This summer, Blizzard will reincarnate World of Warcraft as it was in 2006 with World of Warcraft Classic, bringing both teary-eyed veterans and clueless teenagers back to the original envisioning of WoW with all its frustrating quests, misfit quirks, and fascinatingly obtuse features. As someone who spent far too much time exploring these vast swathes of fantasy land in my younger years, I decided to look back at each of the Vanilla zones and rank them from worst to best, based on their original states before Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion changed them forever.
Writing this list was a joy, because it reminded me just how inconsistent early Warcraft zones are. You have clear end-game areas like the Plaguelands and Burning Steppes, which are all equipped with tons of dungeons and grindable elites. But then there's Felwood, a stretch of puke-green forest that serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Today Blizzard ships an expansion with six or so tightly-wound, scaleable zones that all dovetail into each other super neatly. It works so much better than the old days, but there's still something I miss about Vanilla's mess.
Yes, I fully understand how that makes me a crazy person. Anyway, here's every zone in Vanilla WoW rated from worst to best.
In a lot of ways, you can tell which were the good zones and which were the bad ones by how much work Blizzard did to them in Cataclysm. In the Badlands' case, they let Deathwing absolutely obliterate, like, a quarter of the environment. That was totally fine because the Badlands sucked. It was like Durotar: Part Two with more scorpions.
Uldaman , a dungeon set inside of an abandoned Titan vault, was cool, though.
39. Alterac Mountains
Why was Alterac Mountains considered a zone? Sure, it has a lot of deep ties to Warcraft lore, but ultimately its representation in World of Warcraft made it feel like little more than the northern part of the far more interesting Hillsbrad Foothills.
38. Deadwind Pass
Deadwind Pass got a lot cooler during the Burning Crusade and the introduction of Karazhan, one of World of Warcraft's most beloved raids ever. In Vanilla, though, Deadwind Pass was merely a gloomy placeholder zone with no quests and a faint promise of things to come. At least it looked cool.
37. Swamp of Sorrows
The Swamp of Sorrows's vile stretch of putrid bogs was intentionally oppressive. Given that it hosted one of Vanilla's most antisocial dungeons that required little teamwork to defeat, there just wasn't a whole lot about this place that made anyone want to stick around.
36. Dustwallow Marsh
You came here to fight Onyxia. If you were a masochist you came here to level. The dense foliage made my framerate chug back in 2004, and it felt like you ran out of quests after about 30 minutes. Dustwallow always felt a little unfinished, which is strange, considering freaking Jaina Proudmoore lives here.
Wetlands was the dank, swamplike place you'd run through to get to the boats that'd take you to Kalimdor. There were also some scattered quests if you're a dwarf. Don't lie, though, you forgot about this zone until just now.
Azshara was so empty and abandoned at launch that it became a meme within the WoW community. Cataclysm completely reworked the zone, and turned it into the focal point for the Steamworks of the Horde-aligned Goblins. Back in 2004 though, it was a total zero. So unfortunately, as pretty as its eternal autumn was, it finds itself in the lower tier of this list.
33. Arathi Highlands
A fine, workmanlike leveling zone with Horde and Alliance, which is probably most interesting for hosting the ruins of Arathor (for any lore-hunters out there). You can tell nobody cares about Arathi Highlands because Blizzard had no problem cannibalizing the assets for its first Warfront in Battle For Azeroth and basically sweeping the old zone under a rug.
32. Silverpine Forest
Silverpine would get a lot more interesting after Cataclysm, when Blizzard gave it some of the most substantial, plot-moving lore they've ever implemented into a leveling zone. In Vanilla though, it was fairly insignificant. In fact, I remember a ton of undead toons jumping ship to the Barrens as soon as they had the chance.
31. Blasted Lands
The Blasted Lands was essentially a placeholder zone where Blizzard could put the Dark Portal. It did that job perfectly, and held its own until The Burning Crusade, when it became a focal point for any enterprising young mercenary looking to reach level 70 in Outland.
The only thing dryer than Durotar's stretch of red-clay desert is its lore and quests. Seriously, Orcs and Trolls deserved so much better. Though it does earn a few bonus points for housing Orgrimmar, the Horde capital city.
The Hinterlands could have been so much more given the presence of gryphon-riding Wildhammer Dwarves and those Horde-friendly forest trolls (of which hardly any existed in Vanilla Warcraft). But instead the Hinterlands are one of the most understocked zones in the game featuring a scant few quests. It sure is pretty, though.
Another cool zone that felt like it was abandoned during development. Felwood had the genius theme of a demonic elven forest. But unfortunately, Blizzard never really followed through on this premise. Today it's one of the most obscure zones in all of World of Warcraft, but fly through and take a look at the lambent green pools of corruption—it's a trip.
27. Dun Morogh
The alliance version of Durotar. A big snowy wasteland and not much else. Blizzard would evoke the Dun Morogh spirit so much better years later, when they took us to Northrend in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion.
26. Searing Gorge
Searing Gorge had the unfortunate fate of feeling like the off-brand version of Burning Steppes. Which isn't too bad, really, because the Burning Steppes are awesome and who could say no to more of that?
Winterspring was delightful with its idyllic North Pole vibe. But it was also a high-level zone with hardly anything going on. Big ups to the yeti cave though, I know a lot of people who grinded to level 60 on those yetis.
24. Stonetalon Mountains
Another zone that got fully reworked with a genuinely fascinating storyline after Cataclysm, but was just sorta there in vanilla. The morning-dew aesthetics of the foothills are nice though, so that bumps it up the list slightly.
23. Loch Modan
My first character was a dwarf, so I probably have a more intimate connection with Loch Modan than most other people. Still, I love the way it evokes the chilly highlands tucked away behind the frigid valleys of Dun Morogh. You can almost imagine seeing your character's wisps of chilly breath as you adventure here.
This is a weird one because, originally, Silithus was completely abandoned—a brazenly unfinished zone shipped with a live game. That changed about halfway through Vanilla's lifecycle with the introduction of Ahn'Qiraj and its corresponding questlines, which fleshed out some fascinating story beats about the Qiraji and the Old Gods while sending players on World of Warcraft's most epic quest ever.
So I'm leaving it here, halfway through the list, because it was one of my favorite zones for about half of Vanilla's life cycle. Seems fair, right?
On the next page, we rank the 20 best Vanilla World of Warcraft zones.