I'm glad Teldrassil burned. Here's why.
This past week, there’s been a flurry of debate and discussion—forum posts, thinkpieces, and heated chats—over the burning of the world tree Teldrassil during the lead up to Battle for Azeroth, World of Warcraft’s newest expansion.
Alliance players were distraught at the loss of a beloved landmark. Horde players were upset that, yet again, their faction was vilified.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about the event and my participation in it. But a fervent little part of me feels that the Alliance, and especially the night elves, deserved to see their beloved tree burn to the ground.
I actually used to like elves just fine before the release of WoW in 2004. Some of my best friends played elves in Dungeons and Dragons, and I played elven characters in Gauntlet, the Dungeons and Dragons arcade games and Baldur’s Gate—though, admittedly, my main character was always a gnome. In my teenage years, The Lord of the Rings was adapted to the big screen—you can’t tell me that didn’t make elves look awesome.
Even as far back as Warcraft 3, I thought the night elves were unbelievably cool and I tried to master their playstyle in multiplayer matches. What’s not to like about an ancient race of badass archers and shapeshifting mystics?
When World of Warcraft launched, the selection of dwarves, gnomes and night elves had me strongly leaning toward the Alliance, but a friend convinced me to join the Horde. My spiky-haired undead mage eventually journeyed from Tirisfal Glades to the peaks of Blackrock Spire and depths of the Molten Core.
My mage’s first twenty levels were pretty smooth sailing. But by the time I hit the mid-game, trying to grind through the 20s to level 60, friction with the Alliance had become commonplace. Horde players were outnumbered 2-to-1 on our server, well before cross-realm zones were implemented to keep things balanced. I can remember the dozens of times I bailed out guildmates or defended towns under attack by the opposing faction. And that’s not to mention the times I simply wandered in the wrong area while flagged for PvP and was met with a swift death by an Alliance blade.
Most of those blades belonged to night elves.
Night elves, with names like “Xslayer” and “Drizzzzt” and “Sxkitten” and “Darknynja.” Night elves who could turn invisible even if they weren’t a rogue, frustrating attempts to catch them. Night elves decked in the most expensive gear, even if it wasn’t really intended for their class. Night elves who would spit on me and dance like pop stars over my corpse. Night elves who would tumble gleefully through the air as they chased me down to sink their blades in my back yet again.
There were humans, too: paladins who would annoy me to no end before turning invulnerable and teleporting away with a sliver of health; mages who always managed to be better-equipped than myself. Dwarves and gnomes were comparably rare. But more than anyone, the architects of my torment were those damned elves.
The crown jewel of insults was the home of the night elves, Darnassus. Tucked away atop the world tree Teldrassil, it was visually gorgeous, clearly one of the more detailed and refined cities in the game. It was also remote, well-defended, and too far for Horde players to reach (much less invade). Compared to the drab and porous Horde cities I frequented, Teldrassil felt like a metaphor, an in-game illustration of just how much Blizzard loved the Alliance and the night elves in particular.
Inter-faction conflict was arguably at its height in pre-expansion WoW, with many Horde and Alliance players spewing venom about their in-game rivals. On my server, this manifested as a shocking amount of conflict for an ostensibly “player-versus-environment server.” Feeling overwhelmed by the Alliance and its endless legions of elves, Horde players struck back however we could. We rallied defenders against the constant Alliance incursions. We even set out (successfully!) to kill the Alliance’s leadership—well before there was any reward for doing so. Personally, in PvP I tried to strike down night elves more than any other race, which was an attempt to punish the most favored of the favored sons.
As details of The Burning Crusade expansion came to light, there was considerable anguish among the Horde. We were getting paladins, sure, but we had to hand over shamans—a class long considered our only edge in PvP—to the Alliance. More than that, the Horde’s new blood elves were, well, elves. A friend who played the beta sourly told me that they were “Barbie dolls,” and described their capital city as “Candyland.” I, among others, openly lamented the fact that a “pretty” race was being added to the faction, and earnestly hoped that they’d be traded for the slightly-more-monstrous draenei.
The landscape has changed a lot since then. Blood elves drastically grew the Horde’s population to nearly that of the Alliance. New classes and races have been brought to the game (including my personal favorites, the goblins). And now it’s safe to say that there’s little to no quality disparity between the factions and their zones. I leveled a tauren paladin to 110, and I even have a nightborne rogue—an elven race with models and animations almost identical to the night elves. (Although, to date, I haven’t played an Alliance character past level 14.)
But memories of vanilla still loom over die-hard Horde loyalists years later. Memories that make us quick to leap on perceived injustices. In Mists of Pandaria, the Horde’s leader, Garrosh Hellscream, was turned into the expansion’s big baddie: a raid boss and enemy to every player, which left Horde loyalists feeling like lazy writing turned them into the villains. Those same feelings echo today, as Blizzard repurposed Sylvanas Windrunner, the current warchief, into another villain of convenience. The latest pre-expansion chapter just came out, resulting in the destruction of the Horde’s Undercity. Even so, Sylvanas’s motivations remain as murky as they are mustache-twirling.
To this day, thanks to my time in World of Warcraft, I still mildly dislike elves in most forms of media. Though the feelings have certainly fallen off over time, they remain, and I’m left at odds with most of the responses to the burning of Teldrassil. Yes, it’s seemingly more lazy writing that, at best, turns the Horde into the “Bad Guys.” At worst, the writing makes otherwise unsuspecting players complicit in an in-game atrocity. Yes, it’s a sad note for Alliance players who spent hours if not days in that gleaming city atop the world.
But at least one spiky-haired undead mage was laughing, savoring the schadenfreude as Teldrassil burned to ash.