By the late 1990s, Magic: The Gathering had already made it's way across North America and Europe. The collectible card game had even begun making inroads into South America, Australia, and New Zealand. One major market, however, hadn't yet had a big push: Asia.
While plans for Korea, Japan, and a few other countries in the area were in the works (with Japan in particular expanding fast in only a few years time), the overall market was still largely untapped enough to warrant some special projects.
Wizards of the Coast did a few things, such as the APAC land promotion in 1998, but with Magic eyeing an expansion into China, they felt the area needed its own set to help beginners there learn. And that set should be locally flavored.
That's where Portal Three Kingdoms came in.
Released in 1999, Portal Three Kingdoms (P3K) was the third set in Magic: The Gathering's Portal line of beginner products. Deciding to focus on one of China's most celebrated past eras of history, one commonly referred to as Three Kingdoms, Wizards tasked Henry Stern (who studied rocket design prior to joining WotC in 1996) to design and develop the set. The company then released it with large printings in two Chinese variants as well as in Japanese and in English. The English version, by the way, was not designed to be sold in North America.
P3K may have a bit of a risk at the time not just because Wizards of the Coast wanted to go more into the Asian market, but also because the set was being based upon actual history and real people (which is something Magic rarely goes into). As such, the company tried to be as true to the source material as possible, akin to how Richard Garfield treated the source material for MTG's first expansion, Arabian Nights.
To the game company's credit, all of the set's artwork was done by Chinese artists with art direction led by Chinese-American Li Tie. The set's symbol the Chinese symbol for the number three. Furthermore, most of the set's flavor text came directly the novel Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel by Guanzhong Luo. The Chinese zodiac animals even made an appearance as cards.
Along with the APAC lands, P3K helped successfully expand the game into Asia. Because of the low number of available English-language cards, however, and the fact that the cards weren't DCI sanctioned (at least, not in the West), P3K more-or-less petered out as an oddity outside of its intended target market. That is, until 2005.
That year, the cards were made legal for Vintage and Legacy play and, later, for Commander. These new reasons to own and play these cards quickly lead to a flurry of higher prices as demand rose. Due to the rarity of English-language versions with one card -- Imperial Seal -- being worth nearly $1,700.
Mark Rosewater, in a 2001 interview with PC Gamer Magazine, even said of the set that "They were designed as introductory products for beginners to learn Magic, so we had no plans for them to be tournament legal. We did playtest them, but not with the same kind of rigor we do for a tournament-legal product. At the time we made them, we thought some Magic players might want them from a novelty standpoint, but didn’t foresee how sought-after they would become, again because we never thought they’d have tournament relevance."
Today, the Portal Three Kingdoms cards have popped up here and there as a reprint, but these new frame versions pale in comparison to the retro frame originals as far as collectability and monetary value. And while the original P3K cards can be pricey, their more simplified nature harken back to early Magic cards and can still pack a punch -- all from an expansion that had one single goal: Expanding Magic: The Gathering to the East.