World of Warcraft is an iconic, groundbreaking MMO that continues to dominate countless evenings and weekends 15 years after its release. Where some of the best MMOs tend to excel at just a few things, World of Warcraft is a jack of all trades, with ultra-difficult raids, quests that are varied and fun, and big, experimental expansions that take bold risks. Take Shadowlands, for example, this upcoming expansion features an endless, roguelike-inspired dungeon that changes each time you visit it.
But after years of additions and so much history to catch up on, getting into World of Warcraft in 2020 is a little daunting—even if you played years and years ago. This World of Warcraft beginners guide will help you take your first steps.
There's a lot to be mindful of as you jump into playing in WoW, but not all of it has to be tackled right away. Take your time and enjoy the process. Unlike other games, World of Warcraft isn't just about the destination. It's a hobby that, if you really enjoy it, you may well end up returning to for hundreds of hours over the course of years. So don't rush.
Before you begin: You should be aware that Blizzard is making big changes to how leveling characters works in the upcoming Shadowlands expansion that'll make leveling new characters faster and more fun. These changes won't be implemented until sometime this summer, though, so it might be worthwhile to wait a bit longer before jumping into leveling a brand new character unless you have lots of free time and don't mind taking the longer route to max level.
Here's a quick summary of what's changing:
- A new zone for new characters called Exile's Reach is being added, which provides a much more fun and comprehensive introduction.
- Character levels are being squished down to a new level cap of 60. This will significantly shorten the time it takes to level a new character to max level while also making the whole experience feel more satisfying, since there's less grinding required.
- There's a new process for how you level your characters. Players will start in Exile's Reach until level 10 and then move onto either the Battle for Azeroth expansion if they're new. This expansion will take your character from level 10 to level 50, where you'll then jump into Shadowlands. Players who have already completed Battle for Azeroth on one character will instead get to choose one of the previous seven expansions to level through to 50. Shadowlands will then take your character to level 60.
What about World of Warcraft Classic?
Before we get to the meat of this guide, it's important to talk about World of Warcaft Classic, which emulates World of Warcraft as it was back in 2006 before any of its expansion packs.
Though the two versions share some similarities, World of Warcraft Classic is a decidedly more hardcore, slower, and much more epic version of World of Warcraft. It's automatically included in your subscription fee too—so you won't have to pay anything extra to try it out if you're new.
That said, we highly recommend that new players give both versions of the game a chance since each has its strengths. Modern WoW is more accessible to get into but WoW Classic feels more like a grand, nostalgic adventure.
The good news is that, for the most part, the advice in this guide will apply to both versions of the game.
One of the biggest differences to consider with WoW Classic is that the servers are structured differently. In Classic, there are PVP and PVE servers and once you start a character on one of them they'll be stuck there unless you pay for a character transfer. Consider carefully whether you want to get involved in open-world PVP before playing on a PVP server. That means you'll often get attacked, which can be really frustrating when you just want a relaxing evening of questing. On the other hand, that extra element of danger makes the world more fun and offers more opportunities for social interaction with other players. I prefer PVP servers, but there's no shame in choosing to play on PVE servers so you can focus on leveling up and doing quests.
The other big difference is that classes are fundamentally different in WoW Classic. The whole skill and combat system is much more old-school, and you can't change between different 'specs' (covered below) as easily. Still, our advice remains the same: Pick a race and class based on what you think is coolest.
For more guides on WoW Classic, check out our in-depth guide to choosing your class, our guide to which races and classes work best together, and our guide for which crafting professions make the most money.
Making your first character
World of Warcraft also has some very popular roleplay servers where players are expected to speak and behave as their character would. It's a very different experience, as you'll treat World of Warcraft more like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. If you're creative and like the idea of taking your immersion in the world to the next level, RP servers are a great deal of fun.
It's a bit cruel that all of World of Warcraft's toughest decisions are the first ones you'll have to make. Before you can do anything, you'll need to choose a server, character race, and class to play. Sadly, it can take dozens of hours before you realize one or the other isn't a good fit.
With servers, pick one that has a medium or high population during the times when you'll normally be playing each day. Avoid "New Player" servers and those with "Maximum" population. You want a server with a healthy, established population but you don't want to be stuck in a queue just trying to log in. If you're playing with any friends, just make a character on whatever server they're on or be sure to all agree on a server in advance.
This website is super handy for finding all of the information you need about a specific server. Don't worry about the Alliance/Horde ratio of players if you're keen on PvPing at all. It used to matter back when there was dedicated PvP servers, but nowadays open-world PvP is an option you can toggle on and, along with an older feature called cross-realm play that lets you play alongside characters from other servers, a good balance of Horde and Alliance players isn't as important.
Once you've decided which server you want to play on, you have to answer an even bigger question: What class and race are you going to play?
Each race in World of Warcraft comes with special bonuses towards certain crafting professions and a unique skill only they can use. For example, humans can break out of stun effects while blood elves can silence other players. It's a lot to take in if you like theorycrafting, but don't sweat these differences too much. Above all else, pick a race that you enjoy the fantasy and aesthetic of—that'll be the single biggest reason you want to keep playing as them.
If you're playing with friends, make sure everyone picks a race that belongs to the same faction, otherwise you won't be able to play together.
Picking a class, however, is a much more intimidating problem. World of Warcraft has 12 classes, each having between two to four specializations (called specs) that determine what abilities they have and what role they play in a group. Do you want to lead the party and soak enemy damage as a tank? Want to keep players alive as a healer? Or do you want to pull off insane damage as a damage-dealer (called a DPS)?
This can all be daunting to decide on before you've even stepped foot in the game. The good news is that any class can freely switch between specializations outside of combat, so even within a given class you can have up to four wildly different playstyles. Again, I'd recommend first-time players not sweat these details and pick a class that appeals to them. Many classes have specializations that also change their role in combat, like monks that can be either tanks, healers, or DPS. The mage, warlock, hunter, and rogue are the only classes where all of their specializations are DPS-focused, so keep that in mind if you want to experiment being a tank or healer.
Here's a quick breakdown of each class:
- Warriors are a savage melee class that have one tank spec and two DPS specs. Pick them if you like charging head first into combat.
- Paladins are wielders of holy magic that they channel in melee combat and can be either a tank, healer, or DPS.
- Hunters can be either a melee DPS or ranged DPS and they can also tame wild animals to fight alongside them.
- Rogues are purebred melee DPS with a knack for trickery, stealth, and insane bursts of damage.
- Priests have two very different healing specs or they can tap into the powers of shadow to deal impressive damage as a ranged DPS class.
- Shamans are masters of the elements, calling down lightning and fire upon their enemies. They can be ranged DPS, melee DPS, and healers.
- Mages are master spellslingers that use fire, frost, or arcane energy to attack enemies as ranged DPS.
- Warlocks channel fire and shadow magics as a pure ranged DPS class. They can also summon demons to fight for them.
- Monks are unparalleled pugilists who call upon the Mists to aid them in battle as healers, melee DPS, and tanks.
- Druids shapeshift into different animal forms and are the most versatile class with four separate specs: melee DPS, ranged DPS, tanks, and healers.
- Demon Hunters are highly mobile melee specialists that channel demonic energy to power their attacks. They can be either melee DPS or tanks.
- Death Knights are freed servants of the Lich King and wield powerful runeblades as either melee DPS or tanks.
Ultimately, whatever gets you playing the quickest is the right decision and starting over isn't a big deal. Leveling new characters from scratch is time-intensive, but it can be a good side project. What's more, most hardcore WoW players don't just play as one class—I, myself, have several max-level characters I rotate between as each brings their own flavor to combat.
For returning or current players, choosing a class comes with more consideration as you're more aware of how important subtle differences can be. Not all DPS classes are made equal. Feral druids, for example, are all about managing two energy resources to cast abilities while applying bleeding over time effects on enemies. Good feral druids have an internal clock that helps them remember when to refresh those bleed abilities. That's a stark difference from frost mages, which freeze enemies in place while dealing consistent and reliable damage. Though these videos won't be as up to date due to more recent patches, I really recommend BellularGaming's breakdown videos for each class and their specializations. More than anything, BellularGaming focuses on which specs are fun to play rather than the current flavor of the month best-in-class.
Your first steps
Once your character is made, you'll finally be able to log in and start playing. If you elected to use your free boost token that comes with the purchase of Battle for Azeroth, you'll start at level 110 and have an introductory chain of quests that will get you up to speed with your current specialization and then gets you rolling into Battle for Azeroth's main questing experience.
Brand new level one players will start in a zone that corresponds with their chosen race. Fortunately, World of Warcraft is so intuitive and accessible these days that you don't really need a guide on how to level up or what to do next. All the information you could need is provided to you through in-game tutorials. All you really need to do is set out and talk to people with yellow exclamation points above their heads to pick up quests that'll grant you experience points and help you explore the world.
Take time to read the quest text. I can't stress this enough. Yes, it's very tempting to just skip through all that dialogue and head off into the woods to murder gnolls, but World of Warcraft has a rich lore and detailed story that is woven through each of its dozens of zones. The story is frequently humorous, and it's worth having that extra bit of context for why you need to kill a specific person or find a rare item. All of those quests coalesce to form a pretty fun tale of adventure.
Once you reach level 10 you should be most of the way, if not completely, finished with your starting zone. From there, several new zones become available to you. A few years ago, World of Warcraft introduced limited dynamic level scaling for all of its old zones and expansions. Instead of having a strict level requirement, now zones have level ranges that will always adapt to suit your character's level. What's fantastic about this new system is that quests and monsters will always match your level so you can focus more on the story of each zone.
When choosing which zone to head to, there's no wrong answer. Each zone has a self-contained storyline, so there's no proper path to max level—just do whatever zone sounds coolest and doesn't require trekking halfway around the world.
To level boost or not to level boost...
If you're new to World of Warcraft and just bought Battle for Azeroth, you'll receive a level 110 boost token that can be applied to any character you create. The upside is that this lets you immediately hop in and enjoy the expansion's content right away—which is awesome because the most recent additions to World of Warcraft are usually its most fun. At the same time, you'll be skipping out on 15 years' worth of quests and zones and there's something to be said for seeing a character all the way from a lowly level-one scrub to a mighty hero. My advice? Play through the free level 110 class trial with a few classes you're most drawn to and then pick one of those to boost. Play that character for a bit and enjoy the new expansion and then, when you've gotten a good feel for the game, start a new character and level them the old fashioned way. It's the best of both worlds—and trust me, both are worth experiencing.
Connect with other players
MMOs are inherently social games but over the years, World of Warcraft has become especially friendly to solo-minded players. A 'looking for group' tool will automatically place you into parties for everything but the most challenging group content, and almost the entirety of World of Warcraft's quests can be done on your own. But everything is better with friends and you're doing yourself a massive disservice by not participating in a community.
While playing, there are several ways to make friends. The simplest is just talking in the in-game General Chat channel which can be accessed by typing '/1' and then whatever you want to say. Trade chat, though intended for exchanging goods and services, also ends up being a pretty lively channel and can be accessed by typing '/2'.
Saying hello to strangers isn't a bad start, but don't be surprised if no one acknowledges your presence. A far better method is getting involved with communities both in and out of the game. For one, the World of Warcraft subreddit is a fun place to hang out. They have a great list of Discord servers you can join for specific classes or interests related to WoW, as well as an official Discord server.
Patch 8.0 also added a new feature called Communities. Separate from guilds, these in-game groups can be focused around anything and are a great way to meet like-minded players. The official forums has a recruitment channel where people can advertise their communities, and you can find all sorts ranging from parents who play, lore nerds who want to gush over the story, or LGBTQ communities.
Finally, there's the age-old way of making friends: joining a guild. This can be a lot of work because finding the right people to play with isn't easy, but it's worth trying because a good guild will make all the difference. Don't bother with the in-game Guild Finder since it doesn't offer much information. Instead check out the subreddit's weekly guild recruitment thread. Here you can make a post or respond to others in order to find a guild.
Before joining up, it's worth talking with someone in the guild and getting some idea of what the culture is like. Are they hardcore raiders? Do they have hundreds of members or just a few? Do people mostly stick to themselves or are there lots of group activities?
If you join a guild and end up hating it, you can quit by right-clicking your name in the roster and selecting leave. There's usually not much consequence to quietly abandoning ship. Don't hesitate to bail if a guild just isn't right for you.
Addons will make your life a lot easier
One of the great things about World of Warcraft is how customizable its user interface is. Using addons, you can completely tailor it to your liking or add useful functions like interactive boss guides for dungeons. It can be an intimidating process, though, as there are a lot of addons to choose from.
Our list of the best addons of 2020 is a great place to start, though.
While the basic World of Warcraft UI is usable, taking the time to install a full overhaul like ElvUI is a smart idea that will help you during difficult dungeons and raids. For one, the basic UI spreads necessary elements like your action bar, health, and monster health all over the screen. When you're desperately trying to attack, dodge fatal abilities, and see the status of the monster you're fighting all at the same time, it can get overwhelming. ElvUI will let you rearrange all of those elements so instead of being on the edges of the screen they're closer to the action so you can see everything more easily.
Become a lore master
World of Warcraft's story and mythology are daunting and dense, but are worth immersing yourself in if you love high fantasy with a little bit of campiness to it. Still, unless you played the earlier real-time strategy games and read their manuals like the gospel, you probably don't really know what's happening and why. For that, YouTuber Nobbel87 is the person to turn to. His 47-minute long video covers the entirety of World of Warcraft's lore and is a lot of fun to watch. It's the best place to start if you want a sense of what the world is about.
You can also check out our lore primer, which condenses everything into an even-easier-to-digest read with helpful TL;DR sections that really give you a quick overview of what's happening and why. One thing I love to do is check out WoWpedia and read up on specific characters or areas that I'm not familiar with. Over time, all that knowledge will start to form a comprehensive understanding of Azeroth and its history.
If you really want to go deep, though, then the World of Warcraft: Chronicle books are what you want. These three highly detailed compendiums tell the entire story of Warcraft from the very beginning of the cosmos all the way up to mid-way through World of Warcraft. I've been reading them myself and they are well worth it if you fancy taking your World of Warcraft knowledge to the next level. Doing so really helps contextualize all of the characters, quests, and events in the game.
Take your time
If you follow the above steps you'll have everything you need to get started in World of Warcraft. Fortunately, it's not all that complicated and you can safely just jump in and figure things out as you go without making some irreversible mistake. Take your time and just enjoy the world. Some zones haven't aged all that well, but World of Warcraft is still the most expansive MMOs out there. It's not a world that you can experience fully in just a week, so prepare yourself for a journey that you'll slowly advance through over the course of months and, quite possibly, years.