DnD 5e - The Elf Handbook
Last Updated: April 10th, 2020
I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.
- : Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
- : OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances.
- : Good options.
- : Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.
I will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, even if it is my own, because I can't assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. I also won't cover Unearthed Arcana content because it's not finalized, and I can't guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.
Elves are a powerful, effective base race with subraces which are numerous and diverse enough that elves are usable in a variety of builds. Unfortunately, because the subraces differentiate the Elf's traits so much, it's rare for more than one subrace to be viable in the same class.
Elves are one of very few published races with an aquatic option. While the Sea Elf is conceptually interesting, it gets very little beyond the ability to function well underwater, so I habitually ignore it in my character optimization content. I will continue to do that here, but if you're playing in an aquatic campaign, remember that the Sea Elf is a thing.
The High Elf makes a perfect Artificer, adding both Dexterity and Intelligence, as well as a Wizard cantrip to complement the Artificer's spellcasting.
One of few classes where the Elf is a truly bad option. The Sea Elf and the Shadar-kai are probably your best bet here solely because they're the only elf subraces which get increases to either Strength or Constitution. But the Barbarian is so strictly locked into Strength that it's hard to function without an increase.
Drow, Eladrin, and Mark of Shadow elves all recieve Charisma increases. The core elf Perception proficiency and Dexterity increase both complement the Bard nicely in any build.
The Cleric is a challenging option for the Elf, but it's absolutely doable. Wood elves and Pallid Elves both get a Wisdom increase, and between Dexterity and Wisdom they make fine lightly-armored clerics. Avoid domains which provide heavy armor proficiency, and look for domains which complement your subrace traits.
Generally a better option for the Elf than the Cleric, the Druid's adherence to lighter armor makes it easier to rely on Dexterity without disregarding other class options like proficiency in medium and/or heavy armor. The Wood Elf's mask of the Wild works while using Wild Shape, and the Pallid Elf's innate spellcasting offers some interesting new options for the Druid to explore.
One of few classes where a large number of Elf subraces can truly shine. Since the Fighter only needs an increase to either Strength or Dexterity, an Elf can fill any Dexterity-based build, and depending on your subrace you can emphasize different capabilities like spellcasting, stealth, or even Face skills.
The Wood Elf is among the best race options for the Monk. Dexterity and Wisdom are exactly what the Monk needs, and no class is more dependent on perfect ability scores. The Pallid Elf has the same ability score increases, but the innate spellcasting may be less appealing than the Wood Elf's traits. Both options work great, so use whichever appeals to you.
Like the Bard, elf subraces which provide Charisma increases make great paladins, but don't overlook subraces which provide Constitution increases. While high Charisma is great, start with 14 or 15 is perfectly fine if you can't find a Charisma increase on the subrace that you like. Obvious options include the Drow and the Eladrin because they do get Charisma increases, but Sea Elves and Shadar-Kai make good options too, and you might even be able to make the High Elf work if you can make good use of attack cantrips like Booming Blade from time to time. Mark of Shadow may seem like a strange choice for the Paladin, but mechanically it works very well.
The Wood Elf is almost tailor-made to be a ranger, but the Ranger's only major ability dependency is Dexterity so any elf subrace makes a fine ranger.
The Rogue needs Dexterity and almost nothing else, but free Perception proficiency does at lot to complement the Rogue's already spectacular skills. Nearly any elf subrace works for the rogue, offering unique options depending on your racial traits. High elf rogues should consider booming blade, which makes for great hit-and-run tactics when combined with Cunning Action. Mark of Shadow offers several excellent options for the Rogue, even if you don't plan to pursue Arcane Trickster.
The Rogue is, in my opinion, the single best use case for Elven Accuracy. If you're consistently relying on Advantage to deliver Sneak attack the extra die improved your chance of rolling a natural 20 (and therefore a critical hit) from 9.75% to 14.26%. And if you've ever gotten to roll a critical hit with Sneak Attack you understand how exciting it is to roll all of those dice.
Drow, Eladrin, and Mark of Shadow elves all get Charisma increases, which is really all that you need to succeed as a sorcerer, but they don't add capabilities which the sorcer couldn't already provide.
Drow, Eladrin, and Mark of Shadow elves make excellent warlocks. Extra Charisma is all that you truly need, but Dexterity helps to pad the Warlock's AC in light armor, which is crucial for Hexblades. Drow innate spellcasting helps to complement the Warlock's limited spell slots, and be sure to pick up Devil's Sight to capitalize on the ability to cast Darkness. Eladrin can teleport, reducing the need for Misty Step. Mark of Shadow grants some extra spellcasting, and adds several new spell options to the Warlock's spell list.
A high elf wizard is among the most obvious and iconic wizard builds. All you truly need to succeed as a wizard is an Intelligence increase, and the core Elf's Dexterity increase and Perception proficiency will help to keep you alive. One extra cantrip may not seem like much since you already start with three, but cantrips are very powerful and an extra can do a lot to diversify your capabilities.
If you can get Advantage reliabily, this is a fantastic feat. The +1 ability increase is nice, but the reroll mechanic is the real draw here. You need Advantage to trigger the reroll, but you can reroll one die each time you roll with Advantage (though you're limited to attack/checks/saves with the four lister ability scores), so Advantage is essentially rolling three dice and choosing the highest.
If you're proficient with martial weapons and want to engage in two-weapon fighting, the Double Scimitar is appealing. Since the primary attack has a larger damage die you'll get more average damage once you gain Extra Attack. However, most builds which use two-weapon fighting are Dexterity-based, so without the Revenant Blade feat the double scimitar can be a hard choice.
Even if you're building for two-weapon fighting, Revenant Blade isn't a must-have. It's an option to replace Dual Weilder, and Revenent Blade isn't always better. Both feats provide a +1 AC bonus, so let's ignore that and compare the differences:
Revenant Blade adds the Finesse property to the Double Scimitar, making it equivalent to using a rapier and a dagger. Dual Weilder allows you to use non-light weapons while two-weapon fighting, allowing you to use two rapiers, two longswords, or something else along those lines. Two rapiers is better than a double scimitar (if we ignore magic weapons), so Revenant Blade adds a +1 increase to either Strength or Dexterity (probably Dexterity).
Once you hit 20 Dexterity, Dual Weilder again becomes more effective because two rapiers are again more powerful. But the possibility of magic items may tip things toward Revenant Blade since it's easier to find one magic weapon than two.
Dragonmarks are detailed in Eberron: Rising from the Last War. Elves treat dragonmarks like a subrace, retaining their core racial traits and adding the traits provided by the dragonmark.
Mark of Shadow
A Charisma increase, some illusions, and bonuses to Performance and Stealth. This is a great option for nearly any rogue. The Arcane Trickster seems like the most obvious beneficiary, but the only dragonmark spell which is new to the Arcane Trickster is Pass Without Trace. Pass Without Trace is amazing, but it may not be enough make you reconsider your subclass to enjoy it.