Choosing Your First Deck
My first tarot deck was the Tarot Classic
. I received it as a Christmas present when I was a teenager, and I thought it was quite cool. Even though the artwork would not normally have appealed to me in a different context, it was obvious to me that the artwork became more on those cards. I read the cards using the little white booklet, stumbling along a bit because the interpretive range was rather small. I soon bought some books to accompany my readings, and thus, a so-far lifelong hobby was begun.
There was a bookstore in New Haven, near where I grew up, that was open all day and night and sold the best titles ... metaphysics, Buddhism, existentialism, poetry, and tarot. There I bought books by Spalding Gray, T.S. Eliot, and Krishnamurti, and for a long time I had my eye on the Rider-Waite Tarot
and Thoth Tarot
decks, sitting beneath the glass in the counter by the door. I bought them around the same time, and soon after, the Aquarian Tarot
These four decks, I think, were good choices for a beginner, and couldn't really be improved upon at that time. In my opinion, the Rider-Waite Tarot
, the Thoth Tarot
, and the Marseilles style Tarot Classic
, represented the major tarot styles, and gave me a pretty good foundation in learning tarot and even in understanding its history. Overall, the Thoth
became my favorite of the four, even though they all remain favorites in my now much larger collection.
In the Tarot Encyclopedia Volume I
, Stuart Kaplan says that most collectors of tarot remember the first time they saw a tarot deck. I can't recall exactly when that was for me, but I do remember these early decks of mine, and the feeling I had in using them. When I correspond with beginners now, I consider myself as having been fortunate then, to have begun with such great and timeless decks. I didn't have the choices beginners today have, even though the 1980s weren't that long ago!
Today there are literally hundreds of decks available, and even more being created by artists who have no intention of publishing their work. The individual artistic expression in tarot is incredible, and speaks of a truly complex but beautifully sensible system - one that can retain its tradition while taking form in many different ways. And just as there are so many artists expressing their own perception and experience of tarot, so there are the tarot enthusiasts who will be drawn to different decks in different ways.
So how does one choose? Most people can go into a Barnes & Noble now and look at several dozen decks, not to mention the selection they might have if there is a local, well-stocked metaphysical or New Age store. But with the Internet and the number of books that are coming out using the illustrations from a variety of different decks, one can do some research first ... and take into consideration their basic tarot needs, and their intuitive ones.
What are the "basic tarot needs?" Good question. Let's first assume that it's reasonable to say that a tarot beginner should start with a traditional or standard tarot deck. This is one that has the Major and Minor Arcana; with twenty-two trumps (or Major Arcana cards), and four suits of fourteen, including four court cards each. The suits are named Wands, Cups, Pentacles, and Swords, or a variation on those. So we're not talking about an oracle deck, or even a tarot that diverges so much from the traditional that there are no Kings, for example, or no men, or no Death card, or only three suits. Another thing to consider might actually be the size of the cards. I personally don't worry too much about this, even though I have somewhat small hands and have had difficulty shuffling certain decks. But a first impression is important, so if a deck is difficult to shuffle, the cards might be put away and forgotten, as might the study of tarot itself. The accompanying little white booklet or even a full-sized book might also be considered in choosing a first tarot. As beautiful as the Lo Scarabeo decks are, I often find their little white booklets awfully vague and somewhat strange in their interpretations. These types of guides might be misleading to the first time tarotist. Decks with full-sized accompanying books are great, if they can be afforded, or simply buying an accompanying beginner's guide to use alongside the new deck. Consider also the symbolism used, or the correspondences. Do you have any interest in astrology or Kabbalah? If so, look for these in your deck and if not, you might want to avoid those decks that rely heavily on these systems. Tarot reviews online, as well as readers' reviews at places like Amazon, usually discuss at least some of these points, and almost always discuss how good the accompanying guides are.
But knowing all of these points doesn't lead one to the perfect deck. That's where the intuitive needs come in. Easy enough, to look at artwork and either like it or dislike it, feel something good, or feel uncomfortable. Divination or self-transformation work just isn't going to be an easy thing with a deck you don't like, or don't "get." Allow yourself to simply view the artwork openly, without considering other peoples' opinions. If you spend enough time reading reviews online, you'll be familiar with the variety of opinion out there. You don't have to agree with anyone on what you think of a tarot deck. Let the individual tarot decks speak to you, and allow a genuine emotional response to the deck's artwork, or energy. If you have the chance, either in a store or online, to view individual cards from a deck you are interested in, note your feelings in response to them. Go beyond simply liking the artwork. Do you feel inspired in any way? Do the cards seem to speak to you? Study each card you can, what do you get out of them? If they speak to you now, they'll speak to you in readings. If they leave you feeling flat and uninspired, they probably wouldn't be a best first deck for you.
Something else you might wonder, is whether to buy a theme deck or set. These are currently popular, and I personally enjoy a number of them. The Alchemical Tarot
is among my favorites, as are Legend: The Arthurian Tarot
and the Ancient Egyptian Tarot
. Many people recommend not starting with a theme deck, citing as reasons a divergence from the traditional, interpretations that won't suit other tarot decks, and alterations in the structure of the deck itself. Besides this last point though, I don't see anything wrong with starting with a theme deck, provided you know ahead of time how it might be different from a traditional tarot, and provided it isn't too
different. Many theme decks actually expand upon traditional, standard meanings, thus offering new ways of looking at and using tarot.
If you expect you'll have a long relationship with tarot, your best choices might be those decks that have some history. In the case of the Rider-Waite
deck, you'll be starting with the deck upon whose symbols many modern decks are designed. But if you truly don't feel drawn to any of these earlier decks, look elsewhere, for there are many that are perfectly suited to beginners.
The most important aspect of choosing a tarot deck is feeling you will be able to connect with it in an intuitive way. You need to relate to the cards in order to understand them and apply them to your life, or to your self. Take the time to look around, at websites and bookstores, and get a feel of what is out there. Your first tarot deck will likely stay with you, and will serve as a most important introduction to the dynamic art of tarot.
Photo: a selection of cards from my first four tarot decks (all acquired around the same time in my mid-teens); Tarot Classic, Rider-Waite, Aleister Crowley's Thoth, and Aquarian Tarot
All writing and photography © N Levine - Illumination Tarot, unless otherwise noted. 1999-2021