From Kel’thuzad to Medivh and Beyond – The Evolution of Hearthstone’s Adventure Content

Adventures used to be the cornerstone of Hearthstone’s content cycle, producing some of the most memorable cards and characters over the history of the game while also providing a chance for free-to-play players to catch up with their collection. To this day, the abandonment of that setup remains a contentious point for many, even as the PvE format itself is going to be brought back as part of the Rise of Shadows content rollout, supposedly in a new and improved form. Of course, this iteration will mostly serve as gameplay material rather than a way to roll out new cards. It begs the question: how do the old Adventures hold up after all these years (especially in comparison with the Dungeon Run concept) and what lessons could we learn from them about PvE content going forward?

Naxx Out!

The release of The Curse of Naxxramas was a momentous occasion in the history of the game. Not only was it the first time we’ve got new cards added to Hearthstone, but it was also a completely different gameplay experience, something that a regular card game could not even dream of replicating. Multiple delays also made its arrival a big deal for the community.

Adventures were incredibly player-friendly, guaranteeing all copies of 30 different cards for a total price of 3500 gold. Most cards released with this kind of content was quite powerful and meta-defining as well. The weekly release of the different wings extended the experimentation phase for over a month with each adventure. Some of these elements were retained for the later single-player experiences as well, like the wing-based system and the periodic releases for the short Knights of the Frozen Throne campaign.

While the characters were quite memorable – Hearthstone’s goofy take on Kel’thuzad in Naxx, Ragnaros in BRM and the eponymous League of Explorers later down the line –, the gameplay experience feels fairly limited nowadays. You’re playing against a specific deck and hero power, meaning once you’ve figured out the gimmick required to win, it becomes a restart-fiesta until you draw correctly – especially on Heroic difficulty. It’s either this or a cakewalk, which also isn’t fun – that was perhaps the biggest criticism about One Night in Karazhan, sometimes referred to as “One Night in Development” by the community.

The game modes were far from future-proof as later OTK combo decks and special cards made most of the encounters extremely easy if you were using cards from sets that were printed way further down the line. (Some of the cards were soft-banned in Naxx – like Doomsayer or Alexstrasza automatically getting killed by Kel’thuzad in a unique interaction –, something that hasn’t returned in later adventures.) Beyond the added challenge of the Heroic mode, there was little to no replayability of the content – something that was likely a purposeful design choice.

In fact, this is always an odd element of Hearthstone’s PvE content pieces: as a developer, you want it to be fun and engaging, but not so much that it keeps a significant portion of your playerbase away from the ladder pool for an extended period of time. (This was also likely why Monster Hunt was so much less deep than the original Dungeon Run was. More on those in a moment.) There’s a cynical reading that Hearthstone’s current state warrants this sort of an artificial engagement buffer, hence the deeper single-player experience.

Giving you the Runaround

The Dungeon Run concept clearly originates from Peter Whalen’s pre-Blizzard work, as evidenced by his self-released “roguelike card games”, Monster Slayers and Dream Quest on Steam. It was a wonderful innovation around the time of its original introduction in Kobolds and Catacombs, fixing many of the issues of the old adventure content. Instead of one static puzzle to solve with a specific combo, you build a unique deck across a run that pits you against a wide variety of different opponents. Great replayability, no card collection required to experiment, tons of unique bosses: at the time, it felt like a complete upgrade. Since then, it was somewhat ran into the ground by uninspired repeats in the form of Witchwood’s Monster Hunt and Rastakhan’s Rumble.

Apart from the release schedule and the pricing scheme, Dalaran Heist is mostly sticking to the Dungeon Run formula as well, with a greater emphasis on tailorable gameplay experience and challenges instead of static pseudo-puzzles. It’s certainly the most ambitious piece of PvE content in the history of the game, but perhaps not a big enough leap from the 2017 “original”.

There’s a lot riding on the Rise of Shadows single-player content, especially off the back the lofty promises Team 5 made about the content in their Year of the Dragon announcement. However, it’s clear that the Dalaran Heist is not at all a return of the old adventures, but essentially yet another Dungeon Run-esque experiment that only pays lip service to the game’s original PvE format. Whether there’s enough depth and replayability on offer here to warrant a purchase depends entirely on personal preference – but once again, it’s shaping up to be a case of iteration instead of evolution.


Luci Kelemen is an avid strategy gamer and writer who has been following Hearthstone ever since its inception. His content has previously appeared on HearthstonePlayers and Tempo/Storm's site.

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  1. Taznak
    May 16, 2019 at 2:13 pm

    You give way too little credit to Rumble Run, which is the much superior evolution of Dungeon Run IMO. 3 starting shrines per class added much more variety and replayability and there was a more consistent difficulty level- some Dungeon Run bosses like the 2nd version of Waxmancer Sturmi, or The Darkness, were brutally difficult, while Azari as the final boss was comparatively a cakewalk. Spells were also generally very underpowered in Dungeon Run, further limiting variety as you always wanted to build minion-heavy decks.

    There’s a few encounters that feel unfair in Rumble Run (the damage bounce paladin shrine is pretty weak when you use it but Thekal’s deck is stacked as hell when he has that shrine), but the greater variety, crazy interactions, its cool concept and theme song, make it so Dungeon Run gets credit for the original implementation (in Hearthstone) of this game mode, but Rumble Run is the gold standard against which we need to measure the Rise of Shadows solo content, IMO. I for one played the hell out of Rumble Run and beat it with all 27 shrines.

  2. Monkshow
    May 16, 2019 at 7:23 am

    “Some of the cards were soft-banned in Naxx – like Doomsayer or Alexstrasza automatically getting killed by Kel’thuzad in a unique interaction –, something that hasn’t returned in later adventures.”
    When you play against the Lick King, there are some cards which are soft-banned. Like Mindbreaker, which effect doesn’t work.