**Update: It's official. The next expansion is called World of Warcraft: Dragonflight!
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is wrapping up, with The Jailer finally vanquished. Sylvanas Windrunner's story arc is over, and players are already looking ahead to the future. On April 19th, 2022, Blizzard will unveil the next WoW expansion in a live stream on its website and YouTube channels. It's possible that the next WoW expansion has already leaked, however, with Blizzard itself revealing the name "Dragonflight" within the source code of its website.
Indeed, for what feels like ages at this point, players have speculated that the next expansion would take place on the Dragon Isles, and carry a heavy dragon theme. As I continue to raid the Sepulcher of the First Ones, I thought I'd pen some thoughts and expectations on what Dragonflight could be, based on information I've received, alongside a healthy dose of speculation.
Story and Setting expectations
It's widely expected that the next World of Warcraft expansion has a dragon theme. For what feels like a year or more, rumors have swirled that the story will turn to the Dragon Isles, a forgotten realm that actually appeared in the original code for the game, all the way back in 2004.
An untextured, inaccessible landmass was present, representing some of the concept art above from one of the World of Warcraft art books. There have been some vague hints in-game about the Dragon Isles more recently. Notably, Wrathion of the Black Dragonflight was "searching" for the isles, and other characters have hinted of an ancestral home for all dragons. Although beyond whispers, not much is known.
The concept art and 3D models in the old game files have hulking cephalopodan husks, which are typically associated with the Lovecraft-inspired Old Gods. In the concept art, we see a gigantic ammonite creature, adorned with an ancient temple at its apex.
World of Warcraft Shadowlands wraps up the story threads of Sylvanas, paving the way for a new saga that refocuses the story on more terrestrial matters. Legion, Battle for Azeroth, and Shadowlands all dealt with cosmic apocalypse-level threats, and there does seem to be a sense of fatigue amongst players for this crescendo of increasingly powerful enemies. Dragon Isles may be an opportunity to bring the storytelling back down to Earth (or Azeroth) to some degree. The dragon aspects (red, blue, green, black, and bronze) were charged with watching over the natural order of Azeroth and its mortal races, although constant war has all but seen most of them destroyed. Famously, the Black Dragonflight was corrupted by the Old Gods, leading to the cataclysm, which saw Azeroth almost destroyed by Deathwing. I feel as though players may also be tired of dealing with the Old Gods too, however, after Battle for Azeroth.
So, who could be the main antagonist of Dragonflight in this case? There are a few candidates, potentially. Some Warcraft fans have noted that Chromatus has yet to appear in-game. The multi-headed chromatic dragon was the result of horrific experiments by Deathwing's son, Nefarian, as he attempted to breed a dragon that comprised the powers of each dragonflight in a single body. The intensely powerful and nightmarishly intelligent creature was ultimately contained, but not destroyed. Other major dragons in the lore include the cannibalistic Galakrond, who is a gargantuan proto-dragon thought of as the progenitor of dragonkind. The monstrous dragon is very much dead as of writing, with its skeletal remains interred in the Dragonblight. However, there have been attempts to resurrect the dragon into undeath, and the WoW card game spinoff Hearthstone even has some art that represents visions of what a revived Galakrond might look like.
There's also the matter of Nozdormu, the leader of the bronze dragonflight, who has powers over time itself. At some point in the future, Nozdormu falls into despair, in full knowledge of his own future. His powers make him uniquely dangerous among the other dragons. We have defeated one incarnation of his future self already in-game, but the current incarnation of Nozdormu is still out there.
With the dragonflights weakened from the events of Wrath, Cataclysm, and Legion, it stands to reason that they may be trying to reconvene and re-establish themselves. Their duty is to protect Azeroth and its inhabitants, maintaining the flow of nature, life, and time itself. The dragon aspects sacrificed much of their power to defeat Deathwing, but perhaps they could be seeking to retrieve dominion over their separate aspects once again. The red were charged with life itself, while the green were tasked with overseeing nature. The blue dragonflight were in charge of all magic and artifacts of Azeroth, while the bronze held stewardship over time itself, maintaining the integrity of the central timeline. The black dragonflight were charged with the earth and the deep places of the world. Each flight is endowed with incredible magic, even after sacrificing their power to defeat Deathwing, and has the capability to appear as mortal races to blend in with the general populace.
Few civilizations have suffered as much as dragonkind in Azeroth, given that they were historically the first line of defense against demons, Old Gods, and other entities that sought to destroy or absorb Azeroth's uniquely powerful energy. Exactly what has befallen them in the next expansion remains to be seen, but there are several unresolved plot threads that could feed into Dragonflight. Politically, Turalyon now serves as Regent of Stormwind, and he will potentially be far less pacifistic in his approach to the Horde than King Anduin. Potential antagonists like Xal'atath and Queen Azshara could also be waiting in the wings to make a reappearance, although I suspect Blizzard will want to build up some fresh villains, complete with a very heavy dragon theme.
WoW has received a ton of criticism over its handling of Sylvanas' character arc. Dragonflight is an opportunity to bring new characters to the fore without needing to tie things up so heavily to the past, while learning from the odd and seemingly contradictory motivations of some of Shadowlands' characters. Either way, I suspect every aspect of the plot to have a heavy dragon theme, alongside potential gameplay features.
Possible gameplay and features
As of writing, we haven't had a new class in World of Warcraft since Legion's Demonhunter all the way back in 2016. Battle for Azeroth introduced a range of new playable races too, but Shadowlands offered neither a new race, nor a new class. We've heard whispers that Dragonflight could end this trend, potentially featuring both a new race and a new class at the same time, dubbed the Dragonsworn. Given the expansion's widely-rumored theme, it wholly makes sense.
We've heard whispers that Dragonflight could potentially feature both a new race and a new class.
Dragonsworn are already established in WoW to some degree. The dragon aspects take powerful mortal individuals under their wing (literally and figuratively) and essentially integrate them into their dragonflights as disciples of their various disciplines. Dragonsworn of the blue dragonflight are typically mages, for example, while dragonsworn of the green dragonflight might often be druidic. Dragonsworn individuals learn draconic powers and skills to empower them in battle, and may even be related to the dragon spawn race, which represents lesser dragonic minions that have a centaur-like appearance.
Given that Dragonsworn are usually tied to an aspect, it stands to reason that the Dragonsworn may be a hybridized class that borrows skills and abilities from different flights depending on which they align with. It's unclear if Dragonsworn players will simply have a dragon form while choosing another race, similar to Worgen, or actually be a separate race entirely that joins the Horde or Alliance, similar to Pandaren. It it's the latter, I could see a scenario where blue dragonsworn can be mages and priests, while red dragonsworn can be shamans and warriors, with green dragonsworn being druids and black dragonsworn being warlocks, and so on. Although, we've been unable to lock down definitive specifics either way, as of writing, it's fun to speculate.
One thing players are probably hoping for is an end to some of Blizzard's timegating mechanics. World of Warcraft has relied on "borrowed power" systems to introduce features specific to an expansion, only to be taken away at the end. For Shadowlands, this came in the form of Covenants, which ended up being a relatively unpopular feature due to how they tied player power to aesthetic choices. To get the most out of your class, you may be forced to play within a Covenant that didn't fit your preferred aesthetic. Eventually Bizzard lifted some of the harder restrictions on switching Covenants, but it left a pretty sour taste at the start of the Shadowlands expansion, coupled with the "Renown" system that arbitrarily gated players from unlocking expansion content too quickly. The content was all laid out in a "Battle Pass"-like structure, but remained restricted to weekly unlocks for much of the expansion, thought of as an attempt to pad engagement numbers.
I would hope that Blizzard has looked across to Final Fantasy XIV for inspiration on how it can grow the game beyond its typical raid, mythic+ dungeons, PvP trinity for endgame content. FFXIV has mountains of fun side systems like player housing that get perpetually updated and curated expansion to expansion, with far, far deeper profession and crafting mechanics that have fallen by the wayside hard in modern WoW.
Ultimately, I just hope to see a boost in quality over what Shadowlands has been. The raids and dungeons in Shadowlands have been very good, but they almost always are. The problem is, it feels like everything around them fell in overall quality as a result. The story writing has been strange, with important character details left out of the main game in favor of books. The non-PvE features like Torghast, PvP, and Covenants all felt half-baked and under-explored, too. Professions are totally under-utilized as well. So few items need enhancements from professions anymore, and the items themselves have been truly awful, with poor, simplistic designs and extensive use of repeated recolored models. I can't remember a WoW expansion maybe ever where itemization was less interesting, both visually and functionally, although the new tier sets in 9.2 are at least a step in the right direction.
WoW has struggled to retain the magic it once had, and it's not simply because the engine is old and can run on the cheapest budget gaming PCs. Legion proved that WoW still has the potential to be great if Activision-Blizzard wants to make the right investments.
WoW: Dragonflight unveiled on April 19th
On April 19th, Blizzard will live stream the reveal of the next expansion, and the stakes are fairly high. Blizzard has lost over half of its monthly active users over the past few years, with WoW and Overwatch failing to meet expectations. With Microsoft possibly acquiring the company and changing the studio's priorities, the future is potentially bright, releasing Blizzard's IPs from Activision's shareholder culture that prioritizes short-term profit margins over quality.
Will Dragonflight hit the popularity of expansions like Legion and Wrath of the Lich King? It firmly remains to be seen, but the appetite for MMOs is stronger than ever, with games like FFXIV and Lost Ark cannibalizing many former WoW players in recent years. I firmly believe many of these lapsed players would return in the right circumstances, and only hope Blizzard can deliver those circumstances current and former players both deserve.