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Fake Wizardry

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Pay no attention to The Man Behind the Curtain!
So, you live in a world with magic. That's got to be pretty awesome, right? Wait, what?

Sorry, did you just say that you fake the tricks you do?

Yes, you might be the one guy who doesn't have magic powers in this setting and have to find some way to make up for the disadvantage, you might not have developed your wizarding powers yet but know some killer sleight of hand that will put you up with the best for whatever deceptive reason you choose, or you might be that bastard of a con-man who needs to use stage tricks for part of a certain plan to achieve something that magic just couldn't do. Presenting the trope: there's real magic here, but illusion is being used.

Reasons for this can vary wildly, but usually it's done to either intimidate opponents into backing off or as part of some elaborate scam or con scheme. One particular scene which seems to be the favourite for Fake Wizardry employment is the climactic scene where the heroes scare off the big bad through elaborately-prepared stunts that make it look as if they have some insanely powerful form of magic (which they don't even though it exists).

Other times, a certain feat of über-powerful magic may be some big rumour that it's possible for the most studious or powerful of wizards to achieve. Naturally, some guy is going to either fake this to show off or for the more practical purpose of scaring his enemies/friends either away or into treating him like royalty. That super magic might even be legendary or prophetic, and the wizard fakes having it so that he will become The Chosen One.

If it's not done for benevolent means, expect it to be followed-up by the plot where everyone discovers that the wizard is a fake and the Aesop that they shouldn't fake advanced magic powers... except for those times when you should. (These times being when you're The Hero and... well, you're the hero, or if you're a slightly shady member of the good side who gets away with ends-justifying-means actions.)

If the fake magic manages to not only fool everyone, but actually overpower real magic users, then it's a case of Muggles Do It Better.

Contrast Magicians Are Wizards, where someone with actual magical powers presents them as stage trickery.

Can be related to This Is My Boomstick and Magic from Technology. A subtrope of Sham Supernatural; see also its sister tropes Phony Psychic, God Guise, and "Scooby-Doo" Hoax.

Compare Clarke's Third Law, which means that magic and sophisticated technology can't be distinguished.

Has nothing to do with a bootleg Wizardry.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Goddess Creation System Xiaxi scores the interest of the crown prince by pretending to be able to predict the weather, cause fires and freeze objects. She's actually making use of a magic forecasting system that doesn't belong to her and using chemistry too advanced for ancient Chinese to recognize. Later, she cements her position as a sage by showing vast knowledge of mathematics... relatively speaking, since she can't actually teach anything about middle school level.
  • Mashle: Magic and Muscles takes place in a Wizarding World styled universe where everyone is born with magic abilities. The protagonist Mash Burnedead is one of the rare few (seemingly) born without any magic at all, but he is able to get into a wizarding school. How is he able to skirt by? Since he's ridiculously athletic and strong even for a magic-attuned teen, he's able to pass off his control over his muscles as magic.
  • Played for Laughs in Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid when Tohru and Kanna mistake a spoon bending illusion on the TV for actual magic. They spend the rest of the chapter trying to learn how to do it (with a stereotypical martial arts training montage). It's not that it's more powerful than their own magic (Tohru is practically a full blown Reality Warper) but their pride as dragons doesn't let them accept that humans can do something that they can't.
  • On one episode of Ojamajo Doremi the girls had a magic exam, during which they had to defeat other witches who obviously had many years of experience and vast numbers of spells in their arsenals. What did they do to impress them and win the competition? STAGE MAGIC TRICKS of course, and since the witches were so used to using real magic they didn't question if the magic was real. They assumed they were rare tricks even for them (like Doremi rotating her head many times).

    Comic Books 
  • The gimmick behind several villains in Marvel Comics. Any one of those real mystics — like, oh, say, Doctor Strange — could probably discredit them pretty effectively, but somehow they never get around to it.
    • Fantastic Four: The Wizard fakes it using advanced tech he invented and Miracle Man fakes it using mass hypnosis.
    • Iron Man: Iron Man once fought Merlin, later retconned to be an impostor named Maha Yogi. He duped the knights of the Round Table with his knowledge of rare herbs (of the sort that let him fake his death for centuries), and considerable psychic power, but has no "real" magic.
    • Spider-Man: Mysterio uses mastery of special effects to fool people into thinking he's got magical powers. By now Spidey knows full well he's faking it, but the effects are just good enough that guessing the nature of the trick can still be a chore.

    Fan Works 
  • The Awakening of a Magus: At one point, Tonks, disguised as Harry, is asked to do some healing, which Harry is talented in but she isn't so much. In reality, the real Harry is the one providing the healing from across the room.
  • The Big Four Cjupsher Series: While Agent Esmerelda does know real magic and can be considered a member of the magical community, most of her magic are parlor tricks effective out of misdirection, something PH saw through instantly.
  • In the Bleak Midwinter (TheLoud): When Tom Riddle Sr learns that his son will face prejudice as a half-blood, he takes what appears to him like a sensible approach, and simply pretends to be a pureblood wizard. Since he already knows well how to behave as an aristocrat, and since he is able to obtain some amount of magical help from Hermione and Dobby, his deception is remarkably effective. After all, if a family has a Floo connection, gets the Daily Prophet, is served by a house elf, routinely travels by Portkey, and dresses in robes, surely they're witches and wizards, right?

    Film — Animation 
  • My Little Pony: A New Generation: The royal family of Zephyr Heights uses wires and strategic lighting to make it appear as if they can still fly, to provide a small sliver of hope for the grounded pegasi.
  • The Prince of Egypt: Pharaoh's priests rely on magic tricks to simulate magic powers. Obviously, Moses (via God) was able to do what they pretend to do and more.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In Hocus Pocus Max is able to scare the witches long enough to flee with his friends by convincing them that he has powerful magic. He does this by setting off the sprinkler system with a lighter, neither of which the witches have ever seen.
  • Oz the Great and Powerful: In the climax of the movie, Oscar "Oz" Diggs devises a plan that centers on making a big stage trick that the Wicked Witches will confuse for real magic. During the "final battle", he creates a fake apparition of himself with smoke makers and a projector (helped by the friendly tinkers) while claiming that "Oscar Diggs died so the great Oz could be free". Its scare tactic works greatly as, when the witches shoot fireballs at it, he appears to vanish but then reappears himself (because the tinkers turn the projector on and off by his command).
  • Willow: Willow is seen early on doing conjuring tricks for his friends. During the climactic confrontation with the evil sorceress Bavmorda, Willow claims to have magic powers beyond her comprehension and makes the MacGuffin disappear with a Disappearing Box trick.

  • In the Polish novel Agent Dołu, the main character (the heir to Satan's throne) inspects a school for Hell's agents, ran by the devil Belphegor. The students all seemingly have inhuman powers, and include a faceless shapeshifter, a Superman Expy, an anthropomorphic cat man, an Egyptian mummy, and a semi-humanoid half-worm half-octopus. However, the main character discovers that they are all mundane humans wearing realistic costumes (including Belphegor himself), putting a long con on Satan. None of them realized the others were also human.
  • Illegal on Darkover. When a visiting Terran, Andrew Carr, informs Ellemir Alton that he was shown a "vision" of her sister Callista by what he thought was just a Phony Psychic in the city, Ellemir is shocked that he would think such a thing because on Darkover pretending to psychic powers that one does not actually possess is a very serious crime. This is due to the planet being ruled by a Supernatural Elite, to which Ellemir and Callista belong, with actual psychic powers.
  • In The Darksword Trilogy, not being a wizard is punishable by (sorta) death. Joram is taught sleight of hand as a child to escape this.
  • Discworld
    • Witches know magic, but also know better than to use it if they don't have to. At the same time, they need to demonstrate their power to maintain respect (and if you ain't got respect, you ain't got a thing). Tricks and the placebo effect usually work just as well for this, and if they don't, then you can make someone's hat explode.
    • Having said that, Granny Weatherwax, a witch who's powerful enough that she does use real magic a lot, has a sort of inversion in Maskerade, when she's utterly contemptious that people keep believing in her powers rather than realising she could easily fake the results by mundane means ... even though she's not, and is actually using magic. "That's not the point. I might have been."
    • "Conjurers" on the Discworld are stage magicians who openly admit that they don't use magic at all but sleight-of-hand and other real-world illusion techniques. It's stated at one point that wizards despise them, but that ordinary people admire them simply because they use skills that anyone can develop instead of arcane and unearned talent.
  • There was a funny variant on this in the Dragon Lance series... during Raistlin's time-traveling tutelage under the Great Big Bad Evil Wizard Fistandantilus. At one point, he and several other apprentices are asked to demonstrate their magical proficiency in a room heavily warded with anti-magic - allowing them to rattle off the right incantations without actually blowing anything up.

    That is, until Raistlin shows off by producing an actual fireball along with his incantations. Everyone is terribly impressed, since it seems like he's managed to break through wards set up by Fistandantilus himself, but as it turns out, it was all just sleight of hand - he palmed a small alchemical firecracker and threw it to coincide with his spell. A skill hailing back to before he learned actual magic, when he practiced stage-magic for kicks.
  • Forest Kingdom: In book 2 (Blood and Honor), Jordan, the main protagonist, is a down on his luck stage actor who uses stage fire magic to good effect against his opponents while posing as a mage prince with elemental fire powers.
  • Junior Jedi Knights: The final two books feature Orloc, a supposed Dark Side mage, who turns out to be just a conman using various gadgets to make it look like he can use the Force.
  • Zig-Zagged in the Land of Oz. Magic is real, but the Wizard gets by on stage magic until Glinda the Good teaches him some real magic.
  • In Michael Pryor's The Laws of Magic, people watch stage magicians because they don't use any magic, as magic is common enough that doing so would be considered the easy way out.
  • Discussed in Magicians of Gor. Tarl and his friend Marcus hire a stage magician to steal a McGuffin; Marcus, like those of Gor generally, believes in magic and that the stage magician can do real magic. The stage magician assures Marcus that he will use mundane stage magic to steal the McGuffin rather than real magic, since it will be more humiliating for those from whom the McGuffin is stolen.
  • Not stage magic proper, but at one point in The Malloreon a Grolim sorcerer uses a fake demon invocation plus an illusion spell as Step One in taking over a Karand kingdom. Belgarath counters with a fake invocation of his own and a far scarier illusion that sends the Karands fleeing for their lives.
  • Redwall: Some seers do have genuine powers of vision, but for the most part they use flashy powders that make colored smoke and an exotic appearance to lend credence to their act.
  • The Second Apocalypse: Faking sorcery would be very difficult and dangerous, since the practice of magic is clearly visible to actual sorcerers, but that doesn't stop Anasûrimbor Kellhus from faking non-sorcerous "miracles". He regularly uses his analytical super-intelligence to appear to read minds or to prophesize future events. One of his more spectacular "miracles" comes when, in the middle of a vast desert, he points to a spot in the sand and tells his followers to dig there. When they do, they find a wellspring that saves the entire Holy War from almost certain death by exposure. Presumably he was able to detect the presence of an underground spring by some subtle cue, but to his followers it's obvious proof that he's favored by the God. (Of course, he becomes less reliant on deceptive tricks when he learns how to use actual magic.)
  • In A Song of Ice and Fire the sorceress Melisandre definitely has magical powers, but they are weaker than she lets on, and so to maintain her image, she uses colorful powders, chemicals and the like. Making the stage magician connection is the fact that she literally keeps her "supplements" up her sleeves.
  • In one of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a con artist poses as a wizard to fool a rather gullible king. And then a real witch shows up...

    Live-Action TV 
  • MacGyver (1985): In the 2-part "Good Knight, MacGyver", Mac is transported by to court of King Arthur, and ends up in a wizard's duel against Merlin. Mac quickly realises that all of Merlin's "magical powers" are actually simple conjuring tricks.
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi: Haja Estree is a con artist on Daiyu who pretends to be a Jedi and uses carefully hidden remote controls in his meeting room to make it look like he's using the Force. Obi-Wan, an actual Jedi, is not happy that Haja is using the name of his Order to scam people, but Haja insists that he's giving people hope with the charade.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dragon introduced a Prestige Class for Dungeons & Dragons called the "Charlatan", which gains various abilities to fake magical powers, either through making spells cast through items appear to be cast by you personally, faking the results with alchemical items, or placebo effect.
  • The Gates of Hell: The game describes a devil named Byzine, who has several undercover identities, including a necromancer serving Orcus. Since he doesn't have a lot of necromantic magic at his disposal, he mostly relies on scrolls and such to create the impression.

    Video Games 
  • In Quest for Glory I, a large group of brigands are terrorizing the countryside, aided in part by a strange wizard. Hints are dropped throughout the game, however, that said wizard isn't really using magic, and in the end the "wizard" turns out to be the local baron's old jester, who has been using a mixture of intelligence, stage magic, blinding powders, and the rudimentary magic that even a non magic user can wield by knowing the right words or ingredients to mix together.
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider: Lara encounters someone pretending to be Baba Yaga in the Wicked Vale level. Her apparent possession of sorcerous powers is made possible through the use of hallucinogenic spores that grow in the area and ransacked leftover technology.

    Western Animation 
  • On Avatar: The Last Airbender we have the elemental benders, people who can manipulate one of the four classical elements (and the Avatar who can control all of them) and use them for Combat or everyday uses. However, not all people are benders, including Sokka, the Badass Normal of the Gaang. He has used some tricks to recreate similar effects, like bombs as fake firebending or using air pressure (provided by airbending, but the witnesses didn't knew that) to make rocks float on the air and pretend it's earthbending. In one episode they even used sneaky application of bending to fake the actions of a powerful water spirit.
  • The Fairly OddParents! featured Merlin in one episode, who constantly "teleported" by throwing up a dust cloud and running. He's shown using real magic at the end, so it's possible teleportation just isn't his strong suit.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Some of the episodes with Trixie Lulamoon, a stage magician pony in a world of real magic users, play with this. While Trixie is a magical unicorn and thus has some magical talent, it mostly lies in illusions and stage effects. In comparison, the show's magical prodigy protagonist, Twilight Sparkle has a broad range of magical talents. Trixie supplements her meager talents with stage tricks and props.
    • In Trixie's debut episode "Boast Busters", Trixie leaves town by using a smokescreen to (poorly) cover her exit.
    • Played with in the episode "Magic Duel". Twilight Sparkle defeats Trixie (who currently was using an Amplifier Artifact of Doom to cast more powerful magic spells), by using a useless Magic Feather trinket and stage magic tricks to simulate even more powerful magic that Trixie was unable to do and fool her into taking off the Artifact to get the Magic Feather (and therefore removing her powerful magic amplifier). Twilight essentially beats Trixie at her own game.
    • In "To Where and Back Again Part 2", Trixie's stage magic actually comes in handy when she and a ragtag group of creatures have to enter a non-magic zone in order to save Equestria.
  • Played with in The Owl House episode "Through the Looking Glass Ruins" where Luz gives Gus a stack of glyphs so he can impress some kids from another school. The magic is real, he's just making it look like he's casting spells the normal way.
  • In The Smurfs (1981), Papa Smurf uses fake wizardry twice: once when he posed as Sorcerer Smurf to rescue his little Smurfs from Gargamel, and another time when Gargamel cast a spell on Papa Smurf that blocked him from using his real magic.
  • Thundarr the Barbarian: In the episode "Master of the Stolen Sunsword", Thundarr battles Yondo, a "wizard" whose powers turn out to all be fake and based on stage magic. Despite this, Yondo is a formidable opponent for Thundarr and company, giving them more trouble than many real wizards they battled.
  • Young Justice: The first season episode "Denial" confirms the existence of real magic in the show's universe. The villain Abra Kadabra, however, uses advanced technology from the future to fake magical powers. Kadabra joins forces with Klarion, a genuine magic user, in hopes of getting bona fide supernatural abilities.

    Real Life 
  • The Amazing Randi was an accomplished Stage Magician who turned in his career to debunking charlatans who claimed to have paranormal abilities or psychic powers. Randi would show how their feats could be easily replicated using stage illusions, and challenge them to perform them in a way that would not allow for trickery, which, of course, they couldn't do.
  • Harry Houdini similarly used his expertise in illusionism to expose phony mediums who used magic tricks to fake the manifestations of spirits at their seances. Houdini in fact believed (or wanted to believe) that communication with spirits was possible, but he was disgusted by frauds who used fakery to deceive vulnerable people. Arthur Conan Doyle, a fervent believer in spiritism towards the end of his life, instead thought Houdini had Anti-Magic powers.
  • Uri Geller was a self-proclaimed psychic who gained fame for demonstrating telekinetic feats such as bending spoons on television. Skeptics such as Martin Gardner and the above mentioned James Randi observed that none of Geller's feats were ones that couldn't be replicated by magic tricks. When Johnny Carson (himself a trained Stage Magician) invited Geller onto The Tonight Show to demonstrate his "powers", but provided his own props that Geller wasn't allowed to have access to before the show, Geller demurred and said "I'm not feeling strong tonight." (Watch the video.)
  • Infamous faith healer and televangelist Peter Popoff was busted for this. During his live performances, he would display apparent omniscience, knowing the names, addresses and ailments of people he had never met, it turned out that this information was discreetly provided to him by his wife from the forms filled out by the audience.