I still remember the first day I played this game on live servers, even though it's been nearly nine years since I looked at the login screen and tried to muddle out what to pick. Friends of mine had already made an Alliance guild and encouraged me to join them. When I mentioned I wanted to play a rogue, I was told that they really needed healers, not rogues. However, my friend suggested I roll a druid, as they could not only heal, but they could turn into a cat and stealth around like a rogue does. That seemed suitable to me, so I rolled a night elf druid, logged in and began to play.
Several months and sixty levels later, that experience remains full of fond memories of endless frustration with the class and how it played. It absolutely did not help that giant improvements for that class were rolled out in a patch shortly after I hit 60. I rolled Horde, and the rest is history ... or it was, anyway. The druid remained at level 60, years after I hit 70, 80, 85 and 90, frozen in a distinct period of time. Several months ago, while idly looking at the login screen and pondering what to play, I decided to actually level the druid and get it caught up. Furthermore, I decided to make the trip without heirloom gear -- after all, it didn't exist when I originally played the character.
This is the story of a peculiar alt that used to be a main, and what happens when you crack open a time capsule from 2005.
Your gear is awful
The very first thing I noticed immediately upon logging in was that my gear was absolutely dreadful. Let me make this absolutely clear: If you are leveling an alt from 2005, nothing you are wearing will be suitable for anything you are going to be doing. I was decked out in bits and pieces of Wildheart, carefully obtained from running Stratholme and Lower Blackrock Spire roughly eight billion times over the course of a few weeks. These dungeon sets were the absolute best you could get at the time if you weren't raiding.
The fun part was remembering all of those old runs. Once upon a time, Stratholme wasn't a five man dungeon -- you could take, and were encouraged to take, ten people along. It was the first ten-man instance in WoW. It wasn't a raid, but the difficulty of the mobs and bosses certainly made it feel like one at the time. I was taken along as one of a few token healers, although my job wasn't really healing so much as casting Innervate on the healers when they were out of mana. At the time, Innervate was the 31-point talent in the Restoration tree. It was why druids were encouraged to be healers -- well that, and the fact that the other talent trees were ridiculously awful.
I remember being incredibly pleased with the few pieces of Wildheart I managed to obtain. They were pretty -- they weren't originally, but they'd gotten a graphics update from a patch. However, by today's standards, Wildheart was just awful. It was a mix of stamina, agility, spirit, intellect, and strength -- sometimes all at once on one piece of gear -- that possessed just enough of a stat to be vaguely helpful, but not really useful in any major capacity at all.
This was the original intent of druids: Jack of all trades, master of none. You could do a little bit of healing, a little bit of DPS, theoretically a little bit of tanking, although nobody in their right mind was a druid tank at that point in history. Little bit of everything, but you weren't especially good at any of it. You'd never be a top healer, you'd never be a star tank, you'd never top the DPS charts. The fact that you could conceivably do any of these things was the trade-off for not really excelling at any of them. Thankfully, this philosophy has changed over the years.
You're going to be broke
I had approximately 20 gold on that character when I logged in. It may seem like absolutely nothing to players that are playing today, but back then it was a small and carefully hoarded fortune. At that point in time, the biggest purchases a player would make were mounts -- level 40 rewarded you with the ability to purchase a slow speed mount, level 60 meant that you could purchase a really fast mount. But it was rare that you'd see players with the mounts at the appropriate levels. A mount at level 40 would set you back 100 gold. A mount at level 60 was a whopping 1000 gold.
So here's the dilemma -- how does one make gold out of absolutely nothing? Well ... you buckle down and quest. Given how poor my gear was in comparison to what was needed by today's standards, I decided to just go do some of those old zones that were revamped with Cataclysm. It's hard to realize as a max-level player exactly how much work went into re-creating those old zones. They look nothing -- and I mean nothing -- like they used to. I hit up Eastern Plaguelands because I figured it would be easy enough to play through that the process should go quickly, and I'd make a small chunk of gold in the process.
It absolutely worked. While I was out there, I skinned critters and sold the hides on the Auction House for the inflated prices of today. I collected green items and sold the ones I thought were pretty as transmog gear. I deliberately chose the most expensive quest rewards to sell them at the vendor -- the stats on the gear weren't really any better than what I already had. A couple hours later, I was done with the zone. The next time I logged in, I collected all my auction gold and ended up with several hundred gold, with which I immediately turned around and bought some suitable green gear from Outland with the appropriate stats.
You're going to be swimming in nostalgia
What I didn't expect on this little side-road to getting ready for Outland was the nostalgia factor. While leveling through Eastern Plaguelands, I was well aware that everything had changed. I knew that the quest chains were different, and the zone had received a major overhaul. Heck, I'd even played through it before on my rogue main. But I'd forgotten what it used to be -- and being on the druid that experienced it all first hand, I found myself remembering what it was like when I'd originally leveled through that zone.
Helping out Tirion Fordring was one of the highlights of that zone. You met this guy who was literally a hermit in the woods, asking you to grab him some maggot meat for dinner while you were out battling plagued nightmares, and watched him turn into a hero that would become a pivotal part of an expansion several years down the road. You traveled the roads with fear, particularly near Stratholme -- getting caught by the Crimson Courier was a recipe for disaster that usually ended in your untimely demise. You stayed the heck away from the Marris Stead, because Nathanos Blightcaller was a force that required a full raid group to be reckoned with.
I traveled that road to Stratholme far too many times as a level 60, to run through the undead side of the instance, obediently throwing weak heals around and casting Innervate on those who needed it with the hopeful thought that perhaps I'd get my hands on more of that elusive Wildheart set. I spent ages spamming trade chat in Ironforge at level 59, looking for enough people to take down Nathanos and finally turn in the quest to kill him. It's how I wanted to hit level 60, you see -- I wanted to ding while doing something suitably heroic to warrant the occasion.
I never got that opportunity. By the time I hit level 59, most players didn't care for killing Blightcaller -- doing so flagged you for PvP, and there were invariably a ton of Horde in the area just waiting to disrupt a raid. Instead, I hit level 60 by myself, repeatedly murdering black dragons out by Morgan's Vigil in the Burning Steppes. It wasn't turning in a quest for accolades and praise, but at least I was doing something about that whole black dragon menace, right? That's what I told myself, anyway.
To Outland and beyond
When you crack open a time capsule from 2005, you can't just jump right into Outland and expect everything to go your way. Given the limitations I'd set for myself -- in particular, no using heirloom gear -- I had to come up with some creative ways to get myself the gold needed to get the gear needed to make sure I wasn't flattened the second I showed my face on the other side of the Dark Portal. Wandering those newly-revamped Cataclysm zones probably wasn't the speediest way to get the job done, but it worked well enough for what I wanted to accomplish -- and the memories it stirred up along the way were bittersweet, yet incredibly welcome.
However, that portion of my journey was over. Outland was waiting -- and unlike the relatively easy mobs wandering the Eastern Plaguelands, Outland was full of angry things that could flatten me without a second thought. I didn't regret the time spent in "vanilla" territory, any more than I regretted the months spent originally leveling the character. But it was time to build new memories with the peculiar alt that used to be a main, and hopefully see level 90 before the next expansion began.