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World of Warcraft: Shadowlands - Returning Player Guide To Shadowlands' Biggest Changes

Robin Baird Posted:
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This guide is intended to help players who used to play World of Warcraft but have been out of the game for a while and have now returned after the 9.0 Shadowlands pre-patch. There will also be a new player guide, which we will link to once it’s posted.

Squish! And Creating New Characters

World of Warcraft Shadowlands

One of the first things you’ll notice once you log onto your account again is every single character you had is now at a lower level than they were before, in some cases, a much lower level. As an example, at the end of the BfA expansion, max level characters were level 120. Those characters have all been squished down to level 50. After Shadowlands goes live, the max level will become 60 again. Along with the squish, there have also been a ton of other changes as well.

Additionally, Professions were changed in BfA as well. Now you don’t have to level a profession through all the old content to get to the current recipes. Now you can visit the profession trainer and pick which expansion’s training you’d like to receive and work on those recipes. This simplifies the whole process and lowers the bar for deciding to switch professions or switch characters. Of course, you can go back and learn the old recipes, but it isn’t a requirement.

When you create a new character, you’ll notice two columns of races for both Horde and the Alliance. The far right and far left column for each faction have all of the base races which can be selected. Since old expansions are rolled into the base game, you should have access to all of those if you have an active subscription. The two inner rows are Allied Races. These are races that are unlocked through playing through questlines from their associated expansions. If you mouse over each one, you’ll see a short list of what you need to complete to unlock them. Previously there was a reputation requirement for each of these as well, but that has been removed.

All of the base races have received a ton of new options and customizations. Every set of options, which can be scrolled through with the arrows, also have dropdown menus. These dropdowns are very useful for comparing different options against each other without scrolling through all the options. Also, on the top right of the customization screen, most races have a whole host of new options and customizations. For example, Orcs can have war paint, and Nightelves can have leaves in their hair. It might be a bit hard to decide at first for anyone who gets overwhelmed by having lots of options. On the upside, all of these customizations can be altered after character creation at the barbershop. Additionally, Druids can even change how their forms look in the barbershop, and it won’t affect how the humanoid version of their character looks.

The New Leveling Experience

World of Warcraft Shadowlands

Since we are down to 50 as the max level, with Shadowlands taking us to 60, the entire leveling experience had to be completely redesigned. In addition to reducing the time it takes to level, the revamp also works to give a more coherent storyline to the leveling experience. The initial leveling path is Exile’s Reach, then BfA content, and then finally onto Shadowlands. However, as a returning player, you have some more options available to you.

Original Starter Zones vs. Exile’s Reach

Suppose you already have a character who has played through Exile’s Reach and done the intro to the BfA story, or a max level character who has played through BfA. In that case, when you start a new character, you’ll have a choice of either Exile’s Reach or the old starting zones which existed before the squish.

Exile’s Reach is a streamlined leveling zone that takes players through levels 1-10 and serves as a solid introduction to WoW and their class. Playing through this zone takes about an hour, maybe two, if you wander and poke at everything, so it isn’t laborious. The storyline is also such that it’ll be cohesive. Even multiple expansions down the road, it’ll still make sense. I highly recommend it, especially if you are playing a class you’ve never played before. Exile’s Reach ends with a mini-dungeon where players, along with NPCs, have a climactic fight to escape from the island they’ve been marooned. Players don’t have to group on this; since the NPCs help, it can be completed solo. However, you will be automatically matched with other players if they are also at that point in the zone.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands

The original starting zones for each race are comparable to Exile’s Reach, and although a few of them are a bit longer, they are worth experiencing, especially if you haven’t played through them before. The one major downside of the Exile’s Reach is although it does an excellent job of setting up how you fit into your faction and how your class works, but it doesn’t give much of a set-up to who your people are and what traditions you are coming from. There is a brief cinematic when you arrive in Stormwind/Orgrimmar for the first time, but it only hints at your people’s history and story. Anytime you’re playing a race you haven’t played before, it is a good idea to do the original starting area.

It pretty much boils down to a choice between expediency (Exile’s Reach) or a more in-depth story that gives more background (original starting areas). The other significant difference is while Exile’s Reach story will easily fit at any point in time, the starting areas do not. Two notable examples of how the story might be a bit jarring after you leave the starting zone, for Nightelves, Teldrassil still exists, and the Troll starting area always refers to Vol’ jin as Warchief.

One other point about doing Exile’s Reach is that it doesn’t really make much of a difference for most classes, but it does make a difference for Hunter’s. As a Hunter, you will get your first and second pet on the island if you level there. Options initially are Coastal Goat, Sharpbeak Hawk, Wandering Boar, Prickly Porcupine, and a Coastal Albatross. Later in the questline there the Plains Doe/Stag and Hungry Vulture also are available. If your starting pets matter to you, you’ll probably want to carefully consider which zone to do.

Chromie Time

World of Warcraft Shadowlands

After completing either Exile’s Reach or your race’s starter area, you’ll find yourself in either Stormwind or Orgrimmar and offered a tour of the city. The tour is excellent if you haven’t played in quite a while and will help reacquaint you with some finer points in WoW. However, as a returning player, you have the option to skip the tour and, rather than level through the BfA storyline, pick any of the previous expansions to quest from level 10 – 50. Or mix and match any of them if you don’t want to see one whole complete storyline. Just look for an hourglass on your map to mark where Chromie is. It’s also worth mentioning if you decide to do the city tour, you will also have to go into BfA and do the intro questline before you can go back and talk to Chromie. Either way, visit your class trainer before leaving the city and pick a spec!

The options for alternate leveling 10 – 50 are The Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, Mist of Pandaria, Warlords of Draenor, and Legion. All of the old “vanilla” content also falls under Cataclysm’s banner because that’s when the entire world was remade. As such, Cata offers the greatest amount of content for leveling. Upon selecting your preferred expansion, it will kick off the intro events for that expansion, and you’ll be on your way. Everything will be scaled to your level while in Chromie time. This offers players the first chance they’ve had to experience expansion content as it was when it first launched.

Additionally, players aren’t locked into whatever they select with Chromie. You can go back to her at any time and change what you are doing. This allows complete freedom for players to decide how they level. If you happen to hit level 50 before you finish an expansions’ content, you’ll also have the option to stay in Chromie time to finish what you are doing. However, at that point, you won’t be gaining any XP anymore, and once you leave Chromie time, you won’t be able to go back.

Heirloom Gear

World of Warcraft Shadowlands

Depending on how long ago you stopped playing, you might not be aware of the collections tab, which houses all of our pets, mounts, toys, transmog skins, and heirlooms. The collections can be accessed from the microbar, and by simply clicking the correct tab, you have access to any heirloom you have unlocked—no need to send them from character to character.

Since leveling has been streamlined and it takes nowhere near as long to level a character, heirlooms had to be adjusted. As such, the XP bonuses have been removed from heirlooms, and new bonuses have been added instead. Although the main point of heirlooms was the XP buffs, they are still very worthwhile on multiple fronts throughout leveling. They even help with XP in that they reduce how quickly rested XP is consumed, which helps keep players earning extra for longer. The other bonuses are also a good quality of life improvement for leveling.


All the new leveling changes have come together to provide returning players and existing players more options than they have ever had before. There’s still some balancing going on with experience given in various expansions, but currently, the fastest leveling seems to be Exile’s Reach and then head to WoD. However, especially since we don’t have a launch date for Shadowlands yet, there’s no real rush other than for the sake of rushing. So this is a perfect time to sit back and enjoy some of the old expansions' storylines.


Robin Baird

Robin loves RPGs, MMOs, JRPGs, Action, and Adventure games... also puzzle games... and platformers... and exploration games... there are very few games she isn't interested in. When it comes to MMOs she focuses on WoW and GW2 but will pick-up other games as they catch her fancy. She's a habitual returner to FFXIV because that game is an all-around great MMO.