I started playing Magic back in 1997—it was a banner year for the game, celebrating brilliant new releases such as the largest core set to date, Fifth Edition, as well as expansion sets Visions, Weatherlight, and Tempest. These are some of my favorite sets for their flavor and storyline.
My friends and I did not celebrate all the set releases in 1997, however. There was one that we frowned upon and even mocked (we were 13, give me a break). That set was the beginner-focused Portal.
My friends and I avoided this set like the plague. First of all, there were no instants or interrupts in the set…all spells were playable at sorcery speed (unless the card indicated otherwise). There were no enchantments or artifacts in the set, either. The set used different vocabulary, which we found unnecessarily odd. Instead of a graveyard, you had a “discard pile”? Unacceptable. Cards included reminder text that felt excessive for us “seasoned players” (I say this with sarcasm).
But the worst problem of all: Portal cards weren’t tournament legal when they were released. Granted, my friends and I never actually played in any tournaments back then so it really didn’t matter. But the decree made the cards feel “lesser” as a result, and they were relegated to our bulk boxes or, worst yet, used for proxies (the picture below are actual proxies from my friend’s Slivers deck, made about 15 years ago).
Fast Forward to 2021
Nowadays, Portal cards still look a little different, but in an era of alternate frames, promotional artwork, and all sorts of card variations, Portal cards look relatively tame. Beyond just the normalization of the aesthetic, Portal cards’ relevancy was cemented on October 20, 2005 when they became tournament legal in Legacy and Vintage events. Their legality in Commander likely bolstered their collectability and legitimized them as collection-worthy cards.
What did this mean from an MTG finance standpoint? Suddenly, these cards had utility beyond just beginner-level kitchen table Magic. Because the set was already fairly old, and didn’t likely sell all that spectacularly, the cards may have suddenly become a bit of a collector’s item. At least, the powerful and unique cards from Portal were.
Now in 2021, the most playable cards from Portal are quite expensive! Sylvan Tutor and Personal Tutor take the number one and number two spots retailing for $109.99 and $94.99, respectively. You see, Portal contained some functional reprints or adjusted reprints (made into sorceries instead of instants), and this led to useful, redundant effects for games of Commander. Sylvan Tutor is a redundant Worldly Tutor and Personal Tutor functions as a duplicate Mystical Tutor, providing more consistency and tutor effects for Commander players.
This card is modeled off of Mirage favorite, Final Fortune. But Final Fortune was reprinted in Seventh Edition while Last Chance was only reprinted in Starter, another relatively under-opened set. And again, since Portal was relatively unpopular, cards from that set tend to be on the rarer side.
Another tutor takes the number four spot in Portal, Cruel Tutor. This was a toned-down, significantly worse version of Vampiric Tutor. But in the world of Commander and redundancy, a tutor is a tutor!
Lastly, I want to make an honorable mention to Endless Cockroaches, a Portal card that just reached an all-time high according to MTG Stocks. The card’s flavor is spot-on—no matter what you do to kill them, the cockroaches always come back. This ability can be a source of repeated triggers, such as for Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder. But in all honesty, the card has been reprinted in a Commander product so I’m not sure why the Portal version is hitting new highs. It’s worth noting that Card Kingdom has copies in stock at $3.99, so this could be a case of price manipulation on TCGplayer.
This could be a testament to the rarity and novelty of the Portal printing. Something to keep in mind, and could mean other Portal rares may continue to be subject to price manipulation over time.
Portal must not have been a complete bust, because Wizards of the Coast released two additional Portal sets.
Portal: Second Age was another non-tournament legal set released in June 1998. Again, there were no artifacts, enchantments, instants, or interrupts in the set. Two upgrades for the second Portal set were a) the use of standard terminology (no more “discard pile” verbiage, thank goodness) and b) the use of creature types. These were welcome updates.
However, there was a controversial aspect to the set in its flavor. The set has multiple cards that depict firearms, something that has been relatively absent from the multiverse of Magic. This was seen as a bit too real-world, and upset the traditional fantasy aficionados who prefer a world of swords, dragons, and magic.
Regardless of this small controversy, the set likely sold on par with the first Portal. This means these cards are probably quite rare, and again include some unique cards and functional reprints for use in Commander.
For example, the most valuable card from the set is Norwood Priestess, which retails for $109.99.
One read of the card, and you can quickly determine how powerful it can be if it’s allowed to survive on the battlefield for a turn. The second most valuable card from the set is a bit of a head-scratcher, and is a testament to the player base who collects bears, apparently: Razorclaw Bear.
This card isn’t particularly good, but Card Kingdom is sold out with a $64.99 price tag. I guess it can slot in with Ayula, Queen Among Bears for Commander, so that must be what catalyzed the card’s explosive growth. Rounding out the top five you have Temporal Manipulation (which used to be more expensive before its reprint) for $57.99, Piracy Charm for $22.99, and Deathcoil Wurm for $17.99.
A Brief Note on Portal III
There’s a third set in the series of beginner, Portal sets: Portal: Three Kingdoms. This set is the rarest, most unique, and most financially exciting of the three sets. In fact, it’s so special, that it merits its own, separate article. For that reason, this article is going to be broken down into two parts so that the right amount of space can be dedicated to this one-of-a-kind set.
The Double-Edged Sword of Portal Sets
Because Portal sets are already very old (23-24 years), rare, and contain many unique cards, you may come to the conclusion that they offer up some of the best investment opportunities in the game. To an extent, you’d be right. Anyone who speculated on the tutors, for example, when Commander was ramping up in popularity would have done quite well for themselves.
However, there’s a downside to speculating on these cards as well. Many of them have value and utility in Commander, where players need just a single copy for certain decks. Because these cards are so rare, a lot of their value is derived from their scarcity and this player demand. Any sort of sizable reprint could significantly hamper the card’s price.
For example, Temporal Manipulation is a Time Walk effect, so you know it’ll always have demand. A few years ago, this was a $100 card and was on track to climb even higher. Then it was reprinted in Ultimate Masters, and the card’s price dropped in half, to about $50. Ultimate Masters and Judge Promo copies are even cheaper, and the card also shows up on The List. Today, the Portal: Second Age printing still hasn’t recovered much of its loss and hovers around $60.
None of these cards are on the Reserved List, and this is an inherent risk to them. Any sizable reprint could absolutely crush their value. Granted, these novel printings from 1997-1998 are likely to maintain their value and carry a premium over the reprinted versions, but their upside potential would be severely stunted. Imagine if Norwood Priestess were to be reprinted in a future masters set—the implications for the card’s price would be dire. I can only imagine how far Razorclaw Bear could fall if it showed up in some future Commander product.
Wrapping It Up
Once unexciting and unallowed, Portal and Portal: Second Age cards are some very interesting investment ideas for MTG finance. The cards are rare, old, and some have unique effects that have not been seen in subsequent sets. Others are toned-down reprints, offering redundancy for Commander players.
While this presents some upside potential—especially if a new Commander card is printed that drives sudden demand (a la Razorclaw Bear)—there’s also some inherent risk. None of these cards are on the Reserved List, and because their value is somewhat tied to their rarity, a sudden surge in new copies entering the market could bode very poorly for their price. For this reason, it’s important not to go too deep with a single card from the set.
If you are interested in speculating on these sets, I’d recommend diversification. Picking up a smattering of interesting rares would limit your downside risk should a card or two get reprinted, while also increasing your chances of scoring a “hit”.
What’s the next hit going to be? I can’t pretend to predict. My advice would be to browse inventory on TCGplayer and Card Kingdom of the rares from the set and make note of any that seem to have low stock. If the card hasn’t been reprinted before, it is an even better idea. One that catches my eye by using this approach is Harsh Justice. It’s sold out on Card Kingdom, there are just a smattering of copies on TCGplayer, and the card has never been reprinted. I like this one so much, in fact, that I grabbed a playset while writing this article!
I’m sure there are others that can be found applying a similar approach. Perhaps the most enticing ideas are from Portal: Three Kingdoms. In that case, stay tuned for next week, when I dive deeper into this extremely rare, valuable set!