Magic systems don’t have to be anything. They’re magic, after all– for all of Sanderson’s Laws of Magic Systems, magic doesn’t have to be anything. You could have a magic system where a different thing happens every time someone gets peanut brittle stuck in their teeth, with no rhyme nor reason to what happens to whom. Or you could have a strict magic system that only works when the moon is full and the porcupine has molted its sixty-ninth quill, at which the magic makes a slight whistle. It can be powerful, it can be subtle; it can come whenever someone burps, or only when the seventh son of a seventh son stomps his foot. Magic systems can be whatever you want.
But if you want a strict magic system, there are certain things you can do to maximize its effect.
Brandon Sanderson is known for magic systems. He already has his three laws of magic (which again, are known to be optional, thus disproving the label “laws”). Each of his books holds a different system (or at least a different insight on a system). By the end of any of his books, you’re an expert on whatever magic he created, without ever being pulled out of the story. But the most powerful thing about his systems are their concreteness.
In Elantris, magic stems from runes drawn in the air. In the Mistborn trilogy, powers come from “burning” metals, accessing weird acupuncture, or storing abilities in metals. In The Rithmatist, chalk drawings come to life. If you notice, none of them come from mentally “reaching out” to hidden entities that can only be “sensed” with a “corner of the mind”. That’s what I mean by concrete.
Are mental magic systems bad? No. When it comes to magic, anything goes. But Sanderson’s concrete style makes for understandable magic, even when it bends the laws of physics to extremes.
If you think about it, Sanderson never really departs from that mental style– he just puts a different name on it. What is burning metal? If I swallowed some iron, could I “burn” it and gain those powers? Nope. In fact, anyone who “burns” such metals is (gasp!) reaching out with their mind to something inside them, accessing it as if another limb or sense, to give them that power. After all, how do you move an arm, or your eyes? By reaching out with your mind. That’s all it is, but we give it another name.
Sanderson is sneaky. Instead of taunting me with the lack of mind muscle required to access metals (as I felt taunted in Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, with the “bubble” within the mind that he breached to use magic), he just called it burning metals and made it all right. I know I can’t burn anything consciously (short of physical activity, I can’t consciously burn calories), but in this world, it’s possible. Instead of mentally reaching for the metals inside, they burn those metals with a muscle we can’t possibly flex. The mind is known, to a point– magical abilities like burning metals are unknown.
What am I saying? Reaching out with the mind is ambiguous, confusing, and a little bit annoying for the reader to understand. If I can’t concentrate and make pigs fly, why should these characters? No, instead we label the magic with terms like burning metals, or drawing Aons (Elantris runes), or drawing chalklings (Rithmatist drawings). Instead of having to assume every human in this world has three arms instead of two, we can assume they have a tail, which we obviously don’t have. (Apologies for the metaphor.)
Not only is it more convenient for the reader, it’s more convenient for the author. Reaching out with the mind to metals lying in the character’s stomach to access their powers– it’s easier just to say “burning metals”. Two words, and since “burning” is so out of place in this instance, you don’t even have to capitalize it. It’s expedient for both reader and author.
Once you see this, you begin to notice how often Sanderson does it in every book he writes. In The Way of Kings, he speaks of summoning magic swords from nowhere. What is it really? It’s reaching out with the mind and calling a magical sword of steam that materializes in ten heartbeats. What does he call it? Summoning a Shardblade. So much cooler. Also in The Way of Kings, characters Lash objects to one another. Who knows how they do it– the author just says “He Lashed the cat” and suddenly the cat is hanging off the ceiling. We don’t have to hear that the character reached out with his mind to bind the cat with unseen magic to similar magic in the stones of the ceiling. Lashing is better.
I could go on. I haven’t even touched Warbreaker or Steelheart, or any of the other magic systems in The Way of Kings. I could mention Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, or Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves. I could even mention Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, although it strays a little into the mental magic area (but who could fault Jordan? As I said, no rule for magic systems is absolute). So many magic systems simplify themselves by finding cool words– sometimes random words– to symbolize powers. Is it necessary? Not at all. Is it useful? After writing a novel filled with reaching out with the mind, I’m inclined to say yes.
Even if your magic system deals completely with mental gimmicks and acrobatics, slap a moniker on it. That peanut brittle magic system doesn’t just happen– it Sparks when peanut brittle sticks. That seventh seventh son doesn’t just stomp, he Exhorts. You could say your magic system Oranges whenever it’s accessed. It doesn’t matter what you do or how you do it, or if you do it. But try this sometime. Make a concrete system and see how it works.