The failure of Dota-themed trading card game Artifact might have left Valve with egg on its face, but the company has now scraped off that egg and made an omelette with Dota Underlords. Valve’s take on the obscenely popular Auto Chess genre hit a peak of nearly 180,000 concurrent players today, almost tripling Artifact’s all-time peak and planting a flag firmly near the top of Steam’s most-played games list.
Underlords, which went into open beta yesterday, has already hit a peak of 179,019 concurrent players. It’s not hard to see why: It’s a polished take on Auto Chess with more effects and personality than the original, as well as some smart streamlining of integral mechanics, like items. Its interface still needs some work, but it’s already a heck of a good time. Unlike Artifact, which launched to immediate criticism, Underlords has largely positive Steam reviews. One of the most upvoted reads “What Artifact should have been.”
According to Steam Charts, a third-party database of Valve-provided Steam data, Artifact’s all-time high is 60,740 concurrent players—a number that precipitously dropped off not long after the game’s launch toward the end of 2018. The card game faced widespread complaints about its cards-for-money-based system. Unlike its competitors (notably, Hearthstone), Artifact forces you to spend money to get the best cards—you can’t just earn them through play. Players also didn’t love what they perceived to be RNG mechanics, nor were they fans of other ways the game encouraged them to spend money. At the end of March, after a period of prolonged silence, Valve announced long-term plans to overhaul Artifact, but it has no timeframe for when that process will be complete.
While Artifact was cratering, Auto Chess’ star was on the rise. At the start of the year, the Dota 2 mod—which has been likened to deck-building card games despite focusing on pieces instead of cards—became one of the most-played anythings on Steam. Its mixture of casual-friendly design, mid-match progression, ocean-deep strategic variety, and just the right amount of randomness becomes immediately (some would say horrifyingly) apparent.
Despite mechanical differences, some fans likened Auto Chess to Artifact, saying that modders made a better Dota card game than Valve. Unsurprisingly, Valve has now emulated it, and the digital storefront-operator-turned-game-developer is already reaping the rewards.
League of Legends developer Riot’s version of Auto Chess, Teamfight Tactics, has been a huge success, taking over Twitch after its open beta launch earlier this week and causing test servers to buckle under constant strain. Underlords seems to be headed down a similar path, though the servers seem to be doing much better.