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World of Warcraft beginner's guide: How to get into WoW in time for Shadowlands

how to get into wow beginners guide
(Image credit: Blizzard)

World of Warcraft is an iconic, ground-breaking MMO that continues to dominate countless evenings and weekends more than 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: It has ultra-difficult raids, varied, fun quests, 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 can be intimidating—even for lapsed players. Fortunately the process just got streamlined. Anyway, this World of Warcraft beginners guide will help you take your first steps in Classic, or retail before the launch of Blizzard's next major expansion.

WoW beginner's guide: Everything new and returning players need to know

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; 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. Don't rush.

Blizzard made big changes—as part of the October 2020 WoW: Shadowlands pre-patch—to how leveling characters works for the upcoming Shadowlands expansion that makes leveling new characters faster and more fun. Blizzard estimates it will take roughly 30 percent less time to hit max under the new systems.

Want to roleplay?

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. You can select them when you're first choosing a server.

Here's a quick summary of what's changed:

  • A new zone for new characters called Exile's Reach has been added, which provides a much more fun and comprehensive introduction from levels 1-10, primarily for new players.
  • Character levels have been squished down to a new level cap of 60. This has significantly shortened the time it takes to progress a new character to max level while also making the whole experience feel more satisfying, since you get skills throughout.
  • There's a new process for how you level your characters. You start in Exile's Reach until level tem (or choose between the new leveling island and their race’s existing starting area, if you’re experienced) and then move onto the Battle for Azeroth expansion by default if you'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 between BfA and one of the previous seven expansions to level through to 50. Shadowlands will then take your character to level 60.

Making your first character 

It's a bit cruel that most 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, faction, 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 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, not stuck in login queues. 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, but be sure to make a character on the same faction they are: Alliance and Horde characters can’t speak or quest with each other in game. Which faction you choose will determine the races you have to choose from for your characters

Don't worry about the Alliance/Horde ratio of players on any given server if you're keen on PvPing. It used to matter back when there were 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. 

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Once you've decided your server and faction, 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, but that skill varies between Classic and retail. For example, in modern WoW, humans can break out of stun effects while blood elves can strip a positive buff off nearby mobs or 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 of which you enjoy the fantasy and aesthetic—that'll be the one you're most likely to stick with.

Picking a class, however, is a much more intimidating problem. World of Warcraft has 12 classes, each having between two and 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 (DPS)?

This can be a daunting decision before you've even set 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:

  • Warrior: Savage melee class with one tank and two DPS specs. Pick them if you like charging head first into combat. 
  • Paladin: Wielders of holy magic channeled in melee combat. Can be either tank, healer, or DPS.
  • Hunter: Can be either melee DPS or ranged DPS. Can also tame wild animals to fight beside them.
  • Rogue: Purebred melee DPS with a knack for trickery, stealth, and insane bursts of damage.
  • Priest: Has two very different healing specs. Or they can tap into their powers of shadow to deal damage as a ranged DPS class.
  • Shaman: Master of the elements, calling down lightning and fire upon their enemies. Can be ranged DPS, melee DPS, and healers.
  • Mage: Master spellcasters that use fire, frost, or arcane energy to attack enemies as ranged DPS.
  • Warlock: Channel fire and shadow magics as a pure ranged DPS class. Can summon demons to fight for them.
  • Monk: Unparalleled pugilists who call upon the Mists to aid them in battle as healers, melee DPS, and tanks.
  • Druid: Shapeshift into different animal forms. The most versatile class with four separate specs: melee DPS, ranged DPS, tanks, and healers.
  • Demon Hunter: Highly mobile melee specialists that channel demonic energy to power their attacks. Can be either melee DPS or tanks.
  • Death Knight: Freed servants of the Lich King and wield powerful runeblades as either melee DPS or tanks.

Whatever gets you playing the quickest is the right decision. Starting over isn't a big deal.

Ultimately, whatever gets you playing the quickest is the right decision. Starting over isn't a big deal—it just requires a little extra time. 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—we both have several max-level characters on rotation as each brings their own flavor to combat. Depending on the version of the Shadowlands expansion you buy in modern WoW, you may get one character boosted to level 50 for free to give you a leg up when starting fresh.

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, who 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, we really recommend BellularGaming's fun 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.

Your first steps 

Once your character is made, you can log in and start playing. If you elected to use your free boost token that comes with the purchase of some version of Shadowlands, you'll start at level 50 and have an introductory chain of quests that get you up to speed with your current specialization and then rolling into Shadowlands' main questing experience. 

Brand new level one players start in a zone corresponding with their chosen race (in Classic) or Exile’s Reach (in retail). 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. We 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 rich lore and a detailed story woven through each of its dozens of zones. The story is frequently funny, 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 an entertaining tale of adventure.

Once you reach level ten you should be most of the way, if not completely, finished with your starting zone. From there, several new expansion zones become available to you. A few years ago, Blizzard introduced limited dynamic level scaling for all of WoW's old zones and expansions. Instead of having a strict level requirement, now zones have level ranges that 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. Your choice of which expansion to level in (Battle for Azeroth is the default for new players, for good reason—as  the most recent expansion before Shadowlands, it’s the most modern) will take you from level 10 to 50, when you’ll start in the Shadowlands.

When choosing which expansion and 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.  

(Image credit: Blizzard)

To level boost or not to level boost... 

If you're new to World of Warcraft and just bought Shadowlands, you may receive a level 120 (50 after the expansion launches) boost token that can be applied to any character you create, depending on the version of Shadowlands you purchased. 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. 

Equally, 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. Our advice? Play through the free level 120 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 got a good feel for the game, start a new character and level them the old fashioned way. It's the best of both worlds. Trust us, both are worth experiencing. 

Connect with other players 

Almost the entirety of World of Warcraft's quests can be done on your own, but everything is better with friends.

MMOs are inherently social games, but over the years, World of Warcraft has become increasingly friendly to solo-minded players. A 'Looking for Group' tool automatically places 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. You may have better luck in dungeons you run using the LFG tool, particularly if you fall into a group that elects to run several in a row. 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 of their own. WoW communities for various populations exist on most major social media as well, including Facebook.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

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 in the US and EU, and you can find all sorts ranging from parents who play, lore nerds who want to gush over the story, or LGBTQ communities. These are less popular than when they launched, but still a way to make connections with players who share your interests.

Finally, there's the age-old way of making friends: Joining a guild. Finding the right people to play with isn't always easy, but it's worth trying, as a good guild makes all the difference. The in-game Guild Finder lets you browse the recruitment messages posted by guilds who keep them updated. You can also check out the r/wowguilds subreddit. Here you can make a post or respond to others in order to find a guild. Finally, most major guild progress sites, including WoW Progress, allow guilds to post basic information about themselves, including what they’re recruiting for, and show in-game progress. Browse the guilds on your server to learn more.

Before joining, 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: There are a lot of addons to choose from.

Our list of the best WoW addons of 2020 is a great place to start.

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, allowing you to 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 41-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 up to the Battle for Azeroth expansion 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.  You can also check out WoWpedia and read up on specific characters or areas you're 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 many and various World of Warcraft books are what you want. These highly detailed compendiums tell the entire story of Warcraft from the very beginning of the cosmos all the way up to Shadowlands. 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. 

(Image credit: Blizzard)

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. 

What about World of Warcraft Classic?

It's also important to talk about World of Warcaft Classic, which emulates Blizzard's MMO exactly 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 (some players say) much more epic version of World of Warcraft. It's automatically included in your subscription fee, too: You won't have to pay anything extra to try it out if you're new.

WoW Classic guides

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

WoW Classic class: Which to choose
WoW Classic races: How to pair it with your class
WoW Classic professions: Make some serious cash

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 with its up-to-date game systems and graphics, but Classic feels more like a grand, nostalgic, grindy adventure, albeit at a lower resolution.

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. 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. It'll mean 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 can make the world more fun and offers more opportunities for social interaction with other players.

On modern World of Warcraft servers, you can toggle between PvP and PvE in any capitol city by turning War Mode on or off. You receive additional talents, a bonus to the experience you gain as you kill things and additional rewards from max-level World Quests if you have War Mode on.

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' as easily. Still, our advice remains the same: In either game, pick a race and class based on what you think is coolest.