Which Fighter Martial Archetype should you choose?
A guide for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition
Your fighter has defeated enough opponents and survived enough battles to reach level three. Now you must choose which Martial Archetype - or subclass - for your fighter to follow. This choice will grant new abilities at level three and also affect the abilities your fighter will gain throughout their career.
In this article I will discuss all of the Martial Archetypes currently available, starting with the original subclasses from the Player's Handbook, followed by those published in other source books. I will evaluate the benefits of each subclass and discuss the situations in which you might choose each subclass.
Battle Master (Player’s Handbook)
The Battle Master is a subclass so popular that some people think its abilities should have been part of the core Fighter class. Battle masters gain access to several active abilities called maneuvers which can include things like disarming your opponent, tripping them up or distracting them with a feint. These abilities are fuelled by a pool of superiority dice - whenever you use a maneuver you roll one die from your superiority pool and add it to your roll. Battle masters also gain proficiency in a choice of artisan’s tools and can study their enemies to learn their strengths and weaknesses.
Maneuvers are a fantastic way to spice up your fighter in a very theme-appropriate way. They give you a range of different options to use in combat that can significantly affect the flow of a battle when used in the right circumstances. That you can recover all of your spent superiority dice on a short rest means you can use them fairly liberally as well. Being able to access tactical information about your opponents, including things like their hit points and armor class, can also be exceptionally useful.
Do play a Battle Master if you want a set of unique active abilities that will make combat more interesting.
Don’t play a Battle Master if your Dungeon Master runs long adventuring days without many short rests.
Champion (Player’s Handbook)
Often described as the subclass for beginners, the Champion provides several always-on passive abilities. These include increasing your chance of scoring critical hits, gaining a second fighting style, gaining bonuses to physical skill checks, and lastly gaining regeneration while on low hit points.
The main draw of this class is the increased chance of critical hits. But keep in mind that you only double your damage dice on a critical hit - you do not double any static bonuses to damage from things like your ability score modifier. This means that in many circumstances, rolling a critical hit will only increase damage by a modest amount. And each of the two critical range improvements provided by the Champion class only boost your chance of rolling a critical hit by 5% each. The other Champion abilities are either unexciting, or come in at far too high level to see play in most campaigns.
Do play a Champion if you want passive benefits that will consistently grant small benefits.
Don’t play a Champion if you want active abilities that you can choose when to activate.
Eldritch Knight (Player’s Handbook)
The Eldritch Knight gives the fighter access to wizard cantrips and a small number of wizard spells, most of which must be from the evocation or abjuration schools of magic. Eldritch knights gain several other combat tricks, like being able to summon a weapon to their hand, or teleport whenever they use their action surge ability.
The Eldritch Knight is a subclass that succeeds or fails depending on the spells that you have access to. If you are only using the Player’s Handbook then the Eldritch Knight can feel lacklustre. None of the combat cantrips available will be a better than just attacking with your weapon, making them feel pointless. Your other spells won’t do much better as your spell progression is so slow. By the time you learn to cast 2nd, 3rd or 4th level spells, many of them will feel obsolete.
But with the use of other source books like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Tasha’s Caudron of Everything, the Eldritch Knight gains a much better spell selection. Cantrips like Booming Blade and Green Flame Blade can replace your standard attack, and spells like Shadow Blade and Absorb Elements help you to get better value from your spell slots.
Do play an Eldritch Knight if you want to be a fighter who can cast a small selection of battle spells.
Don’t play an Eldritch Knight if you want a character that balances might and magic equally - the Eldritch Knight is far more focused on marital combat than on spells.
Arcane Archer (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
Arcane archers can shoot their enemies with magically infused arrows, dealing extra damage and inflicting status effects on the targets they hit. Arcane archers also gain one cantrip, proficiency in the arcana or nature skills, and can use a bonus action to redirect missed attacks against a new target.
The Arcane Archer feels like it is appealing to a very small character niche - ranged fighters are a minority and fewer still want to infuse their arrows with magic. The abilities this subclass provides are handy, but don’t quite stack up with the Battle Master’s maneuvers. Arcane shots deal more bonus damage than maneuvers, but arcane archers are limited to only two arcane shots per short rest, while battle masters have four superiority dice and can add more through feats or fighting styles. Being able to redirect missed attacks, on the other hand, is a great way to use a bonus action.
Do play an Arcane Archer if you want to play the very specific character concept of an archer who can occasionally make magical shots.
Don’t play an Arcane Archer if you just want to play a skilled archer - Battle Master can prove more effective for this.
Banneret/ Purple Dragon Knight (Sword Coast Adventure Guide)
The Banneret is a charismatic leader who grants non-magical buffs to their allies through their inspiring presence. Bannerets can heal nearby allies for a few hit points whenever they use the Second Wind fighter ability. As the banneret gains levels, they can also grant a bonus attack to an ally whenever they use the Action Surge fighter ability, and grant a saving throw re-roll to an ally when they use the Indomitable fighter ability. As noble knights, Bannerets also gain extra skill proficiencies and a bonus to persuasion checks.
The Banneret’s niche of providing additional benefits to your allies when using fighter abilities is an interesting concept. The problem is that the subclass gives you very few new abilities to use. Instead it just augments your existing fighter powers and some of the augments are a little on the weak side compared to the abilities gained by other subclasses. If you want to play a supportive fighter, you may be better off protecting your allies as a Cavalier or casting buffs as an Eldritch Knight.
Do play a Banneret if you want simple upgrades to your existing abilities aimed at supporting your allies.
Don’t play a Banneret if you want to gain new active abilities.
Cavalier (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
The Cavalier is a martial archetype built for tanking, and gains several abilities that allow them to protect more vulnerable allies. This includes applying disadvantage on attacks that don’t target the cavalier, making bonus attacks against enemies who attack allies, reducing the amount of damage that nearby allies take, and preventing enemies from moving away from you. As the name suggests, cavaliers also gain some bonuses to mounted combat and charging.
The Cavalier is one of the best tanking options in the entire game. The sheer number of different ways they can protect their allies is staggering. However, many of these abilities have a limited number of uses per long rest. Therefore if you play with long adventuring days, you may need to use your abilities sparingly. The Cavalier has little to boost your own damage output or defence though. It is a subclass for team players rather than power gamers.
Do play a Cavalier if you want to protect your allies with a range of tanking abilities.
Don’t play a Cavalier if you want a subclass that boosts your damage output.
Echo Knight (Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount)
Echo knights can summon a shadowy version of themselves as a bonus action. This echo can move around the battlefield as long as it stays within 30 feet of the fighter. The echo knight can interact with their echo in a number of ways, such as switching places with their echo as a teleport, or attacking using their echo rather than their own weapon. The echo knight gains more ways of interacting with their echo as they level up, eventually being able to transfer their consciousness into their echo for a short time, and gaining temporary hit points whenever their echo is destroyed.
There is an immense amount of versatility and tactical opportunity in the Echo Knight. You will essentially be able to control two separate areas of the battlefield at once, almost as though you were playing two separate characters. This gives you so many advantages in hitting your enemies in their weakest points, keeping vulnerable allies safe or simply being able to flank your opponents more easily.
If there is one drawback to the Echo Knight it is that the echo is quite fragile - it has a moderate AC and only one hit point. At low levels, having your echo tank a hit for you is well worth the bonus action to re-summon it. But at higher levels when enemies are more likely to use area of effect attacks, you might see your echo disappear almost every turn. But from fifteenth level onward, you gain a sizeable number of temporary hit points when your echo is destroyed, mitigating this issue.
Do play an echo knight if you want access to some incredible tactical combat benefits.
Don’t play an echo knight if you don’t want to have to control two separate entities.
Psi Warrior (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything)
Psi warriors are similar to battle masters in that they use a pool of psionic energy dice to activate special combat techniques. In this case, it is telekinetic feats such as forcing an enemy backwards, or throwing up a forcefield to protect a nearby ally. A Psi Warrior gains more psionic powers as they gain levels, and also gains several standalone powers that do not consume psionic energy dice.
The Psi Warrior has an excellent balance of aggressive and supportive abilities that will allow you to dish out additional damage or protect your allies as necessary. They have an advantage over the battle master in that they learn extra abilities that do not consume psionic energy dice, while the battle master mostly learns more maneuver options as they level up.
Do play a Psi Warrior if you want a great suite of active offensive and defensive abilities.
Don’t play a Psi Warrior if telekinetic powers do not fit your campaign setting.
Rune Knight (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything)
The Rune Knight has two key features that improve as they level up. Rune knights can invoke the power of giants to grow large and gain a bonus to strength rolls and damage rolls. They can do this a number of times per long rest equal to their proficiency bonus. Rune knights can also learn runes which they can inscribe on to their equipment. Each different rune will grant different benefits - usually one passive ability and a combat ability that can be activated once per short rest. Rune knights can also protect allies with a runic shield, gain proficiency with smith’s tools and learn the language of giants.
Between all of the possible runes to choose from, the giant growth and the runic shield, the Rune Knight has a lot going on. It almost feels like two subclasses merged into one. Despite this, the Rune Knights abilities do offer a lot of tactical opportunities for you to consider when building and playing your Rune Knight.
Do play a rune knight if you want a subclass with some unique active abilities
Don’t play a rune knight if you want a simple subclass without complex abilities to think about.
Samurai (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
The core feature of the Samurai is Fighting Spirit, which allows them to use a bonus action to gain advantage on attacks and some temporary hit points. At higher levels they can trade in this advantage in order to make an extra attack per turn. The highest level Samurai may delay falling unconscious for one turn when reduced to 0 hit points. Samurai also gain proficiency in extra skills, wisdom saves and an additional bonus to persuasion checks to represent their high status in society.
The problem with the Samurai is that their core feature is very underwhelming. There are so many ways to gain advantage in combat that it really doesn’t feel worth taking the subclass for Fighting Spirit. Before level 10, Fighting Spirit can only be used three times per long rest, meaning that it won’t even see use very often. The other features of the subclass are better, but many of them come online at too high a level to make up for Fighting Spirit.
Do play a Samurai if you are playing a mostly social campaign and think the bonuses to skill checks will be useful.
Don’t play a Samurai if you want to be a cinematic blademaster. Other subclasses will serve you better.