Whether certain tactics and ship setups are balanced is a topic that's been constantly debated on the EVE Online forums for as long as I can remember. The argument itself is as old as EVE and is repeated daily on the forums like some kind of popular EVE Online screen play. The script of this play doesn't always follow the same format but the same roles are always filled by the players participating. On one side, we have people who think a certain tactic is unbalanced and should be fixed by CCP in a balance patch. On the other side, we have people who rely on the tactic being discussed that are afraid it might be changed. Everyone else with an opinion falls somewhere on the spectrum between these two extremes.
Not so long ago, the arguments were about nosferatu used on a Dominix being unbalanced and remote sensor dampeners being too powerful. Discussions about of these led to some re-balancing to help level the PvP playing field. The latest argument is about nano-fit ships and nano-gangs. The "nano" craze is a PvP ship fitting style and fighting strategy that favours speed over all else. Ships like the Sacrilege and the Ishtar which might normally be fitted with heavy tanks are instead fitted for high speed and agility. Rather than resist and repair damage, a ship with high speed and agility can evade enemy fire altogether. A nano-fit ship can orbit an enemy so quickly that the enemy's turrets can't track them and missiles deal tiny amounts of damage.
With some pilots claiming that viable counter-maneuvers exist to combat the nano craze and others calling it "easy mode for PvP", it's hard to know what to think. Read on while I delve into this controversial issue and draw some important conclusions.
What IS a nano ship?:
Although the word "nano" refers to the module Nanofiber Internal Structure, the term has come to mean any ship that is so fast that it can use its speed as a complete defense mechanism. The nano craze isn't all that new, it first took hold over a year ago with devastating results and was subsequently the focus of a major re-balancing efforts on ship speed. Although battleships which can fly faster than interceptors are more or less a thing of the past, cruisers and their tech 2 variants are still kings of speed when fitted for it. Heavy assault cruisers like the Ishtar that were intended to have heavy tanks can be made to fly faster than the average interceptor. In addition, ships which already lend themselves well to high speed such as the Stabber and the Vagabond can reach absolutely ludicrous speeds that simply can't be matched.
All players living in alliance-owned 0.0 space will be familiar with the daily sight of roaming gangs invading their space and every one of them will tell you the same thing - It's always gangs of Vagabonds. In 0.0 PvP where players will tend to choose the safest and most effective options, the Vagabond is almost the sole choice for roaming gangs. In recent months, rich players have been using expensive speed setups for other heavy assault cruisers like the Ishtar and the Sacrilege which come close to the Vagabond's speed and survivability. The issue that most players have with this is that so-called "speed tanks" have always been intended to be the sole domain of small, fragile ships like frigates and interceptors that have limited fire-power. Nano-fit heavy assault cruisers can do considerable damage despite their nigh-invulnerability and are tough enough to survive if someone gets a few lucky shots in.
At this point, you're probably wondering what all the fuss is about and just how fast you can get your ship to go. Thanks to the very handy program "EVE Fitting Tool", it's trivial to construct theoretical ship setups and see what speeds they can achieve. Using rigs and Tech 2 equipment, an Ishtar can be made to reach over 3,000m/s but this isn't anywhere near the blistering speed of the average nano-fit ship. To reach speeds of over 9,600m/s in an Ishtar and be able to outrun the average interceptor will require the best gear money can buy.
The most important thing to realise is that while a good nano-fit is almost impossible to kill in the hands of an experienced pilot, it's not going to be cheap. To reach the ludicrous speeds of almost 10km/s in an Ishtar, a powerful deadspace microwarpdrive and a full "snake" pirate implant set are required along with the rare and expensive "Zor's Custom Navigation Hyper-Link" and "Shaqil's Speed Enhancer" implants. Using similar gear, a Vagabond tops out at around 16,500m/s. Actual setups will usually have lower than optimal speed and a pilot may choose to sacrifice some speed to enhance agility by fitting an inertial stabiliser or two. Better agility will allow them to orbit close to a target while still doing close to full speed and will enhance their rate of acceleration.
Some surprising results can be found when testing theoretical nano-fit battleship setups. The Raven tops out at scary 6,443m/s and the popular drone ship Dominix can theoretically reach speeds of 7,163m/s. An average interceptor, the class of ship which is designed to be the fastest in the game, cannot exceed around 8,500m/s. Using the same implants and the same quality of modules, an interceptor can potentially exceed 20km/second but its defenses will be paper thin. Chasing an enemy nano-Ishtar or vagabond could end up turning your expensive interceptor into an expensive wreck.
Defining the problem:
In each performance of the "nerf the flavour of the month" play, one key theme is always present. Whether someone is on one side of the debate or the other, very few people attempt to formally define the problem that exists. Even some of the players suggesting potential solutions don't specify what problem their suggestion actually solves. Common sense would dictate that the problem with nano-fit ships and tactics is that ships are able to go too fast but common sense is sometimes a bit slow. At the crux of this issue is the question of whether or not there is a valid counter-maneuver to use against a nano-gang. Massive speed and a skilled pilot neutralises most of the threat from turrets, missiles, drones, warp disruptors, energy neutralisers and smartbombs. Without an effective counter-maneuver, the field of play would be biased toward the nano-fit ship.
A player who has never encountered a skilled nano gang might suggest that one counter-maneuver would be heavy use of stasis webs to slow the enemy ships down. As nano-fittings leave little room for any real kind of tank, slowing them down would assure their destruction. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. While the enemy ships can be completely effective from up to 20km away, normal stasis webs have a range limit of 10km. Even overheating an expensive faction web won't put its range much above 14km. The second and perhaps most shocking fact about webs is that even if the enemy does get in range, webs won't even slow them down .
The web problem:
If your gang is using ships that specialise in long-range webbing such as the Rapier or Huginn, the enemy is very likely to stray within web range during the fight. Unfortunately, webbing a skilled nano-fit pilot won't stop him or even slow him down significantly. Instead, his ship will continue along its current trajectory at great speed and exit your stasis web range with little effect to his overall speed. This is partly due to a small oversight in a change that happened to stasis webs many years ago. Originally, stasis webs only reduced a ship's maximum speed but this was augmented with a hidden secondary effect. The secondary effect was a reduction in the target's agility, making them turn slower.
This seemingly cosmetic change is actually a major contributing factor to why webs don't scare nano-ship pilots. When an enemy ship is webbed, their maximum speed is cut down significantly but they don't slow to match it immediately. Instead, they begin to decelerate toward their new maximum speed at a rate of deceleration based on the ship's agility. The higher the ship's agility, the faster the ship will slow down. Since the web has decreased the target's agility, their ship decelerates a lot slower than normal. This causes their ship to maintain most of their original speed for long enough to coast out of web range and on to freedom.
The speed problem:
Putting the web problem aside for a moment, it's also true to say that some ships can reach speeds that clearly were not intended. CCP's official stance is that changes to speed mods may be in the works to resolve what they are recognising as an imbalance. At this point, I believe nobody can realistically argue that the maximum obtainable speed of ships like the Ishtar and the Dominix are intended. While all of the equipment and implants required to create an effective nano-fit ship is extremely expensive, It has long been established that there should not be a price for invulnerability, that a player should not be able to buy his way into being invulnerable no matter how much it costs him.
Potential solutions have been thrown around on the forums for a long time and it's clear that CCP are leaning toward making balance changes to rigs and modules with the goal of reducing speed in general. What's not clear is whether this will address the two actual problems defined above. In my opinion, any solution to the nano-fit issue must introduce a viable counter-maneuver or counter-tactic and must solve both the web problem and the speed issue. One potential solution could be to introduce long range webs with reduced strength and to introduce an optional agility script for webs. The script would increase the enemy's agility significantly, making him slow down a lot faster.
This would allow normal ships to web a nano ship effectively at the same range that the nano ships can use their warp disruptors. The nano ship would slow down much faster but because of the reduced strength of long range webs, several of them would be required to actually stop the nano ship before they could escape. This solution doesn't render the nano-fit worthless but provides a possible counter-maneuver in the form of using multiple long-range webifiers with agility scripts. The speed issue would have to be solved with separate balance changes with a goal of reducing the effect of speed modules on larger ships without affecting frigates and interceptors.
It's clear that CCP wants the nano craze to come to an end. I'm very interested in seeing how exactly they'll achieve that goal and how players will adapt to the changes. With my many years of experience in EVE, I can comfortably say that the players will come up with another flavour of the month setup. The great "flavour of the month nerf" play will start all over again with a new set of actors and we'll have something new to debate about on the forums.