Author Topic: Why do tier lists exist? What do they mean? Do they matter?  (Read 2355 times)

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Diablo Interceptor

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Why do tier lists exist? What do they mean? Do they matter?
« on: December 31, 2014, 08:32:30 PM »
I think that this post needs a small introduction. MetaMechs is primarily about tier lists (although there's tons of other awesome stuff constantly coming down the pipeline, thanks G!), it's entirely possible that you had never heard of a tier list until PGI put out theirs. PGI didn't really give a good explanation on what a tier list is or why mechs were assigned tiers. A lot of people probably looked at it and agreed with it because all the mechs in the lower tiers were/are constantly trashed on the forums and all the mechs in high tiers are constantly called OP. So with little to no explanation and a trail of breadcrumbs to follow people might, understandably, be confused on what a tier list is and what it's actually trying to show. This article is meant to introduce you to the ideas behind tier lists and doesn't focus too much on MWO (guess what my next article's going to be about  ;D). I am of course open to questions and decisions, I will do my best to fix/clarify anything brought to my attention.

In any competitive game there are tiers. No really, every game. Most of the time tiers are a way to break down which characters will give you a higher probability of winning. Well why is it that all the characters in a game have the same chance to win? Sadly, character diversity breeds inequality. Every character in a game should have something unique that sets them apart from the other characters. Sometimes that just means Character A gets something better than Character B. Now hopefully Character B will have something that balances out Character A's advantage, thus achieving some kind of balance. However sometimes what Character B gets isn't enough to elevate them to Characters A level. So now we have 2 tiers, a high tier (Character A) and a low tier (Character B).

Two characters aren't enough to fill a modern games roster, so lets add a third character (Character C). Now a developer has to look at:
-How does Character A match up against Character B
-How does Character A match up against Character C
-How does Character B match up against Character C
If the dev buffs Character B to be able to fight Character A on even footing this could potentially mean Character C couldn't compete with one of them (or both, but for this example we'll assume Character C can compete with Character A). So now we need to buff Character C to be on par with Character B. Now Character C can fight Character B, but kicks Character A's ass. So why (objectively) would you ever use Character A or Character B? Character C is equal to Character B and beats Character A. Character B is equal to both Character A and Character C. Character C is clearly better overall than the other two characters. Most games have 30-50+ characters. Imagine how hard it is to compare every detail of one character to every detail of all the other characters. Something is going to be missed, one character will have something that makes them very strong. IT IS UNAVOIDABLE.

So now that we've established that tiers are a fact of life we have also indirectly established that there will always be a top tier. Some of you may think that is the worst outcome this article could have ever revealed to you. It's actually not as bad as it may sound to you. What truly matters is that 1 or 2 characters don't completely dominate the competitive scene. Having 4-10 top tier characters is actually a sign of a very well made and balanced game. "Why is 4 better than 1, why would the number of top tiers matter?" Well, let me explain what makes a character top tier. Anything classified as top tier is a reflection of how the game should be played (more on that idea later). If there's only one character in the top tier then that means there is only 1 way to play the game. The top tier character will be the best character in the game because they will be the best at doing that 1 thing. If there's only one way to play the game there may be other characters that can also perform adequately, but why would you play them? The top tier character has no competition, only lesser versions of itself. If you wanted to win why would you pick anything but the best? You wouldn't. So one top tier means one way to play the game, doesn't sound like something that has much lasting appeal. If there's at least 4 top tiers then you're playing something with more options than rock paper scissors. Think about how long people have played RPS. The game will have enough depth to  guarantee the more skilled player usually wins, not the player who can abuse 1 gimmick the best.

"BUT WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF THE TIERS??? I LIKE THEM!" A mark of a really good game is having tiers that are below top tier that can still be considered competitive. There will be a tier that is uncompetitive, it will be filled with characters that have nothing that sets them apart from the rest of the cast (or worse the things that make the character unique make them worse, looking at you vindicators). If there's a significant enough number of the cast in the competitive tiers then you have a lot of variety with the potential to still be able to win. Variety is fun! It's a good thing!

In fact your playstyle might mean you have a better chance of winning if you don't pick top tier. There are even some advantages to not picking top tier. People will be used to  fighting the top tier, when they see a top tier they know what to expect. When you bring some crazy shit no one has ever seen a player will have to figure out how to fight you. You can't ignore how the game is "supposed" to be played, but you can have your own twist on it. While people are trying to understand what it is you're doing you have the advantage of knowing how a top tier is played. They're spending time trying to understand how you play while you plan your next move. If they figure you out before you win then you obviously lose that advantage and are at a disadvantage.

If you're on these forums you have probably seen the main site, WHICH HAS TIER LISTS (thats craaaaaaazy). You might have noticed that there is a drop down menu entitled "Archive" and that it shows old tier lists. Why are there old tier lists? Isn't there one tier list forever? NOPE. Tier lists evolve over time as the game changes. Earlier I talked about how top tier reflects how the game is supposed to be played, well truth is no one really knows how to play the game. As a game is played people will begin to develop their own playstyles. If a competitive scene forms around a game then the competitive player's play styles will constantly clash with each other over and over again. After many repetitions of that cycle a few strategies will prove to be more successful than others, that's the beginning of the top tiers. Games are constantly evolving, weather it be a new player with a different take on the game or a patch that changes the game the grand strategy of a game is always growing. A game could have been played the same way for 5 years, then one day some unknown guy shows up and wrecks everyone. The game will be played different after that. The tiers will change because of that, someone who was playing top tier may have to drop that character because the game has shifted away from what that character was able to do. Hell that character could drop into the uncompetitive tier if the change is drastic enough.

There doesn't have to be a unified tier list either. Top players all have differing opinions on the game. The compiled tier list is usually what all the pros agree on, a top player might come here to tell me how dumb I am for discounting the vindicators. I would encourage anyone interested in a competitive game to keep their own tier lists and change it as their understanding of the  game grows. Just make sure you're not keeping something in a certain tier out of stubbornness.

Ok so now that we know that the best character in a game represents how that game "should" be played and understand that games evolve over time. However we haven't really talked much about how a tier list is created.  In some cases making a tier list is pretty easy because there is a character that is clearly just better than everyone else (looking at you timber wolf), but what if that isn't the case. Clearly the best players have a large say in what is on the list, but how would one good player quickly and concisely explain why one character is placed higher than expected on their tier list? What if there are two very strong candidates that have something making them unique from one another, how could someone convince you one was slightly superior? In short, how can we make an objective tier list based off subjective observations? The best way to do this is to establish a ranking system that shows how one character is expected to do in a 1v1 engagement. The character that does the best against the most characters is the best character in the game. There are some characters that do well/average against 90% of the cast, but lose to the top tier. The fact that the top tier can destroy them doesn't make them bottom tier, but the fact they can do well against 90% of the cast doesn't make them top tier either. If a character loses to the way the game is supposed to be played how could  it be considered top tier? This is how the competitive tiers are formed, they're full of characters that can win but suffer against some form of the meta game. Sometimes a character can't cope with the meta at all, so against a character that is what the meta is formed around they have no chance of winning. This obviously hurts their overall usefulness because any good character will represent the meta to some degree, however the character might have some interesting properties that make playing them useful in limited circumstances. It's important to know if a low tier character does extremely well against a certain character or tactic and make sure not to use, because if you can take away the one thing they're good at you almost auto win. It's also worth noting that these kind of systems can be misleading in very dynamic battles. A bad match up could actually be equal until one of the players manages to shift the battle into their favor by employing a situational strategy. Remember to research your match ups, because they might not be straightforward.
 
There are some people who hate the idea that tier list exist and  hate that people use them. Even if you are someone with that view you should make sure to not discourage anyone from playing a certain character (unless that character is utterly broken, like comes equipped with console commands). If you're playing a character that is underrepresented because you believe doing so gives you the best chance of winning then stick to that character. However if you're avoiding playing a character because they are strong/placed high on a tier list and are searching the bottom of a tier list to find a character to play I have news for you, intentionally handicapping yourself not only hurts your own growth but hurts people who are relying on you to provide competition. If you lose and say to someone that they only won because they were playing top tier and you weren't (regardless if that's true or not) you need to realise that the only one keeping you from playing the same character is you, not them. If you refuse to give up a character you love tiers be damned (I know that feeling all too well) you have to accept that:
-You will have to work harder than someone using top tier to get the same results
-You might be walking into an unwinnable situation
-People won't stop playing top tier just because you're not using them
If you just read all of that and thought "WORTH IT" then keep using that character. Don't stop because someone tells you too, don't stop because I told you it was a bad idea, only stop when you've hit a wall and can't win. If that doesn't bother you then keep playing, but if you keep walking away from a game thinking "man I had that, what happened?" That might be a sign you should try out a new character, and if you're looking to win top tier isn't a bad place to start looking.

Now that you have an understanding of tier lists you should ask yourself a question, "do tier lists matter to me?" The biggest deciding factor in your answer will probably be how badly you want to win. If you really want to win the best way to go about it is to pick a top tier and learn that character inside out. Pick whichever top tier character speaks to you and get to work! If you don't find yourself having fun with that character look in a slightly lower tier for a similar character. If none of the top tiers seem to interest you pick someone in the competitive tier and play them. You may find that as you get better with that character a top tier character that has many similarities begins to look attractive. Both of those routes have the potential for success, if you're willing to put the work in. If the answer is something like "I'm able to win with the character that I like," then you should stick to that character. If you start to have trouble winning with that character just always remember that you can look at a tier list to see if there's another character you enjoy that's in a higher tier. If so you might want to consider switching. Of course if everything I've written up to this point sounds incredibly foolish to you and you're thinking something like, "It's a game, as long as I had fun I don't care if I win or lose." You don't care about tiers, and you shouldn't. You should do what you think is fun and not worry about someone telling you that you don't play optimally. Just because there's a select group of the player base that are focused on being the best at the game doesn't mean that you should be part of that group. Just try to not get upset if they take your fun away with their optimized play, you don't have to play with them if you're not having fun.

MAN that was a lot of text! It was all really important stuff though, I hope you read all of it. I think I'll just summarize everything down here:
-What is a tier list? In it's most basic form it's a list that shows how the game is being played.
-Why do they exist? Some characters are better at playing the "meta game" than others.
-Should I listen/care about tiers? If you want to join a comp team and win then yes. If you're playing for fun feel free to ignore tiers.

GMan129

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Re: Why do tier lists exist? What do they mean? Do they matter?
« Reply #1 on: January 01, 2015, 03:29:50 AM »
Great article, man. Personally, I was first introduced to tier lists by Elementz from League of Legends and RoG continues to have an impact on how I do it. But this is a very nice article for introducing the concept behind tier lists. I'm putting it on the front page now :)

edit: actually, do you mind if I also re-host this as a page on the main site? I think it's really valuable and want it to have a place (I'd also do some minor formatting changes)
« Last Edit: January 01, 2015, 03:32:03 AM by GMan129 »

Sai Peregrinus

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Re: Why do tier lists exist? What do they mean? Do they matter?
« Reply #2 on: January 01, 2015, 03:32:52 AM »
I must object most strenuously to your last line.

If I'm playing for fun, I'm playing to win. That means playing the top tier mechs, and playing my best. That means using every advantage I can get, within the rules of the game (no hacks/aimbots or the like.)

Now, if I'm playing for "shits & giggles" then I'll take bottom tier mechs/builds. EG this:


It's unlikely to win, it's not fun, but it is funny. It can be enjoyable.

Diablo Interceptor

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Re: Why do tier lists exist? What do they mean? Do they matter?
« Reply #3 on: January 01, 2015, 04:48:56 PM »
@Gman: Feel free to put this on the main site, I hope someone finds it useful. Also make any formatting changes you think are necessary. I've already started another post about how MWOs tiers work differently than a "normal" tier list, we'll see if anything comes of it.

@Sai: Well I did say to feel free to ignore them :P I am a competitive kinda guy, so even when playing for fun I play to win (I have never found losing to be fun). I understand that there are some people who don't share the same mindset, and I didn't want to end the article with "only the ggclose guys get to look at the list" vibe so  I included that. Perhaps I could have phrased it differently, but that was the intent of said statement.