I have to confess that I haven't spent as much time in Lake Wintergrasp as I thought I would. Even when we got premade Level 80s to fiddle around with in the Wrath Beta, I ended up spending very little time in the zone because it was simply too confusing. It didn't help that every build wiped your talent points, so I'd end up logging in to a crossfire without any abilities on my hotbars. In general, my Beta experience with what still promises to be my favorite zone of all time was rather unfulfilling.
The good news is that there's a lot of work being done on the zone and the siege vehicles and buildings do a nice job of blowing up. I also appreciate the return of my favorite guys from Alterac Valley, like my Pusoy Dos buddy Lieutenant Murp. In general, though, Lake Wintergrasp needs a lot of breadcrumb quests and hand-holding just for people to get the basics. Blizzard has big plans for the zone, and they detailed a lot of those in yesterday's PvP panel.
The zone is massive. In the Beta, there were areas that felt somewhat abandoned and felt empty. This is certain to happen in live realms, as there are off-hours of play. But Blizzard's aim is clear: they want this place to be all combat all the time, with hundreds of players bombing, killing, attacking and defending. In fact, they prepared their servers to handle such a load. If this happens -- and by the Light, I hope it will -- and hundreds of players do fill the zone for unadulterated combat, I'm going to have one hell of a good time.
The question, though, is what if there is a massive population imbalance in the realm? In some cases, the ratio has been as bad as 14:1, although a quick perusal of Warcraft Realms statistics list Azgalor's 6.7 Horde for every one Alliance as the worst population imbalance at the moment. Blizzard created a buff called Tenacity, which is granted to players who are outnumbered in the zone. It's a scaling buff that makes players stronger the more they are outnumbered, so in some cases a single player can easily take on four other players of equal skill. Sometimes, the promise of that kind of heroics is enough to get players to try out this non-instanced Battleground. Control of Wintergrasp keep also grants a portal to and from Dalaran, which should be another great incentive.
The timer for the zone is a short 2.5 hours, with an estimated capture time of about 30 to 45 minutes. Capturing the zone grants the Essence of Wintergrasp, a buff similar to the one in Auchindoun, which allows the capture of Stone Keeper's Shards. These shards act as currency for "a wide variety" of items in the game, from gear to gems to mounts. The key to keeping Lake Wintergrasp is in the gear, similar to how Badge of Justice loot kept on getting upgrades. Aside from the drops, this mechanic kept Heroic instances relevant. Spirit Shards in The Burning Crusade, for example, becomes irrelevant once you get past a certain level because the rewards were limited and underwhelming. The Bone Wastes only became relevant again with the associated daily quest.
Capturing Lake Wintergrasp also opens up a the Vault of Archavon, a single-boss raid instance, for the controlling faction. This is one of the most interesting twists of the zone, and I'm not so sure how I feel about it. Lately, I've been dedicated to PvP almost exclusively, and this requires a raid group of either 10 or 25 players, which would force me to raid. No, really. It's extremely compelling -- Archavon the Stone Watcher drops either Hateful or Deadly Gladiator pieces in 10- and 25-player modes respectively. Normally, those items require Arena ratings as well as Honor and / or Arena points, but Archavon drops them for free. If that isn't the most brilliant come-on to draw hardcore PvP players to raid, I don't know what is.
Blizzard also outlined their plans to provide extensive rewards available through Wintergrasp, which I mentioned will be an important part of keeping the zone relevant and fresh. The vehicles aren't exactly rewards, but considering participation in Lake Wintergrasp increases a person's "rank" enough to use the siege weapons, it's another incentive to actually play. These ranks reset for every battle, so it's really just a quantitative system to gauge what siege weaponry you can use. On the other hand, there are actual vehicles, or mounts, that you can buy with Wintergrasp shards. Right now it's the Black War Mammoth, but it's not unreasonable to think there could be more in the future.
There are currently metagems and metagem patterns, shoulder enchants, and one of the coolest items ever -- Wintergrasp Commendation. It's a token that can be spent for 2,000 Honor points. The best thing about it is that it binds to account... so it can be sent to your alts. Future gear from Wintergrasp reportedly includes heirloom items, PvP gear, and other cool stuff. A prestigious PvP vanity pet, maybe? Anything goes, really, as the door is wide open for Blizzard to go all out on this.
With so much resting on the zone -- it's Blizzard's first attempt at a non-instanced Battleground and completely PvP-centric zone with PvP-centric quests -- it simply can't fail. To have a broken Battleground is one thing, but to have a zone that nobody is interested in would be a major disaster. I believe I once said I wanted to spend all my time in Wintergrasp once it goes live. If that's what it takes to make this thing work, I'm ready to stake my claim on a good swath of that cold, hard ice.