Tarot Decks

There can be no tarot reading without a proper 78-card tarot deck (card decks that have less or more than that amount are oracles, not tarot, even when marketed as such). There are so many new ones published each month that anyone could probably find something to their own taste.

Usability factor of a deck for a tarot card reading

Many tarot decks are designed and published constantly, but not all tarot decks are created equal. Some of them are clearly just concept decks, using a famous IP or a cute pinup artist to sell decks by the volume, but pretty unusable outside of that.

There are a few elements to keep in mind when considering the Usability of a deck. First, card stock should be thick and resistant, slightly bendable but soon returning to a neutral position. Second, if you are using the minor arcana you probably want the RWS deck if you’re going for a classic, or one of its many derivatives if you want something more unique. Third, you need to pay attention to the actual size of the cards. Some decks, especially the classics, can be found in oversized or even downsized versions. While it can be beautiful in a tarot collection, it makes it much harder to properly shuffle the cards or even to simply hold on. Finally, if you use reversed cards you need to also make sure that the illustration on the back of the card is fully symmetrical and can be reversed too without striking out among the other card backs.

Practical art

In the same vein as the usability factor above, some tarot decks are particularly hard to use because the artwork is confusing or distracting. Something that might work extremely well as a piece of art or as an exhibit in a tarot collection can be practically useless for a drawing. While they are often sold with a card meaning booklet, it does not really make it better because you would need constant back and forth between the reading and the booklet, and you need your full attention on the reading and the emotions of the Querent to harness every part of the message and be an effective read. So even if you really like some outlandish style used for a deck, try to objectively assess whether it won’t be too distracting for practical uses of the tarot deck in a reading.

Classic Tarot Decks: The RWS (Rider Waite Smith)

Probably the most famous deck all over the world, the Rider Waite Smith deck was initially published in the early twentieth century, a collaboration between the card design and symbolism of A.E.Waite and the clear and effective illustration style of Pamela Coleman Smith. Partly inspired by the Sola-Busca tarot (an Italian tarot of the mid-fifteenth century, the first and only deck to be fully illustrated before the RWS), the minor arcana in the deck are just as important as the major ones, and have been fully illustrated just like the others.

At the time, Waite expanded tarot reading lore and provided more detailed symbolism for many arcana. As a consequence, the RWS deck soon overtook other popular tarot decks as the de-facto deck to go to and it became the most popular and most widely used deck in most parts of the world. More than half of the “new” tarot decks currently being published are somehow derivative of the RWS deck, which goes to show the tremendous impact Waite’s work has left on the world of tarot reading.

Classic Tarot Decks: The Marseille

Derived from playing cards, initially designed in France (and still widely used there), the Marseille deck used to be the most popular one before the advent of the RWS deck. Only the major arcana are illustrated, with a very basic style and a limited color palette. This is why early tarot reading methods and spreads using the Marseille generally only use the 22 major arcana instead of the entire deck.

Limiting tarot card meanings to 22 cards makes it easier and faster to learn all the arcana, but provides much broader readings that can be proportionally harder to properly interpret.

Classic Tarot Decks: The Thoth Tarot deck

The third most commonly known tarot deck used for divinatory purposes was designed through a collaboration between an occult writer and an illustrator, just like the RWS deck. Here, Aleister Crowley designed the specifics of the deck in the late 30s, including a lot of symbols and elements drawn from his system of beliefs. Lady Frieda Harris drew the illustrations according to Crowley’s instructions.

This is a much more demanding deck, usually requiring solid foundations of symbolism and occult knowledge to use properly. There are several alterations to the traditional names (and meanings) of the major arcana, court cards, and suits to a lesser extent. Crowley wrote and released a companion book for the deck, “The Book of Thoth”, explaining the motives behind his changes, and how the deck was meant to be used.

A multitude of options

While the RWS deck has overtaken the Marseille in terms of global popularity, there are so many different tarot decks on the market right now that with a little effort it is possible for anyone to find a tarot deck that will perfectly match their personality and tarot reading style. This is probably the best way to create the kind of deep empathic bond required between the tarot reader and their deck, enabling them to properly analyze any reading in context, reading the cards and adapting their meaning to the situation as a second nature.

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