Second Wind: World of Warcraft’s radically casual new endgame


Today we’re going to be dusting off Second Wind, a column where we revisit MMOs of the past. It’s an older column, sir, but it checks out. After quitting World of Warcraft at the end of Legion for good (or so I thought), the promise of the Worldsoul Saga lured me back, and I’ve spent the last two months catching up all Dragonflight has to offer.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to do a series of four columns detailing all my thoughts on WoW has changed since I played last, for good and for ill, and I’m going to start with what is always the main focus of WoW: the endgame.

I’ve kept fairly abreast of WoW news even while away, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect going back, but something I was unprepared for was the seismic shift in Blizzard‘s approach to endgame and rewards. I have to assume these changes happened slowly and thus weren’t as noticeable to regular players because from the perspective of a returning player, WoW‘s endgame has changed radically — and mostly for the better.

While the worst of the “raid or die” days were already past by the time I left, it was still a game about instances above all else. Legion invasions and world quests livened up the open world a bit, but by and large it was still all about dungeons and raids. In Dragonflight so far, I’ve barely touched instanced content. Partly because I’ve found all of this expansions dungeons and raids pretty underwhelming, but mainly because the open world content just feels so much more rewarding.

Dragonflight features a number of open world events somewhat similar to those you might find in Guild Wars 2; anyone can show up and get full credit without forming a group, and they’ve very easy, so it’s extremely casual content, and they are incredibly rewarding. They frequently drop gear of roughly equivalent power to the lower raid difficulties, making gearing up almost effortless.

World quests have been scaled back since their heyday in Legion, and this unfortunately includes the removal of the highly rewarding emissary quests, but the addition of these open world events feels like a decent compensation.

There’s also now a currency-based upgrade system for gear. As the currency drops from pretty much every form of content to varying degrees, it provides a long-tail form of gear progression to people of all playstyles.

Yes, the very highest-level gear still comes from high-end raids and mythic dungeons, but you don’t need gear that good for anything but said content, and you’ll still have plenty of meaningful rewards to chase regardless.

I almost feel that the pendulum may have swung too far in favour of the open world. When I first returned, it was almost impossible to get raid finder queues to pop for the expansion’s earlier raids. Why run them when the open world gives you more and better rewards for less time and effort? The Awakened system added in season four, which boosts the difficulty and rewards of old raids, did mitigate this a bit, however.

Something else that’s really changed is how much more willing Blizzard is to provide content and rewards that aren’t just about boosting your item levels. I think one of WoW‘s defining negative characteristics over the years has been its laser focus on vertical progression and near-total reticence to offer anything that doesn’t contribute to player power in some way, with only rare exceptions, like pet battles.

Things are very different now. Blizzard seems to have finally realized that fashion is the real endgame. Historically purely cosmetic rewards in WoW have been rare (both in the sense of being few in number and hard to get) and mostly just mounts. The mounts are still there, but you’re now also inundated with toys and cosmetic gear at almost every turn.

There’s event entire pieces of content, like the Azerothian Archives open world event, that offer nothing but cosmetic rewards. For most MMOs that wouldn’t be too weird, but in the context of WoW‘s history, it signals a stunning change in direction.

And a lot of these rewards really aren’t that hard to get. Going in, I knew about the Trading Post — a new cosmetic shop that serves as a free quasi battle-pass — and knowing WoW, I fully expected it to be a brutal grind to get the max allotment of Trader’s Tender (currency for the shop) for the month… and then I got it in like a week without even trying.

Or take the example of the Grotto Netherwing Drake. This is a high-end, customizable, gorgeous new dragonriding mount, and you get it from a simple quest chain that takes about an hour to do. Certainly a contrast from the month of grinding dailies it took me to get my original Netherwing mount from Burning Crusade.

There’s also a much greater willingness to add endgame story quests with little to no purpose beyond advancing the story. That used to be fairly rare; now it’s commonplace. It’s really great that quest and story fans are now being treated as a valid community worthy of their own dedicated content. Unfortunately the stories being told aren’t actually very good in most cases, but we’ll get to that in a future column.

The rebranding of reputation to renown has also softened WoW‘s grind a bit. Reputation has always been one of my most hated activities in WoW, yet also one I could never seem to avoid, and while the shift to renown hasn’t exactly made it fun, it is significantly less painful than it once was.

By and large it’s all the same as it’s always been, except for how rewards are delivered. Reputation came in only a few tiers, with increasingly long grinds between them. The new renown factions have much more tiers of rewards, and it always takes the same amount of reputation, a relative modest 2500, to reach the next tier. Getting rewards much more regularly makes it feel a bit less Sisyphean.

Something small that I really like is that you also often get rewards for free when you reach a new tier. Usually how it works is you get one reward freely, and then you can purchase others from that tier if you feel you need them all. For example, you might get a quest that gives you a choice of four cosmetic helm appearances, and then you can pay for the others if you must have every colour. And when you do buy stuff, it’s mostly with a dedicated currency that has no other purpose; no need to waste any gold.

There’s a lot of obvious benefits to this, but honestly my favourite part may be how much more sense it makes narratively. The dissonance of working your tail off to help these factions only to still have to pay through the nose for your rewards always bothered me. “You have saved our lives more times than we can count, and we owe you a debt we can never repay. Now do three more weeks of chores for us and we might consider selling you a pony at an extortionate price.”

If you’re a hardcore completionist who has to have every single reward, you’re still going to be looking at some significant grinding, but it’s much easier to target specific rewards, and average play is much more rewarding than it used to be, especially for those who don’t raid or do mythic dungeons. At almost every turn, I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to achieve my goals, and compared to how the game used to be, the difference is truly night and day. I don’t think WoW has ever treated its solo and casual players better than it does now.

It’s not all good news for the game, though. In future columns I’ll be covering some areas where the changes are much less positive. Next time, we’ll be looking at class design and the new talent system.

MMOs are constantly changing, and our opinions naturally change with them. That’s why we’re here to give some beloved (or not) games a second (or third) look. Has that game that was a wreck at launch finally pulled itself together? How do the hits of yesteryear hold up today? Let’s find out as MassivelyOP gets its Second Wind!
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