The Best and Worst Virtues

Hi there,

I’m totally new to “Ars Magica” whose nonstandard setting and rightfully praised magic system seem really quite enticing to me.

Personally, I’m no relentless optimizer. In fact, I enjoy playing flawed characters who are far from perfect and invincible, but nonetheless I prefer them to excel in their core competencies. Besides, it’s just plain fun to discuss theoretical optimization.

Without any noteworthy experience in playing ArM it’s pretty hard for me to judge the plethora of possible virtues. There are no objectively best virtues for the whole multitude of possible character concepts of course, but I think that it is very possible to sort out the worst and most efficient virtues. As far as I can tell, there are very few obvious traps (Only “Berserk” caught my eye.) which are rather disguised flaws than virtues.

So what are in your opinion the most and least rewarding virtues in the game? I’d would be great if you could add a bit of explanation, potential combinations and general hints to avoid rookie mistakes regarding the virtue selection.

Are you playing with other experienced players or new players, and only the core book?

I ask as many of the mystery cults have wonderfully powerful virtues and flaws which can be found/used, but their usage prescribes all the cult's flavour into your troupe, and you'd be at a disadvantage understanding them if you've not got some of the source books.

There has been quite a few threads over the years:

For down time advancement, from a pure XP point of view:

  • Strong Faerie Blood gives you 15 more years before Aging kicks in, about 225 xp
  • Skilled Parens is 90 xp
  • Puissant Magic Theory will save you 85 xp if you reach a score of 7+2
  • Affinity with (Art) will save you 70 xp if you reach a score of 20 (after 10 seasons of reading)
  • Book Learner will save you 60 xp if you read for 20 seasons, and that's easy to reach

For adventure time:

  • some Magical Focus is best
  • Flawless Magic, Flexible Formulaic Magic or Life-Linked Spontaneous Magic
  • Cyclic Magic, Life Boost, Self-Confident

As for the Flaws, it all comes down to what kind of story you want to tell, what problem to overcome. A magus can wipe armies before breakfast, the challenge has to be elsewhere.

I'll second the idea that "minor magical focus" is an excellent (minor) virtue to take, and very often can gel a character concept together.

Familiar - probably the best "virtue" you can have, simply from the benefit of the Golden Cord (reduction in magical botch dice.) Plus, it's free! (sort of - some roleplaying and a season of enchantment) And, it gives you the opportunity to grant yourself permanent enchantments that don't Warp you.

Talisman - like a familiar: it's a good idea to have one, generally speaking, just for the casting bonuses.

In terms of "least useful" Virtues - the one that comes to mind is mainly "Diende magic" - it's basically a major focus in spontaneous magic, but also has a major flaw built into it that you don't really get credit for. In terms of storytelling opportunity? It's fine - but in terms of pure game mechanics, it's not all that great, IMO.

Virtues and Flaws in Ars Magica mostly exist to help flesh out concepts rather than support specific 'builds' this is probably due to the fact that magi are so powerful to begin with. Nevertheless, I do think there are a few potential traps in the rulebook that I'll try and point out.

As previously mentioned, Magical Foci are useful for a lot of concepts (particularly those whose magic is going to traverse multiple Verb/Noun combinations such as conjurers or necromancers). They are probably more powerful for simple form/technique combinations such as the example Flambeau on page 25, but also less essential since a starting character has enough XP to realize the concept without it.

As for the others:
Life-Linked Spontaneous Magic > Diedne Magic (usually)
Puissant X > Affinity with X (usually)
Usually, virtues that confer a Supernatural Ability are sub-par for magi (unless you get it free as an ex Miscellanea).

That's about all I can think of for the core book just now. Have fun!


Pretty much my thoughts.

Affinity is usually better than Puissant, but each becomes better if you take both!

Excellence in a core competency is as easy as Puissant Te and Fo, Affinity with Te and Fo, Strong Parens and perhaps a Focus; then dump lots of starting xps into those 2 Arts and no others.

Excellence as a spontaneous caster is as easy as LLSM, Cautious Sorcerer and either being a Bjornaer or taking Shapeshifter, and maybe also Silent and Subtle magic. You now have extra fatigue levels for even bigger spells. There are other ways to improve spontaneous casting, but these are more complicated and require more books.

Excellence in social situations begins with Gentle Gift, subtle and silent magic. Strong Faerie Blood gives many xps for social skills, and a bit of Imaginem helps disguise the SFB when necessary. Being a Guernicus can also be helpful among magi, though being a Tytalus is probably more fun :slight_smile:.

Excellence as a general lab rat is based on Strong Parens, Puissant and Affinity Magic Theory, Cyclic Magic (seasonal! read books in the off seasons, adventure and do lab work in the good ones), Inventive Genius and high Int. Being a Verditius helps further for items.

There are many other optimized character concepts, and even more cool characters, but these cover the basic excellencies.

I agree with previous posters, that Supernatural Virtues are usually best avoided as suboptimal. Shapeshifting is among the best of the lot, however, especially taken as the ExMisc major virtue. It provides a lot of versatility and can be maintained without Warping. It also allows for Special Circumstances: In animal form or, even better, a Faerie Correspondence: In animal form.

(Excellence with spell mastery: Flawless Magic, Strong Faerie Blood, Strong Parens and a Faerie Correspondence that is easily leveraged during casting. The correspondence adds to non-Supernatural skill scores, which includes spell mastery and Penetration! For more fun, choose mastery abilities that add the mastery score to things, such as penetration, or that allow ceremonial magic (both Artes Liberales and Philosophiae are also boosted by the correspondence.))

The most rewarding Flaws in the game are Story Flaws. Each minor provides a benefit, and also a story hook. Each major provides a story hook and is major. Minor story flaws are awesome, but sometimes a character is better off with a major flaw (to get more virtues! :slight_smile:) Oh, ok, yeah yeah, the most rewarding virtues and flaws are the ones that help you most enjoy the game, yada and etc.



Mercurian Magic, as written, is one of the worst. A major virute that give you a major flaw as well.

Free study and personal vis source go together exceedingly well, especially if your magus has a narrow focus that the vis source matches.

Improved characteristics is fab, I find it hard to build a magus without it.

I also love potent magic, particularly major potent magic. A flat +6 bonus to related spells and effects and you can make potent spells in your area which are extremely valuable in game for barter and can add massive casting bonuses. I've created a blood focused magus who has obscene casting totals for anything blood related with this. If you want to double down on grotesque casting bonuses, partner potent magic with the identical magical focus.

Giant blooded is great fun but you really have to build the whole characters life around being a giant super freak. Still, the stats boosts are nice and most corpus spells can no longer affect you (since they almost always target individual and without a size mod increase that maxes out at +1 size, while giant blooded takes you to +2).

Very saga dependent but apt student can be frightfully good too. If you covenant has some very skilled companions or grogs then with this you can rapidly go from zero to hero with a bit of training or even better one on one teaching. My current saga has a legendary scholar in residence with solid communication and teaching and the good teacher virtue. Combined with Apt student one of the GMPCs can get nearly 25 a season off him. Only really applies to skills of course but still hugely helpful.

Puissant magic theory is great.

On puissant and affinity, I ran the numbers and on arts, affinity becomes better than pussiant at 102xp. On skills it takes longer at 220 xp. So moral of the story, puissant for skills, affinity for arts.

It depends if you're going to focus on ritual spellcasting or not. Using 1/2 the vis is a pretty big deal, depending on the saga. The flaw (Ceremonial spont only) can be mitigated to a degree with Mystical Choreography (from HoH: Societas), reducing Ceremonial magic to 1 min/magnitude. I agree that Mercurian Magic could use a boost, I'd suggest the equivalent of Flawless Magic for ritual spells only (i.e. free mastery and double mastery XP for ritual spells).

Life Linked Spontaneous magic is both the worst and the best, depending. I've seen it kill more characters than any other choice, esp if the player has no self-control, and tries to use it in combat. It can be suicide before anyone even knows it's happened. Otoh, if reserved for "problem solving", utility or Intellego spells that crush a non-combat obstacle, it can be incredibly powerful.

The break-even point is 16 in an Art, and 10(!) in an Ability, so that's only true if you're going over those, otherwise it's Puissant. But one or the other can make that one Ability or Art just jump.

"Focus" (major or minor) lives up to its name - it can define the character, give them a massive advantage in that one area. Creativity in defining it is key - often finding something that spans several Arts (rather than just limits one) is the key. Most characters use Foci to achieve the highest-powered spells that would normally be out of reach (see various Guidelines for high-value Base effects), altho' something like a CrIg combat wizard can generate some amazing Penetration values.

For a labrat, after Inventive Genius, Cyclic magic with a cycle of seasons is another +3, very solid boost.

Mythic Blood is powerful for any mage who might engage in combat, since you can miss a casting roll by up to 10 and NOT take fatigue - bam. Also comes w/ a free Minor Focus - boom.

One of the Virtue "traps" are Supernatural Abilities for a mage, esp more than one. For one, many can be mimicked or excelled by a simple spell or three. But worse, Magi want to put all their spare xp into magic-related Abilities and Arts, and (typically!) have very few to spare for anything else. A Supernatural Ability can be a big drain on xp that magi usually just can't afford, and so it never becomes as powerful (read: reliable) as it wants to be, or the player imagined. (Just one SA, esp if central to the concept and/or boosted before play starts, can be a nice "works well enough" fallback that then never needs to be improved (much). More than one is where problems start to arise, esp if the player expects the skill Level to grow significantly during play.)

"Enemies" is, imo, often a cheese choice. Any good SG will provide all players with (more than!) enough enemies to keep them busy, and any one character's enemy often becomes the default enemy of the entire covenant (as they all pitch in to help, even if they don't care personally), lessening the effect and challenge. If done as a "blank check", specifics tbd, and/or crafted in coordination w/ the SG so the SG knows how it will dovetail with the story they're going to tell, it can tie that character in more closely, but... meh. Just my twitch, I guess.

For many, the "worst" flaws and virtues are ones that are just stuck on randomly, without really adding anything to the "story" of the character. Even "bad" V&F can become a lot of fun if they become central to the story of that character.

It is the only virtue that also give a flaw. You would need a saga focused on ritual magic for it to be even remotely worth it. How many times does a character use ritual magic inplay vs spontaneous magic?

Bad Virtues:

Venditor (HoH: Mystery Cults) is terrible. It's a Major Social virtue that gives you 50XP and access to Academic Abilities - note the 50XP you get can't be spent on academic abilities, but on Bargain, Guile, etc.

Wise One is the weakest of the Minor Social Virtues, as it offers little aside from access to either Arcane or Academic Abilities - it says you're respected locally, but that to my mind means a Reputation, which it does not give.

Wilderness Sense is terrible - probably always better off buying Puissant Survival, given Survival is more broad, unaffected by Aura, and strictly speaking still necessary even to a character with Wilderness Sense.

Hermetic Prestige gives Reputation of 3. Famous gives Reputation 4. There is no reason you can't be Famous with the Order of Hermes.

Magical Memory generally sucks. If you made something before, odds are you don't need the lab text to reproduce it. This only becomes useful for Charged Items (so you can make lab total/5 charges rather than just one), and then only if you've lost your old lab text.

Mythic Blood is bad because it's a Major Hermetic virtue and you're only allowed one of them. You could get a Minor Magical Focus and a special magical power* (RoP: Magic) as Minor Virtues, so the only thing it truly offers is no fatigue loss for missing a Formulaic Spell by less than 10 points. While the sum of its parts are equal to +3, the fact that it restricts you from getting some other Major Hermetic Virtue makes it a bad choice.

Good Virtues:

Flexible Formulaic Magic, Flawless Magic, Life Linked Spontaneous Magic, all no brainers.

Unaging is stupid good for magi. Never lose characteristic points, never become enfeebled. Even if you assume that magi compensate with stat boosting spells as they age, this saves you a ton of vis over time, or that vis could go to making you even better instead of shoring up your characteristics.

Skilled Parens is very good if you're building a magi fresh out from Gauntlet. Those 60xp and 30 spell levels make a huge difference.

Second Sight is unreliable but simulates a ton of Intellego spells and doesn't need to penetrate Magic Resistance. It's also one of the more common Supernatural Virtues so may sources of learning (teachers, books) should be available.

Mechanically, Puissant is better than Affinity until an Ability or Art gets pretty high. As others have pointed out, combining both of them is even more powerful.

Personal Vis Source means you never have to scrounge for your favorite vis - you'll never have enough, of course, but you'll always have some.

Minor Magical Foci are great. Major Magical Foci are usually hard to fully exploit for their point cost.

Life Boost is great when you really need a high casting total.

Enduring Magic is pretty potent if you're a ritualist. Your Aegis of the Hearth could last 10 years - come to think of it, this is way more powerful than Mercurian Magic, though only if you concentrate on long duration rituals.

Cautious Sorcerer...people would still take it if it was only 2 fewer botch dice, and it's THREE.

Book Learner means even crappy tractatus are worth reading.

Diedne Magic gives a flaw as well, but that's neither here nor there. Mercurian Magic is what you make of it. I agree that it's not a BEST virtue, but it's not a WORST virtue either. The key here is to position yourself so that you cast several rituals a year; being a Creo specialist is almost mandatory.

For the record, though, I find Spontaneous Magic to be overrated. It's far, far better to learn a lot of lower level formulaics so you don't have to spont stuff. A lot of players fall into the trap of building young magi with 2-3 big spells they can barely cast when they could have a dozen broadly useful spells. If you can swing it, pay your Pater to teach you more spells after Gauntlet - there's no stigma in doing so, and learning 60-70 levels of spells a season is a huge boost in utility.

I can't count the number of times people tried to use spontaneous magic in play and failed miserably, wasting time, actions and fatigue.

Spontaneous magic may be a bit overrated, but the player should still be able to work spontaneous magic (in a reasonable time) should they so choose. In my sagas, I tend to give Mercurians the ability to work spontaneous magic as normal, and get a bonus above and beyond Artes Libarles and Philosophiae for ceremonial magic (with the result that they may often choose to do things ceremonially, but have the option not to do so). If the same player/character decides that spontaneous magic is overrated they can use the Difficult/Weak Spontaneous magic virtues. Trying to position oneself as the ritual casting magus is all well and good, but your character then becomes part of the infrastructure, rather than a vibrant character, IMO. By RAW, I would never pick Mercurian Magic as a virtue, and the bonus Wizard's Communion spell is probably not even able to be cast by the character.

Yeah, that's a problem, in some respects, but it's not a problem related to virtues or flaws, per se. I find I'm the one at the table who is quickly calculating the magnitude of stuff up only to tell the other player that they can't do it. Or we deal with players looking for multiple paths to solve a problem with their spontaneous arts only to find out that they can't and waste time. But this happens whether or not someone would do it ceremonially or not, right? Spontaneous magic is also the reason I prefer to play specialists, because I know what spontaneous effects I can pull off.

Book Learner is probably the #1 most powerful virtue for its cost. It's so good a deal that I've purposely avoided ever designing a character with it as it almost feels like cheating.

I agree, which is why I took the Mystical Choreography Virtue for my Mercurian Mercere. Being able to ratchet it down to 1 minute per magnitude makes the 'Mercurian problem' far easier to deal with.

It differs from a Rep in that it's "face value", like Magister in Artibus or Noble or Branded Criminal. It's a social class, something many people in the modern world have no first-hand experience with and so can't fully appreciate from experience. It is more powerful than a mere "Rep" because of that - you walk into a new community and they accept you for who you are, without needing to know any "rep". A Covenant might possiby see fit to put a "Wise One" on their Council (in some capacity), while they would never consider doing so with a mere mundane despite any "good reputation".

Interesting that we see it entirely differently. To me, it can be broken down as...

+1 = Minor Focus. If you're going to take a MF anyway, and MB can fit the concept, it's a perfect dovetail.
+1 = Power. One effect of up to Lvl 30 that you don't have to make a casting roll for. Handy, depending.
+1 = no fatigue loss for missed casting rolls of <10. Again, depending on the concept, this is huge.
Add those together w/ the source of the MB itself and you can have a strong core around which to build a concept. And the included Personality flaw, esp if chosen appropriately, just adds more color to the character.

A diff Major Hermetic Virtue might be more powerful, but "power" is not the only measure of good/bad imo, and "not the most powerful" is certainly not grounds for condemnation as "bad". Again, imo.

Secondary Insight - now an argument could be made that that is a "bad" Major Hermetic Virtue. :wink:

I find that the Power of Mythic Blood works really well if you take it as a Vim effect of some sort (Such as Muto Vim) - something that would normally require a concentration check, but now is an inherent part of your magic. For example: "Potent Caster: By calling on the name of your mythic ancestor, all spells up to lvl 30 gain a +1 magnitude of penetration. (MuVi)"

Oh - and if you want to have lots of interesting Supernatural abilities, the virtue to take is Subtle Opening (from HMRE). It means you can pretty much learn all the non-hermetic supernatural virtues you want, as long as you do it after character creation. This is also a good one to take if you're playing a lab rat, as the lack of penalty from learning Supernatural abilities allows you to achieve Insights more easily.

Another powerful, although strongly bound to the character concept, is the Warding virtue in the Ex Misc section of HoH:S. It lets you turn any Circle/Ring effect into a room, structure, or boundary spell, on the fly. It also lets you ignore the Concentration check when casting these sorts of spells. And it makes casting Boundary effects MUCH easier. The disadvantage being is that there is an easier physical break-point for the spells: a physical sigil that an enemy can mar. But it's still a pretty awesome virtue, if you're playing a warding specialist.

Well, Diedne Magic gives a worse Flaw imo. Mercurian Magic is fine... if you also take Chaotic Magic, Weak Spontaneous Magic, etc. :slight_smile: MM is very strong in certain sagas, but utterly suckful in others.

DM is rarely very strong (awesome for 100y magi), and is very likely to kill you.

Diedne Magic gives a flaw that doesn't have a mechanical penalty. Mercurian Magic gives a flaw that has a significant mechanical penalty.

Other than that, you seem to be saying what jebrick is saying, that the utility of Mercurian Magic is dubious, unless the saga is going to feature casting a lot of rituals...

Sometimes non-mechanical penalties are the worst. Mechanical penalties are easily understood. A non-mechanical flaw might be a minor irritant, but that same flaw in another saga might be "I should fully expect to be killed by NPCs unless the PCs kill me first."

I'm saying something a little different. MM is an awesome virtue in certain sagas. In a high powered saga with lots of available vis, a MM magus can arrange for the saga to feature lots of rituals. Some of the Mysteries really complement MM too. A Mercere heroic magus can have +5 in all characteristics. This is the guy who sinks Brittania beneath the waves, who summons the most powerful daimons. If this guy initiates a Major Focus with Spirits and Hermetic Theurgy (the minor one), spontaneous magic limitations are less of a concern too. Once this guy has trained a few apprentices (or has a few Mercurian buddies), things get even more out of hand.

In low powered sagas, which I agree are many, MM has less luster.