Last time, I wrapped up my druid subclass rankings. Now, it’s time for the fighter. As a reminder, there are three main categories I’m looking at as I judge the power level of each subclass: combat strength, allowance for a range of powerful builds, and how it interacts with multiclassing. Since the fighter has 10 subclasses, this is a two-part post, starting with the bottom five.
The Purple Dragon Knight, or Banneret if you’re not playing a member of the Forgotten Realm’s Cormyrean knighthood, is a subclass that fails on all counts.
Level 3 – Rallying Cry
When you use your Second Wind feature, you can choose up to three creatures within 60 feet of you that are allied with you. Each one regains hit points equal to your fighter level, provided that the creature can see or hear you.
Second Wind is already a middling feature with limited scaling, and this improvement does nothing to change that. I originally thought this could be used to revive unconscious party members, but since they can neither see nor hear you, it’s not even good for that. At max level, this heals 20 hit points, but for most parties, the amount healed by this feature won’t even make the difference between going down in one versus two hits.
Level 7 – Royal Envoy
You gain proficiency in the Persuasion skill. If you are already proficient in it, you gain proficiency in one of the following skills of your choice: Animal Handling, Insight, Intimidation, or Performance.
Your proficiency bonus is doubled for any ability check you make that uses Persuasion. You receive this benefit regardless of the skill proficiency you gain from this feature.
Persuasion proficiency and expertise, a decent feature for many classes, is very weak when attached to the fighter. Because of how 5E’s attributes work and the distribution of which stats are required for saving throws, charisma has little value unless it’s a core class attribute. Fighters are not a charisma-based class, meaning this feature is pulling the Banneret away from more useful attributes like strength, dexterity, constitution, or wisdom.
Level 10 – Inspiring Surge
When you use your Action Surge feature, you can choose one creature within 60 feet of you that is allied with you. That creature can make one melee or ranged weapon attack with its reaction, provided that it can see or hear you.
Starting at 18th level, you can choose two allies within 60 feet of you, rather than one.
Granting one party member one extra attack per short rest is extremely weak for a level 10 feature. This ability is at its strongest when combined with a rogue for additional Sneak Attack damage, but even in that situation, its usage is too limited to be truly impactful.
Level 15 – Bulwark
When you decide to use Indomitable to reroll an Intelligence, a Wisdom, or a Charisma saving throw and you aren’t incapacitated, you can choose one ally within 60 feet of you that also failed its saving throw against the same effect. If that creature can see or hear you, it can reroll its saving throw and must use the new roll.
This expansion to the Indomitable feature is the best ability the Banneret receives. It still has the problem that a party member with a low save bonus will most likely fail a high save DC no matter how many d20s they roll, but this at least feels like a full feature.
Level 18 – Inspiring Surge
Your Inspiring Surge feature can choose two allies within 60 feet of you, rather than one.
Speaking of full features, the Banneret doesn’t even get one for its capstone. Instead we get a minor expansion to the subclass’s level 10 feature.
I can see what Wizards was trying to do with this subclass, a knightly character skilled at diplomacy and command, but it is an abject failure. Even within the fighter class there are better subclass options if you want to play that type of character. Tenth place to the subclass with two names.
9. Arcane Archer
Saved from last place by the awful Banneret, we have the Arcane Archer. Where the Banneret’s misfire comes from trying to realize the abstract concepts of diplomacy and command, the Arcane Archer is a failure of basic combat balance.
Level 3 – Arcane Archer Lore
You choose to gain proficiency in either the Arcana or the Nature skill, and you choose to learn either the prestidigitation or the druidcraft cantrip.
We start level 3 with proficiency in an intelligence-based skill. Great. Just like the Banneret pushing fighters toward the weak charisma stat, this subclass pushes fighters toward the even weaker intelligence. The free cantrip is nice, although both of these fall solidly in the flavor camp as they have almost no mechanical effects.
Level 3 – Arcane Shot
You learn two Arcane Shot options of your choice
Once per turn when you fire an arrow from a shortbow or longbow as part of the Attack action, you can apply one of your Arcane Shot options to that arrow. You decide to use the option when the arrow hits a creature, unless the option doesn’t involve an attack roll. You have two uses of this ability, and you regain all expended uses of it when you finish a short or long rest.
You gain an additional Arcane Shot option of your choice when you reach certain levels in this class: 7th, 10th, 15th, and 18th level. Each option also improves when you become an 18th-level fighter.
If an option requires a saving throw, your Arcane Shot save DC is calculated as follows:Arcane Shot save DC = 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Intelligence modifier
Banishing Arrow. You use abjuration magic to try to temporarily banish your target to a harmless location in the Feywild. The creature hit by the arrow must also succeed on a Charisma saving throw or be banished. While banished in this way, the target’s speed is 0, and it is incapacitated. At the end of its next turn, the target reappears in the space it vacated or in the nearest unoccupied space if that space is occupied.
After you reach 18th level in this class, a target also takes 2d6 force damage when the arrow hits it.
Beguiling Arrow. Your enchantment magic causes this arrow to temporarily beguile its target. The creature hit by the arrow takes an extra 2d6 psychic damage, and choose one of your allies within 30 feet of the target. The target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw, or it is charmed by the chosen ally until the start of your next turn. This effect ends early if the chosen ally attacks the charmed target, deals damage to it, or forces it to make a saving throw.
The psychic damage increases to 4d6 when you reach 18th level in this class.
Bursting Arrow. You imbue your arrow with force energy drawn from the school of evocation. The energy detonates after your attack. Immediately after the arrow hits the creature, the target and all other creatures within 10 feet of it take 2d6 force damage each.
The force damage increases to 4d6 when you reach 18th level in this class.
Enfeebling Arrow. You weave necromantic magic into your arrow. The creature hit by the arrow takes an extra 2d6 necrotic damage. The target must also succeed on a Constitution saving throw, or the damage dealt by its weapon attacks is halved until the start of your next turn.
The necrotic damage increases to 4d6 when you reach 18th level in this class.
Grasping Arrow. When this arrow strikes its target, conjuration magic creates grasping, poisonous brambles, which wrap around the target. The creature hit by the arrow takes an extra 2d6 poison damage, its speed is reduced by 10 feet, and it takes 2d6 slashing damage the first time on each turn it moves 1 foot or more without teleporting. The target or any creature that can reach it can use its action to remove the brambles with a successful Strength (Athletics) check against your Arcane Shot save DC. Otherwise, the brambles last for 1 minute or until you use this option again.
The poison damage and slashing damage both increase to 4d6 when you reach 18th level in this class.
Piercing Arrow. You use transmutation magic to give your arrow an ethereal quality. When you use this option, you don’t make an attack roll for the attack. Instead, the arrow shoots forward in a line, which is 1 foot wide and 30 feet long, before disappearing. The arrow passes harmlessly through objects, ignoring cover. Each creature in that line must make a Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, a creature takes damage as if it were hit by the arrow, plus an extra 1d6 piercing damage. On a successful save, a target takes half as much damage.
The piercing damage increases to 2d6 when you reach 18th level in this class.
Seeking Arrow. Using divination magic, you grant your arrow the ability to seek out a target. When you use this option, you don’t make an attack roll for the attack. Instead, choose one creature you have seen in the past minute. The arrow flies toward that creature, moving around corners if necessary and ignoring three-quarters cover and half cover. If the target is within the weapon’s range and there is a path large enough for the arrow to travel to the target, the target must make a Dexterity saving throw. Otherwise, the arrow disappears after traveling as far as it can. On a failed save, the target takes damage as if it were hit by the arrow, plus an extra 1d6 force damage, and you learn the target’s current location. On a successful save, the target takes half as much damage, and you don’t learn its location.
The force damage increases to 2d6 when you reach 18th level in this class.
Shadow Arrow. You weave illusion magic into your arrow, causing it to occlude your foe’s vision with shadows. The creature hit by the arrow takes an extra 2d6 psychic damage, and it must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or be unable to see anything farther than 5 feet away until the start of your next turn.
The psychic damage increases to 4d6 when you reach 18th level in this class.
The main feature and main failure of this subclass. At only two uses per short or long rest, a number that never increases, it doesn’t matter how useful these special arrows are; the Arcane Archer will barely get to use their signature ability.
This feature is overly restrictive not only in how many times it can be used but also in what types of characters can use it. For whatever reason, crossbows are excluded from the weapons that can be used to trigger Arcane Shot, including the best-in-class hand crossbow. This means that Arcane Archers need to choose between their main feature and the optimal ranged weapon.
But let’s say that the restrictions on usage and weapon types were lifted; then would this feature be good? I think it would be solid but not amazing. Options like the Burst and Shadow Arrows are good damage boosts, but they lack the steady scaling that would keep them relevant at higher levels.
The closest thing to scaling this ability receives until level 18 is increased shot selection, but that suffers from diminishing returns. When this feature is gained at level 3, most players will select the two options they are most likely to use. The next time they get an additional selection, they are selecting their third-favorite option, becoming less and less likely to use new selections as they gain them. This could be fixed with more powerful options having level requirements attached to them, but the designers chose not to do that with Arcane Shot.
I have no idea why this ability is so limited, given that this subclass was released in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and the designers had plenty of existing abilities to use a template. My best guess is they didn’t want it to be too similar to the Battle Master, but if the choice is between a subclass that feels derivative and a subclass that is useless, I’ll take the derivative.
Level 7 – Magic Arrow
Whenever you fire a nonmagical arrow from a shortbow or longbow, you can make it magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance and immunity to nonmagical attacks and damage. The magic fades from the arrow immediately after it hits or misses its target.
If you don’t already have a magical weapon, this is decent. If you do, this is useless.
Level 7 – Curving Shot
When you make an attack roll with a magic arrow and miss, you can use a bonus action to reroll the attack roll against a different target within 60 feet of the original target.
A nice do-over option with great flavor. I think features that evoke imagery like this are important for any archery-focused class/subclass, and I do something similar in my Deadeye ranger rework.
Level 7 – Additional Arcane Shot Option
You gain an additional Arcane Shot option of your choice.
Remember that diminishing return issue I mentioned earlier? Well, this is where it starts. Since we already picked the best two Arcane Shot options available at level 3 and there are no new options at level 7, we’re now selecting our third-place choice, and it only gets worse.
Level 10 – Additional Arcane Shot Option
You gain an additional Arcane Shot option of your choice.
And get worse it does. The Arcane Archer doesn’t even get a real level 10 feature, just another pick of Arcane Shot when we’ve already taken the best options.
Level 15 – Ever-Ready Shot
If you roll initiative and have no uses of Arcane Shot remaining, you regain one use of it.
I finally get to use Arcane Shot, the subclass’s main feature, at least once per combat. At level 15. Not great.
Level 15 – Additional Arcane Shot Option
You gain an additional Arcane Shot option of your choice.
More Arcane Shots were bad at levels 7 and 10, and they’re even worse here.
Level 18 – Additional Arcane Shot Option
You gain an additional Arcane Shot option of your choice. Each option also improves.
Much like the Banneret, the Arcane Archer lacks a true capstone. This bonus is slightly better than the Banneret, but it’s still bad due to all the problems with Arcane Shot that I’ve already talked about.
The Arcane Archer’s problems are so obvious it’s puzzling to me how they made it to print. This isn’t even a case of “weak but fun.” You literally can’t do the thing you picked this subclass to do: fire cool magic arrows. This subclass misses the mark at ninth place.
The most vanilla option of 5E, the Champion. Where every other subclass involves the use of some resource or limited-use ability, the Champion is made entirely out of passive abilities. I’ve heard this described as a great subclass for beginners, and that can be true, but new players looking forward to the complexity and depth offered by 5E will be sorely disappointed by this subclass.
Level 3 – Improved Critical
Your weapon attacks score a critical hit on a roll of 19 or 20.
Unless a build is focused on attaining critical hits and maximizing their damage, this feature is a minor damage boost. For those specialized builds, this ability is great and Champion fighter dips comprise 3 to 5 levels of many “crit fisher” builds.
Level 7 – Remarkable Athlete
You can add half your proficiency bonus (round up) to any Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution check you make that doesn’t already use your proficiency bonus.
In addition, when you make a running long jump, the distance you can cover increases by a number of feet equal to your Strength modifier.
This feature runs afoul of the sometimes confusing distinction between checks and saves. An ability that granted half proficiency on three saves would be very good. However, this is restricted to checks like athletics or acrobatics. The best of these is a bonus to initiative, as it’s impossible to gain proficiency for that roll.
Unfortunately, most other checks will either be something the fighter has full proficiency in or is a check the fighter is so bad at that a minor bonus won’t generally make a difference. The inclusion of constitution checks is especially odd because I don’t think there are any RAW* instances of constitution checks.
As weak as the first half of this feature is, the second half is even worse. Jumping is a rarely used part of 5E’s rules, and a boost to it is about as close to a pure flavor feature as you can get while still having a mechanical impact.
Level 10 – Additional Fighting Style
You can choose a second option from the Fighting Style class feature.
Prior to Tasha’s, this was the only way to gain two fighting styles on a monoclassed character. However, thanks to Fighting Initiate, it’s almost always cheaper to invest in the feat or multiclass dip than 10 levels in Champion fighter. Still, if you’re in this subclass anyway, it’s a nice bump, albeit a bit weak for level 10.
Level 15 – Superior Critical
Your weapon attacks score a critical hit on a roll of 18-20.
My thoughts on this feature are similar to its level 3 version, although 15 levels in fighter is probably too many to be considered a dip anymore. If you’re looking for pure strength, I doubt investing 15 levels in a generally weak subclass is worth this ability as payoff, but for maximizing critical hit chances, there’s no better option.
Level 18 – Survivor
At the start of each of your turns, you regain hit points equal to 5 + your Constitution modifier if you have no more than half of your hit points left. You don’t gain this benefit if you have 0 hit points.
Finally, a fighter subclass with a real capstone. Given that fighters should have around 180 hit points by this level, the chance for free self-healing while at half health or below still represents quite a bit of healing. This also means that even without any outside help, the Champion will enter any fight with at least half health.
While not a particularly powerful or glamorous subclass, I think the Champion does a good job of offering a simple character option for those who want it, and it’s a whole lot better than the previous two entries on this list. Sadly not even the champ could crack eighth place.
Nominally the mounted fighter subclass, I think the designers realized that 5E’s mounted combat system is a mess of ambiguous and seemingly contradictory rules. To fix this, they made all but one of the subclass’s abilities have nothing to do with being mounted. While this results in a confusing clash of flavor versus mechanics, I think the subclass is better for it.
Level 3 – Bonus Proficiency
You gain proficiency in one of the following skills of your choice: Animal Handling, History, Insight, Performance, or Persuasion. Alternatively, you learn one language of your choice.
Insight is generally the best skill on this list, as it gets a lot of use and you usually want a decent wisdom anyway for saving throws. Not a great feature by any means, but it works fine as a bonus.
Level 3 – Born to the Saddle
You have advantage on saving throws made to avoid falling off your mount. If you fall off your mount and descend no more than 10 feet, you can land on your feet if you’re not incapacitated.
Finally, mounting or dismounting a creature costs you only 5 feet of movement, rather than half your speed.
The one Cavalier feature that actually cares if you’re mounted. Even when working as intended, this is not a great feature. The save for falling off your mount is only DC 10, so most characters will have a good chance at succeeding without this bonus. The second part of this ability only works if the first part fails. Finally, most characters have a speed of 30 feet so at most this reduction in mounting movement only saves 10 feet total. This is easily the worst of the bunch at level 3.
Level 3 – Unwavering Mark
When you hit a creature with a melee weapon attack, you can mark the creature until the end of your next turn. This effect ends early if you are incapacitated or you die, or if someone else marks the creature.
While it is within 5 feet of you, a creature marked by you has disadvantage on any attack roll that doesn’t target you.
In addition, if a creature marked by you deals damage to anyone other than you, you can make a special melee weapon attack against the marked creature as a bonus action on your next turn. You have advantage on the attack roll, and if it hits, the attack’s weapon deals extra damage to the target equal to half your fighter level.
Regardless of the number of creatures you mark, you can make this special attack a number of times equal to your Strength modifier (minimum of once), and you regain all expended uses of it when you finish a long rest.
Alongside the Ancestral Guardian barbarian and Armorer artificer, the Cavalier draws enemy attacks toward themselves by imposing disadvantage on attacks against anyone who isn’t them. Unwavering Mark falls in the middle of these three options. Its limited-use retaliation attacks are worse than the unlimited resistance granted by the Ancestral Guardian, but better than the nothing granted by the Armorer. Personally, I favor features that help me kill enemies before they can hurt my friends, but this is a solid choice for fighters looking to be the traditional video game tank.
Level 7 – Warding Maneuver
If you or a creature you can see within 5 feet of you is hit by an attack, you can roll 1d8 as a reaction if you’re wielding a melee weapon or a shield. Roll the die, and add the number rolled to the target’s AC against that attack. If the attack still hits, the target has resistance against the attack’s damage.
You can use this feature a number of times equal to your Constitution modifier (minimum of once), and you regain all expended uses of it when you finish a long rest.
Since fighters don’t generally have much to do with their reaction besides opportunity attacks, this is a decent way to spend that resource. It’s a shame that this is limited, especially by long rest. Given this effect’s power, especially as monsters gain more attacks, it would have been fine to increase how many times this feature could be used, or remove the limit entirely.
Level 10 – Hold the Line
Creatures provoke an opportunity attack from you when they move 5 feet or more while within your reach, and if you hit a creature with an opportunity attack, the target’s speed is reduced to 0 until the end of the current turn.
This is a solid feature, granting the lockdown portion of the Sentinel feat while also expanding how your opportunity attacks can be triggered. Normally, a creature only triggers an opportunity attack when it leaves your threat range, meaning that a creature can step around you while never leaving your reach. With this ability, that maneuver is no longer possible without the Cavalier having the option to try and lock the creature in place.
Level 15 – Ferocious Charger
If you move at least 10 feet in a straight line right before attacking a creature and you hit it with the attack, that target must succeed on a Strength saving throw (DC 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Strength modifier) or be knocked prone. You can use this feature only once on each of your turns.
You can tell this ability was meant to be used while mounted, but that restriction was removed so the feature would be more usable. Unfortunately, the effect here is weak, especially as a level 15 feature. Not only does this feature target strength, a commonly high monster save, but the prone condition just isn’t doing enough as the only result of a failure. Yes, it can grant you and your allies advantage on melee attacks while the target is on the ground, but that’s not much compared to what else is going on at level 15. If this were a level 3 or 7 ability, I’d be much more excited about it.
Level 18 – Vigilant Defender
You get a special reaction that you can take once on every creature’s turn, except your turn. You can use this special reaction only to make an opportunity attack, and you can’t use it on the same turn that you take your normal reaction.
This absurd feature is easily the strongest subclass capstone available to fighters. “Action economy” is a term thrown around a lot in 5E discussion: essentially, the side in a fight that can do more stuff has the advantage. A party of five players is taking five times the actions of a single big boss. This ability breaks that economy by allowing the fighter to take an additional action every round equal to the total number of enemies present in the fight.
Even at its most basic, a medium-sized fighter with a five-foot-range weapon, this means there are eight squares on the battle map enemies basically can’t walk through. Now let’s put that fighter on a large mount and give them a 10-foot-reach weapon. That 8 squares of control is increased to 32. Throw in the Polearm Master feat and now enemies don’t even have to move through your reach, they simply have to enter it.
An especially goofy combination that this feature allows involves the use of the War Caster feat’s ability to replace opportunity attacks with a spell, namely Eldritch Blast. This turns the Cavalier into an eldritch machine gun with some truly hilarious results. Granted, this combo does take at least 19 levels to really work and relies on some debatable readings of how Vigilant Defender and War Caster interact, but the fact that something like this is even in the realm of possibility shows how uniquely powerful this feature is.
If this subclass’s capstone came any earlier, it would have received a significantly higher ranking. However the cavalier’s otherwise middling features rein it in at seventh place.
It is weird to me that something called the Samurai made its way into official 5E material without a specific real-world setting for it to exist in. D&D is overwhelmingly Eurocentric generic fantasy, whereas Samurai are inextricably linked to a real-world East Asian culture.
To me this speaks to a common problem in fiction where Asian culture is viewed as inherently fantastical. It feels very odd that among generic terms like Cavalier and Champion or the obviously fantastical Psi/Eldritch Knights we have a real-world title thrown in. This is like if the next 5E book introduced a Landsknecht* subclass. It would be as silly to name a subclass after that real-world group as it is to name it after the samurai.
Level 3 – Bonus Proficiency
You gain proficiency in one of the following skills of your choice: History, Insight, Performance, or Persuasion. Alternatively, you learn one language of your choice.
Setting the cultural baggage aside, this subclass starts with a proficiency feature so similar to the Cavalier I had to make sure I hadn’t messed up my copy/pasting of subclass abilities. Insight is generally the best choice here, as it was with the Cavalier.
Level 3 – Fighting Spirit
As a bonus action on your turn, you can give yourself advantage on weapon attack rolls until the end of the current turn. When you do so, you also gain 5 temporary hit points. The number of temporary hit points increases when you reach certain levels in this class, increasing to 10 at 10th level and 15 at 15th level.
You can use this feature three times, and you regain all expended uses of it when you finish a long rest.
This is a good feature, especially for builds that don’t make extra attacks with their bonus action. It is weakened as the number of ways to gain constant advantage increase,* but if you don’t want to dip barbarian for Reckless attack, this is a solid way to make sure you hit when you need to. It is weird that this is restricted to a flat number of uses rather than a stat modifier or proficiency.
Level 7 – Elegant Courtier
Whenever you make a Charisma (Persuasion) check, you gain a bonus to the check equal to your Wisdom modifier.
Your self-control also causes you to gain proficiency in Wisdom saving throws. If you already have this proficiency, you instead gain proficiency in Intelligence or Charisma saving throws (your choice).
Wisdom is one of the most important save types in the game, so I’ll happily take proficiency in it. The persuasion boost is very minor and will probably only come up for groups without a proper charisma character.
Level 10 – Tireless Spirit
When you roll initiative and have no uses of Fighting Spirit remaining, you regain one use.
More of a good feature is good.
Level 15 – Rapid Strike
If you take the Attack action on your turn and have advantage on an attack roll against one of the targets, you can forgo the advantage for that roll to make an additional weapon attack against that target, as part of the same action. You can do so no more than once per turn.
This is one of the best level 15 features available to the fighter. The class’s damage output is entirely reliant on its weapon attacks, and this subclass is able to make its fourth attack five levels earlier than any other fighter. This attack does require advantage on at least one of the attacks made during the fighter’s turn, but whether through Fighting Spirit, using the shove action, or something like Darkness/Blind Fighting, a 15th-level samurai should have relatively easy access to advantage at least once per round.
Level 18 – Strength before Death
If you take damage that reduces you to 0 hit points and doesn’t kill you outright, you can use your reaction to delay falling unconscious, and you can immediately take an extra turn, interrupting the current turn. While you have 0 hit points during that extra turn, taking damage causes death saving throw failures as normal, and three death saving throw failures can still kill you. When the extra turn ends, you fall unconscious if you still have 0 hit points.
Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a long rest.
I like the flavor of this ability, but when compared to other whack-a-mole features, this one is pretty limited, as it doesn’t actually restore any of your health. Thankfully the subclass’s level 15 feature is awesome, so it’s okay that this one isn’t as good.
While mechanically fine, I dislike how this subclass takes elements of a real-world culture and implicitly declares them equally fantastic to a magic sword person that throws fireballs. This habit, often found around Asian culture,* is one that should stop, and I’d recommend rebranding this subclass unless you plan to play in an actual Japan-inspired setting. Sixth place.
That covers the first five fighter subclasses. Check in next time for part two, where I cover which fighter bops enemies the best.
I have also created a tier list for those of you who are interested.
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