Meta Catch ‘Em All

Visiting my parents in Czechia always feels like a trip back to my childhood. The house where I grew up changed only a little, and my room in particular is preserved in almost the exact state I left it. Lord of the Rings movie posters still cover the walls, if a little faded out now. My desk is littered with cheat sheets for the final high school exam. And in the top drawer, in pristine condition, sits a great treasure – my deck of Pokémon cards.

I was obsessed with Pokémon at the turn of the century, when the global phenomenon just hit our country. Every Saturday morning, my friends and I eagerly watched a new episode of the animated TV show. It followed the adventures of Ash Ketchum, aspiring Pokémon master and the protagonist of the video game for Nintendo Game Boy. But none of us actually owned the console. Instead, to feel like Pokémon masters ourselves, we played the trading card game (TCG). Not just played – we role-played.

Each of us pretended to be one of the gym leaders from the show, powerful trainers who others challenge to fight. One friend liked Misty and, like her, specialized on water Z2 Pokémon. Another claimed Lt. Surge and fought with lightning ZL Pokémon, including the signature Pikachu. I boldly assumed the role of Giovanni, the story’s mysterious villain, and built an unbeatable card deck. One by one, I would crush my friends in battle and earn their badges. It’s this deck that now occupies the top drawer, unchanged, enclosed in a glass case. Curious to see how powerful it really was, I recently investigated how well it would fare against top tournament players back then. Turns out it wouldn’t stand a chance. Not only was my deck weak, it didn’t even fit into the meta of that time. Of course there was a meta!

Not to be confused with the recent metaverse craze, a meta in gaming is a term for a single strategy that becomes so advantageous that everyone has to adapt it in order to remain competitive. It’s the only optimal way to victory; so much so that it optimizes the fun out of the game. It’s usually caused by imperfect balancing, a flaw in game rules. And rules in those early days were ripe for exploits.

In TCG, players design their deck themselves. It must contain exactly sixty cards, but other than that, there are only a few restrictions on its contents. New cards can be acquired either by purchasing booster packs, or by trading with others; both processes offer only slow and uncertain results. I remember assembling my deck over months, as I obtained stronger and rarer cards. Focused on grass ZT and psychic ZP Pokémon, it included many powerful stage two evolutions. The crown jewels were the pair of Nidoking and Nidoqueen, energy-intensive heavy-hitters that complemented each other. Ironically, I built the exact opposite of the meta deck that dominated tournaments of that time – Haymaker.

Why bother with slow and unpredictable evolutions when you can attack the opponent with basic Pokémon? Harass them, force them into defense, deny them the initiative. That was the premise of Haymaker, which relied on unreasonably powerful basic Pokémon like Hitmonchan or Electabuzz. It completely disregarded what the story in the TV show was telling us, and it didn’t care. After all, its purpose was to secure victory, not to role-play.

Meta is a double-edged sword. Untamed, it can poison the game, chasing players away. But it’s easy to spot by developers, who can then address it by introducing new cards or by adjusting rules. Sure, new meta will soon emerge in the never-ending pursuit of victory, but this at least keeps the game fresh. It gives players memorable moments, as they fondly remember distinct eras of various meta tactics. That is, as long as they’re aware of them. I learned about Haymaker only recently, from a fan website TCGPlayer. In my childhood, I had no clue.

The internet was young and information sparse. For me and my friends alike, every unpacking of a booster pack brought an excitement! Not only didn’t we know which cards we would find, we were also in the dark about which ones to expect. There were cards so rare that only one among us had them. Others we only heard about, usually from someone like a classmate of a friend’s cousin who happened to be visiting our village. And what a village it was. There were only a dozen or so kids of various ages playing the game there, so we were stuck trading with each other. Online marketplaces were unheard of. We wouldn’t have been able to build the Haymaker even if we wanted to. 3x Electabuzz? I only ever got a single card. 4x Hitmonchan? Never saw one, let alone four. The meta was unknown, unreachable, and, ultimately, unnecessary.

Haymaker evolved in professional tournaments where the slightest edge matered. For us, building the meta deck would have been akin to hiring Ronaldo to win a junior league. Nevertheless, the absence of the meta didn’t mean there wasn’t a meta. Each Pokémon has strengths and weaknesses, for example water Z2 types are very effective against fire ZR types. Nobody around me really played the psychic ZP type, which is uniquely weak only to itself. So when I designed my deck to consist almost exclusively of Pokémon that were weak to that type, I knew I would never get into a disadvantage. Meta is a product of the environment, and can take different forms based on the player group. I’m sure if we’d have kept playing longer, we would have collected more cards and countered each other’s weaknesses better. But before that happened, we lost interest and moved on to another kid obsession. My deck remained unconquered.

While diving into the research of early TCG meta decks, I felt the urge to play again, to become a Pokémon master once more. Luckily, I didn’t need to inquire who of my childhood friends, now adults with families like me, still have the cards and would be willing to play. There is an online version, so I gave it a try. To my surprise, the rules haven’t changed much since two decades ago. There were a few extra limitations, undoubtedly introduced in reaction to various exploits, but otherwise it felt like riding a bike. What started as mere curiosity now captivated me again. Thanks to fast match-making and automated gameplay, I wouldn’t be surprised if I played more games in the past two weeks than when I was a kid. And as I tweaked my deck and pitched it against opponents, advantageous patterns started to emerge. Did I get a taste of the current meta?