WoW Factor: Dissecting the dumb plan in World of Warcraft’s War of Thorns

Those are people who died, died.

There’s a lot to be upset about with the World of Warcraft Battle for Azeroth prepatch. There’s stuff that just doesn’t feel good any more (and yes, go ahead and make your own jokes there about the implications of that statement, it’s justified). There are bugs and issues that weren’t adequately tested. There’s the fact that this expansion is really doing a grand job of screwing up lots of characterization.

But with the pre-expansion event, we can look at a whole list of incredibly dumb things done just in this bit of the story.

We only have the first half of the event live right now, of course, and there are lots of dumb choices surrounding this (the fact that the story is in this order, for example), but for today we’re going to be confining this solely to in-universe criticism. And there’s still a column’s worth of intensely dumb decisions being made by someone who is supposed to be a capable military commander, based on all of the military commanding she did for ages.

The Sylvanas I remember was smart.First of all, let’s start with the absolute basics here. At the time of the pre-patch, the Horde is gathering and investigating Azerite. The Alliance is mostly aware of this as something the Horde is doing; it doesn’t seem that they’re doing anything in terms of research with the substance just yet. Obviously there’s a bit of jumpiness about what Sylvanas is super-interested in, but the Alliance hasn’t moved into Silithus.

According to Sylvanas herself, her line of reasoning is this: Azerite is going to change the face of war, therefore the Alliance will figure it out. She wants to shock the Alliance into inactivity, and thus the Alliance needs a morale loss, which means killing Malfurion Stormrage.

This is stupid.

It’s stupid for a lot of reasons, and that’s even if we ignore any debate about whether Malfurion is in charge of Teldrassil or the Cenarion Circle. International politics has long agreed that assassinating a foreign leader is an invitation to have your own leader assassinated, which is why no real-life wars are started with the end goal of “kill the boss monster.” This is going to provoke a response, Sylvanas has to know it, and her only reason for doing so is that the Horde is ahead in researching something new.

She then proceeds to not bring any of that research with her. When you find Azerite along the way, she makes use of it, but instead of making the new technology the center of her assault she just marches in with the same technology she already had. Attacking from superiority with new weapons is rarely a winning plan, but it gets even worse if you attack to defend your new weapons while not bringing them.

Her troops mass in the Barrens, and she manages to convince the Alliance that she’s heading for Silithus. That’s vaguely smart and works; most of the standing Night Elf forces head for Silithus. However, her forces are actually heading up to Ashenvale, which has had Horde strongholds for ages. These forces seem to include very little in the way of Forsaken, which is odd; they also contain none of the Highmountain Tauren or the Nightborne, thus ensuring that the Horde’s new allies have absolutely no place in this conflict.

Now, in all honesty, the Horde taking Ashenvale would in and of itself be quite a statement. The territory has belonged to Night Elves forever, but it’s been getting nudged at by the Horde for ages and it’s sandwiched between Horde territories. Instead, Sylvanas burns through Astranaar… enough to move her forces through to a Horde outpost on the opposite coast while leaving the outpost more or less completely intact.

In other words, Sylvanas has ensured that there’s space for a counterattack to come from behind, which is up there with “let your enemies know your plans a week in advance” on the list of things to never ever do tactically.

Why did you just wander into melee with a ranged weapon?

Pushing onward, she moves into Darkshore with her… land forces. From a coastal outpost. The complete lack of air or naval support means that Sylvanas is stopped dead by a barrier Malfurion managed to erect, but rather than waiting for any sort of reinforcement, she has a strategy that amounts to “push through.” So now she’s managed to divide her forces badly, lacking sufficient support, and still trying to push ahead for an assassination mission that could succeed right now by Malfurion just leaving.

“But that would be cowardly!” Dude, long-distance communication exists in the world; he can easily keep relaying orders and monitoring the situation. The whole reason the Horde is after him like this is because he’s right there. Chill in the Emerald Dream for a bit, who cares?

Rather than planning for any of this, Sylvanas manages to stumble upon some Azerite, which has thus far not featured into her plans in any way, shape, or form. Now she decides to use it, after establishing another base of operations with the small force she’s managed to push forward this far. She then winds up getting knuckled into a stalemate at a river, lacking the forces to push further forward, at which point she finally decides to wait for reinforcements.

Silithus just wanted to feel important.

Of course, what she’s actually done now is created a scenario where she’s cut off from reinforcements and she no longer has momentum. The one asset she set up in the start, the element of surprise, has already been negated; we’re told explicitly that the Night Elves who went to Silithus have made it back to bolster Teldrassil’s defenses. Which means that the stalemate should be over, quickly, as Sylvanas overextended her lines and rushed in with a terrible strategy.

I don’t claim to be an expert in tactics, but it doesn’t take being an expert to see how this is  terrible strategy. It’d be an awful strategy in an RTS game, even; that outpost is going to get smashed pretty quickly and your target isn’t accessible. It also involves passing up several options that would actually demoralize your enemies, and more to the point it involves (I can’t stress this enough) not using Azerite. The whole reason for this is flawed.

The couple of weak defenses I’ve seen of this terrible plan are that she has some other motivation than her stated one, but even if we assume that the sacking and burning of Teldrassil is her ultimate goal, it’s still terrible tactics. Marching troops into Ashenvale and refusing to withdraw until the Alliance cedes Silithus to the Horde, for example, would accomplish all of her stated goals in an instant and wouldn’t inspire the Alliance to march on Undercity (you know, spoiler warning).

Even if she wants to ultimately demolish Teldrassil, this is a dumb way to go about it. It’s a remarkably stupid plan for a character who is at least supposed to be a competent military leader, and taken in-universe it’s hard to really come up with a good explanation for why this seemed like the right approach to take.

Of course, the real-world explanation is that the writers needed a reason to burn Teldrassil and immediately jumped on the first idea that worked for that. But somehow that’s even more depressing.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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