Queue anywhere, anytime
Patch 3.1 introduced the ability to queue from anywhere in the world, allowing players to devote more time to other endeavors such as questing or grinding in between matches. This effectively rendered Battlemasters obsolete, and many NPCs became mere decorations in major cities. Familiar NPCs such as the He-Man and Skeletor homages of Adam Eternum and Keldor the Lost disappeared in the following patch from their spots in Shattrath, and would only return briefly during their affiliated Battleground (Arathi Basin) holidays.
The changes in the Battleground system also removed the flavor text from talking to these NPCs, so players would no longer be treated to such gems as Adam's proclamation, "I've come to Outland hoping to discover powerful artifacts to assist the League of Arathor against the Defilers in Arathi Basin... but all I've found is this smashing magical loincloth, a ridiculous gnome sidekick, and an egomaniacal undead stalker who insists I've stolen his grey skull, or some such." It was a triumph for convenience (talking to the Battlemaster now immediately lists choices of Battlegrounds), but a sad day for flavor and humor.
That said, the change was great for the game. The ability to queue from anywhere allowed players to spend time away from major cities, giving players more flexibility with their playing time, removing one more barrier that used to prevent some players from entering the Battlegrounds. And just as the new system gave players more options to kill time between matches, the ease of getting in queue made the Battlegrounds a more appealing way to kill time between other Azerothian endeavors.
A minor patch after 3.1 impacted Wintergrasp, which was more successful than even Blizzard had anticipated, causing major lag issues throughout Northrend and sometimes even crashing the zone. The honor gains from Wintergrasp were too good, outweighing Battlegrounds honor gains. In addition, the game simply wasn't capable of handling hundreds and hundreds of players running about and firing off spells in one concentrated area. This called for a nerf in Wintergrasp, first with the reduction in honor and more significantly the change in Wintergrasp daily quests into weekly ones, marking the first time repeatable quests reset on a weekly basis. This weekly PvP repeatable quest would later find its way to the PvE aspect of the game when weekly raid quests were introduced in Patch 3.3. 2009 was also the year where the cross-realm Battlegrounds queue system was adapted into the extremely popular Dungeon Finder.
Patch 3.2 further refined the Wintergrasp queue system to limit the number of participants in the zone. While this defeated the original intent of a non-instanced Battleground, it allowed Wintergrasp to function without disrupting the entire realm. Instead of a free-for-all, Wintergrasp became a strictly queued battle which enlisted players 15 minutes before each match, with a maximum of 120 players per side (three full raids) or 240 players total during a battle. The new system also favored max-level players over lower level ones, preventing honor leeching by low level participants in order to quickly acquire gear. The changes streamlined Wintegrasp play and ensured the stability of Northrend. As always, Blizzard would take what they learned from the experience and applied it to later developments such as the new Battleground in Patch 3.2. The nerf to Wintergrasp gave instanced Battlegrounds a healthy boost.
Perhaps the most revolutionary change in 2009 was experience gain in the Battlegrounds. Introduced in Patch 3.2 -- arguably the most significant Battleground patch in all of the game's history -- the change made Battleground play competitive with other forms of leveling in the game such as questing or grinding mobs. For many years, playing the Battlegrounds while leveling up was counterproductive considering that honor gains were considerably lower and rewards prior to Alterac Valley paled in comparison to those obtained from dungeons (this was before the introduction of Resilience as the defining PvP stat).
Battlegrounds giving experience was a game-changer. Players could opt to toggle experience gains off by talking to the Experience Eliminators Behsten or Slahtz, but these twink characters would be placed in their own Battleground queues, making them face off against similarly twinked opponents. This gave twinks their much warranted equal opposition while making the Battlegrounds a more engaging experience for players just getting their PvP feet wet.
This opened up the Battlegrounds to many players who previously had unsavory initial experiences running into fully-geared and enchanted opponents. With two separate queues for twinks and genuine leveling players, this all at once made the Battlegrounds a level playing field for most players, a worthwhile activity even for those looking to level, and delivered to twinks the challenge they have always claimed to crave.
Isle of Conquest
Patch 3.2 also introduced a brand new Battleground, the first 40-man raid instance since old world Naxxramas, and the first large scale instanced Battleground since Alterac Valley. It also marked the first time Blizzard introduced a Battleground midway through an expansion, which could be a hint of things to come. Blizzard shipped Eye of the Storm along with the Burning Crusade, and never bothered with Battlegrounds play throughout the expansion, with most PvP efforts going into refining the Arena system. By shipping a Battleground with a major patch -- a patch largely considered to be the most insubstantial in terms of PvE and raid content -- Blizzard demonstrated a renewed commitment to Battlegrounds play and an earnest effort to make all aspects of the game truly worthwhile.
The Isle of Conquest included many elements introduced in Wrath and made popular by Wintergrasp such as destructible buildings, siege vehicles, bombs, and it even included a passable compromise for aerial combat -- the drop ships. Blizzard also sidestepped potential imbalances by making the generals identical in health and ability, and making the map greatly retain some geographical symmetry. This allowed Isle of Conquest to avoid the pitfalls that plagued the first iterations of Blizzard's first epic-scale PvP endeavor, Alterac Valley.
Although 2009 saw honor become more valuable as a currency, making it required to purchase various items sometimes in combination with Arena points or ratings, it highlighted the fact that Battleground players would only be able to receive second-tier PvP items and have no way to obtain PvP weapons outside of Arena play. The reasoning for this was varied and mostly valid -- there's just no way to determine the skill of a player through Battlegrounds PvP in the current system.
Enter BlizzCon, August 2009. Blizzard announced that rated Battlegrounds play would be introduced with the Cataclysm and that Battlegrounds players would have access to the same gear as Arena players within the same season. It's a remarkable and ballsy change -- a gracious nod to Battlegrounds enthusiasts placing them on relatively equal footing with Arena players. While Arena play will always be the logical and rightful format for true competitive and professional PvP, the shift towards making the game friendlier to players of all levels required Battleground rewards to be competitive.
Changes in the horizon hold much promise for the Battlegrounds and world PvP, as the island of Tol Barad would be a combination of Wintergrasp and the Isle of Quel'danas. A verbal commitment from the developers to give a lot more focus to the Battlegrounds is extremely promising considering that 2009 was a tremendous year for that aspect of the World of Warcraft. Expect to see a new Battleground, a new system to track success, and perhaps even one or more Battlegrounds rolled out throughout Cataclysm. Times are exciting, indeed. The cool thing is, as great as 2009 was for Battlegrounds and world PvP, I'm supremely confident that Blizzard will outdo itself in 2010 and ultimately, we the players benefit. Have a great 2010, everyone! And don't forget to cause a little bit of mayhem this year.