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Why WoW: Shadowlands' biggest feature could make or break this expansion

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Many of the biggest choices in World of Warcraft happen during character creation. I've spent hours debating myself over which class or race to play, but few other choices in World of Warcraft, like what gear to wear, is as meaningful because the answer is often so obvious. It's a consequence of Blizzard having to constantly trim features to stop its 16-year-old MMO from collapsing in on itself, and despite efforts to inject interesting choices into how you customize your character at endgame, WoW just always feels a little too straight forward. But Shadowlands, the upcoming expansion, might be Blizzard's most concerted effort to bring actual, game-changing character customization back to its MMO—but not everyone is convinced it'll work.

Deal with the Devil

Suddenly, World of Warcraft is starting to sound a little bit more like Path of Exile. That's a good thing.

When players hit level 60 in Shadowlands, they'll have to make a crucial choice to enlist with one of four Covenants. Each represents one of Shadowlands' main factions: The vampiric Venthyr, the Necrolords of Maldaxxus, the whimsical Night Fae, or the divine Kyrians. These Covenants are almost as important as deciding whether you're in the Alliance or the Horde, as each has a distinct aesthetic and tons of unique options both in how you look and play.

It's a lot to take in, but by the time players are required to make that choice they'll have already completed Shadowlands' main campaign and spent hours in each Covenant's zone, completing quests, meeting their chief characters, and experimenting with the powerful abilities each one offers.

Likely the most important thing to consider is that each Covenant grants players a unique ability based on their class and a second ability shared by all players of that Covenant. My Demon Hunter, for example, learns Sinful Brand which slows an enemy's melee and casting speeds and deals some extra damage, but any Venthyr player will also get access to Door of Shadows, which lets you teleport 35 yards—a ridiculously powerful ability we'll talk about later.

Each Covenant also gives you access to Soulbinds, a kind of skill tree full of passive buffs that you'll unlock gradually as you play. Each Covenant has three Soulbinds to choose from, each geared toward a different play style. That basically equates to having 12 skill trees to choose, with the option of being able to level and rotate between three. But there's even more depth, as each tree has empty sockets that can be slotted with gems that grant their own passive buffs.

Suddenly, World of Warcraft is starting to sound a little bit more like Path of Exile. That's a good thing, and I haven't even touched on the special endgame activity each Covenant has, like being able to throw posh vampire parties as the Venthyr, tending a spirit garden as the Night Fae, or building your own Abominations as the Necrolords.

Soulbinds provide a lot of depth and customization options. (Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

The choice doesn't have to be purely driven by stats, though. Covenants benefit from Blizzard's excellent worldbuilding, too. The Shadowlands is uncharted territory as far as the original lore goes, but I love how different it feels to anything else I've seen in Azeroth. Each place I travel to instantly becomes my new favorite. The sinister red sky above the Venthyr's crumbling gothic architecture is great, but I'm equally as intrigued by Prince Renathal and his host of Victorian-era vampires who are planning a revolution just so they can get back to hosting formal galas and drinking blood.

If you've played Legion, you'll immediately recognize a bit of the DNA from its class Order Halls in Covenants. Like Order Halls, each one has a sprawling endgame quest campaign that will, over time, see you rebuild your Covenant's stronghold, dumping resources into building structures that unlock features like extra fast travel options and unique cosmetic rewards like armor styled after your chosen faction.

What I love, however, is that Covenants are a choice independent of everything else. In Legion, Class Order halls were just a reflection of whatever class I chose, and Battle For Azeroth's war campaign was a result of being either an Alliance or Horde-aligned race. It made these features feel like implicit consequences instead of actual choices. Choosing a Covenant, by comparison, feels so meaningful it borders on intimidating—especially because switching to a new one resets your progress and Blizzard has said switching back will be even harder. It's like I'm the transfer student in a high school comedy: Do I hang out with the goths, the theater nerds, the hippies, or the bible club?

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Choice and consequence 

On paper, this all sounds fantastic, but Covenants are a hotly debated topic in the WoW community. The problem centers on each Covenant's main ability and how powerful they are in certain scenarios. The Venthyr, in particular, are where players are most concerned because Door of Shadows could be used to teleport past certain fights in dungeons and raids or used in all sorts of wacky ways in PvP. Meanwhile, Kyrians' big ability calls an owlman butler to give you a health potion. It's a little unbalanced.

For a casual player who just cares about running dungeons occasionally and looking badass, that might not influence which Covenant they choose. But if you're the only person in a Mythic+ dungeon group without Door of Shadows and you're preventing everyone from skipping a combat encounter that could save them precious seconds needed to earn that bit of extra loot? Nobody wants to be that person, so there's going to be a lot of pressure to pick whichever Covenant players decide is best.

What makes me optimistic about Shadowlands, however, is that these conversations are happening months before launch instead of months after.

"What can easily be dismissed as a concern for only like the top fraction of one percent of players has a way of trickling down through guides and player perception into the behavior of a broader range of players," game director Ion Hazzikostas told me in an interview yesterday. "And I think, at the core of a lot of these concerns is the anxiety that someone is going to pick the Covenant that they think is coolest and then get told that they're being declined for a Mythic+ group, or pick-up group raid or whatever, because they're in the wrong Covenant. That's a very valid concern."

On paper, Hazzikostas wants Covenants to feel like asking someone whether mages or hunters are the better class. "You could ask people in the best raiding guilds in the world, people who were in the [Mythic Dungeon Invitational] which is better, and it's still not 100 percent clear. It depends on a lot of things. It depends on a lot of situations. Both are great, but which is more fun, which do you enjoy playing more? That's actually a valid answer that can drive you, and there's no wrong choice between those two. That's what we want Covenants to be."

It's a noble goal, but a lot of people are skeptical of whether Blizzard can actually deliver. Back in April, PreachGaming made an excellent video dissecting why Covenant abilities were such a scary problem, focusing specifically on how Venthyr's Shadow of Doors has so much potential in dungeons and raids that no other class ability can have. If players have to choose between picking a Covenant that lets them be competitive versus one that just looks really nifty, chances are they'll take the latter.

It's an awkward situation right now because Shadowlands is still several months from release and still technically in an alpha state. So much can and will change. But considering how Covenants are the central progression system in Shadowlands, a lot is riding on whether they're satisfying. In yesterday's livestream, Hazzikostas explained that tuning and balancing is something that typically happens much later in development. It was an appeal for players to trust in Blizzard's development process. But seeing as how Battle for Azeroth, the current expansion, missed the mark on some of its biggest ideas, a little skepticism seems necessary.

As a more casual player, I'm not as worried about min-maxing every bit of my character as I am having fun and looking cool. But Hazzikostas' earlier point is extremely insightful: Many of WoW's most hardcore are also its most notable influencers and streamers—tastemakers who, through guides, tutorials, and podcasts help define WoW's esoteric minutiae for millions of less serious players. And even if Covenants are imbalanced in a way that'll only affect those who care about those tiny optimizations, it'll trickle down to average players, who may be punished for not making optimal choices even when in situations where it really doesn't matter. If you've ever been kicked from a non-competitive raid group for not having the proper achievements or for making an honest mistake during a fight, you'll know how frustrating that kind of elitism can be.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

I'm not completely, irrevocably closing the door to that option, but we see it as a last resort.

Ion Hazzikostas

What makes me optimistic about Shadowlands, however, is that these conversations are happening months before launch instead of months after. Hazzikostas has admitted before that Battle for Azeroth didn't get as much time in beta as it should have, resulting in Blizzard not being able to incorporate feedback from players who then felt extra frustrated by problems they'd spent months complaining about. It doesn't seem like that'll be the case with Shadowlands.

The obvious answer for many players is to make Covenants something you can switch between without consequence, or to make their abilities freely available regardless of which one you join. That might fix one issue, but then how would they be different from the mountain of less meaningful choices that Warcraft already has? Even so, Hazzikostas told me that player feedback is important enough that nothing is off the table. 

"I think, for us, freely being able to change all of these things such that they no longer become part of your character's identity but are just yet another toggle or switch in your loadout ... that's a last resort that we would only turn to if all else has failed along the way," he said. "I'm not completely, irrevocably closing the door to that option, but we see it as a last resort."

Steven enjoys nothing more than a long grind, which is precisely why his specialty is on investigative feature reporting on China's PC games scene, weird stories that upset his parents, and MMOs. He's Canadian but can't ice skate. Embarrassing.