Recently, I have become absolutely hooked on Dota Underlords. I made the equivalent of Mythic while playing an embarrassing number of hours (which Steam helpfully reminds me of each time I play). It’s a kind of iterative drafting game, except instead of playing matches you just throw your deck at your opponent to see who wins. One of my favorite things about the game is that even though it doesn’t place an excessive emphasis on clicking quickly (actions per minute, or apm) and is mostly strategic, it still feels very much like a video game with combat. I’d like to break down Dota Underlords in a way that will help put it into context for Magic players interested in giving it a try. I haven’t played Teamfight Tactics or other autochess-style games, but much of the information here will translate.
The Basics of Dota Underlords
Dota Underlords is an eight-player game in which units are bought, sold and positioned for battle. This process repeats until only one player remains. Games usually last about 35-40 rounds, which translates to around 30-40 minutes per game. If you’ve played any MOBAs like League of Legends or Dota you’ll be completely familiar with the general nature of these units (if not, you’ll pick it up quickly). The only difference is that, instead of units being player-controlled, you merely position them on the board. When a round starts, they will move, attack and use their abilities automatically.
Unit Purchasing and Placement
Each round, players earn gold that they can use to buy units from a randomly generated shop. Weaker units cost one gold all the way up to five gold for Legendaries. Purchased units get added to your bench until you deploy them. You can also pay two gold to generate a new shop or “reroll” at any time.
Most rounds your army fights against a random opponent’s army. The winner gets bonus gold, and the loser takes damage based on how badly they lost. You start at 100 health, and there’s no way to gain health back.
Loot Rounds and Items
Certain rounds (specifically, 1, 2, 3, 10, and every five rounds thereafter) are loot rounds. Your army fights predetermined special monsters and based on the result you’re awarded a choice of items. Most of these can be used to upgrade your units.
Levels and Experience
Your level determines both how many units can have on the field as well as how likely you are to find strong units in the shop.
You increase your level by gaining experience. You get one each round win or lose, and you can pay gold to accelerate the process.
Your units can also be leveled up. The shop only offers one-star versions of each unit, which you can buy, deploy or sell as you like. However, if you purchase a third copy of the same unit, they will combine into a single powerful two-star version of the unit. Likewise, if you manage to assemble three two-star copies of the same unit, they will combine into an epic three-star version.
Units have two (or occasionally three) alliances that they belong to. They are analogous to creature types. Each type grants certain bonuses to your units if your army contains enough that type.
For example, if you have three different units with the Warriors Alliance in play, they each get +10 armor. These alliances are what makes the game feel like draft. Balancing and maximizing your access to these alliance benefits is a key tactical goal.
For the first five rounds, you earn gold equal to the round number. Every round after, you get five.
You can earn additional gold via interest. For every 10 gold you have at the start of a battle you will gain an additional gold, capped at +5. This means that if you can stay above 50 gold you will get a minimum of 10 gold each round.
Winning and losing streaks also generate gold.
Units can be sold at any time for their purchase price. The only catch is that you will lose some value selling back 2- or 3-star units.
Units have various qualities, most of which are pretty easy to understand generally, if not precisely. Damage, Health, Attack Speed, Armor, Move Speed are concepts anyone reading this likely has some intuition for. Some units have a configuration of these that make them better at “tanking” (occupying enemy forces by taking a lot of damage). Other are optimized for “DPS” (damage per second). Still others have more specialized functions.
In addition to normal attacks, most units have a spell they can spend mana to cast. Mana is gained by dealing and receiving damage. When units have full mana, they cast their spell. They won’t cast again until they’ve regained the requisite mana and their cooldown (refresh period on the spell) is over.
Now that we’ve established the core rules of the game, it’s time to talk strategy. As a note, this section is a bit more advanced, so you may want to wait until you have a few games under your belt to read it.
In addition to Alliances, units have unofficial classifications that explain what roles they are equipped to play in an army.
Tanks are generally high health and/or heavily armored melee units that are simply trying to absorb enemy damage. The higher health your tanks are, the longer they can absorb damage and keep your backline damage dealers healthy and productive.
Tank Items: Chainmail, Blademail, Vitality Booster
Tank Alliances (in general): Warrior, Knight, Scrappy
DPS units are usually ranged and try to sit in the back and put out as much damage as possible. If you keep these units alive for a long time they will put out crazy damage, but may not put out as much damage in short fights.
DPS Items: Gloves of Haste, Maelstrom, Daedalus
DPS Alliance (in general): Hunter, Assassin
Mages are units that cast powerful spells instead of focusing on tanking damage or using their automatic attacks. Whether it’s generating disabling stun effects or just raw bursts of damage, Mages’ number one priority is charging their mana.
Mage Items: Brooch of the Martyr, Octarine Essence, Blink Dagger
Mage Alliances (in general): Mage (duh), Warlock
Draft What’s Open
This is where your Magic roots will help you the most. Focusing on an Alliance that is not drafted by other players is very valuable. Everyone’s shops draw from the same fixed pool. The more copies of a particular unit someone else has, the less likely you are to get the opportunity to buy them, and vice-versa. Being in the same alliances as too many other players means it’s harder to get what you want.
Draft a Composition
Paying attention to Alliances is important, but it will only get you so far. You also want to make sure your team is well-composed.
- As a general rule, you want balance. Some number of tanks in the front, and either Mages or DPS in the back. Too little of either makes you vulnerable.
- Pay attention to what type of damage you’re doing. For example, if you have a magic damage-heavy composition, the Mage alliance bonus will be strong as it makes enemies take 40% more magic damage. However, if you are going for physical damage then the Heartless bonus (which gives enemies -5 armor) may be better.
Positioning units is one of the hardest parts of the game. Here are a few placement tips.
- Ranged in back, melee in front is a pretty good rule of thumb.
- Counterintuitively, the units on either side of your frontline will be most targeted on average, so put the units with the most health and armor there.
- If you have one unit that is much tankier than your other units, you can also push up to a side with it on the outside of your team so that it gets attacked by almost all enemy units.
- Taking damage is also the fastest way to generate mana, so putting units with powerful spells in the front can also make sense.
- Tightly packed armies are easy to defend but can leave you vulnerable to area of effect attacks, especially in the late game. Consider spreading out more as the game progresses.
It can be tempting to spend gold each turn, but interest is crucial. Because it compounds, early gold has more value than late gold. An extra gold you earn in round five will have earned you an *additional* 1.6 gold by round 15. By round 25, that one gold will have become 6.7 gold.
Once you get to 50 gold, you’ll generally want to stay around there so that you keep getting maximum interest. Sometimes, however, you’ll need to spend your hoard to reroll and find key upgrades in the shop. This is especially true when you’re low on health and need to improve your army to ensure survival.
Loot Round Patterns
Loot rounds follow the same pattern every game, meaning you will always fight the same monsters on the same rounds. Here are a few of the more important ones to be aware of:
- Round 15 is the Dog and Pony Show. These are assassins that jump to the back of your team, so you want to switch to tanks in the back and damage in the front before you fight them.
- Round 20 is the Bear Trap. These are Bloodbound units that grow stronger when one dies. Avoid at all costs killing the one on the left first as the right side one will become an absolute monster.
- Round 35 is “Things are Heating Up.” The Dragon does a lot of area-of-effect damage so spread your army out.
There are a few fancy tricks you can do that almost feel like they break the rules of the game. These are a little more advanced:
- Interest gold locks in as soon as the round starts, so you can feel free to purchase units or level up mid fight without risking interest.
- The extra gold you get from winning a fight counts for earning interest (even though that locks in at the start of the fight), so there is value to ending on increments like 19 or 29 even if you can’t quite get to 20 or 30.
- It is legal to have more units than your level in play in between rounds. This can allow you to temporarily own more units than would otherwise fit on your bench. This trick can be really useful, but it is also playing with fire. If you have a full bench and too many units in play when a fight starts, the game will randomly sell pieces from your board until it’s legal!
- The Demon bonus is the one bonus where you want don’t want multiple units that have it. The Demon bonus only works when you have exactly one unique Demon. The key word here is “unique.” It is often (especially early) correct to play two copies of the same Demon so that they both get the 50% pure damage bonus and it’s rarely correct to play multiple different Demons.
Like with any game, the best way to improve is to practice. Early on, I’d recommend playing against bots with timers turned off so you have more time to evaluate what to do and can really think about what’s happening. Over time, you’ll be able to parse things faster and the timer will be less of an issue.
Here’s a couple standard compositions I like. These certainly aren’t the only successful ways to build a good team, but this should be a good starting point.
I hope you enjoy Underlords as much as I do! I’ve only been playing the game a few months, but already the developers have demonstrated a pattern of quickly and frequently iterating and improving. I think it’s a great game with a bright future and I’m excited to see more Magic players discover it.