Evil wizards in Dungeons & Dragons can make exciting foes for players. They have access to a range of spells that threaten characters and create tactical puzzles. But that potential seldom translates into play. The designers of fifth edition aimed to make a typical fight last 3 rounds. That seems brief, but wizards lack hit points and they carry a big bullseye, so they can only dream of lasting so long. Too often, some evil “mastermind” stands in an open room, whiffs an initiative roll, and dies in an encounter that resembles an execution by firing squad. Dave and Gary did not give D&D to us just so players could claim a Table H treasure without a fight or even any cunning.
Five years ago, I wrote the The Evil Wizard’s Guide to Defense Against Murderous Treasure Hunters. That post focused on defensive spells and assumed dungeon masters would choose spells rather than stick to the lists in the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Sometimes players who see non-player wizards go off script can get a bit salty. After all, an archmage who prepares greater invisibility becomes a much bigger threat than one bringing the standard spells listed in the book. For a convention table, I’ll stick to a standard spell selection. For a home game that includes players who welcome a challenge, anything goes.
This post focuses on the game’s stock wizards and their spell lists.
Wizards make poor solo foes. Better fights come where wizards—even the boss—play supporting roles. Players must wonder if they can safely ignore a casters’ allies to focus fire on the wizard.
If wizards are paper, the party’s archers are scissors. Ranged rogues and sharpshooting fighters break concentration and heap damage on a wizard’s meager health. Avoid starting a fight with a spellcaster standing in the open, because they rarely bring enough hit points to survive long. In fifth edition, a character can move into view, cast a spell, and then move back out of sight. Make the party ready attacks or charge in to face the wizard’s allies. I dream of wizard battles where a solo wizard boasts defenses that the players must fight to unravel, but we have a game with sharpshooters instead. (This message brought to you by the alliance to return protection from normal missiles to D&D as a non-concentration spell.)
Spellcasters are smart and have the potential to become recurring foes, so whenever I pit the players against a wizard, I plan an escape and reserve the spell slots required for that plan. For lower-level casters, my escape may require invisibility or fly. Higher-level casters may reserve teleport or wall of force.
Next, identify the wizard’s most powerful offensive spells. For the mage and archmage in the Monster Manual, this means cone of cold followed by fireball. Few D&D battles last long enough to tap lesser spells.
Next check the wizard’s defenses. Without their defensive spells running, wizards become as fragile as soap bubbles. Unless the players make a special effort to gain surprise, and succeed, let the wizard raise a few defenses before they enter battle. Since defenses often require concentration, pick the spell that merits that focus. Sometimes this means concentrating on an offensive or battlefield control spell rather than a defense.
The rest of this post highlights the wizards in Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, from the tricky illusionist to the mighty (underwhelming) archmage.
A 7th-level wizard.
Invisibility [2nd-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 hour)
Invisibility lets wizards escape from melee, but without much stealth, they need more tricks or obstacles to block a chase.
Disguise Self [1st-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 hour)
Disguise self enables an illusionist to blend into a crowd.
Minor Illusion [Cantrip] (S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute)
Minor illusion could make a hall or a door look like a plain wall for long enough to engineer an escape.
Phantasmal Killer [4th-level Illusion] (V,S) (Casting time: 1 Action) (Duration: concentration, 1 minute)
Phantasmal killer only hits one target and requires 2 failed saves before inflicting any damage. Even that feeble effect requires concentration. An attacking illusionist can only target the barbarian and hope for the best.
The illusionist starts with feeble offensive spells, so more than any of the other wizards, illusionists work as part of a group of foes.
Mage Armor [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 8 hours)
Every wizard the players face will have mage armor in effect.
Mirror Image [2nd-level Illusion] (V,S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute)
Even compared to higher-level options, mirror image ranks as the best no-concentration defensive spell.
Make it fun
Illusionists make bad foes for dungeon showdowns. Instead, use an illusionist in an urban environment to trick an frustrate the party, potentially helping other attackers.
Major Image [3nd-level Illusion] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 10 minutes)
Use crowds, illusion, and cover to avoid being spotted, and major image to befuddle the party. For a good model, think of the super-villain Mysterio as seen in Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Hypnotic Pattern [3nd-level Illusion] (S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, 1 minute)
To make an illusionist more dangerous, perpare hypnotic pattern rather than phantom steed and shield instead of magic missile.
A 9th-level wizard.
Misty Step [2nd-level Conjuration] (V) (casting time: 1 bonus action) (duration: instantaneous)
For a quick escape, use misty step to teleport to someplace relatively inaccessible, such as a balcony or across a chasm, then dash out of view. Misty step just takes a bonus action to cast, but you cannot cast a spell as a bonus action and cast another spell other than a cantrip in the same turn. See Player’s Handbook page 202.
Fly [3rd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)
Fly offers a defense against melee attackers and a potential way to escape a fight that goes bad. When a wizard can fly in and out of cover, the spell makes a good defense.
Ice Storm [4th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)
While ice storm falls short of the damage from cone of cold or fireball, the spell slows movement and makes a good opening attack.
Cone of Cold [5th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)
Fireball [3th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)
While the other wizards in D&D’s monster books include some weaker spell choices to make them into distinctive foes, the mage picks the strongest spells as a player might.
Greater Invisibility [4th-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)
Greater invisibility rates as the best defensive spell in D&D. Most attacks on you suffer disadvantage. Plus, you avoid spells that require a target “that you can see,” which includes counterspell.
Counterspell [3rd-level Abjuration] (S) (casting time: 1 reaction) (duration: instantaneous)
An enemy wizard will run out of turns before running short of spell slots. Counterspell gives wizards a use for their reaction and lets them benefit from casting two leveled spells in a round rather than just one. Counterspell lets you trade another caster’s action for a reaction that a wizard probably would not use. Despite the power of counterspell, most enemy spellcasters benefit more from ducking out of sight between turns.
Whenever players face enemy spellcasters, pay close attention to the 60-foot range of counterspell. If possible, spellcasters move out of that range before they cast.
Shield [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S) (casting time: 1 reaction) (duration: 1 round)
Shield offers protection against archers and melee attacker that lasts a full round. Use this to protect against readied attacks when you move into view to cast spells.
Also: mage armor.
Make it fun
The mage brings the best spells on the wizard list, so of all the monster-book wizards, this one hits hardest for its challenge rating.
For a more durable, and therefore more dangerous mage, swap suggestion for mirror image.
A 9th-level wizard.
Evard’s Black Tentacles [4th-level Conjuration] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)
In most fights, start with Evard’s black tentacles and follow with fireball.
Cloudkill [5th-level Conjuration] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)
If the natural terrain somehow prevents attackers from easily escaping from a cloudkill, or against parties dominated by ranged attackers, start with cloudkill. Remember, cloudkill creates a heavily-obscured area that blocks vision.
Stoneskin [4th-level Abjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 hour)
The quality of stoneskin depends on the number of foes wielding magical weapons or attacks. Against groups likely to fight a 9th-level wizard, stoneskin offers nothing. Just about every non-player character wizard prepares stoneskin, and that’s always a mistake. With so many of the conjurer’s spells requiring concentration, stoneskin becomes doubly useless.
Also: mage armor
Make it fun
The combination of cloudkill and Evard’s black tentacles makes an exciting challenge for a party facing a pair of conjurers.
Prepare shield instead of magic missile and mirror image instead of cloud of daggers.
A 9th-level wizard.
Enchanters have fireball, which seems like a bid to give them something to do in a fight, even if that lacks the flavor of the specialty.
Hold Monster [5th-level Enchantment] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)
In the best case for hold monster, the enchanter paralyzes one character and spoils one player’s fun, then the rest of the party takes an average 1.5 turns to zero the caster’s 40 hit points.
Haste [3rd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)
Haste ranks as an excellent spell for an enchanter to cast on an ally, but a fight with a hasted, charmed assassin doesn’t feel much like a fight against an enchanter.
Dominate Beast [4rd-level Enchantment] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)
The best setup for a battle against an enchanter features a giant ape or a tyrannosaurus rex improbably around to become the target of dominate beast.
Instinctive Charm seems like defense that shows an enchanter’s flavor, but enchantment spells tend to require concentration, so an enchanter probably won’t cast one every turn, and the ability will rarely recharge. Let the ability recharge every turn anyway.
Also: mage armor and stoneskin.
Make it fun
An enchanter serves as more of a story piece than a combatant. For a fun battle against an enchanter, add odd creatures under a geas to defend the wizard and perhaps a fearsome beast in a cage.
Dominate Person [5th-level Enchantment] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)
For enchanters to show their power, power up with dominate person.
Confusion [4th-level Enchantment] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)
Switch hold monster for dominate person, confusion for stoneskin, and shield for magic missile.
A 12th-level wizard.
Wall of Ice [6th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)
A cautious evoker saves a 6th-level spell slot for a wall of ice to block pursuit.
Also: misty step.
Bigby’s Hand [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)
Rather than casting chain lightening, start with Bigby’s hand to interfere with melee attackers, and then start blasting with cone of cold and either fireball or lightning bolt.
Lightning Bolt [3th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)
Mage armor, mirror image, and counterspell.
Make it fun
With so many blasting spells and few defenses, the evoker will probably strike hard, and then die quickly. This caster may work best supporting other foes in a high-level encounter.
Prepare greater invisibility instead of stoneskin and shield instead of burning hands.
A 13th-level wizard.
Teleport [7th-level Conjuration] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)
Teleport enables a near-certain escape, so long as you allow time to cast it.
Wall of Force [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)
Wall of force can serve three purposes.
Create a barrier to enable escape.
Trap some of your foes so the rest become outnumbered by your allies.
Create a defensive shield that blocks attacks while you blast foes.
An invisible wall of force lets you see targets for spells, but “nothing can physically pass through the wall of force.” Few wizard spells let you continue to concentrate on the wall while enabling attacks through the wall. Sadly, none of the non-player character wizards prepare both wall of force and something like disintegrate or finger of death. Unless you change spells, this lapse eliminates the wall’s third use.
Symbol [7th-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 minute) (duration: until dispelled or triggered)
The abjurer’s most dangerous spell takes too long to cast in battle, but it lasts until dispelled or triggered. Each symbol costs 1,000 gp to inscribe. This leaves DMs to decide how many symbols protect an abjurer. One seems sporting.
Symbol aside, start blasting with cone of cold, and then fireball.
Banishment [4th-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)
As soon as you take damage, upcast banishment in a 6th- or 7th-level slot and bolster your Arcane Ward.
Alarm [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 minute) (duration: 8 hours)
Abjurers should never face an attack unprepared. Best case, that means casting symbol on the entry, taking a position that puts a barrier between you and melee attackers, and having a globe of invulnerability in effect.
Globe of Invulnerability [6th-level Abjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)
Globe of invulnerability only protects from magical attacks, so it just leaves most casters vulnerable to the party’s archers. Paper, meet scissors. Fortunately, the abjurer’s Arcane Ward grants a measure of protection that other wizards lack. Plus, the ward takes damage instead of the wizard, reducing concentration checks. The globe might remain active long enough to shape the battle.
Also: mage armor, shield, counterspell, and stoneskin.
Make it fun
The abjurer rates as the only wizard able to make a globe of invulnerability into a tactical challenge for an adventuring group, rather than a bubble a few arrows pop. So start with the globe. Once the wizard takes damage, switch to concentrating on banishment.
Forget the archmage, the combination of symbol, Arcane Ward, and banishment makes abjurers the most dangerous wizards in the monster books. If enough characters fail their saves, banishment could make half the party vanish. If you pit an abjurer against a group, ready a plan B involving a capture, a rescue, or a deal that can avert a total-party kill.
Prepare mirror image instead of arcane lock.
A 15th-level wizard.
Teleport and fly.
Mass suggestion [_6th-level Enchantment] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 24 hours)
A diviner’s best strategy probably starts with a mass suggestion that convinces everyone to leave in search of the real villain. Unlike suggestion, mass suggestion doesn’t require concentration.
Maze [8th-level Conjuration] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 10 minutes)
Escaping maze requires a DC20 Intelligence check. Because so few player characters boast an Intelligence above 10, the spell usually guarantees one character leaves the fight for its duration. If the party includes a paladin, then use maze to banish that character and their boost to saving throws. Otherwise, wait to see who saves versus mass suggestion.
Delayed Blast Fireball [7th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)
A diviner can see enough of the future to know not to cast delayed blast fireball, saving their 7th-level slot for teleport instead.
Also: ice storm and fireball.
Portent will probably only get one use, so keep it for a saving throw.
Make it fun
Like an enchanter, a diviner serves better as a story piece than a combatant. Diviners make good patrons because they see enough of the future to send the party on quests.
An 18th-level wizard.
Teleport, wall of force, fly, misty step, invisibility, and disguise self.
The wealth of spells that enable archmages to escape reveal the role of these wizards: Archmages underperform in combat and work better as plotters who avoid fighting whenever possible.
Cone of cold, banishment, and lightning bolt.
Time Stop [9th-level Transmutation] (v) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)
Time stop gives an archmage a chance to cast a suite of defensive spells.
Mind Blank [8th-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 24 hours)
Mind blank serves as a story piece more than a spell that actually defends against anything players might use to attack an archmage.
Fire Shield [4th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 10 minutes)
As a 4th-level spell, fire shield ranks as the worst no-concentration defense. The damage amounts to less than a typical melee attacker can deal, and wizards lack health to lose in trade.
Combine fire shield with stoneskin, the worst defense that requires concentration, and you follow a recipe for a short and disappointing showdown.
Make it fun
The archmage’s spell list makes this wizard weaker in combat than some of the lower-level specialists. I suspect the designer who concocted this spell list imagined a fight starting with a time stop that enables an archmage to erect defenses, followed by a barrage of attack spells. Unfortunately, the feeble defenses do little to thwart a party facing an archmage. The archmage’s 99 hit points may not last two players’ turns. Paper, meet scissors.
The smart move is to skip time stop and upcast banishment at 9th-level, and then to blast the survivors who made saves. Once you thin those foes, cast wall of force to split the banished party as they pop back. Divide and conquer.
I’m not sure which of those strategies seems less fun for players.
The Intelligence-20 move is to teleport away to live for more evil schemes.
Disintegrate [6th-level Transmutation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)
Prepare greater invisibility instead of stoneskin and disintegrate instead of globe of invulnerability.