5E Ice Knife: A Chilling Attack Spell

Ice Knife is a versatile little spell that can be used in many different ways, some less obvious than others. It’s the foundation of several other spells, and it’s particularly useful when you’re building a necromancer. What’s the best way to use Ice Knife? Why’s it such a great spell? What are the right battle conditions for using it?

Find out everything you need to know about Ice Knife in our 5E guide to the spell.

Ice Knife: The Base Stats

You first encounter Ice Knife in the book Elemental Evil Player’s Companion, which was connected to the Princes of the Apocalypse adventure. It moved to a core book when it was included in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything three years later.

The stat block looks like this:

1st Level Conjuration

Available To: Druids, Sorcerers, Wizards

You conjure an ice shard and fire it at a single in-range target. Determine whether it hits or misses with a standard ranged spell attack versus your target. If the shard hits, the target receives piercing damage (1d10). The shard explodes on impact whether or not it hit. Every creature within 5′ of the impact point, including the target, must make a saving throw against Dexterity. Creatures that fail this saving throw take cold damage (2d6).

If you cast Ice Knife from a spell slot above the 1st level, it does additional cold damage. For each slot level above the 1st, add 1d6 to the shard’s cold damage.

ice mage casting ice spells
That’s some powerful and painful ice magic coming your way. Original picture of this ice mage used under creative commons license from Heroes of Camelot.

What This Means for the Ice Knife Spell

Let’s expand on the book definition a little. Ice Knife is a conjuration spell of the 1st level. Casting it requires 1 action; Ice Knife has a 60-foot range. Casting requires both a material and a somatic component. Ice Knife is an instant cast.

If you hit your target with Ice Knife, it deals 1d10 piercing damage. You also get the damage caused by the explosion of the ice shard regardless of hitting or missing, which is an incredibly powerful feature that takes this spell from “Meh” to “Holy Crap, that’s at level one?”

The ice damage applies to all creatures in a five-foot radius, including your target. If any of these creatures fails a dexterity saving throw, it takes 2d6 cold damage. Upcasting Ice Knife increases its cold damage. Lastly, Ice Knife is available to Wizards, Sorcerers, and Druids.

Now let’s consider the practical applications of Ice Knife for magic users in Faerun.

Ice Knife – Why Use It?

While it’s not a universal go-to, Ice Knife can be surprisingly powerful when the time is right. Unlike a cantrip, though, the spell does cost a slot. Low-level characters will have to weigh their needs carefully. Should you dedicate that slot to an offensive spell, or would your party be better served if you devote the slot to healing magic?

While Ice Knife’s piercing damage looks attractive at low levels, it’s the secondary effect that makes the spell worthwhile. Whenever you have to make a ranged attack with magic, you’re always risking the chance that you miss – or that the target’s AC deflects your attack.

But with Ice Knife, the explosive secondary effect ensures that you’re going to do some damage regardless of your attack roll.

Another great feature of the secondary effect is that it’s an area attack. Not just your target, but every other creature within five feet, has to save against the damage caused by the exploding shard.

Any creature that fails its saving throw takes 2d6 cold damage, which can make a real impact in low-level combat.

What’s The Best Time For Ice Knife?

Tactically speaking, Ice Knife is a lot more powerful when your party is facing mobs of smaller enemies. The spell is a lot less powerful if you use it against a single powerful foe.

To throw out an example, consider a fight where your party is taking arrow fire from a group of three goblin archers. Provided they’re close together, one Ice Knife thrown at the central goblin can damage all three.

If your attack roll succeeds, you can probably put the central target down while also doing some serious damage to the other two.

Another tactical situation where Ice Knife works well is toward the end of a fight when your party has already wounded a lot of enemies. The cold damage from the secondary effect can do an excellent job of finishing off vulnerable groups of foes.

Finally, bear in mind that Ice Knife performs better when you’re fighting in confined spaces, like hallways. Tight spaces clump your enemies together and make them more vulnerable to the spell’s area damage.

What Are Ice Knife’s Casting Requirements?

As noted above, Ice Knife requires a somatic component and a material component. A somatic component is easy enough; it’s just a gesture. Keep in mind, though, that means Ice Knife can’t be cast if your character is restrained.

The material component of Ice Knife can be either a piece of ice or a drop of water. Ice might not be easy to come by if your party is in a warm climate, but you should be able to come up with a drop of water unless your party is in serious trouble.

Even in the toughest, resource-limited campaign, if you have enough water to keep your characters alive, you can spare a drop for Ice Knife.

Great YouTube Video on 5E Ice Knife Spell

Who Has Access To Ice Knife?

Going by the book, this spell is limited to Wizards, Druids, and Sorcerers. Ice Knife is flexible and useful enough that you should definitely consider incorporating it into a homebrew class if it has an ice or frost theme. Consult with your DM and see if you can get Ice Knife into your spell list as some campaigns limit spells from the Elemental/Prince of the Apocalypse campaigns because they can be pretty overpowered.

There are also feats like the Magic Initiate Feat which allow you to learn this spell even if you aren’t one of those three classes, or the Bard’s Magical Secrets (although this spell would be a bad choice just because of the powerful spells Magical Secrets opens to the Bard) class feature.

According to the official guides, Ice Knife isn’t available to any monster. There isn’t even a monster ability that replicates its effects. Of course, this is where house rules can work against the players. Nothing is stopping your DM from adding Ice Knife to enemies that it would fit, like frost elves or yetis.

Ice Knife has a lot of potential as an antagonist spell. DMs could load up bigger cold-themed creatures with the ability to throw multiple knives to soften up a powerful party.

In this situation, the spell’s potent splash damage can pose a serious threat even to experienced players. The spell’s two-tiered damage effect greatly increases the odds that it will do some damage even if it misses its main target.

Ice Knife Misses – Now What?

If you refer back to Ice Knife’s official documentation, you can see that the thrown shard is going to explode no matter what. If you make your attack roll, the shard lands on the target and that’s where it blows up. But what about a miss?

The reasonable assumption is that Ice Knife has landed close to the target or bounced off without doing piercing damage. Maybe you struck a glancing blow, or the shard embedded itself in your target’s armor without hurting it, or it wound up striking the ground or a wall near your target. The spell’s area effect is still calculated from the target.

But keep in mind that a malicious DM could send your Ice Knife much further away! For the sake of fair play and avoiding undue complications, though, you can generally assume that Ice Knife will land within five feet of your target even if you fail your attack roll.

Ice Knife – When Is It Worth The Spell Slot?

Because of this spell’s relatively complicated damage mechanics, the amount of damage it does to a given target is highly variable. A successful ranged attack roll combined with poor resistance rolls can make Ice Knife devastating.

On the other hand, bad luck with the dice can seriously reduce its effectiveness. The wide range of variables can make Ice Knife look like a bad bet compared to 1st-level spells that deliver guaranteed damage or have clear buffing and debuffing effects.

You should weigh the benefits and drawbacks of Ice Knife depending on the combat situations you’re likely to face. If you know your party is heading into cramped quarters and is likely to face enemies with poor dexterity saves, Ice Knife can deliver reliable crowd control and do serious damage. It’s also great for “softening up” bunched-together groups of enemies at the beginning of a fight.

On the other hand, if you know you’ll be fighting in open spaces and/or against high-dexterity foes, the utility of Ice Knife drops off sharply. In conditions like these, your precious spell slots are better filled with other spells.

Ice Knife: Frequently Asked Questions

Are Knives The Only Option?

Look back again at the official stat block: Although the spell is called “Ice Knife,” the language refers to your projectile as a “shard” of ice. Practically speaking, the shape of the projectile doesn’t have any impact on how the spell works.

So you and your character are free to use your imaginations! A stylish sorcerer might pattern his shards after the steel throwing knives used by his rogue partner. On the other hand, a druid might appreciate a more natural, raw form, throwing jagged ice spikes or even razor-edged snowflakes!

If you feel like adding a cosmetic touch to Ice Knife, talk it over with your DM. Most DMs will be open to whatever unique spin you give to Ice Knife, especially if you’re not pushing to alter the mechanics of the spell.

If you want to make your ice knives fancy, consider your character’s backstory and come up with a thematically-appropriate reason for the shape you want your projectiles to take.

Does Ice Knife Work On All Opponents?

Since part of Ice Knife’s damage is elemental, you’d be correct in assuming its behavior can change when you use it against resistant or vulnerable opponents.

Take, for example, a frost giant. Frost giants are made out of ice and snow, and thus “immune to cold damage” is listed prominently in their stat block. This means the secondary effect of Ice Knife would do no damage at all.

Whether or not the spell’s piercing damage affects an immune target is a debatable point. This is probably something you want to work out with your DM in advance if your adventure seems likely to involve these sorts of elemental match-ups.

There are also creatures with cold damage resistance. These would take only half damage from Ice Knife, which could rapidly erode its effectiveness.

How does Ice Knife match up against fire-based creatures? What if you threw it at, say, a fire elemental? Going purely by the book rules, this attack wouldn’t deal any extra damage. A DM inclined to make your campaign more realistic and flavorful might change that, though. Note that fire elementals do have the ability “water susceptibility,” which deals cold damage to them when they come in contact with water.

A kindly DM could easily give your Ice Knife a few extra points of damage in a situation like this. It would be roughly in line with how water susceptibility is defined, delivering one point of cold damage per gallon of water that hits the fire elemental.

Can My Character Throw Multiple Ice Knives?

As with most projectile weapons, throwing knives get more fun (and do more damage!) if you can hurl a whole handful at once. Sadly, there’s nothing in the core rules that allows you to fire off multiple instances of Ice Knife simultaneously. As always, a homebrew workaround could change that.

From a cosmetic standpoint, you could declare that upcasting Ice Knife actually involves throwing multiple shards of ice. This explains the added damage logically, and if you’re content leaving the mechanics alone, nobody should have a problem with it.

Can Ice Knife Be Twinned?

Ice Knife’s area of effect damage can affect multiple targets. According to the rules, that means that players can’t twin it even though it isn’t an AOE focused spell and there is a specific target.

Is Ice Knife Too Powerful?

Because it was added through Elemental Evil, Ice Knife is an official spell. It’s allowed (in the PHB+1 class) in Adventure League rules. Of course, a DM can ban a spell like Ice Knife if your group isn’t playing AL.

It doesn’t particularly matter, though, because while Ice Knife is solid and even quite powerful for a Level 1 spell, it isn’t overpowered. Here’s how it breaks down:

Ice Knife delivers two attacks, the main attack (1d10 piercing damage) if the caster makes their ranged spell attack, and the area of effect attack (2d6 cold damage) to all creatures within five feet that fail a Dexterity saving throw.

According to the DMG rules for creating your own spells (page 283), first-level spells are supposed to do either 2d10 damage to a single target OR 2d6 AoE damage. Ice Knife does both, which would suggest it’s overpowered.

However, WoTC doesn’t always hold themselves to the same rules they give to players. There are plenty of other official first-level spells that don’t conform to the rule above.

Burning Hands delivers 3d6 damage, with the justification that fire damage is easily resisted. Witch Bolt does 1d12 damage, justified by its limited range and the fact that it’s a concentration spell. Catapult does a stunning 3d8 on a hit.

But let’s focus on Burning Hands. Targets of Burning Hands get one Dexterity saving throw. Targets of Ice Knife get two potential saves: a Dex save for the cold damage and the main attack roll.

And ice damage has all of the same resistance problems as fire damage. Then factor in the way that Ice Knife’s damage is concentrated in a smaller area, with most of it devoted to a single target. To be perfectly honest, Ice Knife is a weaker spell than Burning Hands.

Ice Knife: The Verdict

Despite all the limitations I’ve laid out here, I personally am a huge fan of Ice Knife. It’s one of my favorite 5e spells, and I tend to take it with virtually every spell-casting character I play.

Although it’s not always exceptionally powerful, I find I can rely on it to throw a useful amount of damage in a wide range of different situations. It’s a great spell for flavor and does great damage, as well. In other words, for a low-level spell, it’s the complete package.

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