You may have taken Upper Blackrock Spire, Warlord Zaela, but the classic version lives in our hearts, where your orc friends can't get to it. In 2005, UBRS was the dungeon everyone desperately aspired to run. We begged to run it. We paid to run it. We sat in capital cities for hours just hoping, dreaming, that someone, somehow, would put together an UBRS group.
The dungeon was the pinnacle of content for classic WoW's "nonraiders" and the gateway to raiding for raiders. Quests here attuned you for Onyxia's Lair and Blackwing Lair. (And who doesn't love a good lair?) Another quest allowed your Molten Core raid to summon Majordomo Executus. No endgame PvE'er could avoid UBRS, even if he or she wanted to. We didn't avoid it, though, because the original "Ubers" (ooo-berz), as players affectionately called it, was awesome.
What made it so special? Why was it so revered, and why are some players sad that it has been removed from WoW forever? Let's turn back the Empowered Hourglass to 2005 to find out.
UBRS, like many of WoW's classic endgame dungeons, required a key to enter. It was not nearly as simple as grinding out some reputation -- click the link for the full rundown of just how painful getting this key was. Even the quest giver knew trying to get a key would be awful. He told you, "Understand this, mortal: the chance that one of the three generals of the lower citadel would carry a gemstone at any given time is rare. You must be vigilant in your quest. Remain determined!"
In early 2005, when many players were finally hitting the endgame, very few had a Seal of Ascension to grant UBRS access. To put this in perspective, by the end of classic, my guild of more than 200 people had only about five or six keys. If you had a key, you had two choices. You could hide in your guild and do only guild runs. Or you could advertise that you had one to your realm, find yourself on everyone's friend list, and get requests day and night, every time you logged in, to run UBRS. Even if you tried to keep it a secret, someone in your guild may have outed you. Once that cat was out of the bag, your WoW experience changed dramatically. You were now a realm celebrity.
Even if you didn't want to run it or didn't have time to run it, people would ask you to open the door and let their groups inside. Before the dungeon finder or cross-realm groups, entering a dungeon meant physically journeying to the entrance. Heading to Blackrock Mountain was no small task. You could have the group summon you with a Warlock or (later) a meeting stone. With an hour cooldown on hearthstones, however, you were still granting them a huge favor to interrupt whatever you were doing and venture to one of the most out-of-the-way zones in Azeroth, especially for Horde players.
The difficulty of the journey and the rarity of the keys prompted some players to begin charging gold for UBRS access. Keys gradually became more common as the months went along, but they never reached the point that every player had one. Two expansions later, in patch 3.0.8, UBRS opened its doors to all and no longer required the seal for entry.
Let's say you made it happen: You earned your key or convinced some beleaguered player on your realm to take you. What was an original UBRS run like?
The first room was very similar to the new version. Groups of orcs hung out in little side rooms, and you had to kill every single one in order to gain access to the first boss. Blackhand Summoners were the main troublemakers here. They could summon additional mobs, and they could keep summoning them. One unchecked summoner could draw a entire army into the fight. Blackhand Veterans also had a knockback ability that could surprise players and aggro extra groups, which meant -- you guessed it -- more summoners! Many groups wiped in the first room of UBRS, but few players quit after a wipe here. Getting into this dungeon was too precious a gift to waste because of a few early mistakes.
In the Hall of Binding, Pyroguard Emberseer was the first boss of UBRS. Three players had to click on his altar there to start the encounter. (This was later changed to require only one player so the boss and the rest of the dungeon could be solo'ed.) You first fought Emberseer's jailors, Blackhand Incarcerators. With a brutal 10-second stun, they didn't go down without a fight.
When you defeated them, Emberseer said, "Ha! Ha! Ha! Thank you for freeing me, fools. Now let me repay you by charring the flesh from your bones." Seriously, bro? His stacking Flame Buffet debuff caused you to take more damage from his constant fire AoE spells. With few AoE healing spells in the game at the time, healers who could keep everyone alive on this fight in early classic were special players.
Beyond Emberseer, you encountered possibly the most well-known room of any dungeon in WoW: the Rookery. It was the room that made Leeroy Jenkins a household name and a Jeopardy question. Many groups wiped in the Rookery to a profusion of whelps spawned by careless players, which is what inspired the video.
As Leeroy learned, all you had to do to aggro whelps was step on some eggs. What you may not know is that the eggs were part of an event called "Father Flame." The event was optional, so many groups chose simply to stick to the middle of the room, stay clear of the eggs, and get away from that area as fast as they could.
If your healers needed the Devout shoulders, as Leeroy did, you had to brave the Rookery. During the event, Rookery Hatchers not-so-helpfully helped you hatch the whelp eggs, so you had to burn them down fast. After a few waves, Solakar Flamewreath appeared. He had an AOE stun, but otherwise he was a tank and spank. This was good, considering you were also probably tanking and spanking a dozen whelps by this point.
Leeroy got his shoulders eventually; after you rez him in the current version of UBRS and he becomes your follower, he's proudly sporting them. He still hasn't figured out that the Devout set was meant for Priests.
Solakar also dropped the schematic for the Hyper-Radiant Flame Reflector. The fire resist trinket came in handy in Molten Core and Onyxia's Lair.
Past the Rookery, you came to the Hall of Blackhand, home to another optional boss, Goraluk Anvilcrack. If you had a blacksmith in your party, that player usually wanted to kill Anvilcrack for the several blacksmithing plans that he dropped. One was the epic mail chest Invulnerable Mail, which was terrific for infuriating melee players in PvP. (In early classic, the mail was even more overpowered: It had a 5% chance to proc 8 seconds of immunity to melee attacks, with no internal cooldown.) Despite his cool last name, Anvilcrack was another tank and spank encounter.
Blackrock Stadium was next -- and it played out almost exactly the same as the new Warlords of Draenor version. Instead of Zaela and Tharbeck, Nefarian and Rend Blackhand watched your party fight from above while they had an awkward conversation. It was Nefarian who originally yelled "Kill the one in the dress!" The new encounter is very similar to the original. Both feature waves of adds followed by a boss riding a mount that also had to be killed.
The Seal of Ascension that granted access to the dungeon had a secret on-use effect that worked only here. The tooltip now says it explicitly, but originally it did not. After you defeated Rend's mount Gyth, using the ring summoned Vaelastrasz, who healed your party to full.
Rend dropped the two-piece Dal'Rend's sword set that all Rogues coveted. Gyth had a small chance to drop a Chromatic Carapace.
In the next room you had the opportunity to save a friendly blue whelp named Awbee. If you did, he told you his story and then presented you with two different quests. You needed the carapace to complete Awbee's quests, which awarded you either an epic plate chest or your choice of agility or intellect epic mail leggings.
Today, a grownup Awbee shows up to help you during the Tharbeck encounter, just as Vaelastrasz did in the first version. Random Ubers Fact: "Awbee" is the English spelling of blue in Persian.
Trash packs got a lot harder from this point forward. Crowd control was all but mandatory for average ilevel groups. Sheeping/seducing orcs and hibernating dragonkin got you through to the den of The Beast.
The Beast was a beloved boss: not immensely difficult but fun to fight. His Berserker Charge sent you and your allies flying across the room. Occasionally, if you died to this ability, a hilarious but annoying bug would plaster your corpse to the ceiling, out of range of resurrection spells. He also had an AOE fear and tons of fire spells. At best, the encounter was barely contained chaos. Today, the Son of the Beast occupies the room and has many of the same abilities.
The Beast dropped Finkle's Skinner, which was highly sought by skinners because it allowed you to skin mobs who were above level 60, such as core hounds in Molten Core and bosses like The Beast himself. If you skinned The Beast, you saved a gnome named Finkle Einhorn, who had been The Beast's last meal. You also had a chance to loot Pristine Hide of the Beast. Finkle had several quests that, like Awbee, rewarded you with epic items. Finkle's quests were for cloth and leather wearers.
Because of that, the hide could be sold on the auction house for an insane amount of gold. Thus, the debate raged every time the hide dropped: Did it belong to the skinner, or should everyone in the raid roll for it? The skinner had to have the Skinner to get the item, so the skinner's presence made the hide possible. But the skinner couldn't defeat The Beast without the raid's help. Ultimately it came down to whether the skinners felt like being stand-up people or not. They looted the hide directly, so they could just keep it.
Random Ubers Fact: The Beast was the only tameable pet who retained his boss-level icon after taming.
This area of the dungeon is also where adventurers summoned Lord Valthalak as the grand finale of the Tier 0.5 quest line.
Kite him to The Beast's room
Only one boss remained: General Drakkisath. The clear to him was arduous. Each pack required multiple cc's and could wipe your group if you weren't careful. Patrols made pulling tricky. Knockbacks could send your teammate soaring majestically off the bridge -- and into Lower Blackrock Spire, where he or she promptly went splat. Yes, U and LBRS were one instance before the Warlords UBRS update.
Drak was accompanied by two guards who were fierce in their own right. A common tactic (and one that I as a Hunter was often called on to execute) was to kite Drak to The Beast's room using Aspect of the Cheetah. Once you ran out of space, you feigned death, which sent Drak back to the raid. By that time, at least one of the two guards was dead, which made everything easier on the tanks and healers. Otherwise, the fight was best handled with three tanks. Prior to dual specs, though, having a third tank just for this last encounter was a bit of a waste.
Drak's most fearsome ability was Conflagration. He set you on fire and panicked you. You ran around taking damage and dealing damage to anyone nearby, presumably while screaming and waving your hands around. When this happened to one of your healers, your raid's survivability plummeted for those five seconds. Worse, if he cast this on a tank, the tank lost aggro and Drak attacked the next highest player on his threat list.
Drakkisath dropped the Draconian Deflector, the de facto pre-raiding shield for all warrior tanks. He also had a chance to drop the very cool Blackblade of Shahram. What most people were after back then, however, was the Blood of the Black Dragon Champion. You needed it for a quest to get your Onyxia attunement.
At first, Drak dropped only one blood for the entire raid. So you had to roll for it, assuming someone didn't just straight-up ninja the quest item and hearth out (which happened way too often). Here is where a lot of whining and negotiating occurred. Players would say, "My guild will kick me if I don't get the blood today" or "I've lost the roll every day for three weeks. Can I please have it?" Players sometimes even offered to bribe their way to scoring some blood. Blizzard mercifully upped the drop rate to 2 to 4 bloods per kill in patch 1.4, and then later made it drop for everyone on the quest in patch 1.11.
Acquiring the blood also became easier as Blizzard reduced the number of people who could zone in to UBRS. At first, you could run all dungeons with 40 people. Patch 1.3 lowered that number to 15. Patch 1.10 capped UBRS at 10 people (and all other dungeons at 5). During the Cataclysm revamp, UBRS finally gave up its "raid but not a raid" status and became a 5-man dungeon. Of course, by then, you didn't need to attune for Onyxia's Lair.
UBRS wasn't so popular just because of its attunement quests or its cool loot or its fun encounters and events. It was also popular because it was unique: It was a small "raid" in a game where massive, 40-player raids were the focus. The 15- and 10-player sizes felt better to many players. UBRS hit the sweet spot between 5-player dungeons, where every player is critical, and 40-player raids, where almost any single player is meaningless. It was the dungeon where many guilds learned how to work together in larger groups and where many of WoW's raid leaders learned to lead.
Upper Blackrock Spire inspired Blizzard to create the Karazhan raid in The Burning Crusade, one of the most popular raid instances of all time in any MMO. That of course led to the 10-player raiding path that began in Wrath of the Lich King. Although we can no longer raid at the highest difficulty with 10 players, the format lives on at lower difficulties.
The Warlords update is a loving tribute to the first version, but as with all remade dungeons, part of me is sad that we can no longer visit the original. Perhaps someday Blizzard will add a Caverns of Time feature that lets us run dungeons as they existed in classic. Until then, we'll just have to remember how it once was and cherish the friendships that were forged in those halls.
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?