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I like odd (but not completely broken) builds, and am intrigued when I see them, but I do like to see them somewhat balanced. Right now I'm considering whether a melee Wizard build is feasible. I am looking for a solid character concept (more like a niche group for my game world that a player could be a part of) that doesn't feel really underpowered, but is unique and interesting.

For clarification of the concept: make a melee based "pure" wizard specialized in Abjuration or Transmutation with the following constraints:

  • No more than one non-core book for a specific build (core = PHB, DMG, MM; e.g. Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide or Elemental Evil Player's Guide)
  • no more than 1 to 2 levels of a non-wizard class (for the proficiencies).
  • As I run my own campaign worlds, a single balanced custom feat for working with this would be a welcome addition to a good answer, but would not represent my focus, and would not be the determining factor of a good answer.

If you focus your stats on combat (melee or ranged depending on race), and if most of the spells you take are based on buffing or gaining a situational advantage, (Transmutation, with some Abjuration, in particular), can a Wizard compete with other classes on damage output with a proficient weapon (whether proficiency is gained by dip in another class or by race)? Obviously tricks like an Elven Wizard flying to rain arrows down is interesting in its own right, but I am asking more for capacity to stay relatively close in overall power level to a character of another class at either tanking and/or weapon-based damage output in to the later level ranges.

I do expect the damage output to be less, but not too much less.

The Abjurer gives advantages to hit points via their class abilities, and those advantages can protect another player after a few levels. They will not have the damage output of a Fighter with a melee weapon, but they can absorb some serious damage with temporary HP.

Damage output could be house-ruled through a feat or ability that mitigates the expected damage discrepancy, but it is beyond the scope of the concept and not required for any answer.

Damage in the late game needs to be focused on by spellcasting -- a focus on touch spells would be in the spirit of the character, and generate the right feel. If there is a feat that allows casting with a shield it is conceptually within the bounds of this question as long as it does not slow down progression much.

This question was originally asked before the PHB came out. While Wax Eagle's answer was originally accepted, the PHB, Elemental Evil, Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide, and other material has been released by WoTC. A better answer based on the available newer information will be selected.

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Paladin 2 / Wizard (abjurer) X

You said you are willing to take at most a 2 level dip in another class for proficiencies. Have you considered taking these levels in Paladin? Assuming you want to keep the "I'm a Wizard!" flavour, taking your first 2 levels as a Paladin of the god of magic (assuming there is one in your campaign, of course) isn't really out of character. So here's my take on this build. I'll mostly cover melee options, since this is what the question is about, but you should still be able to do anything that another wizard could do, just 2 levels later. This gap can be great at certain levels (Fireball is a great damage upgrade at level 5), but it shouldn't be noticed too much on single target damage (Smite!). It's not the strongest build out there, but it's definitely good enough to be enjoyable!

Benefits of 2 paladin levels :

  • Proficiency with all weapons : opens up many solid weapon choices
  • Proficiency with all armors and shields : although dex is definitely the best stat in 5E, a melee wizard will require spending spell slots on defence to keep up. Being able to wear a full plate and a shield gives great defensive benefits and costs no daily ressources.
  • 6 more HPs : While 2 more level wizard levels would've given you 4 more arcane ward HPs, those only replenish on a long rest or by spending spell slots. Arcane ward is an awesome feature, but real HPs trump it anytime.
  • Lay on Hands : Yay for 10 free HPs per day! More than makes up for those 4 lost ward HPs, and can be used on other people, too.
  • Fighting style : There are many good options here, but I'd go for protection or defence to increase your utility/survival. Great weapon fighting is a good offensive option if you forgo your shield and grab a great sword, especially since you're going to stack lots of dice on those attacks. This can be somewhat replaced by the Elemental Adept feat, however.
  • Access to 1st level paladin spells : One thing you'll have as a wizard is lots of low-level spell slots rather early. Smite spells might not always be the best options, but they can add good damage and other effects on your melee attacks. Paladin also has a few abjuration spells, which gives you back some arcane ward HPs, but the good ones are higher level, sadly. If you have the warcaster feat and can handle your constitution saves, Shield of Faith is also very good as a low-cost defensive boost. While Cure Wounds is a paladin spell, you can cast it using your full spell slots, which means that, although not a cleric, you still have access to some great healing powers if they are needed.
  • Divine Smite : Convert spell slots into damage. Given that you can elect to smite after you know the attack hits, and that there is no save for this damage, it's a great way to increase your melee damage. Especially good if you crit...

That being said, given equal gear, you should have the same AC as any other tank, since you're wearing the same stuff they are. As for your damage, the new Sword Coast Adventure Guide cantrips are there for you. Sure, they're not going to out-damage a fighter or a rogue, but they're still very good damage options. Since they require a melee weapon attack, they also trigger class features such as Divine Smite, so you don't miss out too much. Having two attacks could technically mean 2 smites per round, but the added damage of your cantrips will compensate for this quite decently.

  • Green-Flame Blade : when fighting multiple enemies, this attack basically gives you the benefit of a second attack without costing anything. Since you're not going to have multiple attacks from class features, this is pretty much as good as you're going to get.
  • Booming Blade : Assuming you can make sure your opponent moves willingly each round, this cantrip will give you the same benefits as GFB except on a single target.

Other thing to note is that the secondary damage from these spells automatically hits, no save and no attack roll required, which means that you can strike a minion to land free damage on the BBEG. These spells will thus give you decent damage round after round, leaving you with all your other spell slots to use as you see fit. Your 2 levels of paladin will give you the opportunity to convert your low-level spell slots into more damage as an option, and your wizard powers will allow you to turn these same spell slots into defensive abilities. Shield will grant you +5 AC for one round, which is awesome if you attract the BBEG's attention (especially given that your AC is already high). In Elemental Evil, there is also the Absorb Element spell, which gives you resistance against a single element, also for one round. This gives you defensive options for both physical and most magical attacks. As an interesting addition, both of these spells are abjuration-based, and will thus heal your ward for 2 HPs every time you cast them.

And after all this, you're still an almost full wizard. Your access to spells and features will be delayed for two levels because of multi-classing, which shouldn't reduce your melee effectiveness, but you will still have access to 9th level spells and have spell slots as a 19th level caster. While the Signature Spell capstone is good, the real treat is at wizard level 18 (character level 20 for you), so you don't miss out on much. Indeed, spell mastery will allow you to have 2 low-level at-will spells, which gives you infinite Shield spells, for instance. This should allow you to use your slots for more offensive options, since your defence is free. Infinite Shield spells also means that your arcane ward is always topped off after every combat if you take a minute or so to recharge it after each fight.

Your melee power also scale quite decently if we compare them to a tank fighter (longsword + shield, defensive fighting style) of equivalent level :

  • Level 1-4 : Fighter [1d8 + str] vs GFB [1d8 + str + (int secondary)]
  • Level 5-10 : Fighter 2x[1d8 + str] vs GFB [1d8 + 1d8 + str + (1d8 + int secondary)]
  • Level 11-16 : Fighter 3x[1d8 + str] vs GFB [1d8 + 2d8 + str + (2d8 + int secondary)]
  • Level 17-19 : Fighter 3x[1d8 + str] vs GFB [1d8 + 3d8 + str + (3d8 + int secondary)]
  • Level 20 : Fighter 4x[1d8 + str] vs GFB [1d8 + 3d8 + str + (3d8 + int secondary)]

Of course, a fighter has abilities to increase his damage, but so do you (thank you, Divine Smite)! Since the fighter has more attacks, he's more likely to deal some damage each round, whereas your damage all hinges on your single attack landing. This will be especially important if the fighter can get his hands on a weapon that deals extra damage (like a flame tongue), an ability that would be mostly wasted on your single attack per round. The fighter also only requires only one good stat to be 100% effective, while you will need both strength and intelligence. Since your intention is to go melee, I'd consider maxing strength first, especially considered you'll use your spells mostly defensively or in a utilitarian fashion (so lower save DCs are not as bad).

Feats to consider :

  • Warcaster : For pretty obvious reasons (casting and adv. on constitution saves). Combined with Booming blade, it's also a boost to damage: when an enemy tries to get away, you booming blade it, which will deal almost double damage if it hits, as the enemy will likely leave the area right after. If they don't, well, your party gets to kill them anyways.
  • Shield Master : If you are using a shield, it's a solid defensive feat.
  • Heavy Armor Master : +1 strength, reduce most physical oncoming damage by 3. The drawback is that it doesn't work on your arcane ward, as it has it's own HP pool. As such, any damage the ward takes is not "damage that you take" and does not trigger this feat. Still a great option for a tank, especially one that has a wizard's HP pool and requires strength for his attacks.
  • Elemental Adept : You're going to cast a lot of fire cantrips, and this feat allows you to ignore resistance and to treat 1s as 2s. This feat does not specify that only the fire damage dice are affected, so it works on your weapon die, your GFB dice, but also on your added Divine Smite dice. Definitely not bad.
  • Mage Slayer : Disrupt enemy spellcasters from melee range. The attack granted by this feat is not as strong as a full opportunity attack (as warcaster will allow for a GFB or BB cantrip), but if you can prevent them from casting, it has a lot more utility. Advantage on saves isn't exactly bad either.

Other things to consider :

  • Transmuter instead of abjurer : possible proficiency with constitution saves or resistance to one element is a good trade-off for a melee wizard. Not sure that I'd sacrifice arcane ward for it, though. Since Arcane Ward has it's own HP pool, all the damage it soaks isn't counted towards the concentration save DC. Advantage from warcaster should be more than enough, especially if you have some stat bonuses.
  • Bladesinger instead of abjurer : A tough one... Since you're going to use cantrips for offense, you're wasting the extra attack feature with that build. But... a dex-based character wearing light armor will have only 1 less AC than a plate wearing character (equal if you cast mage armor instead), so your bladesong will leave you with a net +2 to AC during a fight once you get 20 intelligence (since you're also forgoing your shield). Even if not going for a strength build, you lose none of the advantages of a paladin (smite, armor proficiencies, healing, spells, etc.), but also gain Intelligence bonus to concentration saves and increased combat speed, as well as overall better skills since dexterity is the best stat. I'd personally favour bladesinger, but both options are very interesting.
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No, you really can't unless the PHB abjurer/transmuter fixes this in the school powers. The basic cleric gives us some clues on how WOTC might fix this.

There are two areas you have to look to know whether or not this will work. To-hit and damage.

The first is thankfully baked right into the system, with the boosts to stats and proficiencies, a wizard who starts with a 16 int/14 str or dex will be able to reach 20/20 by L19 and will get the full +6 proficiency in both their weapon (thanks to racial proficiencies), and on their spell attacks and DCs (thanks to...well...magic).

However, the other space that is far more problematic. The wizard stays at a single die of damage. The fighter gets more attacks, and the rogue gets more and more sneak attack dice (and eventually more turns), cleric and wizard cantrips continue to add more dice (from 1 up to 4).

However, the cleric provides an interesting picture of how this might work via a wizard school. A wizard school could provide a similar feature to the Life Cleric's Divine Strike where it would add an additional d8 (or d6 or d10, whatever), to melee/ranged attacks at two to three levels. This would provide a viable melee/ranged attack option that scales well enough to compete with cantrips and fighter/rogue melee attacks.

To take the cleric for an example, using a d8 melee weapon, his melee attack with the second upgrade of Spiritual weapon isn't quite as good as the 4d8 of sacred flame at L20, but it's within about 2 DPR of it, which is plenty good for them to be a competitive melee class at 20.

To sum up. Right now, having only seen the evocation school of wizardry, no, the wizard cannot compete. But they have laid the groundwork for how a melee or ranged wizard can work if they choose to add a school that's amenable to that. Looking at the list of schools with a bit of expanded info for each...I'm not seeing one that indicates a weapon attack focus, but until we see the details for the schools, we can't say yet.


Update:

Now that we've seen the Abjurer and Transmuter, we can say for sure that neither of these takes on school features similar to the Wizard that makes weapon based melee attacks viable. This is actually OK.

Abjurers are actually semi-viable in melee. Provided you're willing to use one of your L1 spells to cast Mage Armor daily (or play a dwarf). If your Dex is decent you'll want a finesse weapon at L1. After tier 1, your melee attack is no longer viable, and you will want to make sure you have access to Shocking Grasp, and a few cone or self centered cube spells at low levels (Burning Hands and Thunderwave are good options) to cast at their specified level or higher). However, the class feature that really shines for the abjurer is the Arcane Ward feature that lets you wrap magic around yourself to create something of an energy field. This becomes transferable at L6 giving you a defenderish type power.

That's basically it for the Abjurer's melee support. They can take about one more hit than your average wizard, so you don't want to get into melee often, but they aren't a total loss if they get there.

Transmuters don't really get something that makes them viable in melee until L10. With a 1/rest free polymorph that is limited to a CR 1 creature. Like the Druid's Wild Shape, polymorph can be used as a HP sink as your original HP is restored when your polymorphed shape is dropped to 0 (though you take over damage if there is any). I would not attempt to enter melee with this school until at least L10, and probably not even then except in limited doses.

So, ultimately, the answer to this question is no. No wizard is truly viable in melee, at least not the way the Cleric is.

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I would highly doubt it. Remember that most buff spells require concentration in 5e, and you can only concentrate on one spell at a time (so no stacking buffs like a 3.x Transmuter). And taking damage always brings the possibility of breaking your concentration and losing your buff. So you either buff yourself defensively, to mitigate your vulnerability to losing concentration your general lack of HP, or you buff for offense, potentially allowing yourself to out-damage your allies in melee at the risk of taking damage and losing both your offensive buff AND a good chunk of your HP. You'd be a "glass cannon" with the potential to becoming just "glass" after taking your first hit.

I'm not saying there won't be class features or feats that won't help mitigate one or more of these issues, but you'd need to both mitigate both losing concentration and find a way to stack buffs to really be able to stack up in melee as a wizard. There's probably several answers for the former but I doubt there'll be much of an answer for the latter. Limiting buffs was key to 5e keeping casters in check.

It seems that for melee wizards 5e would really prefer to steer players towards the Eldritch Knight.

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Yes, it is possible to be competitive as a melee wizard.

(Disclaimer: This is an answer with an example of how this can work. A melee wizard will be inferior to a pure wizard in most cases. The build has some cheese in it, which is to make it as viable and fun as possible)

It is possible for a melee Abjuration or Transmutation wizard to be competitive in melee as other melee classes. The problem is more akin to "What is competitive?" or "How to be competitive?" in terms of a class, especially in melee classes. The most simple way to be competitive is to play a role, a niche, that no other class can while being considered "melee". In the case of a Wizard the niche that is easier to fulfill is the "bag of tricks" or the "controller".

Another thing to consider is that being in melee is being in constant danger and, for a low HP class as the wizard is, it is a very dangerous place to be. Because of this particular reason, the wizard has to be very proactive with the spells and utilize them more strategically that a standard wizard.

The last thing to consider is: why melee? What do we want to achieve being in the front line as a melee wizard? We might want to be a tank or a DPS-ish character. Since wizards do not have the means to be effective using weapons and multiple attacks naturally, and under the schools traditions imposed, it will be hard to be a pure wizard; no multiple attacks, pitiful melee damage and no way to convert spell slots to weapon damage (aside from touch spells).

Being "pure" is a fool's errand, but there are ways to ensure 9th level spells and to be as effective as it can be in melee.

Therefore, to be a good melee wizard, what is needed is a strong base that helps us to fulfill the fluff of melee and the niche we want to fulfill. Since there are a lot of possible classes and race combinations, I will go with what I find the most stable from level 1. Obviously a melee wizard is not an easy class to play, so the challenge is great.

Race: Human, variant. Attributes (+ Human adjustment) and point buy at level 1:

  • STR 15 (14+1) or 16 (15+1)
  • DEX 8
  • CON 14
  • WIS 9
  • INT 15 (14+1) or 14 (13+1)
  • CHA 13

Initial classes:

For Transmutation:
Paladin 1, fighter 1, paladin 1. (Proficiency with CON save because of the stone)

For Abjuration:
Fighter 1, paladin 2. (Proficiency with CON save because Fighter)

Human feat: Dual Wielder (+1 AC and non-light weapons for two-weapon fighting)
Fighter 1 Fighting style: Two-weapon fighting.
Paladin 2 Fighting style: Defensive (+1 AC)

With this, the base is finished. It is a solid base for a melee wizard, and it fulfills several considerations:

  1. High AC: Plate armor + 2 AC from feat/fighting style is solid, almost as good as plate and a shield.
  2. Multiple attacks (2) with STR modifier in both. Wizards don't have a lot of spells that use the bonus action.
  3. Great survivability on low levels because of Lay on hand (Worth 10 HP) and Second wind (1d10 + 1)
  4. DPS wise is not bad. With the help of Divine Smite (Paladin 2) we can burn spell slots to increase the DPS as we see fit, plus Multiple attacks, not that bad (It rocks at low levels).
  5. HP wise it is good at low levels to mid levels, and at higher levels the wizard spells increase the defensive capabilities. Abjuration wizards have the upper hand in this regard.

Consideration to have: It will need the War Caster feat at level 7 (when your wizards levels start to kick in), thus making it impossible to have INT and STR at its maximum. They can be both at 18 (not bad) or one at 20 and the other at 16 with the hope to find an item to increases it at 19 or more.

From here the melee part is covered as well as possible for a wizard with access to 9th level spells. From here everything depends on the wizard to fulfill the desired niche.

From level 1 to 3: You are a melee class until this point. Nothing worth saying.

From level 4 to 6: You are a Paladin-ish melee hitter with access to the spell progression of a wizard.

From level 7 to 11: The wizard start to kick on, here is where most defensive spells start to shine. Illusions are great to create the ideal situation for your melee character and INT saves are rare. Summoned creatures are worth considering as defensive positions for you.

From level 12 to 19: So many spells, animate object is wonderful. Bigby's Hand is another treasure that cost's very little in terms of bonus actions. Mordenkainen's Sword is also very good as a controller since it is invulnerable. Also, low level spell slots are worth your time to increase your DPS as melee, just don't forget to leave some for shield and some defensive spells on dire fights.

Level 20: Wish: wish is the trump card at this level. Wish a Simulacrum of you and have tons of spells to back you up.

Conclusion

A melee wizard is very viable and competitive, not in terms of DPS, since at this point there are not many options. The niche to fulfill, as a melee class, is not easy fulfilled by any melee class.

A note for Cantrips VS Melee

Before level 17, most cantrips do less damage than the melee using the bonus action in most situations, but melee has the advantage that they can be strengthened with Divine Smite, especially on critical hits. After level 17, cantrips are better at doing consistent damage, unless you can get your hands in some nice magic weapons.

Consideration for the schools listed by the OP

Although my answer do not touch too much of the schools listed, it is easy (but not short) to find a much focused niche for those schools. The base build covers the melee part as good as possible, thus making any school viable, even more with the ones listed.

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You mentioned you would accept ideas for custom feats that could help with this, and since you have gotten lots of great answers already, I would like to add this idea for a feat to the mix.

Bards who's chosen the College of Valor get the "Battle Magic" feature at level 14. This feature allows them to "make one weapon attack as a bonus action", after they've cast a bard spell.

My suggestion would be creating a custom feat that does something similar, but slightly different to fit your specific situation. I would word it something like "When you use your action to cast a spell, you can make one melee attack as a bonus action.", this limits the attack to be a melee attack, but broadens it slightly by not requireing it to be a weapon attack.

However, I would likely set some kind of prerequisite in the form of level or a particularly high ability score, to ensure that the player doesn't gain access to this feat at low levels like 4 or possibly not even at 8 (or 1 as Variant Human).

Assuming the acceptance of this custom feat, you could possibly consider creating some kind of Wizard/Monk, who with this feat could then cast a spell as an action (requireing one or possibly even both hand to be free, unless you also take the warcaster feat), and then make one unarmed strike as a bonus action. I am however not certain if Flurry of Blows would be aplicable here? I guess that might depend on whether a damaging spell is considered an "attack action" Hope this might be usefull to you, and not far, far too late of an input to be relevant.

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It's D&D. You can make anything.

Wizard 5/ Eldritch Knight the rest. Farm ABI from Fighter to top out INT and get feats.

Lots of slots, cast a spell every second turn and use big slots for Shatter or something.

Extra Attack + Haste + Great WPN Master + Actions Surge + Possible AoO is 7+ attacks right?

Start as a Mountain Dwarf Fighter. Heavy Armour + Martial WPN + Shield + any other spells you want + Second Wind + Conjurations = AC 20 or higher and take the Tough feat or spam false life / any buff you choose. Proficiency in CON Saves.

Summon an Earth Elemental just to add insult.

You might do more than a Fighter, but less than a Frenzy Berzorca.

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