Since 2004, people have been getting lost in the world of Azeroth. Every World of Warcraft expansion has seen the highest of highs, while others have (infamously) dove to the lowest of lows.
With the recent releases of both Classic World of Warcraft and Burning Crusade, many WoW fans have pined for the potential re-release of their favorite expansions. Others have worries that certain expansions will lead to the “death” of Classic WoW.
As the live game’s current expansion, Shadowlands, starts to wrap up, it feels like a good time to rank every World of Warcraft expansion so far. As a reminder, this list of based on my opinion. You may agree, you’ll probably disagree. Let’s get on with it.
Battle for Azeroth
A large majority of players will point to Warlords of Draenor as the worst World of Warcraft expansion. A large majority of players will also point to Battle for Azeroth.
The expansion, initially featuring a “faction warfare” story, also wove in narrative threads regarding Azshara and N’Zoth, two major lore characters. Things moved at an absolutely breakneck page story-wise. Things would have felt much better if plotlines, villains, and major characters had a chance to breathe; Battle for Azeroth should have been one expansion, not two.
BFA’s biggest downfall is its borrowed power system, Azerite armor. Borrowed power is a term for a system where character upgrades will only exist within the timeframe of an expansion. This includes abilities, weapons, equipment, and so on. The issue with Azerite armor is the insane amount of grind needed to upgrade an item that you’re going to throw into the trash within a couple of months.
When that becomes coupled with a bulk of your end-game content being an intimidating amount of chores, it’s easy to see why Battle for Azeroth is received so poorly.
What started as an enjoyable World of Warcraft expansion would eventually become one of the worst periods of the game’s history. The highlights of Castle Nathria, Shadowlands’ first raid, did a great job of hiding poor systems. Sire Denathrius is an incredible villain and enjoyable character.
Unfortunately, Denathrius had so much charisma, there wasn’t any leftover for the expansion’s main villain, The Jailer.
If Battle for Azeroth suffered from narrative bloat, Shadowlands is the exact opposite. The expansion takes place in World of Warcraft’s afterlife, meaning we’re encountering a host of characters from the franchise’s history. For whatever reason, Blizzard didn’t do much with the possibilities at their disposal.
There’s also the Sylvanas elephant in the room. Her role in the story has been incredibly controversial. While her apparent redemption line has been controversial, to say the least, the way it’s been presented isn’t as bad as you have read online. While Blizzard brought the character to a point that’s creating interesting story content, the journey has been an absolute cluster.
Going back to the systems of Shadowlands, the covenant and conduit systems are just the old-school talent trees with extra steps. On the outside, it looks like an incredibly customizable set-up where players can pilot their characters that suit their personal play style. However, this is 2022, and as Classic WoW has shown us, World of Warcraft players are big fans of the min-max lifestyle. This means that there are “correct” builds for conduits and covenants and “incorrect” builds of them. The appearance of choice, as it turns out, is just an illusion.
Warlords of Draenor
It is here where I admit that I am a big fan of Warlords of Draenor. The raid content was some of the best the game has ever seen. Class balance was still riding high following Mists of Pandaria. A stronger narrative and cinematic focus for the game’s story and questing was felt. World quests are a home run and questing in Draenor through Chromie Time in Shadowlands is the preferred way to level a new character from 1-50.
So then why then is Warlords ranked so long compared to every other World of Warcraft expansion? Two big reasons: Garrisons and a severe content drought.
One of the expansion’s big systems is garrisons. While it’s not player housing, it is an instanced base of operations established in Draenor for the player. In it, you gain access to crafting materials, daily quests, and more. It’s really the best place to be, so much so that it gave people zero reasons to inhabit the open world. This resulted in the MMO aspect of MMORPG falling by the wayside. Why venture out into new zones when everything you’d never need was in your Garrison?
The other big detriment of Warlords of Draenor was the severe lack of content. Patch 6.0 arrived on October 14th 2014, a month before the official release of WoD. Two end-game raids were available for players during this time, Blackrock Foundry and Highmaul. Both were exceptional, bringing optimism to World of Warcraft.
The next major content patch, 6.1, was released on February 24th, 2015. It included some quality of life updates and Twitter integration. Notably, it did not include any new in-game content. That wasn’t coming until June 22nd, 2015, when patch 6.2 brought the new Hellfire Citadel raid, the mythic dungeon difficulty, timewalking events, and more. This was the last content patch to bring new content to the game until Legion’s pre-patch, 7.0, on July 19th, 2016. Yes, that’s a very, very long time between game updates.
If we make it to Classic Warlords of Draenor, I’m hopeful for a better release cadence. There are a lot of things to love about Warlords, but you have to be willing to play the same content ad nauseam to enjoy it. That’s why it, sadly, ranks so low compared to other World of Warcraft expansions.
Cataclysm was an extremely important World of Warcraft expansion. After several years of venturing through Azeroth, Outland, and Northrend, Blizzard made the bold move to reshape the Azeroth we knew and love.
The Cataclysm expansion marked the return of Deathwing as a villain. With him came The Shattering, reshaping the entire world of Azeroth. On many levels, this was a needed update. The world of “Vanilla WoW” became outdated both visually and in terms of quest design. Still, people had become attached to the world they knew and loved. Changing fan-favorite zones was a controversial design, especially when it came to their look and feel. Updating the storyline and quest content, however, was a home run decision.
There was more to the old-world revamp in Cataclysm, however. Most of the end-game content was incredibly successful. Heroic dungeon difficulty received a much-needed bump after Wrath. The high-level questing zones were super enjoyable, provided you’re not talking about the underwater zone of Vashj’ir. Raids were top-notch content, minus Dragon Soul, which was relevant for far too long and had a disappointing ending.
To call Cataclysm a mixed bag of a World of Warcraft expansion is dead-on. There were a lot of highs, as well as a lot of lows. If we return to it during the Classic timeline, I’ll be super excited. It brought about a lot of much needed changes for a better in-game quality of life.
After the missteps of Warlords of Draenor, Legion became a runaway success of a World of Warcraft expansion.
Story-wise, Legion is one of the best ever told throughout World of Warcraft’s history. The fight against the burning legion brought the best out of the major characters within the Horde and Alliance. Varian Wrynn, Sylvanas Windrunner, Illidan, and others helped tell a memorable tale.
As for the expansion’s systems, Artifact Weapons did a great job of highlighting how borrowed power can be a good thing. Was it a grind of a system? Yes. Was it cool showing off a historic weapon? You bet.
The introduction of Mythic Plus over Challenge Modes for 5-person dungeons was a very welcome change as well. The expansion’s raid content was top tier and some of the best the game has ever seen. Legion wasn’t a perfect World of Warcraft expansion, but it sure was a great one.
Vanilla World of Warcraft
The World of Warcaft expansion that started it all. Classic WoW couldn’t replicate the original feeling of Vanilla when it came to end-game raid content. The leveling and questing experience, however, was a wonderful trip down memory lane. While it lacks the modern conveniences and quality of life changes of the live version of World of Warcraft, Vanilla and Classic proved that they weren’t always necessary.
One of the biggest hiccups of Vanilla was the fact that it was, arguably, not complete upon release. Comparing the Horde and Alliance starting zone experiences is a night and day difference. The human questline in particular is a well-thought-out, cohesive story, filled with clear-cut objectives and pathways. You know where you need to go now, as well as where you’ll be going next. On the Horde side, you’ll start in the starting area before being thrown into The Barrens and be told “hey, I need you to kill all the things here. Good luck, kid!”
Somehow, this lack of accessibility on the Horde side, as well as the Alliance side as you obtain higher levels, leads to a sense of discovery. To compare it to modern gaming, consider Elden Ring and the lack of quest tracker, in-game journal, or objective markers. Part of the joy while playing Elden Ring is naturally stumbling upon something remarkable. The same is said about Vanilla World of Warcraft. You’re not completing a checklist of objectives, but instead exploring a gigantic, larger-than-life world. At times, it plays more like a survival game and less like an MMORPG, especially compared to modern games today.
As time has gone on, we’ve lost that feeling in an MMO. It’s become all about the destination, not the journey. This is one reason why Final Fantasy XIV has done so well for itself: it puts an equal amount of importance on the journey and destination.
So then why is Vanilla not at the top of this list? It stumbles when it comes to the “destination,” as well as subjecting certain classes to sub-optimal performance compared to its peers.
Mists of Pandaria
Speaking of class performance, Mists of Pandaria is the pinnacle of class balance for a World of Warcraft expansion.
While initial impressions of making both the Pandaren an important part of the game’s lore were mixed, the game’s content proved that Blizzard knew exactly what they were doing. Everything works so well in Mists: class balance, world design, PVP, raid content, side systems.
The one thing that sticks out in terms of controversy, however, is the re-worked talent trees. Gone were the “bloated” talent trees, filled with dozens upon dozens of talents that had become streamlined and min-maxed over time. Instead, Blizzard re-worked things to give players a total of 18 talents, choosing one of three options every 15 levels. While the streamlining was arguably a necessity, it was nice being able to reward yourself with a talent at every level.
This is ultimately nitpicking, though. Mists of Pandaria is a fantastic World of Warcraft expansion and Blizzard was at the top of their game in nearly every phase of development and design. I pray we return to Pandaria in the Classic timeline. It’s an experience that’s worth diving back into.
Wrath of the Lich King
Some make the argument that Wrath of the Lich King was the World of Warcraft expansion that brought “the beginning of the end.” The introduction of the dungeon finder tool removed the community aspect of the game, yet Classic WoW has shown us that it’s a pretty important tool to have.
Others make the argument that this is the greatest expansion of all time. Given the quality of content, it’s not hard to see why. Ulduar is one of the greatest raids of all time. Northrend is an amazing questing experience. The heroics were enjoyable at launch, though ultimately turning into an under tuned AOE fest that lacked any actual challenge.
Most look back at Wrath with rose-tinted glasses. The lows of the expansion are definitely low; Naxxramas is severely under tuned and Trial of the Crusader is one of the most controversial raids ever released by Blizzard. Yet the content is still beyond enjoyable, finding a way to combine the quality of life changes that were desperately needed while also still focusing on the MMO part of the MMORPG genre.
Wrath’s story and narrative learned from The Burning Crusade’s mistakes. Arthas was a focal point during the questing experience. He was the villain and an actual, concrete character that you would encounter on several occasions as you level your way through Northrend. He was the threat, the poster child of the expansion, and there was no mistaking it. At times, however, this was almost comical; Arthas kept popping up in places, beating a dead horse that he’s the bad guy.
This is a great World of Warcraft expansion, but it has its flaws, keeping it back from the number one spot.
The Burning Crusade
Burning Crusade is not perfect, but no World of Warcraft expansion is. It has its flaws: the questing flow of zones is a bit erratic, the Mount Hyjal raid deserves to be shot into the sun, and its an incredibly alt-unfriendly experience.
So why, then, is this the best World of Warcraft experience? It builds upon everything that made Vanilla WoW great, embracing both the MMO and RPG aspects of the MMORPG genre.
Having to attune for heroics over and over again on alts will always be miserable, especially since some of your best gear throughout the expansion drops in said heroics. Having to complete attunements for raids, however, is an enjoyable, narrative process. Even if some of the steps are a little awkward at times. Burning Crusade knows that it’s an RPG and isn’t afraid to embrace it. Your character needs to progress not just in terms of power level from gear, but also in completing questlines in the game.
It’s also a shining example of how to keep older content relevant. When new raids come out, players still need to venture into old ones to obtain their best items. You’re not throwing them to the wayside just because something new and shiny has arrived. Is this annoying at times? Sure, but it’s something that can be easily solved with the quality of life change that is a dungeon or raid finder.
These are dangerous words to say in Classic, I know, but think of how convenient getting groups can be. Plus, GDKP discords to form PUGs for raids is just the raid finder with extra steps.
The Burning Crusade represents everything that makes World of Warcraft great. A new world, steeped with lore and familiar characters from the franchise. Keeping all levels of content relevant. Challenging encounters (within reason, anyway, this is a solved game in terms of Classic) that require us to be on our toes, but not overly difficult so friends can still mess around and have a good time.