Choosing your first tarot deck

This has been written about plenty of times before, but I see so many people asking for advice on picking their first deck that I feel like it probably needs to be written about some more. Picking a first deck can seem to be a bit of a daunting prospect for a lot of beginners. Really, it’s not that scary. You can literally just buy any deck you like the look of. No further thought is required.

Well, maybe you want to think about price, if you’re on a budget. That’s not that difficult though.

If you insist on thinking harder than that:

Many people advise that you start with the Rider-Waite-Smith deck1, and there’s some decent reasoning behind this. Because the RWS is in public domain2, it’s available pretty much anywhere, and it’s cheap as chips. Further, a lot of the learning resources out there use the RWS as the basis for their discussions of symbolism and card meaning. This means getting RWS-specific information is super easy.

If you hate the look of the RWS – and a lot of people do – it’s really not that much harder to learn tarot if you’re using a different deck. The first deck I ever used was my mother’s Celtic Tarot (Davis & Paterson 1990). Despite being a child with no access to the internet, I managed to learn tarot with that deck. I don’t think it was any harder than it would have been learning with the RWS – you need a great deal of persistence either way.

If you’re looking at decks other than the RWS, there are a few things you might want to consider – firstly, are all the cards in your deck illustrated? Some decks will have a drawing that represents the meaning of the card on every single card. Others (like Marseilles style decks) only have illustrations on the major arcana and the court cards, while the rest of the cards look a bit more like regular playing cards. That is, the seven of staves would just have seven staves on it, not an illustration that corresponds with the meaning of the card. These types of decks are possibly the hardest to learn with because you don’t have any helpful visual cues to remind you what each card means… but it’s not impossible to start out with these decks. There are a ton of really useful resources out there now to help you learn to read Marseilles decks.

The second thing you’re probably going to want to consider is the system of interpretation your deck uses. There are many different tarot systems, and they’re not all interchangeable. These different systems order the cards differently, use different names, have different meanings for some (or all) of the cards, and sometimes have extra cards.

For an absolute beginner, I suggest picking one system and sticking to that until you’ve learned it well enough that you don’t need to check the book anymore. Trying to learn too many systems at the same time is really just going to make things more difficult. It can be extremely confusing jumping from system to system, trying to remember which of the renamed cards correspond, or which interpretations belong to this or that deck. Save yourself the trouble. Pick one. If you absolutely must buy a second or third deck before you’re comfortable reading with the one system, try to pick another in the same system (unless you’ve found the system of the first deck doesn’t work for you, then totally grab something that uses a different system). If you’re not sure what system your deck fits into, look it up on google – you can often work it out by checking the names and order of the major arcana.

If you think you’re likely to want to buy several decks while you’re a beginner, I’d recommend trying to stick with RWS style decks. There are a lot of RWS clones (it’s a clone if it uses the RWS line art and just has different colouring) and a literal mountain of RWS inspired decks out there (RWS inspired decks have art that is clearly inspired by the RWS art, but doesn’t use the same line art). If you must pick a unique deck for your first deck, be aware that the resources to help you learn it may be limited. If you adore one of those oddball decks, don’t let the lack of resources stop you. So long as the deck has a decent little white book3, you can learn the deck. Sometimes, even if the book isn’t great, you can still learn the deck with those limited resources4.

The third thing you might want to consider is: who’s going to see your cards? If it’s only ever going to be you, get whatever deck you like. If you’re going to be reading for friends and family, you might want to make sure that there’s nothing in the imagery that would embarrass you or scare your friend/family member if you pull that card out while doing a reading. The first deck I bought for myself was the Dragon Tarot (Pracownik 1996). I think I was 11 or 12 at the time. It was totally fine when reading for myself, but I couldn’t use it to read for most other people. Many people were confused and intimidated by the fact that all the cards were pictures of dragons. They couldn’t see how a big scary monster could represent something positive, thus I had to spend most of the reading reassuring people that they hadn’t just got a spread of death and doom. It was a problem.

The next deck I got (Stairs of Gold, Tavaglione 1979) was almost as much of a problem, because some of the cards were a bit too salacious. Sure, sometimes I wouldn’t get those problem cards, but I was terrified that I’d pull out a card like the Star when reading for my Granny (the Star in that deck is not only nude, she also looks like she’s mid-orgasm. It’s not super appropriate imagery for a 14-year-old to be showing to Granny). I didn’t have much money to spend on decks of cards back then, so I had to wait quite a while to buy another. My solution was a bit unorthodox – I’d remove the sexy cards and read without them. I don’t recommend this.

In those days (late 90’s early 00’s) it was difficult to know what you were getting when you bought a deck – you usually only had the art on the box to go by. Sometimes you’d be able to find pictures of some of the cards online, but rarely a whole deck. If the store you were visiting didn’t have their inventory published online, you wouldn’t know what decks to look up before you went to the store, and you would be buying blind. Nowadays, with the help of smartphones, you can easily find pictures of most (or all the cards) for almost every deck online, while standing in the store. It’s much easier to screen the decks you’re thinking of buying and be certain that you’re not wasting money on something you’re never going to use.

Finally, I’d like to note that: while beginners are often warned off starting with the Thoth deck, if you like it, it’s not a bad deck to start with. It does suffer from the problem of not having a descriptive illustration on every card, but it has more visual cues to help you remember the meanings than the average Marseille style deck, and has helpful keywords printed on the cards. In years past, the available resources for learning it weren’t the best (the original official book for it isn’t an easy read), but that’s not so much of an issue anymore because there are a lot more resources that discuss the deck now. Some people are intimidated by the Thoth deck because it’s associated with Aleister Crowley (Crowley has quite a reputation), but big personalities are close to inescapable in tarot. Just because you haven’t heard anything about so-and-so who made the pretty deck you like, doesn’t mean they’re definitely the kind of person you’d like to be friends with – they could be cruel, arrogant, creepy, or otherwise unpleasant. If the deck is good, it doesn’t matter who designed it. A good deck is a good deck. Look at how many people use the RWS – I don’t think I’d want to be friends with A.E. Waite. The artist (Pamela Coleman Smith) seems lovely, but Waite… not so much. Despite my distaste for Waite, the RWS deck is great, and I find it has no ill effects on my reading skills.

Really, just go pick a deck you like. Any deck that calls to you. So long as you’ve looked at the cards and are sure that you like the look of the deck, it’s hard to go wrong.

May the cards fall in your favour,

  1. Also known as the Rider-Waite, the Waite-Smith, the Smith-Waite – the name is confusing because the original name ‘Rider-Waite’ credits the designer (Waite) and the publisher (Rider), not the artist (Smith). I prefer to credit the artist, so I add her name to the list.
  2. Or, it should be. Far as I can tell, the copyright US Games had on the deck has expired. Now they only have a copyright on the stuff they’ve added, like the card backs and the box.
  3. Little white books are the instruction booklets that come with most tarot decks. They usually contain a basic list of meanings for the cards, and might have some instructions about how to use the cards.
  4. The Wildwood Tarot (Matthews, Ryan & Worthington 2011) is one of these unique decks – all the cards have been renamed, the order of the cards is a little different, many of the cards have been massively reinterpreted, and there are very limited resources that discuss this deck specifically. But, it’s a great deck.

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