Arcane Archers are the slightly magical Fighter subclass that excels at using ranged weapons. This guide will cover how Arcane Archer features work, tips to optimize and 1-5 ratings for each, how to build an Arcane Archer (feats, ability scores, etc.), and the strengths and weaknesses of the subclass.
I’ll also touch on ways to roleplay your career as an Arcane Archer to help you get into character. Let’s get into it.
Arcane Archer Features
Arcane Archer Lore – 3rd-level (2/5)
Proficiency in Arcana or Nature, and access to the Prestidigitation or Druidcraft cantrip.
Arcane Archer Lore Tips
Go with Arcana proficiency. It’ll likely come up more frequently than Nature. But, if you have someone else in the party who’s already good at Arcana, then Nature might be the better option.
Go with Prestidigitation. Most players agree that it’s the superior “fun magic trick” cantrip to Druidcraft. It allows you to create harmless sensory affects, light/snuff out fires, clean/soil objects, chill/warm/flavor an object, leave a long-lasting mark, or create a short-term, small trinket/illusory image. Druidcraft can do half of the same options, plus the ability to make flowers bloom and such — less utility.
Overall, this is a ribbon feature that doesn’t have much impact on your character or your gameplay.
Arcane Shot – 3rd-level (4/5)
Access to two Arcane Shot options, which you can use with shortbows or longbows when you take the Attack action (after the attack hits, unless the arrow doesn’t involve an attack roll). Usable two times per (recharges after a short or long rest). The save DC for Arcane Shot options is (8 + proficiency bonus + Intelligence modifier). Increases to +1 Arcane Shot option at levels 7, 10, 15, and 18, and damage increases at 18th level.
Here’s a brief description of each Arcane Shot option:
Banishing Arrow: Target must pass a Charisma save or be banished for one round.
Beguiling Arrow: Target takes 2d6 (7 average) psychic damage and is charmed by an ally within 30 feet of the target for one round if it fails a Wisdom save.
Bursting Arrow: All creatures within 10 feet of the target take 2d6 (7 average) force damage.
Enfeebling Arrow: Target takes 2d6 (7 average) necrotic damage and must pass a Constitution save or deal half damage with weapon attacks for one round.
Grasping Arrow: Target takes 2d6 (7 average) poison damage, has -10 movement speed, and takes 2d6 slashing damage the first time it moves each turn it moves without teleporting. The target or any creature can use an action to make an Athletics check against the Arcane Shot save DC to end the effect early; otherwise, it lasts up to 1 minute..
Piercing Arrow: Instead of making an attack roll, each creature in a 30-foot line must make a Dexterity save, taking arrow damage + 1d6 (3.5 average) piercing damage on a failure, or half as much on a success. The arrow passes through objects and ignores cover.
Seeking Arrow: Instead of making an attack roll, choose a creature you’ve seen in the past minute. The target must make a Dex save, taking arrow damage + 1d6 (3.5 average) piercing damage on a failure, or half as much on a success. You also learn the target’s location if it fails its save. The arrow ignores cover and moves around corners.
Shadow Arrow: Target takes 2d6 (7 average) psychic damage and must pass a Wisdom saving throw or be unable to see anything farther than 5 feet away for one round.
This is the subclass-defining feature that Arcane Archer gameplay revolves around. Sadly, the limit of two uses per rest is very underwhelming, especially since it doesn’t scale with levels. I’d argue that a DM changing your Arcane Shot uses to scale with your proficiency bonus (2-6, depending on your level) is a very good idea for balancing the Arcane Archer to be closer in power level with other middling to good Fighter subclasses.
The other lame part about Arcane Archer is that it forces you to use a shortbow or longbow when, sadly, the hand crossbow wins out at DnD 5e’s best ranged weapon (mostly because of the Crossbow Expert feat). Again, I think DMs are fine to allow Arcane Shot to work with crossbows without altering the balance of Arcane Archers to be too powerful (if anything, they’re still behind several other Fighter subclasses).
Arcane Shot Tips
Go with Grasping Arrow. It’s the best Arcane Shot available by a wide margin, in my humble opinion. auto-damage, movement reduction, and EXTRA damage if the creature moves…each turn it moves (meaning your allies can push/pull it around to trigger more damage, reliably). And it lasts a full minute OR eats up an enemy’s entire action to ATTEMPT to fix — that’s what I call a win-win. Grasping Arrow offers the most damage and control of any Arcane Shot option by far.
Shadow Arrow shuts down ranged and spellcasting enemies. Making it a good one to have in your back pocket for fights where it can really make a difference. Sadly, it only lasts one round. But preventing an attack (or spell cast) for one full round is definitely worth it. Plus, you and allies not in melee range of the target have attack advantage against it as unseen attackers for the round — party-wide buff, heck ya!
Banishing Arrow is even better at eliminating a foe short-term. Because Charisma saves are worse than Wisdom saves on the vast majority of monsters in DnD 5e. Even though it deals no damage, it’s more likely to guarantee that your target won’t be involved in a full round of combat.
Secondly, go with Piercing or Bursting Arrow. They’re both AoE options; Bursting Arrow has the potential to deal more damage, but relies on enemies to be positioned kind of stupidly. Piercing Arrow allows you to ignore cover AND deal (lesser) damage to about just as many enemies, although it’s even more uncommon for foes to be lined up than it is for them to be bunched up.
Use Enfeebling Arrow can be good against heavy-hitting bruisers. Reducing incoming melee damage is always good, especially for foes with Multiattack. Just beware that many enemies that use weapon attacks also have good Con modifiers, making this one of the least likely Arcane Shots to land, which is a bummer when you only have two per rest.
Seeking and Beguiling Arrows are by far the worst options that have the least utility in most combat scenarios.
Magic Arrow – 7th-level (2/5)
Your nonmagical arrows ignore resistance and immunity to nonmagical attacks and damage.
A boring and hopefully unnecessary 7th-level feature; at least you get two of them!
Magic Arrow Tips
Be sad if you need this. Honestly, by 7th-level, you should have a magic bow to get around resistance to nonmagical attacks, making this feature redundant and unhelpful. If you don’t have a magic ranged weapon at this point, then yea, it’s a game-changer.
Curving Shot – 7th-level (4/5)
When you make a ranged weapon attack roll that misses, you can use a bonus action to reroll the attack against a different target within 60 feet of the original target.
A nifty little feature that makes your chance to hit (something) with ranged attacks much better. However, since focus fire is key for winning the action economy in DnD 5e, targeting your secondary choice instead of the one your group is piling on is still somewhat suboptimal.
Curving Shot Tips
Use it every time you miss. As long as nothing else is vying for your bonus action, there’s no reason not to use this after every missed ranged attack. It has infinite uses, after all.
Target foes near each other with attacks. That way, there’s guaranteed to be another valid target within 60 feet of the original one when you miss.
Ever-Ready Arrow – 15th-level (2/5)
Gain +1 Arcane Shot use when you roll initiative and don’t have any.
Honestly, it’s disappointing that this is how Wizards chose to go with Arcane Shot usage — a non-scaling two uses per rest is just bad for no reason, especially since the Battle Master gets twice as many uses of their (arguably better) maneuvers.
DMs should be open to the idea of Arcane Shot usage scaling with your proficiency bonus instead. This change makes Ever-Ready Arrow more of a nice perk rather than a necessary feature to make your subclass finally (at level 18!) have their subclass-defining feature (Arcane Shot) work the way it should.
Ever-Ready Arrow Tips
Be sad that you need this. A pretty lame capstone ability for the subclass, but at least you always get at least one Arcane Shot per combat now. And level 18 is also when your Arcane Shot damage doubles, so you can be happy about that.
How to Build an Arcane Archer in 5e
As a ranged weapon user, you can dump Strength in favor of Dexterity and wear light or medium armor instead of heavy plate. Something like 10 Str, 15 Dex, 14 Con, 14 Int, 10 Wis, 8 Cha works for starting ability scores (with point buy, before racial bonuses).
Intelligence can be tempting for making sure your Arcane Shot rider effects actually land on your targets. However, I don’t recommend investing too many points into Int — getting up to 14 (+2 modifier) or 16 (+3 modifier) should be fine.
Constitution ties in importance to Int for Arcane Archers; if your group lacks a reliable frontline, you may want to put more focus on Con than Int, though.
Arcane Archer Feats
The best feats for Arcane Archers are those that are great for almost all ranged weapon character builds, with one exception: Crossbow Expert is less attractive, since you’re forced to use a shortbow or longbow for Arcane Archer features to work properly.
Still, CBE comes with non-crossbow-specific perks that still benefit an Arcane Archer; it’s just not as important as it is for some ranged builds.
Sharpshooter. No disadvantage for long-ranged attacks, ranged weapons ignore the AC bonus from partial cover, and the ability to take -5 on a ranged attack roll for +10 damage. The premier feat for all ranged weapon users, including Arcane Archers. Hit harder and ignore most of the downsides of using a ranged weapon (except having an enemy within melee range; you’ll need Crossbow Expert for that).
Elven Accuracy. If you’re an Elf or High-Elf, this is a top-notch feat to grab. It gives +1 Dex or Int and allows you to reroll attack rolls when you have advantage on an attack (kind of like triple advantage).
Telekinteic. +1 Int, an empowered Mage Hand cantrip, and the ability to shove a creature within 30 feet of you as a bonus action if they fail a Strength save (using 8 + proficiency + Int modifier as the DC). While the bonus action can be annoying to use along with Curving Shot, the long-range shove is absolutely fantastic with Grasping Arrow, the premier Arcane Shot option. It allows you to trigger the poison damage twice on your turn, and then again on subsequent turns if the effect still lingers. This makes for a really fun and satisfying Arcane Archer build.
Magic Initiate. If you’re not multiclassing into a spellcasting class, Magic Initiate is a great way to get two cantrips and a 1st-level spell once per day. Choose Wizard, get Find Familiar for a long-term summonable helper, or pick Warlock and Hex for a consistent long-term damage boost. Shoutout to Ritual Caster (Find Familiar) as another feat to accomplish the same thing, without the cantrips but with one additional 1st-level ritual spell.
Lucky. Reroll three d20 failures a day. It’s boring, overpowered, and good for every character build, including the Arcane Archer.
Arcane Archer 5e Multiclass Options
Arcane Archer’s can be tricky to multiclass. You get great features at level 5 (Extra Attack) and 7 (Curving Shot), and then another ASI at level 8. But, at that point, you don’t have too much incentive to stay in the subclass, and multiclassing becomes more attractive.
Here are great subclasses that work well with the Arcane Archer:
Swarmkeeper Ranger. A 3-level dip into Swarmkeeper gets you Gathered Swarm, which allows you to move a creature who fails a Strength save up to 15 feet — which pairs phenomenally well with Grasping Arrow (which deals damage when the affected creature moves/is moved). And if Grasping Arrow isn’t active and you don’t need to push, you can also deal a small amount of bonus damage with it, or use it as a faux-Disengage to move yourself 5 feet. Plus, access to Expertise, spellcasting, great subclass-specific spells (Faerie Fire and Web), an extra fighting style, and Favored Foe all work well (thematically and mechanically) with the Arcane Archer’s kit.
War Wizard. A 2-level dip into War Wizard gets you a whole lot of goodies. A +2 bonus to AC or +4 to a saving throw AT WILL — all it does is prevent you from casting spells other than cantrips on your next turn; something you probably weren’t going to do anyway. This considerably beefs up an Arcane Archer’s low survivability. You also get a +Intelligence modifier to your initiative rolls. Since going early is key to optimal Arcane Archer gameplay, and since you’re already incentivized to boost your Int for Arcane Shot, this is a very helpful bonus. Plus, just one more level in Wizard gets you 2nd-level spells and six total spell slots, rounding out your character to do more than just Arcane Shot 2-6 times per day.
Assassin Rogue. Attack advantage against creatures that haven’t taken a turn yet in combat, and auto crits on a surprised creature — a very nice way to start off any fight. Plus, you get Sneak Attack damage and Cunning Action to help both your damage output and survivability. Proficiencies with the disguise kit and poisoner’s kit are just a bonus.
Gloom Stalker Ranger. Gain/increase your Darkvision, become invisible in darkness, and get a +Wisdom bonus to your initiative rolls. You also get +1 attack on your first turn of combat, which deals +1d8 damage (and can move +10 feet on round 1). All around, this is another strong suite of bonuses for making the Arcane Archer stealthier, deadlier, more mobile, and more consistent.
Arcane Trickster Rogue. Again, Sneak Attack and Cunning Action are just excellent additions to an Arcane Archer’s kit. You also get a handful of Wizard spells (again, good because you’re already incentivized to put points into Intelligence) and an empowered Mage Hand.
Arcane Archer Strengths and Weaknesses
Ranged damage. Obviously, the Arcane Archer is good at, well, being an archer. Consistent ranged damage is a guarantee as an Arcane Archer. You even get small area of effect Arcane Shots to round out the Figher’s usual weakness: a lack of multi-target abilities.
Utility. Arcane Shots offer a ton of extra battlefield control to the Fighter kit; something the class typically lacks. Between Grasping Arrow’s over-time damage, slow, and potential to remove an enemy’s action, Shadow Shot’s disruption of enemy ranged attacks/spells and granting attack advantage to your party’s ranged attacks, and Banishing Shot’s ability to remove a foe for a round, there are just so many spell-like effects available to the Arcane Archer.
Limited Arcane Shot usage. By far, the biggest downside of playing an Arcane Archer is being limited to two Arcane Shots per rest (so typically a max of six uses per day). The fact that this never increases as you level up is a huge bummer, and one that I rectify as a DM by having it scale with the character’s Intelligence modifier (to make an interesting choice; either become more MAD (multi-ability dependent) or pick up more feats/ASIs).
Tight spaces. Like all ranged characters, Arcane Archers will struggle in small enclosed settings, especially when there’s a lot of cover around for enemies to duck behind. Sure, you likely have a decent AC via Dexterity, but it’s harder to deal optimal damage and get away from melee enemies (who will give you disadvantage on ranged attacks when next to you) in these types of environments.
Other Fighter subclasses can just use a bow. This is the real bummer of the Arcane Archer — it might not even be the best subclass for a Fighter who wants to use ranged weapons. I mean, Battle Master maneuvers work just fine with ranged weapons, and the Crossbow Expert feat is even stronger if you’re not forced to use a shortbow or longbow for your features to work. Eldritch Knights make fine archers, Psi Warriors’ Telekinetic Thrust is available much more often than Arcane Shot (and arguably stronger), and plenty of Rune Knight runes work fantastically with a ranged weapon.
Is Arcane Archer a Good Subclass in 5e?
Arcane Archer is an okay subclass in 5e. I’d rate it a 3/5 overall. It’s conceptually cool and Arcane Shot options are mechanically solid, but it falls flat overall as a subclass without enough interesting stuff to do.
It’s certainly not brokenly bad; the Fighter class kit of features (Second Wind, Action Surge, Extra Attack, Indomitable, the most Ability Score Improvements/feats in 5e) makes sure of that.
But compare it to other strong Fighter subclasses, like the Battle Master, and its shortcomings are on full display. The Battle Master has twice as many maneuvers per rest (4) as the Arcane Archer’s Arcane Shots (2). And Echo Knights literally have infinite uses of their Manifest Echo feature. Even the Eldritch Knight quickly gets more spells per day than the Arcane Archer’s Arcane Shots.
Sure, Curving Shot is a strong 7th-level feature for a class that makes more attacks than anyone else (and, therefore, has more misses to take advantage of). But still, the Arcane Archer feels like a ranged version of a Battle Master mixed with an Eldritch Knight, but worse than either.
If your DM buffs Arcane Shot uses to scale with either your Intelligence modifier or proficiency bonus, the subclass becomes much stronger and more fun to play. Otherwise, it’s a middling B- to C-tier subclass.
Roleplaying an Arcane Archer
Arcane Archers study elven archery styles to weave magic into attacks and typically guard their domains from invaders. But you don’t have to be tied down to this basic concept (or you can differentiate yourself within it).
Here are some ideas for roleplaying your Arcane Archer:
A mage’s bodyguard. You were taken in by an elf mage who guarded their arcane secrets in a high tower. She needed your protection from monster incursions, and you were able to safely pick them off from a safe vantage. In return, the mage taught you some modicum of magic, allowing your bow to become a vessel for arcane energy.
But when traveling to a big library, you were ambushed, and the mage was killed. Now, it’s on you alone to develop your skill with a bow, and with magic.
A folk sharpshooter. From tourney to tourney, you traveled far and wide to display your skill with a bow. You won more than you lost, and a noble took note of your skill and recruited you for a special forces division of his army.
There, your skill improved further, and you had the opportunity to fight alongside a sorcerer. By watching him work the arcane weave, you learned to infuse your arrows with magical powers as well.
A famed hunter. You were an outlander who didn’t spend much time in society. Your main goal was to live in harmony with nature, and you performed a ritual for every animal whose life you took with a bow.
One day, you happened on a fey beast, a mythic creature in the region. Upon killing it, your arrow became infused with some of its magical energy. Through meditation and ritual, you learned to control this force, becoming the Arcane Archer you are today.