I come from a similar situation when it comes to pinball league performance and general improvement, so I guess I’ll throw my story in the ring. I got back into playing (and started playing serious) pinball in June/July 2015 after playing for a bit as a kid. In my first season of the PPL during the fall I placed 51st and got a bye in C division, and now I’m trying to fight for a bye in A division in my second season. Still haven’t cracked through in any major tournaments around here, but I’m definitely not as good as PAPA Jon and the big talent yet .
While I find my pace to be accelerated by having few things that conflict in life, I recognized that certain things helped me push along my pinball skills:
Practice and Principle.
Before we get to Practice, what is Principle? Other than making this an appealing thing to remember, what good does it do? Principle is the way to make good players great, and great players into Bowens and Keiths. Pinball is not just about knowing how to make every shot, but how to make shots that give you the most benefit or payout since balls won’t go on forever.
Bowen mentioned a great starting point: make a basic strategy for each game. Especially in games that involve multiple strategies, having one go-to mindset that you can use will can keep your mind in the game and the DMD, display, or reels spinning up. Once you have a basic strategy on each game, choose the games you’re comfortable with and play around with them some more. Examples include “What if I chose certain modes to start in Star Trek in a different order and what is that ‘Away Team’ deal?” and “What are some good songs in AC/DC and Kiss other than the main ones that people love to play?” . As you start answering these questions, you’ll tweak your strategy to something that fits you and optimizes for the things you can do!
When you’re not at the arcade, clubhouse, bar, or parlor, you can always read up on rules from rulesheets on Tiltforums, PAPA.org, and other places. pinballvideos.com is a great asset by aggregating video tutorials, curating match play footage, and placing it into an easy-to-use format. The PAPA TV and IE Pinball channels contain most of the competitive footage and tutorials as well incase PV hasn’t curated a recent event (like INDISC 2016 or Bowen’s new tutorials). Watch players and their strategies, flipper skills, and mindsets as they navigate games and try to emulate some of them for your own benefit.
A great way to test Principle skills is to step up to a new machine or a new code update and figure out the changes and rework a strategy to fit the game or new version. Having the ability to learn or relearn quickly is an underwritten skill in pinball!
So now you have the Principle, and its time to Practice. This is the part that I’m working on now, and it comes with more and more pin-mileage. Knowing everything about a game will help, but not being able to keep a ball in play undermines all the strategy work . Starting with the games you’re comfortable with or want to learn, practice all of the various shots from the forehand and the backhand. Practice traps and catches, and don’t be afraid to let the ball dead bounce to help that out. Learn judicious nudges to pop the ball away from the side lanes and to help with transfers, dead bounces, and flipper tip saves. Get some time working with a variety of games, and when you’re comfortable a variety of eras. Moderns, early DMD games, and the later 80s games fall under one category, followed by the earlier solid-state games and EM games. Each game has their own set of flipper skills which can be useful and general archetypes (such as spinner-all-day games, bonus-building games, or multiball-all-day games) which can translate into other games.
As you get more comfortable with the mechanical skills, start challenging yourself! Playing one-handed, playing speed and accuracy challenges (How quickly can you start Electric Chair Multiball in Metallica? Can you get the Operator Alert on Game of Thrones by preventing all 3 balls from leaving the lock for 30 seconds at the start of Blackwater Multiball?), and having friends join in this fun will help improve mechanical skills and wire your brain towards pinball instincts.
Pinball is a beautiful marriage of mental and mechanical skills, and practicing both will bring the journey along. Don’t be afraid to ask questions here, anywhere online, or to anyone in your travels! We’re always happy to help to the best of our abilities.