One fascinating question that often comes up in conversation with tarot novices is “What is the perfect deck for my first one?” Usually they know that the Rider Waite Smith (RWS) deck in one of its numerous incarnations is recommended by most experienced readers as a good place to start, and the broad, deep field of RWS “clones” (cards with similar images but different – often better – artwork) also beckons. There really is an “embarrassment of riches” out there, and it’s a clear case of “Too many decks, not enough coin.” As with any art-based medium, perfection lies in the eye of the beholder. The old cliche “I don’t know art but I know what I like” is often the best guide.
There are a few other criteria that serve to narrow the decision down. The images should not be so arcane as to defy mental assimilation and easy visual recognition for the purpose of divination (which means no Thoth or Thoth-based decks at the beginning unless you’re a masochist – perhaps a fan of Monty Python’s “being-hit-on-the-head lessons” – or the rare metaphysical wizard). The artwork should not make you shudder, cringe or gag. The size and finish of the cards should render them pleasing in the hand and convenient to shuffle. The images should “speak” to you at a subconscious level in ways that invite intuitive flashes of insight (not something you can tell until you try to use them, but they may give hints if you can examine the entire deck before buying it). Purchasing decks on-line leaves you in the lurch on that score. Another caution is that some “clone” creators insert personal idiosyncrasies into the design of their decks, which often requires learning a different system of thought or at least variations on the usual themes in order to successfully use those decks. Some go so far as to produce what is essentially an “oracle” deck and not a proper 78-card tarot at all, despite being titled as such.
The real proof of perfection lies in how well a deck serves you, whether your goal is private contemplation or meditation to increase self-understanding, or whether you plan to read the cards in a public setting. I firmly believe you need to be prepared to work your way up to the ideal deck, one purchase at a time. I’m not a collector with hundreds or thousands of decks (I know a couple of people with over 2,000), but I have now accumulated over 60 decks simply by searching for my perfect reading partner over the last few years. If you venture into Golden Dawn, Thoth or Tarot de Marseille space and are lucky enough to strike gold on your first try, you will have at least four decks before you’re barely out of the starting gate. Then the fun of trying to figure out how to read their very different nuances begins. I may not be the best advisor since I started with the Thoth deck and used it exclusively for almost four decades before finally caving in to the RWS urge (brought on by the need to participate intelligently in forum discussions). But I’m a quick learner and hopefully you will be too. It will go easier on your wallet.
Here is an excellent place to start your search. It offers full-color scans of a wide variety of decks in different styles, conveniently grouped by type, and is authorized by the publishers to display them on-line.