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DnD 5e - Artificer Subclass Breakdown

Last Updated: April 1st, 2021

Disclaimer

RPGBOT uses the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.

  • Red: Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
  • Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances.
  • Green: Good options.
  • Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.

I will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, even if it is my own, because I can't assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. I also won't cover Unearthed Arcana content because it's not finalized, and I can't guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.

The advice offered below is based on the current State of the Character Optimization Meta as of when the article was last updated. Keep in mind that the state of the meta periodically changes as new source materials are released and this article will be updating accordingly as time allows.

RPGBOT is unofficial Fan Content permitted under the Fan Content Policy. Not approved/endorsed by Wizards. Portions of the materials used are property of Wizards of the Coast. ©Wizards of the Coast LLC.

Introduction

Artificer subclasses go a long way to determine your role in the party, allowing you to play as a Blaster (artillerist), a Defender or Striker (armorer, battlesmith), or a Support caster (alchemist). While any artificer can fill any of those roles to some degree by changing their spells and their infusions, your subclass really emphasizes a specific role and offers the tools to thrive in that role.

Artificer Subclasses - Artificer Specialist

Not specialties: specialists. No, it doesn't make sense.

AlchemistERLW / TCoE

The Alchemist adds a number of excellent healing and support options to the Artificer, but doesn't fundamentally change how the core class functions. You won't be able to match the healing power of a full caster like the Cleric, but you'll be able to cover those capabilities well enough to replace a cleric in most parties, and Experimental Elixir expands your magical options to help support and protect your allies with temporary elixirs which work like potions.

  1. Tool Proficiency: Alchemical items are fantastic, though there is an admittedly limited menu of them in 5e currently.
  2. Alchemist Spells: A good variety of options, including staples like Healing Word, some situational buffs, and offensive options which are generally AOE spells with a debuff effect. None of the spells are on the Artificer spell list, so this adds a lot of new functionality.
    1. 3rd Level: Healing Word is among the most essential spells in the game. Ray of Sickness is bad.
    2. 5th Level: Decent offensive options, but nothing spectacular.
    3. 9th Level: Both options are useful in extremely common situations.
    4. 13th Level: A decent single-target damage option and an absolutely crucial buff.
    5. 17th Level: Raise Dead is situational, and by this level other spellcasters have much better ways to raise the dead. Cloudkill is decent damage, but only if you can find a way to hold enemies in the area.
  3. Experimental Elixir: This is intentionally hard to predict, which makes it hard to rely upon. When you get multiple elixirs you'll have several chances to get effects you care about, but the free elixirs are still random. Since you roll the effects of the elixirs when they're created, you at least know what their effects will be, so you're not passing out random mystery cocktails to your party.

    You can also spend a spell slot to create an additional elixir, which means that these are something like 1st-level spells. Think of the free elixirs like a surprise that might might be exactly what you need, but don't count on them. Instead, expect to spend spell slots for elixirs.

    • Healing: Basically a Potion of Healing. Nothing fancy, but always nice to have. When you later gain Restorative Reagents, this can be a great option because it both restores lost hit points and grants a pad of temporary hit points. This provides as much healing as casting Cure Wounds as a 1st-level spell, but you also have the option of giving the elixir to an ally so that they could use it on you, and once you get Restorative Reagents it becomes much more powerful than anything that a 1st-level spell slot could replicate.
    • Swiftness: Situational, but the duration is nice and long.
    • Resilience: Similar to Shield of Faith, but half the effect and more costly to start (an action to drink the elixir vs. a Bonus Action to cast Shield of Faith).
    • Boldness: Similar to Bless for a single target.
    • Flight: The ability to fly, even at such low speed, can solve a ton of problems.
    • Transformation: Situational.
  4. Alchemical Savant: Add your Intelligence modifier to things like Healing Word, but also to things like Acid Splash, Fire Bolt, and Poison Spray. This makes Acid Splash a very exciting cantrip because applying that damage to two targets is very effective, but you still want Fire Bolt as your go-to damage option for single targets.
  5. Restorative Reagents: Easy access to Lesser Restoration without expending your extremely limited spell slots is nice, and the temporary hit points are a welcome addition to Experimental Elixir because it means that even the least-useful elixir still provides a tangible benefit.
  6. Chemical Mastery: Two damage resistances, and you can cast two extremely powerful healing spells for free each day without material components.

ArmorerTCoE

If you want a martially-focus artificer similar to the Battle Smith without the mess of having a robot puppy following you around, the Armorer is for you. If you want to live your fantasy of playing a magical iron man, blasting and smashing people while nearly impervious to attacks, the Armorer is for you. If you want to play a character who's missing a limb and have a magical prosthesis in its place, the Armorer is for you.

Mechanically, the Armorer is excellent. The features are good and useful beyond just a pile of numbers, and while there is some extra complexity on top of the Armorer's already high degree of complexity, the resource pools are easy to manage (especially compared to the Artificer's core features) and there's a built-in solution to all of the subclasses own problems.

There's a lot of room to draw comparisons between the Armorer and the Battle Smith. Both gain the ability to make weapon attacks using Intelligence, allowing you to split your focus between martial attacks and spellcasting without sacrificing efficacy with either. The trade-off between the two comes in how the two subclasses handle their roles as Defenders and/or Strikers.

The Armorer can focus more on being a Defender, especially in Guardian Armor, and between Booming Blade and Thunder Gauntlets the Armor is extremely "sticky", meaning that they're good at forcing enemies to stay engaged with the Armorer rather than running off to attack your comparably frail allies. The Battlesmith does more damage thanks to their Steel Defender, but lacks that same "stickiness" which Thunder Gauntlets offers.

Infiltrator Armor turns the Armorer into more of a ranged Striker and Scout, so it's easier to compare them to the Artillerist, where the Armorer trades the Artillerist's support capabalities for Advantage on Stealth checks to allow them to serve as a Scout.

If you're building an armorer, the hardest part is surviving levels 1 and 2. You can play an armorer with 8 Strength and 8 Dexterity, but that means that your AC is dangerously low until you can get to 3rd level. Be cautious. Hide behind stuff. Fight at range as much as possible, and do everything you can to not be in places and situations where something will feel the need to cause you bodily harm.

For detailed guidance, see my Armorer Artificer Handbook.

  1. Tool Proficiency: Heavy armor proficiency means that you no longer need to concern yourself with Dexterity. Getting through levels 1 and 2 with 8 Dexterity was probably a nightmare, but now you're here and you can seal yourself inside a suit of plate mail (unless you're going for Infiltrator armor) where you're nice and safe. You also get smith's tools, which are one of the better tool options if you want to craft adventuring gear since so much of it is typically made of metal.
  2. Armorer Spells: Starts off slow, but finishes strong. Mostly offensive damage spells, but at high levels you get more diverse and useful options.
    1. 3rd Level: Two offensive options. Thunderwave is situational, but sometimes pushing enemies is helpful. Magic Missile is nice and reliable, but without a boost to your spell damage and with only 2/3 spellcasting progression, offensive spells are typically a terrible way to spend your spell slots. Even so, Magic Missile is a great way to break Concentration since it forces a save for each missile.
    2. 5th Level: Mirror image is a good defensive buff, though it will wear off quickly for anyone trying to use it in melee. Shatter is passable AOE damage.
    3. 9th Level: AOE save or suck and lightning bolt, which fits the theme much better but is much less useful.
    4. 13th Level: Two excellent buffs, though ironically Fire Shield may not be especially effective since the Artificer's AC is notoriously high so enemies may have trouble hitting you enough that it will deliver consistent damage output.
    5. 17th Level: A decent utility option and an excellent area control option.
  3. Arcane Armor: The Armorer's signature feature, Arcane armor is the heart of the three features which the Armorer gains at 3rd level. This removes the Strength requirement from heavy armor, allowing you to wear full plate comfortably with 8 Strength, and preventing the armor from being removed against your will so it's incredibly difficult to lose your signature tool.

    Note that this feature doesn't make your armor a magic item. That's important because it still allows you to infuse the armor. It also specifically allows you to remove the helmet as a Bonus Action, and since you're not wearing a helmet you can infuse and wear a separate helmet. You won't be able to infuse your boots or gloves until level 9 when you get Armor Modifications, but two infusions can still go a very long way. Plus, you can always use a shield, a weapon, hand-held items that you infuse, cloaks, etc.

    Despite its benefits, this feature does have some problems. First, you need to provide the armor, which means that you likely need to fork over the 1,500gp to buy full plate, which players typically can't afford until around level 5. Second, if you don other armor the effect ends on your current Arcane Armor so if someone forces you into a suit of padded armor (admittedly hard since your armor can't be removed against your will) and steals your smith's tools you're in trouble. Third, depending on what type of armor you're wearing, you may be unable to use magic items (including infused ones) which go in on your hands or feet until you get Armor Modifications at 9th level. However, the Player's Handbook is non-specific about which types of armor include boots or gloves, so check with your DM.

  4. Armor Model: The subclass of your subclass, Armor Model allows you to choose between a front-line rank and a stealthy, back-line blaster. You can reset this choice every time that you complete a rest, allowing you to change roles as easily as changing pants.
    • Guardian: The go-to option, the Guardian is simple and effective. Get into melee and hit stuff until it dies.
      • Thunder Gauntlets: Equivalent damage to a longsword (1d8+int), and since it's thunder damage almost nothing will resist it. Each gauntlet counts as an independent weapon, so you're still free to hold a shield in one hand and punch stuff with the other.

        The secondary effect is a sort of taunt effect, but it only affects attacks so enemies with special abilities like breath weapons and enemies who can cast spells may be able to get around it. Even so, it's really good since many enemies rely entirely on attacks.

        Combining Thunder Gauntlets with Booming Blade looks like a great combination, but note that with the updated version of the spell published in Tasha's Cauldron you need to use a weapon with a gp value of 1 sp or greater.

        It's not clear yet if the Thunder Gauntlets qualify to use with Booming Blade and Green-Flame Blade, but Jeremery Crawford\ has indicated that he would allow Shadow Blade to work with Booming Blade, and Shadow Blade faces the same issue with an unspecified item value. That's not technically a rules answer, but it may be the closest that we get.

      • Defensive Field: The temporary hit points are a good sized pool, and using this two to six times per day dramatically improves your ability to endure damage. While I understand the temptation, it may be wise to take a little bit of damage before activating this so that you can make use of hit dice during short rests and avoid burning out your Defensive Field charges early in the day.
    • Infiltrator: The Infiltrator offers the option to favor lighter armor, allowing the armorer to fight effectively at range and potentially even be stealthy if you built your artificer with 14 or more Dexterity.

      If you're planning to wear medium armor, strongly consider wearing a breastplate instead of half plate. While half plate's AC is 1 point higher, it imposes Disadvantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks. Infiltrator armor will offset this, but giving up 1 point of AC to instead have permanent Advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks is a really good trade. You can always make up for the lost AC with the Enhanced Defense infusion.

      • Lightning Launcher: The damage on this is annoying and weird. Ligthning damage is a fine type, but the fact that you can add an extra d6 to the damage of one hit per turn is an annoyance to remember. Keep in mind that this is a weapon attack, so you do add your ability modifier (Intelligence in this case) to the damage, and 1d6+int will outdo your damage from cantrips.
      • Powered Steps: 5 feet of additional speed isn't huge, but it's still nice.
      • Dampening Field: Generally you'll be wearing Full Plate, which imposes Disadvantage on Stealth (as does all other heavy armor). This offsets that problem, allowing you to stumble around with your -1 Dexterity Modifier and only slightly ruin the party's hopes of being sneaky. If you have 14 Dexterity, you can wear breastplate and be very capable at Stealth even if your Dexterity never improves from there.
  5. Extra Attack: The Armorer relies on attacks rather than cantrips as their primary offensive option, so this is a significant increase in your damage output. Remember that if you're relying on Lightning Launcher you only add the extra d6 damage once per turn.
  6. Armor Modifications: Arcane Armor presents some limitations on the magic items/infusions which you can wear (see Arcane Armor, above), which means that you likely can't wear items like Winged Boots. Armor Modifications neatly solves that issue and also gives you two additional Infused Item slots which you can only use on your armor so you no longer need to feel selfish for buffing yourself instead of sharing your Infusions with your party.
  7. Perfected Armor: An additional effect on each armor model.
    • Guardian: Save yourself the trouble of walking, and pull your target to you instead. You're not forced to pull them the full 30 feet, but you get to attack them for free if you do. But maybe there's some nasty AOE between you and them, or maybe there's a conveniently-placed pit that you can drop them into. You can even use this on your allies to pull them out of bad situations like grapples, and since it's forced movement it doesn't provoke opportunity attacks.
    • Infiltrator: The Advantage mechanic would be enough to make this blue, but you also get some extra damage if they're hit. Keep in mind that you can also benefit from this, so if you hit them with your first attack you'll get Advantage against them on your second. If you hit with your second attack, expect an ally to capitalize on the Advantage before you get another shot.

ArtilleristERLW / TCoE

The Artillerist is as cool as the description makes it sound. They're good at blowing stuff with magic. Cannons allow you to both attack enemies and defend your allies, and the Artillerist spell list adds a slough of fantastic new spells which play to the theme of the subclass.

  1. Tool Proficiency: Adventurers don't typically do a lot of wood carving, and there are few pieces of adventuring gear that you can make with wood carving tools.
  2. Artillerist Spells: The Artillerist's spell list is primarily offensive with some area control effects thrown in. None of the spells are on the Artificer spell list, which is strange compared to similar class features on other classes which typically saddle you with at least a few situational spells that are already on your class's spell list.
    1. 3rd Level: Shield is a great spell at any level, but remember that it requires Somatic components so you need a free hand to cast it unless you have War Caster. Thunderwave isn't a ton of damage, but it's nice for pushing enemies away if you get stuck in melee.
    2. 5th Level: Two good offensive spells, but remember that the Artificer gets 2/3 spell progression so you're getting Shatter at the same level that wizard get Fireball. Arcane Firearm comes online at the same level and provides a damage boost, but it only applies to one damage roll, so AOE options like Shatter are more efficient against multiple targets than options like Scorching Ray.
    3. 9th Level: Fireball is one of the best AOE damage spells in the game, especially for its level, and adding Arcane Firearm's damage boost will close some of the gap between the Artificer and the Wizard. Wind Wall is fine, but it's really situational so you may go your entire career without casting it.
    4. 13th Level: Ice Storm isn't a great spell, but Wall of Fire is an excellent area control option.
    5. 17th Level: Cone of Cold's AOE is great, but the damage isn't significantly better than that of Fireball. Wall of Force is the real winner here. It's a reliable, no-save way to shut off one or more enemies for the duration of the spell, and most enemies are totally powerless to escape or counter it.
  3. Eldritch Cannon: The eldritch cannon is basically a pet that can only perform one action. They're severely limited by their 15 ft. movement speed, so generally you'll either create a Tiny cannon and carry it around (or make someone else do it) or you'll create a new Small cannon whenever you need a cannon that can occupy a space. Creating a cannon takes an Action, so consider your choices carefully; an Action early in combat (or ideally before combat starts) is very important.

    In addition to their active abilities, your cannon makes a decent tank. With an AC of 18 and a decent pool of hit points, they can take a lot of damage which would otherwise be dealt to your party members, and you can heal them between fights using a cantrip (though the 1-minute casting time for Mending can add up quickly if you're not careful).

    Small cannons are big enough to provide cover for small characters, and in tight quarters they might be able to completely prevent enemies from reaching you by interposing themselves. However, be cautious about sacrificing your cannon: you can only have one, you only get to create one for free each day, and it only lasts for an hour. After that it will cost you a spell slot, but a 1st-level spell slot is a negligible price to pay for how good the cannons can be.

    • Flamethrower: With 15 ft. speed and a 15 ft. AOE, it will be difficult to keep the flamethrower in range unless you're in small areas like a cramped dungeon, but if you find yourself unexpectedly in an encounter with close-packed enemies, it's often more efficient to create a flamethrow cannon than to cast Burning Hands or something similar.
    • Force Ballista: Your go-to damage option. It's only slightly more interesting than a crossbow. The damage is decent and it uses your Intelligence for the attack, so if all you need is to kill one creature at a time, this is a good choice. The push effect isn't huge, but it's enough to break grapples by forcing enemies out of reach of your allies.
    • Protector: False Life is only a 1st-level spell and provides largely the same benefit, but False Life doesn't affect your whole party and you can't spam it every round for an hour. Even if your cannon spends all of its time following your party's tank around to replenish their temporary hit points, the Protector cannon can go a long way to stretch your party's limited daily resources. Between fights, activate the cannon repeatedly until you roll an 8 to ensure that you and your party members go into every fight with as many temporary hit points as possible.
  4. Arcane Firearm: This applies to all of your spells. Consider this on Shatter or Fireball. The d8 isn't as reliable as adding your intelligence bonus, but it's 4.5 damage on average, so it's roughly equivalent.
  5. Explosive Cannon: A 50% damage increase for the Flamethrower and the Force Balista, but the Protector doesn't get anything (not that the Protector needs anything; it's still spectacular). You also get the ability to turn your cannon into a bomb, and the damage will at least match a 1st-level spell, but I wouldn't consider walking your cannon into a group of enemies and detonating it to be a good go-to option in most cases since your cannon continuing to act will be more impactful than the explosion.
  6. Fortified Position: Half cover means +2 AC for your entire party, which is a significant boost. The second cannon means that you'll spend less time stressing over which cannon to choose, and if one of the offensive options is clearly the best option you could even choose to make two of them. However, you still only get one free cannon per day, so either carry around Tiny cannons or expect to spend some spell slots.

Battle SmithERLW / TCoE

The Battlesmith allows the Artificer to focus on Intelligence and Constitution, allowing you to thrive in melee without worrying about Strength or Dexterity. The Steel Defender is a really simple pet, and the cost of it dying is low enough that you don't need to feel bad about it, so you're free to throw it in front of you and your allies whenever things get dangerous.

The hardest decision facing the Battlesmith is what to do with your hands. Most characters only have two hands, and if you plan to be in melee that's often a problem. You could use a two-handed weapon, but a shield is an important option when you only have d8 hit dice. You could fight at range with a bow or crossbow, and that would work fine, but if you want to fight at range the Artillerist is typically a better fit. The Battlesmith is intended to wade into melee with a weapon in hand and clad in so many Infusions that you're basically untouchable.

Remember that you can use any item bearing one of your infusions as a spellcasting focus, which means that you can use it to provide both Material and Somatic components for spells that require inexpensive material components, and thanks to the "Tools Required" part of the Artificer's Spellcasting feature you don't need a free hand to perform Somatic components so long as either your weapon or your shield are one of your Infused Items.

  1. Tool Proficiency: Most interesting and expensive non-magical adventuring gear is made of metal.
  2. Battle Smith Spells: Most of the spells are from the Paladin spell list, which is exciting for a subclass built to be a durable melee character similar to the Paladin. Many of the options are excellent, and the smite spells from the Paladin's spell list work on ranged weapons so you're not locked into melee if that's not where you want to be.
    1. 3rd Level: Spectacular defensive buffs. Shield easily makes up the durability gap between the Battle Smith and the Armorer in heavy armor.
    2. 5th Level: Both options are situational. Warding Bond is hard due to the Artificer's d8 hit die.
    3. 9th Level: Both spells are fine, but not especially good for a 3rd-level spell.
    4. 13th Level: More great defensive buffs.
    5. 17th Level: Both options are situational, but you don't have another good way to deal with extraplanar creatures and your best group healing is Aura of Vitality, which can't get a whole party back on their feat in one turn..
  3. Battle Ready: Finally a way to use Intelligence for your weapon attacks! You also get martial weapons, which offers a small improvement to your existing weapon options. Be sure to take 14 Dexterity to max out medium armor, but otherwise go all-in on Intelligence.

    You have a variety of good options for how to jump into combat with a weapon. Grab a longsword (or an equivalent weapon) and a shield, and you're nearly as durable as a fighter (arguably more durable if you have the right invocations), especially with your Steel Defender's Deflect Attack. Deflect Attack may even be enough to justify using a two-handed melee weapon so that you can focus on offense, but if you're going to use Booming Blade or Green-Flame Blade, the bigger damage dice will be less impactful than the AC bonus from a shield. If you want to be extra defensive but still in melee, grab a whip and keep your Steel Defender between you and your enemies. If that's still not safe enough, grab a ranged weapon and send your Steel Defender into melee on its own.

  4. Steel Defender: The Steel Defender is primarily a Defender, rather than a Striker. It has a decent pile of hit points and what amounts to Fighting Style (Protection). It deals damage equivalent to a longsword and since it's force damage almost nothing will resist it, but its primary function is to protect you while you do the real damage. It has a poor AC at just 15, so expect to spend a lot of time repairing it between fights. The Steel Defender's Repair action allows it to repair itself, but at 3 uses per day you'll get a lot more healing out of Mending.

    The Steel Defender notably doesn't gain any ability to fly, which is a problematic limitation once you reach high enough level that flying enemies become common. You'll need a way to either get enemies down into range of your Steel Defender or you'll need to find a way to make your Steel Defender fly. Infusing a pair of Winged Boots is probably your best option.

  5. Extra Attack: Helpful since the Battle Smith typically relies on weapons for damage output, but without an on-hit damage boost you'll get considerably more damage output out of cantrips like Booming Blade and Sword Burst, so Extra Attack may only be consistently useful if you're using a reach weapon or a ranged weapon. See my article on Melee Cantrips vs. Extra Attack for a breakdown of the math comparing melee cantrip spells to normal martial attacks.
  6. Arcane Jolt: 2d6 damage/healing up to 5 times per day isn't much, but fortunately it doubles at 15th level, and the healing is as useful as Healing Word, allowing you to heal dying allies and get them back into the fight. Personally I would reserve this exclusively for healing and critical. The damage isn't enough to make a big difference normally unless you know that it'll kill the target, but the damage is "extra damage" rather than a separate damage source, so it's multiplied on a critical hit like Divine Smite or Hex.
  7. Improved Defender: 2d6 more damage/healing on Arcane Jolt makes it a little more impactful, but still not significant. The AC boost is significant, especially since your pet has been sitting at 15 AC for 11 levels while attack bonuses gradually increase. The tiny bit of damage on Deflect Attack is nice, too. At this level 1d4+5 (I'm assuming that you have 20 Intelligence by now) isn't much at this level, but it's still a nice little buff to something which you were going to do anyway, and if you're using it every round (which you really should) it will add up quickly.