This entry is part 8 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth

 

These days, the positive effects of nostalgia seem to be at an all time high. TV shows that we watched as children are receiving big budget movie franchises, Netflix exclusive series, and massive merchandising deals. For some reason, awesome properties from the 80s and 90s went out of style. Then some hack in a board room decides it’s time for us to love it again. Maybe the hack is a crowdfunding campaign, but that’s not the point. Old stuff is cool. But you know what’s cooler than old stuff? Stuff that’s so cool… it never went away. That’s a lot of setup for a title pun about Sesame Street.

 

Today I’m talking about shuffling techniques and how you can improve your Magic experience through better shuffling. Now, if you play “in the real” shuffling is a chore and it eats up a lot of time. It can even affect your win percentage if you don’t do it well/enough. It leads to mana screw and cheaters in equal measure. If you play online all the time, like your old Grandpa, you’ve probably forgotten just how much of a pain shuffling can be. In fact, I might have forgotten how to shuffle at all. Conceptually, I remember, but having not done it in a year or two, I can’t know for sure that the old ways still work. Arthritis might have finally gotten to me.

 

Purpose

Shuffling is the process of randomizing our deck before play. We do this not just because it says to in the rules, but also because it’s big part of the variance that keeps Magic interesting and exciting time after time. The Any Given Sunday effect is hard at work in Magic and you can actually see it on Sundays at the Pro Tour and/or your kitchen table… except without all the Pacino.

 

I want to get a good shuffle before every game because I have incredible hubris. I think the randomness actually favors me. Not in some weird cosmic way; the universe isn’t slanting the odds in my favor. In the pure mathematical sense the odds happen to be in my favor because I spend day-in and day-out designing, testing, and tuning my decks into well-oiled machines. I want a nice random draw because I’ve put in the work up front so that, on average, my deck outperforms the competition.

 

Good designs will beat randomness over the long term. Last year I spent months examining how to make a good deck design. I put up tens of thousands of words about it, so if you’re struggling there, read “Decksplanations.”  A completely randomized deck keeps the game interesting, stops counters cheaters, and lets the better deck win more often. Got it.

 

Process

But Grandpa, how do we dooo it? There are some different methods. Let’s compare by evaluating them on a couple of different criteria in no particular a completely random order:

 

  • Entropy – A shuffle method should result in an absolutely random order that qualifies as “sufficiently randomized” under Magic’s Comprehensive Rules. It’s okay if you repeat a method or combine it with other methods, but the end result of any shuffling process needs to be random. Incidentally, certain shuffling methods, such as only pile shuffling or ending with a pile shuffle, are actually against the rules as Judge Lee McClain explains in this article.

  • Conservation – A shuffle method shouldn’t cause unnecessary damage to your cards, which in many Commander decks can be expensive collectors’ items. You could always shuffle your deck by throwing it against a wall like Uncle Landdrops, but that isn’t going to prevent any damage.

  • EfficiencySome methods are less efficient than others. In tournaments, the fastest sufficiently random shuffle is preferable because we want to minimize unintentional draws. In a casual setting the stakes are lower, but we still want to pack in as many games as we can and be respectful of other people’s time. That last bit is of key importance given how many times we’ll shuffle throughout a game of Commander.

  • Integrity – The chances of and consequences of errors can be important too. We don’t want to accidentally drop cards on the floor, reveal cards to our opponents (or ourselves), or get lost in procedure and have to start over. It’s smart to choose a method that doesn’t introduce errors, interrupt the process, reveal anything, or potentially damage cards. Face-down shuffles over the table are safest. If we’re performing Shin Lim-style feats of dexterity just to get our decks shuffled, we’re probably overdoing it. In short, the method should be simple and repeatable, without much mental or physical effort/precision required.

 

I also want to point you to two academic resources on the subject. This Numberphile video with mathematician Persi Diaconis explains the mathematics of shuffling and visually explains all the different methods. It’s a powerful reference if you aren’t familiar with all these techniques and I’ll be referencing it directly, so it’s required reading. The second reference is this Wikipedia article that goes into detail about the math and covers some shuffling methods we won’t be discussing here. WIthout further ado, let’s talk shuffles. This time in some subjective order.

 

Shmushing: This is the shuffling method of choice for Vegas casinos. They’re pretty serious about getting a randomized deck, and with good reason. This method produces very high entropy in a reasonable time frame. It takes about twice as long as riffling to get a sufficiently random arrangement, but it has important properties that make it superior. First, the cards are always face down. No one can ever see the identity of any individual card and, done properly, it’s impossible to track any single card’s location. Next, the cards don’t need to be taken off the table and manipulated in the hands during shuffling, so they’re unlikely to be dropped, either on the floor or table, so they won’t turn face up very often by accident.

 

A careful person, moving at a reasonable pace, can shuffle a deck this way in less than two minutes with essentially zero errors that compromise the integrity of the process or the conservation of your cards. This is a relatively quick time frame compared to pile shuffling or mashing for the same level of entropy, so this method ranks high in efficiency. There’s also very little damage to the cards–no bending, warping, or dropping. It isn’t any more difficult to execute using sleeves either, which really helps protect cards and prevent marking.

 

This sounds like the optimal method. It’s backed by math and professional practitioners, results in little-to-no damage, and takes only a short time. Why don’t more people do it then? There’s one big drawback: Magic cards don’t have rotational symmetry. They have text on them that’s most easily read rightside-up. This isn’t a problem for regular playing cards because they have numbers on both corners; one is always face up. I absolutely cannot stand having my cards appear in my hand upside-down. Reorienting cards once they are drawn is incredibly irritating for most players, so we prefer to use other methods of shuffling that don’t produce any upside-down cards.

 

Riffling: Riffle shuffles are very quick once you get some practice. Shuffling a Commander deck can be a little unwieldy until you get you hang of it, but most players quickly learn to work with smaller groups of cards and then recombine them later before making a cut and then repeating the process. Reaching the magical 7-9 repetition mark using that method, takes me about ninety seconds. So in terms of efficiency and entropy we’ve created an equivalent to shmushing. Riffling scores pretty high on integrity as well. If you perform all actions over the table and make all your cuts and shuffles with the cards facing down at all times, you can’t glean any information from the process. With practice, dropping cards and getting them jammed up will happen less frequently, but these errors have few consequences because they don’t reveal anything, do any extra damage to your cards, or cause you have to start all over again.

 

The only drawback to riffle shuffling is conservation. It’s best to shuffle only the corners and to use a light touch, but on some level you’re going to have to bend the cards to shuffle this way. That being said, this is the method that recommend for tournament play because it is universally accepted as random, won’t result in any unintended rules infractions, and it’s very quick to perform.

 

Mashing: Producing a high entropy shuffle using mashing takes much much longer than shmushing or riffling unless you are Tomoharu Saito. Although he’s infamous for his multiple disqualifications and suspensions, none are related to his awesome shuffling. It isn’t impossible to get a good shuffle like this; you just have to be willing to take the five or so minutes required, every single time. I wouldn’t call that efficient, but it isn’t unreasonable if you insist on a method that scores high on conservation. Mashing cards can be tough on sleeves, but doesn’t bend or warp the cards. A new pack of Ultra-Pros is a lot cheaper than a new Mana Crypt.

 

Unfortunately, mashing isn’t just slow. It’s also easy to compromise. The way most players do this is to lift the cards off the table, usually showing at least a couple cards in the process. You’ll see some tournament players try to counteract this by deliberately looking away or straight up while shuffling. You might not cheat, but you’re definitely opening the door for others to do so, so I wouldn’t recommend shuffling this way for tournaments. However, it’s my preferred method for casual Commander games. Normally, when I play Commander in paper, I’m among friends and working at a leisurely pace. I don’t worry that someone is cheating and I would much rather protect my rare and valuable cards then play an extra game during the session.

 

Pile Shuffling: As I mentioned above, pile shuffling doesn’t qualify as shuffling under the rules, but I want to make a point of discussing it because it’s used so commonly by players. Simply put, pile shuffling doesn’t change the order and location of very many cards, so it requires many more iterations to actually achieve a sufficiently random shuffle. In fact, the entropy is so low, that you would need to do it thousands of times for it to be a legal shuffle. By that time all of your friends will have gone home. It also takes longer to execute per shuffle, usually between fifteen and thirty seconds. That’s a lengthy interval when you need to repeat it ten thousand times. Only piling shuffling is against the rules specifically because it’s the absolute rock bottom in terms of entropy and efficiency. Finishing your shuffling routine with a pile shuffle is illegal because you’re taking an otherwise random assortment and introducing some deterministic order. Pile shuffling compares favorably on the other criteria, presenting minimal opportunities for damage or revealed cards, but that is of minimal importance when faced with the accusation that it doesn’t actually accomplish the purpose of shuffling.

 

Pile shuffling does have one important purpose it can serve though: it makes it very easy to count cards after a game. Players often shuffle tokens into their decks or forget about an Oblivion Ring that was laying on top of one of their permanents. These things can easily end up in the wrong stack of cards at the end of the game and counting your cards is quick and simple way to ensure that you have everything that you started with and nothing else. Pile shuffling lets you count cards while also keeping track of the count in a physical way so you don’t lose your concentration if you’re interrupted. You can walk away mid-count, and then return and finish the process and be confident of your answer at the end despite any irregularities.

 

Presentation

Under the rules, when you’ve completed your shuffling process and your deck is randomized, you must present it to your opponent for inspection. They don’t literally inspect it–most often people just make a single cut. In more competitive settings, your opponent will shuffle your deck themselves before handing it back to you. You should do the same in return. The point of this is to ensure, beyond all doubt, that both decks are in a random order and that neither player is introducing a systematic bias. Less than random shuffling on purpose is cheating. Less than random shuffling on a consistent basis is at least a bad habit and needs to be corrected somehow, but in either case proper presentation of your deck to your opponent will reorder the deck and undo any crafty card counting taking place.

 

In casual play, we tend to shorten this step, if not skip it entirely. It’s important for the integrity of the game, though, and should be observed properly. At the very least, it’s part of the rules and we should all play by the rules. There is, however, a considerable social component to presentation. Some players who are uncomfortable with the strictures of a tournament setting can get hung up on certain aspects of this process and, before I finish, I want to address some issues I’ve seen at the table:

 

  1. You have to do it. You can’t refuse to present your deck to your opponent. You can’t explain how great your shuffling is and convince them that the presentation is unnecessary. It’s in the rules. Follow the rules.

  2. It doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong! You aren’t admitting that you cheated by asking your opponent to shuffle your deck. You aren’t asking for help or admitting that you can’t do it properly yourself. It has nothing to do with that.

  3. Just as if your were shuffling your own deck, be thorough, but respect other people’s time. Shuffling your deck once and their deck eleven times might not change anything about the way a game plays out, but it’s still a bit of a social faux pas. In the spirit of fairness, use an equal approach to shuffling.

  4. You can’t dictate how they shuffle your cards. Again, it’s just against the rules to ask your opponent to only shuffle once or to only pile shuffle. In reality, you shouldn’t be making any stipulations about the process they use to randomize your deck.

  5. Be respectful at all times. Don’t do anything to their deck that you wouldn’t do to your own. We all know someone who is a little too sensitive about how his cards are shuffled, but I will become that guy in a hot minute if I see somebody put a bend in a Force of Will. Gingerly handling valuable assets is not a reason to shuffle poorly. I’ve already outlined ways to shuffle that don’t damage cards. Learning to shuffle a couple of different ways will help you get along with everyone.

 

Can you do the shuffle dance? Make sure you send us a video of you trying to do it and be sure to share your thoughts on the article in the comments below, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and be sure to support Commandercast.com on Patreon.

 

-GG

“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.

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