A magic index in an array A[1… n-1]

Immediately, the brute force solution should jump to mind and there’s no shame in mentioning it. We simply iterate through the array, looking for an element which matches this condition.


int magicSlow(int[] array) {

 for (int i= 0; i < array.length; i++) {

 if (array[i] == i) {

 return i;



 return -1;


Given that the array is sorted, though, it’s very likely that we’re supposed to use this condition.

We may recognize that this problem sounds a lot like the classic binary search problem. 


Leveraging the Pattern Matching approach for generating algorithms, how might we apply binary search here?


In binary search, we find an element k by comparing it to the middle element, x, and determining if k would land on the left or the right side of x.

Building off this approach, is there a way that we can look at the middle element to determine where a magic index might be? Let’s look at a sample array:

When we look at the middle element A [ 5] = 3, we know that the magic index must be on the right side, sinceA[mid] < mid.


Why couldn’t the magic index be on the left side? Observe that when we move from i to i-1, the value at this index must decrease by at least 1, if not more (since the array is sorted and all the elements are distinct). So, if the middle element is already too small to be a magic index, then when we move to the left, subtracting k indexes and (at least) k values, all subsequent elements will also be too small.


We continue to apply this recursive algorithm, developing code that looks very much like a binary search.


int magicFast(int[] array) {

 return magicFast(array, 0, array.length - 1);


int magicFast(int[] array, int start, int end) {

if (end< start) {

 return -1;


 int mid= (start+ end)/ 2;

if (array[mid] == mid) {

 return mid;

 } else if (array[mid] > mid){

 return magicFast(array, start, mid - 1);

 } else {

 return magicFast(array, mid+ 1, end);



Follow Up: What if the elements are not distinct?


If the elements are not distinct, then this algorithm fails. Consider the following array:

When we see that A [mid] < mid, we cannot conclude which side the magic index is on. It could be on the right side, as before. Or, it could be on the left side (as it, in fact, is).

Could it be anywhere on the left side? Not exactly. Since A[ 5] = 3, we know that A[ 4] couldn’t be a magic index. A[ 4] would need to be 4 to be the magic index, but A[ 4] must be less than or equal to A[ 5]. 


In fact, when we see that A[ 5] = 3, we’ll need to recursively search the right side as before. But, to search the left side, we can skip a bunch of elements and only recursively search elements A [ 0] through A [ 3].


A [ 3] is the first element that could be a magic index.


The general pattern is that we compare mid Index and midValue for equality first. Then, if they are not equal, we recursively search the left and right sides as follows:


Left side: search indices start through Math. min (midlndex – 1, midValue ).


Right side: search indices Math. max(midlndex + 1, midValue) through end.


The code below implements this algorithm.

 int magicFast(int[] array) {

 return magicFast(array, 0, array.length - 1);


 int magicFast(int[] array, int start, int end) {

 if (end< start) return -1;

 int midindex =(start+ end)/ 2;

 int midValue = array[midindex];

 if (midValue == midindex) {

 return midindex;


 /* Search left */

 int leftindex = Math.min(midindex - 1, midValue);

 int left = magicFast(array, start, leftindex);

 if (left>= 0) {

 return left;


 /* Search right */

 int rightindex = Math.max(midindex + 1, midValue);

 int right = magicFast(array, rightlndex, end);

 return right;


Note that in the above code, if the elements are all distinct, the method operates almost identically to the first solution.

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