Mages are the purest spellcasters, in a way. They do not entreat or bargain with elemental spirits (yet they can summon elemental power, after a fashion), they do not invoke the Holy Light or the Shadow that opposes it, and the fel magic that drives warlocks does not interest them. Mages seek the purity of absolute arcane knowledge - knowledge untainted by dark pacts or the promise of a glory gained if one follows the precepts of an unknown and unknowable philosophical force. Mages don't bargain, they don't plead, and they don't even compel - mages understand.
Magic is a tool, some would even say a gift. But you should never forget its fundamental nature. Arcane magic twists the boundaries of our world. It weakens the laws of this realm to allow the impossible to happen, if only for a moment. That single moment is all a demon needs to wreak havoc. The Burning Legion has watched us for millenia, always waiting for the smallest rift to slip through, the smallest stirring to whisper from. Remember this, young ones. Every spell you cast, no matter how minor, cuts both ways. This is why sorcery must never be used frivolously.
- Vestia Moonspear
Now, this obsession with arcane power and knowledge isn't always for the good - many lore figures like Archimonde and Kil'jaeden began as mages before turning to the dark and corrupt path of the warlock. Azshara, queen of the Kaldorei, was (and likely still is) a mage of enormous power, and we need look no further than the recent Nexus war to understand that mages and the magic they seek to understand can have devastating consequences for all. Azeroth, for better and for worse, has been shaped and defined by arcane magic.
First up, when speaking about arcane magic and mages on Azeroth, there's a tradition that had no direct influence until fairly recent, but which is the undisputed oldest group of practicing mages on the face of the world - the draenei exiles. Arcane magic comes so easily to the draenei and their eredar cousins that it attracted the attention of Sargeras the Dark Titan himself, and although the history of the draenei is one of exile and flight from their own corrupt kinfolk, it cannot be denied that when life on Azeroth didn't even exist yet, there were likely eredar mages learning the secrets of the cosmos. The draenei of today bring a magic tradition older than twenty-five thousand years to bear. No mage living on the surface of Azeroth, not even powerhouses like Jaina Proudmoore or Azshara, can look back as far as a draenei.
Of the magic using races of Azeroth - and all but the tauren have mastered the arcane to a greater or lesser extent - the oldest real magical traditions are those of the kaldorei who became known as the Highborne and their descendants, the high and blood elves of the Eastern Kingdoms. At present, the night elves of Azeroth have grudgingly allowed their Highborne kinfolk to return from Eldre'thalas and set up residence among their people, and so, the night elves have once again begun to learn the arcane magic that once so destabilized their society. But their cultural bias (forged during the War of the Ancients, when their own Queen Azshara made common cause with the Burning Legion out of love for Sargeras and herself) means that few take up the arcane among them. Meanwhile, their blood elf cousins never abandoned the arcane. When Dath'remar Sunstrider led the Highborne who would follow him across the sea to the Eastern Kingdoms, he started the high elven lineage that would, in time, become the blood elves and he did so via the creation of the Sunwell, a font of raw arcane might. This means that today, the Horde's blood elves are far more accomplished mages than all but a few of the night elves (but they still pale in experience compared to the draenei) with not only thousands of years of arcane knowledge, but practiced skill and experience to draw upon. There are highborne mages in Darnassus right now who make even the most experienced blood elf look like an apprentice, but on the whole, blood elves outstrip their night elf relations.
Indeed, to find mages to counter blood elf skill and experience, the draenei are perhaps too few, and too racially attuned to the Holy Light. Oh, their tradition is the oldest, but on the whole there's a tendency to reach for the Holy Light rather than the arcane, and while draenei mages are superbly trained and skilled, they're a minority among their people. But the Alliance can boast two races that took to arcane magic with verve and their own particular personal touches. First among these magically gifted people are the gnomes of Gnomeregan. Blessed with quick wit and quicker reflexes, a gnome mage proves that size matters not - those that dismiss or ignore the arcane brilliance of the gnomes can soon come to regret their decision. Gnomes lack the pure historic knowledge and tradition of other races, but they add a methodical experimentation to the craft. If you want to know what works, how it works, and what it can be made to do, go find a gnome.
Still, for a terrifyingly skilled mage, you need look no further than a human. Several of the most powerful mages of the past fifty years - Medivh, Khadgar, Aegwyn, Antonidas, Rhonin, and Jaina Proudmoore - have all been humans. Shorter lived than the other races we've mentioned so far, humans turn this shortcoming into a gift - a human seemingly can master magic with terrifying speed and power, as was first proved when the high elf king Anasterian Sunstrider trained a force of humans in magic as part of his arrangement with the Arathor humans to win the Troll Wars. Humans raised the magical kingdom of Dalaran (with high elf aid, yes, but it was still humans who did the work) and it seems that humans have a positive gift for the largest and most destructive magic possible. If you want it blown up, a gnome or goblin might be your best choice, but if you want the area around it annihilated in a magical firestorm, ask a human. They've already rejected six perfectly good ways to do it and come up with a seventh that combined all the previous six.
Despite the undeath that plague unleashed upon them the Forsaken have lost little if any of this magical gift. The vast majority of the undead were once human, and they share with their former kin among the living a proficiency with magic. Still, many forsaken choose the path of the apothecary, the warlock or the shadow priest over that of mage. Similarly, the trolls and pandaren of Azeroth have ancient magical traditions, yet both generally prefer other paths, as do dwarves. Goblins treat magic like any other force, something to be exploited for personal gain. As for the worgen, they retain their human side's proficiency with the reality-warping arcane, but their inherent savagery is often at odds with it - they certainly can and do become powerful mages, but it isn't the first choice among them.
But in all cases the path of the mage is the path of one who uses knowledge to overcome reality itself - mages learn the rules so they can break them, in effect. They touch upon a power that does not care for morality and pays no attention to the laws that govern existence. To be a mage is to embrace this ideal - to impose the personal will over the universal edict, to draw upon a force that can disregard the governance of infinity itself. And mages on Azeroth are particularly blessed and cursed because they stand on a world with a Well of Eternity upon it - even the subdued version beneath the roots of Nordrassil seethes with arcane power.
Next time, we'll talk about particular important mages - from Azshara to Aegwynn to Jaina.
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.