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Spawn Point: What on earth is an auto battler?

MOBAs mark 2

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What is an auto and how do I battle it? This is going to be a tough one.

Seriously, why are all the cool kids suddenly talking about level three Dragon Knights? That would be because they are playing Dota Underlords, the best of the auto battlers. At least for beginners.

What do those words even mean? Sorry. An auto battler is a strategy game where you recruit armies that er, battle automatically. Each match is structured around a series of fights against seven human opponents. You spend your turn buying heroes from a small roster, equipping them with items, and plopping them into vaguely tactical positions on a chess-like board. From there you sit back and watch them do their thing, clashing with your opponent’s heroes until one side wins. Each time you lose a fight, the surviving enemy units punch out a bit of your lifeblood. Last clicker standing wins.

Vaguely tactical, you say? Positioning matters, but not that much. Put the beefy people in front of the squishy people and for the most part you’ll be fine. The meat of the tactics pie lies in choosing which heroes to upgrade as the fight goes on, and learning when to spend gold, and when to save it. Buying copies of the same hero is vital, because once you get three of them they squish together into a single upgraded unit that’s twice as powerful. You can do pretty well by collecting heroes from the same “set” to unlock buffs shared between units.

It's down to the final two and plenty of spells are being flung at each champion.

That sounds pretty simple. I thought these were the spawn of MOBAs, the hell-genre where all is confusion and misery and pain? Oh, they totally are. Learning how to play an auto battler called Teamfight Tactics gave me a non-metaphorical headache. And that was after I’d spent 25 hours in Dota Underlords, so I already knew what I was doing.

That sounds awful. Goodbye. Waiiiit. The headache’s gone now, replaced by a powerful urge to slay more wizards. Auto battlers are initially overwhelming, but that’s a necessity. It’s like a really, really good bath: if the water’s not nearly scalding when you first hop in, you’re doing it wrong.

Mm-hm. So once you’re comfortable it turns into a relaxing soak where you can zone out and think about all the ways you could be a better person? Yes, actually. I got obsessed with Dunderlords for five straight nights because I found the complexity monumentally absorbing, but then it snapped into place. However, you’re sometimes still at the mercy of a shop that will refuse to cough up the heroes you need, and there’s often nothing separating the winners from the losers except chance.

That sounds awful. Goodb- No, you don’t understand. In a way that doesn’t matter. There’s more to life than winning at videogames.

Get out of my way. It’s about the process. You’re slotting together a puzzle box of your own devising, analysing different paths, hedging bets, risking plunges.

Let go of me. Taking names, watching games, responding, calculating, prioritising. It’s about making the best of what you’ve got, coaxing the best possible results from a slot machine that will kill you if you feed it too quickly or too slowly.

And you say Dota Underlords is the one to go for? At first, yeah. It’s presented more cleanly, giving you information that is woefully absent in Teamfight Tactics (the games are currently the two big options). Vital quality-of-life features are currently missing from Teamfight Tactics, for example. There’s no tutorial, and it has some more complicated ideas that leave new players in the lurch. Unless you’re already familiar with the heroes from League of Legends (I think they call them “champions”, the nerds). In which case, ignore everything I just said, and boot up Tactics via the League Of Legends client.

You want me to just head up shit creek without a paddle? Well, up shit creek with a mysterious spatula, yes. If you know the champions, however, you’ll instantly be able to recognise the characters, and where their specialties might lie. That should more than make up for the informational inadequacies. Plus I… I suspect it might be the better game.

Did that feel weird to admit? Yeah. But with greater complexity comes greater depth, and more opportunity for skill to prevail over dice rolls. I’m only getting started with it, mind, and I can already see sometimes too much relies on landing a few lucky item drops in the first three rounds. Both Teamfight Tactics and Dunderlords are free, though, so trying both will cost you nothing but time. But as a wise man once said: “Teamfight Tactics is the Dota of auto battlers.”

Was that wise man Chris Thursten, from popular PC Gaming podcast The Crate and Crowbar? Yes, thank you bold font. It was too hot a take to avoid pinching.

OK, I think I’m done here. Wait right there. Shall we wrap up with a nice history lesson?

Actually I– So far we’ve mentioned Teamfight Tactics and Dota Underlords, but you’ve actually got three options. The original auto battler is a Dota 2 custom game called Dota Auto Chess, which can be played through Dota’s snazzy in-client mod launcher. It’s also by far the worst option, because it’s twice as obtuse as Tactics.

Great. What’s more, the Auto Chess developers Drodo Studio are off making a standalone version of their mod, developed separately from Valve. Both studios have said they’ll “support each other to the fullest“, whatever that means in the context of direct competition under capitalism. My guess is that the folks at Drodo Studio know they’ll get a fraction of Valve’s playerbase, but are betting on that fraction still being colossal.

These auto battlers are going to start popping up everywhere in the next couple of years, aren’t they? Yep. It’s a whole new genre, baby, tuned directly to the tastes of millions upon millions of MOBA players who’ve already flocked to Auto Chess, Tactics and Dunderlords in staggering numbers. You can bet half the industry will be jonesing for a slice.

Where do I hide? There are plenty of other great games being made, you big silly. Go play those, while the rest of us salivate over Dunderlords patch notes. Both Tactics and Dunderlords are in beta, and the first “mid-season” Dunderlords update in July shook up a swathe of cemented strategies. Valve, at least, aren’t afraid to dramatically change core parts of their game. It’s an exciting time to be an auto battler.

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Matt Cox

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Matt is the founding member of RPS's youth contingent. He's played more games of Dota than you've had hot dinners.

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