Delving Deeper – The Evolution of Hearthstone’s Single Player Mode

Considering how many times I’ve brought up Hearthstone in my blog posts it should be no surprise to anyone that I’m a pretty big fan of the game. And while I’ve talked before about balancing cards and deckbuilding, I really haven’t talked about the game’s single player content. Honestly, at launch there wasn’t much to talk about. Initially the only single player content available was playing against the AI Innkeeper. And while I believe this mode serves a purpose (it acts as a good teaching tool for new players that feel intimidated playing against real people), it’s not a very challenging or compelling mode.

Thankfully, Blizzard took a massive step forward with the introduction of Adventures. Starting with Curse of Naxxramas (and continuing in Blackrock Mountain, League of Explorers, One Night in Karazhan, and Knights of the Frozen Throne), players could play through a series of boss encounters each with their own rules, mechanics, and encounter specific cards and hero powers. And these modes were a ton of fun (and are honestly still pretty fun today)! Each one did a fairly good job telling a story and offering unique and often difficult challenges.

…yeah, I’m doing great.

…yeah, I’m doing great.

However, these modes had two major limitations:

Replayability: On average, each adventure had around 10-15 encounters, typically with both a normal and a heroic difficulty. But once you’ve finished them…that’s about it. There really isn’t an incentive to play any of these adventures again after you’ve completed them.

Accessibility: Most of the boss fights in these adventures have players crafting their own decks to use (with a couple exceptions such as the Chess encounter in One Night in Karazhan). While this lets you flex your creativity, if you’re a new player with a relatively small collection some fights are extremely difficult (if not impossible) to complete.

This is where Dungeon Run comes in. With the release of Kobolds and Catacombs, Blizzard completely revamped their single player content into a deckbuilding roguelike mode similar to games like Dream Quest and Slay the Spire. Players would start off a run with a small deck of relatively weak cards, but as they defeated bosses they could add new cards and passive treasures to their decks to make it stronger. This gave an awesome sense of progression since you could feel yourself getting better as you got deeper into your run. Each run would end either when the player loses, or when they defeat 8 bosses in a row. Once a run was over you could then start again with a fresh weak deck of cards.

I absolutely adore Dungeon Run. It took massive strides in addressing both of the major flaws of the earlier adventures:

Replayability: Dungeon Run oozes replay value. While each run only contains 8 bosses, there are 48 different possible encounters you could get. On top of that you’ll be offered different cards and passives each run so your deck will be completely different. Add on the fact that you can play it with 9 different classes and you have countless hours of gameplay.

Accessibility: Since all the deckbuilding in Dungeon Run occurs during the run itself, you card collection is completely irrelevant. You could have a full golden collection or literally nothing but a few common cards and it won’t affect your ability to play the mode.

As great as Dungeon Run was (and still is), it had some room for improvement. Most notably in terms of its storytelling. While the old adventures featured interesting narrative arcs with the occasional twist (especially League of Explorers and Knights of the Frozen Throne), Dungeon Run didn’t really have one. You were just an adventurer looking for treasure. So with the next expansion, The Witchwood, Blizzard incorporated a much stronger narrative in its Monster Hunt. Now rather than taking control of the typical 9 classes you could choose from 4 classes unique to Monster Hunt: Tracker, Cannoneer, Houndmaster, and Time-Tinker. Each of these classes had a unique hero and story, culminating in a 4-on-1 battle against Hagatha the Witch. I really liked this way of incorporating story, plus it came with the added benefit of introducing some new classes!

Get wrecked by doggos, Hagatha!

Get wrecked by doggos, Hagatha!

But this came at a cost. Compared to Dungeon Run, Monster Hunt just didn’t feel like it had the same amount of replay value associated with it. Sure, you still had tons of different bosses to play against and plenty of ways to build your deck, but I think the drop from 9 heroes to 4 heroes hurt a lot. Plus, once you’ve completed the story the incentive to play through it again goes down a little.

This brings us to Rastakhan’s Rumble’s Rumble Run (geez that’s a lot of Rs), which if I’m being honest I was really disappointed by. This time you play as a troll named Rikkar who is competing against 8 other challengers to become the champion of the Gurubashi Arena. The biggest addition to this mode is the shrines, which are semi-permanent minions that appear on your side of the board and give you powerful passive benefits. Your opponent also had a shrine of their own, so you’d need to come up with a plan to play around it. This was a neat idea, and really changed up the way you play your run. However, Rumble Run took a lot of really significant steps back:

Replayability: In both Dungeon Run and Monster Hunt you had dozens of possible encounters. But in Rumble Run there are only 27 (3 possible shrines for each of the 9 classes). While that is a decent amount of variety, after a couple of runs you can’t help but feel like you’ve seen most of what it has to offer.

Agency: To offset the number of bosses, player gained a lot more variety in terms of how to build their deck. After all, you can choose any of those same 27 possible shrines for yourself. However, at the start of each run you are only offered three of them at random. This means you lose the agency you had in Dungeon Run and Monster Hunt to choose the class you want. For example, let’s say you were offered Druid, Warrior, and Hunter shrines. If you hate playing those classes, that’s too bad because you’re stuck with those options until you play one of them. On top of that, if there’s a specific shrine you really want to try you only have a 3/29 chance of it being offered on any given run (technically the odds aren’t quite that clean but you get the idea).

…sigh, still no Paladin…

…sigh, still no Paladin…

Narrative: Rumble Run’s story is about as deep as Dungeon Run’s. There really isn’t much more here than “a troll fights a bunch of other trolls until he becomes the best.” This is a huge step back from Monster Hunt, especially in terms of the finale. Even in Dungeon Run the final encounters felt special compared to the earlier bosses, but in Rumble Run you were just facing off against another normal contestant.

With the latest expansion, the Rise of Shadows, Blizzard took all the lessons they learned and made what is currently in my opinion the definitive “Run” experience. If Monster Hunt and Rumble Run were like versions 1.1 and 1.2 of Dungeon Run, The Dalaran Heist is like Dungeon Run 3.0. It pulled out the best parts of each of the modes that came before, ditched what wasn’t working, and piled on a bunch of extras. In The Dalaran Heist you play as one of 9 different henchmen of the League of E.V.I.L, a nefarious organization made up of Hearthstone’s greatest villains. Over the course of 5 different wings you help them achieve their master plan of literally stealing the entire city of Dalaran.

What a nice city…I THINK I WILL TAKE IT!

What a nice city…I THINK I WILL TAKE IT!

Here are all the elements that The Dalaran Heist improved upon:

Replayability: The amount of replayability in The Dalaran Heist is kinda ridiculous. When you add up all the classes, starting decks, and hero powers there are 108 different ways to start off your run. Add to that the 5 different Twists for each wing, Anomaly mode (which adds a random extra mechanic to your run), and Heroic difficulty there’s a stupid amount of stuff to do.

Agency: In the previous “Runs” the only way you could modify your deck was by adding to it. This meant that while your deck at the end of the run was very powerful, it was often bloated with some bad cards you gathered along the way. In The Dalaran Heist they added in Bartender Bob, a friendly encounter that allows you to modify and/or remove cards in your deck. I adore this addition because it gives the player even more control on how they want to shape their deck.

I’d straight up give up villainy for Bob if he asked me to.

I’d straight up give up villainy for Bob if he asked me to.

Progression: I’m a huge fan of Roguelikes in general. They give a tremendous sense of accomplishment when you successfully complete a run. However, one of the biggest “feels bad” moments of a Roguelike (Hearthstone’s “Runs” included) is the “bad run.” By bad run, I mean the ones where you don’t get access to the items/upgrades/cards you want and lose early on. These runs happen from time to time and they feel awful because they make you feel like you wasted your time. But The Dalaran Heist alleviated this a bit with unlockable content. Initially when you start the mode you only have access to one hero power and one starting deck per class. However, as you defeat bosses and play specific strategies over multiple runs you can unlock additional hero powers and starting decks to use in the future. This really helps give a sense of progression and reduces the negativity of “bad runs” because even if your run isn’t successful you still made progress towards unlocking more content.

Storytelling: Each of the five wings of The Dalaran Heist focuses on one of the leaders of the League of E.V.I.L accomplishing their part of the heist. At the end you get to see it all come together as you successfully kidnap the city. While this is a nice bit of storytelling on its own, Blizzard has stated they plan to have the next two expansions this year build off of The Dalaran Heist’s story. This is a great way of expanding on the worldbuilding and lore of Hearthstone.


So what can we learn from all this? I think the biggest takeaway is that game design is an iterative process. Making something as fun and robust as The Dalaran Heist just wouldn’t have been possible right when Hearthstone was launched. Blizzard needed to first test out their boss battles in the early adventures, take a big chance with Dungeon Run, and then finally experiment and refine the formula with Monster Hunt and Rumble Run. Not every step in this progression was perfect, but that’s kind of the point. It’s okay to make the occasional misstep as long as you keep running forward.

 

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