Magic of Dungeons & Dragons: Getting the Most from Your Spells

As Nerdarchists Dave and Ted discussed in their recent video about the magic of Dungeons & Dragons, a big chunk of getting the most from your spells as either a cleric or wizard comes from diversifying your spell selection. As they talked about, that involves selecting spells for different purposes (utility, healing, defense, damage, buffs) and that do different types of damage and that are opposed by different saving throws. It does little good to show up to a fight against a red dragon with all fire spells, and it is far from optimal to try and get past an evading quickling with nothing but spells requiring Dexterity saving throws. They also mention action economy, and how it’s wise to make certain you’re in a position to take advantage of actions, bonus actions, and reactions as a spellcaster.

Spell selection in D&D

Similarities

magic of Dungeons & Dragons spell selection
Is your D&D wizard the sort who prefers to control the battlefield and debuff enemies rather than get all messy with damaging spells? [Art from Magic: The Gathering ‘Battle of Wits’ by Jason Chan]
As was also made evident in the video, wizards and clerics have a lot more in common when it comes to spellcasting tactics than they have separating them. They may select from different spell lists but, unlike sorcerers, bards, or warlocks, they are not bound to a specific subset of spells. They can choose from among a wide array of spells when they prepare their spells after a long rest. Preparation, then, is a big component of playing a wizard or cleric.

This implies one way to get the most out of your spells when playing a cleric or wizard is to make heavy use of skills to glean as much information as possible about what looms in your character’s future. Interaction skills to get information out of NPCs are always helpful, as are research skills such as History, Religion, or Arcana. Investigation or Perception could come in handy when surveying a scene to figure out what is going on.

These skills can of course be further augmented by spells, so it’s always a good idea when playing a cleric or wizard to default having spells available to augment skill use or reconnaissance efforts. Even if your wizard or cleric character isn’t the one doing the interaction or reconnaissance, there’s a good chance they can assist with the effort nonetheless.

Clerics get good generic access to this right out the gate with the guidance cantrip. Wizards are more situational in this regard at first, but do get some good generic skill buffs at higher levels. This is not to say that you should always insist on an overabundance of information gathering as a wizard or cleric, because that can annoy other players when taken to an extreme, but you should always be ready to capitalize on opportunities to gather information and make preparations via spell selection should they arise.

Just to make things obvious, ask yourself whether you would rather have the protection from energy spell or the fireball spell prepared as a wizard before fighting the aforementioned red dragon? I think we all know the answer, and because of that we see the value preparation provides to clerics and wizards above and beyond what it does for other classes.

On the flip side of not wanting to drag the game out when playing a cleric or wizard, if someone else in your group is, be sensitive to this dynamic they have that your character may not, and help them out. After all, a prepared cleric or wizard is a force to be reckoned with, and you’ll be glad your ally is able to make the most of their spellcasting when the chips are down.

Differences

While the aspect of spell preparation certainly opens up a similar array of options for wizards and clerics, they also have their differences. Not only that, but each Divine Domain and Arcane Tradition carries its own set of considerations. Without drilling down into each and every type of wizard or cleric, when you select your own Divine Domain or Arcane Tradition, pay particular attention to what type of actions or abilities come with it.

For instance, if you are an abjurer, it makes sense to load up on an excessive number of abjuration spells, because their marquee ability, the Arcane Ward, specifically triggers off of those. On the other hand, if you select the War Domain as a cleric, it may be a good idea to not prepare as many bonus action spells as you would otherwise, because your War Priest ability is, itself, a bonus action. Similarly, a cleric of the Tempest Domain brings an interesting opportunity to the cleric (whose spell list includes no reaction spells at all in official sources) in the form of the Wrath of the Storm, one of the few special options for reactions available to clerics.

Xanathar's Lost Notes getting the most from your spells
The Entropy Domain in Xanathar’s Lost Notes to Everything gives clerics access to potent forces to “shield themselves from magic and annihilate arcane casters.” And they can summon a weird ball of void stuff too.

When it comes to differences between wizards and clerics, the most significant one comes in the form of the cleric’s Channel Divinity options. All clerics can use the Channel Divinity ability to turn undead. In addition, each domain gets its own special options for Channel Divinity. Most of these use an action. Since using the Channel Divinity ability as an action does not also count as casting a spell, it means this can be paired with a bonus action. Fortunately for clercs, they have a number of great bonus action spells.

Healing word is a mainstay in many games, and their other low-level options, sanctuary, shield of faith, and spiritual weapon are all great choices and can all pair nicely with all of the action-use Channel Divinity options. This is a great “cheat” to get around the limitation on casting only a cantrip as an action or bonus action if you also cast a spell of 1st level or higher on your turn. And, since clerics regain their expended uses of Channel Divinity on a long or short rest (unlike their spells, which are only regained on a long rest), it’s always a good idea to use them up at your earliest opportunity, meaning those bonus action spells are likely to get used on a regular basis.

Depending on their Arcane Traditions, wizards also have additional options to pair with spells. Some traditions grant passive abilities, some are used in conjunction with a spell as it is cast, and some are used as actions or reactions. Depending on your wizard’s tradition, you may want to prepare more or fewer action, reaction, or bonus action spells. It is also worth considering whether your tradition’s features include a concentration component. If so, you may want to trim down the number of concentration spells you prepare.

Unlike with clerics, however, abilities granted by Arcane Traditions that have limited uses are not always recovered on a short rest; some are only regained on a long rest. This will also tip the balance in terms of which spells to prepare to pair with it. If it is an ability that only recovers on a long rest, there is a good chance that you will want to hold off on using it until a crucial moment, instead of using it right away with the expectation that you may be able to recover your expended use on a quick short rest.

This leads in to one final and substantial difference between wizards and clerics: Arcane Recovery. While clerics can always look forward to getting their Channel Divinity uses back on a short rest, wizards can, once between long rests, make use of their Arcane Recovery ability to recover some portion of their spell slots.

What this means in practice is picking a few low-level spells that pair well with your particular Arcane Tradition and its special abilities, and using them liberally until you have expended your Arcane Recovery use.

Turning to the example of the abjurer, this means spells like shield and absorb elements should definitely be on the menu. If you are an evoker, prepare some low-level area effect spells to capitalize on your Sculpt Spells feature. If your Arcane Tradition has a feature that requires an action, be sure a low-level bonus action spell, such as expeditious retreat, magic weapon, or misty step is on your list so that you can pair them if need be. If your ability uses a bonus action, be less inclined to have more than one of those at the ready. If your ability requires a reaction, especially in the event that it is a defensive ability, you may not feel the need to load up on all the defensive reaction spells.

Tools

If all of this sounds like a lot to think about, it is. One of the fun parts of 5E D&D is that it is pretty easy to learn the basics and play, but you will find there are always more things to learn as you continue to enjoy the hobby. One resource that has made my life easier when it comes to thinking about things like spell lists is a good spell sorter. D&D Beyond has this right at their website. You can sort spells by class, action type, whether or not concentration is involved, damage type, spell school, and so many other factors. It’s a great way to figure out a good default spell list, and also a few situational spell lists.

When playing a character who prepares spells, I often sketch out a generic overland travel spell list, a list for when my character is in a city or town, and a dungeon crawling spell list. Based on what information I can obtain about upcoming events, I can tweak those by adding spells likely to be especially useful and discarding spells that will almost certainly be useless.

For a lot of people, spell cards also help to keep things organized. When you’re playing a caster with a limited pool of spells, it’s pretty easy to memorize all your spells just through play. Anyone who has played a warlock for a few sessions probably knows the range on eldritch blast is 120 feet, but when you have access to a large pool of spells, it can be bewildering to keep track of which spells require concentration, what the ranges of all the spells are, what’s an action, what’s a bonus action, whether something has an expensive component, and so on. Pregaming with a spell sorter or having a set of cards you can reference quickly definitely help with all of that. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: It’s no secret I’m a huge DDB advocate, but I also like spell cards, specifically the Gale Force 9 Spellbook Cards.]

Druids

I should point out everything I said about wizards and clerics also applies to druids, but to an even greater degree. Druids are, in my opinion, the most advanced class in D&D. Their spell list has a lot of variety, but rookie players can fall into the trap of taking too many spells that require concentration, or too many spells that are limited by environment or other factors.

Getting the most out of druid spells requires all the same considerations as it does for wizards and clerics, but unlike those classes, a druid’s best option in a given situation is not always clear. This is especially the case for the various Circles of the Land types of druid and the Circle of Dreams druid.

My advice to new players trying out a druid is to make liberal use of Wild Shape ability, since you recover it on a short rest, and be prepared to do a lot of auxiliary and utility work. At low levels, a Circle of the Moon druid can really shine with its beastly hit point pool from wild shaping into bears and the like, but in general, druids should try to select spells to fill in the gaps where the party is weakest. In addition, find out what the other characters in the party are good at, and select your spells and tactics to augment those strengths. Either way, this involves a lot of communication with the other players to figure out what it is they want to do with their characters. Be prepared to experiment (and fail!) a lot with your spells, but also be ready for a rewarding experience as you put the pieces together and become a major factor in overall party success.

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Benjamin T. Awesome resides in Los Angeles and enjoys participating in an unmanageably large number of TTRPGs, so much so that it routinely interferes with his Nintendo and board gaming.

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Benjamin T. Awesome resides in Los Angeles and enjoys participating in an unmanageably large number of TTRPGs, so much so that it routinely interferes with his Nintendo and board gaming.

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