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.
There are no spoilers for Warlords of Draenor here, because we're not talking about that Blackhand. No, the Blackhand we're going to talk about today is the original, the first Warchief of the Horde, the leader of the Blackrock orcs. A raider of the Sythegore Arm and a feared wolf-rider, Blackhand was both tactically brilliant and overly fond of flattery - he rose to the position of Warchief because he possessed both the ruthless cunning necessary to lead the Horde and the ego and vanity that Gul'dan used to manipulate him. It was this strange mix in his personality, his bloodlust and desire for power yet gullibility and willingness to be misled that led him to the position of Warchief, led him onto an alien world, and ultimately led him to his death.
Blackhand was first in command of the Blackrock clan. He had three children with his mate Urukal, Griselda, Rend and Maim. Griselda's fate shows us that not all orc clans were as egalitarian as the Frostwolves. But before all of that, before he sold his children to warlock magic to make adults from them before their time, before he was Warchief, before he drank the demon blood after Grom Hellscream, Blackhand was an ambitious, cruel, and eager warrior who sought glory in battle, and his own aggrandizement.
On Draenor before
One misconception about the orcish people is that their shamanism made them somehow less violent. But Draenor is a harsh world filled with violence. Ogre empires, the sadistic gronn, saberon and arrakoa all proved perilous, as did the native beasts of the land. By the time the draenei vessel crashed in Nagrand, the orcs had long since grown into a people who were capable of great violence thanks to the world they were born to. Even among a people so conditioned to brutality as a means of survival, Blackhand stood out.
Blackhand was always an orc of contradictions. He was respected for his prowess, his acumen in combat, his exploits as a leader of the Sythegore Arm, a group of wolf-riding raiders. His Blackrock clan was respected and feared, and Blackhand was so confident in his position among the orcs that when visiting the Frostwolves, he actually felt free to impugn his hosts, telling Garad that the sickly Draka was a disgrace to his entire clan. Among the Blackrocks, Blackhand said, such a weak child would have been left to die at birth, exposed to the elements. Yet as arrogant as Blackhand was, he was also an insecure orc. He was ever covetous of more respect, more power, more regard from his fellows.
When Ner'zhul the Elder Shaman first began telling the various orc clans of the threat posed by the draenei, Blackhand simply didn't care. Whether or not the draenei were actually a threat was unimportant. They presented an opportunity for him to prove himself. Blackhand personally led the Sythegore Arm on many assaults on the draenei, seeking always to ensure his own prestige in the bloodshed he unleashed. Well before any orc had drunk the blood of Mannoroth, Blackhand was proving that orcs didn't need the blood of a demon to be fierce marauders and relentless killers - Draenor itself was a hard and ruthless enough world to teach orcs how to kill.
Yet it wasn't until after Ner'zhul discovered that he had been used by Kil'jaeden and Gul'dan supplanted his former mentor in the affection of that demon lord that Blackhand found a patron, of sorts. Because Gul'dan saw Blackhand more clearly that the head of the Blackrocks saw himself. In Blackhand, Gul'dan had found the perfect pawn. An orc respected by his fellows, renowned for his ferocity and strength in battle, yet strangely malleable, gullible, always willing to believe anyone as long as they flattered and cozened properly. Gul'dan subverted Blackhand with minimal effort. All he had to do was telling him a sinister truth to conceal the even more sinister truth behind it.
Gul'dan revealed to Blackhand that the draenei were, in fact, nothing more than scapegoats, that the ancestor spirits and elementals were turning their backs on the orcs, but that a new path to power had been found. Gul'dan promised Blackhand power and respect - he told Blackhand that he would be a member of the ruling elite, the secret Shadow Council he was assembling to rule Draenor. And Blackhand believed him. Blackhand eagerly ordered his shaman to train in the new magics and become warlocks, not realizing that Gul'dan subverted their loyalty. Blackhand eagerly accepted as Gul'dan manipulated the newborn Horde into selecting Blackhand as their new Warchief, their first Warchief. It never even occurred to Blackhand that Gul'dan was using him - after all, wasn't he Warchief? It never occurred to him that Gul'dan had chosen him for the position because of his strange gullibility, his eagerness to believe anything as long as it was flattering to him and his prowess.
To destroy two worlds
Orgrim Doomhammer, Blackhand's second in command, understood his clan leader's failings all too well. He watched as Blackhand allowed warlocks to twist his own children, to age them artificially to adulthood to be more cannon fodder for the Horde. He saw that merely claiming not to be worthy to drink from the same vessel as his Warchief would be enough to convince Blackhand that it was so, because it flattered Blackhand. Gul'dan wasn't so easily fooled, of course. Blackhand, for his part, utterly failed to see the growing tension between his second in command and his erstwhile advisor.
When the war against the draenei was over, Blackhand accepted Gul'dan's argument that a new world was needed for the Horde to conquer, as Draenor was dying from the warlock magics that were now practiced so freely throughout the Horde. He led his troops through the Dark Portal, and there he began to see his unimpeded path to power and prestige balked for the first time. First the army of the humans balked his Horde at every step, then his own daughter Griselda, tired of her father's patronizing attitude towards woman proved herself beyond his control. Her alliance with the ogre Turok and her fortification of the Deadmines was seen as an affront by her father, and he ordered her death. Considering he'd forced her to undergo the Drain Life ritual to age her to adulthood, then forbade her to drink the blood of Mannoroth in order to shame her, it's not surprising she rebelled. Her death seemed to teach Rend and Maim, his two sons, better obedience. It's unknown if Griselda's death in any way spurred Orgrim on - he was known to have liked Griselda alone of Blackhand's three children.
What is certain is that, tactically brilliant though he was, Blackhand was too much Gul'dan's puppet to lead the Horde to successful victory over the humans. This is because Gul'dan didn't actually care if he won or lost against the humans. It was a divine apotheosis that Gul'dan pursued on Azeroth, in a partnership with the human wizard Medivh (who was himself host of the spirit of Sargeras) and so, while Blackhand's Horde floundered attempting to destroy Stormwind it was only a matter of time before Blackhand himself was on the chopping block.
Interestingly enough, Blackhand was still successful in his plan. He and Gul'dan managed to insert Garona into the Kingdom of Stormwind, where she struck as the assassin she was bred to be, cutting out King Llane Wrynn's heart and thus dooming Stormwind to defeat. Yet while Blackhand was on the verge of triumph, his ally (and secret master) Gul'dan found himself comatose following an attempt to wrench the location of the Tomb of Sargeras from the dying mind of Medivh. While Gul'dan lay trapped in his own body, Orgrim Doomhammer killed Blackhand the Destroyer, who never saw it coming. Able to play the role of general and plan the most outrageous of betrayals, Blackhand seemed incapable of believing anyone who said good things about him could ever be a threat, and he died for it.
The aftermath of Blackhand's death was fascinating. Doomhammer (known as the Backstabber by those loyal to Blackhand) became Warchief, his first action to dismantle the Sythegore Arm to prevent those loyalists from moving against him. Of his fateful decision to allow Gul'dan to live, we've already spoken - but he also allowed Rend and Maim Blackhand and their Black Tooth Grin clan to exist, and serve the Horde, a mistake that would gall Thrall later on. In the end, Blackhand's genius for planning and executing plans couldn't save him from his weakness, his need to believe that he was far more respected and capable than he actually was.
As for his Iron Horde counterpart, he never found himself a Warchief. Perhaps this helped him control his raging egomania, or perhaps the ruler of Gorgrond is as prone to flattery as the Warchief was. We'll find out soon.
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.