If you just want to get to the part about how to cheat, please raise your left hand and say “I solemnly swear I am up to no good,” and click the matching text below (but only if you promise to come back to understand the context)…
If you haven’t seen this episode of The Magic Show, I am embedding it here for you to watch (thanks good old YouTube!):
First of all I want to say that I really enjoyed this episode of The Magic Show and I don’t want this blog post to in any way be considered an attack on Evan or the Show. In fact, I generally liked his theme this week and can see players really improving their tournament performances by focusing on especially one skill at a time.
My motivation on this is about shuffling and how Evan suggests players shuffle only. I am working under the assumption that Evan is repeating something that someone represented to him as having some basis in mathematics (it doesn’t) and that person just thinks he smarter than he is, and that Evan is good-hearted and has no background in wrongdoing so didn’t realize what he was saying.
Unfortunately I am going to pull back the curtain on this one and it might not be pretty for a lot of you at home.
Let’s start at 2:20; Evan begins with…
One of the facets of this skill that I believe is much overlooked is actually randomizing your deck…
(And here Evan appropriately positions a picture of someone riffle shuffling a deck of regular cards.)
He goes on with an…
If you’re not OCD about it, then GET OCD about it!
My old playtest partner Scott McCord even argued that poor shuffling in playtest games was the number one source of bad playtest data!
I am personally a relentless shuffler and have practiced the mechanics of shuffling for hours, trying to figure out the best way to randomize my deck between rounds. I have done table shuffles, practiced riffling really well, and certainly studied every type of set formula (table) shuffle that cheaters use to set their decks (and see below!) that I have ever heard of. I actually spent several years doing 7-14 sets of pull shuffles in between five- or ten-pile table shuffles in addition to 7-14 riffle shuffles, which fascinated the top end of the Pro Tour.
Zvi Mowshowitz, for example, was very intrigued by my pull shuffle technique that he went on to study it himself back when his hobbies included “Magic and thinking about Magic.”
Pull shuffling, by the way, is very similar “mathematically” to riffle shuffling except 1) it takes about twenty times more time, and 2) a perfectly executed pull shuffle doesn’t actually randomize your deck; rather it simply mixes your deck base-two (like a riffle), albeit in a less predictable way than a perfect table shuffle (but almost equally not random to a table shuffle).
Anyway, Evan goes on to criticize players who don’t shuffle sufficiently between mulligans, which I can get behind.
The troubling bit comes up around 2:47, where Evan suggests:
At least two pile shuffles, if not three, with plenty of side / riffle shuffles to go along with it.
I would point out that even if pile shuffling randomized your deck (it doesn’t), these are not “OCD” numbers… But I’ll waive opinions / definitions this time for facts.
The really bad part is at 2:56, when he suggests in particular 5- or 7- card piles for table shuffling due to some mathematical word that I don’t know but that certainly doesn’t lead to randomized table shuffling.
I am going to approach this issue with three major points:
1) Table shuffling is a waste of time
2) Table shuffling doesn’t actually randomize your deck
3) Evan actually just told you to stack your deck
1) Table Shuffling is a Waste of Time
First of all, yes, I table shuffle almost every match.
I will typically do a five- or a ten-pile table shuffle (depending on how big my play area is) to open up my shuffling regimen, then do seven to fourteen superb riffles (I am an excellent riffle shuffler because I bothered to practice ten years ago when I realized I was losing to considerably worse players due to manascrews), then I do another five or ten, then another seven to fourteen. In fact I will keep riffling if my opponent hasn’t finished yet, and I don’t typically present unless I have done over 21 sets of riffle shuffles or my opponent has already presented.
“Mathematically” it takes just north of seven riffle shuffles to randomize a Magic deck.
By the way there was a point in the rules where players were forced to “end” shuffling regimens with at least three riffle shuffles but unfortunately that specific stricture has been removed from the books (I think it should be returned — but at seven rather than three — and I think that policy makers and judges who disagree with me simply don’t understand how shuffling works).
Remember we are tasked to randomize our decks, not separate mana clumps. Most arguments for “shuffling” styles other than riffle shuffling advocate separation of mana clumps when no one other than your imaginary guardian angel (who apparently doesn’t know math) is looking for that, certainly not the rules.
Remember I said it takes north of seven riffle shuffles to randomize a deck? Well as you randomize a deck more and more, guess what? Your mana is actually better and better distributed!
I am not up to speed on how judges today try to catch cheaters but I know if I were the policy maker I would do it like this:
Players would be penalized strictly based on technique. I am 100% sure a well known Japanese pro who has money finishes this year and impressive wins over some local GP and PT champions is a gigantic cheater. He stacks his deck, apparently every match. The problem is that some judges don’t understand how shuffling works (and he does) so he keeps getting away with it and they keep failing to see his pattern.
At the last Pro Tour I played in (Charleston teams), I, Josh Ravitz, and Morgan Douglass all separately caught him stacking and all called Judge! on him. I will say with complete confidence that if I say my opponent was stacking, he was stacking. End.
I am that sure I can recognize stacking when I am looking. When I was a more active PTQ player I had judges in multiple regions all commend me on how good I was at catching cheaters. I played in a Grand Prix where I caught a player stacking two matches over (against my friend edt), raised my hand, and he conceded the match on the spot, before the judge got there, because he knew he was kold; I actually got paired against him the next round so it was awesome 🙂
But for me, Josh, and Morgan to all catch the same Japanese player has to be something. He of course appealed to a Japanese judge and got a pass all three times, feigning an inability to speak English. The Japanese judge was either in his pocket (which I doubt) or (more likely) didn’t know what to look for and refused to recognize my arguments. By the end of this blog post you will not.
The unfortunate reality is that most judges — at least when I have encountered stacking but not gotten the penalty to stick, which is usually — look for a pattern but fail to find one. Here is my simple rule: The fact that my opponent is not very good at cheating, or that you couldn’t see how he was doing it, should not be the measure of whether or not he should be punished. The measure should simply be that he was stacking, intentionally cheating, sayonara.
I have been able to show judges how the patterns fall — with the cards face down even — and amazingly not gotten the call. I remember one PTQ where I was up a game with two rounds to go (undefeated) and my opponent cheated going into game two. I called the judge, he didn’t see the pattern; I set aside eleven face-down cards and told him to look at them. All eleven were sideboard cards!
… And no game loss.
Predictably I went manascrew, manascrew; manascrew next match, 12th. My opponent made the finals, cheating the whole way.
I didn’t mean this to be a rant about how cheating should be dealt with regarding shuffling. Sorry.
Think about a jar that can contain a little more than 1,000 marbles.
You put 500 white marbles into the jar.
You put 500 black marbles into the jar (these marbles are indistinguishable from the white but for their color).
What do you have?
A full jar of white marbles topped with black marbles.
Now shake the jar once; what do you have?
A full jar of white marbles topped with black marbles.
But shake it again and again, and they start to mix.
Shake it enough and what happens?
The marbles mix and mingle more and more.
This is how randomizing works: The more you shake, the more mixed they become! You can’t shake Shake SHAKE and come out with all 500 white on the bottom and all 500 black on top as you started. The system just gets more chaotic; it never becomes more orderly.
This is the problem with judges looking for a pattern, unfortunately: A perfectly randomized deck looks stacked.
Read that again: A perfectly randomized deck looks stacked.
The essential crux is that you actually get a more “stacked” [looking] deck by correctly randomizing (think of more and more repetitions with our jar) whereas you never randomize by table shuffling (the primary method of stacking).
Because as we saw with the marbles, the more you randomize, the more mixed the cards become. If you randomize really, really, well… No land clumps. Spells are distributed. Et cetera.
Riffle shuffling is a form of randomization. In fact, it is the best form for card games!
Table shuffling is “bad” for two reasons, and you already know them. The first is that it is a waste of time.
I am going to be generous and say that it takes you 30 seconds to pile shuffle your deck one time. In actuality it probably takes you 45 seconds if you are very good with your hands, but I am going to say that it only takes you 30 seconds. One pile shuffle doesn’t even distribute your mana clumps.
On balance, given 30 seconds you can riffle shuffle your deck 15 times. It only takes seven riffle shuffles to randomize your deck. You have now done twice what you had to do to randomize your deck in the time it would have taken you to do one pile shuffle, which not only doesn’t randomize your deck at all… it doesn’t even do what you wanted (even if you didn’t know you wanted out loud), which was to separate out your mana.
Why would you pile? Isn’t it stupid?
A better question: I’m not stupid. Why do I pile shuffle myself and my opponent?
Simple: Free wins.
I get free wins by not presenting some number of cards other than 60. I can recall being caught presenting non-60 one time. I lost the match for that; fixed my deck and won the next six, had to play the last round due to a first round loss, and finally lost one fair and square (raced by three Disciples of the Vault and a Ravager in the deciding game). My playtest partner with same 75 won the PTQ. I never want to go down for that one again. Ever.
On balance I have advanced from Top 8 to Top 4 because my opponent presented 59, and I wouldn’t have known but for the table shuffle; he was a 70/30 favorite to win Game One by the way, but I stole it; then I got to play two games with my sideboard. Just lucky he screwed up. In fact, I have advanced to Top 8 over a multiple Grand Prix winner because he presented non-60.
A compelling reason to table shuffle (counting)… But it is not a reason that randomizes your deck.
Now that you know that it is much less effective — even for separating out your mana — than riffle shuffling, you should also know that relying on pile shuffling for any other action than counting is tantamount to cheating.
2) Table Shuffling Doesn’t Actually Randomize Your Deck
The most common table shuffle numbers are 2, 3, 4, and 5.
Those are all numbers that are pretty convenient for 40- or 60-card decks. Simple. People look for patterns, and even piles of 30, 20, 15, or 12 cards make us happy.
Happy… but ignorantly so.
The worst thing about pile shuffling is that it is a waste of time. But it is also self-deceptive in that there is nothing random about it. It’s just a really bad way to separate out your mana (as we showed in the previous segment, simply riffling enough will get you to the point that you are nearly stacked).
Say you are doing a three-pile table shuffle.
And so on. You are on card number three. How many positions can this card fall into?
Don’t answer that.
Say you are doing a four-pile table shuffle.
Same question: How many positions can card number three fall into?
One of three in the first, one of four in the second, right? Simple! Right?
In both cases, card number three will always fall into position three. Now card number four will be in position one or four, respectively, but card number three will always fall into position three, and card number four will… um… always fall into position one in the first example and position four in the second example.
Have you figured this out yet?
If the cards always fall into the exact same scripted positions, with those positions varying only insofar as the number of piles, the system is itself not random.
Ergo, it is not just a poor but completely inappropriate system for randomization.
I am fairly certain Evan didn’t know it at the time, but he just told you to commit a “shuffling” technique that has launched more than one Hall of Fame eligible career – The Double Nickel.
The double nickel is one of the simplest card cheats in the history of tournament Magic. When Evan told you to pile shuffle in a five because of a so-called SSS Prime… I don’t know who told him that was any kind of random, but as we saw in the previous section, no patterned pile shuffling is ever random, so I don’t know what kind of bogus bullspit math logic says that fives or sevens are somehow… I don’t even know how to say this other than poor Evan was misinformed by someone who thinks he is much smarter than he really is.
Instead I am just going to teach you a basic cheat.
This cheat always works because pile shuffling is not random.
It’s called the double nickel because you do two (“double”) five-pile table shuffles (“nickel”) and you have a perfect mana weave. It is a particularly effective cheat against those who think that table shuffling is random because they won’t call the judge on you. You can do some poor riffle shuffles or “side shuffles” which simply redistribute your perfectly stacked deck into different perfectly stacked positions and you will never be manascrewed; in fact you will always have a perfect draw.
Because pile shuffling is not random, and five pile shuffling is deviously not just not random, but the best known cheat.
Anyway, here’s how you do it with a Limited deck:
First let’s start off with forty cards numbered 1 through 40. The first eighteen are aquamarine to indicate they are land cards:
Now let’s do ye olde five-pile table. Our cards look like this:
We chunk them together into one forty card pile again, which looks like this:
Now we do a second five-pile:
When we chunk them back into one forty card pile, our, you know, “deck” what do we see?
That’s right! A perfect distribution of land and spells! It gets really dumb when we do the same thing for a 60-card deck with a paltry 20 lands 🙁
Opening stack, with 1-20 being marked as lands:
First piles, five-card pattern:
Deck looks like this:
Second of two nickels:
Now if you — like too many judges — didn’t know what to look for, you would miss the pattern. After all, there are several stretches of consecutive spells that seem — at least from far away — like they could be barren.
I want you to use different criteria.
Cut the deck anywhere.
There is no stretch of seven cards in a completed double nickel that that doesn’t have either two or three lands. In fact (and this could be obvious) there are literally no mana floods because there are no stretches where you get four lands and only three spells.
All you get, every time, is a perfectly distributed deck that doesn’t look to a less experienced judge like there is a mana weave pattern in play.
Take a deck — forty or sixty cards — and try it yourself.
There are equivalent cheats at different numbers that do different things. Four and eight, for example, allow you to reset an already stacked deck when you do them correctly.
But what I wanted you to get out of this blog post is that no pile shuffling is random (we already covered that it is inefficient). You use the table to count your deck. You learn to riffle shuffle to randomize your deck.
Evan, I love you man, but when you tell the readers to do “at least” two piles (read: two) and then tell them to do a five-pile or seven pile (read: five)… Don’t be surprised that their mana is suddenly coming out perfect. It’s because they were doing the double nickel, literally the oldest cheat in the Magic books.
PS And that’s game boys!
I’m sure a lot of you are clapping your hands together and proclaiming Halleluia! A return to old school michaelj!
There is an even easier way to access the aforementioned old school michaelj, of course. Saunter over to Top8Magic.com and grab yourself a copy of Deckade… It’s just ten years of my life, and about 700 pages of stuff like you just read.
Deckade – Because you know you want to.
PPS I am pretty sure I am going to get criticism for “teaching players to cheat” but the fact of the matter is, Double Nickel is the oldest stack in the book, and I hope I taught a judge or two something, too. This post was more a result of my wanting to respond to Evan’s video. I love The Magic Show, but in this case, Evan was accidentally teaching his viewership to do something I doubt he wanted to teach them. That said, if players really wanted to cheat, I doubt they waited until tonight to learn from me. They could have just gone and bought Penn Jillette’s book or whatever: How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker: The Wisdom of Dickie Richard
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