Tips, Tricks, and Builds for Magical Fighters
The eldritch knight, a supreme armored titan and master of magic and the blade, it’s a shame the build in 5e is a bit rough. Eldritch knight is a fighter archetype that produces a glorious character image but has left a lot of players unimpressed. But the little magical fighter build isn’t out of the fight yet and with a little tinkering we can get the magical fighter on the table to match the epic version in your head. Grab your sword and your spellbook as we go through everything you need to know.
What Are Eldritch Knights?
Eldritch knight is a fighter archetype that dips your fighter’s toes into the realm of arcane magic. It’s meant to represent deadly warmages bedecked in armor and blasting their foes away with combat focused spells. Sadly though, most people who build eldritch knights end up with a lackluster and underpowered character.
This is due to two fundamental problems with eldritch knights:
- You have very few spell slots.
- Your ability scores are stretched thin.
While the eldritch knight does give a fully armored caster access to fireball spells and the like, you’re not going to be blasting for long. Your spell progression is far slower than other spellcasting classes, and while having access to a couple fireballs at 13th level is nice to have as a fighter, it’s not really worth losing out on the other fighter archetype options for it.
The second and far more pressing issue is just how far you’ll need to stretch your ability scores to get a spellcasting attack modifier or spell DC high enough to make those spells worth a damn. You’re still a fighter, and you’ll need a very high Strength or Dexterity and high Constitution, in addition to a very high Intelligence. That’s 3 ability scores you’ll want at a +3 or +2, something that’s just not feasible at early levels.
So Why Play an Eldritch Knight?
While the idea of the fireball flinging fighter doesn’t really work, there is a way to make use of eldritch knight to create a magical fighter that can dish out tons of damage (potentially quite a bit more than your standard fighter) while maintaining an incredibly high AC and hit point maximum. If walking around as an armored tank while slicing through your enemies with a shadowy blade spewing green arcane fire locking them magically in place beside you while your magical ally distracts them from your killing blow sounds like a character you’d want to play, read on.
How To Build An Eldritch Knight
Our build won’t need terribly high Intelligence so just build your character like a standard Strength based fighter. Strength and Constitution need to be as high as you can get them, so you should pick a race with a bonus to each of those stats. Mountain Dwarves are an especially good racial choice for this with their +2 to both Strength and Constitution, but anything with a bonus to both or that can choose a bonus to both will get us where we need to be so just choose one of the following:
- Mountain Dwarf
- Beasthide Shifter
- Simic Hybrid
With your chosen race, you’ll need to get both your Strength and Constitution up to 16 each, and you’ll have the points left over to push Intelligence up to 12.
The big reason we’re able to give up on Dexterity is by going the fully armored route. Fighters gain access to heavy armor and shields from the get-go and our eldritch knight is going to take full advantage of it. So, we’re going to build our eldritch knight with the following options:
- Plate armor, for a cool 18 base AC.
- Shield for a +2 bonus to AC.
- Defense fighting style for another +1 to AC.
So now before even getting into our spells we should be sitting pretty with a 21 AC.
So, we don’t have a lot of spell slots, and our DC and attack modifiers will be terrible for them anyway, so what are we doing here? We’re casting cantrips is what we’re doing! The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide introduced a selection of cantrips that use your melee attacks as part of the spell casting.
Where it gets good is once you hit 7th level with the eldritch knight ability war magic. See, the reason that every fighter doesn’t dip a level into wizard for these sweet damage cantrips is that using them is “casting a spell”, not really making an attack (I know it’s weird). Which means your extra attack features don’t function with them. Eldritch knight lets you make that extra swing anyway after you cast your “cantrip”.
Of the options available, I highly recommend Green-flame Blade, and Booming Blade.
Green-flame Blade adds extra fire damage to the target of your melee hit equal to your casing modifier and also to any one enemy standing next to them. While with your low Intelligence this won’t be much extra, it ramps up with an extra d8 at 5th level and really turns on. Think of this as your bread and butter damage cantrip
Booming Blade shrouds the target of your hit in energy that explodes if they try to leave before your next turn. It starts out at 1d8 thunder damage and ramps up to 2d8 at 5th level. Use this one when you’re successfully front lining and don’t want the target to run or to get around you to fight the squishy casters.
You’ll have the choice between an ability score increase or a feat at 4th level, and I highly recommend taking the feat war caster. Every ability it grants is key to making an eldritch knight function and I think of it as a prerequisite for the archetype. It reads as follows:
Prerequisite: The ability to cast at least one spell
You have practiced casting spells in the midst of combat, learning techniques that grant you the following benefits:
- You have advantage on Constitution saving throws that you make to maintain your concentration on a spell when you take damage.
- You can perform the somatic components of spells even when you have weapons or a shield in one or both hands.
- When a hostile creature's movement provokes an opportunity attack from you, you can use your reaction to cast a spell at the creature, rather than making an opportunity attack. The spell must have a casting time of 1 action and must target only that creature.
We care a whole lot about each and everything this feat grants us.
Some of your best spell options (we’ll get to those next) are concentration spells and losing one of the few spell slots you have to a concentration check can really hurt. This makes you twice as likely to hold onto that key spell when the chips are down.
Some of our spells have somatic components, which gets tricky with a sword and shield in your hands. This eliminates the issue entirely.
Finally, we get to the biggest payoff in the spell opportunity attacks. Because of the odd nature of our attack cantrips, we can use booming blade here, which is especially nasty because it triggers off movement.
Say an enemy is trying to move past us and provokes an attack of opportunity. With this feat, we’ll be able to “cast a cantrip” with our sword or warhammer (likely 1d8 + 3 damage there) and set a booming blade. Our opponent here now has to choose between continuing their movement and setting off another 2d8 thunder damage or remaining still and in our melee range, right where we want them. 3d8 + 3 damage for a cantrip reaction ain’t too shabby.
1st Level Spells
I feel that find familiar is the secret weapon for eldritch knights. You’ll only have one non-evocation or abjuration spell to choose from until level 8, and I highly recommend you spend that slot on find familiar.
Whatever form your familiar takes, they’re capable of performing the “help” action to distract your enemies. Effectively granting you advantage on the first swing you take in every round of combat.
Admittedly, your familiar is likely to poof out of existence the first time the enemy takes a swing at them, but that’s a swing that didn’t go towards you or your party. You’ll also have to pay 10 gp in materials to resummon them, but that’s a small price to pay for “free” advantage in most encounters.
For your other 1st level spells, there are 3 options that should be on the top of your list, shield, protection from evil and good, and absorb elements.
Shield should be pretty self-explanatory, as a reaction you can bump your already formidable 21 AC up to a 26 AC, that’s one tough nut to crack, even for many high level creatures. This should be your regular emergency button, to be deployed whenever a boss readies up to full round attack you.
Protection from Evil And Good can absolutely nerf some enemies' efforts against you and with a 10 minute concentration you can easily keep it up for an entire combat, maybe even two. Note down the creature types it affects and bring this baby up if you run into them.
Absorb Elements is a great life preserver if you take a massive damage spell to the face or stare down a dragon breath. Pop it off, halve the damage, and gain a boost for next turn’s attacks for the trouble.
2nd Level Spells
Same principles as before, except at 8th level you’ll have an opportunity to dramatically increase your damage potential by picking up shadow blade as your one off-school spell.
Shadow Blade is one of my favorite spells and it is often the key to unlocking many caster/martial hybrid builds. As a bonus action you summon a magical 2d8 weapon of your choice. This effectively doubles your weapon damage, and as a bonus you gain advantage if you’re fighting in the dark (races with darkvision can take special advantage here).
Other than the blade, there’s slim pickings, blur is a strong option (I’d barely pick shadow blade over it) but it’s sadly another off-school option. The other oddball winner is warding wind out of the elemental evil book that’ll give disadvantage on all ranged attacks against you.
3rd and 4th Level Spells
You probably won’t get to use these much as your first opportunity for 3rd level spells is all the way up at 13th level. Protection from energy is likely your best 3rd level pick and flame shield is going to be your strongest 4th. Protection from energy will get you damage resistance for the combat against whatever is causing trouble. Flame shield will damage enemies when they attack you in melee in a way that can seriously add up.
Putting It All Together
Now that we’ve built it, let’s go through what an average round of combat with our eldritch knight at 8th level will look like.
Our knight summons a shadow blade (or does this next round if ambushed) as the enemy approaches. Then strides up confidently with AC 21 (and tons of emergency spell backup) and makes an attack using the shadow blade to cast green-flame blade. Your familiar distracts the enemy and grants you advantage on the first swing, assuming you hit you’ll be dealing the 2d8 + 4 from the shadow blade, 1d8 +1 from the cantrip, and 1d8 + 1 to the enemy standing next to them. Then because of your war magic feature you’ll be able to swing again with your shadow blade for another 2d8 + 4. Totaling across two attacks 6d8 + 10 damage spread slightly between two targets that you’ll be able to repeat on each round of combat with advantage. Not bad!
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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