World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth has arrived, and with it a celebration of the Alliance vs. Horde conflict that has anchored the most popular MMORPG in the world for the last decade and change. What an excellent time to look back at the best story-based moments in the history of World of Warcraft.
Inconsequently, the best story moments are often closely intertwined with the best community moments of the game, that is, the moments when we remember having the most fun with our friends, tackling new challenges, and defeating snarly bad guys. This list takes both types of moments into consideration but is by no means a complete list of all the awesome memories veteran WoW players have shared throughout the years.
It’s important to note that the terms story and lore are related but not inherently the same thing. For the purposes of this article, story moments will be defined as events that happen or develop while actually playing/experiencing World of Warcraft. Events that have happened in past Warcraft games/novels, etc. or are referred to in passing but not actually experienced will be considered backstory and/or lore and won’t be focused on too much.
The Story of Arthas
Arthas Menethil, Wrath of the Lich King’s namesake, might be one of WoW’s most-loved—and most tragic—characters ever created. The entire expansion was centered around Arthas’ tale and how he tragically became the Lich King and commanded the Scourge in an attempt to take his lonely vengeance out on Azeroth. In the Death Knight starting area, he made an appearance. While we quested throughout Northrend, he taunted players, teasing us about the fights that awaited us in Icecrown Citadel. We even saw Arthas’ younger, Paladin self in the Culling of Stratholme.
The buildup to the destruction of the Lich King was undoubtedly one of the best story moments World of Warcraft has ever seen. The experience of raiding Icecrown Citadel and finally taking down Heroic 25-man Arthas was one of my favorite WoW memories ever, and that was partially due to how well Blizzard built up the expansion-encompassing story surrounding his character.
We can’t forget about the Frozen Halls three-instance teaser that was introduced with the opening of Icecrown Citadel, either. The whole joust-obsessed Argent Tournament diversion was a little, well, forgettable, but besides that, Icecrown Citadel had one of the most satisfying endings of any story-heavy raid tier.
Illidan Taught Us Preparation Is Key
Illidan Stormrage’s tale is the quintessential story of The Burning Crusade, and it doesn’t disappoint. His self-proclaimed lordship is explored while questing in Shadowmoon Valley and hinted at throughout many of TBC’s original dungeons. Some of the final SMV quests remain the coolest and most challenging quests in all of TBC.
The original Black Temple attunement quest chain, while challenging and quite long, offered players an immersive way to see just who Illidan was, what Akama was fighting for, and what exactly was at stake within the halls of Black Temple. Blizzard hasn’t quite taken the same approach to balancing story with dungeons and raid entry gates since, and I’ll be the first to admit that’s kind of a shame. There’s a reason you still hear people make “You are not prepared” jokes. Illidan was all sorts of bad ass (though we certainly haven’t seen the last of him!).
The Adventures of Brann and the Hype of Ulduar
Ah, Ulduar. Anyone who raided during the release of Ulduar undoubtedly goes on and on about how gorgeous the place was, its cool lore, and how fantastic of a raid in general it was. The ramblings aren’t untrue. Ulduar is still one of the top three raid instances Blizzard ever created. In fact, it just might be the best. The lore behind the raid and the story behind the Titans are big reasons why Ulduar was so awesome.
The strong quest buildup in the Storm Peaks and Halls of Stone/Halls of Lightning certainly helped, too. By the time WoW players received the raid, we were more than ready to dive deep into its secrets (this, by the way, is one reason why Blizzard’s recent rapid-fire raid releases haven’t been that gratifying).
Brann Bronzebeard’s appearance in Ulduar and throughout Northrend also helped make the raid’s story fantastic. Brann adds a fun-natured, Dwarf-tastic flair to any story content he’s a part of, and frankly, any content he takes part in shines thanks to his influence. Never change, Dwarves. You’re just that awesome.
Thrall’s a huge part of Warcraft’s story overall, but his story in World of Warcraft has always been kind of here and there. As a strategic leader, he’ll often appear for a bit, be a hero, and disappear again. We found out more about his origins during TBC. In WotLK, Thrall and Garrosh express their differences of opinion in regards to actions taken during Wrathgate.
And then, in Cataclysm, we saw a lot more of his story. We saw his true personality throughout the questline that accompanied the opening of Firelands, his regrets, his deepest desires, and what fuels his power in battle. Thrall is shown in a human-like, genuine light that we don’t often see. For the first time, Thrall truly wonders if the Horde faction should be better united or splintered apart.
His final act of heroism at the tail end of the Nagrand storyline in Warlords of Draenor is a bit controversial, but it’s a moment that shows his true character and gives his Cataclysm story closure. After all the pondering Thrall did, it was time for action. Players are heroes, but so are characters like Thrall who we’ve come to know and love.
Wrath of the Lich King’s Origins, Leading up to Wrathgate
The whole story introducing Northrend will always be one of my favorite stories in World of Warcraft. The introductory boat ride (I was Alliance back then, although I’ve played through both sides), the initial quest chains, the creative, plague-infected pre-expansion event, and the story leading up through Wrathgate (and the following Battle for Undercity) make for one of the most impactful expansion introductions we’ve ever seen.
I’m separating this entry from Arthas’ story because, while the two are obviously connected, the Wrathgate storyline focuses on more than just Arthas. It focuses on the Horde vs. Alliance conflict, how both factions choose to operate in Northrend’s harsh environment, and how, ultimately, both factions realize they may need to work together in order to take out the Scourge forces.
The Legend of Stalvan
Back in Vanilla WoW, Duskwood was one of the community’s favorite Alliance questing zones for many good reasons. It was creepy, atmospheric, full of zombies to slay, and had some excellent quests (and Stitches!). Among those quests, the Legend of Stalvan questline was one of the best.
Originally, it was a lengthy questline that took you to various zones as you unraveled a tale of a man who went from lover to killer after falling victim to a dangerous curse. In Cataclysm, the questline was visited again, and a new chain took its place that explored a brother’s similar, tragic fate.
Among the original WoW locations that serve as a reminder that history often involves fallen cities, Stratholme is one of the most iconic. Once a prestigious city, it fell to the Scourge invasion and was later partially re-taken by the Scarlet Crusade. The Eastern/Western Plaguelands quests explore the story behind the Human race’s failed attempts to keep Stratholme under close wraps, and we even see glimpses of the people who once called Stratholme home via quest NPCs and dungeon quests.
In WotLK, we were also able to conquer The Culling of Stratholme, a dungeon that explored a time during Arthas’ youth when he fought against the Scourge in an attempt to save the city. Since our characters are time travelers, we ironically knew that the city fell regardless of his best efforts. We also knew that Arthas ended up becoming quite cozy with the Scourge. Ah, time travel. Why must you be so awesomely tragic at times?
The Rise of Deathwing
Deathwing the Destroyer was the entire reason Cataclysm happened. Before the expansion launched, his terror rained from the sky in the form of crazed elementals that attacked the main cities. His devastation was seen everywhere across Azeroth and still is to this day. As far as villains go, Deathwing was definitely one of the most impactful, and served as the reason for most of the original zone revamps.
Once Cataclysm hit, Deathwing’s efforts increased. He forced us to go back in time a bit, get Thrall involved a time or two, and ask the remaining Dragon Aspects for help to finally stop him once and for all within Dragon Soul, the final raid of the expansion. We also saw a nice story moment in the Badlands quest revamp.
Historically, there’s also no forgetting the fact that Onyxia and Nefarian, offspring of Deathwing, attempted to do their part to stir up trouble in early World of Warcraft. Deathwing had been lurking in Deepholm during that time, awaiting histurn to charbroil bits of Azeroth into lava.
The Pandaren vs. The Sha
The Pandaren, despite being a peace-loving, patient race, are not without their faults. Mists of Pandaria’s questlines involving the Sha are evidence of these faults, and from a story standpoint, these quests bring an interesting, darker edge to much of the whimsical content seen throughout the expansion. The Sha also inspire a great number of conflicts which end up involving both player factions, of course, playing a major role in all of MoP’s early raids alongside the Mogu.
Most of WoW’s storylines tend to heavily involve major NPCs that favor the Alliance or Horde and pitch the two factions against each other, but this is one storyline that departs from that tradition. Instead, the Alliance and Horde both end up equally wrapped in the conflicts of the Pandaren and the Sha, along with their newfound Hozen and Jinyu allies, and Wrathion. It makes for a solid departure from most WoW storylines while still remaining interesting.
Lady Sylvanas’ Return
Cataclysm’s revamp of the Undead starting area and Silverpine Forest is one of the best story revamps the expansion brought to WoW. The plight of the Undead race has always been an interesting, yet underrepresented racial story, but the new additions involving Gilneas forces are frankly just cool, and it’s awesome being able to see the Val’kyr make a return. There’s also no forgetting this gorgeous gem. One day, we’ll see more of the Undead’s story. Or so we hope, anyway.
Opening the Dark Portal
Right before The Burning Crusade came out, there was a rather chaotic pre-expansion world event where legions of demons poured out from the Dark Portal (and a world boss that folks liked to kite to the main cities, because, well, why not kill off newbies?). The event wasn’t super story heavy, but it did serve an immersive purpose—it helped players feel a real danger from the Burning Legion.
Hellfire Peninsula’s introductory quests continued this immersive feeling quite nicely, letting players immediately get a sensation for the chaos and danger Outlands offered. Story-wise, we got a great taste for how both the Alliance and Horde scrambled to make sense of the chaos and control an untamed, wild landscape. Compared to later expansions, TBC’s introductory story still seems delightfully chaotic to this day, and remains one of the most fun to replay for that reason.
The Birth of a Death Knight
There’s a heartbreaking moment that gets me every time I make a new Death Knight—when you’re tasked to slay a prisoner of your own race to sever the ties of who you once were. The story of how Death Knights become Death Knights and what it actually means to be a Death Knight goes a bit beyond what happened with Arthas (which is why I separated the two), and the DK starting area explores that story quite beautifully.
The Story of the Blood Elves and the Demise of Kael’thas
Blood Elves are one of the most interesting post-Vanilla races added to WoW, and also one of the most integral to lore. Kael’thas Sunstrider’s story is central to the Blood Elves, and was a large part of The Burning Crusade. Along with Illidan, Kael’thas is a TBC fan favorite for a reason. His maniac, uh, charm (sure, we’ll go with that) was also amusing to witness. No one can say poor Kael’thas didn’t believe in what he was fighting for.
From the opening Blood Elf quests to the ones in Netherstorm, Magister’s Terrace, Tempest Keep, and the events that inspired Sunwell Plateau, these stories explore some great themes. Power, magic, addiction to both, and the dangers of those addictions—these were some of the major themes of TBC, and some of the most interesting we’ve ever seen in WoW.
Hope for Gnomeregan and the Darkspear Tribe
Since the start of WoW, it’s always felt like two races in particular got the short end of the stick in regards to story—Gnomes and Trolls. Both races were shoved into the starting areas of other races (Dwarves and Orcs respectively), and while there were hints for why those decisions were made story-wise, it was always kind of a bummer that we didn’t get to see those stories take form at all.
Finally, as part of Cataclysm’s pre-expansion event, we saw part of both those stories. The survivors of Gnomeregan decided to take back the surface areas surrounding the trogg-infested home of the Gnome race in order to plan an attack to retake the city. Meanwhile, Vol’jin and the Darkspear tribe launched an attack against Zalazane to retake Echo Isles.
After Cataclysm launched, both races gained unique starting area hubs that showcase those victories and the first steps toward what the future may hold. It’s good stuff.
Pandaria’s Introduction: The Wandering Isle
If you’ll notice, I’m paying special attention to many of the newer starting areas in WoW. They often bring story to the forefront in a manner that isn’t seen in most areas of the game. Introducing players to a new race isn’t a simple task, but WoW’s writers succeed in doing so at a skill level that quite frankly blows most other MMORPG writing out of the water.
Another great moment in starting area storytelling is seen in Mists of Pandaria’s Pandaren starting area. The Wandering Isle’s story embodies the characteristics of the race itself: humor, humbleness, an appreciation for a leisurely and tasty approach to life, integrity, patience, and a strength to overcome challenges when the need arises. It also helps that the starting area’s music—and much of the music throughout Mists of Pandaria—is also quite gorgeous.
Zul’Gurub and Zul’Aman
WoW players may often complain about Blizzard’s infatuation with Troll instances, but Zul’Gurub and Zul’Aman were two of the most successful raids ever released for smaller groups of raiders. The story behind each of them wasn’t too shabby, either. Both raids were represented story-wise with a tone of exploration and adventure instead of the usual ominous, grim tones that surrounded the larger raids of the time like Black Temple and Molten Core/Blackwing Lair. The tone fit extremely well, matching wonderfully with the atmosphere of both raids.
Zul’Gurub fit in perfectly with the story of Stranglethorn Vale, and in Cataclysm’s revamp, we even got a new quest chain introducing a teeny raptor pet whose story awaited players when they were ready to take on the instance. It was during this time that the raid was revamped into a 5-man dungeon. Both instances lost their storytelling potency somewhat as 5-man dungeons, I feel, but they’re still entirely worth exploring.
The Story Behind Karazhan
There are some interesting tales involving Medivh, power, and mysterious curses within the walls of Karazhan, and that’s one of the reasons why the 10-man raid remains a fan favorite. The raid was also one of the few that included immersion-based quest lines that helped tell those tales, much in the flavor of the BT attunement chain but not quite as lengthy. The first time Nightbane was summoned in a group was always kind of epic. The story was always intended to be experienced by all TBC endgame players, and that in itself helped make the place so famous.
The Continued Exploration of Caverns of Time
Time travel stories—even those in MMORPGs—can always be a little messy, but if written well, they can also be just plain awesome. The myriad of stories currently present inside the strange, whimsical caves of Caverns of Time are no exception. These dungeons/raids let us see Warcraft’s past in a very cool way, and the place itself is just all sorts of extraordinary. If I were to ever make a theme park, it’d probably look a lot like CoT. Minus the escort quest-obsessed NPCs.
The Draenei don’t have a ton of standout story moments in World of Warcraft, unfortunately, but Yrel’s story throughout Warlords of Draenor is the race’s best tale. Yrel starts out a simple paladin looking to help her people, and eventually becomes Exarch.
Yrel’s armor, abilities, and knowledge all become more powerful as you, the player, complete her questline and gain levels. She gains an incredible amount of confidence throughout her journey, too. In essence, her story is rather simple, but it’s executed quite beautifully.
Welcome to the Alliance, Worgen
One final racial starting experience has to be discussed, and that’s Gilneas, the Worgen starting area. The beginnings of the Worgen race tell a story that’s somewhat underrepresented throughout the rest of the game (aside from Shadowfang Keep, of course), but still remains one of the most unique and rather tragic. The voice acting and ambience during the starting experience are top notch. It’s really a shame we haven’t seen a lot of Gilnean-inspired architecture throughout the later expansions. It’s just plain gorgeous.
The stories surrounding World of Warcraft’s Dragon Aspects are all fairly engaging, and Malygos’ story is one of the most explored throughout the gameplay. We’re confronted with the existence of Malygos early on while leveling in Coldarra. The Nexus and the Oculus continue the story as players ready themselves to take on the Spellweaver himself.
What makes Malygos’ character so interesting is the fact that he isn’t your typical, 100% evil dragon. In his somewhat misguided attempt to keep arcane magic from harming all of Azeroth, he’s made enemies of the Kirin Tor of Dalaran and of anyone who’s ever befriended a Mage for yummy strudel or those portal things that come in handy. The Dragonflight, while an ancient race, are not seemingly above making mistakes.
The Onset of Thunder
Mists of Pandaria’s Isle of Thunder and accompanying Throne of Thunder raid might’ve been the most interesting thematic period of the expansion. Most of the expansion’s 3-player scenarios didn’t contain a lot of substantial, non-whimsical storytelling content, but the Isle of Thunder’s solo scenarios were handled differently, bridging connections and showing players why they were rumbling among the dinosaurs and lightning rods in the first place. The Alliance and Horde faction leaders also had some good moments here, as they started working as a direct team with the Shado-pan Assault instead of warily alongside the Pandaren.
The Road to Hellfire Citadel
Between the latter half of Mists of Pandaria and the entirety of Warlords of Draenor, it feels like we’ve seen an awful lot of Orcs. We have, of course, which tends to make a lot of the story and instances throughout both expansions seem a little stale, but between the storyline that begins during the Landfall patch in MoP, the opening of Siege of Orgrimmar, Blackrock Foundry, and Hellfire Citadel’s conclusion, there is some cool storytelling to be found.
Garrosh’s reckless actions have some dire consequences, and his never-ending thirst for power is relatively interesting, especially once we get into WoD’s storylines, which bring Nerz’hul and Guldan into the mix. WoD was essentially a bridge between the fledgling story that began in Mists of Pandaria and will finally come to a head during Legion. That story had a lot of filler, but it was still pretty cool, especially once we were able to begin our task of conquering Garrosh’s version of Hellfire Citadel.
The Gates of Ahn’Qiraj
Back in 2006, World of Warcraft players experienced the game’s most ambitious world event to date: the opening of the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj. I only personally experienced the event second-handedly, unfortunately, but hearing about the event was half the reason I ended up buying the game. It involved Horde and Alliance forces working together to gather supplies, take out enemy Qiraj forces, and a competition among guilds to build a power scepter that unlocked the raid for that server. It also involved a whole lot of lag and one-time events that many players weren’t able to take part in.
Story-wise, Ahn’Qiraj was more than a series of raids—it was an undiscovered, ancient kingdom, buried in the sands. There was an aura of mystery surrounding the area unlike anything previously seen in the game. C’Thun created the silithid, avatars directly created from the images of the Old God, in an attempt to take over Kalimdor. The attempt failed, of course, thanks to our intrepid raid teams, but the fact that all players became immersed in the raid’s story via the world event helped bring the story behind the event to life in a truly unique way that game developers shouldn’t be afraid to try more often.
Classic Alliance vs. Horde Themes
During Cataclysm’s revamp, many of the classic leveling areas began to show signs of how the age-old war between the Alliance and Horde forces evolved since the early days of World of Warcraft. Two of the areas where the effects of the war and its corresponding pull and tug are seen best are in Ashenvale and Stonetalon Mountains. Both areas received new quests and quest hubs which go into the war efforts in detail.
It’s fun to see the large, looming storylines that each expansion revolves around, but it’s also interesting to experience the smaller stories that help support the larger ones. These two zones help solidify the classic Horde vs. Alliance theme quite adequately. Strong storytelling can generally be found and supported in the smaller details, after all.
This article was originally published on March 7, 2016.