Elves are well-known as the traditional archers in the Dungeons & Dragons franchise. Ever since their inception, RPG writers have wanted to put magic on their arrows. It goes well with their history, right? Well, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything took on that job for 5E. The Arcane Archer are an elite group of elf-trained (not elf-only!) Fighters who use soft bursts of magic to enchant their arrows. In Elven history, Arcane Archers were essentially the primary guardians of the Elven lands. Can these wardens of elven territory use their arrows to get loot and work with a party? Our Arcane Archer 5E Guide will give you a decent idea!
Blot Out the Sun: Arcane Archer 5E
The Arcane Archer has some of the coolest flavor of any of the Fighter archetypes. It is also one of the worst. The Arcane Archer is a backline damage dealer and crowd controller that suffers in two areas. First, the Arcane Shot feature is extremely limited – two shots per short rest. You get two whole special arrows. These are great shots, with significant utility. But only two? Good gods above.
Second, the Arcane Archer has to wrestle with the Battlemaster for a crowd-control/damage role. When you plan on making an Arcane Archer, make sure a Battlemaster wouldn’t serve you strictly better.
Arcane Archer Lore
To start, the Arcane Archer gains a few particularly good proficiencies.
At 3rd level, you learn magical theory or some of the secrets of nature – typical for practitioners of this elven martial tradition. You choose to gain proficiency in either the Arcana or the Nature skill, and you choose to learn either the Prestidigitation or Druidcraft cantrip.
This is already great flavor, and the proficiencies you get aren’t bad! Arcana is a pretty commonly-used Knowledge skill; from magical weapons, to planar experiences, to even mechanical creations, Arcana will work. It’s an Intelligence skill too, which the Arcane Archer appreciates for their DCs.
Nature checks are usually Wisdom, something that your Fighter might not have too much of… until much later. However, in most campaigns, Nature checks are essential at mid-level combats; Beasts, Fey, Humanoids, Plants, and most Swarms require some natural knowledge. That’s useful! Try to choose whichever skill your party doesn’t have, or Arcana if your party has both covered.
For some reason, no matter what you choose, you can pick between Prestidigitation or Druidcraft. Prestidigitation allows you to perform up to 4 minor effects at the same time, ranging from snuffing out candles to making tiny objects. The wide range of effects means that a competent and creative Arcane Archer could use Presti and get past a problem… but it’s a very limited number of effects, and most GMs subscribe to the idea that cantrips can’t do what a 1st level spell can. You might need to try a bit harder than expected for Presti to work out.
Druidcraft is a more focused version of Prestidigitation. You can’t have multiple effects, but the effects tend to last longer, or be more impactful/effective. Nice, but Prestidigitation’s multitasking nature will be more useful in the long-run.
Because of how similar both of these cantrips are, you can realistically choose either one that you want. They’ll both solve some problems if used creatively, and they’ll be fun to play around with otherwise.
The bread-and-butter of your class! At level 3, the Arcane Archer learns 2 arcane shots from the below list. They can do the following with the shots;
Once per turn when you fire an arrow from a shortbow or longbow as part of the Attack action, you can apply one of your Arcane Shot options to that arrow. You decide to use the option when the arrow hits, unless the option doesn’t involve an attack roll. Finally, you have two uses of this ability, and you regain all expended uses of it when you finish a short or long rest.
You learn another shot at 7th, 10th, 15th, and 18th level. Each shot also deals more damage at level 18.
Before we get into how good this feature is in general, let’s touch on each shot. If a shot has a DC, it’s an Intelligence-based one.
Arcane Shot Options
- Banishing Arrow: Throwing someone out of a combat is an extremely effective way to deal with a problem later. The issues are twofold; one, you’re not actually dealing with the threat and two, your DC is pretty low. Maybe save this for classes that naturally learn Banishment, though this is the earliest you can get Banishment. Not too bad, if your Intelligence is high enough to make someone disappear.
- Beguiling Arrow: Shoot someone to charm them to an ally. Unlike a lot of charm effects, this one only ends when the specific ally that is charmed attacks the target; really significant if you want to protect someone, or if your Bard really wants to try to talk this out. Usually not too helpful, especially since you can’t target yourself.
- Bursting Arrow: One of the few ways a Fighter can do area-of-effect damage. It’s a shame that the maximum effect radius is two squares, but at least you can hit multiple foes! It’s also one of the few Areas of Effect that doesn’t have an attached save. Not awful, but could hurt melee allies.
- Enfeebling Arrow: Not amazing. You’re targeting creatures that use weapons with a Constitution save – something weapon users may be proficient in. The extra damage is nice, but straight-up banishing them might be more useful.
- Grasping Arrow: The best straight-up damaging option you can go for. This effect reduces speed, deals damage, and puts on a damage-over-time effect if it ever tries to move. It wastes an action if the target tries to tear them off, and otherwise doesn’t allow a save. This is one of the few reasons I can think of for why this feature only has two uses. Take this.
- Piercing Arrow: This is a legitimately incredible ability. You get a full line attack for an arrow. The extra damage isn’t significant, and you need to line yourself up quite well for it to be of any use. But, it passes through cover, goes for 30 feet, and doesn’t need to hit to be useful. Awesome! And afterwards, you can keep shooting your bow normally.
- Seeking Arrow: The cool-kid option, this allows you to attack whoever you want and strike them. If you’re fighting a target that went invisible, this is one of the best anti-invisibility options out there, since you don’t even need to guess like for Glitterdust or something. Even if you miss, you can follow the arrow enough for someone to cast Glitterdust and reveal them (unless your GM is super rules-as-written about it!). Great utility.
- Shadow Arrow: Perhaps the best crowd control option, you get the damage and you restrict sight. Great for anything except a melee enemy in the middle of melee combat, although spellcasters might make the Wisdom save quite often.
Usually, if a shot does 1d6 extra damage, it deals 2d6 extra damage at level 18. Otherwise, it’ll add 2d6 damage to the arrow.
Don’t get me wrong here; all of these Arcane Shots are significant, and tend to do more work than a Battlemaster’s maneuver. That’s likely why they’re so limited. But again, only having two arrows is so obstructive on your ability to do anything in combat. You’re mostly just going to be a ranged Champion without good crit chance who occasionally snares people.
If your party is full of characters that adore short rests (i.e. Warlocks, Monks, etc), then you can get some value here. Hopefully, your party will want to take 3 of those per day so you can shoot… half of a quiver… worth of magically-enchanted shots.
On the bright side, you can’t waste this ability. You either hit and then apply an Arcane Shot, or you’re using Piercing/Seeking Arrow and they just have a saving throw. That’s nice! But the Battlemaster does that too.
The Arcane Archer is unique amongst Fighters in that they learn 2 abilities at level 7. The first is rather insubstantial.
At 7th level, you gain the ability to infuse arrows with magic. Whenever you fire a nonmagical arrow from a shortbow or longbow, you can make it magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance and immunity to nonmagical attacks and damage. The magic fades from the arrow immediately after it hits or misses its target.
This is a historic requirement of the Arcane Archer. If they can’t make their arrows magical by default, they’d lose a bit of that pizazz from editions past.
However, back in the old days, these arrows would actually come with a free enchantment bonus. That made Arcane Archers super good for non-magic campaigns! Now, you only get the Magical property on your arrows. Not bad for creatures that resist non-magical attacks, but those are actually fairly rare. Mostly just Incorporeal creatures and whatnot.
When this ability does come up, you’ll be dealing either double damage, or an infinitely higher amount of damage. However, if your GM is willing to hand out magical bows or magical ammo, then this is completely meaningless.
The reason why your Magic Arrow is so “whatever” is because your following ability is amazing!
At 7th level, you learn how to direct an errant arrow toward a new target. When you make an attack roll with a magic arrow and miss, you can use a bonus action to reroll the attack roll against a different target within 60 feet of the original target.
What a cool ability! Thankfully, all of your arrows are magical now, so this ability only fails in antimagic fields.
This is basically a bonus action to grant yourself another chance to hit… as long as there are two targets in a fight. And there’s absolutely no limit on this, so every turn you get two chances to hit with a shot.
This is a legitimate reason to pick this class. With the Sharpshooter feat, you actually have a fairly large chance to miss a shot. Thus, as a bonus action, you can redirect that shot and try to hit someone, even after a whiff with your -5 to attack.
And Ranged builds don’t have much use for Bonus Actions, other than for Second Wind. You don’t really use it for anything else, so having (essentially) another attack is pretty strong!
Unfortunately, you do have to target someone else. In a single-enemy encounter (rare, but possible), this ability becomes useless. Unless you have something against trees.
After twelve levels… twelve levels… of having exactly 2 shots per short rest… you can finally use your arrows without needing to convince yourself that it’s worthwhile.
Starting at 15th level, your magical archery is available whenever battle starts. If you roll initiative and have no uses of Arcane Shot remaining, you regain one use of it.
For so many reasons, this is the best point in your Arcane Archer career. At last, you’re able to fire one Magic Arrow per encounter… And that still doesn’t even seem that good.
This theoretically extends your magical quiver infinitely; you no longer need to wait for short rests to shoot arrows. You can constantly have an arrow with bonus damage out, since you get one at the start of every single fight. That means you can Bramble, Banish, or Blind to your heart’s content!
As long as your heart’s content is a maximum of two arrows per combat. After a short rest. And otherwise just limited to one. Ugh.
Best Race for Arcane Archer Fighters
Arcane Archers are limited to ranged attacks, and thus should boost Dexterity as much as possible. You can use a Finesse weapon if you wish, but you’ve got too much ranged attack synergy to even glance at Strength. Afterwards, a healthy amount of Constitution is recommended, just in case your roll low on hit dice. However, you can afford to boost your Intelligence before Constitution, especially if you want to make use of your crowd-control arrows.
Brace yourself for a shock; the basic elf from the Player’s Handbook may be a top contender for the elf-based class. With +2 Dexterity, +1 Intelligence, you’ve got the stats to succeed. Elves gain Darkvision, Fey Ancestry, and Trance; three abilities that turn you into a fantastic scout, and a decent anti-mage. Keen Senses gives the Fighter a 50% increase in the number of base skill proficiencies they have. Finally, due to being a High elf, you gain a cantrip from the Wizard list. Check out our Wizard cantrip list if you need some inspiration! I’d suggest a good utility spell, such as Message, Mending, or True Strike. You don’t need much damage!
Wow, the elves will let anyone be an Arcane Archer these days, huh?
Kobolds from Volo’s Guide to Monsters are a pitiful race, but they’re just pitiful enough to work. A +2 to Dexterity is fine for you; you don’t care about the -2 to Strength because you won’t use it. The only reason to take Kobolds is Pack Tactics, allowing you to get advantage on attack rolls as long as an ally is fighting it in melee. This turns Sharpshooter into basically +10 to damage, since Advantage is just so dang good. And if two melee allies are fighting two enemies, then Curving Shot’s going to roll 4 dice if you miss the first guy!
Maybe not the best small option, but a really good one! Especially if your GM takes pity on you and lets you get around Sunlight Sensitivity.
Best Feats for the Arcane Archer Subclass
It can be hard to find the right time to take a feat as an Arcane Archer, as you will want to max out dexterity and possibly Intelligence as well. That said, here are a few options worth thinking about.
Sharpshooter is the obvious choice here. It is the ideal feat for ranged attacks in general, as you increase your optimal range, ignore most cover, and can add damage by reducing your attack bonus. All of this stacks well with an arcane archer build.
Elven accuracy is nice, as you only have to give up one of your ability score improvements to take it. You can take +1 in dexterity or intelligence, both of which is good for you. More importantly, when you have advantage on attack roll you can re-roll one of those die once. You essentially get a third roll for advantage instead of a second, which is a major improvement in your average attack roll.
Fey touched is one of our favorite feats around here. While I recommend it a lot, it is genuinely a great option for an arcane archer that really adds to the subclass. With fey touched, you get a free use of misty step once per day in addition to an additional spell. The reason I love the fey touched feat for this class is that you can pick up Hex, which is a great spell for piling on the damage with your arcane shots.
Arcane Archer FAQ
Does Arcane Archer Get Spell Slots?
Despite the name, the arcane archer does not get spell slots. While it is not a caster subclass, you do get a magical ability of sorts with Arcane Shot. While some of these options replicate magic spell effects, they are not spells themselves.
Can a Human be an Arcane Archer?
Yes. Like most 5E D&D subclasses, there are no race restrictions on the Arcane Archer. This means you are welcome to play as a human or any other race you see fit when using this subclass.
Do Arcane Archers Need Intelligence?
Despite not being spellcasters, Arcane Archers can rely on intelligence depending on your build. This is because when you use an Arcane Shot option that involves a DC, that DC is determined by your intelligence score. It is possible to build around the arcane shots without a DC, however.
Conclusion – Our Take on the Arcane Archer 5E
The Arcane Archer is an incredibly flavorful class, heavily inhibited by the limit on Arcane Shot. If you’re a big fan of the class, you’ll be useful once you pick up the Sharpshooter feat (get to 20 Dexterity first!). If you’re looking for a ranged build, and want slightly more oomph than the Battlemaster Fighter, then you can consider the Arcane Archer.