I thought I'd never admit Jaime would be right but Assassination/Fire Mage/X is so disgustingly strong right now. It's easily the best comp by a huge margin. The worst thing is that it's not even Rogue/Mage anymore. RMD is currently the same exact comp as WW/DK. The only comp that resembles classic RMD is Thugcleave and WW/Arcane Mage. RMD is corrupt.
Patch 7.1 is undoubtedly one of the more controversial patches in the history of WoW PvP. The result of a few changes to a select few specs has resulted in a meta shift and a drastic restructuring of balance between class tiers. This article will talk about the role of design in shaping the meta. While parts of this article might seem normative in nature, my role here is to not assert which specific class changes are good for the game, rather to call into question how design and meta go hand in hand.
What came first, the design or the meta?
One of the more useful starting places for this discussion is a take on this classic metaphorical paradox. It doesn't matter whether or not we treat the design and the meta as the chicken or the egg; what matters is that we question which generally comes first. So we're on the same page, design refers to how the game is made, how numbers are tweaked, which talent choices are available, things of that nature. Meta refers to how the game is played. Meta refers to what comp archetypes are popular, how kill setups are executed, how players use spells, etc.
The design of the game certainly influences the meta. If you were to buff Arcane Mages by 2000%, you would certainly see more people playing Arcane in arena. If you were to reduce the duration of all crowd control by 50%, you would see less comps that rely on CC chains to secure kills. While I am not advocating for blanket changes to the game's design, it should seem obvious that individual class changes have an effect on how people chose to play the game. Because the meta is so elastic to design changes, it seems that design based meta changes occur extremely frequently and can develop quickly after major patches. This is exactly what happened immediately after the release of 7.1. Frost Death Knights and Windwalker Monks received significant damage buffs, and the ladder immediately saw an increase in the number of these specs queueing at the top end of arena.
The more interesting question is whether or not the meta influences design. Sometimes the game developers will make class changes retroactively. If a class is drastically overperforming in PvP, as was the case with Balance Druid immediately after 7.1, Blizzard will update the class design. The biggest change in recent history where meta influenced design was with the removal of blanket silences from Mages, Hunters, and Warlocks with the transition from MoP to WoD. This design choice was presumably a response to how the meta was being played and a conscious choice by developers to try and switch up the metagame. This type of change, in which the meta causes changes in design, seems to happen slowly, as it takes a while to generate meaningful game analytics. The meta is a living thing. Sometimes developers sit back and watch it play out, almost as if it were a simulation.
With this reciprocal relationship in mind, it is important that we consider the implications of how game design influences the meta and vice versa. In doing so, we can call into question how and when design changes are appropriate, given that design changes can be a direct result of what is happening in the meta game. Before doing so, it is important to realize that there exists an information gap between the player and the developer that is rarely overcome.
The Information Gap
Pretty much any textbook on business ethics will discuss how there is an imbalance of information between buyers and sellers. Sellers, because they have ownership of the good they are trying to sell, know significantly more about the product than the buyer, who is almost always taking a risk when making a purchase. Sometimes this can lead to poor business practices, specifically in the case of used car dealerships.
A similar gap exists in game development. Game developers know significantly more about the game than players. Blizzard has access to analytics that players will rarely see. Because players are paying for a game subscription, Blizzard is able to act as a seller of their design and metagame. Selling broken class design is similar, albeit not identical to, selling a defunct car. You wouldn’t voluntarily buy a car if knew it had a lower value than its sale price. Moreover, you would be upset if you knew you had been deceived by a lying car salesman. One could argue that patch notes function as a form of transparency. While this is partially true, we should not ignore Blizzard’s tendency to stealth nerf abilities and to completely miss obvious design bugs. Moreover, patch notes are never truly telling of how the game will actually change. While they might serve as a prediction to how a class might perform, they are mostly just that: a prediction.
Given that WoW PvP developers now have readily accessible tools to moderate class design in PvP, it is their duty to sell a product that delivers a valuable experience. Blizzard should be more open to design changes driven by experiential information from the world’s most knowledgeable players. With the ability for design to shape the meta and the meta to shape design, there is no excuse for delivering a bad product. Doing so would be a serious case of neglect on Blizzard’s part. While I am not advocating for specific class changes, I think a more open dialogue between developers and players could have holistic benefits for the game, even in its pluralistic platform.