I’ve written a lot on how the various classes in 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons compare to each other. I think it’s important for players to have accurate expectations of what their chosen class can do going into a session. Someone that picks up a monk and expects to be as powerful as the paladin will be left disappointed.
However, class is only part of what makes up a 5E character. Subclass decisions can make a huge difference on how a character plays. Starting with the artificer, I will be going through each of 5E’s classes and ranking their subclasses by power level. To help explain my rankings, there are a couple factors that I consider when comparing subclasses.
I consider 5E to be a system primarily focused on combat, so I generally weight powerful combat subclasses higher than ones that focus on social interaction or exploration. I also give more weight to subclasses that allow for a wider range of powerful builds compared to those with only a few good options. Finally, I look at how multiclassing augments a subclass. Subclasses that gain a large amount of power from multiclass dips* rank higher than subclasses that might be stronger if viewed purely by monoclass standards. With those ground rules in place, let’s take a look at how the artificer’s four subclasses stack up against each other.
Starting out with an easy pick, we have the Alchemist subclass. I already have a fairly low opinion of the artificer, but even among the class’s supporters, this subclass is considered weak.
Level 3 – Alchemist Spells
Artificer Level Spell 3rd healing word, ray of sickness 5th flaming sphere, Melf’s acid arrow 9th gaseous form, mass healing word 13th blight, death ward 17th cloudkill, raise dead
The fact that this middling spell list is one of the subclass’s strongest features should give you an idea of its overall power level. Healing Word and its older sibling Mass Healing Word are the standout spells here, with other options arriving too late to make much of an impact.
Level 3 – Experimental Elixir
You can magically produce an experimental elixir in an empty flask you touch. Roll on the Experimental Elixir table for the elixir’s effect, which is triggered when someone drinks the elixir. As an action, a creature can drink the elixir or administer it to an incapacitated creature.
Creating an experimental elixir requires you to have alchemist’s supplies on your person, and any elixir you create with this feature lasts until it is drunk or until the end of your next long rest.
When you reach certain levels in this class, you can make more elixirs at the end of a long rest: two at 6th level and three at 15th level. Roll for each elixir’s effect separately. Each elixir requires its own flask.
You can create additional experimental elixirs by expending a spell slot of 1st level or higher for each one. When you do so, you use your action to create the elixir in an empty flask you touch, and you choose the elixir’s effect from the Experimental Elixir table.
Experimental Elixir d6 Effect 1 Healing. The drinker regains a number of hit points equal to 2d4 + your Intelligence modifier. 2 Swiftness. The drinker’s walking speed increases by 10 feet for 1 hour. 3 Resilience. The drinker gains a +1 bonus to AC for 10 minutes. 4 Boldness. The drinker can roll a d4 and add the number rolled to every attack roll and saving throw they make for the next minute. 5 Flight. The drinker gains a flying speed of 10 feet for 10 minutes. 6 Transformation. The drinker’s body is transformed as if by the alter self spell. The drinker determines the transformation caused by the spell, the effects of which last for 10 minutes.
This feature is supposed to be the Cool Thing the Alchemist does, and it is incredibly weak. The first problem with this ability is its randomness. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, random abilities are inherently weak due to an inability to plan around them. They also increase the amount of design work needed to try and make them work. Instead of a single effect to balance, now you have six.
This ability compounds randomness with a low number of uses, makes it take an action to activate, and after all of that, most of the effects are bad to middling. The strongest option available is probably the +1 AC from Resilience, but even if that could be selected every time, I still wouldn’t consider this a good feature.
Level 5 – Alchemical Savant
Whenever you cast a spell using your alchemist’s supplies as the spellcasting focus, you gain a bonus to one roll of the spell. That roll must restore hit points or be a damage roll that deals acid, fire, necrotic, or poison damage, and the bonus equals your Intelligence modifier (minimum of +1).
A minor damage/healing bonus is not enough to save this subclass. Unfortunately, Alchemists don’t even have access to Magic Missile, which interacts with abilities like these to add the flat bonus to each dart.*
Level 9 – Restorative Reagents
- Whenever a creature drinks an experimental elixir you created, the creature gains temporary hit points equal to 2d6 + your Intelligence modifier (minimum of 1 temporary hit point).
- You can cast lesser restoration without expending a spell slot and without preparing the spell, provided you use alchemist’s supplies as the spellcasting focus. You can do so a number of times equal to your Intelligence modifier (minimum of once), and you regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.
With the release of Tasha’s, temporary hit points have never been more prevalent in 5E. Many parties will have an equal or stronger* source of temporary HP. If your party doesn’t, this is a decent ability, albeit a worse protective buff than another artificer subclass we’ll be covering soon. As for casting Lesser Restoration, the spell is fairly niche. While I wouldn’t turn down five free casts of the spell, it doesn’t provide the kind of strength the Alchemist desperately needs.
Level 15 – Chemical Mastery
- You gain resistance to acid damage and poison damage, and you are immune to the poisoned condition.
- You can cast greater restoration and heal without expending a spell slot, without preparing the spell, and without material components, provided you use alchemist’s supplies as the spellcasting focus. Once you cast either spell with this feature, you can’t cast that spell with it again until you finish a long rest.
Finally the subclass gets a decent feature, and it only took until level 15. Free damage resistances are always nice, especially the fairly common poison type. Greater Restoration and Heal are also good spells, although a single cast of each feels a bit bad when compared to what real supports are doing at this level.
With a pitiful core mechanic and weak supporting abilities, the Alchemist easily secures its last-place finish.
Next we have the subclass that tries to fulfill the dream of magic Iron Man, the Armorer. As much as I wanted to like the Armorer, it falls into some of the design traps that plague 5E. What we’re left with is a subclass that turns the artificer into a low-damage, high-AC tank that is still relatively fragile due to its d8 hit dice.
Level 3 – Tools of the Trade
You gain proficiency with heavy armor. You also gain proficiency with smith’s tools. If you already have this tool proficiency, you gain proficiency with one other type of artisan’s tools of your choice.
Access to heavy armor is great, and I’m happy to see it here. The tool proficiencies don’t add much, but as an inconsequential rider to a powerful feature, they’re fine.
Level 3 – Armorer Spells
Artificer Level Spell 3rd magic missile, thunderwave 5th mirror image, shatter 9th hypnotic pattern, lightning bolt 13th fire shield, greater invisibility 17th passwall, wall of force
It is a crime that Shield didn’t make its way onto this spell list. Thankfully there are still some good options here. Hypnotic Pattern, Greater Invisibility, and Wall of Force are all top-tier spells, and any Armorer will be happy to have them, even if the spells show up much later than they would on a full caster.
Level 3 – Arcane Armor
Your metallurgical pursuits have led to you making armor a conduit for your magic. As an action, you can turn a suit of armor you are wearing into Arcane Armor, provided you have smith’s tools in hand.
You gain the following benefits while wearing this armor:
- If the armor normally has a Strength requirement, the arcane armor lacks this requirement for you.
- You can use the arcane armor as a spellcasting focus for your artificer spells.
- The armor attaches to you and can’t be removed against your will. It also expands to cover your entire body, although you can retract or deploy the helmet as a bonus action. The armor replaces any missing limbs, functioning identically to a limb it replaces.
- You can doff or don the armor as an action. The armor continues to be Arcane Armor until you don another suit of armor or you die.
This is a collection of decent features that pairs so closely with the next feature that I’m pretty sure Wizards only split them to break up the wall of text. Mechanically, I’d say the ability to use your armor as your spell focus is the most powerful of the bunch, as it helps free up your hands for weapons and/or shields.
Level 3 – Armor Model
You can customize your Arcane Armor. When you do so, choose one of the following armor models: Guardian or Infiltrator. The model you choose gives you special benefits while you wear it.
Each model includes a special weapon. When you attack with that weapon, you can add your Intelligence modifier, instead of Strength or Dexterity, to the attack and damage rolls.
You can change the armor’s model whenever you finish a short or long rest, provided you have smith’s tools in hand.
Guardian.You design your armor to be in the front line of conflict. It has the following features:
- Thunder Gauntlets. Each of the armor’s gauntlets counts as a simple melee weapon while you aren’t holding anything in it, and it deals 1d8 thunder damage on a hit. A creature hit by the gauntlet has disadvantage on attack rolls against targets other than you until the start of your next turn, as the armor magically emits a distracting pulse when the creature attacks someone else.
- Defensive Field. As a bonus action, you can gain temporary hit points equal to your level in this class, replacing any temporary hit points you already have. You lose these temporary hit points if you doff the armor. You can use this bonus action a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus, and you regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.
Infiltrator.You customize your armor for subtle undertakings. It has the following features:
- Lightning Launcher. A gemlike node appears on one of your armored fists or on the chest (your choice). It counts as a simple ranged weapon, with a normal range of 90 feet and a long range of 300 feet, and it deals 1d6 lightning damage on a hit. Once on each of your turns when you hit a creature with it, you can deal an extra 1d6 lightning damage to that target.
- Powered Steps. Your walking speed increases by 5 feet.
- Dampening Field. You have advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks. If the armor normally imposes disadvantage on such checks, the advantage and disadvantage cancel each other, as normal.
The main feature of the subclass, this is where those design traps I mentioned earlier begin to show. Simply put, weapons unique to a specific class or subclass need to either work with existing boosts like Sharpshooter or Great Weapon Master, or they need to be independently as strong or stronger than those generic options.
The Armorer’s weapons fulfill neither of those requirements. Comparing Thunder Gauntlets to the common Great Weapon Master/Polearm Master combo, the artificer is outputting less damage even before the -5/+10* is applied. Even looking at builds using shields, a quarter staff and shield also outpaces the gauntlets’ damage.
The Lightning Launcher has to deal with the even stronger hand crossbow plus Crossbow Expert and Sharpshooter. One additional d6 of damage can’t make up for the extra attack crossbow users get. This means that the Armorer is being pushed to use sub-par weapons and any that do so will see their damage suffer compared to other well-made characters.
If I had to choose one of these, I’d opt for the Guardian armor. The ability to force disadvantage is a decent tanking feature, and the extra hit points provided by defensive field helps shore up the squishy artificer.
Level 5 – Extra Attack
You can attack twice, rather than once, whenever you take the Attack action on your turn.
A simple feature that is almost a requirement for any character looking to do martial things, I’m glad to see it here.
Level 9 – Armor Modifications
You learn how to use your artificer infusions to specially modify your Arcane Armor. That armor now counts as separate items for the purposes of your Infuse Items feature: armor (the chest piece), boots, helmet, and the armor’s special weapon. Each of those items can bear one of your infusions, and the infusions transfer over if you change your armor’s model with the Armor Model feature. In addition, the maximum number of items you can infuse at once increases by 2, but those extra items must be part of your Arcane Armor.
This is easily my favorite Armorer feature. One of the problems the artificer class has is that the cool magic items it can make are almost always better used by other, stronger characters. This can put pressure on artificer players to give away all their cool stuff, leaving them with even less. This feature grants additional infusions that can only be used by the artificer, removing that dilemma. I only wish it added a few more.
Level 15 – Perfected Armor
Your Arcane Armor gains additional benefits based on its model, as shown below.
Guardian. When a Huge or smaller creature you can see ends its turn within 30 feet of you, you can use your reaction to magically force the creature to make a Strength saving throw against your spell save DC, pulling the creature up to 30 feet toward you to an unoccupied space. If you pull the target to a space within 5 feet of you, you can make a melee weapon attack against it as part of this reaction.
You can use this reaction a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus, and you regain all expended uses of it when you finish a long rest.
Infiltrator. Any creature that takes lightning damage from your Lightning Launcher glimmers with magical light until the start of your next turn. The glimmering creature sheds dim light in a 5-foot radius, and it has disadvantage on attack rolls against you, as the light jolts it if it attacks you. In addition, the next attack roll against it has advantage, and if that attack hits, the target takes an extra 1d6 lightning damage.
A decent forced movement option and a minor buff to a weapon that has only fallen further behind generic options since level three. In the right situation, dragging a creature around could be quite useful, but the feature has limited uses, and it targets what is on average the strongest save in the monster manual.
The Lightning Launcher has the stronger ability, dealing extra damage and making it harder for the target to hit you, but it’s still weaker than the alternatives and seems like it’s attached to the wrong weapon. A Guardian Armorer in melee would benefit significantly more from forcing disadvantage on their target than a ranged character who will often be out of harm’s way.
All told, the Armorer has the AC to tank, but lacks the offensive abilities to give monsters a compelling reason to target it in the first place. It also suffers from low hit points and lacks proficiency in both dexterity and wisdom saves, leaving it highly vulnerable to spell-based damage and sealing its third-place spot.
I admit the mental image of the Artillerist that I have is very much at odds with what Wizards has created. I imagined a techno-magic tinkerer firing their Tesla cannon to dispatch all those who stand against them. Instead, we have something much closer to Torbjorn from Overwatch, relying on a semi-autonomous turret as their main subclass feature. Thankfully, the turret is capable of some decently useful things, salvaging an otherwise unremarkable subclass.
Level 3 – Tool Proficiency
When you adopt this specialization at 3rd level, you gain proficiency with woodcarver’s tools. If you already have this proficiency, you gain proficiency with one other type of artisan’s tools of your choice.
Remember what I said about bad features being okay if they’re paired with good ones? Well, sadly, Artillerist doesn’t get heavy armor, leaving it with just the bad tool proficiencies.
Level 3 – Artillerist Spells
Artificer Level Spell 3rd shield, thunderwave 5th scorching ray, shatter 9th fireball, wind wall 13th ice storm, wall of fire 17th cone of cold, wall of force
Ah, here’s where the Armorer’s Shield spell was hiding. Swapping the Artillerist’s Shield for the Armorer’s Magic Missile is such an obvious change that would provide some much-needed help to the artificer. Not only would Magic Missiles be thematically appropriate for the Artillerist, but it also has amazing synergy with our 5th-level feature. Unfortunately for the Artillerist, outside of Shield and Wall of Force, we’re left with damage spells acquired too late to be used at full effectiveness.
Level 3 – Eldritch Cannon
At 3rd level, you learn how to create a magical cannon. Using woodcarver’s tools or smith’s tools, you can take an action to magically create a Small or Tiny eldritch cannon in an unoccupied space on a horizontal surface within 5 feet of you. A Small eldritch cannon occupies its space, and a Tiny one can be held in one hand.
Once you create a cannon, you can’t do so again until you finish a long rest or until you expend a spell slot of 1st level or higher. You can have only one cannon at a time and can’t create one while your cannon is present.
The cannon is a magical object. Regardless of size, the cannon has an AC of 18 and a number of hit points equal to five times your artificer level. It is immune to poison damage and psychic damage, and all conditions. If it is forced to make an ability check or a saving throw, treat all its ability scores as 10 (+0). If the mending spell is cast on it, it regains 2d6 hit points. It disappears if it is reduced to 0 hit points or after 1 hour. You can dismiss it early as an action.
When you create the cannon, you determine its appearance and whether it has legs. You also decide which type it is, choosing from the options on the Eldritch Cannons table. On each of your turns, you can take a bonus action to cause the cannon to activate if you are within 60 feet of it. As part of the same bonus action, you can direct the cannon to walk or climb up to 15 feet to an unoccupied space, provided it has legs.
Eldritch Cannons Cannon Activation Flamethrower The cannon exhales fire in an adjacent 15-foot cone that you designate. Each creature in that area must make a Dexterity saving throw against your spell save DC, taking 2d8 fire damage on a failed save or half as much damage on a successful one. The fire ignites any flammable objects in the area that aren’t being worn or carried. Force Ballista Make a ranged spell attack, originating from the cannon, at one creature or object within 120 feet of it. On a hit, the target takes 2d8 force damage, and if the target is a creature, it is pushed up to 5 feet away from the cannon. Protector The cannon emits a burst of positive energy that grants itself and each creature of your choice within 10 feet of it a number of temporary hit points equal to 1d8 + your Intelligence modifier (minimum of +1).
As the main subclass feature, the Eldritch Cannon is significantly better than either of the prior subclasses’ primary abilities. At lower levels, the Protector turret hands out a large amount of free hit points to your party,* and at higher levels, the Flamethrower cannon does decent AOE damage thanks to our 9th- and 15th-level features. It’s unfortunate that 5E doesn’t allow players to substitute their action for a second bonus action, as activating their turret a second time is stronger than almost anything else the subclass will be doing.
Level 5 – Arcane Firearm
At 5th level, you know how to turn a wand, staff, or rod into an arcane firearm, a conduit for your destructive spells. When you finish a long rest, you can use woodcarver’s tools to carve special sigils into a wand, staff, or rod and thereby turn it into your arcane firearm. The sigils disappear from the object if you later carve them on a different item. The sigils otherwise last indefinitely.
You can use your arcane firearm as a spellcasting focus for your artificer spells. When you cast an artificer spell through the firearm, roll a d8, and you gain a bonus to one of the spell’s damage rolls equal to the number rolled.
I really wish this was Extra Attack. Sadly, we’re left with a minor damage boost to any spells we cast. If the subclass had access to Magic Missile as an artificer spell, this would be great, as we could apply the 1d8 to each bolt, but instead our Firebolt will have its damage increased by an average of 4.5. Woo.
Level 9 – Explosive Cannon
Starting at 9th level, every eldritch cannon you create is more destructive:
- The cannon’s damage rolls all increase by 1d8.
- As an action, you can command the cannon to detonate if you are within 60 feet of it. Doing so destroys the cannon and forces each creature within 20 feet of it to make a Dexterity saving throw against your spell save DC, taking 3d8 force damage on a failed save or half as much damage on a successful one.
It’s around this level that the Artillerist should consider swapping their Protector turret for one of the damage models, as Wizards has decided to slap our wrist by not allowing the support turret to scale alongside its damage-based companions. Now we can throw out 3d8 cone attacks every round as a bonus action. This damage isn’t amazing at level 9 – the artificer is pretty low damage in general – but in any fight with multiple enemies, we can hopefully line up multiple hits for some decent damage per round. The explosion feature is bad and probably not worth using.
Level 15 – Fortified Position
Starting at 15th level, you’re a master at forming well-defended emplacements using Eldritch Cannon:
- You and your allies have half cover while within 10 feet of a cannon you create with Eldritch Cannon, as a result of a shimmering field of magical protection that the cannon emits.
- You can now have two cannons at the same time. You can create two with the same action (but not the same spell slot), and you can activate both of them with the same bonus action. You determine whether the cannons are identical to each other or different. You can’t create a third cannon while you have two.
Now we should definitely swap over to the Flamethrower turret, as repeatable 6d8 worth of AOE damage is a relatively good source of consistent damage. The free +2 to Armor Class and dexterity saving throws from half cover is also quite good. This is the first of the level 15 features that actually feels like its power reflects the level it’s received at.
The Artillerist is the subclass I recommend to people who are looking to be a support artificer, thanks entirely to its Protector turret. As I said in the intro, the rest of the subclass is not particularly interesting, but if your party doesn’t have an easy source of temporary hit points, the Artillerist can fill that niche. Not amazing, but worthy of second place.
1. Battle Smith
In a decision that I doubt surprises many, I consider the Battle Smith to be the best artificer subclass. A much more successful realization of the frontline artificer than the Armorer, the Battle Smith has decent damage output and some mitigation to help protect themselves and their friends.
Level 3 – Tool Proficiency
When you adopt this specialization at 3rd level, you gain proficiency with smith’s tools. If you already have this proficiency, you gain proficiency with one other type of artisan’s tools of your choice.
Another feature that only supplies weak tool proficiencies. Not much new to say about this, so let’s move on.
Level 3 – Battle Smith Spells
Battle Smith Spells Artificer Level Spell 3rd heroism, shield 5th branding smite, warding bond 9th aura of vitality, conjure barrage 13th aura of purity, fire shield 17th banishing smite, mass cure wounds
I have a theory that whoever was in control of these spell lists had it out for the Armorer. Thankfully, the frontline Battle Smith manages to retain the excellent Shield spell, and Warding Bond can be very good with the Steel Defender we cover later. Aura of Vitality is also a good option for healing outside of combat, assuming your party doesn’t already have a better option by level 9.
Level 3 – Battle Ready
- You gain proficiency with martial weapons.
- When you attack with a magic weapon, you can use your Intelligence modifier, instead of Strength or Dexterity modifier, for the attack and damage rolls.
I’m glad to see we’ve all learned something from the Hexblade. Turns out, a great way to balance the ability to cheat on your stats is to lock those abilities behind a significant level investment. What was broken on the Hexblade is still quite good for the Battle Smith, allowing them to focus entirely on their intelligence and constitution stats. Martial weapon proficiencies also help ensure that the Smith’s damage output doesn’t fall too far behind the competition.
Level 3 – Steel Defender
By 3rd level, your tinkering has borne you a faithful companion, a steel defender. It is friendly to you and your companions, and it obeys your commands. See this creature’s game statistics in the steel defender stat block, which uses your proficiency bonus (PB) in several places. You determine the creature’s appearance and whether it has two legs or four; your choice has no effect on its game statistics.
In combat, the defender shares your initiative count, but it takes its turn immediately after yours. It can move and use its reaction on its own, but the only action it takes on its turn is the Dodge action, unless you take a bonus action on your turn to command it to take another action. That action can be one in its stat block or some other action. If you are incapacitated, the defender can take any action of its choice, not just Dodge.
If the mending spell is cast on it, it regains 2d6 hit points. If it has died within the last hour, you can use your smith’s tools as an action to revive it, provided you are within 5 feet of it and you expend a spell slot of 1st level or higher. The steel defender returns to life after 1 minute with all its hit points restored.
At the end of a long rest, you can create a new steel defender if you have your smith’s tools with you. If you already have a steel defender from this feature, the first one immediately perishes. The defender also perishes if you die.
Not only does the Battle Smith get to cheat on their stats, but they also get a robo dog companion. Whether it’s being used as a mount or a standalone ally, the Steel Defender provides a good bonus action outlet for the Battle Smith. It’s durable, easy to resurrect, and can impose disadvantage on people trying to murder one of its friends, an all-around good pup.
Level 5 – Extra Attack
Starting at 5th level, you can attack twice, rather than once, whenever you take the Attack action on your turn.
A needed feature for a martial subclass.
Level 9 – Arcane Jolt
At 9th level, you learn new ways to channel arcane energy to harm or heal. When either you hit a target with a magic weapon attack or your steel defender hits a target, you can channel magical energy through the strike to create one of the following effects:
- The target takes an extra 2d6 force damage.
- Choose one creature or object you can see within 30 feet of the target. Healing energy flows into the chosen recipient, restoring 2d6 hit points to it.
You can use this energy a number of times equal to your Intelligence modifier (minimum of once), but you can do so no more than once on a turn. You regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.
I’ve seen this ability compared to smite, but I see this more as up to five casts of Healing Word that don’t cost my bonus action. The ability to bring back a fallen party member as part of an attack is both powerful and unique, a very cool feature.
Level 15 – Improved Defender
At 15th level, your Arcane Jolt and steel defender become more powerful:
- The extra damage and the healing of your Arcane Jolt both increase to 4d6.
- Your steel defender gains a +2 bonus to Armor Class.
- Whenever your steel defender uses its Deflect Attack, the attacker takes force damage equal to 1d4 + your Intelligence modifier.
Sadly this ability is a bit of a letdown. By level 15, an additional seven average healing or damage means little, and increasing your Defender’s Armor Class from 15 to a mighty 17 matters even less. The consistent extra damage of what should be 1d4 + 5 at this point is probably the best part of this feature, and that’s not a good thing.
Thankfully, the rest of the subclass is enough to place it squarely at the top of the artificer pile. Covering these subclasses in detail has done little to change my opinion on the class overall, but at least I know which subclass I’d take if I were forced to play one.
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