Classes have been a key part of Dungeons and Dragons since 1st Edition all the way back in 1974, when players could choose between fighter, wizard, and cleric.* Over the intervening 45 years, the class system has been changed a multitude of times, but at its core, it has always played the role of allowing players to easily understand the flavor and mechanics their characters will be employing. 5th Edition takes this idea a step further, breaking each main class into a multitude of subclasses. These subclasses range from slight variations to complete changes in play style, and with that variation comes the unavoidable specter of imbalance.
But which subclasses stand at the top of the pile? Today, we find out. As noncombat abilities are almost impossible to quantify from table to table, I am limiting my examination to the combat viability of each subclass. I also ignore multiclassing in most cases, as I assume no one wants to read a 200-page examination on my descent into incoherence.
Let’s start with the angriest kid on the playground: barbarians. Grumpy fighters who believe clothes are for chumps, barbarians have six subclasses available to them starting at level three. Players can opt for protecting their allies with the power of their Ancestral Guardians, doing extra damage at the cost of exhaustion with the Berserker, doing far less damage with the Path of the Storm Herald,* or saying no to the god of death with the Zealot.
Unfortunately for players wanting balanced options,* there is one option that stands head and shoulders above the rest: the Path of the Totem Warrior. Specifically, the Path of the Bear Totem.* While this option has several features unique to it, the one that really matters is found at level three, granting the barbarian resistance to all damage types, excluding psychic, while raging. This is a massive improvement over other barbarian’s resistance to only bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage. Bearbarians effectively double their hit point total, a feature simply not matched by other options in the class.
Bards, long the laughingstock of D&D, have finally found their time in the 5th Edition spotlight. Now full casters with a range of delightful abilities, bards rank as one of the best classes in the game. But which of their five subclasses stands atop the rest? Shall we dazzle our enemies with the College of Glamour, cut them with words using the College of Whispers, or cut them with swords using the College of Valor? Alternatively, you can cut your enemies with swords even better using the College of… well, Swords.
Though each of these options has its place,* it is the College of Lore that earns the gold in barding. One of the original subclassing options, the College of Lore’s most important feature is letting the bard steal spells from other classes’ lists. The bard can already do this without any subclass, but Lore bards can do it more often, and that makes all the difference. Spell stealing is both powerful and flexible, allowing for combinations of spells that were never intended to be played together.* While other colleges such as Whispers and Glamour are certainly capable, nothing comes close to Lore’s breadth of options and raw power.
Cleric, the first of D&D’s original classes we’re looking at, is a powerhouse in 5th Edition, being one of the only full casters capable of mixing it up on the front lines. Clocking in at a somewhat absurd sixteen subclasses, choosing the strongest was no easy task. However, after reviewing each option, I believe the strongest choice combines effectiveness with a unique power-set, and that would be the Life Domain. Life clerics have a few key features going for them, the first being Heavy Armor Proficiency. Heavy armor is incredibly good in 5th Edition and allows the cleric to function as the party’s healer, tank, and even damage dealer* without suffering in any of those roles.
The other major strengths of Life clerics are their Disciple of Life, Blessed Healer, and Supreme Healing features, found at levels 1, 6, and 17, respectively. Without getting too far into the mechanical weeds, these features remedy a major issue faced by all other healers in 5th Edition: healing damage with spells simply isn’t efficient. By adding flat bonuses to any spells cast by the cleric, healing the cleric whenever they heal others, and eventually maxing any healing dice rolled, the Life cleric is able to efficiently maintain the health of the party, a function not easily found outside of multiclassing. Put this improved healing together with everything else the base cleric gets, and you have one of the best monoclass characters in the game.
Speaking of best monoclass, it’s time to talk about the druid. The five subclass options can be divided into those that improve the druid’s spellcasting and those that improve wild shaping. Circle of Dreams pushes the druid toward a full support roll, focusing on healing and utility. Circle of the Land does…something? Theoretically it adds a wider range of spell options, but in practice it only seems to add regret to druids who take it. Circle of the Shepherd adds strength to the druid’s summoned minions and frustration to the GM’s game as 32 velociraptors swarm over every combat encounter. Circle of Spores grants the druid a suite of flavorful abilities that sadly never end up being as cool as they sound.
As the only option I haven’t mentioned yet, it doesn’t take a Divination wizard to guess which druid subclass I’ve selected as the strongest, and that is the Circle of the Moon. Moon druids remain full casters like the class’s other options, being only slightly worse at whatever each other subclass specializes in, but in return, their shape-changing ability increases drastically in strength. Whether that’s delivering literal bear hugs at level 3 or the truly absurd infinity mammoth at level 20, the Moon druid has a consistently strong power curve interspersed with spikes simply not found in the other subclasses.
The fighter, another of D&D’s original classes, has had a bit of a rough time in modern D&D. It has a whole host of subclasses, but they all find themselves lagging behind spellcasting characters. The Arcane Archer lets you get your Hawkeye cosplay on, but lacks staying power. The Battle Master trips enemies all day but can’t do much once they’re down. Meanwhile, the Cavalier has subpar mounted abilities,* while the Champion is a pile of modest passive bonuses. The list goes on, but none of them can stand up a competently built spellcaster. But what if I were to tell you there was a solution to this problem, a way to enhance your ability to hit things with some arcane might?
Yes, I am declaring Eldritch Knight (EK) the strongest of the fighter’s many subclassing options. In the early levels, having access to Shield makes the EK almost impossible to hit. Later they get access to spells like Shadow Blade and the class feature War Magic, combining weapon attacks and cantrips for a more powerful extra attack feature. In higher-level play, EKs get access to Haste, one of the best buff spells in the game, a feature that pushes this subclass ahead of the competition. This decision was a close one; Battle Master is often held up as the fighter’s strongest subclass, but while Battle Master is good, I believe the Eldritch Knight’s spellcasting takes the win.
The monk is a class with lots of interesting flavor, but it’s never quite had the mechanics to back that flavor up. Drunken Master lets the monk pretend to be Jackie Chan,* while Four Elements turns the monk into an underwhelming arcane caster. Kensei grants the monk subpar martial improvements, or you could get some subpar ways to avoid dying with the Long Death. The Way of Shadow and Sun Soul grant fun darkness and fire abilities, respectively, but neither has much impact on combat.
Out of the seven options, one is clearly the strongest, but sadly not in an interesting way. I am, of course, referring to Way of the Open Hand. Levels 1–16 see this subclass as a below-average damage dealer whose main contribution to fights is annoying the GM with entirely too many constitution and dexterity saving throws to avoid being knocked over or stunned. However, level 17 sees the Open Hand gain a new punch that forces a monster to make a very special save, taking 10d10 damage on a success or simply dying on a failure. As far as I can tell this is the only save or die ability granted to the players* and is so much more powerful than other monk options that they are not even worth considering. If you are willing to pay the monk tax of levels 1–16, Open Hand is the way to go.
A front-line tank with access to a suite of powerful spells and devastating burst damage, the paladin’s base kit is so good you’ll have an effective character regardless of subclass. However, this doesn’t mean those subclasses are created equal. Conquest focuses on battlefield control through spooking your opponents, whereas Crown lets the paladin protect their allies with taunts and damage redirection. Devotion contains generic good stuff with a situational immunity to charm, and Redemption is all about keeping the peace through diplomacy and damage redirection. Vengeance covers your edgelord paladins by granting them a suite of offensive spells and abilities, and finally there is Oathbreaker, the perfect subclass for your selfish paladin player who wants to do as much damage as possible.*
Despite several good options I’ve already listed, the best paladin subclass falls to the Oath of the Ancients. Thoroughly uninteresting in almost every respect, Ancients paladins have one class feature that alone makes them the strongest option: spell resistance for themselves and anyone standing within their aura. This feature is so incredibly good it’s hard to overstate. Spells, especially high-level ones, can deal damage in the hundreds. Halving that for not just yourself but your party easily places Oath of Ancients atop the paladin pile.
While the petty power gamer in me wanted to leave this section blank, I would be doing a disservice to players trying to get the most out of their rangers. I’ll be honest: the ranger is easily the weakest class in 5th Edition, and none of the five available subclasses fix this problem.
Beast Master has the dubious distinction of being the weakest possible option you can take in 5th Edition. It supposedly augments the ranger’s abilities by granting them an animal companion, but these features are so underpowered they are worse than simply using the ranger’s base kit. Gloom Stalker turns the ranger into a weaker assassination rogue. Horizon Walker lets the ranger…detect portals?* Jokes aside, this subclass is also bad, with a paltry damage boost and highly situational extra attack mechanics being the only things to recommend it. Rounding out this list is the Monster Slayer, another weak option that doesn’t even make you good at slaying monsters.
Although none of the ranger’s options are what I’d call good, at least it wasn’t hard to pick out the strongest, specifically the Hunter subclass. Hunter rangers get to choose one of three powers at levels 3, 7, 11, and 15. While none of these choices are particularly exciting, the flexibility found here coupled with the fact that each option is at least as powerful as those found in the other ranger subclasses means that if you want to optimize your ranger, Hunter is the best of several bad options.
The archetypal sneak, rogues supply consistent damage in the form of Sneak Attacks. The class has seven subclass options, all presenting a different flavor of “stab the thing, but maybe where they can’t see me.” Arcane Trickster supplements the rogue’s mundane abilities with a touch of spellcasting, whereas Inquisitive turns the rogue into a Sherlock Holmes–style character, with an eye for detail aiding them both on and off the battlefield.* Mastermind grants the rogue options to assist their party during a fight and aid in battlefield control, and Scout ensures that the rogue can both find and escape from any trouble they’d like. Finally we have the Swashbuckler, for rouge players who realized halfway through the campaign they wanted to be fighters. Eschewing the traditional restrictions on Sneak Attacks, these rogues prefer to get right up in their enemies’ faces for some strategic stabbings.
Although the rogue is another class that receives the lion’s share of its power from its base kit, it is the Assassin subclass that really brings the most combat power to the table. Assassins get Advantage and an automatic crit when they surprise an enemy, doubling all those wonderful Sneak Attack dice. This is really easy to do with the rogue’s ridiculously high Stealth score. While not combat focused, the subclass’s 9th- and 13th-level abilities grant some utility and roleplay options. Then, if you make it to 17th-level, Death Strike can see you rolling roughly 40d6 of damage. While not the most thematically interesting, Assassin delivers reliable amounts of burst and sustained damage that other options cannot match.
Ah, sorcerer, the caster that looks at all the other magic users in the game and laughs at all the hard work they put in for their power. Why didn’t they have the good sense to just be born with a font of magic inside them like a reasonable person? But with this innate magic comes the important question: Where did it come from? 5th Edition provides us with six origins for our gifted mageling: the elemental powers and scale-like hide of a Draconic Bloodline, the pure firepower of Pyromancy, the brooding darkness of Shadow Magic, the electric power of the Storm, or the underwhelming randomness of Wild Magic.
Sadly, for these subclasses, there is one more option that puts them all to shame: the Divine Soul. Born with the inherent power of the gods, Divine Soul sorcerers have access not only to their normal arcane spell list but to the entire cleric spell list as well. I cannot overstate how good this is. Most classes that dip into another type of magic, such as the Arcana cleric, get a select few spells, but Divine sorcerers have no restrictions outside of the limited number of spells they learn per level.
This could be the entire subclass and it would still be the best, but Divine Soul is kind enough to provide our godly sorcerer with an improved save feature, the ability to empower their healing with Sorcery Points, limitless flight, and the ability to regain half of their hit points when they drop below half health. I’d say out of all the classes, sorcerer has the largest power differential between its most powerful subclass and the other available options. If you ever want to make an optimized build using this class, Divine Soul is the correct choice.
Warlock is an interesting class in many ways. It has a unique form of casting, it never goes above four spell slots, and it has almost two different sets of subclass options: the Otherworldly Patron at first level and the Pact Boon at third level. For this discussion I will be exclusively judging which patron out of the six available is strongest. The Archfey is an underwhelming patron that gifts the warlock with some rather weak mental trickery. The Celestial lets warlocks stay on Team Good and grants some useful healing abilities that can turn the warlock into a secondary healer. The Great Old One has cool Cthulhu flavor but little to recommend it mechanically. The Hexblade is a patron that seems tailor-made for multiclassing, granting a host of good abilities at level one, including the ability to use charisma as a weapon’s hit/damage stat. Lastly, we have the Undying, a patron whose 10th-level ability means the warlock doesn’t have to eat any more…wooo.
When it came to selecting the best warlock subclass, I found myself at a quandary. As someone naturally drawn to optimized builds, warlock often makes an appearance on my character sheets, but rarely past level three. The class is so front loaded with features that it is prime multiclassing material. That’s especially true for the Hexblade patron, a key tool in my fight to never use strength as a weapon stat. However, this article is focused on monoclassing, and as such, Hexblade’s value is severely curtailed.
That leaves the tried-and-true Fiend patron as the cream of the crop. The main reason for the Fiend’s victory can be summed up in one word: fireball. The Fireball spell on short-rest recharge is extremely good, and the Fiend is the only way for a monoclassed warlock to gain access to that powerful spell. Add on top of that a little bit of survivability and the power to literally put someone through hell, and you have the best warlock subclass.*
Wizard is without a doubt one of the most powerful classes in 5th Edition. Not only do they have access to the best arcane spell list, but they also have a host of powerful subclasses to choose from. To avoid the entirely too long list of ten subclasses, I can sum up eight of them as a focus on one school of magic. These subclasses enhance that school in some way and range from extremely powerful to weak but flavorful. Alongside these school specializations is the Bladesinger, a wizard who got mad and decided to hit people with a sword, and War Magic, a wizard who got mad and decided to hit people with spells. While both martial-focused subclasses can be fun, and in the Bladesinger’s case can be a part of some very interesting specialist builds, their focus is too narrow for me to rank them any higher than middling for the mono-mage.
That leaves us with school-based subclasses, and though it may be considered a bit boring, the school of Evocation is my pick for strongest wizard subclass. What makes this subclass so good is the feature Sculpt Spell. This ability allows the wizard to choose who they want to get hit by the fireball they just tossed out. Did the fighter run headlong into a gaggle of bugbears? Not a problem. Unlike those uneducated sorcerers, the Evocation wizard can simply sculpt their explosion around their overexcited party member, leaving them untouched in the middle of a bugbear roast. On top of this incredible ability, Evocation wizards get improved cantrips, additional flat damage on all their spells, and the eventual ability to max damage on any spell fifth level or below. Add all this up, and Evocation wizards blow away the competition.
Obviously, this list has been somewhat light on the mechanical discussion and examines each class through the narrow lens of combat, but I hope reading it has sparked some interesting discussions. Whether it’s about how to eke out the most damage from one of the subclasses I highlighted here, or how you’re going to prove that Beast Master ranger really puts all other classes to shame, I hope to read about how wrong I am in the comments. The 5th Edition class system certainly has its flaws, and I would never dream of calling it balanced, but the fact that I can spend pages discussing just 12 of the available options speak to the varied gameplay it can supply to players.
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