Last time, we began this series by covering the best five cantrips in the game. This week, we’re looking at 1st-level spells. I want to preface this list by emphasizing the amazing spells that didn’t make the cut. Sleep is the best combat spell of levels 1 and 2, Absorb Elements is excellent protection against numerous spells and abilities, and Gift of Alacrity is a near-free initiative boost. 1st-level spells are incredibly good, making the gap in power between fifth and first place much smaller than it normally is. All of these spells are top notch and should be taken if they’re available.
I’m judging these spells using four criteria. The first and most obvious of these is combat effectiveness. If a spell ends fights every time you use it, then it’s probably a good spell. However, spells are flexible tools that often bring huge amounts of non-combat power to the table. I am also looking at how many different character types want each spell. A spell useful to a wide variety of builds scores higher than one that only works for a single build. Finally, I look at how strong the spell is across levels 1–20. Some spells start off incredibly strong but fall off later, while others remain evergreen.
5. Healing Word
A creature of your choice that you can see within range regains hit points equal to 1d4 + your spellcasting ability modifier. This spell has no effect on undead or constructs.
At Higher Levels: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the healing increases by 1d4 for each slot level above 1st.
You know what feels bad in 5E? Dying. You know which spell efficiently stops that from happening? Healing Word. At the low price of a bonus action, this spell delivers healing where it’s needed most. Alongside this excellent action cost is a solid 60-foot range. Whenever an ally goes unconscious, it’s easy to get them back into the fight while still being combat effective yourself.
As good as this spell is, it’s important to remember that it’s best used on targets close to death and/or directly after you in the initiative order. Saving party members who have failed a death save or two has an obvious upside: If they’re dead, they probably aren’t doing much damage. The initiative ordering is a bit less intuitive.
If your downed ally takes their turn directly before you and you use this spell to bring them back, they have to survive an entire round with almost no hit points before they can do anything. However, if your target goes directly after you, they can act immediately, leaving the enemy no time to knock them back down. You won’t always have the luxury of good initiative ordering, but it’s important to keep in mind. Finally, never use Healing Word on someone who is still up and fighting. Burning any resources to heal a conscious ally for such a piddling amount is never worth it.
As for who should take this spell, the answer is anyone who can. The more characters capable of using Healing Word in your party, the fewer turns that are wasted making death saving throws. Fifth place to the best emergency heal of them all.
4. Find Familiar
You gain the service of a familiar, a spirit that takes an animal form you choose: bat, cat, crab, frog (toad), hawk, lizard, octopus, owl, poisonous snake, fish (quipper), rat, raven, sea horse, spider, or weasel. Appearing in an unoccupied space within range, the familiar has the statistics of the chosen form, though it is a celestial, fey, or fiend (your choice) instead of a beast.
Your familiar acts independently of you, but it always obeys your commands. In combat, it rolls its own initiative and acts on its own turn. A familiar can’t attack, but it can take other actions as normal.
When the familiar drops to 0 hit points, it disappears, leaving behind no physical form. It reappears after you cast this spell again. As an action, you can temporarily dismiss the familiar to a pocket dimension. Alternatively, you can dismiss it forever. As an action while it is temporarily dismissed, you can cause it to reappear in any unoccupied space within 30 feet of you. Whenever the familiar drops to 0 hit points or disappears into the pocket dimension, it leaves behind in its space anything it was wearing or carrying.
While your familiar is within 100 feet of you, you can communicate with it telepathically. Additionally, as an action, you can see through your familiar’s eyes and hear what it hears until the start of your next turn, gaining the benefits of any special senses that the familiar has. During this time, you are deaf and blind with regard to your own senses.
You can’t have more than one familiar at a time. If you cast this spell while you already have a familiar, you instead cause it to adopt a new form. Choose one of the forms from the above list. Your familiar transforms into the chosen creature.
Finally, when you cast a spell with a range of touch, your familiar can deliver the spell as if it had cast the spell. Your familiar must be within 100 feet of you, and it must use its reaction to deliver the spell when you cast it. If the spell requires an attack roll, you use your attack modifier for the roll.
As you might have realized from the amount of text present in this spell description, Find Familiar is capable of a great many things. One of the most straightforward applications is combat. Assuming you picked the owl option,* your familiar can fly up to an opponent, take the help action, and fly away without incurring an opportunity attack. If you’re a pure caster, this is free advantage for one of your martial friends, while spell-blades can use that advantage themselves.
The familiar can also be used to deliver touch spells. This use does have the drawback of leaving your familiar sitting next to the spell’s target, vulnerable to attack. The reason for this is how turns are ordered in 5E. If you want to cast a touch spell, your familiar has to fly up to the target and end its turn there. You can then cast the spell through the familiar, but since the familiar already took its turn, it has to wait until the next round to get out of harm’s way.
Last but not least, let’s talk about the spell’s non-combat uses. The ability to share your familiar’s senses means you have a small, disposable scout to make sure you know about any nasty surprises coming up around the next corner. Much like Healing Word, any build that can take this spell should. Most of the time, that selection is limited to wizards, but there are a handful of ways to gain the spell through class features or feats. Fourth place goes to 5E’s owl factory.
Up to ten berries appear in your hand and are infused with magic for the duration. A creature can use its action to eat one berry. Eating a berry restores 1 hit point, and the berry provides enough nourishment to sustain a creature for one day.
The berries lose their potency if they have not been consumed within 24 hours of the casting of this spell.
As good as the last two spells are, neither of them alters the math of 5E the way Goodberry can. On its own, this spell is an efficient, if unremarkable, out-of-combat healing option. However, combine this with one level of Life cleric and the spell goes from healing 10 hit points to healing 40 hit points.* This means one character can output healing in the hundreds between every encounter.
What makes this game defining is how it removes one of the major resource drains on the party: their health. Most healing in 5E is inefficient enough that damage taken during a fight either has to be healed with a short rest or sticks with the group into whatever comes next. Now, the entire party can be fully healed between fights, and it only costs a few low-level spell slots.
Any build that casts spells and can fit in a level of Life cleric should pick up Goodberry if they can. This can be somewhat difficult, as it requires either one level of druid* or two levels of ranger. Thankfully, the Mark of Hospitality halfling ancestry provides the spell, so now you can grab it with no additional multiclassing. This is the best healing spell in the game and easily claims third place.
2. Silvery Barbs
Casting Time: 1 reaction, which you take when a creature you can see within 60 feet of yourself succeeds on an attack roll, an ability check, or a saving throw
You magically distract the triggering creature and turn its momentary uncertainty into encouragement for another creature. The triggering creature must reroll the d20 and use the lower roll.
You can then choose a different creature you can see within range (you can choose yourself). The chosen creature has advantage on the next attack roll, ability check, or saving throw it makes within 1 minute. A creature can be empowered by only one use of this spell at a time.
This spell is a new addition to 5E, and a contentious one at that. When the community learned of Silver Barbs, there was a flurry of anger and consternation that the designers would release such a powerful spell. Obviously, this spell’s place here means I agree with such opinions to an extent. Silvery Barbs is a great use of your reaction, particularly if your party has a lot of deadly, save-based spells to throw at the enemy. On top of greatly empowering all-or-nothing spells, Silvery Barbs also grants a small boost to one of your allies. Advantage on a single roll for the cost of a spell slot isn’t great on its own, but as an additional effect, it is very solid.
Detractors of Silvery Barbs point to a couple main issues they find egregious enough to consider banning the spell entirely. The first is how low the spell’s cost is compared to its possible effect on the battlefield. Save-based spells can be incredibly powerful, some even ending fights, depending on their results. Silvery Barbs skews these odds significantly in favor of the caster. The second issue I see is how this spell functions as both offense and defense. Not only can you cast Silvery Barbs to empower something like Hold Person, but you can also use it to protect yourself from an incoming attack.
This second point is where I disagree with critics. Yes, Silvery Barbs can be used to trip up a single attack made against you, but 5E is a game ruled by multi-attack, and burning your reaction to maybe stop a single attack will rarely be worth it. That’s not to say this spell is bad. Its offensive power is incredibly high in the right situation, and it will often be a worthwhile use of a spellcaster’s reaction. Second place to the contentious newcomer.
An invisible barrier of magical force appears and protects you. Until the start of your next turn, you have a +5 bonus to AC, including against the triggering attack, and you take no damage from magic missile.
Ah, nothing beats a classic. Shield is not only the best 1st-level spell but possibly the best spell in the entire game. Granting yourself an additional 5 Armor Class is unmatched as a defensive option. The immunity to Magic Missile is icing on the magical cake. What pushes Shield ahead of Silvery Barbs is its duration. The pseudo disadvantage imposed by Silvery Barbs averages out to roughly a -5 to the attack roll, similar to Shield. Where Shield pulls ahead is on every subsequent attack. Most monsters worth their challenge rating make at least two attacks per round, with some extreme examples approaching 10. Shield protects you from all of them. Any optimized builds capable of casting spells should acquire Shield to keep themselves safe.
The only exceptions to this rule are builds with such low Armor Classes that a +5 doesn’t do anything. Improving a 10 AC to a mighty 15 probably won’t do more than waste a 1st-level slot. Shield may have come out in the Player’s Handbook, but it more than keeps up with new competition. I firmly believe that if Shield had been released in a later book, we would hear calls to ban it, like we are with Silvery Barbs. First place to one of 5E’s best spells.
That wraps up 1st-level spells. Tune in next time as I cover the much less powerful 2nd-level roster.
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