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Long history below,

I'm in trouble with a problem that I created for myself. I'm roleplaying a Wizard (School of Abjuration) for the 2nd time. In my backstory, I was trained by my mother, a former Red Wizard of Thay. By the lore, the Red Wizards were forced to forego spells from two separate schools of magic (in my case, Transmutation, and Illusion). In practical terms, I wanted to use the old 2nd edition rules when creating a specialist wizard, being a human, having at least 15 WIS, and surrendering the two opposite schools of magic. I did that because of my first abjuration wizard...

When I created my first abjuration wizard (a Deep Gnome), my party was a paladin, a fighter, a rogue, a support druid (without damage dealer spells), and me. Due to the lack of AoE spells, I chose the Fireball spell when I reached the 5th level. Long history short, I became the blaster mage which was not my intention. I hate the fame that wizards have as the "fireball guys".

So, I want to take a big-gun spell now (I've reached the 5th level at the end of yesterday's session), but my control options (like Hypnotic Pattern, Slow, etc.) are from my prohibited schools. I'll take Counterspell, obviously, and I thought about taking one of the new conjuration spells from the Tasha's, but the material component is costly (our gold is about 100 gp, all the group summed). I may take the Dispel Magic and be a true abjurer, but I think it is better to take the Dispel Magic at the 6th level and choose now a spell with a big and better general use.

What do you guys think about all of this? What spells do you choose in my situation?

Edit: thanks for all the answers, and dedication you guys gave me. All answers have had a great impact on me, especially the top 3 most voted. I chose the Dispel Magic, and I'll continue to pursue my anti-mage build, hoping to join the Thayan Ressurection and beat Szass Tam (probably not gonna happen, but my character doesn't know).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Wizards have the fame of being “fireball guys” precisely because fireball is easily the best damage spell at 3rd level. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 5, 2022 at 9:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fireball does not scale poorly, it still is nearly on par with most other area damage spells if upcast. It does suffer from resistance/immunity, but even if you have higher level options like circle of death, there is a lot to be said for being able to cast it with lower level slots, too. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 5, 2022 at 10:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fireball starts poorly AND scales poorly. Let's be honest if you aren't clearing minions it is often a waste, and if you are clearing minions you don't need a 3rd level spell. Just because it scales as well as other spells doesn't mean it is good. Hold person for example has 100% more effect when cast at level 3 - that is good scaling. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 5, 2022 at 10:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri If you're using it against a single target, sure, it's not the best use of the slot, but if you can get even two or three targets in the blast, it's completely worth it. It's not just for clearing minions (whatever you mean by that). With good positioning it does significant damage to multiple tough targets at once, or clears a group of minions and deals a big chunk of damage to the boss. I think the impact of fire resistance is often overblown, because while it's common as resistance goes, the chance that any given fight will have a fire resistant enemy is pretty low. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6, 2022 at 13:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ I was wary to ask for more details, but given the answers we've gotten it would help. Can you define "big-gun" spell more? Are you looking for a high damage spell that's that's not *fireball? Is it something else? People are suggesting answers, but we really don't know what we're trying to solve. WHat is it you want to do or feel when you cast this? WHat do you feel is missing in your character? Is it even about the spell? Or is there something else that's 'missing' that you think a spell resolves? \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Sep 6, 2022 at 15:36

5 Answers 5

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Big guns spells will most likely be timing based, not selection based.

As a wizard, one of your greatest abilities is your diversity. It's not about having a single tool you use all the time, but about having a toolkit that has parts that may be the right tool at the right time - but you don't know until you're at that moment in time.

So many approaches

You can look at making a big impact with a damage spell, a control spell, a conjuring spell, a buff spell, a debuff spell, a single target, or an area effect. Any one of those might end up being the Big Spell that changes the tides of the encounter, but this isn't necessarily something you can plan for.

What you can plan for is OPTIONS and think about your daily spell selection and what needs might happen.

Keeping the theme

What is awesome is that you've developed a backstory and a theme for your character. Leaning into that will likely net your more enjoyment than trying to find a single 'big spell' for you.

Now, we can't tell you what works, you know your character. But you can think about them as a creature, what they like, what they don't like, how they tend to handle battle, and how they want to be seen.

You've focused on control as a major aspect, and I don't think you need to give up anything in order to continue with that. Don't feel like not having a giant damage spell means you are "missing" something. You can have spells that do damage, but if that's not your thing, don't feel bad about not doing something that isn't what your character would do.

Talk to your tablemates

Of course, you don't have to do this in a vacuum, either. Talk with the other players! See if they have an issue or a desire for something your character could do. See if that fits in with your vision - and if it does, you've got a solution! If it doesn't, explain why not and what you see and you may feel like they understand your choice better and not feel like you aren't contributing.

A personal example

I once had a divination wizard that was very much a controller. I didn't pick fireball, I didn't even really pick big damage spells.

But I did pick spells that would have big effects on the enemies. Levitate was a go-to for me as I could remove a melee enemy from a fight. Does that make it a Big Spell? I think so? Would others consider levitate to be a Big Spell? I'm not so sure.

Focusing on what you're interested in and picking a selection of spells that could be useful is where a wizard shines. It's about the toolkit, not the specific tools.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is good advice. I picked Sleet Storm for my abjurer because he likes ice/water spells and control spells, not because I thought it was "optimal" according to any particular metric. Ditto picking Watery Sphere over Black Tentacles for control at 4th level. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6, 2022 at 18:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think you are spot on re: levitate, it is excellent for 2nd level single target removal, as there are no re-saves for the target at the end of each turn, like there are with alternatives like hold person. On top of that, there are plenty of other creative uses, it can help overcome obstacles, so it provides those valuable options. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6, 2022 at 19:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch, yes -- I was not commenting at the answer as a whole, it is more of a side comment (although it also exemplifies the value of options and selection, even in a single spell -- for example, depending on the circumstances, it can be saving your wizard from a horde of rodents of unusual size, and become a big gun effect that way, not just by removing a single target.) \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6, 2022 at 20:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Many thanks for your answer, you helped me to keep my determination, and follow the path that my character probably will choose. \$\endgroup\$
    – Linnc
    Sep 6, 2022 at 20:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NobodytheHobgoblin So far, levitate has been my most useful 2nd-level spell in combat, as it lasts 10 minutes, and fire bolt is a ranged cantrip. \$\endgroup\$
    – User 23415
    Apr 11 at 19:57
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Try Tiny Hut or Animate Dead

What is "best" will depend on your objectives. From your discussion of Dispel Magic and Counterspell, it does not sound like you are just looking at area damage spells or control spells, but for general utility. You are already taking Counterspell, which by far is the best option. Since other classes like clerics also have access to Dispel Magic, if you have a cleric this lowers the value of that -- otherwise solid -- option.

Good options outside of Transmutation or Illusion for you are

  • Leomunds Tiny Hut (Evocation). Not only can you cast this as a ritual conserving a valuable memorization slot, it also provides a lot of tactical uses and resting safety.

  • Animate Dead (Necromancy). This is only OK if you have no moral issues about it, and obviously not as strong as for a Necromancer, but it provides a lot of action economy and utility for scouting, guarding, and soaking up opposing actions. Skeletons have Int 7 and should be able to execute moderately complex commands.

  • Sending (Evocation) This is a surprisingly useful general-purpose spell, allowing you to coordinate with allies that are not nearby, call in help, warn somebody, stay in touch if the group gets separated, get expert information. It's more useful at higher levels, with left-over slots to burn and a larger number of allies.

You also could take lightning bolt, if you have an issue with fireball specifically. The form factor (not being able to target it over your first rank, narrow and long area) makes it a lot weaker than fireball. The damage output on a target is however identical, and if, as you say, you are looking primarily at a way to deal damage in fights against 2-3 opponents, two can nearly always be lined up. Lightning is also a slightly better damage type, against which Hell Hounds for example are not immune. The spell has been the sibling to Fireball from the days of OD&D.

To be specific - I track what spells I end up using from each spell level with my wizard (from a much wider selection of spells), so this is based on play experience. Here are the top counts cast adventuring for third level spells (over a range from character level 5 to 13):

Spell Used
Tiny Hut IIIII-IIIII IIIII-IIIII IIIII-IIIII IIIII-IIIII IIIII I (46)
Fireball IIIII-IIIII IIIII-IIIII IIIII II (27)
Sending IIIII-IIIII IIIII-IIIII (20)
Animate Dead IIIII-IIIII IIIII-IIIII (20)
Haste IIIII-IIIII IIIII IIII (19)
Counterspell IIIII-IIIII IIIII I (16)
Dispel Magic IIIII IIII (9)
Fly IIIII II (7)

My wizard also has Sleet Storm, but I have no experience with it so far, due to the large area issue and due to fireball, which on most days consumes the memorization slot used for flexible area damage / control spells. This list has significant selection bias, but it's not all selection bias: to experiment, I prepare one or two rarely used spells each day, and interleave "crappy spell days" with nearly exclusively such spells, so there is a long tail of spells being cast. In doing so I found that narrow or weaker spells, even if they are prepared, often never get cast. (There are a few standbys like Shield and Counterspell, that never get left off.)

PS: Here is a chart comparing fireball to other damage options for medium-sized area damage. Apart from potential issues with damage type resistance, it seems to scale pretty well at least into the mid-levels, and being able to use lower-level slots which you have plenty of is quite valuable:

enter image description here Spell level on x-Axis, Graphic from Arrive on Time.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Very good answer. So, I'm trying to play an abjurer as intended, like an anti-mage I think, but when not facing a mage, I use some control spells (at now, mostly Web). I confess: it's very hard for me to feel like a "useless" character in many fights, like against 2~3 enemies; I got Flaming Sphere at level 4, but we are facing too many enemies with fire resistance/immunity (the main antagonist is a cult of an unknown demon and we face a lot of demons, hell hounds, etc.). So, I'm more like a controller, but it's hard for me to be a character that does not inflict much damage. \$\endgroup\$
    – Linnc
    Sep 5, 2022 at 15:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's fascinating and valuable data that you track your spell use, but I think it should be pointed out that there is a selection bias there. You prepare certain spells because you think they will be useful - and then you use them because those are the spells you have available, even if a spell you have but did not prepare might have been more useful. There might also be selection bias in what spells you have access to to begin with. As an aside, the bottom axis label is cut off - is that spell level cast at? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Sep 5, 2022 at 15:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's not just selection bias, but it doesn't show how useful any specific cast spell was. Do we assume goody is an amazing wizard, poor wizard, average wizard? I dislike disparaging people but the last time I played with a wizard that used fireball so often I quit the group. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Sep 5, 2022 at 15:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Upvoted for actual real life data from your table. And for sending, because sending is just good fun. "Are you pooping?" -Jester Lavorre \$\endgroup\$ Sep 5, 2022 at 17:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Linnc No problem, you do not need to accept this answer just because it is most upvoted, you can pick whatever makes most sense to you, even none if you feel none does it - it‘s your question after all, and what matters is helping you. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6, 2022 at 10:54
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Sleet Storm might be a good pick

Depending on what kind of enemy compositions you tend to fight, the 3rd level conjuration Sleet Storm might be a good pick for you. In a 40-foot radius, it breaks line of sight (for spellcasting), creates difficult terrain, causes creatures to fall prone, and even has a good chance to break the concentration of enemy spellcasters in the area (notably, the save DC for concentration is your spell save DC instead of the usual 10). If someone falls prone in the spell's area, they can stand up again, but they probably won't have enough movement remaining to exit the spell's 40-foot radius area. Breaking line of sight and messing with concentration are great against enemy spellcasters, while the difficult terrain and chance to fall prone are great against large numbers of weapon-wielding enemies, both ranged and melee. As a bonus, if you drop this spell on a large group, each turn some enemies will make their save to avoid falling prone and then try to walk out of the spell's area, while others will fail and be stuck inside, so this spell has the implicit ability to split enemy groups, causing only a few of them to trickle out of the spell's area each round. Of course, the spell is also great if you need to put out a moderately large fire, as it can extinguish flames in an area 80 feet across.

The major downside of Sleet Storm is that it needs room to work. If you're fighting in a room 40 feet long, then the spell is going to hit the entire room, including you and your allies. Even if you're in an open field, if you get ambushed and the enemy is upon you before you can react, Sleet Storm probably isn't going to help you. So consider carefully what kind of engagements you typically get in and decide whether Sleet Storm might be a good spell for you.

For what it's worth, I recently picked this spell for my Abjuration wizard who eschews fire spells (i.e. no Fireball), but I haven't had a chance to use it yet. Thematically, it is also a good fit for an abjurer despite not being an abjuration, since it's a big area denial spell that especially causes problems for spellcasters.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you clarify "breaks line of sight (for spellcasting)"? I read controversial rules about heavy obscurement, but it sounds like: I can't see the enemy, so he attacks me with advantage; I remembered reading something about that related to the Fog Cloud spell. \$\endgroup\$
    – Linnc
    Sep 5, 2022 at 12:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Linnc Many spells require a target that you can see. Heavy obscurement prevents those spells from working entirely. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 5, 2022 at 13:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Linnc It will work both ways. If all their spells require line of sight, they will effectively be removed from the fight until they can make it out of the spell's area. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 5, 2022 at 13:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Linnc The exact rules for ‘heavily obscured’ say that a heavily obscured area blocks vision entirely. The followup description is poorly worded because it can be interpreted as being asymmetric (as you’re doing), but that’s to account for darkness, not weather conditions. In the dark, you can see things in illuminated areas beyond the darkness. This is technically a case up to the GM, but I know no GM who would rule that something like a sandstorm or dense fog, let alone Sleet Storm, would allow creatures inside to clearly see things outside of the area (IOW, common sense wins here). \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6, 2022 at 11:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Linnc If you're still confused on the line of sight rules, I suggest searching for some of the many questions on this topic on this site, and if none of them answers your question, ask a new one. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 7, 2022 at 13:23
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I love that you haven't fallen into the "I r wizurd I casts fireballz" trap, but missing out on illusion and transmutation is a big deal! Bigger than I realised.

Your best level 3 options as far as I can see are:

Sleet storm

This is a big aoe blind with difficult terrain, so you will probably catch all the enemies, and they will stagger out of it at different rates allowing the dps to mop up the now strung out enemies.

Conjure ..whatever..

This line of spells isn't quite as big gun, but they allow you to tie up at least a single enemy in combat quite often (especially if your DM doesn't metagame) and add some damage. They are amazing for action economy as you still have an action on other turns too.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't see why all people recommend Sleet Storm. The heavily obscured area doesn't blind the creatures inside (like said in errata): "Vision and Light (p. 183). A heavily obscured area doesn't blind you, but you are effectively blinded when you try to see something obscured by it". It sounds like a big disadvantage like the enemies attack me with advantage because I can't see them. I agree that the conjure [...] is not a big gun, but the Summon Shadowspan can Fear using its feature; that's a big deal, it's like the Fear spell, but better, and with a summon for free. \$\endgroup\$
    – Linnc
    Sep 5, 2022 at 20:21
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Melf's Minute Meteors

You create 6 tiny meteors that you can then fire off (In ones or twos) at foes as a bonus action once per turn - including the turn you cast the spell. The spell lasts for 10 minutes, so if you're aware that you're walking into a dangerous situation you can cast it ahead of time.

Downsides include that it is not as immediately-devastating as Fireball or Lightning, it has the oft-resisted fire damage, requires the battle to last longer to be more effective, and requires concentration.

However, the 120 ft range of your projectiles is nothing to sneeze at, and the fact that each individual meteor fires off as a bonus action means you're free to cast other spells on subsequent turns. And if you manage to hit with each meteor, the total damage potential is actually greater than Fireball.

Overall, if you're not taking Illusion Spells, Transmutation Spells, Fireball, or Lightning, this is a decent alternate pick.

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