Over the weekend, Nintendo held its first competitive tournament for the surprise battle royale hit Tetris 99. The Tetris 99 Maximus Cup ran from March 8th until March 10th, and participants were tasked with playing — and winning — as many games as possible over that short span. Points were awarded only for first-place wins, but there’s no singular winner for the event. Instead, 999 winners will each get 999 My Nintendo Gold Points, which is equivalent to $10.
I have a group of friends who are all playing Tetris 99. We pile into a Discord server and ignore each other while we’re wrapped up in the intense moments of battle. Among the group, I’m the top player. Unfortunately, this has given me a false sense of confidence and the thought that I could actually land somewhere in the top 999 Tetris 99 players in the world. And so, I spent my weekend doing little other than playing Tetris 99.
But unlike everyone else vying for those Nintendo points, I had the help of a champion as my guide.
Prior to Tetris 99, I played Tetris casually; I pulled out the classic version on my phone or Puyo Puyo Tetris on the Switch to kill time. Those aren’t exactly the qualifications of a tournament winner. So to give me an edge up heading into the Tetris 99 Maximus cup, I asked seven-time Classic Tetris World Championship player Jonas Neubauer to coach me in brick-dropping.
Neubauer won the Classic Tetris World Championship from 2010 to 2013, and then from 2015 to 2017. (He was unseated as champion by Harry Hong in 2014 and teenage Tetris player Joseph Saelee in 2018.) That event is played on the 1989 version of Tetris, using the NES and CRT TVs. Neubauer told me it’s a very different game than Tetris 99, despite the similar looks. While you can — and many do — play Tetris 99 without any of the extra doo-dads that give the game its battle royale elements, that typically won’t get you lots of wins. Certainly not enough to be within the top 999 Tetris 99 players in the world.
“You can absolutely play your own game and just keep very safe and low,” Neubauer says. “[But] it’s about strategy to go deep in the game if you’re tired of being knocked out in the first 20 [players].”
Before talking to Neubauer, I’d racked up around 50 hours playing Tetris 99. During that time, I won… a total of two games. As you can see, my confidence in my place in the top 999 was slightly unfounded. But I can typically make it to the top 10 in most games by employing two different strategies: slipping under the radar by not attacking anyone and doing anything to keep my stack low. As it turns out, both strategies are bad.
Keeping your stack low by constantly clearing single or double lines means that you’re never throwing a ton of garbage — the gray stuff that’s added to the screen — at other players. It’s too easy for other players to get rid of individual lines of garbage, so you’ll never be able to really knock out other players, which is how you get badges. Badges are a sign of prowess in Tetris 99, awarded to players for knocking out others. The more badges you have, the more garbage you send to other players. “Badges amplify the damage you send,” Neubauer says. “If you have four badges, you send eight lines of garbage [for a Tetris], which is the equivalent of two Tetrises.”
Badges work defensively by helping to mitigate the garbage sent to you by other players. That’s why it’s so important in the end game: you need to make sure you can defend against players aggressively attacking you.
Neubauer says that it’s critical to focus on knocking other people out while consistently amassing badges. To do that, you’ve got to be tricky. “The strategy I employ most is pretending like you’re in trouble by building super high and having a couple of Tetrises cued up,” he said. When your screen goes red, it tells the system that you’re near a knockout, which is one of Tetris’ four attack modes. (The others are random, attackers, and badges.) That’ll send a lot of attackers your way. “Then you target the attackers,” Neubauer said. “If 10 people are attacking you, and you target attackers, you can send garbage to 10 people simultaneously. You become this insane supernova of attacks.” He laughs, adding: “If you’ve ever seen your screen fill up with yellow fireworks of action, you may have accidentally stumbled on our strategy.”
Unfortunately, employing this strategy is a risk for players who panic — like me. But it is a strategy that works, especially in the early game. Neubauer also says that Tetris 99 doesn’t have as brutal of RNG (random number generation) as classic Tetris; you can be sure that you’re going to get certain bricks at consistent intervals. “There’s not this incredible drought of lines,” he says. “It’s a favorable and standardized piece generator.”
But you won’t always be able to get straight-up Tetrises with the four-piece line brick. You will make mistakes. I sure did. Neubauer says that one way to feel comfortable fixing mistakes is learning how to T-spin. And once you’ve learned that, you can even set up builds that look like mistakes to send extra damage to your opponents. (A T-spin is when you use the purple T-piece and maneuver it into a spot that’s otherwise inaccessible. You can spin other pieces, too, but only T-spins give extra damage to other players.)
The best way to learn how to T-spin is to watch others. “I’ve learned my T-spin just by watching great modern Tetris players and emulating their stacks,” Neubauer says. He adds that playing a different Tetris game, like Puyo Puyo Tetris in marathon mode, will help you practice without the pressure of being knocked out by an enemy.
Of course, I didn’t have time to play any other Tetris beyond Tetris 99 during the event, so I T-spin practiced my way to a ton of my own early knockouts. Visualizing how to set up a T-spin doesn’t feel as natural as aligning blocks for a straight Tetris, and I struggled. I found that instead of intentionally setting up T-spins, the way I was able to use the practice during the event was to fill accidental holes whenever they happened.
I’d been feeling pretty confident throughout the entire weekend. I had six wins over around 15 hours and a Tetris champion as a coach. On Sunday, I realized this feeling was based, largely, on ignorance. Part of the Tetris 99 Maximus Cup experience is that there’s no leaderboard, no way to tell if you’re winning. The only information telegraphed to the player is how many wins they have.
While there are no official ways to keep up with the competition, some players are broadcasting their tournament runs on Twitch or other social media. I decided to check Twitch on Sunday to see if other players were streaming Tetris 99. (And as Neubauer suggested, I also wanted to watch their T-spin setups.) Plenty were, and many players had not only double my total, but triple. The highest I saw was 79 wins during the event, hours before the endpoint. It was shocking to find out that I’m not actually that great at Tetris 99. Despite falling asleep before the 3AM end time, I continued playing into the night, without any more wins to show for it.
Given the numbers stacked up by my foes, there’s no real chance that I’ve actually made it into the top 999. Unfortunately, I won’t know for certain for a while. In Nintendo’s official rules for the event, the company said it won’t be until March 24th when winners are notified. The lack of a leaderboard and community integration is what I both loved and hated about the Tetris 99 Maximus Cup. Not knowing where I stood in the competition kept me playing when I thought I was doing great, but it also meant the event lacked the community feel that makes grassroots e-sports tournaments so engaging. If you wanted to engage in the event with others, you’ve got to seek it out yourself.
Nintendo hasn’t said if there will be more Tetris 99 events like this, but the wording of the announcement does suggest that this won’t be the last. The company called the event the “first.” So, for me, it’s onto the next one. Surely, by then, I’ll be a champion.