Artificer: Cantrips vs. Crossbows

The Artificer gets access to two different ranged options: cantrips and crossbows. Which is stronger from a pure damage perspective?

What’s stronger?

At first blush, cantrips scale much better. That’s because the damage increases from 1d10 to 4d10. Compare this with the Heavy Crossbow (1d10) or Hand Crossbow (1d6). While Arcane Armament permits you two attacks, the loading property of the crossbows means you only get one attack.

Of course, crossbows are going to be stronger up front because you also get to add your damage modifier (Dexterity) to the result. This is somewhat offset by Artillerists who can add their spellcasting modifier (Intelligence) to their cantrips with their level 6 Wand Prototype.

Crossbows are sneaky good, if you’re willing to make the investment. The Crossbow Expert feat is an absolute must to ignore the loading property so you can make two attacks per round. Otherwise, the crossbows have no chance of keeping up:

Cantrip vs Crossbow 1 Attack

As it turns out, the crossbow damage can actually outscale the cantrip damage if you focus your character build around it. Adding the Enhanced Weapon Item Infusion and Arcane Weapon spell to two attacks can push the crossbows into the lead:

Artificer Damage Calculator

This brings us to our next question…

What are you investing?

  • 4+ Ability Score Improvements (ASIs)
    • 2 feats (Crossbow Expert, Sharpshooter)
    • 2+ Dexterity ASIs
    • Spent to level Dexterity past 14 despite Medium Armor proficiency
  • Spell Resources
    • 1 Spell Prepared
    • 1st-level Spell Slot(s) (max 4)
    • Concentration
  • Bonus Action
    • On each turn you cast Arcane Weapon
    • Need to recast if concentration lost
  • Item Infusion
    • Infusion known (max 8)
    • Infusion active (max 5)

What else are you sacrificing?

If you’re investing your Artificer into crossbow optimization, you’re making concessions elsewhere. Depending on how you play, these concessions may impact your character’s durability, versatility, or perhaps even your ultimate damage output.

  • Immediate Intelligence investment
    • Spells prepared
    • Class features
      • Magical Tinkering items
      • Spell-storing item uses
    • Subclass features
      • Alchemical Mastery’s bonus to poison damage
      • Alchemical Mastery’s bonus to healing potions
      • Alchemical Mastery’s lesser restoration uses
      • Wand Prototype’s cantrip damage bonus
    • Artificer pet actions
      • Alchemical Homunculus’ Inspiration Salve gives ability check advantage a number of times equal to your Intelligence modifier
      • Alchemical Homunculus’ Resilience Salve gives temporary HP based on your Intelligence modifier
      • Defender Turret’s positive energy burst gives temporary HP based on your Intelligence modifier
      • Force Ballista Turret’s ranged spell attack is based on your Intelligence modifier
      • Flamethrower Turret’s ignite DC is based on your Intelligence modifier
      • All 3 turret’s detonate DCs are based on your Intelligence modifier
  • Constitution investment
    • Survivability
    • Helps maintain concentration
  • 1st-level Spell Slot(s)
    • Defensive spells
      • Artillerist gets Shield
    • Utility spells
  • Bonus Actions
    • Spells
      • Expeditious Retreat
      • Sanctuary
      • Shield of Faith
    • Item Infusions
      • Boots of Winding Path
      • Radiant Weapon
    • Artificer pets use bonus actions to activate
      • Defender Turret’s positive energy burst
      • Flamethrower Turret’s ignite
      • Force Ballista Turret’s fire
      • Alchemical Homunculus’ Acidic Spittle
      • Alchemical Homunculus’ Alchemical Salve
  • 1 Free Hand
    • Since the ammunition property requires that your crossbows have a free hand to load, you can’t make use of your off-hand for other things
    • This prevents you from using a Shield, which could provide +2 AC for a character wielding a wand

6 thoughts on “Artificer: Cantrips vs. Crossbows

  1. Nice breakdown!

    At low-level play, focusing on crossbows seems just so much better. Then you hit 11 and it’s not so clear you made the right choice.

    Bracers of archery + longbow are also great (but come online late). Double-bladed scimitar is awesome if you’re DM allows. And you can also do a kick-ass PAM + spear build. The latter works nicely with a shield but it gets awkward putting things down to do casting when you want.

    My DM didn’t allow handbow + shield, so I went javalin + returning weapon infusion + shield. Then at lvl 12 you grab the ogre gauntlets, +2 infusion, PAM, and a spear.


    1. Hi Topaz! This article was published upon the release of the Unearthed Arcana release, before the repeating infusion was added. I like to think that the analysis was a reason for the design change!


  2. Hi! Great analysis. I’m at the beggining of a new campaign with maritime ambientation, so I’m thinking about the best option for my artificer, and the Crossbow build is an option. With the Eberron artificifer on the go, your analysis change, especially with the elimination of Arcane Weapon?


    1. Hi Victor! The update definitely changed the analysis. I can rerun the chart pretty easily with a 0% Arcane Weapon active time. From there, it depends how you invest your ASIs. Crossbow Expert is the important one to take.


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