Theme Decks: Three Kingdoms

Imperial Recruiter
In my last feature, we looked at the Preconstructed decks of Portal Second Age. Released as a follow-up to the original Portal set the year before, this “side set” of a simplified Magic: the Gathering was designed — as the name suggests — to be a point of entry into playing the game. Rules were simplified, and the only card types were creatures and sorceries (although with some of the latter having timing rules that mirrored instants). Wizards of the Coast has struggled throughout its existence to be able to onramp new players, as witnessed from the variety of products introduced across the years to satisfy that goal.

After all, Planeswalker Decks didn’t form in a vacuum.

Some products, like the ill-fated Rivals series (starting- and shuttering- in 1996), were over almost before they began. Others, like Intro Packs, had a good long run before being put out to pasture (RIP 2008-2016). In Portal’s case, the product line lasted for three years, although the third release is something of a curiosity in that it wasn’t exactly a continuation of the original product line so much as an offshoot of it.

By 1999, Wizards of the Coast had pulled the plug on the Portal line after two releases. Portal had underperformed, despite some of the thorniest issues with the first release being remedied with the second (mainly revolving around the terminology changes between the original Portal and actual Magic, which resulted in confusion for players looking to make the jump). But there remained enough merit to the core concept that Wizards decided to port the platform abroad. Enter Portal Three Kingdoms.

Imperial Seal
Portal Three Kingdoms was based on the Chinese historical period of the Three Kingdoms, a sixty-year period that begin in 220AD and has been heavily romanticized in much the same way those of us in the West regard Greco-Roman culture. Indeed, the term romance is often associated with this period not because they were halcyon days of courtly love, but rather because of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a classic work of literature from the 14th Century in China set in the Three Kingdoms era. Far from it; the Three Kingdoms era is one of the bloodiest in all of Chinese history.

Given the historical and cultural significance of the period, it seemed a good place to stage an entry-level set that would help grow Magic’s international footprint. And in 1999, the last of the Portal sets hit the shelves in Asia. Most of the set was printed in Japanese and Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), but a smaller print run was offered in English for the Australia/New Zealand markets (which helps explain why the prices of many of the Portal Three Kingdom singles are where they are).

Portal Three Kingdoms contained 180 cards, placing it between Portal (215) and Portal Second Age (165) in terms of size. Like Portal Second Age, the line included Preconstructed decks. Portal Three Kingdoms offered a Two-Player Starter set, which contained two thirty-card decks, as well as a trio of forty-card precon decks, one for each of the three kingdoms. We begin our look at the most entry-level release of the entry-level set, the Starter.

Zodiac Monkey
Like a lot of earlier Preconstructed offerings, this deck is something of a chore to play. One the one hand, it wants to act like an aggro deck with lots of cheap, aggressive creatures. Early plays like the Mountain Bandit, which can attack before the opponent has a single card on the table, or the Goblin Piker variant Independent Troops.

This is all well and good, but the problem with this deck is that you’ve got a three-color Jund deck without a shred of mana-fixing. This introduces a lot of inconsistency, where you might find yourself really wanting to play an opening Trained Jackal but find yourself only holding Swamps and Mountains. That’s not such a problem in a slower deck, which is happy to give you some time to develop, but that 1/1 haste creature tends to look a helluva lot less exciting when played on turn four than on turn one.

If it’s underwhelming as an aggressive deck, you do at least have the fallback of evasion. This deck offers a number of ways to chip away at the life total of your opponent, should the ground game stall out. The Zodiac Monkey has forestwalk, while the Zodiac Dog has mountainwalk. Except, as the opposing deck has no Mountains it in, that Dog is going to be about as appealing as a Gray Ogre. At least the Monkey works.

You also have three creatures with horsemanship, which is a special mechanic that functions like flying introduced in Portal Three Kingdoms. Three of the deck’s dozen creatures have it, most notably the comparatively robust Wei Elite Companions making them something of a closer. The deck’s few spells tilt toward Black effects, like discard (Coercion, Deception) or killing (Ghostly Visit).

On the opposite side of the table, we see this:

Borrowing 100,000 Arrows
Unless somewhat mindless creature combat is your thing, this deck is the more entertaining one, because at least some of the creatures have enters-the-battlefield effects. Wu Scout, Council of Advisors, and Shu Grain Caravan are all smaller bodies as a result, but that simply lets them trade out with the relatively small attackers from the first deck while still getting some added benefit.

This deck also has a slightly deeper horsemanship theme, with its closer a functional equivalent to the first deck’s Wei Elite Companions in the Shu Elite Companions. A couple of the support spells highlight the trickery of Blue (Forced Retreat, Borrowing 100,000 Arrows), as well as some removal.

Playing these decks over and over against one another might be purgatory for a veteran player, but for their intended audience they got the job done. Each showcased some of the strengths and weaknesses of their respective colors, and illustrated Magic’s gameplay in a simple, more easily understood manner.

Those looking for a little more strategic depth weren’t neglected, thanks to the trio of Theme Decks the set also provided.

Although a little heavier on the mana curve than the term warrants, this is for all intents and purposes a “White Weenie” deck, Portal Three Kingdoms style. Cheap, early creatures like the Volunteer Militia, Shu Foot Soldiers, and evasive Shu Cavalry give some presence in the red zone, while Kongming, “Sleeping Dragon” acts as an anthem effect to make all of your creatures stronger. Multiple copies of Misfortune’s Gain and Vengeance assist Flanking Troops in keeping the attack lanes open, while a minor lifegain subtheme is represented by Shu Grain Caravan and Shu Farmer.

The Portal Three Kingdoms Theme Decks each contained a very generous three rares, the bulk of them legendary creatures. All of these were drawn from historical personages in the Three Kingdoms era. This deck also contained an Avenging Angel variant in Guan Yu, Sainted Warrior, and a sort of legendary creature combo in Liu Bei, Lord of Shu, who got a substantial buff if one of his leaders was on the field with him.

As you’d expect, the Mono-Blue offering has elements of control and permission, as well as a preference for evasion over direct confrontation. While a trio of Straw Soldiers can congest the red zone quite effectively, the Wu are happy to “rule the skies” with horsemanship cards ranging from the early Wu Light Cavalry to the Levitation-on-a-stick Sun Quan, Lord of Wu.

A pair of Wu Longbowman act as a sort of slow-motion Prodigal Sorcerer, able to snipe weenie creatures or try and influence potential blocking assignments (it’s unable to ping after the combat phase, so it can’t reactively finish off the wounded). Additional control elements are present in actual countermagic, hitting both sorceries (Extinguish) and creatures (Preemptive Strike). As with all the decks, this deck offers multiples of most of its cards, which gives solid consistency given the fact it’s two/thirds the size of a contemporary Constructed deck.

Cao Cao, Lord of Wei
Finally, we come to the more villainous Wei-themed deck, which plays heavily on the Black themes of disruption and removal. The creatures as a whole tend to be aggressively unbalanced in terms of stats, favoring a high power and low toughness skew as with Wei Infantry and Wei Strike Force. You might as well count Wei Ambush Force amongst their number, since you’re unlikely to be blocking with them unless you absolutely must.

The real fun of the deck is in blasting their hand away. A pair of Cunning Advisors strips away a card a turn, while Cao Cao, Lord of Wei can force the discard of two. Add in Deception, and your opponent is unlikely to be able to keep much of a hand going once you put your mechanisms of power into place. In the meantime, you can keep their creature count low through use of forced sacrifices like Imperial Edict and Wei Assassins and targeted removal through Ghostly Visit. And when your hand’s run dry, fill it right back up again with Ambition’s Cost!

Portal Three Kingdoms marked the end of the line for the Portal series. While come of the cards from the set have seen reprinting in products like the Commander decks, overall the set is often best-known for some of its most expensive offerings in the secondary card market, like Imperial Recruiter, Imperial Seal, and Capture of Jingzhou. Sadly for its fans (and it did have some), the Portal line just didn’t capture enough market to be worth the investment, and Wizards let it sunset.

Still, with one of the only two Magic expansions ever directly tied to real-life mythology (the other being Arabian Nights), Portal Three Kingdoms has made its mark on Magic’s historical landscape.

Were you playing when Portal Three Kingdoms was released? I’d love to hear some of your experiences below!

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