“Every battle is won before it’s ever fought.” — Sun Tzu
The metagame is about understanding the bigger picture and outsmarting the competition by doing something they can’t or won’t do.
When you understand why your competitors do the things they do, you can choose to play a game they can’t play.
An interesting section in an obscure poker book called The Raiser’s Edge explains the concept of a metagame:
The metagame is this psychological game that exists among players, involving adjustments – adjustments based on how an opponent is likely to interpret a given set of actions. Better players adjust their strategies and styles to those of particular opponents, always analyzing how the opponents are playing in terms of how the opponents believe they’re playing.
Maintaining a well-balanced strategy, while deciphering your opponents’ strategies, is the key to the metagame. If you comprehend the concept of the metagame, accurately perceive the flow of your table and then tournament, and stay alerted to and aware of current strategy trends, you’ll be able to successfully mix up your play when considering your image and that of your opponents. In return, your game will be highly unpredictable and difficult to read, which should be your ultimate goal.
Metagame Masters: Buffett and Belichick
Bill Belichick and Warren Buffett both use the metagame to gain an advantage.
Buffett, the world’s best investor, uses the metagame. He acquires public companies, makes them private, and encourages long-term strategies that are unavailable to public companies with shareholders who demand quarterly results. It gives private companies an edge public ones can’t match. Patience is hard to compete against.
Belichick, perhaps the best coach in NFL history, trades star players for seemingly nothing—a controversial, yet effective metagame strategy. Most coaches can’t trade away a star player before their performance drops because they fear the media turning against them for an unpopular decision. However, having a star player on your roster past their prime ensures a large chunk of your salary cap is used by someone underperforming their contract, which makes fielding a competitive team hard. In this context, it’s better to be early than late.
The Metagame: A Strategy for Success
The metagame is not a new concept. The ancient Romans employed a metagame strategy against Carthage. The Romans were excellent at hand-to-hand combat but lacked the naval capabilities of Carthage. Rather than try to compete on the sea, they built a boarding device and played to their strengths while exploiting their enemy’s weaknesses.
While figures like Buffett and Belichick may have more leeway due to their achievements, part of their greatness comes from identifying the constraints of others and capitalizing on those structural disadvantages. You can apply the metagame to any system where there are norms.
So much advantage in life comes from being willing to look like an idiot over the short term. If you do what everyone else does, you’ll get results like everyone else gets. Common approaches ensure common results. If you want to win, you need to play a different game. What ends as being better starts as being different.
Applying the Metagame in Your Life
The metagame can be used in various contexts beyond business and sports, such as politics, education, and even personal relationships. It’s about identifying the bigger picture, understanding the implicit rules and norms, and then creating a strategy that uses these factors to your advantage.
So, how can you apply the metagame in your life?
Start by identifying the unspoken rules in your situation. What constraints do others face, and how can you turn those into your strengths? How can you think one step ahead of your competition, whatever that may be?
Remember, the metagame is not just about winning in the traditional sense. It’s about redefining the game on your terms and creating your own path to success. It’s about taking a step back, understanding the broader context, and making moves others find hard to counter.
Only when you do something different can you outperform the norm. Make your move.