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In this world, mages are exceptionally powerful. A single powerful mage can destroy entire armies. However, becoming a 'high-tier' mage is also very difficult, so most nations have very few 'high-tier' mages. However, some nations have discovered that by having dozens of weaker mages work together, they can achieve similar destructive results on the battlefield.

For example: A single powerful enough mage would be able to incinerate an entire army with fireballs. However, this feat can be replicated with dozens or even hundreds of less powerful mages channeling their magic together.

More details:

  1. Magic is exhausting, wiping out an entire army would cause a mage to become bedridden for weeks. So mages are usually only used as trump cards
  2. The more powerful the magic, the longer it takes to cast. Magic powerful enough to destroy an army would take hours to cast, and the mages cannot be interrupted
  3. Mages must stand next together in a formation in order to combine their magic most effectively

Are there any tactical reasons for a nation to send out their most powerful mages to the battlefield and risk losing them if sending dozens of more expendable and weaker mages is just as effective?

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    $\begingroup$ Reminds me of Erfworld. There they send their casters to the battlefield because that's the fastest way to get XP. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jan 19 '18 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ think about the concept of special forces. $\endgroup$ – GlorfSf Jan 19 '18 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ If attaining high-tier status is difficult, and though powerful, the massive spells are time-consuming and exhausting to cast, then the nation would be foolish to do anything with the high-tier mages but use them as educators and allow them into battle only as a last resort. Like modern generals, they're too valuable a resource to waste on the front lines. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jan 19 '18 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ What's missing from this question is what the most-powerful mages that don't go out on the battlefield would be doing instead. You really can't figure out which alternative makes more sense until you've defined what the second alternative even is. $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder Jan 19 '18 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ Please note that in many battles in history, you don't need to nuke the enemy to win. Even a couple of spells which could possibly be considered "simple" could do devastating effect if used in the correct place and time. For example, making a heavy rain vs an army that needs to cross a muddy field could render heavier troops immobile. $\endgroup$ – Gnudiff Jan 19 '18 at 20:52

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If in your question you replace the word "mage" with "nuke" you can get the answer from our history: a fairly small nuke is already capable of wiping out a city, yet there was a race to build more and more powerful bombs, until the Tzar Bomb.

In principle you can achieve the same damage of a 10 kTon nuke by using 10 thousands tons of TNT, but you see that carrying 10 thousands tons of explosive on your target is going to be much more cumbersome than flying a single bomber/missile carrying a single 10 kTon head.

In your case, if you need a lot of lesser mages to achieve the same result of a powerful one, imagine the logistic nightmare of having them all lined up and synchronized. And also keep in mind that hiding a single man on a battlefield is rather easy, hiding a lot of men is not going to fly.

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    $\begingroup$ And, from the Tzar Bomb, they started to scale them down because bombs so big aren't really practical. Today's nuclear arsenal is built around 100-300 kiloton bombs. And nuclear bombs are used at all because using conventional explosives instead would be cheaper, but there's no plane nor rocket capable to lift that much weight of explosive. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Jan 19 '18 at 11:25
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    $\begingroup$ While a single bomber is definitely cheaper and easier to use now it becomes a single point of failure. Shoot it down and you are safe. The reason the Tsar Bomb was created was more related to politcs and "look, we can do this and you can't" attitude. It was never meant to replace smaller nukes. Especially since the cost doesn't scale well with the power (i.e. its just too expensive to make the Tsar Bomb). $\endgroup$ – user46852 Jan 19 '18 at 12:18
  • $\begingroup$ @freakish even with a group of 20 mages it still is a single point of failure because they are all in a specific formation all working together. So if one gets hit the spell is still interrupted. $\endgroup$ – Anketam Jan 19 '18 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Anketam Not necessarily. Look at OP's point 3. It doesn't mean that the spell is gone once mages are out of formation. It only means that the final power drops. As long as it doesn't drop below a certain point (say 10% per mage? numbers start to matter at this point) it is still better to have multiple mages. The only case that it isn't worth it is when the power is gone after breaking the formation. But in that situation why not just put 10 formations of 2 mages each instead? I mean, at some point you need independent groups. $\endgroup$ – user46852 Jan 19 '18 at 12:49
  • $\begingroup$ Funnily enough, the Mother of All Bombs explodes with a yield of 11 tons and weighs...11 tons. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Jan 20 '18 at 7:12
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Oh, that's easy. Attack surface. If you have one mage you can put him in a garden shed (or equivalent) while he casts and the enemy probably won't get through your army before he finishes the spell, nor are they likely to nail him with an arrow. If they can it was a lost cause anyway.

If you have twenty mages standing in formation to protect it's harder to keep all of them from being interfered with - a volley of arrows will probably hit at least one and ruin the spell. Putting them in a fortification would be harder too.

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    $\begingroup$ You are assuming that the twenty mages are collaborating in casting a single spell. I read the OP's question as 20 lesser fireballs fired by 20 lesser mages do the same damage as one powerful fireball. So, killing one of the 20 mages means that only 19 fireballs will be shot. But if the other side's archmage is killed, then it's over for them. And don't assume the enemy is not able to get to him before he ends his casting. The enemy has mages. If a couple of them start firing firebolts at the archmage, he's going to interrupt his casting to defend himself. The rest can kill the army meanwhile. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Jan 19 '18 at 11:31
  • $\begingroup$ It's a bit of a pointless supposition, though - the question isn't 'would 20 weaker mages beat 1 strong mage', the question is 'why risk your best mages'. The main reason, tactically, to commit your best mages is for reasons of attack surface. It's always harder to defend many people than it is to defend one. $\endgroup$ – Pingcode Jan 19 '18 at 11:52
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    $\begingroup$ The thing is, I don't buy the attack surface motive much. If you are a bodyguard, sure it's easier to protect one person than twenty, but when we're talking about war there's a reason why you build a lot of nuclear sites instead of placing all the nukes in the same building. Minimal attack surface = single point of failure. $\endgroup$ – Rekesoft Jan 19 '18 at 11:56
  • $\begingroup$ The useful tactical consideration is better thought of in terms of fortifications - you can stuff one dude into more places than you can stuff twenty. You can put one mage under a battering ram or in a tower to protect him, but the equivalent formation is bigger and more likely to be forced to stay in the open. $\endgroup$ – Pingcode Jan 19 '18 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ One nuke site is enough for a deterrent. They way I read the question is that multiple lesser mages need to work in concert to replicate a more powerful mage, so removing one is enough to stop them (or sufficiently downgrade their combined ability); also the point about them needing to be together in formation, so you're likely to loose more than one at a time. A single point of failure is easier to protect than many points right next to each other. $\endgroup$ – jaxad0127 Jan 19 '18 at 14:58
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Hundreds, or even dozens of less powerful mages is a unit you can't move covertly.

Take one of the great battles: Battle of Grunwald. The lowest estimate is 11 thousands on one side. And it was, for its time, a big and important battle. To have hundred of mages, you need about one in every hundred combatants to be a mage. A combat-ready skilled mage. That's a lot.

With mages being so big a part of the army, you make them easy to target. Easy to target means easy to interrupt. Standing in close formation means that you can't have shield bearers between them. One archer would render them useless, he wouldn't even have to actually hit anyone, just distract them. That's entirely possible from distances over 200m. Much more with a crossbow if you don't need the bolt to actually pierce any armor.

Now, there are logistical reasons. 10 or 100 mages would probably require the same noncombatant force as similar amounts of knights would. But knights can ride horses, and generally are big tough guys. Mages - not so. Moving one around could be arranged. Moving many would slow down your army and make it more costly. An army that moves slower takes battles where the opponent wants. That's a tactical disaster - one that only makes the archer from the previous paragraph even more successful.

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    $\begingroup$ @freakish if you think question needs to be more detailed, comment on the question. As long as nothing in my answer contradicts question, you are not actually helping anyone. This is not a discussion forum. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jan 19 '18 at 14:51
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A demigod-level mage at the battlefield is not a demigod-level mage in your Parliament

It's pretty simple. Having strong mages is inevitable, you will be getting some every once in a while. And, in civilian life, they are likely to have much longer life expectancy thanks to their magic. If you do not keep disposing of excess mages that can single-handedly hold a whole city as a hostage, you are going to run into an inevitable magocracy.

Even if the ruling class already consists of mages, they do not need more competition than necessary. And if they are not, they are probably scared of every sneeze from those walking weapons of mass destruction.

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  • $\begingroup$ How would you force a demigod-level mage to go to battlefield? Also if the ruling class is afraid of demigod-level mages then they will kill all mages (because they are a potential threat). In other words mages are persecuted. So how can they end up on the battlefield instead of being hanged? Or perhaps the real ruling class is mages themselves. Yet another reason to never go to a risky battlefield. $\endgroup$ – user46852 Jan 19 '18 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ 1) Who says anything about forcing? Educate them properly what is their Duty to the Country. Promise (and don't hesitate to give) glory and reaches to those that come from the battle victorious. Play to their ego, saying that only they can stop Eastasia. Freshly graduated teen mages would be eager to go to the front on their own. 2) Why kill if you can use them? Also, they may explode on death, you'd rather have that happen in enemy cities. 3) If the elderly mages are ruling, they certainly wouldn't want to just give their seats to those snotty youngsters. $\endgroup$ – Alice Jan 19 '18 at 13:50
  • $\begingroup$ If they are powerful mages then they can just take everything from you. They don't have to obey any laws or wait for your approval/gifts. If they have huge ego, then they just take everything. I guess ruling mages could force other mages to go to battlefield. I would accept that. But then we have to assume that at the top of the hierarchy sits the most powerful mage(s) that will never go to battle. Yeah, that could work. I'm going to +1 this answer, it seems the most reasonable. $\endgroup$ – user46852 Jan 19 '18 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ Not necessarily. Remember that a mage dies from an arrow too. Holding a city hostage only works until you turn your back or go to sleep. And as the example of the Duke of Wellington shows, great military leaders can often make really lousy politicians. Ruling a city doesn't need military might, it needs someone who can make sure the taxes are collected and the ordinary people don't run out of food. $\endgroup$ – Graham Jan 19 '18 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ @freakish They can if they want to. Imagine a wizardry school where all potential mages get in from the earliest age. Their senior students have the power to make them accept the rules, and they do that because they were indoctrinated for the most of their conscious life. Or even some of unconscious, if we are gonna go the Brave New World route. Also, mages on top could be the ones that went to battle and were savvy enough to survive a dozen of those and refuse to go back (and by that time you really can't force them to do anything, yes). $\endgroup$ – Alice Jan 19 '18 at 15:30
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Adding a more intangible consideration to the very practical answers above:

Morale.

Corporal Ledowski had always found it hard going, being a non-magical grunt in an army which deployed and fought mages on a regular basis, but the grub was acceptable and the uniform made the girls happy. Nonetheless, food and girls were the furthest thing from his mind as he hunkered down as far as he could in a woefully inadequate trench, while magical fireballs and lightning bolts rained down on his platoon relentlessly.

The platoon commander had already briefed them on the presence of an enemy mage battalion earlier today, and they'd known to expect this, but their carefully planned counterattack of long-range bombardment with traditional steel-tipped wooden arrows (mages had yet to discover how to magic away a steel bolt through the head, Ledowski thought with grim satisfaction) had been wrecked by something as simple and stupid as unfavourable winds. All they could do was keep their heads down and hope that some of them survived the onslaught...

A loud cheer rang out through the trenches, a sound so unexpected that Ledowski thought he had finally gone deaf and was starting to hallucinate. Straining his ears, he caught one word on the boiling winds around him, but one word was all it took to fill him with a warm glow - Xenocacia!

Xenocacia, the legendary archmage who could single-handedly bring down an entire army - if he were here, the battle was as good as won. Already, Corporal Ledowski could feel his blood pumping again as his body prepared itself for the fight which he knew could now begin on an even plane. Damn those weak lesser mages - Xeno would show them!

Back to me: I just think a single mage would be better placed to inspire confidence as a military symbol or mascot than an entire battalion of faceless mages. He wouldn't even have to do that much magic; just his presence at the battlefield would inspire the soldiers to fight harder and possibly turn the tides of war.

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    $\begingroup$ The same could be achieved by attaching a name to the unit of mages though. "The Roaring Dragons are here, we're saved". $\endgroup$ – Tim B Jan 19 '18 at 9:26
  • $\begingroup$ While morale are important this can be achieved in many ways, not necessarily by personal presence. But anyway I would accept that as potential reason. $\endgroup$ – user46852 Jan 19 '18 at 13:46
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The bell curve.

Bell Curve

Quite simply if you want as much magical power as possible then you train each mage as much as you can.

Let's say that you have 10 people who can become a 2σ mage and you have 1 person that can become a 3σ mage. If you train them all to the two sigma level then you have less power than if you train 10 to 2σ and 1 to 3σ.

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  • $\begingroup$ In last paragraph of the question op says it's not about training at all, but about training for war and sending to war. Of course you want to train everyone to full potential. Still, your answer gives no reason to train most powerful mages as battle mages instead of training them for behind the lines occupationz. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jan 19 '18 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ I like this one as it gives an explanation that is independent of details. There is always going to be a distribution in the potential of mages available for combat. Some of them will always be exceptional and it always makes sense to train them fully. Still leaves the question of whether the most powerful mages would be available for combat but if we are talking about humans the answer is probably "hell yeah"... $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Jan 19 '18 at 9:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Mołot By an exact reading of the question there is never any reason, since it says that that the clusters of mages are just as effective. However since it is asking for reasons it is asking for ways in which they are less effective - an inbuilt contradiction that makes the question impossible to answer if taken literally. One reason not touched on so far is availability, if you need all resources devoted to the war effort then you do not have an unlimited supply of weaker mages. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Jan 19 '18 at 9:54
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Decisiveness: A group needs a command hierarchy to effectively carry out a plan. This is inefficient compared to one person acting alone. In addition to that, maybe the mages of your society have the tendency to be arrogant and selfish and don't like being commanded by other mages. There might be infighting mid-battle.

Flexibility: A single person can move far easier than an unit. When attacked while out of power, he can escape, or hide. When surrounded, he can slip through a gap in the enemy lines.

Stealth: A single person is easier to hide than a whole unit. He could infiltrate the enemy and assassinate their leader. Or he could hide in the army dressed like a common soldier. It's harder to hide a whole group since it has to stay together.

Training: You don't send soldiers into battle before they completed their basic training. So you would also prefer to keep novice mages in less dangerous roles where they can train to later rise to archmages.

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    $\begingroup$ Pratchett said in Sourcery that "the plural of wizard is war". Getting mages to work together is like herding ornery cats. $\endgroup$ – Arcanist Lupus Jan 19 '18 at 16:19
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Magic Generalists

A more powerful mage may be able to serve a purpose outside of fighting that the lesser mages can't. Maybe something to ease logistics, or to cast an opiate onto conquered peoples to make it easier to maintain ground. Or maybe there's magic to lift morale, or to heal soldiers after battle more effectively and more easily than ordinary medicine. You have plenty of options for which double-purpose would be best (or which combination of double-purposes.)

Also, if you're simply looking for a device to shoehorn a broader mix of mage powerlevels into the story, this would be an excellent way to do it, as the most powerful mages would be protected by the rest, so if you wanted to eliminate an enemy's main mage, you'd have to cut through the rest of their mages and army first. This makes them elusive, mysterious, and longlasting enough to give you enough time to smoothly characterize them without needing to contrive an excuse to keep them alive, even if they're on the losing side of a war. (Also, it would be possible, in a conflict where the general anticipates losing, for the powerful mage to be escorted into hiding while the rest hold off the winning army.)

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Runaway competition and mutually assured destruction

Similar to real life war between the US and the Soviet Union, we can imagine a situation where both nations have enough god-tier mages to annihilate the other thousandfold. If a mage is capable of annihilating an army, they can also do the same to a city.

By training increasingly powerful mages for no reason other than to demonstrably cast the largest fireballs, the nations aim to convince each other that attacking each other is suicide. In analogy to the submarine-launched ballistic missiles of the Cold War, both nations station powerful water-breathing mages underwater off each other's coasts. By demonstrating to each other that their capitals can be instantly wiped off the map for breaking the truce, both nations maintain a state of uneasy peace.

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First, sending a powerful mage doesn't mean you can't train and send weaker ones as well. So, one nation may send 150 "mages" to the battlefield. If all of them were weak ones, when casting their "army destroying magic" distracting (specially if wounding or killing) one of the group you force them to start from the beginning. Mages are very good at concentrating, but this is a battlefield, filled with cries, battle noises, the screams of dying men…

Now suppose that they are distributed this way:

  • 5 High-tier mages
  • 5 groups of 15 normal mages
  • 70 actors dressed as mages

The actors are expendable, being there just so that they can be a target for the enemy instead of a real mage.

The normal mages are actually hurting the enemy, but a successful attack to one of them forces his group to start again (that's why you prefer 5 slower groups than a faster but bigger one).

And additionally, there is a variable number of high tier mages, with each of them capable by himself of performing a big damage to the other army, so deactivating them is critical.

Your mission, should you choose/decide to accept it, is to bypass the enemy lines, find the people able to make magic, ensure that the normal mages won't be able to finish their spells, and kill the high tier ones while avoiding the soldiers assigned to bodyguarding them.

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Political control

If you are a king or a government, you don't want any other individual getting more powerful than you. Historically, a lot of dictators actively hindered many of their subordinates, or put in place structures so that none of them could become too powerful, even if that meant they were less effective.

A governing power would not want to risk training up someone who could potentially then take over, when they could have a larger number of less powerful individuals over whom they could exercise "divide and rule".

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Maybe the formation your lesser mages need to be in to cast the spell has to be very large, with each mage placed far away from each other. This forces your army to defend 20 different locations, which means scattering the resources a lot (not just troops, but supplies as well). A single mage is easier to defend as more troops can be assigned to defending him.

Also, with this kind of mechanic an army could actually separate in 20 locations, making their opponent believe they have many lesser mages, when in reality it is a diversion made to buy time for the single powerful mage.

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Spreading out the lesser mages also spreads out their magical defense capailities; this means the enemy force can focus magical attacks on one lesser mage and breach their defenses, thus killing/wounding the mage and cancelling the group ritual.

Having one greater mage means the defense is not spread out which makes it much more difficult to overpower with a focused attack.

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It really depends on just how powerful they are.

If they can project an impenetrable for days, why wouldn't you send them out.

Also range if the mage has a range of say 2 battlefields, his opening move could be 100,000 level 1 fireballs and kill all the enemy in one go.

The trick here is a super mage can cast many lower spells and not become exhausted, and still be able to leave the battlefield on their own.

If they achieve near omnipotent then cast spell and boom any battle is over as soon as it starts. His/her power levels are so high that only the most terrifying spells drain them.

Have no idea how long this would take, but you have other mages, in shifts, prolonging your best mages lives. This is done so they can basically infinitely level themselves to basically godhood.

I see you castle 100 miles away, cast spell boom the castle and everything around it is crushed to 6" high. Battle over.

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Power advantage

If a 2x more powerful mage is able to send a fireball 2x further, then whatever the number of less powerful mages, this super mage can it them all before he's in reach of their counter attacks.

Then, since this super mage will be exhausted, you need as much super mages as possible to replace the "tired" supply. So your nation will need as many super mages as possible, and in fact all nation will need super mages in addition to usual mages.

Also, you should take into account any diversion (the ennemy sends small amount of his forces to exhaust your super mage), you must have some fresh super mage to prevent this case too.

If the power advantage is not about firing distance, but the duration of the magic (super mage can withhold launching fireballs for longer), then you'll make use of this fact. If you only have mages (and so has the ennemy) then once they are exhausted, the party with a super mage can use it now to win the battle since there is no available valid opponent anymore. In that case, a strategy to have both super mage and usual mages makes sense, the more super mage you have the better your odds to win.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, that depends on mathematics. How risky it is for such a mage to die in the battle? How costly (if possible) it is to train such individual? What are other side effects related? Note that the wise general/king would play such card only if necessary. That's the reason you don't see nukes flying all over the world :) But I guess that with properly tweaked mathematics this could work. Even though that would probably break other things in the world. :) $\endgroup$ – user46852 Jan 19 '18 at 14:08
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Well, if the battle is strategically important enough, and the mages know a powerful enough spell that it requires especially powerful mages...

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