D&D 5e: War Magic Wizard Guide
Intro/Role in Party
Other classes have limitations. Wizards laugh at the idea of not being able to do something because a high-level Wizard that has enough preparation time and information can do anything.
At least, until someone bops them gently in the face with a pillow, and all of a sudden they’re unconscious on the floor.
The War Magic Wizard doesn’t focus on a specific spell school or style of casting. Instead, they focus on the age-old art of not being dead.
If you want to play a Wizard who can shrug off attacks that would kill other casters, and stay on your feet in hostile environments while still throwing out reality breaking spells, the War Mage is the subclass you need.
War Magic Features
Arcane Deflection: From level 2, whenever you get hit or fail a save, you can spend your reaction to increase your AC by 2, or add 4 to the save roll.
Both of these are big bonuses, especially just for spending a reaction, especially the save bonus, which is high enough that you should be able to predict whether it will shift your fail into a success.
Arcane Deflection has no limit on daily uses, but there is a cost. The turn after you use Arcane Deflection, you can only cast cantrips, and cannot cast any spells from level 1 or higher. But the strength of this ability, and that there are ways to build around this limitation, means that Arcane Deflection is class defining.
Tactical Wit: Also from level 2, gain a permanent bonus to initiative equal to your INT. Going first in combat, especially in the first round, is massive, and this makes you better at it than almost any other class.
Power Surge: Gain a power surge once per day, and gain more whenever you manage to Dispel or Counterspell someone else’s magic. If you have no surges when you rest, gain one.
What’s all this complication for? Spending a power surge lets you deal half your Wizard level as extra damage on a spell. Other classes gain abilities like this much earlier and have them linked to better scaling resources. Realistically, this is half your level as bonus damage once per day. It’s … not great.
Durable Magic: At level 10, whenever you’re concentrating on a spell, gain +2 to AC and saving throws. At this level, you’re almost always going to be concentrating on a spell, and the bonus stacks with Arcane Deflection. Or the Shield spell, for a ridiculous +7 to AC.
Deflecting Shroud: Your capstone, available at 14. Whenever you use Arcane Deflection, up to three targets of your choice within 60ft take force damage equal to half your level.
This is very powerful. It adds free damage while increasing your defenses, and builds on to a key ability that’s going to see regular use. It also has no limits on the number of times it can be used, and has enough range that you’re almost always going to find targets.
Most Wizards are specialists, focusing on a particular school of magic and investing heavily into it. The War Mage Wizard is a generalist and a tank, focusing on keeping themselves standing and untouched, no matter what comes.
Where other Wizards might have to shrink away from enemies, the War Wizard is comfortable standing much closer to the front lines, warding attacks that come their way with Arcane Deflection, backed up by their spells.
The Wizard spell list is the largest and most comprehensive in the game, and the War Mage still gets access to all of it. You can freely change spells every day, gain more casting slots when you take a short rest, and also have the widest list of ritual casting spells, which adds a ton of out-of-combat utility to the class.
A well played Wizard, protected by their party, is an incredibly powerful asset. The War Magic subclass lets your party focus on what they need to do, as they no longer have to worry so much about keeping you alive.
In combat, as long as they have spell slots, a War Mage can deal out high bursts of damage, disable key enemies with powerful debuffs, or control the flow of the encounter with AOE spells and battlefield shaping spells.
The biggest weakness of the War Magic Wizard is one they share with all wizards. A D6 hit dice.
It’s true that you’re going to be tougher than most other full casters, but anything that makes it through your defenses is going to hurt. So bear that in mind, and try not to antagonize that storm giant until the bruisers of the party have its attention.
Wizards are also entirely dependent on their spells to do anything. This is more of a lower level problem, but running out of spell slots normally means you’ll be throwing out cantrips and nothing else. Especially before level 5, be judicious with your spell slots, and don’t burn them for no reason. (For other ways around this, check the Multiclass part of the guide, below.)
Finally, your spellbook can be frustrating. While Wizards can eventually know their entire spell list, a Wizard only actually learns two spells per level. The rest require you to hunt them down and copy them into your spellbook, which takes time and gold. Some GMs will hand wave this, others won’t, so it’s important to take spells that you know you’re gonna use regularly.
Best Race Options
Githyanki: Decent stats, a tool proficiency, a language, and some free spells are the starting points. But we’re here for free proficiency in light AND medium armor. Strapping on a breastplate gives you better AC than Mage Armor, plus lets you boost it further with magic items.
Owlin: What’s better than tanking hits? Not getting hit. Owlin can fly, and also gain a language and Stealth proficiency, letting you take command of the battlefield from above.
Yuan-Ti: The updated version of the Yuan-Ti offers resistance against spells and poisons, which adds another layer to your already formidable defenses. If your GM lets you use the original version, this upgrades to epic, as it’s even stronger.
Choosing the Right Skills
Wizards as a class lack skill slots, so it’s important to make choices that are going to be useful on the regular.
As always, you should take Perception, unless you have a very good reason not to. INT based skills like Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature, and Religion build from your highest stat, meaning you’ll naturally be good at them.
Unless you want to build towards it, it’s best to stay away from social skills like Persuasion, and you generally won’t have the stat spread for physical skills like Athletics. On the upside, if the party can’t handle it, your spells probably can.
Alert: Another +5 to initiative almost guarantees you get that vital first turn, and other supplementary benefits make you even harder to kill. Good on all characters, great on the War Wizard.
Lucky: 3 luck points that can be used in the place of ability checks, your attack rolls, your saves, or enemy attack rolls is already good. Allowing you to use it after you see the roll is incredible, especially when you can boost most of these rolls with your Arcane Deflection abilities. Be lucky! Never fail a major roll again!
War Caster: War Wizards might expect to get hit a little more often than their peers, so Adv on concentration checks to keep key spells active, plus the ability to counterattack with cantrips is perfect. If you gain proficiency from somewhere, casting while holding shields and weapons is also a huge bonus.
Sage: Two INT-based skills, and two languages, plus a bunch of fluff that fits into the background of any Wizard. It’s traditional for a reason.
Archaeologist: Be Indiana Jones, learn History and Survival, a choice of useful tools, and an obscure language. Plus, have a reason to delve into all of these incredibly dangerous dungeons, like a crazy person!
Investigator: Available in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, Investigation, Perception, plus Thieves’ and Disguise tools are a hilarious package for an inquisitorial character who’s hunting for magical secrets.
A proviso, first. Wizards are a class that is surprisingly hard to multiclass out of, as most of their power comes from their spell progression, and taking levels in other classes can drop you behind the power curve. Bear that in mind before you decide to multiclass with your War Mage.
Armorer Artificer: Become an even bigger tank with the Armorer Artificer. Putting 3 levels into Artificer pushes your spell progression back slightly, but adds a bunch of utility, including tool proficiencies, extra cantrips, and magical infusions.
Putting all of this into defense turns the traditional squishy wizard into an even more terrifying juggernaut marching forward in magically bolstered full plate and shield, with a base AC of 22 that can be boosted to 24 every single turn, or spiked to 27 using Shield when needed.
You also gain access to healing spells and considering you might be the last person standing, that’s very useful to have.
Eldritch Knight: The early level abilities of the War Wizard make it a really good choice for a hybrid class. Splitting levels between EK and War Mage builds a character that can toss out debilitating spells before drawing their weapon and fighting alongside their allies.
A good build might focus on one handed weapons and shields to be tough and lay down the hurt, or a longbow to stand at long range. The best part of this build is how the actual downside of Arcane Deflection, not being able to cast spells, is no longer an issue. Just hit them instead!
Conquest Paladin: This build is MAD as hell, needing high scores in STR, INT, and CHA, (and realistically, CON.) But if you have the stats for it, a Paladin dip can be hilariously powerful.
The focus is, again, on becoming a tanky warrior. You need at least 2 levels for the key ability we’re here for. Smite. Smite allows you to burn spell slots for huge damage, and it doesn’t count as casting a spell, so can be used when you have Arcane Deflection up and running. Smite can also be used with the melee cantrips (Booming and Green Flame Blade) without running into issues, which is going to be your main avenue of attack.
Two levels are enough, but you could take a third for the Oath of Conquest, which gives access to Armor of Agathys, which adds a ton of temp HP and hurts enemies who actually manage to get past your defense, plus the decently scaling Command spell, and a once per day AOE fear aura.
Would I recommend playing a War Magic Wizard?
The War Wizard is a fantastically fun subclass. The most common reason a wizard stops casting spells is a critical lack of remaining HP. It’s hard to mouth the incantation to fireball when you’re bleeding all over the floor, after all, and the War Wizard’s abilities revolve around keeping them healthy above all else.
The lack of built-in specialization in the class is also a big deal. Some Wizards commonly run into issues in later levels as their chosen spell school starts to run light on dedicated options, defeating the point of their subclass. The War Wizard? They just keep doing what they’ve been doing all along. Throwing out world altering magic, while laughing off everything that tries to stop them.