This is the enemy infantry line.

This is our archmage casting fireball.

Area of effect spells can be found in most magic systems. However, whatever the exact effects of the spells are, hitting a tightly grouped crowd is always going to do most damage. In premodern battles strong formations, which don't break are what everyone wants. Those formations usually consist of tightly grouped infantry, as shown on the first picture.

While in our world line-infantry combat was ended by the advent of the machine-gun, I suspect that in a world with magic, AoE spells will have the same effect much earlier. The question is how warfare would evolve to deal with these spells. Some solutions I came up with are:

  1. Power Level Control

Just keep the mages and the magic system free of AoE spells. However this isn't really what I want and probably won't even work. Getting creative with some alchemical neurotoxin and telekinesis will be as bad as an all out arcane firestorm. Additionally I want my mages to be powerful.

As a side note, while a large percentage of the population in my setting can learn magic, few actually do. Of these, most are weak witches, healers, charlatans and shamans. Few have the potential and fewer get the education to become proper wizards. Fewer of these actually have the inclination and talent to become proper war mages. However, most nations do have at least some of these around.

  1. Antimagic

Using countermagic to neutralise magic will only work if both sides are equal on the magical front. Otherwise smashing the enemy with spells is preferable. Of course, if antimagic is an absolute counter to magic this will work, but will also make mages really weak.

  1. Magical Resistance

Shielding the troops with protective gear and magic might work for rich elite troops, but not for the peasant infantry. Furthermore magical resistance can be circumvented. While a fireball might fizzle out when it hits an antimagic zone, a 500 kilogram boulder propelled by a telekinesis spell will carry on as a ballistic projectile.

Magical resistance might be somewhat useful, but will ultimately only force the mages to adopt new tactics.

  1. Spread Out The Troops

The tightly packed front line is what make AoE spells so effective. If there are fewer soldiers per unit of area, AoE spells become less effective. However a loose melée front line fails its original purpose, which is allowing the warriors to mutually support each other. This would mean that melée infantry would disappear from large battles and that loose formations of missile infantry with secondary melée armaments would dominate.

  1. Mobility

Assuming that spells announce themselves before they hit, dodging could be a viable strategy. Cavalry comes to mind here. Heavy cavalry to harness the ranged infantry and mages and horse archers as an upgrade of the ranged infantry.

  1. Entrenchment

Since AoE spells could be avoided by taking cover and since traditional defences against cavalry are gone, entrenching one's position on a battlefield becomes increasingly important. Defensive fighting positions with a special focus on cavalry defence might become relevant on the battlefield. This would also mean that bows and crossbows, which can be operated kneeling would become relevant weapons. Caltrops and spikes, maybe doubling as javelins, could be used to enhance the defence of such positions.

While I think that line-infantry tactics would still be used in minor battles and skirmishes when no mages are around, major battles with mages involved might use tactics as described above. Did I miss something? Are there better ideas for adapting pre-modern armies to AoE magic?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ If a fireball is (roughly) equivalent to a missile, then this sounds a lot like somebody dropping bombs on the armies. Something that basically happened when armies met cannons and catapults. So, it's not a situation that armies never faced until machine-gun fire. It wasn't that much of a problem because it's generally hard to aim against the other army. Seems like a wizard will face fundamentally the same problem, unless they also control the trajectory of the fireball in flight. Most magic systems have the fireball a fire and forget - so, basically launching a missile. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Dec 21, 2019 at 14:06
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Warfare is maybe the most complex topic covered in this stack exchange which is why your question isn't answerable. Warfare is highly situational. It's also an iterative process of each side learning from previous engagements. How to engage an enemy depends on terrain, numbers, composition, weather and previous experiences. You lose once you do the same thing twice and a smart general notices the pattern. You have to really get specific here. Where do they fight? How many mages are there? Do they produce a physical object affected by gravity that can be blocked? And much, much more $\endgroup$
    – Raditz_35
    Commented Dec 21, 2019 at 14:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If you can direct magic fireballs, why direct them at the infantry? Have your mages sneak into the enemy's capital and blast their palace...or their water supply...or their market. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented Dec 21, 2019 at 14:26
  • $\begingroup$ Real-world examples of non-magical AOE that predate machine guns include incendieries such as Greek fire, pouring boiling water onto beseigers, and even throwing hornets nests. $\endgroup$
    – barbecue
    Commented Dec 22, 2019 at 0:49
  • $\begingroup$ so the mage dont feel tired or take a breather to cast the magic missile ? $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Commented Dec 22, 2019 at 3:19

9 Answers 9


This is our archmage casting fireball.

It is a better example than perhaps you intended. That is an antiship missile. A NATO equivalent, perhaps the Harpoon, costs a million bucks a go. You don't use it on grunts; it is a specialist and expensive device intended to destroy big, tough and expensive targets.

Fewer of these actually have the inclination and talent to become proper war mages. However, most nations do have at least some of these around.

A nation only has some war mages. This makes them very rare, and very valuable. You absolutely don't want to waste them swatting frightened farmers. Use them to take out high-value targets like other war mages, large fortifications, perhaps even warships. Most battles won't see any sign of such fearsomely dangerous people, for the same reason that most battles won't have the king personally present either. They have better things to do with their time.

While in our world line-infanterie combat was ended by the advent of the maschine-gun, I suspect that in a world with magic AoE spells will have the same effect much earlier.

Given the rarity of your boom-wizards, I suspect most battles will be fought pretty much as they always were. When a wizard is present, I would expect the slaughter to be terrible, and no lessons would have been learned.

Cannon, volley guns, mortars, rockets and cannon firing explosive shells all thoroughly predated the machinegun and did not end combat in formations... machineguns just made it unambiguous. Until your boom-wizards are more commonplace, formation fighting seems likely to remain.

This is the enemy infanterie line.

If that's what your wizards are used against, I'd expect them to get slaughtered the very first time they come across someone like the Scythians or Mongols. If the Mongols had similar wizards, I'd expect them to be devastating against the sort of fortifications which helped hold them off from conquering Europe. They're the sort of forces that will take best advantage of them, as they are already a highly mobile and non-formation-fighting army. Perhaps the survivors might emulate them, or more likely the descendants of the invaders will keep those tactics once the parent empire breaks up.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Yes, had already horror visions of step nomads with magic. Probably best not to give them a battle mage tradition in the world. I agree that mages would be used against high-value targets. However, the elite infantry of the enemy holding their center is a high-value target in my opinion. A big field battle can win or lose you the war. If you magic away the strongest part of the enemy center, charge through with shock troops and encircle the enemy center to grind them to death, your investment was well worth it. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 21, 2019 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ @TheDyingOfLight I'd be having my battlemage look like regular light cavalry. I'd wait for you to make your move, then incinerate your boomwizard by surprise and finish by torching the rest of your army and a healthy portion of your nobility into the bargain... $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 21, 2019 at 17:43
  • $\begingroup$ That would certainly work in a world where mages can cast powerful spells without preparation. Not a fit for my world though, as masking even your presence as a mage from other mages is difficult, nevermind masking that you are casting a spell. Additionally defensive magic will usually overpower long-range spells as projecting the spells matrix is significantly easier. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 21, 2019 at 19:17
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    $\begingroup$ When the Mongols of your world encounter a battlemage, they will be very careful not to kill him or her. They will capture the mage alive and be very kind. The mage will find that working conditions among the Mongols are very congenial. This strategy is how the Mongols got siege engines. They captured people who knew how to build and use siege engines and treated their captives very well. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Dec 21, 2019 at 19:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Willk So it falls to the party to infiltrate the Mongols to assassinate the defector mage. This is a great plot idea, thanks. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 21, 2019 at 19:53

I am actually dealing with this situation myself in my magic system. Basically what I have is the power of three m1 abrams on the back of each of the magic users with AOE attacks. They can also fire them as fast as a bolt action rifle, sometimes. So, OP, right? I have a society that counters this in two ways: Ambush and a retreating arrow barrage. Because these guys are so over-powered for the tech level they are found in, you can't take them head-on, you can only reduce their numbers while they chase you halfway around the world. But I have nothing for line infantry that can fight them in pre-modern times. But my magic isn't your magic, so here are a few options.


Basically, if you have any magic user that can make a ridiculous amount of Flacc infantry (zombies, wild beasts, tame beasts, sick beasts, insect swarms, flocks of birds, hive-mind humanoid built to die, etc.) you have got a cheap army that poses some level of danger to these magic-users, and even though they are the exact reverse of high-level warriors, they are also entirely expendable and their only purpose is to basically slow the enemy down.

Magicians attack!

Basically, if you really want to kill magicians, you often have to use magicians. Basically, if thousands or tens of thousands of mages have similar powers, not everyone with those powers will be part of the same team, which means you can counter mages with mages.


Just because they can kill doesn't mean they are great at healing wounds dealt secretly in the night. simply put, if a nation has absolutely amazing assassins, they will have a strong incentive to draw out a campaign as long as possible to let their spys do most of the work before their army enters the battle.


I know you said pre-modern, but gunpowder was a random discovery, it's not something developed in modern times and it's not something you have to limit to a particular tech level. You can make steam engines without gunpowder and gunpowder without steam engines. Basically, these would be used when un-powered or weakly powered forces successfully ambush an army. It's basically AOE magic lite, but it is better than nothing.


Who knows? maybe these people are really great at making diseases in the lab, even in pre-modern times. IN a desperate situation, they may leverage their power to unleash secret diseases against larger powers to prevent war!

Chemical weapons

Basically, you can make a gas-mask in medieval times, so there is reason to use chemical weapons if your people are able to make them, and a higher risk compared to reward.

In the end

if they kill the flesh, but not stone, build a wall and tell them to climb. But if the stone will not hold them back, water is your final chance. But once they get across the water, then no army will stop them. The only thing you can do is use some sort of guerilla tactics and overpower them in the odd fronts they are not prepared for. This is exactly how insurgents fight the US army in Afghanistan and how they fight the Sauds in Yemen. When taking on a more powerful foe, you never take them head-on. You take them where they are weak.



The biggest killer of the pre-modern warfare style is the creation of an unblockable (or mostly unblockable) attack. When both armies can deal significantly more damage than they can resist, the main conflict on the battlefield transforms from attack-and-defense to stealth-and-intelligence - hiding the position of your own forces while revealing those of your enemies, allowing you to hit them with the big guns before they can hit you with theirs. This is basically what most modern warfare is built around.

If you don't want that in your world, you're going to have to deal with the "unblockable" part. If your mages are missile launchers, I suggest the magical equivalent of the anti-missile missile - mages who specialize in shooting down enemy fireballs, shielding their own troops, or disrupting spells at a distance before they are cast. While the mages sling attack spells across the battlefield and set up barriers to defend their own side, the melee fighters charge beneath the fireworks bursting over their heads.

This creates an interesting strategic effect - tightly grouped armies are stronger in melee than spread-out ones, but this formation makes them vulnerable to enemy magic attack. The more an army can depend on their counter-mages to block enemy magic attack, the stronger they will be in melee - but these armies will be much more vulnerable to any attacks that manage to eliminate their own mages.


Well — just as a suggestion — assuming that powerful magics take a reasonable amount of time to cast, and battle-mages need line-of-sight to cast these spells, then you could have cadres of anti-mage mages, whose job (like snipers) is to pick off enemy mages (using small, quick spells) before the enemy mages pull off big area-of-effect spells.

Alternately, mages could work like artillery, used for suppression fire and softening targets while infantry take cover in fox-holes or trenches, and then cease to allow foot soldiers to advance.

But from the perspective of a foot soldier, only two things would really help: some kind of magical shield (either for individuals or entire phalanxes) that would keep the worst of AOE spells from affecting them, or something that would allow them to close with enemy foot soldiers quickly enough that AOE spells could not be used without wiping out both sides. Otherwise it would just be attrition, like in the early days of cannon: charge full speed, expect the enemy to get off a couple of volleys that vaporize a certain percentage of your troops, and hope the survivors are disciplined enough to overrun the enemy lines and the mages to secure the field.


It all depends on how magic works at a tactical level. Can powerful AoEs be cast at a whim, or do they take some time to prepare, or do they need time to recharge? Can they be unleashed everywhere or are there restrictions? Is the location decided upon beginning the casting or when it's completed? Can it be pre-placed like mines?

Depending on this, you might get vastly different answers. For example let's assume that AoEs is range-limited and needs some time to be casted.

Maneuverability is key in such a scenario. AoE cannot be used to swiftly counter unexpected threats, so you'll see units like horse archers in loose formations maneuvering around. Their goal would be to harass the enemy and to try and provoke them to either use their AoE up against them or suffer losses. If the enemy uses his AoE, the rest of the army has time to get into melee range until new AoEs are ready to be used. If successful, the enemy now can't use his AoE because he would hit his own troops. Friendly casters would be needed to provide some protection at a later stage, because if the enemy has lost anyway, he might be desperate enough to try AoE even if it hits its own troops.

Oh, ambushes would be a viable tactic, too.

If AoE has tight placement restrictions (like "max 500m away from the caster" or "within line of sight"), the key to winning battles is intelligence: knowing where the enemy casters are. From that knowledge, commanders would decide upon bypassing the casters, trying to have them assassinated, lure them away, deploy their own ranged troops outside of caster range or simply try counter-artillery tactics with their own casters. Infantry would only be send in if the enemies casters appear to be sufficiently busy.

If AoEs can be cast at a whim in rapid succession, your best bet is concealing your troops as long as possible, to minimize exposure to enemy AoE before the actual melee starts. Ambushes and general guerilla-style tactics would dominate warfare in such a world, not big armies meeting on open battlefields. If powerful mages are scarce they can't be everywhere, so if the enemy wants to control your territory there will be garrisons and other units without magic support spread out. These, and the supply lines of the bigger enemy troop concentrations (that have mages with them) would be the main focus of the fighting. The inferior side would just avoid fighting with the enemies' mages directly because it's pointless.

If AoE works like mines, the tactical aproach would be "try to prepare a battlefield and force the enemy to fight there by clever maneuvering".

That being said, I don't think that this kind of warfare would be common in your world. You're thinking about using your mages tactically, but most likely they would be used strategically. If a mage is capable of terrible AoE damage, surely they can somehow sneak into an enemies city and start some nasty fires? Destroy stuff like dams or mines? In a medieval world, where most of the economy besides farming is located in very few towns and cities, these possibilities would make war against magically capable enemies a bad idea: Everyone has more to lose then to win. Think of them as a kind of nuclear weapon: Sure, you can use them on the battlefield, but that's not the way to get most out of them. You get most out of them if you use them as a strategic threat to your opponents. The US and USSR did not spend their nukes on each other. The used them to bully everyone around who did not have nukes and wasn't allied to someone who had. Realms where mages are plentiful would do just the same, all other realms would seek to ally with one of those realms or just be at their mercy anyway. Warfare would probably mostly consist of something like all the proxy wars during the cold war. Realms with negligible magical abilities fighting other such realms.

Adding to this would be a phenomenon similar to the "brain drain", where the big and wealthy realms have much more to offer for talented mages and thus bleed the smaller realms dry of them.

All of that would make all-out use of combat magic in battles between large armies somewhat rare.


Nothing Changes... if you go back far enough

In premodern battles strong formations, which don't break are what everyone wants. - This is not universally true by any means. Nor is it universally true that forces which fought in such a fashion were automatically superior to those that did not. (Looking at you, Vikings-in-North-America and Crassus' Legions)

Instead what you traditionally had were raids, ambushes, and the occasional "Pitched battle" which involved warriors exchanging ranged fire (javelins, arrows, what-have-you) at roughly 2/3 the maximum distance of their chosen weapon in a loose formation. Close combat weapons were (again, usually) used only in pursuit of fleeing foes, most of whom got away. If you want the details of the whys and whyfores I suggest War Before Civilization but I think for your setting two reasons trump the others:

1: Raids and Ambushes were more effective. It's WAAAAAY safer (for the attacker) to burn down a village at night and spear people fleeing burning houses/ambush a lone hunter than fight in a pitched battle.

2: Pitched battles were un-sustainability lethal for population size.

Your battle-mages will mean these two qualities, especially the second one, are still true even after your societies start being able to have larger populations. Any attempt at "ganging up" can be countered by one wizard shooting one fireball, nobody'll risk it. So battles will stay at what you might call a "large skirmish" style fight. Because of the increased lethality, ambushes and raids will still be the preferred method of warfare. After all, 15 guys, 2 of them mages, can do as much or more damage sneaking around and launching a wall-breaking fireball followed by house-destroying fireballs in the middle of the night as 1,000 infantry and accouterments can besieging a place for a year.

So what you'd actually end up having is battle-mage societies adopting "primitive" style warfare as a matter of course, and only those non-magic-using "Savages" will be stupid enough to actually stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a fight. Your system makes mass-battles far less likely in any event, as small groups can do massive damage to societies on their own. So instead of one large army maneuvering against an opposing large army and finally a battle/siege takes place, you'll have dozens or hundreds of small groups raiding into enemy territory trying to annihilate similar groups in ambushes or destroy settlements.

I should point out that the "primitive" style of warfare I described above is actually MORE deadly than modern war as a % of population, let alone other types of ancient warfare. By orders of magnitude. War Before Civilization did the math, and turns out you are more likely to die by warfare in any given year as, say, a Native American of almost any tribe we have a reliable record for (pre or post Europeans) than as a Russian OR German 1914-1945, or a Frenchman during the Napoleonic wars. So even though your "pitched battles" are rarer and might LOOK less deadly than two pike phalanxes crashing into each other, in reality the actual war will be wildly more devastating.

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer (and first post here). We invite you to take our tour and check out the help center when in doubt about rules here. Welcome to Wbse. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 16:44

Love the meme! I go a similar situation with my own mages they are surface to air missiles and everyone else is 14th middle ages. I counter the issue with my mages tire with large missile launches over time. There is also risk of it falling there is a distance the enemy must be within so the missile can fall onto them but it also can't kill them all so similar to cannons just keep moving fast close the gap the mages can not fire upon their own side with missiles at some point and must switch to tactics like flame wisp and other things that are easier to aim and harm specific targets they do not want to magic their side as much as possible. Eventually magic users must push into the horde or wait for a break in the line to utilize spells because it could be too compact like shooting your gun in a crowd.

Mages have the advantage at first but you can mess them up a bit with long arrows as they then need to shield and cast meaning they must do so blindly or else leave a small window for them to see and guage through leaving their eyes open for snipers or a very lucky shot.

I do have black powder guns that have magical properties so if the enemy has a few of these rare things around it can harm mages as they must prepare their shields for what they face bullets are new so many will assume arrows if some are launched and will prepare a weaker shield for it as having the shield up does drain their magical side they must pace themselves in long battles less they can't cast and their side gets overrun.

Now later I introduce front line mage soliders into the mix who can be in your face and with powers at first this is beyond devastating. Magic is used in your face in line of sight carefully launched unless they do it right off the gate as an opener they can do a large scale blast taking out many enemy but not once the clashing begins.

Their weapons will utilize their magic as well able to hold the elements or become stronger like sheering metal armor but time is against the mage they are pouring their power into their items and utilizing shields if required in addition to that the enemy will overtime step up their game with guns and anti magical arrowheads, armor, and swords the enemy is forced to innovate along with more wave and new tactics.


They are artillery.

Yes they can launch massive AoE bombs, but its not like they can show up and snap their fingers! They need time for the big ones to be unleashed. Time to set up, cast one and perhaps even a downtime before they can pack up and move as residual magic needs to be dealt with.

On top of that this isn't a missile guided by internal navigation, several planes and a satellite. This is one human trying to toss a massive bomb across a large distance as no one wants to be near it when it hits. Accuracy might be a problem when you are trying to point your spell by hand across a kilometer or more distance. Accidentally hit a tree or rock closer to home and you could have a serious problem, or you overshoot your target and waste the shot.

A Harpoon missile has about 221kg TNT worth of explosives (at least I assume its TNT equivalent of explosives mentioned). This article mentions that a 220 kg explosive has a lethal blast radius of 30m and a serious injury radius of 450m (I don't think its a guaranteed serious injury though, but getting hit by shrapnel from a car bomb). That's a lot of distance to aim your magic over and hit accurately.

So spells are powerful, but the enemy can mitigate it somewhat by getting closer and forcing less powerful spells to be cast. It can also take time to prepare the spells, people could have tell-tale signs they are being targeted, the accuracy might be a problem and if it takes time to deal with after-effects of casting the spell you generate a vulnerable time period in which an enemy mage can try to do some counter-battery fire or soldiers can try and break through to the mage, possibly with cavalry or archers.

It makes mages more of a cannon. Lethal, important but not complete game-changers.

  • $\begingroup$ I was going to compare mages to (slow moving) cannons. Beat me to it! $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented Feb 27, 2021 at 14:17

I think your point about counter/anti-magic is somewhat unfair, just like historical battles were. Historically, the side with more people usually won and soldiers had an advantage over warriors (fight as a team vs fight as an individual). Realistically, whenever you have a battle between two forces, there are two scenarios:

  • They are more-or-less evenly matched. Every commander knows that to counter the opponent's magic, you need your own magic division. Each squad or platoon gets their own dedicated mage compliment who are responsible for shielding the grunts from enemy fireballs (and the grunts are to protect the squishy magi from enemy grunts). The overall effect that this has on warfare is that it becomes a little more fast-paced and a little more strategic because HVT's in the form of magic users are suddenly available.
  • There is a gross power disparity. One side has the obvious overwhelming magical advantage. For example, army A shows up with a cabal of archmages and army B has two hedge witches and a magical mascot dog. In a straight battle, army A would turn army B to chunky salsa, so what do they do? They obviously surrender or retreat immediately. Commanders aren't stupid, and the grunts aren't either. If they feel like they're about to be slaughtered by the enemy or that their magic support is insufficient, they'd simply refuse to attack.

Added to this is the fact that a force without magical support would never get large enough to get into a large-scale battle anyways, because wizards can preempt any hostilities. Even then, having an unfair battle isn't anything new. Just look at the great armies of antiquity like the Roman one: they simply steamrolled over any minor opponent and having mages wouldn't have changed much.


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