Keys in WoW have come in many forms. Some hang around our neck. Some hide in belts. Others open aircraft hangars or other, very special places. Some let us pretend to be rogues. Some never made it to the live game. Some we eat or play with. Some help us get the mail or reach new heights. We find some in unexpected places. A few are just trash.
This column is not about those keys. This is about the keys that used to be a Big Deal. The keys that people went to extraordinary lengths to obtain. The keys that put you on everyone's friends list. The keys to content.
Today, content is rarely locked. Players take it for granted that when a new dungeon or raid goes live, they will have immediate access. For the first half of WoW's history, however, this was not the case at all.
Vanilla WoW locked away virtually all of its end-game content. Raids required attunement, which means that every single person in your raid had to complete a certain quest line.
Keys worked differently. Content that required a key wasn't gated according to some arbitrary release schedule, such as the Heart of Fear -- but by actual gates.
Portals for certain dungeons were placed behind locked doors. You didn't need an attunement -- you just had to physically get past the door so you could walk into the portal. This meant that as long as one person in your party had the key, you could all get in. (Remember that this era had no dungeon finder, so you always had to ride out to the dungeon itself to run it.)
Some locks could also be opened by rogues, blacksmiths, and engineers. If you didn't have any of them, and you didn't have the key, you could sometimes cheat your way through locked doors.
By dying close enough to a door, you could rez yourself on the other side of it. Players would duel each other and then jump from a high area to die from fall damage.
Polymorph could also do the trick. You could duel a mage, get sheeped by the door, wait for the wandering sheep to go through it, and have a third person cleanse the debuff.
Bones and volcanoes
The two most sought-after endgame keys in vanilla WoW were the Skeleton Key for Scholomance and the Seal of Ascension for Upper Blackrock Spire.
Players earned the Skeleton Key for Scholo after a 9-quest chain involving the Scarlet Crusade and the Scourge-ravaged town of Andorhal. In true vanilla fashion, the quests also sent you on side trips to the other end of the world: Gadgzetan and the Un'Goro volcano.
Finally, you had to defeat Araj the Summoner, an elite mob in Andorhal that required several players to bring down, especially given his location in a densely packed, high aggro area filled with other elite mobs. That was the step that tripped up most people and made this one of the rarer keys.
You could actually make him easier by using Attuned Dampeners, a reward from Chromie's repeatable quest Counting Out Time. This fact was not widely known back then, however.
One ring to bring them all
The UBRS key was not actually a key at all, but a ring. Getting that ring was a huge hassle. First you needed a random drop from Lower Blackrock called the Unadorned Seal of Ascension. That was the easy part. You could even buy one on the auction house.
Unfortunately, adorning it took more than a Bedazzler. You needed three gems that dropped from bosses in LBRS. Their drop rate was very low (about 1-2%), which was bad enough. Then you had to outroll the rest of your party for it, because everyone was on this stupid quest forever. Guilds would often designate one person as their UBRS key recipient and make sure that person was on every possible LBRS run. Any gemstones that they needed would default to them.
Once you had all the pieces, you needed to gather up a full party and complete one of the game's most needlessly complicated group quests. To forge your ring, you had to DPS down an elite dragon in Dustwallow Marsh, mind control it, and force it to breathe fire on the seal.
Sooo many things could go wrong here. First, the window to mind control the dragon was very short. Mind controlling him came up as a pet ability bar. If you didn't play a pet class, you may have been unaware that it worked. If you played a pet class and you had a pet out, the mind control would fail.
Then, if people in your party didn't stop DPS'ing the dragon, they could wind up inadvertently interrupting what you were trying to do with him. Also, you had to position the dragon properly so he would actually breathe on the seal that you placed on the ground.
To make matters so much worse, the quest items that allowed you to do these things had only five charges. If you failed to complete the quest after five tries, you had to gather all of the items again.
As a result of the low drop rate and aggravating follow-up, very few players had UBRS keys. Those who did could run it any time they wanted to, at least early in vanilla -- people in your faction would jump at the chance to go (partly because Onyxia attunement required multiple UBRS runs). If you didn't want to run it, you could actually charge people to open the door.
The golden age of keys
A third of vanilla's dungeons had an associated key of some kind that could either make the runs easier or unlock new areas.
Stratholme's undead side had a back door -- the "Service Entrance" -- that took you right to the start of that wing instead of fighting your way to it. The Key to the City was a drop from Magistrate Barthilas, but he only dropped one per run.
Obtaining Dire Maul's Crescent Key required completing a kind of "event" in the east wing where you chased an imp and then fought him when he transformed into a demon.
The Scarlet Key from Arcanist Doan's strongbox granted access to Scarlet Monastery's original Armory and Cathedral wings. Even lowly Gnomeregan had a key to a second entrance that got you much closer to its final boss, Mekgineer Thermaplugg.
Blackrock Depths showered you in keys. The Shadowforge Key got you to the Grim Guzzler, and the Grim Guzzler Key got you into the remainder of the dungeon. Relic Coffer Keys opened safes in the Black Vault, and the Prison Cell Key opened cells in the Detention Block. Dwarves really like locking things.
Even a zone had its own key in vanilla. Alliance could complete a short quest line for a Key to Searing Gorge. (Presumably the gate was locked to keep people from falling in/becoming seared.) Prior to the flight path at Thorium Point, using the key was the only convenient way to enter the zone for Alliance.
The keyring solution
As you can imagine, all of these keys took up a substantial number of slots in everyone's bags. Each key was an item you pretty much had to bring along with you everywhere you went. Otherwise, you'd get to a dungeon and then realize you didn't have it. With one-hour cooldowns on hearth stones, this could mean a long delay for the run.
Players complained about the problem throughout vanilla. Blizzard promised an eventual solution to key storage, and in patch 1.11 we finally got it.
Keyrings were an extra bag slot that could hold only keys. The number of slots it could hold expanded based on level. In vanilla, they started at 4 and maxed out at 12.
Next week, WoW Archivist will cover the decline and eventual elimination of keys through the game's expansions, along with cheats the key system.
BC gets keydiculous
The Burning Crusade had fewer true keys, but getting all of them was no small task.
Unlocking the Heroic modes of dungeons required purchasing keys from faction vendors, such as the Key of Time, once you reached revered with them (later reduced to honored). These were more like attunements, however. Everyone in the party had to have one to enter, and there was no physical door to open.
Only three dungeons in the expansion sat behind physical doors: Shattered Halls, Shadow Labyrinth, and Arcatraz. The Shadow Labyrinth key was a boss drop. The Shattered Halls Key required a short quest line that involved killing a Fel Reaver (which was actually kind of awesome). The Key to the Arcatraz had a long 11-quest chain that began in the Netherstorm zone and eventually took you to the other two wings of Tempest Keep, Mechanar and Botanica.
The Karazhan raid also required a key. Unlike most gates, Karazhan's sat just beyond the instance portal. To open it and run the raid required The Master's Key, and this was the roughest key to get since UBRS. Initially, the key acted more like an attunement -- everyone had to have one, and the key was a major part of the BC attunement nightmare. The quest line to obtain it required solo quests, but also seven different dungeon runs when you took all of the various prerequisites into account.
In patch 2.4, Blizzard relented and turned Karazhan's key into a true key, allowing one person to open the door for the entire raid (and also making the gate pickable/blowupable). Players were grateful for the change.
The Tempest Key for the Eye was just a tease -- the instance had no locked door. The key was actually an attunement item.
The decline of keys
Keys became far less relevant in Wrath of the Lich King. The Kirin Tor gave you The Violet Hold Key after a quick chat with Rhonin. The reason for this had more to do with preventing low-level players from wandering into Dalaran's dungeon than actually gating the content, since you could queue for it in the dungeon finder without the key.
To fight Malygos at the Eye of Eternity required a key that dropped from Sapphiron. Unlike vanilla's keys, however, the Key to the Focusing Iris didn't sit in your bags. It started a quest that granted you a personal attunement so you could summon the boss for your raid.
During Wrath, you could earn an achievement by collecting keys. For some reason, this one was never converted into a feat of strength.
Losing our keys
The planetarium key was WoW's final true key. With Cataclysm's reshaping, the locked doors of all the game's dungeons opened for good. Most of the key items disappeared or turned into sellable vendor items. Keyrings themselves held out until patch 4.2.
While this change is good for the game, sadly, most of the excellent quest lines associated with them have also disappeared. The UBRS quest chain went away too, however, so I guess it's a wash.
After months of surveying, WoW Archivist has been dug back up! Discover lore and artifacts of WoW's past, including the Corrupted Blood plague, the Scepter of the Shifting Sands, and the mysterious Emerald Dream.