Magic Combat Versus Weapons Combat - Which One is Best?

Coolness Ratio
For some reason, wizards are normally forced to wear shapeless robes. Male or female, that’s not doing anyone any favours in the coolness department. I think wizards should be able to wear what they like, from nothing at all to full plate armour. Some types of armour are cool, but mostly it’s plates of polished metal, making the wearer look like a giant spoon, not cool.
The other thing about M is the chanting and gesturing. Although it might be cool to shoot a fireball out of your finger and set your enemies on fire, waving your arms around like a drunken windmill and talking like someone farting in a bath isn’t cool at all.
With W it’s all about the war cries. Raising your sword over your head and shouting “death!” might be impressive, but it isn’t cool. And at the end of the combat you’re all sweaty and covered in blood and unidentifiable bits of flesh. Not cool at all. Some people can get away with it, others can’t. Legolas is cool, Gimli isn’t. Hermione Granger is cool, Ron Weasley isn’t.
So, coolness ratio is a very personal and variable quality, I’m going to call this one a draw.

When it comes to W combat, anyone can grab a bread knife and dash into a fight wearing nothing but a snood, and they might even live to tell the tale. Of course this isn’t ideal, and survivability is severely compromised, but it’s still possible. The knife might go blunt after a while, but it won’t run out of charges, send you insane or need years of practice to wield, although some training is probably a good idea so you don’t hurt yourself.
Of course, to do it properly you need to buy at least one weapon, and some armour, and a trainer who’s a disgraced champion working under a pseudonym. (This last part isn’t essential, but it helps.) If you change weapons you have to train again, and then on a horse, and blindfolded, and against a southpaw, etc. All this costs money, but once it’s done you just need a whetstone, a needle and thread, and a soldering iron to fix your armour.
M combat is virtually impossible without years of study, tuition and the learning of at least one ancient language. Some natural or wild mages are able to cast without such things, but generally end up taking out as many friends as foes, and burning off their own eyebrows at the same time. (Note: burnt off eyebrows; not cool.) With some magic systems the number and type of spell is set, and requires the caster to learn the spells beforehand. This can be inconvenient or even life-threatening if the mage has chosen the wrong spell. Facing a fire demon with fire spells is just going to get you laughed at. This can force the caster to use up precious scrolls and potions, things they were saving for the big boss at the end. And what is it with these component things? What, I need to carry around a load of slimy and smelly body parts taken from dead animals to cast my spells? Pass me that sword.
When it comes to practicality, W wins, I would say.

With W combat, this is something mostly decided by the skill of the fighter and the quality of the weapon they wield. Of course, many targets can only take so much damage, any more is wasted. Inflicting 98 damage on a goblin with 3 hp has the same effect as taking its head off on a critical hit. When in combat with a creature with more hp or tough armour, it’s more important to do as much damage as possible. With a melee weapon you can just keep battering at it until one of you falls over. Similarly with ranged weapons, but with the added drawback of running out of ammo.
M combat can provide similar amounts of damage, although the amount of spells, mana, and other restrictions is going to mean the caster is going to have to stop casting at some point and pick up a weapon, and we all know how that usually ends with most systems.
The advantage M combat has that W can’t usually replicate is area of effect, often with persistence. An AoE attack can take out as many goblins on 3 hp as will stand conveniently in a certain area, and all in a few seconds. Some AoE spells last several rounds, causing any other creatures who enter the area to take damage, with no effort or involvement of the caster.
I’m going to call this one a draw, W for straight damage and M for AoE.

Financial Implications
We’ve already touched on this, but in this section we will examine the finances in more detail.
Decent weapons aren’t cheap, nor is armour, and all the training involved. Of course, the rules of the universe allow you to loot your opponent’s corpse, if you beat them in combat. If their weapon is better than yours, you would take it and sell or pass on your own. Combat isn’t kind to weapons, and any money taken from your foes might need to be used to get weapons sharpened, armour repaired and shields replaced, or buying new ammo if using a ranged weapon. Generally speaking, combat becomes less expensive and more profitable the better you get at it. Opponents will die faster, miss more often and have more loot as their own skills improve.
M combat starts off relatively cheap. You can do without, or can’t actually wear, armour, a small dagger can be used as a backup weapon, and any components required are usually of low cost or can be found for free. But as the spells get more powerful, so too do the ingredients and the spells needed to protect yourself against similarly skilled casters. How many times have W users stood waiting while the mage buffs themselves up? Components of the largest spells are rare and thus expensive, and often quite silly.

Leg of worm and wing of snail, rusty bottle and holy grail.
Add bitter irony and winter’s fist, mix it all while juggling mist.
Paint it on a hero’s blade, magic sword you have made!

Ok, a magic weapon might be worth a lot of money, but look at all the trouble you’ve gone to. So M combat gets more expensive, and for some reason, mages are often expected to work for free!
Overall, I’d say W takes the point here.

Celebrity Status
Go into any imaginary town over a certain size and wealth and you’ll find statues to their heroes. Great leaders, mighty warriors, famous bards, even legendary animals. But where are all the mage statues? If there are any they’ll be in some obscure corner somewhere, between the cess pits and the tannery.
Why this should be is a mystery. The mage was with the hero every step of the way, providing light, protection from dark magics, slaying goblins by the bus-load, probably even binding the end boss to let the warrior get in close enough to take off its head. And all the time up to their bony elbows in some disgusting offal several weeks old. But as soon as they get back to civilisation, the people in dresses are pushed to the back while those covered in metal are celebrated and idolised. Perhaps mages need a better union, or maybe they have personalities that don’t require such adoration. Or maybe the people need warrior heroes and not those who use magic, which could be seen as cheating somehow. If you’re the kind of mage who needs a statue, best get it in writing before you set off on your adventures. Make sure you state size, construction materials and locations, or you’ll end up with a carved wooden figurine of yourself in your downstairs toilet.
So, this point firmly awarded to the W camp.

Margin of Error
When in W combat, there are various things that can go wrong, many of which can be seriously fatal to yourself and those around you, including friend, foe, and wildlife. This can be due to lack of skill, overconfidence, external forces like weather and terrain or just bad luck. When these things happen, there are usually only two possible outcomes: someone dies, or someone is injured. The consequences might ripple out from there, but the two states are constant.
With M combat, the results of something going wrong are far more varied and potentially catastrophic for hundreds or even thousands of people. If a major casting gets out of control for some reason, the resulting rogue magic could turn the caster, or the person next to them, or an entire village, into purple gibbons. It could open a portal through time, space, or your underwear, or all three. Imagine spending an eternity floating through space inside a huge pair of used pants with a purple gibbon for company.
I’m giving this one to W, no contest.

You can probably guess where this one’s going. Might of arms might make you a leader, armies can make you a ruler of nations, but only magic power can make you a god. (or at least a demi-god, I think being a full god is invitation only.) Magic can give you dominion over entire continents, even whole planets, although you still won’t get any statues, unless you commision them yourself, which is very uncool.
One point to M.

In conclusion, W is superior to M in almost every way, but if you want to rule an entire planet, you’ll have to go with the M.
If you want to discuss this topic, add theories of your own or just fancy a chat, contact me. If you want to know anything about statues, you’ll have to look elsewhere.