As much as I love 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, it’s not the most balanced of games. Some mechanics are numerically stronger than others. This doesn’t just hold true for items and spells, but for entire classes as well. I’ve written a lot here on Mythcreants about the various powerful builds and even top subclasses, but I’ve never codified my feelings on how each class as a whole stacks up against the others, so let’s fix that. For this list I rank each class on its own without considering any multiclass options. The addition of multiclassing changes the equation so drastically it deserves its own list.*
Let’s look at 5th Edition D&D’s classes power ranked from worst and best.
Although it pains me to give the game’s newest class this dubious distinction, there wasn’t much competition in my mind. The artificer is Wizards of the Coast’s third attempt at a half caster,* and it fails even more spectacularly than the ranger did. This class feels like 10 levels of abilities spread over 20 levels of class. Its damage output is low, it’s not particularly survivable, and its spell list is average. I’ve heard people say it works well as a support, but I don’t agree. Druid, cleric, bard, sorcerer, or wizard all make significantly better support options.
The one thing artificers do well is create a selection of magic items with their Infuse Item feature. This allows them to imbue a selection of non-magic items with certain magical properties, including replicating the effect of some magical items listed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. As part of a stronger class, this feature would be a great addition, but the artificer is simply too weak. The best use for these infused items is to give them to the effective characters. This is artificer support at its strongest, but compared to other support options that both help the party and work as strong characters in their own right, being an item dispensary isn’t enough.
Saved from the bottom slot only by the existence of the artificer, we have the ranger. What puts the ranger so low on this list isn’t strictly its mechanical weaknesses. It is possible to build a competent martial ranger. The problem is everything it does is done better by another class. Fighters make better archers, and any number of martial options make superior melee combatants.
Even the ranger’s most flavorful mechanic, a beast companion, is not only reserved for one subclass, but also it’s terrible. Having a pet should have been the ranger’s core feature, something the entire class was built around to maintain a powerful core ability regardless of subclass. Wizards of the Coast did this with the paladin’s Holy Smite, and it ended up as one of the best classes in the game. Meanwhile, the ranger’s problems have been well known for years, and no significant change has yet been forthcoming. I’m very confused by the obstinate refusal to fix a class so obviously in need of help.
Rounding out the truly bad classes, we have the monk. Arguably, this class should have its rank switched with the ranger’s, but I award it points for at least having a core class mechanic that’s not simply done better by another class. Is it a particularly good mechanic? No, it’s awful. Monks are squishy, easy to hit, deal low damage, and have a resource pool that is drained so quickly that they soon find themselves unable to use their class or subclass features.
The monk also suffers from a lack of support from official Wizards content. I have found one item that boosts unarmed attacks with a +1 to hit and damage rolls.* Besides that, monks are left with no way to improve their unarmed combat outside of what their class gives them. I was pretty positive in my review of the Astral Self subclass in Unearthed Arcana; here’s hoping it makes its way into official material to give this class some much-needed support.
Moving on to the first decent class on this list, we have the rogue. Its first problem is a one-note combat ability. The class is completely reliant on its Sneak Attack feature for dealing damage, a conditional ability that means missing a single attack results in dealing no damage for an entire round. Rogues are also fragile, pushing them even further behind other martial classes. Without dipping into a class like fighter for increased toughness and a fighting style, the rogue can’t keep up in a fight.
As for noncombat, everything the rogue does is replicated by the much stronger bard. I’d even argue that bards fulfill the skill character role better, as they get more proficiencies and have the Jack of all Trades feature, granting half their proficiency bonus to all skills they aren’t already proficient in. Rogues eventually get Reliable Talent, guaranteeing them at least a ten in anything they’re proficient in, but that doesn’t come online till level 11. This doesn’t mean the rogue is an awful class, but I definitely consider it one of the weaker options.
Continuing the run of martial characters, we have the barbarian. The class itself is fairly straightforward and so is the reason for its inclusion here: barbarians don’t hold up as a single class across all 20 levels of play. Levels 1 through 5 feel amazing for the class: they pick up Rage, Reckless Attack, Danger Sense, and Bear Totem.*
However, after gaining their extra attack, barbarians enter a realm of disappointment until Primal Champion at 20. Despite 14 levels of bad, the other 6 levels are good enough to earn our angry friend a spot at ninth place.
The first full caster we see on this list, and, sadly, I doubt it is a surprise to many. The warlock is a perplexing class to me. It has so much front-loaded on its early levels* that, much like the barbarian, they feel fantastic. It’s like the class was made for multiclassing, as once you get past level 5,* its power falls off a proverbial cliff.
Eldritch Invocations are used to imitate what other arcane casters get for free, and the Mystic Arcanum feature standing in for higher level spells is needlessly restrictive. The class pales in comparison to the higher entries on this list. Eldritch Blast does its best to prop up the class, but a restrictive spell list and a severe shortage of spell slots earn the warlock its eighth place.
Often considered the default class of D&D 5E, I was happy that the fighter made it to the middle of this list. A monoclassed fighter is a dependable source of damage that is also good at protecting itself. Heavy armor ensures a high armor class, and options such as Shadow Blade from the Eldritch Knight allow for even a sword-and-board fighter to output a respectable amount of damage per round. On top of this, the class’s 3rd and 4th attacks grant it a level of scaling higher than other pure martial* classes. This reliability and smooth power curve net the fighter seventh place.
If I had made this list before Xanathar’s Guide to Everything was printed, the sorcerer would have ranked much lower. With a reduced spell list compared to the wizard and a major bottleneck created by how few spells it learns, the original sorcerer had little to recommend it outside of its brief power spikes from Twin Spelling buffs like Polymorph.
The creation of the Divine Soul changed all that. With the ability to turn failed saves into successes with Favored by the Gods at level 1, indefinite flying at 14, and a bonus action to heal half their health at 18, this subclass would already be one of the best options. However, these abilities are mere icing on the cake that is access to the entirety of the cleric spell list, in addition to what sorcerers already get. Unfortunately, a monoclassed sorcerer isn’t able to take full advantage of that second spell list, as it lacks the AC or hit points to be on the front line where spells like Spirit Guardians are at their best.
Speaking of taking advantage of the cleric spell list, the cleric sneaks into my top five. With access to heavy armor and spells like Spirit Guardians, clerics deal great area damage and are difficult to hurt. Subclasses like the Life cleric also give the class the rare ability to heal efficiently, although its full effectiveness isn’t unlocked without multiclassing. Though the cleric spell list doesn’t hold up as well as some other classes at higher levels, their ability to up-cast Spirit Guardians means they’ll never be without something useful to do.
Clerics are also quite flexible, with more subclasses than you can shake a scepter at. Forge and Life clerics can operate on the frontline, supporting their party while absorbing damage. If backline casting is what you want, Light and Grave clerics work reasonably well as blaster mages. While I wouldn’t rank all of these subclasses as particularly high tier,* the existence of so many options is useful in its own right.
The strongest martial class in the game, paladins are the best mix of offense and defense 5E has to offer. Large hit dice, heavy armor, and the best saves available, thanks to Aura of Protection, paladins are equipped for any type of danger. Even better, paladins share these awesome features, granting their increased saves and even resistance against spell damage* to allies within 10 feet of them. Since my first 5E character smote an offending villain to my current paladin/warlock hybrid, I’m happy to see this class take fourth place.
From the laughingstock of early editions to one of the best classes in the game, bard has come a long way. This class can fit almost any role you want it to play. Bards come with a full spell list that they can augment with upwards of eight spells taken from any other list in the game. This by itself earns the bard a top placement.
But the class doesn’t stop there. Bards also gain access to the most skill proficiencies of any class, with Expertise and Jack of All Trades allowing the bard to both specialize and be a generalist. Bards can also support themselves and their parties with Bardic Inspiration, shoring up critical rolls or turning enemy successes into failure. If I had to name the bard’s greatest weakness, it would be how fragile the class is and the amount of planning needed when considering spells to take from other lists. When a class’s biggest problem is deciding which power spells to steal, it’s earned the number three slot.
More than any other class, the druid earns its high spot thanks to a single subclass: Circle of the Moon. The gulf in power between Circle of the Moon and the other subclasses is one of the widest I’ve ever seen. Moon druids take a full spell list and add on the ability to shape-shift into powerful beasts to protect themselves in combat. All druids can shape-shift, but the Moon subclass jumps the available creatures from CR 1/4 to CR 2, increasing by one every 3 levels.
Just as the first form of Moon’s Wild Shape starts to dwindle in power, it acquires Conjure Animals, or Raptor Swarm as I like to call it.* From there they upgrade their shape-shifting forms and pick up spells like Polymorph for when they want to get serious. This steady power gain is capped off with a massive spike as the number of times the druid can transform increases from 2 per short rest to…unlimited. This capstone is by far the strongest in the game and makes a druid lucky enough to reach that level an unstoppable force as they constantly reset their hit points to a mammoth 126. Any player character who can serve as a multistage boss fight for an entire party deserves its second-place rank.
The more D&D changes, the more it stays the same. Despite the powerful abilities brought by every other class, from the bard’s flexibility to the druid’s infinity mammoth, no character class tops the raw power of the wizard. The wizard’s spell list cannot be beat. From level 1 with Find Familiar they receive exclusive* spells that are too good to ignore. On top of this list are subclasses like Evocation and Divination.
Evocation allows the wizard to cast their area of effect spells with no concern for friendly fire, while Divination wizards can manipulate dice rolls in a way no other class can match. The class’s capstone feature is not great, but they make up for it with an amazing 18th level feature that grants them a 1st and 2nd level spell to be cast at will. Though part of me wanted to be contrary and put the wizard in 2nd or 3rd, I would be lying. This wizard is the strongest class in 5E, bar none.
With that we wrap up the power ranking of 5th Edition D&D classes as they stand on their own. Next time, we’ll take a look at multiclassing, where things get a bit more complicated.
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.