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At higher levels especially Level 17 (which is where most cantrips get their last upgrade) I noticed does a lot more damage than level 1 spell slots.

For example Poison Spray compared to Thunderwave.

  • Thunderwave (Level 1) does 2d8 damage on a success unless using higher level spell slots
  • At level 17 Poison Spray does 4d12 which is significantly higher.

I'm pretty new to DnD but if I don't want to use higher spell slots would it not be better to just stick with Cantrips which can be used infinitely.

If so are these low level spells mainly for lower level characters?

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There are several reasons for using Thunderwave over Poison Spray.

  1. Range: Thunderwave affects everyone within a 15 foot cube - this is potentially 9 creatures (more if there are some flying above or tunneling below). Poison Spray affects 1 creature.
  2. Damage Type: Some things are resistant or immune to different types of damage. Thunderwave is infinitely better against a creature immune to poison.
  3. Save effects: A creature that saves takes no damage from Poison Spray but still takes 2d8/2 from Thunderwave.
  4. Miscellaneous: The push effect from Thunderwave is nice, especially if it will push creatures off a 200 foot cliff - 2d8 + 20d6 is better than 4d12.

This type of comparison can be made for any spell/cantrip combination.

That said, low level damage spells are usually used by low level casters; even though they can scale by using a spell slot they are generally sub-optimal when compared with a spell specifically for that level. For example, Burning Hands can do 5d6 fire damage using a 3rd level slot, however, Fireball can do 8d6 in a bigger area at a greater range.

For this reason, a spellcaster will usually "trade up" by memorising different spells (Cleric/Wizard) or swapping out known spells (most others). Low level spell slots are then used for utility spells like Detect Magic, Shield etc. with damage dealt by cantrips and higher level spells

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, but I'd suggest emphasising the use of non-damaging spells a bit more - Both Shield and Detect Magic will always be an incredible use of a spell slot, far more than Thunderwave or Burning Hands. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Apr 8 '16 at 8:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I know it's not completely relevant to the question but in the interest of accuracy: Thunderwave isn't actually centered on the caster. A "Cube" area effect originates from the caster but the origin is a point on "any face of the cube". Therefore it can be directed any way the caster chooses. \$\endgroup\$ – MrNattious Apr 8 '16 at 10:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Here's a link to back up MrNattious' comment : sageadvice.eu/2015/04/29/thunderwave \$\endgroup\$ – Meta4ic Apr 8 '16 at 13:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, and also +1 for @Miniman 's comment. There is however something to be said about being about to cast lower level spell's several times rather than a high level spell once or twice but still not achieving your goals. You can cast burning hands several times at lower level, while fireball must be cast at 3rd level or higher. Maybe you don't need to do a lot of damage to each creature and so instead you use burning hands a few times rather than fireball once and then you're stuck. \$\endgroup\$ – Escoce Apr 8 '16 at 18:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Escoce except the OP was why you would use a low level spell instead of a cantrip. Cantrip are an inexhaustible resource. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Apr 10 '16 at 0:37
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It Depends

5e has a number of spell mechanics, and it's not clear what exactly you're talking about here (I assume you're talking about using level 1 spells), but many classes handle spell slots differently (for instance, getting only a certain number of spells which can be at a particular level [so spell level 1 spells are identical to spell level 7 spells]).

You typically will see scaling happen differently for spells; some spells, like Witch Bolt, can be improved to function in a higher level spell slot (useful for a Warlock that only casts spells at a certain spell level).

In Combat

In combat, you'll typically want to be doing damage with cantrips, unless you're sure that you'll get enough rest immediately afterward to replenish your spell slots (at least, that's my personal philosophy. High level spells, like, say, casting Witch Bolt in a spell level 5 slot (for 5d12 damage!) can be good for an emergency, but most of the time your Warlock would want to use cantrips.

Utility

One thing that you are likely to see on spell level 1 spells that you don't see on cantrips is the addition of special effects. That Thunderwave, for instance, is an area of effect spell that also has the advantage of knocking back enemies that fail a save. Though you can get some effects like these on cantrips too as you advance, you won't see them quite as often, and they may use up character. However, Thunderwave isn't a candidate for moving up into a higher level spell slot, because you get a really low return on it: if you have a level 1 spell slot, however, it might be worth using in combat.

Out of Combat

Out of combat, spells tend not to do direct damage, so low level spell slots are useful for most spells. Not every utility spell scales with higher level spell slots, but enough do (and have unique effects) that they're worth putting in higher slots if they're perfect for the situation.

When in doubt, you'll typically aim for low spell level spells as utility spells when you need them to do something that you can't do by mundane means. In this sense, many of these spells will be useful at all levels, as a character might always need to, say, Speak with Dead, or Spider Climb, depending on the situation they find themselves in.

Desperation

Sometimes you'll use a spell in a sub-optimal spell slot because you really need it. You can't bump that SL3 spell down to a level 2 slot just by asking politely, so you might use it at a higher level (sometimes for no benefit) just because you need to because the utility you need isn't available in a more appropriate form. Alternatively, as seen above in the Utility subsection of the combat section, you might need to deal a lot of damage and knock someone back, and pumping up that Thunderwave is the easiest way to accomplish both objectives.

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