Mages are one of the toughest builds to execute properly in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. That’s because the game hasn’t done a great job at balancing magic in the long run. Spellcasters tend to fare well early into the game, but struggle later on as their damage tanks compared to other builds like the classic stealth archer and even two-handed warrior.
With how much close range combat is included in the game, it can also feel daunting to even attempt playing a mage. That being said, there’s a way to make things work and to even feel empowered as a mage. While it’s not as gratifying as playing a high damage stealth archer or a tanky warrior bashing through enemies, it requires a lot of planning and strategizing which can feel surprisingly rewarding in the long run. Here’s how to get started on your mage journey.
There are four races that are well adjusted for a mage build, thanks to their unique abilities, starting skills, and passive effects.
Imperials are a decent choice. They have a free Calm spell, the Voice of the Emperor, which they can use once per day. It calms everyone in the vicinity for 30 seconds and is fantastic for mages that generally want to avoid getting overrun by enemies. Imperials also get a 25 point starting skill rating in Restoration, making them great healers.
Dunmer are another good choice. They start with 25 points in Destruction magic, which is by far the most useful and versatile school of magic. Their race power, Ancestor’s Wrath, which surrounds them in flames for 60 seconds, is another great way to keep enemies at a distance.
Bretons are the second most solid choice for mages. Not only do they have a 25% magic resistance, which makes them strong even against other mages, but their unique ability Dragonskin allows them to drain 50% Magicka from enemy spells for 60 seconds. They make excellent conjurers as well, with 25 starting points in Conjuration magic.
Altmers are the go-to choice here and by far the best. They get +50 Magicka right off the bat. Their special ability Highborn lets them regenerate 25% of their Magicka per second for 60 seconds once a day. Moreover, they start with 25 points in the Illusion school of magic.
Skills And Spells
All five schools of magic are extremely powerful, and it all comes down to your personal preferences and play style on what you prefer using. However, the build suggested here is one that puts Destruction magic as the primary skill, and pairs it with two secondary skills, Conjuration and Alteration.
Destruction is your bread and butter when it comes to high damage spells, particularly Frost and Flames. Frost is handy as it incapacitates and slows enemies down, preventing them from getting close to you. Flames on the other hand deals devastating damage over time. Shock is generally considered the weakest, and is only great against enemies who depend on Magicka.
- Ice Spike (Apprentice)
- Firebolt (Apprentice)
- Fireball (Adept)
- Chain Lightning (Adept)
- Incinerate (Expert)
Paired with Destruction, it’s recommended to invest in Conjuration. Mages are weak when fighting at close range, so you want to have distractions like conjurable entities that can tank the front line of the enemy while you stand back. Some of the best Conjuration spells like Conjure Atronach or Raise Zombie can quite literally save your life in a pinch.
- Conjure Flame Atronach (Apprentice)
- Conjure Frost Atronach (Adept)
- Conjure Dremora Lord (Expert)
- Dead Thrall (Master)
For defense and pre-fight, there’s Alteration. This will be your main way of protecting yourself through powerful spells like Oakflesh. Mages tend to be weak since they wear no armor, but Oakflesh, and its later version Ebonyflesh, will help you tank a bit more damage when things get sticky.
- Oakflesh (Novice)
- Stoneflesh (Apprentice)
- Ironflesh (Adept)
- Ebonyflesh (Expert)
- Dragonhide (Master)
Illusion is the school you can safely ignore, if you’d like. If you’re into stealth and would like to challenge yourself to be a sneaky mage, it’s worth simply for the sake of the powerful Muffle spell.
- Muffle (Apprentice)
- Invisibility (Expert)
When it comes to Restoration, it can also be ignored in favor of Alchemy. Alchemy is much more versatile as a skill, since it allows you to craft potions that can make you tankier and help you regenerate your Health and Magicka in tough fights. Moreover, when faced with fellow mages, you can use potions of Resist Magic to further protect yourself. Still, if you prefer Restoration, there are a few spells to look out for.
- Fast Healing (Apprentice)
- Close Wounds (Adept)
- Circle of Protection (Expert)
Some mage builds can also incorporate Enchanting instead of Alchemy. This allows you to craft gear with specific resistances and regeneration rates, some of which can be immensely powerful. It’s more a matter of preference when it comes to choosing between either of these two, but what’s certain is that you should pick either Enchanting or Alchemy, since every build benefits from a crafting type skill.
It’s not recommended to invest in any of the armor skill trees, simply because the mage robes do not count as armor and would therefore make any invested points useless. Unless you’re planning on making an armored mage (which is a valid option, too, but not as powerful in terms of Magicka), just focus on your choice of magic schools and either Alchemy or Enchanting.
Now that you have an idea of what skill trees to level, it’s time to discuss the specific perks recommended for each skill tree.
For Destruction, the entire perk tree is worth unlocking, especially the spell level perks.
- Impact introduces stagger into your spells, which will slow down enemies and stun them before they can get too close to you.
- Rune Master works wonderfully if you’re into rune spells, which can be used as a crowd control strategy.
- Augmented Frost and Flames 1 and 2 bump the damage on your spells by 25%.
In the Conjuration perk tree, perks that allow you to cast your summons further and that extend the duration and damage of conjurable entities are key. The ones you can ignore are perks related to bound weapons since those spells aren’t as useful for pure mages.
- Summoner: increase your summoning range.
- Necromancy: undead summons will last longer.
- Atromancy: atronachs and dremora will remain summoned twice as long.
- Twin Souls allows you to have two summons active at the same time.
- Elemental Potency and Dark Souls bump up the health pool of your summons.
For Alteration perks, there aren’t that many, which makes it easy to level. The entire tree is worth unlocking, especially since casting Oakflesh once at lower levels is usually enough to bump your Alteration by one level.
- Stability, which bumps up the duration of your Alteration spells by 50%.
- Magic Resistance, which can negate up to 30% of incoming magic damage.
If you do pick Illusion, there are a few interesting perks to prioritize.
- Animage and Hypnotic Gaze are a necessity to cast Illusion spells on higher-level opponents.
- Quiet Casting spell, which will also silence any casting from any other schools of magic.
- Master of the Mind makes creatures like Dwemer automatons, undead, and Dremora sensitive to your Illusion spells.
Restoration isn’t generally worth your time, but if you do end up going for it, make sure you get the following perks.
- Recovery, which also regenerates your Magicka 25% and then 50% faster.
- Regeneration, which allows your Restoration spells to heal you 50% more.
- Necromage, which makes any and all spells you cast more potent against the undead.
For the two crafting skills, Alchemy and Enchanting, the former is the recommended route. Alchemy’s best perk is without a doubt Alchemist. You can pretty much ignore the rest as a mage and just invest in the first perk in the entire tree until you reach level 80 and can create immensely powerful potions.
In Enchanting, making your own Magicka boosting gear is key by picking the best enchantments.
- Enchanter and Insightful Enchanter boost skill-based enchantments by 25% on armor.
- Corpus Enchanter, which makes all attribute-based enchantments 25% stronger, allowing you to make powerful Magicka gear.
Primarily, you’ll rely on your robes, as well as various accessories like amulets, rings, and circlets. Basic robes won’t be hard to come by, and after you join the College of Winterhold, you’ll receive a set from Mirabelle.
In random loot, there are three types of enchantments you should look out for:
- Fortify Magicka: increases your pool of Magicka.
- Fortify Magicka Regen: increases the rate at which your Magicka regenerates.
- Fortify School Of Magic: increases your skill in a specific school of magic, like Destruction, Alteration, Illusion, and so on.
There’s also a whole array of unique gear that’s ideal for mages. The most notable outfit for mages is Archmage’s Robes, which is a reward for finishing the College of Winterhold questline. The robes make all spells 15% cheaper to cast and grant you +50 Magicka points and +100% Magicka regeneration.
Another item is the Mage’s Circlet, gifted to you at the end of the quest Good Intentions by Savos Aren. The circlet boosts your Magicka up to 70 points, depending on which level you complete the quest. It’s recommended to only complete the quest after level 25 to get the best possible effect on it.
These three powerful amulets are worth getting:
- Savos Aren’s amulet: rewarded at the end of the quest Containment, it gives you 50 additional Magicka points.
- Necromancer amulet: found during the quest Blood on the Ice, it gives you 50 Magicka points and spells are 25% cheaper, while Health and Stamina regenerate 75% slower.
- Amulet of Julianos: found randomly as common loot, it increases your Magicka by 10 points.
Two unique masks and one helmet also work well:
- Nahkriin: defeat the dragon priest guarding the entrance to Sovngarde to get this mask, which grants +50 Magicka and makes Destruction and Restoration spells 20% cheaper.
- Miraak: found in the Dragonborn DLC, after defeating Miraak loot this mask off his corpse to get up to 70 points of Magicka, depending on your level.
- Helmet of the Old Gods: complete the quest No One Escapes Cidhna Mine in Markarth and side with Madanach to receive the helmet, which gives you 30 Magicka points.
Standing Stones And Shrines
Standing stones can be helpful to add a few passive boosts to a mage build. However, some of them do come with negative side effects, so keep them in mind before committing to a specific stone.
- The Apprentice Stone: the stone gives you +100% Magicka regeneration, but you’re +100% weaker to Magicka.
- The Atronach Stone: gives you 50 Magicka points and absorbs 50% of incoming spells, but Magicka regenerates 50% slower.
- The Mage Stone: all magic-related skills level up 20% quicker.
The Mage Stone is the safest option out of the three. It can be found early on in the game as you follow the cobblestone path out of Helgen towards Riverwood, next to the two other Standing Stones.
To get the most out of the Divine shrines, praying at the shrine of Akatosh and Julianos are the best options. Akatosh gives you 10% faster Magicka regeneration, while Julianos’ shrine grants you an additional 25 Magicka points.
Trainers And Factions
It’s not easy to level up magic. Alteration, in particular, can be tricky, since casting a single spell like Oakflesh takes a lot of Magicka early on in the game and can therefore be used once in a fight. Here’s where to get your training.
- Faralda: at the College of Winterhold.
- Wuunferth the Unliving: court wizard of Ulfric Stormcloak, found upstairs in his palace.
- Sybille Stentor: court wizard of Jarl Elisif, found in Solitude’s Blue Palace.
- Garan Marethi: exclusive to the Dawnguard DLC, found in Castle Volkihar.
- Phinis Gestor: at the College of Winterhold.
- Falion: around Morthal, usually found at night.
- Runil: in Falkreath.
- Talvas Fathryon: exclusive to the Dragonborn DLC, found in Tel Mithryn.
- Tolfdir: at the College of Winterhold.
- Dravynea: in Kynesgrove.
- Drevis Neloren: at the College of Winterhold.
- Atub: in Largashbur orc stronghold.
- Colette Marence: at the College of Winterhold.
- Danica Pure-Spring: in Whiterun, at the Temple of Kynareth.
- Keeper Carcette: in Hall of the Vigilant, only if the Dawnguard DLC isn’t active.
- Florentius Baenius: exclusive to the Dawnguard DLC, found in Fort Dawnguard.
- Aphia Velothi: exclusive to the Dragonborn DLC, found in Raven Rock.
In addition to seeking out trainers, it’s recommended to join the College of Winterhold. The College is the go-to faction for any pure mage characters and can help you get a headstart on learning a bunch of spells. All schools of magic are accessible at the College as well, which makes finding trainers much easier.
Even with proper gear, the right perks and skills, playing a mage is tough. The most common mistake is to take too much damage and not use your speed and range to your advantage. With no armor, you have high mobility but the disadvantage of being weak.
Always go in with a plan. Use pre-fight as a time to cast spells like Oakflesh and drink potions that boost your regeneration rate and resistances. Cast any Conjuration spells to ensure you have enough meat shields to protect you against close-range enemies.
Get a follower as well. The tankier, the better. Any member of the Companions, with the exception of Aela, is a great choice, since they’re essential characters and will never die, and specialize in one-handed or two-handed combat, along with heavy armor. This, in combination with one or two summoned creators, allows you to distract your enemies while you stay in the back and cast your Destruction spells.
Area of effect spells are also immensely useful, as are scrolls. Runes, in particular, can allow you to control a fight effectively, especially when you get overwhelmed. Shouts like Unrelenting Force and Whirlwind Sprint are wonderful when the enemy is getting too close to you, to push them away or to escape.
The bottom line for a mage is to never be fully aggressive. Relying solely on Destruction spells will get you punished. This is why having Alteration and Conjuration as your defensive secondary skills and Destruction as your offensive primary skill is a solid strategy.
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