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.
Blizzard 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 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.
Whether you count yourself among the Alliance or the Horde, all are welcome in our group as we walk through the expansions of World of Warcraft.
World of Warcraft Expansions Ranked
Ready to get started? Starting with the “worst” expansion, let’s work our way to the #1 WoW expansion ever made.
7. Warlords of Draenor (2014)
Taking almost no fans of Warcraft by surprise, Warlords of Draenor clocks in at number 7 in our list of expansions. It represents the frequently listless doldrums after Cataclysm, leaning heavily into heartless daily quests instead of the world-ranging hero work that had populated previous expansions. Most of the content was level-gated behind the rapidly growing level cap as well, meaning that new players couldn’t experience any of the 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 it was not to be. Warlords ended up being the shortest expansion in Warcraft history, with only two major patches released. Perhaps it wasn’t all bad; there were improvements to the netcode that improved the player experience, and perhaps the garrison mechanic wasn’t an utterly meaningless addition. But overall, players felt slighted after the meaty, impressive expansions that came before.
At least Cataclysm reached for the stars, right?
6. 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 tore the world to pieces. It was a daring, bold new direction for Azeroth — and more than a little risky. Gone was the sense of idyllic peace that had hung over much of Azeroth. Before Cataclysm, when there were new and dangerous threats for players to confront, they had been handled before the threat could reach back home.
But after Deathwing, nowhere was safe. And Azeroth still bears the scars from his rampage to this day.
Narratively, it’s easy to see how Cataclysm was a bit of a gamble. There’s plenty of pros and cons to the “upend the table” approach. But was the expansion able to keep up besides? Sadly, no. For many players, Cataclysm marks the boundary between “old” and “new” World of Warcraft. Old being honest, occasionally brutal, and challenging. New being 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 to be made, and it shows.
Fortunately, we got Goblins and Worgens in the bargain.
5. The Burning Crusade (2007)
Ah, The Burning Crusade. Not terrible, but not great either. It did everything well enough, especially for a team that was still feeling out the boundaries of the “MMO expansion” concept.
The Draenei and the Blood Elves — the two 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.
Unfortunately, Outland isn’t very interesting to visit. 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. It made dungeons easier to engage with but at great cost to the atmosphere and adventure of the game. No longer would you have to scrounge together a group by *gasp* actually interacting with your fellow players. It was all handled behind the scenes in an efficiently impersonal way.
4. 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.
Few fans seem convinced, however. 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 seems rather impotent. But fortunately, MMOs can lean on gameplay where the story falls flat. Warfronts are an excellent (if underutilized) addition to the PvP/PvE roster, the area designs for Nazjatar and Zandalar are 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.
N’Zoth is cool and all, but I think we’re all a little tired of Old Gods at this point.
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? Prior to release, it was tough to get a read on whether Pandaria would be incredible or painfully awkward.
Fortunately, 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 their sentient race of pandas. The Pandaren were 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.
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 exclusive class questlines made everyone remember how it felt to be a hero again. Well, that and the artifact weapons, which broke lore to bits but secured 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. And the new Demon Hunter class was not only plenty fun to play, but it provided players with a handy way to identify the edgiest among their number. 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 to be any complaints, perhaps they could be levied at the ever-climbing level cap (which the upcoming Shadowlands seeks to correct) and a lack of significant PvP content updates. But for the majority of the 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. 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 as well. And even the music saw a significant 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.
The End of the World… of Warcraft
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. With Shadowlands on the horizon, we return to our regularly scheduled cycles of pessimism and optimism as we approach 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? We can’t help but pour over every shred of news and datamined info in the interim, waiting and wondering.
Veteran adventurers in Azeroth wouldn’t have it any other way.