Why WoW's level 90 character boost is a shortcut you shouldn't take

World of Warcraft launched ten years ago this November. That's a long time in video game years, and even longer for an MMORPG. The world of Azeroth was already big when the game launched in November 2004, but ten years and four expansions have made WoW utterly massive—and intimidating for new or returning players. That's one of the reasons why Blizzard has introduced a new in-game service to boost characters to the game's current max level, 90 . For $60, you can take a brand new character, or one you played but didn't max out, and shortcut them straight to the top-end content for Mists of Pandaria, the game's most current expansion.

It's a handy service for both current and returning players, but it's not perfect. Getting a boost from level 1 to 90 is like learning how to swim by jumping off a diving board, straight into the deep end. And even though Blizzard gives you all of the skills and gear you need to be level 90, it may not be enough to keep your group happy. No one wants to be at the bottom of the damage-per-second charts in an endgame raid.

I watched Blizzard's soft-launch for Level 90 boosts with intense interest. I've played WoW for years, but never made it to max level in Pandaria, and I've always wanted to join raiding friends who never stopped playing. But paying for a character I didn't earn feels like drinking from a fire hose or jumping into the deep end of a pool without floaties—for now at least, there's no good way to learn how your new 90 works.

How to boost

In my hundreds of hours in Azeroth, I've played damage dealers and healers. I've never leveled up a Warrior, however, so I decided to jump in at max level for the class. I created Roldt, a Worgen Warrior with a lot of heart, if not a lot of experience. A quick $60 purchase will fix that.

Buying a level 90 upgrade is so easy that it's almost disappointing. Blizzard sells the service through its in-game store, which normally sells premium mounts or vanity pets. It takes just two clicks to purchase the upgrade—the charge goes on the credit card linked to your Battle.net account.

The level boost can be given to any character, but those over level 60 will get a “veteran” boost. This upgrades the character to level 90, but also upgrades that character's primary professions to max status. The upgrade does not affect secondary professions, such as cooking, fishing, or archeology, though it does affect First Aid. If you upgrade a level 60+ character to 90 but haven't selected primary professions, Blizzard will select “recommend” professions based on the character's armor proficiencies. Plate wearers receive Blacksmithing and Mining, cloth-wearing classes get Enchanting and Tailoring, and classes that use leather or mail armor are granted Leatherworking and Skinning.

Once purchased, you immediately apply the upgrade to a character on your server. I selected Roldt and was given a choice of three specializations for the character: Arms for melee, two-handed DPS, Fury for dual-wielding DPS, and Protection for tanking. The choice here affects not only what abilities fill your hotbar, but also the set of ilvl 493 green equipment you receive. I started a warrior to learn how to tank, so I selected Protection.

That was a mistake.

A few moments later, my previously destitute level 1 warrior stood in the Shrine of Seven Stars, his Oathsworn armor set gleaming in the sun. “Here I stand, at the gates of Pandaria's most epic content,” I thought to myself. And then I realized I had no idea what to do next.

No maps for these territories

As a newly minted level 90, I expected to see a special quest marker or notification that pointed me in the direction of adventure. There wasn't one. I started configuring my hotbars and addons, and wandered the Shrine in search of answers, or even a mailbox. I found portals to the game's various hub cities, as well as some high-end vendors and a few endgame content quest givers. Eventually, I had ten quests and no idea where to go. Time to turn to the community.

Wowhead's starting guide for boosted level 90s recommends Timeless Isle as a place to gear up for Pandaria's heroic dungeons and raids. Added in patch 5.4, Timeless Isle is designed as an open-world questing and adventure area for both Alliance and Horde characters. To get there, I followed the A Flash Of Bronze quest, which sent me to Chromie, the bronze dragon-in-gnome-form that handled time-travel quests in previous expansions. I met her at the Seat of Knowledge, not far from the Shrine, and since the level boost gave me flight permission in Pandaria, getting there was a snap. Chromie gave me a Curious Bronze Timepiece, which teleported me to the island.

Timeless Isle is a lot of fun, and includes a ton of quests and content that grants higher level gear. Wowhead's guide to Timeless Isle is a good introduction to the area, but the gist is that you're going to explore the island, do a few quests, find a lot of gear chests and battle rare, elite spawns on the island. If you're in a hurry, you can also ignore most of the mobs on Timeless Isle and just hunt for chests—WoW Insider's map of chest locations on the island helps with that.

What Timeless Isle doesn't do is teach me how to play this new character. And that's causing its own problems for the playerbase. While endgame raiders have always bellyached about bad players, the sudden influx of level 90 characters without 90 levels of player skill has caused drama in WoW's Looking For Raid feature. And while it's hard to quantify the issue, it's not hard to imagine that many low-DPS accusations are based on players who haven't mastered their new characters.

School of hard knocks

Blizzard has a plan to improve the boosting learning curve, but it's not coming until right before Warlords of Draenor, which should ship later this year. World of Warcraft director Tom Chilton tells me that a pre-expansion patch, version 6.0, will include a mode that forces newly boosted characters to earn their abilities, instead of stacking them with every power at once.

“That way, you don't get dropped into a character that has a ton of different abilities that you're not familiar with,” he says. “You get dropped into a class and you have three abilities to start with.” Completing small tasks and quests will quickly earn you your core abilities from there, while teaching you how to use them.

Until then, the closest thing to a tutorial is the Proving Grounds, added in patch 5.4. Accessed via your class trainer, Proving Grounds is a solo instance that helps you train for group encounters through a series of AI-assisted challenges. In my case as a Prot Warrior, the Proving Grounds challenged me to protect an NPC damage dealer from waves of increasingly difficult enemies. I had to manage aggro and keep the mobs away from the NPC, or else I'd fail.

Since I don't know how to manage aggro, I failed a lot.

“The Proving Grounds was supposed to be a feature that allows you to experiment with roles that you're not used to,” says Luis Barriga, lead game designer on WoW. “We have players who have been around for ten years but they've always played as a damage dealing class.” By building a solo instance that mimics dungeon environments, it should be easier for players to try out new strategies and roles. “It's very difficult to step into that role without having just jumped in and dealt with the consequences,” Barriga says.

It's not really a teaching tool for boosted 90s, however. “It's not a tutorial from the standpoint of teaching you step by step exactly how to do it,” he says, “but gives you a place to figure it out yourself in a very safe environment.”

Not newbie approved

Knowing that Blizzard hasn't yet implemented its planned tutorial system, I asked the developer why it launched the feature at $60 now. “Mostly because there was a lot of interest in it by our existing players that wanted to have alternate characters,” says Chilton. The primary audience right now is “people that are already engaged with the game and currently playing,” which means they know way more about areas like Timeless Isle than those planning to return for the new expansion.

I'm excited by the idea of a hand-holding tutorial for new 90s when Warlords of Draenor launches, especially since everyone who purchases the expansion will get a free boost. But for now, I have to learn how to play the tank I've purchased the hard way—through community guides and in-game experience. I wish I'd waited, especially because I love the flow of endgame quests that push you to max level in Blizzard's expansions. If you're thinking about buying yourself a max level character right now, I'd recommend that you wait until Warlords.