What Are Cantrips?
Cantrips are spells in 5e that require no spell slots to cast. These at-will spells are incredibly useful and are often the most reliable way for a spellcaster to deal damage. They tend to perform roughly on par with weapons, allowing casters to keep pace with their more martial-focused peers.
Now, there are all sorts of cantrips available to casters. You can group them into the three rough categories of combat, utility, and support. Support cantrips will help your allies and utility cantrips tend to help you overcome social and environmental obstacles.
Today though, we’re concerned with combat cantrips. There are still some subsections of cantrips you can use in combat, but specifically, we want to talk about damage-dealing cantrips. You know, free spells you can use to take down your enemies.
While damage-dealing cantrips are fairly straightforward, there is one piece of information I have to cover, something that’s easy to miss if your head isn’t constantly in a spellbook like mine is.
Normal spells, ones that require spell slots, can often be upcast to become more powerful in some way. We obviously don’t have that luxury with cantrips, as they don’t require spell slots in the first place, so how do our damaging cantrips stay useful as we get stronger?
Well, luckily for us, damaging cantrips scale with your level. If a cantrip can deal damage in any way, it’ll have a section in the spell’s description that says “At Higher Levels.” and then lists how the spell’s damage changes.
These higher levels are almost always 5th, 11th, and 17th level. Most cantrips will simply tack on an extra damage dice at each of these benchmark levels, so a 1d8 cantrip would become 2d8, 3d8, and then 4d8. Some get more interesting though, allowing you to choose more targets or deal more damage to multiple targets.
One last thing that I want to cover is how cantrips deal damage. There are basically two options here: attack rolls and saving throws. Neither is necessarily better than the other since creatures tend to either have high AC, good saving-throw modifiers, or great defenses all around.
When choosing your damage-dealing cantrips, it’s good to have a mix of attack rolls and saving throws, although your specific build may be focused around one or the other.
There you have it, everything you need to know about damage-dealing cantrips. Now, let’s talk about the best options out there.
The Best Damage-Dealing Cantrips
If you want to deal the most damage possible without wasting any spell slots, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve put together the top five cantrips for consistently dealing heaps of damage.
Now, not to sound like a medicine ad on TV, but these cantrips may not be right for everyone. Certain builds may be better suited to using cantrips that are not on this list. I’ve tried to represent a wide enough spread of options, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to touch every build.
For example, Thorn Whip, a spell that is not in my top five, is probably the perfect cantrip for Druids focused on battlefield control. Combine it with Spike Growth, and it can outpace anything on this list, but that’s because of the synergy you’re able to create.
Any cantrip can become incredibly powerful if you focus on the synergy between subclass features, feats, and other spells in your arsenal, but that’s a bit beyond what we’re talking about today.
For now, we’re focused on cantrips that are incredibly powerful when looked at completely on their own merit since they’ll be the perfect tools with or without any added synergy.
1. Eldritch Blast
Eldritch Blast is definitely one of the best cantrips in all of 5e and just might be the best, although it doesn’t quite do that on its own. This spell is definitely boosted to the top of this list because of its deep connection to the Warlock class.
On its own, Eldritch Blast is an excellent spell already, dealing 1d10 force damage on a successful ranged spell attack. A great range of 120 feet and the least resisted damage type in all of 5e are enough to sell any caster.
This is then greatly improved by its unique approach to scaling at higher levels. Instead of simply increasing the amount of dice rolled, this spell splits into multiple beams with each beam using its own attack roll to deal 1d10 force damage. You get the obvious benefit of multiple targets, but you can also focus all beams at one target for essentially the same effect as a spell that simply deals more damage at higher levels.
More importantly, though, rolling an attack roll for each beam means you don’t have to risk dealing all or nothing. Normally, a single bad roll can prevent a cantrip from dealing damage at higher levels. With Eldritch Blast, you have a good chance of at least dealing something.
As if all this weren’t enough, Eldritch Blast is a spell exclusive to Warlocks (and those who steal it from the Warlock spell list). Because of this, there are multiple options from the Eldritch Invocation feature that boost EB’s effectiveness in some way. To a Warlock, EB can easily become so much more than a damage-dealing spell, cementing this in my number one slot.
2. Sword Burst
This spell might be a bit shocking to some, but in a pure numbers game, Sword Burst quickly rises to the top of the competition. While the spell itself only uses a d6 damage die, we are again dealing force damage. What really does it for this spell, though, is the fact that it is one of the few AoE (area of effect) cantrips.
There’s a classic DnD weapon argument: which is better, 2d6 or 1d12? The answer isn’t subjective; it’s 2d6. With a higher minimum (you can’t roll less than 2 on 2d6) and average roll (7 as opposed to 6.5), more dice is very clearly the better choice.
For the same reason that a greatsword (2d6) is better than a greataxe (1d12), Sword Burst is better than many other cantrips out there.
With a range of only 5 feet, it will still take careful planning to be a good spell, but this isn’t a ranking of the easiest cantrips. Sword Burst is the optimal pick for any caster with a build focused on close-up combat. If you’re anything near a gish, this is the perfect spell to unleash when one too many enemies surround you.
The one downfall of this spell is its use of a Dexterity saving throw. At early levels, this is fine, but at higher levels, you’ll be harder and harder pressed to find creatures with low dexterity. The impact of this is lessened by your increasingly high Spell Save DC, but it’s still something to consider.
3. Toll the Dead
While its name may be a slightly misleading term, Toll the Dead is an amazing spell worth seeing play in any caster’s spell list. This interesting spell works as follows:
“The target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or take 1d8 necrotic damage. If the target is missing any of its hit points, it instead takes 1d12 necrotic damage.“
I’m sure you can already see why this is sitting at the number three slot on our list. Dealing 1d12 damage is something only one other spell manages to do, so we’re looking at an impressive amount of damage.
When compared with the other d12 cantrip, Poison Spray, Toll the Dead definitely takes the lead. Poison Spray may seem more consistent, but it functions on a Constitution saving throw, an ability score that few creatures don’t have a modifier in. Plus, poison damage is the most commonly resisted damage and even has the highest number of creatures immune to it.
Some may see this spell and think, “Well, it might only deal 1d8,” to which I say, “Only if you’re doing it wrong.” It’s incredibly easy to target a creature that has already been attacked, especially since casters aren’t known for sitting at the top of the initiative order.
Tack on a very respectable range of 60 feet and the fact that wisdom is one of the least prevalent high ability scores for enemy creatures, and we’ve got ourselves an excellent cantrip.
4. Chill Touch
Coming in at 4th place is Chill Touch, an excellent spell with a lot going on. This spell has a crazy range of 120 feet and, on a hit, deals 1d8 necrotic damage and prevents the target from regaining hit points until the start of your next turn.
If that weren’t enough, this spell has an added effect when used on undead targets, giving them disadvantage on attack rolls against you until the end of your next turn.
This spell is ridiculously powerful, considering that regaining health is one of the most annoying things an enemy creature can do. If you continuously use this spell and continuously hit, you’re guaranteeing that the creature will eventually die. It’s just a matter of when.
We also have to factor in just how prevalent undead creatures are in D&D. Zombies and skeletons are go-to early-level monsters, but the undead creature type continues to be a theme throughout most campaigns.
So yes, this spell is incredibly useful if you know you’re going to be playing in a more horror/undead setting, particularly against vampires, but even in a regular campaign, this spell won’t let you down.
5. Mind Sliver
Sometimes the best thing about a spell isn’t its raw damage output in a single turn. For Mind Sliver, that’s definitely the case. This spell squeezes into the list at 5th place due to its impressive reliability.
While Mind Sliver may only use a d6 for calculating its damage, it also subtracts a d4 from the next saving throw the target makes before the end of your next turn. Because of this, Mind Sliver really only needs to hit once to see a huge payoff.
Reducing an opponent’s saving throw rolls is incredibly important and something that spellcasters will always be looking for. The fact that this spell also relies on a saving throw means that the effects are compounded. After the first hit, it’s that much easier to continue hitting them so long as no one else in your party forces them to make a saving throw.
Even if you don’t use Mind Sliver turn after turn to chain reliable damage, you can use it to dish out some damage and then pull out a more impactful spell, something like Hold Monster or Compulsion. No matter how you use it, it’s going to be a reliable spell for damage and more.
All Damage-Dealing Cantrips
Since a spell’s value is largely dependent upon the build you’re going for, I’ve included a list of all damage-dealing cantrips. They are sorted by the primary dice used in their damage calculation.
I’ve also included brief descriptions of the spells’ effects since it’s difficult to judge a spell on damage output alone.
- Poison Spray – Target takes 1d12 poison damage on a failed Constitution save.
- Toll the Dead – Deals 1d8 necrotic damage on a failed Wisdom save or 1d12 necrotic damage if the target is missing any of its HP. Generally speaking, this means it deals 1d12 more often than not.
- Eldritch Blast – Deals 1d0 force damage on ranged spell-attack hit. At higher levels, it splits into multiple beams.
- Fire Bolt – Ranged spell attack that deals 1d10 fire damage and ignites flammable objects not being worn or carried.
- Primal Savagery – Melee spell attack that deals 1d10 acid damage.
- Booming Blade – Melee weapon attack to hit, then deals 1d8 thunder damage if the target moves 5 feet or more before the spell ends.
- Chill Touch – Ranged spell attack for 1d8 necrotic damage. Prevents target from regaining HP until the start of your next turn and gives undead targets disadvantage on attack rolls against you until the end of your next turn.
- Create Bonfire – Deals 1d8 fire damage on a failed Dexterity saving throw if a creature is in the space when you create the bonfire, enters the space for the first time on its turn, or ends its turn within the space.
- Lightning Lure – On a failed Strength saving throw, the target is pulled 10 feet toward you and then takes 1d8 lightning damage if they are within 5 feet of you.
- Produce Flame – Deals 1d8 fire damage on a successful ranged spell attack.
- Ray of Frost – Ranged spell attack that deals 1d8 cold damage on a hit and reduces target’s speed by 10 feet until the start of your next turn.
- Sacred Flame – Target takes 1d8 radiant damage on a failed Dexterity saving throw. Target gains no benefit from cover on this saving throw.
- Shillelagh – Technically not a damage-dealing cantrip, but it turns a club or quarterstaff into a magical d8 weapon with which you can use your spellcasting ability instead of Strength for attack and damage rolls.
- Shocking Grasp – Melee spell attack that deals 1d8 lightning damage on a hit and prevents target from taking reactions until the start of its next turn.
- Acid Splash – Can hit two targets if they’re within 5 feet of each other. Deals 1d6 damage on a failed Dexterity saving throw.
- Frostbite – Deals 1d6 cold damage on a failed Constitution saving throw. Additionally, the target has disadvantage on the next weapon attack roll it makes before the end of its next turn.
- Infestation – Target takes 1d6 poison damage on a failed Constitution save. The target then moves 5 feet in a random direction.
- Mind Sliver – Target takes 1d6 psychic damage on a failed Intelligence save and subtracts 1d4 from the next saving throw it makes before the end of your next turn.
- Sword Burst – Creatures within 5 feet take 1d6 force damage on a failed Dexterity save.
- Thorn Whip – Melee spell attack that deals 1d6 piercing damage and pulls a Large or smaller creature 10 feet closer to you.
- Thunderclap – Creatures within 5 feet take 1d6 thunder damage on a failed Constitution save.
- Word of Radiance – Each creature of your choice within 5 feet takes 1d6 radiant damage on a failed Constitution save.
- Vicious Mockery – Deals 1d4 psychic damage on a failed Wisdom save and gives target disadvantage on the next attack roll it makes before the end of its next turn.
- Sapping Sting – Deals 1d4 necrotic damage on a failed Constitution save and causes the target to fall prone.
Unique Damage Cantrips
- Green Flame Blade – Make a melee weapon attack against the first target, and a mote of fire jumps to a second target within 5 feet of the first. Initially, the first target only takes weapon damage, and the second takes damage equal to spellcasting modifier. At higher levels, both damages increase by 1d8.
- Magic Stone – While not necessarily a damage-dealing cantrip itself, it turns three ordinary pebbles into magical sling ammunition that deals 1d6 + your spellcasting-modifier bludgeoning damage.
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As a kid, I was often told to get my head out of the clouds and to stop living in a fantasy world. That never really jived with me, so I decided to make a living out of games, stories, and all sorts of fantastical works. Now, as an adult, I aspire to remind people that sometimes a little bit of fantasy is all you need when life gets to be too much.