Earlier this week, we were invited to Paris to learn about Blizzard's plans for Hearthstone in 2019. Today, the upcoming Year of the Dragon was officially announced, which the game will enter once the next expansion arrives in April. As with every new year, this means older sets rotate out of Standard play and into Wild format. Additionally, two very popular cards are moving into Wild: Baku the Mooneater and Genn Greymane. The focus of our trip to Paris was not on the upcoming expansion, however. Instead, we were invited to be one of the first people to try out Hearthstone's upcoming single-player mode.
For 2019, Hearthstone will follow a year-long storyline that covers both the multiplayer and single-player content. The upcoming expansion will introduce the main characters, while upon release the backbone of the story will be five chapters of single-player adventure. As the year progresses, new content will be added to take the story to additional places and characters. According to developers Ben Thompson and Mike Donais, this all fits in with a new "celebration of storytelling" in the game.
During our hands-on session, we were able to test out all of the upcoming five chapters in the single-player story. Each chapter allows you to go on a run to defeat eight successive opponents, similar to previous Hearthstone adventures. In every chapter, there's a particular set of circumstances, such as three 'cart' units occupying the board to limit your number of units, or swapped health and attack for all units. Donais explained how the new single-player adventure builds on past experiences with "dungeon runs, and then certainly monster hunts, and even puzzle labs" which they "put together in a way that makes sense, kind of cherry picking the best parts from each of these experiences".
So what does a typical adventure look like? At the start, you pick from three pre-made decks of ten cards or choose a random combination. Subsequently, you choose a hero and one of three possible hero powers. We started our adventure with the warrior class and instead of the familiar 'gain two armour' hero power, we picked one that shuffled two exploding cards into the opponent's deck. We got through the first few opponents quite easily and built a deck focused on taunt minions and the warrior's Sulfuras quest.
Whenever you defeat an opponent, there's loot in the form of three additional cards for your deck, upgrades to your hero power or treasures. Hero power upgrades include drawing two additional cards each turn with immunity to fatigue, or our pick during the first run: your hero power costs 1 mana and is usable twice a turn. Treasure comes in the form of powerful units and spells, such as a spell buffing all minions in your deck or one that allows you to take control of opposing minions. The result is a lot of possibilities to build a deck, with the added mechanic that some effects are permanent for your entire run. For example, there's a treasure spell to replace your deck with copies of one particular card; this means just copies of that one card for the rest of your run.
In between opponents, the developers also added a non-combat board called The Tavern Encounter. Here you can make alterations to your deck using coins instead of mana, to allow for some added fine-tuning. The opponents you're facing are hard to predict though, as are their specific hero powers. For example, one opponent summons a 1/1 copy of each unit card they draw, another druid-class opponent permanently has both choose one effects combined, while a warlock-class opponent is able to summon an equal-cost unit for every unit card he discards. There's plenty of challenge in here in our opinion. We beat the adventure run on the first try with our warrior deck, handing out 2-damage cards and hiding behind our taunt minions, but were quickly defeated on the next few attempts.
It seems that Hearthstone's player base is shrinking lately and the game is in need of some fresh content to draw players back in. The upcoming single-player might be that content. The storyline is entertaining, but it's mostly the mixture of challenging opponents, slightly less stressful pacing compared to multiplayer, and the increased possibilities to build a tailored deck that seems attractive to us. However, there are no recurring rewards for playing single-player, meaning you only get the card packs you earn in the course of completing the runs the first time.
The removal of Baku the Mooneater and Genn Greymane fits into a new focus by the Hearthstone developer whereby the studio is tailoring the game to player wishes. Thompson and Donais explained the removal of Baku and Genn as "based on feedback from players. [T]hese guys have had a huge impact on the meta, [but] we want the meta to evolve over time more. Baku and Genn are slowing that down." Similarly, the addition of single-player is aimed at serving Hearthstone "players that are more attracted to single player content."
Additionally, you'll be able to look back at completed single-player runs, because according to Thompson, "players want more tracking ability for all of the things they have successfully done over the course of an experience".
Concluding, our impression of playing the work-in-progress single-player is that Hearthstone will receive a new way to play that's enjoyable and a good alternative for those tired of playing the PvP mode. We suggest players save up their gold in the meantime, as you'll be able to unlock additional chapters for 700 gold, or buy the whole pack for £16.99/€19.99 upon release. The first chapter will be free-to-play.