WoW’s patch cycle has one bit of predictability, which is this – the x.1 patch for an expansion is, generally, an extension of the ideas present in the expansion launch.
In Mists of Pandaria, 5.1 was story development that pushed us towards the story we knew was coming – getting Garrosh into Pandaria, making him a clear antagonist, and setting the scene that would lead us to the end of the expansion. Warlords of Draenor patch 6.1 brought few changes, most of which were Garrison updates (leading to the most uninspired patch name ever) and then there was Blackrock Foundry, which had been tested on beta as-is, and Twitter integration. Thrilling! Legion’s 7.1 was on PTR before the game even launched, because of course it was, and it largely served to extend the content from launch by focusing on the Suramar story campaign. BfA’s 8.1 brought a new raid (a surprise to be sure) but coupled it with a very similar approach to Azerite armor with only simple to implement, basic changes and tuning.
It is natural that, at present, most players begin to wonder what is to come with 9.1 for Shadowlands. Next week marks the final wing of LFR for Castle Nathria, with Sire Denathrius being challenged. In 6 more weeks of play, players will have reached the current maximum for Renown. The Covenant campaigns included with launch have all run their course, and players have varying story leads for the future depending on what they’ve played. Gear is, for some, reaching a saturation point, where players are starting to hit a point where their main-play characters may only receive one or two meaningful pieces of loot a week, unless you’re playing multi-spec with full unique loadouts or have just been extraordinarily unlucky (a reasonable prospect in Shadowlands, TBH).
So then, what do I expect to see from the gameplay side of things? Well, let’s discuss!
Covenant Campaign Round 2 – More Generic, More Lore
The first round of the Covenant campaign was, overall, a pleasant surprise. It focused in heavily on the local lore of each zone, but with major Azerothian figures in the mix in varying capacities and with tourist chapters that saw us interacting with the other Covenants at points in their stories. It was a pretty well done spot of storytelling, with my only real caveat being that the direction some of the stories are being pointed in concerns me and the chapter pacing was a bit off considering how frontloaded the story was.
I would suspect here that like the second round of War Campaign stories in BfA, we’re going to start seeing the ordering of threats from each Covenant converge into a single story about the Shadowlands as a whole, as we gear up to tackle Sylvanas and the Jailer and deal with each zone’s lingering challenges. The trickiest part of all of this is trying to decipher which is the next, most immediate threat – the House of the Chosen in Maldraxxus reads to me as having the most potential for an immediate turn-around, given that it feels short, sweet, and doesn’t have massive lore implications. In fact, of the Covenants with remaining issues at the end of their stories, Maldraxxus has the least established characters. Kel’Thuzad was around, sure, but our expectation there is that he is in the Maw and likely to join up with the Jailer. Putting the Mograines together and paying off the lore we all got to see during the level-up campaign feels like a good point to progress towards, as it leaves the meatier lore Covenants for later, when they can be explored more fully.
But, my overarching point is more that we’ll see the Covenants bond together, and by nature, that bonding will unify the plot threads and most players will see a similar, if not identical, story experience in 9.1 that is going to macro-focus on the Shadowlands as a unified force, instead of the fractured Covenants we saw in the launch story.
I’m excited, but many of you probably aren’t! Torghast has been an interesting point of contention, with Blizzard definitely pinning a lot on this mode of play succeeding, while players have been more reluctant to fully engage with it. Because of the way in which the x.1 patch cycle has historically played out, even if the end of the expansion sees us almost completely moving away from Torghast, I fully expect that we’ll get more in 9.1. More floors, more Twisting Corridors, higher weekly Soul Ash which will be important for other things, and an attempt at rebalancing across the board. For classes and specs where it sucks a bit more, I fully expect the patch to be the point at which we will see more substantial and targeted changes to this mode, with fully tweaked Anima Powers, new Anima Powers, additional time-limited events, and perhaps even new tilesets.
I also think that through some combination of quests, gear rewards, or weekly events (perhaps with a raid cache prize?) that Blizzard will attempt to push more players to do Torghast. If the system progresses as it is today with “more of that” being the patch bullet point, I think players who’ve already dismissed Torghast are less likely to engage. Now, the challenge is again down to a perception of necessity – if it feels like the rewards from Torghast are mandatory to play at a reasonable level of enjoyment, then there will certainly be backlash as players sound the “mandatory” horn and signal their dissatisfaction. If they follow the path they’ve attempted to for much of Shadowlands endgame, they could very well frontload the rewards and quests – but it remains to be seen how this is handled.
A New Raid (And Content Season With It)
Battle for Azeroth did a lot of things wrong with content rollout, I think we all have come to an agreement on that. However, one thing I think they absolutely got right in BfA was raid tiers. BfA offered more raid tiers than any recent expansion, only being matched by Wrath of the Lich King, and if you consider the Crucible of Storms as a proper half-tier raid, then BfA had more tiers (with fewer bosses overall, however). That is a personal opinion, because as a raider, it meant there was fresh and new content more regularly for me to play.
My hope and dream for Shadowlands is that every current zone in the expansion gets a raid instance of some sort to show what they can do and to bring the unique look of each zone to the forefront. What would each raid bring, and how would that dovetail with the likely new zones we’ll be seeing in the future? Well…I can’t say I know or have a strong way to answer that.
However, from a pure content perspective, regardless of the location or aesthetic, having an additional raid tier in 9.1 feels right. It means Torghast, Mythic Plus, PvP, and raiding can all enter a season 2, with new changes and tweaks. Catchup would feel better with higher item level from normal and heroic dungeons, and similar to how class hall armor extended in item level in Legion, we could see Covenant armor gain in power as well, with either more upgrade ranks for the existing pieces, or perhaps even new sets (a Mythic raid variant of the original with more ornate details and glowy effects!).
I think this one is weird to say, but Blizzard might actually be sort of trying to meet us in the middle? Maybe. Pathfinder is a largely-reviled implementation of the convenience of flying, in which players remain grounded for far too long, and those who leave early in an expansion come back and are perpetually annoyed at how much ground they have to cover to get to flight in the zones, especially once they are legacy content and the value is largely lost.
By moving Pathfinder to the first content patch, which Blizzard has publicly stated is happening, they’ve addressed the spirit of the complaint of players without addressing the substance, which is that gating flight every expansion is an overly tedious and painfully transparent attempt at pushing players to remain subscribed for longer, or basically a gamble that the annoyance of no flight won’t be enough to push players away before they can have it. It’s business, baby!
What we know about Shadowlands Pathfinder so far is that it is based on Renown, and supposedly not having Revered rep with all of the Shadowlands factions. I hear that and am skeptical, given that the Shadowlands Diplomat achievement has that account-wide blue banner that makes me think it is a thing I’ll need (and already have, so, I mean, okay I guess), but I’ll avoid editorializing too much about if Blizzard is evading the truth until we know more.
What I do fully expect is this – regardless of whatever other requirements flight will carry, the Renown requirement will absolutely need more ranks of Renown than we can currently get. My guess is that the new Covenant campaign we’re likely to see in 9.1 will gate more Renown, and at the point of finishing the campaign, we’ll have the needed Renown to unlock flight, alongside (likely) any other requirements. My other bet is that the process to finish the new campaign and reach the necessary Renown is not going to be a short process, but will likely take the entirety of 9.1 to complete. I’m talking 8-12 weeks of content needed. Why? Well, because even with that, you’ll still have access to flight earlier in the expansion than before – when 9.2 is on the horizon, you’ll be able to fly instead of needing to put in 4-6 weeks of effort after that patch release to get there. Am I being cynical? Perhaps. However, if Blizzard wanted to really address the bulk of player concern with Pathfinder, it would be drastically reworked if not removed altogether – and the signs just don’t point in that direction, I’d say.
Legendary System Revamp
This is me partially dreaming, and partially projecting based on the current state of Legendaries in Shadowlands, but….uh, things are kinda fucked right now! When I was maining a Paladin, boy it was fairly okay. Legendary base armor for plate wasn’t cheap as you climbed the ranks, but it wasn’t godawful expensive either. The stuff made by Leatherworkers, though…yikes. Blizzard is fighting a losing battle against botters, and the people feeling the most pinch are the normal players. Leather legendary crafting is a horror show that requires substantially more materials than anything else. Everyone also has to deal with the awful crafting experience system for these armor pieces, which is poorly explained in game and also requires an obscene amount of crafting to reach anything resembling a good place (luckily, my best DH legendary can be made as a cloak, escaping the worst of it).
If I had to guess, we’ll see 3 major changes with 9.1 to Legendaries. The first will be new ranks to match the new season of gameplay, and rather than just 1 rank of upgrade, I fully expect to see 2-3, progressing up as the current 4 ranks do to be slightly above a given tier of raiding reward. Because LFR is likely to overlap with current Normal or Heroic item level, my suspicion is 2-3 based on where that gear lands. If LFR is roughly in-line with Normal Castle Nathria, then legendaries would only need to jump a single rank. If, however, LFR is at the Heroic CN item level for next tier, then you’d need ranks added to cover the new Heroic and Mythic item levels, and if it jumps even higher, then…you get the idea.
The second major change I expect to see is substantial tweaks to crafting. Either the LW recipes need to be brought down in line with the other tradeskills, or everything else has to come up to match the material costs of the LW stuff. Ideally, they’d fight the bot battle on other fronts and simply adjust down the leatherworking material costs. However, I don’t know if I expect them to actually do that or instead adjust everything else up to drain some value out of the in-game economy. I do expect any new rank base items to use some sort of new materials, although what form that would take without a new zone, I don’t know. (We’ll come back to that in a moment, though.)
The third major change I expect to see is new Runecarver memories. Whether they borrow any new anima powers made for Torghast and use those as Legendary effects or they come up with new ones, I fully expect to see new memories in almost every patch. They can be flavored to the new content, built around new balancing changes, and can also give players new goals to chase. I’d love for this to come with the ability to wear an additional legendary each patch, until players can eventually have 4 of them on, because why not? In Legion, with random acquisition, it made sense to limit players to 1 up front and two down the road, but in Shadowlands, every player is on a roughly equal playing field with being able to craft legendaries, with the only hold out being around raid-dropped memories or non-guaranteed drops, or Torghast progression.
Lastly, I think it would be great if our crafting of Legendaries could get more involved, like being able to buy a socket for them from Ve’nari or being able to add a third missive to split secondary stats three ways. It’d be really cool to be able to upgrade a piece and also change out the memory and missives in-use on the piece. I’d also really, really love to see them find a way to make craftable legendary weapons a thing – I doubt it will happen, but the stuff with the Jailer makes me think that we could work our way to that both in lore and in gameplay.
A Long Shot – New Zone?
This one is speculation on my part, but I think it bears mentioning. At launch, Shadowlands shipped with 5 zones, the least of any launch in the game (as I count off zones in my head to make sure). Oribos has gateway space for 4 more zones, roughly. If we use Legion as a template, 4 zones were added (Broken Shore in it’s completed 7.2 state and the 3 Argus zones). If we look to BfA, it had 3 zones added, with two major zone overhauls done to facilitate the content of 8.3 (which I would count as roughly equivalent to a single new zone of work). Both of these expansions shipped with 6 zones. Adding 4 more to Shadowlands would give us a full Ring of Transport in Oribos, while also expanding gameplay prospects. There are a lot of possibilities, which Blizzard Watch recently summarized nicely.
While a new zone isn’t strictly necessary to the story being told right now, I think that we have a lot of needed contextualization for some of the things happening in Shadowlands from a lore perspective, and from a gameplay perspective, it would be awesome to have new settings to roll around in. With the core concept of Shadowlands, a new zone wouldn’t be constrained to a visual theme that we’ve already rolled around in, and would be free to simply be whatever Blizzard can come up with. That’s pretty cool, and something I hope they leverage to their advantage!
Of course, all of this is just me speculating based on what we can currently see and knowing how these patches have gone in the past. There’s little actual information out right now to tell us what to actually expect, and in a way, that’s kind of exciting.