What Do I Know About First Impressions? Unearthed Arcana 2021: Mages of Strixhaven (D&D 5e)
Today a new Unearthed Arcana dropped for D&D 5e, and I really want to jump into this one. The theme of this one is Mages of Strixhaven, a Magic: The Gathering setting about magical colleges which is getting its own hardcover this fall. That said, my excitement over looking at this is more about what this Unearthed Arcana is doing, versus what its theme is. This is the first time we’ve seen official subclasses that are designed to be used with multiple classes. How does that even work? Well, let’s take a look.
The Old College Try
The colleges detailed in this document are as follows:
- Lorehold College (History, time, and ancient spirits)
- Prismari College (Performing arts and elemental manipulation)
- Quandrix College (Magic as expressed by mathematical formula)
- Silverquill College (Magic as expressed by words)
- Witherbloom College (Life and death as balanced energies)
If you look at the theme of each college, you may also pick up that while all these subclasses can be used by multiple classes, which classes are likely represented by each tradition will vary.
The Big Question
How do you make a subclass that works for multiple classes, when different classes get their subclass abilities at different levels? In this case, you present each subclass ability with a minimum level range. If you take the subclass, and you are the minimum level or above when your subclass feature kicks in, you can pick that feature.
This does mean that not every class will get every aspect of the subclass. While its ancillary to the work being done, it might be worth noting how many subclass advances each class gets. This is also an interesting thing to look at, as it tends to show which classes are more heavily defined by their subclasses rather than their primary class.
- Bard–3rd, 6th, 14th
- Druid–2nd, 6th, 10th, 14th
- Sorcerer–1st, 6th, 14th, 18th
- Warlock–1st, 6th, 10th, 14th
- Wizard–2nd, 6th, 10th, 14th
This makes for an interesting balancing point, because it means that the opening ability must feel worth it for classes that get their subclass at varying levels between 1st to 3rd level. Since every class gets something at 6th level, that also means that the 6th level class feature probably needs to do some heavy lifting as the “iconic” ability of the subclass.
While we’re still on the “meta” topic, two things jump out at me with this design.
- Druids are slotted into the same general role as other casters, which feels like a slight nudge further from “worships nature instead of gods” into more specific and less reverent “uses nature magic.” I don’t think that’s the actual story here, but it’s still interesting that even the tenuous “what implement do they use” grouping isn’t used to delineate casters in this instance.
- Artificers would seem to fit into the “college” paradigm, and are even present in a non-Eberron book, but they still don’t get a nod. This may be because unlike all the classes above, Artificers get their subclass boosts at 3rd, 9th, and 15th level, meaning that “middle” range 6th level ability may not have as much oomph to make it worth waiting until 9th level.
However, this is all conjecture at this point. Let’s start the actual digging.
Normally Unearthed Arcana will point out that things like multiclassing are a late-stage design concern and not directly addressed in these documents. In this case, however, we’re specifically told that once you take one of these subclasses, you can’t take the subclass again if you multi-class into another class for which the subclass can be taken. No double or triple dipping.
Mage of Lorehold
The Mage of Lorehold subclass is for bards, warlocks, and wizards. Interesting that sorcerer is one of the “core” arcanist classes that people think of, but warlocks get the nod. Wizards and bards likely make the cut because, well, learning is a big part of this. I think warlocks are in the mix, however, because this also involves channeling ancient spirits for knowledge, and warlocks know a thing or two about channeling the will of other beings.
The subclass abilities for this college are the following:
- Lorehold Spells (additional spells added to your spell list) –1st+
- Ancient Companion (three flavors of spirit friends) –1st+
- Lessons of the Past (special abilities based on your current spirit companions) –6th+
- War Echoes (give an enemy vulnerability to a damage type until the end of their next turn) –10th+
- History’s Whims (pick between three different benefits each turn while active, a bonus die on saves, resistance to standard damage types, or a boost in speed) –14th+
Ancient companion is a +proficiency bonus “pet” that can be commanded with a bonus action, and if it is brought to 0 hit points, it can come back after a short or long rest. Lessons of the past is a persistent benefit. War echoes is a proficiency bonus limited ability, and History’s Whims is a once per long rest that can be recharged by sacrificing spell slots. It is also noted that Lorehold Spells and Ancient Companion go together, you don’t need to pick one or the other.
Wizards and Warlocks already have a progression close to this subclass, and bards will miss out on at least one of these features. Given that LONG trek between 6th and 14th level, that means War Echoes or History’s Whims will be lost, and both have some nice benefits.
I’m happy to see the flexibility of the spell slot recharge getting more design space, but your poor warlock is going to have to take even more naps if they want extra uses of History’s Whims. Overall, I like this one, but at least part of that is because when I read “carry a dead companion around with you that can camp out in a statue,” I immediately thought about using this subclass for an Aerenal elf caster character in Eberron.
Mage of Prismari
This subclass is for Druids, Sorcerers, and Wizards. I’m kind of surprised that this one, which is “expressing arts through mastery of the elements,” doesn’t rope in bards as well. In fact, the only real “nature” thing about this is that druids get a lot of elemental spells. At any rate, let’s keep moving, something the Prismari apparently like to do as well.
The subclass abilities here are:
- Creative Skills (bonus proficiencies) –1st+
- Kinetic Artistry (bonus action dash with elemental effect in your wake, knocking someone prone, doing fire damage, or passing through occupied spaces) –1st+
- Favored Medium (resistance to an element, create aura of that element that lasts until the end of your next turn when you cast a spell of that element) –6th+
- Focused Expression (gain a cold, fire, or lightning special effect when casting a spell) –10th+
- Impeccable Physicality (proficiency in dex saves and reliable saves) –14th+
Like the previous subclass, you don’t have to choose between 1st level abilities. Kinetic Artistry is a “per proficiency” ability, and you can change Favored Medium with a short or long rest. Everything else in this subclass is a persistent effect that modifies other abilities.
From a thematic standpoint, I can see sorcerers or wizards learning magic to express it in a flashy, performative manner, but it still feels like an odd fit for druids, especially since it seems to mainly be about spell lists. Using nature magic always feels like it’s at least somewhat about being responsible and being flashy doesn’t seem to fit that paradigm. On the other hand, this feels like the bard’s wheelhouse, but it’s a poor fit because bards don’t get much in the way of elemental spells.
If you did work bards into the subclass, it would require a bonus spell list, which I think they were trying to avoid being a default for all of these subclasses. The creative skills list is less needed for bards, and bards already get dexterity save proficiency, although they may really want that “no lower than a 9” reliability. I can see where it might get sticky to, ahem, dance around bards with this one. Maybe replace the skills with a bonus spell list? It’s not like sorcerers and wizards can’t take the performer background for the proficiencies.
Mage of Quandrix
Mage of Quandrix is expressly for wizards and sorcerers only. This is because bards and druids have all their elective spots spoken for, and warlocks apparently can’t sell their souls to math. Or use a calculator on tests, because you know they would.
The subclass features for this subclass are:
- Quandrix Spells (bonus spells) –1st+
- Functions of Probability (add or subtract a d6 for certain effects when you cast a spell) –1st+
- Velocity Shift (teleport a creature that is moving to somewhere within 30 ft) –6th+
- Null Equation (impose disadvantage and half damage when you damage a creature) –10th+
- Quantum Tunneling (gain resistance to standard damage types, move through creatures and objects if you are willing to take damage) –14th+
Again, you get both 1st level abilities together, rather than choosing one or the other. Velocity Shift and Null Equation are both per proficiency abilities. Quantum Tunneling is a persistent ability once it is gained.
So, from what I understand, the math theme should be that “math magic” is good at shifting the properties of what “is,” so movement in space and time, and properties should be what’s at play. I get that with the extra spells, Velocity Shift, and Quantum Tunneling, but not as much with Functions of Probability or Null Equation. Random d6s on casting a spell don’t feel like additional effects mapped out with precision math magic.
Mage of Silverquill
This college is about using words to enhance or hinder others. It makes sense that this is one of the subclasses that includes bards but is also usable by warlocks and wizards. I understand the warlock by virtue of being a charisma caster, but I’m curious to see if I can shake the potential issues of what they are actually contracting with to get their power.
The subclass abilities for this college are:
- Eloquent Apprentice (extra cantrip and proficiencies) –1st+
- Silvery Barbs (reaction to cause a reroll on d20 roll, and allow ally to reroll) –1st+
- Inky Shroud (add darkness to spell list, do psychic damage to those in darkness) –6th+
- Infusion of Eloquence (can change damage type of spell to psychic or radiant, add fear or charm effect) –10th+
- Word of Power (ability to add vulnerability to damage when Silvery Barbs is used, or to give an ally resistance, and taking damage that your ally takes) –14th+
Once again, you get both 1st+ abilities together. This grants you one of my two favorite cantrips, vicious mockery. Silvery Barbs is once per long rest, and you can expend a spell slot to use it again, however, you don’t use up the ability unless the reroll of your opponent fails. Inky Shroud gives you a free darkness spell, but you get the kicker abilities for any darkness spell you cast. Infusion of eloquence is a proficiency bonus per long rest limiter. Words of power is an ongoing additional effect.
First off, when I saw “words” were involved, I was hoping to get a Truenamer by another name, but the focus on ink as well as the spoken word derails that a bit. Despite this, I really like the subclass. Words + ink is a great theme for an arcane spellcaster, and I love the additional abilities granted.
That said, I’m having a harder time picturing this one for the warlock. I know that the document says that technically your college counts as your “patron,” but that doesn’t feel right to me. How does that even work, selling your soul to a college? Would you just eternally owe them for the time you spent there, never able to work off your debt?
Yeah, nevermind. I get it.
Mage of Witherbloom
This college is all about the balance between life and death as natural forces. Interestingly, your traditional arcanists, i.e., wizards and sorcerers, aren’t included. This is all about druids and warlocks. In this case, it’s easier for me to picture druids focusing on the cycle of life and death as a subset of nature, and I can even see warlocks making a nebulous pact with nature or even a representative entity that represents the balance. Maybe reflavor this as a psychopomp warlock patron? Maybe, we’ll see when we look at the abilities.
- Witherbloom Spells (extra spells) –1st+
- Essence Tap (bonus action spending hit dice or resistance free necrotic damage) –1st+
- Witherbloom Brew (create 24 hour limited potions to create resistance, heal and remove conditions, or create poison) –6th+
- Witherbloom Adept (add proficiency bonus to damage or healing spells) –10th+
- Withering Vortex (syphon hit points when doing necrotic damage) –14th+
You know the drill . . . the 1st level abilities are both gained at the same time, not one or the other. Essence tap lasts for a minute and can be triggered a proficiency bonus number of times. You can create proficiency bonus number of potions once per long rest with Witherbloom Brew. Witherbloom Adept triggers once per turn when you do damage or heal someone with a spell. Withering Vortex is proficiency number of uses per long rest.
Okay, so not quite “Psychopomp Patron,” but this is a very “witchy” class, between expanding healing abilities to a traditionally non-healing class, removing conditions, and the ongoing brewing ability. I really like it. No offence to Magic: The Gathering, but I like that this one reflavors a druid or warlock to a more witch feeling character. I’m a fan.
As far as the specific subclasses go, I really like Lorehold, Silverquill, and Witherbloom. I think the overall “story” of Quandrix gets lost. Prismari isn’t bad, but it feels like it’s kind of fighting the framework that it’s operating within, especially by excluding bards.
From a class expectation standpoint, I know this is for a Magic: The Gathering tie-in, so there are some imperfect expectations, but I really like the warlock to have a clearer patron than “that school I went to.” It’s not too hard to come up with patrons that match the themes in most cases, however. I know the class levels don’t line up as well, but I did miss seeing artificers get in on the fun with some of the colleges.
From the standpoint of returning mechanics, I really like per ability score bonus and the occasional “spend a spell slot to recharge” mechanic, although that may or may not be rough for warlocks depending on how often you let them nap.
For the most part, I think the 6th level abilities do work as a good “thesis statement” for the college in question. Even those that I don’t think had as strong a theme overall, like Quandrix, have a strong 6th level ability that plays into their theme.
When it comes to multiple class subclasses, I do hope to see more done with this concept in the future. I’m sure it’s a challenging space to work within, but I think it can also potentially do some exciting things, and maybe even serve a similar function as multiclassing.