Battle for Azeroth is officially live! While we explore Kul Tiras and Zandalar, further the war campaign, and recruit new allied races, the question of what fate has in store for the Horde’s Warchief hangs in the air. After how the Burning of Teldrassil turned out, the discussion over Sylvanas and what’s become of the Horde under her rule has been, to pardon the pun, heated. I won’t dwell on the controversy much because the discussion quickly became vitriolic towards Blizzard’s writers (especially Christie Golden) in a way that was far too similar to the worst portions of the Star Wars fandom. Instead let’s look at the story itself and where I think it might be taking Sylvanas.
Sylvanas’ “True Objective”
Before we get into my actual theory, let’s look at some intriguing points from the Horde novella “A Good War.” As mentioned by WoWhead in their initial coverage, there are several references to Sylvanas having a “true objective” that she’s keeping secret from the Horde, and that the war she’s started with the Alliance is only the first step in whatever she’s planning. The most relevant portions, at least to me, are the following two passages.
First, during the earliest stages of the Horde’s assault in Ashenvale:
The kaldorei knew they were outnumbered. They knew their homeland was lost. Maybe a few of them knew in their hearts—just as she knew—that Darnassus would one day burn to ashes. All they could do, in their rage, was make these poor souls suffer.
An odd statement to make given she does not come up with the idea to burn Teldrassil until after Saurfang fails to kill Malfurion and her conversation with Delaryn. Though I believe that the “one day” portion suggests something that will be made clear with the next excerpt.
Then, immediately after Saurfang informs Sylvanas that Malfurion escaped:
And that was almost certainly true, wasn’t it Elune had intervened. Perhaps she had even stayed Saurfang’s killing blow. And she wouldn’t be the only force beyond the Alliance to oppose Sylvanas’s true objective.
Sylvanas’s anger grew cold.
She had known this would happen. It had simply come sooner than expected. That was all.
Put together, these lines point me to a chilling theory. Sylvanas had always planned to burn Teldrassil, just not at this junction. She was going to burn it at some point as part of her “true objective” but the moment to burn “had come sooner than expected.” But why then would she plan this? She does it now in an ill-fated attempt to break the Alliance’s spirit, but what future goal seemingly separate from this war would necessitate an act of genocide? We already have our answer in the “Three Sisters” comic. When Alleria and Sylvanas meet, we get a glimpse into Alleria’s thoughts and the whispers from the Void which plague them.
This one is dangerous, she is a threat and must be ended. Beware this one, she seeks the death of all things…all possibilities. End her threat. Murder her. Murder her, save yourself, and murder her. Save the world and murder her.
She is a violation, she serves the true enemy.
“She seeks the death of all things” rings close to Delaryn’s assertion that Sylvanas has “made life her enemy.” While it has been a theory since the comic came out, if not before then, “A Good War” adds real evidence that wiping out all life on Azeroth is indeed Sylvanas’ goal. She has a mysterious “true objective” that she expects divine beings to oppose and keeps this plan secret from the Horde. A true objective that may have involved burning down a world tree regardless of its psychological effects during a war with the Alliance. That leads me to my ultimate conclusion:
Sylvanas is Planning to Kill Azeroth’s World Soul
Ever since the fall of the Lich King, Sylvanas Windrunner’s actions have all been motivated by one goal: to ensure she never dies again. She knows what awaits her in the afterlife, and it’s not pretty. Add in how she swears eternal hatred for life after her attempts to reconcile with her sister Vereesa fall apart in War Crimes, and it’s easy to see her plan. If everything is dead, or better yet, undead and in her control, nothing can kill her. It also explains why the Void is so terrified of her. Azeroth’s world soul dying is the complete opposite of what the Void wants. The Old Gods’ sole purpose on Azeroth is to corrupt its world soul so that they can birth a Void-corrupted titan and usher in the Void Lords. If the world soul dies, they’ve failed, possibly forever as the only other world soul we know of was Argus.
To play devil’s advocate, one could argue “deliberately killing the world soul is a pretty big leap from just wanting to kill all the people so they can’t try and kill her,” and I would agree. Until I did the Heart of Azeroth quest chain. To acquire our new artifact necklace, Magni takes us a Titan facility called the Chamber of Heart. We’re informed that large glass circle in the center of the chamber is a seal protecting the world soul, and if the glass shatters, the world soul instantly dies. The Heart of Azeroth allows us to repair a crack in the seal, but introducing a specific object that can instantly kill the world soul if destroyed sounds a little too foreshadowing convenient to be just a one off event. Combine this blatant “this is a place someone trying to kill Azeroth’s world soul would go to better not let anything happen to it” foreshadowing and with the information about Sylvanas from “A Good War” and “Three Sisters,” then she comes out as the obvious candidate.
From the moment the expansion was announced, it’s been open secret that the title Battle for Azeroth has a double meaning. It’s a battle between the Alliance and Horde for control of Azeroth, and a battle to save Azeroth from some threat. Most people, myself included, assumed this would come in the form of the faction war battle for Azeroth being supplanted by a new battle for the safety of Azeroth against a third party, almost certainly the Old Gods because they’re everywhere on Kul Tiras and Zandalar. What if instead, the first battle and the second are the same? The factions’ battle for control of Azeroth becomes the battle to save Azeroth when the Horde’s warchief puts into motion her plan to kill the world soul. Again, the Old Gods have no reason to want it dead. They’re taking advantage of all the chaos to set their own plans into motion, but the whole theme of saving Azeroth from dying would only benefit them.
The Future of the Horde
In an interview with PCGamer, Ion Hazzikostas and John Hight spoke about the community’s inflammatory, again pardon the pun, reaction to the Burning of Teldrassil and its characterization of Sylvanas and the Horde at large. Most importantly, a quote from John Hight:
One of the fun things about WoW is that we really can tell episodic stories. It’s not like we push out the game and people burn through it and the spoilers are available. We can absolutely trick you. If you think that we’re doing something that’s blatantly obvious and repeating itself, just stay tuned because we’re probably setting you up for a surprise.
This almost certainly refers to how many have pointed out that the expansion’s storyline so far has been nearly a beat for beat retread of Mists of Pandaria. The Warchief of the Horde (Garrosh/Sylvanas) starts a war with the Alliance by destroying an Alliance city on Kalimdor (Theramore/Darnassus) in an exceptionally cruel way, leading to a notable Horde leader (Vol’jin/Saurfang) opposing the Warchief’s actions and abandoning “their” version of the Horde while the player characters venture to a new land (Pandaria/Zandalar and Kul Tiras) to obtain new allies and resources to beat the other faction in the war. From there the trajectory of the expansion seems easy to predict. Saurfang will lead a rebellion against Sylvanas and the Alliance will forgive the Horde since they showed honor by deposing the tyrant who started all this mess.
John Hight shot that idea down. After how amazingly the “obvious” path of Illidan’s redemption by Xe’ra was subverted in Legion, I have faith that Blizzard will pull off something other than Siege of Orgrimmar 2.0. However, just as Illidan technically did end an instrumental champion in defeating the Legion but in a way that fit his characterization rather than a standard redemption narrative, I still think some parts of the story have to happen the way it looks like they’re going.
In other words, Sylvanas cannot remain Warchief of the Horde. The only way to keep her in charge is if they keep the war going past this expansion and officially make the Horde an unambiguously villainous faction. Given how strongly the fanbase has reacted, with most supporting the “morally grey anti-hero Horde” we’ve had since WarCraft III as opposed to the “pitch black anti-villain Horde” of WarCraft II and under Sylvanas, I doubt that’s going to happen. They might try a redemption story for Sylvanas, but to do that right would require a lot of focus and character development, more than one expansion would provide. That would mean dragging the war out beyond Battle for Azeroth (as peace is impossible as long as Sylvanas in her current characterization remains Warchief) and leaving this expansion with a no resolution for its biggest plot. That would be like ending Wrath of the Lich King without defeating the Lich King. I could see the factions settling into a “cold war” of sorts for the next expansion instead of full peace like in MoP, but that still requires a denouement for the main war.
So Sylvanas has to be out of the picture, there has to be some satisfactory conclusion for the Alliance and Horde so they’ll be willing to stop fighting each other (or at least cool down) and it can’t just be Saurfang leads a rebellion and they siege Orgrimmar or wherever else. I’ll admit my predictions are very hit and miss, so take this less as a “I definitely think this is going to happen” theory and more of a “if I was in charge of WoW’s story this is what I would consider doing” creative exercise. I previously shared this idea on my twitter, but I’ve expanded on and changed some details based on the responses I received.
How I Would Do It
My inspiration for this idea came from two sources. One is a line of dialogue from the Battle for Lordaeron spoken by Anduin to Saurfang:
When I return, we will speak of honor… and how it may yet be reclaimed.
Originally Saurfang also spoke about meeting with Anduin during the Zandalar intro scenario, but that didn’t make it out of the beta. But they left Anduin’s quote in, and that to me says this meeting is still happening, just fully under Anduin’s control with Saurfang not exactly happy about it.
My second influence was the duel between Durotan and Gul’dan in the Warcraft film. In the film continuity, Durotan is banished from the Horde but challenges Gul’dan to a mak’gora. At first the fight is fair, but when Durotan starts winning (or at least not dying quick enough) Gul’dan openly cheats by using fel magic. The orcs are outraged that Gul’dan would cheat and turn against him, only to fall back instantly in line after Gul’dan kills some vocal critics. The PCGamer interview mentioned that a big part of the Horde’s story in BfA is about questioning their morals and determining what the Horde really is. I thought a parallel of this scene but where the Horde stands its ground for what they believe in rather than follow a tyrant out of fear would be an excellent conclusion that kind of story.
The player character would be contacted by Baine if Horde or Anduin if Alliance for a secret meeting. There they’d find Anduin, Baine, and Saurfang. Anduin has come up with a plan to end the war that he thinks could benefit both factions without any more bloodshed. Saurfang will challenge Sylvanas to a mak’gora for the position of Warchief. He’ll do so out in the open streets of Ogrimmar outside of Grommash Hold in front of plenty of witnesses. Sylvanas has no interest in mak’gora or upholding Orcish traditions, but she does know the importance of keeping the Horde loyal to her. She would have no choice but to accept or turn much of the Horde against her. Once Saurfang has won and is Warchief, he’ll work with Anduin to deescalate the conflict and if all goes well, hopefully negotiate a full ceasefire down the line.
Saurfang isn’t enthused with the plan, but he’ll do it to restore the Horde to what it should be and find some atonement for himself. Horde players set off to Orgrimmar with Saurfang, while Alliance players sneak in with SI:7 to monitor the duel and make sure everything goes according to plan. All goes off without a hitch initially. Sylvanas is forced to accept the mak’gora or risk losing the support of her orc, troll, and tauren soldiers and they agree to fight under the proper rules. One weapon each, no magic, poison or any outside influence. Saurfang will use his axe and Sylvanas will use her bow as long as she only uses regular, non magic arrows. The duel begins and Saurfang appears to be winning when Sylvanas unleashes a flurry of arrows at him. Most don’t seem to phase Saurfang, but one starts to radiate green fumes, it was coated with Blight just like the ones she used on Liam Greymane and in Stormheim.
The Blight quickly takes hold and Saurfang collapses, seemingly dead. For a split second, Sylvanas seems shocked, but quickly recovers. She gives a speech about how this is proof that honor is meaningless and that the Horde must move past these traditions if it is to win the war and survive. “Honor means nothing to a corpse,” as Saurfang just learned the hard way. Continuing the theme from “Elegy” and “A Good War” of Sylvanas assuming people will react one way only for them to do the opposite, the soldiers, citizens, and other Horde leaders watching the duel form a mob and try to kill Sylvanas. She escapes to act as a neutral/shady and villainous character akin to Wrathion or Magatha Grimtotem for the rest of the expansion and possibly more expansions to come. Now that she’s not a faction leader, she can do whatever she wants without it having to reflect on Horde players leading to controversies like Teldrassil.
Once the crowd has settled. Baine goes to collect Saurfang’s body only to discover he’s still clinging to life! His bad luck of constantly wanting to die a warrior’s death only to outlive everyone around him continues. The Blight should be fatal though, so it seems like he doesn’t have much time left. But Azerite has incredible restorative properties, so the player character uses the Heart of Azeroth’s power to heal Saurfang. Even if you’re Alliance you come from hiding to do so, which helps with the cooling down of the war since the Horde would be indebted to your character.
Saurfang is declared Warchief and things are looking bright. However he notices something. The Blight arrow doesn’t have the same design as the other arrows Sylvanas uses. Surely she wouldn’t be so careless as to use a different type of arrow that the shaman inspecting her weapon could have noticed before the duel even began. Was it Nathanos, desperate to save his queen no matter the consequences? He didn’t flee with Sylvanas but appears to have slipped away during the chaos all the same. Or was it SI:7 operatives, trying to make Saurfang a martyr to ensure Sylvanas’ downfall at the expense leaving the Horde leaderless and destabilized? They’ve already vanished into the shadows. The mystery remains to foster mistrust and hatred between the Horde and the Alliance.
This would happen midway through the expansion, before the presumed Sylvanas trying to kill the world soul plot. Or maybe it happens at the end with players finding out about Sylvanas trying to kill the world soul ahead of time and thwarting her plans, and being informed of her true objective is what convinces Saurfang to work with Anduin.
So that’s how I would do it. We’ll find out how close I was to Blizzard’s story, if I’m close at all, as Battle for Azeroth continues to unfold. I for one cannot wait to find out.