"It's just possible that the curious race we're going to meet in this mystic land, may just teach us a thing or two about who we are, and why we fight." -- Chris Metzen, BlizzCon 2011When Mists of Pandaria was introduced, there were plenty of people that were skeptical about the expansion -- many questioned the introduction of the pandaren as a playable race, questioning whether or not an expansion featuring fuzzy talking pandas could ever be taken seriously. Yet although the pandaren can be quite friendly and agreeable, the overall theme of Mists has been remarkably dark. I'd almost consider it darker than any prior, if only for one reason: the message in this expansion hits far closer to home than any other.
While Burning Crusade, Wrath, and Cataclysm all highlighted major enemies that sought to end the world, each through their own means, Mists took a step back from the grand bellowing villains and their evil schemes. And instead, it chose to shift the focus to us -- Alliance and Horde, players and NPCs alike. Yet on the brink of patch 5.4, presumably the last raid of this expansion, what lessons can we take away from Pandaria? What has it taught us, that couldn't be taught by fighting another world-threatening NPC? What was the point of Pandaria?
Please note that today's Know Your Lore contains some spoilers for patch 5.4 content. If you're avoiding spoilers, turning away now would be advised!
You cannot counter without knowing your opponent's move
How do you successfully counter an attack, without knowing what that attack will be in the first place? Nine times out of ten, you don't -- you instead work yourself into a bigger problem. This theme was brought up before we even reached Pandaria's shores in the attack on Theramore. Varian sent his strongest military personnel to Theramore to assist Jaina with what was supposedly an attack by an army of Horde, and by doing so, he played right into Garrosh Hellscream's hands. That attack was nothing more than a diversion, delayed so that the Alliance would send more and more of their forces to one choke point, which would then be decimated by a bomb that the Alliance was completely unaware of -- and even the majority of the Horde had no idea the bomb existed.
What Varian took away from this was a lesson that he desperately needed to learn in order to ground himself -- that he needed to look before he leapt, and that underestimating his enemy would cost him countless valuable lives. This message of observation became an ongoing theme with the Alliance in patch 5.1, but also carried over to the Horde. Many were of the opinion that Hellscream was simply a new leader, that his rash decisions were indicative of simply needing time and council to overcome. The biggest offender in this case was Thrall, who tried to convince Vol'jin of that very point after Vol'jin and Garrosh had a tremendous falling out.
One of the major themes this expansion seems to be underestimation -- leaping into a situation without fulling grasping its implications first. The pandaren race as a whole represents a society of people that look before they leap -- something that is almost foreign to the majority of Azeroth. As Alliance and Horde, we were fully warned of the effects of the sha the moment we stepped in Pandaria, and we chose to ignore that warning in favor of blind hatred and combat, unleashing the chain-reaction of events that carried us through the continent.
In fact, we still don't fully understand the pandaren, or their home. We may never truly figure them out before we leave for whatever lies ahead. Which leads to the next lesson we needed to learn.
We are our own worst enemies
Even though we have fought and won against a cavalcade of Azeroth's worst villains, the single worst enemy we have to fight is ourselves. It is our adamant dedication to hatred that fuels the sha. It is the selfish desires of Garrosh Hellscream that lead to the decimation of the Vale of Eternal Blossoms. Selfishness -- the desire to attend to our own needs and successes regardless of the suffering of others -- is what has led to the majority of the issues in Pandaria. We didn't care about Taran Zhu's warning at the onset of the Jade Forest, and we unleashed a horror that ripped across the continent as a result.
Each successive leveling zone was a lesson in helping others. In the Valley of the Four Winds and Krasarang, our actions were far more selfless in nature. As Alliance, we watched as Lorekeeper Vaeldrin sought out the secrets of immortality, a task that had driven a wedge between himself and his headstrong daughter -- and we watched helplessly as he realized he had wasted time dedicating himself to that search, time that could have been spent with his daughter instead, and sacrificed his own life to save her.
As Horde, we watched the dual dynamic of the Sunwalker Expedition -- the actions of Kor Bloodtusk, who merely sought to exploit the visions of Leza to find whatever she saw and use it as a tool for the Horde, and the desperate efforts of Sunwalker Dezco to save his wife while she labored in childbirth. We were powerless to help as Leza died giving birth to twins. While Dezco's journey was successful, Kor died in his questing.
Yet all of these problems could be traced back to that fateful moment in the Jade Forest when Alliance and Horde could not put aside their factional differences and unleashed the sha. Whether we like to admit it or not, the problems Pandaria faced were a direct result of our own selfish actions as factions -- and all we could do was try to clean up the mess and dedicate ourselves to helping others. But Pandaria wasn't just home to the pandaren, the jinyu, and the hozen.
The secrets of the Titans
In our questing we discovered that the Titans had a really strong presence in Pandaria, although we didn't really understand why. Through the years, the works of the Titans have been slowly revealed to us in a series of almost side-events that played out next to the saga of the Old Gods. Yet we never truly understood the purpose of the Titans or their works, and in Pandaria we saw a little more of both -- and an illustration of the horrors that could potentially be released by the Curse of Flesh.
The mogu present a puzzling conundrum, an enemy that once upon a time, wasn't an enemy at all. As creations of the Titans, these creatures should have been dedicated to preserving order and harmony. Yet the Curse of Flesh didn't just turn these creatures into another race like the dwarves or the gnomes, and it didn't degenerate them into enemies like the troggs. It kept them strong, and gifted them with negative emotions that colored their very beings, warping them into warlords and warriors bent on keeping Pandaria controlled under an iron fist.
In fact, the mogu may be one of the most complicated, interesting villains we've encountered to date. Although the pandaren viewed them as evil, once upon a time the mogu were anything but. And their actions weren't born out of evil so much as a desperate attempt to return to the purpose for which they'd been created. Which left us with another startling revelation -- the Titans, for whatever reason, deserted Azeroth. That desertion wasn't necessarily a good thing, as it seems to have left keepers like Ra-den silent and confused, unsure of what to do. What this means in terms of the Titans' story has yet to be seen ... but that story may have far more twists and turns than initially expected.
We don't have to unite to be strong
One of the themes in vanilla, Burning Crusade, and even Wrath was that of unification. We had to unite the two factions to fight off the invasive forces at the Gates of Ahn'Qiraj. We were brought together again to defeat Kil'jaeden at the end of Burning Crusade. Both sides were quite amicably fighting side-by-side up until the events at the Wrathgate in Wrath. The lesson being repeated again and again was that when we stop fighting with each other and unite as a whole, we can defeat anything, no matter how great the enemy.
Mists has taken that idea and completely flipped it inside out. The focus of Mists has not been working together, it's been working against each other -- from the moment Theramore fell, it's been nothing but conflict, and both sides are strong. You could almost say that this lesson began in Cataclysm, when Thrall stepped down as Warchief in favor of helping the world, fully aware that the neutrality and peace he so desperately wanted for the Horde wasn't really what the Horde wanted for itself. It was the death of an ideal that followed when Jaina Proudmoore watched as her beloved Theramore was destroyed in the blink of an eye.
The days of Thrall and Jaina's idea of a world united in peace are over. Subtly following that them has been the sneaky, hopefully altruistic plans of Wrathion. He hasn't tried to get the Alliance and Horde to hold hands and work together -- instead, he is deliberately setting the two against each other to see which one is really deserving of being a dominating force. He isn't looking to ally with one faction over the other -- instead, he is culling his own group of champions outside of the realm of faction alliances.
Wrathion cares about Azeroth and its survival -- he doesn't care about the factional division of its residents. And through Wrathion, we are continuing to become stronger and far more powerful than ever before. It's a neutral black dragon that is granting that power, not a member of the Alliance or a member of the Horde. Oddly enough, it's one of Wrathion's "lackeys" that hammers this point home in patch 5.4.
The nature of balance
Tong is just a simple innkeeper in the Veiled Stair. He hasn't got a vested interest in war, he's just minding his own business and making sure his customers are taken care of. It's highly doubtful that he ever in his wildest dreams imagined his inn would become the temporary home to a black dragon with peculiar visions about the end of the world. Yet Tong has watched, wayward and weary, as each new champion of Wrathion's peculiar cause has tromped in the mud and dirt from the road. He's watched the dragon chat with notable figures, watched him try to determine which side was stronger, Alliance or Horde. And in patch 5.4, he's had about enough of the dragon's nonsense, and has a lesson of his own to share: one of the strength that lies in balance.
One of the first things we learned in Pandaria was the tale of Shaohao and his journey to protect the world. It wasn't until Shaohao divested himself of his burdens that the Jade Serpent gave him the final lesson she also gave us -- everything is connected. Shaohao could not save Pandaria and leave its enemies behind. And so Shaohao took all of Pandaria, including the mantid, sha, yaungol and mogu, and hid it all away.
The lesson to be learned is that enemies are just as useful as they are dangerous. What would have happened to Pandaria, had Shaohao succeeded in locking it away with no enemies to be found? The Shado Pan would have had little to fight, there would have been no issues with the sha, the continent would have become an idyllic little sanctuary where no one had anything to worry about. And it is at that point that the continent would have been absolutely ripe for the taking. With no enemies to fight, a hero can only grow soft and complacent.
Yes, the Horde has done its share of evil deeds to the Alliance, and the Alliance have responded in kind. As Taran Zhu said, it is a vicious, endless cycle that will never end as long as both sides continue to escalate the situation. But without the Horde, the Alliance would have nothing to challenge them and keep them strong and united. Without the Alliance, the Horde would have nothing to fight for, they'd simply take over the land and quite possibly return to their nomadic ways. Either way, the world would be wide open for the taking by the Burning Legion.
Could any of these lessons have been learned anywhere but Pandaria? It's incredibly doubtful. Mists may not be an expansion with a worldbreaking villain, but it has offered us something far more valuable -- a look into our characters, a look into the Alliance and Horde, and a look into what makes Azeroth so unique -- what makes the world worth fighting for.
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.