With well over a decade of history, World of Warcraft is one of the most expansive pieces of fiction in existence. It is a modern myth so extensive you could base a religion around it. With so much history it would be nigh impossible to follow all of it, not just for newcomers, but for ardent and longtime fans of the game as well. There’s a wealth of backstory here that is just fascinating.
So I’m not going to explain the entire story with all the details. Other people have done so and far better than I ever could. What I will do is try to explain the current state of affairs at the precipice of Battle for Azeroth, through the lens of the most important actors. The characters who drive the entire conflict, and whose decisions will shape the events.
<hero power and emote>
I’m starting with Anduin because compared to others I’ll be talking about, this guy had it easy. This will tell you a lot in hindsight, trust me. Throughout the story of World of Warcraft, Anduin has managed to grow up from a child, through a teenager, and into a responsible, if confused, young adult. Some players have literally grown alongside this pure cinnamon bun. It is also crucial to understand the story of Anduin’s father, Varian Wrynn, the High Lord of the Alliance and King of Stormwind. Much of what happens in Battle for Azeroth is going to be informed by the relationship Anduin had with his late father.
Unfortunately for him, the times of his youth were far from being calm and peaceful. The Dragon Onyxia started to steer trouble with her senselessly convoluted schemes (seriously, her final gambit turned out to be an actual solution to the problem, she literally handed the means of victory to her enemies) which involved capturing Anduin’s father, splitting him in half (not, like, physically, but making two Varians), installing one of the halves on the throne and becoming his advisor. Yeah. One has to wonder why Onyxia didn’t just, you know, kill Varian, but she wouldn’t be an arch-villain if her schemes made sense. Funnily enough, later on her brother would make similar mistakes, so it must be a Dragon thing.
Now picture this: you’re a 10-yeard old boy and you’ve just been crowned the King of Stormwind. You have no god damned clue what was going on. The situation fortunately didn’t last long as the OTHER half of Varian found himself without his memories in the lands of Orcs. He becomes a gladiator, fights his way out of the pits, reunites with Jaina Proudmoore, another very important character, gets his memories back and goes straight for Stormwind.
At this point Onyxia reveals her true form, kidnaps young Anduin and runs for the hills. Literally, Onyxia settles in the hills near Stormwind. Again, a bit shortsighted, but it’s Onyxia. She figures “hey, I’ma ransom this kid for Stormwind!” A silly idea by any metric, but it’s Onyxia. Two Varians join forces because the one thing all Varians in all timelines have in common is love for their son, they storm Onyxia’s lair, rescue Anduin and due to Onyxia rolling a natural 1 on her spellcasting check, two Varians merge into one and true Varian regains his memories.
Daddy issues personified.
Everybody returns safely to Stormwind and Varian becomes the king, everyone’s happy and Anduin can finally take a breath. For the most part, from this point Anduin wasn’t incredibly active. He kept training in combat and became a priest of the Light. He also became friends with Jaina and an ardent defender of peace between the Horde and the Alliance, peace that his father would be always wary of, until his death. Death caused by Horde’s betrayal. So really, we can’t say he was wrong.
During Warlords of Dreanor, Anduin crosses the Dark Portal and meets Prophet Velen—a powerful priest and a literal Moses analogy. Anduin learns much from Velen, but it is Anduin who teaches his mentor the most important lesson—to always focus on what good you can do in the present and not look too much into the future. I question the validity of this lesson, as Velen, being the prophet, is shown to be right every single time and really everybody could use more of just listening to the guy and NOT getting bogged down by current conflicts, but hey. In any case, in response, Anduin tells Velen that he would wish for nothing more than for his father to see him then and be proud of him.
There’s more story to it, but for brevity’s sake [why start now…—Ed.], know that the Burning Legion attacked, the Horde and Alliance united once again, but in the moment of truth, Sylvanas Windrunner, the new Warchief of the Horde, gives her people an order to retreat. The Alliance forces managed to escape, but Varian sacrifices himself in the process. Anduin later returns to the site of his father’s death and is reassured by his ghost that he is the king.
And that’s what leads us to present day. He is now the king and needs to do what’s right, but increasingly what is right seems to be exactly what his father always preached: war with the Horde. And Anduin doesn’t want that because <insert platitudes about each life being a universe and war being good for absolutely nothing here>. If it seems like I’m dismissive of young Bratt Pitt’s reasoning here that’s because I am. I think he might have picked up a bit too much from Onyxia in the short time he was held captive by her.
The most morally [and literally—Ed.] grey character in World of Warcraft (by which I mean she’s a villain, but people like to pretend otherwise).
No character has suffered more, at least physically, than Sylvanas Windrunner. Sylvanas was the commander of High Elf forces in Quel’Thalas (you know it’s important because it has an apostrophe in it), keeping the Sunwell, the font of magical power of the elves, safe. Unfortunately for her she was in the way of one Arthas Menethil, leader of the Scourge who wanted to bring death to all living. Straight-forward and efficient, I can get behind a villain like that.
Arthas slaughtered his way through Qual’Thalas eventually reaching Sylvanas. She demanded a quick and clean death, but Arthas by that point was a complete sociopath and decided to enslave her soul and turned her into a Banshee. Then he kept her around and even decided to taunt her by keeping her corpse around. Arthas, by the way, is up there with Gul’Dan as someone so irredeemably evil, it would actually be cliché, were it not played so straight.
Also, this will turn out to be Arthas’ worst decision he’s ever made. The powers that sustained him started to wane due to demonic machinations, which gave Sylvanas back her free will. She of course did not like her new form and she dedicated every sliver of her being to destroying Arthas. She conspired with demons, used others to her advantage and in general has put revenge over any other goal in her unlife.
Arthas was finally defeated and he retreated to Northrend to slumber and regain his powers. Meanwhile Sylvanas, with pretty much nothing to do at this point, has taken the ruins of Lordaeron and turned it into a safe heaven for the Forsaken—those undead of the Scourge who regained their free will. Understandably, nobody likes the Forsaken. A lot of people will tell you that that’s prejudice, but your missions in the faction involve polluting water reserves of a city with a plague and other charming acts of terrorism. Grey morality for the win?
Sylvanas betrays everyone.
So Arthas returns and the forces of Azeroth band together to stop him. Sylvanas is of course at the very forefront of it, being heavily-invested in seeing Arthas finally dead. She orders her people to devise a special biological weapon that would be able to destroy the undead. Unfortunately she doesn’t have as much a tight leash on the Forsaken as maybe she should and her main man, Apothecary Putris decides to use the weapon on the Scourge and everybody else, just bombing everyone. You know with a name like this, maybe he shouldn’t have been put in charge in the first place. Later on Sylvanas will be shown to be less angry about the whole thing than maybe she should be, failing to condemn the betrayal. I guess in her mind there were heroes on many sides, many sides.
Ultimately Arthas is defeated for good, leaving Sylvanas with emptiness again, because of course it does. When your entire existence is fueled by vengeance, you’re left with nothing when the target of that vengeance is gone. So Sylvanas aims her vengeance at new things—first the Burning Legion and then the Alliance [it was only logical, of course—Ed.].
During the events of Legion, Vol’Jin, the Warchief of the Horde, is mortally wounded. Sylvanas betrays her word to Varian and escapes in a crucial moment, leading to Varian’s death, but securing survival for the Horde. They return to the Horde HQ and, to the surprise of everybody, Vol’Jin reveals in his dying words, that he received a vision from ‘da spirits, mon’ that Sylvanas should be the leader. Now, he prefaces that with “I’ve never trusted you” and by that point he’s almost dead and corrupted by Fel magic, so to what extent this was actually a vision from them spirits is questionable.
In the aftermath of Legion, a new mineral called Azurite appears in Sillithis. You can think of the discovery of Azurite being tantamount to the discovery of oil reserves or uranium deposits. Sylvanas figures that the Horde needs to be the first to secure it. So the best way of doing that is, obviously, attacking a place entirely somewhere else, burning down one of the World Trees, a war crime on par with dropping the atomic bomb and for good measure, basking in the afterglow.
And that’s where we are now. Sylvanas Windrunner is, in the words of her closest man, Nathanos (you’ll notice something of a pattern in this naming scheme): led purely by rage and contempt. Whatever Vol’Jin was smoking, he seriously went overboard, because making Sylvanas the Warchief of the Horde was the single most destructive decision anybody could have ever made. Her only loyalty is to the Forsaken, she’s led only by vengeance to the point where she will actively manufacture enemies just to have an excuse. Her entire character is best described with this exchange with Garrosh Hellscream:
Garrosh: What makes you different than the Lich King?
Sylvanas: Isn’t it obvious? I serve the Horde.
The history of mansplaining.
A lot of really terrible events trace their way, one way or another, back to Jaina Proudmoore. Not because she’s responsible for doing them, exactly the opposite, her inaction has lead to a whole lot of tragedies. Jaina is the daughter of Admiral Dealin Proudmoore, leader of island nation of Theramore, a talented mage and the student of Antonidas.
Her story begins with, who else, Arthas. See Arthas wasn’t always a monster (well not a complete monster anyway [certainly a prick, though—Ed.]). The two were childhood friends and in time that friendship has blossomed into a romance. Part of it is the fact that the writers can’t seem to contain themselves from creating romantic plots for Jaina, but I digress.
Their romance unfortunately wasn’t meant to be, as Arthas became corrupted by the spirit of the Lich King, although it should be noted that the deciding moment happened when he was still very much himself and decided that the best way to stop the plague from spreading is to kill everyone infected. And he was probably right [people could have died otherwise!—Ed.], but that doesn’t change the fact that Jaina, scared by his actions, left him, which in turn led to Arthas facing the demonic leader of the Scourge alone and becoming corrupted in the aftermath. So that’s one for her inactions causing tragedy.
While at it, led by Prophet Medivh, Jaina encountered the Warchief of the Horde, Thrall. After having been mansplained to by Medivh that this is bigger than Alliance and the Horde, Jaina started to cooperate with Thrall. They’ve found to be kindred spirits in their love for platitudes and not taking action when absolutely necessary. I say mansplained because in the cinematic she’s constantly being cut off by Medivh or Thrall and while she’s definitely competent enough to make a decision herself, every incompetent man in the vicinity feels the need to explain something to the most powerful sorceress on Azeroth. And these two men will then 1) become corrupted by Sergaras, the literal ultimate big bad of the story and 2) put Garrosh Hellscream in charge of the Horde, who then becomes a war criminal. So I question whether she should have listened to them at ANY point.
Jaina was so much in love of this idea of peace that at some point she stopped calculating its net-worth and when her father returned to Theramore it caused something of an issue. Admiral Dealin, having lost his son to the Horde, is absolutely against the idea of peace and when confronted by Jaina and Thrall, decided on the only acceptable course of action—killing the Orcs and saving Jaina. But the girl decides it’s better if they run.
Thrall then mansplains to Jaina how her father is an obstacle to peace and ropes her into betraying him and killing him. And just to remind you: Thrall is supposed to be one of the good guys. They escaped Theramore and the Admiral followed them because of course he would. When he reached them, Thrall’s Orcs have set up a trap and attacked him. Jaina stood there and did nothing. So we can put that as point two on her inactions causing tragedies.
Beware, beware the daughter of the sea. Beware, beware… Of me.
Jaina takes over Theramore but her people are understandably not happy about her and view her as a traitor. It would take a whole lot of work and help from the Kirin Tor mages to make Theramore neutral and make its people see her as a true ruler. But over time she actually managed to do that. The conflict with the returning Lich King helped and she at least managed to put that behind her.
But then something really bad happened. See, see remember when I mentioned Thrall making Garrosh the Warchief of the Horde? This is when it becomes relevant. That decision was honestly on par with Vol’Jin making Sylvanas the Warchief of the Horde. These guys can’t seem to get this very simple concept—don’t make genocidal maniacs your dictators—right, can they? Garrosh, convinced that Theramore is secretly an Alliance outpost, nukes the hell out of it. Like literally, he drops a mana-bomb on the city, the equivalent of a nuclear weapon.
So Jaina is naturally pissed about it. So pissed that she decides on the only reasonable course of action—retaliation. Because having no Second Strike policy is a really bad idea when you have an opponent who has a First Strike policy. She creates a giant tidal wave to destroy Garrosh’s headquarters, but is confronted by Thrall and her Dragon friend who, what else, mansplain to her using platitudes that “this is no different than what Arthas did”. Of course they’re right, but since Arthas was also right, this rings a bit hollow. But Jaina, ever weak to mansplaining, agrees. I remind you, at this point Jaina is the ruler of a democratic nation, she’s well suited to make the call for retaliation here, but people keep treating her like she’s a feeble woman who can’t make a judgement call in her life. Which is I guess true, because nobody and their grandad lets her.
And that leads us to Legion. Garrosh is tried for his war crimes and the Horde falls under the command of Vol’Jin. As we know, Vol’Jin dies during the battle on the Broken Shores and who takes control, but Sylvanas Windrunner, aka Garrosh 2.0 and also somehow Arthas 2.0 And all because Jaina didn’t women up when she could and actually did the tsunami thing. So that’s a THIRD time her inactions have led to tragedies. And I have to mention here that all this happened because Garrosh was kind of right as Varian WAS sending his people to Theramore, so that’s yet another man who thinks they can do better job than Jaina at what she has been successfully doing her whole life.
In the recent Warbringers series we see Jaina communing with the spirit of her dead father stating frankly: I’m listening now. Which is both good and yet somehow still bad, because Jaina could seriously use less listening to men around her and more making a bloody decision herself. I think she’s done her fair share of listening, didn’t seem to work out great for her. Then again Admiral Proudmoore was a genuinely good dad and the ONLY person (save for, ironically, Arthas) who has ever let her make her own decisions so maybe he’s gonna be the one to break the cycle and hopefully his advice will amount to: just do what you think is right, Jaina. Then we can have two Simbas in WoW with their respective Mufasas.
She has been disappointed, wronged and hurt so many times, by so many people, that it’s about time she did something about it. It is my contention that when Dealin whispered his final words “beware the daughter of the sea”, he wasn’t talking to people of Theramore. Oh no, he was talking to the Orcs. Beware Jaina, because she’s fed up with this nonsense.
Honorable mention: Zappy Boy
This article wouldn’t be complete without the mention of the new fan-favorite character, the one in whom all of us trust, the future Warchief of the Horde… I’m of course talking about Zappy Boy. Although his appearance is brief and many are wondering who he is. Not much is known about him, but I managed to piece together a fascinating story.
His name is Zekhan and though he says he tells Saurfang his father was Hekazi, this is is a lie. His father is actually none other than Vol’Jin, the previous leader of the Horde. Through subtle clues laid here and there in the events leading to the battle at Lordaeron, we can summarize that he was spirited away by Baine Bloodhoof, fearing that Sylvanas might want to kill him, as he would have the claim to leadership.
In his visions Baine saw Zekhan as the future leader of the Horde. Zekhan, as any good leader would, decided that he can’t simply run. He stayed with the Horde, but hid so that Sylvanas would not find him. The encounter with Saurfang was not a chance meeting. Zappy Boy knows that he must find allies that would be opposed to Sylvanas’ rulership.
Aaaand all of what I said is a complete lie. Yup, made all of that up. But hey, for a moment you were convinced, weren’t you? This just shows how convoluted all of this plot is. Truth is Zappy Boy’s popularity came as a complete surprise to Blizzard, prior to the sudden reaction, he didn’t even have a name. Which actually IS Zekhan, by the way, that part wasn’t a lie. But other than that, he’s as generic as it gets.
Does your head hurt yet?
Folks, there’s more. There’s so, so much more. But you don’t have the time for that and neither do I. I picked these three specific characters, because I wanted to show you how the connecting thread of all of this, of Battle for Azeroth itself, are the consequences of making very difficult decisions and all the reasoning for them. It wouldn’t be false to say that Battle for Azeroth is a battle of hard solutions with very easy platitudes.
And hopefully I managed to at least pique your interest in these characters. I believe the story of World of Warcraft is best digested when viewed as a character-driven narrative, so that’s what I tried to present. Hopefully I was successful in this goal. See you all in Battle for Azeroth.
[Thanks to Wojciech for valuable insights ;)]