"It's a battle of wits. The players change themselves into different things in an attempt to destroy one another."
Merlin: N-now, Mim, no dragons, remember?! Madam Mim: Did I say no purple dragons? DID I? — The Sword in the Stone
There's nothing quite like the awesome brought to bear when a hero goes into battle with - or as - a Shapeshifter, as they change forms and faces, grow weapons and limbs, or use camouflage to hide and strike.
Know what's better? A fight between twoShape Shifters!
When two shapeshifters fight the only thing holding them back is their imagination and the versatility of their shape shifting abilities. Two similarly gifted shape shifters can play a deadly escalating game of Cat and Mouse and Dog and Cougarand Manticore and Phoenix until one is finally outwitted and defeated by a form they just can't counter. Indeed, this is pretty much the only way for a shapeshifter duel to end. When compared to a normal fight, and even ignoring the Healing Factor issue, using blunt force trauma to win seems passe and overly prosaic. The winner is not necessarily the one who manages to get the biggest form; wits are more useful than brute force.
Alternately, the combatants will turn each other into undesirable forms to try to get the upper hand. This is usually Played for Laughs.
This is a recurring theme in myths and folklore, and is at least Older Than Print; folklorists call it a "transformation chase". There are a number of Celtic ballads, in particular, where a suitor pursues his chosen bride through a series of forms before she consents to marry.
Transforming Mecha can often do a variant of this, but as they only have a set number of modes, they're allowed to pair up versatility with firepower.
Almost guaranteed to involve Shapeshifter Swan Song, One-Winged Angel, Shapeshifter Weapons, Shape Shifter Mashups and very often a variant of Elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors. Compare Battle in the Center of the Mind. Contrast Tricking the Shapeshifter.
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Anime and Manga
The manga Parasyte averts this by having its shapeshifting Parasytes almost always using utilitarian bladelike shapes rather than imaginative ones, and simply aiming to kill the other Parasyte's host before exhausting its own.
A variation of this trope is played out in the Getter Robo series. In the Shin Getter manga and the Armageddon OVA, the Getter Team fights enemies with Getter Robo of their own, and win by luring their foes into rapidly switching between the Getter's forms, gaining advantage due to their skill and speed in completing their combinations faster.
In The Sandman, Morpheus fought the demon Choronzon in a poetry battle of sorts, where each sought to become something capable of defeating the opponent's previous form. Chronozon tried to trump Morpheus by turning into entropy, the end of all things. Morpheus won by turning into hope.
The New Mutants became helpless bystanders when the Impossible Man dueled their member Warlock. As both characters are largely pacifistic, the bulk of the battle involved a "beefcake contest". Impy was ultimately undone by his one weakness: he can't change color.
A shapeshifting duel took place between Impy and Mr Mxyztplk in the Intercontinuity CrossoverSilver Surfer/Superman, in which they both took on the forms of heroes from their respective universes.
Another one of those involving Impossible Man takes place in Exiles, when they visit Alternate Universe in which he can not only transform himself but also other things and went Axe Crazy after an attempt of supervillain to take control over him had Gone Horribly Wrong. It ends with shapeshifter Morph dueling Impy and winning by making him laugh so much the results of brainwashing breaks.
Morph gets into another one in mini-series X-Men: Die By The Sword, with Mad Jim Jaspers. Sadly, we don't see too much of it.
An erotic variation occurs in the XXXenophile story "Things That Go Bump in the Night".
In Green Lantern 80 Page Giant #2, Plas and Kyle amuse themselves while on monitor duty by pitting Plas's shapes against ring-conjurations. The winner is Martian Manhunter, who sneaks onto the Watchtower, and convinces them they're being attacked by two separate alien monsters.
A particularly dark chapter of Captain Britain climaxes with a duel between villains Mad Jim Jaspers and the Fury: since Jaspers has the power to alter reality at will and the Fury is a robot that can adapt to virtually any situation, it's pretty extreme to say the least. In the end the Fury wins by shifting into a dimension where matter and reality don't exist, leaving Jaspers completely defenceless.
In Geoff Johns's Teen Titans issue "Beast Boys and Girls", a Mad Scientist type is revealed to have experimented on children and animals to discern the link between human and beast. These experiments changed him into a shapeshifter along the same lines as Beast Boy, calling himself the Zookeeper (his skin and animal forms are purple). Cue epic throwdown in the middle of downtown San Francisco.
In another issue, Beast Boy had to fight Madame Rouge's shapeshifting daughter. After a long string of transformations, during which she mocked him for being unable to choose a form she couldn't mimic, he settled for an old-fashioned knockout in his human form.
Fables has a couple of magical duels involving Frau Totenkinder (the witch from Hansel and Gretel) and other powerful opponents, and shapeshifting is one of the techniques the combatants employ.
The Pony POV Series has an example during the Final Battle of the Wedding Arc in the duel between Cadence and Queen Cadenza (Alicorn!Chrysalis), with both constantly shifting species to try and gain an advantage over the other.
In Arabian Nights, the story of Aladdin involves a battle between the Genie of the Lamp and the Genie of the Ring: It starts with Mouse vs Cat vs Dog and goes from there. There was a part where the Genie of the Lamp turns into a fire-breathing dragon. To counter, the Genie of the Ring turns into a camel and spits in the dragon's mouth. In the end, Aladdin cheats and steals his opponent's lamp, gaining control of the Genie of the Lamp and winning by default.
In an earlier movie that includes Aladdin, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, a witch and wizard have one of these for about a minute before resorting to fireballs.
The Sword in the Stone, as the page quote indicates. Madame Mim and Merlin engage in a wizard's duel that involves this. Merlin beats Mim's purple dragon form by turning into a germ and infecting her. (see image in the upper right corner)
The climax of Little Nicky sees Nicky and Adrian duel with their reality-warping magic.
In Animorphs, both the Animorphs and Visser Three have shapeshifting powers, so these are common enough. The most extreme example is probably in The Return, where Crayak pits Rachel and Visser Three against each other in a gladiatorial battle and they both strategically change forms constantly throughout the fight.
As quoted above, Merlin and Madam Mim in The Sword in the Stone, both the book and the Disney version. In both versions, Merlin wins by becoming an infectious bacterium, though in the Disney version Mim is merely bedridden instead of killed. It's strongly implied that this is the standard format for a 'Wizard's Duel'.
A dramatic Shapeshifter Showdown between two magic users in Equal Rites, was retconned into oblivion when the setting and a combatant settled into far less flashiness than what was shown. (GURPS Discworld suggests it was actually a Mental Illusion Showdown)
In the short story "Hardshell" by Dean Koontz (published in Predators), the climax reveals to the reader that the titular detective and the killer that he's tracking down are both alien shapeshifters. They engage in a shapeshifting duel, and it turns out that the criminal is younger and less experienced. Hardshell simply envelops it in an impervious shell and suffocates it, since they still need oxygen.
Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series makes use of this not once, but twice. It is mentioned in a backstory conversation in 'Reserved for the Cat' the Cat of the title is actually the heroine's father, trapped in cat shape as a result of this duel. and actually shown between the heroine and villain of 'The Gates of Sleep'. The Gates, the heroine makes a mental note of studying 'The Twa Magicians' (see the Music section below for details).
A Kenyan story found in this book involves a boy who uses shapeshifting to con people by turning himself into a bull and letting himself be sold, then running away. Eventually he tries it on someone who turns out to be a more experienced shapeshifter.
Ran and Eln get into this in Doris Egan's Ivory trilogy. The fight finishes when Theodora hops off the sidelines and just flat out stabs Eln.
In at least one version of the story, Puss in Boots also features a limited version of this trope. Via a spell, rather than an inborn ability, Puss defeats the ogre and wins his castle in a shapeshifting challenge rather than an outright fight. He does this by reverting to normal as the ogre changes into a mouse.
In The Doomspell By Cliff McNish, shifting forms rapidly in an attempt to outwit each other is a part of the epic battle between Rachel and Dragwena.
Lloyd Alexander's The Arkadians features one of these in an in-story folktale. It's quite convincing.
In Joe Haldeman's novel Camouflage, the showdown between the only two aliens on earth comes into fruition when Jack a.k.a. the chameleon decides to follow his natural killing impulse and faces Rae/ Sharon / Jimmy a.k.a. the changeling. Rae's ruses include transforming her severed arm in a monster with metal nails, knuckles as eyes, and centipede-like legs; while Jack transformed in a more brute figure: a neanderthal. Since both of them are pretty much immortal the confrontation gets unabashedly gory, it finishes rather unexpectedly though when the artifact (Rae's partner in action a.k.a her flying sauce) lunges over the chameleon, jailing and freezing him for further examination in their home planet.
In Sergey Lukyanenko's novel Star Shadow, the main character has a symbiotic alien creature in him that grants him limited shapeshifting abilities. During a fight with a Human Alien, one of his hands turns into a claw. Seeing this, his opponent reveals that he is a "metamorph" and turns into a "scaly, alien creature." The protagonist wins by allowing the enemy to bite him, after turning his blood into poison.
Piers Anthony used a variant in his Adept series, in which two shapeshifters compete in a race rather than a head-on battle. The participants have a limited number of specified forms they can change into; it's how cleverly they can use these forms to circumvent obstacles along the course that determines which one wins.
Jane Yellowrock fights an evil Skinwalker who devoured the liver of it's prey and was capable of taking on a vampire form along with the form of anything else it ate.
A Polish national epic Sir Thaddeus says common folk attributes this kind of powers to Napoleon Bonaparte and Aleksandr Suvorov, who were supposed to fight in a duel like that in the middle of a battle.
The Ursula K. Leguin short story The Rule of Names climaxes in a shape-shifting duel between two wizards, one of which turns out to be a dragon in disguise.
In Krabat, in a dream. Krabat as a bird is hunted by the evil master (also polymorphed). Krabat sees a well, turns into a fish - but now he's caught in the well. Fortunately, the Kantorka is there to take him out. He shapechanges into a golden ring on her finger. Then suddenly a one-eyed nobleman appears. Krabat turns into one grain, which Kantorka throws on the ground. The master turns into a rooster - but Krabat is faster, turns into a fox and bites him dead. The dream sequence is a reference to the original tale Preussler's novel is based on; the shapeshifter duel there is how Krabat kills the Master off for real
Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor has a Mind Screw-y sort of mind battle at the end in which the villain cuts straight to the ultimate form, a supermassive black hole. He swallows Luke without an effort... and Luke becomes a white fountain, which frees the Big Bad's minions, which has the side effect of killing the villain.
During Galaxy of Fear, the Big Bad of the first six books and Hoole, the protagonists' uncle, are both shapeshifting Shi'ido. Regrettably, they never actually fight; Hoole takes on different forms for combat, but Gog is more inclined to infiltration. But in Clones, well, there is an evil Hoole clone.
The two Hooles surged toward one another, but they moved so quickly that Tash could hardly follow. Her uncle shifted into the shape of a many-horned lizard, while the other Hoole transformed into some sort of giant snake. But by the time they clashed, each of them had morphed two or three more times, until the two combatants were a quivering mass of shrieking, shape-changing flesh.
Tash was awestruck. She had never seen her uncle so enraged, nor had she ever seen two Shi'ido fight. No wonder Hoole always remains so calm, she thought.
Shapeshifting demons are common in The Bartimaeus Trilogy, being summoned by magicians to do their bidding. While they're rarely set against one another directly (the last time someone tried to order a demon to kill another one, it turned out they were friends, and the demon refused the order... destroying himself and quite a bit of his surroundings as a side effect), fights are still fairly common as a side effect of whatever they're all trying to do. In these fights, plenty of shapeshifting goes on, of course.
The climactic battle between Set (better known as Wakim) and The Thing That Cries In The Night is essentially a superwarrior with a Morph Weapon against a planet-sized shapeshifter. No matter what The Thing becomes, Set finds the form that can wound it some more.
Happens in The Story of the Second Dervish in Arabian Nights where a princess fights a Djinn by the two transforming into different creatures and attacking each other; a lot like the Disney Sword In The Stone.
Subverted in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where Odo and another changeling fight conventionally at first and then basically start merging into each other and trying to take control over the other's body. The fight involves no forms other than the humanoid ones they start as and their natural liquid-states.
Played straight in Peter David's Expanded Universe novel, "The Siege." David even mentions this in the introduction, noting that he wasn't restrained by a live-action TV show's budget.
The Magnetic Field's tribute song to Robert Burns, "Wi Nae Wee Bairn Ye'll Me Beget," features one of these between a woman and her prospective suitor. It ends with him turning into God, and her winning by not believing in him.
Child Ballad #44 ("The Two Magicians") is all about this, but with "duel" replaced by "attempted rape". Best performed by British folk-rockers Steeleye Span on their Now We Are Six album.
From the middle to the end, Tori Amos's "The Chase" is a transformation chase between Tori trying not to be killed by Anabelle. It doesn't take long, and it doesn't really end well...
Anabelle: Use your head or you'll be dead.
In Korean Mythology, Haemosu the sun god and Habaek the river god fights in this way until the latter admits defeat.. and acknowledges him as his son-in-law. This seems to be standard fighting method for gods and demigods, since King Kim-suro and Seok-talhae also fought this way.
This happens in a crazy sequence during the second Tale of the Kalandar Prince.
Another one is in "A Tale Of Porter And Girls" - princess duels with Irfrit, resulting in both of them turning into fire and dying.
Calvin and Hobbes, kinda - in the first test of the transmogrifier gun, Hobbes zaps Calvin into a (scientifically accurate) 2-foot pterodactyl. So Calvin zaps Hobbes into a duck, so Hobbes zaps Calvin into a pig, so Calvin zaps Hobbes into a monkey, so Hobbes zaps Calvin into a daisy, so Calvin zaps Hobbes into a crocodile, so Hobbes zaps Calvin into an armadillo... cut to "much later", where an owl and a hobgoblin are sulking and wondering who is which.
Zits, combines the above with Volleying Insults due to its love for illustrating metaphors: "Who are you calling a chicken? You pig!"
Shadowrun. An article in Shadowland magazine #5 on shapechanging mentions the "Shapshifter's Duel", where two wizards with shapechanging spells would do this.
Exalted: When you play a Lunar and your nemesis of the day is someone from the Wyld, this is bound to happen. And the Lunars do fight The Fair Folk on regular basis.
A Dragon article from the days of 1st Edition AD&D described how druids would fight duels for the chance to advance to their class's upper levels. It recommended that attaining the highest level should mean winning a Shape Shifter Showdown against the incumbent Grand Druid.
Fat Messiah Games's Shape Shifters: The Game of Transforming Wizards is entirely about this trope, with a large "tree of life" diagram showing the available shapes and the transitions between them, as well as their relative strengths and weaknesses.
While you aren't physically transforming, this is actually a major part of the newer Persona games. Each Persona has specific strengths and weaknesses, and the main character can shift through Personae to exploit his enemy's weaknesses while protecting his own. Certain boss fights (most obviously the Nyx Avatar fight from Persona 3, but also the Bonus Boss from each game) involve shifting between Personae (in some cases on a turn by turn basis) to counter your opponents attacks. Through clever manipulation of Personae strengths and weaknesses, you can take very little damage during a fight. (Except of course, when fighting a Bonus Boss, as attempting to use a Persona with a "Null" or "Absorb" effect will result in a One-Hit Kill).
In Pokémon, battles between two Ditto are tiresome. A Ditto is a blob-like Pokémon whose only attack is Transform. This allows it to shift into any opponent's form and use their attacks and stats for the duration of a battle. Catch is, it can only change into a copy of whatever opponent it is currently facing. One can fill in the rest.
In fact, if the battle is between two trainers who only have Dittos, the battle will never end (unless one Ditto is holding a harmful item). Normally, if two Pokemon are incapable of damaging each other, all you have to do is wait for them to run out of Power Points (using a move uses up 1 PP for that move, and can be replenished for free at a Pokemon Center), and then they will start using Struggle (which damages both Pokemon). But when Transform is used, the PP of all the copied moves is set to 5. Thus, using Transform on a Ditto will replenish your Ditto's PP, preventing either Ditto from using Struggle. And since you can't run from Trainer battles, you have to reset the game. (Thankfully, this was fixed in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, as it is now impossible to transform into a transformed Pokémon.)
In the first Simon the Sorcerer game, once you learn some actual spells, you can challenge the Witch to one, complete with a Shout-Out to The Sword in the Stone. It functions as a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors: snake beats cat, cat beats mongoose, and mongoose beats snake. And mouse enables you to escape through a hole in the wall when the Witch turns herself into a dragon.
There are 3 of these in Project Altered Beast for the PS2, first is a flashback sequence showing a fight between Luke and Brad shown upon getting the Minotaur form, the second is an actual playable fight against Brad and the third is against Anastasia
In World of Warcraft, druids of the opposing factions can do this in PVP. Since they can turn into bears with high defense, speedy cheetahs and seals (for water travel), damage-over-time-based big cats, and the occasional spellcasting moonkin, and they can all go back to caster form to heal themselves, you can occasionally have a spat with a single other druid that goes on for a very long time. These eventually turn into simply trying to chase the other one down and root them or making them exhaust their mana supply.
In one scene in Ween: The Prophecy the hero has to get past a shapeshifting dragon. The hero knows several forms, but the dragon always takes a form stronger than the hero's. The solution is: become a worm to make him a wasp, catch him with a wasp trap, use outside help to dispose of the trap.
The Martian Manhunter vs. Clayface. Eventually, the Martian wins on cleverness, by shifting into Clayface's natural form, and convincing the other villains to freeze his opponent solid before he could protest, waiting until a critical moment to reveal the trick.
Justice League members faced off against their evil counterparts — both Martians turned into long, serpenty things and... wrestled.
Justice League members faced off against their robotic duplicates of their evil counterparts. It's even more minimalist than last time, just a couple of seconds of grappling hand-to-hand in their regular forms.
Subverted in The Fairly Oddparents: Cosmo and Wanda have a "magic fight" in one episode, and it does involve shapeshifting - only instead of turning themselves into stronger forms, they turn their opponents into undesirable forms.
Towards the end of the Disney movie The Emperor's New Groove both Kuzco and Yzmahave been unwillingly shape-shifted into animal-form, and they fight over the potion which can turn one of them back to normal..
One episode of Ben 10: Alien Force has Ben go up against an alien that made a copy of the Omnitrix. Their fight involved just about all of Ben's forms between them. (Except Alien X, naturally).
In Teen Titans, Beast Boy is pitted against an evil version of himself in the fourth season finale. Granted, a fair bit of it is offscreen, but the bits that they do show are really cool. Especially when Evil!Beast Boy turns into an elephant, so Beast Boy turns into a mouse to frighten him.
In Walter Melon, when Melon and Bitterbug are filling in for Lancelot and Arthur respectively, Merlin uses them to do this.
A variation appears in DuckTales where Magica DeSpell had a bag of powder that turns whatever the powder is sprinkled on to whatever the er... person want. The Climax is the Triplets and the Beagle Boys playing keep away with the bag and transforming their sibling to counter whatever the other group did with the powder. It was awesome.
Most fights between Transformers involve multiple shifts in and out of robot form. Justified, since their robot forms are better for fighting, but their disguise forms are more suited for transportation. Most fights were had while one side was running away from the other, or while they were vying for control of some MacGuffin.