Why these World of Warcraft diehards can't stop playing its most hated expansion

I never thought there'd be a need for World of Warcraft: Cataclysm private servers, because in a lot of ways, Cataclysm is the reason players petitioned for a service like World of Warcraft: Classic in the first place. Azerothians have constantly pined for this MMO as they knew it during its savage early years back in 2004. And yet, a quiet minority are eager to journey to the frontiers of Deepholm, Uldum, and The Twilight Highlands—the beginning of Warcraft's modern era, rather than its mythical prehistory.

I am convinced that more people liked Cataclysm as it seemed.

Wilcalaf

Wilcalaf, a 28-year old Chilean, is the owner and proprietor of NRG-WoW, one of the few, proud Cataclysm private servers on the internet. His domain does not resuscitate the nubile, blemish-free realms of retail vanilla, or the wondrous scattershot imperfections of The Burning Crusade, or the windfall Northrend expedition in Wrath of the Lich King. Instead, he nurtures an Azeroth in permanent transition—those awkward Cataclysm years, as Blizzard was trying to figure out the future for their ludicrously popular MMO. A time most players are eager to forget. Wilcalaf talks about his work with a near-spiritual sense of duty. For him, this is personal.

"I am convinced that more people liked Cataclysm as it seemed, and I'm trying to recreate that experience," says Wilcalaf in a private Discord chat. "When I did research, I found that there was only one private server dedicated solely to Cataclysm."

If you're one of the millions who played World of Warcraft in 2010, you probably have a good idea why.

The sundering 

Let's jump back to the end of Wrath of the Lich King. The Horde and Alliance had just toppled the reign of the mighty Prince Arthas, and returned home to Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms eager to find a new big bad to fill the power vacuum. Deathwing, a legendary obsidian-plated dragon last seen in Warcraft II, responded in dramatic fashion by plunging through the crust of Azeroth and leaving a long trail of chaos in his wake. The Barrens split in two, the Thousand Needles flooded, and an interminable cyclone twisted away in Darkshore.  

These setpieces were visually impressive—perfect back-of-the-box screenshots to sell the Warcraft denizens on a new dire threat—but functionally, Deathwing's reign of terror gave Blizzard the canonical justification to revamp the vanilla leveling loop. By 2010, World of Warcraft was a juggernaut with a huge community of casual players, and the company needed to dispel some of the ornery elements baked into the game's early DNA. So, not only did Deathwing sunder the geography, he also somehow managed to leave behind better flight paths, defanged elites, and simplified questlines in his wake.

Cataclysm was a controversial expansion for a ton of other reasons. The level cap was boosted to a half-stepped 85, the final raid was a harebrained mashup of existing assets, and the storyline was confused at best and cringeworthy at worst. But for the most part, when people opine about Cataclysm's shortcomings, they fixate on how the old world—the World of Warcraft they grew up playing—was permanently pruned from the map. Now, your only hopes to hunt down those memories lived on clandestine vanilla private servers, or the forthcoming universe-resetting World of Warcraft: Classic. 

So that's what makes Wilcalaf's devotion to the expansion so interesting to me, a proud World of Warcraft elitist, who hasn't clocked time in a serious no-life raiding guild since Outland. I mistakenly blame my hardcore slippage on a vague dissatisfaction with the spirit of Blizzard's game design, and I'm fully aware that makes me the absolute worst kind of WoW fan. Obviously I know that Cataclysm is now almost 10 years old, and a decade is plenty enough time to foster a sense of wistfulness for pretty much any cultural artifact, but it's still hard for me to imagine that expansion existing in its own rose-colored epoch.

Then again, Wilcalaf tells me that he too has played since vanilla, and while he has a fondness for those early days, it's nothing he feels the need to revisit. Instead, Cataclysm was his golden age, and his reasons for that might sound blasphemous if you're a certain breed of grognard. 

For instance, Cataclysm was the expansion that implemented the Looking For Raid tool, which famously allowed casual players to experience endgame content at a dampened power level. Blizzard moved in this direction after it became clear that about two percent of the citizenship actually had the gear, time, and drive to delve into C'Thun's sanctum. It was one of the smartest changes Blizzard ever made, but it of course it summoned a certain vinegary destestation from the True Gamers of the world. "How can we let the peons into Blackwing Lair? What a desecration of leetness!" 

Entire zones like the Barrens were devastated by Deathwing's sundering of Azeroth.

Wilcalaf, of course, shares that lineage, but he still regards LFR as something that radically changed his life for the better. After years spent grinding away at the oppressive requirements of high-end Warcraft raiding, suddenly he was free. "[It] made me unconsciously stop raiding," he says. "The moment I completed Dragon Soul on LFR, it was like my need of progress through the content in other difficulties was significantly lower." This was one of the major changes that makes Cataclysm his happy place, and I suppose that reveals the rest of us as very, very masochistic people for hating it.

Eye of the beholder 

Cataclysm is in my opinion one of the best PvP expansions when it comes to balance and class viability.

Waroz

That's the thing you learn when you spend some time with the Cataclysm faithful. Everything you think you understand about World of Warcraft—its legacy, its shadow, its future—is all a matter of personal perspective. The biggest Cataclysm private server is called Hades, and it averages a population around 500 to 1,000 players. Waroz, a 21-year old from Finland, is one of them. He found his way back to the expansion after being turned off by 2012's follow-up, Mists of Pandaria. Like Wilcalaf, the specifics of his obsession are charmingly granular. In this case, it was the PvP—he explains to me that the abilities and talent trees interlocked in a shockingly robust way that coaxed him away from the raids and the dungeons he used to enjoy. "Cataclysm is in my opinion one of the best PvP expansions when it comes to balance and class viability," he says.

The way Waroz describes it, Hades sounds like a paradise. A small hamlet of dedicated souls who are each uniquely in love with this off-cycle expansion. I played plenty of Cataclysm when it was live, and I remember trudging through sullen forums and toxic trade chat, all castigating Blizzard for its fatal missteps. After years of other dirges and WoW-killers, this, finally, was to be the end of World of Warcraft. They were wrong, because they were always wrong, but I am curious to know what it'd be like to play through Cataclysm when you're not under that cloud of negativity. "The atmosphere is definitely a lot better on private servers because the people playing there usually actually like the expansion," he says. "So there's not a lot of people whining how Warcraft was so much better before Cataclysm and all that." 

World of Warcraft is too big and too unwieldy to ever be one thing. That is something that people (such as myself) often overlook. Not everyone started playing this game in vanilla. Some peaked later, some found a second wind, and some found an emancipation, rather than a neutering, in Blizzard's overtures to more casual audiences. So when the company does finally hand over World of Warcraft: Classic, we should remember that its promises only apply to a certain subsect of players. After 14 years, this MMO has lost the capacity to have a classic period—Azeroth is a nation, and national history is often far more complicated and nuanced than a simple beginning, middle, and end. Someone's Ragnaros is someone's Deathwing, and Vashj'ir was never as bad as we made it out to be.

"I definitely think that people can have a nostalgia for any era of WoW," says Waroz. "The people all like different expansions, and that's fine! It was nostalgia after all that first drove me into my first Cataclysm server, and I've never looked back ever since."

Private servers can offer great experiences, but they can infringe on copyrights and are against World of Warcraft's EULA. While we think this story offers a great insight into the culture and history of World of Warcraft, PC Gamer does not advocate any piracy or copyright infringement.