Last updated on January 20, 2023
Editor's note: We are well aware of the differences between the best of one and best of three starting hand algorithms. This article is in no way attempting to state that there isn't a difference between the two. Enjoy the article!
Hello, friends! I’m about to make a lot of people dislike me very much, and I am totally OK with that!
Today, we’re going to talk about the “MTG Arena shuffler.” Is it rigged? Is it broken? Why don’t humans understand what randomness means? All of that and more will be discovered here, together, today!
Get ready for all of the memes
All right, enough of that. All I’m doing is typing a smarmy, fake-enthusiastic intro and I’m already tired of it. So.
You played Arena, got mana screwed or flooded what seems like way too many times in a row for it to be a coincidence, and now you’ve fallen down the “MTGA’s shuffler is rigged/broken/purposefully screwing me over” hole and can’t find your way out. No worries, I’ve got a flashlight and a shovel and we will find a way to dig you out. Let’s go.
You’re Not Alone
The good news is that you are far from the first person to fall down this hole (ignore the skeletons), and you’re likely far from the last. Don’t feel too bad for yourself.
Oubliette | Illustration by Douglas Shuler
This “bug” with the shuffler has been hanging around at the top of WotC’s bug feed since March of 2019. There are 39 pages of comments spanning the time from then to now, and 761 votes on the bug (meaning 761 people went “yes I also have this problem”).
Before we move on to talking about why the shuffler is not an issue, let’s take a look at some salt because I need to season my popcorn before we continue.
OK enough salt, that’s way too much for my popcorn already, thanks.
Talk about shufflers within Magic has been a thing for much longer than Arena has been around. Before MTGA, it was Magic Online and their “shuffler truthers.” I curse the course of events that led from that term being invented to me having to hear about to me then having to actually type it out.
Now, if you’re not familiar, that term are people who are absolutely convinced that MTGO’s (and, by extension, Arena’s) shuffler is rigged and/or broken, to the point where there’s a name for them. Can we take a second to imagine the level of crazy people complaining about a video game’s shuffler of all things has to spout for them to get their own name?
Take a look at this article and the comments. It’s a satire website and a satire article, and some of those comments are obviously playing along (socialcontractlawyer did not have to go that hard), but I legitimately can’t tell if a couple of them are being serious or not.
Read that article, the quotes at least, they’re not long I promise, and then tell me you don’t think that’s absolutely ridiculous. Something that was written specifically to be incredibly over-the-top, super-unrealistic satire that no person with common sense would ever take seriously. And then consider the fact that some people actually think that, or at least something like that.
… But You’re Wrong (Sorry)
All right, time to point out the base of why none of this makes sense.
First, let’s talk about what happens to your deck before you start a match. Chris Clay, WotC’s former Game Director for Arena, responded to a Reddit thread about the shuffler last year to clear the air on how decks are shuffled in Arena. Basically, they use Fisher-Yates to pull numbers from a Mersenne Twister (MT199937) seeded with 256 cryptographically secure randomized bits. Personally, I don’t really know what any of that means, but based on the comments it sounds like this is good.
The Reddit post that he was commenting on is also relevant, as he responded to a thread on MTGA’s forums (ick) also about the shuffler. We’re also going to touch on the most important bits from there a bit further down, so if you wanna take a look at that go ahead. No summaries here, we’re just moving on.
Don’t Worry, It’s Your Brain’s Fault
I don’t think 99% of people understand how randomness and probability actually work. Let me explain.
First, here's a really quick, simple video about randomness by onlinekyne, a drag queen who makes short and informative videos about interesting Maths™ problems:
We (humans) have a very specific way of thinking about randomness and variance. We tend to think that true randomness and variance is the absence of patterns, but that’s not true and it’s why we think actual randomness isn’t random even if it is.
Let's take the 200 coin flip example. You have to keep in mind that, while each coin flip has a 50/50 chance of landing on either side, the previous coin flip (for example, flipping heads) doesn’t influence whether or not the next coin flip will have the same or a different outcome. The probability that you get heads again is still 50/50, not less. It’s neither more not less likely that you’ll get the same (or a different) outcome, the probability for each individual result is the same.
If you’re still not on board, let me spell it out for you in relevant terms. You get a shitty starting hand in MTG Arena, either all or no lands, and you mulligan. The odds of this next hand being just as shitty in the exact same way (or a different way) is just as likely to happen as it was before. It’s not suddenly less likely that you’ll get the same result because the last result was shitty. You don’t get a +1 to your “get a good hand” skill. Don’t pass go, don’t collect 200 dollars, your odds of filth are the same.
This is actually in stark contrast to the “pity counter” for wildcards.
Bad luck and good luck are a reality of true randomness, which means patterns are as well. There will be bouts of “good” and “bad” luck in any given string of random results, because what came before or after doesn’t affect individual results. When people think of randomness, the system they’re probably actually thinking of is one where each individual result is influenced by all of the past results to try and avoid patterns. And that is not random.
I don’t want to do this section, for a variety of different reasons. The first of them being: Maths™. Get away from me.
The second, however, being what I said already: analyzing a bunch of shuffling results in MTG Arena is kind of irrelevant when we’re talking about whether or not the shuffler is random. Short of being able to examine the code of the shuffler itself and how it’s actually set up, there is no study that could conclusively and 100% tell you that the shuffler is or is not random. Because, and let me remind you, true randomness means that every single string of results is possible. No matter how likely or unlikely our flawed little perceptions of the greater machinations of the universe make them out to be.
The other thing to mention is that most people’s problems with the shuffler are a result of bad luck. Lots of it, sure, and usually really bad luck, but bad luck nonetheless. You aren’t being targeted, you’re just unlucky. Which happens with randomness.
Plus, let’s keep in mind that there are nearly 3 million active users on MTG Arena according to a July 2019 article from Bloomberg. Assuming that only half of those users play even every two days, analyzing a million games is still way too small of a sample to even compare.
I know this section was supposed to be about Maths™, but I’m tired and cranky and I don’t want to.
You can’t make me.
Let’s keep going.
Real Talk: Is the “MTG Arena Shuffler” Broken and/or Rigged
I know a lot of you just skipped to this part of the article. It’s the part that I would skip to, to be honest, so I don’t blame you. Here’s a super quick recap of the things you need to know:
- You probably have a fundamental misunderstanding of what randomness is (most people do, it’s literally ingrained in our thought process, it’s OK)
- Luck (bad or good) and thus patterns are an inevitable reality of a truly random system
- Statistical analysis of MTG Arena shuffles is kind of a different conversation than if the shuffler is random or not
- The only way to 100% conclusively prove whether or not the shuffler is random would be to look at its coding
So. Is the shuffler rigged? Is it broken? Probably not. But just like you can’t prove that it isn’t random without looking at its code, I also can’t 100% say for sure that it is random without doing the same. It’s a two-way street.
My belief that it is random, though, lies in the fact that WotC would have very little to gain from not using a random shuffling system. Take your tin foil hats off, please, I know the reasons you like to quote, but I’m pretty sure their marketing and product teams take care of making their money for them without needing to resort to weird psychology tricks that would be more likely to drive players away than make them spend more money.
Also, if you really believe that it’s “rigged against you”—first off, I’m not sure why you think you’re so special—but that would also mean that it’s rigged for everyone else. Or that it’s rigged against everyone else as well, neither of which makes much sense. Honestly, I don’t know why I’m bothering. If you don’t believe me by now, I don’t think I could ever convince you.
In Conclusion? Chill Out
You might take solace in the fact that I can’t conclusively say that the shuffler is random and cling to that little bit of hope that you’re not wrong, but I still think you need to relax. Take your loss, take your string of bad luck, and drown your sorrows like the rest of us and go buy something nice for yourself. Avoid Hasbro products if you’re still salty.
Conspiracy-theory yourself out if you want, but the truth of the matter is that there isn’t always someone or something that’s responsible for the bad things that happen to you. Which sounds very philosophical and deep until you realize what I’m saying is that WotC is probably not the bad guy that caused your string of shitty hands in MTG Arena. It’s a card game; if you don’t want to give them your money, then don’t. Otherwise, get off your high horse and cross that bridge.
I’m about done for the day, I think. I’m sure I’ve said something to piss someone off, so sound off in the comments if you want a debate, I guess. I might just respond with links or memes though so don’t get your hopes up. I’m tired and also very cynical.
And yet I still don’t believe your conspiracy theory.
Do I sound like a broken record yet? How about this: we appreciate your support, no matter what form it comes in. Comments? Awesome! Shares? Sweet! Patreon support? Wicked! Using our draft simulator or Arena Tutor? Very cool!
Transparent promos aside, thanks for reading. Stay safe out there and we’ll see you next time!