The release of World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is going to bring with it a lot of core system changes. This is neither surprising nor unwelcome. We’ve also been warned for ages that we won’t be carrying Artifacts forward, and at this year’s BlizzCon we got our first glimpse at the system that will ultimately replace that system in terms of gameplay, the Heart of Azeroth.
I usually find what works pretty well as a quick litmus test for systems like this is to see how fast we all “get” the system in the newsroom. If some of us are confused as to how the system is supposed to work, it’s not being explained all that well. And I can’t tell you that the Heart of Azeroth has been particularly well-explained so far; it’s a straightforward and positive change to the game, but we’ve had better-explained systems. So let’s take a look at how things are meant to work, based on what we know now.
The first step to understanding the system, I think, lies in understanding WoW’s issues with Legendaries and set bonuses, two things that have been with us for a while now, either the whole expansion (the former) or since the game launched (the latter). And they’re connected simply because both systems beget the same problems.
Legendaries have been a problem since Legion launched, but not because of numbers. The items were always powerful, but it wasn’t raw numbers that made them an issue; it was the fact that every single one of them came with powers. And those powers frequently – if not almost always – were a huge deal. You could often get Legendary items that had particular abilities on them that changed the whole way you played your spec.
This problem has always existed in terms of set bonuses, too; we all know that some theorycrafting has always existed about when it’s time to break a particularly valuable set bonus, simply because the bonus offers some mechanical benefit beyond numbers. You get something beyond a chunk of intellect and stamina when all of your casts start applying a stacking damage buff to your character, for example.
And this is why people weren’t terribly happy with the Legendaries in Legion. Bad luck could prevent you from getting the item that makes the necessary mechanical changes to your spec, and now you can’t clear a challenge.
Enter the Heart of Azeroth. Instead of thinking of this particular system as “the new form of Artifact,” you’d be better off thinking of it as “build your own Legendaries.” It’s the equivalent of artifacts in terms of gameplay but not in design intent.
How it works
Right at the start of the expansion, you get the eponymous Heart of Azeroth as a neck slot item. The Heart itself is a nice neck item, of course, but its real power comes as it levels up. And that power, in turn, comes into play when you’re putting on Azerite-empowered armor. We can assume that a higher-level Heart of Azeroth will have the usual stat boosts, for example, but that alone is not the source of its power.
It seems pertinent to note at this point that “Azerite-empowered armor” appears to be synonymous with “armor from this expansion.” As it stands, we’ve been told that head, shoulders, and chest pieces will be working as part of this system; the preview mock-ups also have legs shown as Azerite armor, which either means that it’s still in discussions or that they’re earlier mockups.
So let’s say you get your first questing green in Battle for Azeroth; a chest piece, why not. That chest piece has four “rings” of powers available on it, based on the level of your Heart. Each individual ring is unlocked as the Heart of Azeroth levels up; let’s say this first item has rings unlocking at levels 5, 10, 15, and 20. Your Heart is level 5, so you get access to the first ring. You select a power for your item and move on.
These powers will each exist in ring format and be mutually exclusive, but each ring is meant to hold mechanical choices of a similar nature. So a ring for an Enhancement Shaman might contain one choice that gives a stacking damage buff to Stormstrike and another choice to give a stacking damage buff to Lava Lash. Both change how you play the spec slightly, but you don’t have to choose between “improve run speed” and “halve your ability cooldowns.”
A bit more questing, and you get a blue chestpiece with rings unlocking at the same level. If your chestpiece were a Legendary item, you’d be reluctant to swap it out because you’d lose that non-numerical bonus. With the Heart of Azeroth, though, you can swap to the new chestpiece with abandon and unlock another first-ring power on your new item. The items themselves aren’t leveling; it’s just the Heart of Azeroth, which doesn’t change.
Keep that blue chest long enough, and you’re no doubt going to level your Heart enough to unlock another ring of powers. But if you replace if before then, you’ll still have access to the same overall number of abilities. It functionally turns every single item that goes in an Azerite slot into a Legendary item, complete with the powers.
How this addresses outstanding problems
The Heart of Azeroth system actually fixes up a lot of problems with existing systems, starting with the clumsy bits of the Artifact system. Artifacts have had to rely on Artifact Knowledge creating an ever-rising number of points per level as the next-level traits themselves scale up exponentially. Not so here; if the developers want to make it easier to pick up higher Heart levels, you can scale down the requirements for the next level rather than scaling up the experience rewarded. This also means that you don’t need separate consumable “Azerite” items because you only have one Heart of Azeroth item you’re leveling up across all specs, instead of the specific Artifacts.
It also subtly means that you don’t have to click through several dozen “improve this ability by 3%” traits to get one of the things that actually alters your playstyle. Each power is the equivalent of a Legendary ability or one of the powerful bordered traits on your Artifact; it should have a significant impact on your gameplay.
The system also fixes up the issues of the Legendary system, too. Before, you could be screwed out of the Legendary you needed because it just never dropped; the removal of that system and the addition of the Heart of Azeroth lets you pick your power among items you will always have. Especially since we’ve been told that items available in multiple tiers will have the same rings of power; you might not be raiding Mythic, but your shoulders from Raid Finder have the same mechanical choices of rings.
And last but not least, it calms the ever-present issue of trying to get excited about a new piece of armor. At least in a few slots, new armor means new powers, not just “and here’s two more of your primary stat.” That helps matters.
A lot is going to depend on implementation, of course, but from a preliminary standpoint it seems like a cool system. It’s being seen as a replacement to Artifacts, but mechanically, it’s more like a replacement to Legendaries and a way to address the imbalance of having certain “needed” item abilities that overpower stat balance. The whole thing that we’ve been shown so far is a bit on the abstract side, but hopefully we’ll all get a clearer picture in the next several months as we ramp up toward the expansion.