TFT almost died after Set 2 — here’s how Riot saved the League of Legends autobattler

Riot Games

Teamfight Tactics has grown into not just the premier autobattler, but the only one to truly survive the boom and bust of the genre. However, the League of Legends spin-off wasn’t always destined for success, nearly collapsing in Set 2. Here’s how Riot saved it.

Back in 2020, the fan-made Dota Auto Chess mod boomed and started an entire new genre of games: autobattlers.

It was like a love child of strategy, MOBA, and card games ⁠— and drew audiences from all three communities when it was the hip, new thing. Developers each tried to carve out a niche, and within months there were dozens of autobattlers on the market.

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Now, only one truly remains as king, and that’s Teamfight Tactics.

The League of Legends-inspired autobattler is now entering its seventh Set, Dragonlands. But as the three-year anniversary celebrations come and go for players, it’s a reminder for Riot of the rocky journey this seemingly simple game has gone through.

TFT Dragonlands keyartRiot Games
Pengu has a lot to cheer for as TFT Set 7, Dragonlands, goes live.

How TFT nearly crashed with Galaxies

Back in 2020, Riot barely knew what they were doing with TFT. Autobattlers were new on the market ⁠— Dota Auto Chess hadn’t even been around for six months by the time the League spinoff was born ⁠— and their future was uncertain.

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Looking at it now it’s funny how TFT is truly the last (big) one remaining, but it wasn’t sunshine and rainbows on the journey here.

“I think we look back on the Set 1-3 times as us truly trying to understand what TFT was, and what players wanted from it,” lead designer Stephen ‘Mortdog’ Mortimer said, rather candidly. “There are some decisions looking back on Set 2 now that are just silly.”

Mortdog was open in saying TFT was just a three-Set experiment. After a poor reception in Rise of the Elements, if Galaxies didn’t impress players, the autobattler would be going the way of the dodo.

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However, with Galaxies really spurring on the game, there was suddenly a bright future ahead. First, Riot cracked 10 million players ahead of Reckoning. By the time Gizmos & Gadgets rolled around, that was 15 million.

TFT Galaxies header artRiot Games
The Galaxies expansion ended up saving TFT.

Keeping TFT fresh for veterans, but easy for new players

The developers are finally hitting top gear, but are having to overcome new challenges. There is a big divide between new players and veterans.

TFT isn’t like League of Legends where new players and veterans are playing ostensibly the same game that existed 12 years ago. Every six months, the autobattler basically reformats itself entirely with only the core concepts remaining the same.

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It’s a delicate balance Riot is trying to find that is key to TFT’s future ⁠— an ability to keep it fresh for long-term players, but easy enough that new ones aren’t bombarded with complex systems and turned away after the first game.

There were concerns things like Shadow Items from Set 5 or Hextech Augments in Set 6 would be a step too far, but that hasn’t been the case.

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“I remember six months ago we got a lot of these types of questions around Augments,” Mortdog explained. “Someone asked ‘Shadow Items were complex, aren’t you concerned Augments is just 200 shadow items?’ And it turns out that Augments was exactly what the game needed.”

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With new mechanics in Set 7 like the Dragons, and Augments added on top, the complexity is ramping up. However, as for everything in the development process, there’s a reason for it.

“This set specifically, we’re not aiming to grab a bunch of new players. Set 6 was already wildly successful. We targeted this set around players who enjoyed Set 6 and giving them more things to enjoy,” Mortdog said.

TFT Set 6 Hextech Augment armoryRiot Games
Augments were a big draw card for TFT players old and new in Set 6, and the kind of system that keeps the game interesting.

“We’ve come to understand over time that the thing that keeps people interested and having fun with TFT is chasing the high of unique comps and outputs. What’s important is making sure that there are enough of those and their novelty is exciting.

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“Our hope though is that Set 6 had a massive player base, and rather than trying to get crazy this set and go even bigger, we wanted to focus on making sure Dragonlands was as fun as possible for people who enjoyed Gizmos & Gadgets and want more.”

The new player question still looms though, and for those interested by the mythical beasts of the Dragonlands but don’t know where to start in TFT, it can seem like a daunting dive to make. It’s hardly a game that can be taught in a simple tutorial either.

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It’s something the development team is working on ⁠— among all the preparation for the Mid-Set update, future Sets, and other quality-of-life changes. While for now you just have to take the plunge, Riot is trying to make it a bit less daunting.

“We very much have a learnability issue, and the team is actively working on some creative solutions to help onboard players that we’re hoping to deliver with a set more tailored to that goal,” Mortdog said.

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TFT Set 7 fight with aurelion sol and shyvanaRiot Games
Riot wants to make the TFT onboarding experience better as one of their goals for the future of the autobattler.

All of that is to say the developers are geared up for a long future ⁠— it was just a year ago that Mortdog was joking they had the roadmap all the way through to TFT Set 12 on the table.

There’s still some real concerns about the viability of the autobattler, and most of that comes down to optimizing the small details, but overall there’s an air of optimism around TFT’s development that was murky 18 months ago.

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“I think we’re in a good spot but also have a lot of room to improve,” Mortdog said.

“TFT is a game that we believe thrives when it’s novel and interesting. This will be a challenge for sure, but we have started to realize we can’t use reprints and repeat tricks to keep players interested ⁠— so we’re going to keep pushing the creative bar.

“Our monetization needs to improve to truly be fully self-sustaining, and our development cycle has to get better. The team has pushed themselves hard for 3 years now to deliver these sets but it’s tough on them!”

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