Monk Archetypes 5E: Ranking the Best Monk Subclasses

monk traditions 5e

As we have discussed before, the monk is an underrated class in the 5th Edition of D&D. A big part of why this subclass is not particularly popular is the weakness of the subclasses. Sure, they aren’t necessarily terrible, with many of them bringing some fun and powerful features. The major issue is that most of the subclasses fail to address the core weaknesses of the Monk class. Be that as it may, there are a lot of fun options here. Without further ado, let’s dive into our Monk archetypes 5E Guide.

Our Criteria for Ranking the Monk Subclasses

When we rank these subclasses, we don’t do it on a whim. We consider each subclass based on five factors, which we outline below. It is worth noting that we only compare these subclasses against each other and not to archetypes from different classes. That means the highest-ranked option on this list might not stack up to a middling option for another class. The five factors we consider include:

  • Design. We look for subclasses that offer mechanics that are useful and frequently used by players. This includes giving special attention to low-level abilities, as most characters will not reach the maximum level. Subclasses with features that are not effective or likely to be rarely used will not be highly ranked in our list.
  • Clarity. It is important for a subclass to be easy to understand and straightforward in its language. This will make the subclass more enjoyable to play and prevent misunderstandings between players and the Dungeon Master. Using complex or confusing language can create difficulties and conflicts, so it is best to avoid it when designing a subclass.
  • Fun. It’s important to choose a subclass that is both enjoyable to play and offers meaningful choices that won’t put you at a disadvantage compared to other members of your group. The subclass you choose should provide a balance between optimization and enjoyment.
  • Theme. It is generally preferred for subclasses to have a clear and cohesive theme that ties all of its features together. When evaluating subclasses, we give more consideration to those with strong themes rather than those that lack any sense of unity or concept. All other factors being equal, subclasses with interesting and well-defined themes are considered more favorably.
  • Versatility. When evaluating subclasses, we prioritize those that offer versatility and the ability to create a variety of character builds. While it is important to excel at a specific skill or task, the ability to adapt and perform a range of roles is even more valuable. Versatility is a key factor in our assessment of subclasses.

What is the Best Monk Archetype for 5E?

Want to skip our list and just see our top pick? Here you are!

Way of the Drunken Master

The Way of the Drunken Master is a powerful subclass option for the Monk class in 5th Edition. This subclass is based on the concept of drunken monks using unpredictable movements to avoid attacks, and it excels at reducing damage taken. At level three, the subclass grants the ability to increase walking speed and perform a free disengage action when using flurry of blows, as well as the ability to redirect a missed melee attack to another enemy with the Tipsy Sway feature (which is only useful if the redirected attack does more damage than the monk’s own flurry of blows). At higher levels, the subclass allows the monk to spend ki points to cancel disadvantage and enter an intoxicated frenzy against multiple enemies, further enhancing the base abilities of the monk class.

Monk Archetypes 5E Rankings

While there are clear winners and losers among these subclasses, the monk class is not as top-heavy as Warlock subclasses are. Most of these options aren’t necessarily bad, but there are a lot of situational powers and suboptimal options.

10. Way of the Sun Soul

I wanted so badly for Way of the Sun Soul to be good. The subclass is built around blasting balls of magical energy at your opponents like something out of Dragonball Z. Unfortunately, it falls short in these efforts and is essentially a worse version of Way of the Four Elements.

The centerpoint of the subclass is the ability to fire Radiant Sun Bolt. This is a ranged attack in the form of an energy blast. While it sounds like it could really stand out for a monk, it only does 1d4 damage. You’ll need to spend ki points to fire multiple blasts, and you’ll still be outpaced by other classes damage-wise, even though the damage die scales up with your Martial Arts die.

The class has some other good damage options with exploding orbs of light and Burning Hands, but they come at a high ki points cost. Over the course of a fight you will burn through points early and find yourself just throwing single punches while the rest of your party is doing the cool stuff.

9. Way of the Kensei

The weapons available to the Way of the Kensei monk are very limited. Way of the Kensei aims to address that by opening up some new options. While it grants access to some martial weapons, the damage boost doesn’t scale. In the end, your higher level monks will do more damage without weapons than using their Kensei weapons.

At lower levels, there are some benefits that stand out. You can gain a +2 bonus to your AC if you make an unarmed strike while holding your weapon. However, this only applies to normal attacks and not flurry of blows. This greatly limits the usefulness of the feature. At higher levels, you can give the weapon +1 to attack or make them magical for the purposes of overcoming resistances. All in all, it’s not any better than what you can already do with the core monk abilities.

8. Way of the Shadow

Way of the Shadow is a sort of marriage between the monk and the rogue. The problem is that it falls well short of the rogue in most of the things its trying to do. The subclass is not strong on its own, but i should be noted that by multiclassing a few levels of rogue this is actually a strong option.

Stealth is the name of the game for this class. At level 3 you can spend ki points to cast Darkness, Darkvision, Pass Without Trace, or Silence. At Level 6 you can teleport from one shadow to another, gaining advantage on your next attack. At Level 11, Cloak of Shadows grants you invisibility, but only in dim light or darkness. The best part of the subclass is at Level 17, where Opportunist grants you a free reaction attack against every creature within 5 feet of you that is hit with an attack from someone other than yourself.

Two things hold this subclass back. Two of the features only work in dim light or darkness, making them extremely situational. What’s more, stealth attacks are great but don’t really shine without Sneak Attack.

7. Way of the Four Elements

Way of the Four Elements tries to do a lot to give monks some arcane options without making the spellcasting. It obviously attempts to negate some of the major weaknesses of the class by giving them access to flight and long-range damage dealing. While the customization is great, it misses the mark in a lot of ways.

This archetype gives you only one feature, known as elemental disciplines. These are essentially spells you can cast using ki points. Unfortunately, the end result is a weaker caster than any most other classes. There is also very little that improves the core traits of a monk.

Even useful options are not optimal. Ride the Wind lets you cast fly, which is extremely useful. It costs 4 ki points though, which is a lot. What’s more, you can’t get this until level 11. That’s long after a wizard could obtain that spell. You can make this work and it will fill some holes the other subclasses don’t address, but it isn’t ideal.

6. Way of the Ascendant Dragon

One of the subclasses offered in Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons, the Way of the Ascendant Dragon is a good thematic fit. All of its features tie into dragons in general, but mechanically they are a bit of a mixed bag. That said, the highlights of this subclass outweigh the negatives.

At level three, you get a mix of interesting features including the ability to change the damage type of your unarmed strikes as well as the addition of a breath weapon. As you level, you can extend the range of your breath attack, making it a decent option.

The highlight of the subclass comes at Level 11, as you can create a 10-foot aura that either frightens enemies or gives allies resistance to a specific damage type. On the other end of the spectrum is the level 6 feature Wings Unfurled. This gives you flying speed, which is great! But you only get it when using Step of the Wind and it only lasts until the end of your turn. Getting six seconds of flight time a few times a day is pretty disappointing for a sixth-level feature.

5. Way of the Astral Self

One of two subclasses added in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, this archetype gives you fun astral arms with which you may punch your enemies. These translucent arms are eventually joined by an astral face and body, so the entire subclass sticks with the theme well.

Together, the Way of the Astral Self is a fun and viable option. It addresses some of the major issues with the class like giving addition to reach to the spectral arm attacks and gain Darkvision out to 120 feet. the downside, at least early on, is that you give up some damage from weapon attacks to make use of the astral arms.

As you level, you can deal more damage with your arm attacks and deflect away damage as well. Eventually, your astral self gives you a +2 buff to your AC and a third attack when using the Extra attack feature so long as you are only using your astral arms.

4. Way of the Open Hand

Way of the Open Hand might as well be called Monk+. It largely enhances flurry of blows and other aspects of the basic monk class features. While somewhat vanilla, it is a very good option if your playstyle is sticking with the high volume of strikes brawler approach common to the class. At level 3, you gain an array of options when you use flurry of blows that do not cost additional ki points. You can choose to knock enemies prone, push them back 15 feet, or prevent them from making reactions in some cases.

At level 6, you gain the healing power of Wholeness of Body. This lets regain HP equal to three times your monk level. You can take this action once per long rest, and can be a huge boost in long fights. You also gain the effect of Sanctuary at level 11, which is great for close-quarters combat.

All that said, the Level 17 ability is the real gem. Straight out the movies, your Quivering Palm strike either send a target to zero hit points or does 10d10 necrotic damage depending on if they make their saving throw. This ability doesn’t occur immediately, however. It can take the number of days equal to your monk level, at your discretion, or even not at all. As cool as this is, waiting to Level 17 for this alone isn’t worth it.

3. Way of the Long Death

Way of the Long Death makes a case for the best subclass available. While it does little to improve the other issues with the monk class, it greatly improves the durability of an otherwise squishy melee fighter.

The features of this subclass  – released in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide – are cool. At level 3, you get temporary HP boosts every time you send a creature within 5 feet of you to 0 HP. By taking out weak underlings early, you can boost your HP for fights against bigger bad guys.

In addition to the HP boost, you can also overtake hostiles with fear using Hour of Reaping or avoid hitting zero HP with Mastery of Death. At Level 17, you can spend up to 10 ki points to deal as much as 20d10 necrotic damage to a single target. Everything works with this subclass.

2. Way of Mercy

The Way of Mercy has quickly become one of my new favorite Monk subclasses. Released in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, the Mercy Monk takes on themes of a plague doctor including the infamous bird mask. Unfortunately, the mask is little more than flavor and plays no real role in the subclass mechanics.

That said, the actual mechanics of the archetype are strong and easy to grasp. The subclass centers around concepts of healing the injured and bringing death to those who need to be put out of their misery. In addition to some useful proficiencies, at level three you get the dueling features Hand of Healing and Hand of Harm. These options allow you to deal either damage or hit points using your Martial Arts die plus wisdom modifier. The use of Ki points to heal is a powerful tool.

At higher levels, Hand of Healing can begin to cure harmful conditions. What’s more, you can eventually use Flurry of Healing and Harm which is essentially flurry of blows for either the hand of harm or of healing. At level 17, you can return a dead creature to life with a substantial amount of hit points if they have not been dead longer than 24 hours. This subclass has strong options up and down the features list.

1. Way of the Drunken Master

Way of the Drunken Master is without a doubt one of the strongest options for the entire Monk 5E class. Based on the tales of drunken monks using herky-jerky movement to avoid strikes, this subclass is masterful at mitigating damage.

At level three, Drunken Technique allows you to boost your walking speed and perform disengage for free when using flurry of blows without spending a ki point. Tipsy Sway is also interesting, as it allows you to redirect a melee attack that misses you to hit a different enemy. This is only useful when you are surrounded by multiple hostiles. What’s more, spending the ki point on this is only really worth it if the attack that missed you does more damage than your own flurry of blows.

At the higher levels, you can spend ki points to cancel disadvantage and unleash an intoxicated frenzy against multiple enemies. Altogether, most of the features of this subclass enhance the base monk abilities.

Concluding our Monk Archetypes 5E Rankings

That wraps up our Monk archetype 5E rankings. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments below!


    • Thanks, what I meant was that it doesn’t scale compared to other classes at the same level even with the increases, but I can see it wasn’t clear. I cleared up the language a bit.

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