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Character from the World of Warcraft game Image: Blizzard Entertainment via Polygon

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It’s been a weird decade for Warcraft

How has the Warcraft franchise been since 2009?

In 2019, the Warcraft franchise turned 25 years old. Blizzard first released Warcraft: Orcs & Humans in 1994, and from there, it built one of gaming’s biggest franchises.

The 2010s weren’t the best decade in Warcraft history. The franchise saw a few rough World of Warcraft expansions and the dreaded Warcraft movie. But players had the good times of Legion, Mists of Pandaria, and World of Warcraft Classic to keep them going.

Here’s a look back at the past 10 years of Warcraft.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm (2010)

Artwork of the dragon Deathwing from World of Warcraft: Cataclysm Blizzard Entertainment

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm started this decade of Warcraft out on the wrong foot. Cataclysm took a step back from the beloved Wrath of the Lich King expansion to revisit the old world of Azeroth. To spice things up, Blizzard destroyed a good chunk of the Azeroth players knew, altering the in-game world forever.

But Cataclysm is really known for starting to pull some of the RPG elements out of World of Warcraft. It removed the talent tree in favor of more straightforward character choices. Multi-specing — the process of making a hybrid character that’s decent at two things instead of great at one — became a thing of the past with the new binary specializations. And it added a group finder for players to meet like-minded individuals to raid or do a dungeon, removing the need for general chat.

Speaking of raids, Cataclysm also suffered in the endgame department. Aside from wandering the new open world, players didn’t have much to do. And the final raid battle against Deathwing didn’t capture the fantasy of fighting one of World of Warcraft’s coolest looking, giant enemies.

To some, Cataclysm is still known as the expansion that almost killed World of Warcraft. Ironically it was all because of the effort to streamline the World of Warcraft experience.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria (2012)

mists of pandaria Blizzard Entertainment

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria got a bad rap from the beginning. Some saw the adorable Pandarens (panda bear people in the Warcraft universe) as a betrayal of World of Warcraft’s gritty fantasy setting.

But Mists of Pandaria introduced some of World of Warcraft’s best zones to date — filled with color and unique art. It also introduced the Monk class, which is still one of the most complex melee classes in modern World of Warcraft. In fact, class design hit its peak in Mists of Pandaria. After Cataclysm almost shattered players’ favorite classes, Mists found a way to make playing these characters fun, interesting, and unique.

What helped solidify Mists of Pandaria as a good World of Warcraft expansion is its final raid: Siege of Orgrimmar. This raid took players inside the Horde capital city to defeat Garrosh, the evil Warchief. It captured a lot of the expansion’s Asian-inspired theme and moved it back to the fantasy environment with an important and climactic battle.

Hearthstone (2014)

Hearthstone murlocs art

Just before World of Warcraft would take one of its darkest turns, Blizzard officially released Hearthstone — the franchise’s collectible card game.

Over nearly six years, Hearthstone has added three sets a year to the game’s card collection. But Hearthstone’s greatest achievement is how malleable it seems to be. In addition to its basic card game mode, Hearthstone added single-player campaigns, weekly arena brawls, and now an autobattler to its launcher.

All of these modes still feel uniquely Hearthstone, while also creating an entry point for players not into card games. Hearthstone hasn’t always been great, but Blizzard still uses it as a toolbox to showcase its ingenuity.

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor (2014)

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor is one of World of Warcraft’s worst expansions ever. It saw players go back in time to help out Orcs from generations ago.

The leveling experience of Warlords was solid, but at level 100, players found themselves with little to do. The content came slow, and the Garrison player houses left the world of Draenor feeling empty. Players could accomplish so many of their daily activities in their player-built bases. Why would they ever leave?

Draenor was a dead zone for World of Warcraft. There were a few years where the game just didn’t have much to do.

The events in Warlords would lead into one of World of Warcraft’s best expansions ever. But players had one more bitter pill to swallow first.

The Warcraft movie (2016)

Warcraft movie still

The Warcraft movie isn’t good.

It sets up a franchise of Warcraft movies, where we can watch baby Thrall grow up to be Warchief of the Horde. But the dialogue, the pacing, the performances, the direction, and the story all doomed Warcraft as a film franchise before it even began.

What Warcraft did do well is capture the look of the world. Stormwind, the Dark Portal, and the Orcs themselves all looked like what players see in game. And while American audiences quickly forgot about it, the movie was a massive hit overseas, and helped to usher in a new boom for American movies in China.

World of Warcraft: Legion (2016)

Illidan Stormrage — a Night Elf/Demon hybrid with giant bat wings and horns — poses on a green rock with his warglaives in the box art for the World of Warcraft: Legion expansion Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Legion is one of World of Warcraft’s best expansions ever, rivaling even the beloved Wrath of the Lich King. It introduced the Order Halls, where players could learn more about what it meant to be a Paladin, Mage, Monk, or the new Demon Hunter. And players toted around the weapons of powerful heroes who came before them, called Artifacts.

The Artifact system created a grind for players, but one that kept them engaged for the full two years. Legion also ended the oldest threat in Warcraft by finally imprisoning the evil Titan Sargeras.

The story was engaging, the zones were beautiful, and the content flowed from Blizzard. Best of all, the new Mythic+ system — which makes dungeons endlessly replayable — added a new form of accessible competition to the game.

Legion was a silver age for World of Warcraft, which made its sharp decline two years later that much harder for players.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth (2018)

Blizzard Entertainment

Legion saw players tackle a demonic invasion, and chase it into space for one last battle. Battle for Azeroth brought World of Warcraft back to its fantasy roots, and turned the franchise back into an orcs-versus-humans, Horde-against-Alliance affair.

The leveling experience was great, but the endgame lacks depth, and the replacement for the Artifact system made players feel weak in comparison.

Weakness is the ultimate theme of Battle for Azeroth. Blizzard removed key elements from numerous classes, leaving players feeling like they just didn’t have some of the tools they’ve had for years. With Battle for Azeroth, the content isn’t the issue the way it was with Warlords of Draenor or Cataclysm. Instead, Battle for Azeroth’s problems lie in some of World of Warcraft’s key systems.

The result is a game that feels worse to play, rather than one that simply lacks good content — which is what makes Battle for Azeroth the worst expansion World of Warcraft’s ever seen.

World of Warcraft Classic (2019)

Molten Core, as depicted in World of Warcraft Classic Blizzard Entertainment

In a not-so-great age for World of Warcraft, World of Warcraft Classic is a godsend. 15 years after World of Warcraft first came into our lives, Classic brings it back to what it was — pain points and all.

Classic is a reminder of all the great things World of Warcraft can still be in 2019. It’s a social game, a complex RPG, and an impossible grind designed only for the most hardcore players. It’s a joy to go back to all these years later, and a reminder of why the MMO is still around.

Warcraft III: Reforged (2019, probably)

An orc and human face off in a screenshot from Warcraft 3 Reforged Blizzard Entertainment

As of this writing, we still don’t know if Warcraft 3: Reforged is coming out in 2019. But at BlizzCon 2019, Blizzard told us it’s still aiming to put the remaster out by the end of the year.

For a lot of players, Warcraft 3 is where it all began. It’s the RTS that first introduced us to some of the fan-favorite World of Warcraft characters like Arthas, Jaina, and Illidan. Its campaign was groundbreaking, and it’s also one of the first esports.

Warcraft 3 helped create so many things, including the MOBA genre through the Defense of the Ancients mod. It’s where so much of modern Warcraft started, and players are pretty excited to see it recreated in 2019 (ourselves included).

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands (2020)

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Blizzard Entertainment

At BlizzCon 2019, Blizzard revealed World of Warcraft: Shadowlands. It isn’t out yet, and it won’t be out this decade. But we still know it’s coming.

Shadowlands sees players return to some of Legion’s best systems, without all the grind. Players aren’t sure if Blizzard can bring World of Warcraft back from Battle for Azeroth. But the studio has a tendency of treating World of Warcraft like a phoenix, and maybe we’ll see the MMO rise from the ashes next year to reach new heights.

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