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If you ask the average bittervet what ship to use for exploration, you’ll probably get an answer like “T3 is the best, using anything else is a waste of time” or “T1 frig is good enough, anything else is a waste of ISK.”
What I’ve learned through experience is that pretty much every option has value; it’s most important that you choose the right ship for your skills, budget, and experience. It should be noted that while some ships cost a lot more, they’re also much more likely to facilitate your safe travel. If you’re routinely moving 100 million to 1 billion ISK in your cargo bay, spending an extra 20, 80, or 200 million is actually investing in your long-term fiscal health. Plus, you know… expensive ships are sexy.
Now let’s examine the pros and cons of each option.
T1 Frigates: Heron, Imicus, Magnate, Probe
Each race has a starter-level scanning ship with racial frigate bonuses to probing. For a completely new player (under 1.5 million skill points), these will be the only real option. But that doesn’t mean they’re a bad choice. They’re also perfect for older pilots who are just getting into exploration.
While there are some minor differences between each hull, you’re better off choosing between them based on your long-term goals. If you intend to fly a Manticore or Buzzard later on, you might as well start training Caldari frigates now and pick up a Heron. If you think you’ll be upgrading to Sisters of EVE ships soon, an Imicus or Magnate will be a great start.
T1 frigates have a very low skill floor, and will be somewhat capable with under 3 days’ training. They have just enough CPU to handle expanded probe launchers, allowing you to find hidden salvage or evade/scare off potential killers. They’ve got nearly cruiser-sized cargo holds, allowing you to haul back extra loot or carry mobile depots/siphon units if desired. Best of all, these little frigs are cheap as dirt, running less than half a million ISK each – something you’ll make back in under 3 minutes of exploration. You can easily fly these puppies with the assurance that they’re 100% disposable.
On the other end of things, T1 frigates have low skill caps and require longer training for high efficiency. Their maximum scan strength bonus is only +37.5%, and that requires training your racial frigate skill to V, which is time-consuming for newbies or players who don’t typically fly frigates. They also grant relatively weak bonuses to relic/data virus strength.
Structurally, these little toasters can’t fit covert ops cloaking devices, making infiltration and exfiltration (yes, that’s a word) difficult in well-guarded areas of lowsec/nulsec. They are also extremely fragile, making them easy targets for pirates and wholly incapable of running combat sites they scan down.
Ultimately, T1 frigates are best for learning the basics of exploration with minimal ISK and SP necessary. Once you’ve gotten the money and time put in, you should upgrade to an Astero or T2 ship. These options will offer you more flexibility, faster scanning, and the all-important covert ops cloak.
T2 Frigates: Anathema, Buzzard, Cheetah, Helios
As with T1, each race has a T2 ship specifically labeled covert ops that’s designed with advanced exploration and scouting in mind. These ships are a natural progression for players who have skilled up from flying their T1 counterparts, or players who have previously flown stealth bombers (since they share requirements and trait bonuses).
Covert ops ships have the highest efficiency ceiling in EVE Online, with a maximum scan bonus of +50%, not to mention solid bonuses to probe flight and virus strength. They can easily equip expanded probe launchers and covert cynosural field modules, giving the pilot access to all manner of sneaky space bullshit. They are relatively affordable, costing just 15 to 25 million ISK each… what you’ll pull in just one nullsec relic site. And if the name didn’t give it away, you can equip a covert ops cloaking device. Paired with an insanely high warp speed, you’ll be able to navigate New Eden with 90% impunity.
If you want to fly a T2, you will need a lot of annoying skills trained, including racial frigs and electronics upgrades (a nearly useless stat outside of covops) to V and Cloaking to IV. And if you want to outclass T1 or faction scan bonuses, you will also need your actual Covert Ops skill to at least IV. This is weeks of training for anyone who hasn’t previously started along covops/stealth bomber training.
T2 frigates have half the cargo space of their T1 counterparts, making them significantly less suited to extended deployment, drone/ninja salvaging, or structure deployment. They did however inherit their li’l sisters’ paper-thin structures, excluding them from most PvP or PvE.
Covert ops frigates are great for established explorers or bomber pilots who want to safely run data/relic sites or perform fleet scouting/intel, but don’t care about combat or salvaging. And if you haven’t piloted a bomber yet, these ships will set you up for an easy cross-train. Overall, they deliver the highest return per ISK spent, a major plus for EVE’s min/maxers.
Sisters of EVE faction ships: Astero, Stratios
With 2013’s Rubicon expansion, CCP Games added three Sisters of EVE “pirate” ships specifically built for long-rang exploration. The Astero frigate, the Stratios Cruiser, and the Nestor battleship. These hulls all grant substantial bonuses to scanning and hacking, though I’ve excluded the Nestor because if you’re rich and experienced enough to spend 1.5 billion ISK on such a toy, you probably don’t need this guide.
Shared SOE Pros and Cons
The Astero and the Stratios share extremely low skill requirements and a strong baseline efficacy. As long as you can pilot either, you’ll get the full +37.5% bonus to scanning, which would require racial frigates V for T1 ships or covert ops IV for T2. Each ship can fit a covert ops cloak for stealthy shenanigans, not to mention insane agility to align on a dime. And they’ve both got massive drone capacity and bandwidth, making them powerful for class-appropriate PvE or PvP, not to mention salvaging operations.
On the downside, they’re both expensive as fuck. As of this writing, the Astero will run you 70-90 million ISK, the Stratios 275-300 million. You will need a good bankroll and high confidence in your wits to justify flying them into dangerous space. And while their skill requirements are relatively low, training is split between Gallente and Amarr skills, potentially doubling your mastery time.
If you’re trying to choose between the Astero and the Stratios, almost all their differences are related to size. Since the Stratios is a cruiser, it has more cargo room, fitting slots, and drone projection than the Astero. The Stratios can also easily equip an expanded probe launcher while such a fitting would stretch the Astero’s capabilities. This means the Stratios is, overall, a more flexible ship, capable of staying out in nullsec longer and engaging a wider variety of content more easily. But it’s not an easy choice by any means. The Astero is still faster, cheaper, and easier to train than its bulkier sister. It can warp nearly instantly without the need for pre-alignment, a welcome blessing when you’ve got a billion in cargo.
I would recommend SOE faction ships to three groups of people. The first is players with a lot of ISK, but not enough SP to fly T2 or T3 ships. The second is players who are looking to embark on extended exploration roams (40+ jumps) into unsafe space. Finally, the Astero/Stratios are strong choices for players who want to engage in some form of salvage or combat while exploring.
T3 (Strategic) Cruisers: Legion, Loki, Proteus, Tengu
At the tippy-top of the tech tree lies each race’s strategic cruiser. Since these ships are modular by design, it should come as no surprise they can be powerful exploration vessels when built with the right subsystems. In essence, they can be pretty much anything you want them to be… except for perhaps inexpensive.
As some of the most advanced tech in EVE, T3 cruisers have an awful lot of pros. With emergent locus analyzers, they tie covops ships in scan power and virus strength. Covert reconfiguration subsystems will enable – you guessed it – covert ops cloaking devices and a paltry 5-second cloak deactivation timer. On the propulsion side, you can choose a gravitational capacitor for faster warping, or the ridiculously powerful ability to simply shrug off warp bubbles with the interdiction nullifier system. If all these plusses weren’t enough, consider the fact that you could trade any of these capacities for improved combat or salvage.
So, is there any reason not to pick a strategic cruiser for your exploration adventures? Well, the most obvious would be the huge skill requirements both for minimal operation and maximal efficiency. From scratch, you’d need 8 to 10 weeks just to fly a T3 ship, and once you’re in the cockpit you’ll need to train your subsystem skills to IV or V to gain bonuses equal to or greater than those available to T1, T2, or SOE hulls. That is a lot of training, training that will come at the expense of other vital exploration skills if you haven’t already gotten them to where they need to be.
Strategic cruisers are also pretty hefty in the ISK department, running 100+ million for the hull alone, then several tens of millions for all the subsystems. And then you have to fit the goddamn thing. The end result will probably rival a Stratios in cost, though a Stratios doesn’t require 20 weeks of training for maximum exploration efficiency. Oh yeah, and if you happen to die in a T3 cruiser, you won’t just lose your ship. You’ll also lose skill points: one level of a randomly selected subsystem train. Mind you, something like a Tengu is not easy to catch and kill, but you should be prepared for massive losses if you happen to slip up.
Strategic cruisers are incredibly powerful, but also represent a huge financial and temporal investment. They should only be used by players who are very experienced in both exploration and general gameplay. Players who are new to either T3 ships or deep space scanning are likely to end up dead.
Other ship considerations
Outside of the most obvious picks listed above, there exist a few niche hulls you may consider for your exploration career. It would be way too time-consuming to cover each one individually, so I’ll just cover two important schools of thought.
One reason you may go with another ship for exploration is that you’d like exploration to be secondary to another activity. Perhaps you’re a miner looking for gas sites to ninja-vacuum. Or you’re a ganker who wants to hunt down wardec alliance targets. For purposes like these, you will generally be fitting a probe launcher (most like a core probe launcher) and possibly not even a cloak. That’s absolutely fine, just remember that your probe scanning will be painful if you don’t have scan rigs, faction modules, high-level skills, implants, or any combination thereof.
Another reason you might pick a niche ship is simply because you want to be a friggin’ weirdo. You’d like to fly around in a wholly impractical or needlessly expensive, limited vessel because why not? I certainly can’t stop you from such a pursuit, so here are some ways to throw ISK away:
- Nestor: This beautiful battleship is worse at exploring than its frigate counterpart
- Gnosis: A Jovian ship that’s good at scanning and fighting, and attracting gankers
- Echelon: Really good at hacking data sites, but not finding or navigating to them!
- Zephyr: It’s immune to Wormhole sleepers, though not to Wormhole capsuleers
Ultimately, the ship you choose will not be the primary factor in exploration success. Your skills (both in-game and real life experience) are much more important to the actual nuts and bolts of making ISK. With that said and the guidelines provided here, it should be easy to choose your first adventuring vessel.
(Just admit you picked a Nestor, you greedy bastard).
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