Martial Adept vs. Magic Initiate

Martial classes have long gotten the short shrift compared to their spellcasting counterparts. While 4th Edition D&D attempted to balance this by controlling the action economy, balance concerns have taken a back seat to narrative in 5th Edition.

Though the effect of linear fighters vs. quadratic wizards most often manifests in class design (mostly due to spell access), there’s an interesting reflection of this design in the 5e feats, which we expect to be balanced against each other.

Let’s compare the Martial Adept feat and the Magic Initiate feat. While both feats are available to any class, they are typically more useful to their kindred classes, in that they open additional options within the class’s existing playstyle. However, when we examine these feats in depth, we see that the Magic Initiate feat has a much greater impact on both playstyle and damage output than Martial Adept.

Martial Adept

Choice

The Martial Adept feat permits you to choose 2 maneuvers from the Battle Master Fighter’s kit. While choice is an extremely powerful thing in 5e, the player must choose the maneuvers at the time the feat is taken, and cannot change later.

Use

While Martial Adept allows you to choose 2 maneuvers, it only grants you a single d6 superiority die to trigger the maneuver. Only getting 1 use out of a feat per short rest can be kind of disappointing, especially if your campaign deviates from 6 to 8 encounters per day.

Power

The most powerful option is to target an allied Rogue with Commander’s Strike, allowing them to proc a second Sneak Attack within 1 round. However, this is contingent on party makeup and doesn’t actually augment the damage output of the character who takes the feat. In most cases, your damage bonus is going to be limited to adding your superiority die, which is a measly d6.

Magic Initiate

Choice

The Magic Initiate feat permits you to choose 2 cantrips from among 6 spellcasting classes. Additionally, you get to pick a 1st-level spell from the same class.

Use

Cantrips can be used every turn. You only get a single use out of the 1st-level spell per long rest.

Power

What’s the power of this feat? Almost every class option has access to a cantrip with a higher damage output: Thunderclap for Bard, Toll the Dead for Cleric, Shillelagh for Druid, Fire Bolt for Sorcerer and Wizard, Eldritch Blast for Warlock. Now, consider that as you gain levels, the cantrip damage will scale up. The downside is that in order to get the full effect of these spells, your character may become Multiple Ability Score Dependent (MAD) if you are investing in a Magic Initiate class that does not share a common Ability Score reliance with your class.

Comparison

Choice

Martial Adept permits you to choose 2 out of 16 options. Magic Initiate permits you to choose 3 out of 109 options (44 cantrips; 65 1st-level spells). While Magic Initiate’s options are limited by class choice, each provides a large array once you’ve identified the relevant class: Bard (12 cantrips; 23 1st-level spells), Cleric (9/16), Druid (18/21), Sorcerer (28/25), Warlock (19/12), or Wizard (30/38). There’s some overlap here, but its apparent that your options are much greater. Magic Initiate wins choice because you get more selections among a greater swath of options.

Use

While the Martial Adept maneuver is limited to 1 use per short rest, the Magic Initiate’s most powerful option (the 1st-level spell) can only be used once per long rest. However, the Magic Initiate can fire off a cantrip every round. As a result, Magic Initiate is going to be much more relevant to how you play your character.

Power

The Martial Adept adds d6 damage per short rest with most maneuvers, unless their party composition enables them to select maneuvers that can increase the party’s damage output. These damage increasing maneuvers also cause tactical effects which in most cases will have the result of granting advantage on successive hits. While advantage is good, its actual impact on damage output typically ranges between a +1 to +3 weapon, depending on the AC of the target.

Advantage ValueThis example shows a Level 4 character with 18 Strength wielding a Greataxe.

Compare this with the simple cantrips available to the Magic Initiate. Most are keyed to d8 damage which scales up with level. This would be better if you could use it once per short rest, but you can use cantrips every round!

This is without ever getting into the 1st-level spell access. While the Martial Adept gets access to class features that unlock at level 3 (when a spellcaster would get access to a 2nd-level spell), the truth is that 1st-level spells normally have more impressive effects than Battlemaster maneuvers. Keep in mind that we are comparing long rest options with short rest options. If you’re following the standard adventuring day encounter paradigm, this will usually net 3 uses of the short rest option and 1 use of the long rest option.

Effects

Let’s examine the Martial Adept maneuvers in relation to spells that can emulate similar effects:

Maneuver Effect Battle Master Maneuver Spell (cantrip/1st)
Ally Attack Commander’s Strike
Save or Disarm* Disarming Attack Command
Advantage Next Attack* Distracting Strike Faerie Fire
+d6 AC Evasive Footwork Shield, Mage Armor
BA: Advantage on Attack** Feinting Attack Faerie Fire
Save or Taunt* (disadvantage on attack rolls vs. other than you) Goading Attack
+5 Melee Range** Lunging Attack Green-Flame Blade
Ally Moves Half Their Speed w/o Opp. Atks* Maneuvering Attack
Fear* Menacing Attack Cause Fear,
Dissonant Whispers
-d6+Dex dmg Parry Absorb Elements,
Blade Ward
+d6 to Hit Precision Attack True Strike
Save or Push 15’* Pushing Attack Thunderwave,
Thorn Whip,
Lightning Lure
Rxn: +d6+Cha Ally tHP Rally Healing Word
Attack on Dodge** Riposte Armor of Agathys
+d6 dmg to 2nd Target Sweeping Attack Burning Hands,
Green-Flame Blade
Save or Prone* Trip Attack Earth Tremor,
Tasha’s Hideous Laughter

* – Also deals superiority die damage (d6).
** – Also deals superiority die damage (d6) on hit.

Note that these comparisons are not direct. Many spells key on an effect without causing an associated damage increase like maneuvers. However, there are also countervailing considerations. A spell’s duration may be longer (compare Cause Fear’s 1 minute duration to Menacing Attack’s 1 round duration), with a potential offset of requiring concentration. Alternatively, spells may apply to more creatures than the maneuver’s single target (compare Faerie Fire with Feinting Attack). Finally, there are spells which may grant a flat damage bonus to your attacks, as you get with most maneuvers (see Hex). There’s a level of nuance between all these mechanics that can’t adequately be captured in a table.

Indeed there are some unique features that you can only get from maneuvers or from spells. For example, the closest spell-like corollary for Commander’s Strike is probably Haste, which is too high-level to be available with Magic Initiate. Conversely, there is no maneuver that gives disadvantage on ability checks like Hex does. It’s no surprise that these unique features are some of the most powerful in either category. Unless a specific feature is a draw because of your party composition, your character is generally better served taking a feat that is more versatile, usable, and effective.

Conclusion

Magic Initiate offers greater choice, more frequent use, and higher damage output than Martial Adept. Perhaps these feats should have been called Martial Initiate and Magic Adept.

This result was somewhat reflected in the feat strength tier survey results, in which Magic Initiate was ranked good and Martial Adept is ranked average.

Upon further scrutiny, I would probably upgrade Magic Initiate to great, while keeping Martial Adept at average or even downgrading it to bad.

The Fix

In order to remedy this disparity, consider bumping the number of superiority dice granted by Martial Adept to at least 2. This gives around 6 maneuver uses per long rest.

The nice thing about +1 weapons is that they function equivalently to an Ability Score Improvement (ASI). An ASI is what you’re sacrificing to take a feat. So we can make a direct comparison to see if the balance is right.

Assume for the sake of argument that each maneuver gives advantage to another attack in addition to the d6 damage boost. As discussed above, advantage equals an ASI boost between +1 and +3 depending on target Armor Class (AC). Let’s restrict the analysis to damage only for the sake of simplicity, which will favor the feat over the ASI.

Let’s use the encounter paradigm assumptions: 6 encounters per day with 2 short rests per long rest. We’ll also use 3 rounds per encounter, since that is the standard design assumption (see Dungeon Master’s Guide p. 278, 281). That’s 18 rounds of combat per long rest.

We’ll see that this looks pretty even for a creature that attacks once per round:

  • If you take the ASI, that’s 18 damage.
  • If you take the feat, you get 3 uses of the maneuver. That’s 3d6 + 9 damage total (average 18.5 damage).

Let’s see what happens with multiple attacks, which most martial classes   unlock soon after their first ASI (5th level for Fighter, Barbarian, Ranger, Paladin; 6th level for College of Swords and College of Valor Bards):

  • If you take the ASI, that’s 36 damage.
  • If you take the feat, you still only have 3 uses of the maneuver (average 18.5 damage).
  • If you take the modified feat, you get 6 uses of the maneuver. That’s 6d6+18 damage total (average 36.5).

Since ASIs are designed to be moderately stronger than feats, this seems to be a bit overturned. However, when we consider that the ASI helps land every attack, and back out the generous advantage assumptions, the tuning is just about right. Importantly, it does not outshine the Battle Master, who gets 3 maneuver choices and 4 superiority dice at 3rd level.

If you try this fix, be sure to let us know how it works out in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Martial Adept vs. Magic Initiate

  1. Good post. Magic Initiate definitely better, although I took Martial Adept as a Rogue Swashbuckler and chose riposte and disarming attack. Mostly I use riposte which gives me a second sneak attack a round, if I hit. Never thought to use it with dodge actually. Could be useful under right circumstances.

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  2. For spell casting melee classes, Magic Initiate is a no brainer.

    For example, a Paladin who chooses Warlock gets the wonderful Hex, Eldritch Blast, and Booming Blade. Easy +1d6 damage and Disadvantage for a bonus action; a powerful all day range attack which completely outclasses any ranged weapon the Paladin can get (EB gives you even more ranged attacks once you hit level 11 to boot) while needing no ammunition, no magic weapon property necessary to get past immunities, and not requiring investment into a dump stat to use effectively; and BB is an excellent pseudo battlefield control cantrip, especially with a reach weapon since regardless of whether an enemy wants to attack you in melee or run they’ll have to eat xd8 to do so.

    Frankly, Martial Adept is so lacklustre in comparison that even making it a straight copy of the Battle Master’s ability would only make it average compared to the crunch and fluff of MI. MI is in the top 4 with SS GWM and Lucky. As is MA is almost at the bottom, useful to only one or two specific builds that are far from being effective themselves. I can’t fathom a decent fix that doesn’t radically alter the feat, it’s just one of those trap options that sneak into every edition.

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