World of Warcraft's biggest update is paving the way for a great future

Yesterday, Blizzard launched the biggest World of Warcraft non-expansion update in its 12-year life. Patch 7.2, The Tomb of Sargeras, contains more than a whole new zone and dungeon, but also an 11-week-long quest line, a Hearthstone-esque PVP brawl mode, and dozens more features—capping off with a new raid which will open at a later date. According to game director Ion Hazzikostas, 7.2 is "an appreciable chunk of some of [World of Warcraft's] older expansions in their entirety."

Undaunted

At their highest difficulty, World of Warcraft's raids are notoriously tough and require impeccable teamwork to conquer. Using voice communication like Teamspeak is a must—unless you're the Undaunted, that is. Read how a guild of deaf players managed to beat Legion's first raid in an incredible feat of perseverance and determination.

It's big. But even larger is the weight of expectation 7.2 carries with it. If there's one lesson to remember from the failures of Warcraft's previous expansion, Warlords of Draenor, it's that an expansion is only as good as the updates that follow it. Despite how much I adored Legion at launch, I couldn't help but worry if its great first impression would last. As senior producer Travis Day points out, "You can't judge a full feature length movie by the first 15 minutes."

Now that 7.2 is here, however, I've stopped worrying about Legion's future. This era of Warcraft is shaping up to be the greatest since Burning Crusade launched in 2007. It's a bold statement, I know. But as Hazzikostas and the three developers from the 7.2 patch team tell me, the dawning of what I hope will be a golden age for Warcraft is anything but an accident.  

Dance with the devil 

"We've planned for this," Hazzikostas tells me. "Last summer, If you had asked us when we thought patch 7.2 would come out our answer would have been the end of March. This is a date we've been aiming for for six-plus months and we hit it dead on. Having a clear direction, knowing where we want to be and where we want to go is instrumental in making that happen."

It's one of the many things that's changed about how Blizzard thinks of Warcraft post-Warlords of Draenor. Hazzikostas explains that, at the time, Blizzard's goal was to push new expansions as quickly as possible—at one point suggesting a new one every year. When Warlords of Draenor launched, a large chunk of Warcraft's development team pivoted to begin work on Legion, but that led to a simple a problem: "Making a new expansion and building a new world is hard," Hazzikostas says. "It's a difficult problem to get traction on right away. We're asking a lot of very big picture questions long before we get to a point where we can translate that into productive effort."

During that time, a year after Warlords of Draenor had been released, players were starving for something new. The last content update had arrived in June of that year and was becoming stale with nothing on the horizon. Blizzard had run out of steam and Legion wouldn't arrive for another nine months.

We're in the business of running a marathon and we can't afford to lay it all on the line and have nothing left in the tank because then what do we give our players next?

"It was part of what convinced us of the importance of a really robust patch cycle and cadence," Hazzikostas says. "We're in the business of running a marathon and we can't afford to lay it all on the line and have nothing left in the tank because then what do we give our players next? We've paced ourselves internally and done a lot of planning ahead and knew the story we wanted to tell and how we wanted it to unfold well in advance."

He uses the Trial of Valor mini-raid as an example. Released in patch 7.1, this mini-raid challenges players to take on the god Odyn and the queen of the underworld Helya—both secondary characters that were introduced during Legion's main story arc. "It wasn't something that was central to the plot of defeating the Burning Legion," Hazzikostas explains. "But it was the conclusion to a storyline we set up in the zone of Stormheim. Our approach from the start this time around has been to give closure to the characters we introduce. That's an example of something that we missed the mark on in [Warlords of Draenor]."

It's one of the many ways Legion feels like a more consistent and well-realized expansion than anything Blizzard has done before—and that feeling isn't just unique to the story. 

Back to the Broken Shore 

"When we first started planning 7.2, we always saw it as our first real opportunity at a large scale to go back through Legion and look at everything we liked or thought could be better and really iterate on everything," Travis Day tells me. And when it comes to iteration, there's few stones left unturned in 7.2.

Perhaps the most exciting example of this is the return to the Broken Shore, where players first got a taste of the devastating might of the Burning Legion. Before players could adventure across the Broken Isles, they first took part in a direct assault upon the Tomb of Sargeras—the portal through which the orc warlock Gul'dan was calling forth the Legion. It was meant to end the invasion in one fell strike, but ended in disaster with both King Varian Wrynn and Warchief Vol'jin losing their lives—a twist that caught me in the gut like a Game of Thrones episode.

At first, the Broken Shore seemed like a mere backdrop for the intro, but in 7.2 it's where players will be spending a massive portion of the next few months. After collecting the legendary relics known as the Pillars of Creation, players are finally ready to take the fight to the Legion—and that begins on the Broken Shore. Here, Blizzard is doing something that's never really been done before.

"We've got several buildings that were a part of the Broken Shore that were reduced to ruins," senior designer Morgan Day explains. "And as you retake them, players are going to work together region-wide to construct these buildings."

As players invade the Broken Shore and acquire resources, they can pool them into the construction of three different buildings that each provide their own abilities that'll change how you explore the Shore. It's an effort that players across each region, like North America or Europe, will work together to achieve. "It might take days or weeks to get these buildings up, and once they're up players will earn special benefits. For example, the Mage Tower will open this portal system that you can use to take shortcuts through the Broken Shore."

"This is the type of feature that we'd normally build a whole patch around, but we're adding it into everything else we're bringing in 7.2," Morgan Day says.

Travis Day jumps in to explain that a large part of what they're so proud about with 7.2 is how it provides something for every kind of player in World of Warcraft. Players who prefer questing have the new Broken Shore zone to explore, more world quests across the entirety of the Broken Isles, and reimagined demonic invasions from Legion's awesome pre-launch event.

This is the type of feature that we'd normally build a whole patch around, but we're adding it into everything else we're bringing in 7.2.

Those who love dungeons get the Cathedral of the Eternal Night. Blizzard has also rebalanced the entire Mythic-level difficulty across all dungeons, making them more challenging in response to players' more powerful gear. One of my favorite changes is that Return to Karazhan, the incredible homage to one of Warcraft's most memorable dungeons, is now split into two and added to the party finder tool. Now I don't have to section off two or three hours a week just to complete it in one go.

That's still not even half of the new features coming in 7.2. Another big change is the release of a Hearthstone-esque Brawl mode that takes classic PvP Battlegrounds and flips them on their heads with wacky bi-weekly experiments to their rules. "One of the cool new rulesets is Arathi Blizzard," senior designer Ryan Shwayder says. "Instead of having a person on the hill acting as overwatch and calling out enemy movements, there's a huge blizzard in Arathi Basin that limits visibility to 100 yards so you have to work together and coordinate differently than you ever would." 

Then there's a continuation of the artifact weapon progression, new weapon skins and class-specific mounts to unlock, flying mounts, and even a pet battle dungeon—y'know, for the 12 of you who actually spend time with WoW's version of Pokémon.

It's so much that, as a somewhat casual player, I can't keep up—and I'm not alone. "One of the big pieces of feedback we've been getting is that people love playing [alternate characters] but there's so much to do with their [main character] that they feel like they can't," Shwayder says. As part of a batch of 'catch up' systems implemented in 7.1.5, artifact power and artifact knowledge, two key resources for character growth, are much more readily available. Likewise, some of Legion's more arbitrary grinds, like making the requirements to unlock flying mounts and the Court of Stars and Arcway dungeons account-wide.

7.2 also seeks to fix some of Legion's less than stellar designs, like legendary items. This ultra-powerful gear was meant to be an exciting reward that could dramatically improve your character. Instead, most of them ended up being rather useless. Considering how long it could take for one to drop, waiting all that time just to get a piece of trash was especially frustrating. The Tomb of Sargeras aims to fix this by redoing the stats on many legendaries and adding a few more—though only time will tell if it really works.

Finally, capping off 7.2 is the new raid that will (hopefully) bring an end to long-time antagonist and all around bastard Kil'Jaeden. Ironically enough, though the patch is named after this raid, The Tomb of Sargeras won't be available for months. The Nighthold only released in January and the vast majority of players are still chewing through its bosses. "Players aren't really ready for a new raid zone yet," Hazzikostas says. "It wouldn't make sense to open [The Tomb], so we're pacing that out." 

That's kind of a special thing for a genre that is continually at pains to keep up with the rate at which its players can tear through content. But that's key to why 7.2 has made me so optimistic about Legion: Blizzard is finally in a place where they aren't just trying to keep up. "We're trying to frontload development and making sure we have a ton of content left in the pipeline to keep players engaged and keep them playing throughout the story of Legion while we slowly begin working on the next big thing," Hazzikostas says. 

The next big thing 

Hazzikostas won't comment much on what lies beyond The Tomb of Sargeras, but we do know two things: Patch 7.3 is already in development and if the small tease that was dropped as Blizzcon 2016 is anything to go by, it'll be a patch to remember. For the first time, players will travel to Argus, homeworld of the Eredar and Dranei, to fight the Burning Legion on their own turf.

From a lore perspective, the implications are heavy. The Burning Legion and its leader, Sargeras, have been the main antagonists of Azeroth since well before Warcraft 3. You could say the entire story of all four games is, in some way, about the war between Azeroth and the galaxy-spanning army of demons. And with 7.3, players will assault the Legion's headquarters and, presumably, Sargeras himself.

The reason we're doing Argus as a patch is the same reason for why we finally did Demon Hunter as a class... What better time will there ever be?

"The reason we're doing Argus as a patch is the same reason for why we finally did Demon Hunter as a class," Hazzikostas says. "It's something that we've always talked about and kicked around and the ultimate question that we asked was if not now then when? What better time will there ever be?"

That question feels central to everything in Legion. It's an expansion that takes bold new risks—even if they don't always work out. Whether 7.3 will be the finale to Legion or a 7.4 content patch will continue the story remains to be seen, but what is clear is that Blizzard has finally found a rhythm that works. For a game that's over 12 years old, it's hard not to think about World of Warcraft in the context of its past—to fondly recall all the memories and nostalgia of the way things used to be. But Legion has me fixated on Warcraft's future.

I already have too many things to look forward to about 7.2, but it's not the Broken Shore, PvP Brawls, or any one feature that has me excited. It's that Blizzard has a confident vision in how to evolve World of Warcraft and step out of the shadow of its own past. 

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