Mists, Warlords, and Legion — what was the greatest era of modern WoW?
In the first half of this retrospective of all the eras of WoW, Wrath of the Lich King came out ahead as the early frontrunner. But was it actually WoW’s greatest era, or was it just the most popular expansion?
Today, we’ll review what was awesome about Mists of Pandaria, Warlords of Draenor, and Legion to figure out what point in WoW’s history did the game reach its highest ever peak.
The fog of war surrounded Mists of Pandaria
We were shocked, shocked, when Blizzard initially didn’t tell us who was going to be the big bad guy of Mists of Pandaria. After all, every previous expansion had that one guy who kicked events into motion. Our goal as players was to go stop that guy’s plan (usually by killing him), whether it was Illidan, Arthas, or Deathwing. But in Mists, all we knew was that we were going to Pandaria and the Alliance and Horde were going to duke it out for control of the continent.
We didn’t know where the story was going, and that to me was amazing. I loved the suspense of the storyline. Who would live and who would die? Battle for Azeroth has a similar vibe going on right now, and I think it works well.
What unfolded was a deeper story than the usual “bad guy does bad stuff and we stop him.” Even though that’s what it came down to in the end with Garrosh, Mists was ultimately about the horrors of conflict itself, using the sha as an extended metaphor. It was about what happens to civilians and their homelands when they’re caught up in a war they didn’t want. It was about what choosing sides means, and how sometimes you need to take a stand against your own leaders when the people in charge are criminals. It was about the lasting scars of conflict, from the destruction in Jade Forest, to the beachhead invasions of Krasarang, to the utter devastation in the Valley of Eternal Blossoms.
We showed up in this incredible, gorgeous, peaceful place… and we utterly and irrevocably ruined it. It’s a powerful story.
Leveling in Mists was a joy. After experimenting with cutscenes in Wrath, Blizzard gave us a full-blown cinematic leveling experience, starting right off the bat in the Jade Forest. The new hidden treasure items and the plethora of rare enemies made it exciting and rewarding to explore every inch of Pandaria’s zones.
Mists gave us not only a new race in the Pandaren but also a new class. Blizzard’s complete reimagining of the talent into tiers rather than trees trees was controversial — but it did accomplish what Blizzard set out to do by cutting the boring passive bonuses and make each choice matter.
The vast majority of specs were very satisfying to play, and this expansion gave us some of the most fun and unique abilities in the game’s history, many of which are now gone. Symbiosis, Wild Imps, Alter Time, and other new spells made leveling up exciting and added new dimensions to our specs. There’s a reason why so many players on the official forums are begging Blizzard to revert classes to their Mists incarnations.
Players griped about how many dailies Mists threw at you when you hit max level. In a world before World Quests, however, it was a way to get us out into the world, adventuring. Daily quests in later patches had stories and cutscenes that you gradually unlocked, which was a welcome addition to the reputation grind.
Mists also provided some of the most memorable patch content in WoW’s history. The Isle of Thunder was a fantastic mid-expansion addition with so much to do and explore. The Timeless Isle is perhaps the best end-of-expansion patch content ever. TI was a dynamic playground full of secrets, dangers, and exciting moments. We had to wait way too long for Warlords of Draenor, to the point where the “Timeless Isle” became more than just a name. But if it wasn’t for the Isle’s compelling mix of exploration, rare events, and deep table of rewards, we all would have been suffering a lot more during that wait. Blizzard has tried to replicate the feel of it in every expansion since, but TI still reigns supreme as the endgame playground to beat.
Mists also had top-notch raid content. The first tier provided three varied locations with unique encounters such as Elegon and Amber-Shaper Unsok. Throne of Thunder remains one of my favorite-ever raids, even though it was a bit overtuned when it launched (Horridon and Durumu still traumatize me when I go in there solo). Siege of Orgrimmar, even though it felt like we were in there forever, was a fitting end to the great story in Mists. Delving under the city to undercover everything that Garrosh had been up to, as a Horde player, was fascinating and horrifying at the same time. It was a story, for once, that didn’t end in glorious victory, but a bittersweet relief.
Mists also gave us the Halfhill farm, Challenge Mode dungeons, the Legendary cloak questline, new Battlegrounds, the Brawler’s Guild, scenarios, connected realms for better population management, and perhaps the greatest improvement in raiding to date: flexible raid sizes.
Warlords of Draenor was imperfect — and underrated
Warlords of Draenor is often labeled WoW’s worst expansion. It’s true that this expansion offered indisputably the least amount of content so far and had several problematic design choices, but let’s focus on what Warlords did right.
Warlords offered one of the most compelling leveling experiences of any expansion. The introductory sequence in Tanaan is still fun and exciting to me today, even after running through it so many times: the fight in Bladefist’s arena and the final battle at the portal are amazing moments. The actual questing zones, while not as focused as the Tanaan sequence for obvious reasons, still provided plenty of twists and thrills along the way. Gorgrond, Nagrand, and Spires of Arrak are among my favorite-ever leveling zones. It’s too bad that Blizzard didn’t figure out World Quests until Legion. These zones would have benefited from more than just leveling and those random missions from the Garrison.
Speaking of, Garrisons began as a fantastic idea. Building your own custom fortress was something that players fantasized about back in Classic, and Blizzard finally made those dreams come true. While they made some mistakes with Garrisons, you can’t deny that they were an extremely compelling new feature at first.
Warlords also gave us some of the most fun and unique dungeons ever: Grimrail Depot, which was a fresh take on the “loot hallway” concept. One of my favorite experiences in recent dungeons is dodging cannon fire on Iron Docks while Zoggosh and Koramar debate what to do about our incursion. Upper Blackrock Spire was a worthy successor to the original, especially the panic-inducing Ragewing encounter on the bridge.
Even though Warlords was light on raid content, Blackrock Foundry is one of the best raids Blizzard has ever designed. While Ashran didn’t quite work out the way everyone wanted it to, it was still an ambitious addition to the PVP side of the game that proved Blizzard wasn’t giving up on it.
Let’s not forget that Warlords also introduced the new character models, the Toy Box and Heirlooms tab, the new quest UI, the Adventure Guide, and the updated Group Finder tool that we use today. Some of these were crucial additions to modernize the game.
Warlords is underrated, in my opinion. Classes played great and PVE instances were fun. Blizzard had a lot of great ideas here, even if the underlying time-travel story was a bit goofy, but problems eventually surfaced with many of the main features. The expansion also felt cut short so Blizzard could devote more resources to Legion, so it never got the fair shake that it deserved.
Legion encouraged a legion of alts
During Warlords, we all wondered if the lack of content in the present might lead to more content in Legion, and we weren’t disappointed. Blizzard wrapped up the story of Illidan and the Burning Legion with a tour-de-force of storytelling and a scope of content that’s unrivaled by past expansions. With the advent of World Quests, Invasions, and Mythic+ dungeons, Legion just had more stuff to do than any other expansion. This was especially true if you played more than one class. The class-specific content hearkened back to several Classic questlines and was an absolute delight for long-time WoW players. Artifact weapons and class halls were a huge hit. Blizzard took the concept of “class fantasy” to exponential heights.
The Demon Hunter class, while cribbing a bit (or a lot) from Warlock’s Demonology spec, offered an exciting new take on mobile melee DPS and provided a flashy tank spec to boot. The DH starter zone experience offered everything the Death Knight starter zone did and more.
The Suramar storyline was a triumph and among the best max-level content Blizzard has produced. The intricate and at times claustrophobic urban setting made for a very different landscape than we’ve ever explored on Azeroth. The Broken Shore and Argus lacked the oomph of Suramar, outside of Illidan’s destructive fit of rage, but the way Blizzard wrapped up the story in Antorus was wholly satisfying.
Classes felt extremely diverse and deep throughout Legion. Artifacts, tier bonuses, and Legendaries offered so many ways to advance and customize your character. Acquiring Artifact Power and the right Legendaries was painful, but once you did, you felt your character was growing stronger by leaps and bounds like no other expansion before or since. These additions made for a satisfying, if sometimes frustrating, leveling and endgame experience.
In years past, I was a single-class player. I had my main and that was it. Legion turned me into an alt-aholic: I ended up completing the Mage Tower on 14 different DPS specs. The Tower was one of the expansion’s best features.
Allied Races were a welcome addition (if annoying to acquire), and Legion‘s complete overhaul of the game’s PVP system was a much-needed update.
Which expansion wins out?
To be honest, I had trouble deciding between Legion and Mists. Both offered beautiful lore-rich zones, deep gameplay, fun dungeons and raids, and great stories. Ultimately, however, I have to choose Mists.
Mists was Blizzard’s greatest era of innovation. Almost everything future expansions did, Mists was the prototype for. The Halfhill farm became the Garrisons and then the Class Hall. The giant bucket of daily quests became World Quests. Challenge Modes became Mythic+ dungeons. The Brawler’s Guild inspired the Mage Tower. The Timeless Isle became Tanaan Jungle and Argus. Scenario technology was used liberally in future expansions’ questlines, particularly Legion‘s class questlines, to provide unique storytelling experiences. The cinematic leveling experience, with treasures and rares sprinkled throughout the zones, has been carried on into every expansion.
Nearly all of the best ideas that Blizzard has had in the game’s modern history originated in Mists. These ideas weren’t perfected then, but they were new and exciting and promised a bright future for WoW. I also enjoyed the story of Mists more because it was not a straightforward “crisis created by external bad guy, kill bad guy” story. Many people scoffed at the “panda expansion” and dismissed it as aimed at children. But it actually ended up with the darkest story of any expansion to date (although Battle for Azeroth is giving Mists a run for its money right now). The bad guy was our own leader, and both factions contributed to the destruction in Pandaria. The continent itself oozes with history and culture and is still my favorite place to go in the game.
Combine all of this with the golden age of class design and gameplay, and I have to tip my hat to Mists as the best era of WoW.
I miss you, Symbiosis. Come back!
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