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DnD 5e - Artificer Subclass Breakdown

Last Updated: November 18th, 2020

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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 or released and this article will be updating accordingly as time allows.

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 the 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: Many situational options, and the offensive options are generally AOE spells with a debuff effect. None of the spells are on the Artificer spell list.
    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 nothign 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. 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.
    • Swiftness: Situational.
    • 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, but 1d4 to all saving throws is new and amazing.
    • 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 and Poison Spray. This makes Acid Splash your go-to damage cantrip.
  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.
  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 the martial capabilities of 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 prosthetic 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 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. It is both the best and the simplest of the Artificer's published subclasses.

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.

  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 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 with only 2/3 spellcasting progession offensive spells are typically a terrible way to spend your spell slots.
    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.
    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, 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.

    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. 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, you may be unable to use magic items (including infused ones) which go in on your hands, feat, or head until you get Armor Modifications at 9th level. 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.

        For maximum fun: combine this with Booming Blade and Boots of the Winding Path. They can't move, they can't attack anyone except you, and you're conveniently 15 feet away.

      • 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.
      • 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: Generally you can use a separate helmet, boots, and gloves/gauntlets with a suit of armor, but Arcane Armor may work differently, especially since the gauntlets are used for Thunder Gauntlets and potentially for Lightning Launcher. This neatly solves that issue and also gives you two additiona 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.
    • Enforcer: Save yourself the trouble of walking, and pull your target to you instead. You're not forced to pull them the full 30 ft., 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.
    • 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. Thunderwave isn't a ton of damage, but it's nice for pushing enemies away.
    2. 5th Level: Two really good offensive spells.
    3. 9th Level: Fireball is one of the best AOE damage spells in the game, especially for its level. Wind Wall is fine, but it's really situational so you may go your entire career without casting it.
    4. 13th Level: Two good area control spells, neither of which are on the Artificer's spell list. It doens't make sense with real-world logic, but you can overlap the areas of the spells to force enemies to move slower around the wall of fire.
    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 with 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 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 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. 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.

    • 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.
    • 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 this is a good choice.
    • 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 all day long. 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 go into a 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 reliable, but it's 4.5 on average, so it's roughly equivalent to adding your Intelligence bonus.
  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.
  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 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.

The biggest challenge 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 you could play an artillerist. 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 inusions 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. However, you still need an actual free hand to perform Somatic components for spells which don't require a material component, so you might consider War Caster unless you're okay juggling items when you need to cast spells in combat. Remember: you need to hold a focus because you're an Artificer (but it can be an infused or magical item like a shield), but you still need a free hand to perform somatic components if the spell requires somatic components but not material components. Hopefully your DM is comfortable ignoring this rules issue, because I don't think WotC intended to make the Artificer juggle their items to cast spells.

  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. 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.
    2. 5th Level: Both options are situational. Warding Bond is hard unless you built yourself with a big pile of hit points.
    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 options. Be sure to take 14 Dexterity to max out medium armor, but otherwise go all-in on Intelligence. Grab a longsword and a shield, and go stand next to the Fighter.
  4. Steel Defender: The Steel Defender is primarily a defender. It has a decent pile of hit points (2 + Your Int + (5*your artificer level) since its Con never changes.) and what amounts to Fighting Style (Protection). It deals damage equivalent to a longsword, but its primary function is to protect you while you do the real damage. It also has a poor AC at just 15, so expect to spend a lot of time repairing it between fights. Repair allows it to repair itself, but at 3 user per day you'll get a lot more out of Mending.
  5. Extra Attack: Crucial since the Battle Smith typically relies on weapons for damage output.
  6. Arcane Jolt: 2d6 damage/healing up to 5 times per day simply isn't much, but fortunately it doubles at 15th level, and the healing is as useful as Healing Word. Personally I would reserve this exclusively for healing. The damage isn't enough to matter, but healing a dying ally can change the outcome of a fight (not to mention saving your friend).
  7. Improved Defender: 2d6 more damage/healing on Arcane Jolt makes it a little more useful, but still not significant. The tiny bit of damage on Deflect Attack is nice, too, but 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.