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Lets face it our mages are not the holk hogans of the magic weilding community and no one likes to see there 180pt mage hit the deck. Was just wanting to pick your brains as to what you reckon is the best place for your mage for saftey and effectiveness. eg. Most of the time i stick mine in with the spearmen but find i hold back on the unit as i dont want my mage in close combat.
I always place my mages in either archers or spearmen. Occasionally in the SM when I play fluffy but as you mentioned I don't want them in CC so it's no the best place.
When I stick them with the archers they are safe from CC but sometimes I wish they could be closer to the enemy to be sure to get some of the short ranged spells of. This is when the spearmen come in handy as they provide useful protection and don't waste to much points. Plus they can come in handy for table quarters and static combat res late in the game.
5000p. High Elves
Spearmen or archer units seem to be the commonly accepted place to put them although I have seen gingerninja put him in swordmaster units.
If he gets challenged them he'll just refuse and retire to the rear anyway.
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There are a few options other than Archers or Spearmen, but they are typically only good for specific circumstances. As swntzu pointed out, one of them is the Mage carrying Jewel or Scroll + Sacred Incense joining a Swordmaster unit, but this is only truly effective if you are running 7-wide and have at least a second rank, so that you can send your mage to hide if necessary and you aren't hurt in terms of losing attacks from the reduced frontage.
The other choices I think are less common, mostly because they can leave your mages very exposed: 1) deploying / jumping in with an RBT crew, or 2) joining Phoenix Guard unit that also has a Noble, or 3) mounting him on a non-barded steed and letting him run around with a Reavers unit.
The first is only really good against armies that don't have good flyers / scouts that get around your defenses and harass your Bolt Throwers. On the plus side, they are nearly immune from shooting and they are unlikely to be engaged by your opponent's better troops, which will happen if you place with the Spearmen or elite infantry units.
The second is kind of risky. The idea is to put your Mage and Noble next to each other, in the last and next-to-last columns respectively. This way when the Noble kills at least two models in base, indicate the model in front of your Mage and the model in front of your Noble. Now there is no longer any model in base with your Mage. This gets around the problem of people being smart enough not to issue challenges and just make sure to attack with as many models as possible that can get into base-contact. If he doesn't issue a challenge, you can't retire the Mage to the back, so it's really in his interest not to issue if he really wants to kill the Mage.
The reason this method is particular to Phoenix Guard is that they are far less likely to die, especially from missile fire or spells, than your other infantry, thanks to the ward save, and the fact that you are typically ranked up for maximum CR with PG, and you aren't relying on their fronk rank doing significant damage in order to win combat.
(On a side note here... there's no reason for you to ever accept a challenge when you have a Mage in the front rank, except in the one circumstance where you have some character with a bunch of attacks and you know for a fact that the opponent only has one wound on his challenger and you're likely to score a bunch of overkill wounds. Unless that's the case, simply retire your Mage to the back, let your character try to wipe out the opponent's front rank with ASF, and win on CR because your opponent can't make any attacks back and you now outnumber him.)
The last option, running with Reavers, is really sketchy and I don't recommend it unless you know you are playing against a list that can't reliably stop the Reavers. Usually if this is the case, the Reavers will be using their fast cavalry abilities to run around march-blocking and creating havoc and using their bows, and are less likely to get engaged in combat where the mage might be damaged, and this provides a very mobile caster if you need LOS spells.
I put mine in trees if I can, or running along behind/next to units. If I need to get LoS or they have cannons, he can leap into a unit. Then I try to block up their LoS and magic so when I am ready for combat he can safely jump out and keep casting.
I usually go magic light though, so the only spells I use are drain magic and shield of safery, which means I can hide him behind units or in trees and not worry.
~I've put a mage in a unit of horsemen before. I've put it in a unit of Ellyrian Reavers, making the enemy want to get into combat that much more before I just run away. The trick is that you have to have to unit big enough so it doesn't get shot down, becuase then you have one dead mage...
~I've also put it in a unit of Dragon Princes, so they almost never die, thus preventing your mage from dying. Your mage takes a slot from your DP's, but never accept challenges.
~Horseys give your mage a save as well.