How to Choose a Tarot Deck
One of the most common questions that pops into my email box is how to choose a tarot deck. Whether you’re new to tarot and considering buying your first deck, or a seasoned pro with an extensive collection, there are a number of factors to be taken into consideration before investing in a tarot deck to ensure you not only make a wise investment, but that you’ll get years of enjoyment from your purchase. Here are 6 points to consider next time you’re in the market for buying a deck.
To begin, do your research. I keep a deck Lust List on Pinterest for pinning decks that catch my eye. If it gets to the stage where I want to know more, my go-to source is YouTube. There are dozens of tarot channels on YouTube where you can watch a complete flip through of a deck. I typically turn the volume down and watch the flip through in silence as I sometimes find the chatter and opinions distracting—but that’s just me. Regardless of your preference, I do recommend watching a full flip through, otherwise you may end up buying a deck based on the merit of a handful of cards and discover you don’t connect with the remainder, or find the artwork unappealing.
1: Personal and Intuitive Connection
The most important factor of all when choosing a tarot deck is your personal and intuitive connection to the deck. If artwork, style, colour, or imagery of a tarot deck don’t click with you, chances are, you’ll find it difficult to connect with the deck—if at all. Modern decks come in all shapes, sizes, and styles, so scrolling through deck listings online can quickly become overwhelming if you’re unsure of your preference.
As you search, tune into your internal reaction to imagery; does your heart quicken, or do you shy away from the image? Do the colours appeal, or immediately strike you as too brash or dull? What about the artist’s rendering of figures? Do you connect with the poses, expressions, skin tone, or gender representations? Modern decks contain a melting pot of race, theme, culture, and sexual orientation compared to the older decks, so consider these aspects, too.
Be conscious also of peer pressure. What works for another may not work for you, and even though friends or online reviews rave about a particular deck, resist the urge to jump on the bandwagon without checking out the deck in full beforehand.
You may find yourself attracted to a deck whose art style you wouldn’t have typically chosen, yet something about the deck draws you in. Go with that nudge. Dive a little deeper with online reviews and flip throughs to see what it is that poked at your intuition. Be open to what comes your way. The same applies to a deck you may have lusted over but suddenly find yourself feeling underwhelmed while looking at it. Allow your intuition to lead and you won’t go wrong when it comes to choosing a tarot deck.
2: Tarot System
Within tarot, there are several traditions. While the Rider Waite Smith is the most popular system, there are others that also endure. Before you dive into tarot studies, it’s worth informing yourself on the other systems available, as one may appeal more to you than another. The history behind each system is considerable and demands more space that I have here, so here’s a simple overview to give you a brief idea.
The Marseille Tarot originated in France. It’s an older system than the RWS and beginners may find it difficult to read with, as the pip cards (minor arcana) are basic abstract illustrations, especially when compared to the depth of imagery in the RWS.
The Thoth Tradition combines esoteric and metaphysical ideas into the card meanings, including Kabbalah and astrology. Although painted by Lady Frieda Harris, the deck was created by Aleister Crowley using his own interpretations. This is reflected in some of the major arcana carrying different titles, and the order of the court cards placed in reverse. There’s a lot to unpack within the Thoth tradition, so beginners may find it overwhelming.
3: Your Level of Experience
If you’re new to tarot, wading through the choice of available decks can be mind blowing, but if you’re serious about building a strong foundation, most enthusiasts, myself included, will recommend the Rider Smith Waite deck to start your tarot journey. There’s a reason the Rider Smith Waite endures since its publication in 1910. There’s great depth to the imagery, symbolism, and even colours. You’ll also find many tarot books use it for illustrative purposes, and because it continues to influence so many modern decks, a good grasp of the RSW opens the way to work with hundreds of other decks without having to start from scratch.
If you’re at an intermediate level, abstract decks might hold appeal, especially if you don’t need the images of the RWS system for prompts. Decks like The Wild Unknown and Brady Tarot offer a whole new insight into reading tarot. Again, do your research before committing as many of these decks don’t use the traditional suits, major arcana titles, or even number the minor arcana cards.
For those at a more advanced level, the spectrum of decks widens to infinity! If you’re looking for a new addition to your collection, Pinterest and YouTube are great platforms for inspiration. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo list upcoming and current projects seeking funding, often as limited editions which adds extra enticement! You may also shift into working within a new tradition like the Thoth tarot.
It’s also worth considering who you’ll be reading for with your new deck. If it’s just you, then that dark n’ spooky or erotic deck is all for you to enjoy. But if you read for clients, some may find the imagery startling or offensive. A sympathetic mindset will benefit your clients and avoid upset when it comes to sensitive topics such as race and gender representation, so bear this in mind as you peruse decks.
With an endless supply of beautiful decks out there, it’s easy to reach a state of overwhelm, but if you keep your proficiency level in mind, and determine your deck properties must-haves in advance, it’ll be much easier to narrow down the offerings and make a choice that will serve you well.
4: Size and Card stock
Size does matter. Har har. If you can’t comfortably handle your deck to shuffle, it can quickly become a problem. Clumsy shuffling sends cards flying. If you want to avoid your cards hitting a dirty floor, landing on food or liquid, or even hitting the open flame of the candle on your table, then always take note of deck size. This applies to both large and mini decks. It’s just as easy to fumble a mini deck and lose a card as it is to drop a handful of larger cards. There are a number of different ways to shuffle a deck, but if you have a preferred method, having to employ a less favoured one simply because your deck is too big or small for your hands, can take the enjoyment out of using the deck.
Card finish is another aspect worth noting. The majority of decks come with a finish ranging from matt to a buttery gloss. Extra glossy decks can be tricky to shuffle, especially if the deck size is awkward in your hold. The slippier the card, the more likely you’ll have cards flying loose. I recently backed a deck on Kickstarter and was gutted to discover on delivery that the cards are made of cellulose. The creator hadn’t stated the card stock, and while I knew the deck had a gloss finish, I wasn’t prepared for slippery-as-an-eel cards. I can’t even lift the deck out of the box without the cards shooting out of my hold. I’ve spent more time gathering the cards off the floor than shuffling, so I no longer use the deck as it just annoys me.
Stock quality is important too. 350gsm is the average thickness of a tarot card. If a deck is considerably higher or lower, you may have an issue. If a card is too thick, it offers no give, so makes for clumsy shuffling—especially if you’re a fan of the riffle shuffle. Stock that’s too thin will shuffle easy enough, but you’ll find your cards fraying at the edges, developing dog ears, and generally looking tatty within a short period of time. If the card has a gloss finish and is printed on thin card (anything hovering around 260gsm) you may even experience the gloss layer peeling off.
5: Budget & Counterfeit Decks
The Rider Smith Waite tarot retails at roughly $20/£16/€18 which is a fair price for a tarot deck, especially if you’re starting out. Mass produced decks tend to hover around this price range, too, but when it comes to limited edition decks, expect to pay more.
I’ve had my eye on a couple of limited edition decks for a while, but between the high cost of the deck, and the postage fee to Ireland, (the decks are typically posted from the US) it leaves me facing a cost of €100 or more for a single deck. For me, that’s a no-go.
It can be frustrating when a deck you’ve been lusting over hits way above your budget. Likewise when tarot enthusiasts share posts online of all the stunning, just-released decks they’ve bought. But you only need one deck to be a tarot reader. Social media would have us believe we need a deck for every season, day of the week, mood, or outfit you’re wearing, but that’s certainly not the case. If restricted by budget, avoid the soul-suck of social media and all the ‘must have’ or ‘hot’ decks. If your purse strings are very tight, what’s to stop you from even making your own cards? Otherwise, if that deck is a few dollars out of reach, it’s time to earn yourself some extra pocket money, or drop a few loud hints as your birthday nears.
While budget is a factor when it comes to buying a tarot deck, the old adage of ‘you get what you pay for’ applies to tarot decks, too. Unfortunately, counterfeit decks are on the rise. If you’ve been drooling over a deck but the cost is out of your budget, you may be thrilled to find it online for half the price. But buyer beware! You’ve found the deck at a cheaper price for a reason!
If you purchase a counterfeit deck, you’ll likely experience missing cards, no guide book, bad printing and/or poor card stock. But how do you spot a copycat deck? Let’s take a listing on Amazon as an example. If the deck listing states the the actual artist/creator of the deck, has great ratings, and lists the original price (it may be reduced for a promotion, but the original price should always be displayed) you’re buying a legit deck. Within the listing you should see an impeccably written description of the deck, information about the artist/creator/publisher, and of course, hundreds, if not thousands of reviews.
A counterfeit deck may have the same name as the deck you’re searching for, but the imagery/logos will be different, colours may be off, and there may be no guide book included, or no mention at all of a guide book. The price will be considerably lower, with no listing of the original price. In the item details, you’ll find a poorly written description, and an obvious lack of reviews. There’ll likely be no info relating to the creator or publisher.
For more eclectic decks, the creators only sell from their own website, so if you happen to find the deck listed for a lower price elsewhere, chances are, you’re looking at a copycat.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to save pennies, but if you choose a counterfeit deck, you’re handing money over to a scammer and leaving the original creator (who put their heart and soul into their art) out of pocket. You’re also doing yourself out of a quality deck. Do your research. Be wary of where you purchase from. Unfortunately sites like Amazon, eBay, and even Shein sell dud or copycat decks, so think before you buy.
6: The Guide Book
Also known as the Little White Book, most decks come with an accompanying guidebook. In some, it may be a slim pamphlet offering only a few keywords for each card, while with other decks, the guidebook is a colourful, elaborate affair with card meanings, spreads, and other guidance. In some instances, there’s no guidebook at all.
If you’re happy to work with your own interpretations and don’t want to rely on a guidebook, then that LWB may be of no interest to you. But if the deck’s creator has infused their own specific imagery into the cards which offers an alternative interpretation to the traditional, having that information to hand will help you to connect with the deck. Many guidebooks take the reader through an entire journey with the deck, from cleansing and dedicating the deck, interviewing the deck, in-depth card meanings, and suggestions of spreads. Typically, you can also find the bios of those involved in the deck, social media links, or newsletter sign ups—which is a bonus if you want to stay connected to the artists for future releases. Some decks don’t offer a physical book but an online or pdf version instead, along with other tarot content.
A few final points:
I can’t write an article on tarot without mentioning intuition. When it comes to tarot, this is the most important skill to nurture, and no deck, no matter its creator, quality, or imagery will magically grant you the ability to read tarot. An honest reader will dedicate themselves to gaining a solid grasp on the meanings and symbolism of tarot. As they do, intuition will naturally develop. As the reader matures, different decks may then further stoke their intuitive gifts, so be open to looking at new styles, abstract representation, or alternative artwork as you progress.
Can you buy your own tarot deck? There’s a whisper out there that a ‘real’ tarot reader should never buy their own deck but wait to be gifted it. Each to their own, but I don’t buy into that. It’s likely this rumour stems from a time when tarot decks were in short supply, and metaphysical shops didn’t even exist, so being gifted a deck was seen as a ‘sign tarot had found you’. If you’re drawn to tarot, buy your own deck!
AI decks are a hot topic in the tarot community right now. For what it’s worth, here’s my ten cents. I personally, am not a fan of AI decks. For me, the beauty in a deck comes from the hours the creator has put into their work, the thought behind each symbol, colour, pose, and expression. It’s one thing to spend hours drawing or painting a detailed image, but another to feed keywords into a computer and claim the constructed soulless image as art. I’ve spent considerable time studying AI generated decks in the last while, and have yet to find one that doesn’t leave me cold. It’s a controversial topic which has already created a division within the community, but as I said, this is merely my opinion.
Now you have pointers for choosing a tarot deck, get your must-have list together to ensure you buy that deck that fits you best. From there, you’ll avoid making a dud purchase and hopefully get years of enjoyment from your deck. In summary, when it comes to choosing a tarot deck, listen to your gut! You’ll instinctively know if a deck is or isn’t for you, so heed that little voice within and you won’t go wrong.
Have you a deck buying experience you’d like to share? I’m always up for a chat. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org