A staple of fantasy fiction and folklore, Elves are a simple yet effective base race with subraces which are numerous and diverse enough that elves are usable in a variety of builds and character concepts. Unfortunately, because the subraces differentiate the Elf’s traits so much, it’s rare for more than one subrace to be viable in the same class unless you’re using the Customizing Your Origins optional rules presented in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
Since the initial release of 5th edition, the evolution of the game has repeatedly shaken up the Elf’s place in the character optimization meta. At initial release, the Wood Elf was the only race with increases to Dexterity and Wisdom (excluding humans and half-elves since they have flexible increases), and the Elf was one of very few races which got additional skills, especially since elves get Perception. This made them appealing in many builds, including Druids and Monks. As we got additional source books, the introduction of Booming Blade made the High Elf a powerful option for rogues and for “gish” builds.
The introduction of the custom origin rules was a big hit to the Elf, making the Wood Elf largely pointless, but making other elf subraces much more appealing. The High Elf especially is now an even more appealing option for gish builds since you can reassign the Intelligence increase to something else, making the High Elf an appealing option for martial bard builds, clerics, druid, rogues, and some multiclass builds. The Drow’s innate spellcasting is appealing for Charisma-based spellcasters. The sea elf exists. The Eladrin and the Shadar-kai offer teleportation for martial builds, especially non-casters. There’s an elf for every build.
Elves are one of very few published races with an aquatic option. While the Sea Elf is conceptually interesting, it gets very little beyond the ability to function well underwater, so I habitually ignore it in my character optimization content. I will continue to do that here, but if you’re playing in an aquatic campaign, remember that the Sea Elf is a thing.
Table of Contents
- Elf Classes (Customizable Origins)
- Elf Classes (Default Rules)
- Elf Feats
- Elf Dragonmarks
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. Nearly never useful.
- : OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances. Useful sometimes.
- : Good options. Useful often.
- : Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character. Useful very frequently.
We will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, in handbooks for official content because we can’t assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. We also won’t cover Unearthed Arcana content because it’s not finalized, and we 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 the article will be updated accordingly as time allows.
Elf Classes (Customizable Origins)
This section assumes that you’re using the option “Customizing Your Origin” rules presented in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. If you’re not using those rules, scroll down to the next section.
The High Elf is the obvious go-to option for the Artificer. An extra cantrip is a great addition to the Artificer’s somewhat limited spellcasting. However, the Artificer takes most of their cantrips from the Wizard’s spell lists, and all the obvious options that you might want (Booming Blade, Fire Bolt, etc.) are already on the Artificer’s spell list. You don’t get anything new, just more of the same. That’s not a bad thing, of course.
If you’re fine with the Artificer’s limited number of cantrips, consider the Eladrin (either version) or the Shadar-Kai. Both will give you access to teleportation long before you get it from the Artificer’s spellcasting, and it will help conserve precious spell slots.
The Eladrin (the version in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes) and the Shadar-Kai offer access to teleportation, which is a powerful asset for a class so heavily locked into melee. Avoid the Drow, the Pallid Elf, and the High Elf since you can’t cast or concentrate on spells while raging.
Access to Booming Blade might be single most simplest way to make front-line bards viable, despite getting two subclasses (swords and valor) which attempt to make that happen, so the High Elf is a great choice. For casting-focused bards, the Drow’s innate spellcasting is a powerful addition, and the Eladrin (both kinds) offers access to teleportation. The Shadar-Kai is also an option, but their teleportation is only once per day, so the Eladrin is a better choice for a spellcaster who doesn’t need to teleport into the thick of melee combat.
Clerics planning to use weapons struggle to keep up with clerics relying solely on cantrips. Even with the benefit of Divine Strike, cantrips are still more effective. Access to Booming Blade makes melee weapon attacks a viable option, so the High Elf is again a great choice.
For casting-focused clerics, the Pallid Elf’s innate spellcasting is tempting, but you can get similar benefits from the Trickery Domain. The Eladrin (either version) may also be appealing since clerics don’t have short-range teleportation on their spell list.
Booming Blade is great option for Circle of Spores. The Eladrin’s teleportation is great for a class with no teleportation on its spell list. The Shadar-Kai also works, but since their teleportation is only once per Long Rest, the Eladrin’s is more appealing for a class that generally doesn’t want to teleport into melee. The Wood Elf exists, but Mask of the Wild isn’t especially powerful.
The Eladrin and the Shadar-Kai are appealing for melee builds who want access to teleportation. The High Elf is appealing for the Eldritch Knight, but other fighters will do better relying on regular attacks.
The Eladrin (either version) and the Shadar-Kai are your best options, but short-range teleportation is less useful thanks to Step of the Wind and the Monk’s exceptionally high speed. The Elf works here, but the Elf’s traits add very little to the Monk.
The Eladrin and the Shadar-Kai are appealing for paladins who want access to teleportation. A high elf with Booming Blade might work, but most paladins want to use Extra Attack in hopes of smiting on a critical hit.
Like other martial classes, the Eladrin and the Shadar-Kai are appealing, adding teleportation to class that generally doesn’t have it. Combining this capability with the Horizon Walker can be a very satisfying build.
While rangers typically rely on on-hit damage bonuses from things like Favored Foe or Hunter’s Mark, a high elf with Booming Blade is still an option, especially if you have a subclass feature that takes a Bonus Action and adds an on-hit damage bonus like the Fey Wanderer’s Dreadful Strikes since those features often make Hunter’s Mark less appealing.
The Rogue has a lot of great options. The Drow’s spellcasting offers easy ways to get Advantage or otherwise solve problems. The High Elf’s access to Booming Blade offers easy hit-and-run tactics in conjunction with Cunning Action. The Eladrin and the Shadar-Kai offer access to teleportation, though Cunning Action might make that less important. The Pallid elf’s ability to cast Invisibility is very appealing for any rogue.
The Drow and the Pallid Elf both offer some innate spellcasting, and having access to additional spells, even just once per day, is huge for the Sorcerer. Similarly, the Eladrin offers teleportation which you would normally get from Misty Step, allowing you to safely skip that crucial tactical option and spend your extremely limited number of spells known on other things.
The Drow’s access to Faerie Fire is a powerful tool for a warlock built around Eldritch Blast, and any amount of innate spellcasting is helpful for a class with so few spell slots. Similarly, the Eladrin and the Shadar-Kai offer access to teleportation without the high price of a spell slot. High Elf’s access to a cantrip is nice, but the Warlock gets enough of them that it doesn’t add anything meaningful.
An elf wizard is one of those classic DnD tropes that dates back to the earliest editions. High elves in particular were the “default” race for wizards in the core rules. But with Intelligence increases available on any race, the High Elf is no longer just “the one you pick for wizards”, and strangely it’s probably not the best elf option, either.
While the High Elf’s additional cantrip is nice, the wizard arguably already gets enough to get by. Unless you really want that cantrip, the Eladrin is a better choice. A 2nd-level spell slot spent on Misty Step (not to mention preparing it) can be a steep cost, so having built-in teleportation is a powerful option. The Pallid elf similarly reduces the need to prepare Invisibility.
Elf Classes (Default Rules)
This section assumes that you’re not using the option “Customizing Your Origin” rules presented in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything or the updated version of the race published in Mordenkainen’s Monsters of the Multiverse. If you are using those rules, scroll up to the previous section.
The High Elf makes a perfect Artificer, adding both Dexterity and Intelligence, as well as a Wizard cantrip to complement the Artificer’s spellcasting.
One of few classes where the Elf is a truly bad option. The Sea Elf and the Shadar-kai are probably your best bet here solely because they’re the only elf subraces which get increases to either Strength or Constitution. But the Barbarian is so strictly locked into Strength that it’s hard to function without an increase.
Drow, Eladrin, and Mark of Shadow elves all recieve Charisma increases. The core elf Perception proficiency and Dexterity increase both complement the Bard nicely in any build.
The Cleric is a challenging option for the Elf, but it’s absolutely doable. Wood elves and Pallid Elves both get a Wisdom increase, and between Dexterity and Wisdom they make fine lightly-armored clerics. Avoid domains which provide heavy armor proficiency, and look for domains which complement your subrace traits.
Generally a better option for the Elf than the Cleric, the Druid’s adherence to lighter armor makes it easier to rely on Dexterity without disregarding other class options like proficiency in medium and/or heavy armor. The Wood Elf’s mask of the Wild works while using Wild Shape, and the Pallid Elf’s innate spellcasting offers some interesting new options for the Druid to explore.
One of few classes where a large number of Elf subraces can truly shine. Since the Fighter only needs an increase to either Strength or Dexterity, an Elf can fill any Dexterity-based build, and depending on your subrace you can emphasize different capabilities like spellcasting, stealth, or even Face skills.
The Wood Elf is among the best race options for the Monk. Dexterity and Wisdom are exactly what the Monk needs, and no class is more dependent on perfect ability scores. The Pallid Elf has the same ability score increases, but the innate spellcasting may be less appealing than the Wood Elf’s traits. Both options work great, so use whichever appeals to you.
Like the Bard, elf subraces which provide Charisma increases make great paladins, but don’t overlook subraces which provide Constitution increases. While high Charisma is great, start with 14 or 15 is perfectly fine if you can’t find a Charisma increase on the subrace that you like. Obvious options include the Drow and the Eladrin because they do get Charisma increases, but Sea Elves and Shadar-Kai make good options too, and you might even be able to make the High Elf work if you can make good use of attack cantrips like Booming Blade from time to time. Mark of Shadow may seem like a strange choice for the Paladin, but mechanically it works very well.
The Wood Elf is almost tailor-made to be a ranger, but the Ranger’s only major ability dependency is Dexterity so any elf subrace makes a fine ranger.
The Rogue needs Dexterity and almost nothing else, but free Perception proficiency does at lot to complement the Rogue’s already spectacular skills. Nearly any elf subrace works for the rogue, offering unique options depending on your racial traits. High elf rogues should consider booming blade, which makes for great hit-and-run tactics when combined with Cunning Action. Mark of Shadow offers several excellent options for the Rogue, even if you don’t plan to pursue Arcane Trickster.
The Rogue is, in my opinion, the single best use case for Elven Accuracy. If you’re consistently relying on Advantage to deliver Sneak attack the extra die improved your chance of rolling a natural 20 (and therefore a critical hit) from 9.75% to 14.26%. And if you’ve ever gotten to roll a critical hit with Sneak Attack you understand how exciting it is to roll all of those dice. If you use the Steady Aim Optional Class Feature in conjunction with Elven Accuracy, you get to roll that nonsese almost every turn. It honestly feels like cheating.
Drow, Eladrin, and Mark of Shadow elves all get Charisma increases, which is really all that you need to succeed as a sorcerer, but they don’t add capabilities which the sorcerer couldn’t already provide.
Drow, Eladrin, and Mark of Shadow elves make excellent warlocks. Extra Charisma is all that you truly need, but Dexterity helps to pad the Warlock’s AC in light armor, which is crucial for Hexblades. Drow innate spellcasting helps to complement the Warlock’s limited spell slots, and be sure to pick up Devil’s Sight to capitalize on the ability to cast Darkness. Eladrin can teleport, reducing the need for Misty Step. Mark of Shadow grants some extra spellcasting, and adds several new spell options to the Warlock’s spell list.
A high elf wizard is among the most obvious and iconic wizard builds. All you truly need to succeed as a wizard is an Intelligence increase, and the core Elf’s Dexterity increase and Perception proficiency will help to keep you alive. One extra cantrip may not seem like much since you already start with three, but cantrips are very powerful and an extra can do a lot to diversify your capabilities.
If you can get Advantage reliably, this is a fantastic feat. The +1 ability increase is nice, but the reroll mechanic is the real draw here. You need Advantage to trigger the reroll, but you can reroll one die each time you roll with Advantage (though you’re limited to attack/checks/saves with the four lister ability scores), so Advantage is essentially rolling three dice and choosing the highest.
It’s a little unusual to lean into Elven Accuracy this far, but my blog post “Oops All Elves” dives into exactly how crazy you can get by building a party around one feat.
If you’re proficient with martial weapons and want to engage in two-weapon fighting, the Double Scimitar is appealing (provided that it’s available in your game). Since the primary attack has a larger damage die than weapons which qualify for two-weapon fighting, you’ll get more average damage once you gain Extra Attack. However, most builds which use two-weapon fighting are Dexterity-based, so without the Revenant Blade feat the double scimitar can be a hard choice.
If you’re building for two-weapon fighting, Revenant Blade is an improvement is excellent but not necessarily your best option. It’s an option to replace Dual Wielder, and Revenent Blade isn’t always better. Both feats provide a +1 AC bonus, so let’s ignore that and compare the differences:
Revenant Blade adds the Finesse property to the Double Scimitar, making it equivalent to using a rapier and a dagger with Fighting Style (Two-Weapon Fighting). Dual Wielder allows you to use non-light weapons while two-weapon fighting, allowing you to use two rapiers, two longswords, or something else along those lines. Two rapiers is better damage than a double scimitar (if we ignore magic weapons), but Revenant Blade adds a +1 increase to either Strength or Dexterity (probably Dexterity) and doesn’t require a Fighting Style.
Once you hit 20 Dexterity, Dual Wielder with Fighting Style (Two-Weapon Fighting) will have better damage output because two rapiers are again more powerful. But the possibility of magic items tips things toward Revenant Blade since it’s easier to find one magic weapon than two, and the resource cost to spend a Fighting Style is steep, so taking a Fighting Style (Defense) with Revenant Blade is typically a more effective combination than Dual Weilder.
We go into this in more detail in our Practical Guide to Weaponized Bonus Actions.
Dragonmarks are detailed in Eberron: Rising from the Last War. Elves treat dragonmarks like a subrace, retaining their core racial traits and adding the traits provided by the dragonmark.
Mark of Shadow
A Charisma increase, some illusions, and bonuses to Performance and Stealth. This is a great option for nearly any rogue. The Arcane Trickster seems like the most obvious beneficiary, but the only dragonmark spell which is new to the Arcane Trickster is Pass Without Trace. Pass Without Trace is amazing, but it may not be enough make you reconsider your subclass to enjoy it.
If you’re using the custom origin rules, Mark of Shadow becomes an easy way to make any character into a Scout, especially if you can cast spells. Artificers, clerics, druids, and eldritch knight fighters can all benefit greatly.