This is one of our Dragon Age: Origins walkthrough / cheats / mods posts. In this post, we will cover early-game spell selection and tactics.
Get Dragon Age Origins Ultimate Edition DRM-free and with no-risk Money Back Guarantee from Good Old Games.
Magic and Willpower Scores
Whatever race you begin with, it is generally safe to maximize your Magic score early, and aim for 30+ points, depending on what you want. After that, you will have to decide whether you want to keep increasing Magic or start diversifying into Willpower so that you have more innate Mana to work with. You can always make up Mana with Lyrium potions, but that is a play style decision.
Spellpower is (Magic - 10). The effect of Spellpower is to generally increase the effect of your spells by 1% per point of Spellpower. At 100 Spellpower (110 Magic), your spells are twice as powerful. For example, the Lightning spell does [(100.0 + Spellpower) * 0.3] Electrical Damage to health, and drains Stamina by a like amount.
Early Spell Selection
Magi in the campaign (Circle Mage origin story) start with Arcane Bolt, so the need for a basic offense is alleviated. Also, throughout the game you will typically have access to a warrior to soak hits for you.
All mages should take advantage of the long range on Arcane Bolt (or a bow or staff) to draw enemies to them (preferably one or two at a time so you can overwhelm them with the rest of your party). Against archers you can probably trade fire until you win. Against mages, get their attention then move behind cover to bring them closer before engaging them away from their bodyguards.
There are three obvious types of builds: Damager, Controller/Debilitator, and Supporter/Healer. In the early game, being a Controller/Debilitator is a useful choice as your Mana is limited so you might as well try to get some teamwork going to let your allies deal damage. Early healing spells are quite weak, so you might want to wait for the Spirit Healer specialization.
The basic technique in the early game would be to get several attack spells and just cycle through them, burning through your mana but pumping out enough damage to quickly win. Aim for the cone attack spells -- Flame Blast, Cone of Cold, and Shock as you will be rushed in melee anyway so you might as well have a strong attack. All three back to back can do an enormous amount of damage and is not to be underestimated. You will probably want to start with Cone of Cold to hold everyone in place for more hurting.
If you rely on this combination, the Hexes are worth taking as well: Affliction Hex for certain (for the area-effect debuff against all your damage spells); and possibly Misdirection Hex if you are hounded by a dangerous boss while up close to use your cone spells.
As for the spells along the way, Winter's Grasp is strong in the early game as it has a (100 - 5 x target level)% chance of temporarily freezing a target. You can't freeze and Shatter anyone until Cone of Cold, and even then you can't rely on it for anything other than white-name minions.
Also, all Lightning spells reduce enemy Stamina by an amount equal to the damage done.
Once you move up the tree, only Fireball (which can do knockdown) and Cone of Cold (which can freeze) are critical. After that, you can choose one of the the three wide-area spells. Unless you are also aiming to cast Storm of the Century on your own, Inferno is probably the safest bet for doing a lot of damage in the minimal time you have your enemies inside the area of effect. Blizzard seems like the obvious choice for both damage and holding the enemy, but our tests showed only a poor chance of freezing, and then only for a very short time. Tempest, like all lightning-based spells can reduce enemy stamina, but is otherwise unremarkable.
Chain Lightning was unimpressive for its long casting time, but there is no friendly fire despite the spell description.
It is probably useful to stop and get Glyph of Repulsion to cast Paralysis Explosion and hold your enemy in the area of your wide-area damage spell. All the wide-area damage spells and all the Glyphs are Indirect -- you do not require line of sight -- and therefore can cast it from behind a hill or even into the fog of war from a closed room. Getting the drop on the enemy with paralysis and holding them in a killzone is priceless, so watch for the positioning available to do it.
The Draining spells offer an alternative route that should probably be used in tandem with the other Damager options. All the spells here are indirect. Drain Life heals you, although it is best combined with Vulnerability Hex, which will also help your other attack spells. Death Magic should only be turned on as-needed not just to conserve available corpses but to keep your Fatigue low. Curse of Mortality negates enemy healing, which may occasionally be an issue, especially against other mages.
Death Cloud is not really remarkable except if you commit to getting Death Hex, and then the cooldown on Death Hex means you really only get a one-shot huge-damage spell against a boss from the Entropic Death combination.
To play a Damager Mage, I would go for Winter's Grasp, Drain Life, Cone of Cold, Shock, Fireball, Vulnerability Hex, Glyph of Repulsion, Inferno.
Fireball is great for starting a fight, but you really get just the one shot before you are swarmed. The knockdown, huge damage (initial plus burning), and short cooldown makes it tempting to aim for early, however, and that is certainly one way to go since an Elf Mage can get it by level 3. If you can do enough damage early, you can pick of the badly hurt stragglers.
Probably the best Controller mage option is Glyphs, all of which have the tactically priceless benefit of being Indirect. Overall, I recommend Glyphs as any mage's first choice for spells as it helps both themselves and parties of non-mages, and is useful throughout the career of your spellcaster and in whatever party they participate in. Aim for Glyph of Repulsion at the very least, for Paralysis Explosion.
The basic use of Glyph of Paralysis is as a trap to snare the first target that triggers it. However, if you cast it at a clump of enemies, you can see which ones will be affected because they gain a red highlight when you move the area of effect template around. You can therefore try to paralyze several. And no Friendly Fire also means you can possibly help out another character who is being swarmed.
Glyph of Paralysis is resisted with Physical Resistance which most grunts will have a decent amount of, but the Paralysis Explosion spell combination of Glyph of Paralysis + Glyph of Repulsion is resisted by Magic Resistance -- which means even bosses might be affected (although on Nightmare Difficulty, all enemies have +10% Magic Resistance). Therefore, if you started with Glyph of Paralysis and it failed, you can try following up with Glyph of Repulsion to trigger a Paralysis Explosion. Friendly Fire IS possible, so you may want to cast it at a distance from you even if neither component Glyph hits anything initially, and let the effect wave catch up with enemies rushing at you.
In tests, Paralysis Explosion seemed much more reliable than freezing from Blizzard and in any case lasted longer -- up to 20 seconds for a low-ranked creature.
Glyph of Repulsion helps both mages and archers, and you can retreat a wounded character inside as well if you don't have Force Field to absolutely protect them. Be careful with AI tactics settings as it doesn't take into account triggering a Paralysis Explosion, and player characters are treated as the lowest ranked enemies (full 20-second paralysis).
Glyph of Warding gives you a flat bonus of +30 Defense (chance to avoid being hit), +30% Missile Deflection on top of that, and +50 Mental Resistance, for 20 seconds. No effect from Spellpower, apparently. Definitely worth trying if you are trading missile fire, but generally combatants in melee move around too much for a fixed-location Glyph to be often useful. In melee, it is probably best used when you (or more likely, your allies) are already engaged in melee. According to Dragon Age Wiki it stacks, so theoretically with three casters warding the same space you get +90 Defense and +90% Missile Deflection.
Glyph of Neutralization is a specialized spell that can be used offensively to disable spell casting, or defensively to protect you from it. Since you are yourself a mage, you will probably be using it to protect your allies unless you are willing to sacrifice your own spell ability.
When used offensively, you cast it on a mage and instantly drain it of all Mana, giving you at least several seconds, if not more, of respite from magic. This works with equal effect on Bosses. (Also, you can still cast Force Field or Crushing Prison on the target while it is on the Glyph, although this is probably a scripting oversight.)
When used defensively against a magic assault, you will probably want to sit all your allies inside the Glyph and shoot at the enemy. The trick is knowing whether the enemy is actually using Magic against you, or some Stamina-based power which would not be affected by the Glyph's protection.
In any case, this is a mid-game or late-game spell as you can typically find other workarounds against mages. It is also a short-cut to magic defense if you already have Glyphs, instead of starting on a very specific-use magic defense tree.
The are two main options to Glyphs: Telekinesis and Sleep. Telekinesis is strong against single targets. Sleep has some target limitations and is not Indirect.
From the Telekinesis spell tree, Mind Blast is interesting because it ALWAYS works. The only consideration is duration (reduced for higher-ranked enemies), but even a single second of Stun can be useful in, for example, freeing an ally that has been Grabbed by an Ogre. Other than this, the extremely short duration and lack of range severely limits its usefulness despite having no Friendly Fire.
Force Field is another very interesting spell because it can protect a vulnerable ally for a while. For example, a Warrior who has just used Taunt to draw enemies to them could be protected while other characters continue to attack, or a powerful area effect spell is dropped on the area. Also, like Mind Blast, Force Field always works. The rank of an enemy can reduce the duration, but with a base duration of 20 seconds you can expect a few seconds of respite no matter what. Further, there is no defense against it except Crushing Prison since Anti-Magic Ward is bugged.
Crushing Prison is also very powerful as it neutralizes a target like Force Field, and inflicts damage, and you can continue to attack the target. Bosses (Orange name) and Elite Bosses take only a fraction of the possible damage potential and are not paralyzed, so it is best used to take out a dangerous Lieutenant (Yellow name), such as a spell caster, as part of a strategy to overwhelm them and take them out before they can retaliate with a dangerous spell.
It can also prematurely end a Force Field on an ally with the Shockwave combination. And since Shockwave does not affect the target inside the Force Field, you can turn Warriors with Taunts into booby traps toward the end of the Force Field duration (which you should be able to see by looking at their quickbar, which lists active effects and their remaining duration).
Enemies can use this dangerous spell against your own magi, and there is no way to prematurely end it except with Force Field to create a Shockwave since Anti-Magic Ward (and therefore, Glyph of Neutralization as well) is bugged.
The Sleep spells tree does not work against every opponent type so is slightly less desirable (and has steep Magic attribute requirements), but when it does work it is extremely powerful -- no Friendly Fire, very wide area effect from Sleep, no resistance check on Horror and Waking Nightmare if a target was put to sleep, and it can turn enemies on themselves, which provides a different type of protection/enemy neutralization than Glyphs. The Nightmare spell combination has a flat 10 second duration that is not reduced by target rank, so even bosses are neutralized for 10 seconds if they are affected at all. Finally, Waking Nightmare has a tendency to create enemy clumps that ignore you, so it can be used to facilitate Walking Bomb or Virulent Walking Bomb, but even so those are tricky spells to use without blowing yourself up on Hard or Nightmare Difficulty.
The lack of Indirect spellcasting is regrettable but it is still powerful because there is no Friendly Fire. It also has the benefit of dealing damage either directly (Nightmare) or indirectly (Waking Nightmare), which Glyphs do not have. An elf can advance in this tree the fastest, but even then won't get Sleep until level 4 and Waking Nightmare until level 6, whereas you can get Paralysis Explosion by level 3. No particular reason not to get both especially if you have a lot of backup to deal damage for you.
In tests, we found the Debilitation spells worthless considering the other options. No Friendly Fire but not indirect and the duration wasn't substantially longer than other spells. Still resisted by Physical Resistance, which makes them all iffy anyway. I would rather start close with indirect fire from cover and then rush in with all party members than get the enemy's attention by coming close enough to cast my spell. Also, Mass Paralysis has a long casting time (but no Friendly Fire).
To run a Controller/Debilitator, I recommend aiming for Glyph of Repulsion, some damage spells, Waking Nightmare, Heal, then Glyph of Neutralization.
Healing and Buffs are somewhat weak and Mana-costly in the early game, so a passive healer mage is generally not recommended unless you are willing to drink Lyrium Potions to maintain a steady stream of magic to help your allies fight. Also, the spells that restore Mana (like Spellbloom) are lousy unless someone casts them on you. Further, Rejuvenate cannot be cast on yourself -- you have to wait until Mass Rejuvenation.
That said, there are some very good spells to try to neutralize a dangerous target if you are willing to spend the spells to reach them. We've already talked about the Telekinesis spells and Glyphs, all of which have very short effects on bosses. The other main one is a later-game option of Hexes, primarily Misdirection Hex and Death Hex. I put these as late-game options because only then would you probably need the extra edge from these spells. The duration is fixed against all target ranks and there is no resistance (except Magic Resistance) but the costs are high and the cooldowns are very long so they are temporary respite at best for a fight long enough and dangerous enough to need them. You would probably be better off with the more generically useful Healing and Group Heal from the Spirit Healer specialization.
Other buffs are iffy in usefulness. For example, the Enhancements spell tree can give you an Attack Bonus with Heroic Offense, but it costs a lot, and if the ally isn't having trouble hitting, it's really not a useful spell at all since a hit is a hit. The higher-level spells, like Heroic Defense also give a penalty (5% Fatigue) and Haste has a built-in cap on its effect due to on-screen animation limits.
To run a Supporter/Healer, I recommend aiming for Glyph of Repulsion, Force Field, Heal, Crushing Prison, Regeneration, Glyph of Neutralization, and finally Mass Rejuvenation.