When Deathwing, the colossal black dragon, erupted from beneath the earth to kick off the launch of World of Warcraft's third expansion back in 2010, he forever changed the face of Azeroth. Zones, quests, and countless behind-the-scenes features changed the day he took flight. Though maybe not as dramatic, every expansion before and after Cataclysm has heralded that same tectonic shift and evolution in World of Warcraft's DNA.
But which expansion reigns supreme? Which one captures that heart of story-driven adventure in addition to innovating and inventing new features that helped cement World of Warcraft as the undisputed king of MMOs? To answer that question, we're ranking every World of Warcraft expansion from worst to best.
A quick note: Because World of Warcraft is always evolving and changing with each update, we're not judging these expansions based on how they are today, but rather their impact on World of Warcraft during and immediately after their release.
Warlords of Draenor (2014)
What was meant to be a fun time-travelling romp to the orc homeworld of Draenor turned into one of the lowest points in World of Warcraft's 14-year history—but people wouldn't realize that right away. After ex-warchief Garrosh Hellscream escaped his sentence and fled through the Dark Portal into Draenor's past, the combined might of the Horde and Alliance pushed through to prevent Hellscream from uniting the orc clans and triggering a second invasion of Azeroth.
Warlords of Draenor made a great impression when it first launched and its leveling experience set a new standard. Varied objectives were expertly interwoven with cutscenes and exposition—despite how confusing all the time-travelling shenanigans were. It was the first time that Blizzard told a cohesive story that flowed from one expansion to the other, creating a greater sense of growth and drama for Warcraft's cast of characters. And Warlords' reimagined take on old-world Draenor was stunning too: A verdant mix of zones full of secrets to discover and packed with neat lore about Draenor before its destruction by fel magic.
Sadly, that good impression wouldn't last. Warlords of Draenor's main feature, garrisons, were meant to fulfill the fantasy of building and defending your own Warcraft 3-style base, but instead became a mind-numbing chore that isolated players from one another. Instead of interacting out in the open world, players were encouraged to hole up inside their garrisons and wait for real-time missions to complete. Coupled with a severe lack of updates, Warlords of Draenor just didn't offer much for players to do, and the long wait between its meager patches felt like brutal droughts. In the end people just stopped playing, creating a precipitous drop to the lowest number of players since 2005.
Cataclysm was World of Warcraft's most ambitious expansion ever. In the build up to its release, the terrifying Black Dragon Aspect, Deathwing, took flight across Azeroth and brought calamitous ruin to the world. Using that destruction as a clever plot device, Blizzard completely revamped the entirety of Azeroth by significantly changing many zones and updating the entire level-up questing experience. The elements ravaged Dark Shore, Thousand Needles flooded, and an earthquake sundered the Barrens in two. Best of all, those leveling new characters didn't have to grind through that same brutal gauntlet of quests that had existed since Warcraft's launch in 2004.
The update to World of Warcraft's leveling experience was sorely needed and Cataclysm's new quests made leveling characters a more enjoyable and involved experience, but it also completely ruined any sense of cohesion in World of Warcraft's story. It's been eight years since Cataclysm, but Azeroth can often seem frozen in time, as though Cataclysm just launched yesterday. There are quests that still reference Deathwing as if he just popped out of the earth, and the ruin he brought to various zones hasn't been repaired in the slightest. In hindsight, Cataclysm's attempted re-do of Azeroth completely borked the entire Warcraft timeline.
Ultimately, World of Warcraft just couldn't live up to Cataclysm's ambition. The Deathwing boss fight failed to meet expectations, with players spending a good chunk of the battle punching his spine instead of his face, the few new high-level zones felt disjointed, and while the quests themselves were much improved, the changes to Azeroth have now aged awkwardly, leaving World of Warcraft's new player experience feeling like it needs another major refresh.
The Burning Crusade (2007)
Our score: 88
World of Warcraft's first expansion is also its most average. The Burning Crusade gave players exactly what they wanted and nothing more: more of that old-style World of Warcraft. Echoing Warcraft 2, the demonic Burning Legion reopens the Dark Portal and tries to invade Azeroth and, after repelling the initial assault, the armies of Alliance and Horde take the fight to Draenor (sound familiar?) and eventually end up taking on Illidan the Betrayer.
Though it hasn't aged well, The Burning Crusade solidified the template for what would become a good World of Warcraft expansion. It added a fantastical, almost alien-like world to explore, set up compelling villains to fight, and featured a robust endgame that kept players coming back week after week. Both of the new races, the dranei and blood elves, became beloved additions to their respective factions, and flying mounts—though a contentious feature nowadays—were seen as an incredible new way to traverse zones.
The Burning Crusade had plenty of issues, too. Flying was a double-edged sword in that zones were made even bigger to compensate for the faster speed of travel, so getting around on foot was extra tiresome. While some zones like Nagrand and Terrokar Forest were packed full of neat lore, others like Hellfire Peninsula were a crucible of painful fetch or kill quests that could break the will of even the most indomitable player. But given how early on in World of Warcraft's life this was, it's easy to forgive The Burning Crusade's few sins.
Mists of Pandaria (2012)
How you feel about Warcraft's goofy pandaren race probably has a big impact on where this expansion falls on your personal list. For naysayers, Mists of Pandaria is the turning point of when World of Warcraft really started changing for the worse. But as someone that always found the pandaren charming and likes that World of Warcraft isn't just for hardcore players with nothing better to do, I'll champion Mists of Pandaria as one of World of Warcraft's better expansions.
After Deathwing's demise, the Horde and Alliance get back to fighting and end up warring on the neutral pandaren homeland of Pandaria. This Far East-inspired land is one of the most visually stunning Blizzard has ever created—full of ancient temples tucked into misty mountains and vibrant forests. Though not every idea was well-received, Mists was one of the most feature-rich expansions in Warcraft's history. Depending on who you talk to, features like cross-realm play that erased the barrier between different servers and the simplified talent system are either unacceptable heresy or smart changes that make Warcraft more accessible. Other additions, like the pandaren race, monk class, and pet battles are far less divisive.
Even if those less visible changes are inextricably linked with Mists of Pandaria, there's little reason to hate the actual questing and endgame of the expansion itself. It told an interesting and climactic story of factional warfare while expertly weaving in a grand tour of pandaren mythology. Mists of Pandaria was big, bold, and beautiful. Just like its pandarens.
After the loud, wet flop of Warlords of Draenor, Blizzard really needed to win back the faith of its players. The developers smashed the "break in case of emergency" glass on many of Warcraft's most requested features and stuffed them into an expansion that proved World of Warcraft could still be a blast 14 years later. Legion pulled out every stop: Players took on Sargeras and his intergalactic demon army while wielding the most coveted weapons in Warcraft mythology.
The best thing about Legion was just how much there was to do. New updates that added dungeons and raids rolled out a steady pace while entirely new systems like World Quests and the Mythic+ difficulty for dungeons redefined and expanded the endgame. When coupled with a rotation of weekly events, there was never really a dull moment on the Broken Isles.
Blizzard nailed all of the things you do to get new loot, but it did seriously fail at making that loot rewarding. A heavy reliance on RNG in both the Legendary and Titan-forging systems made getting armor upgrades a crapshoot. And even though Artifact weapons were cool, they were also a real grind. Legion was not an expansion where you wanted to level alternate characters.
Those missteps aside, though, Legion was the most polished and innovative expansion Blizzard has ever made. So many different pieces, like Warlords of Draenor's great quest design and presentation, came together in one cohesive package that also capitalized on Warcraft's strengths by encouraging players to get out and explore the world and socialize with one another. It was an expansion that had something for everyone, no matter how casual or hardcore they may be.
Wrath of the Lich King (2008)
Our score: 93
Wrath of the Lich King might not boast all of the innovative features of Legion, but it still reigns supreme as the expansion that delivered just about everything you could want out of World of Warcraft. Arthas, the Lich King, remains Warcraft's greatest villain to date, and Wrath expertly established him as a terror who loomed over every step players took in the frozen wastes of Northrend. This expansion was so successful and influential that MMOs for years would look to it as the standard template for online roleplaying.
Wrath of the Lich King brought closure to one of the most beloved narrative arcs in all of Warcraft as players waged war against Arthas and his Scourge of undead. The invasion of Northrend by the Horde and the Alliance set up an adventurous and nostalgic return through Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne. It was also the first time that Blizzard really started improving on its storytelling too, with major plot twists like the Wrathgate still remembered as defining moments of Warcraft's history.
New technologies like phasing, expanded how Blizzard could tell stories through quests by dynamically changing the world without it impacting every player. Wrath was also the first expansion to toy with raid difficulty, making them more accessible to casual players who didn't have the time or friends to tackle 25-person raids. Similar to Legion, Wrath of the Lich King adeptly juggled all of the different pieces that people love about World of Warcraft. Raids like Ulduar are considered the best in terms of theme and design, while quests were fun and varied, PvP was competitive and exciting—there's just not a whole lot to complain about, and so much to love.