Skyrim Character Building » Discussions

Let's Build: a Pure Mage. Part I - Race

  • Member
    May 20, 2016

    In this discussion, I'd like to explore the various options available to those who want to create a build for (or just play!) a "pure mage".  

    This is the first in what I hope can be a series of discussions - not just discussions started by me, but by anyone who wants to get into the nitty-gritty of character build theorycrafting.  So, this isn't a discussion about a finished, polished, playtested build, but a discussion focused on the process.  Comments, feedback, disagreement, etc., are all welcome!  

    So if you'd like to play, I'd recommend starting a discussion with the "Let's Build:" title, and coming up with a character concept that you'd like to run through the paces of the CB group's collective genius.   Let's see what we can come up with!

    This particular build is focused on a simple concept, but one that I think still has mileage even now, 5 years out from Skyrim's release.  That is the "pure mage" archetype.  On the surface, this seems like a simple idea:  avoid using combat or stealth skills, and just focus on magic.  In practice, though, I think there are more considerations and even a few pitfalls.  So, what are my criteria for a "pure mage"?  The following:

    -strong focus on magic, with minimal (or nonexistent) use of weapons and armor

    -a blend of all (or most) magic disciplines. Conjuration + Illusion can win easily enough, but we want to utilize all the tools at our disposal!

    -minimal redundencies/maximum efficiency

    There are certainly disputes that can be made about these criteria, but I think they're a decent starting point.  So, with those ideas in mind, let's get building!

    The first decision you'll need to make involves race.  It is often said that in Skyrim, race doesn't matter.  I generally agree with this as it pertains to skill bonuses, but racial abilities and passives can have some great impacts on a character build.  For this discussion, I'd like to examine the 10 races available in the game and go into some detail about how they might (or might not) work in a pure mage build.  

    I see the 10 races dividing into 3 broad categories, or tiers, when it comes to using them as a foundation for a pure mage.  

    Tier 1 includes races that might be considered a "best fit" for mage builds.  These are, in my estimation, High Elves (Altmer), Bretons, Dark Elves (Dunmer), and Nords.  

    Tier 2 includes races that aren't necessarily optimal, but have some interesting abilities that make them worth consideration for certain approaches.  This tier is populated by Imperials, Wood Elves (Bosmer), and Argonians.

    Tier 3 includes races that don't have any standout strengths for a pure mage build.  Nevertheless, a creative builder may find something to work with.  This tier includes Orcs, Khajiit, and Redguards.

    No doubt we could refine things a bit further, maybe coming up with more tiers, but 3 is a manageable number.  

    On to a more specific look at the races.

    High Elves

    +10 Illusion; +5 Alteration, Conjuration, Destruction, Enchanting, Restoration

    +50 Magicka

    Highborn: Regenerate Magicka 25x faster for 60 secs, 1/day

    Additional Spell: Fury

    The Altmer are an obvious pick for just about any mage build.  Highborn and the skill boosts are great, but what's most notable is the huge boost in Magicka they enjoy at game start.  +50 Magicka as a constant racial buff means a High Elf can afford to spend a few levels on Health to shore up survivability, or just chase that blue bar to insane heights faster than any other race.  It also means that Magicka-boosting enchantments are less of a concern, freeing up slots for other enchants, such as resists or fortifications.  And a higher starting Magicka naturally makes Altmer faster at regenerating it, both in and out of combat.  

    That theme is carried to its masterful conclusion with the Highborn power, one of the more useful daily powers available in Skyrim.  Both Twisted Orthrus's Apprentice and Harry's Highborn push this concept even further by channeling the risky power of the Apprentice stone.  

    An Altmer focus on Magicka regeneration is probably best suited to non-stealth builds (since a character who can vanish has plenty of time to regen anyway) and non-Conjuration builds (since your summons will generally take the heat for you, allowing you to regen on the sidelines).  This makes High Elves ideal aggressive casters, weaving Illusion spells to befuddle foes and alternating with blasts of Destruction magic to thin the herd.  The fact that Altmer begin with the (very useful) Fury spell allows them to get a nice head start on their path to magical domination.  (And, as the tallest race in the game, Altmer are slightly faster than anyone else, allowing for evasive maneuvers.)


    +10 Conjuration, +5 Alchemy, Alteration, Illusion, Restoration, Speech

    Resist Magic 25%

    Dragonskin: Absorb 50% magic for 60 secs, 1/day

    Additional Spell: Conjure Familiar

    Bretons are a fan favorite.  Their skill bonuses and abilities suggest a more defensive style of play than the Altmer, and while missing out on extra Magicka hurts, this is arguably overcome by the fact that Bretons can easily achieve 100% spell absorption from level 1.  Several builds leverage the Breton/Atronach stone combination, perhaps most notably (though it's not a "pure" mage) Mason's Bronze Sentinel

    In terms of skills, Bretons drop Destruction and Enchanting and pick up Speech and Alchemy.  Alchemy is classed as a "Thief" skill in Skyrim, but it's perfectly fitting for a mage build in my opinion, since it was always considered a "Mage" skill in the previous games.  Speech, too, can have some utility in a mage build, since spell tomes, gear, and training all cost money.  Still, the skill bonuses are of comparatively little interest here.  Even the hefty head start on Conjuration just allows the Breton mage to toss a couple of early perk points into the skill; hardly a game-changer.  

    More impressive is the always-on 25% magic resistance.  If resistance, rather than absorption, is your thing, it's easy to see how this could become a cornerstone feature.  Take the Lord stone for another 25% resist; grab Alteration's Magic Resistance perks for another 30%, and we're a single enchanted item away from the magic resist cap of 85%.  Alternatively, the Apprentice stone becomes a more palatable option when its huge drawback is cut by a quarter (or more).  

    The combination of resistance and potential absorption makes Bretons excellent mage-hunters - a strong candidate indeed for a pure mage build.

    Dark Elves

    +10 Destruction, +5 Alchemy, Alteration, Illusion, Light Armor, Sneak

    Resist Fire 50%

    Ancestor's Wrath:  Flame cloak (8 pts/sec, 60 secs) 1/day

    Additional Spell: Sparks

    +10 Destruction is nice for a pure mage focusing on blasting, allowing early investment in important perks.  The daily power is fairly useless for our purposes, however, as it only puts out a bit of damage and (worse) requires close quarters.  The real reason Dunmer make the 1st tier is their great 50% fire resist.  I'm not sure which is the more common threat, fire or frost, but either way there are plenty of times when this will come in handy.  Fire resistance isn't something I'd necessarily spend an enchantment slot on (unless I had Extra Effect and could combine it with something else), so this is a nice, free ability - very thematic for a twisted, burned pyromage.  


    +10 Two Handed, +5 Block, Light Armor, One Handed, Smithing, Speech

    Resist Frost 50%

    Battle Cry: Targets flee for 30 sec, 1/day

    So the skill points here are entirely wasted on a pure mage, with the possible exception of a minor Speech boost.  Look past that and Nords make a rather fine chassis for a mage build.  Frost is one of the most common magical damage types in the game, if not *the* most common, and its secondary slow effect is more debilitating than fire.  A Nord wearing the Helm of Yngol is about as immune to frost as you're going to get.  

    Battle Cry also deserves a mention.  It's easy to see this as a "warrior" ability, but anyone who has played with fear effects knows there's something infuriating about fearing an opponent only to have to chase them down to hit them with your sword.  Mages don't have that problem.  Battle Cry and let your summons chase down the routers.  Battle Cry and wind up a master-level spell in safety, unleashing it when foes begin to regroup.  Battle Cry and transform into a different form.  Battle Cry and just blast them as they run away.  Or Battle Cry and heal.  It's an amazingly useful instant effect for a wizard, costing no Magicka and potentially saving your life.  

    [One important caveat:  Nords and frost magic may seem to go together like PB & J, but the vanilla game has a bug that weakens the effect of the Blizzard spell according to the frost (or magic) resistance of the caster.  Chase frost resistance as a Nord (or magic resist as a Breton) - or any other race - and your Blizzard damage will be pathetic.  There are ways to counter this (take the Apprentice stone to enhance your weakness to magic, or create a weakness to magic/frost *potion*), but it's an annoying hurdle.  This is fixed in the Unofficial Patch.] 


    +10 Restoration, +5 Block, Destruction, Enchanting, Heavy Armor, One Handed

    Imperial Luck:  bugged in vanilla

    Voice of the Emperor: Calm nearby people for 60 sec, 1/day

    Imperials have some potential, though they don't make it into tier 1 for a pure mage choice.  +10 Restoration is handy (for players like me at least, who have a hard time raising the skill quickly), allowing early use of wards and turn undead spells.  Imperial Luck is applied to ALL races in vanilla due to a bug, so Imperials don't actually get a gold-scrounging advantage (unless you have the Unofficial Patch).  

    But like the Nords' Battle Cry, the Imperials' Voice of the Emperor is extremely useful in the right conditions.  It's super thematic for Gandalf-types who want to exert their will over weaker individuals.  And it allows for some great setups of those sometimes-difficult-to-pull-off master-level spells.  But the "people-only" caveat limits this.  Probably its best use is against groups of mages, against whom an Imperial's defenses typically won't match those of a Breton, for example.  


    +10 Lockpicking, +5 Alteration, Light Armor, Pickpocket, Restoration, Sneak

    Resist Disease 50%, Waterbreathing, improved unarmed damage

    Histskin: Recover Health 10x faster for 60 secs, 1/day

    Again, the skills here are uninteresting.  So are most of the passive abilities, sadly.  Disease in the vanilla game is a mild annoyance at worst, easily cured and easily avoided.  Waterbreathing has its situational uses, allowing for quick escapes from land-based foes - but then, so does just, y'know, swimming.  The boost to claw damage isn't as high as that of the Khajiit, but an Argonian Transmuter build - who enchants Fortify Unarmed gear, dips into Heavy Armor for Fists of Steel, and hardens his muscles with Alteration - is oddly compelling. 

    But Argonians' daily power could have some uses for a pure mage. Ponty's Histmaster is a quick little build that showcases the interesting synergy between Alteration's Equilibrium spell, Restoration's Respite perk, and the awesome Health regen of Histskin.  

    Wood Elves

    +10 Archery, +5 Alchemy, Light Armor, Lockpicking, Pickpocket, Sneak

    Resist Poison *and* Disease 50%

    Command Animal 60 sec, 1/day

    Bosmer don't offer much to a pure mage build.  Their passive resistances are okay, but a mage isn't likely to get diseased or poisoned in most situations.  A Bosmer who works up Alchemy to take the Snakeblood perk gets full immunity to Chaurus poisons, which is considerable yet too situational for my tastes (especially when you consider that a simple ward blocks all poison spit attacks).  

    Still, there's some fun to be had with Command Animal at early levels, when having a Mammoth on your side is rather impressive.  Too bad this ability gets replicated by Animal Allegiance *and* Bend Will.  


    +10 Heavy Armor, +5 Block, Enchanting, One Handed, Smithing, Two Handed

    Berserker Rage:  Take 1/2 damage and deal double damage (physical only), 60 sec, 1/day

    With the Orsimer, we enter the bottom tier of races for a pure mage.  The skills are an obvious mismatch, but that doesn't matter except for the very initial levels anyway.  (I do like that Orcs get a small boost to Enchanting, though - it's fun to imagine an Orc tinkerer who rips apart magic gear and slaps together his own stuff.)  Far worse is the total lack of passive.... anything.  In earlier games, Orcs got some magic resist at least.  

    Their daily power isn't an obvious fit for a mage, either.  Berserker Rage does nothing to augment or resist magic.  I think there's *some* potential here for an unarmed "punching mage".  Alteration's flesh spells will only be improved, I assume, when you consider that you're already taking half damage, making them much more viable.  And punches from a raging Orc hit hard.  It's a little unconventional, but I'd kind of like to see it. 


    +10 One Handed, +5 Alteration, Archery, Block, Destruction, Smithing

    Resist Poison 50%

    Adrenaline Rush: Stamina regenerates 10x faster for 60 sec, 1/day

    Adrenaline Rush is probably the least useful of the 3 "regen" racial powers - especially for a mage, who won't be using Stamina except to sprint away from trouble.  Poison Resist is nice for a Redguard Alchemist, who can become immune with Snakeblood.  Apart from that, though, I'd give them a good leaving alone except for roleplay purposes.


    +10 Sneak, +5 Alchemy, Archery, Lockpicking, Pickpocket, One Handed

    Claws: unarmed strikes do extra damage

    Night Eye: night vision for 60 sec, multiple times/day

    Khajiit have the least to offer a pure mage.  Night Eye is unique in that it's not a once-a-day power, but unless you're playing with mods that adjust the bright vanilla lighting, it's just not useful.  The only boosted skills that could arguably be useful - Sneak and Alchemy - are easy to raise on their own anyway.  And Claws is nice, but with no other help from racial abilities it doesn't seem worth it.  Sorry, J'zargo.  

    In the end, I'm looking at either Altmer or Breton for my pure mage all-rounder, with Breton pulling slightly ahead.  The defensive advantage seems too good to pass up, and if we pair with the Atronach we'll be able to "regenerate" Magicka half the time we get hit with spells, thus making up for the loss of the Altmer racial.  But how would you approach a pure mage?  Have I missed some interesting combination?  Do you want to take me to task for any omissions, or provide some other examples?  Leave a comment below!

    Hopefully this analysis will raise some thoughts about what every race offers a mage build.  Next time we'll look at skills and perks, and getting the most out of our mage.  

  • May 20, 2016

    Well, despite Khajiit being my favorite race, I cant argue with your logic. Khajiit simply dont make very good pure mages, unless your plan is to engineer some kind of hybrid mage that could make sure of their stealth and melee proficiency. 

    I'm leaning more towards Altmer being the best mages. Sure, Bretons start with extra magic resistance, but any race can easily build that any number of ways. What the Altmer have over everyone else is 5 free levels of magicka. Throw in an atronach stone, and a Ring of Erudite, and you're looking at 200 extra magicka. Nothing is more important to a mage than a sizable supply of magicka. 

  • Member
    May 20, 2016

    Bretons have always been my favorite race in TES. Honestly, they just have the perfect feel for everything from Sorcerer to Witchhunter. A neat trick that can be done with the Breton is to become a Vampire and then take Necromage before any perks; following which, you get the Agent of Mara and take the Magic Resistance perks from Alteration - also, make sure to transform into and out of Vampire Lord form to get the Breton Magic Resistance to be reapplied with the bonus from Necromage. I forget what the total is, maybe 87.5%, but it certainly reaches the cap without using a Standing Stone! You don't even have to stay a Vampire Lord!

    On another note, I think that an Orc would actually be a viable candidate for a pure mage. If you apply the above Breton strategy, they should gain an innate ~56% magic resistance. Add this to the fact that Berserker Rage will reset each time the character shifts to Vampire Lord form, and you get a character who can cut both physical and magical damage in half! Not an opponent to take lightly...

  • Member
    May 20, 2016

    It's an interesting question - what's more important, the size of the magicka pool itself, or the speed of regeneration, or resists, or...?  

    +50 Magicka is absolutely excellent, especially in the early levels.  Eventually, though, items come along that can fortify your pool as much or more.  Savos Aren's Amulet offers +70 at a certain point, I believe.  Of course, a Magicka boost up front means you can invest in other areas.  

    Late-game, I would say that resists are more important than Magicka.  By that time, you may have the perks, cost-reduction enchants, and fortify enchants that allow you to sling spells efficiently, but enemies will be throwing hard-hitting spells at you, and it's likely you have a smaller Health pool.  

    That Highborn, though... 

  • Member
    May 20, 2016

    I actually stopped playing a mage who focused on magicka after my first couple of playthoughs as a pure mage. I started to find that it became too easy to spam away with dual casting and the impact perk, while sporting enchanted robes of magicka regeneration. Add in the ability to enchant reduction gear, and the feeling of being a mage who was powerful because of some sort of innate ability was completely lost... ever since then, I've played mages with a strict policy of only 100 points of natural magicka and no enchanted gear - finding loopholes and other ways of increasing one's power made my mages magical again, lol!

  • Member
    May 20, 2016

    I agree that resists can be important. Not to mention that a Breton can gain infinite concentration casting from level one if magicka is kept at 100 points. As for speed of regeneration, a clever wizard can invest in Alchemy and use fortify restoration potions to enhance the Recovery perks from the Restoration skill... no need for specially enchanted robes or fancy circlets of magicka!

    If you need to cast a really expensive spell, there is always Root of Power or Secret of Arcana to enable your wizard. The fact that it is limited adds to the fun, IMHO.

  • Member
    May 20, 2016

    In my honest opinion, I think you are severely underestimating both Dunmer and Imperial in regards to their +10 in destruction/restoration skills, as this boni alone are way more relevant than one might think. Allow me to explain. The issue with both these skills is that they level painfully slow. What they also have in common is that their apprentice level spells are not only some of the most cost efficient of their respective trees (and arguably the game, in some cases), they are also really good at leveling (in the form of runes and turn undead). So, with either a dunmer or imperial, you get the ability to get the most out of those spells at level 3, which is actually quite significant, as you can get to adept way faster.

    This means a better, more efficient level curve on two of the most used mage skills, while all other supplementary skills don't outlevel your main ones. With imperial, it is more situational, as Restoration isn't as viltal on a pure mage (unless you are playing support), but the ability to get to adept destruction as a dunmer faster makes it, imho, almost better than bretons (I still think altmer are better early game, as the +50 magicka and highborn allows them to level more efficiently and do so with more than one school). And yes, I know that on the late game the impact is way smaller, and by that point breton's defenses indeed stands out, but I dare say the speed in the early game more than makes up for it, as in the late game the race choice is less and less consequential due to crafting, standing stones, etc.

    On the side, dunmer also make for some of the best vampires in the game, which unlocks plenty of good synergies for a mage, even without exploits.

  • Member
    May 20, 2016

    I'd put Altmer as N1 here. Breton magic resistance is good but can easily be obtained with enchanted gear - built-in and custom. There are also magic resistance potions that can be bought and used. Breton Dragonskin power can be obtained with Advanced Atronach very early on or regularly, through the Miraak's gear. 

    The Highborn, on the other hand, does not have an equivalent and can be a lifesaver in a pinch.

  • Member
    May 20, 2016

    Actually, I believe berserker rage doesn't affect magic resistance, you still take the same damage from spells

  • May 20, 2016

    I would disagree that Nords should be in the first tier - much as I love me a Nord mage. I would swap em with Imperials because:-

    1) I think if you also have to take into account the canonical attitudes of the races to do with magic. Even though there were clearly great Nord mages in times past, in present day Skyrim a Nord studying magic is going against the grain of their culture. That's just not true for Imperials, who have the Arcane University in Cyrodill.

    2) Nords have NO skills relating to magic. So it's a bit of a stretch to say they are one of the standard mage races. Even Argonians have more than that.

    3) Battle Cry is nice, but a pure mage is going to have access to illusion spells to control the battlefield, useable often. Making Battle Cry a poor man's fear spell.