There are about as many pithy or sardonic quotes about chess as there are chess plays, but Johannes Zukertort’s “chess is the struggle against error” is especially applicable to the burgeoning Auto Chess genre, and especially to League of Legends' new Teamfight Tactics mode. And it's fantastic fun.
The game mode—based extensively and deliberately off the mechanics invented for the original Dota 2 mod—is currently undergoing beta testing (it'll be live for all this week), so part of the struggle is against programming errors. Champions like Lulu, for instance, currently can’t get her spell to go off, rather ruining the point of drafting her in the first place. The AI can hang at points—and few things are more frustrating than, say, losing a 2v1 fight because Tristana decided she’s out of bullets for the day and won’t help in an engagement.
But Teamfight's biggest struggles aren’t with the occasional bug. You can always just quit out and start another match, as the current lack of a ranked mode makes that preferable to trying to tough it out for a comeback, and at least that way you’ve learned what to avoid until the next PBE update.
As with the other Auto Chess variants, the design is simple: you begin by choosing a champion, with a countdown clock ticking away as you decide where to put them on a grid (for Drodo and Valve’s version, a traditional chessboard of squares; for Riot’s version, hexagons). You then get a combat phase, where your chosen champion fights creeps or another player's squad (there are eight players per game), either winning you extra gold or taking damage. Then your field resets, and gold is rewarded to you, calculated based on whether you’re on a winning or losing streak, and with interest based on how much gold you’ve carried over from round to round.
The rounds is which you fight NPC mooks instead of a fellow player’s army are a chance to get equippable items to beef up your squad, and that’s where you (may) hit a road bump.
The struggle is RNG
The items that bolster your army are a notable offender in design error—though Teamfight Tactics is less troublesome than its Drodo counterpart in this regard. Unlike other Auto Chess variants, you open the game with a free-for-all draft phase, letting you choose a character and equipment of your choice, floating before you in a rotating carousel. There are other draft phases throughout the game, allowing the worst-performing players a chance to catch up by giving them first pick of a new batch of champions and items.
The draft carousel phase is a great twist to the genre, but it’s just barely inadequate to make up for Teamfight’s frustrating RNG. Item randomness is particularly awful in TFT’s opening three combat phases, as it is entirely possible for the starting minions to be miserly and give you nothing more than a Negatron Cloak for your troubles—only for you to subsequently face down a two-star Tristana with two finished attack items. The problem persists even later on, when you’re fighting roaring bosses like Drake or Rift Herald, each capable of devastating even a late-game team on their own, only to be rewarded with the gear equivalent of a wet fart.
This might not be as much of a problem with other Auto Chess games, where a couple extra stats or a bit of health regeneration isn’t as important as hero and class synergies, but that isn’t so with Riot’s vision. Falling behind in Teamfight Tactics’ arms race can quickly put you in an untenable position through no fault of your own, as items can have devastating strategic consequences, whether by turning your fastest attacker into an AOE gatling gun, or temporarily banishing the enemy team’s most dangerous unit from the skirmish.
Whereas the draft carousel in Teamfight Tactics is better than Drodo’s purely random item drops, Valve’s Underlords stands above both with what is probably the fairest feature. You always get one item after an NPC round, regardless of whether you won or lost. Winning, however, means you can actively choose one out of three versions, whereas losing just sticks you with whatever the gods of fortune deign to grant you.
The struggle is me
Overall, however, these design and programming issues are forgivable as Riot works to polish an extremely fun game. The dopamine rush I get from sinking 20-30 gold into rerolls to unlock the last unit I need for a devastating six-Blademaster team of tree-chopping tyrants draws from the same well as gacha games and poker (without the financial consequences of either). The sound design (once Riot's patched it to work) is an entertaining cacophony of familiar League of Legends spell effects and character quips, the chiming of a successful kill, and the ka-ching of gold rolling into your carefully tended bank.
At the intermediate and advanced stages, Teamfight generates satisfying strategic complexity: scouting other players’ armies gives you a rough idea of what draft picks are available to you in future rounds, and what will end up trapping you into a war of attrition over dwindling resources with four or five other players. The draft carousel later on gives you the chance to either bounce back with a rare and powerful unit, or deny a leading opponent the missing link in their own endgame strategy.
Even unit placement matters in ways that aren’t immediately obvious at first glance. My favorite rounds have boiled down to positioning fights: scrambles to change my army formations and unit placements as I face down the sole remaining human player in the game, fully cognizant of what they want to do to my units and how they want to do it. If Blitzcrank is going to grab the farthest unit from it and destroy my most powerful source of damage, then what if I swap it with a tank? My assassins can’t get to their well-defended back line, but can I force them to move and open up space for my killers if I shove my entire army to the other side of the board?
Or should I throw my entire bank into rerolls for a chance at an upgrade?
The biggest struggle in Teamfight isn’t with the bugs and design problems, which are steadily improving patch to patch. It’s with myself, and the sins the game forces me to confront as I gamble and try as best as I can to avoid error.
- Greed: Drafting rare and expensive units early instead of investing in a solid baseline and letting bank interest accrue.
- Gluttony: Cramming my bench with half-completed upgrades, even if I should have held off and saved money instead.
- Wrath: Spamming rerolls because I’m frustrated at losing almost singlehandedly to a two-star Draven, wasting my bank as a result.
- Sloth: Not wanting to rearrange my units, so of course Blitzcrank grabs the one I crammed all of the damage items onto.
- Envy: Drafting Pirates after losing to some lucky bastard’s Miss Fortune and three-star Pyke, only to never actually unlock their gold-generating passive.
- Lust: Burning through all of my bank and selling off my prepared upgrades just to grab Swain.
And the worst thing is that sometimes my sins work out. Sometimes throwing all my accumulated gold into rerolls gets me every single upgrade I needed to survive the next round. Sometimes banking on that rare gold-bordered unit means I unlock the final passive ability for its class, turning my entire army into unstoppable behemoths. Sometimes I end up right at the top, the sole survivor of an eight-way skirmish thanks to a bit of good planning and a lot of luck.
And then there's pride, of course: thinking that I’m a genius for winning last time, and surely can’t fail the next match.
Teamfight Tactics has all of League of Legends’ combat flashiness and none of the stress of being personally responsible for making sure Draven catches his damn axes. You’re a spectator and the team's strategic master, cheering your units on as they rout your foes. When they lose, it’s just a momentary and transient setback—easy enough to upgrade something, add a B. F. Sword to your Gunslinger, and try again next round, all grievances forgotten with that next clinking rain of victory gold.
Or perhaps it’s all part of your cunning plan to look weak, but have first-pick priority during the draft carousel to hog all of the Golden Spatulas and grow your bank to an enormous size, making you the first to field a massive nine or even 10-unit swarm of synergistic champions while everybody else still struggles to unlock their class passives.
Teamfight needs work, but it's already a struggle worth enjoying, complex and satisfying. The rapidly-forming Auto Chess battle has another serious contender.