If there is a ground zero for my lifelong obsession with loot, it is undoubtedly the cuckolding sessions of the Stormwind town square in the early days of World of Warcraft. The strong, virile raiders returned from the hunt, decked in treasures a country mile removed from the template junk I was pulling off of murlocs and gnolls. I wanted to be like them. I too wanted to experience the innate self-confidence of astronomical numbers and set bonuses, even if it meant getting a D in chemistry.
For 14 years Blizzard has been dutifully polishing sparkling, top-tier armor sets for each of the game’s 12 classes, seductively inserted into the loot tables of the latest and greatest baddies. The tradition began all the way back in Tier One, in which guilds hunted down legends like Ragnaros, Onyxia, and Nefarian to complete the set. We’re on Tier 20 now. The jealous torment of Azeroth’s newbies will never end.
What made these armor sets special was the tender love and care the Blizzard art team put into their design. That touch made them feel truly special. Yes, sure, hardcore players probably wouldn’t have cared if they looked dumb as long as the stats were suitably high, but World of Warcraft understood the tried-and-true RPG glory of playing to our secret diva fantasies. We may want a high crit-rate, but we also must vamp.
With that in mind, here are eight of our favorite sets from the history of Warcraft lifespan. Don’t worry, we tried to keep the Tier Two mentions to a minimum.
The lore states that Warlocks are a clan of demon-worshipping weirdos sneaking around the backroads of Azeroth. They’re welcomed into the world as a necessary evil, rather than an appreciated dinner guest. So it’s good that Blizzard leaned all the way into the class fantasy for the Tier Five set back in the Burning Crusade era. Two infernal red globes fixed upon your biceps, with jagged black spikes towering above your head. The pièce de résistance, is, of course, the skulls impaled on those spikes. If you want an easy way to show people what you’re into, try working some skulls into your wardrobe.
I like Wrath because it was the first time I realized that World of Warcraft was dumb. Blizzard’s polyfantasy excess always skewed silly, sure, but it was when I watched the Warriors in our guild walk out of Onyxia’s Lair with a literal guillotine strapped to their head that I realized that this game was taking the piss. I have never loved something so stupid, and I have never felt apologetic about it, either.
Generally, Blizzard’s art team sticks to a few basic rules when they’re designing the armaments of Azeroth. For the most part, the chainmail you throw over your shoulders manifests itself as a static amalgamation of textures airbrushed onto a boilerplate NPC. This is efficient; it’d be exacting and cruel to expect Blizzard to give every item of loot in its vast inventory a distinct character. That being said, it is kind of rewarding when they break their own rules. There’s no better example than the Frost Witch regalia, where a pair of translucent ghost wings would spring from your shoulderpads every once in awhile. Frankly, it’s difficult to come up with a more effective way to tell the world that you’re hot shit.
People tend to prefer the early days of World of Warcraft when they reflect on the game’s gear design. This isn’t that surprising—it’s hard to think of any other game on the planet that summons a greater wealth of nostalgia in the global community of PC gamers, but we shouldn’t leave Blizzard’s later work out in the cold. Tier 20, released alongside the Legion expansion’s final raid, is some of the best work the company has done in years. I’m partial to the Warrior set, Titanic Onslaught; a phalanx of thick, scary molten green steel, covering every inch of your body. Perfect for any adventurer cutting their way to Sargeras’ throne.
One of my favorite things about World of Warcraft armor sets are the subtle flourishes the art team drops in to distinguish it from the standard machine-generated stuff you’re pulling off of run-of-the-mill mobs. This is extremely apparent in the Frost Witch set I wrote about above, but Priest’s Absolution also does this super well, with the oozy blue glow drifting off its hood and robe. The showstopper, of course, are the shoulderpads—where marble seraphs are blinded by a few sinister chains. Priests always walked the straight and narrow in Azeroth, this was the first time Blizzard payed homage to the shadow specs in our ranks.
What is a Rogue? A Rogue is the shadow in the corner of the tavern with a scarlet cowl pulled over their face that makes their eyes glow red. World of Warcraft is a world of spellcasters, priests, gods, and godslayers. But still, Blizzard still found a way to make the skulking, low-fantasy disciples feel special with the Bloodfang set.
Blizzard really bent over backwards to introduce the macabre fantasy of the Death Knight to the public. Really, how are you going to justify the Lich King’s cauterized undead soldiers as a force for good? A decade later, those questions are still not answered in a particularly satisfying way, but who cares when the armor looks this good? Conqueror’s Darkrune is the all-timer: released in the middle of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, you could outfit your coldblooded psychopath with devil horns and a pair of tortured souls on your shoulders. Subverting the canon has never looked so good!
This is the set that got me into raiding. I was a young Dwarf Paladin running around Azeroth in vanilla World of Warcraft dressed in ugly, palette-swapped armaments copped from the corpses of negligible trolls, wolves, and zombies along the way. Then I’d teleport back to Ironforge, walk towards the auction house, and be welcomed by a brigade of level-60 highborn knights, dressed head to toe in scintillating gold, red, and black, with ridiculous goalie masks over their heads that somehow made their eyes glow white. “Oh,” you’d say. “So this is how the one percent lives.”
Judgment remains the most famous armor set ever implemented into a Blizzard game, so much so that it was immortalized as a skin for Uther the Lightbringer in Heroes of the Storm. It’s not hard to see why either: the outrageous regality and martian contours are textbook Warcraft. Some Paladins fight for truth and justice, some Paladins dress like Darth Vader and board crystal-powered spaceships. Nothing in the game has ever looked more effortlessly badass, and frankly, that’s the only barometer we’re supposed to judge video game armor on.
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