Update 2001/09/12: I finally have reworked this document to take into account the fact that weapon enchantments are doubled on double-damage weapons.
Disclaimer: This document was written for Nethack 3.2.2. The advice may not be consistent with later versions.

What is the Best Nethack Artifact Weapon?

This depends on the character you're playing, your skill, experience, and the monster you're fighting. However, by assuming that skill and experience won't matter much late in the game (by virtue of being so skilled that you always hit your opponent), we can make some useful assessments. Let me reiterate: this ranking is based on weapons that are appropriate late in the game. Earlier in the game, the most appropriate weapons will vary greatly by character class. Even late in the game you have to take all of this with a grain of salt; class can still have some influence on weapon choices, since weapon skill bonuses increase damage.

One important aspect of weapon damage is how enchantment is handled in weapon calculations. It is used to enhance your to-hit odds, however we're assuming you're far enough along in the game to always get a hit. It is also used to modify your damage. The enchantment is added in directly to the damage (not as a die roll). Most importantly, this is done BEFORE the damage is doubled, for those weapons that do double damage.

Because of this, my first pick is the Staff of Aesculapius (only available to Healers as the quest artifact). It does double damage, and hence will double the enchantment and add it to total damage. It does additional damage via a Drain Life attack. A +7 Staff will average 25.5 points of damage to both small and large monsters. This by itself makes it more damaging on average than a +7 Mjollnir or a +7 Tsurugi of Muramasa. It's double damage is always in effect, applying to all monsters, all the time (the drain life attack, d8, will not apply to monsters immune to that attack, such as vampires and other undead).

But the Staff has four significant benefits that raise its value even more. First, it gives you hunger-free regeneration. This makes you very difficult to kill. Second, the Drain Life attack also reduces your opponent's maximum hit points, which can speed the kill. Third, it provides protection against Drain Life attacks. Fourth, if your hit points do get low, you can invoke the Staff for powerful healing.

What to pick next? How about what not to pick. Demonbane is not a good weapon, because it only does double (long sword) damage against demons. Frost brand (also a long sword) does double damage against anything that isn't cold resistant, which makes it a much more general use weapon, and therefore much more desirable than Demonbane. Same for Fire brand (good for all monsters that aren't fire resistant).

In fact there's a whole list of weapons I'd prefer to avoid because they aren't generalists: Dragonbane, Giantslayer, Trollsbane, Orcrist, Ogersmasher, Demonbane, Werebane, Sunsword (undead).

So based on this, the next two best weapons would be Fire Brand and Frost Brand. They both have some limitations where the double damage doesn't apply, but they will still do double damage most of the time. (If you have both, one will always work :-). They will do an average of 23 points small monster damage, and 27 points large monster damage. This is the best for large monsters in the game. But they have no other special features to recommend them.

My next favorite is Grayswandir, because its both a great generalist and has also does some extra specific monster damage. Against the right monster, it can deliver more damage than any other weapon in the game (while still being useful against the wrong monster). First, it does double damage to all monsters, always. It's average damage with +7 enchantment against normal monsters (large and small) is 23 points.

Second, because it's silver, it does an additional d20 silver damage to all silver-hating monsters. Average damage of a +7 enchanted Grayswandir against silver-haters is 34 points. Several monsters are silver-hating, including demons. Demons, I said. Did I mention that major demons are all silver-hating? Let's compare Grayswandir to Demonbane, as demon bashers. We'll assume they're both blessed (which gives yet another bonus of d4 against all undead, including demons):

blessed +7 Grayswandirblessed +7 Demonbane
d8 silver saber vs. large monster d12 long sword vs. large monster
+7 enchantment +7 enchantment
above are doubled against all monsters above doubled against demons
d4 blessed vs. demons d4 blessed vs. demons
d20 silver vs. demons  
Total: Total:
2d8+14+d4+d20 range: 18-54, average=36 2d12+14+d4 range: 17-42, average=29.5
Note that (contrary to other information on the 'Net) silver damage is not doubled. Neither is the blessed weapon against undead bonus.

Grayswandir also provides protection against hallucination (when wielded).

My next pick is the Tsurugi of Muramasa. Of course, this weapon is only available to Samurai (as the quest artifact). This weapon adds an additional d8 to a tsurugi which would be the most powerful non-artifact weapon if it were ever generated (which it isn't). Average damage with +7 is 20 for small monsters and 23 for large monsters. This is also here because its damage is always in effect, and because it also gives you a 5% chance of instant bisecting, which is nice. And it increases your luck when wielded. These facts raise its worth slightly.

This is a weapon like no other. It's really hard to rank. I haven't done all the math on its damage yet, because its a bit more complicated to calculate. Its damage starts at 2d4, which is pretty low, but it randomly adds on additional attacks, and CAN boost the damage as high as 6d4. And this high damage kicks in with other useful effects like stunning, scaring, and cancellation. And it has magic resistance. It also prevents inventory cursing from thrones and monster spells while wielded!

Conventional wisdom is to leave Magicbane unenchanted. But enchantment on double damage weapons is doubled. If you enchant Magicbane to +7, its minimum damage is 3d4+14, or from 17 to 26 hit points. Without enchantment, the range is 3-12, and the MAXIMUM range is 6-24. The enchanted Magicbane will still have all of the same other effects (but MUCH more rarely) so it CAN still have higher damage (maximum range is 20-38). (Also, enchantment is only doubled even when Magicbane does 6d4 damage, because the damage isn't 6d4, its 2(d4+enchant)+d4+d4+d4+d4). It's a tough call; I'll run the numbers at some point, but right now I'm leaning strongly towards enchanting Magicbane.

Next would be Mjollnir. It may go against conventional wisdom to rank this weapon so low, but it does not double damage. It doesn't do extra damage to shock-resistant monsters, but this is a small subset of monsters. It averages 23 points and 22 points to small and large monsters, respectively. It has no special abilities unless you are a valkyrie (who can throw it and have it return if wearing the Gauntlets of Power; this raises its usefulness for that class).

Excalibur gives average damage (with +7 enchantment) of 17 and 19 points small and large. It also protects against drain life attacks, and provides searching. There's something in the code that looks like it attracts monsters (by making you easy to track), but I've never seen this mentioned anywhere else. It also pisses off demons.

The Sceptre of Might is my next choice. This is the Caveman quest artifact. It is a double damage weapon, however its double damage only applies to neutral and chaotic monsters. This is not a horrible restriction (better than just a single character class), but it isn't great either. Against those alignments, it will average 23 points to small monsters, and 21 points to large. It provides magic protection just by carrying, and causes conflict when invoked.

Cleaver does not do double damge, just +d6 damage. The average damage with full enchantment is 17.5 and 19 for small and large monsters. It has no special abilities.

Snickersnee has no special abilities. With full enchantment it will do average damage of 17 and 18 points to small and large monsters. Note that a dwarvish mattock does more large monster damage than this artifact.

This uses a drain life attack, plus an extra d2 damage. It protects against drain life attacks too. However, it has a mind of its own, and tends to attack things at will. I find this to be a big negative, but you may not mind.

(Note: the dwarvish mattock, the battle axe, and the two-handed sword all do more damage on average than the next two artifacts, for both large and small monsters.)

I pick Vorpal Blade as the worst of the generalists, because its damage bonus is merely +1. But Vorpal Blade has a 5% chance of instant death by beheading (only for monsters with heads, I think). This is tough to factor in. You should be able to kill most monsters in much less than twenty hits with a good endgame weapon, but its nice to know that beheading is there. But in real game play things don't average out so well. You might kill this one on your first hit, while hacking away at that one thirty times in a row. In other words, its a nice bonus on a strong weapon (like the Tsurugi of Muramasa) but not a big help on its own.

O.K. Grimtooth is actually weaker than Vorpal Blade, but you don't expect it to be stronger. It just really bothers me that Vorpal Blade feels like an attractive weapon, when it isn't.

All other weapons have damage bonuses that only apply to a single class of monster.

The full list

This list shows my ordering for weapons, and includes reasons why some weapons got higher rankings than their basic damage values.

Staff of Aesculapiusregeneration, drain life
Fire Brand 
Frost Brand 
Tsurugi of Muramasa 
Magicbanemagic defense, magic attacks
Excalibursearching, drain life defense
Sceptre of Mightmagic defense
Stormbringerpositive - drain life, negative - attacks at will
Vorpal Bladebeheading
All below only apply to single class of monsters


Nethack Weapon Skills
Damage Calculator
What were Nethack's Polearms Really Like?
Weapon Recommendations for:
  • Healer
  • Samurai
  • Archaeologist
  • Knight
  • Elf
  • Tourist
    My Nethack Font for X11

    My Home Professional Home TomSaraZac Home
    Email Work Email