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I am currently playing through my first ever D&D campaign. I am a Warlock with the Fiend as my Patron, and I am gearing towards a high damage spellcaster build (currently Eldritch Blast spam).

I am approaching Level 4 Warlock where I gain access to Level 2 spells. Because my patron is the Fiend, I could choose to learn Scorching Ray. I am also considering Mind Spike. I am debating which one to choose, based on how much damage I can expect from each one and how well they scale as I level up further.

SR is 3 attack rolls for 2d6 each, so assuming I hit 1.5 out of 3 rolls on average, this would be 11.5 expected damage.

MS does not require attack rolls but instead has a Wisdom saving throw. Assuming half of those throws are successful, MS would have 10.125 expected damage.

I am not sure these assumptions hold, but they seem like reasonable benchmarks.

So SR has slightly higher damage, but there are a few other considerations:

  • As enemies get stronger, I need higher attack rolls for SR, but I will also be gaining proficiency/charisma bonuses as I level up.
  • MS is more reliable damage because an enemy will always take at least half of 3d8. But assuming enemies typically have higher Wisdom as the game progresses, the number of successful saves will presumably increase.
  • SR gets an additional 2d6 with each level while MS gets an additional 1d8, but the 2d6 for SR requires an attack roll.
  • MS has the added benefit of knowing the target's location on a failed save. I am not sure how useful this is.

Any advice on which to pick would be appreciated, based on expected damage immediately as well as at higher levels.

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The 2 spells are very different, so it's hard to compare them.

You've made the analysis on damage (dies) and a bit on type, but there is a lot else:

  • Delivery: Spell Attack vs AC (SR) vs Wisdom Save (MS)
  • Failure mode: Hit or Miss (SR) vs Hit or Half (MS)
  • Damage Type: Fire (SR) vs Psychic (MS)
  • Range: 120 ft. (SR) vs 60 ft. (MS)
  • Components: VS (SR) vs S (MS)
  • Concentration: None (SR) vs 1h (MS)

Stuff that may not matter:

  • Range: 60 ft. is already pretty generous in battle, you're unlikely to miss it.
  • Components: Having to be discreet is situational, and attacking while having to be discreet even more so.
  • Concentration: You cannot cast a Concentration spell while concentrating on another spell; may not be an issue depending on your play style.

Personally, I'd go with Mind Spike:

  • Its damage type is better. Fire is resisted by a large number of typical foes -- Dragons, Elementals, Fiends, Slaadi, Incorporeal are typical categories of foes with resistance or immunity to Fire -- while Psychic is only really resisted by Constructs -- even a raging Bear Totem Barbarian does not resist Psychic.
  • Its failure mode is better. Randomness is the enemy, and doing half-damage on failure is better than getting nothing.
  • Its delivery mode is still fairly good. Sure AC is better, but Wisdom save is still the second weakest defense -- and from experience not that far behind AC.

And that's because I'm the paranoid kind of player. The one who doesn't like relying on dice, or a cooperative DM.

Further, I find the utility aspect a nice cherry on top. Invisible enemies are a plague, so once again my paranoid self appreciates the counter-measure.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Max It’s generally a good idea to wait a day or two before accepting an answer to let others know the question is still open and active, someone else might come through with an even better answer. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 14, 2021 at 18:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just want to highlight there is an argument against the statement that fire is the most resisted type. Not sure that makes it better than psychic, but it's there (rpg.stackexchange.com/a/103262/34130). \$\endgroup\$
    – 3C273
    Aug 14, 2021 at 21:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @3C273: Good point. I've tweaked the wording to make it clearer, while incorporating the data about monster types. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 15, 2021 at 16:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ The other point in favor of Mind Spike is that Eldritch Blast has the warlock covered on damage already, so their spell slots are probably better spent on things with more utility than just raw damage. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 15, 2021 at 16:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RyanC.Thompson I actually hesitated commenting on that aspect, but decided to follow the question strictly (SR vs MS). However, indeed, I probably would learn single-target damage spells with a Warlock -- or at the very least not since the very beginning -- since that role is already well covered and at a far lesser cost with Eldritch Blast. Even staying with damage, I'd probably be looking toward Area spells instead -- you know, when that horde of rats/goblins come calling, and some mobility (Misty Step, Fly) to get out of there quick... \$\endgroup\$ Aug 15, 2021 at 18:02
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I had the same choice to make as you, and I chose Scorching Ray, for two related reasons.

  1. Hex. Hex is a staple Warlock spell that deals extra damage on successful attacks. Most Warlocks will want to use Hex because of its good synergy with Eldritch Blast. Scorching Ray makes three attacks, for up to 3 chances to trigger additional damage from Hex. Mind Spike does not make any attacks, and does not trigger Hex.
  2. Scaling. Pact Magic spells are always cast at the highest level possible, which increases up to level 5. For each additional spell slot level, Scorching Ray fires an additional beam for an additional 2d6 damage and another chance to trigger Hex. Mind Spike's damage only increases by 1d8 per level.

When you combine these two factors, Scorching Ray becomes much more attractive than it initially seems: for a warlock at 9th level, it can deal up to 12d6 (~42) fire damage and trigger an additional 6d6 (~21) necrotic damage from Hex. It's true that Mind Spike deals a more uncommon damage type and has an auxiliary benefit, but Scorching Ray's pure single target damage potential is not easily dismissed.

(On the gripping hand, you get Fireball at level 5 anyway, and if you can catch even 3 targets with Fireball you'll easily outstrip the damage potential of either spell...)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Mind Spike also cancels an existing Hex, as it's Concentration. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 16, 2021 at 4:37

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