Circle of Death is one of those high-level, extremely dramatic spells.
This 6th-level spell lets you pick a point of origin from which a rippling wave of necromantic energy emanates, draining the life of every living creature in a 60-foot radius sphere. On flat ground, that’s a circle 120 feet in diameter capable of holding up to 576 creatures (assuming 5e’s standard 5-foot by 5-foot square per creature).
The spell does enough damage to outright kill most weaker creatures and could decimate an army without magical protections (assuming that army was about 6,000 strong).
Of course, 6th-level spells are all frighteningly powerful, creating gravity fissures, turning flesh to stone, and simply disintegrating your enemies into a fine powder.
So how does Circle of Death stack up to its other 6th-level options, and how should you use it to get the most out of your precious spell slots?
Circle of Death Spell Description
Before we analyze the spell, we should be clear on the details. Here are the official stats and description for the spell along with a damage table (because, yes, this is one of those spells you can cast at higher levels for more powerful effects).
Circle of Death
- Casting Time: 1 Action
- Range: 150 feet/60-foot radius sphere
- Duration: Instantaneous
- School: Necromancy
- Class: Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard
- Level: 6th
- Damage/Effect: Necrotic
- Attack/Save: Constitution Save
- Components: Verbal, Somatic, Material (the powder of a crushed black pearl worth at least 500 gp)
- Ritual/Concentration: N/A
Spell Description: A sphere of negative energy ripples out in a 60-foot-radius sphere from a point within range. Each creature in that area must make a Constitution saving throw. A target takes 8d6 necrotic damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
Casting the spell at levels higher than 6th increases the damage by 2d6/level.
A Note on Material Components:
Looking at the spell description, it might be concerning that the spell uses 500gp of powdered black pearl as a material component. However, this is a one-time cost for the spell, as the component is not consumed upon casting. Once you have the crystal and know the spell, you are only limited by spell slots, not gold.
Circle of Death Analysis
As a damage-dealing spell, Circle of Death is pretty straightforward to employ effectively. Try to pick a point that includes as many of your enemies as possible (and ideally none of your allies), and cast the spell.
With a range of 150 feet for the point of origin, there’s a decent amount of flexibility with this spell. With a radius of 60 feet, the spell can cover a truly enormous area.
If your party ever faces an army, this spell will have your back.
That said, there are also some stunning downsides to the spell. For one thing, positioning a 60-foot sphere can be pretty tricky, and the spell doesn’t let you modulate the size or shape. That means if you aren’t fighting in a really wide-open area, the spell pretty much isn’t worth using.
You’ll also probably want to have a high initiative when using this spell, casting it early in the combat. Not only is that best for wiping out weaker enemies before they have a chance to indulge in the action economy, but it’s necessary to get the spell off before your tanks and martials rush forward to join the fray.
Moreover, the spell only does 8d6 of damage (+2d6 per higher-level spell slot used). That’s a pretty solid chunk of damage but not for a 6th-level spell. A party capable of throwing out 6th-level spells will be at least level 11, and even a CR 10 monster can have hundreds of hit points.
That means that not only does this spell work best when used against large groups of weak enemies, but it is pretty much only useful against large groups of weak enemies. Against anything else, the damage is pitiful while the range is wasted.
Remember that this is a 6th-level spell. You don’t get to use these things often, and when you do, you should be able to expect that they will entirely swing the tide of a combat encounter or wholly solve a problem your party is facing (at least at mid-tier play).
Unfortunately, Circle of Death doesn’t meet that standard, making it generally a worse option than other 6th-level spells. But the situation is actually worse.
Circle of Death vs. Otiluke’s Freezing Sphere
The easiest way to see if the damage of a spell is good for its level is to compare it to similar damaging spells. In the case of Circle of Death, the comparison is damning.
Otiluke’s Freezing Sphere is an almost identical spell. It has the same level as well as the same range and radius as Circle of Death but with a different damage type: cold. It also, bafflingly, does 10d6 damage at 6th level, compared to Circle of Death’s 8d6.
Even among damage spells, it seems that Otiluke’s Freezing Sphere is the superior choice. True, necrotic damage is more rarely resisted than cold damage, but in the grand scheme of things, this is a small difference.
Plus, Otiluke’s Freezing Sphere comes with the advantage of freezing nearby pools of water thus potentially trapping enemies, while Circle of Death has no such advantage.
Really, the only difference that puts Circle of Death ahead is that casting it at higher levels adds 2d6 damage, whereas Otiluke’s Freezing Sphere only increases in steps of 1d6/level.
But the difference in damage only manifests at 9th level where Circle of Death has an advantage of only 1d6 damage (7: 10d6 vs 11d6, 8: 12d6 vs 12d6, 9: 14d6 vs 13d6). Really, if you’re using a 9th-level spell slot, it would be better to use it for a spell like Meteor Swarm or Wish than a few extra d6 of damage.
Looking at the stats, at comparable spells, and at the power of 6th-level spells, I generally can’t recommend taking this spell as a player. While DMs are free to homebrew additional interesting side effects (like a chance to resurrect slain enemies as undead), as it is, the spell is not great for players.
However, that’s not to say it isn’t useful at all!
Using Circle of Death: A Villain’s Spell
As strange as it may sound, not all spells in D&D 5e are meant for the players. Sure, players can learn them, but, like Circle of Death, they may be a waste of a spell slot or simply not useful.
Instead, these spells exist for DMs to use against their players or to demonstrate the villainy of their villains.
Circle of Death, a lackluster combat spell for its level, is a devastating and thematic weapon to use against a crowd of civilians.
Yes, if you need your dark wizard to slaughter innocents, Circle of Death is the perfect spell. Level-1 PCs have only a few hit points, and most ordinary people probably have even fewer. Even common soldiers will fall to this spell.
If you’re a player picking out your 6th-level spells, you have a lot of good options (like Arcane Gate or Disintegrate), but Circle of Death is not one of them.
If you’re a DM, looking for a way to make it totally clear the lengths of villainy one of your characters will stoop to in order to get what they want, Circle of Death is the perfect spell for your needs.
Common Questions About Circle of Death
Does Circle of Death Go Through Walls?
According to the official rules on spell effects, for an area to be included in the area of a spell, you must be able to draw an unbroken straight line from the spell’s point of origin to the destination area.
If an area is totally shielded (by a wall for example), then the effects of Circle of Death will not apply to that area (or the creatures in that area). That means you can hide behind walls or particularly large tables to avoid the spell’s effect.
Does Circle of Death Work on Undead?
It depends. Undead have no special immunity to Circle of Death, but many undead are immune or at least resistant to necrotic damage. Those undead will be either unaffected or greatly less affected by Circle of Death.
However, it is the specific protection against necrotic damage, not their status as undead, that grants this resiliency.
Is Circle of Death a Good Spell?
Circle of Death can be a devastating spell, frightening and powerful. It’s also not a very good spell. Its damage isn’t great compared to other spells of the same level (though the area and damage type are excellent).
Being out-damaged by Otiluke’s Freezing Sphere is a bad sign for the spell. Moreover, as a 6th-level spell, it must compete with other spells that create portals and turn flesh into rock.
As simple damage, it is usually a worse choice than other spells of similar power, unless you’re looking specifically for a thematic spell to set the tone and inspire fear.
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