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World of Warcraft’s Maldraxxus is the grittiest zone in the Shadowlands

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Get ready for skeletons, necromancy, and endless war

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands - A necrolord player fights their way through Maldraxxus Image: Blizzard Entertainment

In the next World of Warcraft expansion, Shadowlands, we get to see a selection of afterlives. Anyone who dies can go to any kind of heaven or hell ranging from a castle full of vampire devils who torture people to get them back in line, to a beautiful fae forest of restoration and peace. But the weirdest afterlife is Maldraxxus, which serves as the military task force for the Shadowlands. The entire zone is grim, gritty, and dedicated to glorious combat, with aesthetics ripped right off the airbrushed mural on a metalhead’s van.

Maldraxxus has the Necrolords Covenant, and a few familiar characters — like Thrall’s mom, Draka. There are a few central pillars that make the Necrolords unique. One, unlike the Kyrian in Bastion, they don’t expect you to erase your memories of being mortal — instead, they think you were such a great, kickass person that they want you to embrace that and improve upon yourself. Maldraxxus is a place for those who are always on that grind, except here, that effort is rewarded by getting to choose your own physical form (like a giant 12-foot-tall ripped skeleton, if you’re lucky).

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands - concept art of the Maldraxxus zone
“As we were creating art for Maldraxxus, we were fascinated by the potential ecology of biological terrain. In this subzone, we wanted to explore some new takes on canopies, since Maldraxxus is not a place that would have traditional trees. It was also an opportunity to explore new types of fungal ecology that might emerge outside the war-torn areas.” — Gustav Schmidt, senior artist
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Getting back to work

The second thing that makes Maldraxxus unique is that it’s essentially a job. The Necrolords serve as the military agents of the Shadowlands, and that doesn’t usually mean they fight the other Covenants. In the “Afterlives: Maldraxxus” short, we see Draka infiltrate a Burning Legion world in order to steal a map.

“The Shadowlands and the other realms of the cosmos are ancient, ancient things that date back to the very dawn of the universe,” said Steve Danuser, lead narrative designer, in an interview with Polygon. These six primal forces of Light, Shadow, Life, Death, Order, and Disorder have been at war (or in a cold war, or a tense peace) with one another since time began, and Maldraxxus is the strike force that goes into other planes of reality to spy, sabotage, or slaughter their enemies.

The problem is, by the time the heroes arrive for the Shadowlands story, Maldraxxus has descended into civil war and on the brink of collapse.

The Houses divided

Maldraxxus is ruled by someone called the Primus, who was part of the “Pantheon of Death” that ruled over the Shadowlands. Danuser describes him as “the most tactical, the most long-thinking of the Eternal Ones.” So, when it came time to muster a defense force for the Shadowlands, the Primus decided the answer was a system that would eternally separate wheat from chaff in a giant series of melees and battles.

But the Primus is missing in action, and that friendly struggle between the Houses of Maldraxxus has turned into an outright slaughter. People are killing their rivals, undermining their allies, and panicking about the anima draught that’s affecting all of the Shadowlands.

“Now, this army that is meant to stave off threats is disabled because it’s so consumed with turning on itself,” says Danuser. “It’s not prepared to take on any greater threats, and that’s why it takes someone from the outside to come in as strangers in a strange land and affect change.”

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands - Maldraxxus mount concept art
“This was a sketch done for the Maldraxxus zone mount, inspired by Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer. I basically said, ‘What if the Death Dealer was an undead bull you could ride?’” — Cole Eastburn, senior concept artist
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

The gang’s all here

The player will have to join forces with the Necrolords on a temporary basis, or as part of their Covenant. We’ll be working with not just Draka, but other familiar characters from Warcraft history, like Lady Vashj from Warcraft 3 and The Burning Crusade, or Alexandros Mograine, a character from comics and Wrath of the Lich King.

These characters were all part of opposing factions on Azeroth, but now they’re all on team Maldraxxus, and you can overhear them chat about their lives. They’re occasionally catty, but united.

“[The Necrolords] believe that it’s the things you accomplished, the things you achieved, whether they were heroic or diabolical, those things made you stronger and made you strive to better yourself,” says Danuser. A lady like Draka might find Vashj, who tried to steal all of the water off a planet and help a demon army invade the world, distasteful ... but now they’re shoulder to shoulder against a greater threat.

Danuser stresses that the Shadowlands has stakes. After seeing Ursoc and other characters die in the Shadowlands, fans have wondered if there’s another destination for souls. The answer is no. “The destruction of the soul is very real,” Danuser explains. “There are real things at stake here. And if these spirits like Ursoc are not protected and nurtured, they’ll be lost forever.”

The innocent souls who have been funneled into the Maw thanks to the schemes of Sylvanas and the Jailer are in great peril as well. “There are many souls that have been funneled into the Maw that the Jailer has forged into weapons or monstrosities, and they’re just gone,” Danuser says.

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands - Maldraxxus Necromancer concept art
“Maldraxxus, being the birthplace of necromantic magic, takes a lot of visual inspiration from Warcraft 3’s Undead. The design started with pushing shapes to get a distinct silhouette, and I wanted to make sure to bring in some of the iconic imagery from the original necromancer with elements like the crossing daggers, big sleeves, and giant spell book. These elements show their ritualistic nature and sorcery. This keeps them recognizable as necromancers that players know. As they reside along with the liches in the House of Rituals, they wear similar clothing with purple and gold, and their skulls have a similar shape with their long chins resembling pharaohs.” — Matthew McKeown, senior artist
Image: Blizzard Entertainment

The player will need to work together with Draka and company in order to stop this, but that doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom. Danuser says that Draka’s story will continue to play out in future patches. “One of the natural ways [her story could evolve] could involve the son she never got to meet in life,” says Danuser.

If players join the Necrolords, they’ll also get a suite of powerful abilities and cosmetics, and that’s always nice. But it looks like there’s more in store later down the road in Shadowlands, like the story of the Primus, and maybe even a nice family reunion for one of Warcraft’s most iconic characters.