Each new World of Warcraft expansion represents a tectonic shift in Blizzard’s MMO, and never has that been more true than with Shadowlands. In addition to squishing the level cap down to 60 and introducing an entirely new starter zone, Shadowlands makes a wonderful change to how you level, too. Instead of playing through each expansion sequentially, you now choose just one to play at level 10 and it carries you all the way to the beginning of Shadowlands at level 50.
It’s called Chromie Time, and instead of jumping between expansions or having to drop quests because you outleveled them and need to move on, this new system encourages you to explore a single expansion to its fullest. It’s fantastic. But with seven expansions to choose from, which World of Warcraft expansion is best?
This list breaks down your choices, highlighting the pros and cons of each expansion in order from best to worst. To be clear, we’re rating expansions based on how they hold up today, not based on their overall reputation or influence—if that were the case, Wrath of the Lich King would obviously be at the top of this list. This also means that we won’t be taking into account how these expansions structured their endgame since you won’t have to bother with raids or anything like that. This is more about the story and leveling experience.
Note for new players: You can only choose your expansion if you already have a max-level character. First-time players will automatically have to play through Battle of Azeroth, the current expansion, to help catch them up on the story and set the stage for Shadowlands.
1. Mists of Pandaria
Estimated time to complete: 16 hours
Mists of Pandaria didn’t get a fair shake when it came out because so many people were mad at all the chubby pandas and the ancient Chinese aesthetic, which was so different from everything else in WoW to that point. But, in hindsight, Pandaria is one of Warcraft’s best continents: It’s vibrant, teeming with fascinating bits of lore and story, and entirely unique.
Going back today isn’t a nasty shock, either. Pandaria came out after Blizzard had made some big improvements to quest design, which means varied objectives and storytelling that don’t require you to read reams of quest text. But you should, anyway, because Pandaria’s lore is cool. The same can be said for its zones. It’s hard to focus on just one—Valley of the Four Winds’ sweeping vistas are just as majestic as Kun-Lai Summit’s frosted peaks—but wherever you go it’s easy to get swept up in the splendor of Pandaria’s jungles and rice farms.
It’ll take slightly longer to beat than some of the other expansions on this list, but Pandaria is worth it. It’s one of the coolest WoW expansions and even if you’re a veteran player, chances are it’s been a long time since you last experienced its story anyway.
Estimated time to complete: 14 hours
Legion is World of Warcraft’s epic comeback after the disaster that was Warlords of Draenor. Sure, most of what it fixed was issues with the endgame, but the Broken Isles and the stories contained within these five zones are classic Warcraft fun and even feature some dramatic twists and turns—especially if you’re a fan of the elf races. When you first arrive, it’s to liberate the Broken Isles and stop the evil orc warlock Gul’Dan from freeing Sargeras, but the adventure quickly frays into romps through Warcraft’s version of Valhalla, druidic alternate dimensions, and forlorn ruins of long-dead elven empires.
Legion is modern WoW at its best. Quests are colorful and varied, so you’re never stuck killing too many boars for their livers, and the way it weaves in cutscenes and plot twists is great. I just wish Blizzard had chosen to make the story linear, because it is a little jarring how each zone is so self-contained. The upside is that you can choose the order in which you complete zones.
The other nice thing is that Legion will only take you around 14 hours to beat, making it the second-shortest expansion. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and you get to experience all of the classic Warcraft elements in new and fun ways: Dragons, lush forests, and even a cool detour to the underworld.
3. Warlords of Draenor
“But Steven,” you say, “Didn’t you just say Warlords of Draenor was a disaster?” Yes. And I stand by it. What made Warlords suck wasn’t the leveling experience and story, though. It was the virtually abandoned endgame that left players with nothing to do. Playing it today, you can ignore all of that stuff and focus on what Warlords of Draenor does best: Orcs. All of the orcs.
The story won’t make much sense, but the gist is that you travel back in time through the Dark Portal to the orc homeworld of Draenor before it was sundered. What you find is a primal land teeming with mystery and a shit-ton of very angry orcs. It’s classic Warcraft at its best, and I love the extra little touches Blizzard added like bespoke introductions for each of the chief villains and a short but exhilarating intro questline that sees you running for the hills after your big invasion falls apart.
If you can shake off the bad memories of its initial release, Warlords of Draenor is a lot of fun the second time around. This is where Blizzard really started to hit its stride with open-world design by sprinkling the environment with all sorts of hidden treasures, and the garrison system is actually really interesting when there’s no expectation that you have to spend hundreds of hours slowly building it up. Also, Warlords only takes 12 hours to beat, making it the quickest way to get a character to max level.
4. Battle for Azeroth
Estimated time to beat: 16 hours
You have probably heard of all the drama surrounding Warcraft’s current expansion. It had a lot of problems, and just like Warlords of Draenor, almost all of them weren’t prevalent until you reached the endgame and started grinding. In terms of leveling a new character, though, Battle for Azeroth is a fantastic experience—though that’ll depend somewhat on whether you’re in the Horde or Alliance.
Battle for Azeroth has entirely separate story campaigns for each faction. Alliance players will ship off to the dreary island of Kul Tiras while Horde players adventure around Zandalar. Though Kul Tiras is cool—I especially love the haunted woods of Dustvar, which feel straight out of The Witcher—Zandalar is clearly the best. It’s a prehistoric jungle complete with towering dinosaurs, golden ziggurats, and a nefarious cult of blood trolls trying to resurrect their dead blood god. It’s a fascinating area and one of Warcraft’s best.
It’s just a shame that the whole Horde versus Alliance storyline goes nowhere and is massively underwhelming. It doesn’t ruin the expansion, but it does knock it down a few marks. And the fact that it’ll take you 16 hours to beat means you’re probably better off only choosing this one after you’ve completed playthroughs of the other expansions listed above.
5. Wrath of the Lich King
Estimated time to beat: 24 hours
Before you send me hate mail for dissing Warcraft’s most beloved expansion, hear me out: Wrath of the Lich King is old. And because it’s old, going back to it these days doesn’t evoke nearly the same sense of awe that you felt the first time you made landfall in Northrend.
That isn’t to say that Wrath doesn’t have its moments. The quest and world design feels a little old school, but it’s still easy to see what made Wrath so beloved—especially if you’re a long time player or a fan of the RTS games. Arthas is still a badass villain, and I love the way Wrath teases him throughout the story, making you feel like you’re truly at the tip of a massive invasion to take this tyrant down. I also love how diverse the ecology of Northrend is, too. Blustery tundras, frozen mountain ranges, crystalline forests—Northrend is still a great place to explore even if it is outdated.
The downside is that Wrath is going to take you almost 10 hours longer to beat than most other expansions, and a lot of those quests might bore you if you’re used to how modern expansions are structured. Don’t mistake this as me saying don’t play Wrath, but if you do pick this one treat it more as a history lesson and be prepared for a bit of a marathon.
Our score: 93
Estimated time to beat: 20 hours
I want to rank Cataclysm higher but there are a few things that drag it down. The first is that Cataclysm was an expansion that focused almost entirely on making huge, devastating changes to most of the original zones in Azeroth. Darkshore is partially flooded and now has a giant tornado ravaging its forests, for example. Because of that, part of playing Cataclysm means having to level through some zones in Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms that don’t really feel all that unique or new compared to the regular leveling zones. They’re still fun, but they lack that crucial element of otherworldliness that makes expansions so exciting.
Eventually, you’ll get to explore Cataclysm zones that feel much more exotic, like the Firelands, and this is where the expansion really picks up. But one of those zones, Vashj’ir, really sucks. The entire zone is underwater and involves a lot of swimming which is very slow and annoying. You can avoid it, but it just means Cataclysm has only a few zones that really tap into that appeal of exploring uncharted frontiers like other expansions.
Cataclysm also takes 20 hours to beat, roughly, so it’s much longer than most expansions but without the consistently cool new zones to explore. I’d recommend playing Cataclysm just because it is neat to see how much it changed the original Azeroth, and Deathwing (the chief villain) is a total badass. Just maybe save this one for one of your alt characters a few years from now.
7. The Burning Crusade
It’s really hard to recommend you play through the Burning Crusade unless you have a nostalgia itch only it can scratch. When it first launched, people adored it because it was more World of Warcraft, but every year that WoW gets older is another year that The Burning Crusade gets worse. This becomes immediately apparent the moment you cross through the Dark Portal and step into Hellfire Peninsula, an enormous, shattered swathe or red with very little to look at and even less to do. If you hate WoW’s stereotypical “kill 25 demons” quests, that’s basically all Burning Crusade is.
It gets better if you can endure Hellfire Peninsula, though. There are zones that are genuinely gorgeous even by today’s standards. Zangamarsh, with its towering bioluminescent fungi, and Blade’s Edge Mountains, which is a very literal name for the shape of its rocks, are both great examples. But to get there, you’ll have to slog through repetitive quests that do little to get you invested in the wider story.
What’s worse, taking this route will cost you around 24 hours of your life. It’s easier to justify that with Wrath of the Lich King because there’s still a great reason to adventure through Northrend, but I can’t recommend anyone pick Burning Crusade unless you’ve recently done every other expansion and want to check this off a list. Sometimes the past should stay in the past.