Kicking off the month of October, after a Twitter Poll to determine my next “Perfect Build” series, you all voted for class builds and advice on building the perfect “Shadow-User.”
What’s a Shadow-User?
A shadow-user is typically a character that utilizes the themes and aesthetics of pulling energy from the Plane of Shadow or Shadowfell, weaving this energy to great amazing effects. Additionally, there are character classes that employ the magical use of darkness, and therefore those features will be added to consideration when we focus on our builds. Many shadow-users are spellcasters but not all of them, and for the most part, each build focuses on a particular function and aesthetic.
Don’t forget to check out my other “Perfect Build” series too.
Classes & Subclasses For Consideration
As I stated above, many shadow-users are spellcasters, but some are not. Here’s a breakdown of the various classes and subclasses you will expect to find to fit your “manipulator of the shadows” theme.
- Bard – College of Whispers
- Cleric – Trickery Domain & Darkness Domain
- Monk – Way of the Shadow
- Ranger – Gloom Stalker
- Sorcerer – Shadow Magic
- Warlock – Hexblade
- Wizard – School of Illusion
As you can see, our choices are somewhat limited but ironically, this small list helps one spot particular builds that can be stealthy, utilitarian, and outright powerful in some instances.
Spells for Consideration
There are many spells and magic that shadow users may employ across their career, along with some magic items that may complement their play styles. Though, I should warn that many spell effects can be flavored to implement the “shadows” so to speak. But these are just suggested spell choices or ones that fit the theme the best.
- Invisibility/Greater Invisibility
- Shadow Blade (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
- Pass Without A Trace
- Hallucinatory Terrain
- Shadow of Moil (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
- Summon Greater Demon (Used to summon a Shadow Demon, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
- Illusory Dragon (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
- Maddening Darkness (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
The Master of Shadows Build
This is what I would call my “ultimate shadow caster” build. The focus on this build is to maximize on the best shadow features from the subclasses and optimize for spellcasting potential.
Shadow Magic Sorcerer 18/Any
This build is one of the most interesting ones, it’s possibly the purest build I would suggest. The Shadow Magic sorcerer has some great features utilizing the darkness and added combat utility with the Hound of Ill Omen feature to really make sure your spells stick onto your targets. With the Sorcerer’s Metamagic feature, this build can perform magical feats no other caster could ever hope to accomplish from Quicken Spell, Twinned Spell (great for those powerful illusions and debuff spells), along with Heightened Spell and Still Spell as useful additions. Once you reach 18th level, this sorcerer gains access to the Umbral Form feature which is ironically similar to the Archon skill you may find in the Wizard class in Diablo 3. You are resistant to almost all damage except for force and radiant, and you can move through any difficult terrain with ease. The Shadow Walk feature you acquire at 11th level is a powerful ability especially if you cast a Darkness spell and spend a bonus action to make a quick getaway.
The last two levels are fairly option, you may progress to Sorcerer capstone of gaining sorcery points if you roll initiative with none, but I think we can do better with those last two levels. Some suggestions include Monk (Way of the Shadow), Fighter, or even Rogue. Why those choices? Let’s break down why I choose these non-caster class options.
The Way of the Shadow Monk at 2nd level gains access to casting spells like Darkness, Pass Without a Trace, Silence, and Darkvision by spending ki points. They also do not require any material components and a free Minor Illusion cantrip. I love free stuff, especially spells. Monk provides a lot of added defensive features from its AC bonus but this does increase our multiple ability score dependency (MAD) which is a concern, but if you’re playing with a lot of high rolled stats, this is a significant consideration. Plus features like Step of the Wind or Patient Defense are fantastic additions for a Sorcerer’s defense.
While two levels in Fighter does not gain us any subclass features, the access to armor and martial weapons is always a nice feature. But what you’re really here for is Action Surge. This powerful ability is absolutely bonkers on a hasted Shadow Magic sorcerer. Two actions to cast spells, plus an action to either dash, disengage, hide, or use an object. Combined with metamagic? This can be a deadly turn, to say the least, if the Shadow Magic sorcerer chooses to go “nuclear” on the enemy. This my personal favorite pick and probably one of the stronger choices.
Rogue provides the same defensive properties like the Way of Shadow Monk, the difference is that Cunning Action does not cost any ki points and can be done every turn if possible. A bonus action to disengage is an action free to cast spells. Expertise is never a bad thing either at 1st-level, but honestly, it’s more of a little nugget than anything really substantial.
The Shadow Warrior Build
Okay, this is our more melee oriented build with some casting qualities. This is definitely a choice for playstyles that emphasize, or favor “gish” builds.
Hexblade Warlock 10/Way of Shadow Monk 6/Assassin Rogue 4
So let’s start with the Hexblade Warlock, we are going for a shortsword, which will be relevant for our Monk features down the road. This build focuses on considerable Dexterity and Charisma scores starting out, with a minor concentration on Wisdom for the unarmored AC bonus from the Monk class. Hexblade Warlocks get plenty of utility from their invocation choices along with some of their spell choices. The various smite spells granted to it are quite potent, especially banishing smite. You may ask yourself why I opted to go Warlock 10 instead of gaining the Master of Hexes feature where targets of the Hexblade’s Curse when slain, new targets are cursed for free. I optimized this build for explosive damage that could be potentially consistent over time. Honestly, the 6th level and 10th level Hexblade features are not really that impressive but what is impressive are Warlock invocations and spells slots that can replenish after a short rest. Those are very useful. The Pact of the Blade boon is a typical inclusion and worthwhile since you’re never disarmed, even though you’re also a Monk later in your career.
With the 6th-level Way of Shadow Monk, you gain access to the Shadow Step feature, which is a bonus action to teleport up to 60 feet to another shadow. The best part is the feature also grants you advantage on your next melee attack. Which is also a great way to trigger a Rogue’s Sneak Attack feature. If the target happens to be cursed by your Hexblade’s Curse, any d20 roll that results on a 19 or 20 is a critical hit now instead. While this not a guarantee, the chances are indeed in your favor. Even on a normal hit, the extra 2d6 sneak attack damage can add up over time. Throw in an Eldritch Smite for some extra dice to roll while you’re at it. Especially if this Hexblade can deflect any attacks made against with their Armor of Hexes feature. Additionally, through the Monk, you gain access to the Extra Attack feature which frees up a Warlock invocation.
Being a 4th-level Rogue grants, you access to Uncanny Dodge which is also another great feature to help improve your survivability as a gish that frequently enters into combat and sometimes needs to survive long enough to either hideaway to strike again. Alternatively, instead of 4 levels in Rogue, you can easily substitute 4 levels in Fighter. I suggest the Samurai or Battle Master archetypes, the former granting temporary hit points and advantage on attack rolls and the latter providing combat utility options.
The Shadow Assassin Build
This a build inspired by my previous article for the Building the Perfect Assassin article but with some modifications from the concept.
College of Whisper Bard 16/Assassin Rogue 4
The main draw is to maximize damage potential through the Assassin’s Assassinate feature combined with the ability for the Whisper Bard to sacrifice a bardic inspiration to gain an additional 8d6 psychic damage on a hit. The optimized concept requires this character to have the surprise on the target or acting before them on initiative order. So long as you have a way to trigger Assassinate, any hit on the target becomes a critical hit which makes this build extremely potent, mathematically, you could potentially deal double the weapon dice plus 16d6 psychic damage along with 4d6 sneak attack damage. This is all speculative math of course, but the potential remains. This is a definite glass-cannon style of build, even with the Rogue’s Uncanny Dodge feature, survivability is going to rely heavily on the bard spell choices. Thankfully, you have a few Magical Secrets to work with during your Bard progression. The extra amounts of Expertise tossed around will make you an expert in many skills very quickly. With this build, a bard can cast 8th level spells, but unfortunately, you won’t have access to illusory dragon for your Magical Secret choice since it will occur at 14th level.
The Whispering Shadow Build
This build utilizes the utility of the bard class with some of the spellcasting potency of the Shadow Magic Sorcerer or Illusionist Wizard. This is akin to what you may constitute as a “beguiler” sort of build with an emphasis on illusion and enchantment spells that manipulate the mental capabilities of your foes.
College of Whisper 6/Shadow Magic Sorcerer 14 or Illusionist Wizard 14
This is probably more a flavor build than anything else, but I like the idea that you have a spellcaster that occasionally skills their foes and takes their form while still casting their spells. This build grants full access to 9th-level spell slots, but the character will mostly be casting 7th-level spells so again, no illusory dragon spell access. The Shadow Magic sorcerer grants more combat utility and the ability to escape with Shadow Walk which is an essential feature for spellcasters. The Illusionist Wizard direction is undoubtedly going to be useful for more out-of-combat situations. But I will say, having the ability to change and manipulate your preexisting illusions is quite useful, especially with spells like phantasmal force, hypnotic pattern, major image, or mental prison (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything). Going the Sorcerer route will be less Ability Score dependent compared to the Bard/Wizard build, but the spell choices are marginally better in the long term with the Wizard path.
The Hand of the Shadow Build
This build in inspired by characters such as Erevis Cale and Drasek Riven from the Forgotten Realm series written by Paul Kemp. Such envoys of thieves, shadows, and subterfuge will possess bits of their divine guidance but still be efficient warriors in their own right.
Trickery Domain Cleric 9/Assassin Rogue 8/Champion Fighter 3 or Trickery Domain Cleric 10/Whisper Bard 6/Assassin Rogue 4
The functionality of the first build plays heavily on using the Channel Divinity: Invoke Duplicity feature to grant yourself combat advantage to trigger sneak attacks. The champion fighter is mostly to improve the likelihood of critical hits with advantage rolls. Keep the cleric up to 9th level provides access to 5th-level spells with powerful spells such as flame strike or holy weapon to name a few. Not to mention the domain spells such as dimension door, polymorph, and modify memory. With potential damage output being 4d6 sneak attacks on average with your duplicate active on a target, and on critical hits becoming 8d6, you can certainly keep up with some of the martial combatants in your group. This build also sports the Evasion feature from the Rogue which is a great defensive option to have against enemy casters.
The second version of this build is heavier on the MAD but provides a wide range of utility from the bard’s Expertise feature to also gaining access to the Psychic Blades feature. There is less reliance on triggering Sneak Attacks and a greater emphasis on Assassinate triggers. This is undoubtedly more flavor oriented than efficiency oriented but fits the theme very well and can still hold their own in combat. Alternatively, you could substitute the 4 Rogue levels with more Whisper Bard and gain access to the Magical Secrets feature and not lose out on acquiring 9th-level spell slots. Level up spells will be your cornerstone to spellcasting efficiency and potency since your combat prowess will not as explosive compared to other Assassin oriented builds.
The Shadow Illusionist Build
This an optimized Illusionist Wizard build, while the Illusionist isn’t the most potent combat-wise, it has the highest utility out of combat compared to many of the other classes. With a bit of multiclass fun, we can make the Illusionist into a face of terror.
Illusion Wizard 17/Shadow Magic Sorcerer 3
This build focuses on maximizing the spellcasting efficiency of the Wizard class with the caveat of using the Sorcerer’s Font of Magic and Metamagic features. One of the things that made Wizards dangerous in older editions were metamagic effects that could be applied to spells. With the current game design, Wizards do not possess this powerful utility anymore, and therefore multiclassing is the only way to grant the Wizard the arcane heights of former editions. We lose out on Spell Mastery in favor for Metamagic which is a fair tradeoff. Once you gain access to the Metamagic feature, Quicken Spell and Twinned Spell will significantly improve the Illusionist Wizard’s potency when casting spells, regardless of the spell. Let’s not forget spells like simulacrum that doubles the Illusionist’s spellcasting efficiency. Can you imagine two casters using twinned mental prison or phantasmal killer? There are some advantages to this particular build. I would say that going Wizard 18/Sorcerer 2 would provide some utility if you genuinely wish to have the Spell Mastery but Font of Magic from the Sorcerer is not as impressive with such a low sorcery point pool. If you’re going to 18 levels in Wizard, then I would suggest going Fighter to have the Action Surge feature instead. The added survivability through armor proficiencies might be helpful as well.
That’s it! There are plenty of other permutations that could work for your Shadow-User builds, flavor and possible reskinning of concepts may be occasionally necessary, but overall, there are viable options to create that awesomely flavorful character that wields the shadows as weapons. There are definitely robust caster options and plenty of opportunities for a more gish route, with a few that you could go non-magical paths. The idea when it comes to optimizing these builds often involves the ability to function in combat and out of combat equally. Skills and spellcasting options play heavily in out of combat scenarios while features such as Assassinate or Action Surge are undoubtedly combat-centric features that maximize a build’s damage potential. So keep in mind the sort of flavor and role you wish to perform with your Shadow-User and that should help guide your future progressions.
Don’t forget to check out my other “Perfect Build” series:
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