If you missed last week’s article, I covered the prizes and pitfalls of two Magic sets from the late 1990’s: Portal and Portal: Second Age. Both were designed with beginners in mind, leaving out instants, enchantments, and artifacts and used different verbiage in an attempt to make the game more approachable to newcomers. Because the set wasn’t tournament legal when it was printed, it put a damper on demand.
When Portal sets were made legal, it opened up opportunities. These Portal sets contained functional reprints or near-reprints, meaning increased redundancy for certain effects (e.g. tutoring) in games of Commander. The set suddenly went from being useless with little value, to containing various gems with rising value.
But there’s another Portal set I didn’t cover last week, which I intend to cover this week. It’s the most exciting of the three Portal sets, containing some extremely rare and valuable cards. Of course, I’m talking about none other than Portal: Three Kingdoms.
A Little Background
Before diving into the financial component, I want to touch on a bit of history. According to MTG Wiki, Portal: Three Kingdoms was designed for the Asian market and was not sold in North America and released in May 1999. The set was mostly printed in Japanese, Simplified Chinese, and Traditional Chinese; only a tiny amount of product was printed in English, to be sold in Australia and New Zealand. This makes the English printings of these cards some of the rarest in the entire game!
To make things even more interesting, the set was based in flavor from the Three Kingdoms time period in Chinese history. The real-life references made the set very special, as it was the first one to reference real-life people and places since Legends (and it’s something Wizards hasn’t really done much of since). The artwork for the entire set was produced by Chinese artists to provide a more authentic feel, and the idea really worked well. I personally love the art and flavor of the set.
Taking everything together, you have an older set, initially not legal for tournaments, never released in North America, with unique flavor and feel—this makes for one of the rarest, most collectible, and most valuable sets in the history of Magic!
So Much Value
I don’t think it’s far-fetched to assume that most players in North America prefer English cards, especially in casual circles. Portal: Three Kingdoms would be no exception. Given the fact that the English printing was the smallest, it makes for some very hard-to-find and valuable cards in the set.
Let’s touch on a few examples.
The most valuable card in the set is Imperial Seal, which retails for $1599.99.
This near-functional reprint of Vampiric Tutor has only been reprinted once, as a judge promo, and is extremely hard to find in English. Cheaper copies exist in Chinese and Japanese, but acquiring a playset of English copies of this card years ago would have yielded jaw-dropping returns.
The next most valuable card is far less powerful: Zodiac Dragon.
A nine mana 8/8 is a fairly unimpressive stat, and the card’s rules text isn’t all that impressive. I don’t think being able to play this card again and again after it dies is enough to make it a strong contender. The only thing going for this card is its creature type: it’s a dragon. Any dragon collectors looking to buy one copy of every dragon ever printed will have to pay up for this never-before-reprinted card. As a result, it retails for $999.99!
Rounding out the top five most valuable cards in the set, you have Warrior's Oath (a functional reprint of Final Fortune) for $599.99, Ravages of War (functional reprint of Armageddon) for $549.99, and Capture of Jingzhou (functional reprint of Time Warp for $499.99. Warrior's Oath has never been reprinted and the other two have both been judge promos.
Did you notice how many of the valuable cards in the set are functional reprints or near-reprints of other cards? This is a major theme in Portal: Three Kingdoms—there are dozens of functional reprints, ranging from Ambition's Cost (Ancient Craving) to Zodiac Tiger (Heartwood Treefolk).
As I discussed last week, functional reprints of Commander-playable cards can be extremely useful as they offer redundancy in a deck. When you can only play one copy of any card in a deck, having multiple cards with different names that do the same thing can add much-needed consistency. What’s better than playing one Time Warp in a commander deck? Playing two Time Warps! (or, thanks to Portal’s Temporal Manipulation, three!)
A functional reprint doesn’t have to be all-powerful to be valuable, either. Three Visits is a functional reprint of Nature's Lore. The card is useful, for sure, especially because it lets you search up a Dual Land with multiple basic land types. But players want to play a second copy of this card in their deck enough to bolster the functional reprint’s price up to about $40! Did I mention this is a common?! The card would be even more valuable if it wasn’t recently reprinted in Commander Legends, by the way.
All Those Legends
Another value-driving component of Portal: Three Kingdoms is the long list of legendary creatures in the set. I don’t necessarily think many of these are commander all-stars, mind you, but it only takes a handful of players demanding the cards to drive up their prices.
The most valuable legendary creature in the set is Yuan Shao, the Indecisive, which retails for $279.99
I’m not sure how powerful its ability is, but it seems like a commander that comes with a free Familiar Ground is pretty solid. As a bonus, the creature is red so you can play Goblin War Drums in your 99 and make all your creatures unblockable! Not that you need that anyways…Yuan Shao, the Indecisive has horsemanship, which virtually means its unblockable anyway.
While we’re on the subject, let’s talk briefly about horsemanship. The ability is the set’s parallel to flying, in that a creature with horsemanship can only be blocked by other creatures with horsemanship. Flavor-wise, it’s a really cool bit of flavor for this set, when considered in a vacuum. When taken as an ability in the broader game of Magic, however, it virtually means your creature is unblockable. Unless you have a certain local metagame focused around Portal: Three Kingdoms, you won’t be running into many opponents with creatures that have horsemanship.
Many of the legendary creatures in this set have the ability, and it could be an additional factor driving up their prices.
Zhang Fei, Fierce Warrior is a six mana 4/4 with vigilance and horsemanship, for example, and it retails for $229.99 (and Card Kingdom is sold out at that price!). Other examples of expensive legendary creatures with horsemanship include Cao Ren, Wei Commander and Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed. The list is quite lengthy, and any legendary creature from the set will be worth a pretty decent amount. The cheapest rare of the set is Lu Bu, Master-at-Arms and even that card still retails for $16.99, and I suspect this is the cheapest because it was the set’s prerelease card.
The next cheapest rare, by the way, is Ambition's Cost, a card that has been reprinted a half dozen times, including in Eighth Edition as an uncommon, and the Portal: Three Kingdoms printing still retails for $29.99.
Weighing Upside and Downside Risk
I could go on and on listing the valuable cards of this set. But the reality is, you really need to browse through it yourself to find all the gems—there are just so many! I liken this set to Legends in a way, because they both contain so many unique legendary creatures with a surprising amount of value. But I would be remiss if I didn’t touch upon the upside and downside potential of the set before wrapping up the article.
The upside is pretty obvious. English printings of any and all of the cards in the set have some value, including the basic lands. Any rare is going to be especially valuable, especially if the card hasn’t been reprinted and has utility in a game of commander. As I browse some of the more popular cards in the set on TCGplayer, I’m seeing an extremely small amount of copies in stock—it kind of reminds me of Alpha in how sparse the inventory is.
You can see the drastic difference between the lowest listing and the market price—sellers are already anticipating a much higher price on these cards. Either that, or they have no desire to sell until the price is significantly higher.
Card Kingdom prides itself on its large inventory, but even they are out of stock or low in stock of many of the set’s cards. To me, this indicates potential for upside—they will keep increasing their buy prices until they restock the card. But since these cards are so rare, it may take a while before anyone comes forward with copies they’re willing to sell. English copies in particular have very high ceilings because of this.
But there is a trap with these cards that any prospective investor/speculator needs to consider before diving in. None of this set’s cards are on the Reserved List. They are all vulnerable to reprint in a big way. I have a personal experience with this.
About a decade ago, I picked up a nice English copy of Diaochan, Artful Beauty.
Beyond the beautiful artwork, I also thought the card would make an interesting commander from a political standpoint. I don’t remember precisely what the card cost me, but I want to say it was in the $30’s or $40’s. It had a steady, upward trajectory as the card aged, and I liked its upside potential; its buylist price was rapidly climbing, and I remember the temptation of cashing out at around $60 or $70.
Then in 2012 it was reprinted in Commander’s Arsenal. Suddenly there were copies that could be bought for less than $10, and it used the exact same artwork as the original (with updated, easier-to-understand rules text to boot)!
“But Sig, the original printing of the card still maintains its value despite the reprint. We see this all the time.”
That’s a valid point, but misses an important detail: the potential price of the card if it wasn’t reprinted. This is impossible to determine absolutely, but it’s very safe to say that original Portal: Three Kingdoms copies of Diaochan, Artful Beauty would be much more valuable if it hadn’t been reprinted.
Because cards from Portal: Three Kingdoms are so rare, their value is buoyed significantly by their rarity. As a result, they are very vulnerable to significant price declines should they be reprinted. While Wizards of the Coast has been careful with how they reprint cards from this set (often as judge promos with limited distribution), there’s always that risk lingering in the background. As a result, while I think these are brilliant long-term investments, I advocate diversifying and buying only one or two copies of multiple cards rather than going deep on a single one.
Wrapping It Up
I could have gone on for another two thousand words, this set is so fascinating from a flavor and a value standpoint. But I think you get the point. English Portal: Three Kingdoms is one of the rarest sets in the game, contains unique cards with unique abilities, and can offer redundancy in the form of many functional reprints.
This is a recipe for an extremely valuable set.
As such, I highly recommend including a few cards from the set in your Magic collection / investment. Even if money isn’t your primary motivator, the response on your opponents’ faces when you slam a creature with horsemanship on the table is well worth it. Better yet, playing Riding the Dilu Horse on your commander, granting it horsemanship, would be an even greater surprise. Be prepared to ask, “How much commander damage do you have?” over and over again.
Just be careful when buying cards from this set, as they are highly vulnerable to reprints from a value standpoint. These cards derive much of their value from their rarity, and a reprint could have a profound, negative impact on their price. Of course, over the long haul, the original Portal: Three Kingdoms printing will maintain value even in the face of a reprint. But the upside potential can be severely capped should a reprint be too large. Despite this, I am going to do some shopping for a couple Portal: Three Kingdoms cards myself so I can appreciate this rare gem from Magic’s history.