For the low-level spellcaster, the choice of spells in your arsenal can be the difference between life and death. Choosing wisely on what spells to prepare – and exactly when and how to use them – is a vital skill for every newbie that deals in magic.
And with that in mind, let’s take a look at one 1st level spell that pops up on the list of not one, but three magic-wielding classes. For those starting spellcasters that need to make every spell count, this is a deep dive into a promising option from 5E D&D – Witch Bolt.
What is Witch Bolt?
Below are the essential stats for Witch Bolt:
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 30 feet
Components: V, S, M (a twig from a lightning-struck tree)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute
Classes: Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard
Witch Bolt causes a flickering blue bolt of energy to shoot from the cast to an enemy within range. On the initial round, it deals 1d12 lightning damage on a successful spell attack roll.
Each round thereafter, so long as the caster maintains concentration and the target stays within range and not behind full cover, the caster can use their action to deal an additional 1d12. If the caster uses a spell slot higher than 1st level, the damage on the initial round (only) is increased by 1d12 for each level above 1st.
Witch Bolt appears as a 1st level spell on the Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard lists. The Eldritch Knight and Arcane Trickster subclasses have access to it at 3rd level, and bards have access to it at 10th level via the Magical Secrets ability (or 6th level for the College of Lore).
Note that, while Witch Bolt can crit just like other “attack roll” spells, the critical only applies to the initial round. The following round damage remains only at 1d12, whether the initial attack roll was a critical or not.
The Good and the Bad about Witch Bolt
Witch Bolt does a truly impressive amount of damage for a 1st level spell – 1d12 for up to 10 rounds. With that being focused at a single target, Witch Bolt is a great way for a caster to take down a meatier opponent on the other side while staying at a relatively safe distance.
Note the “relatively” in that sentence. The 30-foot range of Witch Bolt is far enough to keep the caster out of melee, just barely.
But it’s fairly short as ranged spells go, and a number of other options give the caster the freedom to strike targets even further away. Not to mention the target can end the spell by moving out of that range, greatly limiting where and when the caster can (or must) move to keep the spell going.
Then there’s the limitation of the spell’s target. While you can get some 10 rounds of lightning damage out of Witch Bolt, it can only be directed at a single creature.
That’s potentially a lot of hit points dumped in one place (average 65 hit points for all 10 rounds), and if the target falls after only a few rounds or manages to slip behind cover, you can’t redirect the spell elsewhere.
That makes Witch Bolt a boss-only spell, not something you’d throw away on a random orc, limiting the times and situations where it’s best used.
On the plus side, the spell has no save but instead works on a ranged spell attack roll. When you run the dry statistics on that (or when you let someone else do it for you, preferably), the numbers show that attack rolls break in the caster’s favor more often than target saves, even when the save stat isn’t one of the more common ones.
That means attack spells like Witch Bolt tend to land at least slightly more often than spells like Burning Hands that rely on a target failing a saving throw.
But the best thing about Witch Bolt has to be that the subsequent rounds are automatic – only the first round requires an attack roll.
Assuming that hits, the next 9d12 (if the target lasts that long) is on the house. For a 1st or 2nd level caster, whose spell attack roll may still not be as good as it could be, that’s a big deal. It essentially gives you up to 9 free hits so long as you can make the first one.
Of course, that automatic damage requires spending your action for that turn, which keeps you from casting other spells with a few exceptions (cantrips that cost a bonus action, for example).
The good news is that you don’t actually have to spend your action each turn – you can just sacrifice the automatic damage for that round while keeping the spell itself active via concentration, allowing you to fire off a different (non-concentration) spell, Dash, Dodge, or whatever other compatible action you might need to take and resume the Witch Bolt damage on the next round.
Where Witch Bolt Falls Behind
By the time they reach 3rd level, Wizards get access to Flaming Sphere, which offers 2d6 per round with a longer range and the same duration – as well as the ability to switch targets.
Sorcerers and Warlocks at 3rd level can get Cloud of Daggers, which can deal 4d4 for up to a minute if used strategically. Along with other choice 2nd level spells that can be taken, the allure of Witch Bolt starts to fade around this point.
And once they get to 5th level, having received both a boost in their proficiency bonus and an ability score increase (which they will likely put in their spellcasting stat, if it’s not already optimal), the freedom from making those additional attack rolls becomes less important. And at that point a number of cantrips actually start to offer more in the way of damage.
Let’s look at the Acid Splash cantrip, available to Wizards and Sorcerers. Granted, it only does 1d6 at first level, but once you get to 5th level, it’s doing 2d6, which is roughly on par with Witch Bolt’s 1d12 – and with twice the range.
And not only can Acid Splash can do that damage to two targets if they’re within 5’ of each other, which is quite a bonus, but resistance to acid damage is also twice as rare as lightning resistance.
Likewise, once a Sorcerer reaches 5th level, their Ray of Frost cantrip will offer 2d8 cold damage. And while cold resistance is somewhat more common than lightning resistance, the higher average damage (9 hit points, versus 6.5 hit points for Witch Bolt) somewhat makes up for that.
The Warlock’s Eldritch Blast competes with Witch Bolt even at 1st level, offering 1d10 force damage (a much rarer resistance than lightning).
Not to mention it has four times the range of Witch Bolt. Once that turns into 2d10 damage at 5th level, it’s hard to make an argument for casting Witch Bolt instead.
And these are just a sample of the options different casters have. Sorcerers have a number of damage-dealing cantrips that power up on the same timetable, and by 5th level they’re at least equivalent in damage to Witch Bolt, if not exceeding it.
And while they don’t get the automatic following rounds of damage, they also don’t require concentration or lock the caster into the same target.
Rather, the caster at this point can throw one or more such cantrips round after round, switching spells and targets as the situation requires and inserting other actions into the mix as called for.
Compared to these options, Witch Bolt really loses its luster by this time. And while you can cast Witch Bolt with a higher spell slot, it’s a questionable choice.
Using a higher spell slot will give you an extra 1d12 for each level above 1st, which is nice – but only for the initial hit. The enduring damage will still only be 1d12 a round, no matter what level spell slot you use.
So, while it’s a very effective attack spell at low levels – the automatic damage beyond the first round is especially nice, freeing low-level casters from having to gamble on attack rolls – its appeal definitely fades as the caster increases in level.
Of course, as an attack spell with only one target, Witch Bolt is eligible to be twinned by a sorcerer with that Metamagic option, and that clearly changes the math a bit.
Even though a sorcerer can’t get that ability before 3rd level, when Witch Bolt would normally be showing its age, the ability to run two Witch Bolts on separate targets and run them both for up to a minute definitely lengthens the spell’s shelf life a tad.
Who Not to Target With Witch Bolt
Lastly, while Witch Bolt is a spell for taking down a boss, it’s not for taking down every boss. Bear in mind that it’s dealing lightning damage, and there are some targets that, due to resistance if not outright immunity, you don’t want to try targeting with it.
It should be obvious that you don’t want to throw lightning at something that also throws lightning, since such creatures naturally tend to be immune to it.
That means that Blue or Bronze Dragons, Behirs, Storm Giants, Will-o-Wisps, and Djinn all fall into this group. Still other creatures that can deal lightning damage, like Balors, have resistance rather than actual immunity, but that doesn’t make Witch Bolt any better of a choice against them.
Then there are creatures against whom lightning damage can cause more problems for you than for them.
A good example of these are the Ochre Jelly and the Black Pudding, both of which are not only immune to lightning, but an attack with lightning damage causes them to split into two separate creatures.
Though they also split hit points and are one size smaller than the original creature, it’s still two enemies to fight instead of one, and the special attacks of such creatures are bad news for a party no matter how many small pieces you chop them into.
An even worse category are creatures like Flesh Golems and Shambling Mounds, who actually regain hit points when hit with lightning damage. These are clearly the last enemies you’d want to break out Witch Bolt against.
The good news is that none of these are creatures you’re likely to encounter when you’re still low enough in level for Witch Bolt to be a go-to spell.
Even the tiniest Blue Dragon is a CR3, and the enemies with lightning immunity or resistance only climb from there. And if you’re still relying on Witch Bolt in combat by the time you’re at the level of meeting them, you’ve made some terrible, terrible choices.
Is Witch Bolt 5e Worth It?
It’s hard to find a better 1st level spell than Witch Bolt for a 1st or 2nd level caster needing to whittle down a tougher opponent, such as an ogre (if you have the kind of DM that would throw ogres at a 1st level party).
And while the inability to switch targets does limit the spell, the option to skip the automatic damage for a round here or there to take other actions while keeping the spell going does give it a little flexibility.
But it will start to become less useful fairly quickly. Unlike some other 1st level spells that seem to scale up with spending extra spell slots, the effect seems relatively muted for Witch Bolt, and by the time you’ve hit 5th level it’s unlikely to be your best choice.
Still, it’s a fantastic starter spell to help you live long enough to make it to the levels where you don’t need it anymore.
Witch Bolt FAQ’S
Witch Bolt causes a crackling beam of blue energy to strike the designated target (on a successful spell attack roll). This beam does 1d12 lightning damage on the initial round, and so long as the caster maintains concentration, they can spend their action to do an additional 1d12 each round after, with no attack roll needed.
On a critical (natural 20), Witch Bolt deals an extra die of damage just as any other damage-causing spell. It’s important to note, though, that this extra damage is for the first round only – the automatic damage on subsequent rounds is unaffected by the crit and is still only 1d12.
As a ranged attack spell that targets only one creature, Witch Bolt can indeed be twinned. The initial and recurring damage would affect both targets, so long as they were in range and the caster was using their action (and concentrating) to maintain the spell.