Chris Metzen answered in Twitter to the question about mak’gora duels:
Honestly, I never thought it mattered. Presumably a warrior facing a caster is equally badass in other ways and there’d be balance, conceptually. But everyone had a fit when Thrall used the elements on Garrosh (who was a higher level fighter)… I thought that was interesting…
So when the movie came around – Durotan vs. Gul’dan felt cool to have it feel like Gul’dan was cheating and honor was sullied. The argument made interesting drama.
Technically, Sylvanas feels way higher lvl than Saurfang anyway… but the point of the piece was to display even more power than we thought she had…
But I don’t recall us saying casting was banned originally – it may have been somewhere but I didn’t know. I mean, how would non warriors ever be able to challenge? All that said, I kinda like it in hindsight.
Originally mak’gora is a duel of honor, born and cultivated in the orc society. There was no actual need to justify any specific rules: everything was on the surface. There was only one type of fighters – all orcs were warriors/hunters, not possessing any supernatural powers, and shaman were respected spiritual leaders which wouldn’t have participated in the said duel. Normal orcs looked up to them and respected them too much to challenge, and shaman themselves served as a glue uniting the clans rather than picking at each other.
Things changed when clash of the truths required unusual combination of fighters – wielding different powers.
I think the core approach here can be found not in the equality of power, but in the concept of honor. Through that prism, the fight is being lost when deception of any sorts comes into play. That is: when fighters come to the ring proclaiming the way they fight, and suddenly produce an ace from the sleeve, which no one expects.
Let’s look into the famous duels from this point of view.
Garrosh vs Cairne
Both agreed to fight fair and square, by strength alone, as warriors. But Magatha Grimtotem secretly poisoned Garrosh’s blade, and flesh wounds weakened Cairne, leading to his demise.
This mak’gora must still be considered a fair play. Garrosh did not know about the poisoned blade, so he fought like a proper warrior. Should he have known about it, he’d have fought out of defence, more carefully, focusing on planting a couple of small cuts and waiting for Cairne to come down. And that won’t even happen, because he would have refused to fight unfair in the first place! Both weapons clean, or both poisoned – no other option for him.
Technically it was not a fair play, but by honor standards it was.
Garrosh vs Thrall
The fight ended up unfair. Thrall did not announce he would use elemental power, starting as a common orc warrior. The fight was presumed to be solved by blade and fist, and that’s how it went at first.
The problem was: Thrall’s intention was not to see who’s stronger in a fair play. They both expressed their anger and dismay during their clash. Garrosh thought it was mak’gora, but it was merely a chance for last words (and fists) – the orc way. Thrall did not plan to let him go alive, and it was an execution, nothing else. He did not charge Doomhammer with lightning before he attacked, did not do anything to indicate that he will use elemental powers, and that was a deception. That is why elements refused to talk to him afterwards.
Durotan vs Gul’dan (movie)
Mak’gora was lost by Gul’dan. They came to fight barehanded, and that was the presumed rules. Gul’dan did not just used his warlock powers, he tried to veil them, pretending he was struggling with Durotan. Naturally orcs were disgusted, and despite Durotan’s death, Gul’dan is clearly acknowledged a loser in the duel.
Sylvanas vs Saurfang
This was a fair fight. Her shadowblades were following the rules, as was Varian’s sword: they were clearly seen, fighters knew what they could do. Sylvanas did not expect Shalamayne to answer to an orc though, but this is her fault. If Sylvanas chose to banshee-teleport behind his back and strike him, this would have been fair.
Problem is: when she claimed the Horde is nothing, rules didn’t matter anymore, because the Horde would not accept her. So, once the duel turned useless, she just ended it with a purely unfair blast of energy. Ironically, she could have easily won the duel fair and square if she didn’t lose her temper!
Conclusion: you may mak’gora all you want and use any powers you wield, but make it certain that the audience and your adversary knows that in advance.