a variety of approaches to the study of fun, meaning, and community in games can converse with one another. In sociological terms, games create frameworks for the acquisition and conversion of various forms of economic, cultural, and social capital (Bourdieu, 1986; Williams, 2006, pg. 98), as well as gaming capital—a term which captures the fluid, performative nature of converting and transmitting capital in relation to games and game communities (Consalvo, 2007). From this perspective, the various instantiations of capital are central to the formation and dynamism of the communities which cohere around card games such as Magic: The Gathering. In semiological terms, games function as ‘matrix events’ which contextualize communicative acts and facilitate the mutual construction of meaning (Weninger, 2006, pg. 61). CCG players have also been framed as a mosaic of subcultures, whose conspicuous consumption of the game’s materials serves to negotiate and reify the pursuit of subcultural ‘authenticity’ as an idea, an object, and a practice (Williams, 2006, pg. 96-7). Each of the three preceding perspectives (which are only briefly summarized here and, together, do not comprise an even remotely comprehensive list of extant approaches to the study of play communities) dovetail with one or two aspects of Self-Determination Theory. For example, the semiological focus on mutual meaning-making in ludic contexts parallels Ryan and Deci’s description of relatedness; a sociological perspective might highlight players’ embodiment of cultural and/or gaming capital in a similar vein as SDT’s focus on the personal pursuit of autonomy and competence. SDT, as a framework, is helpful for conceptualizing the insights from one theoretical perspective in a way that is intelligible to other avenues of approach.

From the perspective of Self-Determination Theory, metagames are compelling because they afford opportunities for players to foment a sense of autonomy, competency, and relatedness. Metagames allow players to explore emergent systems, be creative, and develop new and compelling ideas; they provide a framework for demonstrating diverse forms of self-defined efficacy, skill, and knowledgeability; and they constitute the shared, mutually constructed context within which players’ actions are meaningful to one another. In reality, no two individuals are likely to have an identical relationship with autonomy, competency, and relatedness. In metagame terms, some individuals might feel autonomous when they are making minor changes to existing ideas, whereas others wouldn’t be satisfied with anything short of cooking up new concepts from scratch. Some Magic: The Gathering players—such as Shota Yasooka, for example—are highly esteemed for their ability to develop and execute on their own creative ideas. As part of his induction to the Magic hall of fame, Wizards of the Coast noted Yasooka’s “most iconic finish was when he came in second at the Players Championship […] playing a completely rogue deck of his own fiendish design.” For other players, original deckbuilding is of minor or no concern; in any event, metagames provide players with broad latitude to engage in whichever ways they find intrinsically motivating.

More Meta, Anyone?

Returning to the problem posed at the outset of this essay: why are game development companies changing their release cycles, even at risk of damaging their player base or their bottom line? Wizards of the Coast wrote that radical connectivity has fundamentally changed the pace at which Magic’s metagame matures:

#3—The Metagame Issue

Constructed Magic is supposed to be a puzzle. The development team works very hard to craft an environment […] where the players have to explore it and figure it out. The world, though, has changed a lot since Standard was first introduced. […] Magic now has high-profile events every weekend, along with extended coverage that allows any player to watch from home. Add to that the growth of social media, and what was once a difficult puzzle gets solved much more quickly than it used to.

Their proposed fix was to cut down on the length of time any given set of cards would be legal for; this would mean that players’ purchases would be useful for less time than they had been previously—from two years of legality to eighteen months.

For similar reasons, both Blizzard and Fantasy Flight Games changed their legality cycle from no rotation (meaning that all cards released would stay legal indefinitely) to a two-year or four-year rotation model, respectively. Blizzard entertainment claimed that their proposed changes would “provide a fresher and more dynamic metagame, give developers more freedom and flexibility when designing new cards, and will help newer players wade into Hearthstone more easily.” In a similar vein, Fantasy Flight Games writes: “As a game’s card pool grows unchecked, its metagame begins to stagnate, and the game falls apart under its own weight. […] Rotation encourages new evolutions within the metagame. As older cycles and their core themes and mechanics phase out, their departures open holes within the metagame that will be filled with creative new deck ideas” (emphasis original).

Caption: Fantasy Flight Game’s proposed rotation model. Source: Fantasy Flight Games

Caption: Fantasy Flight Game’s proposed rotation model. Source: Fantasy Flight Games

Each of them couch the impetus for these changes in terms of sustaining an environment which encourages and rewards experimentation and ingenuity. A metagame, in other words, is only interesting as long as there are compelling openings for players to contribute their own ideas or to meaningfully adapt others’. When metagames cannot do so, they are detrimental to communities of play. Consider the following excerpt from semi-weekly Hearthstone metagame columnist Zenobia:

Here you would usually find a bunch of statements about the decks, their match-up against one another, and some mention of deck popularity. All of this is done in an effort to validate the importance of those minor shifts in the meta, a vein [sic] attempt to make the most stale meta in Hearthstone history seem vaguely exciting. […] That of course could only lead down the road of despair once I realize the sad fact that we are trapped. Ladder is a vicious circle right now. We are desperate for change and want to play new/fun decks, but doing so would require playing Casual mode(lol), or getting crushed by Druids and Paladins on ladder. So instead we rank up with the mind numbing Tier 1 decks that win. How powerless we are over the meta, and life in general.

The frustration, boredom, and ennui that Zenobia is describing is far from unique; there are many examples of communities dissatisfied by a static, stale, or solved metagame. In this way, unhealthy metagame environments leech metagames of their ability to satisfy the diverse ludic motivations of a large player population. Cases such as these are of great concern to card game developers. Unhealthy metagames will often prompt large portions of a game’s player community to seek greener pastures elsewhere, scaling back their involvement with the game, taking a hiatus until the metagame is interesting once more, or abandoning it altogether. If the damage done to a player base is extensive enough, the renewed or repaired metagame environment might not be able to provide relatedness to its players, regardless of how autonomous and competent they might feel in relation to it. From the perspective of a card game developer, players abandoning the game is self-evidently problematic; declining engagement with a game translates directly into diminishing profitability. A shrinking player-base, however, is also troubling from the perspective of the players themselves: a smaller community of play means fewer people who will see your ludic choices as meaningful (or even intelligible), a diminished context for play and ancillary sociality, and an increased likelihood that the game itself might be discontinued. Card games (of the collectable and living varieties) are regularly forced into an early grave by the shrinking size of their player communities.


End of the Cycle

From an academic standpoint, metagaming is an unsolved puzzle. To those seeking to better understand how metagames are impacting contemporary production, consumption, labour, governance, and community practices, self-determination theory may prove illuminating. SDT claims that human beings are intrinsically motivated to pursue certain activities which provide for individual autonomy, competency, and relatedness. Viewed through this lens, metagames sustain a fertile environment for individuals to pursue an activity they find rewarding in its own right. SDT also provides a tentative explanation for the intrinsic role that flux and dynamism play in keeping metagames healthy and inspiring. In providing an explanation for metagames’ motivational power, self-determination theory also shows how metagames can elicit the opposite response, and thus assist us in understanding the factors which motivated at least three major game developers to shift their release models in rapid succession. Finally, SDT pinpoints metagames as inherently relational phenomena; a metagame is not an a priori feature of a game, but rather emerges from the players’ contestatory exchange of ideas, meanings, knowledges, and experiences. Conceptualising metagaming in this way assists us in understanding how communities cohere around game objects, and why they are compelling nexuses for the performance of ludic sociality.

Works Cited

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Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. “The Forms of Capital.” In Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, edited by J Richardson. New York: Greenwood.

Consalvo, Mia. 2007. Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames. MIT Press.

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Fantasy Flight Games. 2014. “A New Stage of Growth.” Fantasy Flight Games. November 5.

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Garfield, Richard. 1993. “Magic: The Gathering.” Wizards of the Coast.

Kow, Yong Ming, Timothy Young, and K. S. Tekinbas. 2014. “Crafting the Metagame: Connected Learning in the StarCraft II Community.” Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

lolliftw. 2016. “[Rant] Meta Snapshot Is the Problem behind the Stale Meta • /r/hearthstone.” Reddit. September.

Mihealsick, Mike. 2015. “The Living Card Game: Giving CCGs a Run for Their Money.” Board Game Resource. October 28.

Rosewater, Mark. 2014. “Metamorphosis.” MAGIC: THE GATHERING. August 25.

Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci. 2000. “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.” American Psychologist 55 (1): 68.

Silva, Marlene N., Marta M. Marques, and Pedro J. Teixeira. 2014. “Testing Theory in Practice: The Example of Self-Determination Theory-Based Interventions.” Eur Health Psychol 16 (5): 171–180.

UpperDeckerTaco. 2016. “Magic Is Stale — Forum.” March 8.

Weninger, Csilla. 2006. “Social Events and Roles in Magic: A Semiotic Analysis.” In Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games, edited by J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler. McFarland.

Williams, J. Patrick. 2006. “Consumption and Authenticity in the Collectible Strategy Games Subculture.” In Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games, edited by J. Patrick Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler. McFarland.


Zenobia. 2016. “Meta Snapshot Archives #49 – A Witty Title.” Tempostorm. February 28.

Pierson Browne