When playing someone unknown, you should quickly gather information about his defense to build an offensive strategy. In this post, I cover how to do this through off-goals, offensive progression, and in-game experimentation.
First, get a feel for your opponent’s defense by making generalizations based on appearance, such as:
- How does he hold the mallet? If he uses a claw-grip, then he probably plays defense like a beginner. Start by attacking him with straights.
- What is his stance like? Are his shoulders rolled too far forward? If so, expect him to be aggressive. Attack him with accurate unders.
- Is his mallet against or away from the goal? If the defense looks capable, you should approach him differently and progress through your attacks from least to most difficult.
How does he deal with off-goals?
If you are unsure of your opponent, start with an off-goal(s). This allows you to see how your opponent reacts without wasting an on-goal shot. If the defense retreats, follow it up with a straight shot. Why? Because straights destroy back-rail defenses!
Establish under-banks, early and often
Regardless of who you are playing, unknown or known, generally begin by shooting unders. This doesn’t mean that your first shot, or second shot is an under; it means that you will start the match by shooting a higher percentages of unders overall because you want to establish unders to make sure that your complimentary straights are open later.
Offensive progression, have a plan
Once you have have sized up the opponent, with a few off-goals and unders, see what shots are open. Ideally you want to score with your easiest shots, again and again. For instance, you would rather score with medium-speed cuts than full-speed left-wall-over pot shots.
Next, go through a rote series of shots to see if any “gimmes” are there for the taking. You should usually progress through your offense something like this:
1) Cut shot from left-of-center (LoC)
2) Cross from right-of-center (RoC)
3) Right-wall-under from RoC
4) Left-wall-under from LoC
These are by far the easiest shots for most players (and me) to execute. If the defense isn’t capable of blocking these shots, you are going to score easily. And unless your opponent has an equal or better offense, you should win.
All air hockey is an experiment
However, if these shots are not scoring, you can experiment to find out what works. You can’t try everything in a match, but again, you should continue a pattern of trying different things that is something like:
5) Cuts from RoC
6) Crosses from LoC
7) Over-the-mallet banks
8) Time delays
9) Pot shots
10) Pump fakes
11) Alternate tempos
12) Different drifts
13) Right-wall-unders from LoC
14) Left-wall-unders from RoC
16) Off-speeds, etc.
This progression is fluid because along the way you should be looking for different combinations of what works and basing your next play off of that. For instance, if you try an exaggerated time-delayed right-wall-under from RoC and the defense freezes, but the angle needs to be more acute to score, next try it from LoC for the better angle. Or if you discover that the defense is disciplined, you might skip to more advanced shots. As you continue to experiment, look for a minimum of 2-3 complimentary shots to score with.
Below are diagrams of complimentary shots; there are many more complimentary groupings, but these are some of the most common and useful:
Since matches are relatively short, you have to quickly figure out what is working, or use in-game situations that are not as meaningful to experiment. For example, if I am winning the first game 6-2, but still do not understand the defense, I will spend a couple points breaking the code. Likewise, if I lost the first game 7-2 and am having a difficult time scoring, I might devote/sacrifice the second game to discovering what works. If you’re able to find a couple of effective shots, it could be enough to win the match, even if down 2-0.
Against skilled defenses, you will routinely adjust to score by going through a series of offensive progressions and experiments. This is one of the things that I love most about air hockey: There is always room to improve your strategy, and when both players are doing this, it becomes a battle of wits!