World of Warcraft: Classic was supposed to recreate the past, but now it feels like WoW's creative future

Image for World of Warcraft: Classic was supposed to recreate the past, but now it feels like WoW's creative future
(Image credit: Blizzard)

After playing both World of Warcraft's new 10.2 patch and World of Warcraft: Classic's new Season of Discovery at BlizzCon 2023 over the weekend, I was shocked to discover that there were as many creative twists in the "old," re-released game as there were in present-day WoW.

Season of Discovery is a limited-time version of World of Warcraft Classic launching November 30. It will include just 25 levels to start, with most activities centered around the Ashenvale zone in Kalimdor. It includes outdoor PvP, leveling, and an end game that includes raiding.

At BlizzCon, I gathered nine of my friends and tackled a group outing to Blackfathom Deeps, the reimagined 10-player-raid version of the five-player dungeon from Warcraft Classic, originally released almost 20 years ago.

It's a dungeon no one in vanilla actually wanted to run much. It was far away from everything, it took forever to get to, and only one faction really had quests there. The bosses were annoying, and there were far too many of them, as well as too many trash mobs. Trash that liked to run. Trash that liked to pull other trash. Your basic dungeon nightmare.

So when I heard it was going to become a raid in SoD, I internally rolled my eyes. But the tweaks to the dungeon mirror substantial changes, made via a rune system, to character classes in SoD. In combination, it's an entirely new experience.

Basically, this is an entirely new boss fight, in Warcraft Classic. You know, the game that was originally marketed with #nochanges as a slogan.

It also gives me hope that, if changes like this are in the works, I won't be skipping a chunk of Warcraft Classic's next Cataclysm expansion this time around. Last time, frustration with main-tanking the expansion's Heroic raids, the then-equivalent of Mythic raiding, made me quit the game. That break cost me an orc rider statue and a Diablo-themed Tyrael's Charger mount, which I only recently re-obtained. I'm still bitter.

But back to Blackfathom Deeps. The first major change to the dungeon, besides making it a 10-player raid, is a reshuffling of boss encounters. No longer are Ghamoo-Ra's turtles the first thing you see. Instead, perched on the dungeon's legendarily annoying jumping-puzzle of platforms over open water, Baron Aquanis awaits.

Behold, Baron Aquanis. (Image credit: Blizzard)

If you don't remember Baron Aquanis, odds are you played Alliance. A Horde-only quest summoned him, and his abilities were pretty much limited to punching you in the face. This new version is like an evil twin: The model is the same, but the abilities and the encounter are much different.

For starters, you have to kill three lieutenants to weaken his shield to engage him. These guys are located underwater in the room, surrounded by naga, and a new debuff speeds your death by drowning. Of course the lieutenants are spell-casters, so unless you interrupt them, they will stubbornly stay on the bottom of the pool. Swimming through bubbles in the water slows your drowning death and speeds your swimming, so they're definitely worth getting, particularly for melee. All of these things are new.

Once you engage him, you'll discover this guy actually hurts now. To get to him, you have to jump across those annoying platforms. He has new abilities, including casting a bomb on one player that knocks back everyone else—into the water, where the naga are, and you have to swim back up to engage the boss again.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Classic, but new

Basically, this is an entirely new boss fight, in Warcraft Classic. You know, the game that was originally marketed with #nochanges as a slogan. Classic has taken other hard left turns recently—it released a Hardcore mode earlier this year that not only wasn't in original vanilla WoW, still isn't in retail.

Look more closely at my group (and quickly, because we were goofing around and spent half our time flying through the air) and you'd see some other oddities. There was a warlock… tanking? And I was playing a mage and… healing?

This is the another major ingredient in the Season of Discovery: a rune system that allows players to add three abilities to their kits, and those abilities are very, very different from the standard class options.

The Season of Discovery Runes UI. (Image credit: Blizzard)

My mage could cast a chain-heal-like group healing spell that left a buff, and a single-player heal. The third spell took every player that had the buff and rewound the last five seconds of damage taken. For all the world, it reminded me of playing Augmentation Evoker in modern WoW, making sure that players had that buff rolling, so that I could top them up when Aquanis sent us (regrettably) flying.

Those combinations are wild, and far outside the level of experimentation that's happened before in modern WoW, let alone Classic, whose entire reason for existing is to feed the nostalgia of people who want to experience 2004 Warcraft again. Not only is the rune system, and healing as a mage, new to any flavor of Warcraft—the complexity of that interaction felt surprisingly modern-WoW-esque.

Classic is known for its one-button rotations. For priests, the top damage production at one point was auto-wanding. I routinely topped damage meters in my Classic guild as a hunter because I installed a swing timer and made sure not to clip my three-second auto shots with the rare secondary abilities I cast. To have this kind of heal/buff/timing of multiple abilities around mechanics is exceptionally rare in Classic—that's much more of a retail/modern WoW thing.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

It was a new game, sneakily wearing the Onyxia Scale Cloak of Classic Warcraft, and I loved it.

And yet, there we were, my little gnome mage healing her heart out to keep her (admittedly squishy) warlock tank upright. That warlock, meanwhile, was struggling because his defensive abilities took a ton of mana, which he ran out of quickly because he was afraid to lifetap, a warlock ability that trades health for mana, because he was already flirting with death.

Could he have judged better damage windows to use the ability and communicated with me or other healers to keep him topped off? Absolutely. Would that typically be required in Classic? I would argue that no, it would not.

None of this is to complain about the rune system, or the new boss mechanics, or the raid. They were absolutely terrific fun to play. The point is how different it all felt from Classic—how novel, how experimental, and how, well, modern. It was a new game, sneakily wearing the Onyxia Scale Cloak of Classic Warcraft, and I loved it.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Warcraft developers told me in interviews that they're watching how this season goes to see whether things like cross-specialization mixes might be a thing for the future of Warcraft, both retail and Classic. 

Classic was supposed to be all about recreating the past. Now, it seems that it’s an innovative force driving the future of all versions of WoW's gameplay, while retaining that Classic look, feel and storyline. Maybe something has been lost with the new twists and experiments, but I think much more has been gained by the odd trajectory of Blizzard's throwback.

Maybe it's those who are helping us remember Warcraft's past that are, in fact, ensuring we do not repeat it.