What Makes This Class?
Monks are masters of the martial arts and have learned to control the Ki within their body to accomplish incredible feats. Whether they’re using weapons or just taking down enemies with their fists, they move fast and hit hard.
Of all the martial classes, monks are perhaps the closest we get to a spellcaster without seeing any spell slots.
Their reserve of ki points is a valuable asset to them and they must carefully choose when to use their abilities for the most potency. The main point of the class is to be a durable and swift martial combatant.
We want to see abilities in the subclass that draw on that reserve of Ki energy in a meaningful way or abilities that boost the class’s abilities without even having to use ki.
Things that make their attacks stronger or that allow them to strike more enemies – even abilities that just give the monk class more evasion – all of these are abilities we can really get behind.
Additionally, since monks focus on dexterity and wisdom, we can look for more abilities that feed off of those.
Wisdom, especially, gives the monk a chance to be more insightful than your average martial combatant, and that’s an area of the character build that can be explored well.
Lastly, the monk is a class that can experience a lot of growth when presented with a variety of abilities.
The build of the monk class with ki points scaling by the level and plenty of high-level class features doesn’t support multiclassing as well as other classes might.
Subclasses that give us abilities that feel like soft multiclassing can feel extremely powerful if they are well balanced.
Astral Self : A-Tier
Drunken Master : B-Tier
Four Elements : D-Tier
Kensei : A-Tier
Long Death : C-Tier
Mercy : S-Tier
Open Hand : A-Tier
Shadow : A-Tier
Sun Soul : D-Tier
Ascendant Dragon : S-Tier
Black Citadel’s Guide to Ranking Subclasses
Color and tier rankings are extremely helpful when comparing different abilities and even subclasses as a whole.
We use the following system not just to rank the subclasses but to rank their features individually.
Each of the tiers judge how well a feature or subclass changes the base class. We consider how well they use the features and theme of the base class to create something new.
To be more precise, these tiers show how much synergy a subclass has with the class it is a part of.
- Orange – D Tier. Orange options are bad. These options are unbalanced in the wrong way and make for a class that is almost difficult to play. Features or subclasses with this ranking take away from the experience of playing the base class.
- Red – C Tier. Red options can sometimes be situationally useful and might make for an interesting narrative choice, but they are largely less effective than other tiers. Subclasses in this tier are “challenge builds” that experienced players might use to show their grasp of the rules, but new players are discouraged from playing.
- Green – B Tier. A great subclass that provides a lot of fun options but can be clunky at times. In certain situations, subclasses in this tier can easily perform on the level of A or even S but only in those certain situations. This tier defines the expectations for how the class should play. Generally, subclasses in this tier are excellent for beginners.
- Blue – A Tier. An excellent choice. Widely regarded as powerful in some way, useful, highly effective. This isn’t the “second best” tier; this is the tier where the subclasses and features that do everything right end up.
- Purple – S Tier. The top of our rankings. Objectively powerful or transformative in some way. If an A is getting 100%, this tier gets 110% at the very least. Everything about these subclasses and features go far above and beyond the expectations to create something that is both incredibly fun and incredibly powerful.
Monk Subclasses Ranked
All of the below features are activated abilities that last for 10 minutes.
- 3rd Level : Arms of the Astral Self – You create spectral arms that you can attack with a range of 5 feet + your normal reach to deal force damage. The arms allow you to use wisdom instead of dexterity or strength for unarmed strikes made with them. They also allow you to use wisdom in place of any strength saving throws or ability checks.
- 6th Level : Visage of the Astral Self – You create the visage of your astral self which covers your face like a helmet or mask. This gives you 120 feet magical darkvision and advantage on insight and intimidation checks. It also allows you to speak so only one creature within 60 feet can hear you or so that every creature within 600 feet can hear you.
- 11th Level : Body of the Astral Self – You can deflect acid, cold, fire, force, thunder, or lightning damage, reducing the damage by 1d10 + your wisdom modifier. Once per turn, your spectral arms deal additional damage equal to your martial arts die.
- 17th Level : Awakened Astral Self – You summon up all pieces of your astral self, gaining all the benefits of the other features, a +2 to your AC, and an additional attack for your Extra Attack feature when you use it with your spectral arms.
The Astral Self subclass of monk is a really cohesive build that knows exactly what it’s going for and does it.
The abilities presented here are all just improvements upon something that the base monk class can do, but it improves on so many different features that we end up with Monk plus in the best way we could.
Looking at the actual text for the subclass (mine above is highly condensed) we see that we’re essentially getting 11 different abilities, since each subclass feature has layers.
All of these relate in some way to the monk class features we want to be using.
This subclass excels at bringing diverse, meaningful improvements to the monk class through an exciting theme.
It’s also dealing force damage, one of the best damage types out there, whenever you use your spectral arms. All together, it’s definitely an A tier subclass.
Were these abilities slightly more powerful or slightly more focused, this could definitely break through, but a solid A is where we’re at.
- 3rd Level : Bonus Proficiencies – You gain proficiency with the Performance skill and brewer’s supplies if you do not already have them.
- 3rd Level : Drunken Technique – Whenever you use Flurry of Blows you gain the benefit of the Disengage action, and your walking speed increases by 10 feet until the end of the turn.
- 6th Level : Tipsy Sway – When you’re prone, you can stand up by using 5 feet of movement instead of half your movement. When a creature misses you with a melee attack you can spend 1 ki point to cause that attack to hit another creature within 5 feet of you that is not you or the attacker.
- 11th Level : Drunkard’s Luck – You can spend 2 ki points to cancel disadvantage on an attack roll, ability check, or saving throw that you make.
- 17th Level : Intoxicated Frenzy – You can make a total of five attacks with your flurry of blows, provided that each attack targets a different creature.
The archetype of the drunken master, not this subclass, makes ample use of their surroundings and deception to overwhelm.
This subclass, instead, is just good at not being hit? I mean this really doesn’t bring much onto the table aside from some defense that’s good at times.
Unfortunately, the abilities of this subclass are just too conditional to make it anywhere near as powerful as the name suggests.
Drunken technique is useful only when you need to move around the battlefield quickly, and tipsy sway only triggers when you’re directly in the fray.
Drunkard’s luck requires you having disadvantage and could’ve just as easily given you advantage to achieve the same effect plus some.
The only ability that feels actually useful is the capstone ability, which feels like it would be an 11th level ability.
All together, you could use this to make a good monk out of this subclass, but you’d need to have just the right feats and strategic mind to pull it off. For these reasons it fits squarely in the B ranking.
- 3rd, 6th, 11th, and 17th Levels : You gain an elemental discipline from the list of available disciplines.
So there are 17 different options available with 8 of those being available right away at 3rd level and the rest having some sort of level-based prerequisite.
Most of these elemental disciplines give the four elements monk the ability to cast a specific spell with some sort of elemental theme, such as Fireball or Gust of Wind.
There are a few abilities that aren’t spells, and those are the few that I would even consider worth taking since they let you do exciting, unique things, like dealing fire damage with your punches.
Besides those, this subclass is really just hot garbage. That sucks, because I’m a huge fan of kung fu movies where sage-like martial artists command the elements (the Shaw brothers film Five Elements Ninjas is one of my favorites).
This subclass fails to deliver on the promise of its name by forcing monks to funnel a massive amount of ki points into spells and not giving any other feats in the meantime.
If this functioned more like the Battlemaster fighter with the ability to use some abilities being supplemented by normal subclass features, it might have escaped this D ranking, but that’s not the case.
- 3rd Level : Path of the Kensei – Gain two martial weapons as monk weapons.
- Making an unarmed strike while holding a kensei weapon increases your AC by 2 until the start of your next turn.
- As a bonus action, make the next ranged kensei weapon attack deal an 1d4.
- Proficiency in either calligrapher’s or painter’s supplies.
- 6th Level : One with the Blade – Your kensei weapons count as magical and you can spend 1 ki point to deal extra damage equal to your martial arts die when you hit with a kensei weapon.
- 11th Level : Sharpen the Blade – You can spend up to 3 ki points as a bonus action to give a kensei weapon a 1 minute bonus to attack and damage rolls equal to the amount of ki points you spent. This has no effect on magic items that already have a bonus.
- 17th Level : Unerring Accuracy – Once per turn, you can reroll an attack you miss with one of your kensei weapons.
I really want to put the kensei subclass in the S tier, but there’s one thing that keeps it in the A tier at best. The entire point is that this archetype of monk is better at using weapons, which is why they get access to martial weapons.
However, the restrictions on kensei weapons keep you from accessing some of the best martial weapons and might as well not even exist.
Not to mention the fact that TCoE introduced the dedicated weapon feature that allows any monk to choose a similarly restricted martial weapon.
Aside from that gripe, which is pretty substantial, this is in fact a great subclass.
The abilities granted by the features and the synergy they have with the base monk class all put us in a really great position to dominate a battlefield.
One last note, the 6th and 11th level features can feel a bit wasted if you already have a magical weapon as your kensei weapon, so keep an eye out for that.
- 3rd Level : Touch of Death – When you reduce a creature within 5 feet of you to 0 hit points, you gain temporary hit points equal to your wisdom modifier plus your monk level.
- 6th Level : Hour of Reaping – As an action, you can force each creature within 30 feet of you to make a Wisdom saving throw or be frightened of you until the end of your next turn.
- 11th Level : Mastery of Death – You can expend 1 ki point to drop to 1 hit point instead of 0.
- 17th Level : Touch of the Long Death – You can expend anywhere from 1 to 10 ki points and force a creature to make a Constitution saving throw. On a failed save they take 2d10 necrotic damage and on a successful save they take half.
The only thing saving this from being a D tier subclass is the fact that none of the features on their own are actually bad, just mediocre.
This subclass is a collection of barely related mediocre abilities. The worst one by far is definitely touch of the long death, which costs half of your resources to deal serious damage with.
Aside from the trainwreck of a final subclass ability, we see a couple abilities that help you be more durable in very specific situations and one ability that pushes creatures away from you.
As a monk, you really want creatures to be next to you, and you want to be able to use as many actions as possible to deal damage.
Even putting the Hour of Reaping on a bonus action would’ve slightly improved this build but just slightly.
Realistically, there’s no good compelling argument to pick this class. I can’t think of a single optimized build that would use even a fraction of these abilities.
However, in accordance with the rating, it doesn’t take anything away from the monk class or make the monk harder to play, so therefore it receives a C tier ranking.
- 3rd Level : Implements of Mercy – Proficiency in Insight and Medicine as well as a special mask.
- 3rd Level : Hands of Healing – You can expend 1 ki point as an action to touch a creature and restore hit points equal to your martial arts die + your wisdom modifier. You can also do this as in place of one of your flurry of blows attacks without spending a ki point.
- 3rd Level : Hands of Harm – Once per turn, you can expend 1 ki point when you hit a creature with an unarmed strike to deal additional necrotic damage equal to your martial arts die + your wisdom modifier.
- 6th Level : Physician’s Touch – You can end one disease or a condition (blinded, deafened, paralyzed, poisoned, or stunned) when you use your Hands of Healing. You can also use your Hands of Harm to poison a creature until the end of your next turn.
- 11th Level : Flurry of Healing and Harm – You can replace each hit of a Flurry of Blows with your Hands of Healing. You can also now make a Hands of Harm attack as part of Flurry of Blows without expending a ki point.
- 17th Level : Hands of Ultimate Mercy – Once per long rest, you can revive a creature that has been dead no longer than 24 hours by expending 5 hit points. A creature brought back to life in this way regains 4d10 + your wisdom modifier hit points and is cured of any of the conditions mentioned in physician’s touch.
The Way of Mercy monk excels at walking the line between life and death and healing and harm.
This subclass feeds off of the monk’s unarmed strikes as soon as 3rd level with a bit of inclusion for Flurry of Blows, and the rest of the features continue to improve both the Hands of Harm and the Hands of Healing.
Normally, a subclass would split up these abilities as options or make them more limited in some way.
Instead, we actually see a subclass that gets continuous use out of their abilities, so long as they can conserve the ki points.
Since it’s only 1 ki point for these abilities or free when you tack it onto a flurry of blows, that isn’t hard to do.
This is an impressive subclass that genuinely could’ve been two separate B or A tier subclasses – one focused on damage, the other focused on support.
Putting all of these abilities under one roof makes an absolute S tier subclass.
- 3rd Level : Open Hand Technique – Whenever you hit a creature with one of your Flurry of Blows attacks you can activate one of the following abilities:
- Knock prone on a failed Dex save.
- Push up to 15 feet away on a failed Str save.
- Stop the creature from taking reactions until the end of your next turn.
- 6th Level : Wholeness of Body – Once per long rest, you can use an action to heal yourself up to 3 times your monk level.
- 11th Level : Tranquility – At the end of your long rest you come under the effects of a Sanctuary spell.
- 17th Level : Quivering Palm – You can spend 3 ki points to affect a creature with vibrations that can be triggered by you at any point in the next (number of days equal to your monk level). If you trigger this they must succeed on a Con save or be reduced to 0 hit points. On a successful save they take 10d10 necrotic damage.
The open hand monk makes use of unarmed strikes in some really effective ways.
Since Flurry of Blows is going to be one of your most common ki point drops in most monk subclasses, it makes a lot of sense to tack another ability onto it.
And it works well that all of the Open Hand Technique abilities are really good at giving the monk battlefield control.
After that, quivering palm is just amazing, but it’s such a late ability that most players won’t get to see it come on line.
Still, we’re not judging how long people play a campaign, and if you do get this insta-kill ability you will feel like Chen Zhen himself.
The other abilities don’t feel directly connected to the build, but they do benefit the subclass in some way. Healing and being protected until you’re ready to fight are both abilities that will keep you standing.
None of these abilities are earth shattering alone, but together they make a subclass that anyone looking for the core feel of a monk would be happy to play.
- 3rd Level: Shadow Arts – You gain the ability to cast Darkness, Darkvision, Pass without Trace, or Silence by spending 2 ki points. You also learn the Minor Illusion cantrip.
- 6th Level : Shadow Step – You can teleport up to 60 feet as a bonus action between two spaces that are in dim light or darkness. You then gain advantage on the first melee attack you make before the end of turn.
- 11th Level : Cloak of Shadows – You can use your action to become invisible while you are in dim light or darkness. This invisibility ends when you make an attack, cast a spell, or enter bright light.
- 17th Level : Opportunist – You can make a melee attack reaction against a creature within 5 feet of you that is hit with an attack by another creature.
This class really focuses on the stealth and movement of the monk class, using the shadow motif to employ some impressive tactical abilities.
There’s a lot of synergy between the first two abilities; being able to create darkness and then jump from one area of darkness to another is a great tactic that allows for a lot of mobility.
Throw in all of the stealth abilities, like Pass without Trace and Cloak of Shadows, and you have a monk that is using their dexterity in much the same way a rogue might.
Being able to cast all of these spells and even learn a cantrip with the spells relying on Ki rather than spell slots is a great move in this subclass because it adds to the general design of the class.
This subclass falls short because it seems to forget that it’s on a monk, a class which is already the most mobile martial combatant out there.
This is definitely a great class, but it could benefit from more offensive abilities that aren’t purely focused on battlefield superiority.
- 3rd Level : Radiant Sun Bolt – You gain a 30-foot ranged spell attack that you are proficient with and can add your dexterity modifier to attack and damage rolls. This attack deals radiant damage equal to your martial arts die.
- 6th Level : Searing Arc Strike – You can cast Burning Hands for 2 ki points. You can upcast it for 1 ki point per level, with a max casting level of half your monk level.
- 11th Level : Searing Sunburst – As an action, you hurl an orb of light up to 150 feet away where it explodes, dealing 2d6 radiant damage to each creature in a 20-foot sphere that fails a Con save. You can deal extra damage by spending up to 3 ki points, 2d6 damage for each ki point spent.
- 17th Level : Sun Shield – You shed bright light, dealing 5 + your wisdom modifier damage as a reaction to creatures that hit you with melee attacks.
This subclass is another one that falls so far short of the archetype it’s trying to bring to life. If the archetype is a super saiyan shooting kamehameha blasts, then this subclass is definitely Justin Chatwin’s portrayal of Goku.
The 3rd level feature gives us essentially nothing because a monk excels at close range and can already deal that amount of damage with their monk weapons or unarmed strikes, not to mention how mobile a monk is.
The Burning Hands ability deals some good damage, but our flurry of blows can deal more shortly after when our martial arts die get a bit stronger, and upcasting it just takes too much of our resources.
This subclass just isn’t cohesive, bringing us a mediocre new attack and two attack abilities that vie for your ki points.
This subclass needs an ability that reinforces the monk’s melee capabilities, instead of trying to create a ranged monk without giving any real incentive to do so.
Since this subclass is constantly tripping itself up it finds itself in the D tier.
- 3rd Level : Draconic Disciple –
- You can reroll failed Intimidation or Persuasion checks. This feature is only expended when you reroll and get a success.
- You can change the damage of your unarmed strikes to acid, cold, fire, lightning, or poison.
- You can speak, read, write, and understand Draconic or another language of your choice.
- 3rd Level : Breath of the Dragon – You can replace one of the attacks of an Attack action on your turn with a breath weapon that deals acid, cold, fire, lightning, or poison damage equal to two rolls of your martial arts die to each creature (in a 20-foot cone or a 5-foot-wide 30-foot line) that fails a dex save or half that damage on a successful save. This damage increases to 3 martial arts die at 11th level.
- 6th Level : Wings Unfurled – You can gain a flying speed equal to your walking speed when you use your Steps of the Wind monk feature. You can do this a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus each between each long rest.
- 11th Level : Aspect of the Wyrm – As a bonus action, you create a draconic aura that radiates 10 feet from you for 1 minute. Choose one of the below effects:
- As a bonus action, you can force a creature to succeed on a wisdom saving throw or be frightened for a minute.
- You and your allies within the aura have resistance against one of the following damage types: acid, cold, fire, lightning, or poison.
- 17th Level : Ascendant Aspect –
- You can spend 1 ki point to increase your Breath of the Dragon damage to 4 martial arts dice and the AOE to a 60-foot cone or a 90-foot line that is 5 feet wide.
- You gain 10 feet blindsight.
- When you activate Aspect of the Wyrm you choose any number of creatures in your aura to deal 3d10 damage (acid, cold, fire, lightning, or poison) to on a failed Dex save or half on a successful save.
WotC continues to get a better understanding of what makes a good subclass in their 5e mechanics. This one right here, released in Fizban’s treasury of dragons, is absolutely wonderful.
The ability to change your unarmed strike’s damage type is amazing, allowing you to Flurry of Blows without worrying about resistances, and everything after that just gets better.
This takes the concept of the dragonborn race and puts it up to 100 all while sticking to a really strong monk motif.
All of the abilities that come in at 6th level and onwards excel when you’re up in the fray dealing out a bunch of damage. Your aura especially is going to allow other close range combatants to feel indestructible.
When you put all these abilities together, you end up with a monk that is a great face, great at support, great at dealing damage, and great at being versatile.
The fact that you don’t just choose one damage type at the beginning of this subclass is what really pushes this all the way into the S tier.