Live to Game, Game to Live

Written by Russ Dobler

When Steve Cates sat down at the Crazy Squirrel Game Store in Fresno, CA for one of the first organized tournaments of Marvel Dice Masters, he probably wasn’t thinking about half-billion-year-old ocean life. Superficially, there don’t seem to be a lot of similarities between the recently released collectible, competitive game, and spiky, multi-limbed worms.

Yet much like an animal in an early Cambrian ecosystem, Cates was able to navigate his deck of simple parts to victory. In June, the game was too new for players to make effective use of devastating components like Green Goblin: Gobby and Black Widow: Tsarina. Hallucigenia probably had it pretty easy before the terrifying predator Anomalocaris showed up in large numbers.

Which is scarier? Depiction of Anomalocaris by John Sibbick

Dice Masters will expand in October, and that influx of new content will inevitably change the game’s young status quo. The current dominant decks will have to adapt to new pressures, as what’s commonly called the “metagame” shifts from its former plateau.

“Metagame, to me, is the idea that I need to keep in mind more than just the rules of the game,” Cates says. “There are certain strategies that players of the game will focus in on and you must have a way to deal with those strategies or you just won’t be competitive.”

Or, to put in a biologic sense, keep up or die. There’s an idea in evolutionary theory called the Red Queen hypothesis, named after the “Through the Looking-Glass” antagonist who said to Alice,

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

This concept help us understand why, for example, insects like aphids don’t wipe out all our crops or, conversely, go extinct themselves. Evolved defenses like toxins may kill many of the bugs, but some will be luckily adapted to be resistant. Those individuals will breed and multiply and then the process is back to square one.

Locked in eternal combat. From Wikipedia.

Like life, the Dice Masters game is likely to continue its stasis, despite the addition of new tricks. “If the counters are in place and Gobby and Tsarina aren’t played, then the counters get dropped and then Gobby and Tsarina will come back again as relevant,” Cates says. “It’s sort of a vicious cycle.”

Danny Mandel, co-founder of Super Awesome Games and one of the original designers of the soon-returning Vs. System trading card game, further breaks down what goes into determining a local metagame in language that could be ripped from an ecology textbook.

“Cheaper decks are more likely to get played,” he says, just like animals with a lower metabolic cost. Fashionable decks can make appearances, Mandel says, if they’re offbeat or fun, “even if they’re not really that good.” Sounds like sexual selection to me.

Assembling the proper components of a collectible game’s deck is a lot like an animal adapting to its environment. Image courtesy of the “Watch it Played” YouTube series.

And of course, it always comes back to the Red Queen. “Players often try out different decks in response to how they think the metagame is going to evolve from the previous tournament,” Mandel says.

Don’t breathe easily thinking this kind of go-nowhere competition only afflicts creepy crawlies and plastic cubes, though, or you might be sucking wind to catch up yourself. In his appropriately-titled book, “Metagame,” Sam Landstrom envisions a tomorrow in which humans improve their own personal decks, and those of their children, by deliberately altering their DNA.

“I don’t want my child to be the stupid one on the block; they should be a genius, too,” Landstrom imagines a future parent saying. “I could see people easily going over to genetic engineering in order to not roll the dice with their kids, to make sure they have the looks and intelligence to be competitive.”

Game on.

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