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Useless Useful Spell

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"Wait, what's this? You only have status-inducing magic spells? Why, those suck!"

A staple of RPGs, your characters can learn attacks or skills such as Instant Death, Poison, Confusion, Paralyze, Silence, and Petrify, or Percent Damage Attacks that at first glance seem incredibly useful. However, in reality these spells are anything but useful, for any, and often several, of the following reasons:

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  1. Any enemy you would want to use these spells on is immune to their effects. If they weren't, the Useless Useful Spell would make things far too easy.
  2. Common enemies that the spells are effective against can easily be disposed of by use of normal attacks, which means there's no sense in wasting time and magic power on fancy maneuvers. Why waste 36MP to cast Instant Death on the local harmless Underground Monkey when you could kill it with a single normal attack?
  3. The spell has a very low success/hit rate, or the casting takes a lot of time. This means that enemies are always able to dodge or block your spell, or your allies will have probably killed whatever it was you were casting the spell on by the time it's ready.
  4. The spell's effect is very situational. Sure, protection from curses sounds great, but is it really worth the trouble when almost nothing uses curses? Or the anti-ice spell that only works if the enemy is a left-handed wizard named "Tim"?
  5. The spell's effects can be replicated by gear or party members, making the spell redundant at best. No sense conjuring magical armor when regular armor does the same thing better.
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Of course, when any enemy possesses such spells, they will invariably be effective when used on you.

As game design has evolved, more recent games have been averting this with spells which would traditionally fall under this trope through several means. One method is including including Elite Mooks that are vulnerable to the effects of the more powerful abilities; enemies significantly tougher than the typical mook, tough enough that they'll give you a hard time in a conventional fight, yet weaker than the harder bosses. Being able to chain stun a Climax Boss might cheapen the fight to the point of meaninglessness; using the resources to chain stun an Elite Mook, however, still leaves the player having to deal with all of the mechanics of the more powerful bosses. Another method is having these abilities have lesser, but still useful, effects on bosses they would otherwise hard counter; poison immunity against a boss which relies on inflicting a highly potent poison, for example, may wear off at an accelerated rate, or may cause the poison to do less damage, while still offering more protection than no immunity at all. Yet another method is by limiting how often these abilities can be applied to the boss; a boss may, for example, build up resistance (temporarily or permanently) to a status effect as it is repeatedly applied, leaving one to either try to finish the fight as quickly as possible, or apply the status effect at the best possible opportunity (such as stunning before a Herd-Hitting Attack wipes your team out.)

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Subtrope of Underused Game Mechanic. Super-Trope to Contractual Boss Immunity. When an otherwise Useless Useful Spell is redeemed by being useful against a specific boss or in a particular situation, it is Not Completely Useless.


Examples:

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    Card Games 
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!, in its diverse card pool, definitely has some duds.
    • Several cards are specifically designed to counter a very powerful card, and potentially reverse its effect on the opponent. Gryphon Wing counters Harpie's Feather Duster, Anti-Raigeki counters Raigeki, Call of the Dead counters Monster Reborn, etc. However, those powerful cards are either Limited or banned, and these specific counter cards are absolutely useless in any other situation. It's often simpler to negate powerful plays with more general-purpose effect negations.
      • There are three cards that rely on the use of Pot of Greed: Spirit of the Pot of Greed, Avatar of the Pot of Greed and Jar Robber. The first two increase the draw of the Pot from two to three and the other negates the opponent's use of it and lets you draw one card... thing is, Pot of Greed is banned, so they're actually totally useless.
    • Final Destiny has a devastating "destroy all cards on the field" effect... but it requires you to discard five cards to use it. A six-card hand (counting Final Destiny itself) in a well-built Deck would probably contain two or three options to take out your opponent's field anyway, and those options wouldn't require you to cripple yourself. Not to mention that if you draw it late in the game, you're likely to have spent most of your hand at that point, making it completely useless.
    • Super Polymerization was this for a while, despite being a central card in the series. Unlike regular Polymerization, it cost a card from your hand and couldn't fuse cards in the hand (which makes trying to Fusion Summon with it very slow). Its first advantages (can't be negated and a Quick-Play) were okay, but its main attraction (can use opponent's cards in the Fusion) was less so. Simply put, it was highly unlikely that your opponent would have the right Monster on the field for you to fuse, unless you were trying to Summon a card with very vague requirements. As a result, Super Polymerization ended up being a much costlier, much slower version of Polymerization (which wasn't a very good card in the first place)... until Fusion monsters with very flexible material requirements, like the Attribute Heroes and Shaddolls, came out, resulting in the card becoming limited.
    • Infinite Cards and Hieroglyph Lithograph remove the hand size limit, altering a fundamental rule of the game. However, if you have more than six cards in your hand, the thing you should be doing is playing as many as you can, not letting them sit in your hand and take up space... and you certainly shouldn't be playing a card designed to make them continue to sit in your hand and take up space. A handful of cards get advantages for having a lot of cards in the hand, but most of them are awful, and the few that aren't (most famously Slifer) would be considered overkill with six cards in the hand, much less seven.
    • Instant-Win Condition cards often enter this territory, with a special mention being reserved for Final Countdown. It wins you the Duel in 20 turns, which is obviously quite powerful, but to use the card essentially requires that you dedicate your entire deck to drawing Final Countdown and then stalling for those turns. Not only does this give your opponent plenty of time to build up resources and stomp your face the moment you run out of defenses, but the overall strategy is incredibly boring to use.
    • In recent years, thanks to so much generic support for every monster type, card type and the infamous Link Summoning, pretty much every card in the game has some sort of use. It may not be the best tool for the job, but it can do it you try hard enough.
      • Examples include Shapesnatch or Morinphen, two notoriously terrible normal monsters in the TCG and OCG respectivly. The former is a Normal Level 5 Machine, one of the best type and level combos in the game. Cyber Dragon Nova and First of the Dragons can easily be made with him. Not to mention the pendulum normals which make such plays more viable.
      • Then there are cards like Larvae Moth. There's no beating around the bush or secret strategy here. He's just useless in every way.
    • As the metagame changes and different decks with differing weaknesses gain popularity, formerly useless cards can break out of this trope, becoming an Achilles' Heel or a powerful support to whatever's popular. For instance, Summoner's Art, a Spell which only searched the deck for high-level Normal Monsters which very few people would play, became an instant hit once Qliphorts broke into the scene, as that Spell could search for their very important Qliphort Scout.
  • Magic: The Gathering has quite a few:
    • Sorrow's Path is too complicated and far too expensive. Being able to swap your opponent's blocking creatures is merely okay. Having to pay 2 life and suffer 2 damage to every creature you control is like saving money on glasses by stabbing yourself in both eyes.
    • Apocalypse Chime destroys all Homelands cards. If Homelands cards other than Autumn Willow and Baron Sengir were actually useful, this card would be.
    • Common Cause. Pointless since all Nonartifact creatures must be the same color, even your opponents. Stupid errata...and even if you manage to make it work, it benefits your opponent's creatures, too!
    • Spells and abilities that endow creatures and to a lesser extent other permanents with specific abilities (including but not limited to the aura subtype of enchantments) may fall under this. Consider Flight. From the enchanted creature's perspective, it's potentially a great effect — it gains flying if it didn't have it already, allowing it to bypass most non-flying blockers and/or block flying attackers itself. Get to the point where you actually want to put the card into a deck, though, and you'll soon realize that if having flyers is important to your strategy, you'd best include a number of creatures that have the ability in and of themselves already in case you don't actually draw that Flight card...yet the more of those you have, the less good the card actually does you in the first place! (This logic does not, of course, apply to abilities that actually have a cumulative effect. However, many of the more commonly granted abilities — like flying, first strike, or trample — do not fall into this category.) Then, there's the issue that the empowered creature isn't necessarily any harder to kill, potentially taking the entire investment in extra cards, mana, and/or other resources to the graveyard with it...
    • Magic the Gathering also has a fair share of "instant win" cards — as in, they actually SAY "You win the game" or "Target player loses the game". However, they're either highly situational, require a certain action that will almost certainly get interrupted, or are just ridiculously expensive.
    • And we have Great Wall, generally considered the worst card in the game. All it does is let you block creatures with plainswalk, of which there are only four that no one uses, only one of which was around when Great Wall was released (and it was terrible). Landwalk as a whole has been made obsolete, but even when it wasn't, plainswalk was the rarest type, partly for flavor reasons and partly to avoid confusion with "planeswalking", a concept which, unlike plainswalk, is actually rather important to Magic.
    • And speaking of plainswalk, consider Aysen Highway, which gives all white creatures plainswalk. The problem? Well, first, it costs six mana, which is just absurdly high, on par with the strongest creatures in its set. The second is that plainswalk is only useful, by its nature, if your opponent has a Plains out. The third is that it affects both sides, and if you're using a lot of white creatures, you probably have a Plains out, too - and if your opponent has a Plains out, they're probably using white creatures themselves. Basically, you splurge all your mana on a situational ability - and in the one situation where it would be handy, your opponent gets it, too.
    • What about Mudhole, a card that removes all the lands from a player's graveyard which is flat-out inferior to cheaper options (including Tormod's Crypt, an artifact with a 0 mana cost!) which just remove their entire graveyard? The only practical use would be to get around removing a specific non-land card in your opponent's graveyard to screw over some bizarre combo that doesn't even exist yet.
    • Shelkin Brownie has the ability to remove "bands with other" abilities from creatures. At the time it was printed, there were literally zero creatures with printed "bands with other" abilities (much later, a Joke Character card with the ability was released in the set Unhinged, but these cards aren't usable in any but the most casual formats). There's a creature that can create tokens with a "bands with others" ability, and a cycle of lands that can grant your Legendary creatures "bands with other legends". But the tokens cost a ridiculous amount, and the lands had the drawback of being unable to produce mana. On top of all that, "bands with other" was already a Useless Useful Spell, as it was a variant of the weak and confusing "banding" ability that managed to be even weaker and more confusing. So nobody ever actually used "bands with others" anyway.
    Mark Gottlieb: If only Shelkin Brownie could remove “bands with other” from the rulebook.
    • In terms of keyword abilities, there are a few. For example, Wizards of the Coast stopped printing cards with Landwalk in 2015 because, against some decks, they were unbelievably overpowered, but most of the time, they did literally nothing. Intimidate and Protection from (quality) had similar problems.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons
    • Status effect spells, at one time, inverted this. The game made traditionally Useless Useful Spells into the most powerful in its 3rd edition, with direct damage spells falling well below them in power level. This is because most spells are equally likely to succeed in affecting a foe, thus a spell which can kill a foe instantly is far more effective than a spell which can just hurt one. Some status-affecting spells automatically succeed, and many others essentially cripple enemies by disabling them for long periods of time, allowing players to kill them without fear of retaliation. Relatively few foes are immune to such spells, while many foes are resistant to elemental damage spells. A wide variety of spells which don't even directly harm opponents are also extremely powerful, and all in all this leads to wizards and other powerful spellcasters being game breakers.
      • This is still played straight with enemies in the Epic Level Handbook. Nine times out of ten, epic enemies are immune to paralysis, sleep, polymorphing, level draining, instant death, and basically anything that could so much as slow them down. In turn, these monsters will almost always have abilities that amount to "save or die" for a whole group, and one or two even nastier epic spells. Plus, Epic Spellcasting effectively turns any character that's at least Level 21 into a Person of Mass Destruction. The fact that they pretty much ignore most of the limits and immunities created by normal spellcasting means that status effects are never going to get used at all. In addition, end boss characters like dragons and Vampire Lords typically have Legendary Saves that allow them to automatically succeed in a saving throw (on top of huge natural bonuses to saving throws). So, good luck polymorphing that dragon.
    • Healing spells in Third Edition and its spin-offs. Most of the spells available heal too little HP and come with too many built-in downsides to be worth using in combat; it's more efficient for all but the most dedicated healers to focus on just killing the enemies before they kill you. Outside combat, the wide availability of magic items, hit dice, and ways to recover health by resting means that it's usually more practical to just wait until combat's over before recovering health.
      • A large part of why healing and damage spells are so much weaker in 3rd edition is that while they heal or deal approximately the same amount of damage as their AD&D equivalents, characters and monsters have far more health, especially at high levels. For example, the powerful demons called Balors only have ~58HP in 2nd edition. In 3.5, they have 290! Fireball caps out at 10d6 damage (avg 35) in both editions, but that barely scratches 3.5 monsters who would be half-dead in AD&D.
    • Oddly enough, the trope is followed in Dungeons & Dragons Online, the MMORPG. Although instant kills are still very effective against Mooks, bosses are immune to most if not all mind-affecting and instant death spells. Thankfully, this only applies to the main bosses of dungeons, and, anyway, fights with them are not supposed to be "CHAAARGE! -- Oh, he died." They seem to be attempting to fix this with the recent spell passes, and prestiges for Wizards and Sorcerors. If you're soloing as a Pale Master, Wail and Finger are still the best bang for your buck, spell-point-wise.
    • In 4th Edition, direct-damage and status-effect spells are much more balanced. Although very few enemies are immune to status effect spells, most of those spells can be ended with a "saving throw" that the victim has at least a coin flip's chance of making every round. Most status effects don't last more than a few rounds anyway. It is possible to 'permanently' stun an enemy at high levels by giving an enemy such a high save penalty that he can't succeed, but by that time, you can probably take out such an enemy with direct attacks very quickly. The guys you really want to lock down for a round or two are usually the same guys that have bonuses on all of their saving throws, giving them a greater chance of breaking out. Thus, a condition like "until the end of your next turn" is much more useful than "until they make the saving throw".
    • 3.5 edition's Cleric spells like Righteous Might and Divine Power tend to fall into this category. A fully-buffed Cleric is perhaps the deadliest close-range combat fighter in the game, with absurdly high Strength and damage, along with full casting prowess and tons of other significant buffs. But by the time you're finished casting all the spells to buff the Cleric that much, the fight's either almost over or you'll need to focus on bringing people back from the dead. (This is one of the main reasons that the Persistant Spell feat, which could rig the buffs to last a whole day, was considered a Game-Breaker.)
    • Detect Undead isn't that useful compared to Detect Evil, since that can do everything Detect Undead could do, but better. Detect Evil is the same spell level, lasts ten times as long, and usually picks up every undead creature anyways because the undead are almost always Evil-aligned. The only saving grace Detect Undead has is that it appears on the wizard's spell list and might potentially find Good-aligned undead, but Detect Undead is so situational compared to Detect Evil that it's usually not worth wasting a spell slot. 5th Edition made Detect Undead even more useless by changing Detect Evil to Detect Evil and Good, meaning even Detect Undead's one saving grace is now gone.
    • Wish often seems like it should be treated as a Useless Useful Spell. In theory, the Wish spell is "the mightiest magic a mortal can wield", since it grants you a wish for basically anything you want. But it's traditional for the DM to scrutinize all wishes for ways to punish the wisher. Wish also eventually got some drawbacks to put it under Too Awesome to Use or Godzilla Threshold territory; among them, if you wish for something other than replicating the effect of another spell, there's a chance you can never cast Wish again as long as you live. The drawbacks and potential Killer Game Master tendencies associated with Wish means it's almost not worth the trouble, even if its effects are incredible.
    • Melf's Minute Meteors can deal more damage than Fireball (12d6 on each of three to six rounds), and is far more precise, letting you chose several smaller areas to hit, rather than one large area. But, Melf's Minute Meteors takes three rounds to get its full effect, after which you probably won't have a lot left to use them on.
    • One interesting thing that 5th Edition did was add the Ritual tag to some spells, specifically ones that lacked combat utility. In older editions, spells like Identify or Leomond's Tiny Hut were things you'd typically only bother with by way of magic wands or spell scrolls. Ritual spells can be cast without using a spell slot... it just takes at least ten minutes to do it. And since each round of combat in D&D is said to take six seconds, there's no way you're taking a hundred turns to cast that spell.
  • In some ways the blast weapons of Warhammer 40,000 is starting to turn this way. Most blast weapons are quite powerful, especially heavy ordnance weapons, but due to the new way of resolving Blast weapons, you'd be pretty lucky if the shot land anywhere near your intended target (it's entirely possible that the shot will make a "return to sender" move, and there's a good chance of it happening too!). While a Space Marine can be very accurate with his aim-based Krak Missile, he is a worse shot than a drunk stormtrooper when it comes to firing the explosive Frag variant. Both missiles are fired from the same weapon.
    • Also, there are very powerful weapons called meltas that basically take any vehicle or Elite Mook and melt them into slag. However, nearly all meltas in the game have a 12" range (pretty much the shortest range outside of some irregular Tyranid ones) and only obtain their extra armour penetration ability within half that. While Space Marines with insane defenses can quite happily walk up to an enemy Heavy Support unit and annihilate it with one of these, more physically frail units like Eldar will often find themselves floored by the entire enemy's weapons before they can fire them. Which is why everyone pulls them in a transport, and thanks to the Eldar having some of the fastest ones in the game it completely makes the meltas range issue moot.
      • The tyranids have a variant of this. Warp Lance is a powerful Anti-tank weapon with a Strength value of 10 and AP value of 1 (the best the stats can be) as well as the Lance attribute, meaning the only thing it's short of being the best anti-tank weapon in the game is Melta. It however only has a range of 18 inches, just barely outside of charging range. On top of that the Zoanthrope is a classic example of a Squishy Wizard, having a low number of wounds and a save easily penetrable by rapid-fire weapons, not to mention being gibbed by most tank weapons, the very things it's trying to hunt. There is also a slight chance that the Zoanthrope will suffer a brain tumor if the spell goes awry.
    • Pinning is worse off. Blast and Melta weapons have limitations that can be overcome, as the tank-happy Imperial Guard are happy to demonstrate. Pinning requires that the enemy is vulnerable to it. Most armies have either a preponderance of Fearless units (Chaos Marines, Chaos Daemons, Tyranids, Orks), very high Leadership (Space Marines, Eldar, Dark Eldar), or else use many small units of infantry who rely on tanks for their big hitters (Imperial Guard). Ironically, one of the few armies vulnerable to Pinning, the Tau, are its biggest users.
    • For Grey Knight Paladins, Feel No Pain. Paladins are Terminators that have 2 wounds, and with Feel No Pain can virtually double that survivability because statistically half the wounds of small arms fires will be ignored. Looks great on paper, not so much in practice. The Apothecary upgrade needed for that Fn P costs 75 points, enough for another Paladin to join the squad (note that this upgrade does not give the unit another body, it just makes an existing Paladin an apothecary). On top of that, because of their high armor save and 2 wounds, Paladins are scared shitless of any AP 2 or Strength 8+ weapons already, which are the only things that will now stop their Feel No Pain, turning them from once being possible targets to now Tankshell magnets. Several who argued that Feel No Pain was considered a Game-Breaker later had a serious case of Did Not Think This Through.
  • Star Wars Saga Edition had a few feats that at best had a bit of use at lower levels but were garbage at higher ones. Toughness increased your hit points by your level, but could only be taken by Soldiers who tended to have massive amounts of health anywaynote . Force Boon gave you three extra Force Points each level, but meditation could restore Force Points anyway and higher levels gave plenty as is. Any Armor Proficencies a character didn't start with were pointless due to the fact Armor Is Useless without certain class-specific talents. Linguist gave additional languages based on your intellect modifier but characters already knew additional languages based on their intellect modifier and most could get by with Basic, Huttese, and Bocce which were by far the most common.

    Gamebooks 
  • Lone Wolf:
    • Grey Star's Prophecy and Psychomancy are pretty good at eliminating variables when faced with a choice — sometimes. Psychomancy can just give you a warped riddle that may or may not be right, and Prophecy sometimes completely fails to illustrate the nature of your impending doom. Use it when you're in a valley of poison gas, it just goes "GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT" without saying which way to go.
    • The New Order series adds on "Astrology" to the list of Kai-Disciplines. It's supposed to let you look into the far future rather than the immediate future like Sixth Sense does, but the opportunities to use it come up so rarely it's like the author forgot he put it in the list (only once in the first New Order book, and not at all in the next two). The few times it comes up, you tend to get a Vagueness Is Coming reading, too.
    • For that matter, the Grandmaster upgrade for the previously quite useful Sixth Sense / Divination ability, Telegnosis, is mostly useless, and occasionally actually counterproductive. There are several instances where you take damage simply because you have Telegnosis.

    Other Games 
  • There exists a variant of Rock–Paper–Scissors where one may cast two other moves in addition to the three standards. The first, "Fire", beats Rock, Paper, and Scissors, but may only be cast once in a person's entire lifetime. (Presumably, players of this variant use the honors system.) The second, "Water", can be used an unlimited number of times, but loses to everything...except Fire, against which it is an automatic victory. The conditions for using Fire however are so ludicrous that nobody would ever have reason to use it, which makes its counter equally useless. Thus, in practice, the game is identical to standard Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Alternative Title(s): Useless Useful Skill

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