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Interceptor Balance: Risk Versus Reward

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Over 17,000 pilots flew an interceptor in combat in the month of May.  (Either because they showed up on a killmail, or because they became one.)  Looking at those pilots, 38% of them didn’t lose a single interceptor in May — if those pilots flew nothing but interceptors, they would have an infinite kill-to-death ratio!

If we dig further into this data, we can select the set of capsuleers with a K:D ratio higher than 10:1 in interceptors; if you check their choices of interceptors to fly, three hulls are used almost exclusively: the Malediction, Crow, and Stiletto.  The Stiletto’s appearance on this list is fairly unremarkable; it’s an extremely popular fleet interceptor, and we discovered earlier (in Wednesday’s post) that it does comparatively little damage in most fights.  However, we also found on Wednesday that the Malediction and Crow do relatively good damage — between 80-95%, on average, of the damage of a “gank” interceptor like the Taranis or Crusader.  That’s odd, and deserves some looking at.

Committing To The Fight

The Taranis, Crusader, and Claw are all extremely high-DPS ships — and they can even be reasonably sturdy.  (Taranises favor reinforced bulkheads after the Kronos changes; Claws typically carry a local armor repairer, and Crusaders typically fit a 200mm plate.)  However, all of them have weapons that encourage engaging at very close range: 1-3km for blaster/AC fits, and 6-8km for railgun/artillery/pulse laser fits.  Fighting at this range exposes them to a lot of danger:

  • It puts them in range of warp scramblers, stasis webs, and medium neuts.  (In the case of blaster/AC fits, it also puts you in range of small neuts and smartbombs.)
  • When orbiting, you can maintain full speed in a large orbit, but tend to lose speed when in tight orbits (subject to your ship’s agility stat) .  This means that you’re more likely to be hit by light drones.

As a result, these close-range ships are forced to commit 100% to a fight; they rarely have an opportunity to escape if things don’t go their way.  Taranises and Crusaders wade into a fight, guns blazing, and don’t leave until at least one party has died.

Rote Kapelle once had a guide to interceptors on their forums, and it had five points that looked roughly like this:

  1. Pick how far away you’re going to engage (i.e. long range vs close range ammo)
  2. Pick how you’re going to avoid damage (i.e. keep-at-range versus orbit).  Set that range.
  3. Burn in.  Press whatever movement key you’ve decided on.
  4. Overheat everything.
  5. Cross fingers.

 

In summary, these hulls present a lot of risk to the pilot, but that risk is balanced by the reward: extremely high DPS for an interceptor.  The Taranis and Crusader are capable of burst DPS that can overwhelm local tanks easily, and take down hulls much larger than themselves.

We can contrast this with the classic tackle interceptors — the Stiletto and Ares — which present a low risk, low reward choice.  These hulls lack the damage bonuses of their counterparts, but get a bonus to the range of warp disruptors and warp scramblers instead, allowing them to tackle at long range.  Both of them typically fit some weapons; however, the hulls have extremely low power grid and a limited numbers of low slots, discouraging long-range weapons or high damage builds.  Their guns/missiles are largely intended for shooting down drones that are chasing them, and potentially defending themselves from other frigates that have successfully warp-scrambled them.  In exchange for that limited utility, they can operate largely risk-free: they’re nimble, and can maintain a point from 30-36km away, well out of the range of most weapons and even heavy neuts.  When orbiting at long distance, they can maintain high speed, meaning that drones have to shift in and out of MWD mode and will struggle to apply damage to them.

The Brave Sir Robin of Interceptors

The Malediction and Crow, however, live in an intermediary area: they are low risk, but moderate DPS.  They’re billed as tackle interceptors, and have the matching bonus to point/scram range; however, they also have bonuses to all missiles, and the grid/cpu to fit light missile launchers.  As a result, they can both tackle at long range, and apply damage at long range.  They aren’t required to close to a hostile ship’s web/scram/neut range, and can fight for a sustained period of time.

This explains why Wednesday’s findings showed Maledictions and Crows with a median damage-dealt value so competitive with the high-damage interceptors: the high-damage interceptors are forced to wade into dangerously close ranges, and have a lifetime measured in seconds.  They output a very high DPS for a short period of time!  The Malediction and Crow, on the other hand, output a moderate amount of DPS for a sustained period of time (due to not being threatened by tackle, neuts, or light drones) and end up putting out a similar amount of damage on each completed kill.  And the player base has certainly figured this out, given that over 90% of Crows and Maledictions are fitted with light missiles.

This is particularly notable given how difficult it is to fit LMLs, since they have high grid/CPU needs.  The general theme for most of Eve’s weapons is that close-range weapons have high damage potential and low fitting requirements, while long-range weapons have a slightly lower damage potential and high fitting requirements.  Fitting LMLs to a Crow or Malediction requires significant compromises in tank and mobility, compared to a rocket-based fit; however, the vast majority of Eve players prefer LMLs.

While the Crow may be more popular, I’d argue that the Malediction has the lower risk-to-reward ratio here.  While it may have much lower damage potential than the Crow, the Malediction compensates for this in two ways:

  • It has four low-slots, giving it room for mobility mods, at least one damage mod, and at least one tank-related module (either a suitcase or a small armor repairer).
  • It’s significantly more mobile than the Crow, and does so with a smaller signature radius (being armor-tanked instead of shield-tanked).

A Malediction with two speed modules is capable of jumping through a gate, aligning to its outbound destination, and entering warp in under two seconds.  Meanwhile, it is tiny enough that even the fastest-locking ships will take one second or longer to lock it.  This means that it’s exceptionally difficult to catch — even if you have a remote-sensor-boosted interceptor or Keres that can lock a frigate in less than a second, you will struggle to activate tackle modules on the ship, because the tackle modules won’t activate until the subsequent server tick after you lock the target.  (I’ve got a blog post on server ticks queued up for next week.)

As a result, Maledictions that are fitted in this way are near-invincible.  They’re only killable by catching them while they’re in the process of killing something (i.e. while the pilot is distracted) or killing them in mid-warp with a smartbombing battleship.

I actually don’t think that this mobility is a bad thing.  I find it quite interesting to have a ship that’s nimble enough to evade instalocking gatecamps, especially when combined with the bubble immunity that’s common to all interceptors.  (In particular, I think the Taranis is excellently balanced against the Enyo.)  However, when you have this functionality AND the ability to put down decent damage from a safe range, things start breaking quickly.

Steps Forward

There’s a fair amount of argument among Eve bloggers that giving bubble immunity, or high mobility, to interceptors was a mistake.  I disagree with this — I think they’re fantastic for running down targets, and for providing an interesting alternative to assault frigates.  However, the long range of Maledictions and Crows is a problem.  Thus:

What if Maledictions and Crows had a bonus to rocket damage only, instead of all missiles?

In this case, LMLs would still be an option to those pilots that desired to fit them; however, their damage on those systems would drop to be comparable with the Stiletto and Ares.  However, they could still fit rockets to get moderate-to-high damage for self-defense versus drones, or for high-risk ganking at scrambler/web range.

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