Know Your Lore: Top 10 magnificent bastards of Warcraft, part 2

Matthew Rossi
M. Rossi|07.05.12

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Know Your Lore: Top 10 magnificent bastards of Warcraft, part 2
The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.

Last week, we talked about some magnificent bastards. At least one of those choices (Garithos) is, for me, kind of a controversial one, and I'm going to suggest a replacement for him in this post, because I think many readers made a valid point regarding him.

Garithos is absolutely the second part of the equation, but there's no magnificence to him. He's a bumbler, a cretin, and his great impact on the world was entirely due to his utter inability to succeed at anything. MBs are more like Doctor Doom or David Xanatos; they have a kind of epic quality to them and a real feeling of threat. So there you go, readers -- you've already convinced me that one of my choices from last week was not the right choice.

Therefore, this post will begin at #6 and count down to #1. Just take Garithos off of last week's list, and let Wrathion sit at #10. This moves Nathanos down to #7 and makes room for this week. You convinced me, guys. Garithos is out.

Can you pull it off again this week? This week, we look at my top Magnificent Bastards in World of Warcraft. I will tell you right now, certain characters will not be appearing on this list because they're either not magnificent enough or not bastards enough. I'm looking at both the King of Stormwind and the current Warchief of the Horde here.

6. Kil'jaeden

Why does Kil'jaeden only hit number six on this list? He's the current head of the Burning Legion, the architect of the destruction of the draenei and the corruption of the orcs, the creator of the Lich King. He delivered his people into Sargeras' hands over 25,000 years ago, and the guy's been evil ever since. How can anyone be put above this guy?

I put KJ where he is for a couple of reasons. First off, while he certain deserves to be on this list, he does have some notable failures. Illidan stole Outland out from under the guy after failing him twice and got away with it. It wasn't the Legion that brought Illidan down. His plan for suborning Kael'thas and stepping through the Sunwell ended in abject failure. His creation of the Lich King ended up coming back to bite him in the ass. His lack of support during Archimonde's invasion of Azeroth probably led to the Legion's second humiliating defeat there. In essence, while Kil'jaeden comes off as brilliant and manipulative, he often seems to lack foresight, blinded by his hatred for his old friend Velen and his detachment from mortal beings.

Know Your Lore Top 10 magnificent bastards of Warcraft, part 2
Oh, Kil'jaden is an accomplished liar and manipulator, but he doesn't really understand the beings he so casually uses and discards. He so underestimated the orcs he had himself used as a weapon was so great that after they had nearly annihilated the draenei he abandoned them rather than keeping them to use as a tool in future campaigns. His arrogance and belief in his own superiority means that he often provides the key to his own defeat. In short, he's too clever by half. His accomplishments speak for themselves, it's true, but his failures are all self-inflicted. Even his loss at the Sunwell was due to his choice of minions.

Still, Kil'jaeden is still out there, and I have no doubt that he'll return to plague Azeroth.

5. Illidan Stormrage

Illidan, even more so than Kil'jaeden, is his own worst enemy.

On the one hand, it's hard to deny the fact that Illidan often found a way to get what he was after. He switched sides twice during the War of the Ancients, but he was strictly speaking always loyal to his goal of preserving the arcane magic he was so talented at wielding. His actions during and after the war were instrumental in the defeat of the Legion and the preservation of magic. If not for Illidan, there would have been no Nordrassil and no Well atop Hyjal, and Hyjal itself would simply be a very tall mountain. Even after enduring a 10,000-year imprisonment for his actions, Illidan managed to take out a key presence in the Legion by himself and claimed the power of the Skull of Gul'dan in the process.

His conquest of Outland, aided by Kael'thas Sunstrider and Lady Vashj, proved that Illidan had forgotten nothing of the tactics the War of the Ancients had taught him, as he executed a strategy that cut the world off from the Legion and toppled Magtheridon. And his two assaults on the Lich King nearly succeeded. The first one, involving the Eye of Sargeras, would have worked if not for the interference of Malfurion Stormrage (Illidan's brother), and the second came down to a showdown with Arthas Menethil.

However, the reason Illidan doesn't place higher is simple: He lost. Furthermore, while his loss to Arthas at Icecrown is just a case of one guy's wanting it more, that loss broke Illidan. He stopped making plans and contingency plans (seriously, the dude outmaneuvered Kil'jaeden twice) and just sat there brooding in the Black Temple. He let Kael'thas sign up with the Legion, failed to consolidate any of his gains in Outland, and declared war on the Naaru for nothing. Picking a fight with the guys who hate the Legion doesn't make a whole lot of sense when the Legion are routinely sending forces to try to kill you.

Illidan's obsession with Tyrande, his inability to compromise, his constant hunger for more and more power, and his inability to hold what he took means that while he's absolutely a MB, he's certainly not tops.

4. The Lich King

Here, the problem is which Lich King we're talking about.

The original Ner'zhul before he was the LK wasn't a bastard at all. But getting caught and torn apart by Kil'jaeden definitely moved him right into MB territory. The Lich King who landed on Icecrown Glacier was evil, ruthless, and cunning. He destroyed and subverted the Nerubian Empire. He called necromancers from all over the world to serve him (including Kel'Thuzad) and used them to form the Cult of the Damned, which wormed its way into Lordaeron and was instrumental in bringing Arthas to Northrend. Manipulating both the young prince and his Nathrezim jailors, the Ner'zhul Lich King showed a grasp for tactical betrayal second to none. He used his minions efficiently, bided his time, did the Legion's dirty work while plotting their downfall, and in the end encompassed it. Archimonde's death was a direct result of plans the Lich King set in motion, manipulating even Illidan to the purpose. Ner'zhul even managed to get himself out from under Kil'jaeden's thumb.

But while he successfully molded Arthas into the perfect death knight, in the end the Lich King did too good a job on his pupil. Arthas went from an earnest young prince and paladin trying desperately to save his people to a cackling villain who betrayed them, and it was more Arthas' doing than the Lich King's that Illidan was defeated. When Arthas put on the Helm of Domination, Ner'zhul ultimately found himself a passenger inside the man he'd intended to merge with, and the Lich King we saw in Wrath was primarily Arthas. (We can debate this one back and forth; let's just agree that at best Ner'zhul was a mostly silent partner for the expansion.)

Arthas as the Lich King wasn't the manipulator that Ner'zhul had been. He certainly pulled people's strings and made complicated plans, but in the end, Arthas seems to have spent more time trying to prove to himself that his fate was unavoidable and that anyone would have made the same choices he did and less time plotting his eventual victory. Even his final plan to raise the heroes who overcame the challenges of Icecrown Citadel to serve him as an army of the dead seems less calculating and more contrived to justify himself to himself.

3. Magatha Grimtotem

Magatha beats Kil'jaeden, Illidan and Arthas onto this list because Magatha always looks out for herself, first and foremost. She plotted to destroy Cairne Bloodhoof for years right under his very nose, with him fully aware of it, and still she pulled it off. While she's not the cosmic threat, conquerer of an entire planet or master of undeath, she's far more goal-oriented and tends to make plans and execute them. Her Grimtotem, despite being a minority in shu'halo society, successfully siezed power after Cairne's death and held Thunder Bluff. Even after that scheme failed and she was exiled from Thunder Bluff by Baine, she managed to turn lemons into lemonade by manipulating young heroes into helping her seize several powerful artifacts from the Twilight's Hammer, including the Doomstone.

Magatha is out there right now. She doesn't have a crazy obsession with proving herself right. She's not so arrogant that she underestimates everyone she meets. She's not brooding. Her main flaw is that she believes everyone is as ambitious and ruthless as she is. She misunderstood both Garrosh Hellscream and one of her own people, the shaman Stormsong. Considering that she learned a fairly hard lesson on that one when Baine crushed her totems (offending the elements because she allowed it to happen), I doubt it's a mistake she'll make again.

A far more immediate threat than Kil'jaeden and armed with some of the most powerful elemental artifacts in the world now that the Twilight's Hammer and Deathwing are defeated, Magatha is a force just waiting to force us to reckon with her. And she's a wild card, because with Cairne dead and her no longer under his watchful eye, she could go anywhere and do anything.

2. Sylvanas Windrunner

Sylvanas Windrunner has clawed her way to the number two slot by basically becoming ever more ruthless and viciously pragmatic in every appearance. She's cultivated a personality that has in turn formed its own cult among her Forsaken followers. Escaping the domination of the Lich King, declaring war on Arthas, seizing control of Lordaeron away from the Dreadlords and joining the Horde were all steps along the way for her.

It's telling that where other figures have fallen, Sylvanas has only cemented her control over her people. The betrayal of Putress and Varimathras, which could have damaged her control, instead only purged the Forsaken of any elements that would question her. She's proved adept at surviving, and the loss of Arthas as a focus for her hatred has seemingly only galvanized her and the Forsaken war machine as they pushed into Gilneas, wiped out Southshore, and made inroads into Arathi.

Sylvanas has a knife to Lor'themar Theron's throat, and he knows it. She currently controls most of the former human kingdoms of the Eastern Kingdoms and has managed to run the war in those lands he way, despite Garrosh Hellscream's distrust of her. Even death at the hands of Lord Godfrey and his associates did nothing, thanks to her pact with the val'kyr.

Right now, Sylvanas is effectively immortal, in control of a huge chunk of the world with an army of fanatically loyal subjects. She's so powerful that she dared kidnap a highly placed member of the Order of the Ebon Blade because after helping to kill Arthas, she's surely not even a little afraid of Darion Mograine. And why should she be? She's beaten dreadlords, survived coup attempts, and seen the man she hated most in the world destroyed. Quite frankly, at this point, everything is going Sylvanas' way.

And the number one magnificent bastard in Warcraft lore is:

1. Gul'dan

You can order your warlocks to double their efforts, but they'd never match up to Gul'dan.

Technically, he's dead now. I sincerely hope for everyone's sake that he stays dead, because Gul'dan was the ultimate in pure, potent bastardy. Gul'dan betrayed his people, his teacher and mentor for a shot at power. He created forced-growth spells to age children to physical adulthood so that he could draft them into his Horde. He masterminded the genocide of the draenei, willingly convincing his people to drink the blood of Mannoroth knowing full well what it would do to them. He masterminded the spread of warlock magic throughout the Horde to replace shamanism even though he knew it would destroy the world. He invaded Azeroth in order to attain godhood and went so far as to sacrifice his own acolytes in an attempt to create magical warriors to balance out the edge the humans had in magical power.

Gul'dan was so evil and manipulative that he killed Durotan and Draka, Thrall's parents, and yet convinced their best friend Orgrim Doomhammer to spare his life by murdering his own acolytes and sticking their souls into jeweled truncheons that caused them to possess the corpses of slain knights of the Brotherhood of the Horse. Gul'dan invented death knights, and he didn't even do so as an avenue toward power. He did it purely to manipulate an orc who knew Gul'dan had killed his best friends -- and it worked.

Gul'dan even went so far as to betray the Horde on the eve of its ultimate victory and in so doing, cost it that victory. Even in death at the tomb of Sargeras, consumed by the demons haunting the crypt of the Dark Titan's Avatar, Gul'dan continued to influence the world. It was by accessing the memories he'd gained by consuming the skull that Illidan learned of the Eye of Sargeras, which leads us to the unpleasant possibility that Gul'dan's consciousness continued to exist and influence those who wielded it. Is it a coincidence that both Ner'zhul and Illidan went even more power mad after contact with the skull of Gul'dan? The Ner'zhul Lich King acts a lot more like Gul'dan, frankly.

In the end, it's just his sheer willingness to do absolutely anything, betray anyone, try any experiment, commit any atrocity that makes Gul'dan the number one bastard. Gul'dan created ogre mages. Gul'dan developed the modern warlock's bag of tricks. Gul'dan forced dranei/orc hybrids to be bred, warped their minds, and created both the Shadow Council and Cho'gall, who ended up creating the Twilight's Hammer. And through it all, through associating with Kil'jaeden and Sargeras, Gul'dan never stopped working for himself. He didn't believe in a cause; he didn't care about proving anything. He wanted power, and he would do anything to get it.

And I hope he stays dead -- because if not, we're all doomed.

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.
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