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In my fantasy world, the magic system pretty much makes metal armour and weapons obsolete. The magic system's specifics aren't important, just note that the magic system allows the users to 'penetrate' and 'destroy' man-made materials, AND objects that come from the Earth, such as stone. Only living things such as humans, animals, plants and everything produced naturally by said living things can't be affected by the magic.

What natural armour would be best for warfare/protection? Wood? Giant beetle husks? Scales?


Extra info:

  • The era this is set in is roughly the classic medieval era of Europe.

  • Though the people who can do magic aren't common, they provide enough danger that if soldiers do encounter one, they wouldn't want to face them defenceless, as their metal armour and swords/spears/axes are 'ignored'.

  • The armour has to be strong enough to protect them from normal soldier's attacks, be it from metal weaponry or otherwise, but also light and inexpensive enough to be breathable and mass-produced.
  • The magic system was 'introduced' after humans had already developed metal armours, so that type of armour does exist, but most wouldn't risk the danger that could posses by arming themselves with 'non-natural' materials.

[edit:] Leather armour and [edit: removed chemically treated, contradicts] cloth armour would be viable in defending against said magic.

[edit 2:] To be clearer, the users of the 'magic' aren't 'mages' or 'wizards' old or mostly defenceless without their magic like in cliche fantasy, but are more akin to the 'Mistborn' from the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, or the 'Surgebinders' from the Stormlight Archives, where people such as Kaladin are very adept in hand-to-hand combat. These people who practice 'magic' are also warriors and assassins- using the magic in tandem with their combat skills.

Even if you have leather armour that cannot be affected by their magic, you still have to face the user behind the magic- a potentially extremely skilled spearman or swordsman.

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    $\begingroup$ Wait, are leather and cloth armours allowed or not? Your final bullet point hints that they aren't, but the leather isn't quite "man made" and natural fibres needn't even be chemically modified at all. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 21 at 22:43
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    $\begingroup$ what exactly is the damage these natural armours protect against? is it comparable to the damage dealt by a normal weapon or is it different? $\endgroup$ – Nuloen The Seeker May 21 at 22:59
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    $\begingroup$ By making leather legit your question is pointless. $\endgroup$ – Hobbamok May 22 at 11:31
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    $\begingroup$ "Leather armour and non-chemical treated cloth armour would be viable in defending against said magic." This statement appears contradictory. Leather is heavily chemically treated animal hide. Why is that permitted, but cloth, which is mostly a plant based product, not permitted to be chemically treated? Both are biological products. $\endgroup$ – Makyen May 22 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ May need to delve into what makes a material susceptible to magic or immune. in the big picture, all materials are "natural" as it did not take a violation of the universes physics to create, just purified refined. Metal is just refined natural minerals. Technically, most leather would be susceptible as its been altered or worked by man. If leather is ok, then plastics would definitely be immune to magic as its fairly close to living matter. $\endgroup$ – Sonvar May 24 at 0:32

15 Answers 15

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people who can do magic aren't common

Pragmatic answer: defend yourself against the common threat. Most people you meet won't be able to blast through your armour, so just wear the best that you can get, and you'll be largely OK. Maybe you'll meet people who didn't follow this rule, and you'll find yourself a fair bit more resilient than they will be.

Even if you do run into a magic user, you'll find that a decent padded arming jacket of the sort that most soldiers would be using under metal armour anyway will be pretty good defence (and back in the day, people who couldn't afford fancier armour would go to war just wearing a good arming jacket, so it must be reasonably effective by itself). Cuirboilli (cooked leather) will make a decent multipurpose top layer, though it isn't as effective against cutting and slashing weapons when it hasn't been reinforced with metal. You may as well do that though, because you don't want to get cut up by someone with a decent steel chopper. It is possible to reinforce cuirboilli in other ways... I've found references to "ground mineral finish" being useful. You'd have to use a "mineral" of biological origin though... ground up teeth spring to mind, though that would be a slightly grisly industry to be in.

But what happens when you meet a problematic wizard?

Well, if they can fireball you from afar, you just get toasted regardless of what you wear. If they have to use regular weapons against you, then:

  • Carry a nice wooden shield. This is common sense anyway, but it'll stop natural and man made projectiles adequately, and it'll do well enough against metal melee weapons if it is stoutly built. Making it tough enough might be challenging, but not impossible. A non-structurally-critical metal rim will help it last a lot longer against non-wizards.
  • Use a hafted weapon, like a warhammer or halberd. Sure, they can poof the stabby, crushy bits into dust, but there's still a nice big hefty stick attached to a frightened person fighting for their life, and it'll do a fine job smashing wizards who don't do a good enough job defending themselves. Until it gets poofed, it'll do great against idiots who don't have magic and didn't bring decent armour to the fight.
  • Use bone, horn or (if you can find any big enough) tooth spikes on the back or sides of the head of your weapon. They won't get poofed off, and they'll make it much easier to kill inconvenient wizards and bash through armour if the metal bit isn't available any more.
  • Keep some concealed metal stabby things, stiletto-like. On the assumption that you can't poof them into dust if you can't see em, they'll be useful if you can get close enough in, or have a friend to do distraction.
  • Learn you some jiu-jitsu, or your local wrestling equivalent. All the armour in the world won't stop your arms and legs snapping, and you can always make use of it as a last-ditch, all-your-weapons-got-poofed-or-broken way to save your life.
  • Use archery! An all-natural bow can shoot arrows tipped with the material of your choice Horn composite bows can be very powerful. Bone or hardened wood for wizards, metal (or flint, in a pinch) for regular folk. Changing ammunition is easy. More importantly, when a war arrow is already inbound at speed, poofing the sharp bit off won't necessarily save you from the effects of the shaft, if it hits you in a unarmoured or weakly armoured bit. Careful arrow design might result in a multipurpose composite head suitable for all targets.

An update to respond to a slightly pointed edit to the question which seems to be directed at me ;-)

You should note that I've made no assumptions about the skills and abilities of the wizards in question, in the same way that I've made no assumptions about the skills and abilities of the non-wizards who might fight them. It is almost tangential to the question... if you're fighting a super-skilled master swordspeep elite assassin, it doesn't really matter whether they're a wizard or not and who's got plate armour; they're probably going to kill you.

As for the use of "wizard"... your peeps cast magic, wizards cast magic, far as I'm concerned you're all the same, your prejudices notwithstanding.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why wouldnt leather work? Leather is just like bone a dead creature product. And since bone as a lot of metallic calcium it would be more likely that bone is affected than leather. $\endgroup$ – Demigan May 22 at 7:53
  • $\begingroup$ The OP was unclear in their question, and has since clarified. See the very first comment on the question. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 22 at 8:23
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    $\begingroup$ note arming jackets were normally made of wool or linen and should work as armor against magic as well. as for minerals use ground shells instead of teeth, stronger and longer lasting too boot. $\endgroup$ – John May 22 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ @John gah, of course shells would have been the sensible option. I can't believe I'd forgotten them when thinking about "organic minerals". $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 22 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ Why use a horn bow? Wooden longbows can be plenty powerful without any extra complications. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs May 22 at 22:28
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So, if I understand this right, leather armor would be perfectly serviceable, because leather comes from animal skins, even thought it's no longer alive. In that case, may I suggest Japanese Samurai Armor? Japan had limited access to metals, which they used mostly for swords, so it's a good place to start with. Leather is plentiful, and can get pretty hard if you treat and layer it. Unfortunately, some types used metals plates / scales, but I suppose you can just use wooden plates (with hard leather on top) instead of metal ones.

I'm kind of curious what weapons look like, because if you have wizards who can destroy an entire army's worth of plate metal, than they can also destroy an army's worth of metal swords, metal arrow tips, and metal shields. Though, of course, you can just bokkens, or something. Would fit with the Japanese aesthetic.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this a lot as the Japanese had to make due with what they lacked in resources. But, a lot of Japanese armor used processed natural materials, course silk (woven) or hardened leather (boiled.) Metal is just effectively refined natural minerals. I would ask, at what point would refinement of a material make it susceptible to magic? They also used bamboo that is shaped by boiling it and forming it to shape. $\endgroup$ – Sonvar May 21 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Sonvar From what I understand, the material has to come from living beings in order to be impervious to magic. Unless there is a major plot device, we can safely assume rocks and minerals (metals) have not come from living things. $\endgroup$ – nostalgk May 22 at 19:41
  • $\begingroup$ @nostalgk and how'd that work, realistically. Is it the presence of high percentages of carbon that blocks the magic? Might end up with armour made out of lignite in that case, or carbonaceous minerals. $\endgroup$ – jwenting May 23 at 9:09
  • $\begingroup$ despite what movies and games would have you believe leather armor was very very rare, because it was basically useless. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 11 at 15:08
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Gambeson

Gambeson was the most common and readily available type of armour in the Medieval period. It was often made out of layers of linen which have been laminated together. Linen is a type of textile that was made out of flax, a plant that has been cultivated throughout human history.

As “the people who can do magic aren't common”, most soldiers would instead equip themselves with something reliable, easy to obtain and easy to maintain, focusing on defending themselves against other troops rather than the rare mage. When they do encounter a mage though, their natural, plant-based armour will save them.

Wooden Shields

Just incase, soldiers would also have large wooden shields. Not only would they protect against mundane attacks, such as weapons or arrows, the wood would also act as a defence against magic. Many soldiers would also be carrying shields anyway so there is no change in tactics there.

Brigandine or a Coat of Plates

A coat of plates is, as the name may suggest, a sleeveless coat of leather or gambesons with iron or steel plates on the inside. The more advanced version, Brigandine, has much smaller plates that overlap, removing gaps in the armour. Either of these would be suitable in this scenario. The metal is on the inside, protecting a wearer from physical harm, and the leather or gambeson would protect from magical harm.

Nothing?

Your question states:

living things such as humans, animals, plants and everything produced naturally by said living things can't be affected by the magic.

Surely that one phrase makes your entire question redundant? If humans, being living things, can’t be affected by the magic, why would they need to protect themselves from it? Answer, they don’t. There is no need to protect yourself or take any measures to defend against something which can not harm you.

Rather than taking the literal meaning of what you wrote, i am instead going to interpret it as “humans can’t be affected by magic, but their armour and weapons can”. In which case, the answer may still be “weapons and armour are unaffected” as, even if there is a chance of encountering a mage, it is so proportionately low as to not have to worry about it. If a mage were to show up, people could simply remove the heads of their arrows, sharpen the shafts and fire them instead (yes the weight distribution would be off, but that would not be very important at close range, the sharpened, untipped arrow would still be able to pierce the mage).

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    $\begingroup$ I think you misunderstood. According to the description the magic in that world is used to destroy metal or make it unusable (Maybe some spells like "heat metal"(dnd) became popular). It doesn't pose a threat to the soldiers, just affects the metals negatively. That's how most people understand it, it seems. $\endgroup$ – Nuloen The Seeker May 22 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ From the OP, "_ their metal armour and swords/spears/axes are 'ignored'._". This implies that metal armour can be trivially bypassed, and metal blades (or spikes, or crushy bits or whatever) couldn't do damage (or are destroyed before they could be used to do damage). Your coat of plates ain't gonna save you today. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 25 at 9:27
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime Perhaps, but my reasoning was the leather would prevent the magic user from interfering with the metal, it acts as a protective barrier against the magic. $\endgroup$ – Liam Morris May 25 at 11:09
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We can look at things that have been used for armor in human history:

  • Leather: The most used material for light armor, ever. Although it can't stop a thrust from a sword or a chop from an axe, it does protect from sword cuts and reduces blunt damage. It will also offer protection from fire bolts, acid, and other magic attacks.
  • Boiled Leather: Leather hardened by being boiled in oil (another life-based material). Offers better protection from blunt weapons than soft leather.
  • Silk: A common light samurai armor was a shirt made from three layers of silk. It was especially good at preventing arrows from penetrating very deep, as the silk would follow the arrowhead into the wound. The arrow could then be removed simply by pulling at the silk.
  • Wool and cotton: Quilted armor has been very common, both worn beneath metal and boiled-leather armor and by itself. It softens blunt blows (including sling bullets) and may catch light cuts. It will also protect against cold-based magic.
  • Wood. Shields (e.g. Viking round shields) have commonly been made from wood, sometimes wrapped with leather. While armor has rarely been used in worn armor, braided bamboo slats have been used for that purpose in Asia.
  • Bone: There are examples of bone armor in history, e.g. from Siberia.
  • Fiber: Warriors from the Kiribati Islands constructed armor using coir, a particularly strong fiber material harvested from coconut trees.

For a fantasy world, we might add exotic things like dragon scales and bones, unicorn hide, and wyrm skin.

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As for the armor, padded cloth armour was pretty widespread in the high and late middle ages. There were various ways of constructing it - multiple layers (more then 10) of linen fabric stitched together, several layers of linen stuffed with raw wool or something similar, etc. Layers of deerskin may be added. Leather armor also had its place, although not how it is commonly depicted. There are couple finds of leather arm armor (I know if one vambrace and one brassard) - although we do not know how exactly this leather was hardened. In general, this armor was worse then metal - it needed to be heavier, hotter and more cumbersome for the same level of protection.

So it is going to be an interesting reversal when what was seen as cheap infantry armour will suddenly become more effective then very expensive knightly armour. Unless there are some exotic animals in your world, just a simple 14 century gambeson with boiled leather elements would give decent protection against both magical and mundane weapons.

As for the weapons, it is harder. I am not aware of any organic materials that would penetrate knightly steel armor. The best bet would be impact weapons - clubs, mallets, quarterstaves. If the magic ability is not that widespread, steel weapons will most likely remain on the battlefield - a falshion has just a much better bet to damage a person in above-mentioned gambeson then a bone club. Most likely, it will be a fashion of carrying two weapons - one metal, one organic.

Additional factor here is how long does the situation with magic go on. The development of armor and weapons in middle ages was a straight up race between the offensive and defensive capability, with armor always improving and increasing in coverage, until the firearms started being used commonly. As soon as armor stopped being so protective, we start seeing a reverse trend, and the amount of armour and it's presence on battlefield started going down rapidly. If your soldiers know their armor won't protect them absolutely, they will ditch everything that encumbers them.

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Keratin

If you search WB.SE for "Keratin is:answer" you'll find that this popular and very common natural armor is, in fact, a popular answer for a lot of questions involving natural armors, weapons, etc.

Keratin is the material that makes up your fingernails, toenails, the horns of rhinos (and others), etc. Indeed, we already use it as a natural armor. You just need it to grow thicker, in more areas, and in plates (preferably with a bit 'o overlap).

Make your dragon scales (or really big lizard scales) out of keratin and Bob's your uncle.

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If you are capable of magically farming spidersilk then that would be your answer. Otherwise I suspect the best thing to use would be what was in use in that time period: leathers, wood, bone and cloth to keep it together. Since weapons will also be mostly natural the loss of metals for armor will be minimal.

You do mention Giant Beetle Husks. If you allow magical creatures of immense size that have special properties for their hide, lets say a Dragon Scale, then those would naturally be used if you can get them. But since such options are completely your choice we cant really use them unless you specify them (at which point your question would be mute).

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Chitin is heavy, not good for armour. There might be some potential in keratin (horn) if you can get a lot of it.

Wood is your best bet for barriers like shield and pavise.

Gambesons were very common, and were always worn under plate and mail.

On top of these you want to use tough skins, like hardened leather or raw hide. There were some armours made of boar tusks found in the East. Japanese used armours made of wood, bamboo and leather. You can look into that as well.

One more thing to note is that you don't need that much protection from the weapons. Since metal is unusable your whole warfare moved back to the stone age, making the weapons less effective. Things like aztec "swords", clubs, bow and arrow, slings, stone tipped spears, etc. (Unless bronze remains as an option because it's hard to corrode it entirely.)

Most siege weapons don't need any metal parts, if you have good craftsmen. Even mechanical parts can be just wood, but they would have to be replaced often to make them reliable but I'm no expert so don't take my word on that

Another thing to think about is that most of these materials are flammable, expect a lot of burning oil and stuff like that being used.

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You defeated your own question with this:

[edit:] Leather armour and non-chemical treated cloth armour would be viable in defending against said magic.

Your world wouldn't change too much from "our" classic medieval era.

I know that you have these shiny knights in mind when thinking about it, but that was one in a couple hundred people on the battlefield, and that armor wouldn't be worn for anything else.

But guess what everyone else was wearing? LEATHER! Because nobody but the very rich could afford plate armor.

That's right, the masses would already be protected, and the knights would probably adopt some samurai-style armor, or just hope that a mage doesn't focus on them (because for strafing hits the leather padding below the armor should suffice). But again, knights are few and far between so it wouldn't matter at all.

As for shelds: they aren't made out of metal. They were wood shields with - sometimes - metal plating. So they're fine.

Against a sorcerer-heavy army all the weapons based off of pointy sticks would probably become favored over swords/axes, but again, that wouldn't make that much of a difference

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  • $\begingroup$ The knights would also be protected, as under that shiny armour they have on thick padding of leather and wool or linen fabric to absorb blows to the armour that'd otherwise crush organs and bones (as well as improve comfort overall). $\endgroup$ – jwenting May 23 at 9:11
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Reinforced Leather

This is a good starting point - leather armor, boiled and studded with many small studs (made from bone or hard woods) to give it some rigidity. With a gambeson underneath for padding, this makes a solid piece of armor - though it's probably quite time intensive to make.

Wooden Shields

Can be incredibly useful - blocking or deflecting anyone's attacks is nice. Adding a leather wrapping can help avoid the edge splintering and can dull blows to make it easier to use. Can also be augmented with spikes of bone or horn to make it offensive as well as defensive.

The secret trump card

Since your requirements are roughly "not highly refined by people" and "not out of the Earth", you can equip elite troops with meteoric iron. Iron coming from meteors can be pretty darn pure, and still fits within the question's parameters. Depending on how much human refinement is too much, cold forging may be necessary (though there's arguably less refinement from Iron>Hot Iron than there is from plant>cloth) which would definitely limit the range of things you could make in a given time span (and quenching is probably out of the question). However, even a few relatively small cold-forged disks could be vital in helping soldiers either fight well or escape with non-fatal wounds; just a couple - protecting the neck, maybe on the head, and maybe a bigger one on the back to protect against surprises. Spear- or arrowheads could give your elites a solid advantage over the magic-users as well.

Especially employed with elite troops (and must be, due to the rarity of meteors made of iron), meteoric iron may be a fatal surprise for any opposing magic users.

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    $\begingroup$ Minor nit-pick, “studded leather” is not actually a type of historical armour. What people misidentified as leather with metal studs in it is actually a coat of plates or brigandine, the term has just kind of stuck around. I mentioned brigandine in my own answer. Essentially, the “studs” of studded leather are actually rivets holding a metal plate to the leather backing. The studs are not why studded leather is stronger, the metal plates underneath the leather are. $\endgroup$ – Liam Morris May 23 at 20:13
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Just use a surcoat. Since most enemies will still be using classical weapons, metal armor will still be king of the battlefield, but a lightweight linen overcoat will protect both the soldier and his armor from magical attacks.

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  • $\begingroup$ The question does imply that metal armour and weapons are useless against a wizard, so a thin protective layer probably won't help you because whatever mechanism is involved can't harm the overcoat but will still work just fine on any metal things underneath it. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 25 at 9:32
  • $\begingroup$ Point A: "the magic system allows the users to 'penetrate' and 'destroy' man-made materials", Point B:"everything produced naturally by said living things can't be affected by the magic". if the effect of magic is to penetrate and destroy, then it implies that magic can neither penitrate nor destroy organics. While I admit, this is an exploitative solution to the problem, it may imply that the OP needs to redefine his system to prevent this. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki May 25 at 23:52
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For weapons : staves and javelins

Staves

Even though it looks innocuous, the staff is as deadly as the sword and will easily break all of your enemies' bones.

Javelins

Basically a sharpened stick, throw that on your enemy (maybe with a spear-thrower for extra oomph) for a ranged attack

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The big question is, WHY are leather and cloth effective but metal isn't.

Is it the presence of carbon in the former that's lacking in the latter? If so, carbon steel (alloys of steel with some carbon in it) may already be good. If more carbon is needed, we can think of hardened wood, but another option would be lignite.

Lignite has the advantage of having a very high carbon content, and can be worked with even primitive tools. It also has its disadvantages though, which become apparent when you realise that lignite is used as the main source of fuel for electric power stations, it's better known as coal :)

There are other carbonaceous minerals that contain higher or lower percentages of carbon and might be able to be worked into weapons or armour segments as well.

Moissanite for example, a rare Silicon Carbide, is sometimes mistaken for diamond, it's that hard, and might be worked into tips for crossbow bolts used by assassins sent after your magic users. Diamond itself is obviously a contender as well.

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  • $\begingroup$ ...are you trying to apply science to a magic system? $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 25 at 9:34
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The question IS interesting. Throwing it off by "just wear the best that you can get" has no sense, for wearing something heavy AND useless in 30% of cases is not practical. (According to ADND uncommon has 30% rarity). Recall the heavy ships with weak armor widely used in the 20th century. Not no armour, but not heavy armour.

The most easy and expected solution for the world of magic will be use of elements. Magic belong to elements (fire, life etc.) and some elements keep well the attack from some other elements. Or badly. So, you can fill armor with defending magic of some elements that will be good against others. You cannot combine magic of contradictory elements on the same armor. BUT. You can use nature materials, containing some elements by their nature for that. Armour made of sea weeds has water magic and CAN be combined with armor made of fire salamander skin. Of course, such combined armor will be very difficult to make and very expensive to buy.

For animals set I would advise not European 4-element scheme, it is too trivial for readers, but the Eastern 5-element one. Water, Fire, Metal, Wood, Earth (https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/chinese-zodiac/china-five-elements-philosophy.htm)

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  • $\begingroup$ Where'd that 10% come from? Not the OP, that's for sure. Regardless, going ill-equipped against 90% of your opponents sounds downright suicidal. Also the OP didn't ask for a magic system, they asked for armour materials. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime May 25 at 9:33
  • $\begingroup$ 1) What is your feeling of the word "uncommon"? Not rare, but uncommon? My is about 0.1 frequency of appearance. 2) I was talking about putting magic ON armour. So, 0 defence idea belongs to you only. $\endgroup$ – Gangnus May 25 at 16:52
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Metal armor covered and concealed by natural materials, also mace made out of metals that is covered in hardwood/leather/animal horn material. Make your arrows out of sharp sticks with feathers as fletching, (bows are traditionally made of a wood/horn/fiber composite, all of which came from living things.) Spears out of hardwood with a sharp tip, and projectiles of siege weapons out of sea shells and shark teeth tied together with ropes. Alternatively, mine some chalk of diatomaceous earth slate from beneath coral reefs for your projectile(sharp coral will also work). If there were large animals around, then sharp weapons and arrow tips made from chipped bones will certainly work.

Since your restraint implies that a mage can not destroy something he/she can't see, arm your elite assassins or rogues with concealed weapon beneath armor/clothing made of organic material, like fabric or leather, and stab with these weapons only at the last second of an attack, kill the mage before he/she can react and poof your weapon away.

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