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Guide to Control Builds in 5e

Content of the article: "Guide to Control Builds in 5e"

Guide on Control Builds in 5e

Control in 5e is pretty complicated. In my experience, control builds are the most demanding in terms of player knowledge and experience. Drawing from a lot of contexts (both private campaigns and AL), here is my comparison of control builds in 5e. I'll compare base classes and then multiclass builds. Before getting into the specifics, it's important to define what I mean by control builds. Control as used in this post means abilities that deny enemies the ability to act in combat. It is a reduction in the enemy's ability to act. Just to be complete, I'll define support as abilities that maximize your team's ability to act, direct damage (a.k.a. striker) as the maximization of damage on a single target, and defense as the minimization of enemy damage. It's important to remember that in 5e, the borders between these are fuzzy and the same ability used in different contexts might fit a different definition or more than one, depending on how generous your interpretation is.

To make it even clearer, I'll define 4 pillars of control.

Four Pillars of Control in 5e

  1. Status Effects and Direct Negation: Prevents an enemy from using their actions directly (as in Command, Fear and Hypnotic Pattern) or by imposing a status effect that in context denies them their action, like the Frightened condition on a melee enemy that is out of melee range. The best general abilities in this class are Fear, Hypnotic Pattern, Command (no concentration) and Confusion (for extensibility and limited riders). There are a number of powerful single-target (some twinnable) abilities to note as well: Polymorph, Hold Monster/Person, Banishment, Levitate, Force Cage, Resilient Sphere, Suggestion, Hideous Laughter, etc. Watery Sphere is also in this category. I also classify Counterspell as a control spell in this area, but others may not. Sleep is the defining spell for first tier and subsequently abandoned.
  2. Area of Effect Damage: Used to kill a large number of low-hp enemies in order to prevent them from taking their actions. Important abilities here include Fireball, Spiritual Guardians, Cone of Cold, Chain Lightning and a range of high-level abilities. AOE has the added challenge of dealing with damage types.
  3. Obstacles: Areas of effect like walls, difficult terrain and other hazards that prevent enemies from taking actions by inhibiting movement and targeting. The most prominent example is Wall of Force. Other examples include Web, Black Tentacles, most other wall spells, Sleet Storm, Plant Growth and many more. There are a whole set of obstacles called hazards that damage enemies or impose conditions on them when in the area of effect. This includes Wall of Fire, Hunger of Hadar, etc. In terms of the best Obstacle abilities, Wall of Force is probably the best overall because it is so absolute and flexible. There are also the 'sticky' Obstacles that are difficult to escape, and therefore kill more creature actions. Web is the basic form of a sticky Obstacle. There are others as well, like Black Tentacles and Sleet Storm. Last, there are hazards, which are distinguished by being relatively easy to escape but doing damage or imposing conditions while in them. This includes Stink Cloud, Cloudkill, and the like. Almost all Obstacles except for Grease require concentration, so you need a way to push/pull/move enemies back into the area in subsequent turns that does not require concentration. This last caveat is the reason why Wizards, who are the master of Obstacles in 5e, really struggle to make effective use. They really need a second controller in their party who can pull/push/move to make full use of the Obstacles at their disposal.
  4. Positioning: Effects that move, push or reposition one or more creatures so that enemies will not be in range to use their actions on their turn. This is useful in every control-style build for targeting, but essential in Obstacle-style builds to move enemies back into obstacles after the initial casting. The gold standard here is really Eldritch Blast enhanced with Repelling Blast, Grasp of Hadar and Lance of Lethargy. There are approximations of the enhanced Eldritch Blast that other classes can do, for example Thorn Whip, Gust and Lightning Lure. However, they are much, much less useful than an enhanced Eldritch Blast even when twinned. The other big ability to mention here is Scatter from Xanathar's. This is an incredibly power spell that can change the course of combat. There are a number of small spells like Thunderwave that can situationally help, but have a lot of conditions like proximity that will make them hard to rely on.

Note on Trinity and Trinity + 1 Strategy

The Trinity is a Status Effects strategy composed of Fear, Hypnotic Pattern and Confusion (for fear/frightened immune). The Trinity + 1 is that plus Command, which is used after casting one of the Trinity spells after the first round of combat. Command doesn't require concentration and can be used to target enemies that may have resisted one of the Trinity spells. This strategy is highly effective because it:

  • Affects potentially lots of enemies
  • Covers most creature types
  • Targets a relatively weak saving throw (Wisdom) in early tiers (more on that in a second)
  • Hypnotic Pattern can be augmented by an instrument of the bard

Confusion is usually not as good as Fear or Hypnotic Pattern, but it has two advantages: 1) it can affect things immune to the Frightened and Charmed condition, and 2) its area of effect can be extended by upcasting.

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Stats on Creature Immunities (from DnD Beyond)

Immune to Frightened Immune to Charmed Immune to Both (Use Confusion)
18% 18.5% ~10%

It's a great general strategy that can take you through most encounters, depending on the campaign you are playing. However, it has weaknesses.

  • For the Trinity + 1, Command is not useful when fighting Undead or Constructs
  • Enemies can be widely distributed on the battlefield, especially outside combats and in ranged combats
  • There's a major targeting problem with the Trinity (Careful Spell solves this)
  • All of the saves are Wisdom. Most creatures at low tiers don't have great Wisdom saving throws. However, this changes pretty quickly starting in late tier 2.

Even with the caveats, it's still one of the most effective 5e control strategies in the game.

Classes and Control in 5e

In 5e, control abilities are distributed across a range of classes so that no class can effectively control all situations. Unlike many other kinds of abilities, control abilities have lots of riders that make virtually all control abilities circumstantial to a degree. This is mostly accomplished in three ways:

  • Creature Types: Many control abilities only affect certain kinds of creatures or exclude certain types of creatures. For example, Turn Undead only affects Undead while Command, Phantasmal Force and Hold Monster exclude Undead.
  • Condition Immunities: Many control abilities work with conditions like Charmed, Frightened or Exhausted. Creatures immune to these conditions are therefore immune to these effects.
  • Targeting: Many of the most powerful mass-control abilities will target enemies and allies alike.

This is in addition to the normal factors that affect abilities in 5e, which are distribution/range and enemy defenses (saving throws). When these factors are added up, it means that a good build should be able to exercise control in most circumstances the character is likely to encounter in the campaign:

  • There is no 'best' control build that will work for every campaign — a cleric will exercise extraordinary control with just Turn Undead in Curse of Strahd vs. low control in Storm King's Thunder
  • Different control styles can actually be conflicting. For example, a Status Effects build that relies heavily on Hypnotic Pattern will clash with an AOE build.
  • Inversely, similar control styles tend to be complimentary.
  • All control styles benefit from positioning, especially if this can be done without spending resources, using concentration and/or as a bonus action

Strategies for Controlling 'Hard' Creatures

The most problematic enemies to control in 5e are: Undead, Constructs, creatures with fly speed or teleportation, and incorporeals of any creature type (which are usually but not always Undead). Here's some strategies to deal with them:

  • Undead (excluding Incorporeals): medium and high CR are often immune to the Charmed and Frightened conditions. They're also immune to a bunch of single target control spells like Command, Phantasmal Force and Hold Monster. Skeletons and zombies can usually be controlled with Trinity spells and AOE damage. Most other undead can be controlled with positioning and obstacles, in particular Entangle, Plant Growth, Web, Sleet Storm and Black Tentacles. The best overall ability, however, is Turn Undead.
  • Constructs: Charmed and Frightened immunity as well as enhanced movement like Flying can make these tricky. They are also often immune to 'mind-affecting' spells like Command. For melee constructs without movement, you can use movement-impairing or sticky Obstacles like Plant Growth, Sleet Storm, Web and the like. For mobile ones, you will have a hard time controlling them. Wall of Force, Watery Sphere and Earthen Grasp are some of the few that can help.
  • Incorporeals (including Undead): Turn Undead, positioning or Wall of Force/Force Cage are your only real options and they're not always effective. This is the trickiest type to control in my opinion.

Single Class Comparisons

The details below are more instructive, but I thought I would start with a chart:

Best to worst: S, A, B, C, D

Class Overall Grade Status Effects AOE Obstacles Positioning
Sorcerer B+ S A A D
Wizard B or B+ A S (evoker) otherwise A S D
Bard (with Magical Secrets) B A C A D
Druid B B B A C
Warlock B C C B S
Cleric C C B C D

Bards

Bards have access to a few low-level abilities like Hideous Laughter and Dissonant Whispers (which is more of a damage spell) plus the Status Effects Trinity (Fear, Hypnotic Pattern and Confusion). Hideous Laughter is a concentration effect, so in practice it has to contend with the more powerful Fear and Hypnotic Pattern in later tiers. At early levels, Sleep dominates, which means the niche for Hideous Laughter is much smaller than you would expect. In practice it's not cast nearly as much as it would otherwise suggest. Bards do not have access to a good concentration-less, low resource ability like Command (at least not without using Magical Secrets), so in practice they will often use damage dealing spells like Dissonant Whispers or pseudo-support spells like Vicious Mockery in subsequent rounds, which is consonant with the classes support-style hybridity. An important factor in amplifying the Bard's ability to control is the Instrument of the Bard, which will give opponents disadvantage on Hypnotic Pattern. Note that you can't multiclass into Bard to pick this up effectively: the Instrument only imposes disadvantage when you use it as a spellcasting focus, and bards can only use instruments as spellcasting focuses for bard spells.

The major issue with the Bard build is that it struggles with targeting. High initiative only partially compensate for this and only some of the time. When it lands one of these spells on a large number of creatures, it can potentially trivialize an otherwise difficult encounter. You'll also find that you struggle to exercise control in distributed/spread out combats relying only on Status Effects. Plant Growth can help in certain situations, but Sleet Storm is the real gem in terms of mass control of large, distributed fights. As with most Status Effects builds, undead will be a challenge, especially at lower levels. Bards do not gain access to reliable push/pull abilities nor to the powerful Scatter repositioning. Luckily, control build bards can lean on their Magical Secrets to patch holes. There's only so much you can do before tier 3, however, so you may feel underperforming throughout tier 2.

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Clerics

Clerics have access to single target control spells and the Command spell, which can be upcast to affect more than one target. Command is very powerful in the hands of the right user as a mop up tool in the second round of combat after casting your main concentration-based control spell. Command can cause the DM to have to repeatedly make Wisdom saving throws for most or all creatures every round in order for them to get an action. The flee command can make a creature without ranged attacks in the right environment lose two turns of actions, depending on player behavior and other factors. Clerics also have the Turn Undead ability, which is the best in the game for that creature type. Undead-heavy campaigns will see the Cleric doing a lot of the control heavy lifting with this ability alone.

Unfortunately, the Cleric does not get access to as many AOE and Obstacle Spells and has very limited ability to position enemies in combat. Some subclasses like Light can strengthen a Cleric in a certain control area, but will not provide the targeting ability to really make the cleric contend with other classes in control.

Sorcerer

Careful Spell solves targeting with the Trinity, making a Status Effects build very powerful on the Sorcerer. The Sorcerer can also pickup Obstacle spells like Sleet Storm for distributed combat making it overall the most versatile of the single class builds. It can also twin direct effects like Phantasmal Force and Suggestion. But you can't have everything as a Sorcerer. You'll have to choose your spell line carefully. It takes until the end of tier 2 to really have a full array of abilities.

Like almost any other control build, the Sorcerer will struggle with Positioning. Their ability to twin will only help here marginally as non-concentration push/pull effects that don't require concentration are limited (e.g. Gust cantrip, Thunderwave).

Warlock

Warlocks excel at positioning with Eldritch Blast. With the Repelling Blast Invocation, Warlocks can have one or more attempts to move one or more creatures 5-10 feet in a round. Even better, the Blast can be enhanced with Grasp of Hadar to have a chance to pull a creature 10 feet. The third most important is Lance of Lethargy, which can impose a 10 foot speed penalty once per turn. With these Invocations, Eldritch Blast becomes a swiss army knife repositioning tool useable an unlimited number of times per day. At tier 2, you could potentially move an enemy 5 feet deeper into a hazard, impose a 10 speed on it, and pull a different enemy away from a squish character and off a ledge in the same turn.

The challenge that Warlocks face is their limited spell selection. Hunger of Hadar is a useful Obstacle spell, but its 'no sight' imposition and inability to hold a creature make it less useful than Web or Black Tentacles (GOOlocks get access to the latter).

Wizard

First, I have to disclose that the Wizard is my favorite class. The Wizard has the widest range of access to control spells. On paper, this makes the Wizard the master of control. In practice it's a little different (will get to that in a moment). With access to the Trinity, most notable AOE spells and virtually all the best Obstacle spells except for Plant Growth and Maelstrom, the Wizard brings a toolkit to combat. They also have exclusive access to the Grease spell, which can be used in limited circumstances to make a obstacle 'stickier' if an opponent finds themselves affected in it for more than one turn. An Evocation Wizard is by far the best AOE damage controller in the game because their Sculpt Spell solves the problem of targeting with evocation spells, evocation being the most common AOE damage spell school.

Unfortunately deploying this formidable array of abilities is much more challenging. On paper, they are the master of Obstacles, especially the subcategory of hazards. However, Obstacle builds rely extensively on concentration-less positioning to put enemies back into webs, sleet storms, etc. after the first turn. The Wizard doesn't have a good answer to this and it's the second greatest weakness of the class in control. Like most classes, its biggest weakness is targeting. The Wizard struggles with affecting allies with Status Effects and Obstacles. In my experience playing Wizard and Sorcerer control builds from 1-20, the Wizard had a wide range of abilities, each of which would be applied only on occasion and less effectively than the Sorcerer. Often, I relied a lot on Wall of Force in dividing combats, which also limited my team's abilities. It was less effective than a Trinity Careful Spell from the sorcerer in most cases. The Wizard always had a toolkit of diverse tools, but the Sorcerer had a smaller toolkit that they could customize on the spot. It's cemented my opinion that for spellcasters in 5e, the best class and subclass abilities are those that modify how a character can cast a spell.

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Multiclass Builds

The above chart leads to some obvious conclusions, one of which is that the a full range of abilities really requires a multiclass build. Here's the best multiclass control builds in my opinion:

Build AL Legal Overall Score Status Effects AOE Obstacles Positioning
Fiend 2-3/Shadow Magic x S S X B S
Sorcerer 3/College of Lore x A S X B X
Tempest 2/Evoker x A X S A X
Watchers 3/Psionic Soul x Maybe with Tasha's Cauldron A S X A X
Kraken or Lurker 2-3/Psionic Soul x Maybe with Tasha's Cauldron S S X A S
Warlock 2-3/Eloquence x Maybe with Tasha's Cauldron A S X C S

Fiend 2-3/Shadow Magic x: This build has the Trinity + 1 on a single ability score (Charisma). The character pickups Repelling Blast and Grasp of Hadar for positioning mastery. It is resource rich from being a sorlock build. Finally, it gets the Hound of Ill Omen, which is an uber multi-round version of Heightened Spell useful for BBEG fights. Like most builds, tier 1 is mostly Sleep and Web. Tier 2 starts with Fear, Hypnotic Pattern and use of Command, then adds Confusion. Tier 2 ends with an Sleet Storm. An alternative to this is Hexblade 2-3/ Shadow Magic x, which sacrifices Command to obtain medium armor. In a few instances, that might mean keeping concentration when you would otherwise not, therefore improving your overall control. If you have some control over your magic item selection, a Rod of the Pactkeeper will increase your chance to hit and also the DC of Command. You have to take Careful Spell. Then, you have a hard choice between Quickened (which will increase your positioning power) and twin (which you can use on Phantasmal Force, Suggestion and in tier 3 Polymorph). I would suggest Quickened and leave your single target powerful control spells for tier 3. Too much to complete in tier 2.

Sorcerer 3/College of Lore x: This build focuses on Status Effects, in particular making Hypnotic Pattern very potent with an instrument of the bard. You'll need Careful Spell to really make it work, which means a 3 level dip in Sorcerer. You can also pickup Command as a level 6 Magical Secret. All the main Status Effects are already on your list though, so magical secrets can be used to poach obstacle-style spells. Unfortunately, you won't get access to Invocations so Eldritch Blast is not that useful.

Tempest 2/Evoker x: This build leverages the damage maximization of the Tempest Cleric domain on the Evoker build. You'll focus on area effect damage, in particular spells like Shatter, Lightning Bolt and Chain Lightning. You can max these out while excluding allies. This is the best AOE build in the game that I know of and enables you to use an AOE strategy to deal with higher hp creatures than you would otherwise. It can be supplemented with concentration-based control effects like Web, Sleet Storm, Wall of Force, etc. Note that you can burn through resources VERY quickly with this build.

Watchers 3/Psionic Soul x: A speculative sorcadin combination that really leans into status effects with a Turn-like ability that does not require concentration and can affect 4 out of 13 creature types once a short rest. This can be incredibly powerful in Descent to Avernus and Ghosts of Saltmarsh. This may have access to some additional Obstacle spells, but will struggle to use them effectively because it lacks positioning.

Kraken or Lurker 2-3/Psionic Soul x: A speculative sorlock that would have incredible positioning and obstacle spells plus status effects.

Warlock 2-3/Eloquence x: With the ability to reduce enemy saving throws, this is potentially a very powerful Status Effects build that would leverage Hypnotic Pattern + instrument of the bard for many encounters, and use single target control spells like Polymorph and Suggestion with a higher chance of hitting for BBEGs. It'll have the Trinity and good positioning abilities. This build really needs the Careful spell (realistically 2-5 times/day). Depending on the final wording of the anticipated Metamagic Feat in Tasha's Caludron of Everything, this could mean that the Sorcerer can be skipped.

Source: reddit.com

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