DnD 5e - State of the Character Optimization Meta
Last Updated: November 18th, 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.
As new source materials are released and those materials are explored, the state the character optimization "meta" changes over time. A basic understanding of the state of the meta will help you a great deal in inderstanding character optimization and articles written about character optimization, including my own.
What is the Meta?
The "meta" is the current state of affairs in the game with all of the given materials available today. In a practical sense, it's the state of the world with all of the official published character options available.
When a new source book is published, the meta changes. New options and rules changes can change the relative usefulness of pre-existing options. For example: new feats like Prodigy and Skill Expert made multiclassing into Rogue to get Expertise less appealing, presenting changes in the character optimization meta.
Current State of the Meta
The current meta is defined by Tasha's Cauldron of Everything. In addition to new subclass options, feats, and spells, Tasha's introduced a series of optional rules for customizing races and classes which dramatically altered the meta.
Tasha's Cauldron of Everything also updates the Artificer class and several spells first introduced in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, including both Green-Flame Blade and Booming Blade, spells which had a massive impact on the character optimization meta.
The fact that these are optional rules is immensely frustrating because it means that character optimization efforts may now need to account for games which stick to published racial traits and for games which choose to embrace the rules presented in Tasha's. It's also unclear how future races will be designed since Tasha's doesn't include any new playable races.
While these rules are technically "optional", I believe that it's likely that groups will adopt the new rules as the new default. DnDBeyond lists the ability to replace ability score increases in entries for racial traits and makes no mention of the fact that the rule is optional. The official Adventurer's League organized play group has already embraced the optional rules (check the Tasha's Cauldron of Everything Guidance document), and I suspect that many home play groups will do the same. Only time will tell.
Tasha's introduced two major changes to how races work.
First, all racial ability score increases are flexible: you can put them into any ability score, so long as you don't increase the same ability score more than once. This break races out of the niches which they previously filled based on their ability scores, making your other racial traits a much more interesting factor since you can always get that crucial +1 to your class's most important ability score.
Second, races can trade racial proficiencies for equivalent proficiencies or for less powerful ones. The allows races total flexibility for skill proficiencies, and dramatically improve flexibility for weapons and tools. Races which grant martial weapons proficiencies now essentially no longer need martial weapon proficiency from their class, and proficiency with martial weapons is a less significant advantage compared to classes limited to simple weapons.
The ability to rearrange ability score increases and racial skill proficiencies has created a sort of "base line" for races: +2/+1 increases, Darkvision, two skills, and one or two distinguishing racial traits. Numerous races fit that mold, including races like the Kenku, the Orc, and the Tabaxi.
The introduction of Optional Class Features offers a lot of room to improve upon the design of the core class features of every class except the Artificer. This did a lot to address pain points in several classes, but it's not clear how these features will be handled by the community.
If you want to make use of optional class features, I encourage you to share my Practical Guide to Optional Class Features with your DM and your group.
This section details some "best" options in major categories of character options.
Undecided, and competition is fierce.
Variant Humans were previously the best race since day one. Access to a feat at level 1 and flexible ability increases defined the meta. Previously, any time you built a character you needed to ask yourself "how is this better than a variant human?", and in a problematically large number of cases the answer was "it isn't", so you were choosing a less-optimal race because it was more fun than yet another variant human.
Thanks to Tasha's, other races gained the ability to reassign their ability scores, and now its a competition between the benefits of one feat and one skill compared to whatever another race offers. The Custom Lineage offers access to a feat and a single +2 increase, further eating into the variant human's standing as the best race, especially for classes like the Wizard where you only need on high ability score.
The Mountain Dwarf stands out as another abnormally powerful race. Two flexible +2 increases mean two 16s at level 1 and possibly two 18s at level 4. That alone is tempting, and the dwarf's core racial traits are excellent on their own.
The Aarakocra also stands out: +2/+1 and flight is good on nearly every class, especially if you're not forced to fight in melee. But unless you need that 50 ft. fly speed, the Winged Tiefling is a better choice, adding Darkvision, resistance to fire damage, and the ability to fly in medium armor where the Aarakocra could only fly in light armor.
Undecided, but I think it's between the Artificer and the Bard. Either one is a welcome addition to literally any party, can thrive in the full spectrum of situations common to Dungeons and Dragons, and borrows many of the most important options from other classes.
Polearm Master or Crossbow Expert. They feature centrally in numerous high-powered builds across a broad range of classes.
This section details some "worst" options in each category.
Standard Human. Bland since the Player's Handbook hit shelves, the Standard Human has remained uninteresting and borderline unplayable through the game's history and shows no signs of changing.
Undecided. Previously held by the Ranger, the introduction of replacement features for the Ranger and improvements to the Beast Master subclass has shifted their place in the meta, as well as making the class much more satisfying to play.
Grappler. The feat was already bad, but errata issued early in 5e's life removed a portion of the feat which referenced rules which didn't make it into the final version of the game. That alone should indicate how little WotC put into this feat. Weirdly, it's also the only feat in the SRD.