Challenging the Magus

Welcome to the third installment of Everyman Gaming’s GM’s Guide articles. In this GM’s Guide, we’ll be talking about challenging the Magus.

It is understandable that GMs have trouble challenging the new base classes that Paizo has published since the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game was released. Some classes are harder to thwart than others; for example, the cavalier, oracle, and witch mostly play by existing rules. Every once and a while, however, a new class comes out with such a drastically different design philosophy then what GMs have seen before that challenging them becomes a nightmare. The classes include a plethora of new rules that the GM might not know or unanswered FAQs that might require the GM to make a snapshot decision. One of those classes is the magus, and today I’m going to give you a bit of a breakdown on how the magus works and what you can do to make encounters more challenging for the magus.

How the Magus Works

Understanding the magus class boils down to three simple mechanics: Spell Combat, Spellstrike, and Arcane Pool. Let’s talk a bit about each.

Arcane Pool

All magi have a special resource called an arcane pool. It functions similarly to a monk’s ki pool, except it has much more potent offensive usage. Baseline, the arcane pool allows the magus to add an enhancement bonus or special weapon abilities to his currently wielded weapon for a short time. This effect doesn’t work for anyone save the magus who spent the arcane points. A magus can’t stack a weapon’s enhancement bonus beyond +5, but he can stack on magic weapon abilities beyond the weapon’s normal +10 limit.

As the magus’s level improves and he learns new secrets, he can spent his arcane points on additional abilities. Spell Recall, the ability to spend arcane points to restore expended prepared spells, is by far the last of the abilities, but the roster includes adding Int to attack rolls, improving the number of weapon special abilities that you can choose from with arcane pool, and preparing any magus spell, even spells that you don’t know. Most abilities that require the arcane pool and are used as combat options require a swift action to activate.

Spell Combat

A magus can cast a spell and make a full attack in the same round with Spell Combat, a special ability that functions similarly to a monk’s Flurry of Blows. The magus takes a penalty on his attack rolls as though he were using Two-Weapon Fighting (a –2 penalty) and gains one additional “attack” that he can use to cast a spell with. Essentially, the magus can make a full attack with his primary hand and cast a spell with his off-hand. If he wishes, the magus can take a scaling penalty on attack rolls during spell combat in order to gain a bonus on concentration checks made to cast the spell defensively.

Spellstrike

The magus’s final unique ability is Spellstrike, and it is arguably the magus’s most powerful class feature alongside Spell Recall (see arcane pool, above). All touch spells (both melee and range) essentially gain a free touch attack with the spell to deliver its effects during the turn it is cast. Although you can choose to hold the spell’s charge if you want, no touch attack spell requires you to do so. A magus can replace that free touch attack with a weapon attack with any weapon he is wielding. For example, if I were to cast shocking grasp and touch you with the spell effect, I would make an attack roll against your touch AC and if I were to hit, you suffer the effects of the spell (1d6 per level, up to 5d6). Spellstrike allows you to replace that free touch with a weapon attack, so a magus casts his spell and if he is successful, he gets to make a free attack roll with any weapon he is wielding against his target’s AC. Note that if you use a weapon, you have to hit your target like a weapon too. If you hit, you deal weapon damage with the weapon as normal and trigger the effect of the touch spell; in this cast, weapon damage + 1d6 per level (as shocking grasp).

Some important things to remember: you are still casting a spell, so any effect that requires you to use a specific action does not work with spellstrike. For example, you cannot spellstrike during a Spring Attack. In addition, you cannot Vital Strike with spellstrike. You can, however, benefit from any abilities that modify your attack and damage roll with the weapon attack. Weapon Specialization and Power Attack are both fair game, for example.

Spellcasting

A magus is a 6-level spellcaster, similar to the bard. Whereas the bard has all of the cool buff and roleplaying spells, the magus has all of the combat-oriented and most of the utility-oriented spells for its six levels. Spells like haste, fly, and even oddballs like mount are on the magus’s spell list. Compared to the bard, the magus has almost no spells that are unique to him. He has a very small number of magus-unique touch attack spells, but generally speaking spellcasting is not where the magus’s uniqueness comes into play. When preparing for a magus’s spellcasting, you should prepare yourself for a stunted wizard and little more.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Before we get going into how to counter the magus, let’s talk about his strengths and his weaknesses.

  • Strengths: The Magus is a monster of a damage-dealer. He can take his melee touch spells and easily outpace the wizard with them using Spell Combat. He can cast his spells while wearing armor and as his level improves, he can increase the sturdiness of the armor that he can wear while casting. He can safely prepare a large number of spells per day because if he needs multiplies of a spell he’s already cast, he can recall it with spell recall. He also has access to a higher enhancement bonus to his weapons before any other class (abet a temporary one).
  • Weaknesses: The magus has no permanent way to gain bonuses to attack rolls that his contemporaries don’t also receive. (Enhancement is the same type as what is typically found on a magic weapon.) Improving his chance to hit with his weapon costs arcane points, which limits the number of times he can recall spells or enhance his weapon via the arcane pool. His spell list is very limited and expanding it requires a large expenditure of his magus arcanas. The magus will often be behind both the wizard in terms of spellcasting feats and the fighter in terms of weapon feats. He will not be able to specialize in combat maneuvers without a large determent to himself. Since the standard magus is a melee-centric character, most of his spells are going to be cast defensively and therefore have a chance to fail to go off.

Challenging the Magus

With all this information in mind, let’s talk about how to actually challenge a magus.

  • High AC: As magi do not have a reliable way to improve their AC, a high AC will prevent a magus’s attacks from landing. If that shocking grasp weapon slash doesn’t hit, it doesn’t trigger after all. Some magi will resort to simply using their spells as touch attacks, but this often leaves them playing like less endowed wizards.
  • Spell Immunity: This 4th level spell can wreck havoc upon a magus because most magi rely on a very small number of spells, making them very predictable to counter with this spell. For example, selecting shocking grasp as a spell that you are immune to can ruin a magus’s day. In addition to this spell, some constructs have direct immunity to magic in general, making them excellent choices to counter a magus.
  • Energy Resistance (Electricity): Shocking grasp is the magus’s bread and butter spell, so having a high resistance (or even immunity) to electricity helps to soften their blows. Few of the magus’s other spells will be of other damage types, though if you use this tactic too often don’t be surprised when your player catches on. In addition, there are some monsters that gain powerups when they are struck by electricity, most of them are constructs, so keep that in mind.
  • Damage Reduction: Like most non-fighter, non-paladin classes the magus has trouble punching through damage reduction. Since so much of their damage is spell damage, this often isn’t too much of an issue however.
  • Disruptive: This feat causes a world of hurt for the magus because a magus is screwed no matter how he goes about dealing with it. If he uses his Spell Combat class feature to boost his concentration bonus, he takes a penalty on attack rolls and has a reduced chance to strike the likely heavily armed fighter. If he doesn’t use Spell Combat, his concentration bonus might not be enough to successfully cast the spell.
  • Readied Action (Especially Vital Strike): This is the absolute nastiest thing that you can do the magus: have archers ready an action to attack the magus if they see him cast spells. The DC for casting a spell while injured is 10 + spell level + damage dealt, so for shocking grasp you’re looking at a minimum DC of 12 (assuming 1 damage dealt). Concentration checks are actually rather hard to boost; they’re 1d20 + caster level + ability DC. The only other way to boost them is Combat Cast (which your Magus will probably take) and the Desperate Focus trait. If the magus invests in both of those (few do because most magi take the magical lineage trait instead), then his base bonus is 1d20 + 6 + caster level + Int. This is very beatable if you have multiple archers focused on the magus. At high levels, a Vital Strike archer with Deadly Aim is probably going to stop any spell the magus has from going off.

So, what’s the ultimate way to challenge the Magus: a group of acolyte inquisitors and their golems. In this encounter, you should make sure to give your inquisitors the Witch Hunter archetype and either the Spellbreaker Inquisitor (for melee characters) or the Black Powder Inquisition (for ranged characters). Both of these inquisitions have heavy antimagic abilities. As for golems, the lowest CR golem that I found was the flesh golem, so if you make it a young golem and reduce its CR by 1 you can drop it as low as CR 6. Most golems are immune to any spell that allows spell resistance while flesh golems are specifically healed by electricity.

And that’s my advice for how to challenge the magus. What do you think? How do you challenge magus players in your campaign? If you have played a magus, what did you think was the most challenging type of encounters for you to face? Do you allow magi in your campaigns? Why or why not? What is your favorite magus archetype? Leave me your questions, comments, and answers below, and come back next week for more advice in the GM’s Guide!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune inquisitor, and his favorite inquisition/domain choice is the Travel Domain. Gotta love that +10 ft. movement speed buff!

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6 thoughts on “Challenging the Magus

  1. Another spell that is a big FU! to the Magus is Globe of Invulnerability. It stops all spells of 4th level or lower, and considering a Magus is only a 6th level caster, that means the vast majority of his spells won’t work on such a warded creature. With just that one spell, you shut down a Magus’ spellcasting until he’s 13th level.

    Another good target for energy resistance is cold damage, as many of the Magus’ other go-to spells deal cold damage as well; namely Chill Touch and Frostbite. Both spells make great choices or the Magus as he can get multiple enhanced attacks out of a single casting. So selecting Resist (cold) is another source of much annoyance to a Magus. It also means Undead can be great enemies to throw against a Magus, especially if one is immune to both cold and electricity.

    Unfortunately, I can’t really comment on playing a Magus as the one time I got to play one, at the end of the session I quit the campaign for many reasons. Though I would say, from a purely flavor standpoint, I really like the Bladebound magus, but I have no play experience with any archetype (or even the base Magus) other than the Soul Forger who got knocked out after 3 rounds when the APL+6 dragon attacked the party (one of the reasons I quit).

  2. Oh, forgot something until now. A Magus can actually be a respectable Maneuver guy, because he can use True Strike to add +20 to his roll. Especially if he is using one of the maneuvers that can have an increased effect by every 5 for which the DC is beat. So if you’ve got Dirty Trick Master, you could Daze someone for several rounds with just a single maneuver.

  3. The magus has another key weakness: the Will save. Sure, they have a good Will, but rare is the magus that didn’t dump Wisdom to boost their spell-casting stat. Charm person and dominate wreck my group’s magus (and usually one of the other PC’s, when he crits them), every time.

  4. “he can stack on magic weapon abilities beyond the weapon’s normal +10 limit” not that I don’t believe you but why is this? I played a Magus and dropped my weapon’s special abilities so it could be brilliant energy. I’d like to know why I didn’t have to do this in case it comes up again.
    Speaking of brilliant energy, there are two ways a magus can hit touch with his sword which makes the high ac thing hard to pull off. I played a Magus and almost never missed because I could make my sword brilliant energy. obviously I was not a fan of fighting constructs…

  5. A whip magus is very do able with a teifling. You can avoid the AoO and concentration check by being 15 away. Still think that scimitar kensai is you best damage dealer.

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