Last Updated: November 21, 2022
Magic Missile is so baked in the collective thinking of DnD players that’s is very easy to overlook. But that’s a mistake, and I’m going to go into excruciating detail about what makes it so good.
It’s not especially flashy, it doesn’t auto-kill things or turn them into newts. It’s rarely going to win fights for you on its own, but it’s an absolutely essential option for sorcerers and wizards.
Table of Contents
- Magic Missile Spell Description
- Math and Magic (Missile)
- Magic Missile FAQ
Magic Missile Spell Description
Thanks to the magic of the System Reference Document and the Open Gaming License, we can freely reproduce the full text of the spell description so you don’t have to go running to DnDBeyond to compare the spell description.
You create three glowing darts of magical force. Each dart hits a creature of your choice that you can see within range. A dart deals 1d4 + 1 force damage to its target. The darts all strike simultaneously, and you can direct them to hit one creature or several.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the spell creates one more dart for each slot level above 1st.
Math and Magic (Missile)
Magic Missile has the beautiful advantage of dealing force damage (which nothing published resists except for the Helmed Horror) and never missing, which means that we can cleanly calculate the DPR as the average of the dice rolls, giving us 10.5 damage each time you cast Magic Missile at first level. That doesn’t sound impressive, but bear with me.
Other High-Damage 1st-Level Spells
Let’s assume that you’re following the Fundamental Math of the game, and your character starts at level 1 with a +3 modifier in your spellcasting ability score. That gives you a 65% expected hit change against CR-appropriate enemies, which we’ll use as a basis for our calculations. If you want to follow along, open up our DPR Calculator tool and check our math.
The three biggest contenders for damage with Magic Missile are Chaos Bolt, Chromatic Orb, Guiding Bolt, and Inflict Wounds. Let’s ignore the handful of complicated rules interactions for just a moment purely for the sake of simplicity, even though those things add to why Magic Missile is better than these spells.
If you can get Advantage on your attack roll, all of these spells will deal more damage on average than Magic Missile. But I’m going to pretend I didn’t see that.
Magic Missile is Better Damage than Chaos Bolt
Chaos Bolt deals 2d8+1d6 damage, which is super weird but is intentionally built that way to allow the bolt to jump to a second target if you roll doubles on the d8’s. The damage averages to 12.5, which adjusts to just 8.75 when you adjust for hit/miss chance.
But what about secondary bolts? There’s a 1 in 8 chance of another bolt, so let’s add one eighth of 8.75, giving us ~9.74 damage. That’s less than magic missile’s 10.5, and while Chaos Bolt’s damage type is typically unpredictable enough to get around resistances, it’s still not as good as force damage.
Magic Missile is Better Damage than Chromatic Orb
Chromatic Orb is the most direct competitor to Magic Missile. It averages to 13.5, which adjusted for hit/miss chance give us 9.45. Still less than 10.5.
There’s some appeal to Chromatic Orb’s ability to change damage types, but vulnerability to a damage type is surprisingly rare in 5e, so you’ll nearly always use thunder damage to minimize risk of caring about resistances. At that point, you may as well just use force damage.
Magic Missile is Better Damage than Guiding Bolt
Guiding Bolt deals an unusually large number of dice, coming in at 4d6 and average damage of 14. Adjusted for hit/miss chance that comes to 9.8, which is our highest so far but still not 10.5.
Guiding Bolt’s Advantage on the follow-up attack is certainly worth the reduced damage compared to Magic Missile, but that’s not why we’re here, and Magic Missile has cool mechanical nonsense that’s just as useful. Check the FAQ below.
Magic Missile is Better Damage than Inflict Wounds
Inflict Wounds is the highest average damage of any published single-target 1st-level spell, coming in at an impressive 3d10, for an average of 16.5. Surely, that must exceed Magic Missile’s 10.5, right? Yes, but just barely at 11.55, exceeding Magic missile by 1.05 damage.
So in exchange for walking into melee and giving up Magic Missile’s 120 ft. range, and inability to care about partial cover, AC, etc., you get 1.05 additional damage on average.
Inflict Wounds is certainly better against enemies with poor AC (of which there are many), but in any other situation I would choose magic missile. Of course, there are very few classes with access to both, so that’s a moot point for most characters.
Magic Missile is (Mostly) Better Damage than Jim’s Magic Missile
If you picked up the Acquisition’s Incorporated source book, it has some fun stuff in it, including a signature spell from the eponymous Jim Darkmagic. Rather than automatically hitting, Jim’s version is an attack roll and deals 2d4 damage on a hit (5d4 on a crit).
However, if you roll a 1 on any of those 3 dice, which has a 14.2% chance of happening (roughly 3 in 20), they blow up and you take all of the damage, so the risk there is pretty serious. If you’re halfling or have Advantage, that drops to 0.72%, which is less than 1 in 100. If you have that insurance, Jim’s Magic Missile is outright better in every sense except that cover applies and that you have to pay royalties.
Other, other 1st-Level Spells
You can also compare Magic Missile to area damage spells like Burning Hands, which is totally reasonable. If you can somehow get two targets into Burning Hands’ tiny cone, 3d8 damage to two targets will exceed Magic Missile even if they both pass their save. But how often are you going to run into such close range and be able to hit multiple targets this way without hitting an ally and without immediately regretting that your wizard is not 10 feet from an enemy whose hair you just singed?
Catapult is a good contender with Magic Missile. In multi-enemy encounters, you can line up 2 or more enemies (I would assume only 2 because lines are hard) and Catapult applies its damage to the first one that fails. It’s technically an “all or nothing” situation, but since you can potentially hit your second or third target it’s much more reliable than an attack spell like Chromatic Orb. It’s also magic bludgeoning damage, which nearly nothing is resistance/immune to. In situations where you can line up three targets, Catapult is almost certainly better than Magic Missile, but in other situations it’s less clear.
Hex and Hunter’s Mark can also make an argument to fit in here, but that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. Those spells are applied as riders on other stuff rather than dealing damage on their own. They’re both great spells, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
d4+1 is Better Than a d6
The average of 1d4+1 and 1d6 are both 3.5, and while I’m a big fan of the law of averages, there’s still some nuance here. Since the range on 1d4 is smaller than 1d6, the damage of Magic Missile’s 1d4+1 is more consistent, grouping mathematically closer to that average of 3.5 per missile. That makes it easier to expect consistent damage than with a comparable spell using d6’s.
Magic Missile FAQ
There are some weird interactions between Magic Missile and some other mechanics.
Is Magic Missile an attack?
No. The spell description of does not use the word “attack” anywhere and you do not make an attack roll, so the spell is not an attack.
Do you roll one d4 for all missiles, or roll each dart individually?
Magic Missile is one damage roll, so you roll one d4 and use that roll for each dart, according to Jeremy Crawford.
Crawford has also suggested that it doesn’t matter if you roll one die or several, but the specifics here matter when you start applying damage-boosting effects like Empowered Evocation.
How do effects affecting “one damage roll” affect Magic Missile?
It depends on the specific wording of the feature, but many effects which add damage to one damage roll, such as the School of Evocation’s Empowered Evocation adds the damage to each dart since it’s one damage roll applied multiple times, just as if you applied the Empowered Evocation to Fireball and then struck multiple targets.
It’s not entirely clear if this was how the rule was intended to work, but based on Jeremy Crawford’s other rulings, that appears to be the answer, and Jeremy Crawford has ruled that Empowered Evocation applies, but he wasn’t specific about the math.
Some similar features apply a bonus to damage to one target affected by the spell, in which case you would pick one target struck by one of the missiles and apply the damage bonus only once.
Is each missile a separate “source of damage”?
Yes. The spell description states “a dart deals… damage to its target” rather than something like “the target takes damage per dart.”
Vindictive DMs can use this to one-shot a downed player by targeting them with all 3 missiles. Even as a first level spell, since that’s 3 distinct sources of damage, it counts as 3 failed saves and kills the character immediately.
How does Magic Missile affect Concentration?
Each missile is a separate source of damage, therefore the target must roll Concentration for each missile which strikes them.
Jeremy Crawford has confirmed that this is how it works RAW.
Does partial cover affect Magic Missile?
No. Magic Missile doesn’t call for a Dexterity saving throw or require an attack roll, so partial cover has no effect. Full cover will still block magic missile because you need to be able to see the target in order to target them with the spell.