Musings on Warcraft in the Waning Days of Shadowlands

It’s probably a bit premature to call them “waning days” as there’s probably best part of a year (minimum) left in the expansion. However, we’re into the last patch and I have some swirling incoherent thoughts, that I’m going to try and make sense of and write down.

There have been eight Warcraft expansions thus far. I start off with this fact because I don’t feel like I can really evaluate Shadowlands without also referencing what came before it. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the very real impact outside factors have. I first started playing Warcraft at the end of January 2010 – over 12 years later I’m still here, but I’m 12 years older and a lot has happened in those intervening years. There is always the question when the ‘rosy-tinted glasses of nostalgia’ come out, as to whether the game was better back in the day, or whether it was the place I was in my life that influenced how I viewed it.

So what did I think of Shadowlands then?
I phrase it as ‘what I thought’ because this is a highly personal evaluation. It’s not what was objectively good or bad – it’s how I felt about it. I said to someone yesterday that what I thought sucked, might have been what someone else thought was the best part – and this is probably why blizz struggles so much. They literally can’t please everyone. Quite often I feel that then leaves them pleasing nobody, as they try to find the middle-ground, but I digress.

It is absolutely no secret (except to this blog because I haven’t done a post about Warcraft since 2019 apparently) that I haven’t vibed with Shadowlands. But why is that? Let’s take points one by one.

The Level Squish
I suspect this is the initial cause of feeling disgruntled. I had one of every class at 120 + a handful of duplicates. Overnight they got slashed down to level 50. I’m fairly sure I have blogged about that before. It felt bad, to see all that progress just wiped away. I fully understand the reasons why they did it but I can’t agree with their solution, especially because now they are just pushing the problem down the line again. Dragonflight has announced the new level of 70 – so in another couple of expansions another squish? It feels BAD. All that time, all that effort, just rendered meaningless.

The Covenants Power + Story + Aesthetic
Blizz have now walked this back, and made switching incredibly easy, and also opened up transmog/mounts etc. to be account-wide. If it had been like that from the beginning then resentment wouldn’t have built up. I actively didn’t work on my covenant at all because I knew I would change it and I despise having to do things twice. I went with Venthyr on my paladin for the power options, when I really wanted to be Kyrian for the aesthetic. I was grumpy as hell about it. Now it doesn’t matter but I retain the negative feelings.

Too Many Systems
Conduits AND Soulbinds AND Torghast AND repuation this AND profession that – it’s too much. My favourite thing to do back in the day was play alts. It kept things fresh. These days I can’t keep up with doing everything on my main, so I sure as hell can’t do it on any other character. So many things require weekly runs, or daily runs, and I just don’t have the time. The grind is insane. I am not optimised at all and I feel terrible about it, like I’m letting my guild down. It’s become a thing to run Mythic+ to get Mythic-level gear to then run/overpower the normal/heroic raids. I don’t like Mythic+, I struggle with trash threat and the timer stresses me out. So I don’t run them but then I feel guilty because my gear is just from the raid drops and at the lower end of raiders.

The Aesthetic
I think this is the big one really. The whole ‘death’ thing and the rather problematic issues that Shadowlands throws up regarding it. I find it unsettling. The expansion is dark in tone and visually a lot of the time. Whenever I have said that people have pointed out that Bastion is a very light zone, and that’s true, but the zones are all so very separate and disconnected and there feels like there’s less of them. I’m not sure if that’s true but that’s how it feels. Which brings me to the next point.

Does Shadowlands suffer due to comparison?
I think it does. I find it hard to really evaluate TBC or Wrath as they were both out when I picked the game up (so they are sort of ‘bundled’ with the base game in my mind). Cata was my first real expansion. A lot of people knocked it at the time but some of the most fun I remember having in game was during Cata. This does refer back to what I mentioned above about ‘time in my life’ and outside factors as I’m sure that had an impact. However, not totally because I can list features of Cata which played a key role in my enjoyment.

But let’s come back to that and instead think more about direct comparisons. Start with Legion. There are 5 main levelling zones and they are all together on a continent. The zones themselves are shared with the Horde but each class had their own Class Hall and quests to complete. BfA had 6 main levelling zones, on two continents, because 3 were for Alliance and 3 were for Horde. Then Shadowlands had 4 levelling zones spread into 4 continents (effectively) shared with the Horde, and it had 4 Covenants which offered quests to complete BUT this was tied to player power so (initially) the choice wasn’t really the players.

So from an objective standpoint Shadowlands is far more disconnected with the separate zones. There are less of them. I would also say arguably there is less variability in experience. Yes there are the 4 Covenants but contrast that with 12 Class Halls, and BfA offered a completely difference for each faction.

What about features? I would argue a little bit what features? Basically this expansion feels like a “reorganising” one. There was no new race, or new class. They squished the levels, and scaled the levelling experience. They had a mission table (first introduced in Warlords), they had Torghast (the tech of Horrific Visions from BfA), Covenants (cut down Class Halls from Legion). I get re-using tech rather than just building new for the sake of new, but it felt thin. There was nothing really special and shiny to get excited about.

Now having said that (and I don’t wish to be unfair) some of the best features of past expansions weren’t introduced until later in the patch cycle. The first iteration of transmog for instance didn’t come until 4.3. It is possible that blizz intended for something more for Shadowlands and then Covid happened, which is why we aren’t even getting a third patch. Also what is a major feature or not does depend a bit on perspective. Patch 9.2.5 has added cross-faction grouping which I’m sure thrills a lot of people. Personally my Horde alts are on the connected server to my OLD server, so I don’t feel like I’m really benefiting.

In the past I have likened Shadowlands to Warlords, which isn’t exactly favourable. However, I think the comparison stands. Warlords was the first expansion where they did a major stat squish. That also only had two major patches. However, in hindsight Warlords did give us more. I mean it was the first iteration of a lot of tech, the garrison stuff has been re-implemented in a variety of ways since. Shadowlands doesn’t really have the same kind of legacy in terms of features, but I suppose to be fair it very much has changed everything about the logistics of the game with the new scalable levelling system, and now cross-faction grouping.

Looking back and forward
I just found the post I wrote after Shadowlands announcement. It is funny in a not-funny-at-all kind of way that a lot of my ‘concerns’ are what I now am saying I didn’t like. I thought that blizz had missed an opportunity to do something bold regarding the levelling system, I thought that the level squish would feel bad and that just going then to more levels each expansion, meant one day another squish would be required. I felt they should have made a different choice.

Interestingly I was expecting that I would really like Torghast. If I’m honest I did like it mostly in it’s first iteration, when completion was all that mattered. I found it took too long and I wished that there weren’t so many floors/they were smaller, but otherwise it was fine. When they introduced the ranking system, and the out of 5 stars – I have run it maybe twice since. I HATE it. I know I should probably google for what hoops I need to jump through and then just try and smash it out but I don’t want to. It took what was a good exercise and basically added a timer (which I hate), along with some other mystery requirements and surprise, surprise I fail and then it feels bad. If I put in the effort I feel like I should get the reward. Telling me “you didn’t do it well enough” AND not telling me why, just not letting me progress to the next tier (as you need 4 stars I think for that?). It sucks. It’s not enjoyable. All that time and effort wasted on that run. If it was shorter I wouldn’t mind so much but it takes like an hour as it is.

So yes Torghast turned out to be a massive disappointment. Everything else was just meh at best. I’m so over the whole “mission table” thing. I never got into the covenants for reasons mentioned above (thinking I would switch once power wasn’t a consideration). Not being able to fly in either the Maw, or the expanded 9.1 Maw place sucks. Plus it’s a very depressing place – fitting for the Shadowlands, not fitting for a game I play to have fun.

Let’s talk Dragonflight
Not going to lie – I have some concerns, but first the positives! Aesthetically this seems much better. It’s lighter, more cheerful. It’s a continent so the zones are connected. There are 5 of them and actually I don’t think there’s a super dark zone there – great! All of this is a good start. There’s a new race and a new class, and they are connected as the Dracthyr can only be Evokers, and no other race can be Evokers. I think this is fun, though I hope the starting zone uses that tech to create tons of instances of it, or Day One that will crash hard.

The new feature is “Dragon Riding” which looks like it might a) give us flight much earlier than blizz have permitted last few expansions, and b) be a fun optional side-activity with some cool customisation. So I’m cautiously optimistic about this. I mean I have quite a lot of Drakes in my mounts list already so I hope it offers some kind of in-game reason why these drakes are different. But I have enjoyed the quest lines in the past in Mists and TBC about raising my own mount, so yeah this could be good.

The level cap is going to level 70 and I am side-eyeing that. It was to be expected but do they have so little faith in themselves they don’t imagine the game will be running in the future? I mean I’m sure it will shut down one day but it’s a juggernaut right now, with no signs of stopping. Why not future proof? But I digress.

So concerns?

Let’s talk professions.
With Legion they introduced a rank system. This wasn’t too bad because recipies could be bought or a lot of Rank 3 came from World Quests. It cost gold but the higher ranks just lowered the resource cost because the crafter was more skilled – the actual item didn’t change. I’m not too sure about how it worked in BfA but in Shadowlands it went BAD. The simple star system turned into an xp system, which required the crafter to make the item multiple times to get the next rank. That would be fine except the next rank wasn’t about making it cheaper – it made it more powerful.

So usually I’d level up my professions to craft my main stuff, but I was faced with crafting dozens of things I didn’t need, in order to level up the recipe to be the highest level (and thus the most powerful item), or I could just fork out a ton of gold on the AH to somebody that had already done it. I resent paying gold for something I should be able to do myself but I guess it’s about time, or money, and in this case my time was more valuable. From a completionist standpoint I hate it because I like to level everything, and get all the achievements etc.

They are apparently doing a rework of professions to make them more useful. If this is more of the xp system from Shadowlands that will suck. I had hoped they would bring relevence to professions not by augmenting player power, but by something cosmetic. Give professions mounts and pets to craft. Player housing – think how many things players could make for that. This goes back to my complaint about the grind and “too many systems”. Having lots of systems is fine – IF they are optional – but by tying everything to player power, it makes it not really optional and then it gets too much.

The new talent system
Oh dear, the cause of much trouble and strife. I made some comments in my guilds discord about what I felt were protection paladin weaknesses at the moment, only to have those claims rubbished by others. That proved rather ironically my aforementioned point about how blizz can’t please everyone, and then winds up pleasing nobody. I still maintain I’m not wrong because that is how it is for me. Clearly if it’s not that way for others I’m missing something. Anyway I digress – back to the talents change.

It’s the biggest shake-up since Mists. Honestly I think blizz are making a mistake. The old talent trees pre-Mists were “look up points, plug them in, never look at again” – they might as well not have existed. Then along came Mists and talents instead became purely situational – they MEANT something. I went through so much dust it was crazy, I changed those talents between bosses on raids, I changed it whether I was running dungeons or doing quests. It was really good to have that level of choice.

Whenever blizz goes on about talents, they talk about that and allowing people to build their own character. So they are going back to the tree model and I’m just wondering why. By the looks of what they have released thus far it’s going to be another “plug the points in and forget about it” type deal. All that effort and work and for what? In fact one might even say it is pointless haha.

So let’s do a wishlist
I’m not talking pie-in-the-sky dreams, I’m talking something potentially possible/reasonable. First of all let’s talk protection paladins. I mentioned above that discussing the new talent system I spoke about where I felt prot paladins could improve. I suppose to put it quite simply I wish for the clock to rewind back to Mists – that was the best iteration hands down.

To expand the point, it’s mostly AoE that I feel I am lacking in. I struggle to keep threat on large groups. I would like them to decouple the AoE from standing in consecration, or perhaps give us a DoT. To return to Mists again, Sacred Shield was a talent option. It wasn’t always the best one, I used Eternal Flame sometimes, but Sacred Shield was very good as it gave us an absorb. Right now I have SoR and cds to mitigate hits, but I’m still dependant on healing up afterwards. With an absorb I can effectively increase my health pool, so it can look like my health doesn’t dip that much. It’s less panicking to healers and is just smoother for the big hits. That would always be something I would like back. Being able to choose between extra burst options of Execution Sentence for single-target, and Lights Hammer for AoE was nice. See I am talking about choice, that’s what the talents gave us before. I also greatly preferred Speed of Light as opposed to pulling a horse out of nowhere for a speed boost but I digress.

That’s paladins, what about game systems? Again more choice and simpler please. Roll the clock back to Cata/Mists would be perfect and give us real Valor Points. Not how they exist now which is when you get a certain ranking in Mythic, you can then upgrade gear to that level with the points. No I am just talking about gaining VP and then buying gear. No gating, no reputation requirements, just straight earn points = buy gear. This gear should be current, not last tier, but current. It can be normal level, but heroic would be preferable. I would like to be able to earn the points doing normal activities. Like in Cata 7 dungeons a week = cap.

Why do I want this? Because alts are fun. But currently impossible. Gear offered by World Quests scales with gear you have. So if you have no gear – only crap gear is offered by the WQ. I don’t like Mythic+ and what does that leave? Add in needing to run Torghast and then have shedloads of gold for even a basic legendary. That doesn’t even mention conduits or anything like that. It’s too much.

I said above the most fun I remember having in the game was during Cata. The Dragon Soul patch gets major hate, I think it was the longest content drought to date. I have to be honest I didn’t even notice. I was jumping between characters, running dungeons, going “ooooh I can get an upgrade” every few runs, and just generally having fun. It was laid back, it was relaxing. Then because I was being able to buy semi-competitive gear. When my guild did alt runs I could be like “I want to go on my priest this time” or “can I bring my warlock?” and again that was super fun. It made old content I had done a 100x feel fresh again.

Now there are people in my current guild who somehow manage to do this. I see them playing a variety of characters and sometimes they’ll raid on different ones. I don’t know how they manage it. I am so totally confused about what I am supposed to have, and supposed to have done, even on my main. I wanted to complain above about being totally at sea regarding “best in slot” now, due to there being a seemingly infinite number of gear levels. I mean I can see that because I can see the ilevel, which helps then with what is better or worse, but I do miss the days when there were the different tiers (normal and heroic) and that was it. Then in Mists there was the reforger for shifting stats so even non-bis gear could be made better. I understood that. I don’t understand what is going on anymore. The whole “borrowed power” thing is one I wish would go away.

I think I am a curmudgeonly grumpy old, waxing nostalgic about how I preferred things back in the day. Don’t misunderstand though, the game has added some amazing things I love since then. Notably Legion brought some immense QoL improvements like the Wardrobe feature for transmog, and Class Halls (although I wish more had been done with them) are something I love very much.

For Shadowlands I think half my complaints broadly come down regarding the systems being too complex and time-consuming. The other half was the general aesthetic. I just didn’t vibe with the whole ‘dark and depressing’ thing, especially perhaps given that I was looking for an escape from the world and a problematic ‘afterlife’ wasn’t it. So maybe even if Dragonflight doesn’t give me what I’d like in terms of game systems, it seems like lighter/brighter material which might make me view the game more positively overall anyway.