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For playing in Pathfinder Society, I'm trying to decide whether to play either a level 1 Arcanist or a level 1 Wizard with the archetype Exploiter wizard.

While still adhering to Society guidelines, I'd like my character to be as powerful as possible — able to cast the most and widest variety of spells that will hinder and harm the greatest number of foes. Remember that a good answer is expected to come from a person who is at least somewhat familiar with typical PFS scenarios.

I am going to mainly focus on levels from 1 to 6, but levels from 7 to 12 are also somewhat important and cannot be completely neglected.

The list of available sources can be found here, the Pathfinder Society Roleplaying Guild Guide is located here.

Speaking about the definition of "power", I believe that those two classes are similar enough, especially if we remember that the Arcanist has archetypes too. They use the same spell list, the spell DCs and bonus spells per day come from the same stats, and they both have the Arcane Pool and get some Exploits, only a few of which are considered "auto-buy". If my premise is wrong, I expect a good answer to correct me.

However, I believe that being powerful is being able to fulfill one or more of the following roles, as noted in this guide, sorted in descending order by importance for me. A good answer is expected to compare the classes in all of the roles.

  • The Silver Bullet Mage: a mage who always has just the right answer for the current battle without predicting everything in advance.
  • Disabler: a mage who makes foes weaker or even unable to move, attack, or otherwise take actions.
  • Summoner: a mage who summons creeps to fulfill different roles on the table (remember about the Occultist when thinking about this role).
  • Buffer: a mage who buffs their allies to make them stronger.
  • Utility caster: a mage who has the needed out-of-combat spells.
  • Blaster mage: a mage who deals damage.

I am most likely going to specialize in disabling the enemy.

My actual questions:

  1. Is it clear which of these two classes is more powerful?
  2. If so, then what makes one more powerful than the other?
  3. If not, what factors of each contribute to making them approximately equal?
  4. Does anything change if Arcanist archetypes are applied, especially the School Savant, the Occultist, and the Twilight Sage?
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ShadowKras RE: "Killing all enemies at a reasonable pace, or killing one enemy very quickly? Outliving everybody in the group, or killing enemies before they have a chance to act? Disabling enemies, or simply killing them with damage?" Are these really factors that will be significantly impacted by picking between these two classes? And if they are factors an answer could address them, yes? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jan 18 at 13:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ A Meta Discussion has been opened to talk about this question. \$\endgroup\$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy Jan 18 at 14:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ ♦ Specifically, please do not vote to close or reopen this question without first reading and, perhaps, chiming in on the meta Dmitriy links above. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jan 18 at 15:03
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60% of levels favor the arcanist—but the wizard is much stronger the other 40%

At all even levels, as well as 1st and 19th, the wizard and arcanist have access to the same spell level. That’s twelve levels, or 60% of them, while the wizard is ahead on the remaining eight levels, or 40% of them.

When they have access to the same spells, the arcanist is superior. The flexibility of deciding on-the-fly how many of each spell to cast is awesome. But keep in mind that the exploiter wizard can—and probably should—take the Quick Study exploit, to get a similar ability (albeit at the cost of a point from the arcane reservoir). So the real difference between the arcanist and wizard here is that the wizard’s flexibility is limited by the arcane reservoir, rather than the arcanist having it and the wizard simply not.

The other differences are the greater number of exploits the arcanist has, the consume spells ability which potentially adds yet more points to the arcane reservoir (on top of those the wizard needs to spend on Quick Study), and magical supremacy which is honestly pretty meh. The wizard gets Scribe Scroll, which is pretty good, and a series of bonus feats, which are also pretty good. Since Extra Arcanist Exploit is a feat, though not a wizard bonus feat, you can potentially make up some of the difference, too. Overall, the class features favor the arcanist but are pretty close to a wash; the arcanist will get more use out of their arcane reservoir, but the wizard will have more options since they could choose not to bother with Extra Arcanist Exploit and do something else with their feats if they wanted.

Now consider the rest of the time, when the wizard is a spell level ahead of the arcanist. That is a monumental advantage. It’s almost impossible to overstate how large an advantage having a spell of a spell level higher is. It easily doubles the wizard’s power, relative to the arcanist. The arcanist’s flexibility and greater usage of the arcane reservoir doesn’t come even close to that much of an advantage.

So even though 60% of the time, the arcanist is strictly superior, the other 40% of the time, the wizard is strictly superior—and by a far greater margin than the arcanist’s advantage on those levels. And, especially if you are starting at 3rd level or higher, and don’t expect to reach 19th level—which makes the split between them 50/50—things really very strongly start to favor the wizard.

Conclusion: wizard is the more powerful class


Pathfinder Society might matter here

Pathfinder Society specifies three sessions per level. Starting from 1st in Pathfinder Society means it will be six sessions until the wizard gets ahead, then three sessions favoring wizard, three sessions favoring arcanist, and so on. So consider,

\begin{array}{c|l l} \textbf{Sessions played} & \textbf{Time favoring arcanist} & \textbf{Time favoring wizard} \\ 1-6 & 100\% & 0\% \\ 7 & 85.7\% & 14.3\% \\ 8 & 75\% & 25\% \\ 9 & 66.7\% & 33.3\% \\ 10 & 70\% & 30\% \\ 11 & 72.7\% & 27.3\% \\ 12 & 75\% & 25\% \\ \end{array}

and so on. It will be a while before you really start to see the wizard pulling ahead. It isn’t really until 7th level (18 sessions in) that the wizard really looks substantially better.

Furthermore, Pathfinder Society tends to feature very low-optimization play, and arcanist and wizard are easily among the most powerful classes in the game. The arcanist is easier to play, and you have power to spare—you might prefer to play an arcanist just because you don’t need the power of the wizard and the arcanist is more convenient.

Archetypes

Occultist archetype

Doesn’t move the needle very much. They get summon monster spells on-time, which is impressive for the ⅔-casting summoner, but not so much for the off-by-1 arcanist. And it costs quite a few points out of the arcane reservoir to do it. Getting plane shift two spell levels early is a fairly big deal, as plane shift is a pretty good spell and two spell levels is a whole lot, but ultimately it doesn’t matter very much if you’ve got a cleric or oracle in the party. Getting planar ally at all is nice enough, but nothing stellar. Augury and contact other plane, again, nice, but nothing amazing. Contact other plane is an amazing spell, and you actually get it two levels before even a cleric, but it’s also just one per week which is pretty rough.

Occultist is a fine, balanced archetype, but arcanist needed an imbalanced one to overcome the wizard’s advantages.

School savant archetype

This is a good archetype; specializing in a school is good for a wizard and it’s good for an arcanist. And the exploiter wizard loses the opportunity to do so, which is a thing. But having more spells per day doesn’t make up for being a spell level behind nearly half of the time.

The opposition schools hurt a school savant more than they hurt a wizard, but it’s still really almost painless to just put Enchantment and Evocation in opposition. Sure, maybe you end up burning two prepared spells on contingency once in a while; no great loss.

So school savant is actually a better-than-neutral archetype, but not better enough.

Twilight sage archetype

Specializing in necromancy isn’t terribly painful, but it is a drawback. Consume life is, eh, it’s better than consume spells but only if you work for it, which might be annoying (as stated elsewhere, allowing you to use it on any unconscious targets, rather than only those who are actually dying, would be far better). The arcane barrier exploit is fairly good, but the twilight barrier isn’t especially better—you won’t be dealing much damage at all that way. Twilight transfer, well I mean, if you have a cleric or oracle in the party, again, they could just prepare breath of life (and then again, they might not bother, which shows how much it’s worthwhile to have it permanently).

Death’s release is weird. A 20th-level character shouldn’t plan on dying. Sure, it’s pretty effective if it happens in the right place (fight against the BBEG of the campaign or whatever), but ultimately I’d want to have something that I’m going to use more than just once, which is about as much as I expect this would get used.

I don’t hate the twilight sage, but I’m not blown away by it either. It’s probably a net negative, overall, from an optimization perspective. If you were going to focus on necromancy and take arcane barrier anyway, then it’s fine. Definitely doesn’t do anything to make the arcanist superior to the wizard.

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    \$\begingroup\$ One thing that may be worth noting: I found no way for an arcanist to access arcane discoveries, other than multiclassing. \$\endgroup\$ – ShadowKras Jan 23 at 13:42
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Well, let's look at the differences.

  • Exploiter wizard gets 3 cantrips at 1st, 4 thereafter. Arcanist starts at 4, and rises from there.

  • Arcanist gets exploits at first, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, and eleventh. Exploiter wizard gets exploits at first, fifth, and ninth, plus a bonus feat at fifth and tenth.

  • Wizard gets Scribe Scroll. Arcanist gets Consume Spells.

  • Arcanist can use metamagic like a sorcerer as well as using metamagic like a wizard.

  • Wizard gets access to the next tier of spells a level early in each case. (matters on levels 3,5,7, and 9 only)

There's not a lot of raw power difference there. The Arcanist gets a bit better access to exploits, and more cantrips. The wizard gets earlier access to higher-tier spells - which matters both for having a powerful one-per-day on those levels and for being able to start filling out the next tier of spell that much earlier.

Really, rather than trying to comprehensively compare the two in a vacuum, you're better off building most of your character, and then deciding which package you want more to support that. Do you find yourself craving as many exploits as you can get your hands on, or wanting flexibility in use of metamagic? Go with the Arcanist. Do you find yourself wishing you could fit in one more feat? Wizard will give you that feat.

Of the roles? For most of them, it doesn't matter much. An arcanist will be better at Silver Bullet Mage and Utility caster - the additional exploits, cantrips, and the ability to Consume Spells mean that they have more options at their fingertips at all times without significant preparation, so they can afford to generalize a more, and COnsume Spells means that they can afford to memorize special-case powers without fear that they'll be wasted - if need be, you can consume them and turn them into more generally useful exploits. If you want to go heavy into the summoning without losing that flexibility, then an occultist arcanist will let you go heavy into the summoning without losing that flexibility, though it has costs of its own. For Disabler, Blaster Mage, and possibly Buffer, the earlier access to higher-level spells means that the advantage probably goes to the wizard. At fifth level, the difference between "has access to Fireball" and "does not have access to Fireball" can be pretty significant for a blaster mage, especially if your campaign tends to have relatively short adventuring days. Disabler has access to similar enemy-breaking powers at some levels, and getting access to them earlier rather than later can be quite useful. Buffer has some fo the same (haste comes to mind) but it's not as overwhelmingly so.

For the archetypes...

  • Occultist is, as above, the "do you want to be a summoning specialist?" The answer to that question will give you the answer to whether or not it's worthwhile.

  • Twilight sage looks like it gives additional power at the cost of flexibility, and at the cost of making you somewhat creepier.

  • School Savant is silly. At the levels your'e talking about, it's very nearly making you not-an-arcanist, in return for making you mostly-a-wizard. Comparing School Savant Arcanist against Exploiter Wizard is just gratuitous.

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