Last week, I ranked the artificer’s subclasses from weakest to strongest, and this week, it’s time for the barbarian. As a reminder, there are three main categories I look at as I judge the power level of each of these subclasses: combat strength, allowance for a range of powerful builds, and how it interacts with multiclassing. Since the barbarian has eight subclasses compared to the artificer’s four, this is a two-part post, starting with the bottom four barb subclasses.
8. Storm Herald
At the bottom of the barrel, we have the Storm Herald, a very cool name wasted on a very bad subclass. Overall, I consider the barbarian itself to be on the weaker side of average, but this subclass is definitely in contention as one of the worst options any class can take.
Level 3 – Storm Aura
You emanate a stormy, magical aura while you rage. The aura extends 10 feet from you in every direction, but not through total cover.
Your aura has an effect that activates when you enter your rage, and you can activate the effect again on each of your turns as a bonus action. Choose desert, sea, or tundra. Your aura’s effect depends on that chosen environment, as detailed below. You can change your environment choice whenever you gain a level in this class.
If your aura’s effects require a saving throw, the DC equals 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Constitution modifier.
Desert. When this effect is activated, all other creatures in your aura take 2 fire damage each. The damage increases when you reach certain levels in this class, increasing to 3 at 5th level, 4 at 10th level, 5 at 15th level, and 6 at 20th level.
When this effect is activated, you can choose one other creature you can see in your aura. The target must make a Dexterity saving throw. The target takes 1d6 lightning damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one. The damage increases when you reach certain levels in this class, increasing to 2d6 at 10th level, 3d6 at 15th level, and 4d6 at 20th level.
When this effect is activated, each creature of your choice in your aura gains 2 temporary hit points, as icy spirits inure it to suffering. The temporary hit points increase when you reach certain levels in this class, increasing to 3 at 5th level, 4 at 10th level, 5 at 15th level, and 6 at 20th level.
This feature starts the trend of Storm Herald abilities spending a lot of words to do very little. This feature is so weak that sometimes doing literally nothing with your bonus action would be preferable. First off, the damage it deals is pitiful and the scaling does little to help it. Second, these aren’t even passive effects; you have to use your bonus action to get them, and bonus actions are in high demand for other abilities.
Third, the desert option make no allowances for choosing who receives the effect of the aura, meaning you could hurt your friends.* Fourth, you don’t even have the flexibility to change your environment choice outside of gaining class levels.
I don’t know what happened during the development of this feature, but I wonder if an earlier version was considered too powerful, so as a quick fix they scaled it back to avoid unbalancing the subclass.
Edit: We originally misread the Tundra ability and missed that it lets you choose who gets the temp HP.
Level 6 – Storm Soul
The storm grants you benefits even when your aura isn’t active. The benefits are based on the environment you chose for your Storm Aura.
Desert. You gain resistance to fire damage, and you don’t suffer the effects of extreme heat, as described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Moreover, as an action, you can touch a flammable object that isn’t being worn or carried by anyone else and set it on fire.
You gain resistance to lightning damage, and you can breathe underwater. You also gain a swimming speed of 30 feet.
You gain resistance to cold damage, and you don’t suffer the effects of extreme cold, as described in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Moreover, as an action, you can touch water and turn a 5-foot cube of it into ice, which melts after 1 minute. This action fails if a creature is in the cube.
This ability, while better than the level 3 offering, is still middling. I won’t turn down a resistance to a common damage type like fire, but compared to another entry on this list,* it is still not good. Looking at the secondary bonuses, the 30 feet of swim speed is probably the best, although they are all bad. These weak features would be somewhat mitigated if you could mix and match the environment from each feature that uses them, or at least change them on a long rest. As is, it’s almost impossible to plan which set of features will be most useful.
Level 10 – Shielding Storm
You learn to use your mastery of the storm to protect others. Each creature of your choice has the damage resistance you gained from the Storm Soul feature while the creature is in your Storm Aura.
This is a solid ability, granting damage resistance to your allies simply by raging. If it was attached to a better subclass, or received earlier, it probably would have saved the Storm Herald from the bottom spot.
Level 14 – Raging Storm
The power of the storm you channel grows mightier, lashing out at your foes. The effect is based on the environment you chose for your Storm Aura.
Immediately after a creature in your aura hits you with an attack, you can use your reaction to force that creature to make a Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, the creature takes fire damage equal to half your barbarian level.
When you hit a creature in your aura with an attack, you can use your reaction to force that creature to make a Strength saving throw. On a failed save, the creature is knocked prone, as if struck by a wave.
Whenever the effect of your Storm Aura is activated, you can choose one creature you can see in the aura. That creature must succeed on a Strength saving throw, or its speed is reduced to 0 until the start of your next turn, as magical frost covers it.
And we’re back to subpar features. Tundra is probably the best of these options, but it targets a save that most monsters are very good at, and locks your aura into the Tundra environment. This means that you have to choose between having a better damage resistance from the level 10 Desert feature or this Tundra ability.
Given the sheer number of abilities I’m covering in these rankings, I have to gloss over some details, but I hope this illustrates just how many problems the Storm Herald has. It’s like an onion of bad design. Every layer of problems you pull back reveals a new layer underneath, easily earning it eighth place.
7. Wild Magic
While I doubt there are too many Storm Herald fans out there waiting to roast me in the comments, this entry is a different matter. The Wild Magic subclasses, be it sorcerer or barbarian, hold a special place in many players’ hearts. I don’t want to take away from that, but on the basis of mechanical power, the Wild Magic barbarian is one of the worst options you can take.
Level 3 – Magic Awareness
As an action, you can open your awareness to the presence of concentrated magic. Until the end of your next turn, you know the location of any spell or magic item within 60 feet of you that isn’t behind total cover. When you sense a spell, you learn which school of magic it belongs to.
You can use this feature a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus, and you regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.
Behold, Wizards of the Coast tying its rules in knots so the Wild Magic barbarian can cast an off-brand Detect Magic even while raging. It probably would have been easier to understand this feature if they gave the subclass Detect Magic and added a “you can cast this even while raging” rider to the ability. As for power level, it’s not great. Detect Magic is a very common spell, so unless your party lacks any sort of conventional caster, there won’t be much call to use Magic Awareness.
Level 3 – Wild Surge
The magical energy roiling inside you sometimes erupts from you. When you enter your rage, roll on the Wild Magic table to determine the magical effect produced.
If the effect requires a saving throw, the DC equals 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Constitution modifier.
Wild Magic d8 Magical Effect 1 Shadowy tendrils lash around you. Each creature of your choice that you can see within 30 feet of you must succeed on a Constitution saving throw or take 1d12 necrotic damage. You also gain 1d12 temporary hit points. 2 You teleport up to 30 feet to an unoccupied space you can see. Until your rage ends, you can use this effect again on each of your turns as a bonus action. 3 An intangible spirit, which looks like a flumph or a pixie (your choice), appears within 5 feet of one creature of your choice that you can see within 30 feet of you. At the end of the current turn, the spirit explodes, and each creature within 5 feet of it must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or take 1d6 force damage. Until your rage ends, you can use this effect again, summoning another spirit, on each of your turns as a bonus action. 4 Magic infuses one weapon of your choice that you are holding. Until your rage ends, the weapon’s damage type changes to force, and it gains the light and thrown properties, with a normal range of 20 feet and a long range of 60 feet. If the weapon leaves your hand, the weapon reappears in your hand at the end of the current turn. 5 Whenever a creature hits you with an attack roll before your rage ends, that creature takes 1d6 force damage, as magic lashes out in retribution. 6 Until your rage ends, you are surrounded by multi-colored, protective lights. You gain a +1 bonus to AC, and while within 10 feet of you, your allies gain the same bonus. 7 Flowers and vines temporarily grow around you. Until your rage ends, the ground within 15 feet of you is difficult terrain for your enemies. 8 A bolt of light shoots from your chest. Another creature of your choice that you can see within 30 feet of you must succeed on a Constitution saving throw or take 1d6 radiant damage and be blinded until the start of your next turn. Until your rage ends, you can use this effect again on each of your turns as a bonus action.
The main feature of this subclass is, sadly, very bad. In my detailed review of this subclass, I covered how random effects are incredibly hard to balance and usually end up being weak as a result. This ability is no exception. Most of these results are pretty weak, and the inability to plan for their occurrence makes it even less likely they’ll prove useful. The +1 AC aura is probably the best result, but even that is a minor bonus because most barbarians make heavy use of Reckless Attack, which lowers their AC so much that small bonuses are a lot less valuable.
Level 6 – Bolstering Magic
You can harness your wild magic to bolster yourself or a companion. As an action, you can touch one creature (which can be yourself) and confer one of the following benefits of your choice to that creature:
- For 10 minutes, the creature can roll a d3 whenever making an attack roll or an ability check and add the number rolled to the d20 roll.
- Roll a d3. The creature regains one expended spell slot, the level of which equals the number rolled or lower (the creature’s choice). Once a creature receives this benefit, that creature can’t receive it again until after a long rest.
You can take this action a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus, and you regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.
Part of me misses the game-breaking version of this ability that was released in UA.* This version overcorrects and results in another underwhelming feature. The first option grants a bonus worse than Bless, a 1st level spell,* while the second option is restricted so heavily it’s hard to make much use of. You will get some value from this feature, but it’s far too little for something gained at level 6.
Level 10 – Unstable Backlash
When you are imperiled during your rage, the magic within you can lash out; immediately after you take damage or fail a saving throw while raging, you can use your reaction to roll on the Wild Magic table and immediately produce the effect rolled. This effect replaces your current Wild Magic effect.
More uses of our bad level 3 ability. If you like the randomness of Wild Magic, this is great. If you’re looking for mechanical strength, it is bad. Best-case scenario, you use this feature to roll into one of the Wild Magic Table’s better results and then stop using it.
Level 14 – Controlled Surge
Whenever you roll on the Wild Magic table, you can roll the die twice and choose which of the two effects to unleash. If you roll the same number on both dice, you can ignore the number and choose any effect on the table.
Another feature to help us find one of the decent results and stick with it for the remainder of the battle, this feature shares all the same issues as Unstable Backlash.
I am glad there is a barbarian subclass that caters to players who enjoy rolling on random tables, but I’m sad that it came at the cost of a powerful subclass that could help the barbarian keep pace with the stronger class options. No matter what you roll, this subclass is getting seventh.
Though I don’t consider it the weakest barbarian subclass, the Berserker is the biggest trap. Most people familiar with how 5E works can identify obviously low numbers or useless abilities, but the Berserker is unique in its use of exhaustion, the rules for which are in a different part of the book.* This can leave players feeling like they’ve been tricked.
Level 3 – Frenzy
You can go into a frenzy when you rage. If you do so, for the duration of your rage you can make a single melee weapon attack as a bonus action on each of your turns after this one. When your rage ends, you suffer one level of exhaustion.
Level Effect 1 Disadvantage on ability checks 2 Speed halved 3 Disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws 4 Hit point maximum halved 5 Speed reduced to 0 6 Death
For a glorious moment, the UA-expanded ranger option that removed exhaustion levels during short rests turned this ability into a legitimately good option. In that brief window, barbarians that didn’t want to use polearms had an easy way to make a bonus action attack with their 1d12 or 2d6 heavy weapons.
However, that moment is gone, and we’re left with a feature that will kill your character if you use it too many times. As you can see, exhaustion levels are no joke, and they can only be removed via a long rest or the 5th level spell Greater Restoration. This makes this feature almost never worth using, not when there are other ways to get bonus action attacks like Polearm Master.
Level 6 – Mindless Rage
It’s a shame that this feature is attached to such a bad subclass, because it’s quite good. Given the class’s propensity for melee and mediocre saves, spells and abilities that charm or frighten* can be a real pain for barbarians to deal with, and this neatly counters them. It’s not enough to save the subclass, but it is a nice consolation prize.
Level 10 – Intimidating Presence
You can use your action to frighten someone with your menacing presence. When you do so, choose one creature that you can see within 30 feet of you. If the creature can see or hear you, it must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw (DC equal to 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Charisma modifier) or be frightened of you until the end of your next turn. On subsequent turns, you can use your action to extend the duration of this effect on the frightened creature until the end of your next turn. This effect ends if the creature ends its turn out of line of sight or more than 60 feet away from you.
If the creature succeeds on its saving throw, you can’t use this feature on that creature again for 24 hours.
You know what really frightens a creature? Murdering it dead with your big pointy stick. This ability has problems shared by many bad abilities: it’s worse than simply doing damage and killing your opponent. Spending a full action to maybe frighten a target* when you could be hitting it for damage is almost never the right choice, and it feels bad when class features try to sucker you into weak play choices.
Level 14 – Retaliation
When you take damage from a creature that is within 5 feet of you, you can use your reaction to make a melee weapon attack against that creature.
Another decent, albeit simple, feature. More attacks are always good,* and barbarians often don’t have much to do with their reaction.
It’s a shame that the core ability of this subclass is so bad, because its level 6 and 14 features aren’t bad, they just aren’t enough to elevate the subclass. Berserker had some bright spots but got too tired and winds up in sixth.
The subclass that Wizards* forgot: the Battlerager. With the recent revision to Bladesinger wizards in Tasha’s, I believe this is the only subclass that is still restricted to a specific ancestry – dwarves, in this case. Despite this weird requirement, this subclass isn’t that bad.
Level 3 – Restriction – Dwarves Only
Only dwarves can follow the Path of the Battlerager. The battlerager fills a particular niche in dwarven society and culture.
Your DM can lift this restriction to better suit the campaign. The restriction exists for the Forgotten Realms. It might not apply to your DM’s setting or your DM’s version of the Realms.
Not really sure why this is still here. This subclass was introduced in the same book as the Bladesinger, but for some reason this restriction wasn’t lifted alongside the Bladesinger’s elf requirement. Luckily even if your GM enforces this rule, dwarves* are pretty good, so you aren’t being overly penalized for picking this subclass.
Level 3 – Battlerager Armor
You gain the ability to use spiked armor as a weapon.
While you are wearing spiked armor and are raging, you can use a bonus action to make one melee weapon attack with your armor spikes at a target within 5 feet of you. If the attack hits, the spikes deal 1d4 piercing damage. You use your Strength modifier for the attack and damage rolls.
Additionally, when you use the Attack action to grapple a creature, the target takes 3 piercing damage if your grapple check succeeds.
Spiked armor is essentially scale mail that this subclass can do special things with. Having a consistent way to generate bonus action attacks is important for any martial build, and this feature provides one that doesn’t require a feat. Unfortunately this attack can’t be paired with Great Weapon Master like Polearm Master’s 1d4 attack can, but it’s a decent alternative if you’re not feeling like a glaive build.
The grappling damage is so minor that it basically doesn’t matter.
Level 6 – Reckless Abandon
When you use Reckless Attack while raging, you also gain temporary hit points equal to your Constitution modifier (minimum of 1). They vanish if any of them are left when your rage ends.
Consistently generating between 3 and 5 temporary hit points every round is a surprisingly good ability, especially when the Rage feature means those hit points will effectively be doubled against most damage. It’s no Twilight cleric,* but it’s a nice survivability boost.
Level 10 – Battlerager Charge
You can take the Dash action as a bonus action while you are raging.
This feature is pretty weak considering we want to be smacking people with our armor as a bonus action, but it can be useful for closing the distance during the first round of an encounter.
Level 14 – Spiked Retribution
Another bad feature, three damage is simply too little to matter at the level this is acquired.
The world may have forgotten the Battlerager, but that doesn’t stop it from earning its fifth-place spot. Thankfully, that means we’re finished with the bottom half of barbarian subclasses. Next week, we’ll look at the rage machine’s upper tier and finally discover who I crown as first place.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.