Recurring Nightmare is fantastic. I run it in my 250 card highlander 5-color deck, and I smile wickedly whenever I draw it. When I do, things normally get out of control. About a year ago, I was accused of unfairly abusing this card, so much so that an entire multi-player table would scoop when the Recursion began. For a mere B2, you gain a renewable engine to recur creatures in and out (and in and out) of your graveyard as many times as you need. Let me explain…
Survival of the Fittest
When Recurring Nightmare was originally printed way back in 1998 in the Exodus expansion, the mechanics of the game were clearly different. The cardpool was smaller, and the effects were tamer. Recurring Nightmare was immediately paired with another enchantment from the expansion Survival of the Fittest, and developed into the early combo that became known as RecSur. Even then, RecSur was very versatile, and pretty good. It tutored out the best creatures from your deck straight to your graveyard, and then quickly into play. It originally focused on just recurring big monsters, but once Squee, Goblin Nabob was printed a few years later, the deck began incorporating infinite combos. Infinite combos don’t appeal to me very much though. I much prefer simple card advantage.
Before we get into CIP Creatures, let’s review the basic principle of card advantage. The standard rules allow a player to only draw one card per turn. In a sense, the actual cards you have in your hand are one the most limiting resource in the game. If you can find a way to get two (or more) effects from the single card you draw each turn, you’ve circumventing one if the basic limitations of Magic. This is what is known as card advantage.
To better understand this, let’s imagine the physical cards you are holding are a measure of currency. You want to get the most from your money each turn, and get a positive return for every spell you invest (rather than just breaking even).
Example 1: My opponent casts Grizzly Bears. This is essentially a net-zero card advantage, as the card he played from his hand (-1) remains in play as a 2/2 creature (+1).
Example 2: I cast Terror, targeting the Grizzly Bears. This would also be net-zero card advantage, since the card from my hand (Terror, -1) is exhausted to defeat my opponet’s one card (Bears, +1).
Example 3: Instead, I cast Nekrataal, targeting the Grizzly Bears. This would be a positive +1 card advantage for me, since the card from my hand (Nekrataal, -1) kills the Bears (+1), and remains in play as a 2/1 creature for my opponent to deal with later (+1).
This demonstration of card advantage uses an example from a group of creatures that are widely known as 187 Creatures, or creatures with Comes-into-play (CIP) abilities. Nekrataal is a 187 Creature, with the ability that reads “When Nekrataal comes into play, destroy target non-black creature. It may not be regenerated.” By its nature, every time you cast Nekrataal, you should be able to target an opponent’s creature and destroy it, while keeping your 2/1 creature.
Enter: Recurring Nightmare. The first trick is fully abusing 187 Creatures is to include as many creatures with come-into-play triggered abilities as possible. You really don’t need to worry about the color or casting cost; you’ll be cycling them in and out of play through Recurring Nightmare. Every time you cast and activate Recurring Nightmare, you are getting a different creature back from your graveyard, and triggering its CIP ability. When you replay and activate Recurring Nightmare a second time, you are exchanging the creature in play for another CIP ability. For every B2 you spend, you can essentially get another CIP ability, without losing any cards in hand. Each iteration nets +1 card advantage.
It may be mana intensive, but remember, your mana is renewable, while cards in your hand generally are not. You will be able to untap and reuse your lands next turn. Remember, the rules only allow you to draw one card per turn, so always treat the cards in you hand as your most precious resource. By recycling Recurring Nightmare over and over with 187 Creatures, you are essentially getting something for nothing,
The activation cost of Recurring Nightmare requires that you sacrifice a creature in addition to returning Recurring Nightmare to your hand. Therefore, the nature of the card requires you to have a creature in play before you can start the shenanigans. Under normal circumstances, every time you activate it, the creature count stays the same, because you are exchanging one-for-one.
The Shadowmoor introduced a new mechanic called Persist, which allows a creature that dies and goes to the graveyard to immediately return back to play with a -1/-1 counter. Hmmm. Sounds like there might some synergy here with Recurring Nightmare, doesn’t it?
Example: I have Kitchen Finks in play and Nekrataal in my graveyard. I cast and activate Recurring Nightmare, sacrificing Kitchen Finks (-1) to return Nekrataal o play. Nekrataal comes into play (+1), and targets and kills my opponents Grizzly Bear (+1). Then Kitchen Finks persist ability triggers, and Kitchen Finks returns to play with a -1/-1 counter (+1). Overall net card advantage: +2.
If that wasn’t enough, I still gain the 2 life with Finks when it returns to play from Persist! The lesson is, when you combine Persist with 187 Creatures with comes-into-play abilities, for the best of both worlds. See also Murderous Redcap.
Nows where it really gets nasty: The Loop
Lets bring it all together now. We’ve done our research, and built a deck with all of the best 187 and/or Persist creatures to abuse Recurring Nightmare with. We expect every time we play a spell or ability, we are getting something “extra” for our investment. Included in our deck are the following cards, included specifically for Recurring Nightmare.
Karmic Guide: When Karmic Guide CIP, it resurrects another creature from your graveyard with it. This is similar to the effect we get with Persist creatures. In fact, you can target the creature just sacrificed with Recurring Nightmare when the KG comes into play, essentially just returning a creature from your graveyard to play for B2, without the cost of a physical card.
Protean Hulk: Lets reverse the CIP ability with a Leaves-play ability, (which is essentially the same thing in our Recurring Nightmare cycle). When Protean Hulk leaves play, you tutor your deck for creatures with casting costs up to 6, and put them directly into play. You could even search for Karmic Guide, which in turn could immediately return Protean Hulk to play again, so you could sacrifice it a second time to Recurring Nightmare, searching for more creatures to put directly in play.
Body Double: Lets pretend we did that, and Protean Hulk is back in our graveyard. In this iteration, we search for Body Double, which comes into play as a target of Protean Hulk (since it is in your graveyard) and sets us up to cycle Recurring Nightmare again. If Body Double is already in your graveyard, you can sac something to Recurring Nightmare, and return it for a copy of any creature.
Eternal Witness: Why stop there? If you have some recursion, more is always better. After we sacrifice the Body Doubled Protean Hulk again, this time we will search out Eternal Witness, which returns ANY card in your graveyard to your hand (including Protean Hulk). Select the any of the above, and repeat.
Reveillark: The loop gets nastier and nastier with each cycle. If I decide to fetch Reveillark with the Hulk, and then sacrifice it to Recurring Nightmare, I can return BOTH Body Double and Eternal Witness to play. The Body Double could copy the Reveillark, and after we run it through the Nightmare one more time, returns something else (perhaps Karmic Guide again?)
So as you can see, this recursion might become quite a problem for your opponent. For the mere cost of B2 each cycle, you are gaining incredible card advantage, and all you are doing is circulating the same 5 creatures in and out of play. If any other CIP creature is thrown into the mix, such as Mulldrifter, or Archon of Justice, or Kokusho, the Evening Star, the net results you gain are multiplied even further.
Don’t forget to add enablers into your deck so you have creatures in your graveyard to bring back. Survival of the Fittest was the originator, but there are plenty of other enablers out there, such as Hermit Druid, Avenging Druid or Life from the Loam that assist in filling the ‘yard.
Each new expansion set introduces more and more creatures that interact with Recurring Nightmare. What is critical to know that in today’s Magic cardpool, there are more options available with CIP creatures than ever before. I am forever drawn to this card, and will continue to explore (and exploit!) its raw power for quite some time to come. It is, in my opinion, the best card ever.