Meta This, Meta That

In any game with a competitive edge, there is always some aspect of a meta build or setup. Commonly referred to as "flavour-of-the-month", this is what leads to certain characters, classes, races, builds - you name it - rising to prominence for a set duration before either being nerfed or being replaced by a new meta following buffs.

For example, in SWTOR, Commandos enjoyed a notable period of being flavour-of-the-month in PvP when 5.0 introduced their reflect and amazing self-healing potentials, while Sentinels have always enjoyed a position somewhere in the top DPS classes for many patches. 

It's the sort of thing which, as players of these games, we kinda have to acknowledge isn't going to ever go away. There will always be a meta. That's fine as long as it can, on the whole, be ignored.

However, it's the times when it really can't be ignored that can be infuriating.

SWTOR's raid content, on the whole, has tended to be fairly lenient over the years. As long as you can play a class well, you should be able to enter the majority of content with it. There are a couple of specs, notably Balance, which can be very clunky to apply to certain difficulties of content, but that's more down to how they're built than the numbers they're capable of pulling. That's a real shame, as Balance is an absolutely wonderful spec.

With 6.0, where all content outside of Nature of Progress were scaled to level 70 compared to the maximum level of 75, things changed just a tad. To begin with, things were fine; Veteran's Edge might have made things "too easy" for the top-top % to be happy with, but it at least meant that even when scaled, gear still had a major impact on performance in master mode operations. Additionally, at this point a lot of this content is so old that it should be made a bit more accessible to other players, else master mode progression raiding will just die out. There are only so many times one can tolerate needing to progress through Scum & Villainy again from scratch with all the headaches that entails.

However, since all of 6.0's content was built with Veteran's Edge in mind, the sudden removal of it in 6.1 meant that a lot of that content subsequently became too difficult. My raid team had cleared up to the Terror on our first night in TFB a week prior to this change, which, sure, can be seen as excessively easy, but consider what happened the following week once this change had been implemented.

We couldn't get Writhing Horror down at all. This one change meant that we had gone from enjoying a decent level of success that would be expected of players of our level of experience and playtime, to suddenly finding a roadblock with boss one. Sure, we did get her down a week later, but it became clear very quickly that we would have our work cut out for us from this point forward. BW did bolster stats in master mode again shortly afterward, but it still wasn't enough as the content was still tuned higher than that bolster. 

Now, to put some context to the situation here, my guild is not one that insists that all of its progression raiders bring the highest DPS or healing class available. We do have some players who like jumping around to various characters depending on fights (or just because they fancy bringing a certain character along), but as long as our players enjoy playing a class and can play it to a level that allows us to make good headway, that's good enough for us.

This therefore set us somewhat at odds with where the meta was starting to shift from this point forth. The best fight I can set as an example would be the Hateful Entity in S&V master mode. We gave it a good go in 6.0 with a team of good players, getting at least a third of its health down, but eventually it just proved too taxing and we walked away. 

We learnt shortly afterward that the commonly-accepted strategy for that fight was to just stack  your group full of Powertechs as your DPS. They would all share their Rebounders to mitigate the incoming damage and use Hydraulic Overrides to negate the knockbacks as much as possible. If a fight is so insanely tuned that you have to resort to such a specific team-composition to get it down... something has gone hideously wrong.

Even in 'normal' MM fights it became clear that we'd have to resort to adopting specific strategies just to get fights down. Returning back to Writhing Horror, the best way to get it down was to take at least one Shadow tank in, as they would stealth out at the tank-swap, meaning that no babies would spawn in for the group to deal with. Granted, it's not the most OP Shadow tanks have been - at the start of 5.0, they could literally one-shot the boss the moment the first tank-swap mechanic happened. One ability, boom, boss dies. Additionally, for the longest while, the best way to tank Operations Chief was to shimmy-and-shake behind the pipe and line-of-sight the majority of his attacks.

Both of these have since been patched out, and you know what that means for Horror? It means that to have the best shot at killing it in 7.0, you would just stack your group with high AoE DPS classes and burn those adds down on top of the boss. No dealing with the flower mechanic as intended, just group those adds up and burn them down. In a way, it's still ignoring the mechanic like before, but it just seems ridiculous that still, after all this time, you shouldn't execute the fight "properly".

The case of the Horror in this patch-cycle is just one indicator of how silly things have been with 7.0. The content has been so difficult for the past five-and-a-half months that if you aren't running with a specific setup and with very skilled players behind all those characters, you will have very little chance at clearing that content. This impacts a vast number of the fights in master mode and even a couple of veteran mode fights. According to parsely, IZAX VM hadn't been cleared once prior to 7.1, and even now it doesn't look like any teams have managed it. Gods From the Machine is thus the only operation in the game at the moment that no group has seemingly been able to clear beyond SM.

Even with the new operation, it's clear that there is a strong degree of meta. The first boss in VM is currently forcing groups to take in teams consisting solely of DPS and healers. Sure, the others beyond that are reportedly easier, but the lengths a team has to go to to even stand a chance at getting past the first boss... it doesn't fill me with enthusiasm. Never mind how Dominique seems to encourage bringing in classes that can reliably negate the knockbacks and mitigate incoming damage even in SM...


Granted, as bad as things can be in SWTOR right now, it does have some way to go until it matches the sheer lunacy of the meta in Elder Scrolls Online.

This past year in ESO has seen player builds become increasingly homogenised. For context, unlike in SWTOR, classes have only a limited degree of class identity, since any character of any class can be magicka, stamina, wield any type of weapon, wear any weight of armour, and be any kind of role. With a change earlier this year to make it so that damage of all kinds scales with your highest offensive resources, this means that now magic characters can wield swords, daggers, axes, etc. with as much if not better effectiveness than they could a staff, and they can now just pick any ability as long as they can sustain their resources properly.

"What's the significance of that?", you may ask. It lies in the achievements. While in SWTOR only Nature of Progress and R-4 Anomaly have challenge achievements, most if not all veteran raids and even dungeons in ESO do, including no-death, timed runs, and completing a special "hard mode" version of certain fights (basically, imagine setting foot into a VM run where you could opt to turn a boss into its MM equivalent). The hardest achievements in this game are the trifectas - no-death, timed run, and hard mode all in one go. If your best shot to complete these achievements is to spec your character into a hybrid build, you can be damned sure that you'll be encouraged to do so. 

Bear in mind that this can, and likely will, involve hours of grinding specific content to get as many of the "right" pieces as possible and, with how often ESO releases new sets, you may find yourself doing this every couple of months rather than once every two years or so if certain new sets or items are deemed "good" enough. I think at the moment healers are encouraged to collect about five or so sets for raiding, corresponding with their fellow healers before each raid to see which set they'll be wearing to provide specific benefits to the group. This is even before you consider what classes those healers are, which adds a further layer to proceedings.

I was initially quite dismissive of the extremes of this practice - "you don't need to force yourself to do this", I remember saying to one guildie who complained about it - but after investigating it myself... yeah, I can see why they do. My main character over there, a Templar, can pull about 55 - 60k on a dummy in her full magic build, the one I've always used forever. After acquiring the right skills, weapons, etc. to adhere to a "meta" version of that same build, that DPS increased to 75 - 80k. That's at least an increase of +36% DPS, and even then that's still on the lower side compared to what these builds can pull (current record is about 140k, but that's very extreme; a lot of builds are in the high 90 - 110k range). 

Sure, in an actual raid that DPS will be around half of what it is on the dummy, but still; one of those builds will effectively be being carried in a raid, while the other is pulling its weight more effectively. 

The closest comparator I have to that in SWTOR is my beloved Sage. I run a decidedly off-meta build with her Legendaries, having opted for Dynamic Force and Force Training even though the meta recommends Gathering Storm and Unmatched Haste. The difference between the two builds on a dummy parse is less than 10%. Is GS / UH a better pairing? Undoubtedly, based on the numbers, yes. Do I care? Not in the slightest. I can still more than pull my own weight in group content with the off-meta build and I am not lumbered with a playstyle I quickly grew to dislike immensely throughout 6.0. Win-win, as far as I'm concerned.

That's the problem that I have with content strongly encouraging you to adapt to a meta build or group setup for group content. It's one thing if you're just shy of the required DPS or survivability checks because you're running with a group that differs from the ideal, but it's another if you're not even left with a decent chance of clearing that content as a result. What can you hope to do when even your apparent best is not enough?

Yet that's where things have been for the past few months. If you're a meta-chaser who enjoys being able to play numerous classes to a high standard and surround yourself with players who feel similarly, good chance this is the sort of thing you really like. To players like myself, however, this sort of thing feels incredibly tedious and just makes me question what enjoyment I really derive from these games anymore.

It also makes it really difficult to incentivise new players joining in with harder content, as there is a lot for them to understand before they can really get involved. I've said it earlier, but this content really should not be an extremely exclusive club, only open to the top-top % of players. If it remains so for a considerable length of time and enough of those players leave... eventually this level of progression raiding will just die out altogether. It certainly remains at risk of doing so the harder it becomes for newer players to be introduced to it, and that seems to be the way BW are going about things at the moment.

I recently rolled a new Sith Warrior, just to remind myself that there is more to SWTOR than fretting about whether or not certain content can be cleared. I'm thankful for the communities I've been a part of in both ESO and SWTOR, because without them... I'm this close to just calling it quits for MMOs altogether just to escape the almost overwhelming presence the concept of meta has at the moment.

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