Conditions Allow - Jaya Ballard, Task Mage
(Jaya Ballard, Task Mage | Art by Matt Cavotta)
The Task at Hand
Hello, and welcome back to Conditions Allow, where I take a legendary creature with a drawback and turn it into a strength.
There are many kinds of drawbacks in Magic, but one of the hardest to work around is being forced to discard cards. Card advantage is supremely important, especially in multiplayer games, where any disadvantage of any sort is exacerbated by each opponent. However, sacrificing card advantage is exactly what this week's commander, Jaya Ballard, Task Mage, demands of us.
Jaya Ballard, Task Mage is a three-mana Human Spellshaper with three activated abilities. Each one costs progressively more mana, and each one requires us to discard a card. In return, Jaya can destroy any blue permanent, deal three damage to any target, or deal six damage to each creature and player. With her three abilities, Jaya seems like a precursor to the modern planeswalker design with which we are all now familiar. At only three mana, however, she is much less expensive than either of her planeswalker cards, and her abilities are much more flexible. She also recently got a slight upgrade with the unbanning of Painter's Servant, so let's see how strong this venerable fire mage is.
Learning from the Past
As always, let's start with Jaya's EDHREC page to see which cards stand out: right at the top of her page we see both Squee, Goblin Nabob and Distorting Lens, two unique cards that synergise directly with Jaya Ballard, Task Mage. There are also several Phoenixes among her top cards, as well as Basilisk Collar and Magebane Armor. As we move down the rest of the page, however, the list looks more and more like a generic red deck, focused around building up just enough resources to throw out a Fireball big enough to take out the rest of the table.
But let's not fix what isn't broken; before we go off seeking for any cards that can help Jaya stand out from the crowd, we should take a moment and soberly evaluate the suggested cards. Squee, Goblin Nabob is the perfect discard fodder since he puts himself back into our hand during our next upkeep. Firewing Phoenix is similar but slightly worse since you have to pay mana to get it back to your hand. Even so, having cards in hand is vitally important for a control deck, and paying four mana just to get a phoenix into our hand isn't as bad as it sounds.
Much like Yisan, the Wanderer Bard, this deck doesn't have to actually cast spells very often, especially once it gets its main pieces into play. More important is having cards in hand for Jaya to spellshape into Pyroblasts and Lightning Bolts.
Other than having a creature to retrieve from the graveyard every turn, the deck has a few other engine components. Painter's Servant is perhaps the most important, as it gives our commander the ability to destroy anything on the field. By naming blue when the Servant comes down, Jaya can then target any creature, enchantment, artifact, planeswalker, or even land for as long as the Servant stays in play; normally, lands are colorless, but Painter's Servant gives them a color. Painter's Servant also pairs extremely well with Red Elemental Blast and Pyroblast, since it even effects the colors of spells on the stack. Artifacts like Distorting Lens and Scuttlemutt can also change the color of permanents on the field, but only one at a time.
Another important artifact for Jaya Ballard, Task Mage is Magebane Armor; it stops Jaya's last ability from destroying herself. Other Equipment can be useful as well, such as Darksteel Plate, which functions just as well as Magebane Armor, or Basilisk Collar, which makes her deadly to nearly any creature; giving Jaya deathtouch massively improves her reach, especially in a format dominated by huge creatures. Lifelink isn't an ability to overlook, either. With Jaya able to deal damage to each player and each creature in play, you can regularly gain upwards of thirty life from a single activation. This enables easy wins from Aetherflux Reservoir, or buys you the time to secure another path to victory.
One Woman's Trash is a Goblin's Treasure
The observant reader will have noticed by now that most of the cards mentioned so far are artifacts. While Jaya can play a good control game, it is a reactive one. There are few counterspells in red, so we can expect our most threatening artifacts, like Aetherflux Reservoir and Painter's Servant, to draw the attention (and removal spells) of our opponents.
Additionally, sometimes we'll simply be forced to discard important cards to activate Jaya Ballard, Task Mage's abilities early on. Getting those artifacts back is very important, and Daretti, Scrap Savant provides us with a repeatable way to do this. As a planeswalker, he even dodges the damage from Jaya's third ability, making him extremely resilient once the deck gets going.
I'm also including Goblin Welder and Goblin Engineer, who work together to tutor up an artifact that we can revive later on. Slobad, Goblin Tinkerer finds a spot as well, both as a sacrifice outlet to dodge exile effects and as a way to defend against artifact destruction.
Old Dogs, New Tricks
Of the cards represented on Jaya Ballard, Task Mage's EDHREC, the last category worth diving into is damage doublers. Furnace of Rath doubles Jaya's damage, letting her point six damage at any target instead of just three, and wipe the board with twelve damage at a time rather than six, which makes it easier to get rid of everything. If only the Furnace would double up her destruction effect as well! But it's okay: Illusionist's Bracers can, along with a few other cards not currently on Jaya's radar.
Kurkesh, Onakke Ancient is a powerful commander in his own right, but he can also lend valuable support to artifact-heavy decks like this one. We can use both Mycosynth Lattice and Liquimetal Coating to turn Jaya, or any other creature, into an artifact to double their effects with Kurkesh. This also lets you untap Jaya with Voltaic Key and Manifold Key, providing an extra layer of safety as you start dishing out more and more damage. Kurkesh also works well with Aetherflux Reservoir. By paying 50 life and a single red mana, we can usually expect to eliminate two players, which sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
Rowan Kenrith doesn't have quite as many hoops to jump through, but her emblem won't be easy to get. Thankfully, Jaya Ballard, Task Mage does a really good job of protecting her fellow planeswalker. In tandem, the two make a great political duo, as well: Rowan forces creatures to attack, while Jaya's abilities will threaten enemy permanents to help ensure none of those attacks come at us or Rowan. Rowan's -3 ability is actually a useful control tool as well, especially in conjunction with her +2. This is what makes her really worth including, since we can't expect to reliably reach her ultimate.
Taking on Cards
As I already mentioned, having cards in hand is of supreme importance for this deck. For this reason, I'm leaving out all of the 'impulse draw' now available to red. Outpost Siege doesn't do much good when what we really need is one more card in hand to discard to our commander. Instead, Magmatic Insight and Tormenting Voice fill those spots. These normally don't represent card advantage, but paired with Squee, Goblin Nabob and a smattering of Phoenixes we can accrue some card advantage, albeit for much more mana than is really ideal. The high artifact count of the deck also enables Metalwork Colossus, which is a cheap, powerful creature, always a welcome sight.
With the usual ramp package, we have what looks like a finished deck!
Jaya Ballard, Task Mage
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Jaya Ballard, Task Mage is an impressive control commander that most people expect to be much more aggressive. Alongside Repercussion she can be more aggressive, of course, but I think it's easier to take a slower, more controlling approach. By keeping the board clear of small creatures early, we can use Goblin Engineer and Daretti, Scrap Savant to recycle key artifacts and dig for either Painter's Servant or Distorting Lens. We'll need to make use of politics as well; you only get to activate Jaya once or twice per turn cycle, so make sure to gain some allies as quickly as you can to help keep the odds in your favor.
That brings us to the end of this week's article. What did you think? Where have you had the most fun playing Painter's Servant since it was unbanned? As always, if there's a commander you'd like me to write about, let me know in the comments below.