Bards are some of the most versatile characters out there. They’re capable of a variety of skills, able to hold their own in a physical fight, have a variety of subclasses to fit any archetype, and, best of all, are full casters.
If you’re looking for a guide to building a bard of your own, check out this article here on the subject.
Today we’ll be looking at the spells that support the bard’s spellcasting abilities when spell slots are low or simply too precious to spend. These are the best bard cantrips you can get along with a detailed analysis of why they’re the best, of course.
There are 12 cantrips that bards can choose from, and from level 1-10, they get to pick just four.
Unlike other classes, bards don’t have a convenient way to hotswap cantrip picks, so your choice is pretty locked in. The only way to change your cantrip picks after the fact (other than an accommodating DM, of course) is an optional rule that lets you swap one cantrip at a time whenever you reach a level that grants an Ability Score Increase.
However, using this ability to swap cantrips means you can’t swap expertise in one skill for another, so it’s still best to make your choices count.
Cantrip choices are important. You can’t change them easily, and as infinitely spammable spells, you want to get some good use out of them. That means you should select a variety of cantrips that you know you’ll use and that don’t occupy the same role as other cantrips on your list.
For example, if you grab a cantrip that deals damage, another cantrip that also deals damage probably won’t be a good pick, regardless of how many damage types you can cover.
You also want to pick cantrips that will fit the arc of your campaign. Some cantrips will be naturally better suited for lower-level play but won’t be as effective at higher levels. If your campaign is going to reach level 15, you’ll probably want to pick cantrips you can use for the majority of your career.
The reverse is also true; a cantrip that works best in combination with a higher-level spell isn’t worth picking if your campaign won’t last long enough for you to actually unlock the spell in question. Talking to your DM about expectations is key for cantrip choice.
You’ll also want to make sure you select cantrips that will be useful in your campaign setting. This is much more subjective. To give an example: a campaign set in the Underdark will benefit a lot more from having the Light spell than a political campaign that involves a lot of well-lit parties.
Finally, bards specifically fill a utility role in the party. While they aren’t as versatile a spellcaster as wizards, they’re still looked to to solve unexpected problems that no one else quite has a solution for. That means it’s especially important that bards have a good suite of utility cantrips as well as making sure not to pick cantrips the rest of the party already has.
Some cantrips are an exception to this. Multiple Mage Hands, for example, can be useful. But generally, if the party already has access to a cantrip, you’ll be better off getting something the party doesn’t have access to.
Those are a lot of factors to keep in mind, but you shouldn’t worry. These are general tips to inform your decision-making process, and they’ve all been factored into the lists of cantrips below. If you’re not sure about a pick, review this section, but otherwise, you should pick what works for your build.
Top Cantrip Picks
These are the best of the best, generally useful, and pretty much never a bad option to take.
Mage Hand is an excellent utility cantrip for bards, allowing them to use a little telekinesis to solve problems.
With Mage Hand, the key is to spot when a problem can be solved with a disembodied hand. Obviously, if the keys you need are on the other side of the jail bars, Mage Hand will be useful, but it’s a little less obvious to realize that the hand can create an excellent distraction by breaking a vase or mislead pursuers by opening a window that you never go through.
Plus, as a bard, you could even use Mage Hand to play an extra set of musical instruments. The triangle, perhaps.
Minor Illusion is one of my favorite spells simply for its versatility. In the hands of a bard, this cantrip becomes either a useful utility spell or a way to enhance performances and speeches with visual aids.
Minor Illusion is so versatile that you could probably spend a whole article just talking about it (and we did!), but it’s worth going over some of its best points.
Minor Illusion is one of the few illusion spells that don’t require concentration, which means you can use it in a combo effectively.
The visual effects are limited to a 5-foot cube, but that’s actually a pretty significant area. It’s big enough to create an object to hide behind or in, blocking enemies from targeting you.
The spell can even be used for communication by spelling out words or coded messages via the sound produced or to block the only light source in the room to simulate darkness or create an image of a ghost that enemies would be hard pressed to disbelieve in…etc.
It’s a must-have.
This is one of the few damage cantrips the bard gets, and it’s pretty good. It deals 1d6 damage to creatures within 5 feet of you on a failed Constitution saving throw and lets off a loud thunderclap. That won’t always be useful, but when you’re surrounded by enemies, the damage can really stack up.
Vicious Mockery is the iconic bard spell, insulting enemies until they keel over dead.
On a failed Wisdom save, a target takes 1d4 damage (that scales with level) and suffers disadvantage on their next attack roll. This is not the best damage-dealing cantrip, but it’s a useful one to have for bards, who need some kind of backup damage source if all else fails.
Imposing disadvantage on attack rolls also opens up tactical options, so be aware of when you might really need the next attack to miss.
These cantrips aren’t great, but they’re not terrible either. In some situations, in some campaigns, and for some builds, these cantrips will see a lot of effective use. However, you might want to be absolutely sure you can make use of them before taking them, and as always, I recommend talking to your DM about any unusual or powerful applications you have in mind.
Friends sounds like the ideal Bard cantrip, granting advantage on Charisma checks toward a non-hostile creature for 1 minute (concentration). This is a great boost to the bard’s already powerful social abilities. However, after the minute is over, the creature always becomes aware you magically influenced it and will become angry or hostile.
This is a pretty significant drawback for bards. It’s rare that a social situation or Charisma check is vital enough to risk this cantrip’s downside and also will resolve in less than a minute. That already narrows the field of uses significantly.
In addition, the bard’s own excellence at persuasion means that advantage might not actually offer that much to a situation compared to just a straight roll, and there might even be easier sources of advantage.
If you really want to use this spell or run into situations where a quick lie would fix the problem if you can pull it off, then this cantrip will be useful. Otherwise, remember that this is basically a guaranteed bridge-burner, and it’s a rare social situation that burning one’s bridges will help.
There’s almost no better spell for producing light, and light is always vital. Even if you have darkvision, pure darkness still creates dim light, resulting in disadvantage on certain checks.
Light solves all that, and the ability to cast it on a specific object opens opportunities for creating a makeshift signaling device or using it to mark a specific enemy.
However, if you’re not in darkness a lot, then this spell just won’t be that useful. If you’re running out of cantrip slots, do yourself a favor, and pack a torch.
Message lets you send a brief message to another creature within 120 feet that isn’t sealed away. Only you and the recipient can hear the message, making it fairly secure. This is a great spell for what it does; it’s just that it doesn’t do much.
For certain builds that tend toward stealth, Message is almost a must-have. It allows communication between a short-range scout and their party without needing to break stealth. Sadly, this isn’t a scenario that comes up very often. If it does for you, then Message is great; otherwise I’d let this one be.
One other point. The spell doesn’t specify that the verbal components used to cast it are also quiet. It would be pretty silly if they weren’t, but your DM might rule this is a privacy spell, not a stealth spell.
Finally, Prestidigitation is a spell everyone seems to love, though I’m not sure why. It can generate a number of small magical effects that would generally be pretty handy in real life (like the ability to clean objects!) but in 5e aren’t effective for much other than flavor.
If you stretch the rules considerably, like allowing the items that you conjure to come from somewhere other than the official list of trinkets, then the cantrip can be more effective.
However, unless you have a specific innovative use for the spell or your DM is fine with buffing it a little, I’d avoid this spell. That said, if you’re still interested, I recommend checking out this article which goes into more detail about the spell’s rules and potential.
Cantrips To Avoid
There are a few cantrips that might be tempting for players less familiar with the game but should pretty much never be chosen. Not all of these are universally bad, but for bards they will be a suboptimal choice.
True strike is one of those cantrips that sounds appealing — cast it and get advantage on your next attack — that is until you realize that you could have just attacked twice.
In some niche Assassin rogue builds, it can have a situational use, but bards should never pick or cast this cantrip.
Blade Ward, on cast, grants resistance to all bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage dealt by weapon attacks.
That can be tempting, and in certain martial and hybrid martial/caster builds (called gish builds), it can have tactical uses. Sorcerers, for instance, can cast this as a bonus action with metamagic, seriously increasing their survivability for a round.
But for bards, who aren’t going to be in that many front-line melee situations, this spell is just a waste of a cantrip. The dodge action is basically as effective at mitigating damage on average.
Mending is one of those open-ended spells that really should be endlessly useful. With a 1-minute casting time, you can repair a single break or tear in an object provided the break is not more than 1 foot in any dimension. Let’s be clear, there’s a lot of ambiguity in these rules, and depending on what your DM decides, this could be a powerful spell.
Maybe you can use this to bind two unrelated objects together; after all, what really constitutes a whole object? Maybe Mending could be used to duplicate materials if it can repair them by filling in missing matter.
The problem is that the majority of the “creative” uses of this spell are wildly unbalanced beyond even inventive uses for utility cantrips, and when you exclude these, what’s left isn’t very interesting.
There might be one or two situations where Mending completely solves the party’s problem, but in these cases, there would probably be a better solution anyway.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from grabbing Mending anyway; just be prepared for the possibility you may never use it.
Cantrips and Bards: Final Thoughts
Cantrips are some of the most interesting spells in 5e. Their infinite uses open the doors to endless speculation about powerful combos or the effects of repeatedly using a cantrip over a long period of time.
The selection above is not an absolutely definitive list (no list can be), but it is an excellent start in choosing the best cantrips for your bard character. Hopefully, you’ve learned something about the ways in which cantrips can be used and how to select your bard cantrips.
If you’re interested in learning about the best cantrips for other classes, check out this article about the 13 best sorcerer cantrips or this one about the best cantrips for every kind of warlock build.