Ideally, Dota Underlords, like its auto-battler kin, plays out as a game of slow-build strategy in which you amass an army of heroes based on synergies between them. Maybe that means a chanting brood of surprisingly survivable warlocks. Maybe that means a beefy team of brawny boys who are even beefier together than they are apart. But right now, that’s not really the game. It’s just a means to a very specific end.
Dota Underlords is still early in development, and that means growing pains. This week, that means balance changes that have led to a meta where expensive late-game units dominate, and there’s not really a good reason to keep building up your army (or associated synergies) once they start appearing in the store. Here’s how it works: You play as you normally would early on, levelling up units and creating a small handful of synergies. All the while, you pay careful attention to your economy and make sure you get it up to 50 gold (which is, to be fair, a good strategy in general). Then, once units that cost five gold start appearing in the store frequently, you buy those up as quickly as possible and sell off most of your old units.
This breaks your synergies, but by that point, it doesn’t matter, since level-two five-gold units wreak absolute havoc on most army configurations. These units – the stun-tacular Tidehunter, the HP-melting Enigma, the explosives-obsessed Gyrocopter and Techies, and the frosty, freaky Lich – all have one thing in common: area-of-effect damage. One of the downsides of the whole “auto” part of auto battlers is that units are pretty unreliable in their ability targeting, so AOE damages maximises your chances of hitting enemy armies where it hurts. Lots of AOE damage means you can turn an enemy army to pulverized ash in seconds.
For now, that’s the winning strat. It doesn’t take an infallible intellect or artful improvisation – just a big war chest and a rippling fist of brute force. Players want to see more variety.
“This is such a boring meta,” wrote one player on the Underlords subreddit. “Now every late game comes into just getting tier 5 units and spamming AOE stuns. Any strategy goes out the window.”
“It’s not just boring, it’s an RNG clown fiesta, too,” wrote another player in response. The unit store draws from a shared pool, meaning that in pursuit of the same strategy, some players will have more luck than others. You can offset this by amassing a lot of gold and re-rolling the selection of units you’re presented with repeatedly, but even then, it’s heavily luck-based. “With everyone doing the same thing, it often just boils down to who gets the 2-star legendaries first,” the player said.
The original Dota Auto Chess mod has also struggled with this issue at various points, so it’s not altogether unfamiliar territory for longtime auto battler fans. People have made all sorts of suggestions in hopes of livening up the meta, from making synergy buffs more powerful and interesting to special individual unit abilities that are only unlocked after enough units of the same type are on the field. Some have even proposed temporarily removing AOE abilities. Others have made memes.
Some, though, think that as with many other balance issues that crop up when games are early, this too shall pass – and that drastically altering the game’s underlying mechanics isn’t the way to do it.
“[Dota Auto Chess] used to have the exact same problem,” wrote one player in an Underlords subreddit thread proposing an “alternative” take on the meta issue. “It solved itself when new units were added into the game, and new counters and strategies came into play. More importantly, it made it harder to 2 star the legendaries because there were more legendaries in the pool to roll and not all the legendaries were good like Enigma, Tide, and Techies... Any changes made directly to the legendary units should not be drastic, as the game is still in the early stages. I think they’re in a fine spot balance wise as the most expensive units. If anything, lower tier units and alliances are the ones in need of slight buffs, some more than others.”
I vote for a better brawny bonus. The Beefmaster must ride again.