Estimated Reading Time: 15 minutes
This week in inTAROTduction, your Introduction to Tarot: How to Choose Your Perfect Tarot Deck.
Thank you for tuning into inTAROTduction, my series that serves as an Introduction to Tarot and an induction into the world of tarot readers. This week I’ll give you my best tips for how to choose your perfect tarot deck.
Watch this spot as the series continues with topics like: why I don’t recommend the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, a list of my favorite decks, and what you need to know about different styles or lineages of tarot decks. I’ll continue the series with posts on how to connect with your intuition, advice on how to start reading the cards right away, and conclude it with just the amount of history you need. Watch this space every week and start reading tarot!
The Simplest Way To Choose Your Perfect Tarot Deck
The only thing you need to know to choose your perfect tarot deck is the following:
Choose a deck that has illustrated or scenic suit cards (see the heading “Illustrated Minors vs. Pips” in last week’s post)
Choose a deck that appeals to you visually
Choose a deck that speaks to you
However, there are hundreds of decks available! If you’re overwhelmed with a large selection, I’ve come up with a series of fifteen considerations that will help you narrow it down.
1. How traditional do you want to be?
Certain decks have had a more pervasive influence than others. You can choose one of these lineages and follow it closely or you can find something that strays to a greater or lesser degree. The primary lineages are Tarot de Marseille, Rider-Waite-Smith, and Thoth. The advantage to working in a lineage is that there are abundant materials written about the symbolism unique to each of those systems. The disadvantage is that you might feel that there is so much to learn from the experts that you spend a disproportionate time studying versus getting into your own groove as a reader.
My recommendation is to bypass the authorities when getting started. Learn to read the images in the cards first. Adding on the fascinating layers produced by delving deeply into the unique symbolism of the most significant decks is a treat to reward yourself with when you have already found your unique process. That said, some people simply do better working within a more defined structure. If that’s you, choose a deck that more closely follows a particular lineage.
2. Do you, or do you think people you read for, will be bothered by nudity in the art?
Most tarot decks contain nudity for some reason. It can be very minimal and only slightly suggested or it can be quite detailed, sometimes even the focus of the artwork. Even if it doesn’t bother you, you might find that it can make the people you read for uncomfortable. I knew a psychologist who used tarot and other art cards with his clients, but pulled out all the cards with nudity on them! This is not necessary. There are decks in which everyone keeps their clothes on. I once joked that everyone is fully clothed in The Steampunk Tarot by Barbara Moore and Aly Fell because Barbara loves fashion so much she couldn’t bear to lose a chance to design an outfit! Also take a look at my list of decks for kids for more recommendations on no-nudity decks.
3. Do you, or do you think people you read for, will be bothered by cards that depict scary, depressing, or uncomfortable scenes or images?
Tarot is infamous for its difficult cards–cards that challenge us with things we’d rather not think about or admit might be part of our situation. This is one of the tarot’s greatest benefits: its bluntness. However, tarot is also famous for being melodramatic. Most of the time things are not as bad as the tarot bemoans. If you’re not used to candid, unsympathetic advice, you might be tempted to switch to an optimistic, atta-girl oracle deck. However, there are plenty of tarots that speak softly, encouragingly, and offer serious advice with a gentle tone. My list of kids tarot decks, linked in the paragraph above, is a good starting point for finding gentler imagery.
4. Deck size
There are many reasons to consider the size of the deck. Reasons to consider a smaller size deck include ease of shuffling, how it fits in your hands, as well as how much room the cards take up when laid out on the table. Portability is also easier with smaller decks, which take up less room in your purse or can be tossed in the glove compartment. Small size decks include the Hanson-Roberts and any deck that comes in a tin or pocket edition.
Larger decks are preferred when you’d like to be able to see the detail in the artwork without a magnifying glass or to feel more drawn into a layout, as if you’re closer and can dive into it. They are more dramatic when laid out in spreads. Larger decks also make it easier to study the detail of symbolism.
5. What’s your style?
Style includes the general topic, setting, costume, and ambience of the deck. Tarot can be eschewed due to its Renaissance period look. But that is easily avoided! What do you like? Modern? Retro? Historical? Fantasy? Fairy? Animals? Groovy? Space? Angels? Aliens? Cooking? Many modern tarot decks feature a variety of themes. These decks each showcase a different style and attitude. Within any given style you can find both decks that closely follow a specific lineage and those that interpret the symbolism more freely. Whatever your thing is, you can probably find a deck that fits it.
6. What type of art do you like?
What is beautiful and interesting to you? Fine art? Computer art? Collage? Photographic? Comic book? Illustration? Primitivism? Do you like a particular time period or art style? Your taste in art is one of the main factors in finding a tarot deck that you like. What appeals to one person will be disappointing to another. You will spend a lot of time looking at your cards. Find something that is visually appealing to you!
7. To what degree do you want photorealistic art?
As you look at the artwork of the images, consider how the people are drawn. Sometimes readers have trouble working with art that is too realistic. It can be distracting to find a character on a card that looks like someone you know. Many readers prefer art that is simplistic enough that their intuition can fill in the specifics. On the other hand, vague, expressionless faces can water down your interpretations due to lack of detail.
8. Do you prefer dense imagery with a lot to pull from or simple, suggestive art that lets you fill in the gaps?
Decks range from very sparse, simple imagery to highly decorated and detailed imagery. Some people want to explore lush landscapes while others prefer to rest in zen-like minimalism. Each person has their unique point along that continuum where they find that the symbolism of each card leads along a path to the next card and the next. The images should feel inviting, not overwhelming, give you enough to work with, and feel fulfilling.
9. What color palette appeals to you?
You can find decks in everything from black and white through pastels to saturated jewel tones, decks where all the cards have a similar color scheme or all are quite different. Also, consider whether you like a dark background or a light background.
In addition to what you find visually appealing, consider how the deck uses color to support the symbolism of the imagery. Sometimes colored borders or the hues in the card can be used to identify the suits (Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles) and their association with one of the four classical elements of fire, water, air, and earth. Likewise, some decks use extensive color symbolism. But none of it matters if you don’t like the colors or don’t feel a personal response to them!
10. How do you feel about consistency vs variety in the images?
It’s frustrating to find a deck in which you love some of the artwork but the rest leaves you cold! This can happen with any deck, but is significantly exaggerated with decks created by multiple artists or a single artist trying out a sampler of mediums. On the other hand, for people who love variety, the interplay of styles and talents can feel refreshing.
Also, you can find decks created as fundraisers that are put together by a variety of artists, each of whom designs a couple of cards, and these can be a wonderful way to support a great cause and see samples of artwork by dozens of tarot artists.
Cultural and Inclusivity Considerations
11. How important is it that your deck illustrates a racially diverse cast of characters?
There is a hashtag used in the tarot community: #tarotsowhite. I was helping a young woman of color pick a deck one time and had my chin buried in my hand as I was deep in thought looking through the decks. One of the staff said to me, what are you looking for? I answered that I was helping someone pick a deck and it sure would be nice if I could offer her a deck in the style that she wanted that had some diversity!
It’s rather embarrassing to use my all-white deck for a non-white client. There are decks available that feature a more diverse cast of characters, but there aren’t enough. It’s like watching TV in the 80s (…or 90s…or 2000s…). However, this is changing! Find and support decks that you feel express the level of multi-culturalism and racial diversity that is important to you. An alternate solution that has captured the spirit of the younger tarot generation is to use tarot decks that don’t have people at all, but base all the scenes around animals.
12. Would you like your deck to be inclusive of all ages and body types?
To be perfectly honest, I like a deck with all beautiful people. I don’t want to read for a client and say, “Here is your perfect mate coming to you this year” and lay down a card with some old fat guy. It might be true! But I’d like to keep the fantasy going a little bit longer. In addition, we each have our own idea of what’s attractive to us, and no amount of variety in artwork can perfectly capture that. I’d rather let people’s own imagination of beauty and desirable characteristics overlay the card image.
That said, a lot of tarot readers prefer a deck to show a realistic representation of society in terms of age, body type, and beauty. This helps them relate comfortably to the cards, and see themselves and their friends and family more easily in the tarot images.
13. Do you prefer a deck that is LGBTQ friendly?
Yes, it’s true that tarot is not only white, but also cis-gendered and straight. Your reading style and vocabulary can help offset these limitations (for starters, try working with the court cards not as gendered, but as representing a type of energy being expressed), but also consider using decks that illustrate a wider variety of characters and relationships.
Alternately, you can find decks that draw some characters in such a way as to leave the gender vague–even Pamela Colman Smith, artist of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck of 1909, created a number of cards with genderless characters.
14. Is there a story or mythology that you aren’t familiar with in the cards?
Some decks use a specific story or stories to illustrate the deck. If the card scenes make sense without knowing that story, the deck can be easy enough to use. But don’t use a Russian history deck if you don’t know Russian history, or an Arthurian deck if you are unfamiliar with those tales, or decks that specialize in mythology that is foreign to you. These decks are great for later on when you’d like to use the tarot as a study aid to try to familiarize yourself with these subjects. But to get started, it’s enough to figure out the cards without worrying that you are missing important symbolism because you haven’t learned the mythology of the deck.
Many of these decks that highlight foreign cultures are perfect for filling the diversity gap, but no matter how much you’d like to get in touch with your roots, if you don’t already know these stories, they will add a layer of confusion and an additional area of study that must be undertaken.
On the other hand, if the tales told in the images spark memory and settle into place comfortably, the deck might be just right for you. It’s wonderful to discover something that feels comfortable, familiar, and identifiable.
15. Let Your Perfect Tarot Deck Choose You
Once you’ve read through this list and pondered all the options, put it all aside and let your mind rest. Then simply browse decks, either in the store or online. Remember, the only real considerations are to find a deck with illustrated scenes on the Minor Arcana, art that appeals to you, and imagery that speaks to you.
What does it mean for a deck to speak to you? As you look at each image, you see a story. You see a character in a situation–who is that? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? If the answer isn’t in that card, lay out another and see if it fills in the gaps. How do the characters in one card seem to reflect or interact with the characters in another card? The images start to connect. One card influences and informs another. The story grows.
A deck with stunningly gorgeous art can have no voice. A deck with little visual appeal can chat all afternoon.
After I had been reading cards for about a year, back in the early 90s, I had a dream. I saw a painting that looked like a child’s crayon scribbling. It was signed “Morgan.” Then I saw a painting in the style of the Dutch Masters, dark with a point of brilliant illumination. It was signed “Greer.” In tarot, the genius is not in the art, but in the light of insight and understanding we get from the cards.
As you look at decks, focus on what you like, and let the perfect deck come to you. It might just fall off the shelf and hit you on the head! Or it might be much more subtle. Lay out some cards and see if you can tell a story. If the card images weave together easily and beckon you into their world, you’ve found your deck.
Where to Find Your Perfect Tarot Deck
To get started, I recommend going to a metaphysical store, such as Goddess Isis Books & Gifts in Denver, with a good selection of decks, and plenty of sample cards available. It’s best if you can view an open deck, but these days not many stores have full decks for viewing. Ask at the counter–frequently open sample decks are kept out of reach. Many stores do have binders of sample cards or scans of cards for you to peruse.
Check out cards online. Aeclectic.net is the best place to browse decks. They usually have six or more card images available for each deck. If you poke around at Aeclectic, you can often find lists of decks by theme, although the lists are by no means exhaustive. You can also go to the sites of the main tarot publishers, such as Llewellyn, US Games, and Schiffer Publishing to view card images, order decks, and to see what’s new. It’s fun to search Kickstarter and Indiegogo for “tarot” and see what’s in the works as well. You can also check out my list of 50 Beginning Tarot Decks.
One of the best ways to discover new decks is through Meetup.com. Visit your local tarot meetup (such as the Denver Tarot Meetup) and see decks what other people are using. You can even suggest a deck show and tell!
Every reader on the planet is on a search for the perfect deck. Very few find exactly what they want. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t love your first deck! Most readers like to have several decks on hand because different decks appeal to different moods and needs. But this list of suggestions will help you to narrow down your choices and consider things you might not have thought about at first. One step closer to finding your perfect tarot deck!
Tune in next week when I share my favorite decks!
If you’d like to learn to read the tarot with no memorization or books, simply letting the cards speak for themselves, check out my upcoming Magician’s Tools: Beginning Tarot class, Sundays, February 11-March 18, 2018, 2:30-4:30 p.m. at Isis Books and Gifts, 2775 South Broadway, Englewood, CO 80113.
If you’re getting started and want to know the best beginner deck, please take a look at my post on 50 Beginning Tarot Decks.