Blizzard and World of Warcraft have released their 8th expansion, Shadowlands. With its release, I wanted to take the time to look back on those that came before. World of Warcraft is easily the most successful MMO on the market. It’s one of the longest-running and has seen many ups and downs in its time. Most recently, Blizzard was even able to trick people into rebuying the original World of Warcraft to play again. Easily a great feat of manipulation itself. As you dive into Shadowlands experiencing all of its wonders and woes, remember the good and bad from expansions past. Also, if you find yourself disagreeing with this list, my apologies, but you’re wrong. From worst to best, here is the definitive ranking of each World of Warcraft expansion before Shadowlands.
#8 Warlords of Draenor
The easiest entry on this list, there are very few that will disagree with its placements. I’ll start by saying that the WoD Era did have some bright spots. The level experience was one of the best in the history of the game. The personal Garrison’s were a neat experiment that I think had some success but at the expense of other more important game elements. Even the raiding for what little there was, was very well received by the endgame crowd.
However, at the end of the day an entire expansion in the most successful MMO in history had one major content patch. One. Most expansions see between 3 to 6 of varying sizes. Warlords of Draenor had one major patch and one kind of small half patch. The downtime between the final patch to the release of Legion was over a year. It was so bad that the development team thought it was best to cut their losses and abandon the expansion and devote all the work they had been doing to the next one. Whatever the reception is to the newest World of Warcraft expansion, Shadowlands, it couldn’t possibly be any worse than Warlords of Draenor.
#7 Battle for Azeroth
The most recent expansion for World of Warcraft, the Battle for Azeroth is one of my favorites. So it may seem odd that I’m technically ranking it the second-worst expansion of the game. There are two main points of contention that earn the BFA era such a low ranking. One is story related and the other is system related. Overall, Battle for Azeroth had a ton of great content, but the implementation led to some poor results.
Starting with the story, the rise and fall of Sylvanas Windrunner. The last Warchief of the Horde was not well received by most players. Many feel like it’s been a game of musical chairs, constantly crowning, killing, or corrupting one after the other. Four expansions prior in Mists of Pandaria, Warchief Garrosh Hellscream went mad with power. Many felt that the trend is repeating itself too soon with Sylvanas.
Story aside, Battle for Azeroth had many interesting systems created for it. Warfronts, Island Expeditions, Azerite traits, Essences, and Corruption were all very cool in theory. But they were difficult to balance and each one seemed like an inelegant fix for a pre-existing problem in the game. Essences alone made the game extremely hard for new or returning players to catch up. Corruption which was supposed to solve the problem of randomness on gear did the opposite and broke many classes and specializations. Overall, Battle for Azeroth had great promise, but couldn’t deliver properly on the buffet of content it introduced.
#6 Mists of Pandaria
A lot of people are going to disagree with the placement of Mists of Pandaria and it’s ok to be wrong. I would like to preface it by saying that just because it’s so low on the list doesn’t make it a bad expansion. Mists of Pandaria was a point in the game that a lot of players remember fondly. However, a lot of what Mists of Pandaria did right is owed to Cataclysm for setting up. Despite that, the announcement of Mists of Pandaria surprised everyone. The Pandarians ended up being the first race in the game to be able to choose between Alliance or Horde.
The quest design and flow of the leveling zones coupled with a new era of story-telling really helped cement Mists of Pandaria in a lot of people’s minds. The expansion overall pushed story-telling in a way they hadn’t quite done before. The jump in effective narrative is comparative to how the players felt the first time they saw the Wrathgate Cinematic in Wrath of the Lich King. It set a new bar for World of Warcraft players.
This was also the era where the classes, in general, were the most balanced. Mists of Pandaria also introduced Challenge Dungeons which would serve as a precursor to the Mythic Dungeons we have now. The Throne of Thunder raid was so highly praised it nearly achieved the same level of quality as the Wrath King era Ulduar raid. The final raid tier of the Siege of Orgrimmar was also the first iteration of Flexible Raiding which led to the way raids are set-up now, three expansions later. It was also the first raid to have a Mythic Level Difficulty.
This expansion was a major turning point for both the World of Warcraft and a lot of players. Its biggest accomplishment (or mistake, depending on who you ask) reached far outside of even the game. Deathwing the Destroyer erupted from the Maelstrom and reigned destruction all across Azeroth. This fundamentally changed the landscape of the game as the players knew it. Some areas were destroyed, some changed, NPCs were killed and removed from the game. Prior to this event, new players could still go back and play old content and see it as it was originally intended. But the events of Cataclysm brought real-time change to the game, something very few MMOs had done at the time.
Along with the Cataclysm came World of Warcraft-wide changes to quest design. Everything was very on the rails and clear cut. Quests were given better objective markers and the level experience was further streamlined. For some people, this meant the magic of exploration, and the world was lost. This was the start of over-simplifying the game for casuals. Along with this, all the classes underwent major redesigns. While this was in an effort to make them feel better and play smoother, some classes changed so drastically that players no longer recognized classes they had spent years playing.
#4 World of Warcraft (Vanilla)
While not technically an expansion, we can’t exclude the base game from this list. The original World of Warcraft fondly referred to as Vanilla, started it all. It wasn’t without its issues or problems. But in an age dominated by grind-heavy MMOs it was World of Warcraft that opened a bridge to a more friendly and accessible leveling and narrative experience. While we may look back on them now and ask, “What the hell were we thinking, that wasn’t fun!” in regards to 40 Man Raids like Ahn’Qiraj, damn were they epic. When you add in the first of the Legendary Weapon Quests with Thunderfury, Blessed Blade of the Windseeker and Sulfuras, Hand of Ragnaros…there was something for the hardcore and casual player alike.
It may seem silly to see the first version of the game at the number three spot. But besides the fact that this was the version of the game that ‘started it all’, look no further than the relaunch of World of Warcraft: Vanilla. Not only is it a huge nostalgia trip for those who once played and loved it, but it’s also a chance for the following generation of WoW players to see what the original was really like.
Following what was easily the worst expansion in the history of World of Warcraft, Legion was a slam dunk for Blizzard. This is partly due to the fact that they had way more time to develop assets for it when they decided to abandon Warlords of Draenor and push a lot of its late development into Legion. The Class Halls was a major hit that brought back some needed individuality to the classes of the game. The storylines in the class halls brought you front and center as a player and made you feel special, not just as a hero of Azeroth, but within the confines of your class as well.
This played directly into one of the big expansion features, the Artifact Weapon. Each class was given three unique, distinctive weapons tailored both in mechanics and within game-lore to your class. Shamans were able to wield the Doomhammer, once used by Thrall. Paladin’s got Tirion Fordring’s Ashbringer sword. It was the epitome of awesome. Aside from some early balancing issues, the only real complaint was the lack of diverse appearance throughout the expansion.
Legion had a healthy raid scene with five different raids of varying sizes. But for me, the big cherry on top was the final content and raid tier that saw players leaving Azeroth for what remained of the planet of Argus. While some players may have been on the fence about reusing the Burning Crusade’s main villain in Legion, giving him a redemption arc. Watching and contributing to the defeat of Burning Crusade, an evil force introduced as far back as Warcraft II in 1995 was immensely satisfying. It also introduced another Hero Class in the Demon Hunter.
#2 The Burning Crusade
The first expansion for World of Warcraft saw the players take the Dark Portal (a major lore monument) to a whole new world. It also introduced the first new playable races to the game in the Blood Elves and the Draenei. The BC Era of World of Warcraft did nothing but iterate on and improve what made the game great in the first place. It was Vanilla 2.0 in every sense because it took what worked and made it better. It got rid of what the player base, overall, wasn’t enjoying. 40 Man raids were removed and replaced with 25 Man raids. With the exception of two 10 Man raids, Karazhan and Zul’Aman. The progression through the raids in Burning Crusade was great and provided (for the time) a pretty cohesive story. Except for Mount Hyjal. We don’t speak of Mount Hyjal.
The Burning Crusade also introduced the idea of Daily Quests and opposing reputations that the players could choose. It kept players coming back day in and day out to explore and make their mark in the world. The Burning Crusade also saw the introduction of Arenas in Player Versus Player. Instead of pitting large groups of 10 to 40 players against one another. This allowed teams of 2, 3, or 5 players to face off against each other in a smaller, more intimate arena. Which gave rise to prominent arena stars like the late Reckful.
Finally, near the end of the expansion Blizzard introduced a content update with the Isle of Quel’Danas. It introduced a new type of mechanic called Phasing, which allowed the game to show different versions of an area to different players. This would allow a new kind of story-telling within the game that allowed players to see their effects on the world around change in real-time
#1 Wrath of the Lich King
When it comes to the best World of Warcraft expansions, The Wrath of the Lich King was King (pun absolutely intended.) There was still a lot of what made World of Warcraft great in the Wrath Era. But it was a big turning point in further accessibility. Something that some players argue began to kill the game. The Dungeon Finder debuted in this era. This was also one of the first eras of the game where leveling up didn’t feel random and chaotic. Quest hubs fed into each other and helped to enhance the overall feel of the narrative experience. It’s also one of the appearances of the first and perhaps best in-game cinematic, the famous Wrathgate scene. The Wrath of the Lich King was also the conclusion of a major story arc that had begun in Warcraft III. The fact that the new Shadowlands expansion for World of Warcraft starts on the heels of a post-Wrath story is good tidings for it.
This was also the first expansion to add in a new class with the Death Knight. Considered a Hero Class, players got to experience a starting zone under the control of the Lich King himself and break free to join the fight against him. It was epic and one of the most memorable moments of the early expansion.
Beyond that, this expansion was arguably the peak of end game raiding. With immense, sprawling instances like Ulduar and Icecrown Citadel players were given some of the most epic encounters in the game. Having creative hard modes like Ulduar or limited time hidden bosses like Algalon the Observer. The Wrath of the Lich King stands above all over eras of the World of Warcraft.
The Shadowlands are finally here, the 8th expansion of World of Warcraft. It’s hard to know what players will think and where it will rank on the list. On one hand, it’s playing into some of the past fan-favorite story-lines. With players set to invade the land of the dead, it’s a chance for many old foes to return. With Sylvanas be the antagonist everyone believes, or does her twisted and misguided conscience have a plan? After two expansions experimenting with Artifacts and Legendary equipment, will Shadowlands hit the sweet spot? It’s still too early to tell, but as with each World of Warcraft expansion, the players are hyped to explore the Shadowlands.