By Floris Debaerdemaeker

Set-up and pay-off

Virtually every magic deck can be divided in set-up and pay-off. With some decks this distinction is very clear, while in others it is subtler. Set-up cards allow you to get into a game situation where the pay-off cards will be able to round out the game.

If we look at the Temurge deck, one of the gentry archetypes, the difference is plain to see: we can consider the cheap creature cards, the land searches and so on to be the set-up part. They enable you to then cast the high mana, high impact emerge creatures, which are your pay-off cards. You manipulated the game in such a way, that you are now doing things and casting spells your opponent cannot deal with it anymore.

A subtler difference can be found in a control deck. We can consider the card draw effects, the counter suite, the library manipulation, the kill effects and the wrath effects to be the set-up, where to pay-off would then be found, not necessarily in a particularly high powered card, but in a game state where you have a substantial card advantage and are able to win in whichever way you want, without your opponent being able to provide an answer for that win.

Similarly, in combo decks, we can think of the library manipulation, hand sculpting cards that allow you to assemble your combo as the set-up, while the combo itself would be your pay-off. Notably, combo decks will also often play pay-off protection. Note how throughout the game, different cards can take different roles. A counter spell on turn two might be considered set-up, while later in the game it can be thought of as a pay-off protection card.

Planeswalkers can often be considered set-up in the form of indirectly protecting your life total, dealing with threats, setting up threats, and can be considered pay-off, usually in control style decks, when your board dominance is so overwhelming your opponent can no longer feasibly deal with them.

The distinction between set-up and pay-off is most fluid in aggressive decks. You can look at a burn spell in the early game as a set-up card, while the same burn spell a few turns later might be a pay-off card. The set-up here, and this is especially true for burn decks, is not so much the cards in hand or the game state, but it is your opponent’s life total. The set-up is to get in such a situation that you can burn out your opponent before they can get to their pay-off plan. This is the main idea of the deck I want to discuss here: getting to your pay-off before your opponent can. Everything in the deck is built around that very simple idea and there is no plan B.

Gentry RDW

Land (20)
Looming Spires
18 Mountain

Creatures (18)
Village Messenger
Akoum Firebird
Brazen Scourge
Furyblade Vampire
Insolent Neonate
Kari Zev, Skyship Raider

Sorceries (6)
Sin Prodder
Stromkirk Occultist

Instants (16)
Distemper of the Blood
Fiery Temper
Tormenting Voice
Incendiary Flow
Sideboard (15)
Boiling Earth
Galvanic Bombardment
Incendiary Flow
Ruinous Gremlin
Sparkmage’s Gambit

Break it down

This is a deck that I have been playing with quite a bit in gentry. Aether Revolt has only made it better, with shocks and Kari Zev. Let’s look at the different cards, why they are in the deck, and how they fall into the set-up or pay-off category.


Let’s start off with the lands, 18 basic mountains and 2 Looming Spires for 20 lands. If you consider this deck only has one card that costs 4 mana (Akoum Firebird), you can comfortably play off three lands. Add to that the ample amount of loot effects and it is rather rare to be mana screw, or mana flooded for that matter, as you have many cards that simply let you loot away excess mana. Looming Spires is a land that enters the battlefield tapped, so you definitely do not want a playset, but I think two is fine. Giving first strike to a creature is often a huge deal, and will discourage the opponent from blocking. Also, coming in for one extra point of damage may seem trivial, but in a deck that is entirely focused on dealing just lethal damage, it is not irrelevant.


This deck plays 20 creatures, which are all focused on dealing as much damage as effectively as possible. Hence, most of them can fit into both set-up and pay-off.

1 mana

The one-drops are Village Messenger and Insolent Neonate. The Village Messenger is a straightforward pick, a 1/1 with haste is relevant, for the same reason that Looming Spires is. In addition, the odds of it transforming are relatively high, as most decks won’t always have a spell to cast on turn 1 or turn 2 (this is especially true with the popularity of Evolving Wilds in the format). And a 2/2 with menace can be quite hard to deal with in the early game, especially if you have a burn suite to back it up. However, Village Messenger only really shines in the early game and will be a dead draw later on in the game. This card falls in the set-up category in 95 percent of cases.
Insolent Neonate is pure set-up. A 1/1 with menace will get some cheeky points of damage in during the early game, but its ability is the real kicker here. It allows you to discard dead draws and draw another card, i.e. sculpting your hand, but more importantly, it allows you cast madness cards during combat, which can often be a huge blow-out for your opponent. Those are the only one-drop creatures the deck plays, which is not ideal, because it is possible not to have a one-drop in your opening hand, which you really want. However, I have not found another one-drop red creature I consider to be impactful enough to add to this list.

2 mana

The two-drops are Furyblade Vampire, Kari Zev, Skyship Raider and Thermo-Alchemist. Furyblade Vampire could easily fall into both categories in theory, but in practice he mainly falls on the set-up side of the spectrum, as his two toughness makes him too vulnerable to be a reliable finisher. However, he will often be able to get in some considerable damage before dying. It also gives your dead draws something relevant to do. A Village Messenger in turn three for instance, or a land when you have four in play already. Of course, it is also a discard outlet for madness cards.
Kari Zev, Skyship Raider also falls more in the set-up category. She is very hard to deal with if she comes down in the early game. Menace and first strike are very relevant, and the monkey token does considerable damage as well. Add to that the ways this deck has to remove creatures at instant speed, or pump creatures, blocking a first striker with menace is something your opponent will often feel discouraged from doing. However, later in the game, when your opponent has access to more removal spells, or more powerful creatures, Kari Zev will quickly become less daunting, and unlikely to finish a game. Therefore, I feel she mainly belongs in the set-up portion of the deck.
Thermo-Alchemist, the final two-drop, falls squarely in between the set-up and pay-off spectrum, if we consider early damage to be set-up, and later damage to be pay-off. A 0/3 body is not that easy to deal with and getting hit for 1 damage every turn you cannot prevent is no laughing matter. Add to that the ease with which this deck can cast several spells off very little mana and Thermo-Alchemist can easily do a substantial amount of damage in the course of just a few turns.

3 mana

The three drops are Brazen Scourge, Sin Prodder and Stromkirk Occultist. Brazen Scourge I consider to fall more on the pay-off spectrum. A 3/3 with haste can often surprise an opponent and finish off a game. Brazen Scourge will almost always be a hot draw later in the game, with substantial impact on the board.
Sin Prodder can fall in both categories. A 3/2 with menace is also capable of finishing a game, but his upkeep trigger falls mainly into the set-up category: getting an extra card draw or some free damage every upkeep is an excellent feature.
Stromkirk Occultist is a new addition to the deck, replacing Chandra, Torch of Defiance, because she was too often not a relevant draw or had too little impact on the board in this deck. I’d say for the same reason as Sin Prodder, Stromkirk Occultist falls into both categories. Trample means damage can get through more easily, and being able to cast a card from the top of your library is great set-up.

4 mana

Akoum Firebird is purely pay-off. A 3/3 haste creature with evasion (in the form of flying) is often enough to finish a game. The landfall ability does not come up that often, but it does happen at times and it is definitely very relevant to ending a game.

Other spells

1 mana

Shock. What can I say? The card is stupidly good. Early game it can be set-up, to deal with enemy blockers, to just deal your opponent two damage, to trigger Thermo-Alchemist… And similarly, late game in a deck whose only purpose is to do damage, often a shock will neatly finish a game.

2 mana

Distemper of the Blood, Incendiary Flow, Tormenting Voice are the two mana spells. Distemper of the Blood is a great card that easily falls in both set-up and pay-off categories. It allows you to attack with creatures into a board that could otherwise be too powerful for your creatures. With Insolent Neonate, you can cast it at instant speed, you can discard it to Furyblade Vampire, you can discard it to Tormenting Voice and so on. Earlier versions of this deck played 4 Distempers, but too often the creature you targeted with the ability would be destroyed in response. I ended up settling on three copies, a number I am very satisfied with so far.

mtg_card]Incendiary Flow[/mtg_card] is mainly set-up. It allows you to deal with most creatures (3 damage is traditionally a very relevant number in creature based metagames), so that your own team can attack safely. Of course, three damage to an opponent’s face is also fun. The biggest drawback of this card is the sorcery speed. That is why I feel two copies is enough main-deck.

The final two mana spell is Tormenting Voice. This card is pure set-up, but it is really good at it. The main issue this deck faces is running out of gas, i.e. not being able to find those last points of burn, one more creature threat to put into play and so on. Tormenting Voice allows you to discard cards, which is not necessarily a downside in a deck with madness, and draw into more options. At the least you are discarding a dead draw. Of course, a Tormenting Voice discarding a card with madness will trigger Thermo-Alchemist twice, meaning you get to ping 3 damage off of that.

3 mana

Fiery Temper is a perfect card for this deck. In my experience, it falls mainly in the pay-off part of the spectrum. Three damage is a critical number in a burn deck. The fact that this deck has so many ways to trigger its madness cost will often effectively make it a Lightning Bolt. It’s great creature removal, but mostly it will be targeted at your opponent’s life total. It makes your discard effects better, because you’re not really losing a card, you’re getting a free Lightning Bolt. And if need be, it can deal with most creatures your opponent might have.

How to play

Every turn should be a consideration of the most effective way to deal damage and use up your mana. All burn spells in the deck can be targeted at both creatures and players, and for good reason. Do you think you will get more damage in if you burn away a creature, or if you just burn the opponent? Ultimately, you just want to get in a position where your opponent’s life total is so low, that most cards you draw will be able to finish the game. You don’t want to go for the late game, you don’t want to play conservatively, it doesn’t work. You want to have a such a commanding life total difference that your opponent cannot feasibly reach their pay-off plan. Similarly, you should not really care about your own life total. You should be able to deal more damage more quickly than your opponent. In most cases, if you are forced to start worrying about your own life total, or you are forced to consider blocking your opponent’s creatures, you will likely end up losing that game. Therefore, it is so important to consider, before you throw a burn spell at an opponent’s creature, whether that will end up allowing you to do more damage to the opponent or less. In RDW every point of damage matters.

Signing off,



Niels Viaene came into contact with Magic first through the Kazz & Zakk starter set in 1996, but it wouldn’t be until 2000, around the time Prophecy came out that he actually started playing magic thanks to his nephew. Niels’ Magic career has been a roller coaster up to now, including Grand Prix Paris 2009 top 8, Pro Tour San Diego 2010 top 8, becoming a L3 Magic Judge in 2015 and managing the community effort that is the League of New and Beginning Magic: the Gathering Players, the birthing ground for Gentry since 2012. All this comes from a deep love for the game that is far from diminishing.

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