Destruction magic is perhaps the most important skill tree for any mage playstyle in The Elder Scroll V: Skyrim. Destruction spells harness the powers of the elements, channeling them into tangible force. These spells fall into three categories: fire, frost, and shock. Since all three elements deal the same damage from low to high levels, it’s common for players to simply pick their favorite and stick with it throughout a playthrough. However, there are more strategic uses for Skyrim‘s Destruction spells, as each has additional effects that can be incorporated into powerful and interesting character builds.
Even non-mages should carefully consider the effects of Destruction magic; since the player character is always the Dragonborn, Shouts are a core part of the game’s combat formula. Understanding the advantage of fire spells over frost spells translates to better knowing when to use the Frost Breath Shout over Fire Breath. With Enchanting taken into account, this also extends to strategizing for Skyrim‘s melee and ranged combat.
Fire, frost, and shock enchantments can each be placed onto melee or ranged weapons, imbuing melee attacks or arrow strikes with elemental damage. Besides increasing the damage output of each attack, the elements’ secondary traits can dramatically debuff opponents, making them far easier to eliminate. Lastly, certain elements are better suited for different attack types – ranged projectiles, area-of-effect spells, rune traps, cloak spells, and elemental Atronach summons.
Most players have read the in-game descriptions for Skyrim‘s various Destruction spells, but many don’t consider their implications beyond raw damage output. Fire and Frost Breath are two of Skyrim’s most useful Shouts, and both have the same cooldown. Flame spells, on the other hand, always cost less than their shock and frost counterparts. Thunderbolt, Icy Spear, and Incinerate are all Expert-level projectile spells that deal 60 damage, but Incinerate costs 45 fewer Magikca points. Since they take less Magicka to cast, players can use one or two extra fire attacks before their reserves are depleted. In a close fight, that can make all the difference.
Fire spells also come with a secondary effect: “Targets on fire take extra damage.” Damage over time is relatively rare in Skyrim, and fire is the most common way to instigate it. Early in the game, casting the Flames spell with one hand is a useful way to increase any damage dealt with a melee weapon in the other. Strategically, axes are the best combo choice, since they can be upgraded to deal bleed damage, stacking with fire’s damage over time. Skyrim‘s Alchemy can enhance this further; poisoning the axe means the target is suffering from fire, poison, and bleed all at once. Draugr, some of Skyrim’s most ubiquitous enemies, also have resistances to frost and poison, so fire is always the best choice against them.
Frost spells, by comparison, might seem less useful, but any warrior class knows the struggle of going up against frost-breathing dragons. Their breath attack might not deal excessive damage to a hardy Nord, but its secondary effect is crippling: Frost spells also deal damage to stamina.
Without stamina, warrior classes cannot deal power attacks, block effectively, or sprint. For Skyrim spellcasters who repeatedly get killed by Falmer Warmongers, Bandit Chiefs, or other melee opponents with high armor ratings, ice magic is a complete gamechanger. Whether they’re using hammers or greatswords, Ice Storm and Frost Wall are devastating to large groups of melee opponents. These spells can keep them at bay, slowing them and dealing high damage. Some may even die before they can close the distance.
Destruction spells are strong, but against ranged opponents like archers or dragons, winning is also a matter of whether an attack connects. It’s difficult to aim a Firebolt or Ice Spike correctly, especially if the enemy is moving at a distance. This is where shock spells excel. Lightning Bolt, Chain Lightning, and Thunderbolt all hit targets instantly, suffering no projectile travel time. Shock spells’ secondary effect is also useful, as they deal half damage to an opponent’s Magicka.
Shock spells, then, can keep enemy magic users powerless in a fight. Without significant mana, they can’t maintain a ward, heal themselves mid-fight, or use their strongest attacks. This makes lightning magic an excellent choice for Skyrim’s battle mage builds – particularly spells like Lightning Cloak. This is a buff that keeps both hands free to hold weapons and constantly drains nearby opponents’ Magicka. Since their defenses are down, enemy mages will be powerless against a sword or warhammer.
Knowing when to use fire, frost, and shock is valuable to magic and martial classes, but it can also be helpful for stealth builds. Many thief and assassin players quickly default to using arrows or daggers, but Runes can be a rewarding addition to the playstyle. The biggest disadvantage to Runes is that enemies can hear them when placed. Skyrim‘s Illusion magic can complement Destruction, here: 50 levels in Illusion unlocks the Quiet Casting perk. This makes spells from all schools, including Destruction, silent when cast.
The Rune Master perk under the Destruction tree, unlocked after 40 levels, means Runes can also be placed five times farther away. These silent magical traps deal moderate damage to enemies, but their secondary effects also apply. Frost Runes deal enemy warriors a hit to their stamina, making them slow-moving targets at the mercy of players’ arrows. Unaware enemy mages who walk over Lightning Runes never get the chance to cast their shield spells or wards before their Magicka pools are already gone.
Fire, Frost, and Storm Atronachs also follow the rules of their respective element. Since summoned creatures unleash their effects alongside the Dragonborn’s own, they can become some of the best magic spells in Skyrim. Flame Atronachs may have less health, but the damage over time they deal is useful when combined with players’ own attacks. Storm Atronachs keep the pressure on enemy mages and can hit faraway targets with streaks of lightning impossible to dodge. Frost Atronachs are bulky melee deterrents, blocking doorways with their massive frames, staggering opponents with ground pounds, and draining enemy stamina reserves. Elemental effects in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim aren’t just a matter of aesthetic preference; they’re an important tactical choice.