World of Warcraft is full of storied characters, locations, events, and even weapons: artifacts of great power, that turned the tide of various conflicts in deus ex machina-ian fashion. Let me tell you a story about a sword called the Ashbringer.
Forged from a crystal of pure Light (oh, sorry- in Warcraft lore, Light with a capital L is like divine, holy power of goodness? anyway), the Ashbringer was made by the king of the dwarves in a desperate attempt to forge a weapon capable of turning the tide against an undead invasion. The weapon was capable of reducing an undead to ash with one stroke… hence the name. Look, as far as Blizzard names go, that’s pretty poetic.
Anyway. The Ashbringer was wielded by a leader of an order of paladins, Alexandros Mograine, and was genuinely turning the tide in such a way that the leaders of the undead arranged for Alexandros’s son to betray him, and kill him with it. This act of betrayal corrupted the Ashbringer, turning it into the Corrupted Ashbringer. See what I said above about Blizzard names. Then Alexandros’s other son killed him as revenge for their father, and then killed himself. (He had a reason, but it ain’t germane.)
Okay, let’s take a quick breather- inhaling too much lore too quickly can be toxic. Keep in mind that the specifics of this story aren’t important, it’s the broad strokes. The time, effort, and quantity of twists that forge this blade’s story is what interest us, not a bunch of fantasy names. Let’s proceed. Hold your nose. The leader of the undead, the Lich King, raised the second son to serve him as a mindless undead. That’s how it was for a while, then some shit went down, and the kid suddenly had free will again, and passed the Ashbringer to legendary paladin Tirion Fordring, who purified it and turned it back into the Ashbringer. All the undead peed their pants. It was rad.
With me so far? Cool.
So that was the Ashbringer’s story within Azeroth’s lore, but that’s not all there is to this legend. Within the game itself, it didn’t initially exist- at launch, there was one NPC who made teasing reference to it, and as vanilla WoW got additions, more references to the blade appeared, across items, dungeons, and questlines. With the addition of the Naxxramas raid to vanilla WoW, players finally got the chance to obtain the Ashbringer… except not really. What they got was the Corrupted Ashbringer, the fallen version of the weapon that was a mere shadow (ha) of its true Light-filled power. It had some cool scripted content to go along with it, and Blizzard Game Masters hinted that the true Ashbringer would be added to the game at a later date… and that was it for the holy blade, for the rest of vanilla through the first expansion, the Burning Crusade. Then came Wrath of the Lich King.
Darion Mograine, the son of the original wielder who killed himself then was raised as a death knight, was a major quest giver in the Death Knight starting area, with the Corrupted Ashbringer ‘pon his back. The zone culminated in his passing the blade to Tirion Fordring, and its purification, as mentioned above. For the rest of the expansion, Tirion was everywhere, flaunting the blade that WoW’s players had sought for years. Then… nothing, for another three expansion packs. Tirion wasn’t important in current events, and simply hung out up north with the legendary sword. Datamining of patch files revealed tentative, placeholder versions of the weapon that were unobtainable, or occasionally wielded by Blizzard GMs as a gag. But that was it. The legend of Ashbringer faded into the background.
In World of Warcraft: Legion, you can obtain it inside of two hours of starting.
This isn’t a weird one-off, either. Fire Mages can swiftly obtain Felo’melorn, the blade of the Blood Elf hero of heroes Kael’thas Sunstrider, which he carried through Warcraft 3 until he lost it in a climatic duel against the Lich King, regent of the the undead. Speaking of the Lich King, his sword, Frostmourne, was destroyed at the end of the expansion Wrath of the Lich King, freeing the souls trapped within… but Frost Death Knights can re-enter his citadel, defeat the lost souls, gather the shards of the broken runeblade, and forge them into a new pair of swords for themselves. In a series that puts a spotlight on magical weapons that can turn the tide, nearly every notable weapon is available to players.
They aren’t all winners- for instance, Warriors have their choice of three different weapons that the game has to explain the importance of, because no one’s ever heard of them before- but for the most part, the implementation does these awesome tools of war justice. The artifact weapon system is not a mere replacement for weapon loot, it’s a far more engaging and enjoyable system, allowing you an ever-evolving weapon with great import in the world, and a variety of unique powers. It is the reason I dropped my level 100 characters, barely having touched the new Legion quests, to get my Death Knight up to level and go get some badass swords. As far as I’ve played, it is the greatest success in an expansion that is damn good in almost every other way as well.
This isn’t the end of WoW, however, and as a piece of an evolving game, it might actually be a huge problem. Blizzard has gone on record saying that this system is for Legion, and Legion alone- the plan is to leave it behind going forward. You can see why: were they to keep the artifact weapon system for another expansion, they’d have to completely redo it anyway. The perks and powers that your weapon grants as it evolves isn’t a sustainable progression- if you added another ten player levels worth of power to it, it’d be obscene, and overly complicated. That’s not to mention the fact that the coolest moment is doing the quests to get your weapon, and that’s not something you can do twice. You only have one first time for something.
But the biggest problem in leaving artifact weapons behind is… why would you? Why would the bearer of the Ashbringer hang it over their mantle if they were still fighting? Why would a rogue who pulled an elaborate heist for a pair of fabled kingslaying daggers just… shove them into the closet? Artifact weapons are a point of no return for the lore- once King Arthur got Excalibur, that was his sword. He didn’t put it away and grab a new magic long sword.
Those well versed in Arthurian lore will know that I’m right because of a technicality- Excalibur was in fact Arthur’s second magical sword, granted to him by the Lady in the Lake. His first was the sword in the stone (which isn’t given a name in most versions of the story). King Arthur upgraded. Why can’t the players of WoW? Well, for starters, that’s not getting rid of the artifact weapon system, that’s just a Metroid-style reset of your powers- a new weapon with greater potential, starting from zero. But also, that doesn’t work with weapons that are already established. It worked in the King Arthur story because both the sword in the stone and Excalibur were new creations for that story (inspirations from Gilgamesh not withstanding). They were both on a level playing field as far as import- they were as amazing as the story said they were, and nothing more.
In WoW, we’ve had more than a decade of build for the Frostmourne-forged Blades of the Fallen Prince, and for Kael’thas’s Felo’melorn. They cashed in years of build for this moment. What could you replace those with? What is the Excalibur to Ashbringer’s sword in the stone? What is the progression? I can tell you as an enthusiast of Warcraft lore that there are of course powerful weapons that remain out of player hands… but not very many, and none that I would call legend material. Blizzard has cornered themselves with this play, as fantastic as it is in the moment. You can’t replace artifact weapons, but you also can’t keep them.
It’s a strange blunder from a studio whose WoW expansions have felt intentionally withholding to preserve future progression. The first expansion was a war with the Burning Legion, but was very limited in impact- at the end of it, we’d repelled the invasion, but the game made it clear that they were alive and well, and would be back. The second ended with the death of the Lich King… and the appointment of a new one, because “there must always be a Lich King.” They always give themselves an out, they’re always prepared for what’s next. When Wrath of the Lich King ended, I watched that last cutscene, and said to myself, “So we’ll be fighting this new Lich King in three or four expansions, huh?” We haven’t yet, but the teasing of his rise as a threat has begun. They leave doors open for the future.
So, what do we make of this, then? WoW’s numbers were at an all time low before the launch of Legion (which is doing extremely well). Was this a desperation play made without a solid plan, or can I just no longer see where they’re going from here?
Here’s what I know: if I boot up my Frost Death Knight right now, and go out to do some quests, I’ll have swords made out of Frostmourne’s shards at my side. And because I do, it means some special things. Sure, the graphics are cool, and the stats are great, and they have a really neat unique weapon ability. But the coolest thing is that every now and then, just out in the world, I’ll bump into the Lich King himself, former wielder of the sword my weapons are forged out of.
It’s not the real him. It’s a memory. A fragment of a dead king, trapped in my weapon. I’ve encountered him a few times already. And when I meet that echo of my character’s former king, he turns to me, and he has some things to say. He asks me how I know that I’m truly free of his influence. He asks me about my thoughts on inevitability, and death. And he wonders, aloud, how long it will be before the people I fight alongside will run out of enemies, and turn on me– an undead abomination that raises hordes of zombies, tortures people, and spreads disease.
They’re fuckin’ good questions, to be honest- questions that the Death Knight class has always quietly skirted around. But even though it’s just a little thirty second encounter, these moments with the defeated final boss of an old expansion recontextualize everything you’ve done with that character so far. The thing about these weapons is that they have history, and familiarity. To an audience, that is pure, concentrated power. How do we go back from that to [Well Crafted Sword]? I just don’t think we can.