Originally, I planned this to be a part of tomorrow’s main 10.0 post before the preview next month, but this section feels better-served in its own post with its own story and conclusions to make.
So, the story of 10.0 – what could it be?
BfA set us up for Shadowlands in probably the most lackluster way possible – Vol’jin mentioned it in 8.0 and 8.1 in Horde-only quests and it never really came up again until the reveal. In Shadowlands at present, it’s hard to say if we’ve even had any hints, because there are a fair few things that have been teased as being more important or at least looming threats. So, I want to go through those first, and then discuss a couple of tidbits of datamining from 9.2.5 and even 8.2 (yes, really!) that tie together into what could be the next World of Warcraft expansion.
The In-Game Lore Hints
Shadowlands has had, as I see it, two major in-game hints in the same sort of style as Shadowlands was hinted at in BfA. If we count a fan theory that is reasonable based on in-game data, there are 3 potential leads we can follow.
Dreadlords – this one is, well, fairly obvious, and the one with the largest number of drops and teases. We fought Denathrius in 9.0 before discovering he is lord of all…erm, dreadlords, we found out in 9.1 that he is in fact a dreadlord (Nathria, Nathrezim, eh you get it) and that he’s been leading a force of them, which we see two of as major characters in 9.1 and again in 9.2 in the raid via Kin’tessa and Mal’ganis (the most famous dreadlord!), and 9.2 has shown the dreadlords doing a vast array of infiltration tactics including a stint as you and an unexplained bit in the raid where both Nathrezim turn into different raid and dungeon bosses of the past, along with a Demon Hunter glaive drop that seems to imply that they were somehow hiding out with the Demon Hunters at one point. There’s also the 9.0 flavor text book Enemy Infiltration: Preface, which explains how dreadlords have been all over, including a hint that Lothraxion, the supposedly-good Light Nathrezim, is actually himself still in service of the dreadlords and doing deep cover work.
We end Shadowlands with an unsatisfying conclusion to the Dreadlord arc, as we know that Denathrius is still out there, presumably still trapped in Remornia, Kin’tessa and Mal’ganis slain in the Sepulcher of the First Ones with an unclear sense of permanence on that death, and with the open question of what their plan might be. For me, while this seems the most likely lead as Old Gods did at the end of BfA with the constant teases and end patch of the expansion, it is that nature which makes me doubt that they are actually next on the list. I think that whatever we see in 10.0 pushes the Dreadlords to the background while we fix the next big thing and then they step forward into the light.
Dragons – Dragons, used generically here, are a constant source of intrigue and threat in the WoW universe. While the 5 main flights have largely remained as allies since the Nexus War of Wrath of the Lich King and the events at Wyrmrest Temple in Dragon Soul during Cataclysm, we’ve also not really dealt with what it fully means that the aspects have relinquished such a significant portion of their power at the conclusion of the Dragon Soul raid. Ysera is dead and reborn in Ardenweald and the Night Fae Covenant campaign quests spend some measure of time dealing with Ysera, both her resurrection from the zone storyline but her adaptation in the scowling gaze of the Winter Queen and Ysera’s bond with Alexstrasza in the endgame quests. We also know that Dragonblight bears the resting ground of Galakrond, the original proto-dragon and labeled as the “progenitor” of dragonkind in the Warcraft universe.
I think Dragons are fairly likely in some form (whether that is the fabled Dragon Isles or some other thing) because they have the most Shadowlands-like setup within the current story context. It’s clear that something is going on with the dragons – we have the eventual turn of Nozdormu that has not happened as of yet in our timeline, Wrathion was working on some projects for good in 8.3 and helped us seal N’Zoth’s fate, Ysera is alive (well, undead?) and with the boundary between the Shadowlands and Azeroth seemingly traversable, and we have Thrall back in the fold and leaning closer to his shamanistic roots once again which could lead to the ascension of an Aspect of Earth, if we can even make aspects. The ties to the Titans make the new lore of the First Ones potentially interesting to the aspects, and Galakrond is interesting as we’ve been hearing the term “progenitor” and seeing a lot of progenitors around Zereth Mortis, along with another little twist I’ll throw in later.
If I had to bet today, my guess would be a dragon-themed expansion. It leans on established Warcraft lore and longer-term storytelling, and gives a chance to revisit those topics to explore nooks and crannies left undisturbed by the earlier lore revelations involving dragons. I think it might intersect with another theme, but we’ll get there as I make my case!
The Primus – Wowhead had an interesting fan theory about the true villain of the Shadowlands, because the Jailer cinematic and the events of 9.2 put a big wrinkle into things. The theory is that the Primus, not the Jailer, is indeed the mastermind of all the bad stuff that has befell the Shadowlands. There’s a fair bit of compelling evidence to suggest that – if we accept that Pyromancer’s Jailer concept art leak is true (and I believe that it is), then at some point, the Jailer was very much made to look like the Primus before the Primus became the character he is now. It meshes with the unveiling video (not the pre-rendered cinematic but the machinima one that served as a features trailer at Blizzcon 2019) where the silhouette of the Jailer is quite clearly not the Zovaal model we know today, and where none of the features on the model match up neatly to the Zovaal model.
On story beats, it makes too much sense – the Primus, not the Jailer, is the master of Domination magic, he gets us to give him the Sigils of the Covenants and then largely disappears for the story questing in patch 9.2, he’s described as a cunning tactician and master strategist, and the Jailer finale cinematic seems to paint the Primus as the prime prosecutor of whatever mysterious crime Zovaal committed to land himself in the Maw. The cinematic language of the Primus’ shadow looming heavy over Zovaal in the cinematic at his lowest moment seems to put a lot of weight to that idea, that the Primus doomed Zovaal to his fate in service of the Primus’ goals. Lastly, as the Wowhead piece also points out, the Afterlives animatic for the Necrolords from prior to launch show the Necrolords infiltrating other worlds, as they fight the Legion in the cinematic, a force with seemingly zero presence in the Shadowlands otherwise.
So on the one hand, there is a lot of interesting stuff that generally points in the direction of the Primus as the big villain waiting to catch us off-guard and points in general at a long game he’s been playing. On the other hand, some of the assumptions made by the Wowhead writer are awfully contrived, in that it would be very galaxy-brain strategist to give us more power through his role as the Runecarver only to then turn on us, unless there’s some sort of hook for that as well (uh oh, I think I see how legendaries are going to lose power in 10.0…).
I think that if we do end up with the Primus as our main bad in 10.0, it’s going to be as part of a larger thing and not him as the sole presence like the Jailer was.
Overall, on this theory, I’m a bit mixed. I think that it would be an interesting twist of sorts and one that would actually seem to be reasonably-supported within the lore as told. On the other hand, I don’t think you can tell that story in WoW without it seeming like an asspull, and if the Primus invades Azeroth, I don’t know what the endgame would be, because now we land in a similar place to the Jailer where there’s a very real risk that his motivation ends up being non-existent and thus hampers the whole story. It also, from the fan theory, seems a little too just-so, like the Primus’ plan was so good that he disappeared, created all these systems of deception that just happened to weave tightly with us coming to the Shadowlands, and through that he gained access to the Sepulcher and Zereth Mortis for…what purpose? It’s about half-interesting story twist and half completely bananas weird and illogical in the context of an actual living world and what real people would do, so I guess that puts it about at the level of most fan theories.
So of these three, my guess centers on the Dragons. I think that Dragon content is always an easy win, feels like it balances a larger, more epic scale with the grounded-ness most players seem to want, and there are a lot of potential hooks over a long period of time.
Speaking of hooks, however, let’s discuss the implications of a couple pieces of datamined content and where they point us.
The Newest 9.2.5 Datamining – A New Tirisfal Glades and…Teldrassil?!
The upcoming patch 9.2.5 has been on the receiving end of some interesting datamining that bore fruit relevant to this discussion.
First up is an interesting bit – an encrypted zone change for Tirisfal Glades. We haven’t revisited the space since the War of Thorns, where the Alliance stormed south from the shore to Undercity leaving a smoldering trail of war, and then Sylvanas plague-bombed the city, leaving a noxious fog in the air. Here is what Tirisfal’s minimap looks like today:
And here is the PTR-datamined new version:
So obviously, the fires are out, and it only took 4 years! The land that was burned appears to be healing, and Brill is seeing some work, however small. The area around Undercity still shows heavy green slime, a seeming sign that the blighting done at Sylvanas’ hands will not soon be undone. This is also, supposedly, tied to an encrypted questline and a new, encrypted model of Calia Menethil.
Logically, this all tracks, although what it says is a little up in the air. Silithus was delivered to us in a similar form in patch 7.3, with the encrypted zone scarred by Sargeras’ sword left hidden until the raid launched with 7.3.2 later that year. As a zone for Shadowlands resolution and 10.0 preamble, Tirisfal is a fair choice. We’ve never really seen the ascent of Derek Proudmoore and Calia Menethil to the leadership of the Forsaken, it dovetails nicely with the Sylvanas lore that comes on Tuesday, and there seems to be some additional racial quests in-line with Heritage Armor which could be interesting to see (Blood Elves and Dark Iron Dwarves both have such questlines in 9.2.5’s data).
Tirisfal itself has some history outside of the Forsaken, however, as it also has Tyr’s grave, which we explored in Legion for a few Artifact weapon questlines and found to be infested by Old God and Void presence. All in all, it has some interesting potential hooks to it, although it’s hard to see those as new expansion hooks based on my theories above.
The last bit of 9.2.5 datamining I saw that stood out as interesting in all of this is a zone tagged for Teldrassil.
What does it mean? Who knows? It being broken off of Kalimdor is interesting, because that would seem to imply that whatever form is being added is a zone unto itself. It might be a technical way for handling Bronze Dragonflight flashbacks you can opt into, it might mean that Teldrassil will also regrow, and because there’s not much to say beyond that based on this, I’ll leave this point here.
Patch 8.2 and Beyond Datamining – Galakrond’s Fall, The Mysterious Everpresent Unseen Zone
If you’ve been to Dragonblight (and odds are good that you have, it has the most raid portals of any zone in WoW and the largest number of versions across multiple dungeon and raid instances), you’re very familiar with the layout, surely. It’s a big snowy wasteland, with shrines to each of the dragonflights, Wyrmrest Temple as a centerpiece, with the Path of the Titans headed north from the temple. Oh, yeah, there’s also the giant dead bone structure of the progenitor of dragonkind, Galakrond, near the dead center of the zone.
In patch 8.2 back in BfA, Blizzard added a map to the game data that has sat unused ever since – Galakrond’s Fall. This map is quite easy to explain – it’s Dragonblight with snow covering all the dragonshrines, no Wyrmrest Temple, and no Path of the Titans. Oh, also, Galakrond’s skeleton is missing. Take a look:
The very presence of this map remains an enigma, and it absolutely fuels my speculation that Dragons are the next expansion in some shape or form. Timetravel in WoW is not exactly common, and yet this map seems to be from a past state, arguably, as Galakrond’s defeat at Dragonblight precedes the dragonshrines, Wyrmrest Temple, or much of what we know as the area of Dragonblight. However, it could also be from some future state, with a resurrected Galakrond (or just with his bones stolen).
Here’s what piques my interest about this zone map, besides the sort of mysterious nature of it sitting in shipping game files for over two years without a peep. Firstly, the zone is in Northrend, a place that we’ll likely be revisiting for a brief spell as we exit the Shadowlands, and theoretically, also the continent where visitors to or from the Shadowlands would arrive or depart as appropriate. Secondly, the Scourge are likely on the loose again, as was shown in the pre-Shadowlands event and which is also discussed in some dialogue datamined in 9.2.5, and the Scourge’s home is still largely Northrend. Thirdly, Galakrond has been an interesting part of the dragon lore of WoW we have yet to really explore, as short of his bones resting in Dragonblight, we’ve not really gotten much about him. Fourth, in Wrath, the Lich King had specific interest in Galakrond, tasking a group of Scourge necromancers with resurrecting the progenitor dragon. Galakrond was said to have been absorbing the life energies of the proto-dragons, leading him to bodily growths and an undead-like appearance.
To step outside the lore, one thing we do know about Blizzard’s development process for WoW expansions is that there are often two ideas in the running at a time, with the order being decided on later. Famously, Legion switched places with Warlords of Draenor, as it made more logical sense in the story to start with AU Draenor and AU Gul’dan to feed the story of Legion, and you can see hints of this all over Mists of Pandaria (Wrathion’s entire raison d’être for the Legendary questline that expansion was to prepare the heroes of Azeroth for a Legion invasion to come!). It is quite believable that Blizzard was convinced that dragons would be 9.0 originally, and were developing and storing content for such an expansion, until they pivoted to Shadowlands. That pivot could well have come later, too – the focus on Wrathion in 8.3 seemed to be building to something bigger with him to come, and yet it sort-of stopped there for now.
This also dovetails nicely with the Primus as villain theory, though. The Lich King of WotLK, through the retcons and revisions of Shadowlands, is known to have been acting on the Jailer’s will through the link of the Helm of Domination, and if the theory is that the Jailer was in-fact a pawn of the Primus, then it would track that the Primus had interest in the goings-on around Northrend, including the peculiar focus on Galakrond. Galakrond’s undead-like appearance even in life is thematically similar to Maldraxxus, a zone that is alive and yet disgusting, scarred with growths and grotesqueries. A big gameplay part of the Necrolords covenant is abomination stitching, giving life to component pieces with a restored soul. Lastly, the Primus has been biding his time without making a move on Zereth Mortis, dictating via image for the forging of the Helm of Domination into the Crown of Wills, and Zereth Mortis’s creation implements create “progenitors.” Where have I heard this wording before? Oh, right…Galakrond.
So to close this out, here is my galaxy-brain theory on 10.0.
-It’s closer to Wrath’s “battle on two fronts” theme, with us helping the Dragonflights restore their power while dealing with the Scourge on another front
-These fronts are intertwined as the masterminded plot of the Primus, who has brought back Galakrond and is using his ability to siphon the power from other dragons to make Galakrond a super-weapon under his control, keeping the progenitor dragon in-check via Domination magic
-While we found no fix to Domination magic in 9.2, a big part of the expansion will be us determining how to resist the magic and reverse its effects
-Reversing the effects of Domination magic will be a new answer to the Forsaken’s population problems, as the Val’kyr in Sylvanas’ service have all met their ends, and this will dovetail with the encrypted Tirisfal map, Calia as leader of the Forsaken, and the Scourge threat I propose will be a part of the expansion’s core story
-If Blizzard insists on borrowed power mechanics, we have two prospects in both the Dragonflights (swear your fealty to one of the five, unique story dealing with their specific story troubles, power from them as you restore the flight and remove Galakrond’s siphoning influence) and in resistance to Domination magic (world content and story quests could be held behind a Domination resistance gate which reduces in power over time as we are more sure of ourselves, able to resist, and thus can do more things in a given week, something like that)
-The likely plot would see Galakrond as our early foe, probably for a patch raid in the front half of the expansion, before tackling the Primus, who works his way towards the world soul of Azeroth as his ultimate prize, where we would need the restored power of the 5 dragonflights united to tackle him and save the world
-Whatever happens with the story, the whole arc is to setup the eventual return and emboldening of the Nathezim, led by a restored Sire Denathrius, and that would feed into our eventual 11.0 (yes I’m speculating that far out, what of it?)
Now, am I super-attached to this theory? Not really. I think it has potential to be cool, but I’m not writing any fanfic on this one. Logically, I think the only way we get the Dragons as core focus is if a big bad shifts us in that direction, because it is how the story of Warcraft has been for a hot minute now. I don’t think that is a good thing, either, but it’s value-neutral until we see the execution. I think the Dragons have the greatest depth and breadth of story options on the table, and I think the tie to Northrend helps bring us a interesting concept that can tie the dragon story to a larger development in the lore of the game and can provide the feeling of the two-front battle that Wrath was without the loss of focus (the Nexus War of WotLK felt really bolted-on in retrospect, especially since it spun out from a manga character being shown in-game back in Sunwell).
My bigger concerns are with gameplay, and that is a piece for another day – tomorrow, to be precise.