What if ...?
It's one of the most dangerous two-word phrases in the English language, my friends. What if leads us down roads strewn with nevers, could have and didn't after didn't.
This week, we're going to look at what would have happened if a few decisions had been made differently. What if Stormwind had never fallen? What if the Horde had lost the First War? On the surface, it seems like an easy question to answer. Stormwind never falls and Varian Wrynn's dad Llane gets to stay king with his heart inside his chest. Everyone's happy, right? (Well, everyone but the orcs.)
But the world would be vastly different without the rise of the Horde to prominence on Azeroth. Without the disastrous defeat of one of humanity's nations, there would be no Alliance of Lordaeron, no Thrall, no Second War, no death of Gul'dan at the Tomb of Sargeras, no Alliance Expedition, no destruction of Draenor by Ner'zhul's reckless sorcery -- the closer one gets to the present-day World of Warcraft, the more unrecognizable it becomes.
We can't answer for every possibility. We can't establish an absolutely canonical scenario for what would have happened, and we'd be fools to try. But we can look at the ramifications of the First War and consider their immediate implications and what would have come from them.
More dangerous in defeat than victory
First off, the Horde itself nearly fell apart during the First War, which we have to consider. The clash between Gul'dan and his Shadow Council and the various tribal leaders was only settled by the establishing of a puppet Warchief, Blackhand the Destroyer. And in turn, Orgrim Doomhammer seized the opportunity to take power and violently deposed Blackhand.
Doomhammer got the chance to do so when Anduin Lothar led a force of soldiers to Medivh's tower and executed Medivh, and Gul'dan attempted to ransack the human mage's mind for the secret location of the Tomb of Sargeras in his final moments, only to nearly die himself. The instability of his near death left the Shadow Council vulnerable, and in that moment, not only did Doomhammer assassinate Blackhand, he did away with the majority of Gul'dan's warlock followers as well.
Meanwhile, due to visions she witnessed in Medivh's tower, Garona Halforcen felt herself trapped in the fate ordained for her by Gul'dan at her creation. During the Horde assault on Stormwind, she assassinated Llane Wrynn, cutting out his heart. This act destablized the city at the crucial moment, and it was only through the sacrifice of Lothar's Brotherhood of the Horse that the majority of Stormwind's people managed to escape.
This leaves us with several ways that events could have played out differently. The easiest is simple -- what if Medivh's death had not happened the same way?
Medivh's death came when Khadgar and Garona, suspicious of the mage's true motivations, led Lothar's forces to Karazhan's front door. It was Khadgar who struck the blow to Medivh while he was communicating mentally with Gul'dan, leading the orc warlock to attempt to rip the secrets of Sargeras' Tomb from his mortal host. Had Medivh simply cut that connection before the combat, had it taken longer, had Garona moved more decisively to help strike him down ...
It would have been easy for Gul'dan to remain lucid and not plunge into a coma by any of these circumstances changing. In that case, Doomhammer's coup would have faced stiffer opposition, and he may even have failed to carry it out. Blackhand's weakness as a puppet warchief means that, simply enough, the Horde could not take Stormwind under his command. With Medivh dead, Gul'dan and his Shadow Council would have no means to learn the location of Sargeras' tomb (since Gul'dan only learned of it through Medivh's mind), and Garona would have no opportunity to assassinate Llane with his full complement of guards and Lothar by his side.
Nowhere to go but forward
However, the Horde was always fighting with its back to the wall. There could be no retreat for them, because Draenor was losing the ability to sustain life, and only through conquest of Azeroth could the orcs of the old Horde sustain themselves and their people.
Also, Stormwind had defeated the orcs time and again, driving them back into the Black Morass, but they always made a new offensive because they had no choice. Gul'dan's support may have propped Blackhand up, but the Horde fought for him because there was no alternative. A loss following Medivh's death would only leave them the more stranded.
In essence, had Stormwind defeated the Horde under Blackhand, the orcs would be left in force to the south in what is today the Blasted Lands and Swamp of Sorrows, unable to retreat and without the crushing defeat imposed upon them at the end of the Second War, preparing a new advance bolstered by their undisputed control of the Dark Portal. Remember, the old Horde had left key figures on Draenor because Gul'dan didn't trust them -- figures like Grom Hellscream.
Also, without the death of the Shadow Council at Doomhammer's hands, there would be no orc death knights in the bodies of human knights. But Gul'dan and his warlocks would know more than ever that the Horde needed a counter to human magic. Abandoned by the Burning Legion, they would have been willing to try anything to achieve it. Who knows what abominations Gul'dan would be capable of in that extreme a case? With no home of finding the Tomb, he would need new magics, and the troll empire of Zul'Gurub would be within reach and a logical ally against humanity.
Half a Horde is not worse than all of one
In the history of Azeroth we know, the Second War followed hard upon the First. It led to the creation of the Alliance, a force commanding the military might of several human kingdoms and the allied forces of the high elves of Quel'thalas and the Dwarves of Khaz Modan. Even gnomes took some small portion of the fight. Against this force was arrayed the exact same orcish force that had destroyed Stormwind, bolstered primarily through alliance with the trolls of Zul'Aman and the enslaving of the red dragons of Alexstrasza's Red Dragonflight.
Now, had Stormwind not fallen against this force and had her king not fallen and Lothar not reached out to the other nations (as well as commanded the favor owed him by the high elven throne) to create the Alliance, she could not have stood against an orc force that consisted of reinforcements from the Dark Portal, much less against a Horde that had Gul'dan without his particular motivation during the Second War. Remember, the Horde under Doomhammer nearly won the Second War, despite being critically overextended (due to Doomhammer's brilliant tactics in compensating for his numerical disadvantages). They only lost because Gul'dan knew where the Tomb of Sargeras was and therefore chose to take the moment when Doomhammer couldn't immediately follow him to head to the Tomb and become a god.
But a Gul'dan in full control of the Horde without that knowledge would have no reason to betray it. Indeed, he would need the Horde to be totally victorious, because he would want to ransack the library at Stormwind (and later, Dalaran) for clues as to the location of the Tomb. There would be no heading off after the place, since he did not know where it was.
Behind enemy lines, within enemy council
Also, keep in mind that Garona would have remained in Stormwind, a viper in their midst controlled by the Shadow Council, to use as a spy and saboteur. She would have had the trust of Llane, of Lothar, and of Khadgar. She may even have had access to young Varian, as one of the heroes who helped defeat the Horde and saved the kingdom. This would give any new offensive by the Horde an advantage that would be very difficult to counter. Gul'dan's Horde would have eyes in the councils of its enemies.
Finally, we have the deaths of Durotan and Draka to consider. They may not have even died. Gul'dan would be at once far more secure in his power and yet far less, because he would need Doomhammer alive and relatively willing to prop up Blackhand's stunning lack of tactical and strategic prowess. Especially with Grom Hellscream and others of the more dangerous and unstable members of the Horde that had been originally left behind on Draenor now fighting on Azeroth, Gul'dan couldn't afford to anger Doomhammer if he wanted to achieve his goal. Blackhand couldn't beat Stormwind before, and it would be foolish to trust him to do it after giving them time to rebuild.
Furthermore, assassinating moderates like Durotan would not only give Doomhammer more reason to betray him. The Frostwolves were nothing if not skilled cavalry and skirmishers. Leaving Durotan and Draka alive in this situation would certainly be risky, but the Frostwolves had no more chance to thrive on Draenor than anyone else did. Letting them serve as hostages to keep Doomhammer pointed in the direction Gul'dan needed him was exactly the kind of coldly rational decision the warlock would make, prepared to kill them at a moment's notice if they proved a threat.
Was Stormwind doomed to fall?
We would be left with a Stormwind fighting alone against a force more ruthless, more driven, and more powerful than before, with potential troll allies from Zul'Gurub (who hated the humans even more than the Amani hated them) and a spy in their very councils of power. While defeat would not be presumed for them, victory for Stormwind in such a conflict without help from other nations seems extremely unlikely.
Furthermore, Thrall might have grown to young adulthood a cog in the Horde war machine, Go'el of the Frostwolves. And had he done so, who is to say he would not have rebelled against his father and mother's values, seeking glory alongside Horde heroes like Doomhammer and Hellscream? With the path of the shaman closed to him, would he have become a fearsome warrior, a warlord, even a warlock?
As I said before, the further forward from this event we travel, the more unrecognizable Azeroth becomes. And what of Draenor? With most of the orcish tribes gone to war on an alien world, the planet might have recovered. With the main force of the Shadow Council focused elsewhere, with Gul'dan occupied with his war, Ner'zhul would have found himself running what was left on a planet slowly recovering.
And what of the draenei, huddled in swamps and refuges, observing their enemy as it dwinded away occupied with its newest war? Would Akama have led a force of stealthy ambushers into the Black Temple, cut off Ner'zhul's head, and used the elder shaman's research into the Dark Portal to seal it from Draenor's side? Would Draenor now exist rather than its shattered remnants drifting in the Twisting Nether?
Impossible to say, but one fact remains: The World of Warcraft would be utterly altered from what we know today. The aftershocks of the First War made it what it is. Remove them, and it's possible the war would have only grown more terrible. Without Ner'zhul alone, we now have no idea what would become of Lordaeron, Arthas, or Northrend. Would the nerubians still be a living people? Would Yogg-Saron have risen earlier?
Next week: What if the Horde had won the Second War?
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.