A robed monk in a garden.

Monk Idealist by Daren Bader

Last time, we covered five of the nine monk subclasses. This week wraps up that list with the top four. As a reminder, there are three main categories I look 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. So let’s finish up the final four monk entries.

4. Open Hand

A muscly shaved man in a punching stance.
Iwamori of the Open Fist by Paolo Parente

Once upon a time I would have said the Open Hand was the strongest subclass, but thanks to new material and a deeper understanding from writing these articles, its ranking has slipped.

Level 3 – Open Hand Technique

Whenever you hit a creature with one of the attacks granted by your Flurry of Blows, you can impose one of the following effects on that target.

  • It must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or be knocked prone.
  • It must make a Strength saving throw. If it fails, you can push it up to 15 feet away from you.
  • It can’t take reactions until the end of your next turn.

This flexible feature is a good boost to Flurry of Blows, but it’s not without its issues. Knocking an opponent prone sounds like a good attack rider, as it would grant advantage to future attacks made against the prone target. Unfortunately, Flurry of Blows can only be used after the monk has made their normal attacks. This means that the monk will at most get one attack with advantage before the target has a chance to stand up. Of course the monk’s allies can also benefit, but that’s highly dependent on party composition and initiative order.

Thankfully the other options here are decent, if also situational. A large push can be very good if the party uses area of effect abilities or if the natural terrain includes something like a cliff. Unfortunately, neither of these are in the monk’s control, and the push targets a strong save on most monsters.

The ability to turn off the target’s reaction is a solid option if you plan on running in and out of combat to avoid damage. This isn’t a bad strategy, as the monk is weak on defense* and normally has to pay a ki point and their bonus action to disengage. All in all a solid feature, if a little frustrating in how its prone option fails to match how most people want to use it.

Level 6 – Wholeness of Body

As an action, you can regain hit points equal to three times your monk level. You must finish a long rest before you can use this feature again.

Eighteen whole hit points per long rest. This feature is arguably worse than the level 1 fighter ability Second Wind, as that feature refreshes on short rest and only requires a bonus action. Wholeness of Body does have decent scaling, but it’s too limited to be truly useful.

Level 11 – Tranquility

At the end of a long rest, you gain the effect of a sanctuary spell that lasts until the start of your next long rest (the spell can end early as normal). The saving throw DC for the spell equals 8 + your Wisdom modifier + your proficiency bonus.

Sanctuary is a very interesting spell that can be great protection for a support character who doesn’t want to take offensive actions. Unfortunately, Open Hand monks only have offensive actions, meaning that as soon as you want to use your character, this feature stops working. Redemption paladins get a massively improved version of this as their capstone, and the designers smartly made it so the effect worked on each enemy individually, so the paladin could still fight and benefit from its protection. Without a change like that, Tranquility is almost as bad as having no feature.

Level 17 – Quivering Palm

When you hit a creature with an unarmed strike, you can spend 3 ki points to start these imperceptible vibrations, which last for a number of days equal to your monk level. The vibrations are harmless unless you use your action to end them. To do so, you and the target must be on the same plane of existence. When you use this action, the creature must make a Constitution saving throw. If it fails, it is reduced to 0 hit points. If it succeeds, it takes 10d10 necrotic damage.

You can have only one creature under the effect of this feature at a time. You can choose to end the vibrations harmlessly without using an action.

This ability is what initially drew me to this subclass. Having the only save-or-die ability available to players is certainly a tempting capstone. Even if the target saves, 10d10 damage five times per day is good damage, especially for a monk. However, there are some issues that anyone trying to use this feature has to contend with. The first is that without an extra attack from something like Haste or a reaction attack to trigger the vibrations, the monk has to spread this ability out over two turns, slowing down their damage significantly.

The second possible issue is that the enemies you most want to fail this save almost never will. Big bosses should have a good constitution save and legendary resistances. On top of that, I would wager most GMs will make sure their villain isn’t instantly killed, meaning this is best used on strong lieutenant enemies. Even with these limitations in mind, this is an extremely good ability, and if it were attached to a better class it would be very scary.

While not as relatively strong as it used to be, the Open Hand subclass has some decent abilities and a very good capstone. It’s still a monk, with all the problems that brings, but this is the first subclass I wouldn’t feel terrible recommending to a player looking to play the class. Fourth place.

3. Kensei

An armored man with a sword.
Kazandu Blademaster by Michael Komarck

A subclass that focuses heavily on the monk’s weapon usage, the Kensei continues to suffer from the class’s split weapon/unarmed damage sources. The subclass does enough things right to be serviceable, but not enough to turn the monk into a competitive martial option.

Level 3 – Path of the Kensei

Kensei Weapons. Choose two types of weapons to be your kensei weapons: one melee weapon and one ranged weapon. Each of these weapons can be any simple or martial weapon that lacks the heavy and special properties. The longbow is also a valid choice. You gain proficiency with these weapons if you don’t already have it. Weapons of the chosen types are monk weapons for you. Many of this tradition’s features work only with your kensei weapons. When you reach 6th, 11th, and 17th level in this class, you can choose another type of weapon—either melee or ranged—to be a kensei weapon for you, following the criteria above.
Agile Parry. If you make an unarmed strike as part of the Attack action on your turn and are holding a kensei weapon, you can use it to defend yourself if it is a melee weapon. You gain a +2 bonus to AC until the start of your next turn, while the weapon is in your hand and you aren’t incapacitated.

Kensei’s Shot. You can use a bonus action on your turn to make your ranged attacks with a kensei weapon more deadly. When you do so, any target you hit with a ranged attack using a kensei weapon takes an extra 1d4 damage of the weapon’s type. You retain this benefit until the end of the current turn.

Way of the Brush. You gain proficiency with your choice of calligrapher’s supplies or painter’s supplies.

The expansion to monk weapons that this ability gives used to be a lot more unique before Tasha’s gave a similar ability to all monks. Kensei Weapons still grants some advantages, such as giving proficiency, but the upgrade to a 1d10 is no longer as special.

Agile Parry is the strongest part of this ability. Monks suffer from being unable to use a shield alongside their martial arts, so turning a weapon into a shield is great to have.

Kensei’s Shot is fine, if a weak alternative to the bonus action attack of Crossbow Expert. Spending a bonus action every round for a minor damage boost is extra expensive on a monk, as they have so many things they’d like to be doing with their bonus action.

Level 6 – One with the Blade

Magic Kensei Weapons. Your attacks with your kensei weapons count as magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance and immunity to nonmagical attacks and damage.

Deft Strike. When you hit a target with a kensei weapon, you can spend 1 ki point to cause the weapon to deal extra damage to the target equal to your Martial Arts die. You can use this feature only once on each of your turns.

Combined with Ki-Empowered Strikes, this feature ensures that every attack the Kensei makes is magical. If you already have a magical weapon, this portion of the feature is useless. Speaking of useless, Deft Strike is almost never a good expenditure of ki. Unless you know you’ll be resting after a fight, I would never recommend using this ability over saving your ki for something else.

Level 11 – Sharpen the Blade

As a bonus action, you can expend up to 3 ki points to grant one kensei weapon you touch a bonus to attack and damage rolls when you attack with it. The bonus equals the number of ki points you spent. This bonus lasts for 1 minute or until you use this feature again. This feature has no effect on a magic weapon that already has a bonus to attack and damage rolls.

Speaking of something else, here is an ability that is a decent use of ki if you don’t already have a +2 or +3 weapon. This feature does suffer from not improving your fists. This is a recurring problem the monk has and I think reflavoring this feature and expanding its bonuses to unarmed attacks would have made the Kensei significantly more viable.

Level 17 – Unerring Accuracy

If you miss with an attack roll using a monk weapon on your turn, you can reroll it. You can use this feature only once on each of your turns.

This is kinda like an extra attack, although it does require the sad occurrence of missing an attack. Not an exciting capstone, but it does add a noticeable chunk of damage per round.

Not the savior of the monk class some people originally hoped for, the Kensei is still a serviceable subclass. It was a difficult decision placing this entry above Open Hand, but in the end it was a comparison of better low-level features versus high-level features. Quivering Palm is better than anything the Kensei gets, but the earlier additions to both offense and defense Kensei monks receive mean that there are more levels where it’s better to play a Kensei than an Open Hand monk. Third place.

2. Mercy

A robed man with a potted plant.
Master Heal by Adam Rex

The newest kid on the block, I’ve seen Mercy top a lot of monk power-ranking charts. While I don’t put it quite that high, it is definitely one of the better monk subclasses.

Level 3 – Implements of Mercy

You gain proficiency in the Insight and Medicine skills, and you gain proficiency with the herbalism kit.

You also gain a special mask, which you often wear when using the features of this subclass. You determine its appearance, or generate it randomly by rolling on the Merciful Mask table.

Merciful Mask
d6 Mask Appearance
1 Raven
2 Blank and white
3 Crying visage
4 Laughing visage
5 Skull
6 Butterfly

One of the designers really wanted to play a plague doctor, and no one had the heart to tell them no. This is a very weird flavor feature that is never referenced again, despite something called the Implement of Mercy sounding important to the Mercy monk. The tool proficiency isn’t totally useless, but it’s not far off.

Level 3 – Hand of Healing

As an action, you can spend 1 ki point to touch a creature and restore a number of hit points equal to a roll of your Martial Arts die + your Wisdom modifier.

When you use your Flurry of Blows, you can replace one of the unarmed strikes with a use of this feature without spending a ki point for the healing.

This is a handy tool for anyone looking to add some support options to the monk’s kit. Replacing an attack with a heal hurts the monk’s already low damage, but being able to get an unconscious ally back on their feet for half a bonus action is nice. There is the major restriction that the ally must be within five feet of you, so if you want to punch someone and then heal a friend, they need to be right next to each other.

Level 3 – Hand of Harm

When you hit a creature with an unarmed strike, you can spend 1 ki point to deal extra necrotic damage equal to one roll of your Martial Arts die + your Wisdom modifier. You can use this feature only once per turn.

Since Flurry of Blows allows the monk to convert one ki point into two attacks and uses dexterity, generally a higher stat on monks than wisdom, this ability feels redundant. If the Mercy monk needed to deal as much burst damage as possible, this could be stacked with Flurry, but most monks won’t want to spend their ki points so quickly for such a minor bonus.

Level 6 – Physician’s Touch

When you use Hand of Healing on a creature, you can also end one disease or one of the following conditions affecting the creature: blindeddeafenedparalyzedpoisoned, or stunned.

When you use Hand of Harm on a creature, you can subject that creature to the poisoned condition until the end of your next turn.

If this feature’s buff to Hand of Healing dealt with the most common conditions of charmed and frightened, I’d say it was really good. Without those inclusions, this buff is niche at best.

The Hand of Harm buff changes it from being a slightly worse Flurry of Blows to a slightly better Flurry of Blows. Combining Hand of Harm with the Ki-Fueled Attack feature added to all monks in Tasha’s nets almost as much damage as Flurry of Blows but also poisons the target, which is a good defense buff.

Level 11 – Flurry of Healing and Harm

When you use Flurry of Blows, you can now replace each of the unarmed strikes with a use of your Hand of Healing, without spending ki points for the healing.

In addition, when you make an unarmed strike with Flurry of Blows, you can use Hand of Harm with that strike without spending the ki point for Hand of Harm. You can still use Hand of Harm only once per turn.

Now you can help two friends up if they’re both within five feet of you. Besides that scenario, this upgrade to Hand of Healing probably won’t see much use.

Thankfully the improvement to Hand of Harm is a straight buff, allowing you to combine it with Flurry of Blows for no additional ki cost. This damage boost is almost as good as an additional unarmed attack, and it is definitely welcome.

Level 17 – Hand of Ultimate Mercy

Your mastery of life energy opens the door to the ultimate mercy. As an action, you can touch the corpse of a creature that died within the past 24 hours and expend 5 ki points. The creature then returns to life, regaining a number of hit points equal to 4d10 + your Wisdom modifier. If the creature died while subject to any of the following conditions, it revives with them removed: blindeddeafenedparalyzedpoisoned, and stunned.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a long rest.

If your party has reached level 17 without a proper resurrection spell, then this ability is great. If not, it’s middling. The lack of casting time, component cost, and immediate healing is nice, but not enough for a level 17 feature.

I think the Mercy monk is a step in the right direction for monks, but it doesn’t go far enough. Its healing options are heavily restricted by range, and its damage boost clashes with existing monk options until level 11. It’s one of the best monks, but it’s still a monk. Second place.

1. Shadow

A shadowy figure surrounded by darkness.
Author of Shadows by Alex Brock

I find it humorous that the subclass that gained the most from Tasha’s wasn’t the one introduced in the book. Instead, it was the humble Shadow monk that went from weaker than average to head of the pack. What made this change possible was the introduction of Blind Fighting. Through either a level of fighter or the Fighting Initiate feat, the Shadow monk can finally see through the thing its subclass is named after.

Level 3 – Shadow Arts

You can use your ki to duplicate the effects of certain spells. As an action, you can spend 2 ki points to cast darknessdarkvisionpass without trace, or silence, without providing material components. Additionally, you gain the minor illusion cantrip if you don’t already know it.

Speaking of darkness, here is the ability that was incredibly disappointing prior to Tasha’s. The ability to cast 2nd-level spells for two ki points is pretty good. Compared to the Four Elements, these spells are cheaper for their level and generally stronger. Unfortunately, someone forgot to give Shadow monks the ability to see through their own Darkness spell, severely hampering the subclass’s offense. Now that this can be fixed through a fighting style, this feature goes from fine to great, allowing for powerful options both in and out of combat that monks normally have no way of getting.

Level 6 – Shadow Step

When you are in dim light or darkness, as a bonus action you can teleport up to 60 feet to an unoccupied space you can see that is also in dim light or darkness. You then have advantage on the first melee attack you make before the end of the turn.

In what is quickly becoming a running theme for this subclass, Shadow Step is another feature that was severely hampered by not being able to see through magical darkness. The sight requirement on this feature meant that Shadow monks couldn’t cast the Darkness spell to teleport into. Even with Blind Fighting, this is only a 10-foot teleport in darkness, but that is still useful in combat and costs no resources. Shadow Step is also helpful outside of combat, as many 5E environments have plenty of dimly lit spots to teleport into.

Level 11 – Cloak of Shadows

When you are in an area of dim light or darkness, you can use your action to become invisible. You remain invisible until you make an attack, cast a spell, or are in an area of bright light.

Though not suitable for combat due to its action cost and how easy it is to break, this feature allows the Shadow monk to operate safely as the party’s scout. I would have loved some more additions to the subclass’s combat power, but this ability is decent.

Level 17 – Opportunist

Whenever a creature within 5 feet of you is hit by an attack made by a creature other than you, you can use your reaction to make a melee attack against that creature.

Assuming other members of your party make use of attacks, this feature should be netting the Shadow monk one additional attack per round. Since monks don’t have a lot to do with their reaction, this is a great use for it.

Even using the newly empowered Shadow subclass, the monk still has problems competing with other optimized builds, but it’s a heck of a lot closer to being legitimately good than anything else the class has on offer. Without a shadow of a doubt, this takes first place.

That wraps up monks. Tune in next time as I look at paladin subclasses to better understand the many flavors of smite on offer.

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

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.

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