Weird Magic Formats: What's the Deal with Dandân?
Dandân, by Drew Tucker
Dandan is a Chinese noodle dish. It's also a mythical leviathan from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. But of most relevance to you, dear reader, it's the popular name for a curious Magic: the Gathering format, designed by Nick Floyd and originally named Forgetful Fish.
I'm Jake FitzSimons and today I'm looking at the Magic Dandân. If you've spent any time on the Magic side of twitter recently, you might've seen a lot of chatter about Dandân. If you keep up-to-date with finance, you might have seen Dandân foils are bought out on Star City Games and Card Kingdom. And if you've attended any of the major Magicfests taking place around the world in June and July, there's a good chance you've seen someone playing it on a side table.
The Basics (Are All Islands)
But what is it? In short, it's a two-player Magic format that revolves around the eponymous Dandân, an unloved and irrelevant creature from Arabian Nights. Unlike most formats, both players share the same deck of eighty cards and even the same graveyard.
The other charming difference is the opening mulligan, specifically designed to avoid total non-games and feelbads. If a player reveals a hand with one or fewer lands, they are free to take an extra mulligan without losing a card. Standard mulligans thereafter are still allowed.
The rest of the rules are the same as a typical game of Magic: combat is the same, the stack is the same, and there are no changes to game phases. So, let's take a look at the typical Dandân deck:
Dandân (Forgetful Fish)
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Okay, that's a lot to take in. There are twenty Islands, a whopping ten copies of the namesake card Dandân, eight Memory Lapses, and four copies of Accumulated Knowledge. Everything else, there's just two of.
Dandân is the only real "threat" in the deck, at least insofar as it's the only way to actually deal damage to your opponent. Mill victories are possible, but we'll get there. For the minute, let's focus on the key to this format: the incredibly Island-dependent and funnily named Dandân.
Pro gamer tip: the Dandân is the actual creature lurking under the water in Drew Tucker's art, not the quaint little rowboats. In any case, Dandân doesn't look like a creature worth building a format around. It has awkward conditions that make it useless elsewhere in Magic. Islandhome is wonderfully flavorful and hearkens back to a time in Magic when lands felt like actual lands and of course a giant fish couldn't attack unless both players had an Island in play.
But what was a terrible - or at least, quickly abandoned - mechanic in Magic's days of yore is a fascinating focal point for a format to revolve around. With 20 Islands in the Dandân deck, you can be sure that both players will eventually, if not immediately, meet the Islandhome condition. That could easily be the end of it, but it's this exact condition that allows so much of the interaction in the format to work.
Fish out of Water
While the presence of karoo lands allows you to bounce your own Islands, it can't do a thing about your opponent's. Enter Crystal Spray, Mind Bend, and Vision Charm, this format's excuse for creature removal.
Each one does a similar thing, screwing with the Islandhome requirements by making Dandân care about a different type of basic or making all Islands into Isn'tlands. Mind Bend is the simplest of the three, essentially a one-mana Murder. Crystal Spray is a little more interesting with the added cantrip (crucial for controlling the top deck) but the most impactful is Vision Charm.
While the Charm can manipulate the top of the library, it's better as a Wrath of God effect. Turn every Island into a Swamp and every Dandân is deaddead. Bear in mind that this is a boardwipe that persists for the rest of the turn it is cast though. In my first game I successfully wiped the board of two Dandâns lurking near my opponent's Islands with Vision Charm, only to follow it up with my own Dandân, which promptly died because those Islands were still Swamps. I know, I'm a fool.
Why would I cast Vision Charm on my own turn instead of my opponent's? Because they were tapped out and I couldn't possibly risk another goddamn counterspell. I say "all" but it's just Memory Lapse.
Problem Is, I Can't Remember What I've Forgotten
There are eight Memory Lapses in the deck, but it feels like eighteen. Sometimes eighty. If Dandân is the focal point of the format, Memory Lapse is the lens you're looking through. Nearly every decision you make while playing this game has to take Memory Lapse into account.
If you haven't seen a Dandân, you might start to panic and worry you won't be able to present any threats. But your answers quickly become questions if they resolve. Whereas in other formats counterspells are removal spells for creatures on the stack, in Dandân they're steal spells.
Any countered Dandân is going to be placed back on that shared library, free for the taking. In the early game, that'll usually mean the next natural draw, giving the Dandân to the very person who countered it. It gets more complicated as more lands are played and more resources are available, though, particularly when instant-speed draw and topdeck manipulation come into the equation.
Dandân's Divining Top
The easiest and most common way to manipulate the library comes in the form of card draw. Given the ubiquity of Memory Lapse, being able to snatch whatever you know to be on top is a powerful tool indeed. Remote Isle and Lonely Sandbar are the simplest, trading a future land drop for a card right now. Brainstorm is far more interesting, as you can also leave rubbish on top for your hapless opponent.
Cheekier still is Predict, something of a crapshoot in traditional formats but a fascinating tool in Dandân. Using it to clear the top of the library when you know what's waiting there comes up frequently. That can either be because it's a card you don't want your opponent to have or even because you're just aching for more card advantage. If you still want to roll the dice, Island is your best bet as a full quarter of the deck is made up of them and your opponent is likely to leave Islands on top with Halimar Depths and Temple of Enlightenment after a certain point.
Everything in this format feels like it has a myriad of hidden uses, not least of which Metamorphose. The most obvious use is to remove a dangerous Dandân, but it's just as good at ruining the topdeck that your opponent has set up, their draw for turn, or even (in the early game) their ability to turn on Islandhome at all. The catch that they're able to throw something into play, Show and Tell-style, can cause some strife, but as the game goes on and you come to know what your opponent is holding through various topdeck manipulations, bounce spells, and successful Memory Lapses, the risk diminishes. I should note that this takes incredible focus and memory, skills that are so far totally beyond me. Whenever I play Metamorphose, I cross my fingers and hope for the best.
I love tutors, but this the hardest card in the deck to play when you're learning, if for no other reason than you have no idea what you can even search for. Beyond the typical use of setting up the perfect draw for yourself (I've found myself searching for Vision Charm time and time again), it's also great for ruining your opponent's setup. If they've taken a Dandân from you with a Memory Lapse, get rid of it and leave them with... frankly, I'm not quite sure what. Every card has a use and it's going to change from moment to moment which will be the worst instant or sorcery to feed your opponent at any given moment. Mystical Tutor can be a headache, but it takes such great advantage of sharing a library and I'm fascinated by the possibilities.
A Dandân of Yours is a Dandân of Mine
Beyond removing an opposing Dandân, stealing a resolved one will come up frequently. Ray of Command is the simplest of these, essentially a blue Act of Treason. Like any steal effect, it can make for a powerful tempo swing as you not only remove a blocker but create an additional threat to swing through with.
Supplant Form is a little more permanent given that you not only remove your opponent's Dandân but create one of your own, but at six mana it can feel terribly clunky. Even at the point you're able to cast Supplant Form, it can be difficult to protect. You can also use it to protect your own Dandân from targeted removal.
Finally, Dance of the Skywise is a sort of catch-all defence against chump blockers and any land-typing shenanigans. If you can't counter the Vision Charm or the Mind Bend, give Dandân a pair of wings with Dance.
Accumulated Knowledge has got to be the most powerful card in the deck. Like Slivers, their real strength comes in numbers. The first Accumulated Knowledge is a terrible draw spell at two mana for one card with no upside. The second is quite impressive, as two draws for two mana at instant speed is a better rate than any normal draw spell. Past the third, it's an incredible swing that will see you put the top three straight to your hand. Simple, right?
Not even slightly. In my second game of Dandân, I began a late game turn with three copies of Accumulated Knowledge in my hand, feeling certain I was about to drown myself in card advantage and crush my opponent. By the end of the turn, my adversary had drawn six cards and I had drawn one, the same one I got during my draw phase.
How is this possible? The answer is a mixture of Memory Lapse, cycle lands, and my complete inability to think like a mono-blue control player. Through careful manipulation of the stack, topdeck, and their own Accumulated Knowledge, my opponent successfully robbed me of any chance I still had in that game. In retrospect, there were half a dozen things I could have differently, things I could and should have done better.
Ending the Game
Naturally, "turning creatures sideways" is the simplest path to victory in Dandân, but the deck has more answers than it does questions. At least in my experience with the format, going well into the late game and seeing most of the Dandâns hit the bin or make it to the exile pile via Diminishing Returns can fill you with a sense of dread as you start to realise that there just aren't enough threats left.
Then you remember mill victories are a thing. But when both players share a deck, every step closer to milling your opponent out is a step toward milling yourself out. You know one of you is going to eventually draw from an empty library and lose the game, but you both have access to Memory Lapse and Metamorphose to put things back where they came from, which is fine until you realise that your opponent can just draw that card at instant speed and you'll still deck yourself. Ah, but then you remember that you can just mill that card in response with the other mode on Vision Charm, and your opponent will have played themselves. That's just a tiny peek into the sort of thinking that can go into a fight over the final cards in the library.
Alternatively, you can just hit the soft reset button with Diminishing Returns, but even that will exile 10, draw 14 between both players, and leave the library a lot thinner than it began. Either way, the end of the library is coming.
How Does it
Slowly. Creator Nick Floyd mentions in the rules document that players should be given time to consider their options carefully whenever they're given priority, but I think he's underselling it. The sheer amount of thought I needed to put into even the most simple decisions in this game made my brain hurt.
Yes, I could counter that Dandân with a Memory Lapse, but will that even matter? I know my opponent has at least one Accumulated Knowledge, so they could easily draw it right back off the top, but will they want to use their AK now or will they wait until I pull the trigger on my own? Never mind how long I spent debating whether or not to play a Dandân or hold up removal for one, I can barely decide if it's better to chump block an opposing Dandân or let it through to so I can get my own one in next turn.
Mike Flores asked us all "who's the beatdown" back in 1999, a question worth asking in every single game of Magic you'll ever play. But for the first time, I've played a format where I can't answer it. That's not to say it can't be answered, just that you'll need a bigger brain than mine to do so. It's above my play grade. I've found it near impossible to tell who's in the lead, as a single well-timed spell can flip the game on its head. I don't think I can describe just how bloody difficult this game can be, the constant sense that you need to be a full four steps ahead of your opponent at a bare minimum.
Am I Fanfan of Dandân?
I'd be lying if I said Dandân was truly my speed. I love the idea of a self-contained Magic experience that does away with deckbuilding and even the need for both players to have their own deck. I'm enchanted with attempts to make Magic feel more like Chess with reduced variance and an unchanging set of game pieces that all interact with each other neatly.
But I feel lost playing Dandân. I've got no experience with Legacy nor Pauper, blue heavy formats where a mono blue control mirror is a real possibility. So a format that revolves entirely around counterspells and protecting fragile threats feels like being thrown in the deep end. I like to think of myself as a competent Magic player, but Dandân has highlighted just how much I have to learn about the intricacies of the stack, of priority, and how to make the top of the deck work to my advantage.
And yet I feel strangely compelled to play more of it. Despite most turns after the first two feeling like I'd been asked to perform rocket surgery underwater, there's something about the complexity of the format that's so enticing. There are so many points of interaction, so many divergent paths where a single blue pip mattered, where I should have left open enough to cycle a Lonely Sandbar, or I should have held back an Island for another turn, or I should have bounced my Halimar Depths a turn earlier so I could screw over my opponent's Brainstorm play.
This isn't a race. The art could fool you, but it isn't two ships passing in the night. I'm not quite sure what it is, but it wavers between feeling like a game of chicken: "Haha noooo, you cast the first spell!" and a desperate fight for a knife in the mud. Except it isn't a knife.
It's just another goddamn Dandân.
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