A deep dive into Maldraxxus, the defenders of Death

First impressions of Maldraxxus, like many of the Shadowlands, are highly deceptive. Maldraxxus is a harsh looking place, with menacing spires, towers of bones and pools of ichor and plague. The fields are barren, pock-marked and scarred by terrifying weapons and armoured feet marching across the area again and again in an endless battle. It looks like hell, a punishment for terrible actions in life.

But Maldraxxus serves a vital, noble purpose and not everyone here is bloodthirsty or terrible. The armies of Maldraxxus defend the many Shadowlands that make up the domain of Death, ensuring that no invading force, be it Void, Fel, Light or other, can lay claim. Steve Danuser, lead narrative designer for World of Warcraft, details the objective of Maldraxxus: “If you think of all of these different realms that we’re visiting in the expansion as being parts of this grand machinery of death, Maldraxxus is the defence mechanism, and sometimes to defend something you need to get a little more virulent and you need to get aggressive and so that nature of Maldraxxus where the inhabitants of it are always striving and being in conflict with one another, that allows the strongest to rise to the top and therefore the Shadowlands will have the strongest defenders. So, the nature of Maldraxxus is necessary for the job that it is supposed to do.”

“Maldraxxus was formed to create this infinite army to defend the Shadowlands against all kinds of threats. Now, what would those threats be? If you play through the Shadowlands story, you’ll encounter several situations where outside forces have made incursions into the Shadowlands. You see a place in Revendreth that seems touched by the Light. You see places within Bastion where there’s a memorial to an attack from the Void.”

To have the strongest defenders and the best possible fighting force, the leader of this realm, an Eternal One named the Primus, devised a system of great houses, barons and eternal war games that allowed this massive army to continually improve, weeding out weakness and shoring up vulnerabilities to succeed against other cosmic forces. The Primus has used his time to hone his tactical deduction and strategic thinking beyond mortal constraints, thanks to a little help. Danuser details his arduous training regimen: “It is said that the Primus sought out an ally who could show him the infinite timeways, which he used to watch the same battle play out over and over again across realities. He noted how the slightest differences in strategy and troop deployment could swing the conflict toward one side or the other. After eons of such meticulous study, the Primus can instantly assess any situation and devise the most likely path to victory.”

The Primus even had a part to play in imprisoning the Jailer after detecting hints of his scheme. “As you play through the storyline, you come to learn that the Primus began to suspect that there was something going on. You’ll see hints that he was involved in whatever happened with the Jailer’s imprisonment.”

Then the Primus left, leaving the various Margraves and barons to their own devices. “The Primus began to suspect and see some evidence that perhaps the Jailer’s influence was seeping out even though he was supposed to have been locked away all this time. And that leads the Primus to suspect that there may have been allies. And so his absence was about investigating that and trying to get to the bottom of it. The Primus has been gone for a while, though. So, it’s up to those who are left behind to guess and determine what his fate was and what impact that has on it.”

Without their tactical mastermind at the helm, the houses have become restless. The anima drought has strained all of the Shadowlands, but what happens when an army is left rudderless and without an enemy to strike? Now the houses have turned on each other, acts of betrayal and deceit adding to the tension. Some houses have even turned their eyes to other Shadowland realms, looking for a challenge, for anima and for fresh parts. This is the result of a machine that works really well turning and operating in the wrong place, a machine built without morality in mind, but an ultimate purpose.

“Maldraxxus benefits from any soul that has that natural drive and contention, whether it’s to better themselves or to overcome rivals. That can be for a good cause or it can be for a bad cause. Maldraxxus doesn’t really care about morality in that sense. Maldraxxus has a job to do, and it needs the best people around to do that and in some cases what was our monstrous people who’ve done bad things and in other cases, it can be very noble ones.”

I basically said, “What if Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer was an undead bull you could ride?” – Cole Eastburn 

While the Primus is gone, he didn’t just leave everything abandoned. Being a master strategist, he left messages and small boons to help. “As the storyline plays out in Maldraxxus, you get some messages that he left behind both as encouragement and trying to guide the heroes forward again, the Primus being this long thinker, this very strategic mind. He could conceive of a time when the Shadowlands would face a grave peril and he could conceive that perhaps it would take someone from the outside of the Shadowlands coming in to help set things right.”

“So he may have put things in place to help that person, whether it be hiding a runeblade inside a rock or leaving messages behind, the Primus left that trail of evidence for the players, the mortals that were coming into the Shadowlands, to help set things right. So, I think when you look at the storyline from a high level, you will see the genius of the Primus start playing out. And even though he’s not a character that’s present in the storyline, his impact, his influence is very much felt in Maldraxxus and the realms beyond.”

Harsh landscape and echoes of Icecrown

After the floating islands of Bastion, the towering gothic spires of Revendreth and the colossal trees of Ardenweald, Maldraxxus looks almost alien thanks to a lack of trees. Harsh, sharp mountain peaks are interspersed with squat towers made of bone and metal.

Gustav Schmidt, senior artist, describes this zone’s concept art: “As we were creating art for Maldraxxus, we were fascinated by the potential ecology of biological terrain. In this subzone, we wanted to explore some new takes on canopies, since Maldraxxus is not a place that would have traditional trees. It was also an opportunity to explore new types of fungal ecology that might emerge outside the war-torn areas.”

If the massive buildings and sharp mountains remind you of Icecrown, that is through intent. Danuser discusses going to the source of necromantic magic, and showing the higher form of what was seen in Icecrown.

“When you look at Maldraxxus there is a ton of echoes of that classic image of undeath that the scourge represented in Warcraft III and in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. There’s no question that there are visual and thematic ties there. We did want to play with some of those expectations as I’ve talked about where, when you get into Maldraxxus, you find that there’s much more going on than what first meets the eye, but we did want to revisit some of those classic themes that players loved so much in Wrath of the Lich King and Warcraft III and so forth to give them that kind of playground to venture into and frankly to see how our artists today could take some of those same themes and really dress them up with all the visual fidelity that WoW is now capable of delivering that it wasn’t able to in those days. So it was a great treat for us both from an artistic standpoint, and from a storytelling standpoint, to take some of these themes and infuse them into the modern game in a new way. So, when you look at Icecrown the zone, obviously it’s filled with all kinds of undead, many of which you see different versions of in Maldraxxus or different incarnations.

“Whereas in Icecrown in the zone, you saw some abominations, for example, that we’re kind of stitched together out of rotted flesh and kind of put together. And sometimes their parts were kinda leaking out and all this nasty stuff. In Maldraxxus you see the higher form of that, you see now, places like the House of Constructs where they take the finest pieces and assemble them into these big beefy creations that still recall those abominations, but you can see that they’re a much higher form of magic and much higher success rates on these creations in terms of their fierceness and the power that they possess.

“So, I think in all cases, you see something that’s familiar but now you see the higher form of it. Maldraxxus is really the place where necromancy as a force as we’ve seen it Azeroth was formed, where it was birthed.”

Senior artist Matthew McKeown also talks about Maldraxxus being the origin and pinnacle of necromantic magic, meaning the necromancers had to look grander and more menacing than anything before, while still being recognisable: “Maldraxxus, being the birthplace of necromantic magic, takes a lot of visual inspiration from Warcraft III’s Undead. The design started with pushing shapes to get a distinct silhouette, and I wanted to make sure to bring in some of the iconic imagery from the original necromancer with elements like the crossing daggers, big sleeves, and giant spellbook. These elements show their ritualistic nature and sorcery. This keeps them recognisable as necromancers that players know. As they reside along with the liches in the House of Rituals, they wear similar clothing with purple and gold, and their skulls have a similar shape with their long chins resembling pharaohs.”

It isn’t just Icecrown that served as inspiration for designs. Senior artist Kenny McBride explains the thinking behind their Slime Behemoth concept, along with a rather grisly potential fate. “While concepting ideas of doom, gloom, and necrotic, heroic horror for Maldraxxus, I often went to the roots of Warcraft for inspiration and some of my personal memories. Travelling through Undercity’s vile stream of green bile, sludging its way from quarter to quarter. Dancing through Heigan’s uproars of toxic slime in Naxxramas. What if the poor souls who were consumed by slime were then congealed into skeletal creatures, held together to create an ooze construct?”

When it comes to bigger and better than what we have seen on Azeroth, there is possibly no better example than the abomination margrave. This brutish amalgamation lies in wait in a spa. Mongsub Song, a senior concept artist, depicts how the abomination enjoys its time off. “. I was inspired by previous abominations players have come across in Azeroth, which are undead, ogre-like creatures with little intelligence, so in this interior shot, I wanted to depict a moment of him enjoying his spa and a dirty, dead, sludgy, gut bath right before an enemy arrives, as if nothing matters, no matter who might come. Skull props like the waterfall through the mouth indicate the way the abomination margrave spends his afterlife and his brutal, grotesque personality.”

Heavy metal

Several of the developers described Maldraxxus as their work to make a heavy metal band. Cole Eastburn, a senior concept artist mentions this when discussing his art of the Necrolord Covenant entrance: “I wanted an entrance that would intimidate and terrify the other covenants. Also, something that could easily go on a heavy metal album cover.”

Danuser also talks about the heavy metal inspiration when discussing how the name of the zone came about. “Well, there’s reasons for every name that we come up with, and some of them are deeply thought out and considered and there is something in the etymology of the name itself that can hint at something bigger. In the case of Maldraxxus though, I would say that that was one of the names I came up with, I believe, and I just wanted to go with something that recalled themes of the Scourge that we’ve heard before, you know, places like Naxxrammas, X is a big letter in terms of that kind of “scourgey” sound.

“And so we wanted something that recalls that. Mal is a word that usually hints at bad things or dangerous things. And so I wanted that sense of danger. But, you know people have picked up there’s a joke that Maldraxxus is the perfect heavy metal album cover location and really? We wanted it to sound like someone could scream MALDRAXXUS and have it be that kind of really metal aggressive sound. Because that’s that fits the theme of what’s going on there.”

The theme is present in the creatures of the world too, like this flyer. Artist Cody Harder describes bringing it to life: “Maldraxxus was such an awesome place to work on. The whole zone is like a Warcraft heavy metal album cover that came to life. I concepted this creature to fit right in with that aesthetic. I gave it a long dark mane, reminiscent of hair you might see on a metalhead. It has sharp bones jutting out of its skin to give it an extra-aggressive feel. It was important to me to have the bones represent a realistic underlying structure, rather than just sticking out in every direction. For example, birds have a very large and sharp sternum bone that I referenced for the spike on this creature’s underbelly.”

These bones are made for building

If you live in a place of war, with amazing necromancers and the finest abomination crafters in the cosmos, what do your weapons look like? When metal takes longer to work with than bone, crafters will switch things up to use the easier to work with materials that are in abundant supply. Artist Calvin Boice describes the thought process behind making this sword. “This sword was meant to be used by the gladiators, so I wanted to make it feel crude and aggressive. I sketched a few different blade shapes and, in the end, decided that instead of having a delicate, pointy tip I’d keep it squared off so that it would feel heavy and sturdy. I added bones near the handle to give it some more sharp shapes and visual interest. A lot of the weapons in Maldraxxus have green gems, but I opted to leave them out for this sword in order to keep the design simple. I think it’s fitting for a Maldraxxus gladiator to be swinging a sword that’s made entirely out of roughly hammered metal and bones.”

Senior artist Matthew McKeown describes the axe and shield in the above image, explaining how form and shape language are still apparent, even when using strange construction materials: “This axe and shield were the first pieces that defined the weaponry seen in Maldraxxus, particularly for the gladiators of the House of the Chosen. The idea that was settled on was to have metal plates with bone growing on top of and piercing through them. The more natural bone growths worked in contrast to the jagged and very roughly crafted metal, which is also harmonised with the organic texture of the metal itself. This design also gives the weapons and armour a big, simple primary shape while bringing in some intricacies from the shapes of the bones. You can especially see this with the shield. Overall, we wanted these to have a very aggressive, barbaric aesthetic that would go along with the gladiators of the zone, while maintaining its necromantic nature.”

The artists worked hard to make sure that things still felt familiar enough, even though they were exploring new concepts. Senior artist Jordan Powers discusses the challenges of designing props for Maldraxxus. “Maldraxxus presented some unique opportunities and challenges for us on the prop team as we had to weave strange, organic elements into traditional construction methods used by other cultures. Visual storytelling is very important to what we do, so we wanted to make these objects feel like they belong in an unfamiliar space yet still feel familiar to the player. Drawing inspiration from classic Warcraft III designs, we knew that we would be leaning heavily on bone as a primary framework for all made objects—Necrolords are masters of necromancy and undeath, after all! Soon thereafter, we began exploring other organic elements such as sinew, flesh, and corroded metal as accent materials to provide some variety in our designs until we hit that “sweet spot” of organic shapes fused with inorganic elements to achieve an awesome design. The final result is definitely something that is very unique and special, and I hope you enjoy the look of the props as much as my team and I have enjoyed crafting them!”

Danuser also talks about finding familiarity in a strange realm and how the team worried until the very first external playthroughs of the zone started. “Will the players be able to pick up on this? If they’re playing through this realm, that looks very aggressive. Can they care about these characters? Can they still have those same emotional investments in their wellbeing that is the hallmark of classic Warcraft storytelling and we had many debates as we were making the expansion of how far can we go with some of these things? Are we gonna be able to tell that kind of classic Warcraft story in these very different feeling places?”

Opening new doorways

The Afterlives shorts have showcased a variety of characters, from well-known pillars of the Warcraft franchise like Uther and Garrosh, to the completely new Ara’lon and Draka, who honestly many players will know very little about. So why was Draka chosen? Danuser discusses the choice.

“We knew that we had a vast number of characters to draw on who had passed beyond the veil and gone to the Shadowlands, so we didn’t have any shortage of possible characters. So we went through a process where we wanted some that felt like ‘oh, yeah it’s natural that this character would appear’. Someone Uther going to Bastion is a natural fit.

“Someone who had lived a life of service who had been at the forefront of the Warcraft III storyline and just really has carried on as this pillar of Azeroth. And someone that characters in the world still think about and relate to.”

“But we also wanted to choose some characters that didn’t seem like obvious fits that felt a little either off the beaten path or that would have to make you kind of think about it and kind of go through the mental exercise of figuring out how they would fit there and we wanted those characters to go through that same mental exercise.

“The Shadowlands is this very different place and so we talked about lots of different options and really settled on Draka as being someone who is interesting, who is integral to the through-line of the story of Warcraft going from Draenor to Azeroth, she’s a big part of that, but she also wasn’t someone that we had seen a ton about or had gotten to explore.”

“So she was a character that had the right ingredients for someone to go to Maldraxxus, but she also had some kind of blank slate characteristics about her that we could fill in through this storyline. So it was just a really interesting opportunity to take someone who had forged themselves, who started off facing challenges and became a great warrior to give her another chance to do the same thing in this afterlife that is all about strength and contention and proving yourself.”

Having Draka also allows for another big plot point. Thrall is in the Shadowlands, captured during the start of the Shadowlands storyline. Danuser talks about this reunion, when there is time for it. “We saw Thrall go to this alternate Draenor and we got to see him interact with versions of his parents, but they weren’t the same people. Right? They weren’t exactly the same. He got to pick up on a lot of their qualities and things like that. But there was probably still something within him where he knew that these weren’t actually the people who bore him, who lost the chance to raise him and so forth.”

“But this Draka that is in Shadowlands is that person as we saw in the Maldraxxus Afterlives short, she was the one who gave her life trying to defend that little baby. If we think of threads of fate bonding characters together, that those threads kind of transcend mortal life, then there is definitely a thread between Thrall and Draka that needs to be resolved there.”

“And that is definitely something that we plan for in the subsequent chapters of the Shadowlands. Right now, when you play through the storyline, obviously Thrall has been taken captive. He is in a bad place, we’ve got to resolve that. Draka has a lot going on in the Shadowlands that she needs to immediately resolve in terms of what’s going on in Maldraxxus. But there will definitely come a point where these paths are drawn back together, where they intersect. And I think that intersection will be a highly emotional moment for both of those characters, and for the players who witness it. So that’s definitely a story that we’re looking forward to telling.”

If it has the letters RPG in it, I am there. Still battling with balancing trying to play every single game that grabs my interest, getting 100% in a JRPG, and devoting time to my second home in Azeroth.

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