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Unearthed Arcana 2021: Mages of Strixhaven Breakdown

Last weekend, Amazon leaked the titles of the next two D&D hardbacks: The Wild Beyond the Witchlight and Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos. Monday, WotC announced those books, and on Tuesday, we got a new Unearthed Arcana with five new subclasses from Strixhaven. In case you’re unfamiliar, Strixhaven is a Magic: the Gathering block, making this the third official M:tG crossover into D&D. Its story, insofar as I understand it, is “Tom Brown’s School Days but for spellcasters,” which is an idea no one has had before now.

One of the most awkward parts of existing M:tG-to-D&D crossovers is M:tG’s five-color system engaging with 5e’s thirteen-class system. (Someday we’re going to talk about the fact that they didn’t introduce the artificer class in a Phyrexia book. Not today.) It’s handled really interestingly in Ravnica’s guilds and Theros’s gods, and it has to be solved again from the beginning for the Strixhaven magical schools.

To make this work, the design team has introduced subclasses that two or more classes could take. The difficulty should be obvious: classes receive subclass features as unequal levels, and receive an unequal number of subclass features. Sorry, bards – I guess you’re back to being dabblers in a whole new way.

Anyway, the structure of it all is that each of these five subclasses is an option for two or three classes, chosen from bard, druid, sorcerer, warlock, and wizard. (I was a little surprised to see clerics left in the cold here, as the other full casting class, but their 1, 2, 6, 8, 17 subclass steps are particularly aggravating for the structure this document puts forth.) Each feature has a minimum level that you can receive it, so they’re listed as Level 1+, Level 10+, whatever. You get all of the 1st-level features when you select that subclass, and the pick one of the higher-level features that you qualify for each time your class grants a new subclass feature.

In case you’re curious about the M:tG color breakdown of the schools as I was –

Lorehold: Red/White
Prismari: Red/Blue
Quandrix: Green/Blue
Silverquill: White/Black
Witherbloom: Black/Green

Mage of Lorehold

These are history mages without really being time mages. Congratulations, you found a way to take being a wizard and make it nerdier. (I am all about it, of course.) This subclass is for bards and warlocks as well as wizards. I’m really trying to get my head around what it means to be a warlock with a subclass that is not a Patron. The text touches on that – “eschewed the usual boons” – but those boons are so often the only expression of the patron’s identity that it’ll still be strange for them to be gone.

  • Lorehold Spells (automatic baseline feature) teaches sacred flame and comprehend languages, as well as two more spells at each of the next four odd-numbered levels. I don’t have the clearest sense of the narrative behind these spells – it goes heavy on information-gathering utility, with a few destructive options along the way. They’re bonus spells known for bards and warlocks (a clear improvement over the way warlocks usually have to pay for their expanded spell list), and added to the wizard’s spellbook for free.
  • Ancient Companion (automatic baseline feature) stuffs the souls of the dead into a statue, which becomes a combat pet for you. You can choose between making it a Healer, Sage, or Warrior, which affects its stat block in the way you’d expect if you’ve read TCOE’s new Beast Master companion feature, or all of the new summon They all look pretty fun, though I’m not sure the Sage’s +2 to Int and Wis checks to you and allies within 15 feet feels Very 5e in its style, or competes all that convincingly against Healer or Warrior.
    • These do improve with later features, though, so let’s not make up our minds yet.
    • I like how robust your healing of your combat pet is – uses an action, heals 10 hp x spell slot level expended.
  • Lessons of the Past (level 6+) grants an additional feature directly to you, based on which Ancient Companion bond you have.
    • Healer improves your max and current hit points by your level in this class, and improves the healing you receive when you regain hit points from a spell. Nice to have – since you’re not a front-line combatant, it’s good to be very efficient to heal when you do need healing.
    • Sage grants advantage on the whole boat of knowledge skills – Arcana, History, Nature, and Religion. It also tacks on 1d8 force damage to one damaging spell of 1st level or higher that you cast, once per turn. Nice to see Sage delivering on being a caster gameplay pet. This one does very little for a warlock, because it only works when you’re spending a spell slot.
    • Warrior lets you make a weapon attack with a d8 damage kicker when you cast a cantrip. Yay, we found a use case for blade ward! It’s nice to see a melee bard or warlock get something to do here. This is unbelievably good for a warlock. You know, just in case they weren’t already damage leaders? I have some concern that it’s too much.
  • War Echoes (level 10+) lets you remind your target of previous injuries, as a reaction when a creature you can see hits that target. On a failed Wisdom save, the target gains vulnerability to that damage flavor for a round and includes the triggering attack. You get to use this PB times per long rest.
    • If your group is set up for it, this could be one of the most incredible damage buffs ever put in the game. God help the target if the crits start landing.
  • History’s Whims (level 14+) draws in some of the time mage thing, as a story justification for three different benefits. You choose one benefit per turn for 1 minute and can’t use the same benefit two turns in a row. You can use this once per long rest, or refresh it by expending a 4th-level slot.
    • Luck lets you add a d6 to saving throws against damaging effects for a turn.
    • Resistance grants resistance to B/P/S damage for a turn.
    • Swiftness grants a +15 ft speed buff that also lets you avoid opportunity attacks for that turn.
    • Not being able to use any of these twice in a row is a fascinating tactical restriction, in that the benefit doesn’t become an assumed part of your playstyle. You can’t just charge in to soak up damage all the time, because you might still be in that tight spot next round. Curious to see if that restriction makes it through playtesting.

I like what I see here – it would be rough to play this as a bard and have to choose between History’s Whims and War Echoes (me, I’d take War Echoes to murder bosses with). I’m surprised the combat pet doesn’t get another nod in the 14th-level feature, because it will be such a central part of your gameplay experience. The lore nerd story here remains a huge draw for me – I’m playing a Scribe wizard right now, but these mechanics would have been a solid fit too. (And Red/White is a reasonable color-wheel expression of that character.)

Mage of Prismari

The story of Prismari is combining physical motion with elemental (specifically cold, fire, and lightning) energies. If you think about the sorcerer-monks of Dr. Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe starring Barleycorn Cummerbund, I think you’ve got a surprisingly good foundation, other than the movie’s heavy use of a mirror realm. It wants to be a uniquely kinetic form of spellcaster (not in the telekinesis sense). It’s for druids, sorcerers, and wizards.

  • Creative Skills (automatic baseline feature) grants proficiency in two skills, taken from Acrobatics, Athletics, Nature, or Performance. Sure, okay – Nature for understanding the physical world, everything else for that sense of physical action and motion.
  • Kinetic Artistry (automatic baseline feature) gives you three different effect options when you Dash as a bonus action. You can use them proficiency bonus times per long rest.
    • Boreal Sweep lets you run over water, and when you move away from a creature (or multiple creatures, I guess?) you can knock them down if they fail a Strength save. The language here is slightly different from Scorching Whirl, but I assume it still means you can knock down all creatures adjacent to your departure square or path, not just one creature.
    • Scorching Whirl, maybe unsurprisingly, splashes fire damage on everyone in a 5-ft radius, Dex save to avoid, once per turn after you Dash. (Of course you can use the Dash action and move zero feet, if that’s what you need at the time.) A tidy little AoE damage kicker.
    • Thunderlight Jaunt lets you move through other creatures’ squares without triggering opportunity attacks, and pushes you to the nearest unoccupied space harmlessly if you end in an occupied space. As a spellcaster, a panic-button escape power is probably at least as useful as something that keeps you in harm’s way but does damage or knocks the enemy down.
    • Without having looked at any of the M:tG Strixhaven cards, I have an incredibly clear picture in my mind of all of these as cards.
  • Favored Medium (level 6+) gives you resistance to one of cold, fire, or lightning, and when you cast a spell that deals that damage flavor, you also share resistance to that damage type to creatures within 5 feet of you until the end of your next turn.
    • Nice to have, though the way creature design tends to work, you often won’t want to deal the same type of damage you need resistance to – that is, an enemy that deals a bunch of fire damage often has their own fire resistance or immunity.
  • Focused Expression (level 10+) builds on Favored Medium, with an extra feature for cold, fire, or lightning. When you deal damage with a spell, you get a bonus effect based on your Favored Medium choice.
    • Cold deals 1d6 extra damage to one target and reduces its speed by 10 ft on a failed Con save.
    • Fire deals 1d6 extra damage to one target and grants another creature of your choice within 30 feet 1d6 temporary hit points.
    • Lightning deals 1d6 extra damage to one target and denies them reactions on a failed Dex save.
    • These are all nice bonuses that reward direct-damage spellcasting with more direct damage and no particular usage limit other than 1/turn. If you can deal damage in your off-turn, maybe with a spell that damages targets at the start of their turn, you can wring a LOT more power out of this.
  • Impeccable Physicality (level 14+) grants Dex save proficiency, and reliable talent (rolls of 1-9 are treated as 10) for Dex saves. The latter is a very nice defensive boost, if you also have a decent-to-good Dex bonus, you could get to never failing a Dex save. Nice to have, though only pretty good without a source of Evasion.

Overall I like the imagery of the Prismari, but I’m not sure a movement-centered playstyle is going to intersect smoothly with druid, sorcerer, or wizard – their fragility and general lack of a way to avoid or impose disadvantage on opportunity attacks means that Kinetic Artistry is more a tool of last resort than something you want to use aggressively. Thunderwave followed by Thunderlight Jaunt is a solid pairing, at least. I think this one is promising but not quite there yet – what I’d like the very most is for the features to nudge them more toward a monk-mage concept. Getting to the Four Elements Total Landscaping monastic tradition from the other end, as it were.

Mage of Quandrix

And here I thought Lorehold was nerdy! These mages get their magical powers from their math habit. Sorcerers and wizards only. Which is funny because I bet you could get a lot of gamers on Twitter excited about saying that math was their patron, and I’d definitely expect to hear about math college.

(Please someone stop me before I riff on all of Robert Aspirin’s novel titles.)

  • Quandrix Spells (automatic baseline feature) grants guidance and guiding bolt, as well as two new spells at each of the next four odd-numbered levels. The spells are a mix of creature buffs and terrain transformations.
  • Functions of Probability (automatic baseline feature) lets you add or subtract a d6 from one d20 roll of a creature you target with a spell, or a creature within 30 of your target. For the beneficial effect, the targeted creature makes the decision. The wording on Supplemental Function looks a little strange, just because its time limit (“once before the beginning of your next turn”) is not common. I think I’m also surprised that the detrimental one grants a saving throw.
    • I’m having a hard time seeing this as not being “d6 Bardic Inspiration but a LOT more often.” We’re talking about something pretty close to every spell you cast in a day?
  • Velocity Shift (level 6+) lets you teleport a creature that starts its turn or moves to a space within 30 feet of you; you move them to another space within 30 feet on a failed (possibly voluntarily failed) save. This costs a reaction, and you can use it proficiency bonus times per long rest.
    • This is a great way to run melee enemies out of movement speed before they get to a target, by shoving them back 30 feet. Or, you know, shoving them back and up 30 feet, so they take 3d6 falling damage, fall prone, and also don’t reach you. To say nothing of dropping them off of tall places.
    • I’m… not wild about this power. I mostly see how frustrating it’s going to be as a DM, even with just intended use.
    • “Tell me you’re a blue card in Magic without saying ‘blue’ or ‘Magic.’”
  • Null Equation (level 10+) lets you reduce a creature’s physical prowess after you deal damage to it – disadvantage on Strength and Dex saves, and half weapon damage, if the target fails an initial Con save. It lasts until the start of your next turn, and you get a number of uses equal to your proficiency bonus.
    • I don’t know that we see single-target debuffs of this kind all that often. It’s a short-duration, slightly more effective (works on Dex-based attacks, and that save debuff) ray of enfeeblement.
  • Quantum Tunneling (level 14+) grants quasi-incorporeality – resistance to B/P/S damage, and you can move through solid objects as difficult terrain, for a cost in damage. You get shunted to an unoccupied space if you end your turn in an occupied one.
    • I like the idea of quantum tunneling as a feature concept, but resistance to weapon damage and moving through objects doesn’t feel like it hits the mark of a feature name that grandiose to me.

Overall, I don’t think the Jimi Quandrix Experience quite adds up for me. The throughline here is that every feature except Quandrix Spells can be directly used to solve the problem of melee enemies getting up in your face as a caster. For a short time, you’re even a dominating tank at 14th+ level, if your target does you the favor of failing those Con saves against Null Equation. Denial and debuffing are a playstyle that mostly ruins a DM’s fun, and I’d like to protect the ability of DMs to have fun.

Also? There’s no hint of Green in this.

Mage of Silverquill

I’m playing a Scribe wizard right now, so another mage concept that is narrowly about the written word is interesting. The flavor text here talks about saving friends and bringing despair to enemies, so I’m looking for some kind of poison-pen poet. Let’s see if that’s what the designers were thinking with this bard/warlock/wizard subclass.

  • Eloquent Apprentice (automatic baseline feature) teaches you either sacred flame or vicious mockery, and gives you proficiency in two skills, chosen from Insight and the Charisma skills.
    • Insight and the Charisma Skills is my New Wave synthpop band name.
  • Silvery Barbs (automatic baseline feature) lets you force an enemy to reroll a successful d20 roll, and if the reroll turns it to a failure, you or an ally within 60 feet gets to reroll one failed d20 roll in the next minute. Your use of this feature is only consumed when you cause a failure, and it’s 1/long rest unless you expend a spell slot to refresh it.
    • It takes a good bit of language to explain (okay, nowhere near as much as the Lorehold combat pet), but this certainly carries that theme of using your words to tear down enemies and build up friends.
  • Inky Shroud (level 6+) teaches you darkness and lets you cast it for free once per long rest; you can see through the darkness that you cast for free, and you can make it deal 2d10 psychic damage to a creature standing in its area. Darkness that you cast with a spell slot doesn’t get the extras.
    • I love this ink-blot feature…
    • …but I’m not sure if looks more like a butterfly or kids picking on me in middle school.
  • Infusion of Eloquence (level 10+) lets you substitute in either psychic or radiant damage when you cast a damaging spell and add your proficiency bonus to the damage dealt to each affected creature. If you change it to psychic damage, the target is frightened of you until the beginning of your next turn; if radiant, charmed for the same duration. Especially coming off the many small saving-throw effects of earlier subclasses, I’m surprised that there aren’t independent saves for these rider effects. Proficiency bonus uses per long rest, of course.
    • Damage leading into a charm is sort of an odd idea any way you slice it, and using radiant damage to do it is still kinda weird. I don’t hate it, but I think it’s a stretch in the narrative. A psychic fearball, on the other hand, basically explains itself. (Psychic Fearball is my speed metal band name.)
  • Word of Power (level 14+) teaches you two words of power.
    • Deadly Despair improves your Silvery Barbs, so that when your reroll causes a failure, you also give the target vulnerability to one damage type of your choice until the start of your next turn. Which means you don’t get to take advantage of it, but your allies can go to town on that poor bastard. Kick them when they’re down, it’s the best time to kick people!
    • Selfless Invocation lets you halve damage that a friend would take, taking the other half of the damage yourself as psychic damage. Which you can have resistance to, through various means such as intellect fortress. You don’t have the hit points to do this kind of thing all the time, but moving damage around to less-threatened targets is always a nice trick to have in your back pocket. It’s one of the only ways I can think of to apply two different damage resistances to the same instance of single-flavor damage.

Overall I like Silverquill a lot. They elevate cattiness to a magical art form – the classic of “scathing wit with a tender side.” I feel like it would be popular among my players as well. Other than the ink-blot, the visual signatures can be fairly subtle here, which suits the “unassuming but venomous scholar” concept quite well. Any subclass that reminds me this much of Lantry in Tyranny is doing something right.

Mage of Witherbloom

This is a decay-and-rebirth druid concept. What if a goth became a druid? Black roses, black lace, lot of perfume from BPAL, easy win with the fan art crowd. Warlocks can also take this one, and on aesthetic alone, I’m expecting a dead simple Unseelie/Gloaming fey translation. Let’s see if that plays out in the features. It’s interesting to see one “mage” subclass that wizards can’t join.

  • Witherbloom Spells (automatic baseline feature) teaches you spare the dying, cure wounds, and inflict wounds, as well as a spread of healing and necrotic spells at each spell level up to 5th I will say, once you have revivify as a warlock, it gets real hard to spend that last Pact Magic slot.
    • There’s a typo where greater restoration got placed at 7th level, but that’s the very reason why they put rubbers (US audience: erasers) on the ends of pencils. (“To f*ck hamsters?” “No. Because people make mistakes.”)
  • Essence Tap (automatic baseline feature) makes me wonder how to turn the feature 90 degrees clockwise. It’s basically a magical stance that you enter as a bonus action, lasting for 1 minute. You can use this feature proficiency bonus times per long rest. The two stance options are:
    • Overgrowth, which enchants the target land to give two Gr… no, that’s not it.
    • Overgrowth lets you spend a Hit Die to heal the result + your spellcasting modifier when you activate the power, and as a bonus action thereafter. It’s a very small resource pool at the start of play, but it’s still good self-healing.
    • Withering Strike lets you change damage you deal to necrotic, and ignore resistance to necrotic damage. As long as they’re not necrotic-immune, then, you can know for sure that your damage isn’t getting resisted at all.
    • My only concern with this feature is how soon you’ll run out of juice to power Overgrowth, maybe all the way into tier 2 play.
  • Witherbloom Brew (level 6+) lets you make a cauldron of brews (a number of picks equal to your proficiency bonus, from a list of three brews) – especially appealing compared to the Alchemist artificer’s randomized crafting. Unused brews lose effectiveness after 24 hours.
    • Fortifying grants resistance to one of cold, fire, necrotic, poison, or radiant for 1 hour to the recipient creature.
    • Quickening causes this huge light show because someone else’s head fell off under mysterious circumstances. Nnnno, that’s something else.
    • Quickening restores 2d6 hit points and purges one disease or one instance of charmed, frightened, paralyzed, poisoned, or stunned. For some of these, of course, you’re never applying it to yourself.
    • Toxifying creates a blade poison that adds 2d6 poison damage to one weapon strike, plus poisoned on a failed Con save. Nice to have, though the action to apply makes it a step harder to use well. (All three brews are an action to use or apply to someone else.)
  • Witherbloom Adept (level 10+) adds your proficiency bonus to necrotic damage dealt or healing done to one target, 1/turn. This kind of feature isn’t flashy on the level of some others, because it’s “only” adjusting the math, but +4 to +6 damage or healing per turn adds up fast.
  • Withering Vortex (level 14+) turns one of your necrotic damage spells into a life drain, as long as the creature damaged isn’t undead or a construct. A creature of your choice, but not you for whatever reason, regains hit points equal to half the damage you dealt. You can use this proficiency bonus times per long rest.
    • Damaging an enemy to heal yourself or your team basically can’t help but be a fun and popular mechanic. Turning the always-fun blight into, approximately speaking, 4d8 healing also is incredible, to say nothing of adding this to finger of death as a warlock (seriously averaging 30 hit points of healing, and more once you decide whether to add Witherbloom Adept to damage or healing output).
    • Edit: An Alert Reader has pointed out to me that Mystic Arcana are not spell slots, a rules detail that my brain simply refuses to retain, and therefore warlocks can’t use finger of death with Withering Vortex.

Witherbloom starts a little bit slow, as Essence Tap does good things for you but only indirectly increases damage output, and Witherbloom Brew has a carefully limited throughput in a day. Witherbloom Adept starts to show how strong it’s going to be, and Withering Vortex finishes very strong. You don’t often see a final feature exciting enough to potentially justify the whole subclass, but Withering Vortex might rise to that level for me.

Some of the subclasses in this document don’t quite land for me, but that’s about individual features, and synergy or absence thereof. The function of subclasses that suit multiple classes is incredibly cool, because an organization that multiple classes can engage with obviously has a greater chance to impact any given game. Stories you tell about that organization are more likely to be personally meaningful to a player, and that’s a great goal.

It’ll be more complicated, not to say impossible, to offer something similar to barbarians, fighters, monks, paladins, rangers, and rogues. This could solve an unanswered design need in my homebrew campaign setting, dating back to 2012 or so, if I can get around the big differences in subclass design. Paladins, rangers, and rogues are all serious problem children here, for various reasons.