Before a mage can practise a spell he has to learn it, which is easier said than done. There are two main ways for a mage to learn a new spell – they can be taught it by another mage, or they can develop it themselves.
Learning a spell from another mage can be very easy or infuriatingly difficult, depending on the relationship between their types of magic. If the capabilities of the two mages are very similar, it’s easy: the second mage just has to watch the first mage casting the spell and then copy it. There’ll always be adjustments to make and it still takes practice to get really good, but it’s basically straightforward.
The more differences there are between the mages’ styles of magic, the more difficult the process gets – the student will have to adapt the spell more and more heavily. If the two styles are really different the process is almost guaranteed to fail, because the two systems work on completely different principles – it’s like trying to install a Windows program on an Apple computer. Unfortunately, there’s no reliable way to know if it’s possible to learn a spell from a particular mage without trying.
Mages who can’t find a good teacher (or any teacher at all) must develop spells on their own. This is much harder, since the mage has to do the equivalent of reinventing the wheel. If the mage is smart they’ll build on the work of others wherever they can, stealing bits and pieces from other spells in order to minimise the amount of original research they have to do themselves, but even so the process can take weeks, months, or even years.
All the same, many mages enjoy research. Researching a spell is creative work, much like writing a song or a poem or making a new piece of design, and most mages find the process satisfying. It also has side benefits – a mage who researches a spell himself will generally understand its principles much better than if he’d copied it off someone else, and he’ll have had more opportunity to customise it to his preferences.
Scarcity of Knowledge
The rarer a mage’s magic type, the more difficult it is for them to find a teacher they can easily learn from and the more likely it is that they’ll have to develop spells on their own. Elemental mages are the most common family and and also tend to have the most similarities amongst themselves, and for this reason elemental mages find it relatively easy to learn new spells.
Universal mages have it much harder. They’re rare enough that there may be only a dozen or so of each particular type in an entire country, and there’s no guarantee that any of them will be willing or able to teach a novice. Living mages are somewhere in between – they don’t have the easy access of elemental mages but benefit from more of a community than universalists.
As a result, elemental mages tend to be quick starters and universal mages slow ones. A new elementalist can pick up lots of spells rapidly, quickly outpacing a universal mage. However, over the years, the universalist can catch up with the elemental mage and even overtake him. Being able to copy spells is a nice shortcut but sooner or later you have to master the theory.