Which cards make or break a tarot deck?

 First published on Autostraddle.

When you’re seeking out a new tarot deck, which cards are the deal-breakers for you?

Most of us have one or two (or more) specific cards that affect our feelings about each deck, and possibly our decision whether or not it’s one for us.

It might be that you have a special relationship with a particular card, so if that one isn’t illustrated in a way that works for you, you’re going to struggle to really bond with the deck as a whole. Or it may be more political, so you need to see particular concepts or archetypes illustrated in a certain way in order to feel that a deck represents your world view (e.g. feminism).

There are a number of cards I focus on when I’m looking at new decks, which I’ve listed below. This isn’t quite the same as listing my ‘favourite cards’ — many of these aren’t necessarily favourites, it’s just that the way they’re illustrated tells me a lot about the vision behind the deck. I’ve used the term ‘deal-breaker’ above, but that’s not really an accurate description. Like many folks, I’m on a continual search for the perfect tarot deck, and I don’t have it yet (though I feel like Noel Arthur Hiempel might possibly help out with that). This means with each deck I own, I’m making some kind of compromise.

Here are my ‘key cards’, the ones I make sure to check out before treating myself to a new deck:

Ten of Cups

The Wild Unknown Tarot, the Collective Tarot, the Tarot of the Cat People

This one is so important. I read this card as a depiction of what true fulfilment looks like, what it feels like to ‘come home’, spiritually, emotionally. What it’s like to be happy with yourself, to give and receive love, to be happy in your heart and soul.

Sadly, so many artists place a picture of a (straight-looking) couple on this card, often with children and a house to complete the image of heteronormative perfection. Even Thea’s Tarot, which I adore, shows a (lesbian) couple with a baby. Yes, that’s emotional fulfilment to many, but by no means all people, and I feel like the over-use of couplehood on this card actually damages its message.

My favourite Ten of Cups, hands down, is from the Wild Unknown Tarot (above left). Here Kim Krans uses the rainbow motif that characterises the deck beautifully. Five cups at the top, each beaming out light of a different colour. Below, five more cups receive the light, a rainbow arriving in each. It suggests a movement from the compartmentalised to the integrated. A fearlessness of being completely myself. A love for all that I am. I also adore the Tarot of the Cat People version (above right), which is basically just a guy and his many cats. Home, indeed.


Judgement

Here’s a card that carries a heavy weight. As the penultimate card in the major arcana, this is about that last step before completion, the final challenge that you’re facing on your journey. It’s a big moment, in which you’re being encouraged to be accountable to yourself, to face up to all that you are, the good and the ‘bad’ together. The Christian overtones in some images are strong, which I find off-putting, not to mention the name of the card itself, which carries obviously negative overtones.

In some decks, this card is renamed. In the Collective Tarot it’s ‘Liberation’, which feels perfect to me. In Thea’s Tarot, it’s ‘Rebirth’. Both of these place the focus on the person receiving the reading, rather than some external force. ‘Judgement’ to me sounds like standing in front of some terrible pulpit being told who and what I am, hardly the kind of experience I fancy going through. Liberation and Rebirth on the other hand? I’m up for the hard work it takes to experience those things. I feel like I’m being put in charge of my own destiny.


The Hierophant

The Collective Tarot, The Shadowscapes Tarot, The Wild Unknown Tarot

I struggled with the Hierophant for years, largely because of the Pope-type figure that so often adorns this card. It felt like a card of doctrines, of strictures, of conforming to certain rules and beliefs (qualities I might better have attributed to the Emperor.)

This changed when I saw Stephanie Piu-Mun Law’s version. In the Shadowscapes Tarot (above centre), the Hierophant is a tree (it feels a lot like one of the ents in Lord of the Rings) and I began to have a sense of the ancestral qualities of this card. There’s something here about receiving time-honoured knowledge from those who have been before (that can be spiritual leaders, sure, but also community heroes, activists, members of your own family, ancestors of identity or blood…) and I love to see decks that take that kind of knowledge out of church-y environments and revision teachers in different ways, like the raven in the Wild Unknown (above right), or the awesome Instructor in the Collective Tarot.


Queen of Swords

Tarot of the Cat People, Circo Tarot, Thea's Tarot

Like about half the folks reading this, I’m a big fan of the Queen of Swords, and I pay close attention to the way they’re depicted. For me, this is a person who’s been through some stuff, who knows what heartbreak is, who understands boundaries and has a touch of cynicism about them. At the same time, they’re strong and humorous and someone you’d trust with your most difficult truths.

It’s hard to say exactly what I’m looking for in this card, but it’s a glimpse in the face or posture of these qualities. I want to see a Queen of Swords who embodies that ‘just you try it’ kind of composure, but who still has a glint in their eye. Someone strong and hard…but with just a hint of of the compassion that lies beneath. I think for me, Karen Kuykendall’s version, in the Tarot of the Cat People (above right), does it best.


The Empress

If I see one more pregnant earth-mama…! Show me Empresses that are connecting with nature, who know the meaning of self-care, who know how to listen to their bodies, who can see a version of ‘receptiveness’ beyond the womb-based kind, who grow stuff and feed people and who make beautiful spaces for themselves and others to come home to. When I think of the Empress figures in my life, I rarely imagine pregnant mothers. I think of folks whose groundedness and solid self-love have made me feel comfortable and safe, nurtured and loved. It’s not that a pregnant woman can’t embody this, it’s just that I love to see artists who have thought beyond this cliche.

I always check out the Empress card in a new deck to see how this important archetype is expressed. A favourite, again, is the Wild Unknown Tarot — no person, just a glowing tree beneath the moon. It’s a tree I want to hug, a place I’d like to make my home. And I love Casey Zabala’s interpretation in the newly-released Wanderer’s Tarot — the cow-headed person chilling out in the sunset references this card’s link with beauty-loving Taurus.


How about you? Any specific cards that make or break a deck for you? Have you found a deck that ticks all of your key-card boxes? What’s the one card that never seems quite right?

Cards shown are from the Wild Unknown Tarot by Kim Krans, the Wanderer’s Tarot by Casey Zabala, The Collective Tarot, the Tarot of the Cat People by Karen Kuykendall, the Circo Tarot by Marisa de la Pena and Thea’s Tarot by Ruth West.

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27 comments

  1. James Bulls says:

    Interesting question. Speaking for myself, I read based on suit and value and the picture on the card is of no importance to me. It’s a very different reading style than what’s being used by most readers I’ve met. This style lets me use any Tarot deck I want without concern for the image featured on the face, so when I’m using an illustrated deck – I typically use non-illustrated decks – I look at the illustrations as nuances that provide a different emphasis on my original interpretation. I don’t have any deal-breakers that are based on one or two specific cards, but thematically I do find it difficult to read with decks that are bright-side-only – this “happy answers only” kind of deck composition feels lopsided and incomplete.

  2. Claire says:

    For me, I must connect with the Empress, the High Priestess, the Hermit, Death, the Moon and the Queens – the imagery is most important! I recently bought the Linestrider deck, and I love the delicately fine style, the limited colour palette, the white space…

  3. A. says:

    I don’t technically have any specific dealbreaker cards – it’s more like if enough cards bother me, I’ll pass on a deck – but that is as a collector. When any of the 9 of Wands, 3 of Cups, and Knight and Page of Cups aren’t to my liking, it makes it harder for me to want to use the deck. And then, like you mention, I really prefer a certain understanding of gender in cards like the Empress/Emperor, what the difference is between the Queens and Kings, and what they do with the High Priestess (no virginal oh the mystery of women stuff). I can be touchy about overtly Christian themes but the Hierophant and Judgment I can generally work with regardless. Oh, and I like to see more on the Lovers than just “a couple in love”. Not even getting into the desire for some diversity there, but just, it really needs to be more than the sentiment of a Valentine’s Day card.

    • Ruby says:

      Absolutely agreed about the Lovers card. I had the hardest time learning how to interpret it in the beginning, because it just seemed so surface-level.

  4. Bethany says:

    While it’s not a total deal breaker, I really like reversible backs. The cards I usually gravitate to first are the Hierophant, the Lovers, the Moon, Judgement, 10 of Wands, 3 of Swords, and 6 of Cups.

    Regarding the majors, I tend to avoid decks that rely heavily on Christian imagery. I want my deck to feel spiritual but pull from many sources of belief. I also like my imagery to be piercing, especially if the deck is primarily for me. I want images that adequately convey the pain and struggle they are intended to represent. At the same time, the 6 of Cups helps me evaluate the warmth of love of the deck.

    I have about six decks now and some (Golden Tarot and Guardian Angel tarot) I keep exclusively for public readings since I live in the Florida Panhandle and many people here want decks that are soft and feel more traditional. I really prefer otherwise. I just read a review of the Tarot de St. Croix and I am very intrigued. I’m also insanely tempted by the Starchild Akashic deck. I just got the Fountain last week and I love it. The Moon in that deck is glorious.

  5. Bee says:

    I downloaded the app for a deck that had rave reviews…to find The Devil depicted as a sexy naked woman holding an apple. NOPE.

  6. Huri says:

    For me it’s varied from deck to deck. I usually consider cards like Strength, Hierophant, Emperor, and Eight of Swords to be important meaning-wise but still have plenty of decks – some favorites even! – with less than perfect portrayals. “Compromise” puts it perfectly, really.

    I’m actually having a mini-crisis with a deck I want, because I love the way the Golden Thread Tarot looks but that Two of Cups is killing me. Specifically, the gender signs on the cups… Just, why. For some reason it makes me madder than a million heteronormative Lovers cards. Why do the snakes need specific genders! Why not just put a bow on one of them if you’re gonna go that far?

    I definitely agree with the Empress. The one deck I own with a pregnant earth mama is getting traded away!

    • Beth
      Beth says:

      Ah man, I didn’t know that about the Golden Thread Tarot – how frustrating.

      I think so many of us feel like we’re making a compromise with a favourite deck. I wonder how many of us have really found the perfect deck, one that doesn’t put a single foot wrong in our eyes?

      • Huri says:

        I feel like the closest I’ve come is the Slow Holler. There’s nothing that *offends* me, just some cards I wish were a bit broader (The Guild) and some I just wish fit my interpretation better (Strength). There’s also a lack of body diversity & disabled people showing up (the one disabled person in the deck is barely an inch big) but, well, that’s sadly an issue in a loooot of decks.

  7. Ruby says:

    I feel like I’ve said this before, but I have to see the Tower, Death, the Five of Pentacles, and a few swords – Three and Ten, primarily, though the Wild Unknown Nine is the main reason I haven’t bought a copy. For me, it’s mainly making sure the typically darker cards aren’t a step beyond what I’m comfortable trying to interpret.

    I do usually look at how their court cards are named and drawn, though, because I’m a traditionalist who prefers the page/knight/queen/king system. Getting a sense of whether I know I’ll work well with the deck’s vibe, though, I check the Two and Ten of Cups, the Moon, the Nine of Pentacles, and the Queen of Cups.

    Thus far, the two decks that have responded the best to these parameters are Linestrider and (in a close second) Shadowscapes.

  8. Autumn says:

    I normally tend to look at the high priestess, the empress, the hermit, and fives and sixes of the suits as those are normally the hardest to interpret for me! I guess I’m in the minority where pregnant earth mama empresses don’t bother me, but maybe because I only have one deck with that interpretation! Although in every deck I feel like there is a card unique to it that I end up loving, but only in that deck, which can help offset me not loving one of my usual standards.

    • Beth
      Beth says:

      Right? I think that’s one of the best things about collecting tarot decks – it only takes one especially-wonderful card and that whole deck has moved your tarot understanding forwards and expanded your horizons. I have a few decks that I never use, but love for just one or two exceptional cards.

  9. Meghan says:

    The Hierophant for sure, although my everyday deck is the RWS and I hate that card in it…the first deck I bought was the Wildwood and its version, the Ancestor, is probably my favorite version I’ve seen. Queen of Wands, just because I love that card in general. And the Devil—like Bee mentioned above, anything too overtly Christian-y or body-shaming is a total no. There are ways to engage with that card beyond just NAKED BAD!!, you know?

    • Beth
      Beth says:

      I so agree about the nakedness thing. *sigh*

      And yes! The Ancestor in the Wildwood Tarot is so powerful. I love the ‘gateway’ of the birch trees and that crescent moon. So much more evocative of inherited ancestral wisdom than a pope-esque dude in a church.

  10. Asali says:

    The Tens- the fulfillment cards in all the suits tell me a lot about what the deck creator idealizes and centers.

    As for the majors. I check out my birth cards first always, The Emperor and Death.

  11. I didn’t plan it this way, but how well I connect to the Hermit in a deck is a pretty good predictor of how well I’ll connect with the deck as a whole. It’s just held true for like, six decks at this point.

  12. So interesting reading your take on this, Beth, and all the comments, too. For me, the Eight of Swords is one of the most important – I bought the Anna K just on that basis. And the Three of Cups, too – I want my network of peeps who support me and bring me joy :D I also like seeing the Devil – the Fey Tarot is about my favourite, with this big monster destroying the planet by eating it up…
    I LOVE what you say about the Empress being about someone grounded and full of self-love, that’s a gorgeous description. I rather like the Gaian Tarot in that regard. I think she is pregnant, but I mostly notice all the fruit and abundance around her, and she looks kind but also really settled with herself :)

    • Beth
      Beth says:

      Yeah, I’m loving these responses. The Anna K Eight of Swords is one of my favourites too, it’s brilliantly done and was really helpful and formative to me in understanding that card.

      (I think I laid it on thick about the pregnant Empress…it’s a great metaphor for abundance and fecundity, it’s just that it feels like *every deck* goes that route.) The Gaian version sounds gorgeous!

  13. Alison says:

    Death, The Emperor and The Hierophant. Death because it’s one of my favourite cards, so I need to ‘see’ if it clicks or not. The other two are my least favourites so I’m always curious to see if the creator of the deck has come up with something that helps me work with them. I also have to check for snake cards, as I have a bit of a phobia. I’ve come to love the Thoth’s Two of Disks, but still struggle with the Wildwood’s King of Bows!

  14. Rachael says:

    While I’m well aware that the Robin Wood deck ticks every single “undesirable, discard immediately” box in terms of sexual and racial diversity (the deck is peopled with solely white characters, couples are decidedly straight and families are happy, shiny paragons of heteronormativity) I think its unfair to dismiss it out of hand.

    When she was designing her deck in the late 80s, Robin was utterly in love Wicca. She writes, ‘After 25 years of dutifully believing what I was told to believe… I found Wicca and it felt like coming home’. Her deck is a testament to this fundamental change in herself and in her world view.

    Robin was striving to create cards that challenged tarot design norms in the areas she found to be particularly galling or unhelpful. There is a purge of judeo-christian imagery, thus the aces are not offered up to us by the disembodied hand of God emerging from behind a cloud, her Devil deals with avarice beautifully without the need for a malicious entity to stoke the fires of human greed and in her Judgement there is glorious rebirth, the opportunity to learn and to try again. Her Hierophant is an unapologetically negative card and with it she makes a stand against the stifling conformity of the Catholic Church as she experienced it.

    I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Robin Wood was righting the wrongs of the world as she saw them so, rather than struggling with individual cards and their narrow expression of relationships, sex, bodies and family, I find I am able to appreciate her effort as a whole.

    • Beth
      Beth says:

      Thanks for sharing this Rachael! It’s never as black and white as ‘this deck is good, this deck is bad’. It’s so good to hear the back story behind the Robin Wood deck.

  15. Barry Pirro says:

    Great question! Here are some cards I look for, along with my favorite deck designs — The Lovers (Tarot of the Absurd/Light and Shadow Tarot), The Magician (Alchemical Tarot), Death (various decks, but the Housewives Tarot is hysterical), The Moon (Prisma Visions Tarot/Light and Shadow Tarot).

  16. Kathleen says:

    This is one of the most helpful posts ever – and considering that your posts are literally always helpful, that is saying something! I agree with lots of those mentioned here: The Empress (my birth card, and I don’t really relate to it at all, so it has to be a GREAT empress, which I think is rare); The Ten of Cups (actually all the tens, because fulfillment is an idea so foreign to me!), The Lovers…I’m hetero, but both The Lovers and the 10 of Cups often feel…wrong to me.

    Another I just realized is The Star. I don’t really “get” that card, or didn’t until I thought about its depiction in the Tarot of the Cat People or the Wildwood. When it’s not depicted as a person, I just feel it makes so much more sense.

    I don’t mind Christian themes, especially in cards like Judgement – probably partly because I was raised so neutral toward religion that to me Biblical references just feel literary and have no trauma attached – but essentialized heteronormative visions of masculinity/femininity make me completely disconnect from other meanings of the card. It just flattens everything entirely.

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