Before I continue, I should, once again, praise the music in Warcraft 3. The human theme perfectly captures how the Alliance sees itself: as a bastion of order, majesty and valor. Even if — as we know, and are about to see once again — it doesn’t always quite live up to these ideals.

Now, this is the moment we’ve been anticipating. One of the most memorable moments in the entire Warcraft franchise, and one of the major defining moments of the Warcraft 3 storyline, which is still debated from a moral perspective even today. I’m talking, of course, about…

The Culling

The Culling
Next morning? I’d like them to cross the distance between Hearthglen and Stratholme in a single morning in WoW geography. At lore-accurate scale, of course.

I haven’t had the chance to mention it before, but I appreciate how Warcraft 3 uses weather effects to set up the mood and atmosphere of a mission. The human campaign started bright and sunny, then shifted to muted colors as the undead entered the picture, and now in this mission, it’s rainy and foggy. Fittingly.

We start with probably the most famous in-game cutscene in all of Warcraft 3. Famous enough that it deserves to be watched in its full glory.

It was famous enough that Blizzard recreated it in WoW — but that version lacks the dynamism and gravitas of the original Warcraft 3 version with its camerawork. Famous enough that Blizzard advertised Reforged with a trailer of a remade cutscene that is not actually in the released game. Famous enough to inspire memes with Arthas and Uther’s roles flipped.

Our three heroes arrive on the outskirts of Stratholme1 and discover that they’re too late to stop the Scourge’s plan, the entire city has already been infected with the plagued grain from Andorhal. Arthas immediately decides that the only way to stop the rise of an undead army is to “purge” the city — which is a euphemism for killing every man, woman and child in Stratholme. Doesn’t sound as palatable when phrased like that. And he won’t entertain any opposition.

In one fell swoop, Arthas banishes Uther and the Silver Hand, alienates Jaina, and loses those of his soldiers who don’t wish to be part of the impending massacre. As his sanity is slipping, he’s lost the support of everyone who could have talked sense into him.

The Culling of Stratholme, the start of Arthas’s slide into darkness, is a heated topic that produces heated debates even now. If you’re going to debate in discussion threads whether Arthas made the right call, then please keep it civil. You know how it works.

Personally, I’m leaning towards “right, but for the wrong reasons”. Arthas was put in an intentional no-win scenario by schemers who knew both his strengths and his weaknesses. If Stratholme had simply been quarantined, the Scourge would have reaped its entire population as reinforcements and rampaged across Lordaeron. By purging the city, Arthas prevented this2, but at a great psychological cost to himself — which was exactly what the manipulators wanted.

The Culling
‘Massacre’ is such an ugly word. We call it ‘putting them out of their misery’.

Note what Arthas doesn’t do. He doesn’t stop to consider any alternative solutions. He doesn’t try to seek compromise. He immediately jumps to the conclusion that “purging” the city is the way to go, tries to order Uther — his close friend and trusted mentor — to do this dirty work, accuses him of treason, and issues ultimatums. He isn’t shown to be experiencing any kind of angst or remorse for what he’s about to do. Arthas may be strong, brave and valiant as a paladin should be, but he hasn’t displayed much compassion, patience, or moral judgment expected of one.

Arthas also isn’t exactly keen on another thing expected of a paladin: diplomacy. Uther tried to negotiate even with demon-worshiping orcs whom he had every reason to expect to fight to the death. It failed and cost the negotiators their lives, but he tried anyway. Arthas, at this critical moment concerning the fate of the very people he swore to protect, doesn’t even try to negotiate with his closest friends as they walk away in disgust. It’s his way or the highway.

The problem is not that Uther and Jaina didn’t suggest an alternate solution. Even if they had one, Arthas would have ignored them, because of course he was the hero savior of his people who knew best. The problem was that they didn’t stop him.

The Actual Mission

Previously, I mentioned how Warcraft 2 failed to portray the moral disparity between the factions because the gameplay limitations represented all quest objectives as military bases, be they peasant villages or invader fortresses in a foreign land. Warcraft 3 makes sure to let you feel the weight of the atrocity that you, controlling Arthas, are asked to commit.

The Culling
I’m not sure how whacking citizens with a hammer prevents Mal’Ganis from raising them into undeath anyway. Do a paladin’s holy melee attacks also bless the victim with immunity to undeath?

Your task here is not to defeat the undead. It’s to methodically destroy city houses and kill their inhabitants, block by block. The buildings aren’t hostile, and you have to attack them manually with the Attack command. After you destroy a house, four citizens come out, also not initially hostile. You have a few seconds to kill them while they’re still human (which is easier) before they turn into hostile zombies and you have to kill them anyway.

It’s dull. It’s repetitive. It’s not challenging. And that’s by design.

The Culling
…3 left. 2 left. 1 left. Determination.

Well, when I said it’s not challenging, I actually wasn’t entirely honest. The undead do attack your base occasionally, but it’s not hard to defend without interrupting Arthas’s killing spree. And after you kill your first plagued villager (or after 3 minutes if you tarry), the dreadlord Mal’Ganis appears and taunts Arthas.

The Culling
I’m sorry, I can’t hear you from across half the map!

He begins collecting zombies on his own to add them to his growing undead army. He doesn’t actually seem to be scripted to chase Arthas, so it’s possible to avoid him. You can’t defeat him for good, as he simply respawns in three minutes (90 seconds on hard) at his unreachable and invulnerable base, so killing 100 plagued villagers really is the only way to finish this mission. And he has an annoying ability to put enemies to sleep, including Arthas.

The Culling
Holy Li– yaaaawn…

The first time you encounter him, he only has a couple of ghouls, and Holy Light still damages dreadlords, even though they’re technically demons rather than undead. On subsequent appearances he brings along larger forces, including abominations, and even a couple of Mal’Ganis kills give Arthas enough of a head start that Mal’Ganis can’t hope to catch up.

When Arthas triumphs, Mal’Ganis issues him one last taunt before teleporting away.

The Culling
Brave Mal’Ganis ran away! Bravely ran away, away!

Note how these words ironically echo the Prophet’s statement about Thrall sailing to Kalimdor.

Now, go, young Thrall. Sail west to the lands of Kalimdor. It is there that you will find your destiny. It is there that your people’s salvation will be assured.

Arthas, mature and level-headed person that he is, reacts with “I’ll hunt you to the ends of the earth if I have to! Do you hear me? To the ends of the earth!” Now he’s far too obsessed with having vengeance against Mal’Ganis to even consider that he’s walking, or rather sailing, right into a trap.

Before we proceed with the story, I should mention that in Reforged, this mission was completely redesigned. It now has bosses, side objectives, and more secrets to find. While undoubtedly more fun to play, I’d argue this makes it miss the point of a mission that was supposed to feel like a repetitive and unchallenging slaughter-fest. But we’re not ready to talk about Reforged yet.

Divergent Courses

Divergent Courses
Yes, it’s another interlude.

Three days later, Jaina and Uther reconvene at the burning ruins of Stratholme, where skeletons litter the streets and the survivors warm themselves at campfires.

Divergent Courses
Wait, there are survivors? Arthas didn’t even finish the job?

Jaina says that Arthas visited her before he left, and she told him not to go, believing (correctly) that it was a trap. It’s a bit odd that we’re only told about this meeting instead of it being shown; I know I’d be curious what exact words were said. Perhaps the developers were worried about cutscene fatigue.

Uther finally resolves to do something about it. Better late than never, I suppose.

Divergent Courses
It was in the previous mission that Uther switched from ‘lad’ to ‘boy’, signaling his deteriorated relationship with Arthas.

As Uther leaves to appeal to the king, the Prophet shows himself again — this time to Jaina alone. The apparent victory over the Scourge at Stratholme was only a brief respite, and the only real hope for the world lies in… you guessed it, Kalimdor.

Divergent Courses
“And while you’re at it, burn these skeletons to ash so they can’t be raised.”

Jaina, being an intelligent and inquisitive mage, naturally takes this mysterious stranger’s word for it instead of asking questions about him, Kalimdor, or its significance in his plan to save the world. Or what exact shadow and flame the world needs saving from, for that matter.

Actually, here’s something that bothers me. So Jaina has decided to trust the Prophet and evacuate the people of Lordaeron. But on what authority? As far as we know, she holds no official rank. King Terenas refused to heed the Prophet’s warnings, and the Lordaeron military has no reason to follow Jaina’s orders. The only credentials she might have is possibly being the heir of Kul Tiras, depending on whether the position of Lord Admiral is hereditary and whether she has any older siblings. However, at this point, most of the population of Lordaeron probably doesn’t even know about the Scourge threat; all they would know would be that a foreign princess — and the lover of the butcher of Stratholme — is asking them to abandon their homes and their country and sail to a land that might not even exist, based on the vague ramblings of a wandering madman.

But even assuming she somehow gets the people to follow her, they still have to cross the Great Sea somehow. On what ships? Thrall just stole a bunch to transport the Horde. Arthas took a significant chunk of the Lordaeron fleet for his ill-advised expedition to Northrend. Jaina might be able to lean on some connections in Kul Tiras, but preparing an expedition of this scale takes time, and at some point her father is going to intervene. Does he know? Does he approve?

I’m not asking Blizzard to write a story dedicated solely to Jaina rallying the people and preparing to set sail for Kalimdor.3 I’m asking that they put some thought into what the characters are asked to do, and how they’re going to accomplish their objectives. In this case, just a couple additional lines between Jaina and the Prophet would have patched things up. Something like:

Jaina: I see wisdom in your words, but I’m a nobody. Who’s going to listen to me? Where will I even find the ships to make that journey?
The Prophet: You’re not a nobody, young sorceress. You’re the heir to the greatest naval power in the world. And you’re stronger and more capable than you know. Be persuasive, and the people will follow.

And that’s something I thought of in twenty seconds while writing this entry. I’m sure Blizzard’s paid writers could do better. The implausible situation would be acknowledged as implausible, and there would be the broadest outlines of possible explanations without bogging down the pacing in unnecessary details. For this kind of story, I think it would work well.

But let’s, for now, leave Uther and Jaina to their own devices, and follow Arthas to…

The Shores of Northrend

The Shores of Northrend
The maps of Northrend in-game and in the manual are full of points of interest that are never visited in the campaign. Someone’s been busy worldbuilding.

Arthas and his men have made landfall, with “only a few” ships missing. Arthas is completely unfazed by this, interrupting the Captain and not even bothering to search for the lost ships. He also doesn’t react to the Captain’s show of genuine care for him.

The Shores of Northrend
The cold never bothered him anyway.

All Arthas cares about now is the mission. Everything, and everyone, is expendable.

Northrend, as depicted in this campaign, is a barren, gloomy land, even this southeastern shore around Daggercap Bay.4 The mission starts with a short exploration segment, where we wander a maze of passages and trees, encountering frost wolves, living nerubians5, and ice trolls, a new variety of troll distinct from the forest and jungle trolls we’ve already seen. Trolls in Warcraft are like elves in the Forgotten Realms: put them in a new natural environment, and soon enough you’ll have a new type of trolls named after it.

The Shores of Northrend
“I could kill him with my eyes closed!”

Eventually, Arthas and his men come across…

The Shores of Northrend
I have this mental image of them stumbling upon a fully built mine with carts and piles of gold and just assuming it’s abandoned.

They are, however, ambushed by dwarven riflemen! They have a rudimentary base, with a keep and a badly damaged barracks and tower. Their leader is Muradin Bronzebeard, the middle of the three Bronzebeard brothers; his older brother Magni is the king of Ironforge, and his younger brother Brann is a famous explorer.6 Arthas and he know each other, and Muradin naturally assumes that Arthas has come at the head of a rescue expedition — whereas Arthas didn’t even know he was here.

The Shores of Northrend
Captain: “Don’t look in their direction, boys!”

Muradin is a mountain king hero — the kind of dwarf who was asked if he was an axe-dwarf or a hammer-dwarf, and his answer was “yes”. He’s a pure martial warrior, and boy does he excel at damage and crowd control. His starting abilities are Storm Bolt, making him throw his hammer at an enemy for massive damage and a short stun, and Thunder Clap, which damages enemies immediately around him and slows them down.

Narratively, Muradin’s purpose in the Northrend missions is to provide a foil to Arthas. He represents the player’s conscience, reacting to Arthas’s increasingly unhinged behavior the way a sane, morally decent person would. But he also does nothing to stop Arthas, and even gives him a new goal to be obsessed over, thus unintentionally hastening his downfall.

When the cutscene ends, we get control of a small base. However, there’s little point in developing it, as there’s a much more developed base in the northeastern corner. Muradin mentions that he and his dwarves were separated in a Scourge attack, and asks Arthas to rescue them.

I build a blacksmith to unlock riflemen and start massing them. The bulk of the enemy forces here is gargoyles, cheap but fast flying units, so we need a lot of anti-air here. Riflemen are the “boring, but practical” choice, capable of both defending the base and attacking while Arthas and Muradin make an excellent tanky frontliner duo.

The path to the dwarves is blocked by a purple undead base, but it has weak defenses and on normal difficulty can be leveled with the starting troops alone.

The Shores of Northrend
Sadly, Muradin’s Storm Bolt only works against organic units, not mechanical units or buildings.

The main dwarven base comes under our control, and we get a ton of buildings for free, including a Workshop — and with it, two new mechanical units, the gyrocopter and the steam tank. Gyrocopters are a new iteration of the Warcraft 2 flying machine; they’re still cheap and fragile, but now they can attack air units instead of being pure scouts. Steam tanks, on the other hand, are absolute powerhouses, the ultimate siege units. They move slowly, but their siege attacks deal increased damage to buildings (and reduced to units), and best of all, they’re durable and themselves have the fortified armor type like buildings, meaning that everything except other siege units deals reduced damage to them. A few steam tanks can tear the enemy base to shreds while its defenders are preoccupied with other units.

The Shores of Northrend
Ah yes, the reputable Wraithson family.

Or main objective is to destroy the main undead base, which is identified as “Mal’Ganis’s base”. However, Mal’Ganis is not actually there. It’s still very well-defended, with a lich hero, abominations and gargoyles and a ton of production buildings. On normal difficulty, often, the best defense is a good offense. In my first playthrough I struggled to defend and build up my two bases at once, but this time, after rescuing the dwarves, I just took everything I had at that point from both bases and immediately launched a brazen assault, while my two bases where pumping out extra riflemen, steam tanks, and mortar teams to join the fray.

While we’re assaulting this base, Muradin reaches level 6, unlocking his ultimate ability…

The Shores of Northrend

Well, the ability is called Avatar and it is a temporary power-up. It doesn’t do anything particularly spectacular, like Resurrection, but it makes him grow, turn white, and gives him really hefty combat bonuses, making him temporarily better at the things he already does well.

When the base is leveled, Arthas decides to establish his primary base at the site of the former undead one. Muradin tells him the reason he came here to the first place: to recover a runeblade called Frostmourne. Hmmmm…


It says “new base camp”, but the X is at the exact same spot.

The Captain and his men are busy at their new base, but suddenly a goblin zeppelin arrives, dropping this guy.

The glowing eyes are for style points.

The Emissary reuses the elven priest model, without the enormously long ears and eyebrows. However, for some reason the animators didn’t bother to remove the blue eye glow. Wrath of the Lich King and Reforged just outright retconned him into an elf.

At Uther’s request, King Terenas has recalled the expedition back to Lordaeron. The roads to the shore are held by undead, so the Captain decides to cut through the woods instead. This will take time.

When Arthas and Muradin returns, the Captain tells them the news, and Arthas doesn’t take it well at all, going absolutely livid that Uther had his troops recalled. To force them to stay here and fight Mal’Ganis, he arrives at a perfectly sane and rational decision: to burn down the ships.

Muradin has a very understandable reaction:

Also, should you really be announcing your plan within the Captain’s earshot?

Nonetheless, Muradin goes along with the plan. This is a timed exploration mission, and at the beginning, we control just Arthas, Muradin, and two mortar teams. Our objective is to go the long way round, fighting our way through the undead, and sink five ships before the peasants cut through the trees. (We’re supposed to “burn” them, but this just means hitting them with regular attacks until they’re destroyed.)

The gimmick of this mission is that we have almost no units at our disposal, but we do have income. Along the way, there are mercenary camps, where we can hire a variety of units like troll trappers and priests, ogres, and goblins. On hard difficulty, the food cap is 30, limiting how many mercenaries we can hire, but on normal, it’s generous enough that we can just hire everyone available.

Sure, blame Uther, not yourself for walking into an obvious trap.

And here comes our first wrinkle. The game recommends using Muradin’s Storm Bolt to sink the ships, but it doesn’t actually work. We just have to keep attacking them with regular ranged units. This means that if we lose all our ranged units, the mission becomes unwinnable: we don’t technically lose, but we can’t make progress, either.

Wouldn’t these ships have crews that would return fire? Or does Arthas “cull” them too?

This is the result of a bug introduced with The Frozen Throne. Originally, Storm Bolt could sink the ships. The expansion, however, either made mechanical units invulnerable to Storm Bolt, or the ships were previously flagged as organic units specifically so that Storm Bolt could destroy them, and then a developer mistakenly made them mechanical, not realizing that it would cripple this mission’s design. Reforged fixed it and made the ships vulnerable to Storm Bolt again, but I’m playing the classic version.

We continue through until we find our way blocked by trees, which can only be removed with the mortar teams’ ground attacks. This teaches the player that siege units can attack the ground and destroy trees.

Can’t they squeeze through? Well… probably not the ogres.

In case you lost your starting mortar teams, there’s another way. Just north of this patch of forest is a goblin laboratory where sappers can be hired. Hilariously, unlike every other neutral building in the game, this laboratory can be destroyed, which is yet another way to make the mission unwinnable.7

The next obstacle is a gauntlet of eight untargetable spirit towers on the sides of a narrow passage:

It’s kind of weird to see these heavy fortifications guarding this one spot with nothing of value.

This is kind of a puzzle. You can brute-force your way through, likely losing your squishier units, but you can also take another approach. Nearby is a Goblin Merchant that has two Amulets of Recall for sale, each of them allowing to teleport twelve units to the hero’s location. The best solution here is to run Arthas alone through the gauntlet, with his Divine Shield blocking the hits, then teleport the rest of the army to him.

After all five ships are destroyed, the peasants back at Arthas’s base finally cut through the forest, only to find a surprise awaiting them at the shore.


With nary a second thought, Arthas frames the mercenaries, claiming they were the ones who burned the ships. His men promptly cut them down. Now there’s no way home for them, save through victory.

…But how are they going to get home if they are victorious?


Draktharon Keep doesn’t actually appear in the mission.

Muradin is concerned. Arthas lied to his men and betrayed the mercenaries who fought for him.

But Arthas still persists. Even with the base completely surrounded, there’s one hope left. Arthas asks Muradin to help him claim Frostmourne.

Just be glad you weren’t there when he killed the younglings at the Jedi Temple. Wait…

Sure, it’s a long shot and Arthas just keeps sinking lower and lower. But he’s the protagonist, right? He’s doing what he must to defeat the big bad guy, right? And so it will probably all work out in the end, right?


The beginning of this mission requires some parallel processing. Our base gets periodically attacked, with no heroes to defend it. Meanwhile, Arthas and Muradin are in a disconnected tunnel with a limited squad.8 We also start near the top limit of low upkeep, and it’s best to stay at low upkeep for now, so I don’t build many units at the base and instead pour all my gold into upgrades while the heroes are making their way through creeps.

At the end of the disconnected side path is this guy, a powerful undead revenant.

The Avatar versus the Guardian, as was foretold.

“Still trying to protect the sword, are you?”

“No.. trying to protect you… from it”, says the Guardian ominously before he dies. Re-dies? Finds eternal rest.

Arthas and Muradin make it to Frostmourne’s chamber, but something’s not quite right.

Also, the sword is really evil-looking with a skull on it. Arthas, are we the baddies?

But Arthas still doesn’t stop, ignoring each and every opportunity to turn back. After all, if he walks away now, all those deaths were in vain. He burned the ships in vain. He lied to his men in vain. And Stratholme will still go unavenged.

He calls to the spirits of this place, saying he’ll pay any price to save his people. Frostmourne shoots upwards from its pedestal, and a shard of its icy casing hits Muradin.

Oh, bother.

In mission one, Arthas was willing to help random villagers he just met, rescuing a child from gnolls, returning a farmer’s stolen ledger, and reassuring the citizens of Strahnbrad that the orcs’ prisoners will be found and brought back home safely. In mission nine, he sees his friend struck unconscious and doesn’t react at all. He isn’t shocked. He doesn’t rush to help. He doesn’t plead to the Light to save Muradin’s life. He doesn’t even bother to find out if Muradin is still breathing.

He’s only interested in his shiny new toy.

Ooh, a cool uber-sword! Look at it stats, baby!

Arthas returns to his base and tells the Captain that Muradin is dead. Ominously, none of his forces return with him, even if you did have some units left alive when the Frostmourne cutscene triggered. Arthas returns completely alone.

Now is the time to attack Mal’Ganis’s base and kill him once and for all. I take almost all units at the base — a little of everything, — leaving just a token force to defend against the purple player. To replace the lost units, I pop gryphon riders, the Alliance’s ultimate flying unit that we’ve unlocked in this mission. They’re fairly strong and durable and can fly to the assault front in a straight line.

Not only do we have siege units with us, but the assault is led by a turbo-charged Arthas with Frostmourne, who now deals Chaos damage — a special damage type that deals 100% to everything, including buildings and heroes.

Since we’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Arthas finally confronts Mal’Ganis. He hears only the voice of Frostmourne now.

So it was a trap.

This would be the moment where the hero defeats the villain, returns home and lives happily ever after. But everything is turned on his head. This entire scenario was engineered by the Dark Lord of the Dead from the start. He set this up so Arthas would have to sacrifice his friends to claim Frostmourne, and now the sword speaks to him — or rather, the Dark Lord speaks to him through the sword, and Arthas obeys. Just like it was supposed to be. Now Arthas not a hero, but a pawn for the real villain.

The only thing Mal’Ganis didn’t expect was that he would be next on the chopping block.

Remember, the dreadlords aren’t the Lich King’s friends. They’re his jailers, reporting to Kil’jaeden. Evil isn’t one big happy family, and Ner’zhul would gladly get rid of his demon overseers when he has the chance. And now he does have the opportunity to remove one dreadlord from the equation with plausible deniability — and also give Arthas a sense of accomplishment, satisfy his thirst for vengeance, and cement his loyalty.

So to Mal’Ganis’s astonishment, the Dark Lord tells Arthas to strike him down.

It’s a bit odd that such a pivotal moment is told entirely through text.

Ending Cinematic

Eventually Arthas does return home in triumph, and is welcomed with fanfare. And then, in one decisive strike, he takes it all away.

He really is drunk on the Dark Side now. His armor has skulls on it, his face and hair are dessicated, his voice is raspy, and a flower petal wilts in his hand. Nobody notices this until it is too late. He assassinates his father, a defenseless old man on his throne. He has turned from a paladin into an antithesis of one, and rather than saving Lordaeron from the Scourge, he has become an instrument of the Scourge’s conquest.

We’re not parting with him just yet.

Final Thoughts

Warcraft 3 is a beloved game, and Arthas is one of the most popular and memorable characters in the entire franchise. And it’s not hard to see why.

The campaign begins with a bog standard fantasy setup: the valiant hero, his love interest, and his wise old mentor. But Arthas is flawed from the start. A little too brash. A little too impatient. A little too uninterested in negotiations, in gathering intel, in assessing the situation, in planning ahead instead of charging in.

We follow all the standard beats of a save-the-world story. A confrontation with the henchman of the big bad guy. An early confrontation with the big bad guy that strengthens the protagonist’s resolve. An enchanted sword that can only be claimed by those who overcome the trials. This may indeed have been how Arthas saw this scenario in his head, a golden path that his destiny laid for him. But it all wrong, set up by the Lich King to superficially resemble a hero’s journey, and Arthas kept making wrong decisions. He executed Kel’Thuzad on the spot instead of trying to capture him and learning more about the Scourge’s plans. He was far too eager to purge Stratholme, alienated his friends, and didn’t try to reason with them. He sailed into an obvious trap, and once he did, he fell to the sunk cost fallacy, committing one atrocity after another because if he stopped and went back, the atrocities already committed would have been committed in vain.

Arthas is not just a deconstruction of the standard fantasy hero. He’s also a deconstruction of the very idea behind World of Warcraft’s more cookie-cutter plots: that everything can be solved with heroic determination and fighting spirit, that you just have to find the right bad guy to punch, and that any artifacts you find along the way are just means to an end to enable your eventual triumph.

Sometimes, the right solution means admitting you don’t know everything, exercising caution, gathering information and strategizing. Sometimes, blindly charging in and punching the apparent biggest baddest guy around is exactly what the real bad guys want you to do, and you end up playing right into their hands. And sometimes, heroic determination just ruins everything faster.

And I have a confession to make. When I played Warcraft 3 at release, at the tender age of 15, all this was lost to me. I just assumed that since humans are supposed to be the “good guys” of Warcraft, and since Arthas was the protagonist of this campaign, then all his deeds would be vindicated somehow. Sure, Uther and Jaina and then Muradin disapproved, but he was just a hard man making hard decisions, right?

Back then, the ending took me completely by shock.

This is the brilliance of the Scourge of Lordaeron campaign. It takes protagonist-centered morality and tears it to shreds, making you, the player, realize that you were just blindly doing what the game told you to do. Kill this old necromancer where he stands, would you kindly? Massacre a city full of innocent civilians, would you kindly? Destroy your own army’s ships, would you kindly? Claim a cursed sword, would you kindly?

And the end result is not salvation for the kingdom that would prove Arthas right and justify all the horrible things he did. The end result is the real mastermind behind the Scourge claiming Arthas for himself, and through that, sealing Lordaeron’s doom.

Next up: the undead campaign!

  1. You may remember Stratholme from Warcraft 2 as an Alliance port and oil production center. None of this is mentioned here, and in fact the city is depicted as landlocked in the original Warcraft 3, but has a harbor in Reforged. 

  2. For now. 

  3. Although that’d be cool. 

  4. Known in Wrath of the Lich King as the Howling Fjord, and depicted as far more hospitable. 

  5. Nerubians, as we remember from the manual, are a race of underground spider people that the Lich King conquered, raised into undeath, and adopted their architecture for the Scourge. These ones are living, though; the last remnants of a once-great civilization. 

  6. You can learn this via Muradin’s “pissed” quotes — Easter egg quotes that every unit has if you click on it enough. 

  7. This was fixed in Reforged. 

  8. And to ensure that you can’t bring in reinforcements or get the heroes back to the base, all Scrolls of Town Portal and Amulets of Recall that Arthas and Muradin might have kept are removed from their inventories when this mission begins.