For the first time since the release of World of Warcraft in 2004, Shadowlands will involve a level reduction ("level squish"), with player characters at level 120 (the level cap in Battle for Azeroth) reduced to level 50, with level 60 being the new level cap (as it had been in the original game). In what Blizzard has called a "New Game+ experience", newly-created characters will have an updated starting experience on an island called "Exile's Reach", which will introduce them to the game and its systems. For players new to World of Warcraft, characters who finish the starting experience on Exile's Reach will proceed to Battle for Azeroth content, while veteran players who create new characters can choose the expansion experience they wish to play through to level 50, at which point they would proceed to the Shadowlands.
Sylvanas Windrunner, fallen leader of the Horde, has pierced the veil between Azeroth and the realm of the dead, setting in motion a series of events that threatens to upset the cosmic balance between life and death. World of Warcraft players entering the fabled Shadowlands will find the realms of the dead in upheaval. Under the normal order, departed souls were delivered to a realm appropriate to the lives they led, but now, all souls are being funneled into the Maw, where the most wicked are damned to suffer for eternity. As they seek to right the cycle and uncover the extent of Sylvanas' designs, players will forge bonds with the Covenants who hold domain over different planes within the Shadowlands.
Explore the Realm of the Dead: for the first time ever in World of Warcraft, players will cross into the Shadowlands and experience the wonders and horrors of the afterlife across five new zones—the gleaming fields of Bastion, the scarred battlefields of Maldraxxus, the eternal twilight of Ardenweald, the opulent keeps of Revendreth, and the horrific Maw.
The final destination of the spirits of the deceased remains a mystery to the priests and philosophers of Azeroth. However, as spells such as [Resurrection] can reunite a dead body with its spirit, and a majority of living creatures from the tauren to the troll shadow hunters claim they can communicate with and call upon the power of the spirits, a widely held belief is that the spirits of the dead remain on the Material Plane — in an immaterial state that can only be altered or contacted through the use of magic.
The Realm of Shadows may be the same World of Shadows as the one that becomes visible when a [Elixir of Shadows] is consumed. It may also have something to do with shadow magic and shades. Death knights, necromancers, and undead as a whole share a strong connection with the Realm of Shadows from many hints that can be seen in-game. In the death knight starting zone, death knights are given the task to enter the Realm of Shadows in order to gain their Deathcharger. Later on, death knights are eventually able to learn the ability [Raise Ally] which pulls their ally's spirit back from the Realm of the Dead and forces it back into their body. Upon doing so, a buff is applied to the player stating that: "A touch of the spirit realm still lingers..." This shows that death knights and necromancers both have a connection to the Realm of the Shadows/Dead to perform necromancy which furthers the idea that they actually are drawing their magical power from it.
Certain playable races will receive new customization options (for example, humans will be able to customize their ethnicities, dwarves and trolls will gain tattoos, and undead will be able to show varying degrees of decay). The Death Knight class (added in Wrath of the Lich King) is being opened up to pandaren (added in Mists of Pandaria) and to all allied races (added in Legion and Battle for Azeroth); players who pre-ordered Shadowlands received access to death knights for these races with the release of Patch 8.3.0, Battle for Azeroth's last major content patch, on January 14, 2020.
Ascend the Tower of the Damned: at the heart of the Maw lies Torghast, Tower of the Damned, a cursed otherworldly prison where the wickedest souls in the universe are locked away. Highly replayable and inspired by roguelike games, heroes are invited to explore its ever-changing halls and chambers and do battle with the minions of the Jailer, Torghast's vile ruler. Those who brave its trials can claim legendary treasures and help free the heroic spirits wrongfully trapped within.
After being deposed as Warchief of the Horde in Battle for Azeroth, Sylvanas Windrunner travels to Icecrown Citadel in the Scourge-infested wastes of Northrend, and confronts the reigning Lich King, Bolvar Fordragon. Taking the Lich King's Helm of Domination from him, she tears it in two, shattering the veil between realities and opening a portal to the Shadowlands, Azeroth's afterlife. The Shadowlands have become warped in function during recent times. The Maw, a place in the afterlife reserved for the most sinful souls, is now absorbing all souls.
In the opening cinematic, Sylvanas shatters the Helm of Dominion, breaching the veil between the material realm and the Shadowlands, an ancient dimension where the dead coalesces for judgment. Sylvanas' actions have upset the natural balance between life and death, and it's on players to enter the Shadowlands itself and repair the cycle before it is too late.
Furthermore, upon the Lich King's death he even spoke of "Seeing only darkness before him" while Sylvanas Windrunner said the same in Silverpine Forest after being risen from the dead by the Val'kyr. This may hint that because undead, death knights, and necromancers are connected to the Realm of Shadows when they die (again) they actually become apart of the Realm of Shadows and are forced to wanders in its dark mists for the rest of eternity. If this is so, then it can also be implied that when a death knight is given his/her own personal runeblade, the runeblade is actually used to bind the individual to the Realm of Shadows in mind and body, making it impossible to ever be rid of the death knight curse. In Howling Fjord, players are even able to witness the Lich King himself standing within the Realm of Shadows with two Val'kyr. The idea that necromantic magic and death knight runes drawing power from the Realm of Shadows itself is not yet proven, but it is heavily supported by in-game quests and lore.
The Shadowlands were originally intended to be a fully playable zone in World of Warcraft, designed for high-level play. The idea was that as deceased characters made their way back to their corpses, they'd see high-level players battling creeps in the area, which would inspire lower level players to increase their character level so they could experience the zone for themselves.