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WoW > WoW ArchivistOct 31, 2017 4:00 pm CT

WoW Archivist: Playable races

wow cosplayers

With BlizzCon 2017 rapidly approaching, much of the buzz about this one is what the next WoW expansion will offer. As with every expansion, many leaks have sprung up on forums and social media. One of the most intriguing “leaks” came from Blizzard’s own patch data. The datamined info hints at four possible subraces: Nightborne, Highmountain Tauren, Void Elves, and Lightforged Draenei. We knew about these based on previous statements from Blizzard, but this is the first evidence that they might be patched in to the game in the near future.

We’ve also had two expansions without a new race, so we are likely to get at least one new race in patch 8.0. Looking back, it’s amazing how limited races were in classic WoW and how far races have come since then.

classic character creation

The first choice

In late 2004, the first choice players made when they installed the game was their race and class. For many players, this first choice dictated the course of their WoW career, because it also meant choosing a faction. The pattern of choice dictated how WoW‘s first realms became populated.

The Alliance had the typical fantasy “good guy” races, all of them with direct counterparts from the Fellowship in Lord of the Rings: humans, elves, dwarves, and gnomes (hobbits). These also happened to be the “pretty” races. The word from beta also made it clear that Blizzard had spent more time developing Alliance faction cities and zones. Paladins were Alliance only and generally considered an excellent PVE class. All of this led to PVE players overwhelmingly choosing Alliance. Thus, PVE realms had populations heavily skewed toward Alliance.

The Horde, on the other hand, had the “ugly” races. The males were hunchbacked and monstrous. The women had rotting faces, tusks, fangs, or hooves. To a new player in 2004, it clearly seemed like you were choosing the “evil” faction. Most players who wanted to adventure through the world as a heroic character wanted no part of the Horde. On the other hand, many PVP-oriented players love to be the “bad guy.” Shamans were Horde only and generally considered an excellent PVP class. So PVP players overwhelmingly chose Horde and PVP realms had populations heavily skewed toward Horde.

underwear dancing

Races and realms

Horde PVE players often found that opportunities to raid were far more limited in their faction than Alliance. Alliance PVP players found themselves outnumbered and outgunned. Many players rerolled to the other side out of frustration and never looked back. The population skew became worse and worse.

As a PVE-focused Horde player since 2004, I have experienced the imbalance firsthand. I’ve been tempted to switch factions for 13 years. I haven’t yet, but it’s still something I debate. All of my friends in the game are on the Horde side, and that’s basically what has kept me from switching. Many players back in classic developed friendships based purely on their choice of race for that first character. It was a fateful decision.

Over time, the designs of Blizzard’s races and the Paladin/Shaman split have determined how WoW‘s realms became populated.  Consequences from the classic races have reverberated throughout the history of the game. To this day, most PVE realms remain underpopulated on the Horde side and vice versa. If Blizzard had included one “pretty” race on the Horde side and one “monstrous” race on the Alliance side at launch, the overall populations might have been a lot more balanced. We’ll never know.

night elf cat form

Limited choices

In classic WoW, the class you wanted often locked you into choosing between two or fewer races. Druid is the most well known of the race-limited classes, with one choice for each faction in classic. But other classes also had pretty limited choices back then, too: Mage and Warlock had only two choices per faction. Horde Priests, Alliance Hunters, and Paladins also had only two choices. It’s pretty amazing when you consider the wide array of choices we have today!

The only classes with broad racial options were Warrior and Rogue. Warrior was the only class that any race could become. Taurens with their noisy hooves were the only race that couldn’t be a rogue.

forsaken in tirisfal

Imbalanced racials

Race choice was far more important in classic than today. Racial abilities had a much greater impact on your gameplay — and even sometimes your ability to join a raiding guild.

Many races had weapon-specific bonuses that increased your skill with certain weapon types. Orcs had a bonus to fist weapons and axes. Dwarves had a bonus to gun skills, Humans to maces and swords, Trolls to bows and (useless) throwing weapons. These skills allowed you to equip less gear with the Hit stat on it, so you could equip more of a better stat like Critical Strike. As a result, such races produced higher DPS than others and they became the “correct” races to use for physical DPS. {PB}

Gnomes got a whopping 5% bonus to Intellect, making them the race of choice for spellcasters. Orcs had a 5% bonus to pet damage, making them ideal for Warlock and Hunter classes. Taurens had 5% more health, pegging them as tanks. Trolls had a 5% overall damage bonus against beasts, putting them significantly ahead of the pack in beast encounters.

In PVP, no race had an advantage greater than Undead with their Will of the Forsaken ability. In classic, it provided a 5-second immunity to virtually every form of hard crowd control, even if you were already CC’ed. The ability didn’t share a cooldown with other effects like it does today. WoTF made Undead fearsome (some said overpowered) opponents in PVP — another contributing factor to so many PVP realms skewing Horde.

priest and masked alliance

The priest problem

In classic, five races could be priests, and each race provided a priest with two race-specific spells. I salute Blizzard’s choice here to give each priest race its own flavor. It was a lore-centric design and a fun idea. The execution, however, was lacking.

Humans were generally considered to be the worst race for a classic-era priest. They had a self-heal on a 10-minute cooldown (the original Desperate Prayer) and Feedback, which granted a short-term buff that burned mana from any caster who hit the priest with a spell.

Dwarf priests were on the other end of the spectrum. They were the only priests with Fear Ward — an incredibly useful spell in both PVP and PVE. Vanilla bosses like Magmadar loved to fear tanks, which could be devastating if not handled properly. A few dwarf priests in the raid could completely nullify that mechanic. A dwarf priest was an auto-invite for most raiding guilds, regardless of the player’s gear, skill, or attitude.

For priests, the choice of race was more important than for any other class. Unfortunately most new players didn’t know this choice mattered so much when they created a character. To compound the problem, Blizzard hadn’t yet offered a race change service, so race was a permanent decision. Plenty of priests reached max level, started raiding, and then felt compelled to create new characters of the “correct” race when they figured out that the racial abilities had such a big impact on their contribution to the team. The racials also became a point of contention for Horde players, who had no access to Fear Ward at all.

blood elf vs draenei

The expansion races

WoW‘s races have come a very long way since classic. The Burning Crusade addressed the “all pretty”/”all ugly” problem with the factions by adding one new race per faction. Blood Elves were announced as playable at the very first BlizzCon in 2005, but Blizzard made us wait about six months before learning which race the Alliance would get. Blizzard chose well with these races — they have been the most popular of any races added to the game since classic.

It’s too bad that their starting zones have never been revamped. They are not Blizzard’s best work and desperately need an update to bring them up to par with the revamped classic starting zones in Cataclysm.

Cataclysm balanced things out further by giving a “monstrous” race to the Alliance and a short race to the Horde.  The starting zones of the Worgen and Goblins are the best starting experiences that Blizzard has ever created, in my opinion. The glitz and glam of Kezan contrasts beautifully with gloomy, gothic Gilneas. One is a rousing adventure tale — the other, a tale of horror and tragedy.

Even better, Blizzard opened the floodgates for race/class combos in Cataclysm, offering players far more choices. New druid races were hugely welcome, along with a second paladin class for Horde and a second shaman class for Alliance. The Mage class was made available to five more races.

pandarens facing off

Balance in all things

Over the years, Blizzard has done their best to balance racial abilities while maintaining a different flavor for each race. They eventually ditched Priest’s class-specific racials and either cut them or spread them to all Priests — including Fear Ward. The results of these balancing efforts haven’t always been stellar, but Blizzard has tried.

I give them credit for continuing to balance these abilities. It would have been easy for Blizzard to get rid of racial bonuses entirely or to take away their relevance in combat, like Blizzard mostly did with professions. Preserving these abilities gives us a small way to feel like our choice of race matters. I hope that if Blizzard ever does include subraces, they’ll also alter one of the existing racial bonuses for each subrace.

A few years ago, Mists of Pandaria added the most recent playable race. For a long time, players were convinced that if pandaren were ever added to WoW as a playable race, they would belong to just one faction or the other. Based on the game’s long history and Blizzard’s own past policies, no one suspected that Blizzard would give the same race to both factions.

But as usual, just when we think Blizzard will never do something, they surprise us. That’s what makes these BlizzCon weekends so exciting! Will we get one new shared race, two faction-specific ones, or maybe even all three? Will subraces be added for every race or just a select few? We’ll find out, hopefully, on Friday…

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