An attempt at defining the tf: tcg meta

by Scott Landis

This article took me a long time to write, because this theory is iterative, much like the Transformers TCG itself.  It is also difficult to put into words, and I did not want it to read like a stream of consciousness. It began with a different model before we reached this spherical stage, and will likely change going forward.  This started out as one long magnum opus, but after some editing tips, I decided to stretch it over two days, because Palmer told me it sounded too much like this:


(Side Note: One of my Favorite scenes)

Which in fairness, it probably still does to an extent, so if that’s not your thing..sorry..


One of the most popular questions I am asked about the Transformers TCG from players is “What should I play at this upcoming event.”  My answer is always some version of, “how is your local metagame?”  Normally I am then given a list of decks that people play and attempt to find an answer to their metagame puzzle.  Given the fluid types of answers, I needed a way to short cut my responses..I needed a cohesive theory on defining the TF TCG metagame.

Now you may ask, “why even put it in writing at all then if it is always changing and adapting?.”  Well, I felt that during my testing for Gen Con, the metagame had reached a type of equilibrium. . We had to use our understanding of this equilibrium and results from similarly built decks as stand-ins for the truly unknown.  This allowed us to maximize the use of our limited testing time instead of trying to tackle the task of playing each possible matchup 15-20 times and recording results.. However, I did not allow these now “preconceived notions” of a matchup to define decisions. Instead, this allowed me to simply understand that the starting point of deck adaptation had to begin with acknowledging these assumptions as truths.

Due to the nature of how the Transformers TCG plays/exists, the typical concept of a Rock-Paper-Scissors (RPS) type metagame (but more accurately reflects RPS-Lizard-Spock,given the fact that more than three main axes exist) is a bit more complicated than using the colors to define it, as games like Magic: the Gathering are able to do.  Therefore, I needed another metric to determine “why” certain styles of decks were winning; more specifically why they were winning AGAINST specific other strategies.  

My first theory was based on something my friends/teammates like to make fun of me about : the Continuum.  Graphically the theory was basically this:


"The Continuum"

Yes, this seems rather simple, but that is because I did not list where various decks  would lie on this continuum.  The key is that this is NOT a RPSLS type model, instead the basic concept was:

The closer you moved towards the poles of Control or Aggro, the better off the deck was against the complete opposite pole.  In other words, the more “Control” a deck was, the better off it was against decks that were more “Aggro”.  Decks that moved towards the center would have worse match-ups against either pole, but would be better positioned against the decks in the middle (in this case what I sort of incorrectly called “aggro-control”). The decks in the middle would normally have a strong match-up against one side, but not the other.

There were two main problems with this original theory.  The first one was sideboards, which allowed for decks closer to middle to be more reactive to the poles.  The classic example for me was the “All Hail Optimus” vs. Aerialbot matchup. Pre-sideboards, this matchup was a nightmare for AHO, and remained so in game one even with sideboards.  The more “controlling” deck of the two came out on top. The issue after sideboarding was that AHO could side into “Two Tall Primes” with Photon Bombs and slant the match-up HEAVILY in AHO’s favor, but this new post-sideboard deck was not even truly AHO anymore was it?  


Note: This theory shift is why our team is so big on Transformational sideboarding, because you can move the deck along this continuum to be more in your favor, even if this theory in its old form no longer holds 100% weight, some parts of it remain..

The second major problem was defining where decks lie along this continuum.  For example, outside of signature cards, an aggro Insecticon deck was virtually identical to an aggro Dinobot list, yet they each performed differently in certain matchups.  Despite being both “Aggro” decks Insecticons and Dinobots found different levels of favorability when matched up against the same deck. It was unfair to simply say that Insecticons was “more aggro” simply because it was favored over Dinobots..they were both the same style of deck.  Therefore it became obvious that matchups and character construction was important in defining the deck archetypes, even over deck “style.”

So the theory had to adapt. Thus Spheres were born...

Pop Culture Aside: When Jurassic Park hit theaters in 1993 I was blown away, like most of my generation.  I proceeded to take in as much Michael Crichton as I could from that point onward.  The next book I read was Sphere, which while it was not as good as his seminal work, I still enjoyed it (the movie is awful).  Point is, the concept of Spheres has stuck with me for a long time.


Likely how my copy still looks...very worn...

Before I talk about the final theory I need to list some caveats: 

Caveat One: This theory assumes that all decks are created competently.  You simply cannot take any five characters and play some orange cards and call it “wide aggro.”  The characters and battle deck need to form a symbiotic circle.  

Like a great man once said: Y'all ain't never got two things that match. Either ya got Kool-aid, no sugar. Peanut butter, no jelly. Ham, no burger. Daaamn.”

Caveat Two:  Play skill matters, but the theory continues to assume that all plays made on both sides are optimal.  As will be explained, part of the reason the theory moved from a Continuum to a Spherical model was due to play skill contributing to a higher percentage of variance than even the cards you draw each game.  The theory is based on players making the correct moves, and the wide nature of the spheres take errors into consideration, but there has to be some level of objective equalization of play skill for the theory to make sense.


Caveat Three: I am using the term “Aggro” to mean Orange based decks, with say 30 or more Orange Pips available on Battle Cards.  Similarly, “Control” means the same for Blue decks.  For “Aggro-Control” the deck is truly split, with a wide swath of each color being represented (currently rare).



So why did the theory change to a Spherical one vs. a Continuum/more traditional RPS-LS? There are three main reasons:

First, since the Transformers TCG is normally played on an axis that is primarily Orange or primarily Blue, the options to change main strategies differs greatly than other games that feature things like “colors” or other multi-axis resource conditions.  So while I left the same “Aggro/Control/Aggro-Control” options, how you arrive at them had to expand.  

The second reason was touched upon in Caveat Two: play skill matters.  The more I play Transformers TCG directly and watch it being played in other venues, the main issue I see that influences deck building and play decisions seems to be play mistakes being made.  Some are subtle, some are game changing, but plays such as choosing the wrong character to attack as early as turn one, can have catastrophic consequences on the results of a match, thus skewing the perception of the metagame.  I am just going to give a small example, because these subtle mistakes are an entire volume of articles on themselves: You are the first player and you chose to attack the lowest health/lowest defense target.  That target will not be exposed until two turns later but if your third attacker is likely to one-shot it with the benefit of an action/upgrade, why are you sinking your first attack into them? As an insurance policy? Yes you may do dramatically decreased damage against higher defense/hp targets. But, that damage will “matter” more in the late game and seems wasted on turn one, as opposed to the damage that is duplicated when the character is simply one-shotted later.  Again, this is a simple, no context example, but one I see often seemingly not understood.  

The third reason formed the crux of the new theory, but was still born from the formerly linear concept: many decks shared such similar strengths and weaknesses that they were placed on top of each other, or so close to one another that the differentiating point of the continuum model ceased to matter in its old form at all.  Decks became “clustered groupings” within the continuum, and despite  having distinct cards and ways to approach the game, had similar strengths and weaknesses within the metagame.  Hence, The Sphere Theory was born….


Quite Right..

I know, I know, I was just getting to the good part, but we need to stop here for today because not only does it build tension, but the rest of the theory is quite “dense” as Palmer put it….tune in next time true believers as I expound upon this cohesive Transformers TCG metagame defining theory ...Excelsior! 


'Till all are one

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