Newest 5E D&D Unearthed Arcana Teases Curriculum of Chaos with Mages of Strixhaven
You won’t have to wait until Nov. 16, 2021 to study Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. The latest Unearthed Arcana 2021 — Mages of Strixhaven gives a peek at the syllabus of the wondrous magic university Strixhaven. The just announced book is a new 5E D&D crossover with Magic: The Gathering via the very popular expansion set from earlier this year. The opening to the Mages of Strixhaven Unearthed Arcana makes no illusions this playtest material is something special and they ain’t kidding. Let’s get into it.
Colleges of Strixhaven for 5E D&D
Each of the five subclasses in Mages of Strixhaven represent one of the paths of magic practiced at the magic university. In order to achieve this dynamic, vibrant magical undercurrent to the upcoming 5E D&D setting in a unique way this playtest material presents the concept of generic subclasses — ones that are available to more than one class.
D&D players from 3.5 edition might already be thinking, “prestige classes for 5E D&D?” I know this was my first thought after skimming the Unearthed Arcana. In a way this is true…but not really. There are prerequisites not for choosing any of the subclass options themselves but there is an elegant way of incorporating class features untethered to any one class and the level breaks for features within the structure.
More diligent minds than mine might crunch the numbers and determine the relative power level of each feature and yadda yadda yadda and for those people, great. My concerns lie much more in whether the material sounds cool and fun to explore during a 5E D&D game. I’m writing after only reading the introductory text and not the subclass features themselves and before I do I’ll share another mental sticky note heading into the content:
“How different from the core game will these character options be?”
Another noteworthy aspect to Mages of Strixhaven and the last few Unearthed Arcana documents as a whole is they’re indicative of 5E D&D’s growth and success. For many years as the Wizards of the Coast juggernaut penetrated culture bolstered with the passion of players and fans all over the world. Lots of these folks grew a cottage industry alongside this growth like Nerdarchy for one.
Because of so much support and terrific marketing this growth enables the 5E D&D team to grow as well. So it’s very cool to see variety in the bylines of new official content being developed. Whether I dig or dislike Unearthed Arcana or the official content it sometimes becomes it is always neat to see how new voices lead to new ideas.
One last thing to mention is the terrific Choosing the Subclass section. It’s cool to see some idea touchstones for various classes. In particular the idea of a warlock who “eschewed their patron’s usual boons for learning these more esoteric manifestations of power” really evokes the concept of a character eager for magical knowledge. They understand the measure of power they gain from their patron it’s no secret there’s all sorts of eldritch mysteries out there to discover and learn.
The five college of Strixhaven each approach the fundamentals of magic in their own way. A Using This Subclass section explains the features a character gains when they select the option, how this subclass options counts for any references to a core class and how a level from the core class giving a subclass feature is selected from any of the five Mages of Strixhaven subclasses:
- Lorehold College. Communication with ancient spirits.
- Prismari College. Fusion of art and elements.
- Quandrix College. Unlock magical mathematics.
- Silverquill College. Invoke the power of words.
- Witherbloom College. Harness alchemy of life and death.
Mage of Lorehold
Bards, warlocks and wizards can study as a Mage of Lorehold
It was kind of a slap in the face to read in the description how if you’re a warlock the magic of the college serves as your patron. I just pointed out how I thought it was neat to consider various avenues of acquiring eldritch might. But thinking more about it the patron is the warlock subclass and it’s chosen at 1st level so this makes sense mechanically. Oddly enough though now it kind of sours for me a little. It’s just narrative fluff and simple enough to reflavor. It only stands out because of what I’d been imagining.
- Lorehold Spells. Learning sacred flame and comprehend languages sets a tone and a variety of interactive and communicative spells provide a terrific array. And there’s spirit guardians and destructive wave for when combat happens.
- Ancient Companion. A lengthy feature to cover the noodly implementation of another new spirit summoning spell, which 5E D&D really leans hard into these days right? People love summoning stuff and this one has a neat exploration aid among stat block traits. The Ancient Companion takes the form of a Healer, Sage or Warrior chosen after a short or long rest for supreme ease of use.
- Lessons of the Past. A toggle informed by the choice of spirit providing appropriate benefits for each type. At this point if this subclass is indicative of the rest then it’s a very powerful addition to 5E D&D pointing to a vastly different game emerging as time moves forward.
- War Echoes. A neat combat reaction with a wordy way to make a target vulnerable to a damage type until the end of their next turn including the damage of the triggering successful attack roll — which can be your own!
- History’s Whims. I had to read this one several times. You use a bonus action to enter a state that lasts for 1 minute. At this time and the start of subsequent turns you gain one of three benefits, which last until the start of your next turn. But you can’t choose the same benefit twice in a row and it ends if you’re incapacitated. You can use it once per long rest but you can spend a spell slot to use it again.
Mage of Prismari
Druids, sorcerers and wizards can study as a Mage of Prismari
The way the description illustrates how these mages study the surging elemental forces made me envision more of a magical chemist who understands the excitable nature of raw elemental power. The college pursues perfecting artistic expression though through elemental magic though.
- Creative Skills. An option for two skills among a selection of physical ones and a knowledge skill is a fine way to start off any subclass. No spells though? These subclasses get pretty lengthy already so incorporating spells, which would likely also include some possibilities perhaps like The Genie’s options, would really push the word count and complexity.
- Kinetic Artistry. Reminiscent of the eladrin from Volo’s Guide to Monsters except instead of a magical aftereffect to misty step you get a magical aftereffect when you Dash, which you can do as a bonus action along with these effects a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus. We’re getting into superhero territory here.
- Favored Medium. Damage resistance for you and allies immediately next to you when you cast a spell dealing the chosen damage type. My interpretation is the scenario this works best for is basically fireballing yourself when all your allies are within 5 feet of you?
- Focused Expression. Two things crossed my mind going over this feature. First was a sort of a-ha moment where my concept of the magical chemist meets the Prismari lore in the sense of the excitable elements being within the character themselves. Second was the manipulation of magic in this and other features really would mesh well with a blaster sorcerer.
- Impeccable Physicality. Whoa, this oddball feature comes out of left field with no magical interaction at all. Instead it’s proficiency with Dexterity saving throws and Reliable Talent with them? No.
Mage of Quandrix
Sorcerers and wizards can study as a Mage of Quandrix
Perhaps these more closely resemble magical scientists. I get sacred geometry vibes and arcane formulae hints and I’m here for it. I was something of a math nerd in high school and I like the idea of these mages gaining control over magic through logic and deduction. Tack on the bit about redistributing probability and warping space and I’m sold.
- Quandrix Spells. Learning guidance and guiding bolt certainly suggests a theme. The rest of the extra spells I must confess I don’t get. Maybe the Prismari’s option for Nature skill was meant for a Quandrix mage? It feels like two different people worked on this feature and they weren’t on the same page with the theme.
- Functions of Probability. Anytime you cast a spell targeting a creature another creature nearby gets an unrelated benefit or drawback to their next attack roll. This led me down a rabbit hole of thought I’ll revisit further ahead.
- Velocity Shift. This college really confuses me so far in theme and tone but this aside hello fantastic feature. Succinct, not limited to combat but certainly useful during one as well as many other potential applications as either a buff or a debuff. Yes!
- Null Equation. I think maybe I’m starting to get a grasp of this college but here again thrown for a loop. A weird niche effect similar to ray of enfeeblement on the recipient of a damaging spell strangely lacking the reaction cost to use. I just don’t get it in the sense the flavorful part of the feature description doesn’t sell me on the concept.
- Quantum Tunneling. Another capstone damage resistance feels awkward. Maybe if it mitigated the unavoidable force damage caused by using the other part of the feature at all I’d feel different. These capstones are all over the place. I suspect designing these was the most difficult part of the whole project.
Mage of Silverquill
Bards, warlocks and wizards can study as a Mage of Silverquill
Channeling the magic of light and shadow through words spoken, written or gestured once again strikes me as a strange concept. All of these so far seem to take two disparate concepts and mash them together. I suppose it’s a good time to mention I do not like the MTG Strixhaven expansion. The mechanics, the lore and the art for the set fell completely flat for me so there’s a great chance I just don’t get it. But of course every piece of official 5E D&D needn’t.
- Eloquent Apprentice. Learning sacred flame or vicious mockery definitely represents both light and words. Two skills from among the Charisma ones or Insight (?) round out the starting package for these mages.
- Silvery Barbs. If this were a feature in one of our products I’d add the note “too much bookkeeping.” This is really complicated way to basically dole out Portent-light. So far I don’t see how any bard or wizard would benefit from this subclass. In fact a bard choosing this option at 3rd level would get this and the previous feature and that’s it but these are designed for level 1+ characters. Likewise I think a School of Divination wizard would have wisely foretold their own misfortune in choosing Mage of Silverquill over their Arcane Tradition.
- Inky Shroud. Okay now I’m really feeling like I’m missing something. At 6th+ level you learn the darkness spell — something a full caster could very easily acquire — and you can cast it for free once per long rest (or normally with a spell slot). The added utility of seeing in the darkness feels negligible. Dealing psychic damage to creatures who start their turn in the darkness is neat but overall leaves me confused.
- Infusion of Eloquence. I like how this is concise. I like manipulating damage type of spells you cast and adding an extra effect. I understand the reason for limiting to psychic or radiant and the proficiency bonus in static damage is a nice touch too. I think the only thing I don’t like is why light, dark and words got mashed together. It’s just a weird concept and seems more arbitrary than compelling.
- Word of Power. Just in case Silvery Barbs didn’t exceed your tolerance for bookkeeping this capstone improves upon the earlier feature. With more bookkeeping.
Mage of Witherbloom
Druids and warlocks can study as a Mage of Witherbloom
I’m disinclined to like this subclass only because I loathe Sedgemoor Witch in MTG. But I do like creepy plant stuff so I’m on board. Drawing life force for yourself while draining it from others doesn’t get much more efficient for a combat game scenario. This is my perspective heading in so let’s see how it pans out on paper.
- Witherbloom Spells. Learning spare the dying, cure wounds and inflict wounds definitely sets a tone. Strip away all the fancy effects and dangerous situations boil down to staying keeping friendly hit points up and unfriendly hit points down. The additional spells gained along the way continue this simple, powerful dynamic going and I’m happy to see it.
- Essence Tap. Another superhero style superpower toggle feature. I don’t like these sorts of things on principle so you’ll have to excuse me. When you activate this superpower you can heal yourself every turn or change all your damage unresistable necrotic damage for 1 minute. As soon as I read that last part myself I instantly thought so many people are going to love this. Necrotic damage for everything! So edgy.
- Witherbloom Brew. Even though there is crafting in 5E D&D (it really exists!) it’s all boring kludgy stuff to collaborate with the DM on, right? Who needs the material WotC already provides when character features can do the work quicker, cheaper, faster and better. Every long rest you can whip up your proficiency bonus number of magical brews offering protectin, healing or weapon-coating toxin.
- Witherbloom Adept. Attention all clerics — your humdrum 8th level feature meets its match. Except better.
- Withering Vortex. Wow these mages are really all about the necrotic damage. This capstone triggers when you deal necrotic damage with a spell and adds an effect of siphoning the hit point loss into healing for another creature.
That was a lot. Now I’ll ponder my takeaways. Something I’m almost certain they’ll see in the feedback is how it’s weird these options are limited to only spellcasters, and further only certain spellcasters. Bards, druids, sorcerers, warlocks and wizards are the only classes with potential access to any of these subclasses. This might be thematic and Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos might include all sorts of options for all the classes for all I know. There are enough features among these subclasses without much or any reference to spellcasting so it seems entirely plausible for revisions to do just this.
This brings up another question though. Since the book release is already announced the window for revisions and additional playtesting is quite small. For a book releasing in five months I surmise production must already be underway or very soon. Would big changes be reasonable at this point?
Related to playtesting I’m very curious about whether these Mages of Strixhaven subclasses received any testing against themselves. What happens when a character multiclasses into multiple Mages of Strixhaven subclasses? There’s enough wiggle room in class availability for a single character to take all five options.
I swear my intention wasn’t to create a list of criticisms. I can’t help think of how many times I’ve heard people speak of my favorite edition of D&D and how classes suffer from sameness. At several points in this Unearthed Arcana I thought (and wrote) how features come across complicated in language but simple in scope. For example a character option focused on a niche concept like necrotic damage might do a lot of noodly stuff to illustrate the specific theme, but is it interesting, new or worth it more than simply reflavoring what’s already available?
Unearthed Arcana 2021 — Mages of Strixhaven gets a bit illustrative of design for design’s sake. Many of these features look and sound robust and complex and they are but drilling down they sometimes come out as needlessly so for a relatively simple effect. This is a design challenge anyone faces — are you iterating or innovating? As a side note the weirder and more complex 5E D&D material becomes the more challenging it’s got to be for the D&D Beyond developers to implement.
The “issue” with things like this (if you consider it such) is while these are presented as options and 5E D&D plans to stick around a while yet then they’ll become the thing early design philosophy sought to avoid — simply better than core game options. Dress it up all you want there’s no question given a choice between following a static path or making customizable choices every step of the way the latter is just better. In the case of the material in this Unearthed Arcana I’m thinking more broadly of this approach to character option design rather than the specific options here.
If I’m honest after working in this industry for some time now it’s really quite strange to wrap my head around. The dynamics of an strong IP and a cottage industry essentially created and fostered by the originators who are also all competitors but also colleagues of a sort is daunting at times no doubt about it. Who knew nerd life could be so complicated?