Choosing The Right Tarot Deck

June 26, 2009

It is surprising how many people are attracted to The Tarot! People from every country, profession and religion are drawn to the Tarot and buy numerous decks. It is not commonly known that there are over 1000 Tarot decks available on the market, with more being created and published every year, and there are thousands of books dedicated to The Tarot as well. So, for those new to the Tarot, there is a wide range of decks and books to choose from.  But you may ask; It only takes one deck for a Tarot reading, so why buy any more?

There are two reasons. The first is that some people are in search of the ‘perfect deck’: The deck that they click with instantly, love the look of, and can read with very well. Such a deck is, however, hard to find, and it differs from Tarot reader to Tarot reader, depending on religion, spirituality, gender, taste in artwork, and how much they know about Tarot as well as other things less specific. The second reason is that ‘some people simply want to collect Tarot decks’!

We know of people who collect stamps, postcards, thimbles, and other curious miscellanies, so really Tarot deck collecting is no different. Usually the collector wants to collect Tarot decks because of the varying artwork, the themes of each deck, the associations of the deck with famous books, films, people, or because the deck is slightly unusual. For the Tarot collector, a deck is a wealth of knowledge, especially the unusual ones: Those that have ‘themes’ such as Arthurian Legend, the Kalevala, Fairies, or Goddesses’. With decks such as these, one can learn far more about the subject of the deck than one expected.

Whatever the reason for buying Tarot decks however, people always face the same dilemma:

How do I know which one to get? This question is more important to the person searching for the perfect deck to read with than to the collector. The person searching for their perfect deck though, often does not want more than one deck, and does not want to waste money on decks that they will not be able to use. This is perfectly reasonable, considering the high prices of decent decks, which range from around $5.00 to anything around $125.00, with still other decks which are either rare, out of print, or privately published costing much more than this. So, we shall look at some tips on how to choose the Tarot deck that is right for you.

When I say ‘perfect deck’ I do not mean that there is one deck out there which is better than all others. Instead I mean that each person will naturally be able to use a particular deck more effectively than others, and he or she will usually be attracted to one deck more than the rest. This usually happens when you first see pictures of the deck and admire the artwork or the approach it has. Because this instant attraction is triggered initially by the artwork of the deck, people will feel repulsed by some decks yet drawn to others, all depending on their character and tastes. This sounds like a good way to choose a deck, doesn’t it? Just look at some examples of the cards in a deck on the Internet maybe or in a friend’s deck, and then go and buy it.

Unfortunately, this is not the best way to choose the ‘perfect deck’. Just because something looks attractive to you does not mean you will be able to understand it, get along with it, or use it. You may buy a deck which looks good, get it home, start using it, and, no matter how much you already know about Tarot, and no matter how experienced you are at readings, you cannot read with the deck. You don’t agree with the deck’s ‘ approach’ or theme. You find the symbols inaccessible or badly chosen, or you find the correspondences for the cards do not fit into your way of seeing things. So, be careful when buying a deck just because of its artwork! I have done this far too many times, and remember many decks which looked great, and even seemed easy to read and symbolic, but which had diverted so drastically from the Tarot deck I was familiar with, that they were, sadly, unreadable.

The worst things you can do when looking for your perfect deck, is to buy the deck based solely on its box or on one card you have seen. Here, you may come across the same problems as with buying the deck because of the artwork, but there is another added problem: Often, the card on the box or cover of the deck, or the one card you saw when the deck was being advertised, is either the only card you like in the whole deck, or the only card which could be construed as readable!  This is because of the harsh truth that there are some really bad decks available, which are so terrible that nobody wants to read with them.

Here is another way to choose a Tarot deck, which is slightly better than choosing based solely on the artwork. Today we have the opportunity of using the Internet, which can serve as a formidable resource for Tarot. On the Internet are dozens of sites with hundreds of free reviews of  Tarot decks, written by people from all around the world. These free reviews tell the reader about the artwork of the deck, its theme or approach, any symbolic systems it uses and other information about the deck.  Whether the images are too cluttered or easy on the eye, and who the deck would appeal to, e.g. – Advanced readers or beginners, children, sensitive people, erotica fans, Pagans, Christians, Buddhists… The list goes on, since there are decks out there which cater to all kinds of people! Often, the reviews also include free images of the Tarot cards, and a description and further review of any accompanying book which may come with the deck as well as the author’s personal reaction to the deck, and how they found it when using it.

As I said previously, this is a better way of choosing a Tarot deck than the first way, but it still isn’t perfect. This is because the reviewer of the deck may be totally different to you, and thus have a different opinion of the deck’s theme, artwork, and readability, causing you to possibly bypass a deck which you probably would have liked were it not for the review you read about it. When looking at reviews of decks, make sure you read at least a couple of reviews of each deck you are considering buying: That way you get a wider view of the deck, and the problem of the reviewer being different to you is somewhat alleviated. It also happens sometimes that some reviewers pick up on aspects of the deck that other reviewers missed, so by reading multiple reviews of the same deck, you are alleviating yet another potential problem!

Along the same lines as reviews are word-of-mouth recommendations or recommendations from books written about Tarot. The most common of these is when you have a friend who is also studying Tarot, and recommends you get a deck she thinks is better than most others. Usually this deck is one the friend uses. Just like the reviews, a friend is often quite different to you when it comes to tastes in art and symbolic system: You may be almost identical to each other in some ways, but when it comes to symbolic systems, it is often the case that the two of you will prefer totally different ones. Nobody is quite sure why we prefer certain symbolic systems over others, but certainly background and religion influence our choices. For instance, Christians are less likely to use a deck which has Goddesses as it’s symbolic system than a Pagan is, and those who detest mathematics probably will prefer all other systems except numerology.

Decide on a top ten list from those that take your fancy. At this stage, it doesn’t matter if you are only attracted by the name or the artwork, because usually you will find something that speaks to you through more than just these features. When you have your top 10 list, read the reviews. Eventually, you will have scaled your deck list down to around 3, and at this point it’s time to get on some message boards and ask other peoples’ opinions. http://www.aeclectic.net, as well as having loads of brilliant reviews written by a wide range of people, has a wonderful message board, full of Tarot lovers. On this board there is a forum entitled ‘Tarot Decks’ where you can ask questions about any deck you wish in order to get more information about it, opinions on it, and possibly links to other reviews of it.

But what criteria do you use to get your list scaled down to three? Some important questions to ask, or things to look out for are:

– Artwork. I know I said it was a bad thing to choose a deck solely for the art, but in the overall choice, it is better that you choose based on the artwork as well as many other things. The artwork will obviously play a big part in whether or not you can use a deck, so if you don’t like oil paintings, don’t choose a deck that is painted that way. And if you don’t subscribe to Salvador Dali’s work, or William Blake’s art, don’t get the William Blake or Salvador Dali deck!

– Theme. Tarot decks tend to have a theme, and this theme can be practically anything, from baseball, to Hello Kitty, to Arthurian Legend. When you come across a Tarot deck, check to see what theme it has: Is it feminist? About animals? Based on Arthurian legends or Norse deities? Is it erotic, comical, or deadly serious? Is it based on any books, films, or comics you particularly enjoy? Do you have a hobby which ties in with a theme nicely? These are all questions you need to ask yourself, and ultimately, if you are not familiar with, or do not like, the theme the deck has, there is probably no point in getting that deck!

– Religion. When I say this, I refer to both your religion and beliefs, and the deck’s religion, for want of a better word! The earliest Tarot decks, as I said in “History of the Tarot”, came about in Renaissance Italy, and so were instilled with Christian symbolism such as the Devil and Pope (Cards XV and V), but in modern times the Tarot deck has been changed and altered, and decks are created all the time which take a different approach to things, and which are aimed at different people. This is of course a good thing, since in Renaissance Italy, circumstances, religion and variation of people was totally different to our 21st century west as it is today. It is therefore, possible to find Pagan decks, Wiccan decks, Shamanic decks, and Hermetic decks, not to mention evangelical Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Catholic decks, just to name a few. It is a good idea to find out what ‘religion’ the deck is before you buy it, since you probably will not find a Christian or Catholic deck usable if you are Pagan, nor will you enjoy using a Shamanic deck if you are Catholic. Most importantly, when a deck has a ‘religion’ it tends to use that religion’s symbols in its cards in order to convey meaning. So, if you do get a deck whose religion is not similar to your own, you may find yourself unable to understand the symbolism, or that you disagree with the meanings of some symbols. A very common example here would be the difference between Christians and Hindus when faced with the symbol of a snake: The Christian would ascribe evil to the snake, whilst the Hindu would ascribe sexuality and ‘kundalini’.

In many Pagan decks, you will find that the Devil card or Pope has been changed, which also serves to illustrate the difficulties which could be faced when using a deck which your belief system is alien to. The images themselves may also differ depending on the religious content, with some intensely Christian decks bearing images of Jesus, and some Pagan decks decorated with pentagrams, Goddess’s and magical tools.

– Nudity. There are a couple of cards in the Tarot deck which have more nudity than other cards, these cards being the Star, Sun, Judgment and in the Rider Waite, the Lovers. Due to the fact that most decks have nudity on the aforementioned cards. Some however have much more, and the amount of nudity depends largely upon whom the deck is aimed at, and the theme of the deck. Decks such as the Hanson Roberts and Whimsical Tarot, both drawn by Mary Hanson-Roberts, the latter in partnership with Dorothy Morrison, are aimed at children and people who are more sensitive to issues such as nudity. However, there are decks which have nudity in nearly every single card, and those whose theme is erotica.  If you find that nudity throws your mind off-course or distracts you, then the simple answer is to steer clear of decks with lots of naked people!

– Illustrated Minor Arcana. The first Tarot decks were used for gaming, and as such, only the Major Arcana, or Trumps, had images on them: The Minor Arcana merely had, like our modern day playing cards, the number of objects they represented, without any other imagery at all. It wasn’t until Tarot started being used by occultists in the 18th century that the Minor Arcana were given anything resembling images, and it wasn’t until Arthur Waite and his contemporaries that we saw Minor Arcana like the ones we see in modern day decks. There are some modern day decks which take their cues from these pre-18th century decks however, and so we see some decks having beautiful and meaningful Majors, but we are then disappointed or frustrated by the Minors which are, because of their lack of pictures or symbols, much harder to read. So, when choosing a deck, it is always advisable to know which type of Minor Arcana you prefer, and to find out whether or not the deck you want has the Minors you are looking for. Unfortunately, this is not always easy, as books and reviews tend to usually only show examples of the Major Arcana cards.

– Size. There are an increasing number of young people attracted to The Tarot, and these young people usually have smaller hands than the average person. Some adult Tarot readers also have very small hands, and as such, find it difficult to shuffle and handle Tarot decks of the normal size, since Tarot decks usually are larger than playing cards, and some decks are even bigger than normal Tarot decks! It is useful then, if size is a concern because you have very small hands, for you to find out the size of the cards. This is something most reviews fail to mention unless the size is a striking feature of the deck. Most of the time, decks which are normal size have reviews which do not mention size, while decks such as the Rohrig which is actually longer in length than my hand, or the Smallest Tarot in the World which is around 2.5cm long, have reviews which will probably mention their size. Again, looking at multiple reviews of the same deck helps, while one review may miss this important feature, another will probably pick up on it.

– Tradition. As I have mentioned previously, many decks are based on the Rider Waite and Thoth, and it has become common in the Tarot world to call the Rider Waite and Thoth decks ‘traditional’, despite their being around 500 years later than the first decks, and very much changed! The title of ‘traditional’ given to these decks is mainly due to the fact that they were amongst the first modern day Tarot decks to be published for the public to own, as most of the publicly published decks did not have illustrated Minors. The Rider Waite and Thoth were also some of the first decks published publicly which were intended for magical and occult use instead of just gaming, as previous decks were. These two decks give us our ‘stock symbols’ for many modern day decks, and we use them as a measuring post to decide how traditional a deck is. There are so many decks now available which divert drastically from the traditional Tarot deck, some adding new Major Arcana, some taking away Major Arcana, adding an extra Minor Arcana suit, changing the titles of the cards, changing the images, meanings, and numbering of the Majors… The most common change that decks make , is a change to the images in the cards. The image used to replace the traditional one largely depends on much of what I have said in the previous sections: Religion, gender, theme, etc. Often these changes are not so drastic that the new card is unrecognizable as what it is supposed to be, which is always helpful for beginners, though some decks do change things to such an extent that there is discussion as to whether or not they can be classed as Tarot decks at all! It has been hotly debated whether or not a 93 card deck qualifies as a Tarot deck, which traditionally only has 78 cards. Some Tarot decks not only change the titles of the Majors, but also change the ordering of them, which can be confusing for a beginner, and using such a deck can subsequently make it more difficult to use a more traditional deck.

– Accompanying Book. Decks are usually published in two formats: Deck only, or deck with an accompanying book, usually A 4 size or larger, with lots of information about the deck, the cards in the deck, and in-depth guidelines on Tarot spreads and things such as caring for the deck and interpreting the cards. Nearly all single decks come with a very small white pamphlet explaining quickly the simple meanings of the cards, but not going beyond this. If you have the option of getting the deck you want with an accompanying book, it is usually preferable to do so, since the book, while costing extra, does go into great detail what each card from that specific deck means, what each symbol from that specific card means, and often it tells you the reasons for the creation of the deck and some of the philosophy behind it. Often, reviews of decks will tell you if there are any accompanying books to go with a deck, and they will tell you what the book is like as well.

These are just a few suggestions, and there may be many more things you should take into consideration based on more personal preferences. Of course, sometimes the only way to know the answers to all your deck questions is to actually handle the deck itself, which is not always possible considering nearly all shops which sell decks do not permit them to be opened at all before purchasing, for safety reasons and for spiritual reasons. Some shops and online sites do not even let you return the deck, even if it is in perfect condition with the receipt, for the latter reason.

Hopefully, this has given you some advice on how to find the Tarot deck that is right for you. Don’t worry however, if you don’t find the perfect deck first time round: you’ll find you have as much fun, if not more fun trying to find the perfect deck than actually finding it!

Doug on Taroteon has some great posts on learning how to read the cards…

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  1. Nice summary of an impossible quest Elizabeth 😉

  2. Wow great post. This is the most comprehensive guide that I’ve read on how to choose the right Tarot deck.

  3. […] For instance, when I was first learning the Tarot, the first deck that I bought was the Thoth Tarot deck. I hesitated because of the myths that I had heard surrounding the buying of a deck. I’m awfully glad I ignored those myths because, to this day, the Thoth deck is still one of my favourites; and the one I use most often with clients. However, if you still feel unsure with what deck to choose then I would like you read a brilliant guide written by The Tarot Sense. […]

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