Exploring the Pros and Cons of a Borrowed Power System

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Borrowed power has been a heated topic in World of Warcraft since the beginning of the Legion expansion. For many people, the systems were too heavy to truly enjoy the game. But for others, borrowed power added a daily grind that they enjoyed participating in for a tangible reward.

So far in Dragonflight, we are free of the grind for Artifact Weapons like in Legion, Azerite powers in Battle for Azeroth (BFA), or Covenants in Shadowlands. But with the absence of borrowed power, we may be left with this question: What is there to do in World of Warcraft?

In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of the absent borrowed power systems that we’ve grown accustomed to over the past three expansions and discuss the implications of what this means for Dragonflight.

Before we begin, I wanted to write this for you all to think about the pros and cons, for yourself, of these types of systems being absent from our newest expansion thus far. Anything I discuss in this article will be told from my perspective – my own experiences, thoughts, and feelings about these systems and what they brought to the game.



Table of Contents






What is Borrowed Power?



Borrowed powers are extra elements added to the game that are not present naturally from regularly obtainable gear and class/spec/race specific abilities. Throughout the history of WoW, we have seen borrowed powers in the form of legendary items and tier sets. However, the past three expansions offered even more.

In this article, I will be comparing and contrasting the borrowed power systems from Legion, BFA, and Shadowlands, including the following:

Legion

  • Artifact Weapons
  • Legion Legendary Items (Random Drop Legendaries)
  • Netherlight Crucible


Battle For Azeroth

  • Heart of Azeroth (Azerite Essences, Azerite Armor)
  • Corruption


Shadowlands

  • Shadowlands Legendary Items (Craftable Legendary Items)
  • Covenants and Soulbinds


Although we won’t delve too deeply into all of these systems, we aim to illustrate what WoW was like before and during the various borrowed power systems that were implemented into the game from Legion through Shadowlands. Although tier sets can be considered borrowed power, this article will highlight the more elaborate borrowed power systems that we have interacted with over the course of the past three expansions.



An Overview of WoW Pre-Legion



WoW was a very different game before Legion. Vanilla (original WoW), The Burning Crusade (TBC), Wrath of the Lich King (WotLK), and Cataclysm were when WoW had its largest base of players, reaching 10 million or more during WotLK. These expansions were rich with lore from the RTS Warcraft games, and also acted as somewhat of a conclusion to their storylines. I started playing during WotLK and, although it wasn’t my favorite expansion, it still had amazing gameplay.



The only grinds that we did in Wrath were the ones that we wanted to do. Certain items like profession recipes were locked behind reputations, but for the most part, there wasn’t much to do that felt “required”. Most things that were important to player power could be obtained through reputation grinds, such as tabards to wear that gave us extra reputation for specific factions while completing certain activities. In fact, Patch 3.3 marked the first time that Blizzard enabled account-bound reputation so that players could obtain all top-quality head and shoulder enchants on alt characters.



LEGENDARY ITEMS PRE-LEGION


Prior to Legion, legendary items usually had a questline attached to them. They were fairly difficult to obtain and only offered for specific classes or roles, such as Thunderfury in Vanilla, which could only be equipped by melee classes that could wield one-handed swords.

Legendary items were a core power system during MoP and WoD. For both of these expansions, the legendary gear was the epilogue to the expansion’s story. However, the legendary items offered in MoP took a new approach. In MoP, players were given quests to assist Wrathion, requiring them to collect items from every raid. At the end of the first tier, they received a legendary gem, which could only be socketed into a special weapon from those first raids. Players fully completed the quest line during the last patch, they received a legendary cloak respective to their class’ role. Personally, I enjoyed this style of legendary system, as it gave all players the opportunity to obtain a legendary item rather than picking a specific class or role to be granted this privilege.




At the start, MoP was notorious for having an onslaught of daily quests to complete – to the point where players actually hit the daily cap of 25 every day if they were serious about reputation grinding. Some vendors had recipes that crafters absolutely needed, such as enchanting patterns from the August Celestials. Thankfully, these recipes were obtainable at Revered reputation or earlier, making them pretty easy to acquire. A huge quality-of-life feature that MoP introduced was the commendations that could be bought at Revered status, which doubled the reputation gain for that faction for our alt characters. This effectively reduced the grind for accruing any reputation for alts.

WoD had, in my opinion, the lowest requirement to get the things we needed. Reputations during this expansion were mostly used to purchase cosmetic items, toys, or plans to upgrade our garrison. Our profession progression was tied to our garrison, where we built our profession buildings. Outside of daily quests and working on our garrisons, we could simply log on to raid and were not obligated to do much else outside of that.



SUMMARY


Outside of raiding, this early time in WoW focused much of its content on world building and helping us understand and interact with the lore. Grinding out a reputation for a given faction was the player’s choice since most of the important items were obtained at Honored or Revered reputation levels, and the grinds were not terribly long or arduous. If we needed to increase our character power for a raid, we would obtain that power from the raid or dungeon content for that expansion. In other words, the world content was not tied directly to our character’s power.

Now that we’ve summarized what the game was like prior to borrowed power systems, let’s discuss the major shift that transpired in Legion.



An Overview of the Borrowed Power Era




LEGION - ARTIFACT POWER


With the release of Legion, the way that players engaged with content outside of raiding was drastically altered and expanded upon. The artifact weapons of Legion were an extremely cool idea – each class got different lore-based weapons for each of their specializations, which came with many different appearances that were unlocked by doing certain activities or quests. These weapons also had traits that increased player power, but they came at a price. In order to unlock traits in the weapon’s tree, we needed to feed it artifact power. At certain thresholds of artifact power, we unlocked new traits.



Players quickly discovered some pretty (for lack of better words) degenerate strategies to farm artifact power. Normally, what we would do is clear out all of our world quests that gave us artifact power, and then farm the dungeon that had the lowest time for completion (which was Maw of Souls), to continue farming the artifact power. Killing each raid boss each week also granted artifact power. Furthermore, the cost required to level up and allocate additional traits in our artifact weapons increased exponentially, essentially putting a soft cap on how degenerate we could be.

In our class order halls, we could improve our artifact knowledge, which offered a slight catch-up mechanic each week. This helped alleviate the daunting task of farming artifact power on a new character, or if we wanted to level up another artifact weapon on our main character. That’s right – artifact power was only applied to one weapon when we consumed it! In other words, Legion drilled in the concept of a spec identity since players could not easily swap between the different specs of their given class without sacrificing the power of their main spec.



LEGION - LEGENDARIES


Legion legendaries were a huge point of contention. Each of our characters were guaranteed to get their first legendary item drop fairly quickly, with subsequent legendaries being incredibly rare until the drop rate was raised later in the expansion. However, there were several defensive legendaries that were a part of the loot table that offered significantly less benefits compared to the others. In fact, there were only a handful of legendaries that were sought after for each spec for their notable power increase. Because of the soft cap after initial legendary drops in early Legion, many players resorted to creating a whole new character if their first legendary wasn’t a good power increase for them. There was a legendary necklace called Prydaz that regularly gave us an absorb shield – it is easy to imagine how terrible it felt to obtain that legendary on a DPS specialization as a first legendary. Although it felt like Prydaz rained from the sky with how many players received it as their first legendary, it was one of the legendaries in the loot table that everyone could obtain…and they sure did.

Ultimately, many people remember Legion fondly for how it evolved by the end. Many of the gripes and frustrations regarding the early parts of the expansion were soon forgotten once legendary items were placed at a vendor and purchased with a currency as a response to player feedback. Additionally, the artifact power grind was tuned to be so easy that it was no longer difficult to catch up an alt character or an offspec.



BFA - THE HEART OF AZEROTH AND AZERITE ARMOR


With the launch of Battle for Azeroth (BFA) came another artifact item: The Heart of Azeroth. This necklace didn’t have any power tied to it directly, but it had to be fed artifact power to increase its’ item level. The initial purpose of this artifact grind was to unlock traits on pieces of armor, which were called azerite armor– another addition coming with BFA. These pieces of armor could be worn in three gear slots (head, shoulders, and chest). Azerite armor had no secondary stats, but instead unlocked what were essentially tier set bonuses. Blizzard decided that, for BFA, they would do away with tier sets and try Azerite Armor instead. However, a majority of these traits never really saw much use, as there were a select few that were numerically superior to the rest for each specialization.

Azerite armor had a few intricacies. First, the artifact level that we needed to unlock traits were different depending on item level. For example, a Mythic raid quality piece had a higher artifact level requirement to unlock its traits, whereas a Heroic or Normal piece of Azerite Armor would have all of their traits fully unlocked already. This way, it could feel like we were farming to unlock what we had already unlocked. The second caveat was that we had to pay gold to re-trait our armor. Therefore, if we used our armor for two different specializations because it had two best traits for these specializations, we had to go to an NPC and pay gold to put those traits into something different. The scaling of this was out of control, with some people reaching the 100k gold or higher mark to re-spec their Azerite armor. Both of these issues were fixed in later patches, but it continued the Legion trend of essentially pigeon-holing players into maining certain specs and sticking to them.

In Patch 8.2, the Heart of Azeroth expanded to include a trait system called Azerite Essences that were similar to the Artifact Weapons in Legion. To unlock major traits, we had to go out and do specific activities to get them. For example, PVP unlocked the Blood of the Enemy trait, which made an explosion in a radius around our character, doing damage and increasing the damage that enemies took from your abilities. There were traits that were unlocked from reputation vendors, raiding, rated PVP, dungeons – almost every form of content had one. Eventually, Azerite Essences were made to be account wide. I viewed this system as pretty successful, as none of the traits were particularly difficult to obtain, and they forced us to interact with different parts of the game that we may have otherwise ignored. They also gave us some extremely fun abilities to play with.





BFA - CORRUPTION


Lastly, let’s talk about the corruption system. Essentially, gear began to drop that had additional powers attached to them, but at a cost. Corrupted gear was insanely fun once we got all of the corruption powers we wanted, giving our character an insane power boost. For example, Twilight Devastation was a particularly popular type of corruption, as it had a chance to do ridiculous amounts of damage for classes that stacked haste and had high health (think Vengeance Demon Hunter and other haste-based tanks).


Source: Taklyfe


During Patch 8.3, players received a legendary cloak from Wrathion, which granted corruption resistance and increased in strength through players completing solo scenarios called Horrific Visions of N’zoth. This cloak also allowed us to increase the amount of corrupted items we could stack on our gear.





SHADOWLANDS - LEGENDARIES


Finally, we have arrived at the last expansion of this era: Shadowlands. Shadowlands was very much a continuation of the borrowed power systems of Legion and BFA. Blizzard applied some lessons learned from Legion and BFA to the player power systems by taking a more deterministic approach.

For example, Shadowlands legendaries were functionally the same as Legion legendaries, but they were acquired through crafting rather than complete RNG than in most of Legion. There were certain legendaries that were either power gains or defensive gains. The big difference between Shadowlands and Legion was that all we had to do was collect the legendary power from its source. The powers only had to be obtained once and they dropped from the same place, so the sources could be farmed until the legendary powers dropped. Although there was some degree of RNG to this very early into the expansion, Blizzard quickly did away with the RNG to legendary powers and made them essentially guaranteed. The powers were also unlocked for all characters that could use them, so generic legendaries were unlocked for all characters, while class specific legendaries were unlocked for any character you had of that class. This gave players the agency to decide which legendaries they wanted to wear instead of feeling stuck with whatever they got.

The major point of contention for these legendaries was twofold. For one, crafting a legendary also required a currency called Soul Ash (and later Soul Cinders) that could only be acquired from Torghast, Tower of the Damned. These had a weekly limit, and forced players to engage with what was otherwise optional content. The second issue was that every time we had to upgrade the legendary for a new patch, we had to buy a new template item to put the legendary power and missives on, which were incredibly expensive early on. So, if we were low on gold, we couldn’t craft a legendary item or upgrade the one(s) we had. New players picking up the game for the first time had an even harder time acquiring the required materials and legendary crafting bases, and were temporarily locked out of a major power progression system until they got the required gold.

Overall, I had a pretty neutral opinion on this system. The recipes were fairly easy to obtain, and I usually had a surplus of gold, which meant it was easy for me to simply recraft legendaries whenever I needed to. Eventually, we no longer had to farm Torghast for the currency to make legendary items and could buy those materials with other currencies in the game and send those currencies to alts to craft legendaries. This made for a much more flexible legendary system than in Legion.





SHADOWLANDS - COVENANTS


While the legendary system was fairly easy to interact with, it wasn’t nearly as impactful as the main feature of shadowlands: player covenants.

Covenants had a strong fantasy element to them – we could choose the covenant that fit our personality and aesthetic, and get mounts and armor sets that were unique to our covenant. Each covenant had its own unique storyline of quests, which unlocked as we gained more reputation called Renown.

Attached to covenants were soulbinds. This was essentially the artifact talent tree from Legion, except our traits were unlocked as we increased our renown with our covenant. Within soulbinds were items that you obtained called conduits, which each granted different passive abilities, similar to both Legion and BFA.

While all the covenant abilities were cool and thematic to each class, it was almost impossible to balance four different abilities to be equally valuable in every situation. Furthermore, the major issue with covenants in Patch 9.0 was that it was not easy to swap covenants. Thankfully, Blizzard eventually made covenant swapping fairly easy, so by the end of the expansion, players could freely swap their covenant at any time and have everything unlocked if they had completed the storyline and reached a certain threshold of Renown on that character (or any character on the account). Because of this, we were finally able to swap between the covenants depending on what type of content we were participating in or change covenants for individual boss encounters or dungeons. This made for a fun variety of gameplay options.





SUMMARY


In summary, the borrowed power systems of Legion, BFA, and Shadowlands were far more advanced than their predecessors, with entire game systems being designed around their existence. They came with a multitude of pros and cons, and while some of these features added a lot of flavor and variety to the way we played the game and increased our player power, these systems were not without their flaws. Until borrowed power systems were made account-wide or more easily purchasable/obtainable in each patch across these three expansions, players often erupted into outcries over how much of a grind it was to play alts in each of these expansions due to the sheer amount of “catch up” they had to do to be “viable.” Additionally, it was generally very difficult to swap to different specs in Legion and BFA, or different covenants in Shadowlands to actually enjoy the variety and fun factor that these borrowed power systems offered.



The Pros and Cons of Borrowed Power



So now that we’ve summarized the different borrowed power that has existed in WoW across multiple expansions, I'd like to elaborate upon what I believe are the distinct pros and cons of the different eras and power systems of World of Warcraft. As I stated earlier, what I have deemed pros and cons are not universal truths – they simply represent my opinions and observations. Let’s dive in!


PRE-LEGION ERA


Let’s start with the Pre-Legion era. For me, this era of the game had a plethora of pros. Because there weren’t many things that were required to do, I could take time exploring the world, getting achievements, and playing alts without feeling like I was “wasting time” that could decrease the player power of my main character. I had time to do different grinds for cosmetic items, toys, mounts. The most characters I ever played at once was actually during Mists of Pandaria, where I had six characters that were fully Heroic geared (the highest raid difficulty before Mythic was implemented) by the end of the expansion. I’m fully aware that I had way too many characters. However, the fact that I could still play numerous geared characters and still be a functional adult outside of WoW was a testament to how easy it was to keep characters up-to-date. There is a certain joy in having that amount of freedom in a video game to explore and experiment. I even had several characters that fully interacted with the “borrowed power” of these early expansions, such as having legendary cloaks in MoP, legendary rings in WoD, and my Rogue has quite the collection of legendaries from the earlier expansions, including the Fangs of the Father from Cataclysm and The Twin Blades of Azzinoth from The Burning Crusade.

Although I loved this era of the game, there were some notable cons. There were definitely times where I felt like I really didn’t have anything to do each day. Particularly during WoD, most of the world content and out-of-raid activities were centered around our garrison, so if our garrison was maxed out, or if our raid week was over, we really didn’t have much to do. The garrison mission table also printed money if we interacted with that feature even a little bit, so it wasn’t really worth our time to go out and gold farm either.

I also felt like the way we obtained legendary items in Vanilla through Cataclysm was less than perfect. Not only were the classes and specializations who received these powerful items restricted, but we also had to choose which player out of our guild members received the items to make their legendary. I know for a fact this created resentment in some guilds and PUGs, which caused drama in some raid groups. This problem was fixed for MoP with the legendary cloaks, but it is absolutely worth noting how bad the legendary system felt before that time. Personally, my Rogue didn’t get her legendary daggers until Cataclysm was basically over, since every time I got into a group, there was always another Rogue who had “higher priority” than I did.



BORROWED POWER ERA


Prior to Legion, I felt as though class design was a little too simple with the systems that we had in place during this time (i.e. tier sets, legendary items, and talent systems). The new and expanded borrowed power systems of Legion, BFA, and Shadowlands attempted to give classes a little more depth and flavor with numerous ways to customize our characters and build their power outside base talents and tier sets. I remember seeing the Legion Artifact Weapons for the first time, and thought it was cool to have essentially another set of talents that I could unlock or choose to make my character stronger. For better or worse, borrowed power added complexity to class design that I felt was missing.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that I enjoyed having something to do every day to progress my character, because I did. I’ve always been a tryhard in WoW, and the borrowed power systems kept me busy in the game, engaging me (even if artificially at times) with the content in the current expansion. I only say artificially because I know not everyone felt truly engaged by the content, but I did enjoy the initial grinds of the artifact systems in Legion and unlocking more pages of the lore book for my artifact weapons.

I also think that putting that much time into a character makes us feel more connected to it. I have always played a Rogue, but I never truly felt connected to the character until Legion, when I started to put more effort into her than I had ever done before. This triggered a sort of “sunk cost fallacy” with my Rogue, meaning that, the more time I spent on her, the less likely I was to abandon playing her from expansion to expansion.

Feeling connected to a character in a video game is both a blessing and a curse. The sunk cost fallacy posits that we are reluctant to stop doing something once we’ve invested significant time and resources into it, even if abandonment could be beneficial. Because we had to spend so much time building our character’s power throughout each entire expansion, it was difficult to make alt characters because they required a daunting amount of grinding due to these borrowed power systems and it felt like we were sacrificing the player power of our mains. Furthermore, many of my friends felt like they couldn’t quit WoW during these expansions once they had invested so much time into their characters, even if they wanted to take a break or quit – both due to the sunk cost fallacy and a fear of falling behind.

This same logic could be applied to new alt characters as well. For example, my Warlock was my first character ever, and I’ve always brought her through to the end of every expansion’s story – even if I didn’t do much else with her. The pressure of having to interact with the borrowed power systems of Legion and BFA were so daunting to me that I didn’t touch my Warlock until the end of Shadowlands. I do not want to spend several weeks (if not months) catching up my characters to my most progressed character. WoW feels as though it is built for us to have the freedom to play numerous classes and/or specs at once, given that we can create a myriad of characters on our accounts or even swap specializations per class. These borrowed power systems worked against that notion by severely limiting the time we could dedicate to exploring other classes and playstyles without sacrificing the player power and time investment required by our main characters.

I also felt like the pacing of these systems was severely lacking. We could endlessly farm artifact power, which made many feel like they were behind if they weren’t always grinding power outside of their Raid/PvP/Mythic+ groups. It doesn’t feel good to log into a game to unwind, and immediately feel anxious because you feel like you need to do something. Anyone who raided, and maybe just wanted to log on to raid and then do some casual stuff, was left high and dry during these expansions. They had to interact with content in a way that negatively impacted their overall experience with the game.

Along that vein, the borrowed powered systems even made it difficult to play alternate specializations on our main character. Artifact Weapons essentially split our class into several sub classes. In Legion, our artifact weapons did not share artifact power when we used it, so we had to choose one specialization to focus on. This was echoed in BFA when the gold cost to re-spec our Azerite Armor reached unreasonable levels or we were forced to endlessly grind out Visions of N’zoth to socket our gear and attain maximum corruption resistance, among other features. In Shadowlands, we could not freely swap covenants and legendaries until much later into the expansion than we hoped, and the grind for Renown to unlock our full soulbinds and conduits was inundating at best. When the game went from being fun to becoming almost a full-time job instead, I essentially had to choose my sanity and stick to a main class/spec so that I didn’t waste too much time on my alts, since they could only ever be a fraction of the power of my main anyway.

Ultimately, both eras of the game had their own issues and upsides towards the ways in which they provided playable content. Even if we didn’t enjoy one era or the other, we can certainly appreciate that the developers tried something different in Legion and iterated upon that idea throughout BFA and Shadowlands to arrive where we are now in Dragonflight so far. There is nothing that can be done to appease every one, and sometimes we have to throw darts at a wall to see what sticks. I think that the lessons learned by Blizzard from these various eras of the game will give us some truly amazing content in the future, and after our recent interview with Game Director, Ion Hazzikostas, we on the precipice of a new WoW era where the Developers are deeply listening to the hopes and desires of the WoW playerbase and designing systems that feel rewarding, freeing, and truly enjoyable.



Key Takeaways



With the launch of Dragonflight, one thing that was promised was a different era for WoW. I believe that Blizzard learned a lot from how development was approached both before and after the recent borrowed power systems were implemented. Personally, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Dragonflight so far. The world feels so open now, and I love flying around on my silly little dragon with no care in the world.



Yes, that picture is my character and yes, Wrathion and I are best friends. But seriously, it’s been so fun just creating my own experience. I hope that this is the kind of content we continue to get, because I can only see good things happening if this direction continues.

I hope that this discussion of the different types of power gains in WoW, past and present, got you thinking about the different things you enjoy about playing the game. Remember: if you don’t want to do something in a video game, don’t do it (unless you’re trying to get a sick mount…what’s an 8-hour reputation grind anyway?). Ultimately, we play this game because we enjoy it. Spend your time playing through the content you love.

I hope you’re enjoying Dragonflight! Go out there and make your own story!



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About the Author


Kubie has played WoW for 13 years, achieving Cutting Edge during several tiers. Kubie enjoys meeting new players and making the community a better place, one person at a time. In 2016, he began streaming on Twitch — most notably, Heroes of the Storm. Kubie went on to become a coach for the HGC team No Tomorrow. Throughout his career in esports, Kubie has been an integral part of several support teams and is excited to bring his passion for gaming and community to the Raider.IO team.