Skyrim: Life As A Destruction Mage

Posted by on Dec 30, 2011 in Commentary | 2 comments

The following is both a guide and a narrative on the learning points that I went through as a mage in Skyrim. Most of it is informative, but I have to admit that some of my realizations are so obvious I wanted to slap myself silly for not seeing them earlier.


Playing a mage in Skyrim is a different experience compared to previous TES titles because of two things:

· Custom spell creation is currently not supported.

· There is no spellcasting equivalent for stacking Fortify Smithing.

Both Oblivion and Morrowind supported custom spell creation, allowing players to make their own spells. This led to the discovery of spell combinations that were beyond what the game could handle. It was possible, for example, to craft a single spell that caused Fire damage and Weakness to Fire at the same time. The two effects complemented each other, boosting the damage output so much that most foes died from a single hit. This, along with the discovery of other combinations, made most fights trivial.

Stacking Fortify Smithing is what makes physical damage overpowered in Skyrim. Doing so allowed weapons and armor to be upgraded to game-breaking heights, letting players shrug off incoming damage while letting them dish out attacks that killed most targets with one hit. Although Fortify Destruction does exist, it just makes your spells cheaper to cast, doing nothing to affect damage output.

You’ll notice that both points share a common thing: the ability to kill things with one hit. This is the power that magic allowed back in the previous TES titles, something that isn’t possible anymore in Skyrim. Yes, some foes still go down after one Fireball but that’s the exception rather than the rule. If you got used to being overpowered before, you’re going to find yourself disappointed when you find out it isn’t going to be the same this time around.

Mage Gameplay

I think setting the right expectations is crucial to enjoyment of life as a mage in Skyrim. Okay, so you’re not the glass cannon that you were before. What do you do about it?

Since you can’t take down opponents with one hit you’ll be casting more often. This means two things: magicka (mana) management and FPS-style gameplay. Casting more often means more spells, which then lead to magicka depletion. You will find yourself grasping for more magicka in the game so pack a lot of potions.

Managing your magicka while trying to stay alive means you’ll be doing a lot of circle strafing, side-stepping and hiding behind corners. What do you associate with that style of play? First-person shooters. You’ll find yourself casting, sniping, taking cover and generally behaving like you were playing Quake instead of an RPG. This is actually fun for a while but the novelty will wear off when you find yourself backtracking a lot, looking for some place to hide in while you wait for magicka to regenerate. At some point you will wish that Destruction packed more of a punch.

Problem Solving

I was tired of my targets walking around as if they were shrugging off the Fireballs I was casting at them. I was tired of running, waiting for my magicka to regenerated. I was tired of waiting for things to get better.

There was no sense in clinging to the past, to how things were in the previous games. Destruction’s diminished power presented a problem that I wanted to solve.

My first step was to get rid of the thing that annoyed me most: the running. I’m a mage, wielder of the elements, master of the arcane. You’re supposed to run away from me, not the other way around. I was running because I had no magicka left. I didn’t want to be heavily reliant on potions so I wanted to find a way around that.

Here’s what I came up with.

Complementing Destruction

Single targets rarely presented a challenge because my spells were capable enough to deal with them. The problems started whenever I had to fight more opponents. Either I’d be out of magicka after killing just one of them or my health would be too low because there was a mage or archer in the group. Given these scenarios, how was I supposed to stop retreating? The answer was so obvious I wanted to kick myself in the face.

I needed crowd control.

There are two magic trees that can provide this: Conjuration and Illusion. Conjuration is the better, cheaper (in terms of casting cost) option. Summoned minions can tank, distract and attack your opponents very well, sometimes even removing the need for your involvement.

Illusion is the more entertaining option. With the ability to manipulate your opponents, you can get quite a bit of laughs from the things you can make them do. Fear and Fury are my favorites but Calm has its place too. Regardless of which spell you choose, you’ll find Illusion a worthwhile tree to invest points in.

I decided to go with these two trees because they were both related to magic and fit the play of style perfectly. They’re not the only choices, of course. You can use a three-tier approach with Destruction, Conjuration and One-Handed or Archery. Summon your minion, hit your foes with Firebolt then switch to physical damage when you’re low on magicka or when their focus has shifted away from you. The point here is that Destruction isn’t your only choice when it comes to dispatching your foes. It can be the primary path, but not necessarily the only one.

A Deliberate Design Choice?

The more time I spend on my mage the more I begin to think if this was all deliberate by design. By not allowing custom spell creation Skyrim deviated from a tried and proven practice. Why the change now? I can’t answer that, but if isn’t obvious by now then let me say that playing a mage will require more work than a warrior or archer. Physical damage trumps magic in Skyrim, but that doesn’t mean that spellcasting is any less fun. It is, it just requires a bit of effort to get there.

Comments and suggestions on the topic are welcome. I’d love to hear more about your experience playing as a mage in Skyrim. Post your comments and let me know what you think.