CharOp Chronicles: Is the Archer class really made up of archers?

Archery builds have always been incredibly popular in Adventurers League.

They’re an easy entry point for players who want to deal damage without worrying too much about setup, gear or resources, are fairly newbie friendly, and well, there’s a certain guilty pleasure to be had in taking out the opposition before they can close with your front liners or downing pesky “bosses” with pin-point precision in the first round of combat.

Of course, this begs the eternal question – is the archer class really made up of archers?

Also (and perhaps more importantly) how do you build one that’s #ALLegal?

For the purpose of this article, we will be focusing on material from the Player’s Handbook (PHB) and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (XGE). XGE presents players with the most options, and should be the splat of choice for optimizers. Characters are assumed to be built in compliance with AL character creation rules. 


Table of Contents

  1. You are NOT your Class
  2. Three Types of Archers
  3. Martial Archers
  4. Hexblade Hybrids
  5. Bard Hybrids
  6. Other Builds/Options
  7. Magic Items
  8. Parting Shot

1. You are NOT your Class

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No. Not really.

Why do I say this?

For one, I’ve never liked the idea of defining a character’s RP solely by the flavor of their class(es) and the fluff presented in the PHB + associated splats. It’s unimaginative and lazy, period.

Two, being an Archer simply means that you’re able to effectively use (i.e. have Proficiency in) one or more weapons with the Range property (like blowgun, bows, crossbows, darts and slings), including the bow.

So with that in mind, you could have Cleric levels, Rogue levels, heck, even Wizard levels, and call yourself an archer, RP an archer, even be an archer. You just won’t necessarily be very good at it.

But since this is an optimization post (and not completely facetious), I’d further posit that an archer must fulfill two additional criteria, including:

  1. The Sharpshooter feat, which adds a static +10 damage with the above weapons at the cost of -5 to attack rolls, and
  2. The Archery Fighting Style, which adds a static +2 bonus to attack rolls you make with the weapons in 1.

The feat, of course, is accessible to any character who takes at least 4 levels in a class (and thus receives an ASI) or a Variant Human. Similarly, the Archery Fighting Style is available to anyone with a minimum 1 level in Fighter or 2 levels in Ranger.

This means that you could be a reasonably effective archer as early as 1st level (Fighter 1 with Archery Fighting Style, Variant Human with Sharpshooter and 16 Dex), with the rest of your career (and numerous other options) laid out before you.


2. Three Types of Archers

For the purpose of this article, we’ll be examining three broad categories of Archer builds (you’ll also have to live with the shameless Fate references because I’m a big Fate fan).

archers

Martial or Hybrid Builds? You decide.

a) Type Arjuna a.k.a. Martial Builds (see Section 3)

Named after the mythical Indian hero who is pretty damned OP, this category covers builds that emphasize skill at arms and use little to no magic to supplement their damage dealing capabilities.

This is also the easiest way to crank out damage with a bow in Tier 1 and early Tier 2 play. Unfortunately, Martial Builds also tend to be the most repetitive and boring.

Martial Builds that don’t have a whole lot to do with their Bonus Action (most Fighters) will benefit from the Crossbow Expert feat, but more on that below.

b) Type EMIYA, a.k.a. Hybrid/Hexbow Builds (See Section 4)

Perhaps the most memefied Archer in popular culture, an Archer that eschews the bow in favor of two short swords, conjures swords, hurls swords at people and shoots arrows at people only on occasion. Totally not a special snowflake.

Straddles the middle ground, using various class features and some magic to enhance damage, and satisfies the Gish fetish that lots of players have. Only made possible by the release of Xanathar’s and the Hexblade warlock patron. Starts maturing in early Tier 2.

c) Type Tristan, a.k.a. Hybrid/Bard Builds (See Section 5)

Tristan is fabulous. His bow looks like a harp, and he sparkles in the spotlight. He stands as testament to a build that relies solely on very specific class features, spell picks and circumstances to shine, namely the Bard’s Magical Secrets.

A Bard Build isn’t terrible in lower tiers, but you’ll be slinging spells and controlling the field rather than turning people into pincushions before Tier 3. When you hit Level 13 or so though, this build will begin to rapidly outstrip the others in terms of sheer effectiveness, though it might still require a turn or two of set-up.

d) Type Gilgamesh, a.k.a. What if I don’t want to be an Archer archer? 

Remember what I said in Part 1. You are NOT your class, and nobody can force you to build your character a certain way. Also, you don’t actually have to use a bow if you don’t want to.

After all, D&D is a game that’s heavily reliant on creativity and imagination. There’s nothing stopping you from describing your attacks in a certain way so long as you don’t gain any tangible mechanical benefit from it or change the way the spell functions.

You could mention how the somatic components of your magic missile spell involves tracing a bow of arcane energy in the air before you, go into painstaking detail about tugging on an ephemeral bowstring of starlight, shadows and puke-inducing rainbows, and releasing the energy that coalesces into an arrow explosively outwards as a volley that pierces your foes.

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Or you could, you know, use Animate Objects.


3. The Martial Archer

We already established that either Fighters or Rangers make for great starting points if you’re planning to build an Archer, and some combination of the two almost always forms the backbone of a solid Martial build.

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Fighters vs. Rangers. Who would win?

a. Critical Break Points

Fighter Ranger
1 Fighting Style 1 Trash
2* Action Surge 2* Fighting Style, 1st level Spells
3** Archetype 3** Archetype
5** Extra Attack 5** Extra Attack, 2nd level Spells
6* Feat/ASI 9 3rd level Spells
11** Extra Attack 11 Combat oriented Archetype Feature

I’ve used * to denote critical break points for multiclassing. One * for dips, and ** for essential class features.

As a damage dealer that uses a weapon, Extra Attack is almost always mandatory, making Level 5 in either Fighter or Ranger a given unless you’re capable of getting another Extra Attack somewhere else. Anything else on top of that is a bonus.

b. Fighter Archetypes

  • By default, Battlemaster is the go-to for Archers who want a solid all-in-one package. Precision Attack helps offset the penalty from Sharpshooter, making it easier to land solid hits, and triggering maneuvers with bonus damage and conditional riders can be incredibly effective.
  • Champion lets you score a critical hit on 19-20, and is helpful if you’re throwing multiple attacks. The rest of its abilities are kinda meh though.
  • The Samurai Fighting Spirit is a Bonus Action that pairs nicely with Elven Accuracy. It also provides Fighters, who don’t have many uses for their Bonus Actions, with something else to do.
  • Arcane Archer is a trap and is NOT recommended. Any Hybrid (see Section 4) makes for a better Arcane Archer than Arcane Archer.

c. Ranger Archetypes

  • Gloom Stalker synergizes incredibly well with the Fighter. The Dread Ambusher feature works with Action Surge, which means you can squeeze out a nett 2 extra attacks in a round if you go first in combat, take your Attack action, and Action Surge into another Attack action.
  • Hunter (Colossus Slayer) can reliably proc extra damage once per round.
  • In either case, you get the option of dropping a Hunter’s Mark on your victim as a Bonus Action before going nova, which means extra damage per shot.

d. Monk & Rogue Archetypes

Two distinct Monk and Rogue archetypes potentially complement the base Martial Archer chassis.

  • The Kensei Monk lets you use a Bonus Action to add +1d4 damage to your attacks, and at higher levels, allows you to proc additional damage equal to your Martial Arts die by paying Ki (6th), or enchant your weapon (11th).
  • The Assassin Rogue adds Sneak Attack damage dice to one of your hits, grants you advantage if you go first in combat, and lets you get free critical hits if you attack with Surprise. It’s less reliable than you think, especially since DMs determine surprise and really frown on shenanigans. Pull this off once at the table, and no DM will let you get the jump on enemies ever again. Cunning Action is generally useful though.

e. Typical Martial Build Progression

  • In Tier 1, consider either Fighter 4 or Ranger 4, aiming for Sharpshooter in lieu of your first ASI. If you’re a Variant Human, starting with Crossbow Expert will let you fire more frequently (and this translates to more DPR). Take Sharpshooter at Fighter 4 or Ranger 4.
  • Your goal in Tier 2 is that juicy Extra Attack. Once you attain Fighter 5 or Ranger 5, you’ll be squeezing off 2 (maybe even 3) shots in a typical round. Whether you’re Fighter 5/Ranger 3 or Ranger 5/Fighter 3 by Level 8, you’ll be in a fairly solid position as a damage dealer. Fighter 6/Ranger 4 by Level 10 might win out slightly because of extra Feat/ASI.
  • Fighter 6 (or even 8) also means you can reliably have both Crossbow Expert AND Sharpshooter AND potentially Elven Accuracy.
  • With your foundation crystallized, your choices in Tier 3 and Tier 4 are a lot more flexible, though the usefulness of Ranger tends to fall off at this point.

f. Sample Builds

The following sample builds represent the end point for Martial Archers. They’re also inspired by characters from the Fate series, but hey, nobody said they needed to be cookie cutter specs right? 😉

robin

Robin Hood – Battlemaster 12/Gloom Stalker 3/Assassin 5

  • He’s a fairly decent shot (Battlemaster Fighter 12), adept at ambushes and woodcraft (Gloom Stalker Ranger 3), and more than a little sneaky (Assassin Rogue 5).
  • He’s a Crossbow Expert and Sharpshooter with 2 additional ASIs in Dexterity who precasts Hunter’s Mark and squeezes off the full Action Surge enabled 9 shots (3 base + 1 from Gloom Stalker, twice, and once more for bonus action with hand crossbow) at the start of combat with advantage and possibly free critical hits.
  • Damage at Level 20 in a nova round (using a +1 Hand Crossbow, Sharpshooter, a precast Hunter’s Mark and Action Surge) is potentially 9d6+144, with an additional 9d6 (31) Hunter’s Mark, 4d10 (22) Battlemaster Maneuvers, 3d6 (10) Sneak Attack and 2d8 (9) Dread Ambusher rider, for an average 247 damage (max 326).
  • The number of dice you throw doubles if you manage to Assassinate (good luck waiting for this to happen).
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Chiron – Battlemaster 12/Kensei 8

  • He’s a deft shot with the bow (Battlemaster Fighter 12), firing arrows with serenity and languid ease (Kensei Monk 8). He is a Sharpshooter, and his accuracy is nonpareil (Dexterity 20).
  • Damage at Level 20 in a nova round (using a +1 Longbow, with Kensei’s Shot and Action Surge) is potentially 6d8+6d4+96, with an additional 4d10 (22) Battlemaster Maneuvers and 1d6 (3) from Deft Strike, for an average 163 damage (max 214).
  • Makes up for lower DPR with some close ranged versatility and can beat the crap out of people with unarmed strikes (just like in the LN/anime).
arash

Arash – Samurai 20

  • He’s a full on Samurai Fighter 20 with Sharpshooter, enough ASIs and a longbow.
  • He’s as vanilla as they get, and uses his Bonus Action for Fighting Spirit since he’s got nothing else he can spend his Bonus Action on.
  • Damage at Level 20 in a nova round (using a +1 Longbow, triggering Rapid Strikes and Action Surge) is potentially 9d8+144, for an average 184 damage (max 216).

4. The Hybrid/Hexbow

The Hexblade Warlock patron opens up plenty of interesting options for Hybrid builds. It’s so front-loaded it’s not even funny. One level in Hexblade instantly makes you SAD (Single Ability Dependent), the Curse lets you crit-fish all day, every day, and your personality is so infectious people start taking damage from it.

While it lends itself naturally to melee (because it’s a Hex-blade, duh), a ranged build wielding a bow can be just as, if not more effective.

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Guess we know where those pact weapons go when they’re not summoned now.

a. Pacts and Invocations

Warlock
3 Improved Pact Weapon (Blade)
5 Thirsting Blade (Blade), Eldritch Smite (Blade)
12 Lifedrinker (Blade)

A typical Hexbow will choose Pact of the Blade, which grants access to Improved Pact Weapon and Thirsting Blade. Without the Extra Attack, your ability to be an effective Archer is severely hampered. Eldritch Smite provides a much-needed proc, while Lifedrinker adds to your static.

If you’re only dipping into Hexblade (no more than 5 levels), are capable of gaining that Extra Attack elsewhere, and don’t care much for Eldritch Smite or Lifedrinker, Pact of the Chain is a viable alternative. Taking the Imp as your Improved Familiar can lead to some super fun tiems.

Unlike Martial classes, Hexbows require a few rounds to set-up for optimal DPR, but more on that later.

b. Feats for the Hexbow

  • Crossbow Expert benefits Hexbows because you don’t have a whole lot to do with your Bonus Action once you’ve applied Hexblade’s Curse/Hex.
  • Sharpshooter is a given.
  • Elven Accuracy can lead to some serious crit-fishing cheese in tandem with Darkness + Devil’s Sight.

c. Typical Hexbow Build Progression

  • In Tier 1, one level in Hexblade is usually sufficient to tide you over. Take at least 2 levels of Fighter for Archery Fighting Style and Action Surge.
  • In Tier 2, aim for that Extra Attack. Typically, this means going 5 into Hexblade (Pact of the Blade, Thirsting Blade), or Fighter. Hexblade 5/Fighter 2 or Fighter 5/Hexblade 2 are both acceptable. Fighter 6 will always mean an extra feat/ASI, and is the break point if you’re going for a more spell oriented build.
  • In Tier 3 and 4, go Hexblade 12 for Lifedrinker, Fighter 12 for the extra attack, or something else.
  • Your objective is to balance the number of attacks (a typical nova round involves between 5 to 6 attacks with a hand crossbow) with your static bonuses, procs and riders.

d. Sample Builds

The following sample builds represent the end point for Hexbows.

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EMIYA – Hexblade 5/Battlemaster 6/Divine Soul 9

  • He’s a dab hand with the bow (Battlemaster 6), but he’s also a magus (Hexblade, Blade Pact and Divine Soul Sorcerer).
  • He’s a Sharpshooter with 2 additional ASIs in Charisma, which means he does a fair amount of damage with his bow. He’s also capable of calling forth a Spiritual Weapon or casting Animate Objects.
  • Precision Attack and Favor of the Gods help mitigate Sharpshooter penalties.
  • Damage at Level 20 in a nova round (using a +1 Longbow, Sharpshooter, pre-applied Hexblade’s Curse, precast Animate Objects, Spiritual Weapon, Eldritch Smite proc and Action Surge) is potentially 4d8+64, with an additional 30 static from Hexblade’s Curse, 4d8 (18) Battlemaster Maneuvers, 3d8 (13) Eldritch Smite proc, 2d8+5 (14) Spiritual Weapon upcast at 4th level, and 10d4+40 (65) Animate Objects, for an average 222 damage (max 283).
demiya

EMIYA (Alter) – Hexblade 12/Gloom Stalker 3/Assassin 3/Fighter 2

  • Darker and edgier than EMIYA (Hexblade, Pact of the Blade 12), wields a Hand Crossbow, and shoots to kill (Gloom Stalker 3 and Assassin 3).
  • He’s a Crossbow Expert and Sharpshooter with additional ASIs in Charisma. Maxing out Charisma also means that Lifedrinker will be more effective.
  • Damage at Level 20 in a nova round (using a +1 Hand Crossbow, Sharpshooter, pre-applied Hexblade’s Curse, Lifedrinker, precast Hex, Eldritch Smite proc, Sneak Attack, and Action Surge) is potentially 6d6+96, with an additional 36 static from Hexblade’s Curse, 30 static from Lifedrinker, 6d6 (21) Hex, 5d8 (22) Eldritch Smite proc, and 2d6 (7) Sneak Attack, or average 233 damage (max 286).
  • The number of dice you throw doubles if you manage to Assassinate (the DM will probably rage quit before that happens).

5. Hybrid/Bard Builds

This category loosely covers builds that rely on features cherry picked from multiple classes, liberal Magical Secrets abuse and sometimes creative rules interpretations to function.

Bard builds are playable in AL, but don’t expect to be on the charts till you’re well into Tier 3.

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Who woulda expected Bards to be this effective?

a. Bard Colleges, Essential Magical Secrets and such

For the better part of your career, you’re either a Valor or Swords Bard.

Both Colleges grant you an Extra Attack at 6th, though Swords stands out more if you care about pushing damage (though in both cases, you don’t actually get Archery Fighting Style and will need to acquire it elsewhere).

What makes a real difference though is Magical Secrets, which lets you steal some of the best buffs in the game and abuse them as early as 10th (and later at 14th).

Spell Level
5 Holy Weapon, Swift Quiver
6 Tenser’s Transformation (see below)

Naturally, pushing the optimal amount of damage requires a Ring of Spell Storing and a buddy (or a helpful Chain Pact Imp familiar) capable of maintaining Concentration on Holy Weapon for you while you cast Swift Quiver or Tenser’s Transformation on yourself. You could also acquire Simulacrum for more shenanigans.

A bit of set-up is required before you can go nova, but if and when you do, the damage is pretty explosive.

b. Typical Hybrid/Bard Build Progression

  • In Tier 1, one level in Hexblade makes you SAD. Take at least 2 levels of Fighter for Archery Fighting Style and Action Surge. Grab Crossbow Expert feat before Sharpshooter if you can, because you’ll be pinging people and throwing spells till you’re in Tier 3.
  • In Tier 2, start taking those Bard levels. By 10th level, you should be Hexblade 1, Fighter 2, Bard 7 or so.
  • In Tier 3, go Bard 10, grab your first two Magical Secrets, and enjoy as the Swift Quiver shenanigans begin. Take two more levels in Hexblade, take Pact of the Chain, and summon your Imp. Give that Imp (or a friend) a Ring of Spell Storing with Holy Weapon to keep two buffs going while you stick arrows in people.
  • Anything else is gravy.

c. Sample Builds

Two permutations come immediately to mind:

  • Hexblade 3 (Pact of the Chain)/Battlemaster Fighter 4/Assassin Rogue 3/Swords Bard 10, utilizing an Oathbow and Swift Quiver, or
  • Hexblade 3 (Pact of the Chain)/Battlemaster Fighter 3/Swords Bard 14, utilizing a Hand Crossbow and Tenser’s Transformation.
  • In both cases, you have three feats/ASIs, good enough for Sharpshooter and potentially Elven Accuracy. Crossbow Expert is mandatory for the latter if you want to top charts with your average DPR.
  • The former opens up Ambush opportunities, but hey, we all know how DMs react to players throwing 30 to 40 dice on the table right?
  • A more detailed breakdown of both major buffs can be found in the sidebar below.

Swift Quiver or Tenser’s Transformation?

Both spells grant a hefty damage boost to the Bard Archer.

Swift Quiver grants two (2) extra attacks at the cost of your bonus action (no Inspiration for your friends, too bad), which means six attacks at 20th level in a nova round with Action Surge. This provides two additional chances to crit and, barring other damage riders, 2d8+30 (39) damage. If you simulate this with Holy Weapon active, the two extra Swift Quiver hits squeeze out 57 average damage.

Acquiring Tenser’s Transformation requires an extra 4 levels in Bard. It adds 2d12 force damage per shot and grants advantage on all attacks so long as it is active. In a nova round with Action Surge, this translates to roughly 10d12 (65) damage with a Hand Crossbow.

For the sake of math, let’s assume a full nova round at 20th level with two buffs active, a +1 Hand Crossbow or +1 Longbow (5d6+30 or 6d8+36), Sharpshooter (50 or 60 static), Hexblade’s Curse up (30 or 36 static), triggering Battlemaster Maneuvers (4d8), Blade Flourish (1d10), and either Holy Weapon and Tenser’s Transformation for 10d8 (45) + 10d12 (65), or Holy Weapon for 12d8 (54).

You’ll be pushing 240 average damage (max 276) with Swift Quiver and 264 average damage (max 382) with Tenser’s Transformation. 

What does this mean?

  • Swift Quiver is respectable, and can even be a superior choice if you possess an Oathbow. This frees up those extra Bard levels for Assassin Rogue and Ambush.
  • Tenser’s Transformation is better suited to a Hand Crossbow build. If you’re using a Longbow (and thus have only 4 attacks with Tenser’s), Swift Quiver wins flat out.
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This smug exhibitionist is so not a Hexblade (Chain Pact) 5/Swords Bard 10/Battlemaster 5.

Also, since we’re on the topic of Bards, here’s a caveat for everyone who wants to play the King of Heroes.

  • Consider utilizing Animate Objects (a Bard spell) and a friendly Crusader’s Mantle (not a Bard spell, cast from Ring of Spell Storing by a friend or Imp familiar) in conjunction with your regular routine.
  • You can throw Darts (because you know, flavor), but any self-respecting mongrel will know better and use a Hand Crossbow.
  • Damage at Level 20 in a nova round (using a +1 Hand Crossbow, Sharpshooter, pre-applied Hexblade’s Curse, friendly Crusader’s Mantle, Blade Flourish proc Action Surge and Animate Objects) is potentially 5d6+80, with an additional 30 static from Hexblade’s Curse, 5d4 (12) Crusader’s Mantle, 1d10 (5) Blade Flourish, 4d8 (18) Battlemaster Maneuvers, and 20d4+40 (90) Animate Objects, for an average 252 damage (max 322).

6. Other Builds/Options

tesla

He sure doesn’t look like an Archer to me.

So Tesla (this guy here), shoots lightning from his fingertips. He’s atypical Archer material, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be an “Archer”. It’s all about RP and flavor, remember?

At the same time, while I’ve presented several builds in the sections above, they’re really just different ways to arrive at the end goal. In fact, you can start building almost any Archer by picking your poison from the smorgasbord below.

Bard (College of Swords, Valor) Cleric (War Domain)
6 Extra Attack 1 War Priest (great for most builds that don’t have a Bonus Action attack, i.e. if you’re armed with a bow)
10 Magical Secrets 2 Guided Strike
Fighter (Battlemaster, Champion, Samurai) Monk (Kensei)
1 Fighting Style 3 Kensei’s Shot
2 Action Surge 5 Extra Attack
5 Extra Attack  6  Deft Strike
Ranger (Gloom Stalker, Hunter) Rogue (Assassin)
2 Fighting Style, Hunter’s Mark 1 Sneak Attack
5 Extra Attack 3 Assassinate
Sorcerer (Divine Soul) Warlock (Hexblade Patron)
1 Favor of the Gods 1 Hex Warrior, Hexblade’s Curse, Pact Magic
2 Sorcery Points 2 Eldritch Invocations
3 Metamagic, Spiritual Weapon 3 Pact (Blade or Chain)

Just keep in mind the multiclassing rules, action economy overlaps (some classes and archetypes grant Bonus Actions that don’t necessarily complement each other), your feat and ASI choices, and you should be all set.


7. Magic Items

moriarty

Bet you Moriarty got that cape and nifty weapon from his faction. 😛

5E isn’t as gear reliant as previous editions. A +1 magic weapon will usually suffice to pierce Resistance, and you can breeze through most AL adventures without having to farm for additional treasure.

Of course, having the right items can make your Archer a whole lot more effective, and examples include:

a. Weapons

  • A +1 or higher weapon with the Range property (see AL Faction Guide for purchase rules of +1 weapons)
  • Hand Crossbow affixed with the Ild Rune (makes the weapon magical, adds fire damage, non-attunement, is OP)
  • Oathbow

b. Other Gear

  • Bracers of Archery (slightly improves static damage per shot)
  • Broom of Flying, Flying Carpet, Winged Boots etc. (movement and positioning)
  • Cape of the Mountebank (no attunement, Dimension Door 1/day)
  • Helm of Brilliance (adds fire damage, spell options)
  • Ring of Spell Storing (mandatory for some magic heavy builds)

8. Parting Shot

I hope you’ve enjoyed this incredibly long article (probably the longest I’ve written in a while), and that this gives you a taste of the kind of power a properly built Archer can bring to any #ALLegal table.

Of course, while this is an optimization column, I cannot stress enough that the goal of optimizing is not to upstage other players or to steal the limelight, but to ensure that you are able to meaningfully contribute and help everyone fulfill the story objective.

I’d also like to reiterate that not every build presented above is suitable and may not accurately reflect what you intend to achieve with your character.

Remember, concept always comes first, because the Archer class isn’t really made up of archers. 😉

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