Leveling through Draenor has been a blast, but as I am a player from classic WoW, a few things have struck me as incredibly strange. Triple-digit numbers in the guild panel. Sending NPCs to do quests on my behalf. And most of all, getting epic armor and weapons from solo leveling quests.
Many players in classic WoW (and not just raiders) opposed making epics more available to players. They called Blizzard's evolving attitude a slippery slope. "What's next," they argued, "epics for doing solo quests?" They never actually imagined that would happen. In 2005 it would have been unthinkable. Eight years later, here we are. But it's all been by design -- an evolving design with many steps along the way. Let's look at how we got here, one random drop at a time.
The few, the proud, the epic
In early classic WoW, only one path allowed you to deck out your character in purple items: 40-player raiding. Other raiding didn't cut it. Bosses in the 15-player (later 10-player) Upper Blackrock Spire dropped rares. Even bosses in the 20-player raids, Zul'Gurub and Ruins of Ahn'Qiraj, dropped mostly rares when they first opened their instance portals. Only their end bosses consistently dropped epic loot.
Outside of 40-man raids, a handful of bosses had a very small chance to drop an epic item. Emperor Thaurissan in Blackrock Depths had a tiny chance to drop Ironfoe. The "tribute run" chest from Dire Maul very rarely offered up Treant's Bane -- and I'll never forget the joy in my Warrior friend's voice when it dropped for him, all those years ago. DM was also the source of the highly coveted tanking weapon Quel'Serrar, but the quest item to obtain it had an incredibly low drop rate.
Back then, even the recipes to craft epics (such as the awesome Force Reactive Disk) could be obtained only from 40-player raids.
Even if you were raiding with 39 of your closest online friends, earning purples was no picnic. With two drops per boss at first, odds of getting an item on any given run were slim. You could complete a full clear without a single drop for your class and spec. Each epic you equipped generally represented several weeks of endgame effort. When a player sauntered through Orgrimmar or Ironforge in head-to-toe purples, players knew this was a person who had spent many, many hours on that character.
Of course, the difference between rares and epics wasn't so vast during classic. Weapon speed, for example, mattered far more than a few ilevels for most melee DPS. In the era before combat rating stats, the rare trinket Blackhand's Breadth gave a straight-up 2% crit bonus that outclassed most epics in that slot.
The original honor system offered epics, but the time investment wasn't an improvement over raiding. A better plan was grinding out Alterac Valley rep, as the two factions offered a few epics at exalted, such as The Unstoppable Force.
A fairer stance
Even before the end of classic, Blizzard began to back down from this 40-player-or-bust stance for epic items.
Patch 1.6 introduced the Darkmoon Faire, and with it, Darkmoon cards. Prior to the inscription profession, the cards had to be farmed. Numbers 2 through 4 were world drops, 4 through 8 dropped from dungeon mobs, and the aces dropped from specific bosses. The completed decks could be turned in for epic trinkets, just as they could for every expansion to date. The oddball among the first batch of cards was Darkmoon Card: Twisting Nether, which gave its bearer a 10% chance to resurrect himself. Darkmoon Card: Blue Dragon was a relevant healing trinket for years until Blizzard finally nerfed it. The cards were the first epics in WoW that could be realistically farmed outside of raids or battlegrounds.
Later, the famous "Tier 0.5" quest line of patch 1.10 allowed players to earn epic set items by completing a long and arduous series of tasks, including the devilishly difficult 45-minute Strat run.
In patch 1.11, several items in the 20-player Zul'Gurub and Ruins of Ahn'Qiraj raids were upgraded from rare to epic. These included pieces of the Zandalar Tribe class sets ("Tier 1.5") from ZG and the Cenarion Circle class sets from "AQ20." Some of the Zandalar sets included unique, class-specific trinkets such as Wushoolay's Charm of Nature and the original Renataki's Charm of Beasts, which acted as a Readiness effect for hunters.
In the patch notes describing these item changes, Blizzard wrote, "To bring them more in line with the effort required to attain them we have upgraded the superior items to epic quality." This small note represented a huge shift in Blizzard's attitude about what tasks were worthy of epic rewards. "Small" raids had been added to the list.
By the time classic ended, it was possible to have full epics without ever setting foot in a 40-player raid. But you still had to be a talented player, or least be part of a talented guild, to achieve that.
Following on the success and popularity of Upper Blackrock Spire, Blizzard decided to christen 10-player raids as epic raids. When they opened Karazhan for business in The Burning Crusade, players who preferred smaller groups no longer had to wade through a sea of rare drops for those precious few epics. Purple loot dropped from every boss in Kara. Yes, even from the silly chess encounter. It was glorious.
But Blizzard took things one step further. End bosses of the new "heroic" difficulty dungeons had a decent chance to drop epic gear. The original Kargath, for example, dropped The Bladefist. Aeonus in the Black Morass dropped the Quantum Blade. Epics could be crafted using Primal Nether, which also dropped from heroic end bosses. You didn't have to raid to get the recipes.
However, heroics dungeons themselves were locked behind a tough reputation grind, especially early on in The Burning Crusade when the keys required Revered rep. Running heroics wasn't a matter of meeting gear requirements. If you weren't Revered, you couldn't zone in.
Late in the expansion, Heroic Magister's Terrace was the first 5-player dungeon to feature a fully epic loot table. It was no pushover, however -- players definitely earned those epics.
The move from 40-player to 25-player raid sizes, along with an increased number of drops per boss, meant more epics more frequently for the game's dedicated raiders.
Once again, PvP provided epics. However, from The Burning Crusade until Warlords, the resilience stat made PvP epics far less desirable for PvE than their raid-drop counterparts.
TBC also innovated the badge system as a way for unlucky players to eventually purchase epic gear. Players earned Badges of Justice by killing heroic dungeon and raid bosses. Blizzard eventually allowed realms to unlock a vendor on the Isle of Quel'denas who sold Tier 6 item level epics.
At that point, nonraiders couldn't just get epics for every slot; they could get epics that rivaled what current raiders were wearing. It was highly controversial at the time. Blizzard, however, saw a huge problem in the game by the end of TBC. Players who hadn't been raiding with guilds for most of the expansion were finding it impossible to gear up so that they could even apply to a raiding guild. Raiding guilds, likewise, were having trouble finding geared players. Blizzard needed to add a catch-up mechanism.
It was a philosophy they would extend to Wrath of the Lich King in the form of Emblems. Every time the raids advanced a tier, gear from the previous tier became available for emblems as a catch-up. Blizzard eventually ditched the badge/emblem system and gave us justice and valor points instead, which survived intact until patch 6.0.
Blizzard continued the tradition of granting epics from 5-man heroic dungeons. Heroics were far easier to gain access to as well: You just had to hit level 80 and you were off. At the end of the expansion, the studio tripled-down on the idea of fully epic dungeons. The trio of Icecrown Citadel dungeons in patch 3.3 also took it one step further and granted fully epic loot tables in normal modes as well as heroic.
After all this momentum toward easier-to-obtain epics, Blizzard actually took a step back in Cataclysm. Heroic dungeons no longer rewarded epic items, at least not from drops. Factions offered epic items for sale at high reputation levels, and you could gain that rep easily by running said heroics (and doing dailies). Still, the items required a lot of grinding. Like Primal Nethers, Chaos Orbs could also be farmed from heroic dungeons and used to craft epic items.
If you wanted epic drops, however, you had to raid. Early in Cata, this was discouraging for the players who were used to seeing purple items in their heroics (and also used to easier heroics). However, this state of affairs lasted for only one patch. In patch 4.1, the revamped Zul'Gurub and Zul'Aman dungeons offered fully epic loot tables.
Then, Blizzard changed raiding forever when it introduced the raid finder in patch 4.3. Obtaining epics from raids was no longer the sole providence of dedicated guilds or unreliable PUGs. Anyone with an adequate set of gear could queue up and earn lower-ilevel versions of the same gear that raiders could access.
The raid finder was a tectonic shift for WoW. Blizzard wanted players to not only earn epic loot but experience epic content. It wanted us to work together with others without being tied to the whims or schedules of a larger group. To do so, the studio created personal loot -- your own roll for every boss. To get an epic, you no longer had to take it away from someone else, whether by rolling or some other system. You just got it.
The system continued to evolve in Mists of Pandaria. Lesser charms allowed you to gain bonus rolls -- another chance to roll the item you wanted after a boss kill. For all of Cataclysm and half of Mists, however, your personal loot rolls were tied to the spec you were currently playing. Patch 5.3 added the loot specialization option so you could roll for items of any one spec no matter what you were playing. It seems like we've had this choice forever, and it's hard to imagine WoW without loot spec at this point. But actually, loot spec has only been active since the late stages of Throne of Thunder.
Mists never gave us dungeons with fully epic loot tables like its predecessors had. In lieu of those, Blizzard opted for heroic scenarios in patch 5.3. Completing your first one gave you a guaranteed epic, and then future scenarios gave you a roll for one.
Nothing in the history of WoW spat out epics like the Timeless Isle from the end of Mists. TI was the ultimate catch-up mechanism. It didn't provide epics just for whatever character adventured there but for all of your characters, all day long. There was no limit to how many epics you could earn in a day or a week. They dropped from virtually every mob on the island. Epics were stuffed into tree trunks, tucked away on shelves, and tossed into ponds. When you first hit TI, you couldn't take two steps without tripping over something purple.
After the harsh reputation-locked gearing-up process of 5.0, the Timeless Isle was a welcome relief. But it also represented a brand-new attitude toward epics. Blizzard was finally allowing epics to be earned purely through solo play, with no strings attached. That idea would be carried over into the Warlords random quest reward upgrade mechanic.
In Warlords, Blizzard has let a purple rain shower us from quests, rare mobs, and crafting. (Heroic dungeons, to be fair, have remained stingy with their epics at launch.) Some players still long for the earliest days of WoW, when a full set of epics meant true dedication to your character. I don't think the game could have sustained that over the long term. Getting epics, after all, is great fun. Instead, Blizzard has shifted the rewards of high-end raiding and PvP to more cosmetic options like titles and mounts. In my opinion, this is a better system.
It raises the question, though: Will Blizzard ever add a new quality of items between epic and legendary? Doing so could bring back that stand-out feeling for the dedicated few. We haven't gotten a new color since Wrath added heirlooms. Is it time? Or is the game better off without such trappings? It will be Blizzard's decision to make.
WoW Archivist is a column by WoW Insider's Scott Andrews; it runs on Massively by permission. Every other weekend, Scott explores the secrets of World of Warcraft's past. What did the game look like years ago? Who is etched into WoW's history? What secrets does the game still hold?