“Which Tarot Deck Should I Buy…?

The wonderful world of Tarot: so many decks, but so little time...
The wonderful world of Tarot: so many decks, but so little time…

Which Tarot deck should I buy…?

I come across this question a lot. Both in live discussions and online in message board threads, newcomers to Tarot, overwhelmed by the sheer dizzying number of decks out there, will often ask some variation of, “Which deck should I buy?” or “What’s the right deck…?”

My own answer is almost always the same: There is no “right” deck…there’s only the right deck for you.

The Devil card from the seminal Tarot de Marseilles deck -- an incredibly vital deck for the field, but what if you don't love the old time-y visuals all that much...?
The Devil card from the seminal Tarot de Marseilles deck — an incredibly vital deck for the field, but what if you don’t love the old time-y visuals all that much…?

Okay, sure, there are a couple of decks out there that are treated as absolute classics. Almost any deck on the market today can trace its conceptual and visual lineage back to either the earliest school of decks – the Tarot de Marseilles (“TdM”) – or to one of two more modern decks that hit the racks last century: the Rider-Waite-Smith (“RWS”) deck and the Crowley-Harris Thoth (“Thoth”) deck.

But just because these decks are considered classics, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start out with one of them. Yes, on the one hand, learning the TdM, the RWS, or the Thoth would definitely give you the key benefit of providing you with a sort of common Tarot language that you can then employ when trying to study further or when conversing with other Tarot people. Think about this: if you’ve only ever worked with a very obscure deck whose creators have changed all of the traditional card titles and symbols, then you’re likely to have a pretty tough time of it when you ask for help with interpreting your draw of the 7 of Pizzas card, or with doping out the import of the Hooligan card that came up reversed during that one big reading…

Here's the same card -- The Devil -- as depicted in the Thoth (left) and RWS (right) decks.  They're more modern than the TdM, but still from the first half of last century -- so what if your taste runs toward something slightly less old-fangled...?
Here’s the same card — The Devil — as depicted in the Thoth (left) and RWS (right) decks. They’re more modern than the TdM, but still from the first half of last century — so what if your taste runs toward something slightly less old-fangled…?

On the other hand…what if you don’t like the TdM or the RWS or the Thoth decks? What then? Because in all honesty, even if the TdM started it all way back when, and even if the RWS and the Thoth really are like the Coke and Pepsi of today’s Tarot deck world, the plain truth is that if you don’t like their artwork or their structures, you’ll quickly come to see using them as drudgery. And then you’ll most likely lapse into non-activity with Tarot, despite great initial interest and early fine intentions…and then years will go by, and you’ll keep putting off this particular bit of drudgery-that-should-be-fun, and you’ll never end up learning Tarot at all. You need to find a deck that excites you. You need to find a deck that you actively want to spend time with.

Full disclosure here: of those three “classic” decks, while I respect them all for being so foundational to the field, and for giving us all some common frameworks for discussion…the Thoth deck is the only one of the three that I truly like. The artwork of both traditional TdM decks and of the hallowed RWS deck leaves me cold. I felt this immediately upon seeing both decks, and that’s never really changed for me. But while I liked the Thoth artwork much more, I somehow also still sensed that the RWS structure was the most “correct” blueprint for me. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate then exactly why that was…but the deck just seemed more accessible to me somehow, and it stuck in my head better than the Thoth did at first, too. I ended up imprinting on it like a baby duck does its mother, and to this day, the RWS template still feels like my “home field.” But like I said, I never cared for the artwork. So what to do…?

Here's the Devil again, this time from Lo Scarabeo's Tarot of Metamorphosis.  This is the deck that sunk the Tarot hook into me once and for all after I discovered it...
Here’s the Devil again, this time from the Tarot of Metamorphosis. This is the deck that sunk the Tarot hook into me once and for all after I discovered it…

I then solved my “which deck?” problem by settling on a modern deck that featured very detailed, surreal imagery – my favorite kind – but which, underneath all the trippy visuals, stuck pretty closely to the RWS model. I then learned the RWS alongside my own deck as I went, and found that this parallel education was easy enough to carry out. It also gave me the ability to reality-check my understandings with other humans as I went, which was invaluable as I developed my knowledge and skills as a reader.

So which deck is “right?” If you’re looking to start learning Tarot so that you can become a reader, I urge you to try to first find a metaphysical store in your area that sells decks, and see if you can specifically locate one that maintains “store copies” or “reader copies” – these are decks that have already been opened, and that are kept on hand so that prospective buyers can get a feel for the cards and see all of the images up close and personal before buying. This is by far my favorite way to shop for decks.

You often won’t know if you’ll truly enjoy a deck until you’ve held it in your own hands. Only then will you understand what the specific cardstock that the images are printed on is like, whether the artwork actually works for you in real life (some decks look dynamite on a computer screen, but come off as limp and lifeless out in the real world…and the reverse can also be true), and whether the deck just plain feels good to you when you shuffle the cards for the first time…

Looking online at scans of cards also helps. It’s never going to be quite the same as encountering the cards in real, physical space, but since that course might not always be available to you, surfing up card imagery on the internet is an essential endeavor. Check out this site – it’s in German, but your browser should help you with translation, and they have dozens of decks scanned in for your viewing pleasure (and, if you turn out to be like me, no small amount of drooling shall ensue…): http://www.albideuter.de/

So to sum up: you don’t need to get the RWS or the Thoth decks themselves for the commonality factor – as long as the deck you opt for is close enough to one of them in structure and nomenclature, you’ll be fine on that score (assuming that this point even matters to you). You also don’t need to buy a deck just because someone else – even someone with a lot of experience – tells you that you “should.” There is no “should,” not really. Focus more on which deck has a theme that appeals to you (do you like vampires? steampunk? aliens…? Tarot now has them all…), and that also has artwork that intrigues you. That’s it.

Tarot decks are small, self-contained worlds – so what world do you want to visit time and time again? When you find a deck that feels like a unified collection of 78 separate doorways into that world…you’ve found your deck. After that, the rest is almost easy…

I have plenty of decks.  If you’d like me to use one of them on your behalf, you can book a Tarot reading with me today…

5 comments

  1. Reblogged this on tarotpugs and commented:
    Well written on a good topic. In the past, I have purchased decks only to have them sit in storage or being passed on to others because the “feel” didn’t blend/mix well with myself. Sometimes it’s trial and error, but once you find “The One(s)”, it’s like being inseparable.

    I wanted to share this post for “Tarot Thursday”.

    A special thanks to the original author. Enjoy! 🙂

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