Portal - Magic: The Gathering's (Weird) Beginner's Set

It’s the mid-1990s and Magic: The Gathering has taken the tabletop gaming scene by storm.

Despite its quick success, however, it had a problem.  And that would be in making the game (which had grown from a single set in August of 1993 to five editions of core sets and 11 expansions by the end of 1996) approachable for new players.

To that end, Wizards of the Coast had an idea.  It’s an idea that would provide new players a “portal” into the world of Magic: The Gathering by making it as approachable and as simple as possible to get started.

Both designed and developed with Bill Rose as its lead and employing the talents of Mike Elliot, Henry Stern, and a relatively recently hire by the name of Mark Rosewater, Portal was created to be Magic: The Gathering’s first starter-level set and was designed with newcomers in mind.

To help with this, rules text on cards was presented in bold-face with reminder text presented in italics just as it does still today.  Furthermore, cards with flavor text on them have an elongated diamond-shaped line separating rules and reminder text from flavor text so that players can better tell the two apart within a card’s text box.

Also as a means by Wizards to push accessibility and simplicity for new players, the 215-card set introduced no new mechanics, keywords, or anything else to the game.

In fact, the set’s design and development teams decided to actually remove things from the game as a way to make Portal as approachable as they could.


In the name of simplicity, Portal has no enchantments or artifacts.  It also didn’t have any instants.  Rather, all one-and-done spells in the set are sorceries.  That said, there are some spells (such as the card Assassin’s Blade) that instruct players exactly when they could be played even if that timing is not what would typically be considered sorcery speed.

While cards like these might seem odd, they served a simple purpose of avoiding spell speed interactions as well as “the stack,” which was much more complicated before the game’s Sixth Edition rules overhaul in 1999.

In the time since, however, these timing-specific sorcery spells have been eratta’d into being instant, making cards Mystic Denial, a type of counterspell, much less awkward.

Also, creatures in Portal did not have creature types as they have in all other sets up to then.  Instead, each creature simply had the line “Summon Creature” regardless of what they appear to be.  Like with those awkward, timing-specific sorcery spells, this has also been eratta’d over time to reflect what kind of creature these creature spells are.

But the changes in Portal go even beyond that as even a number of the terms are changed in the name of simplification.

Known game words such as “block,” “graveyard,” and “library,” are not used in Portal.  Instead, these terms were changed to “intercept,” discard pile,” and “deck.”  While these new, replacement terms are intuitive and approachable to new players, they don’t match up when a new player advances beyond the starter set and into a normal Magic set such as Weatherlight, which came out just one month after the launch of Portal.

Portal also added two new icons to cards.

Found only on creature cards, a small sword and shield icon can be seen embedded into the power and toughness of a creature.  Of all of the alterations to Magic made in Portal in the name of simplification and intuitiveness, this is considered by many to be the best.  It’s one that some players even today wish Wizards of the Coast would have folded into future sets.

With all of these alterations to how Magic: The Gathering is played, one might think that Portal would be panned.  As it would turn out, the starter-level set actually received good reviews from gaming media at the time with Jeff Hannes of the magazine InQuest saying in the July 1997 issue that the set features cards that are “clean, simple, and concise,” and that the set overall is “an outstanding tool for beginners” and “does an outstanding job…to bring new players into the game at a less-daunting level.”

With players, however, feedback was not quite so glowing.  In short, established players heavily disliked the set as it actually made it more difficult for them to teach the game to their friends “the right way.”  Even those whom had been playing just a short while before Portal’s debut found the simplifications employed within it to be off-putting and confusing compared to existing Magic cards and terminology.

And, it didn’t help that Portal cards were not legal to play in any format.

In fact, starter-level cards of any kind (including those that came after the release of Portal) would be illegal to play in sanctioned Magic play.  It’s something that would remain true all the way until October 20, 2005, when Portal and all other starter-level cards would finally be given the green light to be played in Legacy, Vintage, and other relevant formats.

Still, that didn’t stop Wizards of the Coast from jumping into the deep end of the pool with Portal.

The company launched a major advertising campaign that included commercials on MTV and in popular television shows at the time.  Free Portal demo-game boosters were also given out as a means to raise awareness of the set and of Magic: The Gathering to non-Magic players as well.  These packs contained 24 Portal cards, though, for one reason or another, some of the cards found in these packs were printed differently than the same cards that could be found in normal Portal booster packs.

Despite all of this, Portal, which was sold in 15-card boosters as well as a two-player starter set that contained two 35-card pre-constructed decks and a few other items designed to help players learn the game of Magic, did have some rather decent cards in it.  The set even debuted a handful of cards that would see print in future Magic sets:

  • Blaze, an X-damage spell that was last seen in Jumpstart 2022;
  • Exhaustion, which made its “normal” Magic set debut in Urza’s Saga;
  • Lava Axe, a Core Set staple that was last printed in 2019;
  • Personal Tutor, a card that sees play in Commander and Legacy that finally got its first reprint in 2023’s Commander Masters;
  • Phantom Warrior, an unblockable 2/2 for 1UU that was most recently reprinted in Core Set 2020;
  • Raging Goblin, a hasty 1/1 that would make it’s “normal” Magic debut in 1998’s Exodus;
  • Snapping Dragon, which last saw print in Core Set 2020;
  • Volcanic Hammer, a card that actually saw tournament play once it was reprinted in 7th Edition;
  • Wind Drake, a card that was last seen in the set Kaladesh in 2016, and;
  • Wood Elves, a mana-ramping creature that still sees play in Commander.  It’s most recent reprint was in the Tales of Middle Earth commander decks.

As for reprints, Portal had a whopping 44 of them.  And that’s not to mention functional reprints – that is, a reprint in all aspects save for the card’s name – such as Pillaging Horde, which is a functional reprint of Balduvian Horde from Alliances or Cruel Bargain, which is a functional reprint of Infernal Contract from Mirage – or cards that were sorcery versions of cards that were otherwise instants in previous sets, such as the cards Boiling Seas, which is a sorcery reprint of Boil from Tempest or Sylvan Tutor, which is a sorcery version of Worldly Tutor from Mirage.

But, in getting back to those 44 actual reprints, Portal had a number of snoozers that made sense for a set meant for beginners such as:

But it also had a handful of surprisingly strong-for-the-time reprints (some of which are still pretty good today), like:

  • Archangel from Visions which was (at the time) considered a strong finisher for white decks;
  • Armageddon (last seen in Fifth Edition) which is a board-wipe for lands;
  • Hurricane (also last seen in Fifth Edition), which is an X-spell that damages players and creatures with flying;
  • Natural Order from Visions, which lets players swap out a green creature they control for one from their deck;
  • Pyroclasm from Ice Age, a card that deals two damage to all creatures;
  • Mana ramp spell Untamed Wilds from Legends, and;
  • Wrath of God, at the time the strongest and most effective creature board-wipe in the game.

Other cards of note found in Portal include:

  • Cruel Tutor, which has found a home in Commander since starter-level cards became legal to play in late 2005;
  • Devastation, a rather expensive board wipe that takes out not just all creatures in play, but all lands in play as well;
  • Ebon Dragon, a creature card that’s become quite desirable amongst Magic players and collectors not for what it is, but for the amazing artwork on it courtesy of Donato Giancola, and;
  • Mobilize, which lets you untap all of your creatures at (at sorcery speed, of course) at the low-low-cost of a single green mana.

Even with some decent reprints and some cards that are actually worth a mention, because Portal was so different from base Magic and due to the cards not being legal in sanctioned play, the set simply wasn’t well regarded overall.

Because of this, or maybe in spite of it, Wizards of the Coast would try again the following year with the set Portal: Second Age, but that’s a topic for a different time.

Barry White

Barry White is a longtime Magic: The Gathering player, having started in 1994 shortly before the release of 'Fallen Empires.' After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno, he went on to a 15-year journalism career as a writer, reporter, and videographer for three different ABC affiliate newsrooms.