Something has been sort of clicking about the design of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, since I’ve been level 60 and playing around on my new raid main.
Daily and weekly activities are simply not that time consuming, and that is great.
In Legion and Battle for Azeroth, the early endgame was defined by an almost slavish devotion to one’s raiding main, if you played and raided. Likewise for PvP, Mythic Plus, or any sort of endgame power-dependent progression activity – time spent not playing your main was time that your main was actively growing weaker in relation to those not playing alts or participating in other activities.
Now, both expansions ultimately got their shit together with catch-up mechanics and the like in later patches, but it was probably not until the x.2 patch where I personally felt like I could really try and play alts, because the borrowed power mechanics had reached a satiation point at which I didn’t feel an almost oppressive need to keep grinding out systems labeled as AP.
Shadowlands does what many of us have wanted and recommended, which is make that better by ditching it. Sure, there is still a system that can be acronymified into AP, but it could only be mistaken as a similar grind by stripping away all nuance and thinking of it like a child. Yes, borrowed power still exists, rough edges and all, but you get the covenant ability immediately and there isn’t a lot of value to grinding for hours for Soulbind Conduits, especially since you’ll get a pretty broad sampling of them just from doing your chores.
What is, in fact, quite nice about the design of Shadowlands is that in many ways, it is very respectful of your time. Your daily chores take around an hour, and I am recounting this as someone who is playing a healer and using the healing spec in all content. All you really have to do daily is Maw quests – you can bank Callings for up to 3 days if you want to play that way or your schedule only permits less-frequent play, so 30 minutes a day and then a 2 hour chunk every third day will get you right up against the bleeding edge. Likewise, weekly you just need to knock out a couple of Torghast runs to keep up with Soul Ash and your 2 Renown weekly quests, plus the campaign quests offered for gaining that 2 Renown which gives a third, and that varies a bit more, but generally, for me this is no more than 3 hours over the week. Torghast can be hit or miss depending on your individual skill (this will be contentious for some, but I’ve seen a ton of complaining in the blogosphere about doing Layer 3 right away, but my feedback is this – if you spend your Phantasma wisely, most players should be able to do Layer 3 with a minimal amount of caution), but if you can do Layer 3 straight away (and I think you should be able to with a mediocre amount of skill) then it takes one run of each instance in a week to get your Soul Ash up. That might change with Shadowlands Season 1 and unlocking higher layers, but right now, doing two Layer 3 runs is pretty straightforward.
What’s nice is that everything dovetails together – if you hit your Sanctum first, you can grab a calling, pick up your weekly quests, and head for the Maw to do the Souls weekly and Maw dailies for that first day, consolidating the two activities into a smaller chunk of time. You can do a calling and, provided it allows World Quest completion as a part of the objective, do Anima quests in the zone in question, again consolidating. You can split the anima weekly quest over multiple callings so as to not spend excessive time doing Anima world quests absent any other reward.
But what largely catches me is just how optional most of this really is. Sure, you should really be doing your Renown weekly quests, and Torghast has one of the better return on investments by offering legendary items in exchange for a limited amount of gameplay – even if you aren’t doing Layer 3 clears by now, you can do lower layer clears and just stash Soul Ash week to week until you have what you need for a legendary – in fact, you don’t even really miss out on that much for this route! Anima upgrades are optional, soul spending is optional, callings are optional – and without a constant grind mechanic to force requirements of these activities, they remain actually optional! Renown is the only true mandatory item I would call out, as the Renown progression directly ties into Soulbind tree options, and you can then get Conduits however you please – dungeon drops, world quests, calling chests, and anywhere else you can find them.
Maw content is only truly mandatory if you want to do more in the Maw – it is a self-reinforcing system of gameplay, with the weekly exception of soul rescue for Renown. Torghast is only mandatory is you want legendaries – and, to be fair, most players do – but you can opt-out of that entirely if you so please, although it will create some social friction when trying to join parties for progression PvE gameplay. Callings are fully optional – nothing really forces you to do them at all and the rewards tend to be trash worth around 2,000 gold and maybe a Conduit (which is a funny thought, all these Covenant servants stuffing boxes full of discarded clothing and armor to offer to us like it means something!).
In a weird way, the lesson of “nothing matters, so you are free to self-direct” is actually kind of applied here, and it works for me in a way I didn’t expect. A part of me was worried after the first week that I was burning out on WoW, and that the listlessness I was feeling was a disenchantment with the game. But in truth, it was almost like a WoW withdrawal – I had done everything the game offered incentives for on my main, and my choices were boiled down to “well, what do you want to do?” Dungeons were an option, and for gearing, they’re optimal, although world quests have upgraded slightly as my item level has crept upwards, but not past the point where even normal dungeons retain some value until I get rid of my last sub-158 item level pieces. Side quests were an option. I could goof around killing rares in the Maw until I reached Eye of the Jailer Rank 5 (which I did twice this week!). Once you adjust to the new (old) paradigm, it is freeing – there is no overhanging force demanding that you grind a piece of armor or weapon to X level for new powers or else fall behind your raid, and without that pressure, the game actually feels…fun again?
But to the point I teased above in my title, this release of pressure actually allows you to play alts much earlier without being obsessed with falling behind on a main character. You can do most of what you need on a main in under an hour a day, so if you have more play time than that, you can easily play alts, level all the tradeskills, see multiple covenant stories, and farm old raids and dungeons for transmog. What is really nice is that there is also a light at the end of the tunnel on all of the activities, at least for now. There is a finite amount of Renown you can reach, a maximum reputation with Ven’ari and a maximum number of Maw and Torghast upgrades you can obtain, at which point Stygia and Maw quests lose value. Torghast remains infinitely repeatable, but only rewards a relatively low number of runs per week (unless you are running each layer instead of going for 3 right away) but even if you take the long road through Torghast, 6 runs max a week is not an awful ask, and it only really matters if you’re trying to bank Soul Ash for a new legendary, or to upgrade one. If you don’t have a legendary goal on your radar, you don’t even have to run Torghast! The longest running repeatable content for right now is reputation farming, but provided Blizzard keeps their word on Renown being the sole factor for Pathfinder, there isn’t even a real need to farm reputations all the way up unless you want a specific reward from them – most of which remain cosmetic and few of which offer player power or economic viability.
Yes, there are some weak spots I would call out – while I’ve warmed up to dungeons again, I do think that World Quests could offer slightly more viable gearing options, even if they never reach the heights they were in BfA. Likewise, while most of my Torghast commentary in this post has amounted to “git gud” because I do think that it is reasonably well-balanced for a heroic dungeon skill floor at higher layer counts, I think there is some tuning that could be done with Anima powers and also with generally making sure that players have adequate toolkits for handling all the threats thrown at them (self-healing for increasing ticking damage torments, abilities to dodge combat with assassins, etc). At the same time, however, I feel it is very worth calling out that Blizzard has done an admirable job with the endgame activity time investment and making things feel worthwhile – crafting a legendary this week felt great, being free to self-direct has been a game-changer for making my time in WoW feel active and exciting, and the increased emphasis on dungeons, while I am still not entirely sold, does bring one of WoW’s core strengths back into focus.
And so you have a freedom that the past several expansions haven’t really offered – you can play an alt, or two, or three, right now, and not find it limiting to your main’s raid viability. Even if you really focus in hard on a raid main, it won’t take very long for most activities to give way and the time required to collapse in. Renown is around 13 weeks in total, and just two weekly quests and a small chain per week. The Maw is contingent on your Stygia farming and reputation gain with Ven’ari, but two weeks in, and I already have 6 Torghast/Maw upgrades and a smallish pile of Stygia I’m sitting on waiting for the next upgrade. Dungeons give way with luck upon gear acquisition, but as you do Renown progression, your world quest rewards will climb and you can upgrade your Covenant Armor with simple Anima cost and story progression. On a main, these systems might not matter as much – Covenant armor only upgrades to just around Mythic dungeon level, but for alts, these systems are godsends and they allow you access to, well, farm upgrades through world quests via anima acquisition.
The jury is still out on how this all holds up long-term, and I won’t pretend that Blizzard can’t mess it up with whatever new mechanics wait for us all in 9.1 and beyond, but at least for right now? Shadowlands might be the most immediately-alt friendly expansion in almost a decade, and that is not something I expected to say!