Covenants were, and are, the big, marquee thing about Shadowlands that is marketed and promoted when Blizzard hypes Shadowlands. A choice of 4 for each character to make, one that unlocks new story paths, a new ability, and player power progression via the Soulbind system and Covenant Armor.
And going into Shadowlands, they were one of the more hotly contested topics.
Like with any choice that offers player power in WoW, balance is key, and with 4 different choices, each offering a unique class ability and 3 Soulbind trees that would offer differing types of gameplay customization, there was a lot of concern over balance. Rightly so, as well – because while Blizzard’s mantra of “pick the one that appeals to you” is a nice sentiment, no one wants to be excluded from a group because the Necrolord covenant offers 5.8% less DPS.
So, how’d they do?
Well…it is mixed, but I think it is fair to say that at a macro level, the system hasn’t worked as well as it should. Let’s do a quick breakdown, item by item, and explore the pros and cons.
The Non-Balance Impacting
Covenant Stories: I’ve only personally played the Kyrian story and read synopses of the other, so I’m not going to stack rank the stories for their plot or spoil them here. As a gameplay mechanic, the covenant stories feel like fun ways to extend the leveling experience into endgame. The first time through, on rails, you see each zone’s covenant, their ability, and their struggles, and the covenant choice lets you laser focus on one zone’s troubles to fix. While this is the case, the covenant story luckily doesn’t lock you to just their zone – although most of the action will take place in that covenant’s home, all 4 push you into the other zones for story reasons, which then allows you to see some interplay of how the covenants interact, something that was definitely lacking in the leveling story. Mechanically, we’ll talk more about Renown later, but it is a fairly easily obvious attempt at masking the weekly nature of rollout on your main, while still allowing alts a viable means of catching up. In that regard, the story execution is pretty good, and each chapter so far has felt pretty substantial. Impressions I hear from friends and guildies in the other covenants is that the story of each is pretty similarly meaty for all, which is good. This is a fairly-standard post-leveling endgame story for Blizzard, but in the Shadowlands vein – more cutscenes and cinematics, more voice acting, but still the same sort of basic plot unfolding. Provided they don’t have inconsistencies between the covenants in future patches (the War Campaign discrepancies still grind my gears!), I’ll say these are pretty good overall.
Covenant Sanctums and Aesthetics: This is subjective if we start evaluating on how much I like each one (in case I have not expressed it clearly here in the past, I absolutely hate Maldraxxus and not on a technical artistic level!), so let’s just discuss how they adhere to the theme with the Covenant content. All of it feels pretty adherent – my Kyrian characters have white, blue, and gold armor with blue glows, sleek and interesting shapes and accents, and adventure through fields of golden grass and blue skies. The covenant is a floating sanctuary of streamlined Greek-inspired design, and the extra cosmetic stuff all ties into that quite nicely. Every covenant is pretty well kitted from the sanctum to their sabatons in a way that is visually consistent and clearly identifiable – it doesn’t take long to tell if someone is clearly wearing a piece of Covenant gear (provided it isn’t transmogged into Tier 2 armor) and in combat, you can usually tell which covenant a player is aligned with by their spell effect. For a choice that Blizzard wants you to make on aesthetic/plot lines, they’ve done a pretty good job on both.
The Balance Impacting
Covenant Abilities: I get a lower-tier vibe of Azerite launch issues from the handling of Covenant class abilities thus far. I want to start quite clearly with this – the balance is still pretty busted for nearly everyone. Most classes have at least one covenant that feels like absolute trash or just offers no benefit. On my new raid main holy Paladin, for example – the Kyrian is clearly the best, with Venthyr a modestly distant number 2 – can take them and not be suitably far behind, but the flexibility of the Venthyr paladin ability for me as a healer (it does damage and heals in a large area of effect) is offset by the weakness (the Kyrian ability casts 5 Holy Shocks/Avenger’s Shields/Judgments depending on spec, with the Holy version prioritizing friendly or hostile targets based on your current target when casting and does more damage/healing for the effort, plus has synergies with Conduits and legendaries). The Necrolord paladin ability is…a big hammer attack at range. It empowers your next ability by spec, by making a Holy Power spender trigger another spender, which is…fine, but it isn’t great. For Holy, it means my cast of Word of Glory pops a Light of Dawn at the same time, which fundamentally misunderstands what the goal of healing even is. If I am choosing to cast Word of Glory, it is likely I don’t have a lot of targets that need triage, and thus, the “bonus” is just a wasted cast. I didn’t have to spend resources on it, and that’s good, but it is still a waste.
Then there is the Night Fae paladin ability, a rotating set of blessings based on seasonal themes. These are so bad that it isn’t even worth detailing them, but it represents exactly what I feared about the Covenant ability being class-level – the incentive for some of the blessings, depending on your spec, is to cast them on other people, not yourself, meaning you gain less net benefit from your ability. Now, it is a group game, this can be nice, whatever – but the blessings feel so weak and your ability to meaningfully use them to maximum benefit requires such an awkward and forced playstyle, pushing through the season rotation to ensure the one you need is available at a planned spot, which also means having a lot of encounter knowledge and means that your ability is damn near impossible to maximize on any given fight the first several times. Which sucks, because I wanted to take Night Fae, and I was right on the cusp of saying “fuck it” and doing so for the white plate armor on my pally, but the ability is just too bad to justify it. Plus, I do like the Kyrian aesthetic just fine – so the choice was dictated on the back of ability viability.
Each class seemingly has at least one covenant choice that is flat-out a no-go based on ability performance. For players not participating in organized dungeon or raid content? This is fine enough, because even if your Covenant ability sucks, you can still play your base class and spec competently enough to clear just about any content (for now). For anyone trying to play smart and maximize throughput, though…the system has clear winners and losers and if you don’t like the aesthetic of your best throughput choice, tough shit (if I had to take Necrolord on my raid main I would have picked a new raid main).
But, there is another layer…
Soulbinds and Conduits: These are really the new progression trait choice of borrowed power for Shadowlands, and they are…well, fine to a point. The design of the trees lets you make some simple choices to optimize easily – you can take two Potency conduit slots in each, most of the unique per Soulbind traits are pretty fluffy and don’t confer much gameplay advantage, and right now at least, you can make an easy choice based on which tree as progressed under current renown offers you what you want. However, the system has a myriad of iffy drawbacks that I just don’t like.
For starters, whomever thought it was a good idea in the current state of the game to limit available soulbind options is not thinking straight. On my Demon Hunter, soulbinds are easy because I have two and there are two specs, and I can pick the more open tree to use for my main spec and lock in the limited tree with off-spec conduits. Fine enough. But on a 3-spec class, much less something like a Druid, there is a strangulation of choice here. It isn’t as bad as say, early expansion Legion where the artifact weapon was a shackle to a spec, or Azerite armor drops locking you to a spec choice until you could build a set per spec – but it still is a limiter of sorts. Granted, the Conduit energy system (which, blink and you’ll miss it, as the game doesn’t explain it much at all!) means you can swap conduits at present pretty easily, provided you’re not trying to build a loadout per spec and activity type, but it is still a pretty sharp limiter. Even at max expansion, you’re basically going to be locked to 3 builds at most with maybe one of them being a flexible one you reconfigure to match content on a daily or weekly basis.
Here’s the thing – in an RPG, making meaningful choices is a good thing, and even being limited can be good and interesting in its own way! Even when they first introduced dual-spec into the game in Wrath, you had to make a choice between two specific talent builds, with an effort and money cost tied to changing the choices made. In comparison, Soulbind trees are open fields of choice, but in the current design of the game, they feel dissonant, offering you options to change your spec at almost any time but then making Soulbinds a longer, more tedious process.
As for balance, there are some balancing issues between Soulbind choices and there are clear winners and losers to pick per Covenant/spec combo. The base Soulbind traits are mostly fluff, as I mentioned above, but there are maybe 1-2 per Soulbind that have a larger, direct gameplay implication, and so they can’t just be ignored in favor of “take the route with 2 Potency” or other such build strategies. That being said, at my level of play, the ones you want are generally pretty easy to sniff out without help and the conduit options still tend to be more impactful.
As for Conduits…I actually, kind of…don’t hate them? I expected Conduits to be the actual problem I would have with the system, but they’re almost inoffensive in implementation, which, for WoW borrowed power, is a huge win. The confusion pre-launch about ranks and leveling them up has been a non-factor on live, in that it works simply – you loot them at an item level, and the higher item level does more, which is clearly denoted by the use of white text on the level-affected parts of the conduit. World quests, calling chests, dungeon and raid bosses – all can drop upgrades. Likewise, once you reach a high-enough favor with Ve’nari, you can have her randomly upgrade one of your lowest item level conduits for a small-ish chunk of Stygia, and while I expected this to be frustrating pre-launch, in practice, it isn’t really much of anything. You can target higher level conduit drops to a point by running dungeons where they drop, or prioritizing raid bosses where they drop, so your lowest level ones are usually either ones you don’t use or ones you would be genuinely happy to see upgraded.
I have a couple of beefs with them, though. The first is that your loot spec doesn’t seem to have an impact here – if a boss or piece of content can drop a conduit, it will drop – fine enough for world quests and calling chests where a random off-spec upgrade isn’t going to kill your buzz, but awful on a dungeon or raid boss where you get an off-spec conduit instead of a piece of gear. Which segues nicely into my second beef – while they are fully personal loot that doesn’t replace a standard gear drop, they do tend to feel like a consolation prize because of the gearing bottleneck in Shadowlands. Getting a conduit when a BiS piece is on a boss feels really bad, and while it is true that the conduit confers a usable power increase in many cases, when it is an offspec one, it feels like shit. On my paladin, getting a Retribution conduit over a piece of gear feels like a shot to my interest in playing, and a raid week where I get a drop for a slot I already have gear in and an offspec conduit feels awful. I have yet to note an ocassion where I’ve received both a conduit and a piece of gear in a single drop, and so I imagine that players who haven’t read up on all the systems will feel like conduits replace gear drops when they pop, which, while not true, is how the system is functionally perceived. That is…not great!
So it could be worse, and I hesitate to say I don’t like conduits, because I think they’re pretty decent, but I also struggle to say I like them. They are just sort of…there, which is maybe a better outcome than I had envisioned for them pre-launch!
Pacing of Covenant Armor Rewards: This one is easy – it’s fine. I don’t say that as a subtle putdown or bit of shade either, reward distribution is hard to make massively impressive or disappointing when you build a set with a precise number of pieces to match the story. One piece per chapter, so the pacing feels fine. What had potential to be awful is that each Covenant has a different order to distribute pieces in, so if that was managed poorly, things could be bad. However, each campaign generally starts and ends with a full-value piece of gear (helm, chest, legs) and then sprinkles the lower-value pieces in-between such that it feels pretty even. The upgrade system could have also complicated this, since later weeks are more powerful base rewards, but this is tapered pretty evenly as well. Overall, I like it and think this was handled reasonably!
Sanctum Minigames: These are fine enough. I don’t like that the Kyrian one is tied to a minigame you have to get really good at in order to unlock the armor tints it offers, while the others seem to be more simple, but it is a nice bit of extra content nonetheless. I have, however, largely ignored it for now as there is just too much else to do in-game to be focused on progressing a minigame – this may be a side-effect of playing Kyrian, though, as my Night Fae friends have been progressing their Queen’s Conservatory quite a bit.
Adventures: Of all the things that could be unbalanced, I never expected it would be these. Let’s start with how bad these are at a base level – they are poorly explained, lack any sort of good tutorial or actual information, and so far I’ve only found one add-on that makes a fairly accurate guess at how your team comp will do on a given mission so you can at least build for success and send them off. For example, I didn’t know that the team could level all the way to 60.
What really gets me, though, is how unbalanced the board is. In theory, I assumed that each covenant would get the same basic companion loadout with flavor text for why their abilities fit, so that the missions could be balanced a single time across all 4 covenants and you’d be good to go. Nope! The covenants all have fully unique companion abilities and loadouts, which, okay, good amount of effort, but you absolutely cannot put that much work into making unique team members just to then not spend the time balancing missions! Come on Blizzard, do better! Kyrian and Venthyr players have to vastly overlevel many of the campaign adventures that pop up and even with a team approaching an average level of 30, I still cannot beat the level 20 Maw adventures that reward Soul Ash, which means that my Soul Ash intake is limited to what I can get in Torghast (fortunately, I love Torghast and can do layer 8 easily on both of my characters because I am good at playing them).
Like, okay, it is a minor part of the actual content on offer in the expansion, and no one really loves the mission board gameplay that I’ve met, but I mean, it is a system with no real variables you can’t plan for. How is it so tilted on balance? Yes, I am sort of venting here because it does have a personal impact on me and I don’t like not being able to get the extra Soul Ash or unlock additional adventures, but I mean, I never actually thought in my mind that the mission board could even be unbalanced, and yet, here we are, over a month in, and the only concession we’ve gotten from Blizzard so far is a half-hearted adjustment to lock Maw missions to level 20…which still means Kyrian and Venthyr players have to vastly overlevel them to even have a chance of succeeding! That sucks and it is surprisingly frustrating, to the point that I have the mission board on my DH but have only launched the early missions and have since ignored it completely. I send out XP missions and some reward missions on my Paladin, but it is rarely a focus.
Currency Systems: Covenants have Reservoir Anima, Freed Souls, and Grateful Offerings as their core currency systems. Let’s start with the easy two first – Souls and Offerings are well-balanced and have mechanics designed to increase your income with them over time, so I like them well enough to give Blizzard a pat on the back for these two…
…which I take away when it comes to Anima. Anima is no Artifact Power – and that is a good thing! – but it also isn’t anywhere near as well-built a system. Artifact power curves were thoughtfully designed and engineered, and while players have a sort of toxic relationship with them from both Legion and BfA, there was clear thought there at least. Anima is…not thought out anywhere near the same extent. Anima rewards seemingly never increase, and remain at small amounts throughout the current content. Killed a boss in a raid? 35 anima. Finished a Mythic Plus or random dungeon for the day? 35 anima. World Quests can offer more, between 70-250 typically, but the high end is few and far between. If rewards had reasonable anima costs, this would be fine – but they don’t.
On a main, anima is useful for cosmetic reasons alone, getting tinted covenant armor looks, weapon looks, and new mounts. Each of these requires thousands of anima each, which makes them painful when most players are earning around 1.5-2k a week, tops. On an alt, it is a clusterfuck, as anima also makes gearing substantially easier with Covenant armor upgrades, but you need so much anima to upgrade a full set and if you ding 60 today, you’re going to need almost 10,000 of it to get a full set running. And that’s fine if the intent is a longer-term gearing curve, but it seems like the upgrade system is tailor-made for alts and yet the cost and income curves for anima wreck some of the value.
Because of this, it also makes anima sort of an effective punching bag. It is given in dungeons and raids as a consolation prize, but 35 anima is so meager that it actually almost feels insulting. At least little AP tokens in Legion and BfA would lead to player power increases, and on an alt or struggling armor slots, anima can too, but you do still reach a point where those upgrades aren’t valuable and so the 35 anima is a joke. I bet I could repurpose any of the myriad of US economic stimulus memes with artifact power vs anima power and it would find an audience.
In a post later this week, I’ll look ahead to where I think the Covenant system is headed as the expansion winds forward, since I think we all know to expect some tweaks in 9.1 and some new systems in 9.2.