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Why the Battle for Azeroth is happening: A quick WoW lore primer

The Battle for Azeroth is set to kick off this week, with World of Warcraft’s latest expansion once again putting a focus on the bloody conflict between the Alliance and the Horde. But just what are we fighting for? How did we all get here? Why is there a moon-sized sword sticking out of the desert? The lore of the Warcraft universe is pretty expansive and convoluted, so here’s the crib sheet version with a helpful TL;DR (Too long; didn't read) for each section in case you really just want the highlights. 

A Really Long Time Ago - The Titans Have A Disagreement 

Sargeras

The creator and leader of the Burning Legion wants to effectively destroy all life in the universe, but the denizens of Azeroth have been a constant thorn in his side. Throughout Warcraft's history, Sargeras has been pulling the strings of various villains from the orc invasions of Warcraft 1 and 2 to the undead plague of Warcraft 3. At the end of World of Warcraft: Legion, Sargeras was finally imprisoned.

Long, long, long before the first life on Azeroth, there were super powerful cosmic beings called Titans. They roamed around ordering the universe, filling planets with servants made of stone and metal. Many of Warcraft’s races are descendants of these Titanforged, including dwarves and humans. New Titans, we learned recently, are born from World-souls, of which Azeroth is one. Yeah, we’re basically living on a giant Titan egg. That’s going to become important later.

Now there’s this one Titan called Sargeras who didn’t really see eye-to-glowing-eye with the rest of the Titan Pantheon. He discovered these other crazy space beings called Void Lords who were sending their Lovecraftian servants, known to Azerothians as the Old Gods, to latch onto World-souls like parasites in the hope that they would give birth to a Dark Titan. That would be really bad, but the other Titans didn’t much like Sargeras’ proposed solution… which was to destroy all the World-souls and, consequently, all life in the universe so there would be nothing for the Void Lords to corrupt. You can't corrupt living creatures if there are none, after all. So Sarge went off to do his own thing, creating the demonic army known as the Burning Legion.

TL;DR: The Titans hatch out of planets. But the Void Lords want to make an evil Titan, which would be bad. Sargeras thinks the best way to prevent this is to get a bunch of demons together and destroy all the planets, but everyone else thinks this is pretty much whack. 

The Old Gods aren't exactly a handsome bunch.

A Long Time Ago - Azeroth Has A Bad Case of Old Gods 

Eventually, the Titans showed up on Azeroth… only to find that the Void Lords had already sent four Old Gods there and they were having a grand old time ruling the whimsically-named Black Empire. With the help of their Titanforged servants, the Titans defeated the Old Gods and the father of the Titans, Aman’Thul, grabbed the Old God Y’Shaarj and straight ripped him a new one. As it turns out, this was a very bad idea, causing the continent of Pandaria (where those sweet panda monks come from) to be plagued by echoes of Y’Shaarj called the Sha that feed on negative emotions and start all kinds of trouble to this day. Until they could figure out a way to actually kill an Old God without that happening again, the Titans decided to imprison them within Azeroth and call it good for now.

Over time, though, the Old Gods’ influence was felt as they slept. Among other things, they afflicted the Titanforged with the Curse of Flesh, which is why humans are made of meat and not iron (as the Titans originally intended) in the present day. Things were mostly cool for a while, though. Some trolls drank out of a magic well, turned into immortal Night Elves, and founded the next great empire.

TL;DR: The Old Gods ruled Azeroth for a while, until the Titans decided to put a stop to that. Turns out killing them has really unfortunate side-effects though, so they got put in Old God Jail deep below the ground instead. Oh, and the elves are a big deal now. 

Cenarius, the patron demigod of druids, does battle with Mannoroth the Destroyer.

Cenarius, the patron demigod of druids, does battle with Mannoroth the Destroyer.

10,000 Years Ago - The War of the Ancients 

At the height of the Night Elf empire, the Burning Legion came across Azeroth and realized it had a World-soul, so obviously they felt they needed to burn it down. One of Sargeras’ top demon generals, Archimonde, realized he could use the Well of Eternity, which had created the Night Elves, as an energy source to open a portal big enough for all of his demon buds to come through and attack. With the help of the powerful Dragon Aspects (except Deathwing who went crazy because of the slumbering Old Gods), several Night Elf heroes—including brothers Malfurion and Illidan Stormrage, and their mutual love interest, the moon priestess Tyrande Whisperwind—managed to defeat the Legion and save the world.

Kinda.

In the midst of all of this, the Well of Eternity went nuclear and sundered what was at that time a single supercontinent into the landmasses of Azeroth as we know them today. The Night Elf ruler, Queen Azshara (who had been collaborating with the Legion because she was corrupt and power-hungry as all get out) fell into the ocean with some of her followers and they got turned into serpentine naga. Word is she’s going to be a pretty big deal in Battle for Azeroth.

TL;DR: After the first game of the playoffs, it’s Azeroth: 1, Legion: 0. Except a really powerful magic well blew up and now Azeroth has lots of continents and a really angry snake lady who lives underwater and still wants revenge. 

The orc clans unite for war long before their invasion of Azeroth.

Around 33 Years Ago - Orcs and Humans 

Jumping ahead a few millennia, the events of the original WarCraft RTS and WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness cover the collision of Azeroth and orc homeworld of Draenor. On the latter, Sargeras corrupted the orcish race with fel energy in an attempt to use them as shock troops for his second invasion of Azeroth. With the help of the corrupted human Guardian, Medivh—Azeroth's version of a magical Captain America—he opened the Dark Portal to the orc homeworld of Draenor and set his orcish army on a path of destruction, opposed by the humans, dwarves, gnomes, and high elves (distant cousins of the Night Elves who evolved to be less tall and less purple) of Azeroth’s Eastern Kingdoms.

After two brutal wars, a group of Azerothian heroes traveled to Draenor to stop the invasion at the source. But the orc Ner’zhul began throwing open many portals to other worlds, which destabilized the whole planet and blew it up. What was left of it became Outland, the setting for World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade. As for Ner’zhul, his spirit was plucked out of space by Kil’Jaeden, one of the other main generals of the Burning Legion, put into a crown, and given psychic powers to control the undead—the first Lich King.

TL;DR: Sargeras decides to corrupt the orcs and use them to destroy Azeroth. It doesn’t go so well and the orc homeworld gets blown up, leaving many of them stranded on Azeroth. One of their former leaders becomes king of zombies. 

Arthas Menethil succumbs to madness after slaughtering the infected citizens of Stratholme.

Arthas Menethil succumbs to madness after slaughtering the infected citizens of Stratholme.

Around 23 Years Ago - The Legion is Back 

Jaina Proudmoore

The most powerful sorceress alive and daughter of the Kul Tiran admiral, Jaina became a pariah among her people when she allied with the Horde and let them murder her orc-hating father. Jaina believed there could be peace, but after the bombing of her city and countless other betrayals, she now believes otherwise.

After the failure of the orcs, Sargeras uses Ner’zhul to raise an army of the dead to attack Lordaeron, the most powerful human kingdom. Jumping in to defend it are super-paladin Uther the Lightbringer, the crown prince Arthas Menethil, and a talented mage, Jaina Proudmoore, daughter of the Admiral of Kul’Tiras—a naval power which will form half of the main setting in Battle for Azeroth. Things are not all as they seem, though, as Arthas is being psychically seduced by Ner’zhul to come to Northrend and become the physical vessel for the Lich King. Arthas claims the cursed sword Frostmourne, goes crazy, and starts killing everyone.

Jaina runs away to find allies on the forgotten Night Elf home continent of Kalimdor. Arthas kills his father, takes the throne, and proceeds to really do a number on Lordaeron and the high elven kingdom of Quel’Thalas. His ruin of the elves is opposed by Ranger-General Sylvanas Windrunner, whom he kills and raises as the Banshee Queen in his service. She is very, very unhappy about this and will ultimately break free to found her own faction of vengeful, free-willed undead, The Forsaken.

TL;DR: Sargeras decides to try zombies this time. The Prince of Lordaeron is seduced by the Lich King with a magic sword, stabs his dad, stabs the general of the elf army, and brings the latter back as a badass zombie archer queen. 

Everybody To The Tree! 

Varok Saurfang

As high overlord of the orc clans, the elderly but formidable Varok is haunted by dishonor. Like most orcs, he drank fel blood and relished in the wanton slaughter of Draenor's peaceful races. Now, on Azeroth, he's trying to steer the Horde toward a more honorable path.

Meanwhile, an escaped orc and former pit fighter named Thrall leads his people (who were put in internment camps by the humans after the Second War) to Kalimdor after Medivh (who I guess is good now) appears to him and tells him everything’s about to go to hell literally. Along the way, he picks up some troll and tauren allies—the foundation of the modern Horde faction. With the help of his buddy Grom Hellscream, they kill the demon lord Mannoroth, whose blood corrupted the orcs in the first place, and free the outcast race from their bloodlust.

They eventually team up with Jaina and the night elves, the latter having pretty much forgotten the rest of the world existed for the last 10,000 years, to protect the World Tree Nordrassil—which had grown out of what was left of the Well of Eternity and was now the winner of the reality show Azeroth’s Top Potential Demon Portal Battery. Working together, they defeated Archimonde and the Legion in open battle for a second time. But Arthas is still causing problems, and he’s on his way to Northrend to merge with the Lich King all the way.

TL;DR: Thrall creates the Horde, frees the orcs from demonic corruption, and joins the night elves and some human exiles to thwart the Burning Legion’s second invasion. Sargeras is getting kinda fed up at this point. Arthas has a spooky hat with an undead orc in it now. 

The demonic general Kil'Jaeden tried to destroy Azeroth several times across World of Warcraft's expansions.

22 Years Ago to 2 Years Ago - The World Almost Ends Several More Times 

Over the course of World of Warcraft’s release and its first several expansions, a lot has happened. Illidan Stormrage died (but he got better). Arthas died and was replaced by a new Lich King who promises to be nice. Deathwing broke the world again, then died. And the Alliance and Horde did battle while figures like Thrall and Jaina Proudmoore tried to be the voices of reason and end the conflict.

Then someone messed that up.

Garrosh Hellscream (son of Grom, slayer of Mannoroth) became warchief of the Horde after Thrall left to lead the non-sectarian shamans of the Earthen Ring. Except he wasn’t super interested in peace, and blew up Jaina Proudmoore’s city of Theramore with a mana bomb. The upshot is that Jaina is not super into peace anymore either and wants the Horde good and dead. Garrosh is eventually deposed in part by a troll rebellion led by the next warchief, Vol’jin, but Jaina still isn’t keen on letting bygones be bygones.

TL;DR: Everyone and their aunt takes a turn trying to destroy Azeroth, but we stop them in their tracks. The Horde gets a new warchief who blows up an entire city with a magic bomb, which Jaina takes great offense to. 

About 2 Years Ago - Round 3, Fight!

Sylvanas Windrunner

The banshee queen of the undead has spent years trying to eek out a survival for her Forsaken—remnants of Arthas' undead army that broke free from his will. When she was made warchief, she juggled both of those responsibilities poorly and is now locked in an all-out war with the Alliance.

Trying to explain Warlords of Draenor is almost an exercise in futility, so rest assured it has to do with time travel and alternate universes and doesn’t really matter much to the current storyline. What’s important is that a version of the orc warlock Gul’dan from an alternate timeline (the original died during WarCraft II) heralds the third and largest Burning Legion invasion of Azeroth, and the Horde and Alliance have to work together to stop it.

Not only did we defeat them a third time, we chased them to their original homeworld of Argus and cut them down at the source. Sargeras is imprisoned by Illidan and the other Titans, but not before he quite literally stabs Azeroth with a sword the size of a large asteroid, wounding the World-soul and causing it to bleed the powerful material called Azerite, which is one of the things we’re about to be fighting over in Battle for Azeroth. In the course of the war, Vol’Jin is mortally wounded and decides it’s a good idea to name Sylvanas his successor because of a vision he was given by the troll gods. 

TL;DR: The Legion returns for a third time. We defeat them, go to their homeworld, and curb-stomp them into cosmic irrelevance. Sargeras wounds Azeroth before being imprisoned. Sylvanas is in charge of the Horde now. 

Present Day - The War of the Thorns and the Battle for Lordaeron 

Anduin Wrynn

Anduin's father, Varian, was one of the mightiest leaders the Alliance ever knew. His warring ways drew a stark contrast to Anduin's peace-loving demeanor. But after his father died fighting the Legion, Anduin became king and is now pulled into an all-out war with Sylvanas and the Horde.

There’s a lot of complicated politicking going on in the wake of the Legion’s defeat, mostly centered on Sylvanas, whose main motive seems to be propagating the Forsaken and hating the living because her two non-undead sisters were mean to her or something. After an effort was made to reconcile the undead who were once citizens of Lordaeron with their living relatives, she went berserk and had a bunch of her own people killed. There are some fan theories that she sees undeath as the only true defense against the power of the Void Lords, which would lend some method to all this madness. But for now, from most average folks’ perspectives, she’s not being very nice.

Her next act of murder was the War of the Thorns, in which she sent Horde forces to overrun Alliance strongholds on Kalimdor and, apparently on a momentary whim, decided to burn down the great tree Teldrassil, which held the capital of the Night Elf civilization. The death toll was tremendous. In retaliation, the Alliance dispatched an army to capture the old capital of Lordaeron and banish the undead from the Tirisfal Glades (with help from Jaina and her new, magic ghost ship), tit-for-tat.

TL;DR: Sylvanas is killing everyone. She burned down the giant tree the night elves lived in, and then the Alliance sieged her capital and kicked her out of Lordaeron. We have ourselves quite the war.

And there you have it. Give or take a small truckload of details and B-side plots, the stage is set and you should have an idea of where the main players (namely Jaina and Sylvanas) are coming from. There’s enough lore out there that you could probably get a PhD in Azerothian History, but the important things to remember are “Sargeras Bad,” “The Horde and Alliance never get along except every time there’s a greater common threat which is all the time,” and “Sylvanas needs to freakin’ chill.”

Where does the story go from here? Well, we’re about to find out.