Dota 2 Ability Arena is sweeping the Arcade as the latest entry in the auto battler genre adds new refinements to a stagnant genre.

If you’re even just on the periphery of the Dota 2 landscape, you’ve probably heard of Ability Arena by now. Ability Arena is a new Dota 2 custom game with a fresh take on the autobattler genre that puts you in control of the choice of abilities of your various units. 

Ability Arena launched late in September with raucous attention thanks to the decision to promote it with a tournament between some of Dota 2’s most recognizable talents. Since then the game has fluctuated between being the top spots as most-popular game on the Dota 2 Arcade, only being usurped by the likes of Auto Chess and OMG 4+2. 

Led by Shannon “SUNSfan” Scotten and Andrew “Jenkins” Jenkins, the development team, which include a plethora of experienced custom game programmers, has steadily released updates, with the most recent significant one coming just a few days ago. But what exactly is this game, and why is it rising in popularity?

What is Ability Arena?

Put simply, Ability Arena is an autobattler where you pick the abilities for each character. And with that wrinkle alone, it already sounds interesting. But Ability Arena is far more than just that.

Taking the path laid down by Auto Chess, Ability Arena adds multiple avenues to the genre, and refines systems that games like Dota: Underlords, Atomic War and TFT have barely brushed the surface of. Taking the random rolls of autobattler games and focusing them down on the abilities, and their various combinations, is a genius stroke. Really, the abilities and how they combo’d were already the most interesting part of all autobattlers. But what Ability Arena does is let you spark those combos yourself each round, each game. And in a far more versatile way.

(Screenshot by Esports.gg)

Other games, like TFT, had broached this, but really they’d refused to deviate from the core abilities of their in-game heroes and champion’s identity. But with the freedom of the Dota 2 Arcade, and gamemodes like Ability Draft already mixing things up, Ability Arena can far more crazy things. What if we threw Blade Fury on Primal Beast, the largest hero unit in the game? Or what if Lina passive worked off spells, and then she had a 0.5 CD spell that auto hit? Or even, what if I could just put Ravage on my melee carry? Ability Arena answers these questions with gusto.

But Ability Arena also adds the unique feature of the Gods. In Ability Arena, at the outset of every game, you pick from three (four if you’re a Plus subscriber) Gods. Each has an ability that changes how your lineup works. This is essentially what Underlords tried to do, but then immediately messed up by having the Underlords also be a unit. Instead, the Gods feel important, but not game changing. Sure the Pudge has more health, and the Ogre Magi means that you might get hit with a Multi Cast a few times. But it’s hard to be mad when your S-tier Agility Hero tears through a lineup thanks to Legion Commander buff. 

All this combines to make a really nuanced game. You pick your hero, throw some spells on them, and try and level them up. Then you attempt to massacre your opponent each round, and eliminate them in the standard autobattler format. But because Ability Arena is new and exciting, and has multiple levels of deck building and randomness, there’s nuance to be dug out of every crevice. 

So what makes Ability Arena so great?

The two things that stood out for me playing Ability Arena for the first 10 or 15 hours were the strategic nuance and the small details. 

The nuance comes in waves. On the surface it’s simple. Grab spells, level them up, kill opponents. Then you realize you should be rerolling heroes. You should be swapping spells to new heroes. You should be prebuying spells for the next archetype you need. Then you realize that even with an unlimited economy, where the gold refills every turn, win or lose, you’re still going to have to make every gold count. And it just keeps going.

I think the point where I really got that I was probably only just scratching the surface was when I tabbed to the scoreboard to see what other players were doing. Top health had sold half their spells. Next round, they’d have a level 22 Vengeful Spirit with no abilities. They’d used the gold to roll on Gabens (Highest tier abilities), and had three of them, and four Supers. Those were the only spells they’d have. And ofcourse, they wiped the floor with me. When you play a game and your opponent is basically operating in a different dimension, you know it has some depth to it. 

(Screenshot by Esports.gg)

These kinds of stomps and revelations would be demoralizing if not for how clean and polished the game looked. And the incredible small details. There’s so many touches with this game mode that make it a joy to play. The tiny icons next to each God to tell you which game they’re from. Or the fact the spells will tell you exactly how they’re different to their in-game Dota counterparts if you hover over them. Of the fact the game is so self aware that the cosmetics it offers are just hats that sit on static avatars. Not to mention how remarkably functional the shop and all these features are. 

(Screenshot by Esports.gg)

Remember, this is a game built in another game. Mods and custom games will always have this weird relationship with their “host” game. They’ll outgrow their sire, and push at the boundaries, and do things the game was never supposed to do. As these limits are tested, it’s not surprising to find some jank, some bugs or mistakes. But in Ability Arena, I’ve found that so rare that it’s bizarre almost. A testament to how good, how experienced in the game of Dota the folks behind this game are.

Should I play Ability Arena?

A thousand times, yes! If you’ve ever enjoyed the auto battler genre, this game is a must try. If you’re into deck builders, it’s definitely worth trying. The game may be in its golden age.

Picking up Ability Arena now feels like riding a wave just before it crests and breaks. The same way it felt when Auto Chess was new. Get in now at the ground level. Even if it’s just for bragging rights. So that in 18 months, when Riot Games releases their own version of Ability Draft, called Teamfight Tactics Cooldown Clash or something, you can condescendingly say “I preferred it when it was just a mini game in Dota 2.”

But seriously. If you’re looking for that next obsessive tactics game, pick up Ability Arena. If you’ve played TFT to death, and Slay the Spire isn’t doing it for you anymore, or you’re not vibing with Hearthstone right now, download Ability Arena. It’s free within the Dota 2 client, it’s got a dedicated group of developers with a passion for the game, and it’ll eat your time like nobody’s business. 

Michael Hassall -

Michael Hassall

| Twitter: @hoffasaurusx

Michael is a UK-based content creator who caught the esports bug in 2010, but took eight years to figure out he should write about it. Throwing away a promising career in marketing and PR, he now specialises in MOBAs, covering League of Legends, Dota 2, and esports in general since 2019. When not glued to tournaments taking place on the other side of the globe, he spends time nurturing an unhealthy addiction to MMOs and gacha games.