Kevin has been playing tabletop games for almost as long as he can remember and currently edits for Jon Brazer Enterprises.
In both AD&D 2nd Edition and D&D 3rd Edition, the kensai was tied most heavily to the fighter class. For 2nd Edition, the kensai was a fighter “kit,” (which were much like Pathfinder’s archetypes), and in 3rd Edition, the kensai was a prestige class intended primarily for fighters (the kensai of the 3.5 revision was notably different from the original 3rd Edition one, representing something more along the lines of a samurai warrior than the “weapon master” concept of the previous two versions). Pathfinder bucks the trend and makes the kensai a magus archetype (Ultimate Combat 55), intended to represent a warrior with a mystical connection to a particular type of weapon.
At 1st level, the kensai gains proficiency with simple weapons and a single martial or exotic weapon. Unlike a normal magus, the kensai is not proficient in any armor and suffers normal arcane spell failure chances when wearing it. In exchange for his extra weapon proficiencies and armor proficiency, the kensai gains weapon focus with his chosen weapon and also gains the canny defense ability of the duelist, allowing to add his Intelligence modifier to Armor Class (up to one point per class level). This means he’s going to have lower AC than normal for a few levels, until his level catches up to his high Intelligence, but he does have his magic to back him up in that respect.
Additionally, kensai can cast one fewer spell of each level than normal, as part of the general trade-off for their enhanced martial prowess, hammering home the idea that they’re supposed to rely on their weaponry more so than other magi.
Upon gaining 4th level, the kensai trades in his spell recall ability for perfect strike (not to be confused with the Perfect Strike feat), which allows him to spend 1 point from his arcane pool to maximize his weapon’s damage roll for a single attack. If he scores a critical hit, he can instead spend two points to increase his weapon’s damage modifier for that critical hit by 1. If your weapon has large damage dice (such as the bastard sword’s 1d10), you’ll favor the first option, but if you have an expanded critical range (such as the scimitar’s 18-20), you’ll probably get more bang for your buck out of the second option.
The kensai gains fighter training earlier than the standard magus, at 7th level, and he also counts as a fighter of his level – 3, rather than one of half his level. This gives him earlier access to these fighter feats, and opens up some feats normal magi can’t attain, like Critical Mastery. This does replace knowledge pool, one of the magus’s most versatile abilities, so it doesn’t come without cost.
Also starting at 7th level, the kensai’s iaijutsu ability lets him add his Intelligence modifier to his initiative rolls and make attacks of opportunity while flat-footed, and he can draw his weapon as part of making an attack of opportunity. The text isn’t particularly clear here, but the intent seems to be that the kensai threatens the space around him with his weapon even when he doesn’t have it in hand. This ability takes the place of the magus’s medium armor training.
Beginning at 9th level, with the critical perfection ability, the kensai adds his Intelligence modifier on attack rolls made to confirm critical hits, and he treats his magus level as his base attack bonus for the purpose of qualifying for Critical Focus and the chain of feats connected to it. This requires that the kensai give up the magus arcana he would normally gain at this level.
At 11th level, the kensai gains superior reflexes (in place of improved spell recall), allowing him to make additional attacks of opportunity in each round equal to his Intelligence modifier. This ability stacks with Combat Reflexes, as well, allowing the dedicated kensai the ability to really crank out attacks of opportunity.
In place of heavy armor at 13th, the kensai gains iaijutsu focus. He can draw his weapon as a swift action during surprise rounds, and he adds his Intelligence modifier to damage on attacks made during surprise rounds or against flat-footed foes. While largely situational, given the kensai’s high initiative modifier, he should be able to make use of this regularly.
Starting at 19th level, the kensai becomes an iaijutsu master, always gaining a roll of 20 for his initiative and becoming immune to surprise. This of course means that the kensai can make the great use of his iaijutsu focus ability he gained back at 13th level, since he’s rarely going to be anything but first in a combat. This ability replaces the standard magus’s greater spell access.
Finally, at 20th level, the kensai trades the true magus ability for the weapon mastery ability of the fighter, selected for his chosen weapon.
Taken all together, these abilities make the kensai a capable warrior, with nearly unique access to feats like Critical Mastery and a useful number of spells to make him a versatile combatant. If you’re looking to play a magus that focuses more on the melee end of things, the kensai is definitely worth consideration.
Your selection of feats and arcana will probably have a lot to do with your chosen weapon as a kensai, so one sample build can’t encompass all the possibilities. As an example, though, this build takes a fairly standard approach, choosing the scimitar for the expanded critical range (to use with the critical multiplier part of perfect strike). Arcane Accuracy is one of your best choices for an early arcana, and there's no reason for a kensai to pass it up. Extra Arcane Pool is there to allow the magus to use perfect strike more often. At 5th level, your feat options open up somewhat, and this build takes Extra Arcana to pick up another magus arcana. Spell Shield is the choice here (for those sticky situations when your lack of armor gets the best of you), but there are a lot of options.
Human Magus (Kensai) 5
Ability Scores (15 Point Buy): Str 14, Dex 13, Con 12, Int 17, Wis 10, Cha 8
Feats and Arcana
1 Weapon Focus (scimitar), Extra Arcane Pool, Combat Casting
3 Dodge, Arcane Accuracy
5 Extend Spell, Extra Arcana (Spell Shield)
The kensai will end up trickiest to play at lower levels, when your Armor Class is a concern, but once you’re high enough level to gain your whole Intelligence as a dodge bonus, you’ll have far fewer worries. Of course, with spells like mirror image and shield, you have options available to help you survive those tricky times. With Extend Spell, you’ll be able to keep these buffs up for much of the time, as well. As you gain levels, consider fighter-only feats, since you have special access to them, and consider especially Critical Mastery, since you’re one of the few characters that can access it. It synergizes well with the critical strike magus arcana, as well.
That’s my general advice for the kensai archetype. There’s a lot of other things you can do with it, depending on your weapon of choice (such as going for a reach weapon to leverage the insane number of attacks of opportunity the kensai can make). As always, feel free to explore other options and experiment—just keep the kensai’s strengths in mind as you do!
Kevin C Morris (author) from SOUTH BEND on September 19, 2012:
Yep. The Dervish Dance route is equally viable for the Magus, and pretty much all Magi are going to want Improved Critical (or a keen weapon until they can get the feat).
Lunias on September 18, 2012:
Okay, thanks. So, would that build I mentioned still be viable, even without the huge crit range? If you have a keen weapon, your crit range is still 15-20, and that's a crit every 1 out of 4 hits.
Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention you would need Weapon Finesse and Dervish Dance to apply Dex instead of Str.
Kevin C Morris (author) from SOUTH BEND on September 17, 2012:
Keen and Improved Critical don't stack with one another. They did in the original 3rd edition, though, and the correct critical range would be 12-20 for that edition. The stacking rules stated that you increased the critical range by the same amount with each increase, rather than doubling and then doubling again.
Lunias on September 17, 2012:
First off, a 2d6 roll would average at 7, not 6. Just thought I'd point that out.
Secondly, in the order of crit range calculation, would you apply Keen before or after Improved Critical? Because the plan I thought of only works properly if Keen occurs first.
The Scimitar has a crit range of 18-20. Add in Keen, and the threat range is 15-20. Let's say that Improved Critical does indeed apply second - in this case, you have a weapon with a Crit Range of 10-20. Add in a Crit Focus feat and a debuff of your choice. Plus, since the Dex stat can be used instead of Str, you only need to use your points on 3 stats instead of 4.
Would that work, or am I missing something? Keep in mind that I am indeed a new player. If it does, I'm definitely going to try a Crit Kensai build when i start.
Kevin C Morris (author) from SOUTH BEND on September 13, 2012:
In general, I try not to provide builds that are completely one-dimensional. The game does not require that you do so beyond a certain baseline of effectiveness. Individual tables may require more optimization than others based on the game's difficulty, but I'm not particularly writing these guides for tables like that. There are whole forums dedicated to character optimization already.
To respond to a few specific things:
B: The falcata is a great weapon choice, and it's one of the only exotic weapons that's truly worth the feat. I haven't run a DPS calculator on the matter to see how much of an improvement it would be for a magus specifically, though. One thing to keep in mind is that when you crit with a spell via spellstrike, the spell's damage uses its normal x2 modifier, regardless of the weapon's critical modifier. That's going to devalue the falcata somewhat for a magus, but it's likely that it's still a good weapon choice.
C: When it comes to stats, I generally stick to the standard array if only to maintain a certain baseline. This also helps to demonstrate stat priorities clearly. On a higher point buy or if you're willing to dip into lower numbers, higher Strength is certainly worth it.
D: The whip's not actually a very useful reach weapon, of course, since you don't threaten the area within its 15 ft. reach, which means you don't get to make attacks of opportunity. Paizo's been pretty conservative when it comes to the strength of various reach weapons. They don't want a repeat of the spiked chain in 3.x.
E: Yeah, Dodge. Not everyone uses variant races like the tiefling, and a low level Kensai is going to be hurting for AC. Is this a power user choice? Not particularly, but it's one that works. There are plenty of other feats that can round out the character that are viable. There aren't, however, a lot that really help you out with damage, as Power Attack tends to be a damage loss for the magus early on, since he's suffering from medium base attack bonus and the penalties from spell combat.
F: From my experience, I've learned the arcane pool's a pretty tight resource. If your fights aren't close enough together that you'll get the enhancement bonus for more than one, that's going to mean using at least 1 point for every battle on that alone. With 3-4 encounters in a day, that sucks up almost all of your initial points. Without Extra Arcane Pool, you don't have much left to make use of great arcana like arcane accuracy. Your mileage is going to vary depending on your game and the frequency of encounters in it, though.
G: I'm not entirely sure what you're commenting on here (as I don't believe hasted assault comes up in the guide), but the Intelligence is as high as it is (15+2 racial) for AC and to give you a higher base for your Intelligence based abilities later. The +3 modifier ensures you're getting the full value of your Intelligence to AC up until 4th, when you can choose to boost it (though at that point, I'd probably be putting the points in Strength, personally). You can easily swap the Strength and Intelligence scores for a kensai and perform well.
H: I think this is about Spell Shield, but I can't be sure. If I'm right, I went that route mainly because a dead magus isn't going to do any damage. I don't know how it runs at your table, but in most of my games, the damage dealers are at high risk: they're flimsy, and they often hit a lot harder than any "tank" does. Against intelligent enemies, the guy walking around in plate armor isn't going to be the first target, and often times, the magus is right up there on the front line with him. Spell Shield might lower your damage in the next round because you're out a swift action, but an on-demand defensive bonus like that can still save your life.
When it comes down to it, you're very right that the magus is a damage dealer, but thankfully, very little of his damage actually comes from feats. His low attack bonus means he's not very good with Power Attack at lower levels, and the only arcana that truly contributes to damage is arcane accuracy. Others do, but they all compete with arcane accuracy for the swift action spot, and it wins every time by virtue of the numbers. This leaves some of your feats and arcana open for you to round out your character's defenses, letting you also serve as a backup tank for the group if the fighter ever goes down and helping you to stay alive to keep dishing out damage through your spells.
As always, my guides are generally meant to serve as suggestions, not the rule of law. If you feel comfortable going a different direction, that's great and I actually encourage that, as exploring build options is one of the best things about the game. Just remember that Pathfinder is not so brutally balanced that you have to go for nothing but damage with every choice you make for your character. (Even the "DPR Olympics" on the Paizo forums assume a certain amount of feats/resources are spent on defense, as well-rounded characters tend to be how most people play).
Luke on September 12, 2012:
A - Jim, You need a free hand in order to use spell strike or spell combat, only 1 handers,
B - 1d6 damage from scimitars is a little thin in comparison to the falcata not to mention it only is x2 crit on the damage, even though the scimitar has 18-20 range which is bang up on critical chance, you crit a bit more often but not for much damage (2d6 averages to 6 damage total) however the falcata is 1d8 and crits 19-20 x3 (3d8 average 12 damage double the scimi) and while you wont be critting quite as often, all your reg attacks will be more damaging as well as your crit damage. Its a close call but i generally opt to be a heavier hit on the reg and the crit, get a keen weapon early on and your destined for impact criticals. (also 4d8 crits... on 17s and up... woof) I suppose its a close call but i pref towards overall damage during an encounter
C - Kensai are streached thin on the stat floor needing str int con and for some a little dex, i know a lot of people hate dipping into the 8's as they provide a -1 bonus, but ill gladly dip a wis point into my will saves to gain +1 attack and damage or hp and fort, but god knows were a DPS class so i leave the tanking and intimidating to better men.
D - If anyone can find me a one handed weapon stronger than a whip with the reach ability ill shower them in gold (or more likley praise) because the Lunge feat would make my life awesome, Wacking at something from the safe distance of 15 feat with a charged weapon would just make me so happy, not to mention the attacks of opportunity, oh the glory...
E - Dodge? Really? If you really want a bump in AC go Race - Tiefeling, get the scaled skin alternate racial trait (+1 ac +5 resistance of choice in exchange for blanket 5 resistances from fiendish resistance) and get the feat Pit Armor (+2 ac and if you got scaled skin an additional +5 resistance) boom plus 3 ac for a single feat. Save your feats for cranking out damage
F - Extra Arcana Pool? Really? I dunno about you but my arcane pool is getting pretty big by level 5, i suppose 2 extra expendatures of it are a decent boost but I would probably gain another arcana over more expendatures
G - Hasted assualt lasts for a number of rounds equal to your int modifier, which should be pretty high by the time you get it (cause you'll definatly put more attribute points into int AND ONLY INT at that point, ((If your building stats at char creation, the higher ones are more expensive so for each point of int past 15 you can get 2 points of str, up only your int with bonus attribute points gained each 4 levels because attributes gained when leveling all cost the same, 1 point, this goes for all classes and peoples out there who want to live long in dnd)) and have a circlet of int +4 or higher by then... RIGHT!? Well you'd better if you know what's good for ya.
H - (God this is getting long) Your gunna need your swift actions every round to use arcane accuracy homie, and You use swift actions for your basic enhancing of your weapon from the core arcane pool ability too, +1 - 5 based on level and at 5 you can use swift action pool points to gain flaming frost keen ect on your weapon but that lasts for a few rounds, so yes you use your swift actions for that too, not to mention potions and a myriad of other things requiring a swift action.
I guess my big issue with your build is your putting your feats and arcanas towards defending yourself when DPS classes have to be able to pump out damage, Tanks tank, healers heal, and if you have both of those like any good party NEEDs, your going to be fine. Focus your abilities on pumping out pain not pumping your ac, your a kensai, if you want reg ac, go regular magus, they get heavy armor. We Kensai are the fleet sleek elite. Suppliment your equipment with some bracers of armor, rings of protection or a cloak of displacement to gain blur (20 or 50% miss chance on attacks against you) if your feeling thin and wispy.
Kevin C Morris (author) from SOUTH BEND on May 23, 2012:
Ah, looks like I missed a reference to mage armor. My original build did include Spell Blending as one of the arcanas, but I changed that based on some suggestions in the comments.
I'll remove the offending reference now. ;)
PatrickQ on May 23, 2012:
I've really found your Pathfinder articles useful, so thank you. I am confused about your suggestion that this Kensai Magus use Mage Armor though. I don't see that spell on the Magus list, so wouldn't you have to select the Spell Blending Arcana before you could cast it?
Kevin C Morris (author) from SOUTH BEND on May 22, 2012:
True Strike isn't bad as a first round spell, though as you gain higher spell levels you're going to want to use that first round to set up powerful buffs or battlefield control that will benefit you (and your party) for the whole battle.
Vital Strike is probably a poor choice for a Magus overall, as they have plenty to do with their standard actions already--an Spellstrike with Shocking Grasp will do more damage than the extra dice from Vital Strike without having to spend a feat on it.
Jim on May 22, 2012:
I think you should consider true strike / vital strike with a high threat weapon (two handed sword or elven curve blade). Most battles start at range so moving in generally occurs (Tstrike/move) (move/VitStrike). I've been thinking about a dancing weapon as a prelude to spellcombat/spell strike. But I'm not sure it works within the rules.
Kevin C Morris (author) from SOUTH BEND on February 27, 2012:
After a lot of reflection, I've made some changes to the sample build.
The scimitar has synergy with Perfect Strike I hadn't thought of before. Arcane Accuracy replaces Spell Blending from the original sample, as it's simply too good to pass up for most magi. I've also dropped Power Attack, as the magus' average base attack bonus and penalties from spell combat make it hard to get any real mileage out of, even with Arcane Accuracy taken into consideration.
Clarifications via the official FAQ also make it clear spellstrike's intended to be able to blend with spell combat, but I don't think it's worth taking Close Range to use it with cantrips.
I do, however, think it works well for a hexcrafter (since they gain access to the brand cantrip), and I'll be posting a guide for that archetype shortly.
Trifle on November 01, 2011:
1. I'm a big fan of arcane strike, you're not going to have something better to do with your swift actions every round, especially since your arcane pool is fairly small.
2. Mage armour isn't bad early on, but your armour will outpace it later so I'm not sure its realy worth an arcana. I grabbed arcane shield or whatever for a defensive arcana... when you're too lazy to cast shield, you can get a +4 boost to AC when you most need it. I won't knock mage armour, but its possibly better to get a party member to cast it on you, or use a wand with UMD.
3. You can absolutely combine spell strike and spell combat, the rules are pretty clear about that. Think of it as the magus version of flurry of blows, except we don't get full BAB to do it. But rather than getting close arcana for a spell list that has very few rays, just use arcane mark which is a 0 level touch spell that you can cast on enemies.
4. Problem with chain shirts (even mithril ones), is you'll hit the max dex cap very quickly (as your int contributes to your dex bonus to AC, so dex + int are both limited by the dex cap) and it will actually be worse than not wearing anything. Bracers of armour are the best long term option (as they increase past +6 AC), but in the medium term, ceremonial silk armour or something isn't bad, and you have no spell failure.
Combat casting I'm not a fan of, since with our spell progression our concentration checks scale faster than the DCs to combat cast do, and we get bonuses to casting defensively later anyway.
Rather than a bastard sword, you might want to look into using a scimitar and the Dervish Dance feat so you can just dump str completely.
Intensify spell is good for shocking grasp.
Kevin C Morris (author) from SOUTH BEND on October 28, 2011:
Of course, that's why I only give general advice and try to remember to point out that you don't have to follow my builds at all. But, here's my opinion on the matter:
1. There are only a few magus arcana that use swift actions. The main one to worry about is hasted assault, and since it lasts for 1 rd/level, it only gets in the way of Arcane Strike for the first round of combat, when Arcane Strike isn't very valuable since you're probably only getting one attack in the first place.
2. Mage Armor has the benefit of not costing you rounds in combat since it has a 1 hr/level duration. I personally think that's very valuable, and also nice for the kensai in general because they don't have any armor proficiencies
3. I don't think d3 damage is really worth a magus arcana, personally, but your mileage may vary. It's certainly not worth taking the -2 penalty on your attack rolls for Spell Combat. It's only worth it in the event that your DM does allow you to use Spellstrike for the spell you cast as part of Spell Combat, but not every DM does so.
4. That's an interesting idea, though it's worth noting that a dip in fighter won't eliminate the arcane spell failure, so there's no need for that. I don't recommend risking spell failure chance, personally, though.
Thannazzar on October 28, 2011:
Dude this is a bad build,
1. Dont take Arcane Strike, you pnly get one swift action a round and you want to use those for arcana abilities.
2. Use Shield not Mage Armor, dont waste an arcana.
3. take close range arcana so you can ray of frost/acid splash every round when your first level spells run out.
4. As soon as you get 1100gp get a mithril shirt, it stacks with canny defence and you can live with the 10% spell failure. If necessary dip a level of fighter if you want to eliminate it after 7th.