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I have a group of players asking me to run a 4e campaign. I've GM'd 4E once and played a couple characters up to level 17. My limited understanding is that the tiers still exist in 4e, but are different from 3.5.

By tier I mean, a system in which classes are graded based on their effectiveness. This assumes that each class is being played up to it's potential.

I want to help the players with their class selection based on this knowledge. These players like considering RPG classes from a tiered understanding, if it's applicable in a given system.

Things I'm considering

  • Does any role stand out as stronger or weaker?
  • Is their a noticeable hierarchy of classes within each role?
  • Do the options that allow you to "poach powers" close the gap enough to make a bottom tier roughly equal to a top tier (e.g. Playing a Seeker and using the best options to gain top tier controller powers to be on the same tier as a Wizard)?
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    \$\begingroup\$ FYI There used to be a huge optimization board with a color rating systems for classes and all the choices on WOTC's forums that were saved and posted on ENWorld's 4e charop boards. enworld.org/threads/… \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Aslan Smith Oct 28 '19 at 14:48
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The other answers to this question are very strong, but are also somewhat frame challenges. I'll attempt to directly address the two parts at the end of the question.

Why Are People Challenging the Frame?

Tier rankings for classes have never been especially popular in the 4e optimization community (rankings for finer-grained things like "level 13 ranger powers" or "wizard paragon paths" yes, classes no). I would attribute this reluctance to the lack of clear distinguishing markers for tiers that existed in 3.X. It's easy to point to the specific class features that make a 3.5 wizard tier 1 versus a 3.5 sorceror being tier 2. There's no corresponding bright dividing lines in 4e, because so much more of a class's potential rests in combinations of powers, feats, paragon paths, and epic destinies. How many tiers there should be for 4e classes and which classes are in which tier is based much more on personal opinion and which criteria an individual optimizer wants to use than would be the case in previous editions.

Roles

If there's a weak link in the roles system, it's the controller role.

  • Leaders: healing and buffing
  • Defenders: draw foes' attention and force them to make hard choices
  • Strikers: deal damage
  • Controllers: AoE for weak opponents (especially minions), battlefield control, and debuffing

What makes controllers stand out is not the value of what they're intended to accomplish, it's that their classes don't go the extra mile to help them accomplish it. Every defender has a way to mark, every leader has a way to heal, every striker has a class feature that boosts their damage. Controller classes, on the other hand, don't have clear class features to help them do their job; instead, they rely on their powers, which can be poached or competed with by other, non-controller classes. It's not that the controller job isn't important, it's that you don't necessarily need a controller role class to do that job.

In general, optimal role distribution looks something like this:

  • 1 leader, possibly 2 if they're both buffing/enabling focused (particularly "switch" builds designed to hand out basic attacks to allies) and you have at least one striker built around powerful melee basic attacks
  • 1-2 defenders; if 2 defenders, at least 1 should be more damage-oriented
  • 0-1 controllers, depending on whether someone wants to play one and how well the other classes can cover the role
  • everyone else as a striker

Alpha-striking is very viable in 4e; you bring just enough defending/controlling to keep foes that can't be burned down immediately from shredding your squishy characters and just enough healing to get through the day, and the rest is as much damage as possible as front-loaded as possible. That said, a well-planned 2-defender 2-leader 1-controller party can be just as effective as a 1-leader 1-defender 3-striker party; it won't get through battles as quickly, but it will generally be safer.

A Brief Discussion of Optimization

Where the tiers that are typically used for 3.5 largely assume similar levels of optimization between the classes, attempts to rank 4e classes have often taken optimization potential into account. In this context the discussion is usually about a class's "floor", i.e. its effectiveness using a fairly standard build with no emphasis on optimization, and its "ceiling", i.e. its effectiveness when heavily optimized to squeeze out as much capability as possible. Classes that have more options available usually have higher ceilings (though this is not always the case).

Rankings of individual classes also don't necessarily take party composition into account. For example, several leaders get a lot of their strength from the ability to hand out free attacks to other party members; having a striker with powerful melee basic attacks in the party significantly boosts these leaders effectiveness, while a party with nobody capable of making a decent MBA will reduce their effectiveness. Other classes may not be as strong individually but lend themselves well to certain party-level optimizations (such as a Radiant Mafia party).

Classes

This is all based on my rather sketchy memories of when I played a lot of 4e. Take it with a grain of salt, especially the relative ratings of the Essentials classes. If you'd like to argue with me about the ratings, drop me a comment and we can set up a chat room.

Classes will be presented with the following additional information: (floor->ceiling, any viable secondary role focus)

Leaders
All leaders heal at least decently; a good leader boosts the party's damage output.

  • S Tier: Warlord (mid->high)
  • A Tier: Artificer (low->high), Bard (mid->high controller)
  • B Tier: Ardent (low->mid), Cleric (mid->mid), Runepriest (mid->mid), Shaman (low->mid controller), Warpriest (mid->mid controller)

I'm not familiar enough with Skald or Sentinel to rate them.

Defenders
All defenders force foes to choose between attacking them and attacking the squishies. Good defenders make both of those options as unattractive as possible, or just outright make one of the options unavailable.

  • S Tier: Fighter (mid->high striker)
  • A Tier: Paladin (mid->high), Swordmage (low->high), Warden (mid->high)
  • B Tier: Battlemind (low->mid striker), Knight (mid->mid)
  • C Tier: Cavalier (mid->mid)

Controllers
All controllers have AOE. Good controllers also have hard status debuffs (blind, daze, stun, dominate) and battlefield control that prevents foes from reaching anyone in the party.

  • A Tier: Invoker (mid->mid), Wizard (mid->mid)
  • B Tier: Druid (low->mid striker), Mage (mid->mid), Psion (mid->mid), Sha'ir (mid->mid)
  • C Tier: Binder(low->mid striker), Bladesinger (low->mid), Hunter (low->mid striker), Witch (low->mid)
  • D Tier: Seeker (low->low)

Mages, sha'ir, and witches can take arcanist (PHB) wizard powers, so they're basically just wizards with less useful class features.

Strikers All strikers deal extra damage. Good strikers can bloody or even kill a solo in 1 round.

  • S Tier: Ranger (mid->high)
  • A Tier: Avenger (mid->high), Barbarian (mid->high), Monk (mid->mid controller/defender), Rogue (mid->mid), Warlock (low->high controller)
  • B Tier: Executioner (mid->mid), Slayer (mid->mid), Sorceror (mid->mid controller), Thief (mid->mid)
  • C Tier: Hexblade (low->mid), Scout (low->mid)
  • D Tier: Assassin (low->low), Blackguard (low->mid), Vampire (low->mid)

I'm not familiar enough with Elementalist to rate it.

Last But Not Least: Hybrids

In addition to dipping into a second class via multiclassing, you can combine two classes by making a hybrid character. Don't do that. A hybrid X|Y character is 40% X and 40% Y. You may notice that this only adds up to 80%; that's because in the vast majority of cases a hybrid character is at best only 80% as effective as a non-hybrid character. It is possible to make a very effective hybrid character, but it requires an extremely deep level of optimization knowledge. To use the optimization floor/ceiling terminology from earlier, hybrids have a very high ceiling, but their floor is way down in the sub-basement, much lower than even the D-tier standard classes. If you really want to try a hybrid build, I would recommend going and finding one of the really good ones that optimizers made back in the day, like Darth Vader (paladin|warlock) or Killswitch (warlord|artificer), rather than attempting to create your own.

An Addendum on Stealing from Other Classes

One of the best ways to shore up a weak class is to use multi-classing and other similar options to steal the best powers and paragon paths from other (stronger) classes. You can absolutely make a heavily-optimized tier D character that's stronger than a minimally-optimized tier A character. When both characters optimized, it starts to get back to the floors & ceilings discussed earlier in this answer. With the resources that a tier D character invests to compete with a standard tier A character, that tier A character can pull ahead of them again. The tier A character will run into diminishing returns, though; nothing a ranger can do will give them as much of a boost as a vampire gets from stealing a ranger's best powers. Optimization by poaching from other classes can narrow gaps between tiers, but bottom-tier classes will never quite catch up with top-tier classes.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zarus I've created a chat room for discussion around this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Oblivious Sage Oct 29 '19 at 15:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is closer to what I'm are looking for. I believe a chat would be good! :-) To start out. I've read an Orb of Imposition Wizard can impose a hefty negative on saving throws. Assuming optimal choices, how effective is this? Can it be emulated by other classes? \$\endgroup\$ – Zarus Oct 29 '19 at 15:44
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D&D 4e has vastly-tighter balance than D&D 3.5e. In fact, D&D 4e likely has tighter balance than any other “crunchy” system ever made—it certainly put more emphasis and priority on it than any other I’m aware of.

Balance, of course, is never perfect, and when things are imbalanced, you can categorize the best and worst options into tiers.1 However, since 4e’s balance is so tight in general, there isn’t the pressing need for tiers that there was in D&D 3.5e. That means the concept never got the same level of discussion or appreciation that it did in 3.5e; there isn’t a widely-ascribed-to tier system for 4e the way JaronK’s is for 3.5e.

The other issue is that 4e put a ton of emphasis on class role. The game really does expect every party to have a controller, a defender, a leader, and a striker. Some of these are more or less expendable than others—I know few 4e players who relish the idea of going without a leader—but nonetheless this is what you’re supposed to have and what you’re best off having. So where in D&D 3.5e, if you already have a wizard, you would still prefer another wizard over a monk, in D&D 4e the weakest leader in the game may well be superior to the strongest striker in the game if you already have a striker and are missing a leader.

I am not, overall, entirely qualified to really tier every class. However, I can report three widely-mentioned “tiers”—the ones that are notably better off, the ones that are notably worse off, and the rest.

  • The ones that are better off are, primarily, the core options, particularly fighter, ranger, warlord, and wizard. By sheer dint of just having more options than others, the core classes tend to be stronger than later classes. Furthermore, each of them—again, particularly those four—benefit from some “mistakes” that WotC made early on, and didn’t replicate in later classes. It’s hard to imagine them having printed Twin Strike later on in the system’s lifetime.

  • The ones that are worse off, the classes that are often held up as 4e’s few examples of “trap options,” are

    • the original “AEDU” assassin (not the Essentials executioner, the one with shrouds: see this question about its difficulties),
    • the seeker (we have a whole Q&A about that—note that the accepted answerer asserts that the bladesinger, binder, and hunter are at a similar level, though I have seen those three mentioned less often in this context while seeker is a perennial entry),
    • the witch (not that it’s bad per se but because the wizard can do almost-literally everything it does but better), and
    • the vampire (a striker who loses out on a ton of damage for mediocre self-healing options—this Q&A is somewhat tangential but touches on the problems).

    Honorable mention to the runepriest—it doesn’t have a reputation for weakness so much as it has a reputation as an unfun, unnecessarily-complicated gaming experience to actually play.

There are almost-certainly finer-grained tiers you could make, maybe explicitly defining which core classes are even better than the other ones, and delineating some among the rest, but to my knowledge no one has seriously attempted such a thing—or at least, anyone who has, hasn’t gotten the widespread concurrence we expect if we’re going to hold it up as a standard.

  1. Note that 4e uses the word “tier” to describe the three sets of 10 levels that play is broken up between—Heroic Tier from 1st to 10th, Paragon Tier from 11th to 20th, and Epic Tier from 21st to 30th. This is completely orthogonal to the widespread, general concept of “tier” as a categorization of options based on effectiveness/power/ease-of-success.
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    \$\begingroup\$ The Essentials Binder warlock is a massive trap- it’s ineffective at its control job, and worse at it than it’s original warlock cousin, despite original warlocks being listed as strikers. Vampires are almost designed to poach some powers from other classes, and can be fine if they do so. I’d put Warlord as significantly better than cleric, and a PHB1 class as well, but both have lots of options. \$\endgroup\$ – JLan Oct 27 '19 at 16:49
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Tiers mean something else in 4e

In 4e parlance, "tier" means a power tier between certain levels. There are three tiers: Heroic tier which covers levels 1 to 10, Paragon tier which covers levels 11 to 20, and Epic tier which covers levels 21 to 30.

These tiers are the same for all classes and mechanically, their main feature is the unlocking of a Paragon Path (or Paragon Multiclassing) at the Paragon tier, and an Epic Destiny at the Epic tier.

I will address the viewpoint of 3.5e style tiers, too. I have played DnD 4e for years, albeit sporadically, but the tier system you might know from 3.5e doesn't really apply there.

The common tier system is largely about class versalitility, not just raw power. The strongest tiers are capable of not just "filling in" for another class, but can consistently perform better than lower tier classes even in the lower tier class's specific areas of strength. The wizard of 3.5e deals more damage than the others while having better options for stealth than the rogue, better options for detecting enemies than the ranger, etc.

But 4e does things very differently. Every class is specifically balanced for combat, and weighed towards a specific role in that:

  • Strikers feature attack bonuses and excellent damage, particularly single-target. Examples: ranger, rogue, warlock
  • Controllers focus on attacks targeting multiple enemies and dealing debuffs. Examples: druid, invoker and wizards.
  • Defenders protect their party by drawing enemy attacks at themselves, while having high defenses to help them bear it. Examples: fighter, paladin, warden.
  • Leaders strengthen their party by providing buffs and healing. Examples: cleric, shaman, warlord.

Many classes tend toward a secondary role: eg. the druid has class power options that make them halfway like proper Strikers. But one can seldom really replace another role completely: most classes simply lack the powers to bind enemies like a defender does, or heal and empower like a leader does, and so on.

All in all, the 4e system is greatly geared for an experience where each of these roles is filled by someone, and other roles cannot cover for them. The idea of a wizard dominating like in earlier editions doesn't hold because they're a controller, not all four roles at once. The classes are also balanced very carefully --- save for a very few exceptions like the underpowered seeker class, there are no balance concerns in any way you choose to build your party out of those four roles. (If you want to run a party without all four roles, there is advice in the Dungeon Master's Guide to design more suitable adventures for the group)

Finally, out-of-combat skills and spells are still there, but they are more evenly balanced between classes. Spells for teleportation, scrying etc are rituals in 4e, meaning both that they always cost valuable ritual components to cast and that any character who takes the ritual caster feat can cast them, not just a few powerful arcane classes. Each ritual keys off a specific skill, so it's not easy to cover all of the party's ritual casting needs with a single character.

All in all, tell your players tiers don't exist here and the game is quite well balanced between the classes, but that for the smoothest experience, one character per role is the way to go.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you. Your answer helped me improve what I'm going for with my question. BTW I've heard that the vampire is a noticeably weaker class & the Wizard can be built to be the strongest class (as far as winning combat goes). It's been awhile, but I think it had something to do with the Wizard making it harder for creatures to save and imposing multiple negative effects or conditions. Do these sound correct? \$\endgroup\$ – Zarus Oct 27 '19 at 7:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zarus I am not personally familiar with the Vampire class, although yes, I do recall hearing people complain about its execution. And yes, I do not mean to suggwst that all classes are always equal im power, but to achieve anything resembling class tiers of yore one typically needs highly specific builds -- a few powerful ones certainly exist, but they're more like build-specific power than class-specific. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Oct 27 '19 at 7:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ They’re not really “3.5e-style tiers,” the concept of tiering options long predates 3.5e and is found in a wide variety of games, most notably fighting-genre video games (e.g. Street Fighter). WotC’s attempts to redefine the word are in bad taste and don’t really change the reality that “tier” is widespread jargon for categorization of options based on effectiveness. The confusion has to be addressed, of course, but it’s not really accurate to say that because 4e uses “tier” for something, the broader, widespread usage of the word is wrong. It just becomes ambiguous. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 27 '19 at 13:57
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In general, tiers tend to be limited in 4e because each PC is a combo of features + feats + powers + eventually paragon path & epic destiny. A PC who is say a Vampire with a top-tier power swap for a great power+Paragon Path can easily be much stronger than a PC from an 'A' tier class with decent power choices and Paragon Path.

Here's the list of 'S' tier powers — powers sorted by ability score and class that are generally great for members of the class or people who might want to add a power for them. It will always be named poachable powers as a search term.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi, welcome to the site! If you haven’t, check out the Tour; it’s pretty nice. Anyway, I’ve upvoted this because that’s a good insight, and that looks like a useful list, but ultimately we tend to strongly prefer not to have “link only” answers—if that link ever dies, this answer becomes much, much less valuable. A summary or overview of the resource at the link would improve this answer a lot. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Oct 29 '19 at 0:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, did so. I'm MwaO from the character optimization boards on WotC when 4e/boards both existed. I assembled the WotC rescue handbook on enworld, plus wrote multiple handbooks. Or I guess as a way of putting it — I will maintain the links somehow indefinitely and "poachable powers" is the search term that should always work for it even if Enworld somehow vanishes. \$\endgroup\$ – MwaO Oct 29 '19 at 2:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MwaO Thanks. I edited the question based on your insight. I'm assuming each class is being played optimally. Can power swapping make a Vampire top tier? \$\endgroup\$ – Zarus Oct 29 '19 at 15:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zarus easily. Take a Vampire who multiclasses Sorcerer, power swaps for Flame Spiral, goes Demonskin Adept Paragon Path. Buff with a minor, move up to targets, Flame Spiral, then Demonsoul Bolts someone. Do 6 damage rolls worth of damage, which potentially can one-shot an elite at 11+. The handbook I wrote Past the Masquerade, How Not to Suck goes into more detail. And that's ignoring hybrid options and just how hard they are to kill. \$\endgroup\$ – MwaO Oct 29 '19 at 17:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MwaO Oblivious Sage stated "If you'd like to argue with me about the ratings, drop me a comment and we can set up a chat room." I think your expertise could be put to good use there. chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/100422/4e-class-tiers-discussion \$\endgroup\$ – Zarus Oct 29 '19 at 17:58

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