Monday 15 April 2013

Know Your Enemy - Attack Cruisers

Combat Cruisers may top the chart in terms of raw strength, but Attack Cruisers are the masters of speed and damage application. These ships offer greater mobility than any other cruiser, with bonuses to range or tracking giving them a more flexible engagement envelope than their slower counterparts.

If Sigmund Freud played Eve, he would definitely have flown an Attack Cruiser.

While some Attack Cruisers (particularly the Thorax) make excellent brawlers, the main strength of this class is in kiting. The combination of flexible range and great mobility allows Attack Cruiser pilots to dictate the terms of an engagement on the fly, and makes them particularly dangerous to any smaller ships which might attempt to pin them down.

The Thorax stands out among the Attack Cruisers on account of its brawling capability. In terms of raw damage output the Thorax is second only to its drone-wielding cousin the Vexor, and even then only by a slim margin. Five damage-bonused hybrid turrets provide the bulk of its firepower, one more than its combat counterpart and equal the main battery of the Moa. This is complemented by a tracking bonus, which substantially boosts the Thorax's ability to apply that damage up close, particularly against smaller ships. A generous 50m3 of drone bay with the same in bandwidth rounds off the Thorax's offensive capabilities, allowing it to wield either a full flight of medium drones for maximum damage, or a flight of lights with a second flight in reserve (often ECM drones, or otherwise simply spares).

The Thorax's slot layout is identical to the Vexor aside from its additional turret, coming it at a cool 5/4/5. This gives the Thorax a great deal of fitting flexibility, allowing either a moderate armour tank or a light shield buffer with plenty of gank to back it up. The armour Thorax generally has to ease off a little on its damage output, partly by giving up some of its low slots for tank but also because of the powergrid requirement to fit a 1600mm plate. Despite this, it still punches harder than most other cruisers - a little over 500dps is typical with Void and medium drones, with a tank upwards of 30k EHP - very respectable for an Attack Cruiser. The lighter 800mm plated variant can push this up to around 600dps in exchange for a more fragile tank in the mid to high 20s. Perhaps the strongest arguments for an 800mm Thorax however is the additional speed and range that it offers - speed is what the Attack Cruisers are about after all. The armour Thorax still isn't slow (generally somewhere between 1.6 and 1.8km/s depending on the fit), but a lighter plate at least keeps it near the top of the scale. The 1600mm plate also curbs the ship's range, with most setups forced to run electron blasters to conserve powergrid, giving it a maximum reach of about 4+5km with null and its best damage inside about 2+2km with void. This shouldn't be a problem providing the Thorax can get close to its targets and stay there - something that it's relatively good at - but in a more dynamic fight it can pose a real problem.

The shield Thorax is quite a different beast, pushing something in the region of 2-2.2km/s with significantly higher agility than its armour counterpart. The tank that it offers is fragile - typically shy of 20k EHP although it can sometimes be higher, as we'll discuss in a moment. With its low slots left open for damage mods however, the shield Thorax can put out anything from 650 to 750dps depending on their choice of drones. Able to wield the larger neutron blasters instead of paltry electrons as well as potentially having room for a tracking enhancer, the shield Thorax has considerably better damage projection than its armour counterpart. In fact is has about the same range with void as the armour Thorax does will null, and is able to reach an almost comfortable 7+11km with null itself - enough to apply strong damage anywhere inside overheated web range and even a little further.

For solo work, a third popular variant takes the standard armour Thorax and swaps its plate for a pair of medium armour reps (possibly including one ancillary rep). Without its plate and trimark rigs, the dual rep Thorax is competitive with the lower end of the shield Thoraxes in terms of speed while offering a fairly reasonable active tank - between 300 and 400dps before heat with a MAAR, or 200 and 300 with regular reps. While this isn't enough to turn aside the full damage output of another cruiser, it's enough to be effective when engaging frigates or if the Thorax pilot is able to evade a portion of their opponent's damage output through other means. Like any active tank, it is of course vulnerable to neuting and if using a MAAR it won't be able to operate at peak effectiveness for long.

Four mid slots give the Thorax a reasonable amount of flexibility, particularly on an armour fit. A MWD and scram are pretty much a given, and at least one web is likely. The fourth slot could house a cap booster (particularly on active tanked variants), a second web for quickly dispatching frigates, or an afterburner for dual propulsion. Shield Thoraxes have it a little harder, having to choose between a single slot tank and a web, or the riskier strategy of dropping the web for a more substantial tank. Suffice to say that if you're trying to take on a Thorax in anything smaller, whether or not it's carrying a web (and if so, how many) is probably going to decide the outcome of the fight; the Thorax already has excellent tracking, and getting under its guns while webbed is likely to prove very difficult. Shield Thoraxes without a web can be left very vulnerable, and are less common as solo boats for exactly that reason.

The main strength of the Thorax is in brawling, so naturally your aim should be not to brawl it if possible - its tracking is excellent, and it deals its best damage inside a few kms. Hold range where you can, and you'll probably improve your chances in anything similar-sized or larger. Reliably keeping out of scram range will probably prove a challenge if the Thorax pilot is flying smart - even a heavily plated armour Thorax will push almost 2.4km/s when overheating, while the fastest typical shield Thoraxes can break 3km/s in bursts. Don't assume that you'll be able to easily hold one at range, at be very cautious of overheating and slingshots. Remember that while the Thorax's damage output is very strong, its tank is generally not - it will out-brawl any other Attack Cruiser without a problem, but most Combat Cruisers should be able to compete toe to toe, particularly if the Thorax is running a shield tank or 800mm armour buffer. Even if you're not able to keep range for long, just make sure you start applying damage as early as possible - a fight against a Thorax is going to be short-lived either way, and any head start you can get is going to work in your favour.

While I don't think I've ever encountered a well fit rail Thorax, I can't see a strong reason why one wouldn't be effective. Damage output with rails remains fairly strong, in the 400dps region with Plutonium for a range of around 19+16km. In effect, this makes it something like a lower-dps but less scary version of the standard kiting Talos, with more than enough damage output to quickly blap pursuing tacklers. I'll give it a try some time and let you know how it goes.

While the Caracal might not be the fastest Attack Cruiser, it does offer excellent damage projection alongside relatively high dps. The definitive missile cruiser, the Caracal offers five launchers complete with bonuses to rate of fire and missile velocity (i.e. range). Unlike many other Caldari ships which receive a damage bonus solely to kinetic missiles, the Caracal's rate of fire bonus applies to all missile types and lends it a level of flexibility that can easily be underestimated. Two light drones complete the Caracal's arsenal - nothing special, but not unexpected on a Caldari platform.

With the same 5/5/4 slot layout as the Moa, the Caracal is a capable shield tanker. It doesn't get the Moa's resist bonus however, leaving the Caracal considerably more fragile - something in the region of 20k EHP is fairly typical, although tougher setups can reach up into the 30s. The biggest variable on a Caracal fit is its weapon system - heavy assault, rapid light, and heavy missiles are all popular choices, roughly in that order of preference. With plenty of low slots for ballistic controls the HAM Caracal can put out between 400 and 500dps depending on ammo choice, with damage projection out to 30km with faction missiles or 45km with javelins. Rapid light Caracals offer a less impressive 250 to 300dps, however their damage application against frigates and other soft targets is exceptional even out as far as 60km. HML Caracals represent the ultimate in cruiser damage projection, with slightly higher dps than the RLML variant and ranges as high as 95km with good skills.

As a missile ship, the Caracal is both blessed and cursed compared to its turret-wielding counterparts. Its ability to project damage is unparalleled  however unlike turret users it can't simply kite to increase its damage output against small or fast targets - it relies on webs and/or target painters to do the job instead. Most HAM or RLML Caracals will feature at least one web to improve their damage application, although rapid lights are less reliant on it and may just go all out on tank. HML setups more frequently go down the target painter route or simply stick to engaging larger targets - they might fit a web anyway, but most of the time they won't be in range to use it.

Thanks to its flexible range, the Caracal is a very adept kiter. Typical speeds of between 1.8 and 2km/s make it the slowest attack cruiser, but still faster than most of the competition. You can actually squeeze a 100MN Afterburner onto the RLML version, dropping the speed down to around 1.7km/s and significantly hurting its agility in exchange for invulnerability to scrams and an a huge amount of momentum to let you coast out of tackle range. It's a trickier fit to fly, but it's incredibly fun! If you end up engaging a Caracal with a frigate gang, be wary of getting split up - even a HAM Caracal will start to hit you hard once you enter web range, and it's easy to get picked off one at a time. Similarly, don't underestimate this ship's damage projection, particularly in a gang situation. A HML Caracal gang can run rings around slower ships, and even a lone RLML variant in a kitchen sink fleet can cause serious problems for tacklers and light support without ever needing to get close.

Against HAM and HML Caracals in particular, you can often reduce the Caracal's damage output simply by keeping your speed as high as possible and your signature radius low. Afterburning frigates are especially good at this, and should take far less damage than normal. Cruisers will have a harder time, particularly if you're MWD fit (which most cruiser are) and brawling inside web range. The Caracal isn't an exceptional brawler, but it's strong and the flexibility of its range means that it can generally pick a distance that best suits it, and least suits you. Beware of engaging RLML Caracals with frigate gangs - their light missiles are effectively a frigate-sized weapon system and will still hit you effectively at any range, while the additional powergrid that they free up can make a RLML Caracal deceptively tough.

When speed is required, no other cruiser comes close to the Stabber. 2.4km/s is the lower end for this ship, with specialised high-speed setups coming close to 3km/s without a great deal of effort. Unsurprisingly, this makes the Stabber very proficient as a kiter.

A 6/4/4 slot layout makes the Stabber a little unusual, particularly given that it only has 4 turrets. Where the Rupture made up for this with an extra damage bonus, the Stabber only gets a single rate of fire bonus leaving its damage output underwhelmingly low. It does get launcher hardpoints to fill the two extra high slots, however the low damage output that unbonused launchers generally offer (and an overall lack of powergrid to fill them), leaves them fairly unappealing, and most Stabber pilots use the slots for cap warfare instead. That's probably not a bad idea, given that the Stabber has very little in the way of tackler defence - it has no drones whatsoever*, and since it's typically a shield tanker (to tank armour would be to give up what little dps the Stabber has), it usually can't afford to carry a web either. Get on top of a Stabber in a small ship, and neuts are its only real backup plan.

What it lacks in damage, the Stabber makes up for to some extent in projection. It doesn't have the powergrid for artillery, however thanks to a falloff bonus even the autocannon Stabber comes out with with fairly impressive range - about 3+29km with 220mm ACs, barrage and a single tracking enhancer. Peak dps with that kind of setup is only a little over 200 though, and at 30km it's going to be around half of that again - not particularly inspiring. This isn't a ship which can blap a frigate in seconds while kiting away - it needs prolonged fire to do significant damage to anything with a proper tank. That's not to say you should underestimate it of course - time can go surprisingly quickly when you're only a few km away from landing a scram.

Like its damage, the Stabber's tank is fairly poor even for an attack cruiser - 20k EHP is really the top end, with most setups coming in lower. This isn't a ship that's going to brawl anything, except for maybe another Stabber or a smaller ship which decides to sit still instead of orbiting. If you're not able to catch it however, and particularly if the Stabber is operating in a group, it can be surprisingly dangerous. Since it's such a fast ship, it's possible to user the Stabber's speed against it if you're not able to close range - a well timed slingshot or reversal of direction can throw a Stabber pilot out of point range, or even better straight into your waiting scram. While it kites well, the Stabber can't kite forever - its capacitor is weak, and running its point and MWD together will suck it dry in around two minutes. Expect that number to drop considerably if the Stabber pilot has already been burning around a bit before the fight starts.

Should you manage to get in close, don't forget that the Stabber has some neuting power from those two spare high slots. While it doesn't really have the powergrid to carry two mediums, dual small neuts or one medium and one small are fairly common combinations and can cause problems for a smaller ship relatively quickly. While it probably won't hit a small ship up close, you might well struggle to stay close once all your tackle turns off! Bring a nos, bring a friend, or simply overheat and aim to finish it quickly. In anything larger than a frigate, you should have no problem brawling a Stabber down providing you can get close - pound for pound it simply doesn't compare well to the other ships in the class.

*NOTE: The Stabber is currently slated to receive a buff as part of the Odyssey expansion this summer. The current plan is to give it a further boost to falloff (increasing its bonus to 10% per level), in addition to 25m3 of drone bay and bandwidth. While this won't bring the Stabber's damage output up to the level of other cruisers, it will make it significantly more dangerous to frigates attempting to get under its guns.

For Amarr pilots seeking a faster, higher-dps alternative to the heavyweight Maller, the Omen delivers. While it gets the same 5 turrets its combat counterpart, a rate of fire bonus in place of the Maller's damage bonus along with a generous 40m3 of drones puts the Omen edge clear ahead in terms of damage output. It also offers standard Attack Cruiser mobility, comparable to the Thorax in terms of base speed and potentially faster.

The sacrifice which the Omen makes to achieve this is, unsurprisingly, its tank. It follows the pattern of most Attack Cruisers in having the same slot layout as its combat equivalent - 5/3/6 - however without the Maller's resist bonus and with substantially less powergrid it doesn't even come close in the tanking department. A plated 800mm Omen (it can't really fit a 1600mm) generally offers a little over 20k EHP without armour rigs (which is a fairly common choice to maintain its natural speed) or a little under 30k with them. In exchange, the Omen can reach speeds of between 1.6 and 1.8km/s depending on the rigs and other particulars.

Unlike the Maller, the Omen does receive the usual Amarr bonus to energy turret capacitor use (although its rate of fire bonus works against this slightly). Given that its mobility relies quite heavily on running a MWD however, this actually leaves the Omen more cap-intensive in general use than the Maller was. Running its guns, point, and MWD the Omen will generally cap out after a minute or two, and that's assuming it starts fully charged. With only three mids, his leaves the Omen pilot with a difficult choice between carrying a web (making it easier to defend against tacklers at close range) or a cap booster (allowing prolonged kiting, but leaving it more vulnerable if tackled). Alternatively of course, you could throw both options out the window and just shield tank it - more on that in a moment.

The biggest strength of the Omen is its damage projection - while it doesn't get a range or tracking bonus like its counterparts, the natural reach of pulse lasers lets the Omen easily reach out to around 20+4km with scorch, pushing 350-400dps when combined with its drones. When fighting close with faction multifrequency, that could easily be upwards of 400. Compared to the Stabber this makes the Omen incredibly effective for blapping frigates off the field while kiting, although it doesn't quite have the Stabber's speed.

As I mentioned earlier, the shield Omen is actually a very popular choice. It offers a weaker tank in the region of 15k EHP, but its kiting ability is far stronger with speeds of between 2 and 2.4km/s. On the surface, it simply out-performs its armour counterpart - it offers better speed, better range and better damage. 400 to 450dps with scorch and warriors is easily achievable (or more with medium drones), and thanks to larger guns you're looking at optimal ranges of between 25 and 30km along with at least 5km of falloff, depending on the number of tracking enhancers and locus rigs the Omen pilot has gone for. However with one mid slot taken up for a shield extender, the shield Omen has to make a very big sacrifice - it can no longer fit a cap booster, leaving the ship with a little over a minute worth of cap with everything running. An alternative 'real man' approach is to drop the shield tank entirely and just go for a range tank in a similar vein to the Navy Slicer; while this leaves the ship incredibly fragile, it does solve the cap problem neatly as well as saving even more fitting to enhance its damage and speed.

Like any kiter, the Omen is incredibly dangerous to lighter ships attempting to chase it down. Be prepared to take the full brunt of its damage the moment you cross that 25 to 30km threshold, and don't burn straight for it - I can't stress enough how quickly this thing will blap a frigate if you don't have any angular velocity. Once you get in close you'll still have drones to contend with, although at least you won't need to face any neuts. Larger ships should have less of a problem, providing you don't simply get kited - like the Stabber, you can use this ship's speed to your advantage and even if you can't land a scram, a rapid reversal of direction should throw it out far enough to break tackle and escape. The Omen isn't a particularly powerful brawler, and given that it performs so well at range you're almost always going to want to orbiting close - pulse lasers track slowly even by cruiser standards, and while the Omen might fit a web it's not standard. Get in on top of an Omen in a brawling cruiser, and you should be all set.


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The Altruist is the Eve Online blog of Azual Skoll, PVP instructor and small gang PVPer.

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