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Everything you need to know about World of Warcraft’s lore going into Battle for Azeroth

You should understand the war before you fight in it

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth - the Burning of Teldrassil Blizzard Entertainment
Ryan Gilliam (he/him) has worked at Polygon for nearly seven years. He primarily spends his time writing guides for massively popular games like Diablo 4 & Destiny 2.

Almost 14 years into the game’s life, World of Warcraft players have gone up against dozens of villains and protected their home planet of Azeroth multiple times. Battle for Azeroth, the game’s seventh expansion, instead brings World of Warcraft back to its faction versus faction roots, asking players to face each other instead of some other-worldly being.

It’s hard to blame anyone for feeling lost in World of Warcraft’s story, especially if they stopped playing a few expansion ago. Here, we’re going to recap the previous expansion, Legion, so you can understand what’s going on in Battle for Azeroth.

So let’s discuss Legion, the faction’s history, the major players in Battle for Azeroth, and where this new expansion might take us.

The events leading up to now

The Burning Legion has been the primary threat to Azeroth since before World of Warcraft was even released. This band of demons hearkens back to the days of Warcraft 3, but we finally took them down in Legion. The Burning Legion is a group of various demons from around the universe, banded together and led by Sargeras.

Sargeras is a Titan — now more of a demon — and one of the planets-turned-gods who look out for the universe. Sargeras turned evil a millennia ago and had been looking for dormant Titans — called world souls — to exterminate. His motivation is to prevent the Void Lords — the forces of darkness itself — from corrupting one of these souls and creating a Void Titan. Because Azeroth contains one of the most powerful world souls in the universe, Sargeras is determined to destroy the Titan before it ever wakes.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The end of Legion saw players travel in a damn spaceship to Argus. Argus is a corrupt and desolate planet when we arrive, but it was originally the home of the Eredar, a small faction of which we now know as the Draenei.

Sargeras is essentially using Argus as a conduit for the Legion, with its world soul regenerating the Legion each time they fall. After establishing a base on the planet, we raided Antorus, the Burning Throne. The raid sees players rescue the souls of the original Titans, and destroy Argus, the corrupted world soul of the planet itself.

With the destruction of Argus, the Titans re-take their place in their original home, the Seat of the Pantheon. They, along with the legendary Demon Hunter Illidan Stormrage, use the last of their power to summon Sargeras back to the Pantheon and imprison him forever.

However, before Sargeras can be summoned back to the Pantheon, he’s revealed to be within striking distance of Azeroth. As he’s pulled back to his former brothers and sister, Sargeras stabs his great sword into Silithus, a zone in Kalimdor, the western continent of Azeroth.

Most of this can be seen in the cutscene below.

So, we end Legion with the Titans, Sargeras and Illidan trapped for all eternity in space and a giant sword stuck in our planet. That leads us nicely into the war between the two factions and the start of Battle for Azeroth.

The reasons for war

The Horde and the Alliance has been enemies since the start of the Warcraft franchise. There was the first war, and then the second war and, of course, the third war. While the third war had more to do with Azeroth versus the Burning Legion than Horde versus Alliance, the two factions have never been particularly kind to one another.

The Horde has always been a rag-tag group of typical fantasy baddies who’ve decided to group together and be friends instead of recklessly waging war for all eternity. The Alliance is the almost unbelievably good crew of fantasy heroes. Elves, dwarves, humans, space-goats; that kind of thing.

The factions have always fought over land and general living rights. The Horde believes in battle for honor and glory, while the Alliance believes in, well, peace for all of Azeroth. But despite their long history of conflict — since long before World of Warcraft even started — the Horde and Alliance has spent years being allies. They’ve fought together against the Lich King, the Burning Legion (both times), Deathwing and the Iron Horde.

But even in these important moments as allies, crimes were committed that need to be reckoned for. Well, crimes against the Alliance, mostly. And they weren’t really committed by the Horde so much as by its very evil Warchief.

During the Mists of Panderia expansion, Garrosh Hellscream — Warchief of the Horde at the that time and son of infamous orc Grommash Hellscream — dropped a mana bomb on the mage city of Theramore. If you’re wondering if a mana bomb is just the World of Warcraft-equivalent of a nuclear weapon, you’d be correct. The city was destroyed, and its ruler — long-time Alliance hero and mage, Jaina Proudmoore — turned against the Horde.

Blizzard Entertainment

The end of that same expansion saw players on both sides storming the Horde’s capital city and defeating Garrosh. While they may have worked together, there was some obvious tension between the Horde and Alliance during the Siege of Orgrimmar. The Alliance promised that if this were to ever happen again, it would not give the Horde a third chance.

A few years later, after both factions chased Garrosh into a different timeline altogether, the Legion invaded Azeroth once again. Both factions teamed up to take the Legion down in the Battle of the Broken Shore. Unfortunately, neither faction was prepared, and both of their lines were shattered.

After the new Warchief, Vol’jin, was gravely wounded in battle, the Horde retreated. While they may have had few options, from the Alliance’s perspective, the Horde abandoned it in its hour of need. King Varian Wrynn of the Alliance died in that battle, and the Alliance has forever blamed the Horde.

In the modern era of World of Warcraft, Wrynn’s son Anduin is the new High King of the Alliance. And with Vol’jin’s death on the Broken Shore, Sylvanas Windrunner is the new leader of the Horde.

After Sargeras stabbed Azeroth, a mysterious new material called Azerite began to emerge from the planet itself. This is the very blood of Azeroth herself, and is an incredibly powerful — and dangerous — tool for both sides. King Anduin is worried about how it could be used in the wrong hands, and Sylvanas seems eager to prove him right.

Sylvanas seems to believe that the Azerite is the Horde’s chance to bring peace to Azeroth, which to her involves the slaughter of the Alliance as a whole. But the Alliance won’t be wiped out so easily.

Sylvanas has made it clear that she believes the Horde and Alliance will never be at peace due to their ancient grudges and the only way for the Horde to prosper is quick, overwhelming force. This is something that has seriously burned some Horde players. But this war has already had its own share of war crimes, and they promise to only get worse as the expansion continues.

Beyond the war

While the war between the Horde and Alliance is currently front and center with Battle for Azeroth, the expansion looks to be moving in another direction as well. The expansion’s zones hint at another player behind the scenes: one of the old gods, N’Zoth.

The old gods are minions of the Void Lords that we mentioned earlier, and have lived inside Azeroth for thousands of years. Players have already taken down Yogg-Saron, C’Thun, and a Y’Shaarj-possessed Garrosh. N’Zoth is the only remaining old god — that we know of — and is the master of whispers and mind control. His greatest minion, Queen Azshara, will be one of this expansion’s raid bosses.

How N’Zoth and the old gods will be brought into this expansion is anyone’s guess. However, his appearance is almost guaranteed at this point. Whether the battle for Azeroth becomes more of a battle for her future, rather than between the two factions, is a question of not if, but when.

The major players

Sylvanas Windrunner

Sylvanas is the current Warchief of the Horde and leader of the Forsaken race — zombies, essentially. Sylvanas has made it clear that she believes the Horde and Alliance will never be at peace due to their ancient grudges and the only way for the Horde to prosper is fast, brutal force. However, her recent decisions have been dodgy at best, although it seems likely that she knows something that nobody else does.

Anduin Wrynn

Anduin, frequently referred to as the “boy king,” is the Alliance’s young leader. He’s always been about peace and love and the Light, but Battle for Azeroth seems to suggest that we’ll see him finally grow out of being the idealist he was when his father was still living. This expansion sees Anduin follow his leaders’ advice: to protect his people at all costs, even if that means going to war with the Banshee Queen.

Nathanos Blightcaller

Nathanos is Sylvanas’ second in command, and her most trusted ally. He’s one of her dark rangers, and a Forsaken himself. In Battle for Azeroth, Nathanos exists as the middle man between players and the Dark Lady. He leads the War Campaign for the Horde and is the only Horde leader that seems to be fully on-board with Sylvanas and her war. However, even Nathanos seemed to have some second thoughts in the Battle for Lordearon cinematic.

Jaina Proudmoore

Jaina is one of the oldest Warcraft heroes still in the game. After taking a break from the Alliance during Legion, Jaina is back to help bring her faction to her original home, the sea-faring nation of Kul Tiras. While Jaina once fought alongside the Horde in Warcraft 3, she now feels a deep hatred for them — a plot point that promises to deliver death on one side or the other. Rexxar’s days are looking numbered.

Varok Saurfang

Saurfang is one of the Horde’s oldest soldiers, and is appropriately the subject of the Old Soldier cinematic. As Anduin puts it in the Lordearon cinematic, “Varok Saurfang embodies the honor of the Horde.” Saurfang has long been considered one of the most staple Horde heroes, standing up for the faction’s original values through the first — and now, the second — evil Warchief. He is already standing up to Sylvanas for the true Horde, something that will surely only get more important over Battle for Azeroth’s life.

Genn Greymane

Genn is a worgen and king of the human city Gilneas. Or, he was, until Sylvanas unleashed the Blight upon his city and drove his people out entirely at the same moment it was attacked by a worgen curse. Needless to say, Genn doesn’t care much for Sylvanas or the Horde, for that matter. He’s also Anduin’s most trusted advisor, and promises to suggest violent solutions to the Alliance’s current Horde problem this expansion.

Magni Bronzebeard

Magni is a former dwarven king and brother to Muradin and Brann. He’s also made entirely out of diamonds, as a result of a strange ritual years ago. Now Magni is the Speaker of Azeroth, and he spends his time communing with the slumbering world soul inside the planet. He believes that the world is in great danger, which is far more important than any Horde or Alliance squabble. He will usher players into any and all conflict beyond their factions.

Queen Azshara

Queen Azshara is N’Zoth’s greatest living ally, and was a former queen of the elves. After turning evil a millennia ago, Azshara is now the first and current queen of the aquatic snake-people, the naga. While we don’t know how she fits into Battle for Azeorth yet, her upcoming Warbringer short should give hints on her goings on. We also know that she’ll be a raid boss this expansion, promising some interesting looks at a very old character.