The Strategy Gamer's Guide to Teamfight Tactics12 Sep 2019 0
Unless something truly paradigm shifting comes out of nowhere in the next few months, the breakout new genre of 2019 will almost certainly be that of the Auto Battler. The run-away success of Auto Chess, originally a mod for Dota II but now a standalone title available on mobile, caused a wave of enthusiasm that made it almost impossible to ignore if you moved in online gaming circles. Easy to pick up and play and almost painfully addicting, the genre has stormed over the sometimes parochial barricades of the strategy community and has spilled out into the mainstream. Much like the Battle Royale, the last mod-to-subgenre success story, it has inevitably caused a cascade of clones and copies — some legitimate attempts to iterate on the formula and, of course, some cheap cash-ins trying to make a quick buck.
Taking this weird ouroboros of a genre full circle, Valve, the developers of Dota II, released their own official iteration: Dota Underlords. In the past few months, it has become clear that Underlords and Auto Chess are the two largest and most legitimate contenders for the title of King of the Auto Battlers. But, that calculation has recently gotten a bit more complicated as Riot, the company behind the smash hit League of Legends has recently entered the fray with their own variation on the genre: Teamfight Tactics. If its rivals aren't scared yet then they should be, as this newest contender has some very clear potential and what appears to be a willingness to make some bold new additions to the now tried-and-true formula.
While many might roll their eyes at yet another Auto Battler joining the bandwagon so soon, Teamfight has some clear indications that it might not only be here to stay, but that it might push out its competitors and claim the crown. At its Twitch debut, Teamfight pulled in some seriously impressive numbers, beating out even the seemingly unstoppable streaming juggernaut that is Fortnite.
Now, the size of that audience can partially be explained by the games newness combined with the inevitable hype that would radiate off of anything connected to Riot, a company with a huge and dedicated fanbase, but it was also a hell of a good way to get traction and rise to the top of the crowded Auto Battler field. While TFT is still in beta, and is likely to see a lot of changes and updates in the coming months, it is currently available to play and has proven to be just as addictive as its rivals, but with some added benefits that, with some work, could make it the standout version of 2019’s standout genre.
If you’ve played another Auto Battler variant, than Teamfight Tactics will be pretty easy to pick up. Superficially, it looks a lot like any other Auto Battler. This is because TFT borrows a lot of UI and design elements from its predecessors. While each variation on the formula adds its own little twists, there as some basic conventions that really make an Auto Battler an Auto Battler. First, if you move past the clutter, the basic layout is divided into five main sections: a combat arena, a bench for unused units, a roster to buy units, a list of unit class/affiliation bonuses, and a scoreboard to track each players health.
In Teamfight, as in most of these games, players accumulate gold, buy units from a random roster, and then combine pairs of three matching units to make them stronger. Like other Auto Battlers, there is extra interest you can gain if you don't spend your gold, and a small fee you can pay to reroll your roster if you don’t like what popped up. Units get buffs by being on the board with units of a similar class or affiliation that provide improved benefits depending on how many of each you have, usually with progressively stronger buffs as you reach a certain threshold.
The general rhythm of play is also largely the same as in the other Auto Battlers. Eight or so players are dropped in, put units on the board, they match up and battle, and lose HP by losing battles, with a drop to zero knocking you out of the running. Games can be fairly elastic, with a lot of rubberbanding happening, especially if someone gets a few good buys or strategically builds up a solid team after a rough start. Most of these similarities are what pass as core conventions of a genre that is not yet even a year old. Teamfight doesn't attempt to radically redefine any of these defining precepts. Where it does differ is in the details. Riot has made a few small tweaks and changes that give the game a very distinct flavor.
While the genre’s progenitor styled itself as a variant of chess, its true genealogical roots descend from the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, more commonly abbreviated as MOBA. This is true both of Auto Chess and Underlords, which retain characteristics inherited from Dota II. Teamfight Tactics is similar in this regard, but different in that it is the child of League of Legends rather than Dota. This comes through in a number of interesting ways that make it stand out from the rest of the pack.
One of the most important ways this is true is that Teamfight has access to League of Legends champions as units. While this may seem like a small thing, it may actually become one of the games most important selling points. This is because, unfortunately, the unit rosters for Teamfight’s two largest competitors are painfully, and I mean painfully, generic, with riveting characters such as “Evil Knight” and “Enchantress.” Even if you don’t like Riot or League, they do have some really great character designs that they put a lot of time and effort into crafting whenever they release new champions. They also have a lore that at least attempts to weave connecting threads between characters and narratives in a way that adds some flavor. Their champions have character, as well as a slew of moves and abilities ported over from League that can help draw in fans who are already familiar with how they operate or have a nostalgic connection to after playing them for years.
Another clear heritage from LoL is the way Teamfight Tactics approaches items. Much like in League of Legends, weaker items can be combined together to form more powerful ones, creating an incentive to find the right combination of items and characters. It adds a new layer of consideration to a facet of the genre that has always felt a little bland, and makes for some great late and mid-game strategizing. The fact that the items, like the champions, are direct ports from LoL means that many newcomers to the Auto Battler who are familiar with the MOBA can have an almost instinctive understanding of which items will synergize best with each champion.
More directly than its competitors, Riot is attempting to make TFT feel like a product deeply intertwined with its MOBA roots. This is a fact accentuated by the location of Teamfight Tactics directly in the Riot client, alongside the various other League of Legends game modes. While it may seem like a tiny thing, this presents two added benefits for TFT players that could give it a leg up on its two major competitors. First, its easily accessible position alongside Summoner’s Rift and ARAM means that its player base could receive an added boost from MOBA players stumbling into a round of Teamfight on a whim, perhaps without even realizing what it is. With a game as large as LoL, this is no small thing.
The other major benefit is that this prominent position also gives Riot a clear incentive to keep investing resources in the game. A half-baked Auto Battler clone that you released as a standalone app or download? That can be easily left to wither and die if the player base starts hemorrhaging. A new gamemode that you're advertising as a new feature of your flagship product? Much less so. Hopefully, this can be read as a statement of purpose, and an indicator that Riot intends to keep the game updated and balanced as the genre evolves and really finds its footing next year.
On a more concrete level, the most obvious visual difference between Teamfight Tactics and the other Auto Battlers variants is that the board is laid out in a 7x3 hexagonal grid pattern, rather than in chess-like rows. In its current form, the grid map feels a bit cramped, especially as you get more and more champions on the board. That said, the hexagonal grid does feel more dynamic than the standard rows and columns of Auto Chess and Underlords and makes the battles feel slightly more three dimensional. While at the moment, the grid doesn’t add a whole lot to the game, hopefully as the pathing and AI gets more advanced it will allow the combat to stand out against its litany of competitors, especially if Riot tweaks the layout a bit in the future and makes the map one or two rows larger.
Another, more substantial, changes from the basic formula is the introduction of a carousel draft that takes place at the start of each match and then periodically over the course of a few rounds. During this draft, a wheel of spinning champions rotate around each players avatars, with players having to race to grab the champion they want. At the start, only relatively inexpensive champions are available, but, as the rounds go on, they become progressively better and start to come pre-equipped with items, adding an extra level of strategic decision making.
Riot didn’t reinvent the wheel with their take on the Auto Battler. What they did do was take an idea that has already become cloned and copied into oblivion and added some interesting new features into the mix. Boasting a wealth of charismatic champions, lore, abilities, and attacks to draw on, Riot is well placed to make Teamfight Tactics the go-to Auto Battler. As long as the team behind it can use the time in beta wisely and then act on the feedback of their community, the games early success will hopefully continue into next year.