A monk with his arms crossed

Monk Realist by Daren Bader

Last time, I wrapped up my fighter subclass rankings. Now, it’s time for the monk. 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 monk has nine subclasses, this is a two-part post, starting with the bottom five.

9. Sun Soul

A tiger-person summoning sunlight.
Oreskos Sun Guide by Mathias Kollros

With the improvements made to the Beast Master ranger in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, the Sun Soul is working hard to be the worst subclass in the game.

Level 3 – Radiant Sun Bolt

You gain a new attack option that you can use with the Attack action. This special attack is a ranged spell attack with a range of 30 feet. You are proficient with it, and you add your Dexterity modifier to its attack and damage rolls. Its damage is radiant, and its damage die is a d4. This die changes as you gain monk levels, as shown in the Martial Arts column of the Monk table.

When you take the Attack action on your turn and use this special attack as part of it, you can spend 1 ki point to make the special attack twice as a bonus action.

When you gain the Extra Attack feature, this special attack can be used for any of the attacks you make as part of the Attack action.

This ability suffers from a problem that permeates the entire monk class: unarmed attacks and their derivative options are not supported enough in 5E to be competitive damage options. At level 3, ranged weapons are dealing between 1d8 and 1d10 damage for most classes, while this feature is the equivalent of throwing a dagger. Even melee monks are doing more damage because at least their initial attack can be made with a normal weapon before making their weaker Flurry of Blows attacks. The only thing this feature has going for it is the addition of range, but with no buffs to damage that is simply not enough.

Level 6 – Searing Arc Strike

You gain the ability to channel your ki into searing waves of energy. Immediately after you take the Attack action on your turn, you can spend 2 ki points to cast the burning hands spell as a bonus action.

You can spend additional ki points to cast burning hands as a higher-level spell. Each additional ki point you spend increases the spell’s level by 1. The maximum number of ki points (2 plus any additional points) that you can spend on the spell equals half your monk level.

This feature demonstrates the second major problem with monks: they have too many uses for their ki points and not nearly enough ki to use them all. Theoretically a free 1st-level spell, even a bad one like Burning Hands, would be a nice addition to the monk’s attack action. But at level 6, this is spending a third of the monk’s available ki, which is needed for things like Flurry of Blows and Stunning Strike. This ability is a trap because any ki spent on it could be better used elsewhere.

Level 11 – Searing Sunburst

You gain the ability to create an orb of light that erupts into a devastating explosion. As an action, you magically create an orb and hurl it at a point you choose within 150 feet, where it erupts into a sphere of radiant light for a brief but deadly instant.

Each creature in that 20-foot-radius sphere must succeed on a Constitution saving throw or take 2d6 radiant damage. A creature doesn’t need to make the save if the creature is behind total cover that is opaque.

You can increase the sphere’s damage by spending ki points. Each point you spend, to a maximum of 3, increases the damage by 2d6.

At least the base form of this feature doesn’t cost ki, but at level 11, 2d6 with no damage on a successful save is pitiful. You could spend 3 of your 11 ki to make this a worse Fireball, but once again it will almost always be weaker than spending that ki on more attacks or possible stuns.

Level 17 – Sun Shield

You become wreathed in a luminous, magical aura. You shed bright light in a 30-foot radius and dim light for an additional 30 feet. You can extinguish or restore the light as a bonus action.

If a creature hits you with a melee attack while this light shines, you can use your reaction to deal radiant damage to the creature. The radiant damage equals 5 + your Wisdom modifier.

The first half of this capstone ability is just the Light cantrip, except that it sheds a little more light and can’t be cast on objects. More importantly, you can’t choose what color the light is, which is very sad. The second half uses the monk’s reaction to deal at most 10 damage, which is very bad by level 17. Even worse, the monk has to be hit first.

Given the general strength of classes from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, I have no idea how the designers thought this subclass would help support the already ailing monk. The sun sets on this failing subclass in ninth place.

8. Four Elements

A woman meditating while surrounded by floating streams of water.
Quiet Contemplation by Magali Villeneuve

Between this subclass and Sun Soul, 5E is a very disappointing place to try and play a character from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Four Elements does something fairly unique in 5E: adding spells to a subclass and somehow managing to make that subclass bad.

Level 3 – Disciple of the Elements

You learn magical disciplines that harness the power of the four elements. A discipline requires you to spend ki points each time you use it.

You know the Elemental Attunement discipline and one other elemental discipline of your choice. You learn one additional elemental discipline of your choice at 6th, 11th, and 17th level.

Whenever you learn a new elemental discipline, you can also replace one elemental discipline that you already know with a different discipline.

Casting Elemental Spells. Some elemental disciplines allow you to cast spells. See chapter 10 of the Player’s Handbook for the general rules of spellcasting. To cast one of these spells, you use its casting time and other rules, but you don’t need to provide material components for it.

Once you reach 5th level in this class, you can spend additional ki points to increase the level of an elemental discipline spell that you cast, provided that the spell has an enhanced effect at a higher level, as burning hands does. The spell’s level increases by 1 for each additional ki point you spend. For example, if you are a 5th-level monk and use Sweeping Cinder Strike to cast burning hands, you can spend 3 ki points to cast it as a 2nd-level spell (the discipline’s base cost of 2 ki points plus 1).

The maximum number of ki points you can spend to cast a spell in this way (including its base ki point cost and any additional ki points you spend to increase its level) is determined by your monk level, as shown in the Spells and Ki Points table. At 5th level, you may spend up to 3 ki points; this increases to 4 ki points at 9th level, 5 at 13th level, and 6 at 17th level.

Spells and Ki Points
Monk Levels Maximum Ki Points for a Spell
5th-8th 3
9th-12th 4
13th-16th 5
17th-20th 6

But how did the designers manage to do such a thing you ask? By connecting that spell casting to ki, rather than spell slots. As I’ve already mentioned, ki is an incredibly scarce resource that monks cannot afford to waste. As we see in the next ability, any spells the Four Elements monk gets are way below the level a normal caster would receive them, making this yet another ki point trap.

Level 3 – Elemental Disciplines

This next ability has a lot  of text, but I know we can get through it together.

The elemental disciplines are presented in alphabetical order. If a discipline requires a level, you must be the level in this class to learn the discipline.

Breath of Winter (17th Level Required). You can spend 6 ki points to cast cone of cold.

Clench of the North Wind (6th Level Required). You can spend 3 ki points to cast hold person.

Elemental Attunement. You can use your action to briefly control elemental forces within 30 feet of you, causing one of the following effects of your choice:

  • Create a harmless, instantaneous sensory effect related to air, earth, fire, or water, such as a shower of sparks, a puff of wind, a spray of light mist, or a gentle rumbling of stone.
  • Instantaneously light or snuff out a candle, a torch, or a small campfire.
  • Chill or warm up to 1 pound of nonliving material for up to 1 hour.
  • Cause earth, fire, water, or mist that can fit within a 1-foot cube to shape itself into a crude form you designate for 1 minute.

Eternal Mountain Defense (17th Level Required). You can spend 5 ki points to cast stoneskin, targeting yourself.

Fangs of the Fire Snake. When you use the Attack action on your turn, you can spend 1 ki point to cause tendrils of flame to stretch out from your fists and feet. Your reach with your unarmed strikes increases by 10 feet for that action, as well as the rest of the turn. A hit with such an attack deals fire damage instead of bludgeoning damage, and if you spend 1 ki point when the attack hits, it also deals an extra 1d10 fire damage.

Fist of Four Thunders. You can spend 2 ki points to cast thunderwave.

Flames of the Phoenix (11th Level Required). You can spend 4 ki points to cast fireball.

Gong of the Summit (6th Level Required). You can spend 3 ki points to cast shatter.

Mist Stance (11th Level Required). You can spend 4 ki points to cast gaseous form, targeting yourself.

Ride the Wind (11th Level Required). You can spend 4 ki points to cast fly, targeting yourself.

River of Hungry Flame (17th Level Required). You can spend 5 ki points to cast wall of fire.

Rush of the Gale Spirits. You can spend 2 ki points to cast gust of wind.

Shape the Flowing River. As an action, you can spend 1 ki point to choose an area of ice or water no larger than 30 feet on a side within 120 feet of you. You can change water to ice within the area and vice versa, and you can reshape ice in the area in any manner you choose. You can raise or lower the ice’s elevation, create or fill in a trench, erect or flatten a wall, or form a pillar. The extent of any such changes can’t exceed half the area’s largest dimension. For example, if you affect a 30-foot square, you can create a pillar up to 15 feet high. raise or lower the square’s elevation by up to 15 feet, dig a trench up to 15 feet deep, and so on. You can’t shape the ice to trap or injure a creature in the area.

Sweeping Cinder Strike. You can spend 2 ki points to cast burning hands.

Unbroken Air. You can create a blast of compressed air that strikes like a mighty fist. As an action, you can spend 2 ki points and choose a creature within 30 feet of you. That creature must make a Strength saving throw. On a failed save, the creature takes 3d10 bludgeoning damage, plus an extra 1d10 bludgeoning damage for each additional ki point you spend, and you can push the creature up to 20 feet away from you and knock it prone. On a successful save, the creature takes half as much damage, and you don’t push it or knock it prone.

Water Whip.
You can spend 2 ki points as an action to create a whip of water that shoves and pulls a creature to unbalance it. A creature that you can see that is within 30 feet of you must make a Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, the creature takes 3d10 bludgeoning damage, plus an extra 1d10 bludgeoning damage for each additional ki point you spend, and you can either knock it prone or pull it up to 25 feet closer to you. On a successful save, the creature takes half as much damage, and you don’t pull it or knock it prone.
Wave of Rolling Earth (17th Level Required). You can spend 6 ki points to cast wall of stone.

Looking at the options available, there is little here that impresses. Damage spells like Shatter, Fireball, and Cone of Cold are all incredibly expensive to cast and come online too late to gain their full benefit. On top of that, the Four Elements monk’s saving throws are based on wisdom. Given that most monks prioritize dexterity to do damage with their weapon attacks, that means saves for these under-leveled spells are lower than where a normal caster would be, further reducing their usefulness.

Concentration options like Fly, Wall of Fire, and Stoneskin* are better, as they improve the efficiency of ki points spent, but they still suffer from the other problems I’ve mentioned. On top of all these issues, the monk can only select a small handful of options from this list, removing any flexibility this subclass might have had.

Levels 6, 11, and 17 – Extra Elemental Discipline

You learn one additional elemental discipline of your choice. You should know 2 elemental disciplines, as well as Elemental Attunement.

Whenever you learn a new elemental discipline, you can also replace one elemental discipline that you already know with a different discipline.

Oh look, another subclass that replaces real features with more options, something that should never be a standalone level reward. At least this subclass has level-gated Elemental Disciplines, so you are getting abilities you didn’t have access to before. Since these three “abilities” are exactly the same, I’ve bundled them into one section for this article to save everyone some time.

This subclass is another truly awful option, staying out of last place only due to the even worse Sun Soul. Eighth place.

7. Astral Self

A goblin with additional magic arms.
Extra Arms by Greg Staples

Emerging from the traps, we get to the ones that are merely bad. This subclass brings us the fantasy of the Stands from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure or the shadow-bird kid from My Hero Academia: an inner spirit the monk draws out to aid them in battle.

Level 3 – Arms of the Astral Self

 As a bonus action, you can spend 1 ki point to summon the arms of your astral self. When you do so, each creature of your choice that you can see within 10 feet of you must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or take force damage equal to two rolls of your Martial Arts die.

For 10 minutes, these spectral arms hover near your shoulders or surround your arms (your choice). You determine the arms’ appearance, and they vanish early if you are incapacitated or die.

While the spectral arms are present, you gain the following benefits:

  • You can use your Wisdom modifier in place of your Strength modifier when making Strength checks and Strength saving throws.
  • You can use the spectral arms to make unarmed strikes.
  • When you make an unarmed strike with the arms on your turn, your reach for it is 5 feet greater than normal.
  • The unarmed strikes you make with the arms can use your Wisdom modifier in place of your Strength or Dexterity modifier for the attack and damage rolls, and their damage type is force.

The ability to replace one stat with another is great, as anyone who’s taken a dip into the Hexblade can attest. Unfortunately this is one of the weakest versions of such a mechanic. Requiring ki and a bonus action is expensive, and since monks looking to increase their damage should be using a normal weapon alongside their unarmed strikes, this substitution only works for some of those attacks. Astral Self monks could forgo a weapon, but then their already low damage will fall even further.

Level 6 – Visage of the Astral Self

As a bonus action, or as part of the bonus action you take to activate Arms of the Astral Self, you can spend 1 ki point to summon this visage for 10 minutes. It vanishes early if you are incapacitated or die.

The spectral visage covers your face like a helmet or mask. You determine its appearance.

While the spectral visage is present, you gain the following benefits.

Astral Sight. You can see normally in darkness, both magical and nonmagical, to a distance of 120 feet.

Wisdom of the Spirit. You have advantage on Wisdom (Insight) and Charisma (Intimidation) checks.

Word of the Spirit. When you speak, you can direct your words to a creature of your choice that you can see within 60 feet of you, making it so only that creature can hear you. Alternatively, you can amplify your voice so that all creatures within 600 feet can hear you.

This mostly noncombat ability does little to enhance the power of this weak subclass. Astral Sight is the strongest of these features as Darkness builds become more prevalent, but at best it’s situational. Wisdom of the Spirit is a nice boost to Insight rolls, but spending a ki point for what will usually be advantage on a single roll probably isn’t worth it.

Level 11 – Body of the Astral Self

When you have both your astral arms and visage summoned, you can cause the body of your astral self to appear (no action required). This spectral body covers your physical form like a suit of armor, connecting with the arms and visage. You determine its appearance.

While the spectral body is present, you gain the following benefits.

Deflect Energy. When you take acid, cold, fire, force, lightning, or thunder damage, you can use your reaction to deflect it. When you do so, the damage you take is reduced by 1d10 + your Wisdom modifier (minimum reduction of 1).

Empowered Arms. Once on each of your turns when you hit a target with the Arms of the Astral Self, you can deal extra damage to the target equal to your Martial Arts die.

Deflect Missiles is a bad level 3 monk ability. Getting an almost exact copy of that ability for elemental damage at level 11 is even worse. You could argue that this ability is slightly stronger as it lacks the ki trap of Deflect Missiles, but that’s more an indictment of the old ability than a vindication of this one.

Empowered arms is at least usable as a free damage boost, but 1d8 extra damage per round is not enough. Even the ranger has been getting that kind of damage bonus since level 3.

Level 17 – Awakened Astral Self

As a bonus action, you can spend 5 ki points to summon the arms, visage, and body of your astral self and awaken it for 10 minutes. This awakening ends early if you are incapacitated or die.

While your astral self is awakened, you gain the following benefits.

Armor of the Spirit. You gain a +2 bonus to Armor Class.

Astral Barrage. Whenever you use the Extra Attack feature to attack twice, you can instead attack three times if all the attacks are made with your astral arms.

Finally, a decent ability. Too bad it took till level 17 and almost a third of the monk’s ki points. If you get to this level with an Astral Self monk, you will definitely feel the impact of this feature, but you’ll still be significantly behind most other characters in both offense and defense.

I reviewed the test version of this subclass very positively and am sad to see how much the print release fails to measure up. I remember how many people lamented the test version being too powerful compared to other monk subclasses, but that’s what the monk needs. Weak classes will never become strong if new subclasses are shackled to the strength level of what came before. The monk needs a lot of help, and I had hoped the Astral Self would be that help, but in its release state, it only gets seventh place.

6. Long Death

A ram-person struck with arrows.
Supernatural Stamina by Christopher Moeller

Long Death monks are very spooky, edgy punch people. Like many subclasses that came out in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, it’s been seemingly forgotten by the community and design team. Unlike my sweet child the Battlerager, I agree that this subclass is better left forgotten.

Level 3 – Touch of Death

When you reduce a creature within 5 feet of you to 0 hit points, you gain temporary hit points equal to your Wisdom modifier + your monk level (minimum of 1 temporary hit point).

Before I get to why I think that, let’s look at this serviceable health buff. With judicious use of small critter punching, a Long Death monk should have their temp HP between every encounter. This feature is made weaker by the increased prevalence of temp HP since Tasha’s, but it’s better than a lot of level 3 monk abilities.

Level 6 – Hour of Reaping

When you take this action, each creature within 30 feet of you that can see you must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or be frightened of you until the end of your next turn.

The frightened condition is solid as a rider effect to an attack or when made persistent by something like the Fear spell. When applying frightened costs a character’s entire action and only lasts a round, it becomes significantly worse. This feature also suffers from monk saves being based on wisdom, reducing the chance that it will land. Your allies won’t be terribly happy with you, as there is no way to exclude them from the effect. This only gets worse at higher levels as more and more monsters gain immunity to the frightened condition.

Level 11 – Mastery of Death

When you are reduced to 0 hit points, you can expend 1 ki point (no action required) to have 1 hit point instead.

Here we have it, the big thing Long Death monks get. Generally, whack-a-mole abilities will prevent a character from being downed once per long rest. A level 11 Long Death monk can do it 11 times per short rest, up to 20 times at max level. As far as power level goes, the monk is generally such a weak class that being unable to die is less of a boon to your party than it might seem.

However, this fundamentally breaks how 5E handles dropping to zero hit points. Going unconscious and being forced to make death saves is key to how 5E’s combat is designed. This forces characters to play more carefully when low on hit points or work with their party to bring them back up if they fall down.

A character that can ignore this key mechanic upwards of twenty times a fight is bad design. I’m glad the rest of the subclass is weak, as a powerful Long Death monk would make encounter construction extremely annoying for GMs. There’s no denying the strength of this ability, but it’s so poorly made it’s one of the few features I’d like to see removed entirely.

Level 17 – Touch of the Long Death

As an action, you touch one creature within 5 feet of you, and you expend 1 to 10 ki points. The target must make a Constitution saving throw, and it takes 2d10 necrotic damage per ki point spent on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.

A damage ability that targets what is on average a strong monster save is not a good use of ki points, especially when you could use those for saying no to death up to 17 times.

I’m of the opinion that subclasses propelled by a single feature are poorly designed, and Long Death has to be one of the worst examples. Its strong feature is game warping and while I don’t think the subclass is a power problem, it probably should never have been printed this way. Long Death might avoid dropping to zero, but it can’t avoid sixth place.

5. Drunken Master

A monk raising a cup of glowing wine.
Blessed Wine by Kaja Foglio

For monk players not looking for any trouble,* the Drunken Master is here for you.

Level 3 – Bonus Proficiencies

You gain proficiency in the Performance skill if you don’t already have it. Your martial arts technique mixes combat training with the precision of a dancer and the antics of a jester. You also gain proficiency with brewer’s supplies if you don’t already have it.

Monk generally don’t want a high charisma and tools are bad, so this feature is almost entirely flavor. Thankfully, Drunk Masters get another level 3 ability, so it can afford this mechanically weak inclusion.

Level 3 – Drunken Technique

Whenever you use Flurry of Blows, you gain the benefit of the Disengage action, and your walking speed increases by 10 feet until the end of the current turn.

Speaking of that extra feature, this is a very good one. One of monk’s many problems during fights is that they often want to be in melee but don’t have the AC or hit points to endure multiple hits. Most monks need to spend a ki point and a bonus action to Disengage, but the Drunken Master gets it for free with some extra speed to boot.

Level 6 – Tipsy Sway

You gain the following benefits.

Leap to Your Feet. When you’re prone, you can stand up by spending 5 feet of movement, rather than half your speed.
Redirect Attack. When a creature misses you with a melee attack roll, you can spend 1 ki point as a reaction to cause that attack to hit one creature of your choice, other than the attacker, that you can see within 5 feet of you.

Redirect Attack is definitely the standout option here, although getting attacked does clash with the free Disengage from Drunken Technique. Monks generally don’t have useful things to do with their reaction and monster attacks will often be stronger, so looking at this as an extra attack that costs 1 ki and a reaction isn’t the worst. Leap to Your Feet is fine, but players don’t go prone all that often unless they’re repeatedly getting dropped to zero hit points.

Level 11 – Drunkard’s Luck

When you make an ability check, an attack roll, or a saving throw and have disadvantage on the roll, you can spend 2 ki points to cancel the disadvantage for that roll.

Unless a character is suffering from something like exhaustion, it is unlikely they’ll be rolling with disadvantage very often, making this feature very niche. Even in its niche, the ki cost on Drunkard’s Luck is too high for me to recommend it outside of rolls that you cannot afford to fail.

Level 17 – Intoxicated Frenzy

When you use your Flurry of Blows, you can make up to three additional attacks with it (up to a total of five Flurry of Blows attacks), provided that each Flurry of Blows attack targets a different creature this turn.

Generally, more attacks are good, and this gives you up to three additional attacks. However, there are some issues with this feature. The first is that unarmed attacks will often be the weakest attacks a monk can make. Yes, by this level they are dealing 1d10, but compared to a +3 or stronger magical weapon, that d10 alone is not enough. The second problem is that this requires the monk to spread out their damage, a generally bad idea in 5E. Overall I think this feature is fine, albeit weaker than “three extra attacks” looks on paper.

The Drunken Master is the first monk subclass so far I was happily surprised about. While it’s not amazing,* it’s definitely better than I remember it. The Drunken Master stumbles into fifth place.

That covers the first five monk subclasses. Check in next time for part two, where I cover the better half of our punchy friend.

I have also created a tier list for those of you who are interested.

Treat your friends to an evening of ritual murder – in a fictional RPG scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and escape a supernatural menace in our one-shot adventure, The Voyage.

Jump to Comments