Back to WoW Alpha & Classic: How Unnecessary Skills Hindered the Warlock Class

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Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

Game: World of Warcraft: Classic
Game Element: Warlock Class Overhaul
Discipline: Class Design


Glad you’re back and enjoying the Warlocks overhaul journey.

Today, we’ll embark on a fascinating journey back to the early days of Warcraft.

We’ll delve deep into the initial missteps and discover the valuable lessons that emerged from these experiences.

If you want to understand the Warlock class, you must first understand it’s origins and evolution.

Very little documentation and memory remain of the chaotic phases of development before WoW launched.

I started during the development of Naxxramas, so all of my input on the history of the Warlock class was based on my experience playing one over the course of the Alpha.

However, in good fortune, my mentor, Mike Heiberg, worked on the Warlock base class and imparted some of the values that went into its original development.

Origin of the Warlock

Me: Mike, we need to make some Warlock NPCs for the orcs in Hellfire peninsula.

Mike: Oh, that’s great. You know, I made the original spells for the Warlock.

Me: Really? Wow, I’ve been playing one ever since the Orc Warlock was unlocked.

Was pretty disappointed for a long time though.

Mike: Why was that?

Me: Well, when the World of Warcraft announcement website went up, it clearly showed a Warlock towing an Infernal around, but it ended up being nigh insanity to get my two ultimate pets.

Mike: Ahahaha, well, I don’t have much to say about that – the Infernal was stuck on a mob inside of Lower Blackrock Spire because we wanted to encourage people to go down there.

It didn’t work out so well, though… too long and too overspawned.

Me: So what did you do?

Mike: Well, it was near the end of class development. Kevin and Eric were insanely overwhelmed, so I was invited to help out.

At the time, you have to keep in mind that our bar-to-beat was original Everquest.

So, I focused on finding a very simple niche and purpose for the Warlock.

Me: How so?

Mike: In Everquest, there was the concept of a debuffer class – a class who provides offensive support for other classes.

The way this class worked was two-fold, debilitate enemies and amplify allied damage.

We brought in the Fear spell, a highly risky, but effective spell that could CC a lot of unit types.

(Alex’s Note: At this time, Polymorph only worked on beasts and humanoids, Sap was humanoid only, Hibernate was for Dragons and beasts, etc.)

Mike: To pair nicely with that, we threw in some other EQ spells to see how it went.

At the time, Mages had the “Root” effect (Immobilize the target, preventing it from moving around.)  so in the pursuit of strong class diversity, we decided that was something Warlocks shouldn’t have.

Instead, I came up with a set of curses: reduce damage, reduce armor, reduce shadow resist, reduce fire resist, slow casting speed – and so on.

Mike: The goal was the reward the Warlock for picking the right tool for the job.

Now we had a class that could make monsters run around and weaker, but not really do anything unique.

So, I asked myself, well, how do I make different abilities that match the theme (Class fantasy) and also stand out as different from the Mage.

So I made a DoT.

Me: That’s it, a DoT?

Mike: Yeah, I mean, at this point in time nobody else used DoTs very much and inflicting sickness seemed like a really evil thing to do.

Me: It had to be more than that, surely the fact that Dotting and Fearing combo’d well together had to be a factor.

Mike: It was. But first, you should understand the fantasy of the thing you’re trying to create.

Otherwise, you’re going to wander around and muddy up the waters.

Me: This makes sense. What did you do next?

Mike: Well, I made even more varities of DoTs.  Immolate – its a dot with a nuke up front.

Corruption, its a two-second cast-time DoT.

Curse of Agony, a curse meant to be used while you’re soloing. So on.

Me: Didn’t that seem like a lot?

Mike: Well, at one point in time we had a couple more than that, but eventually toned it back.

Back in those days, Metzen was very instant that we keep Warlocks out of the “main view” of the cities and only lurk around dark places.

Me: So how did Fire get mixed in?

Mike: Well, partially, Metzen really wanted Warlocks to be casting green fire spells, instead of red ones, but we didn’t have the time to get them into the schedule, and I was concerned it would confuse players to the school of magic they needed to defend themselves from.

Me: Wait, what do you mean?

Mike: Back when we started out, we thought that picking specific sets of gear to fight specific enemies was going to be really important.

So you’d have your fire resist set and your +fire damage set.

So your farming would go faster and so-on.

Nature was green too though – so I didn’t want players to feel confused.

You can see that value held on through Ahn’Quiraj and Naxxramas, but the raid team is going to be more specific about which fights need it in Burning Crusade.

Mike: Anyways, having two schools of magic created choice (Alex Note: ‘Agency’ is the term used now) to do the right thing in the right situation.

You know how Holy Paladins are basically useless once a rogue kicks their heal?

Me: Oh yeah, it’s a huge pain.

Mike: Having multiple spell schools gave you an out in those situations, as well as letting you ‘learn’ which enemies take more damage from fire, shadow, etc.

But in the end, we didn’t end up using it too much.

Me: Why not?

Mike: *Goofy grin* It was too exploitable – you’d just go and farm the monsters vulnerable to your school – it was like a 20-40% boost in gear.

You can’t easily overcome that.

Alex’s Note: In the future, adjusting the weights of quest XP vs mob XP improved this, but the value still holds.

If a game doesn’t force you to move on or provide a better return for investment, then you get stuck in that rut. 

Me: huh, okay… but… uh…. why Soul Fire?

Mike: Oh. Back in the day, Soul Fire used to consume a soul shard and stun the enemy for two seconds.

Me: Whoa!!

Mike: Well, this wasn’t as big a deal in a world where Mages could spam Polymorph – but if you locked someone down with chain soul shards, they could have a very, very bad day.

So it didn’t stick.

Mike: Anyways, more importantly, once we had those things together, I looked for ways to make Warlocks even more different than just Shadow Mages.

Me: What did you find?

Mike: Well, we made them tougher for one. For another, I had this idea that Warlocks should be all about health regen.

So, the class team added “Drain Life”.

Then you’d be running around the game at full health and no mana, so it naturally lead into “Life Tap” – beat things up, drain life off of them, drain souls at low health, repeat.

Me: Explain Soul Shards.

Mike: Before, I can do that, we need to talk about demons.  I hear Kevin’s adding a new demon for Outland.

So it’s important you should go and understand from him why he made the pets he did.

A Dance with Demons


Kevin was a warm, if quiet and a bit affable guy who sat in the same office as Eric Dodds (who wrote the original pitch for WoW and later headed up Hearthstone).

Kevin: Hey Alex, what’s up?

Me: I was talking with Mike and he said that I should come and talk to you about why there’s only four Warlock pets, excluding the infernal and doomguard.

Kevin: That’s funny, because I’m working on a fifth right now and running into some trouble.

Me: Why so?

Kevin: Well, when you make pets, you have two paths:  lots of variety and limited differences, limited variety with strong differences.

Eric’s approach on hunter was to let you tame almost anything with the animations, so I decided that Warlock pets should be more distinctive.

Me: This is pretty true. Imps are tiny and ranged, Voidwalkers are big and bulky, Felhunters are anti-caster and Succubus are good vs human and in pvp.

Kevin: Exactly. You should pick the right one for the job and give up something in return.

(Later on, Tom Cadwell, aka Zileas, would teach me that the term for this pattern was called ‘Modality’ – the nature of telegraphing your capabilities visually with a very unique and distinctive visual and mechanical pairing.)

Me: So how did you iterate to it.

Kevin: That would take too long to explain, but in a nutshell, originally the Imp was support to be a healer/caster, the Voidwalker for off-tanking monsters in dungeons, same for the Felhunter on casters and the Succubus for helping to do crowd control in dungeons.

Me: Why don’t they work that way?

Kevin: Well, honestly, they WOULD work that way, but healers can’t afford the attention to heal them.

The UI doesn’t support it well and its easier to spam Greater Heal on one person over and over than to carefully spread healing around.

So, instead, I made the imp the ‘safe’ pet – it won’t die if you leave it Void shifted and provides an important HP buff.

The Voidwalker was fine for soloing, so I left it there.

The felhunter got a silence and dispel and the Succubus turned out just fine.

Me: What about the Infernal and Doomguard.

Kevin: Huh. Well, you know, we wanted to have an epic questline to find those two pets, but just couldn’t manage it, so we stuck one spell from each class on a book somewhere.

Warlocks got LBRS and the valley with that Doomlord boss.

The idea was that if you put the effort in, you’d get these super pets that provided a really strong, long-cooldown effect.

I kind of like that niche.

Me: So whats’ the problem?

Kevin: Well, I’m trying to make a unique demon for Demonology.

Me: Why are you giving them a new demon? Metamorphosis is what they want.

Kevin: Heh, well, I suggested exactly that. It would fit with the expansion theme for sure.

But what if we decide to make a Demon Hunter class?

Me: Are you going to make a Demon Hunter class?

Kevin: Uh… I doubt it, we barely have time for the class changes for Burning Crusade.

Me: Well, I think Metamorphosis would be pretty cool.

Kevin: Me too… but wouldn’t it make more sense if you got it after you beat Illidan?

Me: Hmm… you do have a point there.

Kevin: Anyways, I’m working on something now I think will be different enough.

Me: What is it?

Kevin: It’s a fury warrior.

Me: What?

Kevin: Well, I was playing Warrior a lot because Kalgan had some specific complaints and I realized they are pretty fun, but really I just want one to tag along with me.

So I had this idea, what if I made a little Whirlwind warrior that followed me around.

Here, take a look.

Me: *looks* Isn’t that one of those whirling bugs from AQ?

Kevin: Well, that’s the placeholder, but yeah, that’s kind of the idea.

Me: So what’s the problem.

Kevin: Well, it doesn’t feel very useful yet.

Me: What’s wrong?

Kevin: Just ‘AoE’ damage isn’t a good enough niche.

Me: Why not?

Kevin: It’s an all-or-nothing choice. I don’t mind it, but it lacks punch.

The others are generally more useful, especially in PvP.

Me: So you need a PvP focused reason to have it? I mean there’s a lot of PvP in Alterac Valley.

Kevin: Well, yes, but in BC, Kalgan wants to do arenas, so every pet needs an Arena reason to exist.

Voidwalkers can die to shield you. Felhunters have interrupt. Imps can’t be killed. Succubi can CC while you’re stunned.

But I don’t know about this guy.

Me: Maybe he could have like a tentacle that holds enemies in place or something.

Kevin: Ahh… well, they’re already working on him.

*Jonathan LeCraft walks in*felguardsamwise

JLC: Well, well, well, what do we have going on in here!

Me: Hey Jon! Kevin was discussing the new Demonology pet with me.

JLC: Did you guys see the art for it yet?

Kevin: Yes, but only the concept. Metzen wanted to bring back this thing from War3.

JLC: I was chilling with the artists and they showed me a preview of the 3d model. Here, I’ll load it up in Preview 2.

Me: Huh. Well, he looks exactly like what you described.

Kevin: Yup.

JLC: You know, maybe he could just toss that axe at enemies.

Kevin: And?

JLC: I dunno, stun them? It’s kinda big.

Kevin: Hmmm… could work. I think we’re going to play around with this. Come back later, Alex.

Back to the Room

I returned to my mentor’s temporary office where we worked together on Burning Crusade monsters.

Mike: How was it?

Me: Pretty cool.

Mike: What’d you learn?

Me: That each demon has a unique and significant reason to exist.

That it’s important to be a decision you make before you need their tool – and that choosing the right tool for the job coming up means a lot.

Mike: Yep. That’s right.  There’s three different types of decisions:

  1. Preparation.
  2. Challenges. Recovery
  3. Picking your pet is preparation

Moving out of an AoE is responding to a challenge. Healing up afterwards is recovery.

Ultimately, their involvement along this spectrum is what makes Warlocks unique.

Mike: Look at Demon Skin – it increases your health regen and armor.

What does that say to you?images

Me: I can survive more and regen faster than others.

Mike: That’s part of it – but it also says more than that to me.

It says: “Warlocks are more about preparation and recovery than they are about responding perfectly to challenges.”

Me: They should take damage, recover from it, then go back into the fray.

Mike: Yes. You will see this theme repeated over and over again on Warlock. Healthstones. Soul Stones. Drain Life. Even Souls Shards.

They don’t have twitchy reaction spells and they don’t have blinks or instant teleports like Mages.

In fact, to add one to the class would be to undermine its character.

Me: This is a lot to take in.

Mike: Don’t worry, we just paraphrased months of conversations into a one-day chat.

Me: That’s a pretty cool, right?

Mike: Right!

Me: Oh wait. Why did you make so many different curses and make them all exclusive.

Mike: Same idea. You pick only one. Also, we had to give you a new spell every 4 levels – and later on we wanted a reason to bring more than one Warlock to a group.


Me: So what’s the deal with chain fear.

Mike: Ah, well, we fixed that kind of quickly, but if you can incapacitate someone and still deal damage.

You are basically a death sentence.

Worse still, if they decide to NOT kill you, you sit there, not having fun for half an hour.

So we added damage limits to fear and diminishing returns on players.

Me: What other problems cropped up during Classic?

Kevin:  Well, for one, the way that we itemized caused a lot of problems.

Initially, we thought Warlocks would be interested in “of the Whale” gear. Stamina/Spirit for the health and health regen.

However, as it turned out, stacking tons and tons of +Shadow damage gear was the best way.

You could lifetap to infinitely funnel mana in exchange for a heal or two, a problem that became worse in Burning Crusade.

JLC: But you should really go over that in your next article.

Me: What were the stupid ideas?

Mike: Firestones. Yeah. Where spellstones had some use, Firestones were just silly.  (Firestones were self-conjured off-hand items that allowed Warlocks to melee to deal additional damage).

Me: Why didn’t they work?

Mike: You have a class with infinite mana. Why would you ever stop casting?

Me: Oooh, right.


Drawing from my firsthand experience as a player during the Alpha, combined with the invaluable insights passed down by my mentor, Mike Heiberg.

I was able to discover a lot of initially impressive and important ideas that were laying on their glory days or didn’t work at all anymore.

Blizzard was hesitant to remove skills that proved less useful with time, which led to years of lingering complexity.

I realized that sometimes even the most crucial & promising ideas eventually fade away.

When trying to improve something, It’s crucial to explore multiple options.

Adding new things is not always the best answer.

It might be better to simplify and reduce the clutter.

The foundational Warlock principles were:

  • Warlocks prepare, endure and recover – Health management, Tankiness, Soul Stones, Soul Shards, Inventory Management
  • Modality – choices that matter in pet, curse
  • Agency – you have the ability to make the right decision and be more effective for it
  • Utility – bringing unique tools that worked together well (Banish, Fear, Cripple, Curses, Health and Soulstones)
  • Cycle – a rhythm and pattern repeated over time (dot, cast spells, lifetap, regen, repeat)

While the first version of the Warlock was far from perfect, these core values established the identity for what a player would expect from the class in the years going forward.

… but what happened?

How did Warlocks become a one-button class in Burning Crusade?

What about the talent trees?

Didn’t the classic talent trees suck?

Will discuss more next time.

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11 Responses

  1. This is really fascinating! Warlock player since late Vanilla (AQ patch), really interesting to look back on the Warlock back then through this perspective.

  2. “Me: Are you going to make a Demon Hunter class?

    Kevin: Uh… I doubt it, we barely have time for the class changes for Burning Crusade.”

    I just laughted sooo incredibly hard that my parents might think i am insane.

  3. On the Felguard:
    “Kevin: Well, it doesn’t feel very useful yet.

    Me: What’s wrong?

    Kevin: Just ‘AoE’ damage isn’t a good enough niche.”

    I ALWAYS wondered about this. Even when I saw the preview for it as BC was in development, I wondered what use it’d have other than more damage. I loved Soul Link (was the capital spell for enduring and felt great imo) and it drew me to demo early on, but I -never- liked the Felguard.

    “Modality – choices that matter in pet, curse”

    The felguard was the only pet who broke this rule, and in doing so ruined for the other 4 pets. As a dps-only class, warlock has to use whatever yields the highest dps, so when 4 pets offer unique utility and the other offers more damage, the dps class will choose what yields the highest dps. The felguard went in the exact opposite direction of what I wanted to see, which was to push pet utility and make the choices more pressing.

    Furthermore, this made demo the only spec that functionally could not choose what pet to use. Despite being a master demonologist, he would lose damage output whenever he decided to use his pet for a spell interrupt, extra CC, whatever. Demo was the only spec that lost a serious chunk of dps when exercising utility. It was functionally less capable as a pet spec than both aff and destro.

    Any time I tried to express this on the forums though, I was drowned out by people who defended the felguard because it ‘did gud dps’. It didn’t seem to matter to people, by in large, that if all pets did comparable damage, then their use would return to an emphasis on utility.

    The felguard always seemed like a half baked, meandering experiment with no truly defined intent. It succeeded as a shiny toy which made players happy, I think, but also distracted from one of the core philosophies of the class. I don’t mean to sound rude to Kevin, but if anything got axed from Demo, I’d want it to have been the felguard (and maybe exist as a glyph to replace voidwalker since it is fairly tanky).

    1. Well, let’s not crucify anyone here. “AoE Pet” isn’t a bad thing. “Stun Melee” pet is also not a bad thing. In fact, good and bad are useless terms here. The question is EFFECTIVENESS – and yes, it was tuned higher than the other pets. I’ll add a footnote on this to the article for Lich King.

  4. There is a typo in this post. “The goal was THE reward the Warlock” It should be “The goal was TO reward the Warlock”.

  5. Yeah I sounded a little salty. I’ve always been passionate about this class though, and sometimes talking abstractions and concepts is difficult on the forums when most people only care about the dps. The numbers are always more accessible, and at the higher ends of gaming they’re all that matter.

    When I rolled my warlock back in ’04, one of the things that excited me about the minions were that they were like tools in a kit, each bringing something different to the table and valued depending on the circumstances. It was an element of the class I really liked, and hoped it would be further refined in that direction.

    When the FG came out I was a little disappointed because I realized whatever perceived choice I had with my pets was effectively nullified. I’ll admit to being that jerk who would use his succubus/shivaara in the Garrosh fight because I enjoyed punting adds into the iron stars. It was deeply satisfying knocking mobs into hazards and hoisting them by their own petard.

    But sometimes I was told to drop the succy and use my FG, which I begrudgingly did. By virtue of exercising choice based on utility, I was playing the spec sub-optimally. In essence, I was ‘doing it wrong’. It’s never set right with me that the utility minions are marketed as bringing to the table is functionally nullified when only one is designed to bring the one thing that matters: bigger numbers.

    I believe damage output and utility should be distinct, with sharp divides between them. I was happy with Curse of Agony just became ‘Agony’ because it gave me a sense that I’d finally have some regular choice in my debuffs. That change is effectively nullified these days (which I am also sad about), but I always hoped minions would receive similar treatment so that the competition between dps and utility would be decoupled.

    1. Yeah, this is a huge disappointment of mine towards Pet-specific talents, abilities and passives. It’s an idea that undermines modality.

  6. I’m glad I got to read this, and learn some insight.

    Still, I’m sad at the current state of my Warlock. Demonology moreover than the other specs.. *sniff*


    Oh well.

    C’est la vie

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