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Tetris tips from a seven-time world champion

February 23, 2019

 

 

Tetris has epitomized the “easy to learn difficult to master” design principle for over 30 years.

 

Whether you first started playing the game on your IBM PC in 1987, 2018’s dazzling Tetris Effect, or the battle royale-esque Tetris 99 you’ve likely spent hours trying to master how to get all of the game’s blocks, or tetrominoes, in place. Unless you’re a Tetris champion, this journey has probably been a difficult one for you.

 

We spoke with Jonas Neubauer, seven-time winner of the Classic Tetris World Championship, to help you get your skills in order. The key to mastering any version of Tetris lies in a few areas: creating foundational knowledge for how Tetris works, learning the basic strategy behind good Tetris play, and practicing advanced strategies to become better.

 

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with these factors, you’ll need to practice, practice, practice. But before you get started, it’s time to set up your foundations.

Tetris foundations: What you need to know first

The Tetris playing field is a 10x20 grid. Your goal is to continually stack tetrominoes and clear lines as long as you can. To do that, you need to fill an entire line horizontally with blocks, causing those lines to disappear and giving you more space to stack.

 

If you run out of space and can no longer place any more tetrominoes, you top out and the game is over.

 

To play longer and get higher scores, you need to creatively stack your blocks and remove as many lines as possible with each piece you lay down. To better understand how to do that, it helps to know the game’s basic mechanics.

 

When a line is filled with blocks, all those lines clear.

 

The order in which you receive blocks is completely random. It makes the game infinitely replayable because the order radically changes what you can do next. Also the better you play, the faster the blocks drop.

 

You can also manually drop your blocks faster, regardless of the game’s speed. Pressing down allows you to soft drop, which speeds up the current pace of your falling tetromino. Pressing up results in a hard drop, which instantly places the piece below its current position. You not only gain more points for clearing lines at higher speeds, but you can also get more points by using the soft and hard drops.

 

The first strategy to learn is how to score a Tetris, which happens when you clear four lines at once. To do that, you need a completely filled in 9x4 area of space with one column empty. Then, you will need to place the I-shaped piece — the only piece that is four blocks high — into that empty space. Scoring a Tetris should be one of your primary goals because it results in the highest amount of points. However, if you’re playing a competitive version of the game, like Tetris 99, then your goal should be sending the most amount of garbage lines to your opponent by clearing your own lines quickly.

Most versions of Tetris after 2006’s Tetris DS use a similar scoring chart, however other versions of Tetris vary.

Tetris scoring chart

Lines cleared        Points

1 line clear            100 points x level

2 line clear            300 points x level

3 line clear            500 points x level

Tetris                     800 points x level

 

If you’ve played Tetris, you know it’s difficult to neatly stack your pieces evenly. That takes practice and familiarity with arranging blocks, but there are some basic guidelines to keep in mind and help make things easier.

Tetris absolute beginner strategies

There are several beginner strategies worth learning to build a strong foundation. If you’re struggling at Tetris, master these skills first.

Playing flat

One of the first strategies that Neubauer suggests is “playing flat.”

 

Playing flat means dropping pieces in a way that will create the flattest top row of pieces. A flat playing field means you have more options to place pieces down. A general rule: Never stack pieces more than two blocks high or create a hole more than two blocks deep.

 

It’s impossible to fill in a hole three or more deep with anything other than an I-shaped piece. Stacking blocks with a height of three or more also increases the difficulty of flattening out.

 

Playing flat gives you unlimited options.

 

Try playing a few games with this idea in mind. It’ll take some getting used to, but you’ll eventually understand how playing flat makes the game easier to manage.

Build mounds in the center

No matter how well you play, you’ll eventually create a mound higher than two blocks. If you can help it, Neubauer recommends trying to bias your mounds to the center of the playing field in most versions of Tetris. However, if you’re playing Tetris on NES as he does, he recommends a bias towards the left side of the screen.

 

In all the modern versions of Tetris, building mounds in the center will give you more opportunities to even out the playing field into something flatter.

Understand the Rotation System

One of the biggest tips for playing better and faster is mastering rotation. You can rotate pieces clockwise or counterclockwise, and each version of Tetris has a slightly different way of handling how that works. Most versions of Tetris will use the Super Rotation System (SRS). While this is the standard, it’s always good to know the other rotation system variations. For instance, the developer of Tetris 99, Arika, created its own rotation system.

 

It’s worth noting how pieces rotate clockwise and counterclockwise. Understanding the differences will help you rotate pieces with the least amount of spins, instead of only spinning it one way.

 

Below is a quick guide for understanding how each piece spawns and how they rotate. Remember that each piece spawns in the center horizontally and that the J, L, and T-shaped pieces start off pointing upward.

 

Make fast decisions

Before you learn more basic strategies there is one final foundational strategy Neubauer recommends keeping in mind: Make decisions fast, even if they aren’t optimal.

 

Worrying about placement and overthinking will break your flow and can lead to bad placement. Regardless of how good you’ll get at the game, you’ll always make mistakes or get pieces that aren’t great. It’s better to just drop a piece as best as you can instantly and build around the result than to overthink where a piece should go.

 

Get comfortable with making fast decisions, which will also make you better at recovering from mistakes.

Hold pieces to score

Before we discuss beginner strategies, Neubauer recommends this habit: Don’t use the hold piece for fixing mistakes. Use it to score.

 

In Tetris, you can save a piece for later and move onto the next available piece. Then you can replace a tetromino with your saved piece at will.

 

Beginners often use the hold piece to take a bad piece out of play and save it for later when it’s more useful because they don’t know where to set it. Instead, if you’re going to hold any piece, hold the I-shaped pieces to complete a Tetris.