I've been reading up on playing a druid (never played one before), and I keep finding resources that say that druids are arguably the most powerful class in 5e because of their wild shape ability. However, I've been comparing a druid in its true form with some of the beasts it can change into with wild shape, and I don't see how using wild shape (at least in early levels) is beneficial in combat situations.
I get that when a druid is reduced to 0 HP while in wild shape form, they return to their true form with the HP they had before they changed shape (assuming they were not reduced past 0 HP). Obviously, this is a huge benefit—depending on which beasts you can change into, you get a lot more HP during a round of combat.
But as far as the rest of combat goes, I don't see how it's a benefit to take on a wild shape, especially at earlier levels. For example, let's say that I am playing a level 2 wood elf druid with the following stats:
- STR: -1, DEX: +3, CON: +2, INT: -1, WIS: +3, CHA: -1
- HP: 15
- AC: 17 (studded leather, shield)
- Weapon: Quarterstaff improved by Shillelagh
- Attack bonus: +5 (proficiency bonus  + WIS )
- Average damage: 7.5 bludgeoning (1d8+3; magic)
At level 2, my druid can use wild shape to change into a beast with a 1/4 CR or lower. Say the druid changes into a wolf with the following stats:
- HP: 11
- AC: 13 (natural armor)
- Natural weapon: Bite
- Attack bonus: +4
- Average damage: 7 piercing (2d4+2)
In this example, the druid's HP, AC, attack bonus, and damage output is better than the wolf's, which is one of the better beasts the druid can change into at level 2. And the druid can cast spells in true form. Is the only reason this would be beneficial in this case is because the druid can nearly double its HP (shape change into wolf [11 HP] until reduced to 0 HP, then fight in true form [15 HP]), or are there other benefits as far as combat is concerned? Does the combat advantage of true form over wild shape change significantly as the druid levels up?
If I were playing this particular druid in a combat situation with my current understanding of things, I would avoid using wild shape until I was dangerously low on HP, then I would use it just to benefit from the HP boost since the true form is a better combatant in every way, but something tells me this isn't the "best" way to use wild shape. I just feel like I'm missing something.
(I get that Circle of the Moon druids are a different case because they can use wild shape to transform into beasts of higher CR's at earlier levels. It's easy to see how wild shape is beneficial for members of this druid circle.)
Yes and No,
With the factors given a druid in its true form is slightly better at direct combat than in a wild shape form.
However, there are some factors that you might want to consider: A druid in the wild shape form of a wolf gains a few extra advantages.
Other wild shapes provide other capabilities. A giant spider can web an enemy and can move along walls and ceilings. A bear has multiple attacks and a good pool of hit points. A horse can function as a mount for another party member providing them with extra speed.
Wild shape may not always be a better combat option, but it grants extra flexibility to a savvy player.