I’ve been playing World of Warcraft on and off for close to 10 years now. It is, without a doubt, my favorite game of all time. I have never been a part of something that’s had a deeper impact on my life, and that includes my personal relationships. I’ve learned more about myself from World of Warcraft than I ever could expect from my friends, family, teachers, girlfriends, whatever. It will never be replicated, and honestly, nobody should try. It came at a time where people didn’t know enough about what makes an MMO work for that magic to ever be as powerful, or as unintentional, ever again.
So this is a list of my favorite World of Warcraft dungeons and raids of all time. It’s near the game’s 10 year anniversary, but honestly, it was just something I wanted to write. To my surprise, I didn’t end up including anything from Cataclysm or Mists of Pandaria, because I believe these sorts of environments need more than a couple of years to settle in your brain before you can properly reflect on them. It probably also helps that the game had its most profound position in my life back in the Vanilla/Burning Crusade days, so keep that in mind while I’m waxing poetic about a place that never has, nor never will, actually exist.
With that, I hope you shed some wistful tears.
For many of us, this was the first dungeon crawl we ever experienced. I was twelve years old when I first stepped through that portal, too young to crack into Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, perhaps not adventurous enough to stumble into Final Fantasy. I remember hearing that compressed voice-work crackle through my speakers, a rarity in the World of Warcraft. This was uncharted territory. This was where those iron-bound treasure chests could, and should, be found.
Deadmines was essentially a long corridor. You’d scurry through the rocky caves, knife your way through a foundry, and eventually blow down a door with a conveniently placed cannon. What did you find? A massive, sinister pirate ship, its decks covered with bloodthirsty corsairs. If you were paying attention to the lore, it was a profound “so that’s what they’re building down here” moment. It struck you with this forbidden awe, that you were entering a part of this digital world that most certainly didn’t belong to you. At the top stood Edwin VanCleef, who could easily wipe a 5-man group of unprepared noobs. His quotes were iconic, “Fools! Our cause is righteous!” “Lapdogs! All of you!” and when he’s under 20 percent “The brotherhood shall prevail…” At 12 years old, when I’d spent the first couple hours of this game killing bears and kobolds, those words were the coolest things I’d ever heard. In an instant I was back out alone under the crescent moon in the plains of Westfall, pondering the gravity of what I just saw. We were hooked from there on out.
The key to MMO design is imbuing the world you’ve created with a sense of mystery. World of Warcraft, at least as it was on its release, was littered with unfinished ideas and zones. You’d see the scuffed over “Hyjal” written in the corner of the Winterspring map, and desperately search for an entrance. The Caverns of Time were once sealed with an immovable stone. There are still dormant portals across Outland, waiting for a clever adventurer to crack the code.
What enchanted me most was the Ulduar storyline. Back in vanilla you could enter and conquer the ancient Titan research station of Uldaman, standing tall, ominous and partially excavated in the Badlands. Your efforts would be rewarded with a quest that concluded abruptly at the gates of a far off land, the answers to all of MMO civilization locked behind an ancient gate and a bevy of future expansions. All you knew was that Uldaman was the first of three Titan cities that had been left behind by the very shapers of the universe. The other two were named Uldum and Ulduar.
Blizzard dragged it out. It wasn’t until Wrath of the Lich King’s first patch that your guild finally tunneled into those entombed halls. You met the desecrated Watchers who once served as the guardians of Azeroth, the perfectly preserved prototypes of the nation of gnomes, the shattered conservatory, and the ancient evil stewing in the ancient prison at the bottom of the complex.
At its best moments World of Warcraft can imitate life. And after hours and hours with your player-character, be it an enterprising troll, a fiery blood elf, a money-grubbing goblin, they begin to feel a lot like you. You stood with them on the precipice of Uldaman, and years later, you’re delving into an instance portal to try and find some answers. Ulduar satiated an aching mystery literally years in the making, something that could only happen in the venue of World of Warcraft.
Blizzard has gotten better about this. The Warcraft series was marked with a whole lot of lore, enough that building an entire MMO out of its universe wasn’t a crazy idea. But progressing a story that was previously told in cut-scenes and vast, liberal shifts in universe becomes a lot more difficult in a realm built to be structured and consistent. Wars cannot be fought and won in a day, at least not anymore. So instead, they built things like Stratholme, the burning city that you previously razed under Arthas’ blade back in Warcraft III, as part of his becoming of the frigid Lich King.
You were scooping through the rubble. You last saw this city’s walls buckle to the violent scourge, but this was years later. The buildings were scarred and looted, the Lich’s embassies were now legion, with magistrates and knights turned into walking husks. The Necropolis floated overhead, a constant reminder that this was just a minor stronghold, that all victories here were temporary, that even as Baron Rivendare dropped his runeblade, you were still doomed. Northrend loomed at the crown of the world—the broken glass and former allies were all you could play with.
There were a lot of annoying things about The Black Temple. Blizzard did an awful job of explaining exactly what Illidan’s evil plans were supposed to be, and the justification for focusing in on his discretions in lieu of, well, the multitude of other bad guys in the Warcraft universe was paper-thin. He was billed as the archenemy of The Burning Crusade’s story arc, but the Temple was released too early in the expansion’s life cycle, forcing the developers to smudge together The Sunwell Plateau as a staggering, uneven conclusion to a story arc that never quite got its feet set. Oh, also there was a boss that forced us to stack shadow resistance, and if I could go through life without ever having to stack resistance again I’d be pretty happy.
All that being said, The Black Temple remains one of my favorite raids of all time, because despite the missteps it was the first time something in World of Warcraft felt like a big effing deal. Before you were dispatching Ragnaros, an elemental lieutenant who only got mentioned by name if you were the type of person who read extended universe books (me,) and Blackwing, son of Deathwing, who was essentially invented to give players someone to fight that wasn’t Deathwing. C’Thun laid in Ahn’Qiraj, a truly awesome encounter but another figure players didn’t have much context for, same with Kel’Thuzad, Lady Vashj and Kael’Thas Sunstrider.
But Illidan was different. His Sanctum was different. Illidan’s saga began in the very beginning of the Warcraft story bible. He plays a huge part in Warcraft III, and his visage was iconic enough that in the earliest Burning Crusade trailers Blizzard didn’t need to do much more than to have him mutter “you are not prepared” while his ashy expression and fiery green eyes burned holes in the screen. Yeah, Illidan was awesome, and it didn’t matter that he was never given a lot to do in his MMO incarnation. We knew he was at the top of that temple, and we knew we had to vanquish his minions and scale those charcoal stairways. Under the burnt skies of Shadowmoon Valley, there he was, and for the first time in World of Warcraft, the players were given the opportunity to truly leave a mark on the universe.
The Caverns of Time presented a glorious opportunity. Turn the past glories of the Warcraft universe into instances! Storytelling in boss fights and loot! This worked beautifully, for the most part. Sure there were some missteps, like watching Medivh listlessly pry open the Dark Portal while the brave heroes grind on an endless stream of dragons, but the Cataclysm expansion brought us to the beginning and end of time, focal points for any lore nerd, and proof that Blizzard understand what their nostalgia machine is capable of.
But my favorite Caverns of Time dungeon had to be Escape From Durnholde Keep, a trip into recent Warcraft history where we assist a fledgling Thrall from breaking out of his prison. What made this particularly unique was how Blizzard refused to make this a linear, plays-itself nostalgia machine. Durnholde Keep is in the Hillsbrad Foothills, a living, breathing place anyone playing World of Warcraft can visit, and the zone is pristinely recreated within the Escape scenario, except about 30 years older. That means Terran Mill, a town conquered by the Forsaken in modern times, is its old human settlement within the caverns. Old Blanchy? The tired horse you can find out in Westfall? He’s Young Blanchy here. If you walk into one of the pubs at the right time you might witness the creation of the Ashbringer, the legendary blade that Blizzard would tease for a long, long time. The dungeon itself was fine, but the fact that it gave us reason to dilly-dally was truly altruistic.
This might be purely summoned out of nostalgia. Pretty much every other dungeon I’ve featured on this list can hold its own with its design chops. They make sense, there’s a clear path forward, most people know what they’re doing, and it’s a good situation.
Sunken Temple is not that. Sunken Temple is nothing close to that. It’s a mid-tier dungeon used mostly to level characters in back vanilla, but I’ve never seen something so ostensibly docile murder so many would-be adventures. The top half was stalked by the green dragonflight, who would promptly aggro and consume your healer from across the room. The basement? Trolls. Nasty, armor crunching trolls. A lot of them, too. You’d clear them room by room, glancing blow by glancing blow. You’d get to the bottom and kill the king troll, and he would never drop the boots you needed.
It needs to be stated, I fucking hated the Sunken Temple. I’ve probably shed a few pubescent tears over the Sunken Temple. But as I’ve gotten older and World of Warcraft has gotten easier, those endless slogs into the darkness start to rub my pleasure centers. I mean, it’s an elaborate, cursed complex silently brooding in the bottom of a lake. It should be messy, it should be dangerous, and it most certainly shouldn’t hold your hand. The Sunken Temple is the best tough love World of Warcraft has ever administered.
This is living proof that once upon a time World of Warcraft was a legit dungeon crawler. Blackrock Spire was two instances in one. The friendlier, 5-man Lower Blackrock Spire, and the winding, much more daunting Upper Blackrock Spire. This was WoW at its most intentionally antisocial. You could get lost in this dungeon. You could fall from this dungeon into the other dungeon, and render yourself hopelessly removed from the rest of your group. The bosses would drop epics every million kills. No matter how many times you venture through Blackrock Spire, there was still a feeling that you hadn’t seen it all.
That’s the sort of thing I miss about the old Warcraft. There was a time where Blizzard didn’t really know how to make an efficient MMO. There were these loose threads and ridiculous rarities scattered across the digital landscape. Something like Blackrock Spire, with its weird internal questlines and the antagonistic key required for entrance, wouldn’t exist anymore. The game hasn’t been made for crazy people in quite some time, and while everything is prettier and more interactive now, Blizzard lost something in its desire to remove their exclusionary tendencies. It was meaningful to be in groups that failed, to venture into the dungeon together instead of waiting for a queue to tick down. Blackrock Spire was the encapsulation of the weird euphoria of a world that wasn’t following a script.
Number one with a bullet. It’s a giant cave with a giant dragon inside. You go inside the giant cave and you die. You die a lot. Someone gets bounced into the whelps and they eat everyone. Your tank screams at you. Your guild breaks up. There’s not enough DOTs on the flying phase. Stay away from the tail. I SAID STAY AWAY FROM THE TAIL. I still have nightmares of “Onyxia takes a deep breath…”
But sometimes you’d win, and you’d put on an awesome new helmet, and the massive carcass of an obsidian dragon would lay lifeless before you, the thing that had you in its jaws thirty times before. The whole thing would take about half an hour. But it was the most fun, frantic, depressing, inspiring moments of your life. They’d put its head on a stake for the whole capital city to see. Everyone present would get a buff. A buff. For simply reveling in your victory. Onyxia is the queen, always and forever.
Luke Winkie is a writer living in Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter at @luke_winkie.