I could never get into playing as a mage in Skyrim. I always found it rather awkward and I never got particularly far, mainly because the early parts of Skyrim are actually pretty damn hard for mages. The one mage character I did have had recently swapped from hitting things with pointy sticks and was using a mod to convert dragon souls into perk points. Something about magic in Skyrim has always put me off, especially when I’ve played as mages in other games.
The problem with mages is that there’s a lot to maintain. There’s magicka, elemental resistances, cast times and scaling. Early on, the biggest issue is magicka. Later on, the issue is everything else. The magic schools of Skyrim in fact have a vast number of perks to make spells cost less, multiple ones per tree, and there are things you can do later on to make magic better, but everything is all over the damn place.
Sure, you can argue that you have to maintain stamina when using weapons, but as a mage, you tend to use both stamina and magicka – magicka for spells and stamina for sprinting away because you’ve run out of mana and need to recharge. This does all get better over time though, assuming you level up the right things and stick magicka reduction costs on literally everything. You need to invest time into this though. At the start of the game, you have a choice of leveling up magicka and dying in one hit if you run out, or having no magicka ever.
There’s also another side. When you play as someone with weapons, you generally have some sort of option to block or get out of the way. Archers can hide around corners and go for higher ground, while you can block with any weapon except for dual-wielding. Mages have wards, which are great later on but during early game combat, you can drain all your magicka just creating one, leaving nothing for spells. Later on, you can unlock perks that boost your magic usage should you forgo armour entirely, but armour blocks a lot of damage and can be enchanted too, so that seems not too useful. Shields always block some damage, whether you specialize in Block or not. Wards are of no help if you have no energy to use them.
Scaling is troublesome too. Sure, you can’t take an Iron Sword and use it for the whole game, same way you can’t use Sparks or Flames forever. But you can ditch an Iron Sword for a Steel Sword pretty easily, and you can both enchant a sword and upgrade it with smithing. Magic spells require you to find the next tier of spell (e.g. going from Flames to Fireball) and get a spell tome for it to learn the spell. There’s no real option to upgrade the damage of an individual spell the way you can an individual sword.
I mean, sure, Conjuration is really strong most of the time, and Destruction Magic can make use of the Impact perk to perma-stun things, but the lack of scaling hurts – your Bound Bow may be strong for ages, but you need to find and use stronger summons, your Summoned Familiar quickly becomes useless.
My biggest issue by far though is switching spells. You’re not going to use the same spell all the time. You’ll want to swap spells. Maybe cast a couple of Frost Runes before a battle starts, then summon a flame atronarch before you grab your Conjured Sword or create a ward for yourself. You can hotkey up to 8 items of equipment at once, but they all automatically go into your right hand. Which is only helpful if you’re dual-casting.
The fact that all spells aside from Powers and Shouts (which aren’t covered by perks and normal magic) are cast via your hands also makes it impossible to use spells as a non-humanoid form. Which can also be a tad awkward.
Luckily, mods can fix everything. Things like Midas Magic provide a load more spells, while things like Ordinator create better perks for people to choose from. There are even hotkey mods, but not all them are available for Skyrim Special Edition. The mod Spells as Lesser Powers also gives you more options, since you can have two spells in your hands and one spell by pressing Z, normally reserved for shouts. There’s a lot of stuff out there.
Still, it’s just… easier to hit things with a sword, or shoot them with an arrow.
Or turn into a dragon and kill everything.