What is a Battleground?
Battlegrounds are sub-areas in the game called instances, similar to 5-man or raid dungeons such as the Deadmines or Naxxramas, where players can engage in PvP, or Player vs. Player combat. PvP, as the name implies, means that players are fighting other players, not AI like the monsters found all over the game world. Only players who enter a Battleground can interact in it. In the beginning, Battlegrounds were only created drawing from a pool of players from the same realm. This sometimes resulted in very long queues as the system struggled to find players who wanted to play the same Battleground. Blizzard responded by creating Battlegroups, a cluster of realms from which the system draws players to put together to duke it out in a Battleground. The new dungeon system to be implemented in Patch 3.3 borrows from this method of finding a group, which will make it easier for players to find others with whom to explore a dungeon.
Battlegrounds are practically mini-games within the World of Warcraft, with different objectives to pursue depending on the map. Warsong Gulch is a classic CTF or Capture-the-Flag; Arathi Basin is about accumulating resources; Eye of the Storm is a mix of CTF and resource gathering; Alterac Valley and Isle of Conquest has generals to kill, as well as other objectives; and Strand of the Ancients is an attack-and-defend scenario. Wintergrasp is a high-level, non-instanced Battleground which we'll discuss at another time. Blizzard has promised to continue making more Battlegrounds in the future and their planned developments for Cataclysm, the next expansion, look very exciting.
Why should I play?
There are many reasons why players play the Battlegrounds, the most important reason being that it's fun. If you're not having fun, don't play it. On top of the enjoyment of PvP combat, which is wildly different compared to fighting computer-controlled mobs, Blizzard gives additional incentives for playing the Battlegrounds, namely honor, experience, and to a minor degree, even gold.
Honor? What's that?
Honor is currency awarded to players who perform PvP objectives such as killing enemy players. In the Battlegrounds, players gain honor by completing Battleground objectives such as capturing or helping to capture the flag or hold on to a location. Honor varies depending on level -- players usually get optimal honor by killing higher level players at higher levels, and honor gain is substantially better in higher level Battleground brackets.
Honor is accrued in real time -- that is, once certain objectives are met, players receive honor which can be spent to purchase special PvP-centric items such as armor, weapons, and other items. You can keep track of how much honor you have by toggling the PvP pane, or pressing 'H' on your keyboards. The top number on the pane keeps track of your current honor points, which can be stockpiled to a maximum of 75,000. Any honor gained after the cap is reached go to waste.
Below the honor tally at the top is an antiquated tracking table that shows how many Kills, or Honorable Kills (HK) you've made during the day and the day before that. Below the Kills tally is the Honor gained, which resets every day. At the right of the table are Lifetime HKs, which don't really mean anything other than bragging rights and Achievements such as 100,000 Honorable Kills.
Sounds great! How do I start?
Well, you have to be at least Level 10. Players can sign up for Warsong Gulch starting then, which puts them in the queue for the Battleground. To make things fair, most Battlegrounds are divided into brackets that have about a ten-level range. Warsong Gulch is the earliest Battleground that players can enter, with a Level 10-19 bracket. At Level 20, players can also queue up for Arathi Basin. Alterac Valley opens up for players at Level 51, Eye of the Storm at Level 61, and Strand of the Ancients and Isle of Conquest at Level 71. A special bracket is reserved for the current maximum level of 80.
In the old days, players needed to physically go to a Battleground entrance in order to get in queue. Shortly after, Blizzard introduced Battlemasters, NPCs whom players could speak to in order to be placed in queue for a Battleground. These days, you simply have to open the PvP pane again and toggle the Battleground tab found on the lower left of the pane. Needless to say, this tab only becomes available at Level 10. While you can still talk to Battlemasters or go to Arathi Highlands, the Barrens or Ashenvale, or the Alterac Mountains, the new queue system makes it extremely easy for anyone to queue for a Battleground from anywhere in the world.
Upon opening the Battleground tab, players will be presented a list of Battlegrounds and see how many games of that Battleground are ongoing. Players can queue for a specifically numbered Battleground (e.g., Warsong Gulch 2, Arathi Basin 4, etc.), which is often done when players know their friends are inside that specific game. Under normal circumstances, however, you should just select the First Available option which will allow you to enter any fresh or currently ongoing game with an available slot.
Players can queue for up to two different Battlegrounds at a time. When a slot in a Battleground becomes available, a dialog box will open up which give players the option to Enter Battle, Leave Queue or Minimize. The last option will hide the dialog box, which players can access again by right-clicking on the Horde or Alliance icon on the border of their mini-map. Players have 40 seconds to enter a Battleground before the dialog box disappears and the player is removed from queue. If a player is already inside another Battleground, that timer is 20 seconds.
What if I have to go?
Because the Horde and Alliance need an army that actually fights, any player that goes AFK (Away From Keyboard) will automatically be removed from the Battleground. Players who don't make any actions or type messages for five minutes will be flagged as AFK, as will manually typing '/afk'. This will also give the character a debuff called 'Deserter', which marks the character as having left a Battleground before the game ends. This debuff lasts for 15 minutes and prevents players from entering another Battleground until it expires. Since most matches now last little more than 20 minutes because of improvements made by Blizzard, getting the debuff isn't particularly wise. These days, finishing a game is the best way to exit a Battleground, sending characters back to the place where they were when they last queued.
We've now discussed the very basics of the World of Warcraft's Battlegrounds system. In the next Art of War(craft), we'll take a closer look at the different Battlegrounds, as well as some basic tips and strategies. Of course, the best way to learn is through experience, so don't be afraid to queue up and cause a bit of mayhem!