One of the best aspects of any Fantasy story is the magic system. As a writer, the fun is in opening up that toy chest and playing around with what’s inside. As a reader, it’s in following along in breathless anticipation for the mayhem that the writer has in store. This was the reason we got into the genre in the first place. Magical combat is the place to have fun.
Sometimes that means setting up a line of magical troops on either side and having them march toward each other. That can be fine; for the most part, that’s what the combat is in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Channelers typically fight other channelers. Sometimes you have to write battles that take place this way, and most stories contain at least a couple of fights that fit into this style.
When magic this way, though, it can easily become a war of attrition. Whoever has the greatest strength or the most troops is the winner. If you aren’t careful, that can make your work feel typical, generic, and even boring.
You can sometimes avoid that problem by giving the magic wielders secondary objectives to set them apart. Maybe magical artifacts that give their wielders an edge, as the Wheel of Time does. Maybe the magic users find alternative uses for their powers. Maybe the quality setting them apart is how far the characters are willing to go in order to win.
But you could also design your magic systems asymmetrically.
Imagine two mages fighting in a city. You could make both of these mages throw fire at each other, like some demented game of dodgeball. And that could be fun. But you could also have one of them use fire, and have the other create magical barriers. Suddenly, instead of having marching lines of equal combatants, you have a fight between sides that are wildly mismatched, each scrabbling for an advantage.
Brandon Sanderson is great at this. In Mistborn, he has three different magic systems playing off of each other, and even has trained non-magic-users that can hold their own and be a legitimate threat to the people who use the magic. In a way, Allomancy from his Mistborn series is founded on this concept; even if there are two Mistborn in a fight, the odds that they have the same metals to burn are unlikely. The story is filled with battles where only one side is using a particular magic, and the other has to compensate.
If you use this method, you can still create secondary objectives for your magic-wielders to take the fights to the next level. What if the barrier mage is trying to protect the town during the battle? Does the fire magic splash off of the barriers so that the mage has to be careful to keep collateral damage down? Maybe the fire-wielder is looking for an artifact in the town, but the barrier mage would rather the town burn than the artifact be captured? Then the fire mage must use extreme precision to keep the fires away from the places the artifact would be. As you can see, the possibilities for the fight explode when you have two unequal opponents battling with very different abilities.
What are some of your favorite examples of asymmetric warfare in Fantasy?