The Original Shadow Mage
As a fiction writer at heart, I also wrote a “short” story that explains the principles of Shadow Magic that this build is based on, using J’zargo’s first lessons by Azra as a set. For those wanting a more encyclopedic entry on Shadow Magic, Henson wrote a lore article based on what we know for certain. My story is filling in the gaps with what we don’t know and how Shadows and shades are used in combat and playstyle.
With the said, I hope you enjoy my longest (Level 57) character I’ve ever done in Skyrim.
Race : Though his race is unknown (he is definitely a man or mer, no beastfolk), Azra spent a lot of time in the Skyrim/High Rock/Hammerfell boarders. Hermaeus Mora (the user not the Daedric Prince) informed me of his pointed ears, so probably an elf. I chose Breton.
Standing Stone : Mage -> Lord -> Lady
Stat Spread : 5/1. Even with enchanting and cost reduction, Azra needs a lot of magicka.
Quests : College of Winterhold, Dawnguard, Book of Love, Black Books, Dragonborn, Main Quest, Civil War, Daedric Quests
Destruction : A powerful storm mage before dabbling in Shadow Magic, Azra’s mind might have gone but his love and knowledge of the Destruction School haven’t.
Alteration : As an unpopular celebrity in the magical world, Azra sought constant magical protection from from those wishing to end his life or steal his work.
Conjuration : Like most radical wizards of his day, Azra communed with daedra to better understand the magic of his own world, and even in his weakened state he is able to command the common elementals and animal spirits.
Restoration : The School of Restoration once warded him against many of the dangers of attempting to tear holes in the fabric of reality and, with his knowledge of death, Azra can still command the life energies.
Enchanting : Perhaps not as well-known as his exploits into the mystical arts of Shadow Magic, Azra Nightwielder was also a pioneer in the field of enchanting staffs.
Alchemy : Through imbuing magical mixtures with energies from the shades, Azra can carry around bottled Shadow Magic.
So, what would a wizard, powerful in his own right even though severely weakened, with no personal memory, do after being nearly executed? I suggest run for the hills. I think without Azra’s knowledge of his involvement in big world-destroying “video game” events and his growth through these events, he would be very much like a normal person. I roleplayed him as an Average Joe, roaming the land and trying to learn more about magic. Though not a coward, running away does have its advantages, as does hiding, and bringing some firepower in the form of powerful staffs. Stay away from obviously dangerous things, like dragons, civil wars, daedric princes, hagravens, and bandits with giant warhammers. Bounty-hunting is not the Nameless Wizard’s forte. Don’t shy away from the random helping quests, but don’t do stupid things like swearing you’ll return a sword guarded by an Ancient Draugr Deathlord of Upmost Doom. A perfect peaceful quest is the Book of Love.
While his lack of memory is troubling, I think he would soon find his own place in the College of Winterhold. There are a surprising amount of radiant quests that even I never knew about, and questing for ancient knowledge is something the Nameless Wizard would enjoy. I suggest levelling around there and doing all the quests, reading any book you come across with reference to magical amnesia, collecting them.
Focus on getting your Enchanting, Alchemy, and Destruction skills up to a high level before you finish the College. I’m talking, you should be casting Chain Lightning comfortably to take out wolves. If you feel you don't need the 25 levels I did, then take 20, 15, or even 10. But be warned, that when you start the next phase, you will level quickly and if these other skills get above your primary skills, the game will unbalance and it'll be painful to recover.
In terms of gear, levelled robes of destruction or conjuration are fine along with jewelry and gloves. Keep your Enchanting aimed on keeping the cost down of Destruction and Alteration. You may go to Solstheim to find some Dunmer Shoes, which are bugged and can hold “chest” enchantments, but don’t start talking to Neloth.
Try to help him grow as a person, make him a bit braver and a little more confident in his abilities. By the time he’s Arch-Mage, he should be a “small” hero. Not willing to charge into battle head-on, but definitely a good person and one who knows exactly what he can take on. I also took on J’zargo as a friend and later an apprentice, as this build tends to get squishy at higher levels and revolves around this friendship.
Since I played him as the average wizard, the combat is fairly simple as well. Atronachs and flesh spells, then lightning spells. Keep tons of restore magicka potions on you to refresh your buffs and summons. Poisons are useless for now and the basic healing spell will do just fine with our health pool. Stay away from necromancy; although it’s allowed in the College, it’s one of the more “scary” magic schools and would probably make the Wizard wary. As he studied under the various teachers at the College, try to utilize every archetype of most spells and find a way to incorporate it into your combat. I stayed away from Illusion purely because I didn’t think it suited this character, and he levels so damn fast that he doesn’t need another skill. Plus, Conjuration, Destruction, and Alteration put enough of a strain on our magicka reserves. In terms of special moves, this character doesn't have any in particular. He doesn't have the finesse or experience to really have any. He can pelt enemies with Flaming Familiars or use his atronachs as "meat" shields. I tried to re-create the first wizard we all played in Skyrim: that same naivete of the world, the wonder at the power of magic, the simple wandering wizard, the knowledge-hungry apprentice.
To transition from this part to the next, all our newly robed Arch-Mage has to do is find the reigning Telvanni wizard and become his apprentice. Neloth even mentions he’d be willing to take you on, and the House Telvanni are infamous for their mastery of magic, rivalling even that of the greatest Altmer casters. These guys are the best of the best, and the Nameless Wizard has a chance to study under one? Yes, please.
Neloth’s quests are some of my favourites ever. They’re fun and whimsical, and the snarky-ass mad wizard makes things so much better. There’s a fair bit of gold to be gained, as well as a Black Book and a staff enchanter, and new Dragonborn spells. The master trainers of Conjuration and Enchanting are welcome, too. Eventually, though, the Telvanni will mention something different from the random experimentation and office slavery he employs the Nameless Wizard in. This time, he has a personal request, to retrieve a staff from the infamous Azra Nightwielder…
As centuries before, hearing the name of the wizard brings back Azra Nightwielder’s mind and memory. With this, his powers and knowledge of Shadow Magic techniques come flooding back. Try to find a happy medium between the average Nameless Wizard and the powerful Shadow Mage, rather than having one erase the other.
As a Shadow Mage and scholar, Azra’s quest for knowledge becomes more demanding and he gains a type of apathy in connection to his studies. Not like Neloth, with torturing Spriggens and killing his apprentices, but Azra doesn’t care what the Daedra or Divines have to say about his actions, and feels confident enough in his abilities to take on any who oppose him. He’s not evil, but I would say he’s arrogant and has a very good idea of how powerful he is in battle. Neighbourly quests are just fine to do; he doesn’t consider himself above others, but they do distract from his work. In the past, he also sought to eliminate those who used Shadow Magic for evil purposes, like Jagar Tharn. But “evil” is a lot more specific with Azra, it’s more like he doesn’t want people using his work to take over the world. Stop them where you find them. The Black Books are a great source of power (and spells) and the chance to visit a Daedric realm is a very tasty prospect indeed.
Also, seek out the dragons. From Azra’s research, Alduin might be a shade of the Divine Akatosh. Now is the time to do the main quest, but stop short of taking the fight to Alduin. The Shadow Mage isn’t a hero and knows it himself. He’s a scholar, a powerful wizard, but he has no business saving the world. He can tap into the Voice by using a shade of himself from a world where he did become the Dragonborn. But some other hero will come along at some point. They always do: Look at the Vvardenfell Blight, the Shadowkey Mishap, the Warp in the West, the Oblivion Crisis. Some cockamamie hero will come along and Azra can return to the College and live out his days in peace. In other shades, this happened, so it’ll happen here.
What’s much more important to the Shadow Mage is attacks on his person. Miraak must be destroyed. Hermaes Mora is a formidable ally, and Azra will refuse to learn the “lesson” to not cross him. To use and abuse such beings are not below Azra. And we will not suffer Harkon to live. Even though joining the Dawnguard is hardly in-character, I think Azra would do it more out of irritation from the vampire attacks disrupting his work than a heroic desire to save all the world. You can choose whether or not to become a Vampire Lord, but I did. That kind of power and the security of immortality would be very attractive to him, and you can control the vampires and ensure they don’t conquer the world. If you do, don’t forget the Ring of Erudite! The Soul Cairn summons are also very awesome, and the Mistmen make for nice shadowy summons. It's my one concession to the stereotypical "shadow mage" idea.
I've also had Malkoran's bug brought to my attention. The build Malkoran's Split Soul is where I got this idea from and user Leon for suggesting it. It also makes more sense from a Shadow Mage perspective than using atronachs. Basically, when resurrected with Dead Thrall during Meridia's Quest but before you take Dawnbreaker, you can go and retrieve Malkoran after the quest and whenever he dies there will be that powerful shade explode from him, which is essentially what Azra would see and do anyways by resurrecting someone. Be warned, the shade will be hostile towards you, so someone will have to kill it before you can go on your merry way. Arniel's Shade spell is also a nice Shadow Mage addition.
I suggest finishing the Civil War, not as to win it for one side or another, but to avoid the creation of a Shadow of Conflict, which would be misused and abused by evil Shadow Mages. Try to get it over with quickly and easily. I sided with the Legion, as supporting the rebels would create (I think) a whole mess of problems down the road.
In terms of Enchanting, I focused more on Fortify Magic and Magic Regen, as our combat and magical needs are more varied than what they were before. Also, whenever you can get it, a 100% reduction in Restoration (“free” Restoration spells) will be very useful. I kept the Arch-Mage’s robes, changing to modded robes when my enchanting surpassed them. I also enchanted plenty of staffs. In unmodded Skyrim, staff-enchanting is a bit bland, since you both need the spell you wish to enchant and staffs don’t affect levelling, so staff-enchanting is really mostly a roleplaying device. Unless you want to supply J’zargo with a Staff of Chain Lightning.
This is what makes us level very steadily throughout this “late” playthrough. We’re adding a lot more skills to passively level, which will be boosted by Alchemy to make up for a lack of perks, among them: Sneak, Archery, One-Handed, Two-Handed, and even Illusion. This is the whole reason we want our Destruction skill to be Expert by Level 25: our Conjuration will shoot up and everything else will keep us leveling nicely. Keep in mind, we do have J’zargo most times and can fortify our health with potions and enchantments, so enemies shouldn’t be getting too hard too quickly.
Basically, a Shadow Mage’s ultimate goal is to merge all the shades of him, all the people he could’ve been, into one wrecking ball of doom. This is where Azra’s Shadow Magic thrives. Just like when they told you when you were a kid, the possibilities are endless. You can be anything! However, that can quickly become dull if that’s the only way you look at it. But I saw it as being very mentally taxing to be able to morph Azra’s Destruction-wielding, atronach-summoning self with a battleaxe-hammering warrior or a thiefy-archer. And so, I matched his combat style to his enemy’s.
If you’re taking out a bandit camp of hunters, summon a bow from the world where Azra became a hunter. If you face a dragon or ancient Nordic warrior, summon the Thu’um and its skill from the world where Azra was born to become the Dragonborn. A Forsworn native? Summon dual swords. Reaver Spellswords? Elemental cloak and bound battleaxe. If you do a rogue-ish mission (like Diplomatic Immunity), be the spy Azra could’ve been and attack from the darkness with a bow or bound dagger and poisons. He is both all these people and none of them at the same time, and even though utilizing all these “could-have-beens” is probably very taxing, Shadow Magic is his passion, his child. He is the founder of it, its creator, and its most practical applications are in fights. Battle is as much part of his research as reading books. To off-set your ineptness with weapons, drink a potion of fortification that Azra imbued with Shadow Magic beforehand. With a clothing set of fortify alchemy, your potions should bring you up to par rather than overpower you.
I also added necromancy to the mix. As he’s able to see through the Void with his magic, he can see where these people are still alive and he can channel this conflict to raise those who are dead in his world. Illusion magics, in pretty much any of their forms, can be useful against fights where the enemy would use Illusion (Priests of Vaermina, Falmer, Vampires), if the Skyrim AI was a little less dense and Illusion worked on the player, but as Azra himself isn't talented with it no perks will be invested. High-level tomes can be found in Apocrypha, in either random loot (which respawns every 10 days) or dropped by monsters. You might need to do a solid bit of fighting before Illusion tomes of Adept-level or higher appear, but we are a questing sorcerer. Hunting for knowledge is what we do.
Where this character really shines, though, is against warlocks. As a trained mage himself, feel free to unleash all the powers of Magnus against your magic-using enemies. This would also be a lovely time to test out your home-enchanted staffs. Wards are incredibly useful, actually, when you get them down to low/no cost, and raising the Necromancers to fight their own coven is very satisfying. Since our Azra Nightwielder isn’t trained in martial fighting, stay away from solid weapons and stick to bound ones, but none at all when he is in “full mage mode”. Also, by now, he has some hardcore resist magic, hitting the cap as a Breton simply or with an extra piece of enchanted gear. By over-achieving, you have a bit of wiggle room and still have some incredible resistance. You can still be fierce even if you don’t fully enchant the gear, take all 3 perks, or remove the stone. This is the "max" that I had, but I also raised the cap in my own game (PC).
Breton Blood (25%) + Lord Stone (25%) + Magic Resistance Alteration Perk (30%) + Agent of Mara (15%) = 95%
Nonetheless, no matter who he faces, Azra isn’t letting the shades of himself take him over. If you summon a battleaxe or dual swords, throw on a cloak or runes to stand your ground. If you feel the need to take the skills of a holy warrior, don’t forget flesh spells or summons. These things are essential to the character of Azra; it’s mainly his damage-dealing techniques that change.
Though Azra could’ve (in gameplay terms) taken on Alduin right now, I didn’t feel like it would be appropriate for a fairly apathetic scholar take on the hardships of the world. To truly become a hero, I felt Azra needed the extra leap, to accept that the hero he expected won’t come. That he has to become that hero. In short, this has to get personal. I killed off J’zargo, losing him to a dragon. This was his epiphany that his was a world where the Last Dragonborn never appeared—he died in some nameless cave, mauled by sabre cats years before the first dragon attack.
The hero isn’t coming. I need to.
"Prepare for war. Beyond this, there are no safe places, no allies. Stockpile resources. Quest for artifacts of power. Prepare for war."
Skyrim’s main quest, in my opinion, is severely lacking in drama, and this is my attempt to put a bit more urgency into the final battle. By Level 50, you will be assaulted by Draugr Deathlords at every corner, Elder Dragons guarding Skuldafn Temple, and similar nonsense. Take Vivec’s final words to heart. Azra is going to war, he is forcing himself to be someone he feels he was never meant to be. There are surely shades where he became the Hero That Never Came, but it’s the same old “it’ll never happen to me”. He’s watched through the shades dozens of other heroes come and go, every character we’ve ever played, and has seen the worlds where the hero doesn’t come. He has outlasted most of these heroes. I, personally, have never taken a character past level 50 before and Azra was 57 by the time I retired him. He knows what will happen if Alduin is left unchecked. The dragons he resurrects are weak and new, but Alduin is ancient and powerful.
And so, Azra accomplishes the ultimate goal of a Shadow Mage and morphs quite a few of his shades together to become a true hero. I simulated this ritual at the top of the Throat of the World, with a lot of Black Soul Gems and similar things. Now, he is the most feared battlemage, the hardiest warrior, the most accomplished assassin. Everyone has the potential to become a legend, and Azra surrenders his own self, his ideas and mind, to create this hero, this mixture of legends.
This is accomplished partially through what is probably my most fitting use of the Atronach Forge. This is literally a link to Oblivion and the Void, to the other shades, and so this is where Azra’s armor comes from. We are creating powerful, powerful, battle armor, fit to take out the World Eater. You can either get the enchanted variations, saving and reloading until you find what you want, or get the Forge to spit out the unenchanted versions, for Azra the Hero to enchant himself. On the left is my choice for enchantments.
“Beyond this, there are no safe places, no allies…”
Although Azra has done this incredible move to meld his shades together, he technically dies. The Azra we’ve been playing for the past 25 levels, as well as the Nameless Wizard are both sacrificed to stop the dragons. While this might seem overdramatic to some, I feel a solid fantasy story without sacrifice and heroic deaths feels bland. Forget that in game terms, dragons are dead simple to kill and we have the power of Save/Reload. In Tamriel, dragons will rule all of Mundus, as they did in the old days.
If you choose to get the enchanted versions, then you’ll have to indulge in a little Smithing training to get “Arcane Blacksmith”, because we are going to abuse Alchemy to simulate the legendary Dovahkiin warrior, a master of armor and weapon. We want to hit the armor cap of 567 and the standard armor rating of Daedric without a shield is 108 and either using this Restoration bug or the Fortify Alchemy/Enchanting loop, we can hit the cap comfortably. I would advise against using elemental resists, as we don’t want to be running God mode. There’s a sort of purity of not enchanting your Daedric armor of power, and using the pre-enchanted versions. The extra power isn’t needed from home-enchanting, so it’s more of a choice.
Stock up on potions of fortify weapon skills, magic skills, and magicka, and restore health, stamina, and magicka. All home-brewed for efficiency. Poisons, although less useful, are very nice, as poisons work against dragons (including Alduin). Bring filled soul gems to recharge weapons and staffs. Other than that, treat this as a suicide mission. Take nothing that isn’t necessary. Don’t loot corpses unless for potions. Ditch everything else. There’s no point.
“Quest for artifacts of power…”
I hunted for anything and everything I could find that might help me in defeating Alduin. Mehrunes Razor, for instance, and other Daedric artifacts. The Rings of Blood of the Volkihar. Keening. The Bloodskal Blade. The Aetherial artifacts (I chose the shield for crowd control purposes). The Dragon Priest Masks. Skyrim has dozens of “free” artifacts to hunt down and use. If you want, swap out the Daedric helm for a Dragon Priest Mask, but I took them all with me and put them on as the situation demanded. In terms of the Ebony Mail, it could serve as a symbol for Azra's former power over the Void.
I also swapped out the Lord Stone for what I call the Advanced Lady. The health and stamina regen you can get from this thing, in addition to Bardic Knowledge? Indescribable. With the power-crafting we do, a potion of Fortify Restoration 1000% isn’t too out of reach. That’s 250% health regen and 300% stamina regen. With the health and stamina pools we have, though, this makes up for it massively. This does mean is that you want to throw on a piece of magic resist gear to make up for the missing Lord Stone.
Even though home-enchanted things are always statistically better, we’re going for a collection of unique artifacts, the entire magical history of Skyrim and Solstheim to take out Tamriel’s greatest threat.
Also, how you decide to "retire" Azra is completely up to you. For most of the playthrough, he's been so concerned about staying in control and not letting his shades take over, but now he's invited them in to stay and control is completely out of his hands. Do you allow him a moment of mercy and "kill" him after Alduin is slain or do you let him roam as the perfect recipe for a tyrant and almighty destroyer?
This is an all-or-nothing, last ditch run. Not the Blades, the Imperial Army, or anyone else in Skyrim can stand up to Alduin. Now, we throw out the rules of fighting as the enemy fights. The concentration needed to keep up those shades isn’t needed anymore; they’re inside Azra, permanently. Anything and everything can be used. Switch between a shield mage who uses Spellbreaker and a Voice-wielding bloodthirsty berserker, a staff zapping lightning sorcerer and an honourable sword-and-board knight, a deadly archer and a pureblooded Vampire Lord.
Anything goes because if not, everything goes. This is why it’s important to not overpower yourself with crafting. If combat becomes too easy, we’ve lost the whole point of the Hero That Never Came. The point is that he is necessary, but is only just enough to defeat Alduin, he can barely scrape by with the skin of his teeth.
Alduin is the World Eater. We might as well give him the royal treatment.
Though mods aren't required to unlock the full potential of Azra, I did use a few to make the playstyle more streamlined and I'll put them up for any who want them.
- Bound Weapons Redux : Brings bound weapons more in line with physical weapons and lessens the dependency on fortification potions
- Enchanting Freedom : Removes the restrictions of hand/feet/chest enchantments
- Empowered Magic : It makes a few changes to the magic system without changing the feel of magic, also makes Conjuration more powerful and bound weapons more useful, like the first one.