There will be spoilers for Mists of Pandaria in this post. Also, it's a Tinfoil Hat post, so I'm making stuff up in it -- do not mistake the conclusions of this post for what Blizzard will actually do.
We're used to how expansions work. From The Burning Crusade's focus on Illidan (only to pull a switcheroo at the end and toss Kil'Jaeden at us) to Wrath of the Lich King's use of Arthas, and of course Cataclysm and our old friend Deathwing, we have an idea of how expansions build up through their life cycle with dungeons and raids. Sometimes these dungeons and raids are side trips or tangentially related to the final end boss of the expansion as a while. (Ulduar was related to ICC and Arthas in that the end boss of the instance, Yogg-Saron, was a rival to Arthas' status as a "death god," and the old god's blood was being mined from the earth and used as Saronite by the Scourge forces, as an example.) But overall, the expansion aims you squarely at the final confrontation.
With Mists of Pandaria, we're heading in a new way of handling the story of an expansion. Rather than each patch serving as a chapter in an overarching story ending in a confrontation with the big bad of the expansion, Mists is aiming for a more episodic feeling, similar to how the story of classic World of Warcraft played out. Each patch of the expansion will seem more sequential, as if the game in patch 5.0 were a movie and then subsequent major content patches its sequels. By comparison, Cataclysm is more like a story with several chapters, a TV show with several episodes, or a comic book miniseries with several issues.
All of this has me thinking. We've been told that Garrosh Hellscream's removal as warchief is the big climax of Mists of Pandaria, and then we've been told that not all is what it seems on that score. What if Garrosh is a smokescreen? What if his removal or lack thereof is not, in fact, even the middle of Mists of Pandaria's story?
I'm really not kidding about that spoiler warning.
With the more fully episodic story unfolding in Mists of Pandaria, with the war heating up between Horde and Alliance, with the return of the Mogu and the Zandalari and the eruption of the Sha and the early invasion of the Mantid across the wall the story, we get exposed to when we first level through Pandaria leads through the leveling zones to several dungeons and raids at level 90.
This should seem familiar to you, if you played through classic WoW in 2004-'05, where the various zones and dungeons ultimately led up to Molten Core while dropping hints for the eventual Blackwing Lair and AQ raids, which dropped in their own patches. These patches each had their own stories, which, while rooted in the world of the previous patches, dominated the patches that they happened in. In essence, everything that we get at launch -- every raid, every dungeon -- deals in one way or another with the hostile forces unleashed on Pandaria by the arrival of your character to Pandaria and the war the Horde and Alliance bring.
Hell comes to Pandaria
But the Horde and Alliance don't arrive on Pandaria in force until the next big content patch, which is most likely to be patch 5.1, and so the entire story we're getting upon launch effectively concerns Pandaria on the edge of the chaos, not fully swamped under it. Patch 5.1 changes the status quo for the continent and the world by taking the war from a simmer to a roiling boil, as hinted at by Wrathion's dialogue.
What this means is that we'll be fighting the various threats to Pandaria -- the Sha, the Mogu -- before the arrival of the Horde and Alliance in force. Now, keep in mind, the Jade Forest is where the Sha first erupt, in part due to the disharmony of the Alliance and Horde forces making alliances with the Jinyu and Hozen and waging their war by proxy. And that leads to an onslaught of Sha forces that pushes the Mantid into invading the rest of Pandaria a full century early, while also giving the Mogu the opportunity they've waited 10,000 years for to recreate their lost empire and reclaim their ancient secrets.
Now once the war begins in earnest, how much more is Pandaria's balance going to be irrevocably upset?
We have here a rare opportunity where each new patch brings with it whole new themes. Will we be seeing new dungeons, new raids with each patch? And what exactly happens with each patch? If the war heats up, what are we doing in patch 5.1? Are we fighting it, trying to stop it, or both? Do we discover that while the war is raging the Mogu are free to use their strange magical ability to recombine souls themselves to birth some new horror out of the souls of the dead fighting the war? And what does it benefit the Zandalari to be part of the Mogu effort to reclaim Pandaria?
There's so much story potential in Mists that frankly, the more I think about it, the more questions I ask. Even with spoiler warnings on this post, I'm not comfortable listing all the things that made me scratch my head just about the Mogu while questing through Kun-Lai or flying through the Vale of Eternal Blossoms and seeing the ancient Mogu structures. Reading the Dungeon Journal text for Elegon didn't help me with it; it just raises further questions.
Garrosh's downfall seems almost like a distraction to me, after seeing the Sha infest and infect the leaders of several factions/nations in the Mists beta. When you see that the Mantid Empress becomes host to the Sha of Fear or hunt down the Sha of Hatred after his similar evil schemes for the Shado Pan Monastery, you start to wonder. If the Sha are capable of manipulating leaders and corrupting the very land across Pandaria and grow substantially in strength by the chaos caused by a minor skirmish in the Jade Forest, what does the arrival of full-fledged warfare between these two factions help unleash? And does it seek out hosts like the Mantid Empress, perhaps ones with even more potent military forces at their command?
Horror, terror, rage, violence, and all things Sha
When you go to the Temple of the White Tiger to prove that you have what it takes to help heal the land from the many enemies seeking to corrupt or reclaim it, you must emulate the last pandaren emperor and confront your own Anger, Hatred and Violence. In so doing, you will confront a manifestation of your own faction leader -- Garrosh Hellscream for Horde players and Varian Wrynn for Alliance. Now, we're told that we're going to topple Garrosh as warchief, and a lot of the friction between various elements of the Horde is mentioned to us. But why, then, do we fight Varian? No mention has been made of Varian's being deposed. In fact, we're told that Varian leads the charge, that over the expansion, we'll see why the Alliance follows him to the gates of Orgrimmar.
Well, one reason we might follow him is if he and we as well are influenced by the Sha. Heck, it not only fits the Sha pattern of finding a military or national leader and in effect influencing him or her based on their own proclivities (the Mantid Empress is already a figure feared by much of Pandaria, for instance), but it's a great bit of misdirection. We think of Garrosh as a figure consumed by anger, but how much anger and hatred has Varian had to swallow over the years at the hands of the Horde? How much anger already burns inside him? While we saw him reclaim a measure of self control in the novel Wolfheart, how might the constant warfare against the Horde have eroded that control?
Consider the experiences of the Cataclysm, where he managed to reconnect with his son, and then losing his son on the continent of Pandaria with no idea where to find him, while the Horde swarms around the place and could well have already killed him. After losing his father, his wife, and his closest friends, the idea of losing Anduin would drive Varian into a mad frenzy of fear and rage, making him perfect for the Sha.
Imagine it: Over time, we're all convinced that Garrosh Hellscream is a crazy warmonger who has to be stopped, as his war rages on in Pandaria and the consequences of that war turn against the Horde. In time, even the Horde becomes convinced, due to questionable actions on their warchief's part, that he has to be stopped. So in the end, an Alliance army invades Orgrimmar, Hellscream is deposed (possibly killed, possibly merely forced to flee), and Varian Wrynn stands as the preeminent military leader to be found in either faction. And only then do we discover that Varian isn't Varian anymore. What if, in fact, Garrosh is but the first candidate for the Sha's takeover, and when he falls, the Sha simply move on to the next most likely one?
This means to me that, after we dethrone Garrosh, we may well get a patch where everything looks like it's improving, the war is dying down. And then we'll do some raids and find out the Sha are mobilizing to invade the rest of the world -- and it won't be Horde forces seemingly making life easy for them. We'll find Sha-infested commanders, whole squadrons infected by the rage and violence of the Sha, thanks to the Horde's years of unprovoked attacks. The Horde will have created a monster, and that monster will be an Alliance that acts more like the Horde than the Horde, thanks to the Sha's influence.
But wait, you might be saying, does that mean we kill Varian? No, because I don't believe that even if this is actually what they planned that Varian would be the end boss, either. No, although I definitely think it would be interesting to pull a switch and have Varian Wrynn be a big boss fight, I suspect the truth will be far more complicated and will deal with the secrets of the Mogu and their suspiciously familiar architecture, as well as the similarities between the Mogu's spirit-bending magics and the tantalizing snippets we get in Jade Forest as to the life cycle of the Jade Serpent.
The Mogu magic, its ability to combine and harness souls and force them into new forms and combine them into terra cotta contructs, strikes me as somehow related to the Sha and their manifestations, as if the Mogu themselves were so deformative to the spirit world that the Sha came to be. We know balance is important in Pandaria; perhaps the Sha were the cost paid by the land to balance out the Mogu's use of souls in their work.
In the end, there's so much we don't know about what's coming in Mists of Pandaria, anything could. I just think we need to be careful in assuming that what we've been told is anything but the tip of the continent peeking out past those mists. The war between the Horde and the Alliance helps tilt things off center, but it's Pandaria itself that is the real star of the expansion -- and in a way, the real end boss of it.
It's open warfare between Alliance and Horde in Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft's next expansion. Jump into five new levels with new talents and class mechanics, try the new monk class, and create a pandaren character to ally with either Horde or Alliance. Look for expansion basics in our Mists FAQ, or dig into our spring press event coverage for more details!