The year was 2004, and the northern hemisphere of Earth was falling into the icy grip of winter. Here I specify Earth for convenience — our homeworld is not the only one we’ll be discussing. For in the chill, waning months of 2004, another world entered our orbit.
While Azeroth was hardly uncharted territory for fans of the legendary Warcraft real-time strategy franchise, many craved the opportunity to travel those lands in person. To walk beneath the leafy boughs in Elwynn Forest and scout the untamed wilds of Durotar in person. So it was that Blizzard unleashed a winter storm of their own on the gaming industry in the form of World of Warcraft.
They opened wide the gates to Azeroth on November 23rd, 2004 — or at least as much of it as they could cram into the core game. Night Elves journeyed forth from Teldrassil, Humans took to the legendary streets of Stormwind, the Horde spread across Kalimdor, and our world was never the same again.
Like the world of Azeroth, World of Warcraft was always destined to grow. Blizzard opted to support the game with consistent, smaller updates, reserving significant changes for expansion packs. Each expansion would fuel the fanbase’s fervor by filling in blank places on the map and providing new races and classes to play. Of course, some expansions were better than others. Hindsight is 20/20.
While there are almost as many opinions and rankings of the expansions as there are adventurers in Azeroth, there’s only one person behind the keyboard writing this piece. The following rankings represent my personal opinion — with a healthy dose of popular consensus to help place some of the chapters in WoW‘s history.
World of Warcraft Expansions Ranked
Whether you count yourself among the Alliance or the Horde, all are welcome in our group as we walk through World of Warcraft‘s expansions from “worst” to “best,” starting with number 8.
*We’ve expanded the list to include World of Warcraft: Shadowlands! Read on to see where the latest entry in the Warcraft saga falls.
8. Warlords of Draenor (2014)
Taking almost no one by surprise — except for that one person who inexplicably loves it — Warlords of Draenor clocks in at number eight in our list of expansions. It represents the lowest point of the listless doldrums after Cataclysm, leaning heavily into heartless daily quests instead of the world-ranging hero work of previous expansions. Most of the content was level-gated behind the rapidly growing level cap, meaning that new players wouldn’t experience any new content as they worked their way up.
Not to mention that this was the first expansion not to include any new classes or races.
This would have been an excellent opportunity for Blizzard to provide plenty of dungeons, raids, and other content drops to make up for the lack of novelty, but little was offered to fill the void. Warlords ended up being the shortest expansion in Warcraft history, with only two major patches released.
It wasn’t all bad. There were improvements to the netcode that made the World of Warcraft a lot more pleasant, and perhaps the garrison mechanic wasn’t a completely meaningless addition. But overall, players felt slighted after the meaty, impressive expansions that came before.
At least Cataclysm reached for the stars, right?
7. Cataclysm (2010)
Where Warlords suffered from a lack of ambition, it could be said that Cataclysm suffered from an excess of it. Blizzard clearly wanted to shake things up in Azeroth after Wrath of the Lich King. What’s the best way to do that? Obviously, it’s to bring about an actual apocalypse in the form of an undying dragon that literally tears the world to pieces. Before Cataclysm, when there were world-threatening threats for players to confront, the heroes handled them before the threat could reach back home.
But after Deathwing, nowhere was safe. Azeroth still bears the scars from his rampage to this day.
Cataclysm represents perhaps the biggest narrative gamble of the series. It was a daring, bold new direction for Azeroth. Gone was the sense of idyllic peace prominent in the starting regions and occasionally elsewhere. There’s plenty of pros and cons to the “upend the table” approach. But was the expansion able to keep up? Sadly, no.
For many players, Cataclysm marks the boundary between “old” and “new” World of Warcraft. Old was honest, occasionally brutal, and challenging. New was overly simplified, filled with hand-holding and the sense that new players rising through the levels (using the increasingly popular Dungeon Finder) weren’t really earning their place in the endgame. Many core stats were modified or removed altogether. Talents saw a dramatic overhaul, and the endgame content was lacking due to the focus on rebuilding vast swaths of Azeroth. The Warcraft team struggled beneath the burdensome scope of the changes, and it shows.
Fortunately, we got Goblins and Worgens in the bargain.
6. The Burning Crusade (2007)
Ah, The Burning Crusade. Not terrible, but not great either. Ok, it was actually pretty great. It did everything well enough, especially for a team that was still feeling out the boundaries of the “MMO expansion” concept.
The Draenai and the Blood Elves — the races released with TBC — are still some of the most widely played races to date. For lack of a better word, they’re just plain interesting, both the lore surrounding them and the quests through their well-crafted starting zones. The Burning Crusade also saw the introduction of flying mounts and Outland, the latter of which has a prominent place in Warcraft lore as the former home of the Orcs.
That said, Outland isn’t quite as interesting to visit by the time of World of Warcraft. And that’s what landed The Burning Crusade at spot number six on the list. Outland isn’t the most popular zone in terms of design or questing. And depending on who you ask, flying mounts may have marked the beginning-of-the-end for the strong social network that tied early WoW together.
Another “love-it-or-hate-it” addition to The Burning Crusade is the early prototype for the modern Dungeon Finder, the Looking for Group tool. First seen in patch 2.01, it made dungeons easier to engage with but at great cost to the game’s atmosphere and adventure. No longer would you have to scrounge together a group by actually interacting with your fellow players. It was all handled behind the scenes in an efficiently impersonal way.
5. Battle for Azeroth (2018)
With the announcement of Battle for Azeroth, millions of Warcraft RTS fans cried out in anguish. While it’s impossible to say definitively, the fact that the WoW loremasters gave the title of Fourth War to this MMO expansion instead of a fourth entry in the RTS series seems rather telling. Coupled with the familiar Warfront mode, it sure seems like Blizzard is trying to assuage desires for another RTS by convincing fans this style of warfare can be achieved in an MMO.
Suffice it to say that most fans remain unconvinced. But it is, nonetheless, a solid expansion overall.
The story can seem a bit plodding in BfA. The Horde is still the Sylvanas & Self-Insert Friends Power Hour, and the Alliance can come off as rather impotent, but MMOs can always lean on gameplay when the story falls flat. Warfronts are an excellent (if underutilized) addition to the PvP/PvE roster, the area design in Nazjatar and Zandalar is some of the best in the series, and (despite lacking a significant race or class addition) the slew of Allied Races still give you plenty to grind for.
The dailies are also vastly improved compared to Warlords of Draenor, even if that is a low bar to reach. They are still dailies, after all. And there hasn’t been much major content besides the regions to keep the endgame thriving.
N’Zoth is cool and all, but I think we’re all a little tired of Old Gods at this point.
4. Shadowlands (2020)
When Azeroth has had quite enough peril, the crusade continues into the afterlife.
Shadowlands immerses players in the surprisingly material realms beyond the mortal plane. Right out of the gate, you’re dropped into The Maw — a realm of torment and hellfire intended for the worst souls that pass into eternity. Trouble is, after Sylvanas (ugh) sundered the current Lich King’s Helm of Domination, now everyone’s getting dropped into The Maw.
Enter the heroic player characters to rescue their not-so-dead friends that have been spirited away and save the afterlife.
The Maw isn’t the only place you can visit in the Shadowlands. There are (at present) four other zones for you to explore: Revendreth, Ardenweald, Bastion, and Maldraxxus. Each one is packed with about as many quest-giving spirits as you’d expect. Area design is solid throughout the expansion – although personally, some parts of the Shadowlands seem to lack that immaterial spark that gives life to the best areas in Azeroth.
Where the expansion really shines is in the endgame — each of the zones is ruled by a Covenant, which you’ll quest with during the climb before ultimately picking one to align to at max level. The Covenants offer unique abilities, cosmetics, and Covenant-specific questlines to keep you grinding after you ding 60.
Yes, Level 60 is the max again. As the latest expansion as of this writing, Shadowlands implemented the long-discussed level squish. Now the Level 1–50 experience allows you to pick whichever expansion of the many that came before to level, though. Once you hit 50, Shadowlands begins proper.
The level squish is a thick slab of work covering everything from stats to quests, and so is summed up by Blizzard with the “New Game+” moniker. It’s a bit out of scope to cover in its entirety, but the experience is wholly positive and has received a great reception already.
Here’s to the next expansions bloating the level cap back up to 120!
3. Mists of Pandaria (2012)
In the immortal words of Red-Shirted BlizzCon Attendee: “Is this an out-of-season April Fool’s joke?”
The Pandaren have a place in Warcraft lore, sure. They didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. But an entire Asian-themed expansion centered around these portly panda people? Before release, it was tough to get a read on whether Pandaria would be incredible or painfully awkward.
After release, the concerns didn’t last long.
Right out of the gate, it’s clear how much love and care Blizzard put into justifying the existence of Pandaren. They’re an unexpectedly perfect addition to the World of Warcraft, and their starting zone is still some of the best art and quest work to date. Making the Pandaren the first “faction neutral” race was also a genius move, opening up the floodgates for panda player characters without feeling like you were leaving either the Alliance or Horde behind to do so. The content drops were decent, and the story was passable — a return to form from the middling Cataclysm. The Monk was also an excellent addition, proving to be a versatile, multi-purpose class reminiscent of Druid. In short, Pandaria was about playing the WoW you wanted to. Forget the haters.
But who could hate the Pandaren, honestly? I mean, just look at that face.
2. Legion (2016)
Legion was a bright and shining star in the past decade of WoW expansions. It wasn’t perfect — a recurring theme with WoW — but it executed splendidly in all of the fundamental MMO aspects: from area design to questing, the endgame to unique class content. This was Blizzard at the top of their game.
The Order Halls and special class questlines made everyone remember how it felt to be a hero again. Plus, there are the artifact weapons, which broke established lore to bits but made a place for themselves thanks to the “rule of cool.” The Broken Isles provided a unique new realm to explore with plenty of variety and top-tier design. The Demon Hunter class was equal parts enjoyable to play and a handy way to identify the edgiest among the playerbase. The dungeons were all great experiences, as were the raids, making the endgame worth reaching again. And the story, which ends in a potentially earthshattering way, felt like it had purpose and aim again after Cataclysm and Warlords of Draenor.
If there are any complaints worth airing, perhaps they are best levied at the ever-climbing level cap (which Shadowlands does a decent job of correcting) and a lack of significant PvP content updates. For most adventurers in Azeroth, Leigon brought them right back to eight years earlier, when it seemed like WoW couldn’t possibly get any better…
1. Wrath of the Lich King
At last, we’ve reached the summit — number one on the list. And just like last place, this won’t likely come as a surprise to longtime fans of World of Warcraft. The reigning undead king of WoW expansions is Wrath of the Lich King, and to date, it may well represent one of the best seasons of any modern MMO.
The entire expansion is a master class in game design. Northrend is a beautiful, terrible realm filled with places you’d love to make camp and watch the aurora pinned between snowy vales filled with monsters and the Scourge. Every bit of Wrath was incredible.
Blizzard employed the years of experience gained with the main game and Burning Crusade here when crafting the quests, throwing in plenty of twists and tricks into the routine. New activities like the Argent Crusade or the new Death Knight class were a breath of fresh air. And even the music saw a major shift, with players still revisiting Grizzly Hills (or pulling up the soundtrack on YouTube) just for its cozy, homey tones. The dungeons were exciting, with the developers clearly experimenting with weird and wonderful new ways to challenge players. And the storytelling was peak Blizzard, with one of the final lines in the main quest for Wrath still quoted by players to this day.
WoW may rise and fall, and rise again and fall again. But players can only hope that future expansions might meet or exceed the high-water mark set by Wrath of the Lich King.
High Ground View
That’s it for our ranking of the World of Warcraft expansions! For now, we return to our regularly scheduled cycles of pessimism and optimism as we await the launch of yet another expansion. Will it finally be the nail in the coffin of WoW? Or will it restore some of its former glory? Only time will tell.