Top 10 Attack Cantrips
Welcome back to the Zurn blog! Today we're reviewing all of the attack cantrips in D&D and ranking them from worst to best based on their performance in four categories. Each of them has been weighted equally, and as it happens the scores for the top cantrips is quite close with a lot of ties in total scores because of this. To this end we have broken ties based on how good they are as attack spells not by weighing some of the factors more heavily than others, but by feel and practical application of the spell in a simulated combat.
The first of the four categories is the damage die, with a d4 of damage giving a score of 1, a d12 giving a score of 5, and all of the others falling in between. The second category is range, with 5ft of range (Touch) giving a score of 1, 15ft or less giving a score of 2, 30ft or less giving a score of 3, 60ft or less giving a score of 4, and more than 60ft (typically 90 or 120ft) giving a score of 5.
To these we add two more categories: damage modifiers including performing more than one attack, hitting more than one target, a chance at advantage/disadvantage on the saving throw if the cantrip forces the target to perform a saving throw to avoid the damage, the chance at critical damage, whether or not the spell can automatically hit a target, and whether the damage type is or is not heavily resisted by monsters, as all of these make a spell more or less effective at dealing damage.
And the final category is additional/ancillary effects, including battlefield control, inhibiting, and/or augmenting abilities. So if a spell moves someone, restricts someone's movement, inflicts a penalty to their rolls, etc., we reflect that bonus here.
We will give a few honorable mentions, and then we will move into the discussion of the top ten.
The Top 10 Attack Cantrips
Honorable Mentions: The following cantrips are good, but not as good as the others on this list: Magic Stone (Score of 9 from decent damage, decent range, and a reliable damage type, but since it doesn't scale well over time it gets outpaced very quickly), Shillelagh (Score of 7 for the same reasons: it just gets outpaced too quickly by other options thanks to it not scaling for damage based on your character level), Primal Savagery (Score of 8 with excellent damage, but the range is only Touch and it offers nothing beyond dealing decent melee damage), and Toll the Dead (Score of 8 with decent damage all the time and the possibility of good damage, but beyond a decent range and a good damage die it doesn't offer anything else, so it scores low).
#10: Acid Splash (Score: 9)
The saving grace of Acid Splash is that it can target 2 creatures instead of 1, which means on those attacks its d6 of damage is being multiplied for the turn if it hits. It also is a ranged spell attack, so you can gain advantage on the attack relatively easily and do critical damage, and if the spell hits the first target it automatically hits the second, so that helps with the overall damage count.
Unless it doesn't. The only way you hit two targets with this spell is if there are two hostile targets within 5ft of each other, and there are few ways to guarantee this. So it is a decent damage spell dealing a reliable damage type, maybe to two people. It has value, but not as much as the other spells on this list.
#9: Mind Sliver (Score: 9)
I suppose psychic damage spells do less damage than other cantrips because it's not a commonly resisted damage type (which is part of why the scoring system rewards spells for doing rarer damage types), but d4s and d6s just seem low for what you're doing to the target (harming someone's mind). But here we are: another low-damage psychic damage cantrip.
The spell has a good range and inflicts a d4 penalty to the next saving throw the creature makes which is very useful for bards and others that can use this cantrip, but beyond that there's not much good to say about this spell. The damage is decent, it involves a saving throw so you don't get critical damage off of it, and over time you'll find that the percentage of a target's hit points being dealt by this spell is getting lower and lower. I like it, I recommend taking it, but I'm not surprised it just barely making the list thanks to its low damage potential and output.
#8: Create Bonfire (Score: 9)
I am actually surprised this spell finished this high, as it would not have made my top ten when I thought about spells, but the more I looked at it in light of the metrics it made sense as to why it finished so high. For starters, it's a cantrip that can deal damage over multiple turns and it does not require your action for it to do so, which is really nice. It deals d8s for damage and has very good range, but beyond that, I'll be honest: it doesn't do that much other than ignite things.
There are shenanigans that druids can do that take advantage of this cantrip (pull people into it with a vine-like spell, push people into it with wind, etc.), but the fact that 1) it does fire damage (which is commonly resisted) and 2) it only affects a 5ft area (pretty small bonfire in my experience) means it doesn't affect very many targets with its mediocre damage. And the fact that it uses your concentration means it comes at the expense of other things you could be doing on your turn. So while it places high, personally I don't recommend this cantrip. It checks the boxes, but I don't think it plays well on the table in practice.
#7: Ray of Frost (Score: 9)
I'll be honest: I like this spell better for my wizards and sorcerers than Fire Bolt, and I'm glad it made the top ten, but I'm not surprised that it finished here. Ray of Frost is a good spell, but it lacks the edge in this ranking system. It offers a ranged spell attack dealing d8s of damage, and it can slow a target by 10ft on its turn if it hits, all of which is good. And while it has decent range, the range is nowhere close to that of its fiery counterpart.
The other issue with this spell is its cold damage. Cold damage is not bad, but it's not that good either. Cold damage is not resisted often (and when it is you can typically tell by where the creature lives, so at least you have a warning without having to know the creature stat block), but it's also rarely a vulnerability, so most of the time it's just damage - nothing great, nothing bad. So I'm not surprised the spell finished in the middle of the pack of the best cantrips, and I still recommend you take it. Just know it's a silent workhorse: it does the job, but nothing flashy.
#6: Produce Flame (Score: 10)
This is a druid cantrip that is sometimes seen as "Fire Bolt Lite," and I can see why. It has a d8 damage die (instead of a d10), has a 30ft range (instead of a 120ft range), can light unequipped flammable objects (like Fire Bolt), and in exchange it gets the ability to be held in the hand to make light for those nearby (so a torch on demand). And all of this is good - I like this spell and it's one of the best overall cantrips in the rating system (getting a 2-3 in each category).
Where it falters compared to the two other spells that tied it in points is two areas (and it would have been a third had we looked at class considerations, but we didn't so I won't mention it here). First, it deals fire damage, which is commonly resisted (compared to the other two spells that deal radiant and necrotic damage), so the damage you get is not as great as it could be (and already is not great). Second while it's a ranged spell attack (thus can gain advantage and benefit from critical damage), the shorter range means it's both harder to select the target you want and it makes you more likely to have an enemy within 5ft of you, inflicting disadvantage on the attack. So while I love this spell and I recommend it for your use if you're a druid, I think it can be replaced with other spells that will do the job better.
#5: Sacred Flame (Score: 10)
The bread and butter of clerics before Xanathar's was released (and still a good choice following the release of Xanathar's), Sacred Flame checks all the boxes of a good spell that is not a great spell. It has good range at 60ft, deals radiant damage which is rarely resisted and negates special abilities for some undead creatures, and it has a d8 damage die, which is good.
It falls lower in the pack because it involves a Dexterity saving throw, which some creatures are really good at and most creatures are at least decent at, so you will find that a decent amount of the time casting this will result in no damage, and there are no additional effects of the spell to go with the damage, which is unfortunate. The saving grace of the spell (and why it finished above Produce Flame) is that at least you tend to have a good idea by simply looking at the creature as to whether it has a good Dexterity or not, so you can pick targets that are big, bulky, and slow over and against floating spirits and quick-moving sprites. So while it struggles against some foes, at least you have a rough idea of which foes those are (compared to a Wisdom saving throw, say, where it would be hard to tell if you don't know the stat block), and it is easy for your character in-character to guess at the relative dexterity of a target too (which is really nice).
#4: Chill Touch (Score: 10)
This is the highest ranking of the cleric cantrips, and because of its negative themes and undertones you don't see it taken all that much, but it is very useful. It does a d8 damage die (which is good, but not great), has good range, is a spell attack (so it can gain advantage and benefit from critical damage, albeit with the knowledge that it can gain disadvantage thanks to being a ranged spell attack), and the target cannot recover hit points if it suffers damage, which is a nice feature (especially if you face creatures like trolls, vampires, etc. that have ways to recover damage).
What's interesting about this cantrip, though, is how little it does in practice when juxtaposed to the rest of the cleric spells. I ranked it here off the math, but in reality Toll the Dead and Sacred Flame have less range, but in actual practice it means little to nothing as you are rarely performing an attack at more than 60ft away. While it can benefit from critical damage it only gets that about 5% of the time when it hits, and while negating the ability to recover hit points is nice, it 1) does not happen often to NPCs, so this is far more useful on an NPC than a player character, and 2) it does not specify anything involving temporary hit points, so a creature can still gain those while under the effects of this cantrip.
It's a good cantrip, and I rated it higher than Sacred Flame because it's good against creatures regardless of stats whereas Sacred Flame struggles against high Dexterity creatures (which are common), but I'm not surprised it did not crack the top three, even though it looks on paper like its effects are potent and powerful.
#3: Fire Bolt (Score: 11)
With a d10 damage die at 120ft range, it's hard to beat this cantrip in the rating system. It can also light fires and unequipped items, so it has utility uses as well, and since it's a spell attack it can benefit from advantage and critical damage. It suffers from the issue of potentially having disadvantage on its attack and it can only target one foe, but as far as cantrips go, it's a solid choice. Tack onto this the fact that it's fire damage which is a more resisted damage type, and you have a spell that makes the top three, but lands in the third slot.
Not really much to say about this one: if you want to do some damage from far away, this is a good choice on a lot of arcane casters.
#2: Thorn Whip (Score: 11)
Across all categories this is the best all-around cantrip, with no score less than a 2 and a high score of 4. While the damage on Thorn Whip is only d6s and its range is only 30ft, everything else about this spell is excellent.
First, if you need to extricate a squishy character from an enemy without provoking opportunity attacks, it's a good thing this spell only has a d6 damage die: you can hit an ally, do only a small bit of damage, and then pull them out of danger (which does not provoke attacks of opportunity as it's forced movement, ignores Sentinel as it's not using the move speed of the target, and technically can break a grapple, as the person is not considered grappled if they move beyond the reach of the grappler, and the spell and the grappling rules say nothing about the grappler getting to move with them or making forced movement impossible for a grappled target).
But more than this, the spell offers a reliable pull effect: if you hit the target and they are large or smaller (which is most creatures at all levels of play, and virtually all creatures at lower levels of play), they are moved 10ft closer to you. There's no Strength save, no chance for a legendary resistance (as there is no saving throw), they are just moved 10ft closer to you.
But one of the less commonly known benefits of this spell is that, even though it has a range of 30ft, it is a "melee spell attack," which means not only can you use it within 5ft of a prone, unconscious, or paralyzed creature to gain the effects of a melee attack within 5ft (not to mention gain advantage to the attack in other ways that a ranged spell attack would), but it also means you never suffer disadvantage on your attacks unless you're poisoned or suffering some other ill effect like blindness or frightened. Hostile targets within 5ft of you? You can lash someone 30ft away without disadvantage, as this is a melee attack within your reach.
And since this is spell attack, you still gain the benefits of a critical strike, which helps with your overall damage. Now I did not take into account the uses of this spell in conjunction with other spells in the nature repertoire (as spells like Spike Growth boost the damage of the spell by +10 (4d4) on average every time you hit), but if you did, this spell would be #1. As it stands I'm okay with where it finished, as I think it is one of the less commonly noticed spells and well worth taking, and #2 is a strong finish for any cantrip.
And at the top, probably surprising no one...
#1: Eldritch Blast (Score: 13)
This is not the best all-around spell because it does no additional effects (unless you take invocations, which we have not added because 1) it was already in first place, 2) it is not a guarantee that someone will take those invocations, and 3) if you use Magic Initiate to get access to the cantrip you don't get access to invocations), but in the first three categories this is a high-end spell. It has a d10 damage die (with a chance at adding your Charisma modifier to the damage if you take the Agonizing Blast invocation), can hit multiple targets as you level up, has a great range, has the ability to gain advantage if you are hidden, can deal critical damage, and the damage it deals is rarely resisted (force damage). So probably not surprising anyone, this is #1 despite the penalty for potentially gaining disadvantage if a hostile creature is within 5ft of you.
What is interesting about it, though, is that since it performs multiple attacks, you don't necessarily do as much damage as another d10 cantrip like Fire Bolt, though your chances of doing no damage on a given turn are lower thanks to rolling more Attack rolls. So keep that in mind as you think through your damage output: you might do as much damage as a Fire Bolt cantrip, but you might not depending on how you roll.
One of the surprises from this ranking is that Toll the Dead did not make the list (#13 in the lineup), and it bears a short explanation (more than we gave it in the honorable mentions). Toll the Dead is a good spell for what it does, but if we're looking at the ranking system it doesn't do that much. It does either d8s or d12s for damage (so we took the median on this one and ranked it as a d10, as it's pretty common you'll get both in a given combat) and it has 60ft of range, but nothing else is great.
It's a Wisdom save (which is good but not great, especially as you get to higher levels with Wisdom scores going up over time on average), it can't benefit from critical damage, creatures rarely get disadvantage on a Wisdom saving throw unless you combo it with a spell like Bestow Curse, etc. In addition, while the damage is good, it's not that reliable, and it does nothing for you other than deal necrotic damage (which is heavily resisted/immune if you face undead). So that's why, while good, it did not make the top ten.
In a future post we may look at the next ten as it's an interesting lineup filled with spells that are thematic and worth looking at, just realizing that for your class they may be a good option but compared to all of the cantrips across classes they are subpar. More on that in a future post!
Until next time,