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World of Warcraft’s War Mode is the expansion’s secret star

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For the first time in history, I’m more excited about PVP than PVE

Blizzard Entertainment

World of Warcraft’s world PVP was once considered one of the best things to do in the Vanilla version of the game. Characters, leveling as either Horde or Alliance, would find themselves making their way through border skirmishes and uneasy truces. Southshore and Tarren Mill, for instance, were filled with characters of different factions ... and they were just down the road from each other. The Barrens bordered right on the Night Elf territory of Ashenvale. Playing Horde or Alliance gave you a different story, but you were always aware of the other faction being right there, perilously close.

I still remember the thrill I got the first time a quest sent me into the thick of Horde territory on my PVP server, or the first time I killed a bear and turned around to see a much higher-level Orc hunter watching me from afar. These were genuinely cool moments, and as the game progressed, a World PVP culture started to emerge. Tarren and Southshore would constantly have massive raids going on, with dozens of players battling back and forth in the space between the two settlements. World bosses had two threats: the boss itself and the other faction inevitably showing up. Killing faction-specific world bosses, like Nathanos Blightcaller, was already genuinely hard, and there was always the risk of 40 red names pouring over the hill and coming to contest your kill.

Over time, the thrill of World PVP wore off. Players were funneled into the same areas for the same objectives instead of maintaining seperate spaces. Rogues would camp low-level players for literal hours, spamming laughter and /spit emotes. I thought perhaps I — or maybe even the game — had forgotten the old thrills of PVP. I transferred to an RP server, and I reveled in the peace and quiet.

Then Battle for Azeroth hit, along with War Mode, and I fell in love with the concept all over again.

Blizzard Entertainment

War Mode is simple: Every server now has the option for players to choose whether or not they want to enter War Mode. If they don’t, they’re playing purely PVE. No camping, no hostility; just the player and the game. If they do, they enter PVP. War Mode gives 10 percent bonuses to XP and end-game farming, but it means you can be attacked by the other faction at any time. Supply crates occasionally drop from the skies, creating the opportunity for brief skirmishes in key areas.

It’s fun, and it brings back the atmosphere of Southshore and Tarren Mill or other Vanilla battlefields perfectly. I never realized I missed people building up raids on the other faction, or the brief moment of panic when you see a geared-up Horde character rolling around in what is very clearly Alliance territory.

Even better, War Mode gives players the opportunity to be the hero. So much of Battle for Azeroth’s PVE content puts the player in the role of “unknown adventurer,” doing the legwork for the real heroes like Lady Waycrest and her Inquisitors, or Zandalari royalty. World of Warcraft’s PVP stories all star me and my character. I snuck around a throng of Horde gathering at Anyport and gave their location to my allies, then I followed them at a distance and stopped their attempts to mine Azerite for a World Quest. None of this is Shakespeare, but it’s fun to have agency and participate in little emergent stories around the world.

Blizzard Entertainment

War Mode gives more than just a handy experience boost and some extra talents — it manages to do all of the heavy lifting in selling the Horde against Alliance narrative that’s so central to the expansion. After a long day, I decided to unwind a little by playing my Blood Elf rogue. I am admittedly a terrible rogue, despite the fact that I have a very careful aesthetic set up and a lot of thoughts about that character’s backstory and motivations. I settled in and started a session of working my way through Dazar’Alor, the seat of power for the Zandalari trolls. As I talked to civilians and helped out guards, 40 members of the Alliance rolled out of nowhere and killed everything that could be killed in the area.

I resurrected, tried to vanish, and was immediately cut down and revealed by a warrior who knew I was nearby. I sat there and stared at my corpse and the cluster of Alliance around it. I main Alliance, and have for over a decade. This expansion is the first time I’m leveling a Horde alt before an army of Alliance characters, just so I can see the Horde side of the story. The event that kicked off the whole war, the burning of Darnassus, left me cold and cynical.

Yet in that moment, watching dozens of red names cluster over my corpse and clear innocent civilians (well, as innocent as any NPC can be) off the streets of Zandalar before moving on, I felt a sense of ... patriotism, perhaps.

“I’m glad we burned that goddamn tree down,” I said, and then resurrected again to sneak off.

And there it was: the moment of investment and justification I needed. The War Campaign, as carefully plotted as it was, couldn’t get me invested like the sheer pettiness players are capable of. No one needs to participate in War Mode; there are doubtlessly players on both factions who are already involved, invested, and choosing not to deal with constant ganks while they investigate a good story.

World of Warcraft’s PVE content has been nothing to sneeze at, but War Mode is the perfect addition to the formula Blizzard built with Legion. While N’Zoth is clearly rising along with Queen Azshara, I hope that the two factions don’t reunite to polish the Old Gods off. I kind of hope the war continues, just enough that I can keep getting my fill of War Mode.