What Is The Future of Shadowlands? An Analytical Post

This part of the expansion cycle for World of Warcraft is normally among the most exciting. Without future content announced and normally with some new, recognizable content teased, we would have a lot to be excited about. The past two expansions, this was also helped by a “What’s Next” panel at the most recent Blizzcon, laying the path out clearly.

Right now…we don’t have that. Most of that is missing in action, straight up. Not only are the clues just not really there (with a few exceptions), we also have the shadow of the looming Activision-Blizzard lawsuit and what seems, publicly at least, to be slowed pace of development and announcements, with more open positions on the WoW team than perhaps any other period of time.

But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to look at and speculate based on.

So today, I want to wrap up a mix of things – what we know from the content currently in the game, what we can speculate based on datamining, what we can speculate based on patterns and traditions in the modern game, and then finally, the big speculation – just how long Shadowlands will be on our plate as the content du jour.

This will be fun (hopefully!).

The Current State of Play

In story terms, we are left hanging on an assemblage of loose plot threads at the moment. The ending of 9.1 delivered a series of lore bombs, and while I generally think it wasn’t great, that’s not the purpose of this post today.

First up – the Jailer is empowered, with the 5 sigils and the means to unlock the Sepulcher and gain the forbidden knowledge of the First Ones. This is likely our main conflict for the rest of the expansion – fighting off the forces of the Jailer as he makes his way forward in his mission to “unmake reality.” We’ve learned that Zovaal was the original Arbiter and that the Arbiter we know is a construct, made using Zovaal’s anima. Zovaal’s service in that role went wrong in some way and seems to have led to the conflict, betrayal, and banishing that serve as the mysterious, ill-defined cornerstone of the expansion’s story arc.

Next up – for the Jailer’s Azerothian servants, we have a Sylvanas that is free of his influence, rejoined with her sundered soul fragment and left to our mercy. What “our mercy” will entail seems an unknown at this point. Anduin remains as the main servant to Zovaal, and it is clear that he is not a fully-possessed mindless entity, but rather, that Zovaal can take control of him for a moment and use Anduin to enact his will. How long that moment is and what is required mentally and physically of Zovaal for that control is unknown.

The Primus banished Helya, which was pretty unsatisfying and makes me think we will see her again in some raid down the road, but that is pure speculation on my part.

For our Covenant story arcs, we’ve seen a lot of resolutions. The Necrolords have dealt with Vyraz and the traitors that served him, the Kyrian have welcomed the Forsworn into the fold and created two paths forward with a choice, the Night Fae have repelled the invasion of the Mawsworn and solved the dilemma of the Night Warrior, and the Venthyr have fought back an initial invasion of Nathrezim, although they’ve lost the captive Sire Denathrius in the process and the whole of Venthyr society has been hit with the infiltration of additional Nathrezim, including the infamous Mal’Ganis.

Our remaining major character beats have seen some movement – Thrall and his deceased mother have had some bonding time, Uther has retrieved his missing memories and with them clarity of his failings in Bastion, Kael’thas is finding his way in the Venthyr and towards atonement, and then we have Tyrande. Tyrande has been brought down from the rage-fueled pedestal of the Night Warrior, with Elune’s tear helping to create a new Covenant Sigil for the Night Fae, and Elune’s intent at the burning of Teldrassil made apparent. We’ll come back to that point later, but for now, we at least have an inkling of what Elune was thinking with her apparent lack of response and why that failed.

So the Shadowlands as a whole are in a better spot overall – we’ve solved the local issues, brought the Covenants back together under new Sigils and new hope, returned the Primus to the Necrolords and to our side to help usher in a new era in the Shadowlands, and Zovaal is on the run – the one dark spot, but suffused with hope for something better to come, with the Covenants united and the Maw Walker chasing after Zovaal (probably).

The In-Game Tidbits of The Future

The ending of 9.1 brings about a ton of exposition between characters, hinting at the future of the Shadowlands story. Jaina loved Arthas, and Uther has his memory of Arthas back and reconciled with time to a softer stance. Thrall and Draka have time to talk and to know one another like they could not in Draka’s life, and the same is true for the father and son Mograines. Tyrande and Shandris are reunited without the everpresent rage of the Night Warrior, and the Winter Queen even feels a kindship with her seemingly-estranged sister in Elune. Ve’nari has reason to believe the Jailer’s next stop is a realm called Zereth Mortis, and that the journey of the Keepers, the Covenants, and the Maw Walker will lead there.

The word “mortis” as used in WoW has a fairly obvious meaning – death. Zereth can be a headscratcher, were it not for the fact that the Grimoire of the Shadowlands has actually addressed this already – “Zereth” meaning either “keystone” or “cornerstone.” Either way, it is clear from most descriptions that Zereth Mortis is the place containing the Sepulcher of the First Ones. Given that, the prior bit of information makes sense!

There’s a lot still to unpack about Sylvanas’ fate, as the last time we had a rogue former-Warchief in captivity, it was a bit of a mess, with a trial, a jailbreak, and then the creation and use of an alternate universe world in service of that former-Warchief’s ends. Given the nature of the soul fragment that has been rejoined to Sylvanas, we are likely to see her forced to reconcile her past and her decisions to date while the NPCs that keep watch over her are left to decide her actual fate going forward. With Tyrande conveniently stripped of her potent rage, the likelihood of immediate murder is lower, at least.

Lastly, perhaps not a direct in-game tidbit, or a lore one, but the question might exist as to whether or not Blizzard will be doing a 9.1.5 as is the Legion and after patch cycle, or jumping right into 9.2. It appears, based on a LUA file found in the game, that the expectation from Blizzard at the release of 9.1 was to do a 9.1.5. Will they keep to that? We don’t really know yet.

Speculating the Shadowlands Schedule

Based on what we’ve gotten from Blizzard for the last few expansions, a safe bet is that a 9.1.5 will happen. In terms of actual content, my suspicion is that it will be a little bit of extra stuff to tide us over – connecting the story of 9.1 to 9.2 with a few quests, adding Legion Timewalking, some balancing changes, and perhaps a small bit of other content – BfA’s 8.1.5 patch added the profession tools quests, Allied Race unlocks for Kul Tiran and Zandalari, and some additional world quests, along with the Crucible of Storms 2-boss micro raid.

I would then suspect we’d move into 9.2, with a new world zone, new raid, new story content, and major gameplay shifts. In the Borrowed Power Era, the x.2 patch of an expansion is always what I call the “fixer” patch, coming in to finally attempt to correct the issues of the existing borrowed power system and expanding upon it with a better base. In Legion, this was the 4th point traits, Concordance of the Legionfall, and continuing increases in Artifact Knowledge. In BfA, it was Azerite Essences. What will it be for Shadowlands? My suspicion is twofold – we’ll see either a new Covenant choice or the ability to split ability from Covenant to pick the flavor we want with the ability we want, and then some sort of change to Soulbinds. I am still in the camp that thinks that neutral Soulbinds to major lore characters could be really cool – using Jaina, Bolvar, etc and being able to use them in any Covenant. On top of that, I think that Soulbinds in general need some overhaul – removal of Conduit energy, empowerments to existing Soulbind traits in the same vein as the Empowered Conduits, and perhaps easier acquisition of missing or lower-level Conduits.

Storywise, this is where things get murky – because I think what the story of 9.2 looks like ends up being changed by a few factors.

Right now, assuming the normal release calendar of a modern WoW expansion, we should be getting a 9.1.5, a 9.2, a 9.2.5, a 9.3, and some sort of closing patch – 9.3.5 or 9.3.7, depending on how weird the numbering gets. However, we know that Shadowlands has been beset with delays for well over a year now. The initial launch was announced and then delayed. The pre-patch was tested, had no announced release date, and then was only announced and dated with the expansion delay news, and I would argue that patch was out and active for too long. We spent so long in 9.0 that Blizzard gave us a non-patch in 9.0.5 with only balancing tweaks and Valor points! That patch was then out as our active content for nearly 4 full months!

At this point, we are in the window where prior patch content would have generally been on PTR in an early-build, unpolished state. The fact that we aren’t and that the only indicator of future development is a single LUA file talking about elements being depreciated in 9.1.5 is…well, perhaps a smidge concerning. In a lot of ways, it feels like the cycle of this expansion is that each major patch is going to last for a long time – with 9.0 at 8 months, I suspect we’ll probably see an 8-month cycle or thereabouts for 9.1 as well prior to 9.2 launching early next year. I would then guess that we’re not likely to even see 9.1.5 until October or early November – in fact, an early November launch of any new content may be the only way we get to see the vindictive Blizzard counter-strike on an FFXIV release date!

But the bigger question comparatively is harder to answer – what number of patches are we likely to see?

Well…I guess it could still be the normal 6 patch cycle (we could call it 7 with 9.0.5, but that isn’t a real patch). The main reason I could see Blizzard sticking to this is simple enough – we all know from association with the reviled Warlords of Draenor that if an expansion hits only two major patches, that it is being rushed out of our memory by quickly releasing content and moving on. That doesn’t necessarily have to be the same thing here in Shadowlands, but players will have memes ready and waiting if it is announced that 9.2 is the final major content patch of the expansion. And to be clear, I don’t even necessarily think Shadowlands ending on 9.2 is a bad thing – it could very well be correct based on story trajectory and the content structure of the expansion. Think of it this way – Warlords was noted as truncated because it was clear that there was more content that was originally planned – a Shattrath raid, a whole story around Yrel that would have better paved the way for her later turn in the Mag’har Orc Allied Race questline, and Faralohn – among a lot of other little things like distinct faction capitals, Garrison placement and racial theme kits outside of…banners, and the whole Ogre continent thing that was teased at Blizzcon 2013.

But I think there are signs in what little we do have to suggest that we end the story in 9.2. The biggest is simply the knowable flow of the story – if our goal is to stop Zovaal from reaching the Sepulcher of the First Ones, and the next patch is him with the full set of keys traveling to Zereth Mortis where the Sepulcher is, then, well, it seems a foregone conclusion that we’ll butt heads with the Jailer and end the main Shadowlands story arc. On the other hand, that assumes a logical story progression that pays respects to the content that came before, and well, Shadowlands track record on that front is…pretty awful! As I see it, either Zereth Mortis in 9.2 and the accompanying raid content are diversions or us cleaning up after Zovaal has taken the Sepulcher and the forbidden knowledge within it, or it is the main event of the Shadowlands, with us having our showdown with Zovaal and moving into the next expansion afterwards. Now, it could be a fake-out to reveal some larger power – the Primus being the actual malicious force of the Shadowlands, or something like that, which would then segue into a 9.3 patch while still having us deal with Zovaal in 9.2, but I think that’s a long shot. If we face Zovaal in 9.2, that’s the end of the expansion as far as I see it, and anything else would be weirdly illogical even for Blizzard.

My gamble? I think that Blizzard is going to go to 9.3. I almost don’t want that, in a way, but I think it’s going to happen because logically it tracks with how things will be perceived if they don’t and because earlier comments from the team lean in this direction a little bit anyways, albeit with wording that can be perceived to mean that the patch cycle would go at least to 9.2.

The Wildcards

Obviously, the specter of the CA DFEH lawsuit against ATVI looms large here, and changes or staffing reductions to the WoW team due to needed changes could change the course of the expansion. While it would be easy to imagine an interim leader or someone stepping in and keeping the existing course, doing so may also push 10.0 past the point where investors will be along for the ride, and that seems like it is a dangerous game of sorts to play.

Likewise, player reception could push things in a different direction. Right now is the time we’re most likely to be heard, since so much of Blizzard and the WoW team in general is in rebuilding due to the lawsuit, loss of talent, and hits to perception. One of Blizzard’s new co-leaders plays WoW including pushing high M+ keys and that may lead to some minor improvements (depending on your perspective, I suppose).

In any case, the next few months are bound to be some of the most interesting in WoW history, both for what is happening in the game but also for the behind-the-scenes intrigue and attempting to unpack the business decisions made!

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