It's no secret that World of Warcraft has had a rough couple of years. Shadowlands initially showed a lot of promise: Torghast seemed intriguing and fun, the new zones were colourful and new, and Azeroth's afterlife held many possibilities to meet old heroes and villains.
But the shine of Shadowlands faded quickly, perhaps more so than any previous expansion. This puts many eyes on Blizzard as it prepares to officially announce WoW's next expansion on April 19th. And now, more than ever, Blizzard really needs to learn from past mistakes and solve some of the bigger problems that have plagued Shadowlands.
Aside from the inevitable direction of Sylvanas Windrunner's story arc (opens in new tab), there was the toll from the pandemic, and the Activision Blizzard lawsuit couldn't have happened at a worse time either. But there are other big factors that have marred the latest expansion, and those are very much in the hands of the current developers.
The Covenant system (opens in new tab) was a major sticking point from the moment it was added at the launch of Shadowlands in 2020. It gave you a choice to join one of four factions once you reached level 60, granting you specific abilities tied to your class. Conduits were another way to customise your class and spec within your chosen Covenant. It sounds good, except that it was almost impossible to change your mind without falling behind.
Covenants were complemented by legendary gear, again, giving each player multiple choices with the passive effects offered. But the currency required to craft them was initially gated behind Torghast, which was simple to clear for some classes but an absolutely miserable experience for others.
Then Sanctum of Domination raid introduced Shards of Domination in the 9.1 patch, as an odd alternative to set items. Actually obtaining the socketed domination gear gave players headaches as it could potentially clash (opens in new tab) with the armour slot where you equipped your legendary gear. Then the Shard drops you needed for your class were far too RNG-based, leading to a lot of players feeling less powerful than their luckier peers.
All these systems sounded exciting on paper, and I can appreciate that the hope was to give players a meaningful choice of how they play their character. But as has always been the case—and not just in WoW—players will always pick what is considered the best talents and gear by copying top players, regardless of whether they're doing LFR, raiding at mythic difficulty, or timing the occasional Mythic+ dungeon.
So even with the best intentions of giving us agency over how we want to play, it stopped being a choice—for most players, at least—as soon as someone figured out the meta. Making it difficult to switch between these systems to be optimal for different content, or if there's a balance change to your class, just doesn't respect the player's time.
Thankfully, most of the problematic power systems have been fixed in recent patches but the change felt like it came far too late. They're still present in the game but you can now switch freely between Covenants and Conduits without penalty, refund the currency from unwanted legendaries, and Domination Shards are no longer relevant in 9.2.
Even so, most of the friction in Shadowlands could've been avoided even before the expansion launch, when players started questioning the restrictions around choosing Covenants in the beta and PTR.
Not everything about Shadowlands was bad, though. The Great Vault is an inspired evolution of the weekly chests from Battle for Azeroth, offering up to nine choices of gear if you complete the required activities each week. And the raids have been great too, with interesting bosses and mechanics—even if they have been tightly tuned.
The permanent return of the Mage Tower (opens in new tab) was another high point, and the Eternity's End update has finally seen the return of tier sets, which is something we've wanted for a long time. True, the current loot trading rules made it harder to get the full four pieces initially, but it's certainly a step in the right direction.
So I'm cautiously hopeful about the upcoming expansion announcement. And if the leaks are true, even better. We need a rest from our time in the realm of the afterlife and it would be good to keep our feet firmly planted on Azeroth for a while. The lore-rich Legion expansion was the perfect reply to Warlords of Draenor's unpopular alternate history setting, so finally getting to visit the Dragon Isles in 10.0 could work in much the same way. I just hope the team take on the issues that arose in Shadowlands and make our next adventure the best one yet because World of Warcraft might not fully recover from another big misstep.
If anything, the next expansion needs to not try so hard to break the mould. At its core, World of Warcraft is already a great game—it's fast approaching its 18th anniversary and there's a reason it's held up against time when so many other MMOs have come and gone. It may not always get things right, but when it does, there's nowhere else I'd rather be than Azeroth.