The War Mage
The idea for this build came about when I realized that I’ve never made a build that really explored the power of Destruction school. Previous builds of mine would rely on it for ranged offense and support, but never the primary form of dealing damage. So, I ended up starting up my copy of Skyrim again. The resulting character was a blast to play. While this build uses content from Dragonborn, it's perfectly playable without it, and I’ll make note of what to do should you lack the DLC.
Race: As far as I’m concerned, the Altmer are hands down the best race for any build that relies primarily on magic, and this one is no exception.
Stone: I decided to go with the Lord Stone for a defensive boost.
Stats: 2/1/0. Though the primary reliance is on Magicka, the War Mage can and will throw himself into the thick of combat and thus needs a solid health pool. Stamina is more or less unnecessary.
Shouts: Slow Time is the War Mage’s shout of choice. It is absolutely deadly when paired with Destruction magic, enabling him to throw a massive barrage of spells at enemies before they even reach him. Aside from that, grab any crowd control shouts as well, such as Dismay, Ice Form (or better yet, Frost Breath with Dragonborn Frost), Unrelenting Force, and Cyclone. At higher levels, I also like Become Ethereal so I can cast my master level spells without interruption. Finally, Dragon Aspect is absolutely wonderful, so pick that up as well.
Black Book Abilities: The main ones you’ll want to grab are Secret of Arcana and Seeker of Sorcery, great abilities for any mage. Mora’s Agony is another good one that provides additional crowd control, as does Dragonborn Frost, which turns Frost Breath into a more effective version of Ice Form. Secret Servant summons a Dremora Butler that can carry your excess items, helpful since the War Mage is limited to 300 natural carrying capacity. Finally, as a seeker of knowledge, the Scholar’s Insight ability is useful to the War Mage as it allows him to gain a second point from skill books.
Dragon Priest Mask: Either use Ahzidal, Dukaan, or Zahkriisos, depending on which element you plan to use. Ideally, your element of choice should match with your opponent’s weakness, but if they don’t have any, then use lightning on mages, frost on warriors, and fire on everything else. If you don’t have Dragonborn, then use Vokun or Nahkriin instead. Also consider wearing the Jagged Crown, as it can be worn on top of Dragon Priest Masks, and if you reverse pickpocket it onto Hadvar, you can keep the crown and finish the associated quest.
Amulet: Both Savos Aren’s Amulet and The Gauldur Amulet are good choices, or you can use a generic enchanted one.
Daedric Armor of Revival: You should be able to get this at the Atronach Forge via the sigil stone and random daedric enchanted armor piece recipe. If you don’t get the armor, reload and try again. While farming the Atronach Forge, also keep an eye for anything enchanted with fortify alchemy for making stronger potions and poisons.
Daedric Gauntlets: Create these at the Atronach Forge using its specific recipe (not the random armor one), and enchant it with Fortify Magicka. Though this build doesn’t take any enchanting perks, you should have a decent enchanting skill from disenchanting, recharging staves, and the High Elf racial bonus. Combine that with Seeker of Sorcery, Ahzidal’s Genius, and self-made enchanting potions enhanced with fortify alchemy enchantments, and the result should be fairly decent.
Ahzidal’s Ring of Arcana: Easily the best ring for the build. Ignite is a deadly little spell (and it stacks!), while Freeze slows down opponents for a significant amount of time, ensuring that distant foes take a while to reach you. If you don’t have Dragonborn, simply use whatever generic enchanted rings you can find. Alternatively, if you have Dawnguard but not Dragonborn, grab the Ring of the Erudite from the Volkihar, curing yourself of vampirism if you deem it necessary.
Daedric Boots of Warmth/Grounding/Firewalker: You can find these with the same recipe as the armor of revival. Equipping the appropriate boots in combat will give you 70% resistance to your opponent’s chosen element, making dragon fights a breeze.
Destruction: The bread and butter of this build. As you might expect, you’ll be relying primarily on missile spells like Firebolt and Icy Spear, but the other spell types are useful as well, namely, rune/wall spells to wound advancing enemies, Whirlwind Cloak for additional crowd control. Eventually, you can use the master level spells to their full effect as well: Fire Storm for groups of enemies and Lightning Storm for single targets. Unfortunately, since Blizzard’s damage is reduced by your own frost/magic resistance, it should be avoided. Grab every perk in this tree.
Conjuration: The War Mage uses Elemental Atronachs and Dremora Lords to damage and distract opponents, and the Bound Dagger (Bound Sword for those without Dragonborn) to deliver the poisons he makes to his enemies. With Soul Stealer, he can also use it to capture souls in the Black Star (be sure to do the quest for that) in order to recharge his staves (more on that later), and with Oblivion Binding he can use it to turn undead and banish daedra. Finally, with a high enough Conjuration skill, the War Mage can obtain a Sigil Stone (from the Conjuration Ritual Spell quest) to use with the Atronach Forge. Grab all the perks in this tree except for Necromancy, Dark Souls, and Conjuration Dual Casting.
Alchemy: If Destruction is the ultimate damage dealing skill of the build, then Alchemy is the ultimate support skill. Since enchanting doesn’t increase the power of Destruction magic, the War Mage uses Fortify Destruction potions to increase his damage output, as well as poisons to weaken his opponent’s resistance to the elements, and restorative potions to gain back lost Health and Magicka. Perk your way up to Concentrated Poison, and grab Benefactor as well.
Heavy Armor: Without smithing, a good heavy armor skill is essential for good defense. Grab all the perks in this tree.
Alteration: In the early going, the War Mage will use Flesh spells to augment his defense. Later on, he can supplement this with crowd control spells such as Paralyze, Mass Paralysis, and Ash Shell/Rune. Perkwise, Magic Resistance adds on to the resistance that the Lord Stone already provides, and Stability increases the duration of Alteration spells and more importantly, Slow Time, by fifty percent. Alteration potions will further increase its duration as well. Grab every perk in this tree except for Mage Armor, Atronach (due to the Spell Absorption bug), and Alteration Dual Casting.
In total, you should have 60 perks once the build is completed.
Potion of Constitution: (Blue Mountain Flower, Giant’s Toe, Imp Stool). This potion fortifies health for five minutes and restores health as well, making it ideal for healing.
Philter of Magicka Enhancement: (Jazbay Grapes, Moon Sugar, Red Mountain Flower). Fortifying, Regenerating, and Restoring Magicka, this concoction is great for powering up your spells.
Elixir of the Elementalist: (Ectoplasm, Briar Heart, Glow Dust or Glowing Mushroom). Same as the above, except it swaps out Magicka Regeneration for Fortify Destruction.
Philter of Elemental Resistance: (Snowberries, Hawk Beak, Fly Amanita). This potion will further your resistance to all three elements (especially when paired with a potion of magic resistance), though Hawk Beaks are unfortunately hard to find. Once you get your endgame boots you can pretty much disregard this potion.
Poison of Elemental Weakness: (Abecean Longfin, Bleeding Crown, Ice Wraith Teeth). This poison decreases the target’s resistance to fire, frost, and poison, and thus should be the primary poison that you apply to your Bound Dagger when using fire or frost spells as well as Dremora Lords and Flame or Frost Atronachs.
Lightning Rod: (Bleeding Crown, Bee & Giant Lichen). This one replaces the fire/frost weakness with shock weakness, essentially making it a different elemental version of the above.
Ahzidal’s Poison: (Powdered Mammoth Tusk, Weakness to Fire Ingredient, Fear Ingredient). This is an effective poison when paired with Ahzidal’s Ring of Arcana (hence the name). Hit an opponent with the poison followed by Ignite, then watch as they run away with their health being slowly sapped away.
Against distant opponents, use Destruction spells and atronachs to stall their advance, but once in melee range, don’t retreat to safer ground: stay right in the thick of things! Instead, focus on eliminating enemies one at a time while keeping the other ones at bay. By now, you’ve heard me mention crowd control several times in regards to various abilities; they are instrumental in keeping too many foes from ganging up on you. Alternatively, you can just torch the lot of them with Fire Storm. Staying in melee range also allows you to make effective use of the Bound Dagger for applying poisons, trapping souls, and the like. You should never keep it out for long though, once you’ve poisoned the enemy, trapped the soul, etc. you should swap it out for a different spell.
Use Slow Time liberally; it’s incredibly useful for throwing a ton of spells in the time it takes your opponent to get one swing in. For the most part, you can throw your spells without regard to magicka consumption since once your magicka is depleted you can start using staves instead. The main one you'll want to use is the Staff of Magnus; its absorb magicka enchantment means you'll have your magicka reserves back up in no time at all. Aside from that, Miraak’s Staff is another good one to use, as are Staves of Paralysis, Destruction and Summoning. As such, be sure to make good use of the Staff Enchanter at Tel Mithryn once you get access to it. Also be sure to make full use of your potions, Fortify Destruction ones in particular, as they will be essential to keeping your damage output sufficient at higher levels.
Regarding roleplay, the War Mage is essentially an arcane mercenary of sorts. He was hired by General Tullius to quell the Stormcloak Rebellion after using his abilities to escape from Helgen. Following Ulfric’s death, he elected to remain in Skyrim, as there was still plenty of mercenary work to be done. He’ll take any job that pays well, regardless of the moral consequences. Consider joining the Companions and completing Take Up Arms, as this will give you access to a variety of radiant quests as well as a Heavy Armor Trainer.
The War Mage also seeks out any knowledge that can further his own abilities. In accordance with this, he will quest to defeat both Alduin and Miraak to learn about his abilities as Dragonborn in addition to becoming the Arch Mage of the College of Winterhold and aiding Master Neloth in order to improve his understanding of magic. Similarly, he also allies himself with Hermaeus Mora, and will seek out both the Black Books and the Oghma Infinium.