Powergaming: Choosing a Wizard School Specialization

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Powergaming

blog_d20Wizards, apart from being arguably the most powerful character class in 3.5 D&D, have the neat ability to choose to specialize in a specific school of magic, just in case nigh-unlimited power wasn’t enough, in exchange for dumping the ability to use other schools. But what is the best school to specialize in? What schools do you dump? Is it really actually a good idea?

What is Specialization?

Spells are divided up into eight schools: Abjuration, Conjuration, Divination, Enchantment, Evocation, Illusion, Necromancy, and Transmutation, with a couple of spells falling into the otherwise irrelevant Universal category. Each school focuses on certain types of magic: for example, Abjuration has a lot of protective spells, Illusion has, well, Illusions, and so on.

Specialisation gives you an extra spell slot of every level spell you can cast, but the slot can only be used for the school of magic you choose. For example, a level 3 Necromancer gets bonus level 0, 1, and 2 slots which can only be used for spells which are in Necromancy.

The disadvantage is that you have to choose 2 schools which you can’t cast at all. For example, our Necromancer could choose Evocation and Transmutation; this would mean that no matter how hard he tried, he’ll never be able to learn Magic Missile or Bull’s Strength: the spells from banned schools are basically excluded from your spell list, so you can’t even use them from scrolls or wands. Diviners only give up one school, but no Wizard can give up Divination; this is because Divination has less spells and is pretty situational.

You must choose to specialize when you first take a level of Wizard; for most characters, this’ll be at first level, but specializing is also good for multiclass characters: a Fighter/Wizard really doesn’t need Necromancy, but would benefit from another Mage Armour.

For those with the book Complete Mage, it presents another option, the Focused Specialist, which sacrifices even more versatility for even more spell slots, and there is also the Master Specialist Prestige Class. I’m not going to discuss them further here, but be aware that these options exist.

A Wizard who doesn’t specialize is a Generalist.

School Analysis

Abjuration

The School

Abjuration is primarily pure magical attack and defence. Defensive spells include Protection from Evil and Shield; offensive spells include Dispel Magic and Dimensional Anchor.

Specialize?

Abjuration is pretty useful: you’ll use it a fair bit. It’s not a bad specialization, but you may not really want an Abjuration spell every single level.

Ban?

No. Very simple. There will always be a time you need Abjuration: Resist Energy against Dragons, for example; Dispel Magic against powerful casters. It’s simply too useful.

Conjuration

The School

Conjuration involves the semi-permanent creation of something. All Summons and Teleportation spells are Conjuration. There are also some excellent spells like Grease and Glitterdust. There are also a fair chunk of spells which don’t allow saves, such as Solid Fog.

Specialize?

Conjuration is a good option for specializing: it’s a good school, and it’s very easy to find a spell of each level which you want. If there’s ever a spell level where you don’t like the options, you can just take Summon Monster.

Ban?

Conjuration is a very versatile school, and the loss of Teleport will really hurt. I wouldn’t recommend dropping it.

Divination

The School

Divination is almost entirely information-gathering. Handy spells include See Invisibility and Scrying.

Specialize?

The advantage of specializing in Divination is you only have to ban one school. The disadvantage is you’re unlikely to need piles of Divinations. Basically, if you really don’t want to ban two schools for a better Specialization, then if you can bear to drop one then it’s mostly better than being a Generalist. If you have enough supplementary books, there are some decent Divination spells out there which make it a very good option.

Ban?

Well… the rules say you can’t. Probably a bad idea anyway… when you need a Divination spell, you really need it.

Enchantment

The School

Enchantment almost completely consists of offensive mind-effecting spells. There are some very powerful ones: Sleep is fantastic at very low levels, and spells like Dominate Person are neat at high levels.

Specialize?

Being an Enchanter is a neat idea, but the problem is the school has the versatility of a pancake. If you run into anything immune to mind-effecting spells, like Undead, or a half-decent high-level Wizard, then all your great Enchantments are as effective in combat as the aforementioned pancake. If you want to specialize in Enchantment, check with the DM: if you’re primarily fighting humanoids through the campaign, then it’s not a bad choice. Enchantment is also good for campaigns which are heavy on the roleplaying.

Ban?

Since Enchantment basically covers a single stereotype, you’re not losing that much by giving it up. Sleep can be substituted with Colour Spray, Dominate Person with Disintegrate, and you’re home free. Often Enchantment is a good option to dump.

Evocation

The School

Evocation is mostly direct-damage spells, like Magic Missile and Fireball. The various Bigby’s Hand spells are also Evocation. Finally, there are a host of utility spells which range from massively useful (Wall of Force), to completely pointless (Continual Flame).

Specialize?

Somewhere on the web there’s a picture saying “Friends don’t let friends specialize in Evocation”, which typically I can’t find when I need it. EDIT: Ha! Found it.

Friends Don't Let Friends Specialize in Evocation

Nevertheless, Evocation is… not terrible. There are some truly excellent spells, such as Wall of Force and Contingency. However, the trap is spells like Fireball: they’re a false economy. Fireball and similar spells still do the same damage as in 1st Edition, but things have more HP now, and if you’ve got decent allies then Haste will actually do more damage. Still, there are enough good spells that if you really want to, specializing is Evocation is fine. Just… please, don’t ban Transmutation, and don’t fill your spell slots with Fireball.

Ban?

Sure, you’ll miss Wall of Force, but you really don’t need the direct damage spells in Evocation. There are a few damage spells in other school, like Conjuration and Transmutation, and the best thing is the Illusion spell Shadow Evocation can cover some of the utility spells if you really need them. Evocation is a pretty good spell to drop.

Illusion

The School

As you might suppose, Illusion is about Illusions. A lot of Illusions get more powerful the more creative you are, and the friendlier the DM is. Invisibility is also in Illusion.

Specialize?

It’s a good option. There are good Illusions at every level, and if you can’t fill the slot there are the Image spells at most levels. Go Gnome for the DC bonus.

Ban?

You’ll miss Invisibility… if you’re not into Illusions, that’s about it. If you’ve also banned Enchantment you’ll miss Colour Spray. If you’ve banned Enchantment, you might miss Shadow Evocation. Other than that… go for it.

Necromancy

The School

This school is not so much about actually raising the dead, as inflicting various nasty effects on enemies. Nice spells include Ray of Enfeeblement, Ray of Exhaustion, and Enervation.

Specialize?

There definitely are good choices at most spell levels, but there aren’t many. You’ll be stuck into a few good spells, with little outside them. More supplementary books help, as does serious application of metamagic to fill higher spell slots.

Bonus: You get to call yourself a Necromancer.

Ban?

The advantage of banning Necromancy is there aren’t very many really good spells… but the good spells are absolutely fantastic. Keeping Necromancy is worth it just for Ray of Enfeeblement, Ray of Exhaustion, Enervation, and Finger of Death. I wouldn’t recommend dropping it.

Transmutation

The School

This is my favourite school. Almost all buffs are Transmutation: spells like Haste, Bull’s Strength, Enlarge Person, and Polymorph. There are also a mix of great utilities, like Rope Trick and Fly. Oh, and Disintegrate, which doubles as both a massively damaging spell, and a great wall-destroying utility.

Specialize?

Transmutation is huge. There are great options at every level, and a lot of spells to choose from. Transmutation is a really good option to specialization.

Just be glad you’re not playing 2nd Ed, because then it was Alteration, which puts me in the mind of someone changing the hem on trousers.

Ban?

Oh, please don’t. Please. Look through the PHB, look at how massive Transmutation is. Transmutation is worth it just for the 3rd level spells! Fly! Slow! Haste! Greater Magic Weapon!

Other Stuff

The PHBII allows a specialist to trade in their Familiar for other powers. They vary in quality… and tend to scale poorly with level. Of particular note is the Conjurer option, which allows you to kind of teleport out of combat: it’s so horribly broken every smart DM should get a permanent marker and scrub it out of their book. If your DM allows it, though… take it, but try not to abuse it too much, or the DM will attack you with the permanent marker.

Conclusion

Based on the size of the schools, and the awesomeness and versatility of the spells, Conjuration and Transmutation are the best schools to specialize in. If you’ve got the right supplementary books (Spell Compendium, Complete Arcane), then specializing in Divination is good too. Based on limited versatility, weakness, and non-essentialness, Enchantment and Evocation are the best to ban, with Illusion or maybe Necromancy as alternatives if you must.

There are those who would disregard all of this and simply not specialize. Generalizing does mean you have more versatility. I personally reckon specializing is the way to go, mainly because having more of your top-level slot is priceless. Most of the good Wizard guides out there agree that specializing is definitely worth it.

Remember: at any level, running out of spells makes you as effective as a wet slice of cheese. If you Generalize, you know you’ll regret it that one time when you think: “If only I had just one more Disintegrate…”

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About Duncan

Ellisthion first realised his love for RPGs with his first game of 1st Edition AD&D at age 10. Whilst he's branched out into other RPGs, he still has a soft spot for any and all variants of D&D. He also plays Warhammer Fantasy (poorly) and 40k (quite well), and way too many computer games. He prefers games with complex rules to learn and master, and favours high fantasy settings. He is currently undertaking the grueling task of running the 1st Ed AD&D Temple of Elemental Evil, in between extolling the virtues of D&D Next and boring everyone with mathematical analyses of his W40k Tau.
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