D&D Monster Monday: Phoenix

A screech from above echoes throughout the volcanic valley as you desperately try to flee for cover. An enormous elemental with the appearance of a bird engulfed in fire swoops down from hundreds of feet above and carves through your companions. The phoenix is too quick, and you were a fool to have upset them.

I’m a big fan of aggressive creatures. The types of creatures that may not be able to last a long time, but they’ll drain the hell out of the party’s HP and resources. 5e has quite a few of these creatures and it’s nice, it makes combats both deadly, but much more fast-paced compared to a defensive slugfest.

The phoenix is one such creature. They’re not the greatest at slugging it out and taking hits, but they use their massive amount of flying speed and maneuverability to pick off their prey easily similarly to the battleforce angel that we’ve talked about previously.

Phoenix are most notably known for their ability to rebirth. Once they are slain they are turned back into an egg and will hatch again, repeating the process to infinity. They have their own agendas and typically don’t meddle in the lives of mortals, but when they do catastrophe is bound to follow!

Today we crack open Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes which contains a large number of high CR creatures. The Phoenix is no exception to this, even though at CR 16 they are the weakest of the four Elder Elementals!

phoenix art from mordenkainen's tome of foes
The offical 5e art showcases a true bird of prey. Credit WotC.

Phoenix Lore

First off, I’d like to start with talking about the Elder Elementals because quite frankly, there’s not a lot of phoenix-specific lore in the book. The primary reason for this is that the Elder Elementals (Leviathan, Phoenix, Elder Tempest, and Zaratan) all serve a similar purpose for their respective elements.

The Elder Elementals are not native to the Material Plane and thank the gods that they aren’t because there probably wouldn’t be much left of it otherwise. These creatures seek power by consuming lesser elementals and further increasing their own power. Once they’ve consumed enough they will become an Elder Elemental.

Like other elementals, they need to be summoned to the Material Plane. However, as you can imagine the task of summoning one is much more intricate than summoning a basic elemental.

When summoned these elementals seek to use their immense power to cause destruction. They have no master. Typically only cults and other evil societies seeking to decimate the planet would even think of summoning an Elder Elemental like a phoenix.

Phoenix, in particular, have the specific goal of engulphing the world in fire. Once they are summoned they will stop at nothing to spread their element across the plane. Their ability to constantly rebirth themselves makes them almost impossible to contain, assuming you can even catch them in the first place.

Phoenix Stats and Abilities

You can find the Phoenix’s statblock on page 199 of Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes.

Stats

Size: Gargantuan
AC: 18
HP: 175 (10d20 + 70)
Speed: 20 ft., fly 120 ft.
STR: 19 (+4)
DEX: 26 (+8)
CON: 25 (+7)
INT: 2 (-4)
WIS: 21 (+5)
CHA: 18 (+4)

All in all, this enormous elemental has some damn good ability scores. This isn’t surprising as they’re a CR 16 creature, but we’ve certainly seen some high CR creatures with much worse ability scores. Honestly though, from their ability scores alone, we can already tell that phoenix are going to be dealy creatures.

That’s to say, with the exception of Intellect which is a whopping 2. And no, that’s not the modifier. It’s pretty hilarious though that a phoenix could essentially be killed in one hit from an Intellect Devourer, but damn. Typically I don’t find low Intellect to be a huge issue for creatures, but for a phoenix it is.

This is at the tier of play where casters may have access to Mental Prison. Though they cannot be restrained by the spell, they can still take some enormous damage due to a failed saving throw. Thankfully, phoenix have Legendary Resistance, but you as the DM will basically have to hold on to at least one of these if your casters have any sort of spell that requires an Intelligence saving throw.

18 AC is pretty damn solid for such an enormous creature, but as we can see they’re extremely quick and dexterous. Speaking of quick, that 120 ft of flying speed is ridiculous. Phoenix can move 140 ft. per turn if you can manage to use their 20 ft. of speed as well.

Besides intelligence, their only glaring issue in the stats department has to be their 175 HP. It’s pretty mediocre for a creature at this point in the game. Thankfully they have some damage and condition immunities to make up for this, but it’s still on the lower side.

D&D 1e phoenix artwork
The original D&D artwork makes the phoenix look like a crane. Credit WotC.

Resistances, Immunities, Saves, and Skills

Saving Throws: WIS +10, CHA +9
Damage Resistances: bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Damage Immunities: fire, poison
Condition Immunities: exhaustion, grappled, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, prone, restrained, stunned
Senses: darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 15
Languages: None
CR: 16 (15,000 XP)

Their saving throw bonuses beef up two of the phoenix’s weaker saving throw abilities. Intelligence saving throws are still basically an auto-fail, but besides that phoenix have a good shot at passing most other saving throws. Even then, intelligence saving throws are still extremely niche.

Resistance to nonmagical bludgeoning, piercing and slashing damage is very useful against your melee martial characters that are now relying on their ranged option which is probably not magical. Flying creatures aren’t going to sit there and let themselves be hit if they can avoid it!

Fire and poison damage are two of the most common damage types in D&D 5e. These are great immunities to have and fit the theme of gargantuan fire elemental well.

That laundry list of condition immunities is impressive and, quite frankly, much needed. Phoenix are huge, extremely mobile creatures with low HP. Their defenses rely entirely on being able to outmaneuver and soar out of range of most attacks.

Being able to paralyze, petrify, stun, restrain, or knock them prone would make our phoenix anything but menacing. All of these condition immunities give us the ability to save our Legendary Resistance for high damage single target spells and the few conditions that our firey bird isn’t immune to.

I’d like to point out that while the phoenix has 60 ft. of darkvision, they also shed bright light in a 60 ft. radius and dim light for an additional 30 ft. I feel like I’m missing something obvious here, so if someone knows why darkvision would be useful to a creature that literally illuminates light I’d love to know.

15 passive Perception is great. Your phoenix will be able to hunt its prey from way up in the clouds with their great eyesight.

Abilities and Traits

Fiery Death and Rebirth. When the poenix dies, it explodes. Each creature within 60 ft. of it must make a DC 20 Dexterity saving throw, taking 22 (4d10) fire damage on a failed save, or half as much on a successful one. The fire ignites flammable objects in the area that aren’t worn or carried.
The explosion destroys the phoenix’s body and leaves behind an egg-shaped cinder that weighs 5 pounds. The cinder is blazing hot, dealing 21 (6d6) fire damage to any creature that touches it, though no more than once per round. The cinder is immune to all damage, and after 1d6 days, it hatches with a new phoenix.

Fire Form. The phoenix can move through a space as narrow as 1 inch wide without squeezing. Any creature that touches the phoenix or hits it with a melee attack while within 5 feet of it takes 5 (1d10) fire damage. In addition, the phoenix can enter a hostile creature’s space and stop there. The first time it enters a creature’s space on a turn, that creature takes 5 (1d10) fire damage. With a touch, the phoenix can also ignite flammable objects that aren’t worn or carried (no action required).

Flyby. The phoenix doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks when it flies out of an enemy’s reach.

Illumination. The phoenix sheds bright light in a 60 ft. radius and dim light for an additional 30 ft.

Legendary Resistance (3/Day). If the phoenix fails a saving throw, it can choose to succeed instead.

Siege Monster. The phoenix deals double damage to objects.

We’ve got LOT of ground to cover here. Thankfully all of these traits are pretty fun and really flesh-out the phoenix’s flavor.

Fiery Death and Rebirth incorporates the mythological tale of the phoenix being essentially immortal. When a phoenix dies they’re immediately reborn into an egg which will then birth a new phoenix. In D&D this comes with the addition of the egg being impenetrable.

Considering the phoenix’s primary goal is to cover the world in flames this becomes quite an issue. How do you contain an unkillable elemental that can squeeze through even the tightest spaces?

Not only that, but when you kill a phoenix everyone within 60 ft. of it has to make a DC 20 Dexterity save or take a fairly decent chunk of damage. Even if you win the fight, the phoenix gets the last laugh.

world on fire phoenix art
We won’t rest until the world is ash. Art by GENZOMAN.

Fire Form is the same trait as the one that even a basic Fire Elemental has. These creatures are literally made of fire. They have no bones or anything that could prevent them from squeezing through even the tiniest spaces without issue. This also means that they can share a space with an enemy to engulf them in flames.

Chip damage from the ignite (1d10) portion of Fire Form is a hell of a benefit for a creature, especially since this doesn’t require any of your action economy outside a bit of your movement.

Flyby is an excellent defensive or offensive trait. Considering our phoenix has 120 ft. of fly speed per turn to use they’ll have plenty of opportunities to maneuver into a more advantageous position without provoking any opportunity attacks.

Illumination is a cool, flavorful trait. It makes sense that a creature made of fire will illuminate a ton of light. The only negative is that now any creature without darkvision can clearly see your phoenix. They’re probably not sneaking up on anyone.

Legendary Resistance is absolutely required for any creature that is intended to be used as a boss encounter. While phoenix have plenty of condition immunities, there are still plenty of spells or features that deal massive damage and require saving throws.

Since the phoenix doesn’t have a great health pool this is a great way to keep them alive long enough to wreak some havoc. It’s also a handy tool to use on the off-chance that your phoenix is affected by a condition they’re not immune to.

Siege Monster while this won’t directly affect your party in most scenarios this is a cool trait to have. Phoenix travel the world in order to destroy it and spread their flaming inferno throughout their current plane of existence. It makes sense that they’d topple buildings and city walls to do so.

Actions

Multiattack. The phoenix makes two attacks: one with its beak and one with its fiery talons.

Beak. Melee Weapon Attack: +13 to hit, reach 15 ft., one target. Hit: 15 (2d6 +8) fire damage. If the target is a creature or a flammable object, it ignites. Until a creature takes an action to douse the fire, the target takes 5 (1d10) fire damage at the start of each of its turns.

Fiery Talons. Melee Weapon Attack: +13 to hit, reach 15 ft., one target. Hit: 17 (2d8 + 8) fire damage.

Thankfully the phoenix doesn’t have a lot of actions to keep track of alongside all of their traits, immunities, and legendary actions. They’re fairly chill high-CR creatures in that regard. They only have a two-attack Mulitattack, but they have plenty of other options to deal damage with their action economy.

Beak is a simple melee weapon attack that deals equivalent damage to that of a greatsword. It also ignites the creature if the attack hits. I’m sure you’ve noticed that chip and tick damage is a big part of the phoenix’s kit.

Fiery Talons is a solid single target attack. It doesn’t have any additional features, but it’s nice and reliable.

Both of these attacks deal fire damage. While I find it’s one of the more common damage resistance types that players choose, it’s still a bit more difficult to obtain than your typical bludgeoning, slashing, and piercing damage resistance. For that, I say that this is a big benefit for the phoenix.

We also need to respect the 15 ft. reach for both of these attacks. This means that they only have to get within 15 ft. of their target to make an attack, effectively giving them a bit more value for their already ridiculous amount of movement per turn. The vast majority of enemy melee attacks are going to be far out of range of a phoenix.

The only downside to this 15 ft. reach is that it sort of negates a bit of the Fire Form benefits. A creature that can’t hit your phoenix with a melee attack won’t be able to take the 1d10 fire damage each time they do so. That being said, it’s still in your best interest to negate as much damage to yourself as possible, so don’t lose any sleep over this.

flying phoenix
Phoenix are massive creatures. Their fire can engulf an entire battlefield. Art by Sandara.

Legendary Actions

The Phoenix has 3 legendary actions per round of combat. They regain their legendary actions at the start of their turn. If you’re interested in learning more about legendary actions check out the article I wrote about what they are and how to use them!

Peck. The phoenix makes one beak attack.

Move. The phoenix moves up to its speed.

Swoop (Costs 2 Actions). The phoenix moves up to its speed and attacks with its fiery talons.

All three of these legendary actions are really solid choices depending on your current positioning in the fight. None of these actions are unique so I don’t feel like we need to discuss the particular mechanics of them again. Instead, here are some combinations to use your legendary actions:

Pecks is going to be one of the more optimal damage-dealing combinations you can do. With a reach of 15 ft. you have a pretty great shot at actually using this too. I’d use this to keep as many creatures possible ignited forcing them to either waste an action or take that sweet 1d10 tick damage.

Pecks and 1 Move is a great middle-ground of offense and repositioning. You can still keep creatures ignited, but you can also reposition yourself if need be or spread some more of that guaranteed Fire Form damage to your foes.

1 Swoop and 1 Peck this is a solid option if you need to move the phoenix quickly, but still want to deal a bit of damage before you dip-set. Swoop costs 2 Legendary Actions, but it effectively does a Move and a Peck on the same turn. The issue with this is that you miss out on potentially igniting an enemy since only Beak does that.

1 Swoop and 1 Move is going to be a very rarely used maneuver in my opinion. You’re missing out on igniting an enemy which is a big part of the phoenix’s kit. Personally, I’d try and use 2 Moves and 1 Peck instead. It takes an extra turn, but you’re able to achieve much more with this combination.

Multiple Moves this is a great option to spread your Fire Form damage. Mathematically speaking, if you can regularly get at least 3 creatures with each Fire Form touch (1d10) you’ll deal as much damage as a single Beak attack without needing to make an attack roll. It’s solid. This is, of course, assuming the creatures are already ignited.

Phoenix Strengths

Air Superiority and God-Like Maneuverability

This goes without saying that a creature that can move up to 140 ft. total per turn, 120 ft. of which is flying speed, is pretty damn maneuverable. The best part about the phoenix’s maneuverability is that it comes with very little risk to themselves thanks to Flyby negating most opportunity attacks.

But notice how that’s 140 ft. per turn, not per round. Phoenix can take additional movement as Legendary Actions. If you use all 3 of your possible Legendary actions for movement you can do an additional 420 ft. per round (560 ft. total) in movement alone.

This seems excessive, which it definitely is, but keeping in mind that this movement can cause guaranteed damage to your enemies makes this a viable offensive strategy. You can constantly position yourself out of reach of most attacks while still safely dealing respectable damage.

It goes without saying that with a potential 560 ft. of movement per round your prey isn’t going to outrun you. They can’t even duck into a house or a cave for safety from you either. Your Seige Monster trait lets you level a building should they choose to hide in one, or your Fire Form gives you the option to squeeze through the tiniest spaces with ease.

There’s no escape from a phoenix. One side needs to be slain for the battle to end.

Devastating Damage Dealers

I’ve mentioned the Fire Form damage enough times already that I don’t feel like I need to describe in detail its damage value here as well. Just keep in mind that 5.5 average fire damage per creature you move through is a solid baseline already.

Your two attacks alone make up for 32 average fire damage per turn. You also have the ability to ignite a creature if you hit with your Beak attack which gives you some tick damage each time that creature starts their turn while ignited. This adds up over time.

Then, of course, comes your legendary actions. You can use these to either continue swooping around and dealing damage with Fire Form or you can continue to ignite creatures with your beak attack for some solid sustained damage.

Your damage doesn’t come with a cost of maneuverability or putting yourself in harm’s way. All of your attacks come with a 15 ft. reach so you can safely annoy the sword and shield wielding tank without any worries.

baby phoenix hatchling
After hatching from their eggs these adorable creatures will swear to exact revenge upon you. Art by Kalicotthekat.

Phoenix Weaknesses

The Sentinel Feat

Sentinel allows you to make opportunity attacks at creatures even if they take the Disengage action to leave your reach. I’d say that Flyby would still provoke an opportunity attack from them in this case. Flyby doesn’t even require an action to use as Disengage does, so I feel like it should absolutely still trigger an opportunity attack in this scenario.

Sure, an opportunity attack is anything but ideal, especially when you’re a low HP creature like our phoenix is. But that’s not even the worst part of the feat for our fire-feathered friend.

If our phoenix is hit by the opportunity attack from a character with Sentinel their speed drops to 0 for the rest of the turn. This can really screw up our phoenix’s tactics and basically, make them a sitting duck in combat.

Sure, you can use a Move legendary action to fix this on the next turn, but it’s still grounding you for the time being. Depending on the situation, you could be grounded long enough for a second melee-centric character to run up and deal the brunt of their damage in quick succession before you make your escape.

Mediocre Defenses

Flyby and your excellent maneuverability can put you out of range of melee attacks, but you’re still going to be in range for a lot of spells like Eldritch Blast boast a 120 ft. range which is the entirety of your flying speed for a round.

It’s not feasible to soar this high up in the sky while still hoping to deal damage throughout your turn or use your Legendary Actions.

The Sharpshooter and Spell Sniper are two more feats that will pose enormous problems for our phoenix. These feats either increase the range of your attacks, or disregard the long-distance disadvantage portion of ranged weapon attacks. Long ranged attacks are going to pelt our bird out of the sky despite their best efforts.

Basically, any creature with long-range attack options is going to exploit the phoenix’s weak defenses. 18 AC is good, but it’s still reasonable to hit at the level of play your party’s characters are going to be at if they square-off against a phoenix. 175 HP isn’t that much at this level of play either.

Your weak defenses are going to force your phoenix’s hand and make them focus on putting their offenses before their safety. When they’re really hurt, maybe then they’ll use all of their possible movement to escape.

How to Play a Phoenix

Ignition LeapFrog

Comboing Fire Form and Flyby makes you both an asshole to your players and spreads a ton of chip damage around the party without using much of your action economy. Essentially, Fire Form lets you deal 1d10 fire damage to a creature the first time you enter their space on a turn.

The idea here is that you’ll fly into one creature’s space and either hit them with one of your attacks or fly to the next creature’s space. This creature cannot make an opportunity attack against you if you’re using your flying speed thanks to Flyby.

Basically, keep flying around the battlefield until as many enemies as possible have been ignited. Since you’re a gargantuan creature you can probably engulf multiple enemies at once if they stack up close to each other. Once you’ve used a good chunk of your movement simply soar up in the air to avoid any melee attacks or short ranged spells/ranged weapon attacks.

Of course, if one of your enemies has Sentinel this tactic quickly becomes obsolete if you ever make the mistake of targetting them. Considering you have 2 Intelligence, you’re not in a good position to make tactical decisions like “don’t hit this guy” you’re probably going to divebomb them anyways.

For the record, you can only do this once per turn to each creature, but it’s still an average of 5.5 fire damage per turn for practically nothing thanks to Flyby. Keep in mind that this is once per turn so you can use your Swoop or Move legendary actions to do this a couple times per round!

volcanic destruction
Just. Keep. Flying! Credit Dream Reactor.

Wide Open Spaces

It shouldn’t take a master tactician to realize that a phoenix’s strength is coming from their maneuverability which requires a ton of open space for them to fly around in. Locking a phoenix in a confined space like a dungeon just hinders their potential.

Fire Form allows phoenix to squeeze through even a 1-inch large space. If they are somehow confined to a small area they’ll do everything in their power to leave it and reposition themselves in a battlefield that they can make the most of.

Basically, if the party finds a way to limit the phoenix’s mobility they’ll be all but guaranteed to win the fight. Use everything in the phoenix’s power to avoid that from happening.

Conclusions

Admittedly, the reason as to why I chose the phoenix to be this week’s Monster Monday was so that I would stop spelling it as “pheonix”. That being said, it’s a solid creature if you have a need for a fast-paced creature that needs to divebomb and aggressively dismantle your party from the skies.

The Elder Elementals are some pretty nasty creatures. The phoenix is a solid adversary and I’d say it’s the weakest of the 4 in terms of CR. They don’t have a boatload of official lore in MToF, but in this case, it gives us enough to let our imaginations run wild when placing a phoenix in the material plane.

The phoenix’s immortality gives us plenty of cool plot hooks to introduce to the party as well. Sure, they slew the phoenix, but now how are they going to handle this egg that is going to hatch imminently. The cycle is going to repeat itself indefinitely unless the phoenix is booted out of the material plane.

Offense-first creatures tend to be some of the best creatures in 5e due to how combat works. The phoenix is a unique creature that uses their massive speed to dish out guaranteed damage using their movement speed. They’re basically offense-first incarnate.

Previous Monster Monday – Redcap

Next Monster Monday – Goblin Boss

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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