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A number of monsters have the Magic Resistance trait, and there are a few ways for player characters to gain a similar benefit. For reference, the trait's description says:

Magic Resistance. You have advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.

Every time some feature, item or whatever allows a player character to have Magic Resistance, it seems to be controversial. It happened when the Yuan-Ti was released as a playable race in VGM, it happened recently when the Satyr was announced for Theros, and it happened around here with the possibility of allowing a player to get a pseudodragon as familiar.

I am asking because honestly I have never played with a Yuan-Ti, but in most of the campaigns I DM or play, I don't see Magic Resistance showing up a lot or helping the players a lot. It is certainly a strong feature for monsters since parties will often contain spellcasters, but most creatures do not have magical effects that call for PCs to make saving throws. So, the question is straightforward:

Is allowing a player character to get the Magic Resistance trait as broken as I have seen people assume? Am I missing something?

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It's really good, but not necessarily game-breakingly so.

It's rare for a player character to get advantage to something in all circumstances like this, but "spells and other magical effects" is only a small subset of dangers a player character tends to face. It also only applies to those effects which would normally grant a saving throw.

The Sage Advice Compendium, in answering the question "Is the breath weapon of a dragon magical?", suggests that the game's designers intended "magical" to be more limited in scope than it may seem. For example, a red dragon's fire breath is explicitly not a magical effect. "Magical" is defined as any one of the following:

  • Magic items, which monsters rarely use
  • Spells, which PCs often use but monsters rarely do, and NPC spellcasters are typically a limited subset of enemies encountered
  • Anything which specifically creates the effect of a spell
  • A spell attack
  • Fueled by the use of spell slots, which almost never occurs with monsters
  • Otherwise explicitly declared "magical"

The majority of monster effects, even those which would clearly be considered supernatural, do not fall under this definition of "magical". The Sage Advice Compendium document is considered to present official game rulings, though a broader understanding of "magical" as it relates to monster attacks would make this ability more powerful.

Magic Resistance would protect you from the aboleth's Enslave ability, a planetar's Innate Spellcasting, a basilisk's Petrifying Gaze, a beholder's Eye Rays, a death knight's Hellfire Orb, a dryad's Fey Charm, an empyrean's Bolt (defined as a ranged spell attack), or any spell cast by an NPC spellcaster which allows a save.

However, it would not protect you against a red dragon's breath weapon, an ankheg's acid spray, a banshee's wail, a behir's Lightning Breath, a demilich's Howl or Life Drain, a balor's Fire Aura or Death Throes, a fire elemental's flammable nature, a ghost's Possession, a storm giant's Lightning Strike, a night hag's Nightmare Haunting (it's magical, but allows no save), a hell hound's Fire Breath, or any spell which does not allow a save.

It would also not protect you against melee, ranged, or natural weapon attacks, which are often the primary source of danger. Most monsters don't rely on magical attacks for their primary effects (for example, the hell hound's fire breath is only a recharge 5-6 power), and many monsters have no magical attacks at all.

In summary, magic resistance is really good when it applies, but in the hands of a player character it typically applies less frequently than you'd think.

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No, it's not broken in theory

Magic resistance is a really powerful effect, but it's not the sort of thing that is necessarily too strong for player races to have. The Musicus race guide puts Cunning, which is exactly half Magic Resistance, at 2 points. We can extrapolate from that that Magic Resistance should be worth 4 points. A race should in total be worth 5-6 points, ish, so you could totally have a race with Magic Resistance as long as either 1) they got kinda bad ability scores like +2 Int +1 Str or dropped the lower of the two ability scores entirely or something like that 2) they had some balancing negative feature like vulnerability to cold or something or 3) you were okay with them being on the higher end of races. For comparison, PHB dwarves are 7.5-8 points, so you could fit Magic Resistance, normal ASIs, and maybe even a small additional feature before you were on-par with them.

But it is pretty unbalanced in practice so far

A balanced Magic Resistance race looks like 'you get Magic Resistance and ASIs and basically nothing else' or maybe 'you get Magic Resistance and cool stuff, but less ASIs than normal'. We talked about that above.

The Yuan-Ti gets Magic Resistance and also a whole bevy of magical abilities and also immunity to Poison and also more languages than normal and also darkvision and also Cha as their primary ASI. Literally the only thing that is even kind of not good is that the secondary boost is to Int. They are an incredibly powerful race, and they have Magic Resistance. It's not actually the case that it's because they have Magic Resistance, but they are both things.

The Satyr is a bit weaker than the Yuan-ti. It's still a fairly powerful pile of abilities on top of Magic Resistance, though-- extra skills and movement speed and fey typing and top-tier abilities for the ASIs. It's also way higher than 6 race points, and it also has Magic Resistance. Since these are the only races published with that trait, it's not surprising people have started thinking the trait, rather than the bevy of other abilities on these races, is the problem.

The pseudodragon ability is a red herring. There's nothing wrong with letting players get Magic Resistance that way and moreover is certainly has nothing to do with the balance of races-- it is much more similar mechanically to a magic item, and items frequently do things of that power level at the higher tiers-- compare, for example, the mantle of spell resistance.

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Magic Resistance is not broken but it is powerful

Many saves you are unlikely to encounter except when facing magic of some kind. Intelligence, Charisma, and Wisdom all fall into this category. With regards to these saves advantage can be as good as proficiency. A level 10 Paladin with 10 WIS and 20 CHA has a 50% chance of beating a DC 15 Wisdom Save and 75% of beating a DC 15 Charisma save. A level 1 Sorcerer with 10 WIS, 20 CHA and Magic Resistance has a 51% to beat the Wisdom save and 80% to beat the CHA. Even discounting spells with STR, DEX, and CON saves Magical Resistance provides a major boost to three saves that are commonly magical. Proficiency in one save is worth an ASI. Proficiency in all saves is half a 14th level Monk feature. Considering many INT, WIS, and CHA saves will be against magical effects gives a basis for understanding the power of Magical Resistance.

Just because it is powerful doesn't mean it is broken. The Yuan-ti might be a powerful option, even by some measures the most powerful depending on the class, but it can be balanced by giving fewer benefits in other areas. Part of the objection to Yuan-ti might stem less from having Magic Resistance and more from being pretty strong even without Magic Resistance. A good point of comparison is Gnomes' Gnome Cunning (as pointed out by HellSaint). A Gnome gets fewer other benefits than a Yuan-ti but only gets advantage on INT, WIS, and CHA saves against magic. Arguably a gnome gets better stat increases but at higher levels this benefit is nullified. If the Gnome is balanced then then the Yuan-ti might be overpowered.

There is a problem with the pseudodragon example of how large of a benefit you want to give a player. When deciding how to distribute benefits such as magic items (or special familiars) it is relevant to consider how powerful they are. Giving a player a +3 sword is more powerful than giving them a +1 sword. Giving them a familiar that grants magic resistance is significantly more powerful than giving them a familiar. Magical Resistance is powerful enough that it should only be awarded with careful consideration.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That is an interesting point of view, however, Gnome's Cunning also provides Magic Resistance against Int/Wis/Cha. Any way you can think of including such comparison in the answer? \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jul 1 at 2:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ Unless you work towards that specifically, Int and Cha Saves come up rarely. The number of spells and monsters asking for those is pretty small. \$\endgroup\$ – Anagkai Jul 1 at 7:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ The feat Resilient gives +1 to a stat as well as saving throw proficiency, so it seems the proficiency is only worth half an ASI. Also, keep in mind Monk's Diamond Mind grants only four proficiencies, because any level 1 character already has at least two. \$\endgroup\$ – Joel Harmon Jul 1 at 21:20

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