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World of Warcraft’s new leveling system fixes the biggest barrier to entry

Good news for WoW veterans and the WoW curious

Kyrian owl in Bastion zone Shadowlands, in a scene from World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Image: 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.

Instead of any fancy, back-of-box features like a new class or race in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, Blizzard is focusing on revamping old parts of the game. The most obvious example of this is the new character customization system — currently available in the Shadowlands pre-patch. But Blizzard also completely revamped World of Warcraft’s ancient leveling system, and it’s one of the biggest game changers we’ve seen in years.

Prior to the pre-patch, leveling in World of Warcraft took experienced players 80 hours or more, with new players taking months to fully level a character from 1-120. But in the new pre-patch, it took me less than 20.

How leveling has changed in World of Warcraft

Shadowlands character customizations
Some of the new faces in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Raids and dungeons are the highlights of World of Warcraft, and many players view leveling as a barrier to the game’s best content. There’s a reason players want to get to max level as soon as they can.

Prior to Battle for Azeroth, I decided to run a new Lightforged Draenei Warrior through the leveling experience. By the time I hit max level, my playtime on that character was 60 hours. That’s 60 hours for an experienced player with Heirloom items that increased my experience gain.

In the Shadowlands pre-patch, Blizzard changed almost everything about that process. They squished the current max level down to 50 — with it going up to 60 when Shadowlands drops. And they added an hour-long tutorial experience that takes players from level 1-10. For levels 10-40, they implemented a new time travel experience that players call “Chromie time.” Players choose an expansion they want to level through, and Chromie the time gnome sends them. By the time they finish with that one expansion storyline, they’ll be max level and ready for Shadowlands.

Curious about this new system, I decided to try it out with a character I’m considering maining in Shadowlands: my Vulperan Shaman. Because I’m playing an unlockable race unavailable to new players, I got to skip the opening sequence and start at level 10. I put on my Heirloom gear — which had its experience bonus removed and now just provides bonuses like more rested XP after logging off or combat bonuses — and traveled to the Mists of Pandaria expansion.

In less than a week, I went through four major zones to complete my leveling experience. I’ve quested through Pandaria before, so I was familiar with the route. But I also wasn’t pushing for a fast time. Earlier this week, I hit level 50 at 18 hours played. If you add the one-hour tutorial I skipped and then subtract an hour for AFK time, that leaves me just under 20 hours.

After finishing, I discovered that I chose one of the slowest of the modern leveling expansions, and skipped out on various time-saving measures. Some players can complete the trek in under 10 hours now, under the right circumstances. It’s transformed WoW into a wholly reasonable timesink, and has removed the MMO’s biggest barrier to entry.

Bringing new players into the WoW fold

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands
One of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands’ new leveling zones
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

I love all the classes in World of Warcraft, and I have a near max level version of each one. I’m a blatant “Altaholic,” and I’ve spent quite a bit of extra cash over the years buying max level character boosts. This new leveling system changes that for people like me. If I want to level a new character, I can level them from scratch in the time it takes to play a modern single player experience. It opens up other classes to longtime players who never wanted to bother going through the miserable leveling experience again.

But the real boon here is for new players. I came to World of Warcraft late — at the end of Mists of Pandaria in 2013. But I’d spent years trying to convince friends to play with me and level a character. The only reason my group started playing was because of a now-defunct leveling bonus called refer-a-friend, which drastically increased leveling speeds when playing with real-life friends. Even with refer-a-friend, it was a long, miserable slog.

That 80-120 hour barrier to entry was a daunting wall, forcing players to sacrifice dozens of hours before getting to the “good stuff.” And while the climb usually pays off, many players quit before they get there. But now I can recommend that a friend play World of Warcraft and know they can get a good experience in the time it takes to finish the latest God of War. It’s the most welcoming change we’ve seen out of Blizzard in years, and it’s a massive boon for the WoW veterans and the WoW curious.