The dust has settled in the rush for the autobattler genre, and it's not surprising who emerged as its strongest pillars. Riot Games' Teamfight Tactics put a playfully interactive spin on the formula with carousels and emotes, while Valve's Dota Underlords adhered more closely to the blueprint of the original Dota 2 mod.
But months have passed, and the two titans of auto chess are rewriting the rules. Two major updates, launched within days of each other, are completely changing how this mix of deck-building and semi-automated strategy plays out.
The "auto chess" craze, named after a mod for Dota 2 called "Dota Auto Chess," saw both Riot and Valve quickly invest in the growing scene. It seemed to hit fever pitch in record time, drawing comparisons to battle royales and MOBAs before it, but the fight for top-billing didn't last long. Those two publishers rose above the din of other "autobattlers," as they'd be called, and have largely dominated the scene, barring the mobile Auto Chess from the original mod's creators.
The genre's best advantage was how malleable it was; players manage and arrange a board of units who then clash with other players' boards, combining synergistic warriors and dealing damage until only one is left standing. It's a mix of real-time deck-building, where you have to adapt on the fly depending on what options you're given through the unit shop and what opponents are fielding, and hands-off tactics; the thrill of building a perfect board and then letting go, watching as a spectator to see if you've built the perfect team or another loss.
It's been a few months now. Teamfight Tactics has confirmed its here to stay, and Dota Underlords isn't going anywhere. This week, both launched massive updates, their own overhauls they've been building for a long time. The result is a glimpse of auto chess' future, and a reminder of how much room there is to explore.
Teamfight Tactics Introduces Sets
On Riot Games' side of the fence, Teamfight Tactics has revealed it will be rotating through "sets," starting with the set currently on the Public Beta Environment called "Rise of the Elements." It coincides with League of Legends' own elemental theme for the coming season, but it's also a novel new way of approaching rotation.
The greatest issue with expanding an autobattler is the glut of units that can accumulate, update over update. Every round, a player's shop is pulled from the available pool of units, with different rarities showing up depending on how long the game's gone on and how high of a level players are. The more pieces you add to the pool, the less likely it is players will be able to pull the unit they need; if one player is sitting at five of six units they need for, say, a Noble or Assassin synergy, finding that last unit should feel like a relief, not an impossibility.
Riot's answer is to completely revise the pool of available units with each set. Similar to card games like Magic: The Gathering, a set in Teamfight Tactics cuts a large number of the units and synergies available in favor of a full-on reset. While the item combinations have remained the same, most of the champions are brand new, with new boons accrued by deploying units of similar elemental affinities or class alignments. Even returning faces might have new abilities, or play a different role thanks to a shifted alignment.
It might seem like a brutal revision, but it's an influx of life into the game that makes Teamfight Tactics feel fresh all over again. It's hard to truly recapture the mystified, starry-eyed first few games of an autobattler, as you try to haphazardly scrape together a team that can hold its own while reading your growing list of synergies with idealistic glee.
Rise of the Elements tries to capture that, and mostly succeeds, though it does highlight ongoing friction between how much info is presented in-game versus what you need to Google search on another monitor. The new player experience is still one that seems to hang on whether you have someone to shepherd you through the roughest moments of your first few games.
But where lack of information feels like it hamstrings one autobattler's overhaul, an excess of information can do the same. And that's where Dota Underlords comes in.
Putting the Underlords in Dota Underlords
When Riot and Valve had both initially launched their takes on Dota Auto Chess, I took a look at both and found that Teamfight Tactics did more for me than Underlords. Valve's initial offering felt like it adhered too close to safety, and needed to develop an identity in its own right.
Over the course of the last few months, Dota Underlords has made those strides, introducing smart changes to the item system and putting twists on Auto Chess' original synergies. But while those were all permutations and twists on laid-out concepts, the "Big Update" that launched this week feels like Underlords becoming its own game. Its simple solution for unit glut, a rotating jail where some will be locked out each day, is both clever and charming. A number of changes to existing alliances and the addition of some new units has done a lot revitalize the game. That all pales in comparison, however, to two major overhauls: a visual makeover, and the addition of the game's titular Underlords.
The new look of Dota Underlords can be best described as Football Manager for Auto Chess. At every moment in-game there is a flood of information blasted at you: current standings, damage stats, current alliances active, items and their holders, your bench and shop, the status of your gold and health, and the current path of your Underlord. There's the board too, with lines extending out to identify potential synergy in relation to board position, and you can expand out or tab through several of these sections to uncover more data.
It is, to put it simply, a lot. Dota 2 has had a similar infatuation with data and numbers for good reason, but the Underlords update has put it all front and center, with little warning and not many options for reducing the visual clutter. I like being able to see numbers, but it needs to be something I can opt into.
Where the Underlords update shines is in the Underlords themselves. In every match of Dota Underlords, you now field an Underlord of your choosing: a hero unit that levels up as the game progresses, letting you opt between different talents and abilities at various stages to adjust to your chosen playstyle. Even with only two Underlords available, it's clear how much this will shape Dota Underlords to come: while my fireball-flinging hero was incredible for doing long-term damage to foes or souping up my key units, the healer hero made my life difficult by undoing my damage and summoning extra foes to deal with.
This update has given Dota Underlord an identity outside of Auto Chess, something it can demonstrably point to as its core difference. Where Teamfight Tactics changed with the carousel, Underlords has its Underlords, and now I'm excited to see how this system evolves over time. It also makes Underlords feel less beholden to Dota itself; while the units are all still heroes you know and love from Dota 2, the Underlords are their own characters with unique lore, backstories, and abilities. Both of the current Underlords offer their own playstyle, and future ones can expand even further into different strategies, formations, and synergies. This is the foundational, core difference I was waiting for, and it hasn't disappointed yet.
While each Dota Auto Chess successor has both leaned into its strengths and still wrestled with faults, the exciting part of this week's mountain of updates and patch notes was seeing how much each has evolved. It may have been only four months, but for a little while, I was worried that the genre would be forgotten as quickly as it flared into mainstream awareness; a flash in the pan, in the face of so many new and exciting projects.
With their updates, the new torchbearers of the genre have shown a willingness to throw out the rulebook and evolve on their own. Both still have their issues to overcome, and I hope they do, because this style of game still captures something few others can. The glory days of Dota Auto Chess are less than a year old and are already in the rearview mirror, but both Teamfight Tactics and Dota Underlords are working to forge their own path into 2020 to find what more it can be, and keep it from being another flash in the pan.