Choosing a tarot deck

I’ve had tarot cards in my life for more than 20 years. In that time I’ve worked with a number of different decks, some which stuck with me, some which did not. Recently I was asked for my recommendation of a tarot deck and I realized that the answer was not so simple. I decided that there were probably more people out there considering the same question. Rather than just tell one person, I should tell you all.

It should go without saying that these are my own practices and opinions. If you have a different perspective this is not intended as an argument, just a starting place for people trying to learn. In matters of metaphysics I think it’s generally good to follow your instincts and intuition. If you feel guided differently, go with what works for you. If nothing else, this made you consider what you think.

Historic vs modern?

People have different reasons for wanting tarot cards. Some are just curious. Some like them because they are different and mysterious. Others want them for spiritual guidance. They can even be used for magickal workings.

By Havang(nl) (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Havang(nl) (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Many don’t realize that tarot cards are connected with various games since the 15th century. (If you’ve never played any of these you might give them a try.) If your interest in tarot is more historical there are some excellent reproduction decks. Many of these do not have pictures for the numbered cards and are easier for playing games. Alternatively, they make it more difficult for divination as the five of cups will just have a pattern of five cups rather than a symbolic scene. If you are beginning divination you may not prefer an historic deck.

Most people asking about tarot want cards for divination. In that case, a deck with picture scenes for all the cards can be very helpful for to engage your intuition as you can feel the scene in the picture rather than trying to memorize keywords. The most popular tarot deck of this type is the Rider-Waite-Smith deck.

Different themes and styles

Major Arcana of Rider-Waite-Smith tarot
Published on December 1909 by William Rider. A collaboration between the artist Pamela Colman Smith and Dr Arthur Edward Waite.

Most beginners will end up with a variation of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. These are certainly the most common, and many decks with other themes will use scenes from this deck as their foundation. These are also the images that are most familiar to the public. This is an excellent deck for general purpose and even as you move on to other decks you will probably want to keep one of these in your collection.

Most books that teach tarot use this deck and speak to its scenes and symbols. Starting with this deck will connect you with many decades of tarot wisdom and traditions. I still make use of these cards from time to time.

Of course, there are thousands of variations on the tarot. An enormous sampling of cards currently available and out of print can be found at the Aeclectic tarot site. A quick look will show you the diversity of the tarot universe! Each deck listed shows a selection of cards with information about the status and where to by the deck. I have a few cards in the major arcana, such as Death, The Devil, and Judgment, that often have interesting variations in a deck. This site lets me browse through these perspectives and track down cards that use scenes that speak to me.

Browsing on a web site, however, is no substitute for getting cards in your hands. If you have a metaphysical bookstore in your area that provides sample decks this is the best way to see how a deck feels to you.

How do I know the right one?

When you are just beginning to work with the tarot you are learning the basics of how the cards work and what you can do with them. For this, it’s probably a good idea to start with a basic Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Any forum or guide that you seek will likely be using this deck as their foundation, so it will be easy to find information as you learn to work with the cards and begin to develop your own intuitive sense of them.

Once you’ve gotten past your training wheels, you may find that there are certain cards that don’t speak to you directly. You find that your connection with the card is not really reflected in the picture. You may also find that you are more inspired by a particular idea like dragons or high Gothic art. When this feeling hits you its definitely time to go shopping for a new deck.

Ideally, you should not have to look up the meanings of cards. Even experienced readers have moments where a card’s meaning seems a little obscure and a review helps reveal lesser-known aspects. A deck that is a good match should speak to you, like a graphic novel. It should reveal its story through its characters, symbols and actions. This will let you make the most use of your intuition.

To find such a deck, look through a sampling, either in person or on-line. Select a few cards that you especially connect with and a few that you find difficult to interpret. Look specifically for these cards and see how they feel to you. If you find yourself repeatedly saying “Yes! That exactly right!” then you have probably found a good deck for you.

picture of Robin Wood tarot box and three sample cards: Strength, King of Cups, and Queen of Cups
Robin Wood Tarot, available at Llewellyn and other metaphysical outlets

My own favorite has become the Robin Wood deck. (Wood was an illustrator for several of Scott Cunningham’s books on magick.) I discovered this deck at a store that used to be in Austin, Texas called Whole Life Books. (It’s now a parking garage. 🙁 ) I wasn’t actually shopping for a new deck that day, but I was looking through the sample decks that they had. The first card that caught my eye was The Magician. It was such a joyful, virile version of the magician that it made me laugh out loud. As I continued to look through the deck I found that The Devil, Judgment, and a number of the other cards filled me with that same joy and clarity. I shortly realized that I needed to take this deck home. It’s now the deck I use most often.

I know others who have a similar connection with cards themed after angels, fairies, and any number of mythologies and cultures. When the cards speak to you, they speak to you! They’ll connect with you like a new friend or lover.

Collecting decks and letting decks go

It is absolutely appropriate to work with more than one deck. Some readers offer a choice of decks, letting the client be drawn to what appeals to them. I find that some kinds of uses seem to work better with one deck than another. The decks won’t be jealous. Find what connects with you and enjoy it.

Often people who work with tarot find themselves collecting and experimenting with a number of different decks. This is fine. Feel free to incorporate as many different styles and visions as you like, though you’ll probably find that, like any tool, there is one that is most reliable that you use when doing something that really matters.

What about when a deck doesn’t feel right any more? You lay the cards and they just confuse you, or maybe you’re not so much into fairies any more.

Ideally you should give the deck to someone who appreciates it. I spoke with a reader who was phasing out a deck that she used to use regularly. She was giving it away, one card at a time, to clients. They would take a card home with them after a reading. In many cases you’ll know someone who is attracted to the cards. A personal tarot deck is a powerful gift and can inspire someone to go deeper into their tarot work.

If you don’t know anyone who would enjoy the deck, pass it through some sort of charitable venue. While the cards will likely be sold by the charity, your act of giving frees the cards to reconnect with someone new.

Should you just sell them on eBay? Technically, there is nothing wrong with this. If you happen to buy cards on eBay that doesn’t mean that they are tainted or anything. If you never connected with the cards (you find an unopened deck) then this would be fine. If you have used the cards, though, you should probably consider this carefully. Meditate on the sale and make sure that it feels right. If you get indications that the sale is OK, spend some time cleansing the cards, as you would any magickal tool.

Have fun with your cards

Whether your interest in tarot is artistic, historic or mystical you should enjoy the cards that you have. Even if someone else swears that a deck is powerful for them it may not be right for you. If you’re not sure which one to pick, start with a basic Rider-Waite-Smith deck to get you started. You’ll likely grow beyond it, but it’s a great foundation. When you’re ready for a new deck you’ll know, and you’ll know what you’re looking for. Trust your intuition to guide you to what is right for you.

Connecting with tarot I a wonderful experience. The right deck will speak to you openly and increase your confidence. When a deck is not right for you, it’s OK to let it go, but do so gently, like an old friendship. Send it on to do good work for others.

If you want to explore tarot more deeply and want some personal guidance please reach out.

 

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