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We all know about Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards: while non-magical fighters get better at hitting things with swords, magic-users learn how blow stuff up, kill enemies outright, warp reality itself, etc.

So in a high-magic setting, why are wars still fought with non-magical troops? A single mage can easily be worth multiple non-magic soldiers, and would be more flexible to boot. A skilled mage could likely take on hundreds of enemy troops. And that's not even getting into things a mage could do that's not directly related to killing enemy troops: healing allies, bringing fallen allies back to life, even assassinating enemy commanders from miles away. The can even act as anti-air/anti-naval.

In a setting where mages are so much more effective than traditional troops, why does any army bother with anything other than mages?

I've thought about a few potential reasons, but they all come with problems:

  • Magical Deterrence: Using real-life nuclear weapons as an example, a nation can't deploy mages without the enemy retaliating with their own. In my opinion, this analogy doesn't quite work, since the reverse also holds true with magic: the best counter to the enemy's mage is your own mage, so you should deploy your own mages to reduce the effectiveness of enemy mages.
  • Anti-Magic Pact: Again, using nuclear weapons as an example, the nations of this world all agree to not deploy mages in conflict against each other. If only two nations are involved in the pact, this basically boils down to the first example. More than that, and it doesn't matter unless more than of the involved nations are actually involved in the conflict. (If nations A, B, and C all have a non-magic pact with each other, and A and B are at war, C has no reason to retaliate against either of them for using magic.)
  • Cannon Fodder Army: An army is just so large that enemy mages can't handle them all. This has one fatal flaw to me: if you have that many troops, there's no reason not to deploy them and any mages you may have.

I realize that this is highly dependent on exactly how powerful magic is in this setting; a mage that can re-write all of reality with a thought can pretty much win any conflict single-handedly, regardless of the circumstances. So I'll give a vague upper-limit on magic: the most powerful a mage can get in this setting is what I'll call a "local-area reality warper". A sufficiently skilled/powerful mage affect a finite area around him/her in (almost) any way he/she wants, but one way or another, the area will eventually return to its pre-magic condition (the results of the magic, though, may stay).

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    $\begingroup$ "A skilled mage could likely take on hundreds of enemy troops": which immediately means that if skilled mages make up less than 1% of the population then one cannot rely on mages and must use regular troops. It all comes down to how many "sufficiently skilled/powerful" mages are there. (Consider the real-life distinction between special forces and regular infantry. I don't know of any country which relies on special forces only.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 8 '20 at 1:46
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP: Or you might consider physicists (and mathematicians, chemists, engineers, &c) in WWII as the equivalent of mages. Very few of them got sent to the front lines, instead of places like Los Alamos or Oak Ridge. Or in overall combat effectiveness, how many grunts did it take to equal one "mage" like Alan Turing? But Turing's contributions only had value because they were effected by those grunts. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 8 '20 at 2:39
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    $\begingroup$ As an aggressive local warlord, I find the the best mages are simply too expensive to be worthwhile in combat -- their week of pay isn't worth the couple hundred peasants that they will slay. I find mages to be more useful (and economical) for the intrigue, persuasion, daunting, poisoning, puppeteering, and bribery that --done properly-- achieves my goals without the need for all that expensive combat. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Dec 8 '20 at 2:51
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    $\begingroup$ @user535733, This guy warlords. Honestly this is how it goes. I got a world with insane magic and you know what is the greatest contribution of magic to world? Medicine, agriculture, and illumination. Potions are made to cure all diseases and are cheap. Others are added tocrops, with the water, to insure a good harvest and others are given to animals. Illumination is done by stones that are magically recharged on bulk by certain wizards. I have a different global system of mages and politics and all that. But the most mundane things are more important than things that goes Boom. $\endgroup$ – Seallussus Dec 8 '20 at 3:54
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    $\begingroup$ @user535733 Sounds a lot like the Bondsmagi from the Lies of Locke Lamora: they can do pretty much anything, as long as you don’t mind selling half a kingdom for it. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Dec 8 '20 at 19:13

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Why do you need classic infantry armies at all? Well, why do WE need infantry still today? Because if you want to conquer, occupy, and hold territory, you need boots on the ground, grunts, legionnaires, no matter how destructive the weapons at your disposal are. Mages alone can't occupy and hold cities, villages, and territory in general, just as we cannot do so with only bombs, artillery, and missiles.

Furthermore, as said before, magic is very powerful and destructive, but so are bombs, artillery, and missiles.

The military doctrine of your world has done with regard to mages what we have done in our world with regard to the above: it adapted accordingly.

People in your world don't send big infantry formations into battle anymore; rather, they have shifted to decentralized troop deployment just as we did after World War I as a reaction to the ridiculously destructive power of the new weaponry being deployed.

It is going to be quite difficult to deploy your mages when, instead of a big enemy army in one place, there are countless smaller independently operating units attacking all over the place.

Equip each of those small units with even a single mage, and you basically force your enemy to divert his magical resources accordingly, since you can't divert a bigger infantry force to deal with it just to be blown away by the enemy mage.
Ignoring the smaller units doesn't work either, since a single mage, according to your descriptions, is able to inflict significant damage to whatever... supply lines, food production, settlements, you name it, whereas a concentrated force of mages just blows up something at one place more spectacularly.

So what you got, according to my theory, are small units of infantry accompanied or even commanded by a mage. When those units encounter an enemy mage, the mages battle it out themselves: your mage loses, your infantry retreats; enemy mage loses, your infantry advances and conquers stuff. Further advantage: once your infantry has occupied an enemy village/city, the enemy can't just blast it with their mages anymore.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this idea - also, mages might be vulnerable to guerilla warfare - small bands of archers, etc, trying to shoot, stab or blow up the enemies wizards, who can protect themselves only if they know the arrow is coming. You logically get wizards that spend their time hanging out in defensive towers, protecting themselves. The goal of battle is to be the side left with the most powerful magic force left. $\endgroup$ – lupe Dec 8 '20 at 11:14
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    $\begingroup$ So basically mages would fulfill the same role as tanks did in WW2. There were tens of thousands of tanks, but tens of millions of infantrymen, all over the front. $\endgroup$ – vsz Dec 8 '20 at 12:18
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    $\begingroup$ This scenario really depends on the limit of magic. If these wizards can create an army of illusions/golems/undead, then soldiers lose their job. It does say "warp reality", so if one wizard can mind control an entire country, then they don't really need soldiers to "keep the peace" anymore. $\endgroup$ – Nelson Dec 8 '20 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ "Shardbearers can't hold ground" $\endgroup$ – Cain Dec 8 '20 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ Makes me think of the Clone Wars. What are jedi but mages after all $\endgroup$ – Gramatik Dec 10 '20 at 20:23
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A few suggestions:

This question is similar but not identical to the one posed here

Fairness: Mages are deeply disbalancing, and regular humans don't stand a chance against them. Similarly, nations don't want to exist at the whim of teams of ultra-powered beings. Many a kingdom has been overthrown by a rebellious army, and mages magnify this risk a hundred-fold. Mages are simply deemed disruptive and unfair. In much the same way that crossbows were banned in wars between Christian armies, magic is seen as unseemly in war. Maybe the source of magic is morally questionable. How can the gods intervene to choose the rightful winner when infernal forces clearly rule the battlefield? Further, magic isn't egalitarian. Ironically, you might have commoners insisting that wars be fought with soldiers for employment reasons. Maybe magic has displaced thousands of workers, and keeping them employed as guards and garrisons is the only way to stave off rebellion and famine.

Arrogance: Mages view themselves as outside society. They really are so powerful that they only measure themselves against each other. There might BE wars between mages, but they are usually so individualistic that these battles resemble duels rather than wars. The things mage fight about don't matter to regular people and governments.

Peculiarities of Magic: Perhaps when two mages fight, the rules of conflict are very different. For example, many minor mages may be unable to defeat a single wizard slightly more powerful than any individual. As such, powerful mages are essentially invincible and stay outside of petty politics. Minor mages are weak compared to the big boys and not nearly as useful.

Cost: Those powerful mages may be extremely expensive to produce. Conversely, anti-magic arrows might be dirt cheap (literally - perhaps flint is antimagical). Any army employing mages as warriors finds cheap snipers deployed everywhere, waiting for a lucky shot. While your economy depends on mages to keep it running, the hazards of losing one mean you keep them in support roles - healing, teleporting supplies, etc.

Side effects: I'm stealing this one from another answer I gave to a different question. Perhaps there are psychic costs associated with killing. The spirits of the dead stalk those who killed them. Normal humans don't even perceive these spirits, and they eventually depart. Not so, the mage. They've opened themselves up to a larger world, and that larger world is ready to bite back.

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    $\begingroup$ Related to arrogance, though different. Imagine that it takes 10 arduous years of study to become a mage, finally you get to graduate, make your choice between (a) adventures of your choice, or comfort & fun and (b) war, with likelihood of death. I'm perplexed so few would choose death, really... $\endgroup$ – Matthieu M. Dec 9 '20 at 16:22
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I feel this is entirely context-dependent.

But here are a bunch of reasons why:

Mages are powerful, so they don't take orders from schmucks

The mages are so powerful that they can do what they want. So, you don't simply drag a mage and throw him into the army. The first time a drill instructor insults him the drill instructor gets incinerated. Similarly you can't command them. They are powerful and don't take kindly to be ordered around. They also have little incentive to join in the first place. Context because you can argue making measures against that but still. Unless you chain them all the time and only use them at the moment of battle, they will snap at you.

Also, the chain them up option is hard because how can you figure out how to stop their magic without magical help? And even if you do it then you have a lot of angry people with superpowers who are just waiting to rise against you.

The French revolution or Bolshevik revolution ain't got nothing on that of a revolt of mages.

Rarity, especially of battlemages

This is more interesting than most. But think of it this way. The number of geniuses in history is always much much lower in proportion to even intelligent people.

So, in that world mages are rarer than normal people. But battlemages are even more rare. This means that while you can relay on a single battlemage, maybe the other nations of the world can't.

Also, in many worlds, magic seems to be diverse and not limited to a single field. Which only adds to my point. For example, you can have mages be very powerful, but the ratio of the battlemages to wizards is the same ratio of wizards to normal people.

If you compare this to say full-plated knights, then you can get a better understanding. Nobody just went around with 50000 full-plated knights. Sure they are almost a superpower but that destroys the dreaded budget.

Yes, knights and men at arms are different from mages but I want to give an example of something close but not exact.

Magic is pure.

Context right off the bat.

But if certain settings have magic come from a hellish dimension why can't we have it come from a purity dimension?

Magic here is all about building and healing and restoring... etc.

There might be severe penalties for doing anything else or trying to find a loophole. Maybe angels or the magic itself. Maybe corruption takes hold of those who try to twist magic.

I mean, you can cultivate growing by prearranging the woods of a tree so they grow and prosper only first punctuating the bodies of an opposing army.

You can heal people by increasing their bodily functions: say the heart -- making it pump several hundred times faster to also kill them.

So, loopholes can be made. But maybe the system is watched over by something or it is half-sentient itself.

The result is the same: you can't use magic to hurt people.

Cost

It could be that mages require ridiculously high wages, so hiring an entire army is cheaper and gets the same result. Or, magic itself requires some rare metal or liquid or crystal or stone or whatever else happens in the world. Again, context.

Magic is uncertain or dangerous

Again context-dependent. Maybe the world in question has powerful magic that comes at the cost of a demon pact or hell portal or mages exploding... etc.

This setting is not undone and most of the time magic is still practiced but it would actually give generals pause. You honestly don't want your mage to fall to demons mid-battle and open a portal to hell from which a bunch of demons spawn to destroy your army. If you can control that magic then you throw it at the enemy. But that is a one time use thing. And, again, context.

This is pretty much the story of 95% of weapons programs and how they do before they are born. Weapon X is promising such improvement on the rifle of the army that the army is interested. After a round of testing, weapon X is thrown into the trash because it is unreliable. Soldiers hate anything unreliable and prefer any reduction of anything except reliability.

Fear of gaining power

The praetorian guards literally auctioned the imperial throne of Rome at some point.

That tells you all that you need to know about that.

Also from Rome: after the Marian reforms the army, usually more than one legion, started to have a very strong bond to the general. Cue the civil wars and we have the armies deciding who is the next emperor by simply backing them up and marching on Rome.

So, the people of your world may have figured out that it is a bad idea to even recruit mages.

You have 10000 soldiers who are fighting. A mages steps out of his tent and rains fire on the enemy; he also heals the wounded soldiers. He inspires them and might even destroy an entire fortified city with a snap.

How long 'til that guy rises to be a warlord?

History tells us that, even without magic, this is always the case and a big risk. With magic it is amplified a billion times. People follow charismatic leaders to death all the time in real life. So, context.


I'm pretty sure I can go on and on. So. Again. Context.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice point on the reliability, and that makes me think of strength as well. A unit of spearmen have a fairly predictable amount of strength that scales with experience. 2 mages with equal training on the other hand may have extremely different power levels (depending on how magic works). Generals might know whether to send 2 battlemages or 200 and that's not something you want to get wrong. You'd have to know each battlemages strength well, which means they don't scale. $\endgroup$ – mirhagk Dec 8 '20 at 4:35
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Anti magic

Magic can do a lot of things. One of the things is neutralising other magic. Mages can create great bubbles with artefacts to prevent magic from happening. This is great to neutralise the enemies magic. Mages obviously don't want to be somewhere where their magic is nullified, so they generally stand aside from these wars after the anti magic.

Why would they give anti magic in the first place? They can easily turn their own creations on and off, so being the owner is a great advantage. Secondly a smith makes weapons that can be used against him. He does is purely out of economic gain. Because regardless how powerful you are, you still need friends, family and not a whole nation to despise you. They take roles and work in society and economic advantages are often not looked down upon.

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    $\begingroup$ Anti-magic would result in each unit of muggle soldiers being assigned a mage to protect them from enemy mages while the whack the enemy troops with conventional weapons. Mages would still be present in the armies, but not be that tactically interesting in combat. They would, however, be strategically interesting. If you can take out the enemy mages, your mages can switch from anti-magic to offense and wipe out the muggle troops. Mages might also be very important for logistic purposes. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Dec 8 '20 at 12:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Philipp they can use artefacts. A mage doesn't need to be present at all. $\endgroup$ – Trioxidane Dec 8 '20 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ Youre missing the crucial point: DENYING MAGIC IS EASIER THAN CASTING IT. "Counterspell" is a very easy to cast spell and it counters much more complex offensive spells (to a certain point). This means that as long as both sides have some okay mages, there will be 0 magic on this battlefield $\endgroup$ – Hobbamok Dec 8 '20 at 15:08
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    $\begingroup$ You can add many variations and rules to this. The examples to prevent magic at all are already given, but you can also make it rely on distance. Your anti-magic doesnt instantly destroy a spell but reduce its power over distance. A mage who wants to be effective now has to be closer to his target(s). To make it harder for your enemies to kill the mage you surround them with their own troops and add more troops who fight normally to make sure mages can be routed or engaged. Two mages dueling while a second mage-less regiment attacks from the side could decide a battle. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Dec 8 '20 at 21:37
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Mages are essentially a fantasy take on special forces, which similarly can't win wars alone.

Like special operations forces, mages are much more effective than the average soldier, and develop a mostly true reputation as being disproportionally effective. While mages actually are capable of the feats of unrealistic versions of the elite commando, the same problem of realistic special operations unit still applies because mages can still be overwhelmed by larger groups of soldiers even if it takes more of them than with real special operations soldiers.

Given that mages would also likely be killed given their threat, while regular soldiers might just be captured, the casualty problem also applies in addition to the training one. If you use an elite squad of mages and things go badly, they will likely be killed in action rather than captured if they are unable to escape. This means that every time you use mages in combat you are taking a greater risk of losing them.

This can then be reworded to ask: if special forces soldiers are so much better than regular ones, why do armies still have regular soldiers?

Wars are not won by elite individuals. What makes an army win wars is that it is about the average effectiveness for any given encounter being higher than the opposition. Mostly this means that your soldiers are on average better than the other side, or that you just have a lot more of them. One of the major problems with special operations units is that they tend to take the best average soldiers and put them all in elite units that are only used for specialized missions.

While special forces types look cool in movies, and their exploits can contribute to the larger effort, they are certainly not capable of winning a war on their own because small groups of soldiers are easily overwhelmed once they loose the element of stealth regardless of how elite they are and how much better the average member of the group shoots. Given the higher risk nature of special operations, such units often generally take higher casualties than conventional soldiers for a given mission, which then means they have to be rotated out of action while the regular soldiers are stuck on the front lines.

Field Marshal William Slim was a British general in WW2, notable in that his soldiers actually respected him as a soldier's general who led from the front without taking credit for his soldier's accomplishments. The following is a quotation:

Armies do not win wars by means of a few bodies of super-soldiers but by the average quality of their standard units. Anything, whatever short cuts to victory it may promise, which thus weakens the army spirit, is dangerous. Commanders who have used these special forces have found, as we did in Burma, that they have another grave disadvantage- they can be employed actively for only restricted periods. Then they demand to be taken out of the battle to recuperate, while normal formations are expected to have no such limitations to their employment. In Burma, the time spent in action with the enemy by special forces was only a fraction of that endured by the normal divisions, and it must be remembered that risk is danger multiplied by time.

For a somewhat amusing comment, he also had the following to say, even if it doesn't apply to mages as they legitimately have superpowers:

This cult of special forces is as sensible as to form a Royal Corps of Tree Climbers and say that no soldier who does not wear its green hat with a bunch of oak leaves stuck in it should be expected to climb a tree.

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    $\begingroup$ "risk is danger multiplied by time" -- that is goddamn brilliant, I'll remember that one. $\endgroup$ – Blindy Dec 9 '20 at 16:03
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Mages eat bread. Cthullhu eats mages

Whenever really powerful - as in comparable to artillery in energy output - magic is cast, there's a small but real chance for an elder beeing to show up and eat the mage (usually, only the stomach of the beeing manifests on the material plane, right around the unhappy mage). This beeing then - magically - makes the mage immortal and starts to digest them. How do we know? Often, mages send telepathic messages that impress their anguish on their loved ones and close friends - or lieges whom they swore fealty to. The messages presumably stop when the recipients throw themselves of a cliff or go entirely mad from the constant pain and anguish.

This means:

  • Mages take care to never be the one who casts the most powerful stuff
  • Mages don't really practice or try out their most powerful spells
  • Mages tend to loose friends as they get more powerful, because everyone knows it can be really bad luck to be a close friend of a mage
  • Mages are really superstitious about what influences the choices of the elder beeing - peer long enough into randomness, a pattern emerges
  • Mage duels work with trying to trick the other mage to cast "big" spells, expect illusions of fireballs in the hope of provoking real ice shields and the like
  • Combined arms with mages is difficult: Your mage can probably break the formation of piemen with his gust of storm spell, allowing the light infantry to close, but will the mage still be there for the followup?

You can fine-tune the selection process to shapethe magic in your setting - maybe it's not only energy expenditure but also political effect that attracts attention: If this fireball stops the charge of the night templar, thus changing the course of a battle and the fate of a kingdom: Elder beeing sees this from their throne at the end of time and steps in right after the casting, gulp. That fireball incinerates two guards, the ultimate effect is that the mage and their friends grab the treasure chest they where guarding and spend it in the next alehouse - no problem. This could lead to the paradoxical effect that the mages with the least foresight live the longest.

You can fine tune the effect that certain spells, that won't get into the way of heroic knightly battles can be cast rather safely, und only restrict magic-as-artillery uses.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wait, if the elder being makes the mage immortal, doesn't that give them literally forever to attempt escape? Also, who's to say the mage can't escape the elder being's mouth or stomach, evade the elder's attempt to consume them, or even slay or subjugate the elder being? With magic, anything can happen..... $\endgroup$ – Alendyias Dec 8 '20 at 15:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Alendyias exactly, anything can happen. So how about you set the rules of that anything? For example: the elder being's stomach is inescapable. That is a nice rule in line withMart's idea dont you think? You can also set rules to the amount of power a mage has and other things. The word "magic" does NOT mean that ANYTHING can happen. The word "magic" means that there is an extra set of mechanics that affect the world, mechanics that need an internal consistency to make sense. Your story has sound in space? Ok but it has to stay consistent then. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Dec 8 '20 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, that's a good point! I would argue that the rules cannot make the elder being's stomach inescapable, as that flies completely in the face of logic. Even divine or elder beings have limits, and the "Dude, Did You Just Punch Out Chthulhu?" trope exists for a reason.... $\endgroup$ – Alendyias Dec 9 '20 at 0:39
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    $\begingroup$ That's not a question of logic, it's a question of storytelling and suspension of disbelieve - if the op can make it believable that the elder beeing keeps its mages in its stomach (or whereever) forever, the story works - the way I told it it obviously does not work on you folks. If the OP does not want to go the cosmic horror route, the elder beeing can be God - while the question id open wether God can create a stone that she cannot lift, God can surely creat a stomach a mere mortal can't escape from. $\endgroup$ – mart Dec 9 '20 at 7:14
  • $\begingroup$ Related to your answer, in the Black Prism series "mages" have a limited number of casts in their life time before they go mad and join the enemy side, fighting against their friends and homeland. That puts some very interesting limitations and prices on using these "mages". $\endgroup$ – Blindy Dec 9 '20 at 16:05
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Magic energy is locally limited.

When someone uses magic, they use up magic energy from the surrounding. The energy does regenerate over time. But when you have a lot of magic users in the same place using magic, then they will quickly run out and make it impossible to use magic in that area for a while.

That means that mages can be very powerful in small skirmishes, but powerless in large-scale battles. They share the local pool of magic energy with all friendly and enemy mages. So when you would have 1000 mages vs. 1000 mages on a battlefield trying to throw fireballs at each other, they would immediately burn through all magic energy on the battlefield and then be unable to do anything except whacking each other with their staffs.

So it would be a far better strategy for large-scale battles to only have a small number of mages in your army who use the little magic you have available on the battlefield strategically while the bulk of the fighting is done by muggle soldiers using mundane weapons and armor.

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Most powerful mages don't care about war

When you have that much power, you're probably as motivated to fight or rule those weak nomages as the average person is to stomp on some ants or own an ant farm. Not even to mention following their orders (unless of course you're only making them think they're in charge, but that's still kind of boring).

Much like humans with nature, the more kind mages see nomages as weak and needing to be protected (from other mages usually, but also sometimes from natural disasters or themselves).

Most mages keep to themselves or mostly associate with other mages. Those that do integrate into regular society do so because they just want to live a (mostly) "normal" life and thus don't get involved in wars.

The Council of Mages disallows mages from fighting in wars

There are the occasional bad apples that seek to rule or destroy everything, and that (along with some other reasons) is why The Council of Mages was started.

Powerful magic can be sensed by other mages from far away, and there are Council sects, agents and loyalists scattered all across the world to check for, report and/or deal with mages casting less powerful but still destructive magic. Every mage knows they'll be before The Council to face consequences in a few days at most if they start killing people left and right or casting mass protection spells to help one side in a war.

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Mages will not do what you want them to do.

It might be a constitutional requirement. Mages are dependable only in their complete undependability. They simply will not do as they are told!

You might occasionally have a mage do something that benefits you, but then next thing will piss you off, and then next thing might be very destructive, and then the fourth thing utterly baffling. They are agents of Chaos, these mages. Their presence is bad for the army in many ways, morale being one of the least of them.

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  • $\begingroup$ I remember one of the characters played by the founders of Dungeons & Dragons had a geas laid on himself to never do anything he was forced to do. Tenser? $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Dec 8 '20 at 3:21
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A few ideas:

Oath of no evil

Mages are extremely powerful, but just as importantly, that power is invisible to a common person. A mage could kill someone just by stopping their heart, or set a house on fire, or cause crops to spoil.

If a mage was stay in a village, likely they would start getting blamed for every random problem that happened. This has happened plenty of times in history without magic being real, imagine how much more this would occur if magic was way more in your face.

Assuming mages aren't near-godly, they could be killed by a mob, so they obviously need a way to convince villagers that they aren't evil. One approach (used in the wheel of time) is for mages to take an oath that prevents them from doing certain evil actions. Even better if this is magically enforced. The distrust would likely still exist (as people would squirm around the rules) but not to the point where mages would need to fear for their life everywhere they go.

This oath could contain a clause against using magic as a weapon (except maybe self defense), which would prevent them from being used as soldiers or guards.

Better uses

You mention that there's other tasks that contribute to a war that mages would be useful for, such as healing or special operations (assassination, spying etc). Perhaps these tasks are so useful that you wouldn't risk a mage on the front lines where a stray arrow could kill them.

Among those you mentioned, don't forget about more mundane stuff like teleporting food or wounded.

Mages + Troops > Mages

Mages could very well take part in a battle, and even perhaps be the deciding factor, but that doesn't make troops completely useless. If two mages are locked in a magical battle, a soldier with a crossbow can turn that battle pretty quickly. Even if a mage can stop crossbow bolts, that's still going to split their focus and waste their mana.

In most settings mages are a small percentage of the population, which means they'd also be a small percentage of the soldiers in your army, since you aren't turning away any person signing up for the army.

Hurry up and wait

If you talk to any soldier they'll be very familiar with the concept of "hurry up and wait". A soldier will move quickly to a location, but then stay there guarding or patrolling for days or weeks. A soldiers presence is valuable in and of itself, as well as performing certain menial tasks like searching civilians passing through a checkpoint.

A mage is probably not something you'd want to waste on those tasks. Assuming mages mana works like energy (ie restores with time), any time a mage is on guard duty and isn't attacked, they wasted mana. They do of course provie a larger threat, but you can hide or fake that threat (a regular soldier in mage's robes) to provide most of that benefit without having to actually waste the mage.

Those tasks of course still need to be done, which means you need regular troops to perform them. Depending on how different magic warfare is to regular warfare, these menial tasks and guarding would take up a significant portion of the troops.

Range

Your mages are constrained to a certain distance. Potentially that distance is less than the distance a bowman can fire a shot. So a platoon of mages could very well lose a battle to a platoon of archers. Likewise it probably takes time to cast spells, which means a cavalry charge could reach the mages before it gets destroyed. Even if their range is longer than an archers, and they could single handedly stop a cavalry charge, you might be able to include mages among those platoons that provide shields or protection until the rest of the platoon gets in range.

A world with magic being used in wars would very quickly develop anti-mage units, which means you'd want a mix of forces (just like with cavalry, or archers or artillery).

Training

Crossbows (and later guns) replaced bows among armies not necessarily for their superiority, but for their ease of use. A well trained longbowman has a better range and accuracy than a crossbowman, but you can shove a crossbow into the hands of a new recruit and they'll be able to use it far more effectively than they would a bow.

Likewise magic would require study and training in order to use it effectively. Most countries can't afford to keep very large standing armies, and so rely on recruits during wartime. Since non-magic recruits are trained faster, the first few waves of recruits would be all non-magic, with high numbers of mages only really coming into play in extended wars.

Even in extended wars, you have to feed and house the troops during training. If a spearman can be trained in 2 weeks and a mage takes a year, then a barracks can churn out 26x as many spearmen as it can mages.

Even experienced mages would need to be taught battle spells. Games focus most mage's abilities on these, but in a peacetime world of magic most mages wouldn't bother learning how to cast a fireball, since you won't use that in normal life.

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Practical Reasons

Rarity

Effective employment of magic requires either unparalleled understanding of certain topics, natural talent in spellcasting, or both. Either way, any of your mages worth their salt have been gifted with abilities from birth much greater than their peers. This is doubly so in a world without formal education as in many / most fantasy settings, save for perhaps a few "Mages' Colleges" which only have enough space to accept those with talent anyway. If you would like magic to be more prevalent in your world, it can be. Mages don't have to be a rarity altogether, only mages exceptional enough to warrant the question.

Risk

Tying in to rarity, any mages that you do have access to, while powerful, are not immune to assassination. One will nary have had a moment to process what happened before the crossbow bolt from the treeline punctures his heart, the assassin's blade makes its way across his neck in his sleep, or the poison in his wine works its way into his system. These dangers can be mitigated with countermeasures, but not negated entirely. One must balance the contribution a mage would bring to an ongoing engagement with the risk of that mage being lost, the number of mages available, and the necessity of that mage for future engagements.

Cost

Tying in to rarity, any mage, knowing how indispensable his skills are in battle, prices his services accordingly. This is doubly true when we consider the risk that he'll be putting himself in, being the enemy's primary target on any battlefield.

Scale

The aforementioned cost could be deemed unnecessary on smaller scales; for the conquest of a tiny principality or other feeble and impoverished nation. Conversely, the rarity of mages means that while they will certainly be employed at larger scales, likely so will tens or even hundreds of thousands of dull infantry, either matching or surpassing their contribution.

Availability

Continuing off of scale and rarity, any war sufficiently large enough to warrant mages will likely be fought with battles erupting in numerous locations, if not contemporaneously, then without enough time to have your mages present everywhere along the front. It's all well and good to have an almighty spellcaster (or team thereof) who decimates invading armies, but not if while focusing on one part of the enemy force, a dozen others have advanced into your territory and ransacked your towns and villages.

Occupation

I'm assuming any of your invading countries would still need to station a force to police what holdings have been conquered. Assigning an all-powerful battlemage to such a task would be wasteful; especially with cost, risk, and rarity being considered.

Technical / Societal / Cultural Reasons

Magical restrictions

It doesn't seem like your mages are so feeble as to suffer from any of the following, but regardless, consider if perhaps magic can only be practiced along Ley-lines or other spiritually significant areas. Maybe it requires some form of ritual beforehand, etc.

Treaties and pacts

Seems like you're already against the idea of deterrence, but doesn't hurt to mention the following:

the best counter to the enemy's mage is your own mage, so you should deploy your own mages to reduce the effectiveness of enemy mages.

I believe that the nuclear analogy does hold. I would assume that both sides would be bound by a treaty prohibiting the wartime employment of mages. If either side violates the treaty, then that would certainly make mages fair game; but then again, the same can be said for nuclear weapons.

Magic is peaceful

Suppose mages have an equivalent of the Hippocratic oath or otherwise similarly hold the idea of practising magic to harm others as a grave taboo. Certainly, even if you could muster up the coin necessary to lubricate their morals, that would put your nation in the spotlight as "the nation which would break taboo".

Real-world analogue

Perhaps consider the Bronze age chariot. A magnificent platform that allowed archers to pick the enemy off while retaining mobility. However, chariots were expensive due to training of the crew and horses as well as their construction. Furthermore, a chariot that got too close, or hung around too long could be swamped by sheer numbers of enemy infantry. As such, you generally want your chariots and infantry to act as support, as well as overwhelm enemy chariots. Infantry support is still practised today.

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Anti-Magic is far easier to cast

Meaning that an okay mage can deny a good mage doing anything. This makes offensive mages very hard to use, because in order to deny your tier 15 mage destroying the entire army in a second, you only need to send a tier 12 mage to focus on stopping him.

That would still leave magic to be very valuable for guerilla strikes or for support roles in your army (logistics, healing, communication, everything OUTSIDE battle), but the battlefields themselves would be completely free of fireballs and the like

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Two possibilities, one of which has been mentioned multiple times.

First, as mentioned in other responses, say your magical system makes disruption of a magical effect much easier than creating that effect. This would, so long as an enemy force has mages, mean your mages' primary role isn't offensive, it's defensive. You can't go on the attack because it will likely be negated, and attacking means that power and that mage isn't available to be used defensively. So a typical battle would involve mages sort of hovering around, tentatively probing at the enemy's defences to see if something can get through while rebuffing enemy attempts to do the same. So the actual fighting would be carried out mostly on a mundane level, trying to get an advantage so that the enemy mages have to switch from overall defence to more localized action, which then means your mages have more freedom of action.

Once one side has the magical advantage, things would tend to quickly escalate as one side starts losing defensive capability, and the battle would likely end quickly.

In essence, mages sort of act like cavalry. The primary role of cavalry was to deal with other cavalry while infantry fought. If the enemy horse could be driven off, then your cavalry is there and as soon as there's an opening, they can hit it and break the enemy formation.

Second possibility: when you use magic, everyone knows about it. Someone using magic causes a mystical flare that's easily detected, which utterly blows operational security out of the water. It's one thing if you're setting up a setpiece battle or moving an army, which is trivial to follow even by mundane means, but if you're trying to quietly do anything by sneaking, any spells cast by a mage will let everyone know where they are.

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Cannon Fodder

A mage is only good for so many spells before he tires and when he tires, a peasant with a pitchfork can defeat him.

At the end of the day, there are a lot more peasants than wizards.

Battles become a war of attrition where each side tries to wear the other side's wizards out while losing as few troops as possible and when they're exhausted, you can charge the enemy without the fear of magical defences and hopefully your wizards can still assist in the attack.

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Limits on magicians' combat effectiveness

If you use fairly common tropes of wizards, there are many inherent limitations on the power of wizards. Maybe they have a limited amount of "energy" (manna, ley lines, material components, etc.). Maybe they can only cast powerful combative spells X times per day, or whatever. Maybe the wizards have to sleep a full, uninterrupted, 8 hours to regain their powers at the end of their work shift...

The specifics aren't that important. The key is that your mage can only perform magic a few times before they're sapped and have to stop fighting. So now what? Infantry and other unit types must be there to defend the wizards. And your wizards probably have to be spread into multiple shifts so that there's never a window during which you have no magical protections, so they're spread too thin to win the war single-handedly.

Training times and costs

You can train infantry in a few weeks and they're combat-ready. Given a few battles, the survivors are going to be highly effective at their trade. Most tropes about magicians are that they don't start out supremely powerful. They have to study for years to master the most basic spells.

How much does it cost to train your wizards relative to your infantry? Or how many more infantry can you afford to field vs. wizards? Is it tens of infantry per wizard? Hundreds? At extremely high power ratings, the conversion might even be thousands of infantry.

Wages

You have to pay your wizards more than you pay infantry, because 1 they can cast powerful magic against their leaders and you do not want that and 2 because you just spent years training them to be powerful, so obviously they deserve better pay than those lowly infantry. I mean, you try telling a wizard capable of casting Fireball that she's only worth the same pay scale as an infantry private. Just. Um. Don't tell her to her face. For your sake. Please pay your wizards. Again, how many infantry can you afford to field relative to your wizards?

Defenses

Wizards are typically portrayed as physically frail relative to fighters/warriors. Your infantry spends hours each day working on their physical fitness and combat muscle memory while your wizards focus on learning and mental acumen and magic. This means your wizards aren't going to be as effective at long marches. They're not going to be effective at defending themselves from enemy infantry, should those soldiers get through any magical defenses.

So you may end up having to detail support troops (infantry) to provide defense and aid to the wizards. I mean, you're paying them to cast spells, not march, build forts, cook food, etc.

Meanwhile, roughly 50% of your wizards are tasked with defending themselves and your infantry from their wizards and their infantry. So you've just spread them even thinner.

Overwhelming force

Yeah, your wizard can cast fireball 3 or 4 times in a day, maybe. But your infantry can swing a sword or stab with a spear or fire an arrow ALL DAY LONG. Sure, they need water breaks and food if possible. But yeah, once your wizard runs out of spells for the day, send in a wave of infantry and suddenly your wizard is running as fast as his robes will allow.

Wizards are like cannons. They're great, but they aren't enough to win by themselves.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Maybe the wizards have to sleep a full, uninterrupted, 8 hours to regain their powers at the end of their work shift"... Warlocks, on the other hand, regain their powers just by eating lunch. $\endgroup$ – Beefster Dec 9 '20 at 22:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Beefster, That's Warlocks for you. Making pacts all the time. They're the used car salesmen of magic, aren't they? $\endgroup$ – CaM Dec 10 '20 at 17:26
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Personally I really liked Raymond E. Feist's in-universe explanation of why the magicians in Midkemia tend to hang back and watch and throw a tiny bit of support here or there instead of being a major part of the fight (unless they have a well-developed plan).

In order to use direct magic effectively, they need to be out where they can see what's going on, which means the other side's mages will see them and know they're up to something.

So the first side casts a spell, and the other side casts a counter spell, so then the first side casts a counter-counter spell, and the other side casts a counter-counter-counter spell...

And about this time the guys with pointy metal things on long sticks show up and hack all the mages to bits without either set of wizards really having accomplished anything...

Of course, in that setting magic is common, but not ubiquitous. Any competent Duke probably has a magician of some stripe on staff, and any decent army probably has two or three pieces of enchanted gear, but it's not sold out of vending machines on every street corner.

Up the magic level another step and your wars will be fought by mundane soldiers using enchanted equipment and you won't see mages on the battlefield much for the same reason that you don't see electronics engineers leading the charge in our world (usually). They're more useful behind the lines building the cool stuff that you can have the grunts carry and operate. Do expect to see a lot of magic stuff at this level though. Especially anything that will survive the death of its wielder and so can be re-used.

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Have you ever played Skyrim? If you have, you may be able to guess my answer to your question.

Arrows

Yup, that’s it. If your mages have human reaction times then all it takes is one good archer with a long bow hiding in the woods and you have a bunch of dead magic boys (or girls or what have you). Arrows are very fast, nearly silent, and when fired from a long bow they have a lot of range and power. True, a mage may be able to wipe out a small nation in an afternoon, but he can’t defend against something he doesn’t even know is there.

Modern Equivalent

Snipers. It doesn’t matter how many soldiers and weapons you are surrounded by, if a sniper can see you, you’re basically already dead. Because, there is no defense against a sniper other than not being found in the first place.

Your mages will be really tough to deal with in direct combat, so ambushes and assassination will be a lot more commonplace. Any time a wizard pokes his head out of a window in his wizard tower he’ll find himself riddled with arrows and crossbow bolts shortly afterward. Wizards will be HVTs (high value targets) and if they can’t be bought, bribed, coerced, convinced, blackmailed, or threatened to change sides (and any smart leader will try all of those things first) then they will be number one on every hit list for every soldier, mercenary, and bounty hunter alive. Huge rewards will be offered for the wizard’s severed head, and maybe enough gold or land could turn an ally into an assassin.

Summary

Unless the wizards have superhuman reflexes and/or superhuman toughness, they will be just as vulnerable to death as anyone else, especially death from the shadows. As a side note, if enemy mages know where your mage sleeps, couldn’t they use their magic to send something like a 2 ton boulder flying toward his bedroom at a very appreciable speed from a significant distance away? If things like that are possible, then the only mages who will live long enough to make a significant contribution to the war effort will be the ones who know how to be very subtle. Let them dress like soldier, fight like soldiers, and use their magic to give subtle but very powerful boosts to everyone fighting alongside them.

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Stabilizing reality is easier than disrupting it

If it took far more effort to distort reality than to merely prevent such distortions, active use of mages would be relatively useless. Let's assume a useful degree of distortion - like materializing a fireball - required 5 times as much power than preventing that distortion, using mages would only be useful against armies of 1/5 the size. Since most battles would be fought between roughly equal armies, mages would only assigned as protection from enemy magic.

Stable magical artifacts might be just as hard to suppress as a fireball would be, since in that case reality "got used" to the change, but active magic would fizzle out against the anti-magic fields of the enemy mages unless you had a significant magical power advantage. In addition, trying to actively distort reality would make all other mages in the vicinity aware of the casters position, potentially getting them ambushed by a "classical" strike team (elite units, heavy infantry, cavalry or artifact-enhanced soldiers). Occasionally, one army might bring a disproportionate amount of mages, who could focus their power to enhance the effectiveness of their troops or - in extreme cases, or when some of the stabilizing enemy mages had been killed - rain fire on the enemy army, but most of the time the investment in mages would be just enough to make it uneconomical for the enemy to use mages offensively. Using a disproportionate amount of mages in one army would mean not leaving enough mages to safely defend your other armies, so if your enemy knew of this move, he could potentially overwhelm the defense of several of your armies.

All this turns the assignment of mages into quite a complex mind game, where active magic is rarely seen on the battlefield, but where its potential still influences the flow of battle. Do you hide your mages within your troops and risk them getting hit by a random arrow/stone? Do you hide them in fortified positions that protect, but also alert the enemy army of their position? Do you put mages in the ranks of your servants and put decoys in the mage towers (or whatever fortifications are practical)?

still want some battle magic?

If the ability to influence the world falls off rapidly with increasing distance, somewhat powerful mages might still defend themselves or use magic offensively at close range, but dampening mage hidden between enemy soldiers could very suddenly make him very vulnerable to physical attacks. If detecting the source of a spell is relatively hard, the most common use of magic would be supporting single soldiers from some relatively small distance, while trying not to expose your battlemage to the inevitable counterattack against whoever is close to such an enhanced soldier.

If mages are sufficiently rare, or if at short range distorting magic became more powerful than equivalent stabilizing magic, you'd still get occasional mage duels, and battle mages would still make potent fighters. But they couldn't slaughter entire armies as long as they had some level of magical protection, and overcoming an enemy with troops supported by relatively weak magic would be far cheaper than trying to overwhelm the defenders magically.

Interestingly, in such a case mages would dominate small-scale engagements (where a single mage could annihilate other, potentially unprotected forces, or duel with with single enemy mages without significant physical threat posed by the few 100s of soldiers) while being severely restricted in their effective range in large-scale engagements with multiple mages on each side - the long-range dampening effects would add up, so individual disruptive magic would be useful at increasingly narrow ranges. Clumping together your own mages would make them more effective, but also make your defense more vulnerable - a trade-off only to consider when you are quite desperate.

Math?!

If you want some idea how this might work (you don't necessarily need this, but it might help you imagine useful "laws of magic"), this is how I'd model it (this assumes offensive magic is stronger at close range, but its effectiveness falls off more quickly (to a quarter with doubled distance) than that of counter magic (falls to half at double the distance)): Graph of magical power over distance

Offensive magic is quite a bit stronger than dampening magic, so mages can have nice flashy duels at shortish ranges (imagine each unit of distance is ~5-50m, depending how you want such things to work out). Assuming u=10m, single mages would duel with active spells (countering Fireball with Iceshield, or Mirrorwall) until about 50m of distance, from where on disrupting a spell would take less effort than casting it (assuming equally skilled mages). At 10m, you'd have to be 5 times as powerful to simply dampen enemy magic away to nothing!

However, if multiple mages are present, the effective range is much lower: since dampening is easy to coordinate (and perhaps used less mana/energy/crystals/whatever, if any, resource casting spells consumes), with only 3 mages per side, uncoordinated spellcasting is only power effective at a range of ~17m.

If you are far away from the enemy mages, you might conjure a fireball, but the enemy mages would also be less dampened by you and could easily project a defense (or even dampen the fireball away in the time it took to reach them).

A group of mages coordinating their powers would have an extended range, but with a sufficient number of dampeners even than would grow more difficult, since the offensive mages can only clump together so far without interfering with one another, leading to inefficiency.

Under the assumption that fireball bombardment is harder to dispel than dueling magic (eg. if fireballs already in flight are harder to dampen than those in the process being conjured), we get another interesting side effect concerning how sieges would work: each side would try to position their active mages relatively far away from the enemy - a tower in the middle of the city, or a somewhat distant hill/siege fortification - and sling projectiles, hurl stones, etc. They could materialize these effects in their vicinity, forcing defensive mages to project active defenses, making mages effectively "artillery" and "energy shields" in large sieges.

If spells-in-flight could be dampened efficiently (and targeting troops isn't made easier by some other mechanism), mages would become largely useless in the biggest battles - against 100 enemy dampening mages, any individual caster would only be effective at 0.5m!

One should still needs to consider how mages could affect things between themselves and enemy mages. But a large group of dampeners could still dampen away firebolts quite efficiently.

Note: this uses a model applying the formulas as effectiveness on object at distance x, while the first graph treated the formulas as effectiveness in ranged combat at range x, which is a different mathematical model. Power to affect nonmagical objects at certain distances, in presence of enemy mage

At 200m separation between (equally powerful) caster and dampener, spells would be effective for up to ~75m before dampening was too effective. At only 50m separation, anything up to 30m away could be affected.

Power over objects protected by multiple defenders

If there are just 10 enemy mages within 500m, effective magic would be limited to a radius of at most 48m.

I think I will give this some more thought, and try to come up with a single self-consistent model of magical strength matching your preferences (the latter one breaks down when describing a mage trying to affect objects near an enemy mage within arcane combat range). Do you have any further specific desiderata my "science of magic" should fulfill?

Note: I specifically chose a 1/x² strength scaling, since that allows for practically open-ended power ("reality warping") in a sufficiently small area if undisturbed, and still falls off sufficiently quickly to prevent trivial assassinations of the commander next warcamp, even without magic defense.

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Many of the above ideas are good, but I had one I didn't see so I'll mention it:

Group Enchantment/Army Buffs

In your world add some very powerful spells that enchant an army into super soldiers or at least defend them from magic. There's a lot of different ways you could add this to your world.

Perhaps a lone mage could vaporize an army charging at him, but if there's a mage leading the charge, deflecting spells sent at him and the army, pretty soon the lone mage is face to face with an enemy mage and surround by swordsmen.

Perhaps mages can maintain a large shield over their army from behind, like the Gungan shields Star Wars that protect from magic, and thus take the role of artillery and fortifications.

Perhaps they enchant the armor and weapons of the troops to be magic resistant and magic shield piercing, and take something of an armorer and quartermaster role. An army might resist magical bombardment if they form shield walls like the Roman testudo with enchanted shields. Maybe they can enchant arrows to seek magic/mages to give archers a fighting chance against mages and force the mages to hide behind an army.

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Magic has a cost to the wielder

It's a trope, but one with a believable relationship to the "don't take orders from schmucks" answer above. Especially if there's a predictable lifespan reduction to using magic (as opposed to a 0.05% chance of a Djinn spontaneously eating your soul), it's hard to talk mages into waging offensive wars. Anything you offer to reward them for using more magic leaves them less time to enjoy it.

For offensive incentive, you're left with Religious Death Cult; mages who live fast and die young; or threats of "Do this or we'll kill your family." That last one would make mages unlikely to self-identify. And if one territory attacked another, their opponent would have less trouble recruiting, since mages might be more willing to knowingly spend themselves protecting their homeland than invading someone else's.

So every once in a while, you get a mage who is willing to live a little shorter (or more likely a lot shorter) for the cause, but they wear out, and you need bodies to back them up.

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Even moderately powerful mages are self-sufficient

Once a mage gets sufficiently powerful, they gain the ability to supply all of their own food, water, shelter, and protection with little effort. This effect their psychology immensely, causing them to not feel a drive for most wordly things. Their only materialistic fear is losing their magic, since then they would not be able to be self-sufficient.

This means that the mage does not need to join the military to support themselves, nor any other particular thing the government wants them to do. The government trying to force the issue is liable to end badly. That's not to say that mages won't join the military; it is just not necessary. Mages in particular almost never swear loyalty to a government. The only oath is "I stay as long as its convenient". This, combined with the other answers, making mages unreliable for large scale use in combat.

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Apart from, or maybe combined with, wizards or magic being a relatively scarce resource, there's the point that the other side also has wizards and they tend to cancel each other out.

In the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind, there exists the notion that wiards are "magic against magic", and the regular troops are "steel against steel". In other words, regular troops and wizards work together but since both sides have wizards, part or all of their time is spent countering the other side's wizards' magic. Meanwhile, the troops both protect the wizards from mundane attacks, as fight the actual battles, leaving it to the wizards to protect them from magical attacks.

Granted, this setting might not stricly be considered High Magic, but the principle probably still stands.

Powerful good wizard Zeddicus Zu'l Zorander explains this in more detail in one of the books, with examples of how the other side's wizards would construct a spell, then his side had to counter that, and then they constructed their own spell, which the other side spent time (and blood) to counter, etc.


In case you are interested and want to read the Sword of truth series, I'd like to note that while it can be an entertaining fantasy series, especially in its later books it espouses a philosophy based on (Ayn Rand style) Objectivism, which is ... contested on moral and ethical grounds, to say the least.

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  • $\begingroup$ The philosophy didn't seem to have more than loose ties to Objectivism (to me at least). I'd say he's definitely gone his own direction there. But the last couple books do definitely veer in to Rand's writing style of long, preachy monologues that everyone stops and listens to for... some... reason... Worth reading overall just for the "Wizard's Rules" though. Those are well thought out. $\endgroup$ – Perkins Dec 9 '20 at 19:14
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Risk versus Benefit

Mages have more value at home than they do at war. A powerful mage is of no use to you if they are dead. It is far too risky to put your mages on the battlefield when you could be using them to see the future, turn lead into gold, feed and entertain the masses, etc...

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Make magic have a physical cost for mages. Just how like how bodybuilders aren't flexible, or how watchmakers usually do not have much brute strength, magic users have a similar tradeoff. Perhaps, the psionic ability of mages leaves them physically weak (it uses so much energy that they basically gain no muscle mass even if they eat like a sumo wrestler, and will be easily overwhelmed at close ranges), or severely increases a chance of some serious disease the more you tap into your magic ability (for example, magic users would have a high chance of experiencing a stroke or heart attack if they overexert their magical abilities, or the high energy use makes them extremely exhausted, thus weakening their immune system and making them sick with a serious disease).

With these side effects, mages would either not want to become too powerful (and basically become a non-magic user because their magic has little useful power), or become extremely powerful but physically frail. Obviously, the average magic adept would not want the unfortunate fate of being confined to a wheelchair or hospital bed by becoming more magically powerful, so each nation has a few extremely powerful mages that are rarely used (lest they die from the magic use) but many magic users that can probably use it around the house but are not powerful enough to really function as mages (they can use their limited magic to pick things up from high shelves but they would be better off with a sword and shield in battle).

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Fear of escalation

For the same reason, we have nuclear bombs but don't use them actively in war. We fear a escalation which will pretty much destroy everything.

Same is in your world. The fear of more and more destructive spells leads to an instinctive agreement of not using mages in war (maybe only for healing)

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Other than the obvious ones already mentioned, like needing people to occupy territories, and cost-benefit analysis, I have a few different ideas, mostly taken from literature.

Adaptation

Since there are mages, armies obviously would have made preparations against mages. Perhaps armies have armors that make it significantly harder for magic to affect the user. Perhaps there are counter-magic charms. Perhaps armies can deploy large scale formations/arrays (concept taken from Chinese Xianxia/Wuxia stories) which can resist magic. Or maybe they simply have anti-artillery magical shields. Technology could also play a role.

Mage-killers

Specialized troops which specializes in killing mages. Maybe they are assassins. Maybe they are snipers. Maybe they have tools which are meant to counter magic.

Karmic Hindrance/Separation of Mages/Mortals

This is another idea taken from Chinese Xianxia stories. Often, these stories have immortals (mages) who can wipe out a whole country by themselves. Why aren't they involved in mortal wars? Well, mainly 2 reasons.

The first is that there is a separation between mortals and immortals, often enforced by the heavens (gods, or magic itself, in this case). Mages aren't supposed to affect the mortal worlds overly. Or perhaps being around other mortals are detrimental to having magic.

The second is the idea of Karma (the Chinese kind, not the Indian kind). If you do good, you gain Karmic Virtue, which can be used to strengthen oneself, figure out the mystery of the universe, or made into artifacts. If you murder a few thousand people who are helpless in front of you, you get Karmic Hindrance, which can have severe negative effects on you, like limiting your magic, or outright killing you, or subjecting you to Hell. Also, having Karmic Hindrance encourages other people to kill you, because they'd get Karmic Virtue for doing so.

Karmic Virtue basically is a type of currency, while Hindrance is a type of debt. Mages use these as currencies. Obviously, mages wouldn't want to gain a lot of magical debt to gain mortal money.

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Because mages are artillery. If your mage fires at a regiment, then an opposing mage now knows where he is and during the "reload" the opposing mage can annihilate him/her.

Additionally, these mages don't have radar, UAV's, satellite surveillance or radio's. While they might have some magical means of communication and protection they are still vulnerable. Imagine a small group of skirmishers avoiding detection and taking out your mage(s) or disrupting their casting by threatening their position.

High magic also means that magic items will be available. Protections against magic, crossbows that fire a magic bolt with much higher accuracy or killing power, powerful items that make an entire regiment immune to being tired, mirror images of themselves to absorb enemy magic attacks, a wand that allows you to cast a few fireballs at the mage who just tried to destroy the regiment next to you and more. The mages can also protect soldiers from opposing magical attacks. Imagine your devastating spell against a regiment being cancelled, interrupted or blocked by a shield. Now you've revealed yourself and failed at your attack!

To recap:

  • soldiers are used as distractions for magical attacks and a way to pinpoint enemy mages.
  • soldiers are used to hide the location of your own mages.
  • soldiers are used to hunt down mages.
  • soldiers are equipped with their own magic for defense and offense.
  • soldiers can be in more places at once. Just try and capture a city with a handful of mages when they are probably too rich and powerful to do any patrolling and aren't enough to do so effectively anyway.
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Unique Spell Components

Every spellcaster's magic is just as unique as they are and each one needs slightly different spell components (brown bat guano versus free-tail bat guano for fireball) or to have those components stored/prepared/handled in slightly different ways (this mage needs his silk balled up while this mage needs his silk strands combed straight). Imagine the logistical challenges that would face an army supplying spell components to 10,000 wizards each of whom needed their own unique variant of the component.

We do the same in armies in our own world. Interchangeable weapon parts are hugely important and the US navy is willing to accept the limitations imposed by a standardized launch tube to get the benefits of missile compatibility.

Component Depletion/Access

Maybe it's relatively easy to get spell components in the relatively modest numbers that a few adventurers need for the occasional brawl and some studious academic wizards need for research but trying to procure them at scale becomes virtually impossible. Spells might require components be picked naturally in the wild and not farmed/planted. 10,000 casters casting spells as fast as they can might quickly denude a kingdom of components in a few days and as they become harder to find you need more men out looking for them.

Worse, what if each caster must gather their own components themselves. That might be trivial for a small party near nature but not at the front lines. You can't constantly have your mages tromping back and forth to the front to go pick their own herbs or pieces of dung or what have you.

Variation and Coordination

Magic users are each unique making them virtually impossible to train or deploy at scale. Maybe what determines what spells/effects each caster can accomplish isn't as much a conscious choice but deep facts about who they are so you can't train up mages with a common arsenal of spells. Imagine the chaos unleashed if a 100 casters each cast totally different spell types at the same time. The Fire elemental one caster summons bumps into the Water elemental another summons. One caster tries to blind the opponents with blinding light while another uses magical fog/darkness.

Maybe gods in your world do use armies of spellcasters but they are the only ones who are able to remember and utilize 10,000 different individual skills effectively. Mere human strategists need an abstraction like a unit with known weaponry and capabilities to effectively plan and coordinate battles.

Training Is Unscalable

Maybe magic isn't the sort of thing you can instruct people in (or have them practice at) in a regimented highly scalable fashion. Each individual wizard needs quiet contemplation with only a few colleagues to learn their arts or to improve them. This makes it impossible to keep them together in large numbers in barracks (why they always going off to isolated towers) so you've got to go gather them up before you can use them in battle and better hope your enemy doesn't show up in the meantime.

Not to mention all that alone time makes it difficult to ever find time to train them as a unit.

Personality Unsuitability

Also, spell casting might only attract a certain type of person of require that type of person to succeed at it. Consider the difficulties modern armies have recruiting and keeping computer hackers or scientists. Mass combat requires quick, unquestioning obedience and conformity while wizards (like hackers) are only any good because they question and respond in unusual ways. Or perhaps most wizards are very absent minded, or quarrelsome or have some other issue that keeps them from being good soldiers.

Fatality Rate

Maybe it's particularly easy to target other magic users on a battlefield with certain spells or tactics and very hard to defend against. Thus, in each battle the magic users (not the grunts) wipe each other out pretty quickly taking decades of training with them as they go. If mages die in wars at some crazy high rate you'll find it virtually impossible to get volunteers and a bitter magic user who is compelled to be there is more trouble than they are worth (or they are simply too powerful to capture).

Maybe the magic user union stepped in and laid down the law to prevent drafting magic users against their will on pain of severe retaliation.

Spacetime Magic Limits

Too much magic used in a small region produces catastrophic uncontrollable effects (kingdoms get turned into craters, gateways to horrific planes open releasing horrible fiends. Or maybe too much magic in one place is like hearing too loud of a sound for magicians and it (permanently or temporarily) removes their magical ability if they are too near too much simultaneous unharmonized magic.

Cultural Norms

Using magic is like targeting officers back in the Napoleonic wars. It's considered dishonorable and anyone who does it gets blackballed in politics and can't find any allies.

Also, remember, that if your countries are ruled by kings wars will be as much if not more about personal glory and individual ego as efficient victory and looking bad is worse than winning with magic.

Divine/Clerical Intervention

Maybe this is how things used to work and it was going to leave the world a smoking ruin so the gods or clerics stepped in to save things. Maybe it's a complete ban on spellcasters in wars or a more lax rule that doesn't let them be compelled. Or combine with magic overload and say the deities created some feedback effect if too much magic is used unharmonized.

If you want some war magic maybe the religious orders enforce some kind of limitation on how many war wizards can be licensed at any time.

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