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Suppose for the sake of argument a Warlock of indeterminate level finds a scroll of plane shift.

Plane shift is indicated as being on the Warlock's spell list [PHB, pg 210: Warlock Spells], so would this Warlock be able to cast the spell through this scroll [pending a successful Spellcasting Check]?

Furthermore, does this answer depend on the Warlock's level, i.e. would a Level 13 Warlock (with their 7th level Mystic Arcanum) be able to cast this spell without a spellcasting check, or would they still require the spellcasting check?

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No check would be required for a level 13 Warlock.

I think the critical wording for spell scroll is this:

If the spell is on your class’s spell list but of a higher level than you can normally cast, you must make an ability check using your spellcasting ability to determine whether you cast it successfully.

The rule for the scroll make no distinction about the provenance of the caster's ability to cast spells. That is, the caster's spell slots are not the limitation here. It just happens to be that this will usually be the limiting factor.

Warlocks break the rules for spellcasting. They don't get spell slots above level 5 but, for them, that doesn't mean they don't have the ability to cast higher level spells (as a result of Mystic Arcanum).

Since the rule for spell scrolls and casting checks only cares if the caster has the ability to cast spells of the scroll's level, a sufficiently high level Warlock can use spell scrolls that appear on its class list without making an ability check.

Also, as a footnote, I think the word "normally" in the scroll's rules indicates that the ability to cast spells of the requisite level must come from an innate class feature. A character would not "normally" be able to cast such spells if the ability to do so came from some external source such as a magic item or temporary ability that allowed the character to cast level 7+ spells. I would argue that such an item or ability would not satisfy the "normally" requirement because of its transient nature.

Of course, a DM is free to interpret "normally" however s/he likes and, by the time a character is gaining access to items that powerful, the character is likely already high enough level to cast level 7+ spells anyway.


Lore-wise, this makes sense, too. Warlocks have invocations and pacts that center around reading and using eldritch texts and magically understanding languages that they otherwise wouldn't know.

Allowing them to read scrolls as a result of their Mystic Arcanum ability is 100% "on brand" for them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer is not RAW. It ignores numerous references in the PHB with regards to what "normal/general" spellcasting is, as well as how Mystic Arcanum does not fit that bill. \$\endgroup\$ – GespenstMk.II Mar 6 '20 at 11:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Ges I would be really eager to read an answer where you go into greater detail about this! \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Mar 6 '20 at 14:32
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Mystic Arcanum does not count as normal/general spellcasting and an ability check would be needed to cast a spell from a spell scroll of 6th level or higher.

This is the short version, but there are two main reasons for this:

  • Mystic Arcanum is a "special ability" that lets a Warlock cast a spell without using a spell slot (as opposed to learning/knowing or preparing a spell), and these special abilities are exceptions to the normal/general spellcasting rules which state that spells are normally learned/known or prepared by a spellcaster. Being "special" also means that it is inherently different from what is normal. These special abilities are defined in chapter 10 of the PHB (p. 201, Spellcasting heading, Spell Slots sub-heading):

    Some characters and monsters have special abilities that let them cast spells without using spell slots. For example, a monk who follows the Way of the Four Elements, a warlock who chooses certain eldritch invocations, and a pit fiend from the Nine Hells can all cast spells in such a way.

  • Mystic Arcanum spells are granted to a Warlock by their patron and are not learned/known by a Warlock, meaning that it cannot be cast "normally" by them since it is instead cast using special means (as opposed to normally via the Pact Magic feature where they learn/know their spells).

Mystic Arcanum, for reference:

At 11th level, your patron bestows upon you a magical secret called an arcanum. Choose one 6th-level spell from the warlock spell list as this arcanum.

You can cast your arcanum spell once without expending a spell slot. You must finish a long rest before you can do so again.

At higher levels, you gain more warlock spells of your choice that can be cast in this way: one 7th-level spell at 13th level, one 8th-level spell at 15th level, and one 9th-level spell at 17th level. You regain all uses of your Mystic Arcanum when you finish a long rest.

Continue reading for more details and references.


Establishing "Normal/General" Spellcasting

We first have to establish what "normal/general" spellcasting is because casting a spell from a spell scroll requires that you must make an ability check if it is of a higher level than you can "normally" cast (and must be on your class' spell list):

If the spell is on your class’s spell list but of a higher level than you can normally cast, you must make an ability check using your Spellcasting Ability to determine whether you cast it successfully. The DC equals 10 + the spell’s level. On a failed check, the spell disappears from the scroll with no other effect.

However, this is conveniently referenced by all classes that have the Spellcasting class feature, Warlocks and their Pact Magic feature, and the rules for casting rituals (emphasis bolded):

  1. Spellcasting:

    As a student of arcane magic, you have a spellbook containing spells that show the first glimmerings of your true power. See chapter 10 for the general rules of spellcasting and chapter 11 for the wizard spell list.

  2. Pact Magic:

    Your arcane research and the magic bestowed on you by your patron have given you facility with spells. See chapter 10 for the general rules of spellcasting and chapter 11 for the warlock spell list.

  3. The Rituals sub-heading in the PHB (chapter 10, p. 201):

    Certain spells have a special tag: ritual. Such a spell can be cast following the normal rules for spellcasting, or the spell can be cast as a ritual. The ritual version of a spell takes 10 minutes longer to cast than normal.

Chapter 10 of the PHB is the "Spellcasting" chapter and begins on p. 201. The first major heading is "What Is a Spell?" which has a number of sub-headings that describe what "normal/general" spellcasting entails:

  • Spell Level
  • Known and Prepared Spells
  • Spell Slots (sub-sub-heading: Casting a Spell at a Higher Level)
  • Cantrips
  • Rituals

The next major heading, Casting a Spell, concludes the chapter with the general rules for casting spells and does not pertain to the matter at hand.

Given that numerous features reference this chapter as the basis for "normal/general" spellcasting, we can infer that it is defined by the five sub-headings listed above. This means that the Spellcasting or Pact Magic features count as being "normal/general" spellcasting since they include the first three sub-headings and possibly neither, one, or both of the last two.


"Spellcasting" (not the feature) Prerequisites

The Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica backgrounds add spells to the spell list of your spellcasting class, but only if your character has the Spellcasting or Pact Magic features:

Orzhov Guild Spells

Prerequisite: Spellcasting or Pact Magic class feature

Contrast this with the following feats:

  • Elemental Adept
  • Spell Sniper
  • War Caster

These three feats all have a prerequisite which states that the character requires "The ability to cast at least one spell".

In this instance, "cast" is being used in the generic sense and encompasses normal/general spellcasting in addition to special abilities*; however, by contrast, GGR's backgrounds specifically require only the "normal/general" spellcasting features (Spellcasting and Pact Magic) and thus excludes those special abilities.

This distinction is important as it further defines normal/general spellcasting versus special abilities (of which Mystic Arcanum falls under).

*Note: I assume that this prerequisite includes the normal/general way to cast spells (via the Spellcasting and Pact Magic features). If it doesn't include normal/general spellcasting and only includes casting spells through special abilities then that makes these feats much less accessible; however, this doesn't seem like it was the intent at all.


Known and Prepared Spells

This sub-heading states the following:

Before a spellcaster can use a spell, he or she must have the spell firmly fixed in mind. Members of a few classes, including bards and sorcerers, have a limited list of spells they know that are always fixed in mind. The same thing is true of many magic-using monsters. Other spellcasters, such as clerics and wizards, undergo a process of preparing spells. This process varies for different classes, as detailed in their descriptions. In every case, the number of spells a caster can have fixed in mind at any given time depends on the character's level.

The Known and Prepared Spells sub-heading states that there are two ways that a character can have spells: by learning/knowing them or by preparing them. Note that this does not include spells which are simply cast since we haven't read about them yet, implying that spells which are simply cast by special means are not normal/general spellcasting.

Mystic Arcanum spells are not learned/known because they are instead granted to a Warlock by their patron:

At 11th level, your patron bestows upon you a magical secret called an arcanum.

By contrast, Pact Magic spells are acquired through arcane research and the magic bestowed upon them by their patron:

Your arcane research and the magic bestowed on you by your patron have given you facility with spells. See chapter 10 for the general rules of spellcasting and chapter 11 for the warlock spell list.

Therefore, because the Warlock never learned/knew the spells they aren't considered normal/general spellcasting.


Spell Slots and "Special Abilities"

This sub-heading has a caveat in its last paragraph which describes special abilities that grant a non-standard method of spellcasting:

Some characters and monsters have special abilities that let them cast spells without using spell slots. For example, a monk who follows the Way of the Four Elements, a warlock who chooses certain eldritch invocations, and a pit fiend from the Nine Hells can all cast spells in such a way.

The Spell Slots sub-heading describes a "special" way that some races, classes, and monsters can cast spells which is distinctly separate from learning/knowning or preparing spells. Looking at two of the English definitions of the word "special", we can see that it is defined as the following:

  • "being other than the usual"
  • "distinguished by some unusual quality"

The fact that these are "special" abilities means that they are unique ways to cast spells that aren't covered by the normal/general spellcasting rules, where spellcasters learn/know or prepare their spells, and that this paragraph is an exception to those rules.


Examples of Other "Special Abilities"

The following features all have the exact same or very similar wording as Mystic Arcanum (which is the last entry):

Disciple of the Elements (Four Elements Monk):

You learn magical disciplines that harness the power of the four elements. A discipline requires you to spend ki points each time you use it. You know [...] one other elemental discipline of your choice.

Clench of the North Wind (Elemental Discipline):

You can spend 3 ki points to cast hold person.

Gift of the Depths invocation (XGE p. 57):

You can also cast water breathing once without expending a spell slot. You regain the ability to do so when you finish a long rest.

Trickster's Escape invocation (XGE p. 57):

You can cast freedom of movement once on yourself without expending a spell slot. You regain the ability to do so when you finish a long rest.

Pit Fiend's Innate Spellcasting:

The pit fiend can innately cast the following spells, requiring no material components: 3/day each: hold monster, wall of fire

Ethereal Step (Horizon Walker Ranger):

As a bonus action, you can cast the etherealness spell with this feature, without expending a spell slot, but the spell ends at the end of the current turn. Once you use this feature, you can't use it again until you finish a short or long rest.

Chemical Mastery (Alchemist Artificer):

You can cast greater restoration and heal without expending a spell slot, without preparing the spell, and without material components, provided you use alchemist's supplies as the spellcasting focus. Once you cast either spell with this feature, you can't cast that spell with it again until you finish a long rest.

Mystic Arcanum:

You can cast your arcanum spell once without expending a spell slot. You must finish a long rest before you can do so again.

Since all of these features have the exact same or similar wording as, or function exactly like or similarly to, Mystic Arcanum, it is even more clear that Mystic Arcanum falls under the clause "[...] special abilities that lets them cast spells without using a spell slot." It is not written anywhere in the normal/general spellcasting rules or the Warlock class features that Mystic Arcanum is an exception to the exception. The "special abilities" clause specifically calls out how Mystic Arcanum functions so there is no reason for it to be accepted as normal/general spellcasting.

There are other examples, such as the racial feats from XGE and a few other sub-classes which grant the ability to cast spells without using a spell slot, but they will be skipped for the sake of brevity.


Regaining Resources

The Warlock class table on p. 106 of the PHB states that Warlocks normally recover their spell slots when they finish a short or long rest. Meanwhile, Mystic Arcanum spells are only recovered when they finish a long rest. Invocations such as Gift of the Depths and Trickster's Escape allow a Warlock to cast a single-use spell and are also recovered when they finish a long rest.

Since these invocations are specifically called out as examples of "special abilities", it makes logical sense to treat Mystic Arcanum spells as the same sort of feature since they both recover after a long rest, share the same wording, and (most importantly) are described perfectly by the "special abilities" clause. Both features are an exception to the normal/general spellcasting rules, and the two features are too similar in nature for them to be considered different things.


Adjudicating the Popular Rule Fairly and Balance Complications

Let's assume that Mystic Arcanum falls under the normal/general spellcasting rules. If we were to fairly adjudicate that rule to all features which allowed a character to cast spells without using a spell slot then some of them would lead to unintended power spikes or balance complications in certain classes or multiclasses:

  • Ethereal Step could possibly allow a Horizon Walker Ranger to cast spells from 3rd, 4th, and 5th level spell scrolls without an ability check at level 7; however, there are two ways to interpret this: either the 7th level spell covers all spell levels lower than it, or it does not because they only have access to a 7th level spell and not a 3rd, 4th, or 5th level spell. But, if we go under the assumption that 7th level spells allow them to cast all spells of lower level without an ability check then it becomes a massive power spike since they would normally only have 2nd level spell slots while full spellcasters only just received their first 4th level spell slot. This means that a Horizon Walker could cast Swift Quiver with no check, thus giving them four attacks at level 7. This was most likely not intended and is hardly fair, yet should work if Mystic Arcanum is held as an exception to the normal/general spellcasting rules since they share the same wording and principle.
  • Chemical Mastery would theoretically allow an Alchemist Artificer to cast 6th level spell scrolls without an ability check (assuming that Magic Item Savant is excluded for the purposes of this ruling).
  • Spirit Walker could theoretically allow a Totem Warrior Barbarian who multiclasses in one level of any class with the Spellcasting or Pact Magic features to cast 5th (and possibly 2nd, 3rd, and 4th?) level spells from spell scrolls without an ability check. This has the same balance complications as Ethereal Step because it skips numerous spell levels.
  • Any other non-spellcasting class which allows them to cast spells (such as Ancestral Guardian Barbarian, Four Elements Monk, Shadow Monk, and Sun Soul Monk) multiclassed in one level of any class with the Spellcasting or Pact Magic features would run into the same problems as above.
  • Any race with higher-level spells who took enough levels in a non-spellcasting class to access these higher-level spells and then multiclassed one level in a spellcasting class would be able to cast spells from spell scrolls up to whatever spell level they have from their race.

Scribing Spells

Xanathar's Guide to Everything provides optional rules for scribing a spell scroll:

Resources. Scribing a spell scroll takes an amount of time and money related to the level of the spell the character wants to scribe, as shown in the Spell Scroll Costs table. In addition, the character must have proficiency in the Arcana skill and must provide any material components required for the casting of the spell. Moreover, the character must have the spell prepared, or it must be among the character's known spells, in order to scribe a scroll of that spell.

If this rule is followed, Warlocks cannot scribe spell scrolls of 6th level or higher since Mystic Arcanum spells are not learned/known or prepared but are instead cast through a "special ability". This raises the question of why they should be able to use a 6th level spell scroll or higher without a check but not be able to scribe them. However, it is an optional rule and isn't conclusive evidence.


Final Remarks

Mystic Arcanum spells are granted to a Warlock rather than learned/known by them, are cast by special means, and by virtue of being "special" (as per the English definitions), meaning that they do not fall under the normal/general spellcasting rules but are an exception to them instead.

People are free to rule how they like in their own games but the fact that Mystic Arcanum is specifically covered by an exception to the normal/general spellcasting rules is often missed or ignored. Instead, it is often treated as if it were part of the Pact Magic feature or that the entire Warlock class is covered by the normal/general spellcasting rules when this isn't the case at all. The Pact Magic feature and the Mystic Arcanum feature are separate and distinct. If they were meant to work in tandem then it would say so. As Jeremy Crawford states, things would say so if they did: What is the source of the "spells do only what they say they do" rules interpretation principle?

In conclusion, Mystic Arcanum does not count as normal/general spellcasting and an ability check would be needed to cast a spell from a spell scroll of 6th level or higher.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Interesting read! I like the logic but I keep getting hung up on the word "normally." It seems to me that you're using the word in the sense of "obeys the general rules for spell slot powered spells" while my answer interprets it as "within the scope of what (in this case) the Warlock class can regularly cast as a result of its features." I think there's room for both interpretations but, had the rules designers meant for the former interpretation, it would have been helpful if they'd used the same phrasing as they do for rituals: "following the normal rules for spellcasting." \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Mar 13 '20 at 15:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Using your interpretation, how do you explain the other examples that I listed which break the game? And why should Mystic Arcanum be an exception among the exceptions? \$\endgroup\$ – GespenstMk.II Mar 13 '20 at 22:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's worth remembering that a scroll requires a check if the spell it holds isn't on the character's class spell list. None of the examples you cite meet this requirement. So if a character of that class attempted to use a scroll with the same spell, they'd need to make a check to use it even though they already have the ability to cast it. The Warlock is unique because Mystic Arcanum grants the ability to cast a spell and provides a spell list to choose that spell from. In other words, I don't think the examples from your answer are really an apples-to-apples comparison with Mystic Arcanum. \$\endgroup\$ – Rykara Mar 13 '20 at 23:28

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