DnD 5e - Sorcerer Subclass Breakdown
Last Updated: December 3rd, 2020
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.
- : Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
- : OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances.
- : Good options.
- : 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.
Sorcerers are defined thematically by their subclass, and they're one of very few sorcerers who decide their subclass at first level. Because this choice comes so early, it defines your build immediately, and the way your character functions at the table depends heavily on your subclass features.
Sorcerer Subclasses - Sorcerous Origin
The Sorcerer's psionics-themed subclass, the Aberrant Mind notably lacks the same Psionic Energy Dice shared by the Psi Warrior and Soul Knife. Jeremy Crawford explained that feedback from the Unearthed Arcana playtest pointed out that the Sorcerer already has a pool of class-specific expendable resources in their Sorcery Points, and adding a second pool felt weird. So, WotC listened to community feedback and removed it for the final version of the subclass. It's fun to be part of the design process, isn't it?
Without Psionic Energy Dice, there's little that makes this subclass actually "psionic"; it's mostly just themed around tentacles. In fact, it's much more "Great Old One" than "Psionic", though I'm starting to think that the two might be more closely related than I realize. If you can't decide between a GOOLock and a Sorcerer, this is a great compromise.
Mechanically, the Aberrant Mind is excellent. Psionic Spells dramatically expands your number of known spells, and doesn't completely lock you into the granted spells like most similar subclass features. The other subclass features offer a number of interesting and powerful utility options, allowing you to solve many problems without needing to find a suitable spell and committing one of your precious few spells known. If you're more comfortable playing a cleric or a wizard and having a lengthy list of spells available, the Aberrant Mind can make the Sorcerer a much easier prospect since its toolbox is so mucg larger than a typical sorcerer.
The first and most obvious benefit is that you get several excellent spells, including some warlock exclusives like Hunger of Hadar and wizard exclusives like Evard's Black Tentacles. Not everything on the list is a gem, of course, and be sure to check my Warlock Spell List Breakdown and my Wizard Spell List Breakdown for details on the spells borrow from other spell lists.
Slightly less obvious: this adds a total of 10 known leveled spells to your sorcerer (Mind Sliver is buried in the 1st-level spells on the table, and it's a cantrip). A 20th-level sorcerer typically knows just 15 spells, so this is a massive increase. Even at level 1, you know twice as many spells as a typical sorcerer, plus you get an additional cantrip.
Third, and easiest to overlook, is the retraining mechanic. The Sorcerer can already retrain one known spell every time they gain a level, but Psionic Spells also allows you to retrain the spells granted by the feature. Surprisingly, you can choose from the sorcerer, warlock, and wizard spell lists, though you're limited to divination and enchantment spells. Of course, there are plenty of excellent divination and enchantment options (Hex is tempting at early levels), so that's not a problem. Trade in spells that you're not benefiting from as you gain levels, especially since divination options are often useful long after their spell level stops being defining in combat.
: There is a lot of complexity buried in this feature that's very easy to overlook, but understanding what makes this so powerful will help you to capitalize on it.
- : Two decent low-level damage options, and the absolutely phenomenal Mind Sliver. I recommend retraining Arms of Hadar after a few levels, but you might enjoy Dissonant Whispers as an inexpensive way to force enemies to remove themselves from grapples and/or to provoke opportunity attacks.
- : Two options with situational uses. Detect Thoughts is difficult for spellcasters that aren't Intelligence-based, so consider retraining it.
- : Hunger of Hadar is an excellent AOE damage and area control option, and I've eyed it jealously from other spellcasting classes since 5e's initial release. Sending is neat but not crucial, so you might retrain it, especially once you have long-distance teleportation available at higher levels.
- : Black Tentacles is a good spell, but it does less damage and has a smaller AOE than Hunger of Hadar, and also doesn't scale with spell level, so there's a lot of redundancy between the two that the Sorcerer can't justify. I recommend picking one of the two to keep and retraining the other. Summon Abberation is one of the new summon options presented in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, and it's pretty good, offering three very effective choices to suit your needs.
- : Two excellent utility options. Rary’s Telepathic Bond feels like a weird choice since you get Telepathic Speech at first level, but Telepathic Speech is extremely limited so Rary’s Telepathic Bond is a big upgrade.
- : A useful utility, but very limited compared to most forms of telepathy. You can communicate, but you still need to share a language, the duration is short, and you can only connect to one creature. That's enough to send your party's Scout off on their own with a way to remain in contact, but beyond stealth and subtlety there are few meanignful ways to use this.
It's not perfectly clear how this works if you retrained the spells from Psionic Spells. This definitely applies to the default spells that you get, but I'm not sure otherwise. I think RAW it works with retrained spells since you still get those spells from the feature, but keep an eye out for Sage Advice or Errata, and check with your DM until then. : This saves you one or two Sorcery Points (depending on the spell level) when you spend Sorcery Points to get extra spell slots. You also don't need to spend the Bonus Action to convert Sorcery Points into spell slots first. You also get to cast the spell without verbal or somatic components (and some material components), so you get the benefits of Subtle Spell for free.
- : Psychic damage is rare, but charm and fear effects are very common.
Personal note: I find the term "writhing sensory tendrils" upsetting. : For a single Sorcery Point, every one of these effects is excellent. Replicating any of these is at least a 2nd-level spell, so the effects aren't just good, they're very cost-efficient. Note that since the fly and swim speeds are based on your walking speed, it's easy to boost your new movement speed with buffs like Longstrider or Haste.
- : Great for setting up combos with Quicken Spell. Follow this with a quickened AOE damage spell life Meteor Swarm or area control spell like Force Cage and you can eliminate whole encounters in one turn even at this high level. The saving throw is Strength, though, and with the exceptions of enemies who rely on magic in combat many enemies will have high Strength saves.
Where the Wild Magic Sorcerer is chaos, randomness, rerolls, and wacky fun chaos, the Clockwork Soul Sorcerer is order, no rerolls, numerical minimums, and straight order and efficiency. It offers tools to solve a variety of problems in orderly fashion, including spell options borrowed from the Cleric and Wizard. However, the Clockwork Soul leans heavily on its spell list, and the other subclass features are often only situationally useful, leaving the player to wait for these features to matter from time to time in between casting spells every turn.
The Clockwork Soul shares a lot of design philosophy with the Abberant Mind, giving sorcerers 10 more known leveled spells and the ability to retrain them into a pair of specific schools of magic. However, the Clockwork Soul's other features are notably more situational in nature than those given to the Abberant Mind. The Clockwork Soul is by no means bad or weak, though, and its spell list includes several excellent options from the Cleric spell list (though none of them are hit point restoration so you'll need to get that elsewhere), in addition to a lot of staple spellcasting options which a sorcerer might otherwise be forced to take with their very limited known spells to avoid leaving their party without crucial options like Dispel Magic.
For a veteran player with a solid grasp of the rules and of their party's capabilities, the Clockwork Soul Sorcerer is an excellent option. However, unless you know exactly where the Clockwork Soul fits into your party, you may find that the subclass has a lot of redundancies with other spellcasters. If your party wants to go without a cleric or druid, the Clockwork Soul is a great option, though you'll still need to solve the issue of hit point restoration. For less experienced players, the Clockwork Soul may be a great introduction to the Sorcerer due to their abnormally large list of known spells, but personally I would still point new players to less complex subclasses like draconic bloodline or less "serious business" options like wild magic.
The first and most obvious benefit is that you get several excellent spells, including some cleric options like Aid and wizard options like Summmon Construct and Wall of Force. Not everything on the list is a gem, of course, and be sure to check my Cleric Spell List Breakdown (for the cleric spells which you get by default) and my Warlock Spell List Breakdown and Wizard Spell List Breakdown for details on the spells borrowed from the Wizard's spell list as well as possible retraining options.
Slightly less obvious: this adds a total of 10 known leveled spells to your sorcerer. A 20th-level sorcerer typically knows just 15 spells, so this is a massive increase. Even at level 1, you know twice as many spells as a typical sorcerer.
Third, and easiest to overlook, is the retraining mechanic. The Sorcerer can already retrain one known spell every time they gain a level, but Clockwork Magic also allows you to retrain the spells granted by the feature. Surprisingly, you can choose from the sorcerer, warlock, and wizard spell lists, though you're limited to abjuration and transmutation spells. Of course, there are plenty of excellent abjuration and transmutation options (Absorb Elements and Shield are good at any level), so that's not a problem. Trade in spells that you're not benefiting from as you gain levels, especially since abjuration options are often useful long after their spell level stops being defining in combat.
: There is a lot of complexity buried in this feature that's very easy to overlook, but understanding what makes this so powerful will help you to capitalize on it.
- : Protection from Evil and Good is a staple buff at any level, covering a wide range of dangerous creatures. Alarm isn't useful enough to justify on a sorcerer, so retrain it.
- : Two staple cleric options.
- : A staple utility option and an important defensive buff. Not glamorous or flashy, but hard to go without.
- : Freedom of Movement is situationally useful, but helpful against enemies which like to grapple. Summon Construct is a wizard exclusive, and it's a decent summon option if you need a pet Defender.
- : Greater Restoration isn't as important as Lesser Restoration, but it's still very important. The conditions which it fixes are miserable and in many cases borderline lethal. Wall of Force (another wizard exclusive) is one of the best area control effects around, especially if you have another spellcaster in the party who can drop some ongoing area damage before you put your enemies inside the impenetrable hemisphere.
- : This solves a lot of problems. Creatures which have Advantage on saves against specific conditions are common, and for a sorcerer encountering those resistances can handicap you a great deal due to your limited pool of spells knowns. Similarly, if your allies have Disadvantage on a save (such as because they are Restrained or Poisoned), you can help protect them. The usage pool is limited, so save this for when it really matters.
Compare this to casting False Life. False Life is a 1st-level spell, so you can spend two Sorcery Points to get a spell slot with which to cast False Life. False Life lasts for one hour, and grants 1d4+4 (average 6.5) temporary hit points. Each additional spell level adds 5 more hit points. For those same two Sorcery points, you can give a creature a ward with two dice, which will prevent an average of 9 damage and lasts until you take a Long Rest. Each additional Sorcery Points adds 4.5 more damage protection, compared to one or two Sorcery Points for 5 more temporary hit points from False Life. So Bastion of law is cheaper compared to a 1st-level spell slot, and the scaling cost of converting Sorcery Points into spell slots keeps this more efficient. : This is similar in many ways to temporary hit points (though you can notably apply this on top of temporary hit points). The duration is great, and allowing the target to choose when to use the ward allows you to take a little damage when you know that there's a Short Rest coming so you can spend some hit dice to manage your limited resources.
- Fundamental Math of DnD 5e assumes that players will succeed on attack rolls against a typical CR-appropriate AC if they roll an 8 or better (provided that your primary ability scores hits 16, 18, and 20 at levels 1, 4, and 8), giving players a 65% chance of hitting an attack against an average, CR-appropriate enemy. Giving you a minimum guaranteed roll of 10 on attacks, saves, and ability checks means that you're mostly guaranteed to hit with attacks, pass on any saves in which you're proficient and have a decent ability score, and pass any ability checks with skills in which you're well-suited. With a 1-minute duration, this is enough to get through one combat or to solve a perform series of skill checks if you move quickly.
This is a great ability on almost any other class, but on the Sorcerer its usefulness is extremely limited. Spells which require attack rolls (with the exception of cantrips) mostly vanished around 2nd-level spells unless you're upcasting low-level spells. Sorcerers are proficient with Constitution saves so this helps with Concentration, so this helps a lot with that. Since sorcerers are Charisma-based, most of your skills will be too and using Persuasion in combat doesn't work particularly well. So the three best uses for this are cantrips, upcasting low-level spells like Scorching Ray, and Concentration. That's underwhelming for an ability which costs 5 Sorcery Points to recharge. : The
- : Even with three effects, this is still only situationally useful. The 100 points of healing will be the most consistently useful option for adventurers, allowing you to get allies back on their feat and restore a nice chunk of hit points. But at this level, healing options like Mass Cure Wounds and Heal have been around for a while. The effect to repair items is neat, but only rarely useful. Adventurers spend a lot more time breaking stuff than fixing it. Perhaps the most remarkable effect is the last one, which outright ends spell effects without the ability checks required by Dispel Magic. But even then, it's rare that you'll face more than a small handful enemies with magic effects on them, so in most cases you can just upcast Dispel Magic to 6th level to get the same effect if you don't want to risk making the ability checks.
If you can't decide between playing a divine caster or an arcane caster, play a Divine Soul.
: Access to the cleric spell list is amazing. They have many of the absolute best divine spells, including most of the best healing options, a ton of great support options, and many fantastic divinations. Unfortunately you'll need to split your focus between normal arcane spells and pretending to be a cleric, but the possibilities for combinations are amazing.
- : Important in most parties, but if you have Healing Word for combat and Healing Spirit for resting, Cure Wounds is largely redundant.
- : Beyond low levels the damage is poor, the scaling is bad, and getting into melee to use it is risky.
- : A fantastic buff at any level.
- : A good debuff against groups of enemies.
- : A fantastic defensive buff.
- : Most features like this only grant 1d6, which has a lower average and is less reliable because it's only a single die. This also recharges on a short rest, making it a frequent and reliable defensive option.
- : The problem with this ability is the problem with healing in combat. If you're in a fight, healing is rarely the best option. Death is easy to prevent in 5e, and if you've got Healing Word you can get an ally back into the fight as a bonus action. Being massively injured isn't much of an impediment, so allies can limp around at 1 hp and still be perfectly effective. With the exception of Heal, getting a creature back to full hit points should generally be reserved for healing out of combat. Once you're out of combat and your action economy isn't limited, you don't need to expend precious resources to scrape together every last hit point. Sit down, spend some hit dice, and find someone who can cast Healing Spirit if you can.
- : Persistent flight is amazing at any level.
- : This could be a lot of healing, but by this level you probably know Heal.
If you want to use the Elemental Adept feat, the Draconic Sorcerer is among the best class choices available. In terms of ray damage output, it's hard to match the Draconic Sorcerer between Elemental Affinity and Metamagic. The Evocation Wizard is comparable, but the ability to break the action economy with Metamagic allows the Draconic Sorcerer to provide much higher spikes of damage than the Evocation Wizard can match.
: Your choice of ancestor only matters mechanically for the energy type, and it only affects the Elemental Affinity ability. That said, you want to pick an energy type which you can use frequently and which offers a large number of spell options which can apply Elemental Affinity.
- : About as many spell options as Poison, but you can take Elemental Adept with it.
- : A few less options than Fire or Lightning.
- : By far the most spell options, and while resistance to fire is common, resistance is negligible when you have Elemental Adept.
- : Nearly as common as Fire spells, and considerably fewer creatures resist it.
- : Poison resistance and immunity aren't terribly common, but since Elemental Adept doesn't allow you to select Poison you will have trouble overcoming resistance. There also aren't a lot of spells which deal poison damage.
- : This helps offset your d6 hit points, and gives you the equivalent of permanent Mage Armor. You'll still want a bit of Dexterity and Constitution, but this is very helpful. Note that the bonus hit points only apply to Sorcerer levels, but if you're taking a Sorcerer dip the armor will continue to function.
- Sage Advice and the Errata, this effect (and similar effects) apply to a single damage roll per spell, so it's much more effective on AOE spells like Fireball than on multiple-attack style spells like Scorching Ray. A boost of up to 5 damage per spell, especially with AOE spells, is a considerable boost, especially on low-level spells like Burning Hands, so your low-level spells can continue to be big damage dealers while consuming your less-powerful spell slots. You also have the ability to grant yourself energy resistance for an hour without the need to conentrate. : According to
- : Flight is crucial at high levels, especially for spellcasters who need to stay out of reech of terrifying melee enemies. Spells like Fly require Concentration, which severely limits your options, so the ability to remain in flight and concentrate on other effects is a massive tactical advantage.
- : By this level you have a huge list of spells, several of which will solve the same problem without eating a big pile of your Sorcery points.
Powerful and versatile with a good mix of abilities, the Shadow Magic bloodline is at its best in the dark. Even in areas of bright light, the magical darkness rules will give you a massive tactical advantage over anyone except devils and the handful of warlocks who have the Devil's Sight invocation.
- : Darkvision is important in a game that often includes a lot of dungeons, caves, and other poorly-lit locales. 120 ft. Darkvision means that you can safely attack other enemies with Darkvision while remaining outside their vision range. In places that are well lit (like outside, if that's somewhere that go for whatever reason), casting Darkness using Sorcery Points means that you've got a fun little bubble where you (and usually only you) can see normally. Darkness is a 2nd-level spell, and converting a 2nd-level spell slot to Sorcery Points gives you 2 Sorcery Points, so all that it costs you is the Bonus Action to make the conversion.
- : This might keep you going if you're dropped bit an attack that doesn't deal a lot of damage, but against abilities which deal lots of damage all at once like breath weapons or spells it's going to be very difficult to make the saving throw.
- : Even at high levels when the dire wolf stat block won't be threatening, forcing Disadvantage on saving throw means that you can easily hit the creature with a save-or-suck spell immediately after summoning the hound. The hound also moves unerringly toward the target, so if they become invisible you have a great way to locate them.
- : Unlimited teleportation as a Bonus Action! The range is pretty good, and in a pinch you can cast Darkness to create an area in which to teleport.
- : The Sorcery Points are cheaper than casting many spells which let you walk through walls and creatures like Etherealness. Hopefully you won't need the damage resistances because you have great defensive options like Improved Invisibility, but you might be able to use Umbral Form before polymorphing and maintain the damage resistance.
Storm Sorcery faces several issues, which is unfortunate because the flavor is interesting. Tempestuous Magic doesn't scale, and it's obsolete by level 3. The premise of the archetype requires you to stay just outside of melee range, dodging in to use Heart of the Storm before retreating with Tempestuous Magic. It's an interesting premise, but it's extremely risky. Unless you're somehow boosting your speed or flying, you're stuck within walking distance on your enemies' turns. It's much safer for sorcerers to remain at the longest distance possible and assail their enemies from well outside of weapon range.
- : Essentially four free languages. Especially nice if you are your party's Face.
- : 10 feet of flight won't get you anywhere interesting. The primary function is to remove you from melee combat without drawing opportunity attacks. This will quickly stop being exciting once you can pick up Misty Step as a 2nd-level spell. However, the fact that it's free is nice, especially if you like to run into close quarters to deliver spells like Thunder Wave. If this worked with cantrips it would be a defining feature of the subclass, but limiting it to leveled spells makes this a situational novelty.
- : Being within 10 feet of foes is rarely a good idea for a Sorcerer. The resistances are great, but it's hard to bring the bonus damage into play without seriously endangering yourself. However, the damage bonus is pretty good so if you can manage shuffling into melee or flying just over your targets' heads you can do quite a bit of damage. Combined with Tempestuous Magic you can rush in, trigger Heart of the Storm, and fly safely out of reach.
- : Unless you're in a seafaring campaign, this will almost certainly never matter.
- : This is very helpful since you're apparently expected to stand within 10 feet of foes. Of course, knocking them 20 feet away means that you'll need to follow them to continue applying Heart of the Storm.
- : Flight for your entire party at no cost and without Concentration.
Wild Magic is unpredictable, which means it's unreliable and therefore ineffective. But it's a lot of fun, so if your group can survive you not min-maxing this adds an element of zany fun to your game.
- Wild Magic Surge: If your DM forgets to ask you to roll, this doesn't matter. But it's a core component of the archetype, so as a DM I would make you roll every time you cast a qualifying spell (unless we were trying to get through an encounter quickly). The effects range from comedic to catastrophic to fantastic, so there's really no way to rate this.
- : Using this for attack rolls is an absolute waste, but using it for saving throws can save your life.
- : When your allies fails a save against death by 1 or two, it's heart-breaking. Spend the Sorcery Points and be everyone's best friend.
- : This considerably reduces the threat of the Wild Magic table, and makes it more of a source of unpredictable buffs and comic relief.
- : This is a little bit of extra damage on many of your damage-dealing spells. Spells which use large dice like Toll the Dead are less likely to trigger the benefit, but the extra damage is higher on average. Spells which roll a ton of small dice (like Meteor Swarm's small mountain of d6s) are more likely to benefit, but the additional 3.5 damage feels really insignificant for such a high-level class feature. More damage is nice, of course; it's just not very exciting since Empowered Spell has been an option for 15 levels.