I started playing World of Warcraft casually in January 2005. Having spent hundreds of hours with my Paladin in Diablo II, I was left with little choice: If I wanted to continue playing as plate-wearing holy-roller, I had to side with the Alliance.

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It wasn’t a difficult decision. The Horde were aesthetically unrelatable. Alternately Creature Features and C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa, they simply weren’t fun to look at – so they became the enemy. Tepid low-level forays into the Barrens begot Tarren Mill turf wars begot hitting the level cap and spending hours on end staring at my lifeless corpse as it was defiled by another Horde player character, spamming the /spit macro or, classier still, sitting on my face.

I’m not Horde. Neither are my friends, for that matter. So who are Horde? Were they the vile, basement-dwelling mouth-breathers I’d accused them of being during my numerous, expletive laden mental rants? Did playing as such unsightly characters have an averse effect on the player base? What kind of person could relate to a character with open wounds?

I decided to ask.

“I’ve always been drawn to the underdog,” says Jumwa, Troll Shaman and guild leader of the Moon Guard realm’s Burning Tusk Tribe. Often considered the last real haven for roleplayers, a stroll around Moon Guard’s rendition of Silvermoon City quickly clues you into the incredibly strong, friendly roleplaying environment that lured Jumwa and his compatriots to the realm. His choice of faction was in part due to his chosen race’s inspiring back-story. “The Trolls and Orcs really drew me in when I first started playing,” he says. “Something about the unassuming, impoverished or downtrodden rising up and accomplishing great things – or failing in the process – always grabs me.”

“That, and Trolls are tall,” Jumwa adds. “I like tall characters.”

Jumwa is correct: Not only are Trolls tall, but they’re most certainly underdogs. In Warcraft‘s mythology, Trolls were forced from their homeland by the burgeoning Night Elves before Kalimdor was torn asunder, spreading the various tribes across the world’s two great landmasses. It’s a story as American as it is Azerothian: not one of triumph against all odds, but rather one of displacement and enslavement by a populace that has since rewritten the history books. Beneath their menacing veneer, the Horde are victims and losers, the roleplaying of which can allow for dynamic, mature situations.

Shaktiri, a longtime member of the Burning Tusk Tribe, agrees. “A lot of Alliance roleplay is more familiar to younger players, with kings and castles and that sort of thing,” she says. “Horde is about proving yourself as a ‘great warrior’ and joining tribes and clans which are like families, with a little higher standard of maturity.” That maturity, Shaktiri believes, makes for a more vibrant roleplaying environment. “Horde-side makes you think outside the box more when it comes to creating a character, Both sides have their griefers, but Horde really has more of a mature community … and more imagination.”

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According to Shaktiri, the Horde doesn’t just attract more creative, mature roleplayers. , “PvP-wise, I’d definitely say Horde is more organized,” she says. “The Shadarim and The Sunguard have started co-hosting PvP events for horde-side, and making sure to coordinate with Alliance guilds so we have some competition!” Perhaps she’s roleplaying modesty, but there’s a bold claim coded into her discussion of PvP “organization”: Horde players are more skilled at player-versus-player combat.

Amazingly, the numbers support that statement: At the time of this writing, Horde players make up an amazing 75 percent of the SK-100 individual arena player rankings. It’s not clear that this skill transfers to PvE progression, however: While many high-profile raiding guilds such as Paragon and Elitist Jerks are Horde, a quick look at the GuildOx WoW Guild Progress rankings shows that, of the top 20 raiding guilds (again, at the time of this writing), it’s an even split between Horde and Alliance.

In an effort to glean a little more info on the subject, I attempted to hunt down a few top raiders from the best guilds on their respective servers. Responses ranged from disinterest to downright contempt; apparently top-end raiders have better things to do with their play time. Certainly, it didn’t help that I was hunting folks down the week the new wing of the Icecrown raid encounter opened, but I still managed to wrangle a few players, even if their answers weren’t exactly what I was looking for.

“Besides the fact that Orc females are cute, I’m a notorious min-maxer, and Orcs simply have the best PvP racials,” said Flaareon of Ravenholdt’s No. 1 raiding guild, Shadows and Dust. It’s a personal choice that makes more sense than my penchant for bald paladins. “I played Warcraft II and III, plus the Frozen Throne, so I was exposed to all possible races before starting on World of Warcraft,” he adds. “I think it really boils down to your friends.” Friends! Foiled again.

Baned, of Twisting Nether’s top horde-side raiding guild, Borrowed Time, echoes Flaareon’s sentiments. “I like Horde because, growing up playing Warhammer computer games, I always loved the Orcs,” he says. Unlike “min-maxer” Flaareon, his fellow Orc fetishist’s faction choice seemed purely cosmetic. Could it be that my assumptions about the innate villainy of Horde players were just as superficial?

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Despite my initial problems with getting anyone to speak to me out of the dozens of raiders I’d queried, everyone I did speak to was rather polite, with little in the way of negativity levied at the opposing faction or their place on the servers. It wasn’t what I had bargained for – my examination of how and why people chose to play Horde had turned into some amount of endearment for the ugly miscreants.

I had only one course of action left: I would interview my worst enemy, Toxxi (or “Merciless Gladiator Toxxi, the best druid in the world!” as he referred to himself on the realm forums). Not necessarily my arch-nemesis, but rather the realm‘s arch-nemesis, Toxxi was the faction’s most notorious griefer, and the receptacle into which I poured my most raw feelings about the Horde. If there was a holiday going on in Goldshire, Toxxi invariably did his best to ruin it.

I searched online for Toxxi’s Armory profile … only to find it absent. Had he changed his name? I wondered. Impossible – anyone who tried so hard to cultivate an outlaw persona wouldn’t dare discard it. An inquiry in Trade chat was met with several cryptic responses which were of little or no help, including, “YOU ARE NOT TOXXI!” in all capital letters. No, I’m not Toxxi, but I needed him to hang this piece on, to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Horde players were the angry, socially maladjusted halfwits I’d pegged them as.

Eventually, someone sent me a tell. “Dude, Toxxi quit playing like four months ago.” My villain was an apparition. Someone else offered me five gold to sign his guild charter. I sighed and accepted.

Jonathan Glover is a writer living on the East Coast.

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