Guidance for finding and choosing a new deck.
I receive emails all the time from customers who want help with choosing the ‘ideal’ tarot. Like many of us, they are seeking that one deck that will be their ‘life partner’, a trusted ally who understands them and whom they understand. But it’s such a personal thing! What resonates deeply for one person may only elicit a ‘meh’ in somebody else. Images that leap out at you and tug at your soul-strings may be unpleasant or irrelevant to somebody else. Maybe you like thick, heavy cards, or oversized decks, or black-and-white, or animals…
If I’m honest, though I have two or three favourites, I’ve never felt that I’ve found that one ‘perfect’ deck. I love Thea’s Tarot most of all… but I do prefer colour in my decks given the choice. I adore the Tarot of the Crone, but often find the cards’ meanings are quite a way from my own interpretations, which sometimes jars. The Wild Unknown is another favourite – but I wish the court/face cards weren’t presented as a traditional family unit (mother, father, son, daughter).
As I say, it’s very personal, and I find it is impossible to make really solid deck recommendations. Instead, for those of you who are seeking a new deck, I offer a range of questions to consider when browsing the tarot shelves:
Does the artwork speak to me?
For most people, this is the key factor in choosing a deck. For most of us (not all, mind – some read without looking at the card, and there are certainly blind and visually impaired readers), tarot is a visual tool. It is in the images on the cards that we find the stories, the symbols, the clues to interpretation.
It’s important to feel that the images and general artwork style resonates for you. For example, I’m personally drawn to vivid colours, and I also enjoy quite abstract imagery, where pictures are more symbolic than figurative. You may find you like sparse line drawings, or watercolours, or digigtal collage, or some other style entirely.
If possible look at as many card images as you can, so you can get a real feel for the style and energy of the deck.
Does theme matter?
As you’ve no doubt noticed, there’s a tarot deck for pretty much any ‘theme’ you can think of. Unicorn tarot, Star Wars tarot, tarot of trees, of herbs, of different spiritual paths. Umpteen cat tarot decks, urban-themed decks, decks centred around steampunk, fey, mermaids, social justice… I even have an Emily Dickinson tarot in my collection!
The philosophy of a deck may take a little research, or it may be very obvious. Some decks – such as the nature-themed Brady Tarot, which has a strong ecological message – wear their philosophies clearly and proudly. Others reveal the driving ideas behind the deck in a guidebook or pamphlet (such as the Wanderer’s Tarot, which is rooted in deep feminine/goddess spirituality).
Themes can help us connect more deeply with our cards – for example, a herbal tarot combines the wisdom of plants with the message of a particular card, which may be helpful to a herbalist who can draw on existing knowledge of plants to help learn the cards’ meanings. Cristy Road’s Next World Tarot envisages a post-revolutionary world, and the archetypes she presents may be familiar to those working in social justice circles.
Does representation matter?
Plenty has been written recently about how white, cisgendered and heteronormative mainstream tarot can be, and the lack of body diversity shown in card images. Traditional decks like the Rider Waite Smith tarot leave little room for people of colour (POC) or queer people to find ourselves represented. This may or may not matter to you (it’s okay either way!) but I do encourage you to notice and be aware of who is visually represented in your tarot deck. Firstly, so you might choose a deck that feels like it represents you yourself, and secondly, if you plan on reading for other people (or already do), you’ll have a sense of which deck to reach for or whether your seeker is likely to see images of ‘themselves’ when you lay down their cards.
There are a growing number of diverse decks out there (the Numinous Tarot is a favourite of mine, as is Thea’s Tarot), but it’s still not the norm to see a wide diversity of people in our cards. This is one reason some readers prefer ‘people-free’ tarot decks (for example, decks in which animals or other beings are the ‘characters’).
If you’re seeking decks with decent POC and/or queer/genderqueer representation, Asali’s Tarot of the QTPOC list is the best resource out there.
What do I know about the creator/s?
Personally, I love to know about who created my tarot cards, and why. I like to have at least a small sense of a connection to the person or people who envisaged those cards and brought them into being. As a queer woman, I especially enjoy working with decks created by other queer women, and creators who talk explicitly about feminism, decolonisation, and other political topics that are important to me.
This is also where issues like cultural appropriation may arise. It’s not uncommon to find decks centred on culturally-specific themes that on closer inspection are created by people who do not belong to those cultures (often white people). For me, therefore, it’s important to feel that the deck creator has a personal and spiritual connection to the symbols and ideas they’re presenting (and profiting from).
Big cards or small cards?
Many people struggle to shuffle larger decks as the cards are too large for their hands! Others dislike smaller decks, preferring a larger format for aesthetic or other reasons. I’ve also seen a wide spectrum of likes and dislikes in terms of card-stock (the thickness and texture of the cards), lamination, gilded/not guilded edges, and so forth.
What about the price?
Some decks just aren’t affordable to lower-income folks. This can often be the case for self-published decks, where production costs are normally far higher, and are providing a (hopefully sustainable) income to the creator. If you can’t afford indie decks, there are a huge number of more affordable mass-market decks – the Rider-Waite-Smith, the Shadowscapes, and many many others are available for under £20 (see below for a where to buy mainstream decks).
Platforms like Instagram can also make us feel like we have to own loads of decks in order to be proper tarot readers. But many readers own and use just one single deck. As with all ‘hobbies’, there’s no limit to the money you can spend, and right now there is a growing and very gentrified ‘wellness’ industry ready to sell you all kinds of stuff you don’t need on the promise that owning such things will make you somehow more spiritual or a better tarot reader.
I really want to stress that one of the beauties of tarot is its affordability, its accessibility. With one cheap deck and internet access, anybody can read the cards – it needn’t be an expensive pursuit.
Most importantly: listen to your gut
There are no rights or wrongs in choosing a tarot deck. I offer these questions to help you ponder whether a deck may be right for you, but it’s like choosing a lover – only you can know, deep inside, if it is for you. Feel free to throw all of my questions out of the window and go on one thing only: whether you get a good feeling in your gut (or heart, or soul, or bones, or wherever you get *that feeling*) about the deck. If you do this, you can’t go wrong.
Where to purchase decks
Wherever possible, I recommend buying directly from the artist – this way they’re getting the best price for their work, plus you’ll be able to get a good feel for their work, their approach, etc. If there’s a deck you like, Google the artist so you can see if they have a website where you can purchase the deck.
Alternatively, look for independent retailers who care about the items they sell. I’m sure you know that I run a tarot shop, but this isn’t just a plug for my own business – I want to champion small, intentional businesses everywhere. Where we spend our money matters!
In terms of mass-market decks: I know that Amazon is cheap and convenient, but I just have to add a reminder here that they are just such an awful company. From terrible working conditions to tax-dodging, it’s all inexcusable, especially considering the owner, Jeff Bezos, is currently the richest man in the world. If it’s possible for you to spend the small amount extra to purchase from reators and ethical sellers, please do.
The Tarot Garden stocks most of the mass-market decks you’ll find on Amazon and is a great alternative for US-based folks.
In the UK, Hive is also great.