The thing that made the High Warlord/Grand Marshal grind so awful was that you lost progress if you didn’t spend as much time PvPing as other players. Basically, the number of “Honor” Points you earned (by doing any kind of PvP, but mostly from group matches called Battlegrounds) were compared against everyone else in your faction who played that week. When the servers came back up from their weekly maintenance, you might get assigned a new rank, from 1-14. These ranks could be held by exponentially fewer and fewer players per server the higher up they went. Probably 75% of the server at any point was rank 1-2, and only one (or rarely, two) people were rank 14. The carrot at the end of the stick was that at each new rank, you’d gain access to better and better pieces of an exclusive PvP armor set. Any piece you earned you kept forever, even if your rank dropped.
And that drop was the most twisted part. Unlike a normal RPG grind where you spend a set amount of time to earn a reward–like earning XP to gain a level–your ranking in WoW’s PvP system would decay if you didn’t earn Honor Points as quickly as other players near your rank. If you took a day off, or missed a bonus Honor weekend, your progress up the ladder would stall. Take a week off, and you’d almost certainly drop back down a rank. In this way, you were fighting more against players of your own faction than the opposing one. Some players would deliberately report other high-rank players to try to get them temporarily suspended. It was brutal.
Things got better towards the end of “Vanilla” WoW, before the games’ first expansion. The honor system was abolished, and players could use Honor Points as a currency to simply buy any piece of PvP gear. Then, after the Burning Crusade expansion came, a new PvP progression was added: the skill-based Arena system. Unlike the Honor system, players were deliberately limited to a fixed number of matches each week, and your rank was determined by how well you played–not necessarily how much. If you wanted the best rewards, players still had to play out an entire “season” over the course of several months, but it was nowhere near as destructive as Vanilla WoW’s Honor system.
I want to think that the Honor system was the result of poorly thought out design decisions. But after the first few months, they had to have known what it was doing to people. The honor grind was in place for over a year before it was changed out, and even then, it was only removed because the new expansion was about to make the rewards irrelevant.
The most bitterly ironic thing was that the PvP gear earned this way was never refreshed for new content updates over the course of Vanilla WoW. Two years into the game, a High Warlord in full PvP gear would have virtually no competitive edge against an opponent in PvE gear from the latest raid. (High-level PvE raiding required a huge time commitment–don’t get me wrong–but you never lost your progression by taking a break.)