Iconic Design — The One Where Alex Builds the Magus Completely Wrong

So I was sitting at Redcaps Corner for PFS on Tuesday, and my three-man party consisted of myself (a flying blade / weapon master swashbuckler) and two magi. Naturally, everything died. However, it really got me thinking about the magus class—you don’t really SEE varied builds with that class. Even with archetypes, its one build that basically does the same trick over and over again, despite having a spell list that rivals the wizard’s in utility. So, why DOESN’T anyone try to build the magi different?

Probably because they know the Internet will tear down their livelihoods.

Oh well, it already happened to me once. Why not invite it again?

Build Concept

Any information important to understanding the build or its roots goes here.

  • Classes: magus (puppetmaster) 12
  • Feats: Weapon Finesse (1st), Trick Spell (3rd), Piranha Strike (Bonus), Spell Focus: enchantment (5th), Greater Spell Focus: enchantment (7th), Conceal Spell (9th), Weapon Focus: short sword (Bonus), Extra Arcane Pool (11th)
  • Abilities: arcane pool (3 + Int; +2), charmstrike (2nd level), improved spell recall, knowledge pool, puppet combat, spell recall, the show must go on
  • Magus Arcana: flamboyant arcana (3rd), arcane deed: menacing swordplay (6th), hasted assault (9th), critical strike (12th)

Play Description

The first thing that I knew about this build was that I wanted to be a magus, and more specifically, I wanted to be a magus that played drastically differently from the stereotypical “shocking grasp gatling gun” magus that you always see. With this in mind, I found an archetype that REALLY intrigued me—the puppetmaster magus from Pathfinder Player Companion: Arcane Anthology. This archetype focuses rather heavily on trading out the high-damage output of the magus for more subtle magics. Among other things, it loses the ability to enhance its weapon, gains bard AND magus spells, and doesn’t have spellstrike. Instead of spellstrike, it gets the ability to “charmstrike,” which allows it to cast a 1st-level spell as a swift action whenever a foe fails a saving throw that the puppetmaster casts. I really, really liked the look of this base mechanic, so I decided to dig deeper and see what I could come up with.

The first thing that I noticed is that getting bard spellcasting REALLY expanded my enchantment pool. The big spell that I get as a 1st-level spell that wizards wouldn’t normally have is hideous laughter. Yeah, bards have hideous laughter as a 1st-level spell, so puppetmaster magi do as well. Now expanding this further, I found a delightful combination of abilities that I could take realitively quickly. First, there’s a trait called domineering. This trait (from Quests and Companions) allows you to pick one 1st-level enchantment spell that you are capable of casting and gain a +1 trait bonus to that spell’s DC. Nice! The other one is wayang spell hunter, which is a VERY infamous trait. For wayang spell hunter (which is a region trait), you choose one 3rd level or lower spell and gain the ability to reduce the metamagic level increase of that spell by 1. After scouring for a bit more, I found the perfect feat to use it with—Trick Spell. From Dirty Tactics Toolbox, this Callistrian feat allows you to use your caster level and ability score bonus to make a dirty trick against anyone who fails a saving throw against an opponent that fails a Will save against the spell. (Note that only enchantment spells that allow Will saves to negate their effects can be trick spells.)

So if this is going to be my primary trick, I wanted to make sure that it worked somewhat regularly. With this in mind, elf, gnome, or kitsune is the way to go with this build—if you use Horror Adventures, all three have access to a racial trait that gives +1 to the save DC of enchantment spells. Additionally, you’re likely going to want Spell Focus (enchantment) and Greater Spell Focus (enchantment). Since this is still a magus build, Power Attack or Piranha Strike is also going to be a good idea (I’m going Weapon Finesse, personally, to make up for the loss of medium and heavy armor proficiencies at high levels). Finally, since this build is so saving throw heavy, I’m a big fan of demoralize. Specifically, of the Enforcer feat. With arcane deed: menacing swordplay, we can demoralize foes as a swift action whenever we want. Using this, we can actually use spell combat, beat up our target to demoralize them, use spell combat to cast hideous laughter on the target as an off-hand spell, and if the target fails, inflict a nasty condition on the target using Trick Spell in addition to the normal effects of hideous laughter. In effect, we become a debuffing machine.

Using these pieces, I cobbled together the build you see above. I’m a pretty big fan of the Conceal Spell feat, only it’s tough to justify taking it sooner then when I pick it up because of how many feats you need to make this build work. I’d consider that feat to not be “set in stone,” as it were. In any case, picking magus arcana for this build was tough because this archetype loses the ability to enhance its weapon, which many of the arcana are built around. I needed arcane need: menacing swordplay for my build, so I also picked up arcane deed. Having opportunity parry and riposte is nice, but with my BAB I’m not sure how often I’ll actually be doing that. (Coincidentally, it’s likely worth my time to take Combat Reflexes if I’m picking up flamboyant arcana so I can parry more than once if I need to. I’m going to sideline the notion for now, but keep it in the back of my head for later.) I’m a fan of hasted arcana because realistically, fights don’t last more than four or five rounds (which is about where my Intelligence bonus will be at Level 9), so one arcane point to haste myself as a swift action seems really good. Finally, the critical strike arcana just seems neat to have for this build—slinging more spells around can’t possibly be a bad thing.

So, what does this build look like in a fight? Let’s look at some by-the-numbers:

  • Assume a spell combat attack with a +1 agile cruel weapon (I’m thinking shortsword or kukri).
  • Attack with your weapon—if the target is shaken, your attacks cause the target to also become sickened thanks to the cruel ability.
  • If the target isn’t demoralized and it can be, use a swift action via menacing swordplay to demoralize them. (Being demoralized causes you to take a –2 penalty on saving throws.)
  • With your off-hand, cast tricky hideous laughter. Assuming you have an 18 Intelligence (which is a very fair estimate), this build will grant you a baseline DC of 20 (10 + 1st level spell + 5 Int, +1 trait, +2 feats, + 1 racial trait). If the target fails, it falls prone, loses its action, and you get to make a combat maneuver check against the target (1d20 + 12 + Cha) to inflict another condition on that target. Personally, I’m a fan of blinded for the no Dex and extra +2 to hit.
  • If you didn’t use your swift action to use menacing swordplay, you can now use it to charmstrike your target, meaning you get to cast another 1st-level enchantment spell at it. I honestly don’t recommend chain-casting charm spells with this ability, as your best charm spell (hideous laughter) is likely going to take anything that fails its save out of the fight. Instead, you should use this when you feel the need to cast other spells (like fireball), so that you can hit a bunch of foes and then REALLY make someone’s day suck by adding an enchantment spell effect on top of it.
  • Alternatively, if you REALLY want your enchantment or illusion spell to fire and you don’t care about charmstriking or demoralizing foes, you can use your swift action to bump up the DC of an enchantment or illusion spell you cast. Its +1 at 1st level or +2 at 7th level or later. (If you play past 12th level, it goes up by +1 at every 4 levels after 7th.)

Overall, I REALLY like this magus build. It feels fresh and different, and it has a couple of different races that can be good at it. (Kitsune, elves, and gnomes all have racial traits or alternate racial traits that give them the +1 to enchantment save DCs that you’re really going to want for this build, although note that the elf version from Horror Adventures only applies against humanoids.) I mean, no surprise to anyone but I’d probably want to try this out as a kitsune, if only because enchantments and the Trick Spell feat in general feel really trickster to me. (Curse you, Calistra, for stealing all the good feats!) Overall, I’m excited about this build and looking forward to trying it out!

That’s it for this week’s Iconic Design. Tune back in two weeks for more ideas for your next PC or NPC! Take care!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alexs Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander "Alex" Augunas is an author and behavioral health worker living outside of Philadelphia in the United States. He has contributed to gaming products published by Paizo, Inc, Kobold Press, Legendary Games, Raging Swan Press, Rogue Genius Games, and Steve Jackson Games, as well as the owner and publisher of Everybody Games (formerly Everyman Gaming). At the Know Direction Network, he is the author of Guidance and a co-host on Know Direction: Beyond. You can see Alex's exploits at http://www.everybodygames.net, or support him personally on Patreon at http://www.patreon.com/eversagarpg.


  1. David S.

    Intriguing build Alex … not sure if you ever watch the awesome show “Samurai Jack” on Cartoon Network/Adult Swim, but would love to see a build of the indefatigable Jack!

  2. Scien

    Correct me if I’m wrong but I thought that due to the errata on Advance Class Guide, Arcane Deed: Menacing Swordplay simply does not work since you are not considered to have at least 1 point in your panache pool?

    • Javaed

      You are correct. “Even if he gains a panache pool through another means, the magus is not considered to have at least 1 point in his panache pool for the purpose of deeds selected with arcane deed, and his effective swashbuckler level for determining such a deed’s effect is 0.”

      If you’re willing to go the typical Dervish Dance route, the trait Merciful Scimitar lets you deal non-lethal damage and you can now pick up Enforcer for a free-action Demoralize check. You can ditch Weapon Focus and Piranha strike from Alex’s build and for only 1-2 less damage per melee attack. You can still pick those up later if you like.