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Battle of Wits

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"For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill."

Fights aren't always won with guns, swords, and may in fact not require any kind of physical combat whatsoever; outsmarting your opponent can be just as effective. Battling this way also saves resources — especially if it's a Combat by Champion of the highest-ranking members of each side. Even if not, it's easier to recover from almost being outsmarted and getting your pride wounded than almost getting outfought and getting your leg (or an even more vital body part) wounded. And some play it well enough to never get wounded in the first place.

This is a staple tactic of The Chessmaster, the Guile Hero, and the Manipulative Bastard alike and one way for the Insufferable Genius to prove himself. The Super-Trope to The Plan. Someone who loses the Battle Of Wits is Out-Gambitted. Winners are often Badass Pacifists. If both combatants are particularly brilliant, can easily descend/ascend into Gambit Roulette or Xanatos Speed Chess.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Code Geass: Quite prevalent, particularly with large-scale army maneuvers and tactics involving battles with mechs. However, there are many other battles of wits which have nothing to do with mechs, such as the battle between Lelouch his brother Schneizel during the finale.
  • Death Note had this as its entire focus. Well, that and Light doing cartwheels off the slippery slope...
  • Gen's specialty in Dr. STONE — as a self-proclaimed mentalist, he has an extremely good sense of human nature and can manipulate others to sway things in his favor. One of his biggest victories was even called "Battle of Wits", with him telling the audience his strategies as he successfully gets Blood Knight Moz on their side (while internally terrified).
  • Dragon Ball: There are several cases of this, especially when there is a tournament because in that case, it's always about who can outsmart their opponent the quickest.
  • Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children sets up a battle of wits between Rufus Shinra and Kadaj. Kadaj believes Rufus to have recovered the remains of Jenova and to be hiding them somewhere, whereas he claims them to have been lost. The two keep hanging out exchanging quips and platitudes in a way that definitely suggests there is supposed to be a battle of wits going on, but they don't actually do much beyond that. Meanwhile, Kadaj's gang's brilliant plan to find Jenova consists of running around causing random trouble like the superpowered juvenile delinquents they are. In the end, Rufus reveals that he's been sitting with the remains of Jenova hidden on his wheelchair the whole time.
  • JoJo's Bizarre Adventure:
    • Any fight. Raw power is great and all, but the truly dangerous Stand Users are the ones who use weak or peculiar abilities to devastating effect.
    • Seeing as, in Battle Tendency, aforementioned Guile Hero Joseph was often vastly underpowered compared to his opponents, pretty much all of the fights were battles of wits. Victory would always come as a result of extremely careful planning, clever tricks thought up on the spot, and occasionally, just plain luck.
    • Stardust Crusaders: Most notably, the confrontation against professional gambler and conman Daniel J. D'Arby. D'Arby's stand Osiris had no apparent combat abilities at all, but its ability to tear out the soul of anyone he defeated in a game meant that, after he claimed his first trophy by tricking Polnareff, the heroes' own Stands were almost useless, as the only way they could get Polnareff's soul back was to beat D'Arby at his own completely mundane games. Araki explicitly created D'Arby to give Joseph Joestar, the Guile Hero of the previous part and a famous cheater, a run for his money against an opponent just as cunning as he was (and Joseph did in fact lose to D'Arby, requiring Jotaro to outfox him to win).
  • The premise of Kaguya-sama: Love Is War (Kaguya-sama Wants Him to Confess: The Genius' War of Hearts and Minds in Japanese) is two teenagers trying to force each other into a Love Confession, turning everything from getting movie tickets to drinking coffee into elaborate mind games. Many chapters quickly turn into a contest between Shirogane’s Indy Ploy and Kaguya’s Crazy-Prepared, though just as often the whole thing is derailed by Fujiwara wandering in and unwittingly ruining both of their plans.
  • Kingdom: Every war is equal parts the physical battle between the armies and the mental battle between the commanders.
  • Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans: The second season can be summed up as one long chess match between McGillis Fareed and Rustal Elion, with our main protagonists caught in the middle. Over the course of the season, the two make various moves to undermine the other's power while expanding their own, culminating in a full blown Enemy Civil War within Gjallarhorn.
  • Moriarty the Patriot is a series about Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. They aren’t exactly kickboxing with each other on the regular. Every case after Sherlock is introduced until The Final Problem is them testing their intelligence against one another.

    Card Games 

    Comic Books 
  • Subverted with the Trial of Head, Hand, and Heart in ElfQuest. Rayek's solution to the Trial of Head is clearly smarter than Cutter's, but Cutter wins by luck. Rayek justifiably complains, but Savah, who's officiating, lets it slide because she knows the upcoming Trial of Heart will be more decisive.
  • Spider-Man's favorite tactic for dealing with foes stronger than him.
  • Hellblazer: John Constantine battles his foes by outwitting them rather than fighting them head-on.
  • Mickey Mouse Comic Universe: Mickey Mouse in comics is often protrayed as especially clever and capable of outwitting also-mentally-formidable opponents like the Phantom Blot, so there are several stories where this trope comes into play. There's a certain style of old (Italian?) comics that got quite ambitious and convoluted about pitting him against some Evil Genius criminal. It's also been used in the other direction: one story has him pretend to be a hunted criminal (in what is really a practice exercise for the police) and fooling both the police and the criminals.
  • Superman:
    • During the Silver and Bronze Comic-Book Ages (approx. 1955-1985), Superman and Supergirl were so powerful that the writers had to constantly create villains who couldn't be physically beaten, forcing the heroes to come up with creative ways to win by outwitting and tricking their enemies. A recurring strategy was making them believe they had won so they lowered their guards and made a mistake.
    • In The Super-Revenge of Lex Luthor, the titular villain is slowly gaslighting Superman into madness. When Superman realizes this, he pretends his mind has truly snapped, knowing that his nemesis will be unable to resist the temptation to come out and gloat, giving him the opportunity to capture him.
    • Who Took the Super out of Superman?: As part of a complex scheme to turn Superman into a planetary time bomb, Xviar gaslights Superman into believing he cannot use his powers when he is Clark Kent. Later he teleports Superman's nine greatest villains into Clark's apartment, expecting Superman to suffer a power overload and explode as fighting them. And still, when Superman beats the final villain, nothing happens. It turns out that Xviar made a mistake which allowed to Superman deduce his whole plan, and he was playing along as figuring out a way to defeat his enemies without blowing up.
    • In Red Daughter of Krypton, Supergirl cannot beat or shake off a parasitic lifeform called Worldkiller-1, and it is taking over innocent people to coerce her into being possessed. Kara then says she will agree to become its new body if it releases its current hostage. Wordkiller-1 starts bonding with her... and Supergirl uses her Red Power Ring to teleport into the Sun. She then pulls her Ring out (an automatic death sentence for a Red Lantern like herself) before it can take over. Annoyed, Worldkiller-1 releases her body and leaves her for dead...before realizing the influx of solar power has restarted her heart and is healing her wounds and amping her powers up. As she beats Worldkiller-1 for good, Supergirl ponders it was a risky gambit...but it paid off.

    Comic Strips 
  • Beetle Bailey. Beetle Bailey and Sergeant Snorkel are constantly trying to outwit each other as Beetle tries to avoid work or otherwise get on Sarge's nerves.
  • Spy vs. Spy is about two identical opposing spies trying to outwit each other, either by coming up with a good plan or coming up with a good plan to counter the other's plan. One of them generally ends up dead or at least badly injured as he loses the battle.

    Fan Works 
  • Child of the Storm usually has Strange arranging success in the most efficient manner possible. Of course, Strange being Strange, his very long view of events means that 'efficient' tomorrow can mean 'long, bloody, and drawn-out campaign' today. Nevertheless, he tends to use his brains to run rings around the entire cast, heroes and villains, over and over again - it gets to the point where everyone knows he's going to manipulate them, it's just a question of how.
  • Surprisingly enough, most of the battles in the Tamers Forever Series are quite strategic in nature. The most prominent example would have to be the battle between Piedmon and Gallantmon. Which essentially involved Piedmon using every dirty trick he could think of and Takato adapting to and countering these moves, all while engaged in an awesome midair duel.
  • Death Note Equestria, being (as the name suggests) an adaptation of Death Note with ponies, naturally has this as the core conflict between Twilight Sparkle and L.
  • In The Victors Project, a Fan Fic of The Hunger Games, Cashmere challenges Beetee to a Drinking Game called “I Know,” in which each person must take a drink of scotch if they rightly reveal a secret about the other. During the game it’s revealed that Beetee is asexual, that Enobaria killed Gloss and Cashmere’s father, and that Cashmere knows about the plot to rescue Katniss and Peeta from the Third Quarter Quell arena. Beetee is greatly impressed by Cashmere’s Hidden Depths.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The McKenzie Break: The story centers on the Nazi prisoners each trying to stay one step ahead of Connor and Colonel Perry throughout the escape plot (smuggling coded messages, figuring out ways to get around the discovery of the tunnel etc.). They start to fail around the halfway point in the book, but do better in the movie.
  • The Princess Bride: the Man in Black challenges Vizzini to a duel of wits to the death to determine who will get the titular princess. He has Vizzini fill up a pair of wine goblets with wine, presents Vizzini with iocane powder (a fictitious odorless, tasteless poison that dissolves instantly in liquid), then takes the goblets, secretly pours out the poison where Vizzini cannot see what he's doing, then returns the goblets and challenges Vizzini to determine where the poison is - once Vizzini has determined where the poison is, each will drink from their goblet, and they will learn "who is right, and who is dead". Vizzini goes through a long, complicated line of reasoning about which cup contains the poison, then distracts the Man in Black, getting him to look away and swapping the goblets while his opponent's back is turned. The pair then drink from their cups.
    The Man in Black: You guessed wrong.
    Vizzini: You only think I guessed wrong! That's what's so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha, ha, you fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia! But only slightly less well known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
    *Vizzini topples over and dies*
    Princess: To think, all that time it was your cup that was poisoned.
    The Man in Black: They were both poisoned. I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.
  • From Diggstown:
    [before the 10th fight]
    Gillon: Never try and hustle a hustler, Mr. Caine!
    [after the 10th fight]
    Caine: Actually, I believe it goes: Never con a con-man. Especially one who's better than you are.
  • Hunting Humans is about a battle of wits between two Crazy-Prepared, supposedly-ingenious serial killers, Aric and Dark. The fact that this information comes from a Something Awful review might suggest something about how well it works.
  • Mission: Impossible Film Series:
    • Solomon Lane, the Big Bad of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, is probably the first villain in the series who's able to compete with Ethan Hunt in terms of cunning. Much of the film involves Lane manipulating the protagonists to do what he wants while Ethan works to figure out what Lane is really planning and stop him. In the end, Lane outthinks Ethan at several points, but Ethan prevails in the end through.
    • Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning takes this trope to the next level with the Entity, which as an AI lacks any human vulnerabilities and is capable of accurately predicting of the future based on complex calculations of all the individuals and variables at play in any given scenario, which it uses to manipulate things to ensure its desired outcome. Much the film is the protagonists trying to come up with ways to outthink it, only to realize the Entity already foresaw them doing that and adjusted its plans accordingly.
  • In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty is Holmes initiating his Sherlock Scan to win the battle in his mind before winning it in reality, but Moriarty suddenly undercuts Holmes' strategizing with his own, so it's both of them having a fight in their minds. They both come to the conclusion that Holmes can't win the fight because of his injury, so the actual fight never happens because Holmes decides to Take a Third Option and pull himself and Moriarty over the railings and off a cliff.

  • Sun Tzu's The Art Of War is practically a handbook for these.
  • Discworld:
    • Going Postal. Moist von Lipwig vs Reacher Gilt
    • Lord Vetinari vs... Everyone
  • The Dresden Files: Harry Dresden has a lot of these. While there is invariably a good deal of action involved, he seldom (especially as the series progresses and he plans more carefully) rushes into a confrontation with absolutely no plan whatsoever. The main plan inevitably ends up going wrong to one extent or another, but even if his backup plan ends up being completely useless as well, the nature of magical combat means there'll always be a Xanatos Speed Chess element to the confrontation that prevent it from being a pure slugfest.
  • In The Legend of Drizzt the Thieves' Guild Artemis Entreri joined as a teenager had something called The Quarter Challenge. Four glasses of water on a table with a spinning top, one is poisoned, the challenger and the challenged each has a one in four chance of dying, supposedly. Entreri challenged his sadistic "mentor", lightly chipped the poisoned goblet so a small glint would be visible from his seat only, and stopped the table so the poison would be in front of his mentor, who had the foresight to take the antidote beforehand, but the antidote makes one very hungry so Entreri poisoned the cake he kept in his office, but he also had a Potion of Neutralize Poison, but the poison in the cake was actually crushed glass. Artemis Entreri achieved the rank of lieutenant for his multi-layered deviousness at the age of 14.
  • The Mental State initially appears to be a straight-up psychological thriller, but it quickly evolves into the central character waging one of these against the American prison system itself. He also has several low-level ones against specific people. However, the only adversary who is remotely capable of competing with him is Saif, the local Diabolical Mastermind.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire gives us these dressed in many guises. Even as more unconventionally fight-shaped reposts for when you want to curtail whole massive "conversational" war of sprawling stupidity a bit more cleverly. For all Westeros seems to value brawn over brains, when push comes to shove, the series hammers home the lesson that if you don't fight intelligently with an eye to the long game and using every possible political and rhetorical tool you've got and not just leaving everything to your army or your physical and numerical strength alone, you can and will wind up losing down the line.
    • The Lannisters as a clan specialise in the pragmatic and calculated use of wits... and lots of sarcasm. Tywin and Tyrion, in particular, are both masters: Tywin mainly through deeds (such as outright bribery as much as threats), Tyrion very much through words (bluntly honest, if rather sardonic, advice can be dangerous, but effective). Cersei thinks she's good at this kind of thing. And, she is. Up to a point. The problem is, she could never be as good as she believes herself to be. Kevan is also a surprise contender to many all-too used to him living beneath his brother's shadow. Jaime, too, can also be a left-field surprise — when he gets his headspace right on a good day, since he's not just the Blood Knight many view him as. He rather likes avoiding stupid or, worse, plain boring fights if trolling will work, instead. It's just a pity they all turn their skills on each other as much as they do upon anybody else.
    • Littlefinger isn't averse to pitting his wits and words against all comers. And, by "all comers" we actually mean "the entire continent". Westeros hasn't realised it yet, but he's pretty much hung the Seven Kingdoms out to dry with his conflict-driving schemes. He's not so much avoiding wars as making sure that other people fight costly wars that'll benefit him while he stands well clear of them, waiting to swoop down and pick off any spoils of his choosing.
    • Lord Varys is a one-man, government-subverting machine. He schemes like others eat. Saying he battles with sharp wits, a flair for the dramatic, and a silver tongue to do this is pretty redundant.
    • Historically, this was Brynden Rivers's whole shtick as Hand to two Targaryen kings. Every time the Blackfyres tried to start a rebellion, he undercut each and every attempt by using information, spies, underhanded tactics, rumours, propaganda, and chains of shady strategies and, quite frankly, terrorist actions they (and even his own allies) would never stoop to or expect — including calculated assassinations of relatives at critical points. He got hated and exiled for these extreme actions, but... the cunning worked: the Blackfyres wound up epically losing every time they took to the field, becoming less and less of a threat as they steadily haemorrhaged claimants, support, gold, and other resources over years by refusing to give up. The acme of his efforts? The Second Rebellion failed even before leaving the starting gates — the only major blood spilled was in a tourney... which they had organised, but which he subverted. And in the end, Bloodraven was the easily-loathed Scapegoat the family needed to stabilise things after decades of horrible things. Probably by his own design: deliberately courting negative publicity so actively drew fire away from other movers who had been just as involved in the game.
  • Numerous instances in Wolf Hall, but there's a notable subversion near the end of Bring Up the Bodies. Thomas Cromwell has prepared himself for a long battle of wits to entrap Mark Smeaton by positioning himself as trying to protect Anne Boleyn from all these enemies she's got. Thirty seconds in and Mark is boasting that Anne is desperately in love with him. Cromwell says after, "Well, there aren't many men alive who can say they took me by surprise."
  • In The Machineries of Empire, Cheris and Jedao manage to destroy the invariant ice shield by breaking the operator whose mind controls it.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Breaking Bad became this in its fourth season where the main conflict was the big chess match between Walt and Gus.
  • Kamen Rider Build is a rare Kamen Rider example, as most Toku shows have their heroes stop the villains by punching (or in the case of Rider) Rider Kicking them. Build however features a duo of incredibly cunning evil-doers in Juzaburo Namba and Blood Stalk, both of whom dwarf the good guys in terms of power and resources, and so our Guile Hero Sento often has to rely on his wits to set back their schemes and keep them from accomplishing their goals.
  • Sherlock. Insufferable Genius? Sherlock Holmes. Obsession with complex crimes? Sherlock Holmes. Similarly intelligent rival/arch-foe? Jim Moriarty. Other people might be in danger, but the fight comes down to who can be cleverer. Holmes wins by faking his death, having anticipated Moriarty's plan. However, the Season 3 Cliffhanger implies that Moriarty may have had an ace up his sleeve after all.

  • In Der Ring des Nibelungen's third opera: Siegfried, Wotan (initially disguised as a wanderer) challenges the dwarf Mime to a "Battle of Wits", with the wager being the loser's head, after the dwarf refuses to give him hospitality (all of this was actually a scheme from Wotan who needed to give Mime a piece of important information, the mere "Battle of Wits" was too with the purpose of Mime getting the information).

    Video Games 
  • Double Homework shows a conflict between the brilliant Dennis and the enigmatic Dr. Mosely/Zeta.
  • One of the side-quests in the Original Campaign which comes with Neverwinter Nights has you hunting down an Insufferable Genius escaped criminal known as The Stirge. When you find him, he offers to play a game of wits with you for his life. If you follow the example he gives you when you get to play the real game,you will inevitably lose.

    Western Animation 
  • Bugs Bunny is the patron saint of this trope. Of course, most of his opponents come ill-equipped for a battle of wits, but are generally well-armed otherwise. Perhaps his worthiest opponent is self-proclaimed "super genius" Wile E. Coyote; in this case, Bugs uses Wile E.'s arrogance to his advantage.
  • Rick and Morty: In the Heist Episode, Rick and Heisto-tron performs numerous Gambit Pileups to get a clear advantage over the other until both of them argue into a I Know You Know I Know debate.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Battles Of Wits


Kaguya Outsmarts Shirogane

Kaguya and Shirogane get into a battle of wits on which of them is going to ask the other to share an umbrella, with Kaguya outwitting him since she has been planning it for much longer.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / DuelOfSeduction

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