The Hunter’s Mark Shibboleth

It’s no secret that Ranger is the most hotly discussed character class in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. People love talking about its balance. This protracted conversation not only caused, but has been perpetuated by multiple attempts at rewriting the class, strong subclasses and spells in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, design streams to craft alternate class features, and most recently an Unearthed Arcana with alternate class features for all classes. Lots of people have lots of thoughts on this. We’re not getting into all that. We’re here for a shibboleth has emerged from these conversations…

It holds that Hunter’s Mark is a “must take” spell.

This is a lie.

It’s a lie people tell in good faith while trying to rationalize their stance that a Ranger’s spell selection is too limited. But, that doesn’t make it true. Rangers get the standard half-caster progression.

Hunter’s Mark is Great

Don’t get me wrong. Hunter’s Mark is a great spell. It scales your damage by adding 1d6 to every hit against your quarry:

Hunter's Mark

This can provide a solid damage boost for the Ranger. It’s the only 1st level Ranger spell option that provides a consistent increase to any attack, without requiring a saving throw to mark a target or keep the damage ticker running.

The spell also gives a tracking benefit that might fit a narrative niche.

Hunter’s Mark is Not Perfect

There’s a few things that make this awesome damage-boosting spell fallible.

Concentration. The great equalizer is concentration, since a spellcaster can only focus concentration on one spell at a time. As a result, low level concentration spells become less viable as a spellcaster progresses in level, and gains access to higher level concentration spells. This viability degradation is delayed with the slower spell progression of half-caster classes like the Ranger, but is still worth taking into account.

No Damage Scaling. Hunter’s Mark damage never increases from d6 per attack. Upcasting only increases its duration. Keeping concentration is only useful until you need to cast another concentration spell.

Two-Weapon Fighting. Most of the standard assumptions only hold up when we assume a Ranger is using ranged weapons. Hunter’s Mark clashes with Two-Weapon Fighting, because it takes a bonus action to move the target. This eats your additional attack on the first round of combat. Since Hunter’s Mark only adds a d6, you’re better taking that second attack. If it hits, it’s going to deal more damage because you’re probably already attacking with a d6 weapon, plus adding your ability modifier. Strategically, two attacks will also provide a more consistent damage output than throwing all your eggs in one basket. Then every time you dispatch an opponent, you need to expend that bonus action to move the mark again. As a result, Hunter’s Mark is not a strong option for Rangers focused on Two-Weapon Fighting. The marginal detriment is less once you pick up Extra Attack, but it’s still lost damage output.

Alternate Spell Options

You can skip Hunter’s Mark and still have a great time playing your Ranger. Some Rangers will be even better served choosing a different spell!

We’ll mostly keep the focus on combat options. While Rangers do get other stuff that’s great out of combat, you’re not likely to drop a combat option to pick one of those. Throughout this comparison you’re going to see spells listed in different colors representing my thoughts on great options, fair options, and poor options.

Concentration Spells

Let’s start with examining concentration spells. Since Hunter’s Mark uses concentration, you’re likely seeking a substitute that leverages the sustained benefit of a concentration spell.

1st Level Concentration Spells

1st level spells are the key comparison because it’s the level of Hunter’s Mark.

The obvious substitution is Zephyr Strike. Wow, this spell is good. It does a couple things, so let’s break it down by points:

  • Damage. No, it does not rival the damage output of Hunter’s Mark. The only damage boost you’ll get is when you use the trigger ability for advantage and an extra d8. Advantage technically increases your likelihood to hit, not to deal damage, but damage is only as effective according to the frequency it hits. Plus, advantage bumps your chance to score a critical hit.
  • Mobility. It drastically increases your mobility in combat. You get a passive Disengage that lasts 1 minute, preventing any opportunity attacks against you for the duration of the spell. Avoiding unnecessary attacks is the best way to avoid rolling concentration checks. You also get the extra 30 feet of movement on the turn you use the attack effect.
  • Action Economy. Zephyr Strike also costs your bonus action on the turn you activate it, but you won’t be wasting additional bonus actions moving the spell to a new target. Importantly, you don’t need to sacrifice your extra attack on the first round of combat. You only need to pop Zephyr Strike once you need to escape a hairy situation. Also, consider that you’re basically getting that bonus action back every turn with a free Disengage, plus what amounts to a free Dash the turn you use the attack effect. Since you don’t need to use a bonus action to activate the attack effect, you can nova before using the extra movement to escape.
  • Longevity. At higher levels, Zephyr Strike will maintain most of its utility, where Hunter’s Mark cedes way to more powerful damage spells.

Other combat-focused 1st level spells include Ensnaring Strike (requires that they keep failing a Strength save to deal damage and impose resistance) and Hail of Thorns (dealing d10 piercing to the target and adjacent allies on a failed Dexterity save). These two spells may seem at first impression to have a continual effect, but they actually proc once you hit something. As a result, both of these are weaker options than Hunter’s Mark and Zephyr Strike, absent a string of failed saving throws.

Several great 1st level options are less focused on combat: Beast Bond, Detect Magic, Detect Poison and Disease, and Fog Cloud. These are all incredibly useful until initiative is rolled. As such, they’re probably not competing for the same spell space.

2nd Level Concentration Spells

It doesn’t make sense just to compare Hunter’s Mark to other 1st level spells. Since the spell will be occupying your concentration, it competes with every other concentration spell all the way up the level 5 (the Ranger’s cap).

For 2nd level spells, there’s also some great options.

A well-placed Spike Growth will not only outstrip the damage of Hunter’s Mark, it will outright dominate with the proper tactical placement.

Among other tactical options, Silence does not deal damage, but is incredibly effective at locking down spellcasters in the way that a few extra d6s is not.

Healing Spirit is an obvious substitution if you’re running the original text, although there is errata in the wild as of the time of writing which nerfs it back into line with standard healing spells. Depending how you’re running it, this spell is a powerhouse or accords with standard 5e healing options.

Among other defensive combat options, Barkskin is a fair but unimpressive option to raise your Armor Class.

Beast Sense comes in as the juiced up version of Beast Bond. Perhaps realizing that it was underpowered, the latest Unearthed Arcana unleashed a new summon option: Bestial Spirit. The eponymous bestial spirit summoned by this spell has an attack that deals an average of 10.5 damage/attack cast at base level. When upcast, its multiattack quickly rounds into several rolls. This easily outstrips the damage output of Hunter’s Mark.

3rd Level Concentration Spells

When you have access to 3rd level spells, it’s clear where your concentration investment should go.

Conjure Animals is an absolute powerhouse for the damage output and utility offered.

Wind Wall offers excellent opportunities for battlefield control, as well as defense from ranged attacks and damage for approaching forces.

Among less attractive defensive options, Protection from Energy also offers some defensive utility, although it is relatively limited to situations where one type of damage will be forthcoming. Probably best if your DM goes crazy with the theme battles.

Flame Arrows does not stack up to Hunter’s Mark, even at level 3. It’s a d6 of an arguably weaker damage type with a cap of a dozen hits. It’s sister Lightning Arrow is the upcast elemental cousin of Hail of Thorns, and about worth paying equal attention to.

4th Level Concentration Spells

4th level spells also present more attractive options for your concentration investment.

Conjure Woodland Beings is the next step up from Conjure Animals.

Among defensive options, Stoneskin is the more useful cousin of Barkskin, actually providing resistance to the standard physical damage types, while Guardian of Nature gives you a choice of options that provide a basket of benefits. Which is more useful will likely depend on your knowledge of the monsters.

Grasping Vine and Locate Creature don’t do much to excite. Especially since the latter is questionably more useful than the non-damage rider of Hunter’s Mark.

5th Level Concentration Spells

While there are few options among 5th level spells, they are simply a handful more cast in the lot of concentration spell options to compete with Hunter’s Mark.

Swift Quiver is a solid choice for ranged characters and will quickly outpace Hunter’s Mark, at the expense of a much higher spell slot.

Tree Stride is a great mobility spell, while Wrath of Nature is a great control spell that can also be leveraged for a mite of damage.

Non-Concentration Spells

Since Rangers have limited spell selection, it’s also worth looking at your non-concentration spell options, since these are the options you may be leaving out if you double up on concentration spells.

Pay attention to how many viable non-concentration spells are available to you. On one hand, if you like enough of them, you can stick with Hunter’s Mark as your concentration spell. On the other hand, if you find enough options with viable damage output, there’s an argument for committing your concentration to a more defensive or support-oriented option.

Most importantly, remember that you’re not locked into a specific spell choice.

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