Does Horde PWN Alliance in PvP? A Baker's Dozen of Possible Reasons

One issue that is often discussed and debated on the WoW forums is why Horde seems to outperform Alliance in BGs. In a recent open-ended survey, I asked players whether they observed this pattern on their servers, and why they thought this might be the case. While I was expecting players to offer a variety of reasons for this pattern, I did not expect the large number of explanations offered. What was interesting about these explanations was that they highlighted the different game layers (factors from inside and outside that game) that come into play in observed behavioral patterns in MMOs.

Consistent with the forum posts, many players felt that Horde outperformed Alliance in BGs on the server they play on. From the open-ended responses of 140 players, 16% either skipped the question or did not give a clear answer. Of the remaining responses, 66% of players felt that Horde outperformed Alliance on their server, 31% felt that it was about equal or the other way around. And about 3% indicated that it depended on the BG (i.e., Horde consistently won WSG and AB, but Alliance consistently won AV).

Of course, one could argue that this is a matter of perception rather than fact. And some respondents did in fact raise this concern.

I don't think this is true, personally. I suspect it's an opinion that's gained momentum as a perceived fact, regardless of any truth behind it. [WoW, M, 39]

I really don't think this is true although people think it's true or at the very least isn't true to the extent that people think it is. [WoW, M, 32]

On the other hand, the fact that so many players believe it to be true suggests that there's something interesting going on, and that in either case, this is an issue that's worth exploring.

Overall, explanations for this perceived behavior typically fell into one of four categories: 1) entry factors, 2) population imbalance factors, 3) game mechanic factors, and 4) psychological factors. What's useful about these categories is that they provide a framework with which to think about in-game patterns in general - that for any given pattern, it is worth considering explanations in these four categories. And I think what's most interesting about the explanations offered isn't about the issue of BG performance, but that these explanations highlight the many different layers which social behaviors in MMOs can be produced and explored (for both game designers and game researchers).


Entry Factors

Entry factors are about how different people choose to belong to different groups or factions in a game where this choice is offered. In WoW, one primary decision is in choosing between Alliance and Horde. The significance of entry factors is that they may create sustained personality or behavioral differences between the two groups. The most popular explanations for superior Horde performance in BGs fell into this category.

Alliance Attracts Noobs

Many respondents argued that players new to MMOs were more likely to choose Alliance because the character models more readily resonate with the "good guys" as portrayed in movies such as Lord of the Rings (i.e., human knights in armor and elven archers). And because new MMO players have less experience in raiding and coordination, the Alliance suffers from this in BGs.

WoW brought a LOT of new players to MMORPGs and many just went straight to Alliance because most people do not want naturally to be a bad guy. Experienced MMORPGers (who know that game/class/combat mechanics must be mastered, browse forums for tactics/add-ons, use TeamSpeak, etc.) are past that stage of 'I'll be a good guy and defend the Alliance against the Empire/Horde). Most, if not all, Horde I know come from that pool of vets. [WoW, M, 38]

Those who are new to the game will most likely roll a race that they can identify with, that would pretty much exclude any Horde class. Horde will tend to be veteran players. [WoW, M, 37]

The notion that more experienced players leave the Alliance for the Horde was expressed by several players.

Horde players are generally more experienced in the game than Alliance in every way. Most people start with alliance then switch to horde afterwards. The Horde players know the game better than the alliance. [EO, M, 29]

Alternatively, it is possible that most people start on Alliance side. At some point they want to change, and start Horde characters, and at this time they are much more experienced. So Horde guys have lower numbers but higher skills. [WoW, M, 38]

Alliance Attracts Younger / Immature Players

A related explanation was that Alliance attracts disproportionately younger or more immature players. Many of the arguments for why new players would be attracted to Alliance were repeated here.

The cause is generally younger players attracted to the 'pretty' characters. [WoW, M, 26]

It was presumed that the younger players had more interest in playing the 'pretty good guys' (they have the misconception that the horde side should be considered evil.) [WoW, M, 22]

It is this difference in maturity that some players attribute to the poor Alliance performance in BGs.

The Alliance tends to fall under the 'pretty' category, so we tend to get a bunch of people who care more for their appearance than for following orders and working as a team. They split up, disobey direct orders, refuse to join the raid, refuse to act as a team, and are, in general, self-centered. It has been observed even when they are in a raid group that they appear to have raid chat turned off and go their own way. They lack focus and discipline. Good groups are sharp, obedient, and have good leaders. [WoW, F, 24]

Younger people are not as mature and less likely to work together. On the other hand, Horde players tend to be older and more mature (and more likely to work together). Since teamwork is key in the BGs, the Horde is predisposed towards winning over the Alliance. [WoW, M, 33]


Horde Attracts Hard-Core / Competitive Players

Others point out the flip-side of the equation - that players who choose Horde are likely to be more competitive and PvP-minded. Some respondents also argued that Horde players tend to be more serious while Alliance players tend to be more casual, and that these differences lead to differing BG performance.

Horde are the fighters, the 'hard' side, the underdogs, the tough ones. Alliance are the Elves, the 'pretty' ones, the side that most female players head towards. This leads to a more hardcore mentality on the Horde side and thus better BG play styles. [EO, M, 36]

My coworkers and I discussed it over the water cooler and developed a theory for a Horde personality that leads certain types of gamers to play Horde... and those gamers just happen to be better at and more inclined towards pvp. [WoW, F, 23]

The alliance portion of the game is admittedly easier to play by consensus of both players and designers. As such the alliance tends to draw a more casual gamer crowd who don't immerse themselves into the finer points of play as much as a 'hardcore' gamer. Thus when taking on more intensive tasks (especially bg's) horde players bring more developed skill sets to the table such as the ability to follow orders and how to most effectively play their class. [WoW, M, 26]

Related to this, some players argued that the Horde character models play to and attract a more competitive mentality.

Alliance is pretty. Horde is fierce. Players with that type of 'fierce' mindset are more prone to wanting to dominate other players, rather than just some computer-controlled mobs. [M, 17]

People choose horde are typically more aggressive players and the horde models match the appearance of aggression better then alliance does. [WoW, M, 23]


Population Imbalance Factors

On most WoW servers, the Alliance outnumbers the Horde around 2:1 and sometimes as much as 3:1. As opposed to the entry factors that focus on how people choose to belong to different factions, the following imbalance factors describe more organizational reasons for why the faction with fewer numbers might be at an advantage. In other words, the following explanations are not tied to Horde or Alliance character models or appeal, but simply the effects of population imbalance in general.

Practice Makes Perfect

The crucial factor for the explanations that fall in this section derive from the shorter BG queues for the side that has fewer players. The higher the population imbalance, the higher the difference in BG queue times for the two different factions. Because being good at PvP is partly due to practice, the side that gets to practice more is likely to perform better.

The big number of Alliance players makes it difficult for them to get practice, while the fewer horde players get into a lot of battles and can hone their skills. The more balanced the horde/alliance population is, the less of a gap in skill there is, I think. [WoW, M, 27]

On our server, the Alliance outnumber the Horde at a factor of like four to one. In order to even get in to a BG, an Alliance player can expect to wait in the queue for up to an hour and a half, while the Horde queue's instantly all day. This means a few things. One, it just means practice. It stands to reason that people that get to PvP all day every day are better PvPers than those who get to do it five to ten times a week. [WoW, M, 37]


Familiar Faces

But beyond the practice factor, the faction with fewer members also has a higher chance of the same members bumping into each other over and over again. This makes it easy to know who the good players are.

The reason Horde in general do so well as there are fewer of us so many of us have battled together before. We know who is good, how we play and can synchronize our fights. [WoW, F, 43]

Inside the Battlegrounds, you often get grouped with the same people or same groups of people as Horde, allowing you to learn each other's tactics better and know who to listen to, etc. On the Alliance, since there are so many people, I think that's harder. [WoW, M, 19]

This is particularly important for the emergence of known leaders in a situation where there is a very limited amount of organizational time.

This also means that the good leaders become *known*. When you only have a couple of hundred people who regularly play in the BG's on the Horde side you quickly learn who the good players are, who the good leaders are and so they get listened to. [EO, M, 36]

Facilitates Sustained Groups

One related point that should be highlighted is that the shorter BG queues also make it easier for PUGs to become sustained groups for the side which has shorter BG queues. On the Alliance side, queuing up as a group increases wait times, whereas this is not the case for the Horde. Thus, from an organizational standpoint, it makes more sense for a Horde PUG to stay grouped than it is for an Alliance PUG.

Because of insta-queue times, PuGs become 'groups' within a match or two. You leave and queue up again together. The mere fact that you don't have to waste the first 55 seconds of the raid trying to figure out who is going to start the group, how you are going to get invited, who's leader, etc. makes a huge difference. More than once I've just barely gotten in to the raid group and the horde are halfway across the field. However, on the Horde side, this isn't an issue. Moreover, once you are in a group for a few matches, someone can begin to emerge as a leader who can be trusted. Someone can emerge as a flag carrier. Someone emerges as a trustworthy healer. Working together eventually leads to you working together, if that makes any sense. [WoW, M, 27]


Game Mechanic Factors

While population imbalance factors are not intrinsically tied to either the Horde/Alliance split, game mechanic factors hinge on specific aspects of being Horde or Alliance. But unlike entry factors which emphasize player personality differences, game mechanic factors emphasize advantages or disadvantages the two factions might have due to mechanic differences.

PvP Racials

Many players pointed out that Horde racials are better suited to PvP while Alliance racials are better suited for PvE. Thus, Horde characters might have an edge in PvP scenarios due to those racials.

First of all horde racial abilities COMPLETELY own alliance ones, you cant compare undead priests Will of the Damned racial (which will break any kind of stun/charm/fear) and Devouring Plague racial (another powerful damage over time spell) while at the same time alliance night elven priests get a most magnificent +1% dodge AND starshards which are simply UTTERLY useless. Orcs are semi-resistant to fear, humans have increased stealth perception. Tauren have warstomp (5s area of effect stun) dwarves have useless stone form. Anyhow, it all boils down to 'fear whoring', horde will always use several warlocks to area of effect fear alliance team, and while the entire alliance team have no control over their characters (which is game breaking in itself) they kill one by one by concentrating fire. Alliance has no means to counter this (you can use anti fear trinket only once in 5 min) and can't do the same on the horde (horde have been made as fear resistant as possible). [WoW, M, 27]

Horde tend to get better PvP racials and Alliance tend to get better PvE racials. Fear Ward, for example, is a huge bonus to Alliance guilds attempting Onyxia, Nefarian, or Magmadar (raid bosses), while War Stomp is a very good PvP skill. [M, 17]

But Alliance is Better Geared From PvE

Among the players who disagreed with the Horde outperforming Alliance trend, many noted that on their servers this was due to the Alliance being better geared from PvE instances.

PvP rewards are harder to attain and take longer to get than PvE rewards from raiding instances, making it so that, generally, Alliance is better geared than Horde, since Alliance seems to be better for PvE content. [WoW, M, 20]

On my server it's pretty even, but only because the alliance is miles ahead of the horde in terms of PvE progress and gear. If 2 evenly geared and skilled teams faced each other I'd say horde would win as we have better PvP racials. [WoW, M, 18]

In other words, these players would argue that Horde racials may be more suited for PvP, but the Alliance ends up having more of an edge from their PvE racials because of gear access.


Shamans vs. Paladins

Another thorny subject was the comparison of Shamans and Paladins (Horde have exclusive access to the former, while Alliance have exclusive access to the latter, but the expansion will change this). People who brought the two classes up tended to agree that Shamans are better suited for PvP encounters because of their burst damage and totem abilities, while the defensive abilities of the Paladin are less suited (except perhaps in WSG).

The other primary difference in PvP play is that offensive capability matters more than defense. The unique Horde class, the shaman, is far more offensively focused than the unique Alliance class, the paladin. The key to tactical PvP is to impair as many of the enemy as possible, and AoE effects like the Earthbind Totem are big guns. [WoW, F, 26]

Paladins are tank/heal hybrids which cant dish out damage on regular basis, can't tank because in pvp there are no collision zones and paladins don't have taunt abilities, and even if they did, these don't work on player characters. Paladins regularly refuse to heal but instead completely specialize on damage. On the other hand shamans are designed as dps/heal hybrids which can dish out TREMENDOUS damage on 3 targets (chain lightning) , drop area of effect movement speed reducing totems and heal their team members while at the same time hitting with their axes for quite high damage. [WoW, M, 27]

Some players, however, did point out that they felt the Shaman/Paladin issue was overstated. Yet even in these cases, they agreed that Shamans tend to be more effective in PvP due to other related factors.

To a much much lesser, but still probably noticeable extent, shamans are more pvp-friendly than paladin. While the skilled shaman and the skilled paladin are probably equally good in pvp, the key word is skilled. The unskilled shaman is many times more effective in pvp than the unskilled paladin. [WoW, F, 23]

So many people cry about Shamans, but we on Horde side thought the Paladin a much greater support and group class then the Shaman. And to this day, I still agree this, having played both factions and currently playing the alliance faction, I still think that Paladins are greater then Shamans when they do their job in an organized group. [WoW, M, 19]


Location. Location. Location.

And finally, some players brought up location or geographical explanations for the Horde/Alliance differences in PvP. Most of these centered on the layout of AV. The interesting thing was that there was very little consensus as to which side actually has an advantage.

AV, 3 different servers now, alliance almost always wins, regardless of organization. I believe the biggest reason for this is the differences in the sides of the map. The biggest one being the bridge choke point the horde has to deal with when attacking the alliance base. [WoW, M, 25]

The alliance are at a distinct disadvantage in AV. Not only can Horde get to Snowfall and cap there before the alliance can, it is also easier for them to get to the wolves for the wolf rider quests than it is for alliance to get to the rams. [WoW, M, 30]

In Alterac Valley, this might be due to the geographical advantage the Horde has at defending [offensive graveyards], there is no backdoor into most Alliance graveyards (SH can be taken from south and west, SP can be jumped from the back and assaulted from the south) (IB can only be taken from the east, FW is in an open field and hard to defend if you don't have people respawning next to it). [WoW, M, 17]

This makes me agree with what some posts on the WoW forums point out - that these geographical differences end up being fairly balanced all things considered. But there was one unique explanation that one player brought up about starting locations that was fairly interesting. Instead of focusing on the BG geography, he focused on the starting geography of the two factions.

The Horde starter zones are arranged much better than the Alliance ones 'physically' in-game, allowing all three races to meet and fight earlier than Alliance. This is a very big deal. The Barrens is a lvl 10-30 hot spot where everyone in the Horde comes together to learn to play together. The alliance is more schizophrenic geographically and with respect to flight points and logistics. Honestly the Alliance players aren't forced to play in a really organized way until the Deadmines, around lvl 18+ (although most people go sooner). Also, and perhaps most importantly, the Horde have a lower-level instance to start in (lvl 13) and more low-level instances (Wailing Caverns and the one in Orgrimar I just mentioned, name eludes me atm). I can hardly count the Alliance's stockades in Stormwind, it is by far the worst and least enjoyable instance in the game. [WoW, M, 34]


Psychological Factors

The final class of explanations are related to some of the factors we've seen already, but their reasoning is more psychological rather than organizational or due directly to game mechanics.

Taurens Are Scarier Than Gnomes

In terms of body size, the Horde size has a much higher average due to the normal sizes of the Undead, the Trolls, in addition to the larger size of the Orcs and the much larger size of the Taurens. The Alliance are on average shorter due to the Gnomes and Dwarves. One player had an interesting take on the psychological advantage of having a larger body size even though size in and of itself is not linked to any attribute or skill differences.

Personally I think its because of size of player models, It sounds dumb, but human nature if only subconsciously is frightened of large people/things. Imagine your an average sized character with 3 other average sized characters. Suddenly 3 giant Tauren warriors have charged among you and your 3 friends. So its 4 of u, vs 3 of them. Someone is liable to panic and fall back, just because the 3 huge guys suddenly among them gave them a start or made them worry. Now in the reverse your 3 medium characters and 3 gnome warriors rush in among you your going to look at the tiny guys and fight them hard and its very doubtful that someone will panic since gnomes aren't exactly the most frightening of opponents. [WoW, M, 21]


The Underdog Mentality

Another interesting explanation that several players mentioned was that the Horde fights harder because they typically are the minority, the underdog. While this explanation also hinges on the population imbalance, the reasoning is psychological rather than functional (i.e., shorter queue times).

Alliance outnumber Horde 4:1 thus Horde are used to being the underdogs and fight twice as hard. [M, 36]

Last time I checked I believe the Alliance population was MUCH larger than Horde. I almost think that it's almost forced the Horde players to focus more on teamwork and skill if they want to win. [WoW, M, 21]

I think the cause of this is because, population wise, Horde players tend to be outnumbered by Alliance players. So, Horde players tend to learn early on the value to assisting each other and working as a team. [WoW, M, 32]

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The final explanation argues that the observed pattern is merely the consequences of a widely-held myth that has come true over time due to a self-fulfilling prophecy. As we saw earlier, some players pointed out that this is a case of an assumption snowballing into a perceived fact.

I don't think this is true, personally. I suspect it's an opinion that's gained momentum as a perceived fact, regardless of any truth behind it. [WoW, M, 39]

But given that so many players believe in this stereotype, the assumption in and of itself may cause performance differences over time. If Alliance players who enjoy PvPing perceive the Horde as being better at PvP (regardless of what the underlying reason is), then they may decide to re-roll as Horde.

Now that the pattern seems to be firmly in place, many Alliance characters that are half decent get frustrated with always losing and so switch to Horde, thus reinforcing the existing imbalance. [WoW, M, 30]


Ending Thoughts

Overall, players offered more than a dozen different explanations for why Horde characters may perform better in BGs than Alliance characters. As I mentioned earlier, what's interesting here is not as much the BG performance per se, but the emergent framework that describes how behavioral patterns in MMOs may be produced from a variety of interwoven factors. While some players focus on entry factors and others focus on game mechanic factors, it seems that most of the explanations are plausible, and several probably contribute to the perceived phenomenon.

It would be nice to have the server logs and calculate whether one side has a BG advantage over the other, but it seems that this will be an issue that will be debated for a long time in that data's absence. Of course, it would also be nice if we could somehow test and tease apart the explanations described here. But the mentioned factors are all so interwoven that it would be hard to isolate many of them. And while I have some past data that supports some of the explanations (e.g., Horde attracts more competitive-minded players), the strength of other explanations are far harder to ascertain. Given that several factors proposed hinged on imbalance issues, it would also be interesting to see whether the cross-realm PvP system has helped alleviate the practice issue.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of the article, I think this particular set of explanations warns against relying too much on one specific game layer to explain in-game phenomena, especially given the plausibility of all the explanations presented here. It probably isn't just because of the game mechanics, or just because of the player personalities. Whether we're talking about BG performance, leveling rates or "dominance" of different classes, or other parallels such as City of Heroes/Villains, it's important to keep in mind the different layers of factors that may come into play to produce specific observable patterns.