The “Good” Beginner’s Tarot Deck

Novice tarot readers frequently ask online which deck would be good as a first-time buy. I’ve written several detailed essays on this subject in the past, but thought a “punchlist” format might be useful in answering this question. So here is my abbreviated overview of what, at least for me, makes a “good” tarot deck.

Artwork Quality and Focus: Skillful and original, while maintaining contact with the symbolic imagery that represents the backbone of interpretive tradition. No “low-effort,” amateurish pastiches allowed; the fact that any artistic troglodyte can produce a tarot deck is more a testament to the self-publishing phenomenon than to any relaxation of industry standards. (See my previous “Glut of Garbage” essay on the sad state of the modern deck-creator’s craft.)

Artistic Style: Painterly, not photo-realistic or overly digitized; colors and shapes should be reasonably well-defined and not sludgy or vague. On the other hand, it shouldn’t emulate crude “cave-paintings” either. “Charming” is fine as long as the vibe isn’t too “saccharine;” the cards have serious work to do and shouldn’t be merely “pretty.”

Accessibility: Inviting images with strong story-telling potential that are neither too bland nor too quirky (the latter is fine for art appreciation but not for practical reading purposes; if you want that, buy an oracle deck). Obviously, for a beginner it should have scenic or semi-scenic “minor” numbered cards. Look for a “true” tarot with 78 cards: 22 Major Arcana or “trumps;” 16 court cards and 40 Minor Arcana. Do yourself a favor and avoid the so-called “New Tarot” creations at this point in your journey. Something in the “Waite-Smith” line should be acceptable as long as it’s recognized that the prosaic images can amount to “canned narrative vignettes” that tend to hijack the reading by discouraging more free-form interpretation. You want a flexible but supportive fit, not a straitjacket. You also don’t want a deck that mimics the old sexist joke about being “all over you like a cheap suit.” (See “Oracle deck.”)

Companion Book: Get a solid companion book (it doesn’t have to be deck-specific) and stick with it until you acquire a footing in the “core wisdom” that underlies the tradition of tarot reading. The “LWB” (Little White Book) packed in with most decks is usually not worth the paper it’s printed on. Once again, if you just want to “wing it,” buy an oracle deck instead.

Dimensions: It should be neither too large nor too small from edge-to-edge, either of which would make it hard to shuffle cleanly in an overhand way. Also, it can be very hard to see the details if the images are too small. But if you have options, I’d go with a smaller version.

Borders: A lack of borders can make the artwork really “pop” but, unless the borders are large and garish (choose another deck if they are), it’s nothing to get worked up over.

“Non-reversible” Backs: Tell-tale card backs that reveal whether the image is upright or reversed before the card is turned face-up. Some people get anally fixated on avoiding this, but it’s really “much ado about nothing.” I almost always lay my cards on the table face-up, and even when I lay some face-down I pay no attention to the card backs; the faces are where the action is. Some elect to refrain from reading reversed cards for this reason, inspiring another tired cliche from me: “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

Finish: Tactile feel should be neither too “sticky” (such that the cards clump together) nor too slippery (making them hard to tame when shuffling). If it’s available, opt for a high-quality linen finish that feels “toothy” to the touch.

Card Stock: Sturdy but also “whippy” so the cards feel “lively” in the hand. No thick “beer-coasters” or tissue-thin, papery-feeling decks.

Personal Appeal: Pick a deck you feel good about, not one you think you should like because someone else said so (including me, but I won’t be pushing any specific decks here). Ideally, find a copy that you can browse through first-hand, since online postings are often misleading. (I’ve been burned by them more than once.)

“Deck Acquisition Syndrome:” Avoid it if you can: the urge to buy “just one more deck” in the hope that it will finally be “the one” that clicks on all fronts. This may actually be a “once in a lifetime” occurrence, and it could get expensive.

For more detailed information and, of course, opinion, take a look at the following essays:

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