It feels like only yesterday when Dota 2 modders and developer team Drodo Studio released their Dota Auto Chess mod, effectively creating and popularizing the auto-battler genre. Dota Auto Chess was released in January 2019, and it rapidly gained popularity among PC gamers throughout the first half of last year. Auto Chess became all the rage, and it inspired major game studios, most notably Riot Games and Blizzard, to start creating auto-battlers. Riot created a League of Legends-based auto-battler called Teamfight Tactics, and Hearthstone introduced an auto-battler mode called Battlegrounds.
Meanwhile, Valve, the developers of Dota 2, reached out to Drodo Studio to collaborate in creating an official Dota auto-battler. Their plan to work together, however, didn’t fall through, but Drodo Studio was given assistance by Valve in creating a non-Dota Auto Chess game (as data needed to be transferred from Dota 2 to the new Auto Chess), while Valve proceeded to create the standalone Dota Underlords.
Drodo Studio’s Auto Chess retained its devoted following as it became an official Dota 2 mode, but Dota Underlords’ beta was released to unexpectedly huge fanfare, gaining the attention of many popular streamers on Twitch as well as new players who had not yet played Dota Auto Chess. Underlords peaked at an average of 200,000 players playing simultaneously at any given time, and its development team were responsive to community feedback, releasing new patches every week to address any bugs and issues that arose. Underlords had more than surpassed Valve’s expectations, and it was their epic comeback from their card game flop, Artifact.
But just when everything seemed to be going smoothly for Dota Underlords, a gradual decrease in player count began to creep in, and by January 2020 the player count fell to below 20,000 players at a time, more than a 90% drop from the peak figures of their early beta days.
So what happened? Was it the patches becoming more infrequent as the game approached its launch version? Was it the ever-changing meta that often seemed to favor a certain character alliance rather than strategic play? Or did the majority of players simply lose interest? Whatever the reason may be, Underlords’ drop in player count means that most of the players who were around for its beta must have missed the release of Season One last February. If you used to play Underlords but haven’t played it in a while, you’d be surprised at how much it’s changed.
Let’s take a look at everything that’s new with Season One.
Throughout its beta period, Dota Underlords introduced each of the four Underlords one by one: first there was the flame-wielding Hobgen, then there was the demon-summoning Anessix, and a little later on the two were followed by support-tank Jull and the poison-flinging, ambiguous mammal Enno.
In the beta versions, the player had to choose their Underlord at the beginning of the game, and there were set rounds in which each Underlord leveled up and gained a new power (also to be chosen by the player). Now, all players choose their Underlord at round 10, meaning you don’t have to build your team to suit your Underlord of choice–it’s the other way around now. If you’ve got mages and hunters and you need someone at the frontline to absorb some damage, you can choose Jull as your Underlord, and if you need some healing support for your demons, you can choose Anessix.
You also no longer have to choose your Underlord’s abilities every five or ten rounds or so; when the selection screen comes up at round 10, the four Underlord options are presented with preset ability builds to help the player decide how they want their Underlord to act in battle. Need a little extra damage? Hobgen with his Support Damage Dealer preset is the right Underlord for you. And if you want to play with your opponent’s items, Enno’s Healin’ N’ Stealin’ set will get you those Arcane Boots faster than it can grant the enemy units mana.
The four Underlords of White Spire are finally complete, with more balanced stats and abilities, and a more simplified implementation that encourages you to build a stronger team, rather than rely on the overpowered abilities of the Underlords.
A fairly big addition to Dota Underlords’ Season One is the City Crawl mode, which is a combination of sidequests and single-player games like battle puzzles and versus AI modes. Through the City Crawl mode, you can master your use of the 26 alliances in the game while completing each quarter of the map to unlock skins and other items for your favorite Underlord.
City Crawl mode is also where you’ll most need your Season One battle pass, as many of the stages and unlockable items require a battle pass. For Season One, the battle pass is priced at ₱260.00, which is actually not bad considering all the content you’ll unlock with it. I’ve personally clocked in 300 hours of Dota Underlords playtime, and I’ve spent much more than ₱260 on video games that were only 12 or so hours long (I’m looking at you, DMC5). An affordable battle pass that essentially unlocks the full Underlords experience is something I can get behind, and if you find yourself playing a lot of Dota Underlords, I’m sure you’ll consider getting one too.
Some of the many items you can unlock through City Crawl and your battle pass are the Underlord skins. Don’t worry, these won’t put too big a dent in your wallet like those Dota 2 skins, as you can unlock them simply by completing certain missions in the City Crawl. The four Underlords have five skins each aside from their starting skins, and while none of the skins have any effects, nothing beats showing up to a ranked match and taking 1st place with a cool-looking Underlord.
Aside from Underlord skins, you can also unlock a ton of customization options for your board, including props, in-game animations, and even skins for items like Barricade and Target Buddy. Your board is your canvas, and every Underlord aiming for the top’s gotta have a nice board.
Perhaps the most important change in Season One is the rebalancing of all the game’s units. Some units had their costs changed, some had their alliances changed, and there are even alliances that were completely removed or reworked, like the Scrappy alliance and the Elusive alliance. New alliances like Void, Summoner, and Brute were also introduced to help balance out the overpowered alliances in Underlords’ beta version.
Despite the drastic drop in Underlords’ player count, its developer team hasn’t stopped being punctual with hotfixes and patches. The Underlords community may have become smaller, but the devs continue to listen to their feedback in order to improve the game. Balancing an auto-battler is no easy feat, and it requires constant tweaks and back-and-forth between players and devs. If you’ve ever played Hearthstone and know the pain of playing against broken decks and combos that stay in the meta for months prior to a patch update, you’d know that Underlords’ frequent fixes is something to appreciate. I have to commend the Underlords dev team for that.
While Underlords was losing its player base in the past few months, no one would have blamed its developers if they had chosen to slow down and let the game stagnate, but instead they packed more content into it than ever, and continue to work on the game as its first Season finds its footing.
Dota Underlords remains a fun game to play whether you’re playing in single-player mode or battling against seven other players in Ranked mode. It’s a game that continues to improve with each update, and it deserves a second chance if you’ve picked it up before and forgotten all about it. Assuming you’ve got no plans in the coming days, why not take a trip back to White Spire?
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