Theme Decks: A Second Age

Symbol of Unsummoning
A few weeks ago, we looked at the Quick Start: Rivals release, the first-ever Preconstructed product which hit the shelves in 1996. The question Rivals sought to answer remains as timely now as it was then. In short, how do we teach new players how to play Magic? And while the ways in which this question has been answered have widely varied, the fundamental answer has remained virtually unchanged: through simplification.

Think about it. The Rivals set took a pack of fairly basic, uncomplicated cards, then walked you through an entire game of Magic. The instruction manual told you what to do, play by play, hoping through a scripted duel that you’d start to understand the underpinnings of the game. Flash forward two decades, and you can walk into your Friendly, Local Gaming Store and find- you got it- thirty card “Welcome Decks,” which feature a card pool that rivals Rivals for simplicity.

This isn’t a knock or a slight. Magic is a very complicated game, with tons of moving parts and rules that can change or break on the fly with the casting of a single card. Boiling down the pot to a baseline, simple version of the game is almost necessary to attract and retain players. Today, we’re going one step further in our exploration of Preconstructed Magic. What lies beyond simplifying the card selection? How about when Wizards instead opted to simplify the entire game.

Released in May of 1997, Portal was designed as a version of Magic that would be familiar to existing players, but serve to onboard new players into the game through a much-streamlined and simplified card pool. Gone were things like enchantments and artifacts- every permanent was either a land or a creature. And instants? Forget it, Portal offered only sorceries in its card pool. Some of these were reprints of spells still known today (like Armageddon, Wrath of God, Lava Axe), while others were simply “sorcery versions” of common spells and effects (such as Alluring Scent standing in for Lure, or Symbol of Unsummoning for Unsummon).

Portal was not without some significant missteps. Chief amongst these was the decision to redo the well-established terminology of the game. In the quest for simplification, some of the more flavorful game terms existing players took for granted was reskinned. The library became the “deck,” and the graveyard became the “discard pile.” “Offense” and “defense” replaced power and toughness. And, most curiously, the simple and expressive “blocking” became “intercepting.”

Other changes were largely cosmetic. Offense and defense were graphically highlighted in the lower-right corner of the card with a sword and shield, to ensure players understood which number did what. Rules text were printed in bold, and a boundary line was drawn between flavor text and rules text, lest the two be confused.

In addition to the booster release, Portal did feature one offering in the way of Preconstructed Magic: the Starter Set. This was much like the Rivals release, containing a pair of 35-card decks and a “Play Guide” that walked you through your first game. What can you say about decks of singletons from a single release? High on variety but light on theme, these were really just ways to showcase to players what was available in the game, while guiding them on learning and exploring what Magic had to offer. And look, you even got a Storm Crow!

Despite its limitations, Wizards felt Portal was enough of a success to justify a sequel, and Portal Second Age was released just a little over a year later. Portal Second Age remedied some of its predecessor’s shortcomings, including a restoration of the standard Magic terminology. “The discard pile” was out, and “the graveyard” was back! While the creatures/sorceries composition of the original was retained, some sorceries had the ability to be played like instants (for instance, the Counterspell-variant Extinguish).

The changes didn’t stop at just the rules. Unlike the original, which was neutral in terms of setting and story, Portal Second Age was given its own little corner of the Dominaria to flesh out. The set was staged in the island of Caliman, amidst a struggle between peoples/races that were represented by color. Although few may remember the particulars of the story, what many players do recall about the set was that it was the first (and only) Magic set to prominently feature firearms. These were largely present in the White and Black tribes, on cards like Alaborn Zealot and Lurking Nightstalker. This was pretty striking at the time, and really helped the set stand out. For many at the time, firearms are a bit too much for a fantasy-setting game, but others (myself included) really enjoyed the change of pace the set afforded. Sadly (or happily), according to Head Designer Mark Rosewater it was decided following the set that firearms were not a flavor fir for Magic, and they’ve long since exited the stage.

For fans of Preconstructed Magic, there’s one more significant change that Portal Second Age made to the original formula: Theme Decks! The Second Age brought five decks along to showcase the themes of the set. Although they were still light of the conventional constructed deck size, weighing in at 40 cards, they did include multiple copies of most cards. Not only that, but each contained three rares, which meant you’d have a good chance at finding at least one of your deck’s “power cards” most games.

Let’s take a look at Portal Second Age, through the lens of the Preconstructed!

Martial Law — Portal Second Age Theme Deck| Wizards of the Coast

Each of the five Theme Decks were mono-colored, and unsurprisingly enough Martial Law was White. As such, it packs a high concentration of cheap, White creatures with a small complement of spells. Only the Green deck has fewer spells than this one, but one of them in particular stands out as central to the deck’s strategies: Armageddon.

The idea here was simple — play a bunch of fast White creatures, then nuke the board’s lands while you still have the creature advantage. This was, by miles, the splashiest rare card on offer. One of the remaining two was a 6-drop Angel that packs a more anemic punch than even a Serra Angel, but goes back to your library rather than your graveyard when killed. The other, a three-mana 2/2 that can tap to give another creature +2/+2. At sorcery speed, of course.

Spellweaver — Portal Second Age Theme Deck| Wizards of the Coast

Spellweaver was designed as a control deck. With the most spells of any of the five, you get some stalling/tempo plays like Exhaustion and Time Ebb, along with a countermagic suite (False Summoning, Mystic Denial). Most of the deck’s creatures either have flying (Talas Air Ship, Talas Explorer) or evasion (the rare Talas Warrior), and the pair of Air Elementals make for ideal closers. Add in some card draw (Talas Researcher, Touch of Brilliance) to keep you ahead in cards, and you have a Blue deck that would be recognizable in any set.

Like the previous two decks, The Nightstalkers showcases themes and strategies that tend to be fairly close to the center of the color’s mechanical identity. Discard is a heavy component, with two different creatures bringing along a discard rider (Abyssal Nightstalker, Brutal Nightstalker) as well as the classic Mind Rot.

Killing things is also high on the deck’s priorities, with a couple of Edict effects in Cruel Edict and Predatory Nightstalker, and Hand of Death for removal. There’s also a bit of a tribal component in the very narrow Return of the Nightstalkers, which brings them all into play from your graveyard before effectively hitting you with a one-sided Armageddon.

Goblin Fire — Portal Second Age Theme Deck| Wizards of the Coast

The deployment similarities of White and Red are nicely illustrated by the comparison of both decks in Portal Second Age. Whereas the White deck wanted to drop a swarm before blowing up all the lands with Armageddon, Goblin Fire looks to back up the swarm with burn spells. Blaze, Wildfire, and Volcanic Hammer all offer the application of direct damage, while Goblin War Strike marries that theme to a tribal Goblins element. Relentless Assault, a reprint from Visions, ties the whole thing together by letting you take a second attack after the first. With a horde of inexpensive Goblins at your disposal, it’s a great way to shut the game down early before the quality of creatures on the board tilts too far in your opponent’s favor.

Nature’s Assault — Portal Second Age Theme Deck| Wizards of the Coast

As mentioned above, this deck has the least number of spells in the set, and therefore the highest number of creatures. It goes all-in on red zone combat and attempting to either out-size or outflank the opposition. Tellingly, it spends two of its three rare slots recreating the classic Lure-Basilisk combo with Alluring Scent and Sylvan Basilisk.

These decks weren’t world-beaters, but they did a great job of introducing new players to the deeper elements of Magic that have made the game a compelling one for more than twenty years. For all that Rivals Quick Start and the Portal Starter Set tried, there just wasn’t enough depth to them to do a great job capturing the player’s imagination. They were mainly just playable collections of cards.

Portal Second Age’s legacy was to add theme to that. Discard, burn, permission, these decks were formed around a cohesive game plan that revealed the game’s depth and variety. We’ve seen history repeat itself in the Sample Decks/Welcome decks, which have themselves ranged from “collections of cards” to something cohesive. Just as many of the early Core Set Intro Packs did.

Finding ways to appeal to new players, it seems, isn’t the only theme that seems to recur throughout the history of the game.

Were you an active player during Portal or Portal Second Age? Share some memories with us below!

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