What Does 'Meta' Mean?
Note: These pages are outdated.
When players refer to the "meta" they can mean multiple things. In regards to individual player character builds, they are referring to builds that are understood by the community to be optimal by providing terrific support capabilities along with good DPS. In regards to team compositions, they are referring to a composition that is generally accepted to be the one that provides the most efficient way to complete a dungeon.
These are not definite concepts, but an ever-changing zeitgeist based on the most up to date build ideas and strategies. What is "meta" one day could easily be outside the meta the next simply as a result of changing tastes and approaches. Additionally, there are multiple metas. There is a meta for record runs, a meta for casual daily speed clears and a meta for pick up groups. These all vary from each in important ways, but in some respect they are each "meta".
For example, in a record run meta team Mesmer is often favored over Guardian due to access to Portal despite having lower defensive utility; whereas in a daily speed clear team Guardian is preferred for exactly the same reason. In a record run speed is preferred to smoothness since the run can be reset in case of a mistake, in a daily run a little speed is worth sacrificing for a smooth run. As a result, it is important to know when someone refers to a meta, which meta he is actually discussing.
What Is The Meta?
The PvE speed run meta is centered around a few pillar concepts. The professions can change as balance patches and community tastes evolve, but the roles will remain.
Might, Fury and Vulnerability Stacking: Party-wide Might and Fury stacking is an enormous DPS boost and the foundation of every party composition theorycraft. A party composition that does not have a reliable plan for achieving and maintaining 25 Might stacks and 100% Fury uptime is to be considered suboptimal with no further consideration needed. The same can almost be said for Vulnerability as the effect is quite powerful, but achieving 25 Vulnerability for the duration of a boss fight is almost impossible so it is regarded as one area where "good enough is good enough."
Projectile Defenses: Whereas bosses and mobs with melee attacks can be dodged or blinded, projectile attacks are much harder to defend against without specific planning. In almost every dungeon path or fractal map there are projectile attacks that if not accounted for will decimate a party. Thus, every meta party includes one member who is responsible for projectile defenses as well as the other players bringing some additional defenses when even more are required. This is also a foundational concept: any team without the capability of blocking or reflecting projectiles would be considered sub-optimal summarily.
Stealth: Stealth is not a requirement for completion of any instance, but utilizing stealth to bypass otherwise tedious or troublesome trash mobs is an immense time saver. The completion time of dungeons can be reduced substantially by using stealth, but even more than reducing completion time stealth reduces the overall difficulty of dungeons. Like the others, stealth is a pillar concept and as stealth is valuable in nearly every instance, it is considered non-negotiable in team composition.
Active Defense: While all content can be beaten with any gear type, the most efficient method (aka the meta) is to utilize Berserker stats enabled by active defenses. The community has discovered that actively mitigating damage with dodges, blocks, blinds and positioning is a superior strategy than using passive defenses (higher armor and healing) to deal with enemy attacks. Utilizing active defenses allows players to wear gear prefixes that eschew defensive stats in order to maximize their offensive capabilities.
These core concepts have been implemented in different ways by the community as the game has evolved but they are now and will remain the basis of every "meta" group moving forward.
Profession Roles Within The Meta
Each profession has a role within the meta. Many of the roles overlap and some professions can perform the same role better than another, and this is reflected in the individual profession's perceived value in the community. At the time of this writing, Elementalist is valued extremely highly and Necromancer valued extremely lowly, for example. The is a reflection of the utility and role-fulfillment each professional is capable of much more so than simply a ranking of their DPS.
Primary Fury provider with Persisting Flames. Also very strong Might generation capabilities. On demand blast finishers to assist other professions in their roles. Can provide projectile defenses. Conjured weapons provide a non-standard unique DPS boost for the party and powerful crowd control abilities. Elementalist also contributes to group Swiftness. Extremely high personal DPS.
Engineer can produce the most sustained Vulnerability stacks in the game. Additionally they are one of the few professions capable of creating a smoke field to generate Stealth. The same smoke field can assist defensively by blinding trash mobs. They also have access to many blast finishers to assist in overall utility. Lastly they have strong condition cleansing capabilities. Engineer can also provide Might generation for the party. A skilled Engineer is an effective Jack of All Trades for a dungeon party. Very high personal DPS.
Guardian is primarily a defensive support class. They have among the best sustained projectile defenses, Stability and condition cleansing. Additionally, they can provide Aegis which is a critical active defense for fights with powerful one hit kill type attacks. Lower tier personal DPS.
Mesmer is also a defensive support class primarily. They are also capable of very good projectile defense and condition cleanse. They also provide Stability and very powerful crowd control capabilities. The elite skill Time Warp is an offensive buffing skill for the party which is very highly prized. The lack of an on demand blast finisher and well as the incapability of providing useful combo field contributes to the preference for Guardian in many parties, however the skill Portal can allow for advanced groups to save significant completion time in the dungeon. Lower tier personal DPS.
Necromancer is second only to Engineer in Vulnerability production and can also bring Blinds for defense against trash mobs. However, they lack blast finishers and group buffing capabilities, and the combo fields they generate are not highly prized currently. Necromancer is capable of cleansing conditions for the group as well as crowd control and enemy boon stripping. Lowest personal DPS.
Ranger is an offensive support class with excellent unique DPS buffs like Spotter and Frost Spirit. Additionally, each Ranger pet can bring unique group buffing abilities like Might and Fury generation. Thanks to Warhorn, Ranger is excellent at helping group Fury and Swiftness uptime. With offhand Axe, they can provide minor projectile defenses as well. Their best healing skill is a Water field which can be blasted for group healing and also cures a condition. Upper middle tier personal DPS.
Thief is the master of Stealth as they are capable of generating permanent stealth for a party in dungeons, which makes them extremely useful. Additionally, they are also the best profession for generating Blinds to defend against trash mobs. Thanks to Smokescreen they are able to contribute to projectile defense. Their Shortbow skill Cluster Bomb is an on demand spammable blast finisher which gives them to ability to contribute by blasting other professions' fields in order to maximize their value. Extremely high personal DPS.
Warrior is an offensive support class, like Ranger, with excellent unique DPS boosting abilities. Thanks to Empower Allies, Banner of Strength and Banner of Discipline, they can provide unique buffs that can increase a team's DPS by almost 30%. Additionally, the trait Phalanx Strength allows Warrior to be the primary Might generator for his party, sustaining the party at the maximum 25 stacks for the duration of the battle. Out of combat their warhorn can provide group swiftness and it has an on demand blast finisher for utility. Lastly, Warrior ranks just behind Engineer and Necromancer is its ability to generate Vulnerability stacks for the group. Middle to Lower tier DPS depending on build.
What the exact "meta builds" and "meta team composition" is can change with each balance patch and the community preferences. However, the general roles I described will continue. When reviewing each profession's capabilities, the overarching theme of the description is what party utility they bring to the party as opposed to their personal DPS or personal defenses. As we have learned through experience, five players sharing group utility and responsibilities are exponentially more effective than five players acting independently. The best results will flow from players doing their best to maximize the group value they contribute via the pillars of the PvE meta as previously stated.