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 Tetrischampion, 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 10×20 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.
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 9×4 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
|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.
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.
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.
Once you’ve begun learning to play flat and make fast decisions, you can add some basic strategies to your gameplay.
Play at faster speeds
While playing at the lowest speed and ramping up is a great way to get comfortable with the game, things fall apart quickly when the game gets faster than your comfort zone. Neubauer has one recommendation for getting comfortable with the game’s evolving speed: Play fast all the time.
You don’t need to start playing at the fastest speed possible, but we recommend playing at speeds that feels challenging from the start. In games like Puyo Puyo Tetris, the max starting speed is 15 in Marathon mode, so try starting at 5-7 as your regular starting speed. As this gets easier, crank up the speed. In Tetris Effect, you can also start off at 15 speed in Marathon. You can also try Journey mode on Expert once you’ve cleared it on Beginner and Normal.
Delayed auto shift
When high speeds become normal, you may notice increased difficulty with getting pieces to the far left and right side of the play field. To combat this, you need to know about delayed auto shift or DAS. In short, the maximum speed at which a piece will move to the left or right is slightly delayed. At higher speeds, it becomes difficult to get pieces to the far edges — but it’s not impossible.
If you buffer your direction before the piece enters the play field, you’ll be able to get it where you need it to go. To do that, hold down the direction you need the moment the last piece that you dropped is set. If you hold a direction before the next piece is appears, it’ll automatically move in that direction at max speed.
You can better time buffering by locking in pieces when you’re playing very fast. At the highest speeds, you won’t even need to soft or hard drop because pieces will fall into place so quickly. However, Neubauer recommends using a hard drop at the last second to lock a piece in, then immediately buffer the input for the next piece to combat DAS. You won’t need to worry about this as a beginner, but as you become better, it’ll be a good habit to form.
Look at the queue and the colors
Another way to counteract DAS is to look at the next queue and learn the standard colors for each tetromino.
In all versions of Tetris, you’ll see at least the next piece coming up in the queue. As you’re setting a piece down, you should already be peeking at the next piece from the corner of your eye — and making a decision about where it needs to go next. Doing so will help you get better at circumventing the DAS, as well as help you get better at making fast decisions.
Some versions of Tetris even allow you to increase the number of pieces shown in the next queue. Eventually, you’ll be able to plan a few steps ahead, but don’t worry about that for now.
Knowing all the tetrominoes colors by heart also lets you identify what’s coming next. They are as follows:
In Tetris Effect, all the stages have their own shapes and designs that remove all of the tetrominoes original colors. However, you can revert to the original colors.
Here’s one more tip to help you get better at playing flat: We already mentioned trying to avoid building mounds more than two spaces high, but you can apply the same rule horizontally.
Make sure you have multiple gaps at least two spaces across to accommodate O-, S-, and Z-shaped pieces. If you notice that you’re making a lot of garbage, or empty spaces that screw up rows, it’s likely because of poorly placed O-, S-, and Z-shaped pieces.
Practice a lot
We realize that, even at a base level, there are a lot of things to keep in mind from the start. Even with dedicated practice, it will take some time for these ideas to become second nature. In time, you’ll discover unique setups and your own tricks to combat sticky situations.
If you have any questions, leave them in the comments. We’ll answer them the best we can or offer up answers in our upcoming guide.