Five Levels of Metagaming
The usual reduction is something like this – either you're the team that has designed the dominant strategy in a given metagame, or you're trying your best to copy them, or trying your best to beat them. As far as reductions go, this isn't a terrible way to summarize how metagaming works, but the truth is that the range of decision-making involved in metagaming is a lot wider than that and a team that plays a metagame merely by directly subscribing to it is always going to be one step behind teams that consciously analyze and engage with the metagame itself.
What follows is a breakdown of 5 distinct ways that a team can metagame in Dota 2 which will hopefully demonstrate different degrees to which a team might choose to respect a given metagame or be influenced by it. Before I begin, though, I feel obliged to add that often the biggest error to commit when metagaming is quite simply to metagame at all. Which is to say, it will not always be necessary for a team to adapt their drafts or playstyle to a given metagame and, moreover, attempts to overcompensate for a given metagame can easily end up inadvertently hamstringing yourself. A similar sentiment was raised by PPD recently in his post-TI4 interview with EG. When asked about the suggestion that teams often hide their strategies when preparing for tournaments, PPD replied:
I think the idea of sandbagging before TI is more or less a joke; teams should strive to do their best so they can learn the most. Playing below your full capability will only hurt yourself and your team more in the end.
While this sentiment underpins the potential risks of over-thinking your metagaming in an attempt to avoid other teams metagaming against you, more commonly the mistake made when over-thinking metagaming is to spend too much time worrying about what everyone else is trying to do and too little time thinking about what you are good at doing. Of course, this does not mean teams should not metagame at all – completely ignoring a tournament's metagame can be as damaging as over-emphasizing the importance of it. The bottom line is just that teams should metagame intelligently and selectively, depending on their particular circumstances.
Level 1: Minor Adjustments
Prepare small adjustments to lineups that you like to run which situate you better in a given metagame or against a given opponent. An excellent example of this was iG prioritizing Earthshaker against Mousesports at ESL One Frankfurt. This despite the fact that they were running what was ultimately a deathball strategy with Pugna, Lycan, Shadow Shaman and Mirana as the other picks. While the ES might not be the best pick for furthering the Deathball directly, it was extremely well placed against the super-aggressive early game that Mouz ran and were known to run going into the tournament. ES is by no means is a useless hero in the lineup but it's clear that the role of the hero in this particular type of draft has more to do with dealing with the enemy line-up than directly achieving one of your own objectives.
Level 2: Finding Kryptonites
While we've just looked at the idea of making very small tweaks to a lineup to make it better suited to a particular opponent or a particular metagame, it can also often be useful to prepare specific and direct counter-picks for particular heroes. A good example of this is how teams often try to draft Elder Titan against Morphling – almost always in these situations the team would not even consider the ET pick in the absence of the opposing Morphling pick. When it comes to this kind of direct counter-picking, normally you want to narrow your focus to those heroes which are very strong in a given meta or those heroes that your upcoming opponents are likely to prioritize. I would not encourage any team to try do something like design counter-picks for every single hero in the game for this is the kind of thinking that can lead one into the sort of trouble warned of earlier. In most cases, your picks should be motivated by your own ideas and not the ideas of your opponents.
Level 3: Adapt to Your Environment
Metagaming is not only about preparing reactions to your opponents, though. While player preferences are one of the driving factors in metagaming, the game itself is a very big element to consider too. The combination of how the game currently looks and which heroes teams currently prioritize might give you reason to adjust your main line-ups to be better suited to a given environment. It is perhaps arguable that Arteezy 'maining' Razor at TI4 was an example of this - having played the hero only twice in competitive Dota 2 in 6.81 pre-TI4 and then 8 times during TI4, double his next highest hero played at the tournament (DK). Indeed, Razor appears to have been involved in most TI4 teams' metagaming plans for/during the tournament.
As with the above, the thing you want to usually avoid doing here is changing too much at once. Firstly, throwing yourself completely out of your comfort zone can affect both the confidence and ability of your team. Moreover, the more things you change, the harder it is to evaluate the result of any individual change and thus the harder it is to make any lasting progress. If we take TI4 as an example, Razor and Skywrath Mage were undoubtedly the breakout metagame picks for the event and yet both of these heroes achieved an overall win rate of less than 50% at the event. This should illustrate well the dangers of reducing metagaming to mere mimicry - just copying successful picks is far from guaranteeing success.
Level 4: Re-invent Yourself
Of course, caution against changing too much at once is only relevant up to the point that a team decides that a complete overhaul is called for. Sometimes a team's playstyle can become stale or outdated and attempts to refine or revive it might appear to be futile. In these cases, you might want to adjust your playstyle as a whole to be better suited to a given metagame. Anyone who has followed the competitive scene for a few years has probably observed how most Chinese teams have become much more aggressive in their playstyles since around 2011/2012. This is largely because Icefrog has constantly pushed the game away from safer, less interactive strategies. 4-protect-1, safe stack-abusing and even split-pushing are harder now than ever before. These days, if you want to win, you need to try control the game actively, and in most cases that amounts to aggression.
Level 5: Re-invent Your World
The fifth and final type of metagaming I'll discuss here is also the most extreme kind. Rather than making small adjustments where necessary or big adjustments where necessary, metagaming can also be about reviewing or revolutionizing your understanding of the game. Sometimes it pays to completely re-assess prioritization of heroes in general - try to understand the game anew. It might not be obvious why this would count as part of metagaming. After all, isn't looking at the game and working out what's good just, you know, part of the game? In a sense, yes. However, by being willing to discard your existing prejudices and look at the game with fresh eyes, you can often learn a lot about your own metagaming as well your opponents' metagaming. Which is to say, game and metagame exist in a state of reflective equilibrium.
Even though a metagame is a product of a game, our understanding of a metagame can dictate our understanding of the game. But metagame assumptions can often be wrong. In fact, as stated from the beginning, usually players just look at what other teams are doing, or what they're losing against, and assume that to be a sensible starting point in their theorycrafting. But there's no reason why this should necessarily be the case. Thus, by deconstructing and reconstructing your understanding of the game, you can reveal which of your beliefs were themselves the result of metagaming. This should make it easier to focus your metagaming in places where it makes sense and discard misleading assumptions that you may have picked up along the way. It's difficult to point to specific examples of this but I believe that most professional players spend at least some of their time on this sort of thinking. After all, metagames change very regularly without the game itself changing - and this must surely be at least partially explained by people learning to think in better or more appropriate ways.
One of the most frustrating and exciting things about metagames is just how fast they can move. Something can be massive one week and disappear the next. Remember: it's not only you that's metagaming. Everyone is doing it. Sometimes, you shouldn't even be analyzing the current metagame but the one that you expect to be round the corner.
Hopefully, this article gives you a nice entry point into the world of metagaming. Remember that metagames are less like rules for you to learn and more like discussions for you to critically engage with. It's extremely difficult to be good at metagaming and often driving forces in a metagame end up in that position inadverently, just by being good at the game.