Description of the Mirdek card cipher

Mirdek is a cipher you can carry out using only a pack of cards, pen and paper, and a surface to work on; it's intended to provide strong crypto to resist even the best-funded of eavesdroppers.

Cards as letters, letters as numbers

Each card corresponds to a letter of the alphabet: black Ace-King correspond to A-M, and red Ace-King to N-Z; thus, the 5 of Spades and the 5 of Clubs both represent "E", and the Jack of Hearts and of Diamonds both represent "X". While learning the cipher, it can help to write the corresponding letter on the top right of each card - though of course, you don't want to be caught with such a marked-up deck if you're trying to hide your crypto habits from the Bad Guys. Where we refer to "the letter for the card", this means the letter from the table below, so the letter for the Jack of Hearts is "X".

We use this to represent the state of a pile of cards as a sequence of letters; the first letter in the sequence is the top card when the pile is face-up, so the sequence "CAR" represents a pile of three face-up cards, with a black 3 on top and a red 5 on the bottom. If the pile is face down, the "R" will be on the top, but we still represent the sequence as "CAR".

With this representation, you can't tell what suit the card is, only what colour; but the distinction between hearts and diamonds or between spades and clubs is never relevant for Mirdek encryption, except as a handy way to divide the deck into two functionally identical sub-piles.

Each letter also corresponds to a number from 1-26; thus, counting out five cards is the same as counting to "E".

Black A B C D E F G H I J K L M
Ace 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Jack Queen King
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Red 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26
Ace 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Jack Queen King

Basic operations

Mirdek divides the pack into two equal halves, one consisting entirely of spades and diamonds, the other of hearts and clubs. We step through each card in turn in the one half and use it to shuffle the other deterministically, then swap the two over and do it again. You will need only the standard 52 cards - the jokers can be discarded.

The easiest way to try out the basic operations described here is to shuffle the pack, then sort the cards onto two piles: hearts and clubs on the left, diamonds and spades on the right. We'll refer to the "left" and "right" piles throughout this description. Once you've got the hang of the basic operations, we'll start again and describe a complete encryption process. The example encryption contains lots of examples of both operations.

Hold the left pile face up in one hand, and place the right pile face down on the table in front of you. You'll need a table in front of you, since we're going to create three more piles: a "discard" pile for cards from the right half, and two "alternating" piles for cards from the left half.

Counted cut: take the top card from the face-down right pile and place it, face-up, on the discard pile. Now count cards one by one from the top of the left pile to the bottom, saying each successive letter of the alphabet as you do so; stop after you've said the letter for the card face-up on the discard pile. For example, if the discarded card was a 5 of Clubs, this corresponds to an "E", so 5 cards should be moved; if it were a 3 of Diamonds corresponding to "P", then 16 cards move.

Example: supposing the piles start in this state:

Since the right pile is face-down, the top card will be "H" (a black 8). We take this card and place it on top of the discard pile. We then count eight cards from the top of the left pile (counting "A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H!") and place each in turn on the bottom. The cards moved, in sequence, are "JHFDBZLM". The cards not moved are in the sequence "NOPQRSTUVWYCGIAKXE". After the count cut, the decks are left in this state:

This maneuver may sometimes leave the right pile empty. Immediately this happens, place the left pile face-down in place of the right pile, and pick up the discard pile, which becomes the new left pile. Then turn over one card from the new right pile onto the discard pile and use it for another counted cut.

Example: supposing the piles start in this state:

So we move the "E" (black 5) to the top of the discard pile, and count five cards ("CUGWT") onto the bottom of the left pile.

But this leaves the right pile empty, and so the special rule comes into play: swap the piles

and cut again, this time moving the "T" (red 7) to the discard pile and moving 20 cards ("EUFKZTGODRHCWQBJAPYL") to the bottom of the new left pile.

Letter search: Choose a letter to search for; what determines this depends on how the search is used and is described later. Deal cards from the top of the left pile onto the two alternating piles, which (as the name suggests) each receive cards in turn just as with a normal deal, and stop immediately the card matching the searched-for letter is dealt. Now place the pile containing the searched-for card on top of the other pile (if there are any cards in it), and put them underneath the left pile in your hand. The right and discard piles are wholly unaffected.

Example: assume we're searching for the letter "S" and the left pile starts in this state:

So we start dealing the cards into two face-up piles: the "E" (black 5) onto one, the J (black 10) onto another, the "F" face-up on top of the "E" and the "D" face up onto the "J"... By the time we've dealt the "S" (red 6), we're left with two piles "ROPLBFE" and "SQNMZDJ" on the table, with "TUVWYAGICKXH" left in our hand. Gather together the two piles on the table in the other hand, making sure the searched-for "S" is on top ("SQNMZDJROPLBFE") and put that underneath the cards in your hand, to form


These two basic operations are all that is needed to encrypt a message with Mirdek. Encryption is preceded by a setup phase in three parts: initialisation, keying, and mixing.

Sort the deck into suits, and sort each suit in order, with Aces face up on the top. Place the spades on top of the diamonds to make the left pile, and the clubs on top of the hearts to make the right pile. If the cards were marked with letters as suggested before, then each pile will read "A-Z" in order.

Now pick up the right pile (with the clubs and hearts) and shuffle them thoroughly. This introduces some randomness into the encryption process which allows the same passphrase to be used many times without harming security. Holding the deck face-up in your hand, take each card in turn from the top and write down the letter for the card, arranging them in groups of five letters; make a face-down pile of the cards you've recorded. Place the last card on the pile without writing down the letter; you should only write 25 letters. These form the first 25 letters of the ciphertext.

You now have the right pile face down on the table; pick up the left pile (diamonds and spades) and hold it face up in your hand, ready for the keying phase.


Keying consists of two alternating steps. For each letter in the keyphrase, take the following two steps:

If your keyphrase has fewer than 26 letters, then when you finish the number of letters in the keyphrase will be the number of cards in the discard pile.


After the keying phase is complete, the next phase thoroughly mixes the state of the deck before encryption starts. Place the rest of the right hand pile below the discard pile (so the top card of the face-up discard pile is unchanged), put down the left pile face-down as the new right pile, and pick up the discard pile which becomes the new left pile. Then, for each card in the right deck in turn, starting with the face-down top card, convert the card to a letter and perform a letter search (on the left pile - letter search is always on the left pile). Once the right pile is empty, place the left pile face down and pick up the discard pile, so the piles are swapped.

You're now ready to begin encryption!


As with Solitaire, all non-letters in the plaintext are discarded; numbers must be spelled out in full (unless you agree a code to represent them such as "XABCZDX = 12304"). It is then arranged into groups of five, and the last group padded with "X"s if it is short. Thus, in the example, we encrypt "plaintext" using "PLAIN TEXTX". The ciphertext should also be written in groups of five.

Encryption is very similar to keying with one important difference. For each letter in the plaintext, take the following two steps:

Now that you've read this far, take a look at the example encryption and see if it agrees with the sense of the cipher you have so far.

Tidying up

Once encryption is complete, the state of the deck must be destroyed; otherwise, the cipher can be run backwards to recover the plaintext and possibly even the key. Shuffling works, but it's very hard to know when you've shuffled enough to hide not only your key and message but the fact that you've been using crypto at all. Better is to sort the deck entirely into order; an ordered deck should not attract suspicion since it's the result of an ordinary game of Patience, and much of the work of sorting it is already done; it will also make it easier next time you want to encrypt or decrypt a message. I've found the easiest way to do it is to sort each pile into reds and blacks first, then go through each pile in turn fanning out the 13 cards into your hand and taking out each card in turn, highest to lowest (ie look for the King, then the Queen...)


Once you've got the hang of how encryption works, it should be clear how to decrypt a Mirdek-encrypted message as follows:

Timing notes

The counted cut, as described, is rather time consuming. You can speed this up by counting the cards into your hand before moving them to the bottom (so long as you're sure not to reverse the order), and by counting cards rather than letters: "Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5" in the case of the 5 of Clubs, and "Ace, 2, 3, ..., 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King, Ace, 2, 3" in the case of the 3 of Diamonds, since red cards come after black cards in the letter ordering. You can speed up handling the red cards even more by counting cards from the bottom: for an 8 of Diamonds, count "9, 10, Jack, Queen, King" from the bottom of the deck into your other hand and then place them on the top; this is easiest if you temporarily turn the pile upside down in your hand. And of course, a red King (corresponding to "Z") rotates the pile all the way around, leaving it unchanged.

You can also speed up the initialisation phase if you can get the knack of sweeping out the cards in the right pile along the table so that the number and suit of every card is visible, so you can just start writing without having to put down your pen to move cards. Remember that the face-up top card goes first, and the last card is not recorded at all.

After a little practice, it should be possible to encrypt a short message in under twenty minutes:

Security notes

(obviously, more should go here)