With Battle for Azeroth’s first season of content drawing to a close, now is no better time to take a moment and reflect on the story of this expansion so far. For those that have played through each of the major War Campaigns, things are certainly getting interesting in the war between the Horde and the Alliance. This week I wanted to take a look at an incredibly muddy conflict and ask one question: Who are the bad guys in World of Warcraft Tides of Vengeance?
Most players would immediately point their fingers at the Horde and their current Warchief, Sylvanas Windrunner. She is more colloquially known as the Banshee Queen of the Forsaken, a nation of Undead who have been rejected by their nations and found solace in each other. Whether through means of vengeance or simply finding companionship in those that share their struggle, the Forsaken endure simply because there is no where else for them to go. With their population dwindling, the Warchief has seen fit to create new Forsaken by the means of the Val’kyr, raising the dead into life. Some choose to join willingly, others are told that if they are not Forsaken then they can deal with those who seek to destroy the Undead.
On the other side of the equation sits the main race of the Alliance: the Humans. These are a hardy, adaptive people who in just two generations have been reduced from Seven Kingdoms and a population in the potential tens of thousands to just two nations and a few hundred between them. Humanity is quite literally backed into a corner and is strung together in an alliance of necessity for their survival at the core. Headed by High King Anduin Wrynn the Alliance hopes to take a virtuous path towards the future with the Light in hand.
Separately these two nations are the current driving force of both the Alliance and the Horde. Both of their leaders want the best for their people and both have incredibly big shoes to fill now that the Burning Legion has been routed. How did two factions that, at one point, had a serious ceasefire, come to full-out war?
The answer is simple: Azerite. When the Burning Legion was defeated its master, Sargeras, plunged his weapon into the world of Azeroth, wounding it greatly. Azerite rose to the surface in response, a literal scab over the blood of the world. A new mineral rising from the surface of the world is something that is hard to miss, and both factions readily jumped on it. Despite Azerite first appearing exclusively on Kalimdor both factions were quick to jump into researching it; so quick that it is incredibly difficult to reliably form a timeline on the situation. While the Alliance was reportedly first to send an expedition to investigate in the novel Heart of the Storm, traces of their presence would not appear until long after the launch of Battle for Azeroth, after Horde forces had already begun mining the rare mineral. Both groups were met with lethal hostility by the opposite faction and few survivors on either side.
The War of Thorns
In an effort to control the continent of Kalimdor, and fearing an Alliance built on Azerite power, Sylvanas Windrunner laid siege upon the island-nation of Teldrassil in an attempt to slaughter their leadership and hold the Night Elf homeland hostage against the Alliance, effectively breaking the native people and severing their ties with the enemy. In the final aspects of an utterly brutal campaign the Warchief came toe-to-toe with Malfurion Stormrage, Archdruid of the Cenarion Circle and defender of the Night Elven people. In their battle High Overlord Saurfang intervened, hurling his axe at the back of Malfurion Stormrage and mortally wounding the druid. Sylvanas departed leaving the Overlord with one command: kill the Archdruid and return to her side to claim their victory. Instead Saurfang made an unprecedented move and defied his Warchief’s orders, believing his coming to his Warchief’s defense in such a manner was an incredible mark of dishonor.
To put this in perspective, High Overlord Varok Saurfang has never outwardly defied an order from his Warchief, even when the threat of death has been involved. Despite friction between past Warchiefs, and even superior commanders in Northrend, he has not once deserted his duty to the Horde, even when his son was slain at Icecrown and the Wrathgate. He could in fact be one of the more moderate voices among the leadership of the Horde. As noted in the novel War Crimes, at the trial of Garrosh Hellscream, who Saurfang defected from to join the Siege on Orgrimmar, the Overlord was one of a handful of people who did not believe that the deposed Warchief deserved a death sentence. Instead he believed that Garrosh should be tried by Orcish Customs and face the Overlord in mak’gora, a duel to the death to determine whether he would live and repent or perish for his crimes against the world.
When held at bowpoint by the High Priestess of the Night Elves, Tyrande Whisperwind, Saurfang gave her an ultimatum to either take her beloved and flee or try to stop the Horde and die. When the Elven commanders fled, Saurfang returned to his Warchief’s side. In response, Sylvanas performed the only thing that could potentially break the Night Elven people and set Teldrassil to the flame, murdering thousands of civilians, priests and Sentinels in the blaze. Despite how it galvanized the rage of several main Night Elven heroes, such as Warden Maiev Shadowsong, its clear this tactic worked on members of the Night Elves both who still live and who have been raised as Forsaken, including Delaryn Summermoon who now believes that Tyrande, Malfurion and even her goddess betrayed the Night Elven people.
Despite hoping to end a war long before it began, Sylvanas now found herself embroiled in a savage conflict that brought itself right to her doorstep. Soon after the Burning of Teldrassil, the Alliance besieged the Undercity, burning a swath through the Tirisfal Glades in their assault and rendering the land uninhabitable, even by the Forsaken. Rapidly devastating and routing the Horde forces, the Alliance savaged their way up to the front gates of the Undercity led by High King Wrynn. In an attempt to drive them back, Windrunner unleashed the Blight, a necromantic biological weapon that slaughtered the Alliance wholesale. Sending heroes of the Horde, armed with chemical masks and suits, she saw that her wounded were returned to the Undercity before raising the fallen as Undead, stripping the Alliance of their foothold on the region.
It was only due to the timely arrival of Archmage Jaina Proudmoore that saw a moderate victory for the Alliance and broke the defenses of the Horde. Abandoning the city, Windrunner and her retinue blighted the remains of the Undercity, refusing to let it be used as an Alliance stronghold in the region. With their fleets decimated by the Legion and their forces diminished from two bloody battles, the Horde and Alliance then turned to the Zandalari Empire and the Kingdom of Kul Tiras respectively for aid, both commanding the greatest naval fleets the world has ever known.
The War Campaigns
Both War Campaigns go into detail over what each side is willing to do to win, and who really has the upper hand in this conflict. The Alliance discovers that Sylvanas has recruited more of the Scourge’s top lieutenants into her fold, promising the vampiric San’layn that if they can control their hunger and prove their usefulness, they can have a place in her Horde. The rest of the Horde, ignorant and unknowing of this dark move, instead attempt to work on dismantling the Kul Tiran fleet, the only true force that could potentially rival the Zandalari Empire’s navy and challenge their rule over the seas. In both cases the lines here become incredibly blurred and indistinct when it comes to why each commander in this war truly wishes to be involved. Sticking around after talking to the heroes of both the Horde and the Alliance paints a telling story of the conflict.
In looking at the Horde their commanders are incredibly diverse; Nathanos Blightcaller, Champion of the Banshee Queen leads her expeditionary forces and the war effort in Zandalar. Garona Halforcen, infamous assassin of High King Llane Wrynn has become the Horde’s Mission Specialist because she claims to see the hubris of the Alliance, stating that, “Perhaps it is time to fell another King.”
Nathanos Blightcaller echoes her statements, though with the darker tone Forsaken are known for. Believing humanity has become hypocritical in their quest of following the Light and their abandonment of the Forsaken, an entire nation of people, Nathanos (and Horde Champion Lillian Voss) believe that the only method to prove them otherwise will be the killing and raising of the Alliance to force their perspectives to change. While fatalistic to the extreme, he certainly isn’t wrong. During the Horde’s War Campaign players will come across a tidesage by the name of Thomas Zelling; he is a native of Kul Tiras, who has become deathly ill and will soon die. After proving his power to the Horde he begs Lillian Voss to see he is raised as a Forsaken, so that he can protect his family even after his death. Raising him from the grave with one of the Val’kyr, Zelling returns to life as a Forsaken and rushes off to meet his family who immediately reject him as a monster. Left alone with no one else to turn to, Zelling resigns himself to his life as a Forsaken with a promise from Nathanos Blightcaller; as long as he serves the means of the Horde his family will remain unharmed.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Alliance, with High Commander Halford Wyrmbane leading the 7th Legion forces in Kul Tiras. Aided by Spymaster Mathias Shaw, both share stories about their career in the Alliance if the hero wishes to stand around and listen. Wyrmbane, a career soldier, has fought the Horde all of his life. Mathias Shaw sees himself more as a tool of the king, stating, “… If I had to choose between satisfying honor and getting the job done, I’ll pick the latter every time. For the Alliance, of course.” This results in them using tactics time and time again that others would see as utterly dishonorable: from the trapping of the San’layn to kill them to the hit-and-run bombing of Horde forces at sea, much to Falstad Wildhammer’s delight.
This paints the conflict in two vastly conflicting ideals. For the Horde this is a war that has long since bubbled beneath the surface of the world; in fighting through the Darkshore Warfront introductions members of the Horde’s races fight side-by-side against raised skeletons. Even Orcs, who wholeheartedly revile unnatural magics like fel and necromancy, fight against the mutual threat of Tyrande Whisperwind. Much like Sylvanas’ original promise with the War of Thorns, this is a fight not just for their security but for their vengeance. The Horde is tired of feeling as, ‘the Other,’ in Azeroth and will now take any efforts to protect their home, perfectly illustrated by King Rastakahn’s bargain in the Zandalar Forever questline.
For the Alliance this war is less a war of ideology and the continuation of a long, tired crusade. While willing to fight tooth and nail to the end, this is a war the Alliance feels they’ve fought before and are still in the right on. To Wyrmbane and Shaw this is just another day in the life in pushing back their life-long enemy. In planning movements against the Horde Shandris Feathermoon, the General of the Sentinel Army, talks more about purging the Horde and the Forsaken in your quests together than simply seeking vengeance. The Dark Irons brought on board to strike a foothold in Zandalar unleash horrific elementals and fire magic to burn the Bilgewater Cartel’s forces alive, effectively glassing the beach.
The Tides of Vengeance
This isn’t to say that neither Faction acts what most players would ascribe to them as, “typical.” The Forsaken still use and raise the dead of the Alliance as tools in their war for the psychological value. Nathanos even tells his forces to, “Blight it from shore to shoreline,” in the Battle for Darkshore, though the Forsaken do not use this recklessly. Even in their War Campaign after finding the body of Derek Proudmoore, the Crown Prince of Kul Tiras, they use his corpse to draw out the elite forces of Boralus so that a small group can infiltrate the heart of the capitol.
The Alliance follow much in suit, from Humans to Night Elves. High Commander Wyrmbane is often the voice of reason throughout the War Campaign, bringing his experience and knowledge of the Alliance to temper the attitudes and plans of his peers. His long-term plan in besieging Dazar’alor works to minimize casualties across the board, instead looking to shatter the Zandalari fleet and draw out the Horde forces from the civilian Zandalari Empire. Even Tyrande Whisperwind, Avatar of Elune, stays her bloodthirsty blade when faced with the gibing of Deathstalker Commander Belmont (though this is more of her opinion that he isn’t worth the effort).
The entire war, in my opinion, can be summed up in one daily quest. During an assault on Vol’dun there is a quest, Vulpera for a Day, where the Alliance seems to have assaulted a roving caravan of the native Vulpera. However, upon attacking the interlopers, several members of the 7th Legion will instead say that the Horde is responsible and they will slay them for their attack on the defenseless creatures. Despite two warring factions attacking each other for incredibly justified reasons, there are other forces at work driving them together like rabid dogs in the same kennel. This is a conflict that has been brewing for both the Horde and the Alliance for some time but undoubtedly there are whispers at the edge of the world, hoping to capitalize on the burning of empires.
So here’s the question, Who is the villain in this war? And who, or rather what, wants to see the world aflame?