Warlock’s Overhaul: The Art of Trade-offs & Limited Design Space in Game Design

Picture of Alexander Brazie

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: Wrath of the Lich King
Game Element: Warlock Class Overhaul – Spells & Core Fantasy
Discipline: Class Design

Let’s take a look at some of the conditions that constrained the ability to fix warlocks in Wrath of the Lich King.

This was often considered the beginning of the end of the original class design, as it began to strain under the weight of its own complexity.

Things had smoothed out in the later patches of the Burning Crusade.

Ember storm improved the cast time of Incinerate to push it above Shadow Bolt for Destruction, a number of bug fixes and range increases made life better for drain spells and preparation began for Wrath of the Lich King.

With the conclusion of Sunwell, the WoW team began promoting internally and bringing on new faces to take on the ambitious challenges that awaited us in Northrend.

A Change of Path

Things were not going as well in my own career.

After having spent an expansion working on exterior content for the most part, I had started working with the WoW Tools team on dramatically rebuilding the tools that were used to create the game world.

The first project, the Spell Editor – had been a fairly solid success, so Scott Mercer took a step back and asked me to take point on the new spawn editor, with A.A. periodically supervising.

Unfortunately, I handled some sensitive situations poorly with the engineer involved.

We would later toast each other for setting our personal careers back by about three years when we finally made up during the Cataclysm launch. Either way, I was reassigned back to wildlife spawning for the remainder of the launch.

Shoveltusk. Lots and lots of Shoveltusk

Unlike the spawning of quest POI (points of interest), Wildlife spawning is an act of mass production.

Back then, it wasn’t possible to even copy and paste monsters into the world, let alone link-up common behaviours quickly. Each point had to be placed by hand.

I don’t know how much you know about me, but I am a person who relishes self-expression and creativity.

For me, there was no personal hell greater than massive and laborious spawning projects, full of regular maintenance work, with very few opportunities for self-expression.

Not because they don’t exist, but because the sheer scale of the world and the clunkiness of the tools makes it very, very difficult.

I think Jeff wanted to motivate me to be clever and dramatically improve the tools; but after having damaged that relationship, it was much harder to get changes made.

Likewise, the engineers were already heavily trapped under the weight of the previously agreed-upon requests.

Insecurities and Inquiries

So it was a huge surge of anxiety and fear that coursed through my veins when I was asked to come to the office of Jeff Kaplan and Tom Chilton for a private meeting.

While I’d interacted with both of them regularly, it was never behind closed doors.

Convinced my career was over, I walked in and sat down, hands trembling and shaking as I immediately blurted out apologies for whatever it was I had done, but that I had no idea why I was there *today*.

They both stared blankly at me. Tom put on a goofy smile.

TC: “Uhm… this isn’t a disciplinary meeting…”

Me: “It’s… not?”

Jeff: “No.”

TC: “We are calling in all of the designers. We want your feedback on an important decision for the game.”

Jeff: “Specifically, we have three options for the Hero class we want to add to the game.”

TC: “Because everyone’s gotta get behind this decision, we wanted everyone’s opinion.”

Me: “Oh…. oh! What are the choices?”

TC: “Death Knight, Rune Master and Necromancer.”

They went briefly into the pitches for each.

  1. The Death Knight would basically be Arthas, but with a focus on tanking magical damage.
  2. The Rune Master would be a leather wearer who has a unique power source where different runes could activate different abilities and empower martial arts moves.
  3. The Necromancer would raise the undead and send them at enemies like waves.

Me: “Wow, those are some pretty significant choices.”

Jeff: “Yeah… so what’s your choice.”

TC: “And more importantly, why?”

Me: “Well, while at first the feeling of saying Necromancer and DK really match the theme of the expansion…

I feel like the most important aspect of class design is mechanical diversity.

The rune system sounds significantly different and would change how people think about their abilities.”

Me: “Necromancer… well, it seems like it would be a good class, but it’s already been done and stomps HARD on the same gameplay space as the Warlock.”

Jeff: “But the Necromancer could have many pets – or guardians at once instead.”

Me: “True. But in the same vein, we could also just create a version of Warlock with multiple pets and maybe a lot of little summons.

It would hit the same notes and clash hard with their design space.”

TC: “What about Death Knight? It seems a clear fit for this expansion.

In fact, I can’t imagine another expansion where Death Knight fits better.”

Me: “Fair. However, they have always been aligned pretty damn evil – how you get them into the Alliance is a pretty tough question.

But again, still a cool class. Also, I question if we need another plate tank right now.”

TC: “Well, Tank is the most underserved role right now. There aren’t enough of them.”

Me: “The path I would take would be to encourage more classes to be tanking and handling monsters, but yeah, that makes sense.

Tanking is a hard job and it puts a lot of pressure and spotlight on one person. It’s hard.”

Jeff: “Well, thanks for your thoughts.”

Me: “Sure. I think DK and Necromancer fit the expansion, but I wouldn’t let the potential for an awesome game mechanic get passed up.

Put my vote down as Rune Master.”

A few weeks later, they called the team together for a few announcements.

First off, the new class was going to be “Death Knight” – it would be using a Rune-Based power system, raised ghouls as minions – and that new promoted Cory Stockton would be taking point on the new class.


Spawning was still rough work, though things got more interesting when A.A. came in and asked me to bring some specific POIs to life – a great topic for another blog post – but much of the work was still pretty mundane.

So it was a huge breath of fresh air when Cory Stockton came in to my office one morning to ask me for help.

Cory: “Blizzcon is coming up soon and I really want to Dazzle the players with some awesome abilities.”

Me: “Whoa!! That’s awesome.”

Cory: “Yeah! Anyways, I barely know the spell system and scripting is not my forte.

I’ve been playing around with stuff for a while, but I just can’t figure some stuff out.

Can you help me?”

Me: “Of course!!”

Cory: “Great. I already have some slashes and stuff. I just need you to make two abilities for me. “

Me: “Just… two?”

Cory: “Yeah! See there isn’t a lot of time to show off abilities in the reveal video, so I just want a couple done.

I already made a spell that spawns ghouls, so that’s done.”

Me: “Okay, that makes sense. What do you need?”

Cory: “Well, first off, we know we want the DK to be a caster tank.

However, taunting a caster sucks. They just stand there. You can’t reposition them.

So I want you to make a spell that teleports them to the Death Knight.”

Me: “Just… teleports them in front of you.”

Cory: “Yeah. If you have a problem with that, go talk to CK, he is working on a spell like that for Warlocks.”

Me: “Okay… what else?”

Cory: “Did you play Warcraft 3?”

Me: “I loved it.”

Cory: “I feel like we need Army of the Dead.”

Me: “Whoa! That’s awesome. Have you figured out what i will do yet?”

Cory: “Nah. For this I just want it to be nostalgic and super flashy.

Can you handle that?”

Me: “You got it.”

Sidebar: Death Knights and Warlocks

At this point, you might be wondering why I’m spending a whole post devoted to how Death Knights came to be.

The answer is because it was an important turning point in WoW class design.

As an AoE casting, pet summoning, ally resurrecting, evil class, Death Knight was a huge risk of making Warlock gameplay obsolete.

The Grip of Fear

Using the Dwarf Death Knight – the only model finished at the time – I set out to create a flashy, epic intro for Army of the Dead.

Using  the generally forgotten “SpellCastOmni” animations, I made the DK hold his arms up in the air.

Then using some techniques I’d learned while creating Nightbane, I made invisible missiles fire at the ground, each one summoning a skeleton.

This didn’t feel like enough; using the beam technology created by Dan Reed, one of my favorite programmers in this industry, I created arcs of lighting that struck the ground.

This was getting somewhere. I called in Cory.

Me: “Cory, I really like where this is going, but to do much more, it’s going to need some art.”

Cory: “Art? Don’t worry, I got you covered.”

Cory only said this to me three times in our career.

The result was the DK VFX, Destructible Buildings for Wintegrasp and the support needed to finish the visuals and quests for the Pet Battles feature of the game in MoP.

Needless to say, the result was great. Terrie Denman, a talented prop artist stepped up, made some new beam textures to match the undead purple eruptions.

The animation team upgrade all of the ghoul models into the game to dig themselves out of the ground when spawned and the programming team fixed a number of de-sync issues that causes ghouls to appear above ground for a for a frame on the client.

The result was fantastic.  Chilton came by while we were looking at it.

TC: “This is great…. but what does it DO?”

Me: “uhm….”

TC: “Cory?”

Cory: “Uh, well, it sends in a lot of minions. Maybe you can tank for them. Your own private army.”

TC: “…”

Cory: “…”

Me: “Maybe we just flip that one around backwards. What if we gave them 1 hp each – and then they taunt any monsters nearby. Kind of a Death Knight AoE taunt.”

TC: “Huh. That’s kind of crazy, but give it a try.”

Me: “Alright.”

TC: “… by the way, we *are* giving them Death Coil, right?”

Cory: “Of course!”

Me: “Wait, what?”

This had its own set of problems, which we resolved by renaming the Warlock spell, but that’s a story for another time.

I set my attention on figuring out the problem of the caster-taunt.

But first, I had to understand the nature of the new Warlock spells and why they were being made.


The conditions that constrained the ability to fix warlocks in Wrath of the Lich King marked a turning point in the original class design, where its complexity started to become overwhelming.

It served as a stark reminder that as new elements are introduced into a game, careful consideration must be given to the removal of existing elements to prevent overwhelming players’ mental capacity and maintain a balanced and enjoyable experience.

This helped me when creating my own designs from scratch.

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4 Responses

  1. Was Rune Master a completely fresh idea or is that somewhere mentioned before in Warcraft 1-3?

    And I’m glad they didn’t make Necromancer. The idea sounds cool but there is just no way a Necromancer can be “the good guy” – he’s summoning your rotten loved ones as mindless beings to fight for him.

    I think the idea of a Demonmaster is much more fitting for a player character.

  2. Thank you for writing these posts. I find them fascinating. As a Warlock I really appreciate the insight in to how things go on. I hope we may learn something through these posts that allow us to connect a little better with the current team.

    As a software engineer the tools you describe sound intriguing but I’m having a hard time getting my head around the structure at Blizzard. Was it the case that you had game designers who expected coders to implement their designs or were the coders expected to produce tools to allow designers to implement things themselves. It sounds like the latter though either way it seems a lot more rewarding than run of the mill line of business application development 🙂

    Thanks again


  3. Admittedly I rolled a warlock in vanilla because DK wasn’t available. I’ve always had a thing for the dark, creepy classes. Witch Doctor was even my first character in D3. ‘;..;’

    I grew attached to my warlock though, and when LK was announced I was excited and distressed about the DK class. I was fearful it would ‘take away’ or ‘distract from’ what I grew to really enjoy on my lock.

    And… oh God, Unholy DK tanking with a minion and with an AE fear glyphed to DnD was just waaaay too delicious. It really felt like a better, more refined version of what I enjoyed about my Siphon Life + Soul Link build I used so much through BC. Thoroughly enjoyable, but in no way a legitimate tank spec. Not like UH DK was.

    LK was in many ways a bitter joy. I saw warlock changes as being pulled between 2 things: the goal of ‘bring the player, not the class’, and amping DK hype. Both forgivable and reasonable.

    When each dps spec needed to bring comparable dps to the others, the nuance that defined the warlock specs had to be diluted. A demo lock who could almost legitimately tank AND bring heavy damage would be absurd. There was still some nice durability there, but LK made my demo lock feel like a mage with an oaf following him around. There was also a slight design push to reduce the choice conflict between bringing damage and utility for various classes, but I distinctly remember it not applying to warlock curses or minions (or rogue poisons, for that matter).

    Furthermore, you’re right on the money with DK fantasy elbowing in on warlock fantasy. Personally I like to think the dark, creepy, anti-’hero’ tent is a big one, and can accommodate many reprobates. I was never bothered by both lock and DK as having a spell named Deathcoil- I just figured they wove it slightly differently to accommodate for their own needs.

    For all the wonkiness that LK brought to my warlock, DK was being designed from the ground up and the thematics fit nicely into the new class philosophy. My DK had a durable, antagonizing minion, durability via plate, life leach, and dots combined with negative status ailments (attack speed reduction baked into Frost Fever made the choice between Curse of Agony vs Curse of Weakness feel inadequate).

    Almost everything I wanted for my demo lock was there in the DK class, except for the whimsical sense that warlock minions were hypothetically meant to fulfill utility niches. I knew that idea was more illusory than actual, but I hoped warlock design would get ironed out in the next expac, after the dust had settled from the ‘bring the player not the class’ philosophy shift.

    Still, in spite of all this, I did like metamorphosis. It was fun playing around with it and seeing how it granted enhanced spells instead of a flat damage bonus. I also remember thinking, “So Illidan took from Gul’dan, and then we took from Illidan. A fair bargain.” >:D

    Ah well :p

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[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

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