Tarot deck publishing is big business. There is, it seems, a deck out there for EVERYONE no matter the theme.
But, when faced with so much choice, what should you consider before investing in a deck?
For me, 3 things are of primary importance:
- Visual Communication
- Production Quality
There are a few other aspects that I’ll go into later, but these are my top three and why:
1. Visual Communication:
Tarot is, ultimately, a form of communication. This is what most readers refer to in decks as their “readability” — that is, how well did the artist manage to communicate both the essence of the card itself, and their particular take on the principles the card embodies.
Consider the following questions when looking at the card’s images:
- Can you immediately tell which card is which, without necessarily reading the title?
- Are all the cards different enough that you can tell them apart from one another?
- Is the artwork appealing, and/or evocative? Does it elicit a feeling or reaction in you?
- Are the images and symbols familiar enough to you that you can derive meaning from them without needing to refer to the LWB?
2. Production Quality:
If a deck passes the first test, and is something I feel I would be able to use and read with, especially if I really love it based on the first criteria, then I want the thing to last — so the card stock should be of a good quality.
I also want to be able to handle it, meaning that:
- it should be a size that feels comfortable in the hand
- the surfaces should have good tactility (they should feel good!) — not too slippery, not too sticky
- the edges should be perfectly even when the deck is stacked, and those same edges should not be so sharp that they cut into me when shuffling
- it should shuffle easily, not too flimsy, not too thick, with a good “snap” — cardstock needn’t be especially thick to have good snap, and those that are thinner can also have good snap
- the finish should be stable — so the ink should not scratch or scuff too easily, nor wear off after only a few uses. One advantage to white borders and lighter color cards is that they wear better over time; darker decks tend to scuff and wear faster if they are not given adequate finishing treatments from the production house
This is the deal-breaker for me. While I love seeing all the various nuances of the reiterations of classic decks, the subtle insights that each artist applies to their versions of tarot, I also have to feel that the deck provides something new and original that has not been seen or explored yet in tarot, or reveals something that other decks hide, or adds a new layer of understanding.
There are many decks that do this — some of them stick fairly closely to the Marseilles, Waite-Smith, or Thoth/Golden Dawn systems, but express them in new and interesting ways; others stray much further, while still retaining the tarot’s essential structure of 22 Majors and four suits of 14 cards each.
Basically, I have to feel that a deck is different from everything else I own for me to want to add it to my collection.
What you consider original is entirely subjective of course, and owning and comparing very similar decks can be rather enriching.
If I opened my new deck checklist beyond 3 main requirements, here are a few others I’d consider:
I know, I know, for many of us aesthetics are the first thing we look at: “it’s so pretty” or “I just love the art!”
Aesthetics is of course a very important consideration, but it is not essential in my opinion.
But wait, aren’t “Visual Communication” and “Aesthetics” the same thing?
No, not necessarily. If an artist can communicate visually in a way that is also aesthetically appealing, great! But sometimes the most effective art is not “pretty.”
Some of the most useful and readable decks aren’t necessarily the prettiest. For example, I find the Waite-Smith Tarot… um, not aesthetically appealing (this is of course personal taste, so please don’t hate me for saying it!) but there are reasons why it has been a staple for the last hundred years: it is readable — it fulfills requirements 1. and 3. (as is was very original at the time! And the originality of Pamela Coleman Smith’s images have since become iconic).
Similarly, the aesthetic of most Marseille-style decks are not so appealing to me either, but they are direct in communicating concepts even if they are sometimes abstract. And, there is a certain beauty in that efficacy.
Conversely, I have had a number of decks that are absolutely beautiful, but do not fulfil the first 3 requirements and therefore have been nearly useless to me.
So, not long ago, I’d have placed aesthetics above all, but now the aesthetic beauty of a deck is far less important than its ability to express — and expression is sometimes rough, raw, ugly, or otherwise not one’s personal taste.
Have you ever bought a deck that you loved completely except for one or a few cards?
This might be a continuity issue — the artist may have lost the target of their original vision, or that target may not have been clear to start with.
Often the draw toward any deck or any artist’s body of work is the world they pull you into. A deck is a chance for an artist to develop many facets of that world (or one of the artist’s many worlds) and is also a chance to express their view or approach to the spiritual quest.
So one thing I look at in new decks is the artist’s ability to express an overall vision. This is often why theme decks are popular — they keep a continuity across the deck and help to prevent the artist from veering too far from an overarching message.
6. Supporting Information
This is not essential for every deck. In fact, I have a few decks that fulfil all the above requirements yet don’t have a stitch of supporting information — and I actually appreciate the lack of supporting info, as it allows me to explore the deck on my own, attach my own associations to it, and work with it in the ways that I see fit.
Nonetheless, nothing beats good, solid supporting information… especially when the deck is particularly unique, or the artist’s/creator’s vision differs greatly from (or adds greatly to) the current understanding of tarot as a whole.
When we buy new decks, we are at varying stages of our tarot development — at some stages we use the supporting information more heavily, to grow our understanding from an external mirror; while at other stages we use the supporting information very little, if at all, developing a more personal and interior relationship with tarot. Neither stage is “better” and over time we’ll usually find that we spiral from benefitting from exterior information to interior experience, and each time in or out is built upon our previous layers within and without.
Consider this when buying new decks. That is, determine if you are leaning more toward a stage where you would use the supporting information to challenge and expand your existing knowledge, or whether you’re at a stage where the lack of additional exterior language will help you tap your inner reserves through the deck alone. And sometimes, of course, it’s beneficial to get a deck that has quality supporting information, even if you will not utilize it at your current stage.
Beyond these points, there are many others — but it ultimately comes down to this:
The best tarot deck is the one you will use
You may even look through your existing tarot library with these points in mind, and find that you have a “new” deck already on your shelf — it just needs to be looked at from a fresh perspective and then used to draw out the wisdom inherent within you, that each deck merely reflects.
You may also enjoy this post on what to do with your new deck once you have it 🙂