Tobold's Blog
Friday, April 20, 2012
Magic Missile sucks

At the Future of D&D Panel at PAX East 2012 the panelists had a question from somebody who had playtested 5th edition D&D the day before and wondered why his cleric didn't have a turn undead ability. They assured him that this would be back in, because the developers had realized that certain class abilities were simply expected from players choosing a specific class in D&D. For me one such class-defining feature is the D&D wizard's magic missile. It has been a staple of wizards in D&D since first edition. But the more I see it in action in the 4th edition of D&D, the more I realize that the 4E version of it is sadly underpowered. Wizards still cast it, out of habit, but if you check sites that advise people on Wizard builds, the recommendation is to avoid it and take cloud of daggers instead.

The main difference between the 4th edition magic missile and previous editions is that these days the Wizard needs to make a roll whether his missile hits. And if you analyze that in detail, it turns out that this roll is somewhat too difficult. In 4E D&D you always roll a d20 to see whether you hit something, and add a modifier, in this case the Wizard's INT modifier, let's say +4 for a Wizard with 18 INT. If that roll plus modifier exceeds the target's reflex defense, the magic missile hits and deals 2d4+4 damage. So far so good. But now compare that to a regular missile: An character with an 18 DEX and thus the same +4 bonus on missiles using a longbow will roll a d20 and add +6, because in addition to the +4 ability bonus he gets a +2 proficiency bonus. And he'll deal 1d10+4 damage, marginally more than the magic missile. But the kicker is that this is his basic ranged attack, without using an at-will power. A Ranger would be able to use a twin strike and fire TWO arrows as an at-will power, which makes the Wizard's at-will magic missile power look extremely feeble in comparison.

At first I thought the Wizard might still have one advantage, his magic missile attack roll being compared to the enemies reflex defense, which is generally lower than the armor class, against which the regular missile needs to be compared. So I took my next adventure and listed for every monster in there the difference between reflex and AC: The difference was between 0 and 5, with an average of 2.5. Thus the additional proficiency bonus the guy with the bow gets pretty much completely makes up for the average difference between reflex and AC, and then the twin strike makes the Ranger exactly twice as good as the Wizard. Not very balanced, I would say.

I can only assume that the design philosophy behind that difference is that the Ranger is labeled as being a "striker", which is the word for dps class in D&D 4E, while the Wizard is labeled as being a controller. Thus the Wizard gets a lot of AoE powers, while the Ranger deals more damage against single targets. That is all very good in theory, but once combat is in full swing it isn't all that obvious for a Wizard to cast his AoE spells. For example the level 1 at-will thunderwave is hitting 3x3 squares *adjacent* to the Wizard. Useful, but far from probable to hit more than 1 enemy every round without either hitting a friend or getting swarmed by enemies. Thus the Wizard needs a decent single target attack spell too, and magic missile just doesn't cut it these days. In fact the Wizard in my campaign is an elf, and thus has good DEX and the longbow proficiency as racial bonus; it is somewhat sad that against enemies with high reflex defense he would be better off firing a longbow basic attack than using his magic missile spell.

Magic Missile has actually been update to always hit. They obviously can't go back and change the printed books, but the online character builder has the newest version. If you want to put it in your game, just make it so it always hits and does 2 + Int Modifier damage.
Making magic missile always hit makes the spell more "classic", but as the damage is reduced at the same time it still doesn't solve the problem that a longbow does more damage.

Actually in my level 0 adventure I had a version of magic missile that always hit for fixed damage. But the player didn't really like it, as it is kind of boring. I think a version which still has to hit and damage rolls, but with for example a +2 to hit and damage, would have been a better solution.
I disagree, I prefer always hit.

There have been numerous times when the PCs in my campaign needed to absolutely finish off a monster or kill a minion that was in the way for another player or running away to aggro more mobs.
You should keep in mind that twin strike does not make two regular attacks. It makes two attacks *without adding dex to the damage*. This is key because otherwise rangers would be hideously overpowered. Rangers and other strikers definitely do more single target damage than a wizard and this is by design; wizards are AOE and debuff specialists and they perform that role well.
Magic Missile's revamp showed up in Heroes of the Fallen Kingdoms. It's not quite what it used to be, though; prior editions had MM dealing a measly 1D4+1 damage but it escalated at every other level, until by level 9 you were firing off five at a time....that was what made it so fun and effective, a storm of missles. The auto-hit against living foes was just a bonus (I once played a mage who always aimed while facing away from his target by using a shaving mirror. Just to be an arse, basically!)

Anyway, my understanding is that the auto-hit version has some useful synergies if handled right, but my players stil favored the PHB1 verion in 4E which dealt more damage.
I think the always hit is more useful. The only reason it feels less fun is because you don't roll any dice, which could be solved by changing its damage to 1d4+Int. The Wizard I think is primarily made for debuffs on single target, and AoE for minions, so when your 3x3 would hit too many allies you just pop a magic missile instead and kill a minion. If your players don't know if it's a minion, they can roll damage and at least come to the conclusion that it has low health.
As DM could you use a house rule to bring Magic Missile more in line with what you think is expected? With your players agreement, of course.
If you should decide to house rule Magic Missile I would strongly advise against making it as good as Twin Strike (arguable the best at-will in the system).

The first reason for this is that giving controllers damage parity with strikers undermines the reasons for playing a striker.

The second reason is Wizards Fury:

Effect: Until the end of the encounter, as a minor action once per turn, you can cast magic missile.

As should be obvious, making Magic Missile more powerful will make Wizards Fury incredibly powerful.
I prefer magic items to house rules, as there is just one wizard. A ring or wand giving a bonus to Magic Missile would at least make it useful.
The discrepancy is philosophy-based, as you suspect. Strikers are supposed to do more damage than controllers, and it kind of sucks for controllers. It sucks even more if the PCs run into more static "Patchwerk" fights (DPS race, static or unimportant movement, flat battlefield) than dynamic ones where control can actually be useful.

Like Alf says, this is compounded by the fact that Twin Strike is a real powerhouse even among striker at-wills.

As for your longbow-using wizard, it actually strikes me as a kind of interesting wrinkle. First I'll note that one of the reasons MM is weak even as a single target spell is because it has range 20, which is twice as far as your standard nonweapon at-will (although still sad as heck compared to 2nd edition's 'sight' range). So if your pragmatic elf carried around his trusty bow for distant single targets, he'd have another spell slot available for situational powers - perhaps frost bolt for kiting melee and stopping runners, and scorching burst for packs of minions.
Sounds like the fix here is to bring back the fact that MM always hits.

This was something I disliked about 4th edition as well. It is core to the MM spell that it ALWAYS hits and if I recall never even had a saving throw for half damage.
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