Melee Spell Attack: Ultimate DND Guide for Beginners

In Dungeons and Dragons (DND), magic is a powerful tool for good or for evil. One of the most versatile and dangerous forms of magic is the melee spell attack.

What is a melee spell attack?

A melee spell attack is a close-range attack with a spell. The melee range is generally 5 feet. To cast a melee attack spell, a player makes an attack roll using their spellcasting modifier instead of their physical attack modifier. Melee attack spells follow melee attack rules.

In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about melee spell attacks in DND.

What Is a Melee Spell Attack? (Detailed Explanation)

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Cloaked figure casting magic—Melee Spell Attack
Image by the author via Canva

A melee spell attack is magical combat within striking range of an enemy.

Most of the time, the melee range is 5 feet in any direction. However, some races get an extended melee range.

For example, a bugbear possesses a melee range of 10 feet.

Melee spells allow a character to use spellcasting modifiers (Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma) for the attack roll rather than Dexterity and strength modifiers.

Since it’s not a ranged attack, the spellcaster doesn’t suffer a disadvantage for casting one of these attack spells within an enemy’s reach (aka, melee range).

There are several elements that make up a magical melee attack:

  • Attack modifiers
  • Attack damage
  • Attack of opportunity
  • Atack advantage
  • Range (area of effect)

Attack Modifiers

A spell attack modifier is the Base Ability a character uses to power a spell.

For example, Charisma is the Spellcasting ability for Sorcerers.

So, a close-range spell attack modifier is the number taken from an ability score when powering a melee spell attack.

According to the Players Handbook, here is the definition of a combat spell attack roll:

Some spells require a character to make an attack roll to know whether the spell effect hits the intended target. Therefore, an attack bonus using a spell attack equals the proficiency bonus plus the spellcasting ability modifier.

Melee Spell Attack Damage

Melee magic attack damage is the total amount of magical destruction done by a melee spell attack.

This number comes from the sum of the spell’s damage and any other relevant modifiers.

Here is an example.

When you cast Bigsby’s Hand, you generate a giant magical hand that appears next to your enemy.

To calculate attack damage, you roll 4d8 (four 8-sided dice).

Melee Spell Attack of Opportunity

A combat spell attack of opportunity is a “bonus” attack you get when a hostile creature leaves your character’s reach.

Perhaps an injured enemy is running away or trying to disengage.

In this situation, you can cast an attack spell with an attack advantage. But only if you possess the War Caster feature.

Melee Spell Attack Advantage

There are advantages to using combat spell attacks.

One is the optional Flanking rule. When two characters or more surround an enemy, they gain an edge on their melee spell attacks against that foe.

Another advantage is if the enemy is stunned, paralyzed, or unconscious.

There are also specific spell-based advantages. As an example, you gain an attack advantage when you cast Shocking Grasp against an enemy in metal armor

Areas of the Effect

All offensive touch spells fall into the category of melee-attack magic.

However, so do all spells that create an effect right next to the enemy—even if your enemy is 20 or 30 feet away.

How is this possible?

The “melee” in melee attack magic is based on the spell. For touch spells, you need to be within physical reach.

And that’s usually five feet for most characters.

The exception is when a spell creates a magical object right next to the enemy, such as Shocking Grasp or Spiritual Weapon.

When you make a spell attack roll for these types of spells, you use the melee range of the magical object (Hand or Weapon). As opposed to using your spellcaster’s physical distance from the enemy.

As you might suspect, this is a major advantage.

Here is a good video that shows how to make a melee spell strike in DND:

YouTube video by Fredrick Wheeler

Types of Melee Spell Attacks

There are three primary types of close-range spell attacks: Lethal, Non-Lethal, and Sneak Attack.

Under each, there are many sub-types of melee magic attacks.

Lethal Melee Attack Spell

A lethal melee spell attack is a type of melee spell that does damage equal to the character’s maximum health points.

It’s an instant death attack, and there is sometimes no saving throw.

Non-Lethal Melee Attack Spell

Most melee combat spells are non-lethal.

That just means they do not instantly kill the enemy. They do damage as described in each spell and there is often a saving throw.

To be clear, any spell that inflicts damage can be lethal to an enemy.

If an enemy is already weak and injured, even a generally non-lethal spell can prove deadly.

Melee Attack Spell Sneak Attack

Officially, you can not make a magical melee sneak attack.

The official Basic Rules of DND describe sneak attacks like this:

Once per turn, you can deal extra 1d6 damage to one creature you hit with an attack if you have advantage on the attack roll. The attack must use a finesse or a ranged weapon.

Therefore, as a spellcaster, you can cast a spell that creates an advantage for another player who can sneak attack with a finesse weapon.

You might use Shocking Grasp to shock a hostile goblin.

While the goblin is stunned, your rogue teammate can make a sneak attack with a dagger.

Melee Spell Attack List (All 14 Melee Attack Spells Explained)

Here is a chart that covers important information about 14 melee attack spells:

Melee Spell NameLevelTimeRangeSource
Bigby’s Hand5thAction120 feetPHB
Blade of Disaster9thBonus60 feetTCE
Dispel Evil and Good5thActionSelfPHB
Flame Blade2ndBonusSelfPHB
Inflict Wounds1stActionTouchPHB
Mordenkainen’s Sword7thAction60 feetPHB
Plane Shift7thActionTouchPHB
Primal SavageryCantripActionSelfXGE
Shocking GraspCantripActionTouchPHB
Spiritual Weapon2ndBonus60 feetPHB
Steel Wind Strike5thAction30 feetXGE
Thorn WhipCantripAction30 feetPHB
Vampiric Touch3rdActionSelfPHB
Key: PHB = Players Handbook, XGE = Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, TCE = Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything

Melee Spell Attack Cantrips

Melee spell combat cantrips are spells that require a melee attack to hit the target.

The following are cantrips that require a melee magical attack:

  • Primary Savagery. This spell sharpens your claws and teeth to deliver a corrosive attack on an enemy. It deals 1d10 acid damage, which increases to 2d10, 3d10, and 4d10 on the 5th, 11th, and 17th levels respectively.
  • Shocking Grasp. This spell allows you to deliver an electric shock to your target on a successful melee touch attack. It deals 1d8 lightning damage, which increases to 2d8, 3d8, and 4d8 at the 5th, 11th, and 17th levels respectively.
  • Thorn Whip. This spell creates a vine-like whip with thorns that deal 1d6 piercing damage on a successful melee touch attack.

How To Calculate Melee Spell Attack?

A Melee Spell Attack gets calculated the same way as a standard Spell Attack Roll.

You add your proficiency bonus to your spellcasting ability modifier, D20, and magical item bonus.

Therefore, the attack roll calculation is:

D20 roll + spellcasting ability modifier + proficiency bonus + magical item bonus (optional)

The only major difference between a normal spell attack and a melee magic attack is that a melee attack must originate right next to the enemy.

Rules for Casting the Melee Spell Attack

The rules for casting a melee spell strike are the same as those for a melee attack or a normal spell attack.

Here are the rules for casting magical melee attacks:

  • You (or the magical effect) must be within 5 feet of the target.
  • If you are not within melee range, you can still make the attack, but you have a disadvantage on the attack roll.
  • You can’t use a Ready Action to cast a melee magical attack.
  • You can’t combine multiple melee spell attacks into one action, such as using two hands to make two different touch attacks.
  • You can cast multiple melee combat spells through a Familiar or magic item
  • You must follow all spell requirements (concentration, spell components, etc)

Does a Melee Spell Attack Use a Spellcasting Ability?

Yes, all melee attack spells use a spellcasting ability.

The ability used depends mostly on the character class. Your spellcasting ability for a sorcerer will differ from a wizard.

Here are the basic spellcasting abilities that impact melee combat spells:

  • Sorceror = Charisma
  • Wizard = Intelligence
  • Monk = Wisdom
  • Paladin = Charisma
  • Rogue = Intelligence
  • Bard = Charisma
  • Cleric = Wisdom
  • Druid = Wisdom
  • Warlock = Charisma
  • Ranger = Wisdom
  • Fighter =Intelligence
  • Artificer = Intelligence

Does a Melee Spell Attack Count as an Attack Action in DND?

No, a melee combat attack does not always count as an Attack Action.

While any spell that makes an attack roll gets considered an Attack or Spell Attack, it does not mean that it’s technically included in an Attack Action.

Otherwise, features like Extra Attack would affect it (which they usually don’t).

Only spells that specifically require the Attack Action in their description will count as an Attack Action.

Sometimes the terms Spell Attack, Weapon Attack, and Attack Action might confuse you.

But as long as you remember that an Attack Action is a requirement for some spells and not others, you’ll be fine.

Always check the official spell description to be sure.

Can Melee Attack Spells Crit?

Yes, melee spells can crit.

A critical hit with a melee magical attack deals double damage.

According to a tweet by Jeremy Crawford, both Weapon attacks and Spell Attacks have chances of scoring a crit.

In another tweet by Rodney Thompson, the developers specifically worded spell attacks to work with the critical hits and Attack Rolls.

A natural 20 on the die on a melee spell attack will trigger a critical hit.

Note that this only works if the spell requires an Attack Roll.

Some, like Shocking Grasp, have a chance to make a critical hit on their own.

What Is the Difference Between a Melee Spell Attack and a Ranged Spell Attack?

The main difference between a Melee Spell Attack and a Ranged Spell Attack is that a Melee Attack originates from within 5 feet of the target, while a Ranged Attack can originate from a farther distance.

Melee magical attacks follow all applicable traditional Melee Attack Rules.

You can find the rules in these official DND resources:

  • Basic Rules
  • Players Handbook

The other difference is that Range Attacks suffer a disadvantage if the creature is within a 5-feet radius of an enemy.

You do not suffer this disadvantage with melee magical attacks.

Melee Spell Attack vs Melee Weapon Attack

The most obvious difference between a magical melee attack and a melee weapon attack is the use of magic.

When you cast an attack spell in melee range, you’re making a magical melee attack.

When you attack with a weapon in melee range, you are making a melee weapon attack.

Melee Spell Attack and Extra Attack Feature

The Extra Attack feature allows a character to make more than one attack in one turn.

However, this only works if the character is using the Attack Action.

It’s a crucial distinction to make.

Since not all melee spells require the Attack Action, it doesn’t always work with Extra Attack.

However, there are some exceptions.

For example, Blade Singers can replace one of their ordinary attacks with a cantrip. That gives them the ability to make multiple close-range spell attacks in a single turn.

Highest Level Melee Spell Attack for Familiar

The highest possible level for a familiar’s close-range spell attack is 5th.

The power of the familiar improves as the spellcaster’s level increases, capping out at 5th.

At the 5th level, the familiar’s melee magical attack modifier is +5. The damage die is typically a d4.

Melee Spell Attack Underwater

You can make close-range spell attacks underwater, but you have a disadvantage with the resistance against fire damage.

When completely immersed in water, objects and creatures have resistance against fire damage.

You may also suffer other disadvantages to concentration, the ability to use magical components, and drowning.

Is a Melee Spell Attack an Unarmed Strike?

No, a magical melee attack with a spell is not an unarmed strike.

An unarmed strike is performed with your body and is still considered a “weapon melee attack.” The terminology is confusing but, in this sense, “weapon melee attack” includes all non-spell-related attacks.

Final Thoughts

Close-range magical combat is perfect for tank wizards or other combat spellcasters.

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Wizards of the Coast
Players Handbook