Adventurers entering the Shadowlands will find the realm of the dead in disarray. In the natural order of things, souls are sorted and sent on to an afterlife realm appropriate to the lives they lived, but starting around the time of the Burning Legion's third invasion of Azeroth, all souls who have perished—including the innocents slain at Teldrassil—are being funneled directly into the Maw. The Shadowlands are starving for anima even as the Maw continues to grow from the glut of fresh souls. Sylvanas Windrunner has been seemingly perpetrating acts to bring about great amounts of death and destruction. In partnership with the Jailer, they have been working toward a common end for some time.
Since World of Warcraft’s 2014 expansion, Warlords of Draenor, the MMO has used some kind of mission table for players to gain passive bonuses while logged out of the game. Two years later, Blizzard introduced a mobile app, which let players send followers on important missions while far away from their computers. But with the upcoming Shadowlands expansion, it seems Blizzard is trying something a bit different with missions: an autobattler.
Shadowy Tormentors inhabit this dimension, and emerge from it to torment death knights such as Koltira Deathweaver. The Lich King originally kept them at bay, but after the Knights of the Ebon Blade left his service, the tormentors are now loose upon them. He even appears in the World of the Dead, as he calls it, riding a frost wyrm during  The Power to Destroy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The four zones that comprise the Shadowlands are ruled by "Covenants", similar to the Class Orders introduced in Legion. Each Covenant will have its own campaign, similar to the War Campaign in Battle for Azeroth, with gear specific to the faction and abilities both universal and determined by class. The four covenants are the Kyrian of Bastion, the Night Fae of Ardenweald, the Venthyr of Revendreth, and the Necrolords of Maldraxxus. Players experiencing the Shadowlands content for the first time will need to reach level 60 before they can choose to pledge themselves to a Covenant, while alts are able to do so at the start of the Shadowlands content.
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 previous expansions, entities like the Loa of Death Bwonsamdi, ex-Forsaken Queen Sylvanas Windrunner, and corrupted titan watcher Helya all have spoken of the Shadowlands, and for some, the desire to conquer it. Sylvanas' character arc throughout Battle for Azeroth ends with her seeking to control death itself, indicating that she will play a pivotal role in Shadowlands.
Alpha Beta PTR Vanilla 1.1.0 1.2.0 1.3.0 1.4.0 1.5.0 1.6.0 1.6.1 1.7.0 1.8.0 1.8.4 1.9.0 1.10.0 1.11.0 1.12.0 Burning Crusade 2.0.1 2.0.3 2.0.4 2.1.0 2.1.2 2.2.0 2.3.0 2.4.0 2.4.3 Wrath of the Lich King 3.0.2 3.0.3 3.0.8 3.1.0 3.2.0 3.2.2 3.3.0 3.3.3 Cataclysm 4.0.1 4.0.3a 4.0.6 4.1.0 4.2.0 4.2.2 4.3.0 4.3.2 Mists of Pandaria 5.0.4 5.0.5 5.1.0 5.2.0 5.3.0 5.4.0 5.4.7 Warlords of Draenor 6.0.2 6.0.3 6.1.0 6.2.0 Legion 7.0.3 7.1.0 7.1.5 7.2.0 7.2.5 7.3.0 7.3.5 Battle for Azeroth 8.0.1 8.1.0 8.1.5 8.2.0 8.3.0 Shadowlands 9.0.1
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.