There have been eight WoW expansions so far, but keeping up with the story can be tough. Blizzard divides the plot across various media outside of the MMORPG.
For example, there’re off-game cinematics, graphics novels, and books relevant to most expansions.
So, we’re covering WoW expansions in chronological order. We’ll talk about the lore as well as the relevant changes.
WoW Expansions in Order
World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade – 2007
Back when Blizzard’s distributor was Vivendi instead of Activision, they released WoW’s first expansion, The Burning Crusade. But there’s also WoW Classic: The Burning Crusade, 2021’s faithful reiteration of the ancient update.
The storyline takes place beyond a Dark Portal, across the shattered remains of the Draenor world, the Outlands.
Draenor was the orc’s homeworld until Ner’Zhul led them away to find new lands to conquer. The corruption of dark magic destroyed the place, and now it has become part of the Twisting Nether, an ethereal dimension that connects various worlds.
Lore-wise, doomlord and Legion commander Kazzak opened a portal to Azeroth. The Burning Legion used the portal to invade Azeroth. The Alliance and the Horde must fight together to achieve victory.
Across the portal, Illidan Stormrage is growing in the Outlands as a powerful king. He’s one of the bosses until the final clash against the demon lord Kil ‘Jaeden, Illidan’s master.
Lastly, the expansion added flying mounts and two races.
The new races were the Draenei and Blood Elves. Blood elves are currently the most played race. Further changes enable the Paladin class to The Horde (as a Blood Elf) and the Shaman to the Alliance (as a Draenei).
World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King – 2008
Now, as part of Activision, Blizzard launched the second WoW expansion in 2008.
The expansion added a ton of features, some of which are present today. Among its changes, WotLK introduced a new continent, Northrend, and the Death Knight class.
Northrend was home to Arthas, the Lich King. It was also home of The Forsaken army and their Banshee ruler, Sylvannas Windrunner. She was seeking vengeance against Arthas for turning her into an undead spirit.
The fallen prince is the last boss of the expansion. He’s remembered as one of the best boss fights WoW has ever had.
The Lich King falls with the help of his former lover, Jaina Proudmoore, and his former servant, Sylvanas Windrunner.
But with the Fall of the Lich King, the leaderless undead go on a rampage all over Azeroth. That’s why Alliance commander Bolvar Foldragon takes the Frozen Throne in Arthas’ place.
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm – 2010
After Arthas’ death, mysterious earthquakes and elemental attacks shake Azeroth. It’s one of the five Dragon Aspects, Deathwing the Destroyer (a Warcraft II character). He’s threatening the end of all life. As you can imagine, he’s the last boss of the expansion.
During the worldwide disaster, the Alliance and the Horde enter into a new conflict. Thrall is no longer The Horde leader, as Garrosh Hellscream is sitting at Ogrimmar’s throne.
Thrall travels the land searching for other ways to help Azeroth. Meanwhile, Garrosh Hellscream launches a series of attacks against the alliance to conquer more territory.
Gameplay-wise, the game introduced “Contested” zones, which feature a PvP based questline. Also, it introduced two new races, revamped the talent trees, and made flying mounts available worldwide.
World of Warcraft: Mist of Pandaria – 2012
Then comes WoW: Mist of Pandaria, which introduced a new class, a new race, and a new area.
The Monk is a melee-oriented class that uses defensive and healing abilities. Then, the Pandaren is the famous intelligent panda race. We saw the first Pandaren as a hidden hero in the bonus horde campaign on Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne.
Pandarens are faction-neutral during the first part of the game. At the end of their Wandering Isle quests, players choose a faction.
As for Pandaria, it’s a new continent with new enemies, several zones. It currently has quests for Pandaren players, unless you visit the area through a particular NPC.
Plot-wise, the Horde’s warchief continues a devastating attack against the Alliance. All the while, a naval skirmish leaves Alliance and Horde forces stranded on Pandaria, where new missions open for each faction.
Dissent grows within Garrosh Hellscream’s ranks as the orc leader loses sanity to find powerful artifacts in Pandaria. He’s the last boss of the expansion.
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor – 2014
Warlords of Draenor introduced player-built garrisons with a fair upgrade system.
There were also textures, animations, and design updates to improve the overall visuals of the MMORPG. As such, the expansion increased the game’s system requirements.
PvP had some major changes as well. For example, crowd control abilities became less powerful on PvP. There were other changes in how dodges, parries, and hits work.
Lore-wise, WoD follows Mists of Pandaria and takes place in Draenor.
In essence, Garrosh escapes his trial towards Draenor, 35 years into the past. He changes the fate of the orcs by preventing his father, Grommash, from drinking Mannoroth’s blood. This means the Burning Legion never corrupts the orc race.
The event opens an alternate timeline where the Draenor orcs unite as the “Iron Horde” under Garrosh. They conquer the planet, defeat Mannoroth, and build a portal to travel forward in time and conquer Azeroth. Both the Alliance and the Horde must fight together against the invaders.
It’s a giant story with major events all over the place. Moreover, it features classic orc characters like Gul’Dan and Ner’zhul.
By the end, Thrall defeats Garrosh Hellscream, but Gul’Dan remains as the Iron Horde’s warchief. He summons Archimonde to help him, and so the ancient demon is the final boss.
World of Warcraft: Legion – 2016
Legion begins two years after Archimonde’s defeat. The expansion happens in the Broken Isles, an island chain in the middle of the Great Sea. You may remember the location from The Frozen Throne campaign.
Gul’Dan is now on Azeroth’s main timeline, dwelling in the Tomb of Sargeras. He summoned demons to conquer the world, and both the Alliance and the Horde defend their lands.
Gul’Dan brings back a gallery of resurrected demons to fight at his side. Thus, the expansion bosses include Argus the Unmaker, Kil’jaeden, Illidan, and Sargeras the Titan.
Gameplay-wise, developers added Artifact weapons, new items with specific class buffs.
More importantly, the expansion introduced the Demon Hunter class. It’s another “hero class,” and it takes its cue from Illidan.
Lastly, Legion improved the “Transmogrify” system that allows players to change their item’s appearances.
War of the Thorns Campaign – 2018
War of the Thorns is a pre-expansion that introduces Sylvanas Windrunner as the next villain.
The Horde and the Alliance players follow their own stories. However, both parts end with Sylvanna burning the Night Elf world tree, Teldrassil.
The campaign was an in-game event that ran between July and August 2018.
World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth -2018
Sylvanas Windrunner has become the Horde Warchief. She’s seeking more power and control over Azeroth. Thus, the Horde campaign ends up with the destruction of major night elves and human cities. The ruined locations include Lordaeron.
Major events happen all over the world, including all-out conflict between the Horde and the Alliance. Another major battle takes both the Alliance and the Horde against the Old Gods.
However, the most important questline follows Sylvanas Windrunner. Both factions ally against Sylvanas as she grows increasingly powerful and dangerous. Their combined forces push the Banshee Queen away from Orgrimmar:
Sylvanas runs to Northrend and kills the Lich King Bolvar Fordragon. Then, she destroys the Lich King’s crown, which creates a portal to Shadowlands, the land of the dead:
Gameplay-wise, the expansion introduced two continents, Kul Tiras and Zandalar. These continents introduce 4 new Alliance races.
Also, Blizzard introduced a “squish” for both stats and items to lower the DPS numbers.
Other introductions include Warfronts, a 20-player co-op PvE game mode. Island Expeditions are similar, offering a 3-player co-op towards Pandaria in search of “Azurite.“
Lastly, Battle for Azeroth changed how PvP works. In essence, users need to activate the War Mode in their capital cities to enable open-world PvP.
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands – 2020
Even with its 8 million monthly players, Shadowlands is the least successful WoW expansion.
Either way, the content introduces the Shadowlands, the undead realm. It comes with a “level squish,” pushing the level cap from 110 to 60. All max-level players went down to level 50.
Other changes include Death Knight access to all races. Moreover, there’re new raids, dungeons, bosses, items, and two new races (Vulpera and Mechagnomes).
There’s also a “New Game+” feature for players with 120 level characters. They can start over at the “Exile’s Reach” island to level faster.
From level 10 onwards, Battle of Azeroth content is available for all players. Otherwise, players can level on previous campaigns via Chromie Time.
You can talk with Chromie at Stormwind or Ogrimmar to play older expansions. However, you can only engage with the NPC if you already have a level 50 character.
Similarly, Shadowlands content is available after reaching level 50.
Another feature is The Covenants, Shadowland rulers. These are sub-factions that offer specific questlines, abilities, and gear. Covenant campaign rewards are powerful. These include stat increases and valuable currency.
As for the plot, it’s about Azeroth leaders (Thrall, Jaina Produmoore, and Baine Bloodhoof) following Sylvanas’ trail on the Shadowlands.
In the land of the undead, the heroes must fight against the dead, Sylvanas, and the many outer-worldly overlords and perils. They managed to capture Sylvanna, but another deadly being fled, the Jailer.
Lastly, Shadowlands has twelve Alliance races and twelve Horde races (only the Pandaren is present on both). Similarly, there’re twelve classes for both factions. Otherwise, WoW: Classic has eight races and nine classes.
Classic Era Realms
The Era Realm is the series of WoW Classic remakes Blizzard has been pushing lately. These options are available for all WoW subscribers as a standalone game in the Battlenet game launcher.
Moreover, players can opt to transfer a Wow Classic character towards the current timeline. It’s not possible to transfer a current timeline character to Era realms.
WoW: Classic – 2019 (Remake)
WoW Classic doesn’t have a main quest equal for all players, races, or factions. Depending on your initial choices, you play the story as “Chapters,” and the information comes via dialogue instead of cinematic cuts.
The general gist is how the peace between the Alliance and the Horde is shaking. Both the Horde and the Alliance have divisions and conspiracies damaging their ranks. There’re many threats to investigate, and lingering magic suggests a bigger mystery is out there.
The Lich King, Arthas, is still the antagonist. He leads the undead forces of the Scourge against every living being.
He’s not the only antagonist, though. Every area presents its unique struggles while exploring the rich lore Warcraft has to offer.
All in all, the classic version deals with the aftermath of the events in Warcraft III. The world is not at war, but it seems like a matter of time.
World of Warcraft Classic is the 2019 faithful remake of the original make. It only improves performance and graphics while delivering the same mechanics, quests, classes, races, and whatnot. It’s not an expansion, but we wanted to add it to avoid confusion.
WoW Classic: The Burning Crusade – 2021 (Remake)
WoW Classic: The Burning Crusade is the 2021 remake of the original WoW expansion. WoW Classic players can jump into the Dark Portal to enjoy the 2007 Outlands questline.
Every Warcraft Game in Chronological Order
- Warcraft: Orcs & Humans – 1994
- Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness – 1995
- Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal – 1996 (Expansion)
- Warcraft II: battle.net Edition – 1996 (Multiplayer add-on)
- Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos – 2002
- Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne – 2003 (Expansion)
- World of Warcraft – 2004
- WoW: The Burning Crusade – 2007
- WoW: Wrath of the Lich King – 2008
- WoW: Cataclysm – 2010
- WoW: Mist of Pandaria – 2012
- WoW: Warlords of Draenor – 2014
- Hearthstone – 2014 (Spin-off)
- WoW: Legion – 2016
- WoW: War of the Thorns – 2018 (Pre-expansion Campaign)
- WoW Classic – 2019 (Remake)
- WoW: Battle for Azeroth – 2018
- WoW: Shadowlands – 2020
- WoW Classic: The Burning Crusade – 2021 (Remake)
Can You Play WoW for Free?
World of Warcraft is still the biggest MMORPG in the world. Blizzard’s hit came out in November 2004. It became their highest-grossing title and turned Warcraft into the 10th best-selling video-game franchise.
One of its popular features is the WoW free trial, allowing you to play until level 20. Otherwise, there’s a 15$ monthly subscription free.
The Free Trial doesn’t have access to WoW: Classic servers, though. Also, subscribers have to buy Shadowlands separately to play its content and enjoy its rewards.