Top 10 Most Useful Cantrips in 5e

No matter what edition of Dungeons and Dragons you are playing, cantrips (also referred to as ‘0’ level spells) are some of the most fun spells that a lower level spellcaster can get. While there are many in 5th edition that do damage, my favorites are more utility. After all, anyone can zap someone with a firebolt and after a few levels, those spells become a waste. Using some of the spells listed below, however, takes true finesse.

It’s worth noting that in 5e, cantrips are unlimited use, one of many things borrowed from Pathfinder. However, for those of you more familiar with older systems, the wording has been changed on a few of them, both increasing and changing the functionality so read it first!

That being said, here are 10 cantrips that spellcasters really shouldn’t be without:

1. Mage Hand

Without a doubt, this is top of the list of spells that my players routinely use. It’s worth noting that this spell has been slightly changed from previous versions, to the player’s advantage. Here’s the 5e PHB description:

Bard, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard  |  30 ft  | Verbal, Somatic | Duration: 1 minute  | PHB 256

A spectral, floating hand appears at a point you choose within range. It lasts for the duration or until you dismiss it… You can use an action to manipulate an object, open an unlocked door or container, stow or retrieve an item from an open container, or pour the contents out of a vial… the hand can’t attack, activate magic items, or carry more than 10 lbs.

Notice anything? For those of you unfamiliar with older versions of D&D, the two primary things that made Mage Hand a not overpowered spell were that it A) could only lift 5 lbs and, more importantly B) could only effect unattended items. You’ll notice that word doesn’t appear in the above description at all. So here are some obvious (and not-so-obvious) things things you can do:

  • Pick someone’s pocket
  • Steal the spell components from a mage in battle
  • Disarm an unaware enemy (Steal their sword; dump out their quiver)
  • Poke someone to distract them
  • Trigger a trap from a safe distance
  • Hand out potions in battle
  • Attach a grappling hook
  • Tie someone’s shoe laces together
  • Drop poison into a glass
  • Pull down someone’s pants

As you can see, the things you can do are endless. Some DMs will also rule that it can exert 10 lbs of force, which adds even more fun, but that’s a gray area, so make sure you check before hinging your plan on that.

2. Prestidigitation

Although actually meant to be for parlor tricks, this is a surprisingly versatile spell which can have a number of effects, depending on the world that you are in. Here’s what the PHB says:

Bard, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard  |  10 ft  |  Verbal, Somatic  |  Duration: 1 hour  |  PHB: 267

You can create a minor magical effect within range:

  • An instantaneous, harmless sensory effect
  • light or snuff out a candle, torch, or small campfire
  • clean or soil 1 cubit foot of material
  • chill, warm, or flavor 1 cubic foot of nonliving material for 1 hour
  • make a color, small mark, or symbol appear for 1 hour
  • create a non-magical trinket or illusory image that lasts until the end of your next turn.

You can have up to 3 effects going at once.

Here are a few possible uses:

  •  Camouflage a thief’s gear (or even the character) to help with sneak
  • Make a silver coin appear gold for trading (just make sure you leave town quick!)
  • Create a copy of a key
  • Make a nonmagic version of a magic item
  • Light a Molotov cocktail (then use mage hand to launch it)
  • Douse someone in water
  • Snuff out all the candles to sneak through the room
  • Heat an enemy’s weapon (at DM discretion)
  • Change the language on a scroll (at DM discretion)
  • Make a room smell bad to force occupants to leave
  • Mark someone or something with a sigil to easily recognize it
  • Fake a “truth stone” that changes color when someone lies (requires bluff)
  • Make a town statue ‘cry’ blood
  • Add a bitter ‘poison’ flavor to a drink to convince someone to buy an ‘antidote’ (which may or may not actually be the poison)

As a side note, the Druid spell Druidcraft is also extremely similar to this, with the addition that it can make plants grow. It can be used for very similar things.

3. Minor Illusion

Although nowhere near as powerful as the 3rd level spell Major Image, there are still plenty of things that you can do with it. Here is the PHB description:

Bard, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard  |  30 ft |  Somatic, Material  | Duration: 1 minute  |  PHB: 260

magic-illusionYou create a sound or an image of an object within range… The illusion ends if you dismiss it as an action or cast it again.

If you create a sound, its volume can be from a whisper to a scream. It can be your voice, someone else’s voice, or any other sound you choose. The sound can continue unabated, or you can make discrete sounds throughout the duration.

If you create an image of a object, it must be no larger than a 5 foot cube. The image can’t create sound, light, smell, or any other sensory effect. Physical interaction with the image reveals it to be an illusion because things can pass through it. A creature can use its action to examine the sound or image and with a successful Intelligence (Investigation) check vs your spell DC, determine it to be an illusion.

I’ve honestly seen players use the illusory sound far more than an illusory image, as it’s by far the more powerful of the two uses. Here are just a few examples of uses for the spell:

  • Create a “laugh track” or the sound of applause to help with a bardic performance or speech.
  • Mimic the sound of a larger monster to scare away smaller creatures (my players tend to go to owlbear for some reason, although dragon would be good)
  • Mimic the sound of a spell going off to send people scurrying for cover
  • Create illusory insignia of a noble/city guard to get access to restricted locations
  • Create a field of fake caltrops behind you to give pursuers pause
  • Imitate the sounds of battle or “the prisoners are escaping!” or similar ruses
  • Enhance bardic performances
  • Disguise a trap or pit
  • Create an illusion of an object and hide behind it (good for stupid enemies)
  • Create maps, diagrams, or images to give silent directions to allies
  • Give someone theme music

There are also endless uses for playing pranks on people, but I’m going to leave you, dear readers, to your own imaginations for that.

4. Mending

This is probably one of the most overlooked spells, and reading the PHB description, it’s probably easy to see why:

Bard, Cleric, Druid, Sorcerer, Wizard  |  Touch |  Verbal, Somatic, Material  |  Duration: 1 minute  |  PHB: 259

This spell repairs a single break or tear in an object you touch… as long as the break or tear is no larger than 1 foot in dimension, you mend it, leaving no trace of the former damage. The spell can physically repair a magic item or construct, but cannot restore magic to such an item.

So, why is fixing things so awesome? Well, it isn’t all that useful unless you design things around this spell. Here are some possibilities:

  • Craft cuffs with no opening, then break them. When ready for use, clap them on someone then mend them back together again.
  • Break an object and hide something in it. Then mend it with said object inside
  • Tear up a document to protect from prying eyes, then piece it together again later
  • Use an object as identification: break it in half, give half to someone, then put the pieces back together to identify the person later
  • Hobble a wagon wheel and take a piece so it can’t be moved, then mend it when you need the wagon again.
  • Fix broken arrows instead of buying more

Of course, the spell can also be used for obvious things like repairing broken furniture after a barfight, and even repairing the lock your fighter busted after the rogue failed his lockpick check.

5. Guidance

This spell is really only going to be super useful at lower levels, but its uses will pay for itself. Here’s what the PHB reads:

Cleric, Druid  |  Touch |  Verbal, Somatic  |  Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute  |  PHB: 248

You touch one willing creature. Once, before the spell ends, the target can roll a d4 and add the number to one ability check of its choice. It can roll the die before or after making the ability check. The spell then ends.

In combat, this isn’t usually going to be super helpful, but imagine being able to give every person in your party a free bonus die before making that death-defying leap over a pit of spikes, or for a strength check to bust down the door. At lower levels especially, an additional 1-4 can really make or break your check.

Also, as a side note, the cantrip Resistance (also available for Cleric and Druid) does the exact same thing, but for saving throws. Definitely useful if you have a DM that throws lots of traps and the like at you.

6. Blade Ward

This spell has slightly more limited use than some of the above spells, but for a spellcaster it can be invaluable. Here’s the PHB description:

Bard, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard  |  Self | Verbal, Somatic | Duration: 1 round  |  PHB: 218

You extend your hand and trace a sigil of warding in the air. Until the end of your next turn, you have resistance against bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage dealt by weapon attacks

Resistance is a little different in every edition, but in 5e, it halves the damage against you. That’s right. A cantrip can turn a really scary amount of damage into something far more manageable for your squishy spellcaster.

As a note, do make sure you are aware that it’s only against weapon attacks which means that beasts aren’t going to care at all, and magic effects are also not effected. Additionally, it’s at your DM’s discretion if they round up at an odd number, and it’s safe to assume they will (I certainly would).

wizard-cantrip-spells-magicBasically, this spell is useful if you somehow find yourself cornered by an enemy and the rest of your party is otherwise occupied. It’ll buy you at least one more round of life. And, really, that can make all the difference.

I’d personally treat this more like a failsafe than an essential—but before you dismiss it too quickly, remember that it could be argued that the damage is halved after adding all applicable non-magic bonuses, which can really make a huge difference at higher levels. After all, the strength modifier determines the speed and strength of the hit and therefore could be considered part of the weapon’s damage. Of course in the end, the interpretation is really up to your DM and some may only half the stated die amount. Make sure you ask
first.

7. Dancing Lights

Most non-human races have some sort of lowlight vision, so much like the more mundane Lights cantrip, this one gets overlooked. And I can definitely see why. They both have their uses, but I personally always liked Dancing Lights better, as Light really could be replicated with something as simple as a torch and Dancing Lights has some cool secondary uses. Here’s the wording:

Bard, Sorcerer, Wizard  |  120 ft |  Verbal, Somatic, Material  | Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute |  PHB: 230
You create up to four torch sized lights within range, making them appear as torches, lanterns, or glowing orbs that hover in the air for the duration. You can also combine the four lights into one glowing vaguely humanoid form of Medium size. Whichever form you choose, each light sheds dim light in a 10 foot radius.

As a bonus action on your turn, you can move the lights up to 60 feet to a new spot within range. A light must be within 20 feet of another light created by this spell, and a light winks out if it exceeds the spell’s range.

As you can probably guess, most people use Dancing Lights simply to scout; moving them along a hallway/room independently. However, reading the description there are three things that you probably noticed (and if you didn’t, you can pretend you did and nod wisely while reading them below):

  1. It doesn’t say that you can’t move them through solid objects. Of course, it doesn’t say you can, but I think most DMs would allow it. Either way, this can be used to your advantage if you want to scout ahead or just scare the hell out of someone.
  2. The spell sheds dim light. Characters with darkvision can see in dim light as if it was bright light, but if you don’t have darkvision, you are at a disadvantage. Imagine the advantage of using dancing lights to light a battle where you can see and your enemies are all at a penalty. Pretty sweet, right?
  3. Dancing lights can be morphed into a person. A glowing person that you can move around and, with a bit of creativity or perhaps a minor illusion cantrip cast by a friend, you could really bluff a dumb creature.

Do you see the possibilities? From scouting to bluffing, battle, to help with performances or even just lighting a room… Dancing Lights is my go-to.

It’s definitely worth noting, however, that the cantrip Light was a close second for this slot, so don’t underestimate it. Think it should have been here instead of Dancing Lights? Leave me a note below and let me know why!

8. Shocking Grasp

This particular spell is one that is nearly always overlooked. Most wizards avoid touch spells (and I really can’t blame them, especially if you’re coming from an older system where wizards are painfully squishy) but this is one that I personally always take. Here’s the text:

Sorcerer, Wizard  |  Touch |  Verbal, Somatic  |  Duration: Instantaneous  |  PHB: 275

Lightning springs from your hand to deliver a shock to a creature you try to touch. Make a melee spell attack against the target. You have advantage on the attack roll if the target is wearing armor made of metal. On a hit, the target takes 1d8 lightning damage and it can’t take reactions til the start of its next turn. The spell’s damage increases by 1d8 when you reach 5th, 11th, and 17th level.

Looking at that spell, it doesn’t really look like all that much, and the damage really isn’t anything that exciting. However, this spell has a utility that most people don’t actually consider: it stops the enemy from making a reaction (such as an attack of opportunity, casting some spells, or even a readied action) until its next turn.

Since this is a spell the requires touch, that alone makes it a great backup if you need to get away from a creature quickly and don’t want to mess with trying to dodge an attack of opportunity. Granted, as a spellcaster you shouldn’t be up close with an enemy anyway, but combined with other strategies, this can be quite the useful spell.

9. Thamaturgy

I almost didn’t include this particular spell because it is very similar to Prestidigitation, and it’s only available to Clerics. However, depending on the kind of campaign that you’re in, this spell can be a ridiculous amount of fun for actual roleplay. Here’s the text:

Cleric  |  30 feet |  Verbal  | Duration: 1 minute  |  PHB: 282

You manifest a minor wonder, a sign of supernatural power, within range. You create one of the following magical effects within range:

  • Your voice booms up to three times as loud as normal for 1 minute
  • You cause flames to flicker, brighten, dim, or change color for 1 minute
  • You cause harmless tremors in the ground for 1 minute
  • You create instantaneous sound that originates from a point of your choice within range such as a rumble of thunder, the cry of a raven, or ominous whispers.
  • You instantaneously cause an unlocked door or window to fly open or slam shut.
  • You alter the appearance of your eyes for 1 minute

You can have up to three 1 minute effects active at a time and can dismiss such an effect as an action.

The spell itself is obviously designed for players to mimic being an avatar of a god, and while that can be great fun, there are a few other applications as well.

  • Create a distraction
  • Trigger a trap on an unlocked door from a safe distance
  • Make someone think your’e possessed
  • Close a door to stop an enemy from fleeing (or at least detain them momentarily)
  • Call for help/alert allies

Remember that you can do up to three at once, much like Prestidigitation. This spell is mostly going to be useful for startling dumb creatures or to enhance bluff and other similar spells.

10. Eldrich Blast

Okay, this last is kind of a cheat because it’s only available for Warlock, and it’s really one of their bread-and-butter spells. But since it’s a cantrip, I didn’t feel right leaving it out. Here’s the PHB wording:

Warlock  |  120 feet |  Verbal, Somatic |  Duration: Instantaneous  |  PHB: 237

A beam of crackling energy streaks toward a creature within range. Make a ranged attack against the target. On a hit, the target takes 1d10 force damage.

The spell creates more than one beam when you reach higher levels… you can direct the beams at the same target or different ones

Not super impressive on its own, but at higher levels, Warlocks can add additional things to it, like force pushing a target hit by one of these, etc. If you’re a battle warlock and you didn’t take this spell, shame on you. The uses really depend on what additions you take with it, so make sure you read those carefully and use your imagination!

What creative cantrips have you used? Tell me in the comments below!!

2 thoughts on “Top 10 Most Useful Cantrips in 5e

  1. Minor Illusion ideas:
    Twig snapping
    Mosquito
    Sound of a cave creature to scare away others. [Lasts 1 minute while you cast silent image for both sound and moving visuals]
    Zelda sound when party opens a chest
    Combine with Darkness to make sound of nasty beast
    Fake Earthy Grasping Hand (better because it has ‘reach’ further extending the area controled)
    Fake Grease/Portable Hole/Pool of Acid/Flaming Sphere
    Fake Magic Mouth on wall so passersbys try to guess passphrase
    Table’s surface as 1 inch higher than truth
    Image of demon/devil when encountering the other due to their hatred. Same with other creatures with a grudge.
    5’x7’ door if 5’ cube is ok at an angle
    White noise to mask conversation
    False information on papers (wrong address, wrong name)
    Wrap self in armor stand to hide
    Hornets outside cave to draw out a few baddies
    Chest surrounded by chest (mimic chest that eats people)
    Pool of acid with bones. Unlikely for people to interact, requiring action to investigate
    If you consider a corpse/bust to be an object, make an illusion of a foe’s head. If you saw your own head lying on the ground, wouldn’t you waste an action to investigate? It is easy to make an illusion of something to avoid, but 5′ square doesn’t change behavior much. Attracting a foe is harder and more useful.

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